Keep on Doing
Terre: For the third album, we said we wanted to go back to Fripp.
Suzzy: In recent years when I’ve listened to Keep on Doing, I am sort of amazed at what it is. One of the very significant things about that record is that we were touring heavily right before it was made, and the arrangements were so solid. And they’re very complicated. Like, I can’t even believe it. Especially because that was us, you know? It wasn’t a lot of extra stuff added on to it. There were six elements: three instruments and three voices, and the arrangements were extremely specific. Every single note—they were like a little puzzle. That’s what you get with a touring band.
Terre: We did triple tracking on all the vocals. One of the reviews described that record as “heavy-metal folk”, which I thought was great because we didn’t want it to be meek. We wanted it to blast out at you, so the triple tracking of the guitars and the vocals is a big part of the sound. Some people would just see three girls and three acoustic guitars and assume that it should be mixed small. But we always felt that what we were doing was big, and it was powerful, and it was fierce.
Double-tracking is a studio practice whereby the singer records their part, then sings along with the first track to create a second. The singer closely mimics the first take, so when the two tracks are combined, it gives the vocal more depth and resonance.
Terre: So Fripp’s idea was to do three of them, not two. It’s a technique that some people are really good at, and we were great—we were all able to do the triple-tracking. If you listen to that record, of course not everything is triple-tracked. But something like “Losing True”—we really went to town and it was like, here come those guitars, and here comes that triple-tracked choir sound.
Suzzy: We rehearsed all the time. We would just sit around and figure out what we were each going to play because it was all about the shows. So we had to figure out arrangements that worked with live performance. By the end of the tour, it would be so tight. I remember during the recording of Keep on Doing we went into the studio and did the “Hallelujah Chorus”. We just sang it and the people in the control room were like, Wow! But we just were so tight, and that’s one of the things about that record—it really captured that about us. When I listen to something like “I Fell in Love” now, I’m like, are you fucking kidding me? It’s so unusual and complicated and also true. No wonder people were like, What? Where else would you ever hear something like that?
Terre: We were famous among our friends for the amount of time we spent rehearsing and making up the arrangements. We would get together every day, Monday through Friday from 1:00pm to 5:00pm, almost like it was a day job. And that’s where the songs got arranged. Sometimes someone would bring a song in, like “Losing True”—Maggie brought the whole song in and we got to work. OK, how do we situate ourselves into this, how do we arrange this? We spent a lot of time in the process, so by the time you’re on stage in front of people, it’s this very potent thing. I always felt like when we got to tour the songs first it was always better.
While Maggie had written most of the songs on the first album, the songwriting duties were spread evenly on Keep on Doing. The LP featured two songs by Terre, two by Maggie, three by Terre and Suzzy together, plus two covers and the Handel arrangement.
Terre: I don’t have clear memories of, ‘Oh you wrote this line, and I wrote that line.’ Sometimes it’ll be like I had 75% of the song and then someone added a verse. Our feeling was that we always split the publishing three ways, and if anyone contributed to your song we just [credited] both people as the writers. We didn’t fight over that stuff because none of us was that prolific, so we really needed to build this thing together.
Suzzy: Terre and I did a lot of songs together. I remember once going to the Museum of Modern Art. It was Picasso and another artist, and these two painters would each paint a painting and then run over to the other person’s house and see what they painted. It was like that—we would make a song and then we’d go play it at the hoot down at one of the clubs. Maggie was different in that she was writing the lion’s share. For example, with “Losing True”, she came in with all the harmony parts written—not written down, but worked out. Often though, somebody would come in with a skeleton of a song but it wouldn’t have the arrangement. The arrangement was a large part of the song, so that was a little bit different too. It wasn’t the same song after everybody got in the act.
One of Terre’s songs is “The Largest Elizabeth in the World”
Terre: I had seen The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway, which Linda [Ronstadt] was in, and you know the song about the major general? After that I thought, I want to write a song that has those rapid-fire, machine-gun words. Those words, they just kind of fired out and I didn’t worry about “what does this mean?” I just was working with the sound of it, and then when it was out I thought, “this is really profound.” Like in the end when it talks about the world’s going to blow up, it was not intentional to write about a political situation. But a lot of times I find that when you just stay out of the way, often it’s something trying to come through. And you’ll probably ruin it if you start editing as it’s coming.
Can you tell me about “Sex Is For Children”?
Terre: Well that song was interesting in that I had this instrumental song that I was playing on the electric guitar. And I didn’t play the electric guitar often, you know, but I put the thing through a distortion pedal. What I remember about recording that was Fripp leaving the room. Like it was almost painful for him to listen to what I was doing with an electric guitar! I liked the rhythm and then we came up with the idea of putting “Timothy Ten Toes” [by A.A. Milne] with it.
Suzzy: That was in a book we had when we were kids, and that was a favorite poem of ours. Terre had maybe just gotten an electric guitar and was fooling around with that. I think that’s really how that song came about. It was a provocative title and Terre always liked to be provocative.
Did the record company give you any pushback on the title?
Terre: That’s interesting you would say that because to me the sexual feelings you have at those really early ages are like, so pure. One of my earliest memories is of being five years old and having an intense crush on someone at school and just really pining over this person. At that age you’re not angling for anything; you’re just pining. Something about the sound of the playing and the “Timothy Tim” reminded me of something a little kid might come up with. But also I thought it sounded really sexy. The only pushback was one person wrote to me and was very offended because the title raised the specter of [child abuse] for him. It never occurred to me that someone would think I was suggesting that an adult have sex with a child.
What about “Keep on Doing What You Do/Jerks on the Loose”?
Suzzy: We wrote for a friend of ours and also for Yoko Ono. She was being bashed around, as she often is. She was unusual, so she was easy to jump on—she still is and it’s still happening. I forget what particular thing was happening to her at that time, but I remember we had these two people in mind when we wrote that.
Terre: That’s one of the ones that Suzzy and I wrote together and we probably have different memories of what it was. What I remember was she had a friend who had a play of his produced, and he got a terrible review. So “Jerks on the Loose” was just kind of a song of support for this person. This guy really worked on this piece, and all of a sudden somebody comes along and says his thing stinks. The song was like, don’t listen, come down off that ledge, don’t jump. This was a big blow, but don’t jump!
A hallmark of the Roches’ live set was the between-song patter. Usually delivered in Suzzy’s wry deadpan, the song’s introductions would often spool off into fantastical and hilarious stories.
Suzzy: In those days we were riding a wave of music, and we were just constantly doing it. It was pretty magical like we just had a real-life force, and we were also fun—it was a fun show. But the thing is, a lot of people just took it on that level but they didn’t really delve into the sophistication of the actual music. Those songs are incredibly hard to sing and play. It’s really astounding, you know?
Terre: We’d pile into a van and drive to the next place, then do this for several months, so the patter in between would develop as we went along. We all had very similar ideas about the comic timing, like what was working and what wasn’t working. But we are very different people, and that really makes collaboration great. You have these three different points of view, and that made it funny because there were some natural differences. We had an almost vaudevillian sense of timing by nature, but sometimes we didn’t get taken as seriously as other people. Especially people who tend to be brooding, you know?
Like the group’s live performances, many Roches songs contained dualities, pairing melancholic melodies with droll and literate lyrics. Maggie’s lyrics in particular were evocative but often inscrutable. One such song is “The Scorpion Lament”. I have cried at the sheer beauty and mystery of the melody, and the plaintive refrain “It’s not all right with me.” At the same time, I’m bemused by lines like “Queen Spelling Bee, she nailed me.”
Terre: I think that’s kind of the nature of life, you know? It’s not either/or it’s, and. Things are often heartbreaking and hysterically funny at the same time.
Maggie and I were opposites, in that I was much more likely to spew something out. She would be like, ‘no I don’t want to talk about what the song is about.’ Because I think she felt like the song belongs to the listener, you know? I think she felt that [talking about the song’s meaning] was not necessary, and it also got in the way of the power of the song.
Suzzy: She would be very shy with other people, but Maggie and I had a very close relationship. She was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. She kind of never spoke on stage, but you could talk to Maggie on the phone for two hours. She would describe the problem she was having with her kitchen sink and you would be rolling. She just interacted with the tiniest things in the world, and she had a very unique way of seeing everything. So yeah, a song like “Scorpion Lament”, that was pure Maggie.
Do you have any idea what it’s about?
Suzzy: When we were young down in Greenwich Village, god knows what was going on in those clubs in the early hours. And you know New York was very grungy in those days. I think that song had a lot to do with whatever the hell was going on, but also underneath it had to do with Maggie. She was a Scorpio, and the word “lament” is, well—she chose her words carefully.
When I think about Maggie, in particular, she put everything into her music, and it was meticulously crafted. She asked me when she was dying to please do something with her music, which I was able to do. The two-CD compilation [Where Do I Come From: Maggie Roche | Selected Songs] is just a fraction of the things she wrote. She was, I would say, the heart of the Roches. All three of us were very equally positioned, but Maggie was the heart.
Critically acclaimed but never mainstream, the Roches garnered a legion of loyal fans who treasured their music, their humor, and most of all their authenticity. Keep on Doing is a high-water mark in the group’s career, and a testament to their animating principle: a dedication to being wholly themselves.
NOTE: Maggie and Terre were a singing group for ten years before the formation of The Roches. As a duo, they played together on the college coffeehouse circuit in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Kin Ya See That Sun, a collection of rare live recordings from those years, will be released on 21 October. Details are on Terre’s website.