Les Paul & Mary Ford – How High the Moon (1951, Capitol)
(This video is actually Paul and Ford playing live over the original recording. I include it because it includes a bit of Paul explaining how the song was recorded.)
Why It’s Perfect: How High the Moon is a single from 1951, but it doesn’t sound like it’s only sixty years old. It’s like a radio transmission that’s travelled far beyond our solar system, the signal decaying imperceptibly over the lightyears until only the highest, whitest musical frequencies remain. A sort of ghost image of a pop song.
How High the Moon’s trebly lunar sound is a result of guitarist and recording genius Les Paul’s meticulous, labour-intensive way of making records. At a time when most performances were usually recorded to a single track and overdubbing was almost unheard of, a man of Paul’s talents could easily have made his way in the business purely on the strength of his musical ability. But Paul was a recording nut, and he loved to work with the newest audio technology in order push it beyond its makers’ intentions.
On his earlier breakthroughs, his technique had involved recording himself playing on a disc, then recording himself playing along with the first recording on another disc, then recording himself playing along with the recording of the first two takes, and so on and so forth. This technique forced Paul to play virtually perfectly each time, as direct editing was impossible and the poor fidelity of the discs he recorded on meant that the first tracks laid down decayed with each successive re-recording. If Paul didn’t record the various rhythm parts, bass lines and “solos” in the best possible order, the track would sound terrible (what we might now called “badly mixed”) and Paul might be forced to restart from scratch. Innovations in magnetic tape recording made this process easier in some ways (as well as making significant vocal multi-tracking possible), but Paul in turn increased his number of tracks from around eight on his magnetic tape recording in 1947 to an astonishing twenty-four on 1951’s How High the Moon (the same number commonly used in big budget recordings today). There is something almost maniacal about a man going through such an arduous process just to get this fucking sound out of his head.
I’m not going to say it’s actually scientifically possible How High the Moon has no bass tones at all, but the recording technology of the time fared much better at capturing high frequency sounds, which meant that each time Paul “recorded a recording” the previous tracks would have more of a high, pinched sort of frequency. When you do this as many times as Paul did here the resulting sound has a cool, vacuum-sealed crispness. Paul’s wife Mary Ford had the ideal voice for this close-miced, trebly recording style, being high, clear and having very precise enunciation. She harmonized with herself exceptionally well, managing to project a playful, carefree quality to her performance in spite of the exacting precision it required. With simpler production, she might’ve come off as flirty or precious, particularly when an internal rhyme in the lyrics makes her voice sort of shimmy (“there is no moon above / when love is far away too…”), but this recording gives her voice a processed quality that, like today’s extensive use of Autotuning, makes it sound strikingly pristine but far less human. Her voice is doubled just enough to wipe out the lower register of her voice, and the multiplication of her voice renders its outlines thick and ever so slightly like static. So it’s not music that makes you think of curling up with a girl, but rather of her voice curlicuing around the moon.
I’d always assumed Les Paul was probably overrated as a guitarist because there’s a popular model of guitar that bears his name, but I was a fool. His style feels like a cross between jazz and rockabilly, but that doesn’t do justice to the oddness of the way his guitar playing actually sounds. I adore the way he almost seems to be chasing himself in circles on his lengthy guitar solo (it’s over half of the song), bouncing against the rhythm, as well as the array of trills and scratches with which he adorns the verses. How High the Moon is an uncommonly perfect blend of guitar virtuosity and classic pop style. And if there were ever a BioShock game set on the Moon, this would be its theme.
Defining Moment: Mid-way through Paul’s solo, Ford belts a long note and holds it for a good ten seconds or so, and it’s a shock because her voice to this point has been relaxed and soft. This is where Paul hits you over the head with the possibility of multi-track recording, because it sounds like there’s a now a choir singing, and that choir’s voices are all impossibly similar to one another. It feels like a seachange.
Other Great Songs by Les Paul & Mary Ford: Paul’s earlier instrumental singles are phenomenal, with 1947’s Lover (When You’re Near Me)/ b/w Brazil being likely the best and most well-known. With Ford, Paul had a string of hits including the thirty-seven track Night & Day, Tiger Rag and Bye, Bye Blues. All of these tracks are of historical importance, and are generally just really damn cool.