Classic Tracks: Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good"

Apr 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley

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When Joe Walsh walked into Bayshore Recording in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood in 1978, he was on a break in between tracking Hotel California and The Long Run with his adopted band, The Eagles. Bill Szymczyk — who produced and engineered Walsh's work with his earlier group, the James Gang, all of Walsh's solo albums dating back to Barnstorm and produced The Eagles — also regarded what would become Walsh's But Seriously, Folks… LP as a respite from the relentless pursuit of perfection by, and near-constant friction between, Eagle bosses Don Henley and Glenn Frey. It was time to have a little fun on the other side of the continent.

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LISTEN:
MP3 of "Life's Been Good"

Walsh and Szymczyk rented the 72-foot boat “Endless Seas,” fitted it with an MCI 4-track deck from Szymczyk's studio and — along with drummer Joe Vitale, bassist Willie Weeks, keyboardist Jay Ferguson and rhythm guitarist Joey Murcia — set sail to the Florida Keys on the kind of indulgent journey that Walsh would comically chronicle in “Life's Been Good,” his lyrical satire of the rock star life: “My Maserati does 185/I lost my license, now I don't drive/I have a limo, ride in the back/I lock the doors in case I'm attacked.” Walsh was already a well-known wild man and prankster, so this slice of sarcastic parody was in keeping with his reputation.

The cruise was a low-pressure way to rehearse the songs Walsh had written for But Seriously, Folks…, though ironically, the one song that didn't have a complete set of lyrics was “Life's Been Good.” What he did have was music and an arrangement that was approaching the symphonic, with individual movements and a recapitulation of the main theme that would bring the song back to its original light reggae vamp after an extended middle section. Szymczyk looked at it as a project in parts. “We recorded the parts of the song that would have lyrics — the verses and the choruses — as two separate recordings,” he explains, each on its own reel of 2-inch Ampex 456, knowing that there would be some kind of breakdown and solo section to be recorded and inserted later. A somewhat schizophrenic way of making a record, but as Szymczyk likes to point out, “Consider the source.”

The opening kick and snare of “Life's Been Good” are joined after four bars by Walsh's Les Paul played through a Fender Twin Reverb; each time the pattern repeats itself, another electric guitar is layered in, using an assortment of Fender Twins, Tweeds and a Champ amp, miked with various condenser microphones including AKG 414s. The track would have four or five electric guitar layers before a dramatic acoustic guitar part is interjected, miked with a KM-84 through a UREI 1176. “Everything about the track was in creating contrasts between parts,” says Szymczyk; this motif would extend to the vocals.

Weeks' bass is a combination of a DI tap and an Ampeg B-15 amplifier. Ferguson's Hammond B3 is played through a Leslie; Szymczyk placed a pair of U87s on the upper speakers and an E-V RE-20 on the bottom. The drums have the usual suspects — a Shure SM57 on the snare, an AKG D-12 on the kick and a pair of Neumann U87s for overheads — but Szymczyk added one trick he still relies on: a Sony lavalier mic on the hi-hat. “It has no low-end capability, but all I'm looking for on the hat is 3 kHz, and that's perfect for it,” he explains.

Cut to two months later, when Szymczyk, Walsh and Vitale returned to Bayshore Recording to create the middle section. Walsh's friendship with The Who's Pete Townshend had sparked an interest in sequencing synthesizers, and he and Vitale programmed the simple eighth-note sequence on an ARP Odyssey, though many accounts in print and on the Internet refer to the sound as a Jew's harp. “Let's put that one to rest right now,” says Szymczyk. “There was no Jew's harp on that record. It was all done with a synthesizer.”

Vitale then played a bass part on the ARP and added another unique sound: a grand piano played through the Leslie with the same microphone complement as was used on the B3. The piano first plays the left-hand whole notes and then the block chords in the section. This plus bass and drums created the backdrop for Walsh's lengthy and languorous guitar solo.






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