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

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

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Knowing that the final song would be cobbled together from three separate recordings, back during the original sessions Szymczyk had all the guitars hold the downbeat of the final measure of section one. It was underneath that that the synthesizer would be introduced in section two. The same was done at the end of the middle ARP/guitar solo section, where Vitale played the bass root note and built it in volume and intensity, then cut it short. That then set the stage for the recapitulation of the opening guitar riffs once again, signaling the return of the vocal sections.

Walsh had been working on the lyrics all along, and when he was finished writing, they began recording the vocals. Walsh sang into a U87 with a light touch on an 1176 compressor. But in the mix, seeking the contrast that characterized parts of the music bed, Szymczyk left the verse vocals nearly dry, the better to articulate each couplet's punch line. On the B-section of each verse, he had Walsh double the lead vocal. Then he, Walsh, Vitale and Walsh's wife at the time, Jody Boyer, sang the call-and-response background parts: “He's cool.” “Oh, yeah.” They purposely pitched them low in contrast to Walsh's reedy lead vocal. Szymczyk added some additional contrasts with processing in the mix: He applied a stereo Eventide digital delay on the lead vocal, with a 40ms delay panned left and an 80ms delay panned right, producing an interesting “canyon-y” effect, as he describes it, which further enhances the verses' high, lonesome sound. On the choruses, which Walsh also double-tracked, he dropped the delay in favor of a Cooper Time Cube to further thicken the vocal sound. “Every part of the vocal has its own sound,” says Szymczyk. “It was fun. It was ear candy. Remember, this was still like a vacation from The Eagles.”

The mix was understandably a bit more complex than usual. Aside from the contrasting processing of various tracks, the song also needed a sound effect for the line “I go to parties sometimes until four/It's hard to leave when you can't find the door,” which is followed by a perfectly timed door closing, done in real time by Vitale by shutting the door to Bayshore's bathroom, with a U87 placed about three feet away and in a nicely resonant hallway.

The many guitars on “Life's Been Good” were kept distinct by lots of hard panning. In the verses, Walsh's guitars are panned right and Murcia's reggae-like licks are in the left channel. Ferguson's island-sounding B-3 is opposite Murcia. Other than what's already been noted, the processing was fairly light. A pair of Lexicon 224s — one set for a hall, the other for a room sound — provides some basic ambience for background and chorus vocals.

Szymczyk mixed each of the three sections separately at the 36-input MCI 500 Series console, monitoring through JBL 4310 speakers. (There were Hidley custom monitors soffited above the console, but Szymczyk says they were turned on only late at night, “When we wanted to get nuts.”) This produced three reels of quarter-inch 2-track mixes. Using three MCI 2-track decks and a lot of trial and error, Szymczyk did crossfades between the two edit points, creating the final eight-minute-plus-long song.

After all that work, “Life's Been Good” almost didn't make the album. Szymczyk says that Walsh began second-guessing himself, wondering if the lyrics would be perceived as condescending or snarky.

“I tried to do the song funny without coming across as a jerk,” Walsh explained in a 1978 BAM magazine interview. “I think I try to be humble, but I also feel I've got some seniority after the years I've put in as a musician. I've got to admit that even being at the top doesn't mean anything.”

“I think the best producing job I ever did was convincing Joe that people would understand he was being facetious,” Szymczyk says. “Me and Vitale double-teamed him.” They won Walsh over, and a good thing, too: “Life's Been Good” would become his biggest hit, topping at Number 12 in Billboard and remaining a staple of classic rock, as well as the theme song for an era of music that, like Wall Street more recently, went someplace amazing for a while and ain't never coming back.






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