A new mystery has emerged about the nature of the performances on George Michael’s Symphonica album. Were the performances mostly recorded at AIR Studios in 2011 in London, or recorded live on the Symphonica tour in 2012? In this blog, we’ll consider the evidence on both sides of the argument.
(Update 14 March 2014 – the album is now in people’s hand in some countries. Please read the comments for a few more details taken from the credits on the album. It seems that three of the tracks on the album may be based on vocals from 25 Live – One More Try, The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face and Feeling Good. However, it seems that the credits don’t tell us anything about where most of the vocals on the album were recorded.)
The Case For The 2011 Studio Album
The first piece of evidence for this being a studio album comes from the very first official announcement of Symphonica. In that first press release, George’s team provided a track listing detailing the date and place of recording for each track on the album. With the exception Let Her Down Easy and Idol, every track was described as being recorded in 2011 at AIR studios (see the details of this announcement). Incidentally, those two exceptions were also listed as being recorded in 2011, at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Indeed, those early announcements described Symphonica as “George Michael’s sixth solo studio album“.
The second piece of evidence for this being a studio album comes interviews with George Michael’s technical team in the November 2011 issue of Total Production International. Here is the relevant section:
For this tour, pre-production was seemingly quite short by George’s standards. For 25 Live, pre-production time was much lengthier, including 10 days in Wembley Arena. This time, Bradshaw spent four days at Wigwam assembling, programming and testing the difficult set up. This was partly due to the fact that Michael was in the process of having the music for his new album recorded.
“We do virtual soundcheck,” Bradshaw continued. “We have a way of recording everything and playing it back.”
The new album will be produced by Phil Ramone and is set to be a classy pop delivery with heavy influences from the artists who inspire Michael.
“George has asked for the sound to be as close to the CD sound as possible,” Bradshaw elaborated. “So the easy bit is knowing what he wants, the tricky bit is getting there!”
So, in 2011, before the Symphonica tour had started, it seems that George was well into the process of recording a Symphonica studio CD. George wanted the live sound on the Symphonica tour to sound “as close to the CD” of the Symphonica album he was recording in the studio as was technically possible.
A third significant piece of evidence comes from the fact that One More Try, which is on the Symphonica album, was never actually performed on the tour itself. There are other pieces of evidence too, such as photographs of George in a vocal booth at AIR studios, working on the album.
So, up until a couple of weeks ago, there seemed to be no suggestion that Symphonica was anything other than a studio album, recorded in 2011, with a couple of live tracks – Let Her Down Easy, and Idol (also recorded in 2011). But then, a different story began to emerge…
The Case For The 2012 Live Album
The first piece of evidence for the “2012 Live Album Case” came a couple of weeks ago, in the edition of Music Week magazine that had the 40-page George Michael special coverage. Tucked away in an article paying tribute to the late Phil Ramone was this quote from the album’s executive producer, David Austin,
“Obviously, with it being a live album, it was all recorded on the road, and to do that properly is always a test.
And then, today, the “2012 live album case” was further strengthened at the official album launch in Hamiltons Gallery in Mayfair. At the launch, David Austin, who was hosting the event with journalists, was quoted as saying the following,
George contracted pneumonia and when he came back and did that run of shows… we ended up getting the whole album from maybe just those three nights… there was that energy.
That quote is pretty clear and unequivocal – that the whole album came from a run of three nights on the tour in 2012 when George made his comeback after recovering from pneumonia. It’s unclear which “three nights” he is referring to, but George’s comeback dates began in Vienna in September 2012. The details of the explanation given today at the launch appeared to confuse The Guardian, which wrote,
Billed as his sixth studio album and the follow-up to 2004’s Patience, Symphonica is basically a slightly confused live album. On the one hand we learn that the string arrangements were recorded in a studio, and there are photos of Michael in a studio environment working on the album with the legendary producer Phil Ramone, but on the other we’re told that live vocals from each of the shows on the tour were sent over to Ramone who then selected the best ones and arranged the songs from there.
So there we have it. On the one hand, we have the first official announcement of the Symphonica album saying clearly that this was a George Michael studio album, along with details of when and where each track was recorded (almost all tracks being recorded in 2011 at AIR Studios in London). On the other hand, we have the album’s executive producer, David Austin, being quoted as saying the whole album was recorded live in 2012 on the tour. As the executive producer, David would obviously be in a position to know where and when the tracks were recorded.
Clearly, both sides of this debate are mutually incompatible – it can’t be both a studio album recorded in 2011 and a live album recorded in 2012. What makes this a mystery is that the key sources on both sides are “official” and deeply authoritative. Somewhere along the line since the first announcement of the Symphonica album, the messaging appears to have changed. Either that, or some wires have got crossed somewhere. What’s the reality though? What do you think?