Every September since 2014, a group of friends — Malcolm Pollack, Kemp Harris, Carl Sturken, Ray Castoldi, Gary Lue, and others — journey to Star Island, one of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine, for a musical retreat. Many have known each other for decades.
When the pandemic forced them to rethink their yearly pilgrimage, the group decided to make a virtual video instead. The tune: Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
The internet is teeming with these musical mosaics — compilation videos in which each of the performers records his or her part separately. Pollack, a recording engineer who had been coming to Wellfleet since the ’80s and now lives here full-time, calls them “Brady Bunch compilations,” after the stacked visuals of the TV show’s credit sequence.
But the video recorded by the Star Island Shoal Survivors, as they call themselves, is different — not just because it has nearly 12,000 views on YouTube, or because it’s performed by crackerjack musicians, but because it induces chills, a sensation reminiscent of the days of live concerts (remember them?).
The video was made additively: keyboardist Ray Castoldi was the first to record a click-track, which set the tempo like a metronome. Then, the “rough mix” — that is, the song before it’s edited — was passed from person to person, each adding a track, building it up little by little. Lue, who edited the visuals, also played the drums; Sturken performed lead guitar; and Pollack did backup vocals.
“The process is quite simple, actually,” Pollack says. “Everybody who makes a track includes the opening two clicks. Then, it is possible to line everything up.”
It’s similar to but not the same as a standard recording, Pollack says, because even prior to the pandemic, it would be unusual for bands to play together truly live in a studio. “From an engineering perspective, the difference is that the engineer is not in the position to guide the recording process for each individual person,” he says. Pollack couldn’t give feedback or ask musicians to redo takes, so he had less control over the initial audio quality. The process is also slower: the video took about a month to make.
Though Pollack has a recording studio in his basement, not all his friends are as well equipped. Lead singer Kemp Harris — who lives in Cambridge but speaks fondly of his time playing at the Boatslip Resort in Provincetown in the summer of ’78 — had to have a recording device sent to his home with elaborate instructions. He recorded his part last. As a result, Harris’s line maintains remarkable rhythmic flexibility against the prerecorded backdrop.
“I knew the piece so well,” he says. “I put on my headphones, threw it down in one take, and walked out of the room.”
The band has played the song together numerous times in the past, Harris says. “It’s one of the tunes we’d play around two in the morning as we’re winding down, when we had finished drinking wine and hanging out. It was like, ‘Let’s do Joe Cocker.’ ” At that point, the choice of song is apt, Harris adds, demonstratively rasping, “because your voice is a wreck and that’s how you have to sound anyway.”
Harris recorded his audio and video together, because he knew it would be impossible to lip-sync Joe Cocker’s iconic “guttural scream” near the end. “There’s no way I can make my face look like that,” he says. “That is really me trying to get those notes.”
The Star Island Shoal Survivors’ rendition is specifically a tribute to Cocker on Mad Dogs & Englishmen and not the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “They nailed it,” Harris says. “It is exactly the same arrangement, exact same backup.” That is, except for a few fun additions, such as a marimba.
Through its lyrics, the song already has significance to this group of friends who, although isolated, can make music together through a collective effort. Harris even added a line to reflect the times: “Even when I’m alone they’re still with me,” he sings.
Though it’s not a live performance, the video feels alive. That’s because of the talents of all the musicians involved and Pollack’s artful mixing — he adjusts intonation, rhythm, and volume levels without losing a sense of humanity.
“A lot has changed about the way we produce and consume music in my lifetime, going back to the ’70s,” Pollack says. “But everything is always changing, and I am curious what is coming next.”
Click here to watch and listen to “With a Little Help From My Friends” performed by the Star Island Shoal Survivors.