Josh Brasted / FilmMagic – Taped And Taped
The National get the “Mike Millard” treatment in a documentary about the legendary concert taper, known for capturing awe-inspiring performances by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
In the lead-up to Record Store Day’s Black Friday, The National has released “Juicy Sonic Magic,” a short film that celebrates the sorts of recordings that never made their way into the shops of yore – audience recordings of concerts, the sorts of tapes you only found by scouring the classifieds in magazines such as Trouser Press and Goldmine in the ’70s and ’80s.
“Juicy Sonic Magic” tells the stories of concert recording giant Mike Millard and of The National’s use of Millard’s techniques to record a concert. The filmmaker behind the project, Erik Flannigan, hopes it leads to a larger project documenting more than just the story of one man whose recordings of classic rock giants have reached mythological status.
“If I’m being honest,” says Flannigan, “the hope is that maybe this 11-minute version of the story could lead to a longer, feature-length doc about tapers in general, with Mike in the middle of it. Most major markets have some person who, around 1975, 1976, gets one of those early, high-quality cassette recorders and starts to record concerts. There was a guy in Boston, a guy in Seattle, a guy in Detroit, a guy in New Orleans.
“And that’s why I think there’s ultimately a bigger story here. These guys were kind of risking it all to record the shows. And I think the modern context that makes it interesting is these are otherwise lost recordings of some of the most important bands of all-time.”
Millard’s reputation as a world-class taper stems largely from his audience recordings of Led Zeppelin at the Forum, Bruce Springsteen’s Christic Institute benefit shows at Shrine Auditorium and Bob Dylan’s Christian-era shows at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Peter Gabriel was so impressed with his tapes that the two met and Millard got the singer’s seal of approval.
One of Millard’s most widely bootlegged tapes is “Listen To This, Eddie,” which documents Led Zeppelin’s June 21, 1977 show at the Forum. The title is a dig at Eddie Van Halen, who had dissed Zep guitarist Jimmy Page.
In the Japanese bootleg world, Flannigan says, Millard tapes are famous for being of superior quality to others, especially when it comes to ‘70s bands such as Led Zeppelin and Yes.
“If you went to see The Rolling Stones at MetLife or the Rose Bowl, everybody’s recording the show like it’s a birthright that we now have in attending a concert,” Flannigan says. “But rewind 40 years ago and these guys were risking arrest, being beaten up by band managers and getting kicked out of shows.”
Flannigan, who says he works around the fringes of the music industry in jobs such as advising nugs.net about its concert recording releases, was more of a tape collector and trader than an active recorder. He learned Millard’s method and used the same vintage equipment – a portable Nakamichi 550 cassette deck and AKG-451E mics – to record The National’s two-night September 2018 stand at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, Calif.
The National will release a three-cassette set of the Flannigan recordings, mastered by Greg Calbi, on Black Friday, Nov. 29. Its title, “Juicy Sonic Magic,” is how National frontman Matt Berninger described the sound of Flannigan’s tapes of the Berkeley shows.
“Matt says, ‘I’ve been to a thousand National shows but I’ve never really heard what one sounds like,’” Flannigan says. “There is something about that fan kind of audio point of view. I think that the cassette recordings of what Mike did are a little bit analogous to the vinyl-digital [comparison] – there’s something about that warmth and compression that, if you’re of a certain age, is this very familiar, pleasing sound. A digital recording that’s too clean just doesn’t have the same charm.”
The portion of Flannigan’s film that doesn’t concern The National unravels the mystery of Millard, and isn’t unlike “Searching for Sugar Man” or “Batman and Me.” Flannigan found bits and pieces – many incorrect – of Millard’s story on the internet, and he started to play detective. How did Millard make these tapes? Was it true that he snuck his cassette deck, which was the size of a typewriter, into shows by using a wheelchair? Why are there no photos of this guy?
The trail led to Millard’s best friend, who tells all in the doc, as well as family members and people who knew him at the junior college where he worked as an AV coordinator. Millard committed suicide in 1994.
“The internet really has taken his name and his story and run with it,” Flannigan says. “I started to realize that people created a persona or a myth about this guy that wasn’t probably grounded in reality. The mystery and why it was so hard to track down details about this person just made me want to pursue it all the more.
“Michael’s the only one who just seemed to be this enigma that could never be pinned down, partly because he died in that pre-Internet era. It’s harder to find records, harder to find details. My story was sort of trapped in the analog era, but the pursuit of it has been fun.”