Forty-five Minutes a Side

[Note: the last two Blogging the Beatles entries will arrive soon, promise!]

My friend Mark posted a picture of a 1991 Radio Shack ad earlier today, and it got me thinking about the amount of money that I spent as a kid at that place. Back in the early to mid 80s, it was on Main Street in downtown Athol, next door to Cinnamon’s Restaurant and just a few doors from my dad’s office. A few years later it moved just over the border into Orange, just across the road from the Shop & Save strip mall, but that never stopped me from asking my parents or my sisters to drive me over there so I could pick up my “toys”.

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a budding tech nerd back then, really. I wasn’t really that into most of the electronics that they had over there; no, this was more about the audio accessories they sold. Some time around 1983 or 1984 I came to the realization that I could connect our well-worn tape recorder to my stereo via a 3.5mm-to-1/4″ audio cable and dub things from vinyl, or even better, from tape to tape. This eliminated having to lay the tape recorder next to a speaker for a tinny, crappy, live sound, as well as having to worry about someone walking into the room and making noise. Pretty soon I had a small but very useful selection of audio components at my fingertips.



Radio Shack was also my go-to for the blank tapes as well. I’d bought them elsewhere, but this store had the best quality tapes, not those smalltime knockoffs with questionable quality. The store brand worked pretty well, but it was the slightly more expensive Memorex tapes that worked well for me. Their 80s version of the popular DBS 90 (see pic) was quite colorful, and decently priced as well. This was the go-to tape for your general music fan–basically, the “it doesn’t need to sound pristine, just decent…I’m listening to it on my boombox from Sears and I just want the music” music fans like myself. It was also the perfect size, for multiple reasons: if you were taping stuff off the radio or making your own mixtape, you could easily fit about ten average-length songs on each side. If you were dubbing your friends’ albums and tapes, you could fit one album on each side with a bit of room to spare for b-sides or filler. I filled a lot of holes in my early collecting years this way. And yes, I did eventually end up buying or downloading the real thing.

This of course was the age of Home Taping Is Killing Music, which was the 80s version of this generation’s file sharing controversy, which most people found quite ridiculous. For the most part, at least in my view, it didn’t kill music at all–if anything, it spread it out at a time when buying music could be quite the chore. Those like myself who were headlong into college radio then had a bitch of a time trying to find half the stuff we wanted; you would most likely not find many punk records at your local department store or small-time record shop, and record clubs rarely if ever carried what you were looking for (unless it was on Sire, then you could probably find it via Columbia House–Seymour Stein was cool that way!). Our main source for albums was our friends’ collections. And if anything, we were the type of fan who would eventually buy the album anyway, once we finally found it.

I haven’t used a blank tape at least since 2004, I think. That was probably the last time I made one of my compilations to fit a ninety-minute tape. [And for the record, those were most likely bought at Newbury Comics alongside the new cds I was buying then.] For many and varying reasons, I stopped using tapes and went mostly all digital from there on in. It’s only this past New Year’s season that I started following the “forty-five minutes a side” rule on making compilations–that is, pretending that I was in fact making this playlist via home taping, complete with attempting the perfect segue from one song to another–and to tell the truth, it was a hell of a lot of fun.

It was like making the old mixtapes again. It may even have inspired me to make more this way!

Welcome to Bridgetown: Ask me anything!

I’m starting a backlog of writing-themed posts for my Bridgetown blog. What would you like to know?

I’m up for anything–my writing process, where I get the ideas, what the trilogy is about, the ins and outs of alien life in the future, weird things, goofy things, fun things…anything!

Feel free to leave your query in the comments section of this here post, or you can email them to me at jon.p.chaisson (at) gmail (dot) com.

Blogging the Beatles 51/52: No One’s Gonna Change Our World compilation and The Beatles’ Seventh Christmas Record

The next two items in this series are more curiosity pieces than actual Beatles canon, and were both released pretty much as afterthoughts at this point in the band’s history.  One was a leftover from early 1968, and the other a final fan club release cobbled together out of unrelated solo recordings.  Both were released in the last days of 1969, one week apart, some months after the band had unofficially split up.  Fans at this time had no idea of the band’s true status, other than the upcoming Let It Be film and album and some solo endeavors, so if anything, they must not have expected anything was up, other than a few random holiday season releases.

The last time all four Beatles would be in the studio together was back on 20 August 1969, finishing up major editing and mixing work on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, though they would enter Abbey Road separately over the next few months for one thing or another.  John would come in a few weeks later in a failed attempt to mix and release “What’s the New Mary Jane” as a Plastic Ono Band single, and again a few weeks after that to work with Paul on finalizing “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” as its possible b-side.  Ringo would also show up in early December to work with George Martin on his television special With a Little Help from My Friends.  And in early 1970, Paul, George and Ringo would return to work on a few last-minute tweaks to a few Let It Be tracks.  Other than that, however, they would no longer record together collectively as the foursome they once were.

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Album: No One’s Gonna Change Our World
Released: 12 December 1969

In early 1968, actor and comedian Spike Milligan–lead member of the venerated Goon Show crew–fashioned a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund.  He’d asked the band for a musical donation, and given the band’s adoration of the Goons, they willingly bent one of their cardinal rules:  the Beatles will never allow their music to be released on any various-artist compilation.  The album would contain a fascinating and vast mix of singers and musicians, from The Bee Gees, Cilla Black, The Hollies, Lulu, Cliff Richard, and more.  Given the Beatles’ status, they would of course get top billing, not to mention have the album name borrow (and slightly change) one line from their track.  The album itself was delayed for quite a time, originally to be released in late 1968 but held off until December 1969.  It remains the one compilation album that the Beatles willingly donated their time and music to.  [There have been various soundtracks featuring Beatles recordings since, but they have all been Beatle-related documentaries, such as Imagine John Lennon and The US vs John Lennon, or the Cirque du Soleil production Love.  To this date they have not let any band recordings show up on any non-band related soundtracks or compilations.]

Side A, Track 1: “Across the Universe”

The fourth and final track recorded before the band’s trip to India finally makes its appearance here.  The track very nearly showed up as a bonus track on a possible EP containing the new Yellow Submarine tracks, but after that idea fell by the wayside, the track lingered until it was gladly given to Milligan for his pet project.  It’s a gorgeous, dreamy song of John’s, though it’s one of his that he was never fully happy with.  Like “Tomorrow Never Knows”, he had a specific sound in his head that he wanted, but could never adequately reproduce or even describe.  He absolutely adored the lyrics, however, claiming them to be one of his best poetic works.  Oddly inspired by irritation via a conversation he’d had with Cynthia (apparently she’d been going on about something, and after they’d gone to bed, the opening line “words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup” popped into his head), he instead turned it into a deeply spiritual lyric taken from the band’s growing interest in Transcendental Meditation.

The track itself is light and almost completely acoustic, mainly featuring consistent rhythm guitar strumming from John, with the occasional noodling from George on electric guitar with light tremolo and wah-wah effects.  Paul shows up on piano and Ringo on  percussion, though they are so deep in the mix they’re barely noticed.  The song itself is lovely; its home key is a high D chord and there is a semblance of a melody, though, like “I Am the Walrus”, he uses multiple melodic phrases to achieve it.  Also fascinating and extremely rare is the fact that two young girls are featured on the track as well:  Lizzie Bravo and Gayleen Pease, two “Apple Scruffs” (the small but loyal group of hangers-on outside the studio who would cheer the band on as they arrived and left the studio) were brought in to sing the high-register part of the chorus “nothing’s gonna change my world”.

This track, recorded in early February, would go through multiple versions before its two major releases.  The first, remaining close to the original February sessions, would have wildlife sound effects added on 2 October, would be released here.  There were attempts to put some rather experimental sounds on the mix, such as the band humming, George featuring heavily on tambura, and a plethora of backwards effects–this version would show up on multiple bootlegs over the years.  It was later decided by Glyn Johns, the producer tasked with creating a Get Back album in January 1970, to clean up the original, take out the two girls, and use that as a John donation to the album (his output was rather thin by this point).  Finally, in late March/early April, Phil Spector had taken over the project and created an altogether different version, the one that shows up on the Let It Be album.

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Single: The Beatles’ Seventh Christmas Record
Released to the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: 19 December 1969

Like the previous fan club Christmas single, this last outing was created out of separate solo recordings and put together by Kenny Everett.  This one is even more of a hodgepodge of directionless, unscripted recordings from the four.  Gone is the humor and the silliness of previous recordings.  Any humor seems a bit forced.  There’s not really much exciting here, other than a home recording of John and Yoko talking to each other at Tittenhurst, a bit of riffing and chatting from Paul, a song and a shameless plug of The Magic Christian from Ringo, and only a quick hello from George.

Taken in the context of the previous recordings, it seems kind of a sad and wistful end to a fascinating career.  On the other hand, it’s four men who are fast approaching their thirties and taking their life and their fame more seriously.  John and Yoko are clearly in love with each other here, sometimes cloyingly so, but they clearly enjoy each other’s company.  Paul’s segments are somewhat reminiscent of his 1968 message, a simple acoustic song and a thank you to the fans; at this point it’s believed he was working on tracks for his solo debut McCartney, so there seems to be a bit of distraction in his voice.  Ringo, on the other hand, clearly enjoys the holidays after all these years and still offers a bit of lighthearted humor and an old standard or two.

This would be the last new Beatles fan club release; by December of 1970 they had publicly and officially broken up.  That year’s release for the fans would then be a semi-official compilation of the previous seven recordings on solid twelve-inch vinyl.  The UK version, titled From Then to You, would have a simple white card cover with a printed label pasted on.  The US version would be slightly more exotic, using past pictures of the band and named The Beatles Christmas Album.

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At this point, the band had completed almost all the projects that they had set out to do in the past year.  They were leaving very little behind; all told, there is an extremely small number of songs that were recorded and completed in studio during their time together that would not be released.  Many of those songs would remain in the vaults for years, only surfacing on inferior-sounding bootlegs, until the Anthology series arrived in 1995-96.  That left only one project to be released: the Get Back sessions.  That title would remain so until early spring of 1970, when they would finally be released in May under the name Let It Be, alongside the film of the same name.  The project was so fraught with personal and musical issues, that hardly anyone in the band wished to work on it.  Eventually they would hand it to the famed producer Phil Spector, who would turn questionable recordings into quite the interesting final chapter of the band’s existence.

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Next Up: “Let It Be”/”You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” and Let It Be