Blogging the Beatles: Sgt Pepper’s Deluxe Edition

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First off, a few notes:  Since I’ve already gone over the actual music on the original album and the Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane single here a good few years ago, I’ll be dispensing with that and talking about the sound of the remix.  Secondly, I’m going over the big box set and not the 2-disc version that’s also available.

I’ve been listening to this release for nearly a month now, just to get used to the sound, and I’d have to say that overall, the remastering/remixing was well done.  It’s kind of hard to say that about the original Beatles oeuvre, considering that nearly all of it was a four-track mix with a ridiculous amount of bouncedown* on many of the tracks.

*Bouncedown = a trick the band and George Martin used to employ to open up track space for more sounds.  A mix would be made for two or three of the four tracks, then would be ‘bounced down’ to the empty fourth track (via copying the master onto a new reel), thus freeing up three new tracks for more instruments.  The upside is being able to fill out the sound; the downside is slight degradation of the sound and possible muddiness in the mix.

One of my friends jokingly asked me if he knew how much Paul paid Giles to pump his bass so high in the mix, and to some degree I can see where he’s coming from.  At this point, Paul would lay down a simple temporary bass track to be recorded over later in the mix when he could add more flourishes.  A song like “Fixing a Hole” is a good example of this; the bass is all over the place on that one, so if your speakers or equalizer are a bit on the bassy side, it’s going to overwhelm the track.  A simple EQ adjustment of my headphones made it sound a hell of a lot better.

Some highlights:

The levels of Ringo’s drums are pushed up a lot more than previous.  This has always been a big issue for me, especially for most of pre-Rubber Soul recordings, as quite often he’d be so far back in the mix that you barely notice him.  His drum work on this new version is now crystal clear and given an added punch, which works to great effect on many of the songs here.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” has always been one of my favorite Lennon tracks (not to mention one where I can only name one band whose cover has done it justice), and I love what they’ve done to this one.  The phasing on the vocals (which give it that spinny, whoosh-y sound) are much more pronounced here.

“She’s Leaving Home” is at the correct faster speed that was originally only used for the mono mix.  This version makes it sound like less of a dirge and more of a stage musical performance, and it sounds lovely.  The strings and harp are also clarified here.

“Within You Without You” is as mystical and mysterious as ever.  The only problem I had with the original mix is that it sounded a bit two-dimensional, if that makes sense.  The Indian instruments and the orchestral instruments felt squished together, with George’s vocals kind of thrown on top.  This mix gives the song a hell of a lot more room to breathe and meander.  The two cultures swirl around each other now, and George’s voice is stronger yet retains the tenderness.

The original mix also had some lower-end issues, at least to my hearing.  Both “When I’m Sixty-Four” and Paul’s section of “A Day in the Life” always sounded a bit muddy, as if the bass levels had been pushed up a little higher than necessary.  This has since been fixed for both tracks, thankfully.  “Sixty-Four” sounds less like a well-worn 78 rpm record and more like a live vaudeville performance.  Check out Ringo’s light tapping on his ride cymbal on that one — he does lovely work on it.

“Lovely Rita” – Another song that sounded a mess in the original, but sounds clearer, even though it’s still drenched in echo.  You can hear a lot more of the sound effect silliness on this one now.  I can finally also hear John’s mumble at the end. I can now hear him saying “I don’t believe it.”

And then there’s “A Day in the Life”.  My favorite track off the album, their magnum opus.  It sounds absolutely stunning, especially on earphones.  The orchestra swells are much clearer and wilder.  The final chord is mixed clearer (and you can hear Ringo shifting in his seat just before the final fadeaway).  My only complaint is that Giles didn’t retain the last transition (the ah-ah-ah’s) before John’s last segment.  My favorite part of George Martin’s mix was his gradual lift in volume of the brass and strings as John’s “ahs” fade further into the background; here, they’re mixed to remain in tandem.  Ah well, can’t complain.

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And what of the extra tracks?  First off, the remixes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (done in 2015 to go along with the release of the 1 cd/dvd remaster) and “Penny Lane” (brand spankin’ new) give the two tracks even more punch than before.

The sequence of the tracks on the extra cds in the box set are chronological, so you truly get to listen to the album as it’s being written, recorded, and put together.  Multiple versions of “Strawberry Fields”, the first on the list, show its evolution from a light track that might have been at home on Revolver to the darker, more ominous track we all know and love.  It’s not until they finish “A Day in the Life” (fourth in line, after “Sixty-Four” and “Penny Lane”) that the album really starts to take shape, and more of the songs start taking on a more common theme or sound.

Also included is the original 1967 mono mix — not the 2009 remaster, but the original 1967 mix as made by the Beatles and Martin themselves — and a few odds and ends, including the extremely rare “Penny Lane” US Mono promotional mix with the extra horn segment at the very end of the track.

Non-musically, the packaging is outstanding!  The hardback book that comes along with it is a wonderfully written historical document of not just the recording sessions but what was going on in Britain at the time, both socially and politically.  The cds and dvds are in a recreation of the vinyl album cover, complete with the lyrics on the back.  A recreation of the original ‘Mr Kite’ poster owned by John and a large advertisement for the album are also attached, as is the original cut-out sheet (featuring sergeant stripes, fake mustache and so on) from the original album.
Final thoughts?  The big box set is definitely for completists, as there’s a lot of repetition; more passive fans will probably want to pick up the two-disc “anniversary edition” that takes the best of the extra tracks (and the two current-mix single tracks).  It sounds great and looks great.  [And of course most Beatles fans are dearly hoping that the other albums get this treatment, though we won’t hold our breath.]  Highly recommended.

Favorite Bands: Cocteau Twins

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If I had to pick any one band that influenced my bass and guitar styles the most, inspired numerous plot ideas and settings for my early writings, and always calmed my teenage soul late at night, it would definitely be Cocteau Twins.

I absolutely adored the layered, chiming and heavily echoed guitars of Robin Guthrie, the dual-tone melodies of bassist Simon Raymonde (and even the dissonant meanderings of original bassist Will Heggie, who went on to be part of the band Lowlife), and the otherworldly vocalizations of Elizabeth Fraser.

They were My Bloody Valentine at a much lower volume.  They were Felt with a hell of a lot more ambience.  They were goth without the pretension and imagery.  And they were one of the biggest anchors of the classic 80s sound of the 4AD record label.  When all the music critics described their sound as pastoral, autumnal or dreamlike, they really weren’t trying to be over the top.  They really did sound like the Scottish Highlands on a cool and foggy morning, or a late October in foliage-laden New England.

If you haven’t given them a close listen, especially their dreamier 80s output, I highly suggest it.  It’s quite lovely.

Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends

So recently I’ve been reading David Wiegel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock and enjoying it immensely.  Things I’ve learned:

–It’s evident that a few members of Yes either quit or were canned due to insufficient pretentiousness levels.  Tony Kaye was an adequate keyboardist that didn’t play flourishes and got the boot early on.  Rick Wakeman quit out of boredom, and the fact that he had no frigging idea what Jon Anderson was singing about half the time.  Steve Howe actually kind of likes Tormato, their 1978 album that nearly no one else likes, including the rest of the band.  Chris Squire’s bass was, not surprisingly at all, mixed loud, front and center on their first albums.

–Van der Graaf Generator were well-loved, even if their music made no damn sense at all.  The same goes for The Soft Machine.

–Robert Fripp is a genius guitarist…but no one knows what the hell he’s trying to play.

–Greg Lake had an ego about the size of Great Britain.  Keith Emerson not as much, but close.  Carl Palmer just wanted to play his drums.

–Keith Emerson’s famous stage shtick of sticking knives in his keyboard to get sustained sound was originally courtesy of some old Army knives from a roadie named Lemmy Kilmister.

–The guys in Rush write great songs, but they’re kinda sorta meatheads.  Singer Geddy Lee didn’t always know what the hell drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics were going on about, just that they were virulently Libertarian.  [This political bent seems to have faded into the background around the same time Geddy started playing synths on the albums, interestingly enough.]

–The more members Genesis shed, the poppier and more famous they became.  Keyboardist Tony Banks said if they’d called it a day when Peter Gabriel left, they’d have had a significantly smaller fanbase.

–Most bands, when interviewed by Creem magazine in the 70s, would make these wildly erudite but utterly vacuous proclamations about how progressive rock will change the world.

–Marillion singlehandedly brought back prog in the 80s by saying ‘Screw you, we’re going to play this stuff anyway.’

Seriously, though, it’s a fascinating (if slightly sarcastic) read if you’re a fan of the genre.  One of the pleasant surprises is that he does briefly touch on the less famous prog bands, including a handful of non-English bands from Italy and elsewhere.

 

Coming Soon: Blogging the Beatles: Sgt Pepper Reissue Edition

Come on, you knew it was coming. 🙂

I’ve been obsessing about this release since hearing about it some months ago, and since it’s such a landmark album — not to mention this release being the only time so far that a full Beatles album has been given a completely new stereo remix — I think it’s only fair that I give it the BtB treatment, now that I have it my grubby paws.  I’d like to go over what one can expect: the differences in sound between the original mono and stereo mixes, and the new 2017 stereo mix.

[Alas, I do not have a 5.1 sound system so I won’t be able to provide any input on that at this time, though it’s part of the big box set edition.]

Stay tuned!

Boston Rocks

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Speaking of 90s music, I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff lately that came out while I was in Boston, college and post-college.  The city has a fascinating musical history, especially where rock and radio is concerned.  [I highly suggest looking for Carter Alan’s Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN and Brett Milano’s The Sound of Our Town for a great overview.]  There’s always been a scene of some kind in the city over the years, and it’s always been great.  A lot of it is due to its eclectic mix of blue-collar families and college students.

I was glad to be able to listen to, if not go see, a lot of the local bands while going to Emerson College in the early 90s. Here’s a few of my favorites from that era…hope you enjoy!









It Was Fifty Years Ago…

You may have heard the BIG NEWS from hither and yon that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is getting a super deluxe edition from Apple in celebration of the album turning 50.  It’s BIG NEWS because this is the first Beatles album to get this kind of remaster/expanded reissue.  The deluxe edition will contain a new remix from Giles Martin, two discs of outtakes, and a dvd and blu-ray of even more goodies — including a 5.1 mix (!!) and the Making of Sgt Pepper documentary from 1987.  The new stereo remix, per Martin, is not the original remaster we heard on the 2009 box set, but a true remix, in which he shifted the sounds to make it sound more like the original mono mix.*

Yer darn tootin’ I pre-ordered it as soon as I heard about it!

Anyway…I’m looking forward to hearing this new mix.  I gave the album a good listen the other day (the mono mix, actually) and it really did break a hell of a lot of rules and boundaries.  Hundreds of other bands who heard the album for the first time were completely blown away by it, even more influenced by it.  When people call songs ‘Beatlesque’, they usually mean it sounds like something from this album.

Me?  I’m looking forward to hearing “A Day in the Life”…it’s what I think of as their finest moment, not just in songwriting but in production.  It transcends being just a pop song and turns into an orchestral piece.  Hearing a new stereo mix of this song should be a treat.

To quote from my ‘Blogging the Beatles’ series from a few years back, plus a few added notes:

Though this track was recorded relatively early in the sessions (19-20 January, with additional work done a week or so later), by the time they finished recording, they knew that this absolutely had to be the last track on the album, no question. It’s long been considered one of their best compositions, and given the amount of time dedicated to it (a total 34 hours, twenty-two more than the entirety of Please Please Me!), it’s by far one of their most complex productions.

There are three distinct parts – the first and third, written mostly by John and taken from recent newspaper articles (the death of friend Tara Browne in a car accident, the report that the roads in Blackburn were filled with potholes, and so on), and the middle section provided mostly by Paul (a simple nostalgic trip of riding the double-decker bus through Liverpool when he was younger), each with its own personality.

The first part is performed with deliberate slowness, starting quietly but growing increasingly louder until we reach the end. [EDIT: Ringo’s drumming here is to the fore, punctuating each line of the verse, mixed high and given a thunderous echo.  The deliberate slowness of this first part adds to its haunting mood, which makes the first orchestral swell sound like a maelstrom.]

The link to part two is via a crazy idea from Paul and Martin, in which an orchestra plays an unscripted rise from the instrument’s lowest E up to its highest in the space of 24 bars. [EDIT: if you listen closely, you can just about hear Mal Evans under the din, counting out said bars, leading up to the alarm clock going off.] That link serves not just to wind up the listener but the speed, as Paul’s section comes in double-time, a bouncy and simple melody meant to evoke a commuter running late.

The second gives way to a third part via an absolutely breathtaking eight bars – it’s not complex, but listen to how Martin takes a simple four-note score and makes it dynamic by gradually increasing the volume of the brass, pulling them from the back to the foreground, while simultaneously pushing John’s angelic ‘aah’s being pushed back into the increasingly echoey mix.  [EDIT: In the mono mix, John merely fades into the mix, but in the stereo mix he pans from right to left as well. This entire section is by far one of my favorite moments of any Beatle song ever.  A few simple mixing and scoring tricks, but they’re done so beautifully.]

In part three we’ve returned to an abbreviated repeat of John’s first section, played double-time as well…only to be brought back to that nightmarish ascension again. This time, once everyone hits that high E, we’re left floating up in the air for a brief second…only to come crashing down – hard – on a final low E chord. That final breathtaking moment is played by John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans on three pianos and George Martin on a harmonium, and is drawn out to nearly forty seconds via the recording level being brought up as high as possible as the piano’s natural reverberation slowly fades.

The Super Deluxe Edition of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will be released on 26 May, one week shy of fifty years of its original release.

 

* Some background here…the Beatles were present for the original mono mix of the album back in ’67, but were not present for the stereo mix, which was done afterwards.  Audiophiles often say the mono mix is much better, as it’s closer to what the band wanted.  It also has a fuller, tighter sound, whereas the stereo mix feels a bit spacious.  Oh–and “She’s Leaving Home” is at the right speed on the mono mix, and in my opinion makes it a stronger song, where the stereo mix was slower and more maudlin, maybe too much so.

Favorite Bands: The Damned

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of The Damned.  They’ve been a favorite band of mine since I heard “Alone Again Or” on college radio in the late 80s.  I’d heard of them, even remember their appearance on my favorite episode of The Young Ones doing the song “Nasty” (written specifically for the episode of the same name).  My friend Chris loved the ridiculous punkiness of the b-side “Jet Boy Jet Girl” and got me hooked on it.  But like some bands, I never got around to picking up their catalog until much later.

They’re kind of an unsung band, really.  Like the Kinks, they’re shuffled off to the side because they’re hard to pin down.  Not quite punk, not quite post-punk, not quite goth.  And very British.  They’ve got well-known singles from their entire career that still pop up on college radio from time to time.  [And one of their claims to fame is that their debut single, “New Rose”, is officially the first UK punk single, predating the Sex Pistols’ debut by a good few months.]

They’re also a surprisingly melodic band.  Listen to “Love Song” (from their third album Machine Gun Etiquette, from 1979) and you’ll hear some really interesting pop phrasings there, not to mention some really cheeky lyrics that aren’t that far from the Beastie Boys at their goofiest.

But on the other end of the spectrum — and from that same album — we have the fan favorite “Smash It Up”, with its lovely instrumental intro and its punkier second half, which features some interesting time signature shifts.  It’s a classic song of rebellion, but instead of the volatility and anger of the Sex Pistols, it’s more on par with the DIY ethos of The Clash.

Their follow-up album, The Black Album, from 1980, is probably my favorite of theirs.  It may have gotten mixed reviews from the critics and fans, considering they were shifting more towards that post-punk sound musically.  It contains a lot of fascinating tracks that really show their musical chops.  It’s also a double album, featuring three sides of studio recordings, and a fourth side of live tracks.  And yes, they did in fact have the Beatles ’68 eponymous album in mind when they named it.

It also contains my favorite track of theirs, a sprawling seventeen-minute track previously available as a 12″ b-side for their “White Rabbit” single (back then they were known for doing odd covers as only they could do them).  It’s an ambitious track that works in a slow-build prologue, the metaphor of life as a performance, some fabulous piano work, a midpoint breakdown that features a recorded loop of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”, creepy sound effects, and a reprise tying it all together.  And interestingly enough, it’s got the same musical construction as The Beatles’ “What’s the New Mary Jane”.  That’s a damn complex song for a band usually thought of as a goofy disposable punk group.

By their 1985 album Phantasmagoria, they’d become more of a goth-lite band, sounding more like a cross between Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Mission only with a much lighter outlook lyrically and musically.  Consider the campy “Grimly Fiendish” (named after a UK comic book character from the 70s) with its excellent use of harpsichord:

…or the poppy “Is It a Dream” that almost veers into Echo & the Bunnymen territory:

…or even into Pink Floyd territory:

By 1986’s Anything, they’d sort of been written off as has-beens (especially considering chief songwriter Captain Sensible left just after 1983’s Strawberries album for a solo career) (yes, the “Wot” guy).  They released a stellar career retrospective in late 1987 called The Light at the End of the Tunnel (highly suggested) before splitting up.

But just like every other band from the 80s, the Damned never really went away.  The 90s were filled with a ridiculous amount of official and semi-official live albums, greatest hits and rarities collections.  They resurfaced in 1996 with a sort-of-official album Not of This Earth (also known as I’m Alright Jack and the Beanstalk) and a few singles such as “Shut It” and “Prokofiev”, and resurfacing again in 2001 with Grave Disorder.

They’ve toured off and on since then, and keeping themselves visible with excellent reissues of their discography during the 00s, and releasing another new album in 2008 called So, Who’s Paranoid? which has brought their sound full circle, back to the punk-goth-postpunk hybrid.

Their discography is quite long and convoluted, and it’s mostly due to having been on numerous different labels over the years — sometimes for a few albums, sometimes for just one single — but they’re definitely worth checking out.  There may be a few weak points and some filler tracks, but they’re still a lot of fun to listen to.