Fly-By: brb, busy doing a bajillion different things.

Right now I have a hell of a lot on my plate, so I’m going to take the rest of the week off so I can get caught up and give myself a little bit of breathing room. I may take next week off as well.  We shall see.

In the meantime, please enjoy this new Beatles video for “Glass Onion”, which will be on the new White Album box set out this Friday.  And yes, of course I pre-ordered it ages ago!

Favorite Tracks: The Boys of Summer

It’s that time of year again. The time when I get all nostalgic about the end of a season, when I talk about how the days are getting shorter, the weather’s getting cooler, and all the kids are back in school.  When I start binge-listening to Cocteau Twins and other early 4AD bands.  When I get another one of those itches to write moody poetry and song lyrics.  And of course, when I start reminiscing about all the great albums that came out in the fourth quarter during my record store years.

Well, I could go on about those things, but I think I’ve already done them enough times for the time being, so I’ll spare you those entries for now.  Heh.

On the other hand, I will say that “The Boys of Summer” is quite possibly the best end-of-summer song ever written.

It started out as an instrumental demo written by Mike Campbell (guitarist for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), initially for inclusion somewhere on their Southern Accents album but unused.  After hearing Don Henley needed some music, he let him listen to the demo, and almost immediately, Henley had words for it.

It’s not just a song about the passage of time, however.  It’s not a song about wondering where childhood went, although on the surface there is that theme.  It’s more about, as Henley said in a Rolling Stone interview, the idea of aging and questioning the past.

In a way, it might have a passing similarity in theme to The Motels’ “Suddenly Last Summer”, but in all honesty, it’s more similar to The The’s “Jealous of Youth” in terms of theme.  It’s not a happy song, but neither is it a sad one.  It’s about coming to terms with the age you’re presently at, and all the conflicts that come along with it.  Feeling too old to embrace the wonder of summer, but too young to let it go.  Feeling frustrated when the signs of age sneak up on you unexpectedly — even if it’s in the form of a sticker of a nonconformist band’s logo on the bumper of a high-end car.

It’s a gorgeous melody, all told.  It’s high and hopeful, yet sad and lonesome at the same time.  It’s fast and tense, yet so delicately produced that it feels fragile.  Even the punk cover done by The Ataris in 2003 retains that mood, changing only the bumper sticker to Black Flag’s, making the song all the more poignant for us Gen-Xers.

Inside Abbey Road

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A selfie of me internally squeeing with joy as I stand in Studio Two, where a majority of the Beatles’ songs were recorded.

You all know of course that I am a huge Beatles fan and music history nerd.  I’m not a fan that wishes I’d been in the deafening audiences of their live shows, no…I’m a fan that geeks out about how their sound was created.  So when our London vacation just happened to coincide with a special open house/historical presentation at Abbey Road Studios, I simply could NOT pass it up. [The presentation was by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, authors of Recording the Beatles, a book about how each song was recorded in the facility.]

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The famous Abbey Road crosswalk from the other direction.  Photographer Iain Macmillan would have been standing on a stepladder right about where that car is on the right side to take the picture.

We arrived there about twenty minutes before doors-open to an already longish line, where there were a few hundred of us waiting to get in.  Once past security (which was understandably tight), we were led into the front doors and into the main entryway.  As I walked through I was immediately reminded of this particular set of Beatles interviews done on 20 December 1966 (they were heading in to work on “When I’m Sixty-Four”, and the interviews were staged specifically to combat recent ‘are they breaking up’ rumors).

Before we were let in to Studio Two, however, they let us take a doorway peek into the amazingly HUGE and cavernous Studio One, usually used for orchestras but occasionally used for Beatle work (“All You Need Is Love” and “I Am the Walrus”, and the various songs from The Beatles laid down while other members were in Two or Three working on something else).

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Trivia: A possible 70s renovation would have split this room into two smaller upstairs studios and the ground floor into a parking garage.  Thankfully it was nixed.

We were then led into Studio Two across the hall, another cavernous room but not quite as large.  Upon entering, you can’t help but think just how unique this studio is, considering that most modern studios are infinitely smaller.  These were created in the 30s mainly for pop and orchestral pieces (trivia: they were extensions of the smaller main mansion, built over the back gardens of two different plots).

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The main stairway up to the control room.  There are stories that John and Paul used to slide down the railing after popping up there to listen to a playback with George Martin.  Also of note: that small room to the right with the red wall was once the original control room and is now a practice room.

They let us walk around a bit, checking out the various instruments and equipment they had set up.  Most of these instruments were used by the Beatles and are still used by others to this day, by the way!  Including many pianos:

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A Steinway Vertegrand, recognizable by its bright tone.  Played on “Penny Lane”.  More on this one in a moment…

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The Challen piano, known for its warmer tones.  Played on “The Fool on the Hill”.

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The Steinway grand (which gives a lovely full sound).  Played on numerous tracks.

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And of course the Hammond BT3 organ, also used on numerous tracks.

We also got to go upstairs to the main control room.  It’s a much smaller room of course, and the mixing desks have definitely changed over the years from the pots and shifters to a sea of knobs, buttons and everything else.

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A view from the top of the stairs.  Of note, the opposite far corner is where the Beatles used to hang out most to record, Ringo usually in the corner facing out, Paul and George to the left and John to the right — just like their live setup.

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The main mixing desk.  I can’t even begin to figure out how this thing would work.  They’ve indeed come a long, LONG way from four tracks in the sixties.  No picture taken, but across the room from this desk is a super-tiny room: in the 60s this was the sound effects cupboard, which was temporarily cleaned out on 13 August 1968 so the Beatles could record “Yer Blues.”

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Completely innocuous and unimportant, but I was tickled to have found their Secret Tea Stash hiding under one of the speakers in the control room.  It gave the otherwise highly technical room a bit of warmth and humanity.

The presentation itself lasted about ninety minutes and was a fantastic historical overview of the studio itself; Kehew and Ryan had not only done research on the Beatles recordings but on its origins.  They touched on all sorts of things such as its inaugural first recording of Elgar recording his Pomp and Circumstance marches (and its true first recording, a test run of a song by Paul Robeson!), its numerous renovations to improve the sound of each studio, and more.  Eventually they’d hit upon the Beatles’ tenure there, talking their relentless work ethic, continuous experimentation with sounds, and more.

At one point one of them got up from the stage and wandered over to the pianos and explained what they were, their differences in sound, and what they were used on.  This was really neat, as he proceeded to play certain songs on them, like the jabbing chords of “Penny Lane” and the soft taps of “The Fool on the Hill.”

Then he said, “We’d like to do something fun now.  I’d like to ask four piano players to–”

I shot my hand up.  I knew EXACTLY what he was up to.  I’d never forgive myself if I passed this by.

Let’s take a look at that Steinway Vertegrand again:

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See those green dots?  Yep.  They’re E chords.  One person stood next to me and hit the low octave, and I hit the two chords and held down the sustain pedal.

Three, two, one, THOOOOOMMMMMmmmmmmm.

The famous final chord of “A Day in the Life”.

The first attempt was a bit off, but OH MAN did it sound magical.  Sent shivers down my spine.  And since the face was open and the strings were right in my face, I got the full blast of sound.  I was so lost in it I forgot to lift the sustain and everyone started laughing.

The second attempt sounded even better, as we let it ring for a good twenty seconds.

I can die a happy man now.

Back down on Earth, the presentation continued, talking about the post-Beatles recordings, from Pink Floyd and The Dark Side of the Moon to the movie scores such as the Harry Potter films.  Interestingly, the other bit that gave me shivers was a brief explanation and playback on the use of sound effects, specifically on the opening to Pink Floyd’s “Time”.  They must have used remastered source tapes for that bit, as the simulated heartbeat and the delicate sound of the Shiedmayer celeste (below) almost brought me to tears, it sounded so gorgeous.

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They wrapped up the presentation with a brief overview of what they’re working on nowadays — numerous rock bands still record there (including Paul McCartney, who recorded his upcoming release there), and they’re one of the main go-to facility for movie scores.

I’ve always said the studio’s sound is definitely unique, in that there’s a specific warmth, fullness and resonance to it that you can always pick out.  I would totally record there if I was a professional musician, that’s for sure.  Not just because my favorite band recorded there, but because it truly is a fantastic place for sound.

One added and quite unexpected bonus:  Now that I’ve seen Studio Two with my own eyes, I realized I could now visualize where the Beatles recorded in this room, down to the space between them, and how it would sound in that room.  On the flight home I found myself listening to The Beatles and started visualizing the four of them recording the main takes of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (which, serendipitously, they’d started exactly fifty years to the day I listened to it!) in that big place.  Suffice it to say, I heard it in a whole new way.  And now I’m planning on relistening to the rest of their recordings for the same reason.

All in all, one of the most amazing musical experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

Oh, and we got VIP badges out of it!

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Thirty-three (and a third?) Years On: 1985

This past weekend I was falling down the YouTube rabbit hole and stumbled up on one of my favorite Phil Collins songs, “Take Me Home”, from his third solo album No Jacket Required.  One of the wild realizations that occurred to me was that, a little over thirty-three years later, I have visited at least half of the locations in this video, and currently live in one of them.  More to the point, I don’t think the fourteen-year-old me would ever have imagined that ever happening.  Visiting Hollywood, various parts of central and greater London, and living in Greater London was something I’d have wanted to do as a teen but had no idea if it would ever happen.  I just thought of it as a fun pipe dream.

I’ve been thinking about that year lately, actually.  On IHeart80s Radio, they’ve been playing full episodes of American Top 40 (with Casey Kasem hosting), and now and again I find myself listening in, because that was the era I listened to it almost religiously every weekend.  Most of my radio mixtapes from that era came from those shows. That year’s chart-topping sound was an amazing mix of rock, R&B, soul, pop, and everything in between.

It was right at the end of my sucktastic years in junior high and my freshman year in high school, where I hoped my life (social and academic) would be so much better. It would take some time before I finally grew out of the small-town groupthink that I was so desperately trying to fit into and move on to bigger and better things, but for the time being I let myself get more immersed in my radio listening and mixtape-making. I still went to the school dances and hung out with my buddies, but I was there for the tunage, not for the girls. [Okay, that’s a half-truth. I was desperate, but at the same time I knew I was in no good frame of mind to have a girlfriend when I was an overly emotional twit with an overactive and underused imagination. That’s about when I buried myself in my burgeoning writing habit as well.]

I’ll be honest, I was getting sick of all the social drama. So I immersed myself in all the music that I could. If I happened to have money from an allowance (or saved up from my leftover lunch money) I’d head downtown to buy a few cassettes. I’d pick up cheap records at flea markets with my dad. I’d make copies of albums my sisters bought. Anything to buy the new albums that were being played on the radio.

It was definitely a strange time when I didn’t quite know who I was or what I wanted to do, just that I didn’t want to be what I presently was. Listening to the radio was the escape. It was the soundtrack to my writing (my other escape). Music gave me a connection to my classmates in a way that other things like sports and whatever else couldn’t. Even then I was known as the weird kid who knew every song on the charts and a lot of deep cuts on albums. Where the popular kids might not have given me the time of day, they’d ask me about some album or some band and if the album was worth picking up.

In a way, I’m kind of glad that I’ve kept that part of me all these years. I no longer use music purely as a social escape (at least not as much as I did then, of course), but I’m still a Subject Matter Expert for some of my friends. And in this internet day and age, it’s a shared interest that’s brought me all sorts of new friends and acquaintances that I might not have met in a different setting.

And here I am, writing this at home in San Francisco, one of the locations in the “Take Me Home” video I loved so much.

Living in the Eighties

In addition to writing my Thirty Years On series here and listening to my share of 1988 all over again, I’ve been listening to Sirius XM’s 1st Wave station the last few days.  This comes to absolutely no surprise to any of you, of course.  I’m an Eighties kid.  I spent that entire decade in front of the radio making mixtapes, in front of the tube glued to MTV, and Killing Music By Home Taping.

This means I remember a lot of the weird, wonderful and horrible things that went on in the world then.  In a way I’m kind of happy that I’m able to wax nostalgic — not to say ‘it was so much better then’ (it was definitely different, sure, but I wouldn’t say better) but to be able to see the parallels between then and now.

The reign of a useless, mindless, comic relief President (I say, despite stomach churning); the shadow of Russia and the Cold War looming just over our shoulders; the big and small wars taking place in various corners of the world; the groups of whacked-out conspiracy theorists, the fervent believers of pseudo-religions, and the willingly passive followers of evangelism; the instability of unregulated banking; the sexism of the Alpha Male; the terrorist attacks and the plane crashes; the Young Republicans and their drive to Win At Any Cost; American uberpatriotism and self-assigned exceptionalism; the classic situations of jock versus nerd and all its permutations; and of course the punks and nonconformists who were just plain fucking tired of getting broadsided with all of this and refused to play those games anymore.

I try to be positive about it all, to be honest.  There are days where I need to turn off the internet and take a dandelion break, or pull out my journal and bleed out some of my anxiety or frustration.  I don’t become blissfully ignorant about it all, at least not like I did when I was a teenager more interested in music than what went on in the world.  I merely look at it from a different perspective.

I get frustrated that this is all happening again — sometimes with freakish accuracy — but I’ve lived through it already, so I kind of know what’s coming and what to expect.  Because of this I’m not as pessimistic.  It’s all aggravating, yes.  It truly does piss me off that so many get hit with the shrapnel.  But somehow, at some point, it *will* get better if we *make* it get better.

We did it before, we can do it again.

Perfect Albums Meme

Name an album, in any genre, that you think is 100% perfect – where you don’t skip 1 track. – @MOBOAwards

Of course I fell prey to this meme.  Here’s an obviously partial list:

The La’s, The La’s — Singer/leader Lee Mavers might think this masterpiece of his is incomplete and nowhere near what he was hearing in his head, but to me it’s a perfect album.  A mix of the blossoming alternative rock sound of the late 80s-early 90s, Liverpudlian guitar folk, and just a pinch of psychedelia for flavor, and it became an album that I will always think of as my favorite albums of the 90s, tied with…

Failure, Fantastic Planet — On a completely different plane of existence, it’s an incredible record filled with amazing songwriting and production.  It’s loud, it’s devastating, and it leaves me breathless every time I listen to it.

The Beatles, Revolver — Of course, I could list almost any other Beatles release here, but their 1966 album remains my favorite of theirs because it’s the moment where they changed from lovable mop-tops writing songs about love to adults writing about life.  Just after their folky Rubber Soul and just before their psychedelic Sgt Pepper.

Global Communication, 76:14 — If you need to own just one ambient album, let it be this one.  It’s a lovely album to get lost in and let your mind wander.  Where a lot of ambient instrumental albums can sometimes meander into navel-gazing boredom, this album keeps your attention all the way through.

Massive Attack, Mezzanine — “Teardrop” is right up there as one of my favorite songs of all time, and the album it’s from is equally excellent.  A great example of trip-hop moodiness and clever sonic creativity — especially with this album, which uses quiet and empty spaces as part of its soundscape.

Depeche Mode, Violator — Another album that signifies a band’s change.  This is where they went from their classic synth-and-sample sound they’d been known for, to a full-band sound complete with guitar.  Martin Gore’s songwriting evolved at amazing speed here; “Enjoy the Silence” remains one of his crowning achievements to this day.

Beck, Sea Change — Before this album, he’d been known as that “Loser” guy who wrote weird and goofy Mad-Lib-style lyrics with the occasional foray into odd but listenable folk rock, but this album was where he proved just how serious of an artist he really is.  It’s haunting, sometimes heartbreaking, and extremely personal, but it’s also an absolutely gorgeous album.

UNKLE, Psyence Fiction — A very fitting title for this record, it’s a mix of hip-hop, trip-hop, alternative rock, rap, and more, all with a science fictional subtext.  James Lavelle has always been an amazing musician/producer who creates chilly and cavernous soundscapes, and this is a perfect example of it.

Indigo Girls, Indigo Girls — Ever have one of those albums where you kinda like a few songs on it, then once you finally sit down and listen to it all the way through and realize just how freaking amazing it is?  Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are brilliant songwriters, but they’re also brilliant at crafting a perfect vocal duet.

And one more I forgot to mention that I thought of today:

Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair — It’s their most famous album (I still hear “Head Over Heels” on the radio to this day), but it’s also one of my favorite albums of the 80s.  Poppy, jazzy, and even a little experimental, every single one of its tracks has a certain amazing quality to it.  [Listen, for example, to the Gershwin-esque “The Working Hour” with its slow build and blistering sax solos.]

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I could of course come up with so many more albums to add to this list, but I’ll hold myself back.  For now!