Music

Sgt. Pepper in 2017

A little over fifty years ago, 1st June 1967, The Beatles released one of their masterpieces, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

To commemorate the anniversary, Giles Martin has completed a new stereo mix of the album.  It is gorgeous and a fitting addition to The Beatles’ legend.

This is not to say that the new stereo mix challenges the sovereignty of the mono mix of Pepper – that will remain the real version of the album.  Martin has acknowledged this in saying that the new stereo mix is in effect a stereo version of the mono version; the mono mix was what The Beatles signed off in 1967, Martin has simply tried to update the music for modern ears; the performances and versions of the new stereo mix are all the same as the mono mix.

It’s always struck me as a stunning anomaly that the version of Pepper that most people are familiar with is the frankly shabby 1967 stereo mix.  At the time, The Beatles had no interest in mixing their work in stereo, which was a modern gimmick not really used in pop music (in the UK at least).  So the stereo mix of Pepper was left to the staff of EMI Studios to knock off, which they did.

The first time I heard Pepper was in about 1971.  My cousin had a tape recording which her late father (an enthusiast of photography and tape recording) had made.  We listened to it few times, but I can’t remember if it was the mono or stereo mix.  It was not great quality anyway.

The first time I heard Pepper properly was probably later that same year.

Growing up in Hermand Street in Edinburgh, which at the time comprised of two tenements facing a printer’s works, the only other child of a similar age was my friend Linda.  So we would spend a fair amount of time together and would share toys and games as we grew up.

Linda had an older cousin who was a student; this was a species quite unknown in our social background and could have been seen as a wee bit exotic.  The Student had got his girlfriend into trouble but was going to do the right thing by her (if you understand these idioms, you are probably Scottish and about my age).  The expectant couple had had a party, which I guess was a “goodbye to freedom” party, and being a bit short of cash and facilities, had asked to borrow Linda’s Dansette record player.

When they returned the record player, The Student also loaned Linda about a dozen LPs, which she took no interest in and passed them on to me.  It’s hard to imagine now, but getting my hands on about a dozen contemporary records for a couple of weeks was a huge feast – people used to save up to buy LPs, which were relatively expensive.  If you didn’t like the LP you had saved up to buy, you would play it until you did…

I’ve forgotten what most of the records were.  There was the second Wishbone Ash album (sample song title “Jail Bait,”) and a record by Ten Years After that was awful.  Of the only other two I remember, one was John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which administered a thoroughly enjoyable psychic beating, from which, happily, I have never recovered.  I got my own copy in about 1976, it’s still my favourite album, if that can ever be a sensible appellation (it can change every other day.)

The other one of The Student’s benison which I played a lot was The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  I was of course familiar with it from my cousin’s tape, but this format sounded a lot better.  I don’t know if it was the stereo or the mono mix (and I would never have thought to look at that age,) but on my dad’s radiogram, a fine piece of furniture in possession of a bakelite record player and one eight-inch speaker, everything came out as mono anyway.  (All TV was black-and-white until about 1980 as well).

John and Yoko

(Trainee John and Yoko…)

Anyway, Pepper was played a lot over the couple of weeks before The Student wanted his records back and was well loved.

I got my own copy in about 1974 or 1975, from Sweet Inspiration in Edinburgh, a record shop spun off from a mobile disco business and sited in the same building as the cinema where the The Beatles had played all their Edinburgh shows.  I took it home and played it on my little Phillips stereo and something wasn’t right.  But I couldn’t say what was wrong either.

It was clear this was not the record I had previously enjoyed so much.  But what was wrong?  It looked the same, the songs were the same.  Why did it sound so crap?  This was meant to be the greatest album of all time, after all.  The NME had said so.

As I gradually picked up over the years, the problem was that the record was in stereo, the very mix which had been knocked off in EMI Studios after The Beatles had signed off on the mono mix and gone on to their next adventure.

And for many years, this was what anyone buying or hearing Pepper got; a dull, turgid mix of something which (as we eventually found out) was originally conceived and born in glorious mono.  But if you went and bought a copy of Pepper on LP, tape or eventually CD, you heard this clumsy, uncomfortable and discomforting mix.  I can’t think of any other instance where a work of art has been so badly misrepresented in such huge quantities to the public, where one thing has been passed off as another until generations of listeners think of the stereo mix as being Pepper.  And it still happens – I heard a trail on BBC Radio 2 the other day for a Pepper documentary by Howard Goodall, which was tailed by the old stereo mix of “She’s Leaving Home,” one of the worst casualties of the original stereo mix when compared to the mono.

It was Twenty Years Ago Today ...

(1987 promo poster for reissue on CD for the first time.)

It beggars belief that at no point in the eighties, nineties or beyond did McCartney, Harrison, Starr or George Martin speak up and make sure the situation was fixed (“fixing a hole” indeed – the whole being that one between the speakers).  I was first aware if hearing the mono mix of Pepper (again?) in the nineties on a cassette copy a friend gave me of his mum’s original LP.  I still remember hearing the spaceship taking off on the last chorus of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, which just doesn’t happen in stereo…

Eventually, I learned the story behind the superiority of The Beatles’ mono mixes and was delighted with the release of The Beatles in Mono box set in 2009 – until then, I’d had to be content with bootleg copies of the mono mixes, usually mastered from vinyl or open-reel copies of the original albums.

So, what I’m getting at is that Giles Martin did not have a difficult target if he was trying to improve the 1967 stereo mix of Pepper.  It’s true you can’t polish a turd, although you can roll one around in glitter a bit and sometimes that happens.  Thankfully, what Martin has done is to go back to the master tapes and create a true stereo mix based on the vibe of the 1967 mono mix, trying to do what The Beatles would have done if they had been interested enough (and had the tools) to do a proper stereo mix.  And I believe he has been very successful in that quest.

Remember - Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band IS the Beatles in 2017

(2017 press advert for reissue.  “Remember Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is The Beatles.”  Whit?  It made sense in the original 1967 ads, but maybe not now…)

So how is this different and why is it an important addition to the canon?

Generally, in Giles’ stereo mix of the mono version, he has emphasised the drums (in a proper stereo soundstage for the first time) and clarified the bass.  In short, he has made the sound of Pepper contemporary, so that I doubt if anyone listening to the album for the first time would be able to date is as fifty years old from the sonic evidence.

For those of us listening definitely not for the first time though, there’s loads more; a percussive whomp of harmonium at the start of “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” and a carousel effect over the stereo sound stage in the instrumental section of the track (giving it an even greater sense of menace;) “She’s Leaving Home” in proper stereo at the correct pitch and with the gorgeous nimbus of reverb around McCartney’s voice; we can hear the piano that plinks out a G throughout the chorus of “Getting Better” – I’d never heard that before.  “Lovely Rita” was never a sweeter meter maid…a hugely rewarding experience.

The bean-counters at EMI have unfortunately realised what Dylan’s people realised a good few iterations of The Bootleg Series ago; by including an expensively produced book in a deluxe edition which includes a couple of CDs of outtakes and working versions, you can effectively charge loads of money for niche market stuff because the people who have to have it will pay for it, however grudgingly.  The actual music in the deluxe version should cost about £20 tops, but in fact it comes in around £100.  The DVD material is disappointing, being mostly a very old documentary about the making of the album which has been around for years and heavily excerpted for the Anthology series – but if you want all the outtakes, you’re buying it, along with an identical Blu Ray version.

This is the sleeve of the entry-level edition, which is only the new stereo mix – I’ve no idea why they would screw up the classic cover image with the strip down the left hand side…

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band Anniversary Edition

…but they did it before with these classic sleeves…

The desecration of The White Album’s minimalism is particularly jarring.

White Album by The Beatles

But these aren’t much better…

Let it Be / Abbey Road - Beatles anniversary

Giles Martin has already mentioned that he will be remixing The White Album for the next big anniversary release, which is strange – to my ears, there is nothing wrong with either the mono or stereo mixes of that beast. But I guess that the cash cow has now been sighted and there will be more and more lavish reissues with any vaguely believable anniversary. Sigh.

Music

Bob Dylan – The 1966 Live Recordings

Bob Dylan The 1966 live recordings

Bob Dylan – the 1966 live recordings

It’s been there since last November, but now is the time for this baby to be moved from the battlefield of “beside the CD player” to the Valhalla of “filed away/never seen again.” Which must mean that I’ve finished listening to it almost every day.
36 CDs covering 23 shows of Bob Dylan’s 1966 world tour might seem excessive and I guess it probably is. If Dylan’s people had stuck to their pricing policy for The Bootleg Series issues, this would have come in about three grand. But this is pointedly not referred to as part of The Bootleg Series and the recordings are also that magical copyright age of 50…so I guess maybe Bob and Jeff generously decided to take only 100 quid for it as a early Christmas 2016 present.
It was a wee bit difficult explaining the necessity of this purchase to my colleagues at the time, but as the lingua franca of that environment was Lego and Star Wars, it shouldn’t have been too surprising…we all know who is right here.
The product is well presented in a nice chunky box, a bit like the Borg’s wheels in Star Trek. Like the Borg, it is futile to resist assimilation – here are four full, professionally recorded, shows from the UK leg of the tour and another nineteen shows which are presented in full or in part from (mostly) soundboard recordings or (a few) audience tapes.
The professional, stereo, recordings are immaculate, the mono soundboards, even when there are incomplete, are nearly as good and the audience tapes are pretty much what you’d expect from 1966 – it is good that they exist, but they can be a hard, if enlightening listen.
Enlightening because, as the audience bootlegs from the 1966 tour have shown, a loud rock band in some of these small theatres sounded terrible, no matter what the expectation of the audiences. Dylan famously was booed and got a lot of bad audience reaction on this tour, but it needs to be remembered that what we have heard over the years (and on this set) are professional recordings and/or soundboards. Even the earliest bootlegs of the Manchester show were from a Columbia professional recording.
So it may be that the audiences of the 1966 shows have been judged harshly for their negative reactions (and as this set shows, there were also positive reactions, the Edinburgh show for one.)
Here’s Bob probably on his way to that show and the same bit of Princes Street fifty years later…the windows at the top right of the Dylan picture are the giveaway.

Bob Dylan Edinburgh Princes Street 1966

Starbucks Princes Street Edinburgh

The sticking point for some buyers, who will be big Dylan fans anyway (a product like this is unlikely to have casual purchasers) is the repetition involved. There are maybe half a dozen variations to the setlist over the 23 shows documented, and certainly the bulk of it is exactly the same setlist every night.
So, what nutter has been listening to this for the last three months?
I’ve rationalised it.
A few years ago, I had a friend who moved house with his family, to the house next door. I thought this was weird, but it was utterly rational; the bloke next door had a conservatory; my friend wanted a conservatory and had worked out it would be cheaper on balance to sell his house and buy his neighbour’s than to build a conservatory.
I loved the logic of this and the parallel to the Dylan set is this; my friend mentioned that although the move was easy, passing stuff over the garden fence, it was weird to look out the windows of the new house and see the same vista, but with a slightly different perspective, as he saw from the old house.
That is what listening to Bob and The Band doing the same setlist over and over again is like; the tiny differences between each night’s vibe become clear (especially on the soundboard recordings, adjusted for room ambience.) Every show is seen through a different “window” and if you have the time and inclination, it is a fascinating thing to do.

Bob Dylan live recordings 1966

Bob Dylan live recordings 1966 revisited

Music

Bob Dylan – Another Self Portrait – Bootleg Series Vol 10

Bob Dylan Another Self Portrait

I bought this latest edition of The Bootleg Series this afternoon and have been playing it all evening since – 80% of the music on these two CDs is magnificent.

An absolutely epic piece of counterfactual turd-polishing.  All these years of hating Self Portrait, when we could have had music like this?

Who knew?

Postscript

In 2016, full details of Bob Dylan’s “secret archive” were released for the first time. According to the New York Times:

“For years, Bob Dylan scholars have whispered about a tiny notebook, seen by only a few, in which the master labored over the lyrics to his classic 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks.” Rolling Stone once called it “the Maltese Falcon of Dylanology” for its promise as an interpretive key. But that notebook, it turns out, is part of a trinity. Sitting in climate-controlled storage in a museum here are two more “Blood on the Tracks” notebooks — unknown to anyone outside of Mr. Dylan’s closest circle — whose pages of microscopic script reveal even more about how Mr. Dylan wrote some of his most famous songs.”

Bob Dylan Blood on the Tracks notebooks
Blood on the Tracks notebooks

The excellent New York Times article

Movies · Music

The Bob Dylan “Copyright Extension” CD

Through the good agency of one more assiduous and worldly than I, I should soon have a copy (and I’m about to explore that word) of the recent Bob Dylan release from Sony, shown below.

 

Bob Dylan 50th Anniversary Copyright Extension Collection

It came into the world a limited edition of one hundred copies, supposedly distributed at random to record stores throughout Europe; thence it retailed for between 40 and 140 euros, although I’d be surprised and frankly disappointed if any got beyond the staff of these randomly selected stores.

This has also been baldly referred to as the Copyright Extension CD, which is supposedly the reason for its existence. As it is in 2012 fifty years since the material was recorded, the owner (Sony) has to be seen to be making use of it in order that they don’t waive the copyright – if they don’t, anyone can use the tracks without paying. (I admit that this is where my understanding gets a bit hazy, as I’ve already seen a cheap CD which was essentially the Bob Dylan album from 1962 with the tracks in a different order to the official version – there are also loads of excellent CDs available which compile the seminal work of artists from before the rock era; Sinatra, Miles Davis, even Elvis Presley.)

It gets hazier still when looking at the tracklisting; if the ostensible reason is to copyright songs, it makes no sense that “Baby, I’m In The Mood For You,”, “Rambling Gambling Willie” or “Blowin’ In The Wind” would be on there as they have all been used in the last years; if it’s to copyright performances, as I suspect it must be (the latter two of the four discs appear to comprised of already widely circulated live recordings from folk clubs and private parties,) it’s a weird way of going about it; to put pristine digital copies of un-bootlegged material out into the world as a way of protecting future copyright seems barely thought through. Do Sony think people will be swapping this material on inferior quality cassette tapes and so lust after whichever volume of The Bootleg Series will be destined to eventually carry them?

No. This material will have already been (perfectly, digitally) copied many, many times and will already be in the homes of those who want it, which will be far more than the number of copies made of this weird little release and probably about the same number as those who will (would) buy the material if (and when) it is released.

Or is Jeff Rosen behind it? Surely his client doesn’t need the royalties he would in theory get from the release of this material; maybe Rosen (and Dylan) are fed up with the fans being fleeced for each archive release and saw this as a way of getting the material out into the public domain behind a legitmate purpose. (I realise there is as much chance of this being true as there is of going for a quiet pint with Lindsay Lohan, but you never know.)

Freewheelin' Stuart Ferguson waiting in Greenwich Village for Lindsay Lohan and a copyright extension
Waiting in The Village for Lindsay Lohan…be there a long time...

[As an aside about Jeff Rosen, I noticed he is thanked in the credits to the movie Silver Linings Playbook, probably because of the use of “Girl from the North Country” from Nashville Skyline – seems he’s still looking after the shop.]

Either way, I’m looking forward to hearing it. Maybe hearing it will explain the point. No appreciation of Dylan’s work approaches being worthwhile without access to many underground recordings, an astonishing number of which have become overground since the release of the Biograph compilation in the mid-eighties (another Jeff Rosen baby, I believe.) The journey of discovery that used to require was a road well worth travelling and I’ve been well served by many friends over the years.