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.

Books · Festivals · Music

Mark Lewisohn, Recording Angel

Edinburgh International Book Festival

It was great to get to meet Mark Lewisohn at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last week.

He was here for the paperback launch of All These Years Volume One – Tune In, the first part of his definitive trilogy of The Beatles biography which I’ve praised beyond measure here before.

He mentioned during the talk that he had completed the research for Volume Two and was about to start writing it, which I had to ask about as he signed my copy of The Beatles Complete Recording Sessions from 1988 (a book which changed how people wrote about music and which I stayed up all night to read when it came out.)

He confirmed that he was about to start writing the book and that if wouldn’t be out before 2020.  Never one to resist a gauche remark if it’s just hanging about waiting, I said I hoped I’d still be alive to read it (the author is two years older than I…)  Effortless as ever.

Anyway, further research led me to the estimate that Volume Three is expected in 2028, by which year Lewisohn will be 70.  Which made me think – how cool is it that by then he will have spent almost 50 years on Beatles research?  The band had an unprecedented and unrepeated effect on music and the world and so many parts of the familiar story have such amazing dramatic arcs…there are so many uncanny coincidences and synchronicities, which Lewisohn is further unearthing, highlighting and contextualising for us in this work.

The Beatles and their story truly do deserve such a fine recording angel.

 

Mark Lewisohn Stuart Ferguson

Books · Music

Oh no, not another Beatles book!

Mark Lewisohn The Beatles Tune In

I’ve just finished Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Tune In, over nine hundred pages of Beatles goodness, the latest version of the greatest story ever told.  Hard to put down, but pleasant to take time over.  The first of three instalments of a series of Beatles books called All These Years, Tune In takes us up to the end of 1962, so at a rough guess, the trilogy will weigh in at about three thousand pages.

Do we really need all this information?  Are there not enough Beatles books out there already?  Obviously yes, obviously no, respectively.

Lewisohn has used his position as the Beatles historian to undertake painstaking research about the story we all know; in Tune In, the overfamiliar characters are presented with new and fresh depth, the result of Lewisohn’s extensive interviews with as many of the supporting cast, bit players and supernumeraries as he could speak with; document research also fills in the prehistory of each of the key players and we get a strong feeling of how their family backgrounds informed attitudes and creativity.

He is also a fine writer; an undertaking of this nature could have been dry and dusty, but Lewisohn’s narrative skill makes for a frequently touching, often humourous read, for example, the paragraphs describing McCartney having, then being taken over by, the idea for “I Saw Her Standing There;” one bravura chapter shows us the parallel and separate developments of the young Brian Epstein and the young George Martin outside of how they would come to be defined by their parts in The Beatles success, an invigorating approach.

There are loads of previously unknown (or under-known) facts in the book, which I won’t spoil by relating; more excitingly, Lewisohn puts all the “well known” parts of The Beatles’ story into perspective so that frequently the received version is not as simple as was always thought; for example, he points out how outlandish it was that The Beatles would be courted to make an LP after one successful single – in 1961, only the most well established pop acts would maybe be considered worthy of the chance to make more than singles, yet here was George Martin offering to make an LP of mostly Lennon/McCartney originals…

I can’t not share one nugget though… Jurgen Vollmer’s picture of John Lennon in Hamburg’s Jager-Passage in 1961 was of course used by John for the cover of Rock’n’Roll in 1975 – what I hadn’t come across before is the fact that the blurred figures in the foreground are Paul, Stuart and George.  Without anyone realising, Lennon picked a Beatles group shot for a solo album…

John Lennon rock 'n' roll

So, thank you Mr Lewisohn for the time and the trouble.  I eagerly await the next volumes and hope I live long enough that he’ll tell me who the woman in the picture below is!

 

The Beatles on Abbey Road with unknown woman
Who is this woman with The Beatles on Abbey Road?

 

Festivals · Music · Theatre

Mitch Benn Is the 37th Beatle

Mitch Benn is the 37th Beatle Edinburgh Fringe 2013

Having sifted through the numerous “fifth Beatles” (Pete, Stu, Sir George, Mal etc.) then considering the various other contenders for Beatle-dom (Badfinger, Jeff Lynne et al,) Mitch Benn uses faultless logic and his mastery of musical pastiche to come to the conclusion that he is the 37th Beatle.

To say any more about the logical moves involved would be to give away a lot of the show, but I can mention harmlessly that part of the connection is to do with a Liverpool primary school.  Now, I met Mitch about fifteen years ago when I worked in the Virgin Megastore because he had gone to school (in Liverpool) with one of my colleagues; therefore, if he is the 37th Beatle, I must be somewhere in the forties, by his own relentless reasoning…

Very entertaining and musically adept.  Show runs until 25 August at The Stand III in York Place.

 

Mitch Benn the 37th Beatle opposite the Cavern in Liverpool
Looks like the wall opposite the Cavern in Liverpool

 

Books · Music

The Beatles in Scotland by Ken McNab

The Beatles in Scotland by Ken McNab

I’ve been reading and enjoying this over the last few days.

For some unfathomable reason, the Tesco near work has a fantastic range of local interest books all at reduced prices, so this baby was just over a fiver despite just having been published in paperback with a new foreword (it originally came out in 2008 but has been updated.)

It seems like McNab has spoken to every Scottish person ever associated with The Beatles or a Beatle, whether they were in Scotland at the time or emigre Scots in London in the sixties.

There are some pretty good pictures, but sadly not the one of John, Yoko and Kyoko outside what was RBS in Shandwick Place – it was originally taken by a photographer for the Edinburgh Evening News or perhaps The Scotsman.  That picture has bugged me for years; I first saw it Douglas Healy’s John Lennon in Edinburgh, than as what I assume was a colourised version of the black and white original in an Evening News supplement a few years ago – but all searches of the websites of each paper yield nothing.

Maybe they just lost the negative?

I’ll try to get a good scan soon and add it to the site.

Music

World Party – Arkeology

Arkeology - World Party

A few months ago the new World Party release came out, a five-CD collection called Arkeology.

  Arkeology consists of a delightful grab-bag of Karl Wallinger’s music from 1984 until almost the present; there are World Party b-sides, live recordings, radio sessions and out-takes covering rock, alt-rock, funk, p-funk, folk, country, music-hall, musicals, even comedy. If this sounds un-focussed, it is, but in the best possible way – put on any disc and prepare to be dazzled by Wallinger’s kaleidoscopic vision of music.

I’ve been a fan for years and years, especially when Goodbye Jumbo came out in 1990, a blend of Stones, Beatles, Dylan, Prince, Beach Boys and Hendrix influences which was invigorating without being slavish in devotion; to paraphrase the essay inside Arkeology, Wallinger had done his homework and then managed to forget he’d done the homework. Great songs performed with gusto and attention to detail. I was lonely for this sort of thing at the time.

I was lucky enough to meet Karl once in 1997 on the release of the Egyptology album. The EMI rep called me at work one tedious Monday morning and asked if I was interested in going to a playback of the new album that night at La Belle Angele in Edinburgh.

“Will he be playing?” I asked.

“No, definitely not, but he will be there to chat to people.”

Good enough for me, so I and a few friends went along…and were delighted to see the stage in the venue set up with piano, drums and guitar. Wallinger, Chris Sharrock (ex of The La’s and indeed World Party) and John Turnbull from The Blockheads availed themselves of the respective instruments and played a short and bracing set. Then the free bar opened and the artists mingled.

Wallinger was very pleasant and signed all my albums; I recall we had a chat about the current McCartney album, which I think would have been Flaming Pie, in “we are not worthy” terms. Chris Sharrock asked if I was coming to the World Party show which was taking place a few months later in Glasgow and I must have been a bit non-committal, because he said to just go and tell the door staff he said it was OK to get in…couldn’t see that working with a Glasgow doorman somehow.

The label had run out of free copies of the album and I agreed with Karl that I would send him a copy of the excellent booklet by Edinburgh comedian Douglas Healy John Lennon in Edinburgh and he said he’d get me an album sent out.

One of the songs they played from Egyptology that night was “She’s The One,” which soon of course became a mega-hit for Robbie Williams, presumably through the auspices of Williams producer and frequent World Party member Guy Williams.

Another album, Dumbing Down, followed, then apparent silence. It turns out the silence was due to a bout of bad health for Karl starting with a stroke in 2001 – on recovery, he started working again, but more under the radar. I guess times and the industry had changed even by then.

So; good to have the new record (well, 5 CD set,) as well as good reports of a recent gig at the Albert Hall and a couple of attendant warm-up shows. Hopefully there will be a platform for wider touring soon, because the live tracks from the turn of the nineties on Arkeology have served to remind me of what an AWESOME band World Party were on the three or four occasions I saw them (on consecutive nights in Edinburgh and Glasgow at one point, they were that good.)

When they went into the funk, there was the sense they were about to levitate; lefty Wallinger with his upside down guitars, Sharrock elaborate but not flash with a subtle sense of showmanship, Dave Caitlin-Birch (the original Paul from The Bootleg Beatles I was recently told by his counterpart in Them Beatles) pumping on one of several Hofner violin basses. Max Eadie and Guy Chambers were also in that band and there are maybe half-a-dozen live recordings from that period on Arkeology which take me right back to these nights.

The effortless range of styles across the five CDs would dilute the impact of many talents, but is actually a strength of this package – it’s great just to listen to any (or all) of the CDs from start to finish. Like a good meal, there’s a bit of everything, it all complements each other and it leaves you replete.

But of course, over five CDs not everything can be a highlight; different people would choose differently, but for me, the best bits are (as mentioned) the turn of the nineties live tracks; an alternative, super p-funked version of “What Is Love All About” with Andy Newmark on drums; “Another One,” a Basement Tapes influenced ramble; “I’m Only Dozing,” which is deeply sinister in the sixties English pop style of which its lyrics are an incantation; and an amazing cover of Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You” which is sonically close to the original (that was his point in trying it out) but becomes its own thing (or given the amount of Clinton-influences around, should that be “thang?”)

In the notes, Karl mentions that when he was boy in the sixties, there were only about fifteen albums and forty singles at home, but they were quite enough to fill him with the sense of wonder of how the music worked.

I wonder what they were? The Beatles (White Album) for sure, probably Sgt Pepper and Rubber Soul; Highway 61 and probably Bringing It All Back Home; a best of The Beach Boys; The Sound of Music (everybody had it;) definitely Beggars Banquet; possibly Sly and the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits…as for the singles, the sort of singles collection that people had in the sixties would be as multi-faceted as the music on Arkeology turns out.

I wonder if there is any pre-teens around nowadays with the sense of wonder for music that was inculcated in the sixties just by being open to everything?

Anyway, I surely hope that there will be some World Party shows soon…meanwhile, I’ll keep spinning these fantastic discs, just like my imaginary sixties kid.