Archive for The Beatles

On The Fortnight Between The Beatles’ White Album and the Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on November 17, 2018 by johnbuckley100

 

All week long, we’ve immersed ourselves in the 6-CD 50th anniversary release of The Beatles.  In both Giles Martin’s revelatory new mix and with the legendary Esher Demos finally available, the album opens up in a way that both highlights the collective genius that was The Beatles, and provides a master course in band creativity.  But we had not realized until yesterday that while The White Album came out on November 22nd, 1968, what is likely the Rolling Stones’ greatest album, Beggars Banquet, followed two weeks later on December 6th.  Two weeks that changed our musical world.

They couldn’t be more different.  The Beatles is packed to the gills with creativity, whimsy, at once hard rocking and delicate, a summing up of the pop music Lennon and McCartney had been producing since Rubber Soul and something far different; a carry over from the near psychedelic past of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the off-balance Magical Mystery Tour and something wholly new.  Beggars Banquet, on the other hand, is a quieter, country-blues return to basics as the Stones reconfigured themselves largely without founding member Brian Jones, incorporating Nicky Hopkins, the greatest piano-playing side man in rock, as functionally a full member of the band.

The Beatles were winding themselves up to the explosion that would shut down the band, the inevitable end where the creativity among three of the greatest songwriters the world has known would, like a rocket with a MIRV warhead, shoot off in separate directions.  The Stones, with songs like “Street Fighting Man” and “Stray Cat Blues,” prepared for a run as a live band that would continue to this day.

We don’t want to set this up as a competition.  In some ways, it’s no contest.  The Beatles may be the single greatest album of music the surprisingly long-lasting genre known as rock has ever produced.  And yet Beggars Banquet could well be my entry in the next edition of Stranded, that wonderful Greil Marcus-edited book in which rock critters were forced to choose a single album to take with them to a desert island.

In part because we have the Esher Demos, where we can get a sense of how the Beatles returned from the Maharishi’s Rishikesh retreat with competing notebooks filled with songs, in part because we finally, through the liner notes, understand who played what and how the songs came together, the White Album is comprehensible not just as an iconic, massive collection of songs, but as a single piece of art. A deep dive suggests that John Lennon, in the creative turmoil that was leaving Cynthia and falling in love with Yoko, produced his greatest batch of songs; Paul McCartney, long slagged as a control freak, was the multi-instrumentalist genius that helped both Lennon’s and George Harrison’s songs reach their full potential.

What is perhaps best about the new release is the way that Giles Martin has reconfigured the songs from the inside out, and with a mix that undoes, largely, what his father did with the technology and sensibility of his day.  Martin fils reveals for our ears what long has been hidden.  Quick example: on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Eric Clapton’s guitar, which long dominated our understanding of the song, is reduced in the mix, but the piano and acoustic guitar in the middle now shine brighter.  It’s not subtle, it’s amazing. And that’s just one example among many that take less exalted songs like “Birthday” and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” and places them on a pedestal, and elevates “Dear Prudence,” likely our favorite Beatles song ever, allowing us to see the whole world in 3:55.

Beggars Banquet wasn’t designed to be a competitor to The Beatles.  Where the Beatles were, less than 18 months later, still building on Sgt. Pepper’s (Magical Mystery Tour having been the rare misstep made understandable by the realization that it came in the immediate wake of Brian Epstein’s death), the Stones were living down their derivative flop, Their Satanic Majesty’s Request.  The Beatles were pushing to see just how far they could go, while the Stones were getting back to basics, playing the blues, woodshedding with acoustic guitars, but also going deep into a new formula of songwriting that, between December ’68 and May ’72, when Exile On Main Street was released, would culminate in their iconic oeuvre.  Both bands had a remarkable work ethic — the Beatles exhausting the studio staff (George Martin went on a holiday to Greece midway through the sessions) as they perfected their album, the Stones setting off on a half-century run of touring, largely off the strength of songs from Beggars Banquet and the next three albums. It’s hard not to admire both bands at some core level, though in part because of the work here, in part because they left us just 18 months later, it’s harder not to think the Beatles were gods, the Stones amazingly talented mortals.

We love Beggars Banquet, and the new mix, released yesterday to mark its 50th birthday on December 6th, is the one we will listen to now, as we still do often.  But this new mix and six-CD release of The Beatles is the greatest musical event of the season, as it was in 1968.

To have two of the greatest albums in the history of the art form come out within a fortnight of one another shows just how volcanic were the cultural forces in play in 1968.  We face, in 2018, an even greater crisis than we did in ’68, but the music being released this year does not seem likely to be so remembered 50 years from now.  We know a smart 21-year old who, when asked if he can appreciate the Beatles, replies instantly, “The Beatles invented music.”  And so they did.  If you’ve any doubt on that score, just listen to the new release of the White Album.

Wilco’s Wildly Ambitious “The Whole Love”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on September 4, 2011 by johnbuckley100

Years ago, when Wilco was nailing Southern rock and becoming alt.country demigods, you may not have thought of them in the same breath as The Beatles, but in late September, when they release The Whole Love on Apple Records — I mean, on their own label using Apple’s iTunes Store — you’ll see what we mean.  WilcoWorld has nicely let us stream the album in its entirety for the past 24 hours, and in a throwback to those days when one would listen to the Beatles or Stones or the Who’s new album over and over, we’ve done just that.  The player even shows a vinyl record spinning.  They have a complete understanding of what they’re doing, of the company they’re in.

“Art of Almost,” which kicks things off, might make you think of Radiohead before you’d ever get to, say, Uncle Tupelo. When Nels Cline shows off at the end, it’s not some exercise in formalism, but an embrace of rock’n’roll song extension, a throwback to those vinyl days when what was so enchanting was the way bands would leave the tape spinning as they boogied on in the studio and you wished you were a fly on the wall for that moment when, ten minutes after the song officially ended, the musicians would just, suddenly, stop.  (Sometimes you’d even hear a guitarist yell, “I’ve got blisters on me fingers!”)

We’ve been listening for weeks to “I Might,” the single, and it’s a bright bit of power pop replete with Farfisa.  And a reminder that, if Wilco can start a new album with two such different expressions of possibility, this is a band that can play anything.  And on The Whole Love, they do.

Ten years ago, when Warner Brothers was defiantly proving why record labels were willing themselves to extinction by refusing to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it did seem to me that that record had taken Big Star’s Sister Lovers as its template.  You know what I mean, a big, troubled, druggy mess with enough beauty at its core that it was riveting.  An idea that was proved by I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the documentary that illustrated why the band needed to be reformed, with the cerebral Cline replacing the late Jay Bennett as Tweedy’s instrumental foil.  On The Whole Love, the template that comes to mind is The White Album. A big statement, yes, but the melding of acoustic songs, the delving into idioms that preceded rock’n’roll, the notion of craft that transcends what any other rock band in the universe might produce – these guys don’t even have the Stones as peers, they are literally peerless — all the while clinging to sufficient pop structures that even contain hooks… Well, Wilco by now are masters, sui generis.  Except, increasingly, for invoking one band in particular… It’s not just that “Sunloathe” sounds like it could have been on Abbey Road, that Tweedy sounds like Lennon and that Cline plays his George Harrison guitar.  These guys have reached that upper echelon of rock experimentalists.  Again, ambitious like The Beatles.

We thought Wilco (The Album) was a rare letdown, a step backward after Sky Blue Sky.  It was almost as if they went to New Zealand as much to record 7 Worlds Collide as their own record.  Now, after two years of hosting their own festival showcasing their taste and side projects, they came roaring back with something bigger, stronger, more ambitious, more tuneful than anything that has come to date.  This is a band that would seem to be at the top of its form, if they also didn’t seem so ready to take things into an historic next level.  By the time you nod your head to the great album rock cut “Born Alone,” you’re ready for the grand conclusion of “One Sunday Morning,” a Dylanesque title for a Beatlesesque conclusion.  Get ready for a whole lotta loving of The Whole Love.

The Beatles In Mono: Depth, Not Width

Posted in Music with tags , on October 23, 2009 by johnbuckley100

Tulip Frenzy  took up a collection around the office, looked under sofa cushions for change,  and returned all the 5-cent deposit bottles that had collected in corners in order to buy The Beatles In Mono.  We did so because numerous published sources had declared the mono mix of each of the albums from Please Please Me to The Beatles (White Album) were superior to the stereo mixes we’ve been listening to on CDs since the late 1980s.

It seemed counterintuitive but intriguingly possible that the claims were correct. Though weird, we have to say, to think that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band might sound better in a mix made for one speaker than two.  How could it be possible that, say, “Tomorrow Never Knows” would sound better in mono than stereo?

The truth is, it doesn’t.  Or not quite. Just because more care went into mixing in mono than stereo, and just because the state of the pop music art as George Martin knew it at the time was aimed at optimizing the sound on dashboard AM radios, it does not follow that it actually sounds better to listen to a mid-period and later Beatles song in mono than stereo.

When listening to, say, “Baby You Can Drive My Car” in the mono mix, and then immediately following it with the 1965-stereo mix included here as well, it’s clear that by not separating the drums in the left channel from the piano in the right channel, the song has more punch.

Yet the human head has two ears, one on the right, the other on the left. While “Taxman” on Revolver may take the entire middle part of your face off when you listen to the mono version loudly on your stereo; while the backwards guitars on “TNK” may scramble your cerebellum just the way it was intended, the mono versions are deeper, not wider in sound.  They may take off the top of your head, but they don’t conform to the exigencies of the human anatomy.

Listening to the mono and stereo versions of mid-period Beatles back to back, you can tell Martin was a little lost in how to separate instruments and tracks from one another.  The mono versions are more coherent, more consistent.  They build from bottom to top, and don’t get lost plugging instruments in from side to side.

And yes, for the earlier works, songs like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sounds pretty great in mono.  But once the Beatles had shared a few spliffs and were thinking of “the studio as an instrument,” it just fails to reason that the version mixed for a single speaker is “better.”  It may be more authentic, and it may capture better the way the Beatles were thinking — the mix as they heard them — but it isn’t necessarily more pleasing.  It’s like listening to two different Dylan takes at the same song; each is interesting, and tells you something about the artist, but let’s listen to all of them, and not have to choose.

The entire gang at Tulip Frenzy admires the reasoning behind the effort — and the completists among us appreciate the offering in this expensive box of not only the mono mixes of all non-album tracks (think “Rain” and “Paperback Writer”) but the original stereo mixes of Help and Rubber Soul, which heretofore have never been available on CD.   We could have stood not to have the hype that says the mono mixes are superior to the stereo mixes.  We’re awfully happy to have them — though now our iPod library is groaning, and the thought does occur to us that Apple Corps Ltd might be in cahoots with Apple Computer to drive us to one of those new iMacs with their 2 Terrabyte hard drives.

The Beatles were great enough as is.  No need to hype the mono versions of their albums as even greater than they were.

What’s Your Beatles Remasters Strategy?

Posted in Music with tags , on September 11, 2009 by johnbuckley100

Everything you’ve read about the remastered Beatles CDs is true, based on my limited sample set.  I bought, and have played, The Beatles and Abbey Road, and then Rubber Soul and Revolver.

In the case of The White Album (The Beatles), everything sounds warmer, brighter.  If you play the 1987 pressing and the new one sequentially, the former seems brittle and dull.  It is actually very noticeable.

The White Album and Abbey Road were meant to be listened to on a stereo. But when you play Rubber Soul and Revolver, you realize just how crude the stereo mix is. Bright and warm, yes, but the mix is decidedly 1965/66, whereas The White Album sounds like it could have been recorded last week.

So I broke down and bought the Mono Box.  Because all those great albums pre-’67 are meant to be listened to in mono.  Tulip Frenzy will conduct strenuous tests in the weeks ahead and report in.

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