Thursday 7 November 2013

Vinyl Records: Why They (Don’t) Sound Better than Compact Discs

vinyl vs cd sound qualityAs this is being written, there is (as many of you know) an upward trend in buying new music recordings on vinyl. Record labels are having more vinyl recordings pressed now than they likely have since 1990 because of the demand, which has been on the increase since circa 2007.

This is happening because there are audiophiles today who have decided that vinyl LPs “sound superior to” CDs. This is ironic because CDs were developed, mainly, for one reason: to have higher fidelity recordings than even the best vinyl spinning on the best turntable played through the best stereo system could deliver.

“High fidelity” means a relatively low noise-to-signal (usually written “signal-to-noise”) ratio. This translates into a cleaner sound with less background noise and less distortion of the original input signal. In other words, it means the recorded guitar sounds more like the real guitar played by the real musician in the real original setting, and there’s less non-musical noise such as some “hiss” lingering in the background and interfering with being able to clearly hear the guitar.

Ever since the earliest days of the emergence of CDs, it was obvious by every audio measurement, from signal-to-noise to dynamic range to stereo channel separation that CDs sounded superior to their counterpart vinyl records. Even nearly all non-technical music lovers agreed to this, and there were scores of audiophiles who had invested thousands of dollars into turntables and vinyl LPs barely being able to stand listening to them any longer once they had bought a CD player and a few CDs.

vinyl. Record labels are having more vinyl recordings pressed now than they likely have since 1990 because of the demand, which has been on the increase since circa 2007.

Mass Production Zone

Sometime after 2005 an idea started circulating: digital MP3s are “cheap” and therefore “inferior quality” recordings, while analog recordings on vinyl are “authentic” and therefore of “superior” sound quality. One of the roots of this idea is found in the fact that it became known that digital recordings compress audio signals (allowing them to store more music in less space). This can mean that the final sound heard by the listener has had some of the signal from a recording’s highest highs or lowest lows “clipped” a little. An analog signal hasn’t been “clipped”, and the soundwaves that hit the master tapes in the recording studio or in the concert hall are fully recorded as unique patterns of grooves which give the listener a “warmer” and fully “authentic” sound.

It’s also true that digital recordings are made by sampling an analog (that is, all-natural) audio signal. This is extremely high speed sampling, but it is sampling nonetheless. An analog recording doesn’t sample anything -- it etches an analogous groove to represent 100% of the received audio signal.

Physical Reality

The reality is that only by hearing a recording being made as musicians record in real time can you hear a perfect “analog”. Vinyl records do not have higher fidelity than CDs or MP3s do. The physical friction which cannot be avoided as the needle tracks through an analog record’s groove inevitably interferes to some extent with the sound -- and, with every play a record becomes less and less faithful in quality to the original audio signals encoded as the grooves get distorted by mechanical friction.

CDs and MP3s don’t wear out or fade in quality no matter how many times they get played, because there is no such friction. The lack of friction also means that there’s no “hiss” or “pop” or any of the other background noise that Dolby noise reduction systems were created to try to diminish when one listened to vinyl (or cassette) recordings.

As to the “warmth” heard on vinyl but not on digital recordings, this is almost always attributable to the quality of the stereo system. Audiophiles typically invest more money into a higher quality system for playing back analog records than they do for a CD player.

In today’s world with inexpensive but advanced headphones and more compact high quality sound systems, your sound system’s quality almost always means more than whether or not you’re listening to an analog or a digital recording. An apples-to-apples comparison of the same recording on vinyl and on CD would just about always render the digital recording “superior”.

But, there is still one excellent reason to collect vinyl records: they are works of art, with legible lyrics and notes. CD recordings, from the visual point of view, look and feel like something an office manager buys at Staples.

Chris Neloms is a professional blogger that provides the latest information on the best home audio and home entertainment systems. He writes for, a premier home audio systems company.

Monday 21 October 2013

Top 5 Saxophone Players Of All Time

Saxophone is an amazing instrument that has long been a central part of big band and jazz music. It has provided some fantastic tunes to songs as well as some very moving emotions. Here are the top five saxophone players of all time. If you are into sax music you should definitely check them out.

1. John Coltrane

Perhaps, the most famous sax player John Coltrane is also regarded as one of the best as well. His intensity while he was playing was astounding and the progression and speed he brought to jazz music in the 50s and 60s is something beyond imagination. He loved to keep challenging himself and as a result has provided some of the most memorable performances of all times.

2. Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker played an instrumental role in developing jazz music during the hay days. He is very rightly picked out to be the most influential jazz saxophonist by the Top Tenz website. He introduced a lot of new chord progressions to saxophone playing and in the end transformed sax music into what we all love and enjoy today.

3. Kenny G.

If you are looking for the most commercially successful sax player then you will be hard-pressed to think of a better name than Kenny G. This legendary curly-haired jazz musician has produced some of the biggest selling sax albums.
He has been playing together and producing music with some of the biggest selling artists as well, such as Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin to name but a few.

4. Sonny Rollins

One of the earliest saxophone players to master the hard bop sound, Sonny Rollins is a true legend in the genre. He has brought a lot of blues type of sounds to jazz music and really mastered this combination in a touching way. Perhaps the most obvious choice for his best performance would be the Saxophone Colossus. It is simply a masterpiece.

5. Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman is a bit of a jazz rebel because he really did break all the rules and regulations when it comes to making music. He is one of the best players at creating suspense and mood in a piece that really makes you forget where you are. Perhaps he also has the most unique style of all in this list and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all.

The above are just some of the best saxophone players that have inspired many others and brought something new to the genre. Playing saxophone is a wonderful hobby because music can provide you with so much enjoyment.

If you want to get into playing saxophone there are a lot of websites with saxophone lessons available and this can be a very convenient way to learn to play the instrument. Websites, like Pro Music Tutor, offer a lot of tutorials that you can take at any time it suits you. This way you can enjoy all the benefits of playing a saxophone and learn to do so from the comfort of your own home.

Author: Tina is enthusiastic about saxophone music and she could listen to it all day long. She also loves to find new talent and is hoping more young people would learn to play this great instrument as well.

Monday 14 October 2013

Elvis Presley - The Sun Years 1954/5

At 706 UNION Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, stands Sun Studios — the birthplace of the most important collection of rock’n’roll tracks ever recorded. Between 1954 and 1960, Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips, produced pioneering rockabilly, blues, country and pop sides by artists such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich — and Elvis Presley.

Before Elvis was signed to Sun, in the summer of 1954, Phillips’ label was renowned as a centre of excellence for the blues. Like scores of independents in the Southern states, Sun scuffled to survive from one release to the next. Phillips financed the label’s early years by freelance production work, handling sessions with artists such as Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King for larger companies. He supervised the making of what’s generally regarded as the first rock’n’roll record, Jackie Brenston’s ‘Rocket 88’. He proved to be an equally sympathetic producer of hillbilly country music. And in 1954, the future King of Rock’n’Roll fell into his lap.

Elvis Presley had been born on January 8, 1935, in a tiny shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. He was raised in Memphis, and working as a truck driver for the local firm of Crown Electric when he made his first amateur recordings — at the Memphis Recording Service, part of the small Sun empire. Presley had been performing blues, country, gospel and pop songs in public for a year or two by then, and had attracted the attention of some of the hottest gospel quartets in the State. But he needed the reassurance of hearing his voice on a record before he felt confident enough to make his music into a career.

Under the guise of cutting a record for his mother’s birthday — already several months past — Elvis approached Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’ right-hand-woman, in the late summer of 1953. She captured him singing two songs, ‘My Happiness’ and ‘That’s When Your Heartaches Begin’, to his own simple guitar accompaniment. The following January, he was back, cutting another pair of songs: ‘Casual Love Affair’ and ‘I’ll Never Stand In Your Way’. Impressed by the haunting melodicism of his voice, which was pitched intriguingly between a crooner’s smooth slide and the low moan of the blues, Keisker kept Elvis’s details on file, and reported his existence to her boss.

When Phillips needed a singer to cut a demo a few months later, he invited Presley into the studio. Their initial sessions were unproductive, but when Phillips teamed Elvis with two of the label’s regular sessionmen, bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore, sparks rapidly grew into an inferno. After cutting restrained renditions of two ballads, ‘Harbor Lights’ and ‘I Love You Because’, Presley, Moore and Black jammed around the changes of a blues song, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’, while Phillips was away from the studio board. When the producer returned, he asked them what on earth they were doing — and whether they could do it again. After a handful of takes, Elvis Presley’s first single was on tape, and the world of popular music was changed for ever.

Elvis issued five singles on Sun, scoring regional hits and making brief inroads into the national country charts. He also taped around a dozen other songs during his sessions with Sam Phillips — a dozen that have survived, that is, as rumours persist of a treasure trove of missing Sun sides.

Each of his Sun singles was carefully programmed to couple a blues tune with a country song, thereby maximising the potential for sales and airplay. Before his name and face became known, no one was sure whether Elvis was black or white — which was precisely the sound that Phillips had been looking for. Elvis’s voice was part Hank Williams, part Bobby Bland, part Dean Martin, part Johnnie Ray, and part the kind of divine accident that only happens once in a century. Whether or not Sam Phillips ever voiced his much-quoted aim of finding a white man who had a “Negro sound and feel”, Presley fitted the bill. Equally at home in the black or white musical traditions, he effectively moulded them into one. And his appreciation for mainstream pop music, and the tight harmonies of the top gospel quartets, enabled him to branch out way beyond the strict ghetto boundaries of blues and country. Outside, the world was waiting.


That’s All Right (Mama)/Blue Moon Of Kentucky (1954)
Blues purists trace a path of exploitation, of white musicians ripping off blacks, from the release of this record — which mixed a taste of hillbilly country with a Delta blues tune and produced the concoction known as rock’n’roll. Play Crudup’s original alongside Presley’s cover, however, and their theory implodes. Fine though Crudup’s record is, it lends nothing but its basic lyrical framework to Presley’s interpretation. In the hands of Elvis, Scotty and Bill, as the trio were credited on the Sun singles, ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’ was transformed from a laboured complaint into a celebratory jubilee. Set Crudup’s lugubrious vocal alongside the effortless verve of Presley’s singing, and all comparisons disappear.

Presley worked similar magic on the flipside, a bluegrass tune by the father of the genre, Bill Monroe. His original had the “high lonesome” sound of Forties bluegrass, with keening vocals and a tight, restrained rhythm. Elvis started out singing the song that way, then cut loose the chains and played it like an uptempo blues tune. By the time the record was finished, it was hard to tell which side was country and which was blues.

Good Rockin’ Tonight/I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine (1954)
The same formula was repeated on the second Sun single. ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ came from a blues single by Roy Brown — an uptown, citified blues this time, rather than the rural model Presley souped up on his d├ębut. Stopping the world in its tracks with the arrogance of his opening vocal wail, Presley set off on a roller-coaster ride across musical boundaries, calling out for everyone to recognise his power. “Tonight she’ll know I’m a mighty mighty man”, Presley swaggered on the middle verse, and every second of his performance matched his boast.

‘I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine’ sounded like another hillbilly song waiting for a fresh tank of gas. But it actually belonged to Tin Pan Alley, having been recorded by such sophisticates as Patti Page and Elvis’s idol, Dean Martin. Elvis, Scotty and Bill turned up the tempo and played it hard and furious, and the result was every bit as dynamic as ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’.

Milkcow Blues Boogie/You’re A Heartbreaker (1955)
The lyrical imagery of ‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’ had appeared in dozens of blues (and hillbilly) songs in the decades before Elvis solidified the song for all time. It’s not certain where he learned the lines — whether they came from a bluesman like Kokomo Arnold, or from the Western swing rendition of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Nor is it certain whether the memorable opening seconds of his recording were contrived or improvised on the spot. Elvis, Scotty and Bill begin the song at a dirge-like tempo, before Elvis calls the band to a halt. “Hold it, fellas. That don’t move me,” he complains. “Let’s get real, real gone for a change.” And they do, the musicians struggling to keep pace as Elvis drives them forward with a vocal that hiccups and swoops up and down the octaves with barely contained delirium at its heart.

By complete contrast, ‘You’re A Heartbreaker’ — actually a pop song, originally recorded by one Jimmy Heap — was presented as Presley’s most sedate country performance to date. Elvis abandoned the vocal pyrotechnics of the A-side, and swung through the melody as confidently as another of his early role models, Lefty Frizzell.

I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone/Baby Let’s Play House (1955)
1Pitched midway between full-bore rockabilly and uptempo hillbilly, ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’ was the first original song that Presley ever recorded. Written by Sun Records insider Stan Kesler, it started out as a slow blues, under the title ‘My Baby’s Gone’ (as first heard on a legal release via The Complete Sun Sessions CD).

That track was completely overshadowed by its coupling, an R&B tune based on a country hit by Eddy Arnold, and fuelled by imagery that had passed down the blues tradition for generations. Elvis launched the track with an almost inhuman series of whoops and hollers, before slicing through the lyrics with a confidence that defined the concept of “machismo”. Mean, threatening, half sung and half sneered, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ encapsulated everything that was dark and enticing about the young Elvis Presley.

Mystery Train/I Forgot To Remember To Forget (1955)
Stan Kesler and self-styled rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers concocted the pun-filled honky-tonk ballad, ‘I Forgot To Remember To Forget’ — a stone country tune that Elvis sang with the flair of a Lefty Frizzell or a George Jones. Once again, though, it was the blues coupling that set the world on fire. Sam Phillips had produced Junior Parker’s original version of ‘Mystery Train’, an eerie harbinger of doom based around the lyrical theme of a Thirties country song. For Presley’s version, fellow blues fan Scotty Moore set the rhythm with a clipped, insistent guitar riff, while Elvis opened his throat and wailed, like an engineer powerless to control a ghost train heading full-tilt for a fallen bridge.

In commercial terms, this was probably the strongest of the five Sun singles; and it was certainly the most successful, topping the Billboard Country and Western charts towards the end of 1955. Its chart showing ensured that a major label like RCA couldn’t help but be aware of Presley’s potential — both as an artist and a profit-making machine.


When RCA purchased Elvis’s contract in November 1955, they secured a case full of Elvis session tapes, which was raided to make up the numbers on RCA’s studio albums and singles between 1956 and 1959. Another Sun recording surfaced in 1965; after that, there were merely persistent rumours, until bootleg collections began appearing in the early Seventies, presenting a batch of alternate takes (including the near-legendary ‘My Baby’s Gone’, the bluesier role model for ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’).

For anyone who didn’t have access to the original, mono singles, the Sun recordings were available only in ludicrous fake stereo from the early Sixties through to 1975, when RCA finally released their first Sun-centred Presley album. There have been several subsequent attempts at the same operation, but still hard-core Presley-philes maintain that there is a secret vault filled with previously unheard Sun masters. That there may be; but it’s near certain RCA doesn’t have access to it, or else those tracks would surely have been released by now.

The late Seventies and Eighties also saw the legal (or semilegal, in some cases) release of other material long rumoured to have survived — live recordings of Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black taped during the Sun era, plus the fabled ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ tape, recorded at Sun a year after Elvis left for RCA.

The Elvis Presley Sun Collection (1975)
It took British Presley fans — notably the NME journalist Roy Carr — to force RCA into compiling a long-overdue album of what seemed, at the time, like the complete Sun recordings. With the exception of an alternate take of ‘I Love You Because’, issued on 1974’s A Legendary Performer LP, everything on the original pressing of this album had been issued in the Fifties. But here it was on sale in one budget-priced package, and without the distorted, artificial remixing of previous reissues. It was also the first Presley LP to include lengthy, informative, factual sleeve notes.

A few months after this LP appeared, RCA “discovered” a previously unknown Sun out-take: a cover of the crooner’s favourite, ‘Harbor Lights’. This was added to the subsequent pressings of the Sun Collection, only for the process to be repeated. This time the addition to the canon was ‘When It Rains, It Really Pours’, a 1955 prototype for the recording included on 1965’s Elvis Eor Everyone LP. That surfaced on A Legendary Performer Vol. 4 in 1983. Next to be uncovered was the undubbed recording of ‘Tomorrow Night’, which had first surfaced with additional instrumentation on that same 1965 LP. Stripped of its later ornamentation, it appeared on the 1985 collection, Reconsider Baby.

A few months earlier, the boxed album set A Golden Celebration had offered an entire suite of Sun out-takes. Among them was the legendary ‘My Baby’s Gone’, so titled by bootleggers in the early Seventies, but actually an early, bluesy arrangement of ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’; a pure country fragment of ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’; an equally brief ‘I’ll Never Let You Go’; alternate versions of ‘Harbor Lights’, ‘That’s All Right’ and ‘I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine’; and that magical ‘When It Rains, It Really Pours’.
When RCA announced it now had access to more than a dozen alternate takes from the Sun years, it was obviously time for a complete revamp.

The Complete Sun Sessions (1987)

To a chorus of praise from most sides, blurred only slightly by howls of disgust by perfectionists, The Complete Sun Sessions gave these seminal recordings their most prestigious setting to date. The lengthy notes by Presley biographer Peter Guralnick set the scene and cast aside some myths, while the two-LP set itself gathered up every Sun track released to date and added2 nine further out-takes.

These weren’t quite as thrilling as they might have been, as they comprised three additional takes of ‘I Love You Because’ and six of ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’. Confirmation of their existence suggested to the detractors that RCA must be sitting on similar treasure troves for other songs in its archive — a theory for which the release of The Complete Fifties Masters in 1992 added more evidence.

Sadly, this was one release where the vinyl edition outstripped the CD. Two full LPs contained too much music for one 5” disc, so six tracks were dropped to prevent the need for a two-CD set: takes one and four of ‘I Love You Because’ and takes eight, 10, 11 and 12 of ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’. At least RCA had the honesty to drop the “Complete” from the title of the CD.

Author: Peter Doggett

Saturday 7 September 2013

Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash At San Quentin June 1969

In January 1969, Johnny Cash and June Carter had visited Vietnam to play concerts for the US troops stationed at Long Binh Air Force Base in Saigon. They slept in a trailer there during a night of heavy bombardment by the Viet Cong, and discovered the next morning that their trailer had been moved several feet by the shock waves. Cash later spoke of hearing the shells falling: “After you hear that sound, you never want there to be a war again, ever.” During their stay in Vietnam they often played ten shows a day for the troops. Cash came down with a fever, and was prescribed Dexedrine tablets — which quickly sparked drug-related problems that were a hangover from earlier addictions. He went on to play more concerts throughout the Far East, but when the show reached Tokyo he was unable to sing or even stand. Once again, he fought to get his habit under control.

Since the Folsom Prison album had been so successful, the decision was made to attempt to repeat the winning formula — though this may have been sparked by the fact that Britain’s Granada TV wanted to film Cash playing a prison concert. This time, the venue chosen was the San Quentin State Prison in California’s Marin County, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Larger and older than Folsom, the maximum security prison held 6,000 hardened inmates and had 1,500 staff. Cash had first played there in 1959, when Merle Haggard was one of the inmates in the audience.

Both concert (and film) were recorded in San Quentin’s mess hall on February 24, 1969, in front of approximately 1,000 inmates (and an unknown number of machine gun -toting guards). Bob Johnston was the album’s producer, and the personnel of the Johnny Cash Show were the same as for Folsom Prison, with the exception of Bob Wootton as guitarist Luther Perkins’ replacement. The atmosphere at the show was tense, due to escalating violence between rival prison gangs in the preceding weeks. “Best behaviour advised” read the prison poster announcing the concert. In Rolling Stone, Ralph Gleason called Cash’s performance “right on the edge”, since the singer skilfully whipped up the prisoners’ enthusiasm without actually causing a riot. This time, Cash performed without the aid of drugs, and the results are even better than the Folsom Prison album — the sound quality is much better, and although Cash’s voice sounds a little strained at times, he also sounds more self-assured. The band are also on great form, and far more energetic than at Folsom.

The resulting album spent 22 weeks at number one on the country charts, and four weeks at number one on the pop charts, and both the album and the ‘A Boy Named Sue’ single became certified million sellers. That year, LIFE magazine had claimed that Johnny Cash and Muhammad Ali were currently the two best-known people in the world. When the year ended, nine of Cash’s albums were in the charts, and Columbia proudly announced that during that year in the USA, Johnny Cash had outsold The Beatles.

Three years later, Cash testified before a Senate Subcommittee on penitentiary reform. He also continued to play prison gigs until 1977 — when he played Folsom again — after which he stopped for good. Prisons had by this point become simply too dangerous, and Cash probably felt that he’d done enough for this particular cause. In 2000, an extended CD of the San Quentin concert was issued, containing nine previously unreleased tracks; the censor’s bleeping was also removed.

All songs written by Johnny Cash unless otherwise indicated.

Big River
(Added for the extended CD.)
Cash got the inspiration for this song from reading an article about himself in TV Radio Mirror magazine, the first line of which read: “Johnny Cash has the Big River blues in his life.” Cash wrote the song — once again about a love gone wrong and gone missing — in the back seat of a car in White Plains, New York, and later commented, “I finished the song before I ever finished the article.”

Cash had wanted to record it as a slow 12-bar blues, but producer Sam Phillips chose to go for a rockabilly treatment instead, with Jack Clement playing an open-tuned Gibson with a bottleneck. Cash later admitted that Phillips had been right: “I thought it was fabulous. The groove he’d heard in his head was so much more powerful than mine.”
In fact, the guitar playing totally makes the record. Bob Dylan later described the lyrics as: “words turned into bone”. Released as the B-side of Sun single 283, this went to number one on the country charts in its own right.

I Still Miss Someone (Johnny Cash/Roy Cash Jr)
(Added for the extended CD.)
Written with his brother Roy, this is possibly Cash’s most covered composition, with versions to date by (among others) Joan Baez, Julie Andrews, Fairport Convention, Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, Linda Ronstadt and Percy Sledge. It’s a wonderful song about carrying a torch for a lost love, and even the mildly irritating backing vocals of this version can’t ruin it. The best thing on the album, it was released as the B-side of ‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’ in December 1958.

Wreck Of The Old (Arranged by J. Cash/B. Johnston/N. Blake)
A traditional folk song, loosely based on the true story of a 1903 train crash. Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 recording of the song had been the first million-selling country record. Cash’s version is respectful rather than inspired.

I Walk The Line
Cash would claim that the music for this song had been inspired by the accidental twisting of a rehearsal tape of one of his Air Force jam sessions during its playback, which resulted in the sound of backwards chords. “The drone and those weird chord changes stayed with me,” he later said.

He finally completed the song in November 1955 while on the road with a Sun package tour. Backstage at a gig in Gladewater, Texas, Cash was strumming the chords he’d based upon the rehearsal tape, and told Carl Perkins that he was trying to write a song about “being true” — to oneself, to one’s marital partner and to God — and that his working titles for it were ‘I’m Still Being True’ or ‘I’m Walking The Line’. Perkins suggested that he abbreviate the latter to ‘I Walk The Line’, and Cash was sufficiently inspired by their conversation to finish writing the song. It supposedly only took him 20 minutes to complete, and he later commented that it was one of those songs just waiting to be written.

In a sense, Carl Perkins was simply repaying a favour — a few months earlier, Cash had told Perkins an anecdote from his service days, which Perkins used as the basis for his song ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.

With this song, Cash was publicly pledging his fidelity to his wife, Vivienne, who had serious concerns that her husband might succumb to the temptations of young female fans while he was living the life of a touring musician. According to an article in Country Music International magazine, the phrase “walking the line” dates back to the era of railroad construction, when makeshift brothels sprang up alongside the rail tracks; “walking the line” thus meant to carry on walking past these temptations.

Sam Phillips thought the first version of the song that Cash recorded was too slow, and told him to play it again faster for a second version. Cash was upset that the faster version was the one Phillips chose to release in May 1956, but the producer evidently knew what he was doing, since the record (Sun single 241) went gold, selling over two million copies, hitting number one in the country charts and even breaking into the pop charts (at number 17). The song — which also won a BMI Award — has a truly epic quality, and the fact that Cash could write something this good this early in his career is ample proof of his talent.

The lyric’s opening line inspired ex-Velvet Underground artist, John Cale’s, song ‘Close Watch’. The song would also provide the title for the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic, which starred Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. See also The Complete Sun Recordings.

All of the above four songs are good, uptempo versions, with some great guitar from Carl Perkins. Cash’s voice occasionally sounds strained, but that’s the only complaint.

Darlin’ Companion (John Sebastian)
One of the lesser-known items from The Lovin’ Spoonful’s songbook, performed as a country duet with June Carter. Not as good as the original, but not a disgrace either.

I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound (J. Cuttie)
(Added for the extended CD.)
Written by a prisoner in San Quentin, who had given Cash the sheet music for it the night before; since Cash couldn’t read music, he set the lyrics to a tune of his own. It’s an impressive folk ballad, verging on gospel.

Starkville City Jail
Written just before the concert, about Cash’s arrest in Starkville, Mississippi in 1966 for picking flowers at 2 a.m. (while drunk and pilled-up, needless to say). Cash spent the night in jail and was fined $36 — and broke a toe after kicking the cell wall in frustration. The song itself is an impressive folk ballad.

San Quentin
Written two days before the concert, at the suggestion of Granada TV film director, Michael Darlow. It’s a slow and powerful ballad written from the viewpoint of a prisoner questioning the point of the prison system, weakened slightly by unnecessary backing vocals. The song nearly caused a riot, as prisoners leapt up onto tables, yelling their approval of the lyrics. At its close, the song is reprised by popular demand.

Wanted Man (Bob Dylan)
Dylan had co-written this song — a good country rocker about life on the run — with Cash shortly before, while staying at his house near Nashville. Cash publicly (and correctly) acclaimed Dylan as “the greatest writer of our time”.

A Boy Named Sue (Shel Silverstein)
The epic tale of a man who becomes a tough fighter because he’s been saddled with an unfortunate first name. Humour writer and cartoonist Shel Silverstein gave Cash the “lyrics” to this at a party five days before the concert. It had no tune, but Cash and guitarist Bob Wootton improvised one on the spot, as Cash balanced the lyric sheet on a music stand in front of him. The song was released as a single in July 1969 and went to number one in the country charts and number two in the pop charts, making it Cash’s all-time biggest hit. The word “bitch” in the phrase “son of a bitch” was censored with a bleep (removed for the extended CD version).

The inspiration for the song was a real person, Judge Sue K. Hicks from Madisonville, whom Silverstein had met at a juridical conference. The song also prompted two “answer” songs, Lois Williams’ ‘A Gal Called Sam’ and Jane Morgan’s ‘A Girl Named Johnny Cash’.

(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (T. Dorsey)
Classic gospel tune that had been recorded by Sun Records’ “Million Dollar Quartet” (Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) and also by Presley solo. Cash’s gentle and moving version has the benefit of autoharp and backing vocals from the Carter girls, but Presley’s version still takes some beating.

Folsom Prison Blues
(Added for the extended CD.)
While in the Air Force, Cash had seen Crane Wilbur’s 1951 film, Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison, which starred Steve Cochran as a crusading prisoner. The movie — about a campaign to improve prison conditions — definitely made a big impression on him (he immediately asked for it to be shown again on the base), and he later claimed to have written this song the same night he saw the movie.

It’s a moderately fast-paced rocker about a life gone wrong: the protagonist commits murder, ends up in prison and longs for life on the outside. The song’s most famous line, about killing a man “just to see him die”, Cash came up with after thinking hard about what would be “the worst reason a person could have for killing another person”. A tale of violence and repentance, it can be viewed as concerning human limitation in its broadest sense; as Cash later pointed out, “Most of us are living in one little kind of prison or another.”

Unfortunately, whether consciously or not, both lyrically and musically Cash based his song upon ‘Crescent City Blues’, a song from Gordon Jenkins’ 1953 concept album, Seven Dreams. Cash subsequently stated that at the time he wrote the song, he “really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist. I wasn’t trying to rip anybody off”.

At the time of its initial release, Gordon Jenkins apparently wasn’t aware of the song’s existence, but when Cash rerecorded the song 13 years later for his Folsom Prison live album, Jenkins got to hear it and subsequently sued. Cash settled out of court in the early Seventies, and Jenkins was given a writing credit on the song from then on. Sam Phillips had originally wanted to send the song to Tennessee Ernie Ford to cover, but Cash insisted on releasing his own version instead.

Released as Sun single 232 in December 1955, this good, uptempo version, with great guitar and enthusiastic audience response, lacks the verve of the later live recording, but features some very nice guitar. The song is also at the root of the popular misconception that Johnny Cash actually served time in prison, and his resulting outlaw image.

Ring Of Fire (J. Carter/M. Kilgore)
(Added for the extended CD.)
Written by June Carter about the pain of her affair with Cash, co-writer Kilgore would later be best man at their wedding. Apparently based upon a poem titled ‘Love’s Ring Of Fire’, the song’s original title was ‘Love’s Fiery Ring’. First recorded in 1962 by June’s sister Anita; given the subject matter, it’s somewhat ironic that Cash wanted to record the song himself as soon as he heard it.

The tune was supposedly inspired by music June had heard while travelling in Mexico, which fitted perfectly with the wonderful mariachi trumpet arrangement Cash uses on his version (the idea for which supposedly came to him in a dream). Since Cash wisely didn’t trust producer Don Law to capture the sound he wanted, he drafted in his old Sun colleague, Jack Clement, to arrange the trumpet parts.

The song was recorded in March 1963 and released the following month, becoming a deserved hit that reached number one in the country charts (and stayed there for seven weeks) and number 17 in the pop charts. A few weeks after the original recording session, Cash recorded a Spanish-language version, ‘Anillo De Fuego’. The song has since been covered by numerous artists, including Carlene Carter, Social Distortion and Wall Of Voodoo.

A so-so version, with one truly bizarre aspect: the Carters’ attempt to vocally duplicate the trumpet part. See also Ring Of Fire.

He Turned Water Into Wine
(Added for the extended CD.)
A far better version than the one on The Holy Land. This is more like full-on gospel, with a bit of guts to it.

Daddy Sang Bass (Carl Perkins)
(Added for the extended CD.)
Again, a far more spirited version than the studio recording on The Holy Land.

The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago (L.R. Dalton)
(Added for the extended CD.)
The spirit was obviously moving them, since this is also far superior to the version on Hymns By Johnny Cash.

Closing Medley: Folsom Prison Blues/I Walk The Line/Ring Of Fire/The Rebel - Johnny Yuma (J. Cash/J Carter/M. Kilgore/R. Markowitz/A. Fenady)
(Added for the extended CD.)
June Carter and Carl Perkins take lead vocals on two snippets of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, the Carter Family deliver a snatch of ‘I Walk The Line’ and the Statler Brothers offer the chorus of ‘Ring Of Fire’, before Cash himself closes the concert out with a fragment of ‘Johnny Yuma’ and a final reprise of ‘Folsom’.

Author: Peter Hogan

Tuesday 20 August 2013

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Electric Ladyland October 1968

For pure experimental genius, melodic flair, conceptual vision and instrumental brilliance, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland is a prime contender for the status of rock’s greatest album. During its 75-minute passage, it flirts with electronic composition, soft-soul, Delta blues, psychedelic rock, modern jazz and proto-funk, without ever threatening to be confined by any of those labels. It climaxes with a display of musical virtuosity that has never been surpassed in rock music. Small wonder that Hendrix found the task of matching this album insuperable: despite the splendour of much of his post-1968 work, he could never again capture the effortless magic of Electric Ladyland.

The album was a landmark in personal terms as much as artistic. During the early sessions, Chas Chandler effectively resigned as Hendrix’s producer; his formal disengagement as co-manager followed the next year. Meanwhile, internal dissension within the Experience led bassist Noel Redding to be absent for many of the Ladyland sessions. Sometimes Hendrix covered Redding’s parts himself; sometimes he augmented the three-man studio line-up to incorporate keyboards, brass or woodwinds.

Most importantly, Hendrix was able to expand the visionary painting-in-sound techniques he’d employed on tracks such as ‘Third Stone From The Sun’ (from Are You Experienced) and ‘EXP’ (from Axis: Bold As Love), to the point that he was able to build an entire side of the original double-LP — from ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’ to ‘Moon, Turn The Tides’ — into an exotic suite, a seamless composition of fragments and improvisation that couldn’t quite be categorised as jazz or as rock. Fracturing those genre boundaries merely made it more difficult for Hendrix to reconstitute them in the future.

Electric Ladyland (Version 1) October 1968
Tracks: CD1: …And The Gods Made Love/Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)/Crosstown Traffic/Voodoo Chile/Still Raining, Still Dreaming/House Burning Down/All Along The Watchtower/Voodoo Child (Slight Return) CD2: Little Miss Strange/Long Hot Summer Night/Come On (Part 1)/Gypsy Eyes/The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp/ Rainy Day, Dream Away/1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)/Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently, Gently Away

The original CD release retained the naked “glory” of the original UK album cover, with its parade of slightly distorted female flesh. Hendrix hated that design, and he would have loathed this CD release even more. Not only was the mastering very poor, bathed in hiss and excess noise, but Polydor destroyed the original album concept by combining sides one and four of the double LP on the first disc, and two and three on the second. This magnificent piece of logic meant that ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’ appeared after its intended sequel, ‘Still Raining, Still Dreaming’.

Electric Ladyland (Version 2) June 1991
Tracks: …And The Gods Made Love/Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)/Crosstown Traffic/Voodoo Chile/Little Miss Strange/Long Hot Summer Night/Come On (Part 1)/ Gypsy Eyes/The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp/Rainy Day, Dream Away/1983 …(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)/Moon, Turn The Tide… Gently, Gently Away/Still Raining, Still Dreaming/House Burning Down/All Along The Watchtower/ Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

During the initial phase of remastering for the Sessions box set, Electric Ladyland was sensibly reduced to a single CD (without shedding any of its contents) and the running order was restored to Hendrix’s original instructions. But the sound quality was only marginally more satisfactory than the first release.

Electric Ladyland (Version 3) 1993
Tracks : as per Version 2
Excellently re-mastered, Electric Ladyland now sounds as breathtaking on CD as it did on vinyl in 1968. Michael Fairchild’s notes in the lengthy booklet are superb, and so is the sound quality — from the tumultuous sonic landslide of ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ to the delicacy of ‘Moon, Turn The Tides’ — which, bizarrely, is listed on the back cover as lasting for just one minute, not 10.

All songs written by Jimi Hendrix unless otherwise indicated.

…And The Gods Made Love
Conceived under the more prosaic title ‘At Last The Beginning’, this solo guitar concoction presaged the multi-dubbed delights to come, as Hendrix conjured magnificent pictures from musical genius and technical brilliance. Taped on June 29, 1968, during a single lengthy session.

Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)
Unlike the slightly later solo rendition captured on the posthumous Loose Ends collection, this soft-soul classic added studio trickery to the obvious influence of Curtis Mayfield’s guitar. With Noel Redding absent from proceedings, Hendrix handled the bass as well, and topped off a delightfully airy confection with some precise falsetto vocals.

Crosstown Traffic
Having just exhibited his command of the most subtle forms of soul music, Hendrix unveiled an aggressive, swaggering funk track — the basic track cut live in the studio by the Experience line-up back in December 1967 and then overdubbed in April and May 1968. Twenty-two years later, the Estate sanctioned the creation of a video to accompany the song’s belated release as a single: both visually and aurally, it felt stunningly contemporary alongside the funk/rock crossovers of Lenny Kravitz and Living Colour.

Proof that someone at the sessions had a sense of humour was the involvement of Traffic guitarist, Dave Mason — whose sole contribution to the track was to sing the name of his band in every chorus.

Voodoo Chile
Throughout 1967, Muddy Waters’ Chicago R&B song, ‘Catfish Blues’, was a regular inclusion in the Experience’s live set. By early 1968, it had mutated into an original Hendrix song, built around an identical riff, and with lyrics that paid their dues to some of the most unsettling images from the Delta blues tradition.

During a lengthy session on May 1, 1968, Hendrix, Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, Jack Casady (bassist from Jefferson Airplane) and Steve Winwood (from Traffic) worked their way through a series of lengthy free-form jams around the ‘Voodoo Chile’ changes. This was the longest, and most successful, with Hendrix’s surprisingly orthodox blues playing acting as counterpoint to Winwood’s sustained organ chords.

Down the years, there’s been much confusion over the exact spelling of this song, and its counterpart at the end of this album. I’ve settled on ‘Voodoo Chile’ and ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, as being Hendrix’s preferences. What matters most, though, is that the two songs — offering vastly different takes on the blues — are the twin pillars of Electric Ladyland.

Little Miss Strange (Noel Redding)
For the second album running, Noel Redding was allowed to contribute — and sing — one number. Sadly, ‘Little Miss Strange’ did little more than repeat the ingredients of ‘She’s So Fine’ from Axis, and Electric Ladyland would be a stronger album without it. Like much of this set, it was taped during April and May 1968.

Long Hot Summer
Hendrix doubled up on bass and guitar, while Al Kooper’s keyboards took a minor role on this piece of urban soul, which was mixed idiosyncratically, to say the least. Mitch Mitchell’s drums were marooned on the far left of the stereo picture, while the other instruments never quite cohered into any kind of whole — as if the tape had picked up musicians from different rooms who happened by chance to be performing the same number.

Come On (Part 1) (Earl King)
The final song to be recorded for the album was this cover of a blues by New Orleans guitarist Earl King, cut on August 27, 1968. The Experience ploughed through the standard chord changes and lyrical imagery, take after take, and several near-identical versions have appeared on bootlegs in recent years. Pleasant but undemanding, its last-minute addition to the album was strange, in view of the fact that Hendrix left outtakes from these sessions like ‘South Saturn Delta’ and ‘My Friend’ unreleased.

Gypsy Eyes
From its train-in-tunnel drum phasing to its staccato guitar licks, ‘Gypsy Eyes’ was a masterpiece of creating substance out of little more than a riff and a message of love. Hendrix’s guitar patterns on this track, and the interplay he built up with his own bass runs, can be heard resounding down the history of subsequent rock/funk crossovers, notably Prince’s early-to-mid Eighties work.

The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp
Already issued as a single long before the release of Electric Ladyland, ‘Midnight Lamp’ still fitted the album with its dense production (reminiscent of Phil Spector), unusual voicings (Hendrix on harpsichord and mellotron) and evocative imagery. “They said that was the worst record we’d done,” Jimi said in 1968, “but to me that was the best one we ever made.”

Rainy Day, Dream Away
On June 10, 1968, Hendrix, Buddy Miles, organist Michael Finnigan, sax player Freddie Smith and percussionist Larry Faucette jammed through a set of jazzy changes with a cool, late-night feel, and an equally laid-back lyric. Suitably overdubbed and edited, their lengthy ‘Rainy Day Jam’ was divided between this track and ‘Still Raining, Still Dreaming’. Initially, it introduced the brilliant suite of music that segued into…

1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)
Delicate guitar passages established a mood that mixed psychedelic rock and jazz, before Hendrix began to paint in words the portrait of a world torn by war and despair, from which the only escape is the sea. Playing all the instruments apart from flute (supplied by Chris Wood, the third Traffic member to guest on this album), Hendrix created an orchestral tapestry of sound, which flowed elegantly into a gentle chaos of tape effects, backwards guitar and chiming percussion, and then to…

Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently, Gently Away
Multi-dubbed guitar motifs restored the psychedelic jazz feel, vamping melodically for several minutes until the mood became almost frenzied and shifted into an electronically treated drum solo. At last, the familiar themes of ‘1983’ re-emerged, to guide the suite to its conclusion, and complete 20 minutes of stunningly complex and beautiful instrumental tonalities. These two tracks were taped in a single remarkable session, on April 23, 1968.

Still Raining, Still Dreaming
Still jamming, too, first through another verse of ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’, and then into a coda that gradually wound down the mellow jazz groove of the original track.

House Burning Down
Another collaboration between Hendrix and Mitchell (Noel Redding played on just five Electric Ladyland songs), ‘House Burning Down’ twisted through several key changes in its tight, swirling intro, and then shifted again as the strident chorus moved into the reportorial verses. Like so many of Hendrix’s songs from this period, there was an atmosphere of impending doom in the air, inspired by the outburst of black-on-black violence that had shaken some of America’s ghettos earlier in 1968. “Try to learn instead of burn,” Jimi advised hopefully, before (as ever) finding salvation somewhere other than the land — this time via a friendly visitor from another galaxy.

All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan)
‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ was Hendrix’s first choice of material when he listened to Bob Dylan’s 1968 album, John Wesley Harding, for the first time. In 1970, he recorded another song from the set, ‘Drifter’s Escape’; but his arrangement of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ was so convincing that Dylan himself has been using it ever since.
In its original acoustic form, Dylan threw the emphasis of the song on its apocalyptic imagery. Hendrix used the sound of the studio to evoke the storms and the sense of dread, creating an echoed aural landscape that remains the most successful Dylan cover ever recorded. Dave Mason of Traffic contributed bass and acoustic guitar to the basic session on January 21, 1968; Hendrix completed his overdubs four months later, and the song subsequently became a worldwide hit single.

Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Two days after recording the epic ‘Voodoo Chile’, Hendrix was back at New York’s Record Plant, with Mitchell and Redding, ready for this ‘Slight Return’. What evolved, over eight takes, was the single most impressive piece of guitar-playing this writer has ever heard, on a track that compresses every ounce of Hendrix’s ambition, musical technique, production skill and uncanny sense of impending disaster into five minutes. From its opening wah-wah chatter to the wails of feedback that bring the song to its close, it’s an extravaganza of noise and naked emotion. Its verbal imagery is ablaze with destruction and imminent death; and the music is equal to every last nuance. By its very nature, feedback evokes loss of control: during this performance, Hendrix handles it like a wizard controlling a hurricane.

Author: Peter Doggett

Wednesday 3 July 2013

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band June 1967

“The biggest influence on Sgt. Pepper was Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys,” said Paul McCartney in 1980. “That album just flipped me. When I heard it, I thought, ‘Oh dear, this is the album of all time. What the hell are we going to do?’ My ideas took off from that standard. I had this idea that it was going to be an album of another band that wasn’t us — we’d just imagine all the time that it wasn’t us playing. It was just a nice little device to give us some distance on the album. The cover was going to be us dressed as this other band in crazy gear; but it was all stuff that we’d always wanted to wear. And we were going to have photos on the wall of all our heroes.”

That’s the standard view of Sgt. Pepper, from the man who almost single-handedly created the album, and its legend. In this reading, Pepper is the best pop record of all time — the album that customarily wins critics’ polls, the masterpiece that first persuaded “serious” musical critics that pop was worth their consideration.

There’s a rival view of the whole affair, however, and it was put forward most cogently by McCartney’s supposed partner, John Lennon. “Paul said ‘come and see the show’ on that album,” he moaned a few years after its release. “I didn’t. I had to knock off a few songs so I knocked off ‘A Day In The Life’, or my section of it, and ‘Mr Kite’. I was very paranoid in those days. I could hardly move.”

More than any other Beatles album bar Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper was a Paul McCartney creation. It was he who dreamed up the concept, the title, the idea behind Peter Blake’s remarkable cover, the orchestrations, and the device of pretending that the entire LP was the work of another band entirely — which in turn became one of the major themes of the Yellow Submarine movie, then in its pre-production stages.

Meanwhile, John Lennon was deep in a creative trough. For the first time, Lennon and McCartney appeared — to Lennon, at least — to be in competition rather than on the same side. Since the Beatles had played their final live shows in August, McCartney had been composing — first the musical themes for the film The Family Way, then the songs that would appear on the next Beatles album. Lennon had also been involved in film work, but as an actor, in Dick Lester’s How I Won The War. Required for the part to shed his Beatle locks, he adopted the granny specs that soon became his trademark, stared into the mirror, and wondered what the future might bring for an unemployed Beatle. Back in England at the end of filming, Lennon regarded McCartney’s enthusiasm to get into the studio as a threat. Aware that he was likely to be outnumbered in the songwriting stakes, he raised the emotional barriers and took against the Pepper album from the start.

In the end, Lennon came up with the requisite number of songs for the album, but he never warmed to the concept. On Revolver, and again on the majestic ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, cut early in the sessions, he’d experienced the relief and satisfaction of writing from the heart. For Pepper, he was back where he’d been in 1964, writing songs to order. Hence the sarcastic, dismissive comments he reserved for this album throughout the rest of his life.

Whatever else Sgt. Pepper may or may not have been, it was certainly an event. It unified British pop culture in a way no other occasion could match. Maybe in hindsight it wasn’t The Beatles’ strongest album, but it had an impact unlike any record before or since. It literally revolutionised the direction of pop, helping to divide it between those who were prepared to follow the group along the path of experimentation (thus creating “rock”) and those who mourned the loss of the less significant Beatles of yore (the champions of “pop”). After Pepper, nothing was ever the same again — within or without The Beatles.

(All songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney unless otherwise indicated.)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Complete with the appropriate sound effects, the album’s uptempo title track introduced the record, the concept and the Club Band. It performed the function of an overture in an opera, preparing the audience for what was to follow, and introducing the themes that supposedly unified the piece.

With A Little Help From My Friends
The Beatles’ official biographer, Hunter Davies, watched Lennon, McCartney and their associates completing work on Paul McCartney’s original idea, aware from the start that this would be a vehicle for Ringo Starr — or “Billy Shears”, as he was billed in the opening seconds of the song. Though the song’s theme was tailored towards Ringo’s warm public image (right down to the line, “What would you think if I sang out of tune?” a real possibility), at least one observer saw a hidden meaning. Speaking in 1970, US Vice-President Spiro Agnew told an audience that he had recently been informed that the song was a tribute to the power of illegal drugs — news to its composers, perhaps.

Not often did other performers outclass The Beatles with cover versions of their songs, but Joe Cocker’s gut-wrenching version of ‘Friends’ in 1968 left Ringo floundering.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
The minor furore over the meaning of ‘Friends’ had nothing on the frenzied response to this piece of whimsy from the pen of John Lennon. “I was consciously writing poetry,” he admitted, shifting blame for the line about “newspaper taxis” to his nominal co-writer. But the Alice In Wonderland style imagery, supposedly inspired by a drawing John’s son Julian had brought home from nursery school, was widely believed to be a description of an acid trip. As soon as someone noticed the initials of the song’s title (LSD), that seemed to clinch the story — except that Lennon continued to deny it until his dying day. Having owned up to so much else down the years, there was no reason for him to lie — especially over a song which he always felt was “so badly recorded”.

Getting Better
Based on a favourite saying of Beatles’ stand-in drummer Jimmy Nicol (who briefly deputised for Ringo on tour in 1964), ‘Getting Better’ was a McCartney song augmented by Lennon, who contributed the self-accusing verse that began, “I used to be cruel to my woman”. Ever since Lennon’s death, McCartney has bemoaned his inability to find a co-writer who, like John, would answer a line like, “It’s getting better all the time” with, “Couldn’t get much worse”. Even in the midst of what was intended to be a concept album, McCartney could turn out a song that was clever, melodic, memorable and universal in its application.

Fixing A Hole
For the first time in England, The Beatles left Abbey Road studios for the session that provided the basic track for this fine McCartney song, often overlooked by critics and fans alike. EMI’s studio was fully booked for the night, so the group moved to Regent Sound on the West End’s Tottenham Court Road.

While John Lennon’s writing veered between fantasy and obvious self-revelation, McCartney’s skirted from the romantic to the delightfully oblique. This song definitely fell into the latter category, with lyrics that unveiled as many mysteries as they solved. Instrumentally, too, ‘Fixing A Hole’ was a minor classic, from McCartney’s opening trills on the harpsichord to the lyrical guitar solo.

She’s Leaving Home
“Paul had the basic theme for this song,” said John Lennon, “but all those lines like, ‘We sacrificed most of our life… We gave her everything money could buy’, those were the things Mimi used to say to me. It was easy to write.”

Paul’s rather precious piece of fictional writing wasn’t helped by Mike Leander’s ornate score for the song, one of the few occasions when The Beatles were left sounding pretentious. It took the realism of Lennon’s answer-lines to cut through the sweetness of the piece.

Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite
A masterpiece of ingenuity rather than inspiration, ‘Mr. Kite’ was written when John transcribed the wording from a vintage circus poster into verse form, and recorded with the help of scores of small segments of fairground organ tape, tossed into the air and then stuck back together to produce the eerie noise that dominates the instrumental sections. Lennon dismissed it as a throwaway — which, when you remember how it was made, is pretty apt.

Within You, Without You (George Harrison)
Though it was John Lennon who resented Paul McCartney’s domination of the Pepper sessions, George Harrison probably had more cause to be aggrieved. He was restricted to just one number on the LP, his other contribution (’Only A Northern Song’) being rejected.

Like ‘Love You To’, ‘Within You, Without You’ blatantly displayed Harrison’s infatuation with Indian culture. Recorded with the assistance of several Indian musicians, plus Beatles aide Neil Aspinall on tamboura, the song required no help from any other member of the group. “It was written at Klaus Voorman’s house in Hampstead, one night after dinner,” George explained a decade later. “I was playing a pedal harmonium when it came, the tune first, then the first sentence.” Some thought it a masterpiece, some a prime example of mock-philosophical babble. Either way, it was pure Harrison.

When I’m Sixty Four
Paul began writing this song when he was a teenager, needing only to add the middle sections for this revival of a 10-year-old melody. Within the concept of the album, it fitted the image of the Edwardian Pepper band, whereas it would have seemed mawkish on any of the group’s earlier LPs. The addition of clarinets to the mix heightened the pre-First World War feel.

Lovely Rita
The anthem for traffic wardens (“meter maids”) everywhere, ‘Lovely Rita’ was a glorious throwaway, full of musical jokes and brimming with self-confidence. Nothing on the record expressed that as fully as the piano solo, ironically played by keyboard maestro George Martin.

Good Morning, Good Morning
Using a TV commercial for Kellogg’s cereal as his starting point, John Lennon concocted a wonderfully dry satire on contemporary urban life. Several points to watch out for here: the reference to the popular BBC TV sitcom, Meet The Wife; the ultra-compressed brass sound provided by members of Sounds Incorporated; a stinging McCartney guitar solo; and the cavalcade of animals, in ascending order of ferocity, which segues into a reprise of the title track.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
For the first but definitely not last time, Paul McCartney topped and tailed a set of songs by reprising the opening melody, in true Hollywood musical fashion.

A Day In The Life
Delete ‘A Day In The Life’ from Sgt. Pepper and you’d have an elegant, playful album of pop songs. With it, the LP assumes some kind of greatness. Some might vote for ‘Hey Jude’ or ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ as the finest Beatles recording, but ‘A Day In The Life’ would run anything close — and it’s certainly the best collaborative effort between Lennon and McCartney.

Lennon wrote the basic song, its verses a snapshot from his own life and the world around him — the death of a friend in a car crash, a newspaper cutting about the state of the roads in Blackburn, Lancashire. The tag line, “I’d love to turn you on”, brought a broadcasting ban by the BBC in Britain: more importantly, it led twice into an overwhelming orchestral assault, with 40 musicians headed helter-skelter up the scales towards a crescendo of silence. First time around, the barrage leads into McCartney’s stoned middle-eight, another day in another life; second time, there’s a pause, and then a piano chord that resounds for almost a minute. Then bathos: a whistle only dogs could hear, followed by the locked-groove gibberish that brought the side to a close and is sampled briefly at the end of the CD. Stunning, magnificent, awesome: there’s nothing in rock to match it.

Author: Peter Doggett

Wednesday 19 June 2013

The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds May 1966

Having bought time (and handed Capitol a purely incidental hit album) with The Beach Boys’ Party!, Brian Wilson now turned his full attention to his new project. Inspired by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul LP (released in December 1965), which he considered to be “full of all good stuff, no filler”, he told wife Marilyn: “I’m gonna make the best rock album in the world”… and, in the view of many expert critics, he succeeded. In three Nineties UK polls, Pet Sounds emerged at or near the top of the pile each time — and these are critics’ polls, the considered opinions of professional rock journalists, and not merely a reflection of the flavour of the month. An artistic validation 30 years too late, true, but very welcome all the same.

Wilson’s compositional style for Pet Sounds bordered on the impressionistic; rather than writing a complete melody, he instead sketched out what he called “feels… specific rhythm patterns, fragments of ideas”. The melody and lyric would come later, inspired directly by the mood of the “feels”. As a writing method, it was luxurious, organic… and time consuming, to the extent that, when Capitol reminded Wilson that a “proper” LP was again overdue, just one song had been completed (’Sloop John B’) and one basic track recorded (’In My Childhood’ — which he decided he hated).

Gripped by a mild panic, and with the band away on tour, Wilson recalled a chance acquaintance, advertising jingle writer Tony Asher, whom he asked to help out with lyrics. Asher immediately agreed, but soon found out that collaborating with Wilson (whose chemical experimentation was escalating) was a distinct chore outside the strictly musical arena, and in later years offered the famous quote that Brian Wilson was “a genius musician, but an amateur human being”.

The Beach Boys, largely absent on tour while their resident Svengali was creating, offered a more considered, if fragmented, critical opinion. Dennis and Carl Wilson loved the new music; Al Jardine decided “it sure doesn’t sound like the old stuff”; and Mike Love was memorably forthright — “don’t fuck with the formula”; (Bruce Johnston also loved the music, but as a wage slave like Jardine — rather than a voting member of the corporation — he had no real clout in such matters).

Love’s disapproval also concerned certain lyrical themes, which Wilson, ever diplomatic, duly ensured were revised. In other matters, however, Wilson was totally intransigent, and this benign dictatorship resulted in Pet Sounds being, essentially, a Brian Wilson solo album with guest vocalists. The rest of the band barely contributed instrumentally, and there is strong documentary evidence that, after group vocal sessions, Wilson would return alone to the studio and re-record them his way; which is not to imply that vocals by his colleagues were in any way substandard, but rather was an example of his increasingly perfectionist nature — something that session musicians were already well aware of.

As was his habit, Wilson spent much longer in the studio than Capitol deemed fit, with the result that, apart from the previously released ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘Caroline, No’, all of Pet Sounds’ complex backing tracks and vocals were mixed in a single nine-hour session (which probably explains the chatter heard on some tracks).

Pet Sounds has been called an early concept album; while all the main participants repeatedly deny this, it is not difficult to discern a uniting theme — of hopes and aspirations dashed, of a search for love doomed to failure — and even, some claim, by judicious reprogramming of the CD track order, to produce a coherent storyline tracing the rise and fall of a relationship… and certainly the pervading air of Pet Sounds is one of gentle melancholy. Perhaps that’s why, even though it included three US Top 40 hits, Pet Sounds sold significantly fewer copies than any Beach Boys LP since Surfin’ Safari and only just made the US Top 10, although it was a major commercial success in Britain, where it became their first Top 10 LP and their first to spend over six months in the chart.

Artistically, however, it was a different story: the music business understood that something very special indeed was happening in southern California, and Wilson suddenly found himself at the vanguard of the nascent pop revolution, regarded as an innovator, a man with something to say of whom much was expected. Fortunately, the next step was already well in hand: during the Pet Sounds sessions, Wilson had also taken a couple of stabs at another title — ‘Good Vibrations’.

It had been the intention of Capitol Records to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Pet Sounds with a revolutionary four CD box set comprising a remastered mono version (using HD/CD technology), session material as per the fifth CD of the Good Vibrations box set (including the first ever ‘Good Vibrations’ session), the instrumental and vocal tracks in isolation (and stereo!) and, at long last, the first true stereo mix of the complete album. This was lovingly and excellently constructed by Mark Linnett, using the original instrumental four-track and vocal eight-track session tapes. Synchronisation was possible because once he was satisfied with the instrumental backing, Wilson had mixed it down to mono on one of the eight tracks on the eight-track tape, leaving seven tracks for vocals. Linnett thus was able to work with what were effectively 11 tracks for each song once he had synchronised the start of the instrumental four track with the mixed-down mono instrumental track.

Well, that’s how it has been explained. The results were stunning, opening up new windows on each song, and the deconstructed vocal and instrumental versions not only allowed intimate study of Brian Wilson’s working methods (as did the session tapes, which were also in stereo), but also confirmed that the majority of the vocals on the album were (as had long been rumoured) by Brian Wilson.

Whether or not this rankled with the rest of the group is not known, but the fact is that the box had been approved by Wilson and scheduled for a May 1996 release but was postponed several times; once because the band wanted the booklet(s) revised, and on another occasion because they (allegedly) demanded the stereo mix be done again. The Pet Sounds Sessions box set was eventually released in late 1997, to huge critical acclaim. In 1999, and again in 2001, the album was reissued in a single CD format that comprised both the mono and stereo mixes, and yet again in 2003 in a DVD-A format, comprising the following versions: advanced resolution surround sound, advanced resolution stereo, advanced resolution mono, DTS 5.1 surround sound and DVD-video compatible Dolby digital 5.1.

The package also included video footage from the Sessions EPK, and a stereo remix of ‘Summer Means New Love’. Not bad for an album conceived and originally released in mono.
(NB: Where Mike Love’s composer credit is followed by *, these songs were decreed by a 1994 Los Angeles court decision to have been co-written by him, although he was never previously credited as such; the bonus tracks included on Capitol’s 1990 CD reissue programme are noted by +.)

Wouldn’t It Be Nice (B. Wilson/Asher/Love*)
Recorded at LA’s Gold Star Studios (where many of Phil Spector’s masterpieces were created), this classic US Top 10 hit’s lilting guitar intro and explosive drum shot usher in a bittersweet tale of longings as yet unfulfilled, hopes tempered by reality. An accordion-driven track of impressive complexity overlaid with Brian Wilson’s keen lead and Love’s wonderfully mellow middle-eight vocal, cushioned by sumptuous group harmonies, the lyrical hints at immorality in the first two verses are allayed by the matrimonial hopes of the bridge.

A 24-carat masterpiece, this was carelessly released in Britain as the flip side of the Top Three ‘God Only Knows’ single; a classic case of losing an obvious hit through bad judgement — in the US, ‘God Only Knows’ was the flip side of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, but in Britain, ‘God Only Knows’ was the favoured track on pirate radio and thus became a smash hit. Included on the boxed set collectors CD in vocal split format, the vocals are even more stunning… and curiously, it’s Wilson and not Love singing the middle-eight (a point remedied on the second reissue of the mono/stereo single CD).

You Still Believe In Me (B. Wilson/Asher)
The odd bicycle bell and horn interjections in this stately, almost hymn-like number are relics of the song’s original incarnation as ‘In My Childhood’, a number that Wilson abandoned, but which had been recorded in such a way that these extraneous sounds could not be erased when he decided to recycle the track… yet strangely, they still fit. His lead vocal is sweetness personified, and the chorus harmony blocks are truly angelic. The bell-like piano intro was achieved by plucking the strings of the instrument, which apparently required extensive practice!

That’s Not Me (B. Wilson/Asher)
The eccentric drum patterns underpinning this track heighten the sense of uncertainty evident in the lyric, while a melodic bass line weaves in and around Love’s questioning vocal and Wilson’s plaintive counter. As spellbinding, in the view of some commentators, as the two previous tracks.

Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (B. Wilson/Asher)
The last track recorded for the album, and a solo vocal performance from Wilson, this languid confection is one of his most romantic compositions and, according to some critics, exudes almost overwhelming emotion.

I’m Waiting For The Day (B. Wilson/Love)
An attention-grabbing timpani intro leads into a track of great contrasts, juxtaposing reflective passages with aggressive verses to great effect. Similarly, Wilson’s lead vocal swings from tender to strident as required. Originally copyrighted in 1964 and credited to Wilson alone, Love’s compositional contribution was apparently to amend eight words.

Let’s Go Away For A While (B. Wilson)
A year after the release of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson considered this wistfully atmospheric track to be “the most satisfying piece of music I’ve ever made”, a statement with which many Beach Boys fans and commentators would concur. Although presented as an instrumental, and long thought to have been conceived as such — even though lyrics were written by Asher — it emerged in 1995 that a session for vocals was scheduled, but — at Capitol’s insistence — was used instead to mix the album. The story goes that as part of a running joke then current, the song was semi-seriously called ‘Let’s Go Away For A While (And Then We’ll Have World Peace)’.

Sloop John B. (Trad. arr. B. Wilson)
Released as a single in March, 1966, and a Top Three hit on both sides of the Atlantic, this version of a traditional folk song (a 1960 UK hit for Lonnie Donegan as ‘I Wanna Go Home’) was recorded in late 1965 at Jardine’s instigation, although the arrangement is 100 per cent Brian Wilson. The sore thumb of the album in lyrical terms, it was long assumed that the song was included at Capitol’s insistence, as a recent hit; however, research has unearthed a mid-February track listing that Wilson handed to the company, on which the then-unreleased ‘Sloop John B’ is included. A totally compelling vocal performance, especially during the a cappella break. Love and Wilson share lead vocals.

God Only Knows (B. Wilson/Asher)
Possibly Carl Wilson’s crowning vocal achievement, this has been described by one noted Beach Boys historian as the most beautiful suicide song ever (presumably on the strength of the lines, “The world would show nothing to me, so what good would living do me?”). Be that as it may, Carl’s honeyed lead is matched by a shimmering backing track and a gorgeous rotating tag featuring Brian Wilson and Johnston. A US Top 40 hit as the B-side to ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ and a UK Top Three smash (see above), Brian reputedly had some misgivings about including the word “God” in the song title; Asher successfully talked him round.

A major highlight of the 1993 Good Vibrations boxed set was a nine-minute session track, illustrating the importance of the studio musicians in developing the song, and culminating with a version featuring not only Brian’s original guide vocal but also an awesome and previously unheard vocal tag of immense complexity and beauty. Why this was consigned to the vaults remains a complete mystery. The Sessions box included a (wisely rejected) mix featuring a (lamentable) sax break during the middle-eight in place of the vocals we all know. Finally, Endless Harmony featured a very down-home rendition recorded live in the studio in 1967 for the unreleased Lei’d In Hawaii project.

I Know There’s An Answer (B. Wilson/Asher/Sachen/Love*)
Initially written and recorded as ‘Hang On To Your Ego’, this was the item that sent Love’s blood pressure soaring, and caused Brian Wilson to get road manager Terry Sachen to marginally revise the lyrics. The track is driven nicely by bass harmonica and banjo, and to many fans, the voice on the verse after Love’s first line sounds awfully like Jardine rather than Wilson.

Here Today (B. Wilson/Asher)
A cascading bass line into the chorus and the mid-song chatter highlight this forceful song, taken from an ex-boyfriend’s point of view. If the chords behind the verse sound familiar, they should — Brian Wilson recycled the progression in ‘Good Vibrations’. Love is spot on as usual. The instrumental track was recorded at Sunset Sound.

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (B. Wilson/Asher)
A less-than-subtle cri de coeur from Brian Wilson, this near-solo performance boasts what may be the first ever use on a rock song of a theremin (a strange instrument, to say the least, later used extensively on ‘Good Vibrations’), played by Paul Tanner. The three-part vocal chorus has attracted great attention as the second and third lines are less than clear; session tapes reveal them to be, “Ain’t found the one thing I can put my heart and soul into” and, “My friends don’t know (or want) me”. The instrumental track was recorded at Gold Star.

Pet Sounds (B. Wilson)
‘Sloop John B’ aside, this spiky instrumental was long thought to be the first track recorded for Pet Sounds (further research has since disproved the notion), and was originally called ‘Run, James, Run’ (the James in question reportedly being Bond, as in 007).

Caroline, No (B. Wilson/Asher)
Ushered in by drummer Hal Blaine tapping on an empty soda siphon bottle, this bittersweet US Top 40 ballad was issued as a Brian Wilson solo single. As with ‘Surfin”, father Murry Wilson insisted the master be sped up a tone to make Brian sound younger. The barking on the tag was supplied by the latter’s dogs at the time, Banana (a beagle) and Louie (a Weimaraner).

Unreleased Backgrounds+ (B. Wilson)
… to ‘Don’t Talk’: probably a wise omission from the LP in 1966.

Hang On To Your Ego+ (B. Wilson/Asher)
Brian Wilson handles the original lyric in a working vocal over a slightly incomplete track. Some find it difficult to understand precisely what Love found so objectionable. Brian Wilson’s appeal to engineer Chuck Britz at the end is priceless, as is the latter’s response. As with ‘God Only Knows’, the boxed set included enlightening session material on this title, as well as an alternate version.

Trombone Dixie+ (B. Wilson)
According to David Leaf’s excellent Pet Sounds CD booklet notes, it says ‘Trombone Dixie’ on the tape box and features a trombone, so that’ll have to do. Reprising (among others) a riff from ‘The Little Girl I Once Knew’, Brian Wilson would later recycle part of this perky instrumental into ‘Had To Phone Ya’ on 15 Big Ones, the group’s 1976 comeback LP.

Authors: Andrew Doe & John Tobler