Sgt Pepper – 50 Years On
When I first heard the news that there was going to be a new improved release of Sgt Pepper, my first reaction was “so what”. How can anyone improve what is arguably the greatest album of all time, released by the greatest band of all time, who were at the top of the creative peak and is well known to be their crowning achievement. If you are a child of the 70’s, you grew up listening to ALBUMS, track by track, front to back, over and over, and you would rate the release as a whole achievement, not based on one great song or two. And, if you are like me, you reluctantly shifted from an album oriented way of listening to music to a song methodology thanks to streaming services and the shuffle play feature on our phones. Finally, if you are like me, a child who grew up listening to music in the 1970’s, you miss being able to sit down and listen to an album from start to finish, without being interrupted by songs from other artists, commercials, or a text or call interrupting you.
There are few albums in music that are as sacred as Sgt Pepper. Many of us, heck, all of us that love music and love or appreciate the Beatles, know this album probably as much as any album in our collections. Within its 40 minutes we know every note, and if the songs are ever played out of order, we know it immediately. I remember reading an article years ago that published the proposed song order of Sgt Pepper, and I then listened to the songs in that order. It didn’t work for me. It didn’t make sense. The songs seemed out of place from each other. Sgt Pepper, like many of our favorite classic albums, are perfect because of the way they are, and the way we have been listening to them for decades.
Curiosity got the better of me, so I ordered the newly remastered version of Sgt Pepper. I didn’t convert the tracks to a compressed MP3 format, and instead listened to the CD beginning to end in my car and my home stereo. Over and over again, just like the old days. This is a brand new stereo mix of the original mono recordings (more on that in a minute), and I have to tell you, this sounds like a totally different album. You have heard these songs hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and they have never sounded more present, more real, than ever before.
I am totally amazed how much better the sound and music of this version is compared to previous releases. The clarity difference is the first thing I noticed. Ringo’s drums are much more present (there are fills of his in A Day In The Life I had never noticed before). McCartney’s bass playing is more pronounced and more complex than I ever imagined, and the guitars are more alive and more raw, and everyone’s vocals are clearer than ever before. Everything if fuller and better balanced. The mix, as Giles Martin has said, is what the band sounded like in the studio.
This release reveals fresh wonders, nuances and improvements fans who are familiar with the work will immediately notice, especially the ‘bottom’ end of the sound. There is simply put, more punch to the songs. The songs jump out at you like you are hearing them for the first time.
Getting Better has an aggression that I had never heard before, and A Day In The Life just rings for repeat, repeat, repeat. And the title track is just crazy frantic, with McCartney’s lead guitar in the forefront mashing out chords.
After listening to this nonstop for a few weeks, I was curious how Giles Martin (he is George Martin’s son by the way) was able to create what is essentially almost a new album from 50 year old original recordings. I learned that the technology of 1967 limited the band to 4 track analog recordings, totally different from the virtual unlimited number of tracks artists can use today. When the four tracks were filled up with music the engineer would mix them down to a single track and transfer that to another four track recorder and work from there. That that process was repeated over and over for each tune, and with each transfer some sound quality was forfeited, but being 1967 they had no choice.
Luckily, all generations of the four-track session tapes were archived, so for the new “Sgt. Pepper’s” the engineers mixed direct from all of the first generation session masters, and as has been mentioned the difference is like night and day. Martin had access to every last spool of tape from the sessions, and he used them to create the masterpiece and the best sounding version of this album that I have ever heard.
So, the question is whether or not greatness can be improved, and in this case the answer is a resounding yes! Get your hands on this, don’t convert it to MP3, and listen to it properly with no distractions the way we used to do as teenagers (sitting on the floor or bed in our rooms, doing nothing but listening to the music), and enjoy every single second of this. Everything, from start to finish, song by song, note by note, just seems more together than ever before. We know Sgt Pepper as their crowning achievement, and they would still release some amazing music in the few years they had left (White Album, Abbey Road) but Sgt Pepper shows them as a band at the top of their game, playing sounds together in way they never would again, and today we get to listen to it again, in ways we never thought possible years ago.
Bravo Mr Martin. Bravo.
Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway – Review
I am admittedly a sucker for female singers. Dusty Springfield, Adele, Annie Haslam, Laura Nyro, Sara Bareilles, Linda Ronstadt, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Annie Lenox, are just a few of the female voices that I can listen to all day. I am adding Rhiannon Giddens to this list right now. I am not a big fan of traditional country-blues old-time music, and the first time I had even heard of her was on her outstanding contribution to Lost On The River, The New Basement Tapes, and the song Spanish Mary.
I had read some reviews a few weeks ago about her latest solo release, Freedom Highway, and despite not sampling a single track I decided to blindly order it. I WAS NOT DISAPPOINTED.
Her wiki page shows her genres to be folk, bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, jazz, soul, R&B, and American. So, what could go wrong? Well, in this case ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.
This release has an incredible range of sounds and styles, all integrated into a cohesive tracklist that ranges from sensual and emotional jazz to sharp and blazing R’n’B with a semi rapped verse in the middle of one of the songs. Some of the songs hit you right away, and others rely on an understated semi-acoustic approach that deftly showcase her impressive vocal skills. Not only are these songs great, they sneak up on you when you least expect it and get even better. From a content standpoint, she sings about the history of America’s fight against racism and her powerful songs here are based on vivid, true stories from the slavery era against classic blues, and civil rights songs from the 60s.
For me, the standout tracks are Birmingham Sunday (protest song written by Richard Farina), and the shuffle of Better Get It Right The First Time, a song about a young black man doing all the right things, going to college, etc, only to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (which includes a rap verse from her nephew). The aforementioned Birmingham Sunday, for me, is where this release hits a high note and just keeps going. Birmingham Sunday is a piano driven anthem that starts slowly, and just keeps building until it hits an emotional climax. The first time I heard it I had to play it again I was so moved, so impressed by the musical package that it is, and then I listened to it again. It is that good. In fact, this whole release is that good, and I highly recommend it.
How We Listen To And Discover Music Has Changed
Lately I have been reading a bit about the Grateful Dead final Fare Thee Well performances this summer in the Bay area and Chicago’s Soldier Field. Rather than continue to fade away, they are ending with the remaining four members and help from some great friends.
I remember the first time I truly listened to their music and finally became a fan. It was the fall of 1977, my freshman year at college, and I was partying with another guy down the hall and he played side four of their Skulls and Roses (informal name) album. Warf Rat is first, which I thought was pretty cool, but then comes the Not Fade Away/Going Down The Road combo with the jam in the middle. I was blown away. I had never before heard such intricate guitar interplay and call and response work between Garcia and Weir, and this converted me from a casual to a real fan of their music.
Thinking back to my high school and college days, it was easy to find other music geeks like myself just by keeping your ears open. The size of your record (or tape) collection did matter in those days. When you went into someone’s dorm room or apartment, you would immediately know if they were like you or not based on the number of albums they had. You could search through someone’s collection and talk about different groups, liner notes, band evolutions, etc, because it was easy to find a common ground of communication. And, instead of doing five other things at once, we actually sat down together and LISTENED to music without doing anything else.
Enter the digital age, and now everyone has a better music collection than the one I carefully and painstakingly cultivated and built over 40 years of listening to all kinds of amazing (and sometimes horrible) music. The playing field is level now. My music collection is no longer a badge of honor. The good news is that you can find pretty much any selection of music ever made with a few clicks of a mouse or a few swipes on a phone. The bad news is that we have lost a way of identifying ourselves by the music we listen to, and separating the music lovers from the casual listeners. We have no way of recognizing one another because we all share the same generic easy to find music collection. We cannot flip through a collection and instantly bond with the guy who lives down the hall from us.
The good news is that it is easy to find and discover new music. The bad news is we have taken people out of the equation. Sure, we can all write online reviews, and we can click to find “if you liked band x, check out band y” recommendations. But who doesn’t remember the joy of telling a new friend “hey, check this out” while you put another record on the turntable or a tape in the player, and the two of you immediately bonded over the thrill of a musical introduction.
I am not sure which time of music collection and listening was better. Sure, it is easy now, and connecting with others is still possible, but I think it is more sterile. It is online, through screen names and user names, etc, and rarely do we ever meet in real life, and when we do those meetings are awkwardly uncomfortable as some people want to retreat back behind the safety of their keyboards and put their earbuds back on. Consuming music has always been a central part of my being, and helped shape me to who I am today. I very much enjoy the ability to quickly find music to listen to, and the portability of it is beyond the wildest dreams of anyone from 20 or 30 years ago, but I miss the old social aspect and personal touch of listening to and finding new music. It may be easier to find and listen to music today, and easier to socially connect, but are these connections real or are they an illusion. Time will tell.
In the meantime, love live rock.
Springsteen Nassau 1980 – The Little Brother All Grown Up
As great at the Nassau show is, I always considered it the little brother to the great 1978 Darkness shows such as Passaic, Winterland, Agora, the Roxy, and Atlanta (all radio broadcasts, well booted, and known to fans as Winterland Night, Passaic Night, Summertime Bruce, and Roxy Night). For many of us, we can hear a moment in one of these and know exactly what show is being played. “Bootleggers, roll your tapes” is from Roxy, and “vomiting in your girl’s purse” was from the Agora show. They are like old friends that never lose our love.
I never felt the same way about Nassau Night, the great 12/31/1980 show that many consider one of Springsteen’s greatest performances. It’s an amazing show, 38 songs played in just under 4 hours. While I always thought the Darkness shows were emotionally focused, intense, and tight, Nassau always seemed bigger and less intimate to me. I didn’t have the same emotional connection as I did the ’78 shows. The band had moved to arenas, the thematic pattern of the show had changed, the crowds were bigger, and the shows were longer and just bigger. The performances are outstanding, but my connection to it was not the same. Compared to the concise and focused Darkness shows, the River shows were a marathon collection of highs and lows, emotional mood swings, before finally ending with a frenzied encore set that left the fans and band exhausted.
With the release of 12/31/1980 Nassau show as part of his live concert series, I finally admit that this show is close to being an equal to those great 1978 shows. The band is well seasoned and running on all cylinders from start to finish. Yes, it is a sprawl compared to the tightness of the Darkness shows. Running almost 4 hours, Nassau contains most of The River, along with fan favorites from prior tours and a few covers. The performances are outstanding, and the mix of old and new songs gives the listener time to really listen to what is being performed. Only Springsteen would have a “mini-set” in the middle of the show that would be considered a “beer-run/bathroom break” today: playing three slow songs in a row. But, when Fade Away, The Price You Pay, and Wreck On The Highway are played here, the emotional intensity and intimacy with the audience is second to none at the time.
Compared to today, 1980 is almost the dark ages with the way information flows. Today, you get home from a show and within hours someone has already posted a recording online. Back then bootlegs were purchased at flea markets and “underground” record stores. Despite this, the crowd warmly receives Rendezvous (never released) and is already singing the first verse to Hungry Heart (prompted by Bruce). I know it was his first “hit” single, but the song was only two months old from the time it was released. I remember being at one of the Landover MD shows the month before and people were singing the first verse already.
Bruce himself has said that “the best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with”. His music has always been the soundtrack of my life, and shows like Nassau are moments in time that can never be replaced. Springsteen and the E Street Band have been captivating me for over 40 years and I have no intention of ending this relationship with them and the music they present to me. This series of live releases give us the chance to go back, and dust off those cobwebs and remember the way our lives used to be, how much we have changed since then, and how much we are still the same.
“At the end of every hard day, people find some reason to believe”.
“Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive”.
Amen Bruce, Amen.
Reading, The Old Fashioned Way
A book, with paper pages dog-eared, words underlined to look up later, and a cover. A book sits with other books on a shelf, or is waiting on a nightstand or a table, ready to be picked up so the reader can re-enter that unique world.
Despite being a ‘techie’, I do not own a Kindle or a Nook. I prefer my reading the old fashioned way, with a book on my lap. I don’t need any of the distractions that technology brings. I just want the book and nothing else. I use my Ipad as a computer alternative for quick lookups, email, video, shopping, maps, etc. For me, reading on the Ipad is like reading a magazine article, quick and informative, as opposed to immersing myself into the world of a book.
A few weeks ago I was having a quick solo dinner at Panera Bread, a friendly place like a Starbucks for people to eat, read, meet with friends and use their free Wi-Fi. Many of the people eating by themselves had some type of an electronic reader. I was one of the few people there who was reading an actual book, and was actually not envious that they had their shiny electronic device to use while I had an old-fashioned book.
Yes, I know, having an electronic reader has many advantages. They are often lighter than many books, and you can have more than one title at your fingertips (even though you can only read one book at a time). You can also use most readers as a tablet as well. All you need is a Wi-Fi connection.
But a book, oh for me there are so many advantages to having an actual book, and it is often more than just the joy of reading. I know what I am reading just by glancing at it, and others know what I am reading as well. A book is a great conversation starter, and at this Panera I had two conversations with people about books. The first was with the cashier who saw the book I was holding (The Leftovers) and asked if I had read any other books by the author (Tom Perrotta). We had a great conversation about similar authors and recommended to each other additional books to read. Then, while getting up to leave I had an excellent conversation with the older gentleman sitting at the next table about the book he was reading, which I had finished a few months previous (Stephen King’s 11/22/63).
I am a “people person”. I love talking with others, even complete strangers in a public place, often to the chagrin of my family (“there he goes again, talking to strangers”). Having a book, as opposed to an electronic reader, is a natural ice-breaker and an easy way to make a connection with someone else. You may consider this nosey, but I want to know what others are reading and if they like it. I may want to read that book one day!