Saturday, 24 June 2017

50 years later: Is love all you need?

1967, the Summer of Love: LSD, pot, psychedelic music, hippies, be-ins and free love. It was the visible crest of an underground movement that had been building for some time. Posters for a Love Pageant Rally in October 1966 called for participants to “Bring the color gold... Bring photos of personal saints and gurus and heroes of the underground... Bring children... Flowers... Flutes... Drums... Feathers... Bands... Beads... Banners, flags, incense, chimes, gongs, cymbals, symbols, costumes, joy." By January the first Be-In was held in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the apparent epicentre of hippiedom. On 13th May, 1967, Scott MacKenzie released his huge hit San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). Selling some seven million copies, he set the tone for the coming summer. And then on 1st June, the Beatles unleashed Sgt. Pepper on an unsuspecting world.

We loved it. We were stunned by the aural experiment. We were yet to hear of Pepperland--that was to come in 1968's movie, Yellow Submarine, but Sgt Pepper took us there, albeit through a haze of cannabis. The Beatles, meanwhile, had continued recording songs in the key of Pepper. Baby You're a Rich Man, Hello Goodbye, Magical Mystery Tour and, of course, All You Need Is Love, which was to become the anthem of the summer.

But looking back from the 21st century, is it as meaningful and as relevant as it seemed then? Let's look its history.

The lads had been asked to contribute a positive song to Our World, the world's first satellite link-up show. It was broadcast 50 years ago today, June 25, 1967, live around the globe with an estimated audience of 400 million. Paul had apparently offered Your Mother Should Know, while some suggest he also delivered Hello, Goodbye. Did John write All You Need Is Love specially for the broadcast? George Martin and Ringo seem to think he did, while Paul maintains the song was already kicking around. It matters not, for John’s contribution, which further explored the themes of The Word from Rubber Soul, was chosen. With a simple, repetitive chorus encapsulating the mood of the counter-culture, it was the perfect sing-a-long hit for an international broadcast, a message and vocabulary that would cross borders and languages.

All You Need Is Love was released two weeks after the broadcast and went to number one around the world. Rolling Stone magazine places it at 370 in its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and at 21 in its list of 100 Greatest Beatles SongsWhile I agree it's a fine song, I can't help feeling Rolling Stone is being overly-generous.

Lyrically it's naive. The message is pure and true, but it's hardly a manifesto. It's a slogan, and the first of John's slogan songs like Give Peace a Chance and Power to the People. It's also the first of his political songs, superficial and passive compared to his call to action in Revolution a year later. When John offered the song to the Beatles, it's reported George Martin said to Paul, "Well, it's certainly repetitive." Subtle, George.

For a fun song about love, it's actually limiting rather than empowering. Even the opening lines "There's nothing you can do that can't be done/nothing you can sing that can't be sung" can be read as an instruction to know your place and not push boundaries. And then we get into the quasi-hippie gobbledygook. "Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time," which sounds dangerously close to the modern "finding yourself" self-help mantra. There's also a touch of fate and predestination thrown in with "nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be."  Deep ideas or shallow gibberish? A series of meaningless mantras thrown together because they sound philosophical? Read the lyrics and try to make sense of them.

What's that, John? It's easy?

Paul certainly didn't think so. In Many Years From Now, he says, "The chorus 'All you need is love' is simple, but the verse is quite complex. In fact, I never really understood it."

Of course Paul, the movement you need is on your shoulder.

Don't get me wrong. It's a great song. It captures the hope of the sixties. You don't need to understand it all. Just sit back and let the vibe wash over you, a bit like watching a David Lynch film but with flowers, bright colours and acid. It is a good message, and one we still need to learn. John, of course, never lived up to it. He pretty much abandoned Julian, treated Cynthia badly, and despite being with Yoko, continued his affairs. The glow of pot darkened as he delved into heroin, and within two years he was singing about his pain in Cold Turkey. I have no doubt John truly believed in his message of love, but couldn't effect it. All this only goes to show he was not the demi-god the world thought he was, but rather a human, imperfect and broken. It was all a dream and according to John, by the seventies, the dream is over. In his final interview in 1980, John said, "Maybe in the sixties we were naive and like children, and later everyone went back to their rooms and said, "We didn't get a wonderful world of flowers and peace." … Crying for it wasn't enough. The thing the sixties did was show us the possibility and the responsibility we all had."

Although well received at the time, the broadcast is dull and dated. While Canada showed a rancher with a herd of cattle and Australia included a segment on trams leaving their depot, London broadcast the Beatles live from Abbey Road studios. It was filmed in black-and-white, but following the previous segments it seemed as bright and shiny as if it had been in colour. The Beatles' segment alone has ensured Our World has remained in the public consciousness for fifty years.

In psychedelic garb and surrounded by flowers, John, Paul, George and Ringo sat on thrones with their subjects at their feet, including Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Keith Moon. John was nervous and chewed gum throughout. George Martin and Geoff Emerick were stressed, fearing a technical hitch, and when the broadcast commenced 40 seconds earlier than expected, they had to scramble to hide their scotch.

Peering through the rose-tinted glasses of time, it's easy to be nostalgic about 1967--the music, the fashion, the love, those halcyon summer days--but it wasn't as rosy as we remember. The Vietnam War was at its height, there were as many bad trips as good, not every hit was groovy, and San Francisco was unprepared and unwilling to assist the tens of thousands of invading dropouts and runaways. George visited Haight-Ashbury with Derek Taylor in August 1967, expecting it "to be special, a creative and artistic place, filled with beautiful people, but it was horrible - full of ghastly drop-outs, bums and spotty youths, all out of their brains."

During the sixties, many credited the Beatles with leading the cultural revolution. In hindsight it’s easier to recognise that although they were highly visible in the vanguard, they weren’t the leaders as such. They were right there, though, in the thick of popular culture and they quickly picked up on new trends, themes, ideas and movements which they extended and popularised, ignoring boundaries as they went. And it was indeed a movement, but we know that not everyone was feeling the love. As early as December 1966, Buffalo Springfield had released For What it's Worth in response to curfew riots on Sunset Strip. In 1968 the Beatles and the Stones recorded songs on a similar theme. There was a brief moment of resurgent hope as Woodstock provided a second, false dawn but that too died a few months later as the Stones played Under My Thumb at Altamont. Personally, the Beatles had trouble with loving each other. While recording the White Album they weren't getting along. Ringo quit, the sessions were strained and by 1969 the four could barely stand being in the same room together. To quote singer Larry Norman, "The Beatles said, All you need is love and then they broke up." 

We remember the dream, the hope, the bright colours of the Summer of Love, and we are better for having it in our collective memories. And all we still need is love, but as John suggested, love is not just lying around in Haight-Ashbury waiting to be harvested. We have to take responsibility and put it into action.

So where does this leave us with the lyrics?

The Grant Study, which tracked Harvard undergraduates over 80 years in order to determine which factors brought happiness, has summarised its findings as "Happiness is love."

It seems it really is all you need.

Monday, 5 June 2017

9 Things We Learned from Sgt. Pepper's Musical Revolution

Sgt. Pepper week continues. The BBC celebrated the 50th anniversary of the landmark album by broadcasting a brand new one-hour special that aired yesterday (June 3) on the BBC (and PBS in the U.S. and Canada), Sgt. Pepper's Musical Revolution with Howard Goodall. 

Noted British classical composer Goodall narrates this special which explores the making of the album by showcasing snippets of outtakes (some culled from the various 2017 Pepper CD sets, other exclusive to this series) and illustrated by archival films and photographs as well as striking visual effects. The special is an unofficial sequel to The Making of Sgt. Pepper, the fine 1992 doc that is part of the Super Deluxe box set.

The key difference here is that the Goodall special lacks new appearances by any of the remaining Beatles or their confidantes. Instead, Goodall takes us on a musical lecture-tour of the Pepper sessions. His musical observations are insightful and new even to lifelong fans of the album. Like a good teacher, Goodall offers insight but speaks in terms that don't sail over our heads. Here are some things we learned:

1) In December 1966, EMI recording engineer Ken Townsend (far right) joined the fast and dreamy versions of Strawberry Fields Forever by slowing down the fast one to match the tempo and key of the slower one. He accomplished this by manipulating the electricity supply feeding the tape machine. Remember: there were no computers in those days, just magnetic tape machines. And no, George Martin didn't pull this off, though he oversaw it.

2) The influence of Little Richard on Penny Lane. No surprise that Paul was a huge Little Richard fan, but Richard's double-time rhythm (heard on such hits as Lucille that The Beatles covered on BBC Radio) had a direct effect on the piano performance on Penny Lane.

3) Now consider that the piano performance of Penny Lane is actually four different pianos mixed together.

4) The musical "wash" that appears twice in Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite consists of one-second snippets culled from various calliope recordings (circus organs) that producer George Martin had engineer Geoff Emerick splice together at random. Okay, maybe this is not news to some Beatlefreaks, but the Goodall special isolates several splices of them so you can hear them individually--and that is a revelation.

5) John's vocal was recorded at a slower speed, so he sounds younger (and higher in pitch) in Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, a song that's based on a child's fantasy (Alice in Wonderland).

6) Paul's melancholy vocal in She's Leaving Home is rooted in the ancient "modal" tradition that Paul would've absorbed from Anglo-Celtic folk songs he heard growing up in Liverpool.

7) The numerous shifts of rhythm (taal) in George's Within You, Without You are absolutely normal in Indian music, though unusual, if not radical, for Western rock music.

8) George's vocal is actually a compromise between Western and Indian conventions. The latter "stretches" single words over several bars--and this bears no comparison in Western songs, certainly not rock. The Goodall special features an Indian singer demonstrating how Within You, Without You would be sung in the Indian tradition, which is light-years from Western music.

9) The glissando orchestral "rush" heard twice in A Day in the Life was inspired by avant-garde composers such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen (above). John, and especially Paul, were curious about these composers. They all share a spirit of musical adventure.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Review: the immersive Sgt. Pepper mix

About 100 hardcore Beatle freaks left work early yesterday to attend a one-time listening party of the "immersive" Sgt. Pepper mix in downtown Toronto at 4:30 pm. From L.A. to New York, select cities across North America hosted the free event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark album.

First of all, what is an "immersive" mix? Imagine surround sound, like 5.1 in your home or a public cinema, but with extra speakers on the ceiling so that the listener is almost entirely surrounded by sound (except the floor). Add more subwoofers to boost the bass. (Currently, there are no plans to offer the Pepper immersive mix to home theatre.) As he did with the new stereo and 5.1 remixes, producer Giles Martin prepared this Dolby Atmos mix. So, how was it?

Let me note that I've listened to the amazing new stereo remix many times (review here), but not the 5.1 yet. For yesterday's listening, I sat near the center of the cinema, in the sweet spot, slightly right of center. The verdict: This immersive mix was impressive, but didn't blow me away.

Immersive mixes allow sounds to swirl literally over your head, behind you and around the sides and front, essentially 360 degrees. Sure, there was some of that, notably in Mr. Kite and Within You, Without You, but was it was missing in tracks you'd expect like Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and A Day in the Life. The immersive mix was conservative and didn't exploit the medium's potential.

On the positive side, Ringo's drums and Paul's bass drive the immersive mix, just like in the stereo. It was powerful and visceral. Also, there is even more definition in the instruments than in the stereo remix. There were harp passages in She's Leaving Home I'd never heard before. The Western-and-Indian instrumental break in Within You, Without You is breathtaking. Same goes with the musical wash in Mr. Kite. Surprisingly, Lovely Rita benefits the most from the immersive treatment, with its layers of instruments spread across the sound field to dazzling effect. The final piano crash of the album in A Day in the Life was so powerful it literally rattled the ceiling of cinema 7 of the Dundas-Yonge Cineplex, a cinema designed to withstand Hollywood blockbusters.

Yes, it was an enjoyable listening experience and I'm glad I attended it, but it wasn't a leap from my stereo mix blasting from my 5.1 home theatre system. Also, it would have been nice to hear Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane included in the immersive presentation.

Reaction from the mostly 100 Baby Boomers in the audience (some of whom remember spinning their mono vinyl LPs of Pepper in the summer of love) were mostly thumbs up. "Amazing," said one. "Really liked it," said another. Another fan was impressed, but wanted to rush home and compare it to the original mono mix. (Before the immersive mix played, there was a brief video of Giles comparing a snippet of Pepper in mono, the new stereo and the immersive. The differences were subtle.) A veteran American music producer felt the mix was off-balance, but that may have had to do with where he was sitting in the cinema. Another fan wanted more high-end definition.

Me, I can't complain. I love the new Pepper and hearing it with extra channels was a splendid time, especially surrounded by fellow Beatles freaks.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Review: The new remix is the definitive Sgt. Pepper


Fifty years, almost to the day, The Beatles have properly mixed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in stereo. Producer Giles Martin and engineer Sam Okell have reconstructed the album by sourcing the original tracks to present vocals and guitars that sparkle and bass and drums that roar.

Martin has centered the vocals, forever erasing the ugly extreme panning which segregated vocals to one channel and almost all instruments to the other. On every track he has added new details from guitars, keyboards, tablas, strings and backing vocals that ring out of speakers and headphones alike. Layers of sound that The Beatles and his father George with engineer Geoff Emerick first constructed in the winter of 1966/67 burst across the stereo picture in songs such as Getting Better.

Pepper was never my favourite Beatles album. (Revolver is.) In fact, Pepper was down my list. I listened to the 1967 stereo all these years and lamented how the album just lacked something. Too whimsical in places, not enough weight. Sounded flat. However, this 2017 remix makes me reassess Pepper. I now see its depth and appreciate its complexity. Its sheer force is now undeniable--and exciting.

Overall, Martin and Okell have injected the overall album with power and dimension. Long buried in the original 1967 stereo mix, Ringo's drums propel virtually every song, balancing the whimsy in tracks, such as Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, and adding menace to others, including Good Morning, Good Morning.

Sgt. Pepper rocks.

Oh God, you may be thinking, another bloody Beatles reissue. Not at all. This release is not a re-master, but a brand new mix. It ain't a paint job and scrub, but an entire re-design by shifting vocals and re-organizing sounds to realize the effect that The Beatles originally intended in spring 1967. The band oversaw three weeks of mono mixing, but weren't ever around for the stereo mix that lasted three days. Mono outsold stereo in 1967. The audience lagged behind the imagination and ambition of The Beatles. In turn, their Pepper would propel stereo's dominance, usher the rise of the long-playing record and spark the transition of "pop" to "rock."

Giles' stereo mix takes its cue from the mono mix which was the mix that The Beatles intended the world to hear. Mono packs a sonic punch, forceful and aggressive, compared to the thin 1967 stereo. Here's a review of each track, plus the single that was originally planned for the album, Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane:

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Opens with snare drum on the left channel, a much louder bass that rumbles in the center and a guitar that now snarls on the right. The guitar offers far more detail than before and sounds like Jimi Hendrix. The guitar continues to slash as Paul screams the vocal in the centre to create an exciting dialogue. Backing vocals are spread across both channels in exquisite detail. An amazing opening.
Verdict: Excellent

With A Little Help From My Friends
Vocals are centered, and the overall track has a mono feel except that Paul's melodic bass dominates the right channel. This is one of the simpler tracks of the album, so there are no sonic fireworks, but all the elements roll along in the right place.
Verdict: Good

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
The opening keyboard riff dances across the left and right channels to mesmerizing effect that runs through the entire track. It's a subtle, but brilliant touch as if enticing the listener to run down the rabbit hole with vocalist Lennon. John's vocal is centered, anchoring the song. Drums, tamboura are center-left, while Paul's bass is center-right in a delicate balance. This is one of the few tracks where Ringo's drums aren't pushed to the forefront, and I understand why. That would have smothered the sound collage that Lucy creates.
Verdict: Good

Getting Better
The fireworks return with this track. Paul's bass is right upfront and gives the song a whallop that was missing before. Again, vocals are centered. New to my ears were the guitars chiming in both channels and the piano plucking in the right. Ringo's high hat sparkles in the left. The remix shows off the layers of sound like never before which hum together like a mighty machine.
Verdict: Stunning

Fixing A Hole
The opening keyboard has never sounded so detailed. Ringo's drums are predominantly left, guitar mostly right (except the solo) and Paul's vocal at center to anchor the sound picture. Backing vocals also mostly right, but the panning is balanced, not lopsided or distracting.
Verdict: Good

She's Leaving Home
The first thing you notice is how fast this track is, nearly as fast as the mono (which never sounded right to me). This mix demands some adjustment, because I'm used to hearing the slower 1967 stereo version. But in direct comparison, the slower version sounds melodramatic. Also, Giles has separated the individual stringed instruments across the channels giving them room to breathe while allowing Paul's vocal to dominate in the center. Faster, less emphasis on the strings, less melodramatic. Also, John's key background vocals are more distinct and detailed. Overall, a well-balanced track. This faster version gives the song more urgency and bite.
Verdict: Surprising at first, but overall good

Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite
This was one of the worst-mixed songs on the 1967 stereo, your typical hard-pan with the vocals 2000 miles away from the instruments. I hated it. Centering the vocals is a huge step forward here. Secondly, the individual instruments are separated across left and right, and each rings clearly. The difference is immediate and amazing. Third, Ringo's drumming adds weight to a song that was whimsical, even slight, before. And fourth, the wash of sound at the end is downright dazzling. Another WOW moment.
Verdict: Stunning

Within You Without You
Every instrument, stringed and Indian, sparkles on this track. They are spread across both channels instead of lumped together into a dull mess as before. George's vocal in the center literally bridges both sets of instruments. Most astonishing is the extended musical break starting at 2;23 where Giles exploits the soundscape to contrast and blend the Indian and Western instruments. Hands down, this is one of the most breathtaking moments of this remix.
Verdict: Stunning

When I'm 64
Brushes-on-snare on the left, clarinets on the right and Paul's vocal in the middle. Simple and it works.
Verdict: Good

Good Morning Good Morning
Crank this one. This new remix is a monster rock track. Ringo drives a tank throughout this song, adding a layer of menace which injects John's lyrics about a dull day with paranoia and chaos. And I mean that as a compliment. Another WOW moment. This remix is light years from any you've ever heard.
Verdict: Stunning

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)
Given the bass-and-drums boost of every track before, it's a slight letdown to hear this mix. On the 1967 mix, this track rocked the hardest, but no longer. Is this a bad mix? Not at all, but it doesn't surprise like the others. Paul's vocal, though, is crisper, and you can hear him scat in the fade out just like he does on the mono mix.
Verdict: Okay

A Day In The Life
Mixed feelings. John's vocal is centered throughout and--for once--I miss the extreme panning. In the 1967 mix, his vocal starts in the extreme right than gradually shifts to the center and eventually hard-left, counter-clockwise. I miss this sense of disorientation and movement. That said, every sonic element on this track rings clearer with more detail, notably John's unearthly Ahhhh at 2:46. And the final piano chord is a knock-out punch.
Verdict: Mixed feelings

Strawberry Fields Forever
Actually remixed in 2015, but the structure is the same as the other tracks: centered vocals and individual instruments and effects delicately mixed on the left and right channels. The svarmandal still deliciously sweeps across the soundscape. Again, the instruments offer detail and immediacy.
Verdict: Good

Penny Lane
It's subtle, but this is one of the most radical remixes. It's not a hard rock song, but a collection of vignettes that Paul imagines of his hometown, Liverpool. Storyteller Paul is front and centre. Flourishes appear discreetly on the left and right channels, like the piccolo trumpet solo on the right, or the fireman's bell on the left. Again, subtle. My only complaint is that the trumpet near the end of the song is slightly buried in the left channel. (If anyone's asking, on my iPod I've placed SFF/Penny between Within You Without You and When I'm 64 and chucked Lovely Rita altogether.)
Verdict: Good

OVERALL: Though imperfect, the 2017 stereo remix is the new definitive mix of Sgt. Pepper. It comes closest in capturing the Beatles' intentions and in conveying the complex soundscapes created in 1967 when the band was limited by four-track technology. All vocals, instruments and sound effects burst with fresh detail. Centering the vocals is a leap forward and boosting the drums and bass restores the visceral power of this rock album that used to be found only in the mono mix. My only real misgiving is the vocal placement in A Day In The Life, but the remixes of the title track, Getting Better, Mr. Kite, Within You and Good Morning are breathtaking. This remix firmly places this album in the 21st century and (partially) restores Pepper's reputation which has been overshadowed in recent years by Revolver.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Sgt. Pepper box set: What's really new?

Unless you've been in a coma, you've heard by now that a 50th anniversary Sgt. Pepper box set will soon be released on May 26. Never mind the single- and double-CD packages. Anyone reading this blog will care only about the Super Deluxe 4CD/DVD/blu-ray multiorgasmic set that looks promising.
That optimism is based on early reports, including this one by Rolling Stone last month, that covered an exclusive preview at Abbey Road that a handful of lucky mortals in London attended. These reports tell us of mind-blowing early takes from the album and a fresh remix where Ringo's drumming leaps out of the speakers. I hope so.
However, the box ain't cheap: US$150 for Americans and C$199 for poor Canadians. In contrast, 100 quid for U.K. listeners is halfway reasonable. That's still a lot of cash for 6 discs and a 144-page hardcover book. I'm tempted to shout "cash grab," but will refrain until I get my hands on a set.
So, what's on this box and what do we already have, whether it's legit or bootleg? Here's the track listing and our notes:

CD 1
Sgt. Pepper 2017 Stereo Mix

Yes, this is a re-mix, not a typical "remastered" version that no human can distinguish from the old. By all reports, George's son, Gilles, with Sam Okell, have laboured to produce a brand new mix that will dazzle listeners. Compare that to 1967 when most record-buyers owned mono record players while portable music devices like iPods and smartphones were science fiction. Supposedly, Ringo's drum kicks ass in the new mix, and that's a welcome relief. I have every reason to believe this, given the way Ringo's bass drums leaps out of my speakers in Hey Bulldog from 1999's Yellow Submarine Songbook. I hope Gilles and Okell can inject as much percussive muscle into the new mixes, as this will do humanity a great service by replacing the extreme panning of the original (read: horrible) 1967 stereo mix. Expect instruments and vocals you never heard popping up. Verdict: can't wait.

CD 2 (Complete early takes from the sessions, sequenced in chronological order of their first recording dates)
1. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 1]
2. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 4]
3. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 7]
4. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 26]

Takes 1 and 7 of the song that kicked off the Pepper sessions already appear on The Beatles Anthology and, except take 26, as far back as the landmark 1985 vinyl bootleg, Nothing is Real, and boot CDs notably the comprehensive, It's Not Too Bad (which includes take 26). The only thing we can hope for is some sonic polish to these tracks.
5. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Stereo Mix - 2015]
Gilles' mix from the 1 deluxe reissue that year.
6. "When I'm Sixty-Four" [Take 2]
7. "Penny Lane" [Take 6 – Instrumental]
8. "Penny Lane" [Vocal Overdubs And Speech]
9. "Penny Lane" [Stereo Mix - 2017]

As far as I can tell, these are all new. The Anthology 2 outtake is a blend of several takes, which may or may not come from these outtakes. And the stereo mix will be brand new. Rolling Stone reports "a lavish Pet Sounds-style version led by Paul's piano and harmonium [and] a backing vocal track that's all Paul and George doing handclaps and harmonies." 
10. "A Day In The Life" [Take 1]
11. "A Day In The Life" [Take 2]
12. "A Day In The Life" [Orchestra Overdub]
13. "A Day In The Life" (Hummed Last Chord) [Takes 8, 9, 10 and 11]
14. "A Day In The Life" (The Last Chord)

Again, the Anthology 2 outtake combined several outtakes, including 1 and 2, but here these takes will be presented in their entirety. That should be interesting.  I've read that the mythic hummed last chord sounded dreadful and they were unable to maintain the hum long enough without falling into fits of laughter. We've had a short snippet on VHS for many years, but with four takes of this ending, we'll hear for ourselves exactly why it was dumped.

The total effect of all these tracks should demonstrate how The Beatles built their most celebrated (and complex) song.

15. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" [Take 1 – Instrumental]
16. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" [Take 9 And Speech]

New. There have never been any outtakes of this song, so this is meaty. Rolling Stone describes these takes as a "long, raw guitar jam."
17. "Good Morning Good Morning" [Take 1 - Instrumental, Breakdown]
18. "Good Morning Good Morning" [Take 8]

Take 1 is new, but take 8 already appears in Beatles Anthology 2. Why not replace that with another outtake, since anyone buying the box set will own the Anthology set?
Verdict: Despite a few redundancies, the first disc of outtakes promises enough surprises and buried treasures.

CD 3 (Complete early takes from the sessions, sequenced in chronological order of their first recording dates)
1. "Fixing A Hole" [Take 1]
2. "Fixing A Hole" [Speech And Take 3]

New. No outtakes exist on bootleg. Rolling Stone says that Paul takes a rockier, R&B approach and Ringo takes off the drums. Intriguing.
3. "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" [Speech From Before Take 1; Take 4 And Speech At End]
4. "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" [Take 7]

Only take 4 is new. The rest is already on Anthology 2. Again, why not something new??
5. "Lovely Rita" [Speech And Take 9]
New. No outtakes exist on bootleg. 

6. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" [Take 1 And Speech At The End]
7. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" [Speech, False Start And Take 5]

An outfake, based on takes 6, 7 and 8 appear on Anthology 2, so these tracks are new. Yipee! However, it begs the question of why Gilles, Apple and the Beatles themselves didn't select new outtakes for Mr. Kite and Good Morning, Good Morning.
8. "Getting Better" [Take 1 - Instrumental And Speech At The End]
9. "Getting Better" [Take 12]

New. Says Rolling Stone: "Paul leads on Wurtlitzer keyboard for a more aggressive attack."
10. "Within You Without You" [Take 1 - Indian Instruments Only]
11. "Within You Without You" [George Coaching The Musicians]

An unidentified instrumental take appears on Anthology 2, so it may or may not be take 1. Probably not, since the Anthology 2 version sounds polished. In any case, this should be interesting. Likely new.
12. "She's Leaving Home" [Take 1 – Instrumental]
13. "She's Leaving Home" [Take 6 – Instrumental]

14. "With A Little Help From My Friends" [Take 1 - False Start And Take 2 – Instrumental]
New. An early run-through with Paul leading on piano, John on guitar and George on cowbell (yes, cowbell). No bass.

15. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" [Speech And Take 8]
New. Always a kick-ass track, I wonder what this version sounds like.
Verdict: Only two cuts are redundant, while the rest are new. Thumbs up.

CD 4 (Sgt. Pepper and bonus tracks in Mono)

1-13: 2017 Direct Transfer of Sgt. Pepper Original Mono Mix
14. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Original Mono Mix]
15. "Penny Lane" [Original Mono Mix]
Likely the same as the Mono Box Set and countless mono transfers from vinyl to digital.
16. "A Day In The Life" [Unreleased First Mono Mix]
17. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" [Unreleased Mono Mix - No. 11]
18. "She's Leaving Home" [Unreleased First Mono Mix]

New. A little intriguing, since I've never heard of these. I don't expect significant differences, but rather touches here and there that may surprise.

19. "Penny Lane" [Capitol Records U.S. Promo Single - Mono Mix]
This has been around since the 1980 Rarities vinyl LP released by Capitol. It features an extra horn riff at the coda. Will it change your life? Nope. But it's cute.
Verdict: If you already own the mono mix, then only four tracks are really new, and even then that's a stretch.

DISCS 5 & 6 (Blu-ray & DVD)

New 5.1 Surround Audio mixes of 'Sgt. Pepper’ album and “Penny Lane,” plus 2015 5.1 Surround mix of “Strawberry Fields Forever”
This is where owning a 5.1 sound system pays off. What's better than a stereo remix of Pepper is a new surround mix of the album. Excellent!

High Resolution Audio versions of 2017 'Sgt. Pepper’ stereo mix and 2017 “Penny Lane” stereo mix, plus 2015 “Strawberry Fields Forever” hi res stereo mix (Blu-ray: LPCM Stereo 96KHz/24bit / DVD: LPCM Stereo)
Doesn't hurt, though only audiophiles will appreciate these.

Video Features (both discs):
The Making of Sgt. Pepper [restored 1992 documentary film, previously unreleased]
Long bootlegged, this fine film is most welcome here. Can't wait to see the restored video and audio.

Promotional Films: "A Day In The Life" "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" [4K restored]
Will these be any better than the 1 deluxe blu-ray set?

Verdict: Love seeing a new 5.1 mix included (long, long overdue) and the 1992 documentary released.

Overall verdict: Though pricey, this box set contains an overwhelming majority of new studio material, entirely new stereo and 5.1 mixes and presents the often-bootlegged Making of documentary with few redundancies with existing official releases. A splendid time is (likely) guaranteed for all!

Friday, 17 February 2017

I hated Strawberry Fields Forever

by Allan Tong

It was the age of vinyl and I had worn out the grooves of the 1973 Apple/Capitol double-compilation 1962-66 ("red" album) and had eagerly taken him home the companion 1967-70 "blue" album from Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street in Toronto. I threw the disc on my father's turntable, cranked it up and dropped the needle on side 1 of the album. I heard this funereal dirge (Paul's mellotron) then this ghostly voice intoning, "Let me take you down..."

What the fuck?

It sounded like shit. It sounded too slow. It sounded ugly. It was Strawberry Fields Forever, released 50 years ago today in the UK.

Like a lover you grow to understand her idiosyncrasies, it took me a long time to first understand just what the hell John Lennon was saying when he sang, "I think I know of me, ah yes, but it's all wrong" and more time to appreciate just how good the song was.

I wasn't alone.

On March 11, 1967, Dick Clark played the video of SFF and Penny Lane to an audience of American teenagers. Most of them had heard I Want To Hold Your Hand, Help! and Yellow Submarine, the band's last number one, and the clever ones would have clued into Tomorrow Never Knows,but this song blew them away...or confounded them. The reactions after seeing the "film" what we call "video" now) included:

"I thought it was great."

"I don't like their hair."

"They looked older and it ruins their image."

"It was funny."

"Their mustaches are weird!"

"Looked good."

Pete Townshend was one of the first to hear the single before release. He noted that Lennon looked gaunt and nearly unrecognizable, and the music that emanated from the turntable was strange:

Brian Epstein had summoned me, with Eric Clapton, to be the first two artist-peers to hear "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane", The Beatles' new recordings, on an eight-track tape recorder. John was nervous, I remember. He was with Cynthia, his first wife, and she seemed more relaxed than he was. After we had heard the tracks, I was speechless.

The New Musical Express' Derek Johnson wrote: "Certainly the most unusual and way-out single The Beatles have yet produced – both in lyrical content and scoring. Quite honestly, I don't really know what to make of it."

The Beatles, like contemporaries Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Brian Wilson and soon Jimi Hendrix and, in jazz, Miles Davis, strove to push the boundaries into new sounds, but they risked leaving their audience behind. Just ask The Beach Boys, whose Smile confused a lot of their fans in the late-60s. With its backwards tapes, slowed-down vocals, audio loops and avant-garde sounds inspired by Stockhausen, Strawberry Fields Forever invaded the pop charts. In the week it was released, the U.S. top 10 looked like this:

1 KIND OF A DRAG - The Buckinghams
2 I’M A BELIEVER – The Monkees
3 RUBY TUESDAY – The Rolling Stones
4 GEORGY GIRL – The Seekers
5 (We Ain’t Got) NOTHIN’ YET – The Blues Magoos
7 98.6 – Keith
8 TELL IT LIKE IT IS – Aaron Neville
9 THE BEAT GOES ON Sonny and Cher
10 GIMME SOME LOVIN’ - The Spencer Davis Group

Some fine songs by great bands here, including The Supremes and Spencer Davis, but the closest song approaching SFF in inventiveness was Ruby Tuesday by their alleged rivals, The Stones. SFF and Penny Lane sounded like something from outer space.

It's a crime that SFF reached only number 8 on the U.S. charts and with Penny Lane only 2 in the U.K. Now it's universally lauded as the greatest Beatles--or rock--song next to A Day in the Life.

What happened?

Once in a while a piece of art will reach its audience that's ahead of its time and the audience must catch up. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example. The Beatles began as a teenybopper band and SFF/Penny Lane announced them to be artistes. This single has endured as a masterpiece and its influence is incalculable.

Me, I hated Strawberry Fields Forever, and now it's my favourite song of all time. Period. It speaks to me like no other. It doesn't just entertain me, but moves me. It means something. A book, a movie, a painting, a song, whatever. You are what you love, and I love Strawberry Fields Forever. It will play at my funeral and birthdays.  It is true and beautiful. It will always be a part of me, and we all need a piece of music like that.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Mark Lewisohn tunes into Toronto

Renown Beatles historian, Mark Lewisohn, recently concluded a three-week research trip to Cleveland (the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame archives) and New York for volumes 2 and 3 of his epic biography, Tune In, by sitting for an interview at Toronto's Metro Reference Library.

An overflowing audience of over 200 heard the Englishman answer questions about the Beatles pivotal year, 1966. After all, his talk was part of the ongoing Beatles 50 T.O. celebration, centering on an exhibition [read the Rowboat's review here] and featuring walking tours, more talks and even a fashion show.

Lewisohn confirmed that the Beatles were first heard in North America on a Toronto radio station, “because Canada has a strong connection to Britain that American doesn't have. Canada tuned into the Beatles before America did."

Here are some more insights Lewisohn offered:

About the Yesterday and Today butcher cover:

This was an attempt by the photographer, Bob Whittaker, who was edgy and liked to do impressionistic work...The Vietnam War is raging by '65/66 and America is deeply involved in it and that is part of the ferment that is going on in this period. It was just a comment, but they obviously could have said, "No, we're not doing that." They didn't. They joined in and did the session.

George never liked it very much, but he did go along with it. John Lennon was the one who pushed for this to be an album cover. There's something extraordinary about a guy who will want something like that as his album cover when you consider that most people believed that the Beatles' core audience was young girls. So, this is a very shocking thing to do, very much in-your-face as we would call it these days. But that's what they wanted.

In Boston there's a swamp filled with 30,000 of these record covers. I was last week in Pennsylvania with a guy who used to work at the Capitol Records pressing factory and his job was to dispose of (I'm not sure) 10,000 record covers. He had to watch them be pulped at a shredding place.

Would Elvis had been asked if he was bigger than Christ or was '66 the year it had to happen?

The times they were a-changing. Everyone was growing up....Through the sixties the audience is maturing. With the Beatles comes an advancement in that maturing process, then others join in like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones...

The Beatles were always different in England. When they came here to North America or anywhere they were travelling, they were “on.” They were like working. When they were home in England, their lives were so much different, much more calm and they were always open to reasonable approaches from journalists that they liked. They were interviewed extensively. They had none of the protection that the stars surround themselves with these days. You could phone up the office and say, “I'd like to interview John ideally tomorrow for Sunday's paper." The PR person would phone John and he'd say, “Yeah, okay.”

In this case, Maureen Cleave who was a journalist for the London Evening Standard who they really, really liked – because she was smart and savvy and interesting and witty, and John had a bit of an affair with her once. In 1966, she approached Brian Epstein and said, “I'd like to do in-depth interviews with all four of them and with you Brian, and these will run one a week in the London Evening Standard, whole page. I'll just go over to their houses and we'll talk."

In John's one, he said he was reading a lot, as he always was—he was a voracious reader of books and newspapers—and he just said that the Beatles in a sense were more popular than Jesus, because churches in England in the 1960s were empty....We can get 50,000 people to our shows, and the churches were empty. That in essence was what he was saying. As John said later, he wasn't knocking Jesus for that or boasting that we are bigger, more important. It was just so common. It ran in the British newspapers.

There was one letter in the Guardian about what an interesting remark to make. I'm not sure if that's true, but interesting. And then it went quiet. There were a couple of pieces in America. Funnily enough, there was a piece in a Detroit newspaper in April. The piece ran in England in March, but in July it got picked up by one of the American teenage girls magazines called Datebook.

Datebook put it on the cover: We're bigger than Jesus. And it just kind of sparked. They never held it against Datebook. They liked the editor very much. They kept a relationship with him. [Managing editor Danny Fields, who explains why he published the “Jesus” remark in the video below.] He was on that tour. He was not booted out. He wasn't responsible for the chaos that ensued.

In the new film, Eight Days A Week, Paul McCartney remembered the bigger than Jesus rumpus. What a big story that was for a few days, and says that John was a broken man by it. I'm really cross about that, because John was not a broken man by that. I wish Paul hadn't said that, and it's not right. But on camera that day he chose to say that and they included that, and that's going to be part of the history now. John was never a broken man and John apologized only for the way in which the words were couched or the fact that anybody may have been upset by it. He never actually apologized for what he said.

The second book takes place after 1962. Where are you going to end up after the second volume?

In the asylum, I think.

How are you going to approach this, because a lot of what's happening after December 1962 [where volume 1 ends] doesn't happen in England anymore. How are you going to span the globe and go through all the libraries and dig out this information?

(thinks about it) Yeah. (audience laughs) I'm not quite sure. I've been researching volume 2 and 3 from the beginning. I started this project in 2003. When you do a project like this, the research you just have to find whatever you find whenever you can find it no matter what period it belongs to.

The focus in the earlier years obviously was the early years. I was always finding good things for the next two books. Now, my focus is strictly volumes 2 and 3...

I've been a lifelong lover of libraries and archives and there is a great deal to be found if you know where to look and you have the sensibility for how libraries and archives work. The Beatles' story has the very richest of paper trails. Not just paper. There's every kind of artifact you could ever imagine that is out there waiting to be found. A lot of it is known about substantially, but there is plenty more.

I came away from New York with that [spreads his arms] many original carbon copies of letters from the Beatles' management office from the 1960s, almost every one of which is revelatory, almost every one of which allows me to put real flesh on the bones of a story that people think they know but actually don't, because the tellings of the history tend to haven the sequence of: they made this album, then they went on tour, they made this album, then they made that film, then they went on tour.

What happens in between is as interesting if not more, because I want to make these books – as the first one is – about human beings. I hate the word “icons” or “iconic.” It's overused to death. Or “legends.” The Beatles weren't legends or icons. They were just human beings who expressed themselves this way and found that that was having a major effect without them wishing it on the whole world or substantial part...

I want to tell the story from the inside out, who they were, how they coped with everything that was going on, what their homes lives were like. I'm interested in what happens the day after the tour finishes and they're back home and they need to come down again and start seeing their friends and smoking what they want to smoke. Also, I want to look at it from the outside in, because the Beatles' effect on people everywhere on all ages, colours, creeds, classes was unparalleled.

Hair is the ultimate symbol of revolution in the sixties. It's the ultimate thing to piss off your schoolteacher or parent or factory foreman -- and that was entirely due to the Beatles. It was a revolution and that needs to be told....

I haven't started writing volume 2, and that will take a while, because the assimilation of this material is an immense undertaking, just the structuring of this. I like information and detail in these books, but I don't want the reader to be bogged down in that. I really want this to be a light, engaging, easy page-turner, which is not an easy thing to accomplish with the density of information... 2028 might by when volume 3 comes out, but I might still be researching it. It'll be when it'll be.