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.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Sam Leach was The Sixth Beatle? Bollocks (film review)

Review by Allan Tong

For decades, fans have affectionately regarded Brian Epstein as the fifth Beatle. As their manager, Epstein cleaned up the Beatles' punk image, dressed them in matching suits, secured them a record contract and booked their fateful American appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show of February 1964, launching Beatlemania.

Nobody denies Epstein's accomplishments, not even Sam Leach. But Leach, a promoter who booked some of the Beatles' early Liverpool gigs, now claims in a documentary that just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival that Epstein stole the band from him.


It's telling that a preamble before the film states that Mark Lewisohn, a widely respected Beatles' historian, had wanted his interview removed from the film, because he felt the film was "erroneous." I can see why, but I am glad that the TIFF screenings included Lewisohn, because he grounds the film in reality. (Freda Kelly is another reliable interview subject who does a good job explaining the early-1960s Liverpool rock scene and The Beatles' place in it.)

In contrast, Leach, along with musical contemporaries of the early Beatles, and American journalist Larry Kane (who covered the Beatles' U.S. tours of 1964-66, and hardly an early Beatles specialist), back up the ludicrous claim that Epstein stole The Beatles from Leach.

There's an old saying: You're entitled to your opinion, but not the facts. Well, the facts don't support Leach. Yes, Sam Leach promoted some of The Beatles' early shows, some of them big and important in their career. He deserves credit, and his name graces some renown biographies, including Lewisohn's exhaustive Tune In, but Leach isn't the only one who helped The Beatles.

Allan Williams, who truly was the Beatles' manager before Epstein, booking them to play all-nighters in Hamburg which forged these scruffy Scousers into a tough, exciting band. All fans agree that Hamburg was the pivotal moment in The Beatles' early development.

Beatle fans will approach this film with skepticism and few will be swayed. I walked away from The Sixth Beatle appalled that Epstein was cast as the villain and Leach as his victim. Not only Leach, but Pete Best.

What? Yes, the movie claims that Epstein kicked Pete out of the band so that he could get Pete's mother, Mona, off his back. Mona ran the Casbah Club, where she let the young Beatles play when they were just kids. Yes, Mona also aided The Beatles' development and deserves credit, but to charge Epstein for conspiring against her is laughable.

Further, The Sixth Beatle states that The Beatles were ready for stardom before rich, posh Epstein swept them away. Untrue.The film fails to say that Epstein was rejected by every London record label, including EMI, and how his own family disapproved of his detour into music management. Remember: Epstein managed the record section of his family's department store. He was not a showbiz big shot as the film alleges.

Crucially, the film fails to say that Epstein encouraged John and Paul to resume songwriting from their pre-Hamburg days. Without those early hits to propel them to national then worldwide stardom, The Beatles would've remained a Liverpool legend--and nothing more.

In the film, Leach actually comes off as an amiable fellow reminiscing about the good ole days, but he also sounds envious, even bitter. Leach couldn't launch The Beatles, so he's attacking the guy who did. That's sad. Further, these attacks are so far-fetched that they discredit Leach. It'll only get worse if filmmakers Anthony Guma and John Rose cut Lewisohn from the final edit.

Even with Lewisohn, The Sixth Beatle is a dishonest film, but one that I fear casual fans will take at face value.

Friday, 5 August 2016

The Beatles masterpiece: Revolver or Sgt. Pepper?

For years, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was considered rock's greatest album. In the U.S., Rolling Stone magazine has long ranked it at #1 while Pepper sits in the prestigious Library of Congress' National Recording Registry for posterity. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic first in 1978 then 1987 awarded Pepper the top spot.

Then, Revolver stole the crown. It topped the 2000 Q magazine list of the 50 Greatest British Albums Ever; VH1's greatest albums in history list (2001); the Virgin All-Time Top 1,000 Albums list; and 2013's Entertainment Weekly's greatest albums in history.
1966 ad for the U.S. Revolver

So, what happened?

Probably the tide turned when the 1987 CD issue of the UK version of Revolver finally reached American fans. Since the album's stateside release 50 years on August 8, 1966, American listeners were stuck with an inferior version that omitted I'm Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing and Dr. Robert. Since 1987, generations have grown up on the complete 14-track album which restores the absence of John's missing songs and rectifies the balance of Revolver.

1967 ad for the U.K. Sgt. Pepper
Further, those GenX'ers and Millennials didn't live through the Summer of Love, which Pepper shaped. Instead, the younger generations grew up with a critical distance and simply listened to the music.

That said, Pepper remains the favourite of many rock and Beatles' fans, but so does Revolver. Below, we (the Doc exhalting Revolver and the Guv championing Sgt. Pepper) debate the merits and weaknesses of both albums.

(Read more about Sgt. Pepper: A Splendid Alternative)

Doc: Sgt. Pepper had the greatest impact of any Beatles -- or rock -- album, but in terms of songwriting, performance, innovation and vision, Revolver is superior. Revolver captures Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr hitting their creative peaks at precisely the same time. They were abetted by an experienced, yet adventurous producer in George Martin, and a hungry, innovative engineer in Geoff Emerick.

Guv: Revolver is the latter part of the Beatles' transition to studio band, but it's still not fully realised. It's patchy. The studio band is still finding its wings. Pepper, on the other hand, stands as a whole. I clearly remember the first time I heard the album as a teen. It blew my mind. As an album, it was greater than its parts and evokes an atmosphere -- a place, a time, a psychedelic, swinging 60s Liverpool.

Poetry & fantasy

Doc: Pepper is an achievement of the highest order, too, but it's an excursion into fantasy and whimsy and not terribly personal or profound, except for A Day In The Life.

Guv: Pepper as an album is more complete, more realized. It's a painting, a watercolour. Revolver is a collage that is best viewed in segments.

Doc: The songs on Pepper are as varied in style and subject matter as those on Revolver, but because the former is packaged as "Sgt. Pepper's band" there's an illusion of unity. It's a collection of songs, that's all, and those songs simply aren't as memorable as Revolver's.

Guv: It wasn't really a concept album, but that's what it is. And it's not just the packaging. The flow of the album is a listening experience. I can dip in and out of Revolver. Pepper is an album I listen to in total.

Doc: The overall flavour of Pepper is self-conscious fantasy, a la Mr. Kite and Lucy and the title track itself. Mind you, the fantasy is dazzling...

Guv: While I agree it's very much fantastical, I don't for a moment believe it's self conscious. Lucy and Kite both have brilliant and creative origins: a child's drawing and an Elizabethan poster - both ideal candidates for songs, and neither is self-conscious. And the instrumentation on those two tracks is highly inventive. Original, stunningly beautiful soundscapes to listen to.

Doc: I find the lyrics on Revolver are more personal and therefore resonant. Pepper is fun, but Revolver touches me.

Guv: Exactly! Pepper is fun. It's not wildly introspective, which is what acid [LSD] did for them, but full of humour and wit. The backing vocal lines in With A Little Help From My Friends. The humour of Lovely Rita ("What do you see when you turn out the lights? I can't tell you, but I know it's mine", "took her home, I nearly made it," & "sitting on a sofa with a sister or two") Nudge-Nudge, wink-wink.

Doc: That's my point: Pepper is indeed fun, more fun that Revolver, but Revolver is grittier. The songwriters began writing introspectively with Rubber Soul, then went full bloom with Revolver, but the acid-Carnaby Street scene pushed John and Paul into whimsy and fantasy.

Guv: Oh, come on! Once again you're picking on Rita and Friends? Just how introspective and reflective do you find Yellow Submarine? And Taxman is just George complaining about how much he had to pay the government. As far as protest songs go, it's hardly Dylan! And what's wrong with Whimsy and Fantasy?

Doc: Nothing, but Pepper is 90% whimsy and fantasy. It needed a personal, poetic song like Strawberry Fields Forever to balance it out.

Guv: Again I come back to listening experience. Put on Pepper and I'm transported. A fantastical world. I can close my eyes and be lost for 43 minutes.

Robert Freeman's dazzling cover for Revolver that was rejected. Freeman photographed the covers of With The Beatles, Beatles for Sale and Rubber Soul. 

The George factor

Doc: One area where Revolver triumphs over Pepper is the diversity of voices. Revolver boasts three George songs and the rest are split between Paul and John. Pepper is overwhelming Paul. You barely hear George. John shines with Lucy and A Day In The Life, but his presence is weaker than usual. I love the contrast of voices on Revolver and miss that interplay on Pepper.

Guv: George shone on Revolver, no doubt. But an album is not about democracy. It's about the best songs at the time. It was a mistake to leave SFF and Penny Lane off Pepper, for sure. I know Paul can be twee (i.e. the verses of Getting Better) but John was there to balance that with, "It can't get much worse." Paul countered this by softening Lennon's seriousness, for example, with his interlude in the middle of A Day In The Life.

Doc: Look at side 1 of Revolver: George's Taxman (an angry song with a funky bassline and a blistering guitar solo), the sad eloquence of Eleanor Rigby with a restrained, but effective classical backing, taking Yesterday a step further), then dipping into psychedelia with John's dreamy ode to daydreaming in I'm Only Sleeping with the backwards guitar. Then, we turn 180-degrees into India with Love You To, which rocks as hard as any Beatles song, only it's done with a tabla and not a Rickenbacker.

Guv: But it's disjointed. It doesn't flow as well. And this is where tone comes in. Revolver works well enough, but as I suggested, by accident.

Doc: My point about Revolver isn't about democracy, but diversity. You have three voices -- and personalities and world viewpoints -- contrasting each other. In Pepper, those viewpoints are glossed over by fantastical songwriting and elaborate musical arrangements. What may be a jumble of songs to you, is to me like reading an anthology of the greatest short stories of all time from cover to cover.

An early version of Klaus Voorman's cover for Revolver before the photo montage.
Guv: Even an anthology of short stories needs a unified theme and flow.

Doc: Revolver flows. The unity lies in the consistent level of musical invention and economical writing of every song. There's no fat on this album and each song is reaching for a new sound and expression. For example, the long, "elliptical" fade-in of I Want To Tell You is seductive and smart.

Guv: Of course there is fat on Revolver. Yellow Submarine belongs there? It's a throwaway, charming kiddie song. Love You To is good, but hardly vital.

Doc: Oh, please,

The Revolver sessions, spring 1966 at EMI Studios on Abbey Road. (photo: Robert Freeman)

Words & music

Doc: The lyrics in Revolver are more personal and the songwriting is economical. Lyrics get to the point and they are sharper. Take any line out of Eleanor Rigby, which is one of Paul's finest lyrics ever ("and was buried along with her name"); or the sardonic Taxman ("If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet"); or the sadly nostalgic She Said She Said ("When I was a boy, everything was right'); or the enigmatic Tomorrow Never Knows ("Lay down all thought surrender to the void"). 

Guv: Those are fine examples, but you can counter those lines with a bunch from Pepper. "And the time will come when you see we're all one and life flows on within you and without you".
Doc: Pepper has its moments, lyrically, but they are fewer and far between. "I used to be angry young man, me hiding me head in the sand" in Getting Better is honest and powerful. "See the people standing there who disagree and never win and wonder why they don't get in my door" is a rare instance of Paul talking to himself (a la John). Then, of course, you have A Day In The Life.

Guv: I won't deny Revolver pushed envelopes both instrumentally and in arrangement. It was a huge leap from Beatlemania's boy-meets-girl. But Pepper took it a step further and the studio became another instrument like never before. I would argue that has never been surpassed. Elaborate, textured, layered, but not self-conscious.

Doc: On Revolver, some songs just didn't need elaborate arrangements, like Here There and Everywhere, She Said She Said and Good Day Sunshine. They could have been performed in concert. Pepper songs were all intended for a full production. I can't imagine Lucy in acoustic.

Listen to the isolated tape loops that appear in Tomorrow Never Knows

Guv: Revolver was a band still in transition, from teenyboppers to studio masters. Their minds and imaginations were opened by acid, and they needed to replicate that experience on vinyl. They had time to experiment in the studio, and were fortunate to have willing accomplices in Martin and Emerick. And they did it so well. Revolver is, indeed a masterpiece. But by the time they got to Pepper they had more control, more time (they'd stopped touring) and were able to practise and develop their parts. Paul's playing is more melodic than every before. Revolver took them to the final camp, but with Pepper they reach the top of the mountain.

Doc: The fantasy of Pepper is imaginative and beautiful, but there is a shallowness to it as well. Revolver's songs are more personal and direct, so they touch the listener. Also, there is a diversity of voices on Revolver that is lacking on Pepper. (The Beatles could have rectified this by including Strawberry Fields Forever.)

Guv: That's where Pepper works. It's Psychedelic Music Hall.

Doc: Revolver is a collection of sounds, many new to listeners in 1966, yet still fresh 50 years later. 
There's Indian raga, Memphis soul, Beach Boys harmonies, a children's song, an acid trip and classical strings on an album that has no weak moments.

Read more of our special coverage celebrating the 50th anniversary release of Revolver:

Cos I'm The Staxman: What if the Beatles recorded Revolver in Memphis?

Paperback Writer/Rain: The Beatles' most overlooked single

As relevant as the Vietnam War: the Beatles' butcher cover 50 years later

Beatles 50th anniversary in Toronto exhibition short-changes fans

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Beatles 50th anniversary in Toronto exhibition short-changes fans

Part of the Rowboat Syndicate's coverage celebrating the 50th anniversary of Revolver

review by Allan Tong

When The Beatles Rocked Toronto is long on Toronto history, but short on the Beatles.
Promoted as "Metropolitan life and music in the mid-60s," the exhibition (running through Nov.12 at the St. Lawrence Market's Market Gallery and part of a larger celebration, Beatles 50 T.O.) does just that. A detailed written timeline, vintage living room furniture, Yorkville coffee house posters, a giant map of the downtown music scene and archival photos detail the vibrant mid-60s scene in Toronto.

This part of the exhibition succeeds. It illustrates uptight, WASPy Toronto invaded by white kids playing folk music and rock 'n' roll. There are mementos of folkies including Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young who graced the coffee houses of Yorkville, then a hotbed of teen rebellion (and today a millionaire's playground).

A glaring omission is Bob Dylan.

In September 1965, Dylan recruited Ronnie Hawkins' (a legendary Toronto rockabilly singer) band, The Hawks, to back him on his tour. Dylan was transitioning from a folkie into a rock star, and the Hawks (later The Band) would join him. The marriage of Dylan's lyrics with electricity revolutionized popular music in 1965 that directly influenced The Beatles. And Toronto played a key role. So, where's Bob?

This half (literally more than half the floor space of this art gallery) of the exhibition does not connect with The Beatles. True. It's important to offer context so that audiences today can understand the impact The Fab Four had on North American cities like Toronto. However, the Yorkville scene consisted of coffee houses where folk singers played. How did The Beatles fit? The exhibition feels like two separate shows: one about mid-60s Toronto music, and the other about The Beatles' three Toronto concerts in 1964, 1965 and 1966.

Visitors, of course, will pay more attention to the The Beatles' part of the exhibition. There is the requisite memorabilia: a tour program, bobbleheads, trading cards, an oversized comb, a Beatles wig, and a Toronto Telegram magazine picturing John in a ridiculous nightgown on the cover. The jewel is a pristine "butcher" cover. All fun and fine.

More intriguing are Canadian items that few fans have seen: ticket stubs from the Toronto shows, a Cadbury Chocolate offer to buy Beatles photos, CHUM radio station record charts, a rare concert poster, and a Canadian fan club membership card and newsletter. Capitol Canada head honcho, Paul White, contributes much of his own vinyl, including a company newsletter, dated Nov. 22, 1963, declaring "BEATLEMANIA" INVADES CANADA that outlines his record release schedule and strategy. (The exhibit proudly notes that the Beatles conquered Canada a year before the U.S.)

White shares some reminisces in a video that is part of a larger loop. No, there's no footage of The Beatles here, certainly not the concerts or interviews with screaming fans. Instead, there is a Toronto music program that ran on TV. Shamefully, most of this video is marred by out-of-synch audio.

That's right. There's not a single second of film or audio of any of The Beatles' concerts, press conferences or even news coverage (i.e. CBC-TV). Collectors have this already and some of it is available on the internet, but something - anything - deserves to be part of this exhibition. This is inexcusable.

The Beatles play Maple Leafs Gardens, Toronto, on Sept. 7, 1964 (photo: Boris Spremo)
The closest we get to reliving the concerts are two slideshows capturing fans clamouring outside Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto's venerable, old hockey arena where The Beatles performed, and of the band itself performing onstage and hosting press conferences. Photographers Boris Spremo, John Rowlands and Lynn Ball share many amazing images. Fans scrawl graffiti on the Gardens' back door, and weep and scream in and outside the venue. Watching this, I wondered, What happened to these teenage fans? Where are their reminisces in this exhibit?

Another glaring omission is the complete absence of Revolver. Though the band played no music from this album, the entire point behind the August 1966 tour was to promote it. Similarly, there's zero reference of The Beatles getting fed up with touring and soon winding down Beatlemania. There's no explicit mention of the Bigger Than Christ furor, Tokyo demonstrations and Manila fiasco that forever drove the Beatles, which in turn makes the 1966 Toronto concert all the more important. 1966 forced Sgt. Pepper.  Yet, none of this context is here.

The visitor gets close, but not close enough. When The Beatles Rocked Toronto is a nostalgia trip for Boomers who lived through the era, but they will gain no deeper understanding of The Beatles. Casual fans and those born after the 60s will enter a time capsule and get a taste of Beatlemania and Toronto music, but will not understand the significance of The Beatles on Canadian society. They were a big pop group, that's all.

At $10 admission and supported by the Toronto and Ontario governments, When The Beatles Rocked Toronto is a cash grab. 

Read more about Revolver here.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Supersonic! How to remix the Beatles' first two stereo albums

In 1963, the Beatles recorded Please Please Me and With The Beatles on two-track tape with the instrumentals on the left channel and the vocals segregated to the right. There is no "bleed" between channels.

"The reason I used the stereo machine in twin-track form was simply to make the mono better," explained George Martin in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. "I certainly didn't separate them for people to hear them separate!"

No kidding. The 1963 stereo mixes suck. You can land a Space Shuttle between the left and right channels. You can get an aneurysm listening to them on headphones. The torture is more acute in the age of digital music, where every instrument and voice is crystal clear.

But there's good news! We at the Rowboat Syndicate have solved the eternal "extreme panning" malady once and for all. Best thing is: anybody can do it.

All you need is the following:

1) The 1963 stereo mixes in WAV (preferably) or MP3 form.

2) Audio mixing software. I use an ancient version of Cool Edit Pro. All you need is software that separates each channel into LEFT and RIGHT, like this: 

3) A good set of headphones, like Sennheisers, or stereo speakers to monitor your work clearly. 

Let it bleed

Let's start with Please Please Me, The Beatles' first song recorded in infamous two-track. Load PPM onto your audio mixing software. Then, go to the channel mixer (as shown above). You'll hear this:

LEFT: Rhythm track (all instruments, ex-harmonica)

RIGHT: John's vocal + harmonica

Brutal, right? To reduce the panning, open the channel mixer on your software. This function lets you mix each channel, the left and the right separately. This is crucial. What you'll be doing is blending some of the right channel into the left channel, and mixing some of the left channel into the right. If you don't know what I mean, then, slide or key in the R in New Left Channel to 40, and do the same with the L in New Right Channel. Click preview and listen.

Now, you should now hear John's vocals in the left channel, though they remain louder in the right, and the instruments in the right channel, they remain stronger in the left. Overall, you should detect each channel bleeding (that word again) into the other to produce a more balanced and satisfying sound between your ears. The stereo breakdown now looks like this:

LEFT: Rhythm track  + (40% John's vocal + harmonica)

RIGHT: (John's vocal + harmonica) + 40% rhythm track  

Depending on your tastes, you can further separate the channels by decreasing the percentages or you can blend them more by increasing those levels. I recommend going no lower than 25% or else the channels sound too far apart, and I wouldn't rise beyond 50% or else you're sounding like mono.


After a lot of trial-and-error, I've determined that the sweet spot for the faster rock numbers should be mixed around 40%, while slower ballads stay within the 25-30% range. The reason is that rock numbers pack a visceral punch when you toss all the sonic ingredients together into a giant lump, while channel separation lets you appreciate each instrument in a ballad. 

To prove my point, mix Till There Was You at 30% blend:

Again, it comes down to personal taste. I find 25% too wide, and the mix draws attention to itself and detracts from the listening experience. Meanwhile, anything set higher than 30% and the instruments lose their distinction, particularly the guitar solo where each notes needs to be appreciated in detail.

Now, some of you may want Paul's vocal in the right channel to be more centered. Try this:

The only change here is setting the R in the New Left Channel to 60. What this does is blend 60% of the right channel (Paul's vocals) into the instruments of the left channel. Make sure to keep L in the New Right Channel at 30. Though Paul's vocal remains louder in the right channel, you now hear the illusion of Paul's voice centered in the mix and more dominant. Again, there is no right or wrong mix. You must find your own sweet spot. 

And that's it. Keep these rules of thumb in mind as you remix the stereo Please Please Me and With The Beatles albums, as well as From Me To You and Thank You Girl.

What about I Want To Hold Your Hand? That was recorded in four-track with the vocals already in the center. More on that later...

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

As relevant as the Vietnam War: the Beatles' butcher cover 50 years later

This is the second in a series of features celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' landmark Revolver album.

In March 1966, two routine events set the stage for The Beatles' annus horribilis: John Lennon's fateful interview with The London Evening Standard's Maureen Cleave where he pronounced "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus," and a routine photo session with Robert Whitaker.

Only it wasn't routine. On March 25, the Australian-born photographer collected The Beatles in a studio in London's posh Chelsea to pose them for a conceptual art piece entitled, A Somnambulant Adventure.

"I felt The Beatles needed a new approach with their image," Whitaker explained in The Beatles: An Oral History. Whitaker got George to pretend to hammer nails into John's head, each of them to wear bird cages over their heads and all of them to hold a strand of sausages. Whitaker got more carnivorous by draping the band in white butcher smocks and throwing slabs of raw meat and dismembered plastic dolls over them.

Fifty years later, it's not entirely clear how the infamous butcher image wound up on the cover of Yesterday and Today, but it sounds like the band (probably except George who detested the images) submitted the butcher photos to EMI and Capitol to promote their next releases, including the June 10 Paperback Writer single in the UK.

This ad first appeared in the New Music Express in the last week of May 1966, then on June 4 in Disc and Music Echo ahead of the June 10 release of Paperback Writer/Rain. A week later, the same magazine printed a colour photo on its cover, an alternate image beneath the headline, "What a carve-up!" The image raised a few eyebrows in Britain, but nothing more.

However, when the first printing of Yesterday and Today hit American records stores on June 20, it unleashed a firestorm and we all know what happened next: a costly, massive recall that resulted in unknown quantities of a generic cover slapped over the offending butcher cover, thus instantly rendering those copies collector's items.

"The original cover concept never really materialized," explained Whitaker. "It was meant to be a double-folded album cover where the front showed the four Beatles holding sausages, which would have stood for an umbilical cord." The link of sausages would connect with a woman in the inside gatefold to symbolize the birth of the Beatles and "all kinds of surreal, far-out images."

Well, that would have been different. Regardless, Whitaker was surprised that the butcher cover wound up on the front of Yesterday and Today and wonders if The Beatles sent Capitol the butcher image as a dark joke for this "filler" album.

In the valley of the dolls. Robert Whittaker's fateful photo shoot with The Beatles begins.
It ends in either black humour, poor taste or a protest against Capitol Records.
If 1967 was the Summer of Love, then 1966 was the Summer of Hate. At least, for The Beatles. The year began pleasantly enough with the band getting an overdue rest after three non-stop years of work before recording Revolver in the spring. Three songs were pulled from the early sessions to pad out yet another hodgepodge that Capitol presented to Beatles' fans as their so-called "new" album.

Let's consider Yesterday and Today, which was released 50 years ago today. Sure, it's full of great songs, including Nowhere Man, Day Tripper, We Can Work It Out and the title song, but the collection is disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying. Stylistically, songs jump from the country-and-western Act Naturally and What Goes On to the psychedelic I'm Only Sleeping and the heavy guitars of And Your Bird Can Sing and Day TripperYesterday and Today also suffers from an imbalance of voices: Paul sings lead on only three of the 11 songs, Ringo takes two, George gets one, and John the rest. If anything, Y&T is a survey of John Lennon's songwriting from 1965-6.

Capitol got away with this tawdry re-packaging in Something New and Beatles VI in 1964 and 1965 because the Beatlemania sound was homogenous over this period, but Y&T captures the Beatles in a period of rapid maturity. Only 12 months separate the releases of Help! and Revolver, but artistically The Beatles traveled light years in this time. Can you imagine Act Naturally on Revolver?

To be fair, every British Invasion group, including The Rolling Stones and Animals, suffered the same crass re-packaging of their music that routinely short-changed American fans (UK albums boasted 14 songs and no singles). Y&T was especially egregious. Yesterday, Act Naturally, We Can Work It Out, Day Tripper, Nowhere Man and What Goes On were already selling as 45s in American record shops when Y&T landed on June 20, 1966. That means that less than half of the album's music was actually new. Of course, Capitol didn't care. Y&T sold 500,000 copies in two weeks, and topped the charts for three weeks.

In 2016, Yesterday and Today is largely a nostalgia piece for North American baby boomers and a curio for later generations. Yesterday and Today symbolizes a pop band that suddenly outgrew its teenybopper image and was rapidly reshaping music. The butcher images that promoted the album and Paperback Writer were meant to sever the band from their cute moptop image. Sgt. Pepper would accomplish that with more subtlety and imagination 12 months later.

In 1986, the butcher cover re-appeared on official vinyl as the B-side of the limited-edition Paperback Writer picture disc. In 1980, it graced the gatefold of the North American release of the Rarities LP.

On a more important level, the butcher cover was the first of several controversies in 1966 that culminated in The Beatles retreating from concert stages forever and retiring Beatlemania for good. The Beatles were never the same after the summer of 1966.

They were a sardonic, cynical bunch, and the symbolism of peeling back the innocuous moptop image of Yesterday and Today to reveal the hidden butcher cover beneath is obvious. The mood of the era was darkening, too. By 1966, America was falling deeper into the amoral Vietnam War while its Civil Rights Movement was growing bloodier with riots and demonstrations.

The butcher cover, sneered Lennon was "as relevant as Vietnam."

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Paperback Writer/Rain: The Beatles' most overlooked single

This is the first in a series of features celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' landmark Revolver album.

Innovative in sound and lyric and influencing rock bands decades after its release 50 years ago today, Paperback Writer was the first Beatles' single to be greeted by disappointment.

It was the first single since She Loves You to fail to immediately hit #1 upon release, though it would covet the top spot for two weeks on both the U.K.'s New Musical Express and American Billboard charts. Critical reaction was mixed. In 1974, British music critics, Roy Carr and Tony Tyler, wrote that "opinions still differ as to the merits of Paperback Writer, the first Beatles single to receive less-than-universal acclaim."

Today, that's astonishing to read, but then again, Paperback Writer and its brilliant b-side, Rain, are considered two songs created well ahead of their time.

Can you hear me?

A few weeks into the Revolver sessions on April 14, 1966, Paul McCartney strolled into the EMI Recording Studios on Abbey Road, sat at a piano and confidently declared to his bandmates, "Gather 'round, lads, and have a listen to our next single."

Paul then pounded out a catchy tune about a wannabe writer, and directed John and George where to harmonize. "It was obvious to everyone in the room that this was an instant hit," engineer Geoff Emerick recalled in his memoirs, Here, There and Everywhere.

Artistically, both sides of the single broke from the traditional boy/girl lyric found in all previous hits, including the Beatles' recent We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper. Trite love songs still ruled the charts (and still do today), but by mid-April 1966, Bob Dylan had revolutionized popular songwriting with his 1965 albums, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, which burst with abstract images and symbolist poetry. No love songs here.

Paperback Writer would be Paul's first "story" lyric, where he tells a tale in the third person, namely about an aspiring writer whose son works for the Daily Mail and wants to get a novel published. Paul delivers a sharp vocal, but the highlight is the refrain, sung in harmony with John and George and drenched in heavy echo.

Sonically, Paperback Writer also boasts a gorgeous, fat bass line that was inspired by American soul records from Stax and Motown. The bottom end never sounded like this on any Beatles' (or British) record to this point. The Beatles were tired of hearing superior bass on American records and demanded a change. "Pull out all the stops," Paul instructed the band's new recording engineer, Geoff Emerick. "This song is really calling out for that deep Motown bass sound."

Long technical story short, Emerick experimented by wiring a loudspeaker as a microphone to max out Paul's bassline, which, by the way, he was playing from a beefy Rickenbacker instead of his "thinner" Hofner violin bass.

Paul also played the fuzzy lead guitar (though some believe it was George) which was also the Beatles' first distorted guitar. 1966 Beatles is noted for this sound which reflects the music their peers were making from London to San Francisco. Paperback Writer as well as Rain owe more to the Yardbirds' hit of the previous summer, Heart Full of Soul, than the clean twang of I Want To Hold Your Hand. The Beatles did not invent this sound, but helped popularize it.

The same goes with the b-side, Rain, which was every bit as inventive as the a-side, but decidedly less commercial. It's widely considered the band's finest b-side, though in my book, it's really on equal footing with Paperback Writer, like We Can Work Out complements Day Tripper. 

This Lennon track owes an obvious debt to the Byrds, the California band that was in turn influenced by The Beatles' 12-string Rickenbacker sound. However, the lyrics, which were definitely not boy/girl, were inspired by LSD that John was starting to drop regularly around this time.

Studio trickery here amounted to slowing down the rhythm track to make it sluggish and playing the vocals in the fade-out backwards. Though George Martin took credit for this innovation, it's more likely (as corroborated by engineer Emerick) that John got stoned on hash one night and accidentally spooled his reel-to-reel tape backwards on his home deck. The sound blew his mind.

The song creates a dazzling, colourful world of its own that the listener can slip into for three minutes, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. However, the sound texture of Rain would've been too far out for 1966 radio, and for years it was a nearly-forgotten gem.

In the digital age, Rain finally gotten its due. Until 1987, the track was not featured on any album, including compilations, and found only if you picked up the Paperback Writer single. Even then it was mixed only in mono. However, I would argue that the wide-panning stereo on today's releases it terrible. Ringo's high-hat is to loud in the mix, and the stereo picture is too disjointed with vocals and instruments separated by a thousand sonic miles.

A word about Ringo's drumming. Ringo himself feels that Rain features his best drumming, but I disagree. His shining moment came a few weeks later in mid-1966 when The Beatles recorded She Said She Said.

I can show you
Paperback Writer/Rain was a preview of their forthcoming album, Revolver. I suspect that few fans realized it at the time, but The Beatles in June 1966 were searching for new sounds and tired of their cute moptop image. Like all great artists, The Beatles were too talented to stand still. Sure, their records would continue to sell millions and top the charts, but who was really listening? Unlike She Loves You which launched The Beatles in 1963 Britain or Hey Jude which would become their biggest-selling single, Paperback Writer/Rain would be overlooked in its time and not fully appreciated until many years later for its originality and innovation.