Paul McCartney, Accidental Bassist Extraordinaire

When it comes to Paul McCartney and his accomplishments, where do you even start? Co-founding member of The Beatles, which in my book was the greatest band of all time; a man who has written hundreds of songs, including timeless classics; multiple award-winning two-time inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; and great musician who after more than five decades is sill hungry to perform live are some of the highlights that come to mind. This post focuses on something folks outside musician circles may not fully appreciate: McCartney’s significance in pop and rock music as a bassist.

As frequent readers of the blog know, I used to play bass guitar in my late teens and early twenties. As such, the topic should be right up my alley, so what the heck took me so long to write about it? Frankly, I don’t really have a good answer. I included McCartney in a previous post about some of my favorite bassists, and of course I’ve also covered him on other occasions. Still, as one of my all-time music heroes, Macca and his remarkable bass playing certainly deserve more attention.

The interesting thing one may sometimes forget is that McCartney not only started out as a guitarist but did not have any initial intention to become a bassist. A long interview with Macca, which Tony Bacon conducted in November 1994 as part of his research for a book about the bass, provides some great insights. It was published by online music gear and news website Reverb in January 2018. I’m relying on this interview for quotes throughout the remainder of the post.

The Beatles 1960 Lineup
The Beatles’ lineup in 1960 (from left): John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe

“The bass player was normally a fat guy who stood at the back,” Macca told Bacon. [Note: This bassist was skinny, and while he has developed a little bit of the belly over the years, he’s far from fat. In fact, his dear wife still says he’s pretty handsome!😆] “In our minds it was the fat guy in the group nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that. We wanted to be up front, singing, looking good. That was what we wanted, to pull the birds. There’s no other reason, basically.”

The above photo shows an early lineup of The Beatles. It must have been taken during the second half of 1960, after Pete Best had joined the band as a drummer. Stuart Sutcliffe, a friend of John Lennon from art school, had been added in January that year, after John and Paul had persuaded him to use prize money he had won for art to purchase a Hofner bass guitar. “So, Stu was suddenly there just because he could afford the bass, and none of us could,” Macca said. Ouch…

“The Hofner kind of dwarfed Stu a bit,” Macca further pointed out. “He was a smallish guy. But it looked kind of heroic—he stood a certain way, he had shades, he looked the part—but he wasn’t that good a player. And that was the problem with me and Stu. It was always much reported that we didn’t get along. There were two reasons, really. One, I was very ambitious for the group, and I didn’t actually like anything that might hold us back. There’s enough stuff holding you back anyway, without someone in the group who’s not that good, you know?”

Stuart Sutcliffe with Hofner
Stuart Sutcliffe with his 1959 Hofner 500/5 semi-hollow bass

In July 1961, after The Beatles had returned from one of their engagements in Hamburg, Germany, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band to pursue painting. “So it was like oh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player. And everyone sort of turned round and looked at me,” Macca recalled. “I was a bit lumbered with it, really. It was like, well, it better be you then. I don’t think you could have caught John doing it—I don’t think he would have done it. ‘No, you’re kidding. I’ve got a nice new Rickenbacker.’ I didn’t have a guitar [at the time], see, so I couldn’t really say, ‘But I want to be a guitarist.’ They’d say, Well get a fucking guitar then—that might be a start! As I say, I’d been playing piano, which was on the stage, and that was quite good for me, gave me a lot of piano practice. I couldn’t really play but I learned. So I was quite glad to get back in the front line.”

Sutcliffe ended up lending McCartney his bass for a short time. “Eventually I saw a bass in the window of a shop in Hamburg, this violin-shaped bass, the Hofner. It was a good price, because my dad, as I say, had always said I shouldn’t do the never-never, but we were earning reasonable money.” And so McCartney essentially became the bassist of The Beatles by, well, accident. “That was it. I had the bass. I was now the bass player in the group, and I kind of took it from there.” Well, he certainly did.

It’s fair to say that McCartney didn’t become a brilliant bassist overnight. He started out largely playing root notes, which probably wasn’t that much different from Sutcliffe. But McCartney liked to push himself forward by experimenting. “The thing with the bass on a lot of this stuff was that you’ll try anything once,” he explained. “So, I’ll try a capo on a bass…I often used to tune ‘em down, too – tune the strings down a tone, so the E would become a D. You’d have to be careful how hard you hit them, but it was kind of interesting. I would just mess around with any experimental effects, just to try it.”

Macca with Bass and Capo
Paul McCartney on the cover of Beat Instrumental magazine, with his Rickenbacker 4001 bass and a capo, together with George Martin and George Harrison

After The Beatles had stopped touring, the studio became a major enabler for experimentation. Advances in technology also allowed the separate recording of instruments. By the time of Sgt. Pepper, Macca would oftentimes record the bass part as one of the last tracks. This allowed him to hear all other instrumental parts and take the bass beyond it’s traditional role of timekeeper to becoming an additional melody-driving instrument. And this is where Macca’s true magic as a bassist happened. From a strictly technical standpoint, his playing is nothing extraordinary, which he himself has stated in various interviews I’ve read over the years.

When after the breakup of The Beatles Macca formed Wings, many things changed, including his bass playing. Not only did he now consistently use his Rickenbacker 4001S he had been given by Mr. Rickenbacker himself as a freebie during The Beatles’ 1965 U.S. tour, but his playing became more traditional again. Asked about it, he said, “I think it was OK, but I think I never quite had the interest that I had during that sort of dream period around Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul, when I was doing something.”

Macca Key Bass Guitars
Paul McCartney with his two signature bass guitars, a Hofner 500/1 violin bass and a Rickenbacker 4001S

“See, with Wings, I was now the band leader, the business manager, the this, the that, the this,” he went on. “We didn’t have Apple, we didn’t have Epstein, we didn’t have anything. It was me doing it all. That was the biggest headache – that’s difficult. In The Beatles, I’d been free of all of that. We had a manager, we had three other great guys.” Macca also could have added that unlike The Beatles in their later stage, Wings was not set up as a studio band.

Asked about his influences for the bass, McCartney said, “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested. Actually he and Brian Wilson [from The Beach Boys] were my two biggest influences: James just because he was so good and melodic. Brian because he went to very unusual places. Brian would use, if you were playing in C, he might stay on the G a lot just to hold it all back, and I started to realize the power you had within the band.”

I’d like to wrap up this post by highlighting some of McCartney’s great basslines during his time with The Beatles. I apologize to the non-musicians, who may find the following clips a bit geeky. I think the best way to hear Macca in action, especially on a computer or other non hi-fi device, is to listen to his isolated bass parts. First up: Rain, the B-side from the non-album single Paperback Writer, released in May 1966. The song was written by Lennon and, as usually, credited to Lennon-McCartney. This is quite a busy bassline that provides a nice complementary melody to the tune. Since I couldn’t find a YouTube clip with the original isolated part, I’m relying on a chap called Norby Hofner, who does a pretty decent job.

With A Little Help From My Friends from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an example of a melodic bassline where McCartney nicely varies between sparing and busy playing. The tune wasn’t only credited to Lennon-McCartney but was also written collaboratively.

Another great example of a busy Macca bassline is Hey Bulldog, a song off the Yellow Submarine album, primarily written by Lennon and again credited to Lennon-McCartney. I dig how the bass is pushing the tune forward.

The last bassline I’d like to call out is one of my all-time favorites by Macca: Something. Should I ever go back to playing the bass, this would be on top of my list to learn. This bass part represents such great melodic playing that one can easily enjoy listening to it all by itself. I also think that Something, which appeared on Abbey Road, is one of George Harrison’s best compositions.

Sources: Wikipedia, Reverb, YouTube

Advertisements

To Be Or Not To Beatles

Canadian trio Klaatu took some on magical mystery tour in 1976/77

Just before Christmas, I listened to a refreshing new album that sounded incredibly “Beatlish.” I checked the album, entitled Klaatu, for names or pictures of the musicians but there were none. All credits were given to Klaatu. Curious, I called Capitol Records and was told it was a “mystery group.” 

The above is the opening paragraph of a story written by Steve Smith and published on February 17, 1977 in the Providence Journal, a Rhode Island daily newspaper. I was reminded about the album, when it showed up as a listening recommendation in my streaming music service this morning. While I first covered it in May 2017, I felt it was worthwhile revisiting what I would call one of the more intriguing rumors in rock music in an updated post.

Providence Journal Klaatu Review

In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss Smith as a writer who seemingly was chasing what would have been a potentially career-defining scoop. British magazine New Music Express, now simply known as NME, was quick to dismiss the piece with a story titled Deaf Idiot Journalist Starts Beatles Rumor. Rolling Stone subsequently called it the “hype of the year.”

I agree while sounding Beatlesque, if you listen closely, it is pretty clear the vocals weren’t performed by The Beatles. Still, Smith made some valid points in his story. For example, I agree with his observation that the tune Sub-Rosa Subway sounds like The Beatles from 1968/69. Plus, something that in my opinion got a bit lost is that Smith didn’t firmly conclude Klaatu were The Beatles. Instead, he identified four possibilities. To quote: 1. The Beatles. 2. A couple of The Beatles with other people. 3. A Beatle-backed band. 4. A completely unknown but ingenious and talented band.

Klaatu 2

Klaatu (from left): John Woloschuk, Terry Draper and Dee Long

Also, let’s not forget the other actors in this story. The obvious place to start here is Klaatu. Named after the extraterrestrial character in the motion picture The Day The Earth Stood Still, the Canadian trio included John Woloschuk (bass), Terry Draper (drums) and Dee Long (guitar).  During a 1980 interview with former Capitol Records editorial manager Stephen Peeples, which is posted on Klaatu’s website, Draper said, “I think we were flattered more than anything. Surprised, though, considering that it was totally regardless of us that it happened. We didn’t perpetrate it. It just sorta came to pass by an article written in Providence [Journal] by Steve Smith. We were surprised as everyone else.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t entirely buy the above. While Klaatu may not have planned the plot, they did not do anything while the rumors were unfolding. The band essentially attributed their silence to a desire to remain anonymous musicians, which is why they had not included their names, photos or any biographical information on the album cover. Did they think they would generate “Klaatumania” with fans running after them wherever they would go? I feel the following commentary Woloschuk made during the above interview is more insightful: “We got more hype out of that than you could have manufactured with 15 promo records directors. I mean, it backfired on us. While we were looking for anonymity, we got more exposure than we could have dreamed was possible.”

Klaatu 3

Then there was Frank Davies, president of Klaatu’s label Daffodil Records, which had a distribution deal with Capitol Records. When Smith called him, Davies reportedly told the writer everything “you’ve summarized is pretty accurately all around” and “everything that is there, can and will be identified even without, perhaps them, the people being seen.” Capitol Records certainly added to the rumor by calling Klaatu a “mystery band.” Meanwhile, they were likely laughing and watching sales of the album pick up.

Eventually, Dwight Douglas, program director at radio station WWDC in Washington, D.C., put the mystery to an end. He checked the records at the U.S. Copyright Office and uncovered the band members’ real names. As soon as Klaatu’s identity became known, the album’s sales started to tumble and started the band’s slow decline. Time for some music.

Here’s the opener of the album, which in Canada was titled 3:47 EST. When Capitol Records released it in the U.S., they decided to rename it Klaatu.  Co-written by Woloschuk and Draper, Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft is one of tunes that have a very strong Beatlesque vibe. While it’s fairly obvious to me that the voices aren’t The Beatles, the singing style definitely is reminiscent of The Fab Four. Even more so is the instrumentation. It’s actually a great song you could imagine on an album like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Magical Mystery Tour.

California Jam starts out with a George Harrison style electric guitar. The harmony singing is reminiscent of The Beatles and sometimes also sounds a bit like The Beach Boys. The song was co-written by Woloschuk and Dino Tome, a close friend.

Next up is the above mentioned Sub-Rosa Subway, also a Woloschuk-Tome co-write. It strikingly sounds like a Paul McCartney style composition, in particular the melody, the piano part and the bassline.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Doctor Marvello. It has a bit of a George Harrison  feel, both in terms of the singing and the sitar. In his story Smith compared the tune to Blue Jay Way, which I think is a fair comparison.

After 3:47 EST/Klaatu, Klaatu released four additional studio albums and eventually disbanded in August 1982. They had two brief reunions in 1988 and 2005. In March 2011, Klaatu announced the launch of their own label Klaatunes Records. They reissued a 2009 compilation titled Solology. In addition, Klaatu has released remastered editions of their first three albums 3:47 EST/Klaatu, Hope and Sir Army Suit.

What if anything did the former members of The Beatles have to say about the whole Klaatu saga? A December 2013 story published in music magazine Goldmine quoted Long who recalled an encounter with Paul McCartney in the late ’80s while working as an engineer at George Martin’s Air Studios in London. “Later, when I was working in Studio 5, there was a knock on the door, and in comes Paul,” Long said. “He introduced himself (like he needed any introduction) and said, ‘So you’re the chap from The Beatles clone band.’ He explained that he was on a TV talk show and the host played a bit of ‘Calling Occupants’ and asked Paul if that was him singing! Paul had never heard the song and said so…We talked for at least an hour, and I explained that we were never a clone band but just heavily influenced by The Beatles. We talked about music and life…He came back many times to hang out and jam and talk about writing songs. Again, he was just a wonderful person — easy to talk to, and full of positive energy. An experience I will always treasure.”

During another interview posted on Klaatu’s website, which was conducted by David Bradley in September 1997, Woloschuk was asked whether he would have done the Klaatu album again. ” Yeah, I think I would have done it again,” he answered. “When I was 17, I bought my first copy of “Sgt Pepper’s,” and I was blown away by it…And within 10 years, the whole world was claiming the group that I was in was the Beatles.  And that’s got to be looked at as an achievement, I think, one way or the other.”

I think Woloschuk is partially right. There’s no question that musicians who write music that could have been created by The Beatles are talented. The album is a lot of fun to listen to. But why conceal your identities? It was incredibly naive to think they could get away with it. Plus, including their names on the record would not have taken anything away from the great music. Yes, it’s safe to assume Klaatu wouldn’t have received the publicity they did. And while it helped the band in the short-term, unfortunately, it tainted them and eventually led to their demise.

Sources: Wikipedia; Could Klaatu be Beatles? Steve Smith. Providence Journal, Feb 17, 1977; Klaatu website; Goldmine, YouTube

Happy Birthday, Ringo

At 78, Sir Richard Starkey continues to rock

As a huge fan of The Beatles, I simply did not want to ignore that Ringo Starr turned 78 years today. Yes, when you think of the Fab Four, it’s fair to say John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison come to mind first due to their amazing songwriting and singing. And, yes, Ringo is no John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker (thank goodness, I don’t think The Beatles would have lasted very long with a volatile character like Baker, as much as a drum genius as he was!). But I also firmly believe The Beatles wouldn’t have been the same without Ringo. And, frankly, based on many accolades he has received from the likes of Dave Grohl, Jim Keltner, Steve Smith and others, Ringo certainly isn’t a shabby drummer!

In this post I don’t want to focus on recapping Ringo’s life, which I did on a couple of previous occasions, for example here. Instead, I’d like to celebrate his birthday in a way that is more fun than reading stuff: Seeing Sir Starkey in action, based on recent YouTube clips.

Let’s kick it off with a great rockabilly tune recorded by Carl Perkins in December 1956: Matchbox. Ringo shows us how it’s done at age 78 – sorry, he was actually only 77 years old at the time of that performance! Steve Lukather and Gregg Rolie are throwing in some nice guitar and keyboard solos!

It Don’t Come Easy was Ringo’s first single from April 1971, released following the breakup of The Beatles. It’s one of the few tunes Ringo doesn’t only sing but for which he also has sole writing credits, though he did have a little help from his friend and former band mate George!

Don’t Pass Me By is Ringo’s first solo composition and among the handful of tunes he got to sing while he was with The Beatles. According to Wikipedia, he first introduced the song to John, Paul and George after he had joined the band in 1962. Eventually, it was recorded during four separate sessions in June and July 1968 and appeared on The Beatles, aka The White Album, which came out in November that year. BTW, you just got to love Ringo’s good sense of humor when announcing the track. The German audience clearly enjoyed it!

Here’s another another fun tune: Boys! Written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell, and originally recorded by the Shirelles in November 1960, the song was first included by The Beatles on Please Please Me, their debut album from March 1963. I also dig the version that’s on the At The Hollywood Bowl live album, released in May 1977.

Of course, no Ringo playlist would be complete without With A Little Help From My Friends. Credited to Lennon and McCartney, the song appeared on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from May 1967 and was the only tune on that album, featuring Ringo on vocals. In the below clip, he surely did have a little help from some fabulous musicians. Like all of the other footage in this post, it shows Ringo during recent performances with his All Starr Band. Very fittingly, they’re also throwing in a little bit of Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance at the end.

In addition to the aforementioned Lukather (guitar, vocals) and Rolie (keyboards, vocals), the current lineup of the All Starr Band features Colin Hay (guitar, vocals), Graham Gouldman (bass, vocals), Warren Ham (percussion and saxophone) and Gregg Bissonette (drums).  Ringo and the band are currently on the road and are about to wrap up touring Europe. They will next bring their show to the U.S. starting Sep 1 in Tulsa, Olka. According to the current schedule, dates include New York (Sep 13), Boston (Sep 17) and Chicago (Sep 22), among others. The U.S. leg of the tour will wrap up in L.A. on Sep 29. Now, that’s another show that’s tempting to me!

Sources: Wikipedia, Ringo Starr official website, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: May 20

Earlier today it occurred to me that I hadn’t done a post for this recurring feature for quite some time. I oftentimes find it intriguing what these look-backs on rock & roll history can unearth. As in previous installments, this overview is selective and as such by no means meant to be complete. Here we go.

1964: Rudy Lewis, the lead vocalist of The Drifters, suddenly passed away at age 28. It was the night before the band was scheduled to record Under The Boardwalk, which would become one of their biggest hits. Lewis had performed lead vocals on most of The Drifters’ best known songs since the departure of Ben E. King in 1960. Instead of rescheduling studio time to find a new frontman, the band decided to bring back Johnny Moore, who first had been their lead vocalist in the mid-50s.

Rudy Lewis
Rudy Lewis

1966: The Who were scheduled to play a concert at Ricky Tick Club in Windsor, England. When John Entwistle and Keith Moon didn’t show up in time for the gig, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey grabbed the bass player and the drummer of a local band that had opened up for them and took the stage. Moon and Entwistle finally arrived in the middle of the set. Words started flying, and a fight broke out that culminated with Townshend hitting Moon in the head with his guitar – thinking how Townshend was infamous for furiously smashing his guitar at the end of Who performances, it’s not a pretty picture to imagine. Moon and Entwistle quit the band over the incident. But it only took them a week before realizing they just couldn’t walk away from one of the greatest rock & roll bands – the perks that came with it likely also played a role!

The Who In 1966
The Who in full harmony in a 1966 press photo. From left to right: John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

1967: The Beatles’ new album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was given an official preview on Where It’s At, a radio show broadcast on the BBC Light Programme. The preview was a pre-taped feature by DJ Kenny Everett and included interviews with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. There were also extracts from each of the Sgt. Pepper tunes except for one – A Day In The Life. The day prior to the broadcast, the BBC decided to ban the song over lyrics it considered to promote a permissive attitude toward taking drugs. I suppose they must have gotten their knickers twisted over the words in the song’s middle section, Found my coat and grabbed my hat/Made the bus in seconds flat/Found my way upstairs and had a smoke/And somebody spoke and I went into a dream – oh, Paul, how could you!

1972: T. Rex were on top of the British singles chart with Metal Guru. Written by Marc Bolan, it was the British rock band’s fourth and final no. 1 single in the U.K. The song did not chart in the U.S. and peaked at no. 45 in Canada. Metal Guru was the second single from The Slider, the glam rockers’ seventh studio album that came out in July that year.

Sources: This Day In Rock, This Day In Music, The Beatles Bible, Wikipedia, YouTube

 

My Longtime Favorite Albums

Ten records I continue to enjoy after more than three decades

Earlier this week, I got nominated on Facebook to name 10 music albums that have made an impact on me and that I continue to enjoy today. The task was to post one album cover daily, and each time when doing so to nominate somebody else to do the same. Usually, I don’t participate in these types of chain activities, so initially, I ignored it. But since it was a close relative, who had nominated me, and music is my passion after all, I decided to go along. The exercise of identifying the 10 records inspired this post.

Because I found it impossible to limit myself to just 10 albums, I decided to narrow the field to only those records I started listening to as a teenager and in my early 20s. This explains why some of my favorite artists like The Allman Brothers Band, Buddy Guy and even The Rolling Stones are “missing.” It was only later that I started exploring them and many other artists I like today in greater detail. Without further ado, here is the list in no particular order, together with one song from each album.

As frequent readers of the blog know, I’m a huge fan of The Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their 8th studio album from May 1967, is my favorite among their records.

The Beatles_Sgt. Pepper

Here’s the great closer A Day In The Life, which except for the middle section was mainly written by John Lennon, though as usually was credited to him and Paul McCartney.

Tapestry by Carole King was one of the earliest albums I listened to when I was 10 years old or so. Back then, I didn’t understand the lyrics but liked the music. Today, I dig the record for both the music and the lyrics. There is a timeless beauty in King’s tunes, and to me Tapestry is perhaps the ultimate singer-songwriter record.

carole-king-tapestry

There are so many great songs on this gem from February 1971, so it’s hard to chose one. Here’s Way Over Yonder. King’s soulful singing and the saxophone solo are two of the tune’s features I’ve always liked.

The Eagles’ Hotel California is an album I’ve owned on vinyl since I guess the early ’80s. It was released in December 1976 as the band’s fifth studio record.

Eagles_Hotel California

Here’s a live version of the epic title song, which is included in the album’s 40th anniversary deluxe edition that appeared in November last year. The tune was co-written by Don Felder, Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The distinct extended guitar interplay at the end featured Felder and Joe Walsh. This tune just never gets boring!

It was the Born In The U.S.A. album from June 1984, which put Bruce Springsteen on my radar screen.

Bruce Springsteen_Born In The USA

Here’s Bobby Jean, one of the album’s few tunes that wasn’t also released separately as a single. On this one, I particularly love the saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons, who was such an ace player.

Deep Purple to this day remains my first choice when it comes to hard rock, and Machine Head from March 1972 is the crown jewel in their catalog. The band’s sixth studio album featured their best line-up that included Ian Gillan (vocals), Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums, percussion).

Deep Purple_Machine Head

Here’s Pictures Of Home, which like all tracks on the album were credited to all members of the band. In addition to Lord’s great keyboard work, one of the tune’s characteristic features is a cool bass solo by Glover (starting at 3:40 minutes).

My introduction to John Mellencamp was Scaregrow, his eighth studio album from August 1995, but it was the follow-up record The Lonesome Jubilee, released in August 1987, that turned me into a fan.

John Mellencamp_The Lonesome Jubilee

Here is the great opener Paper In Fire, which also became the album’s lead single. Like all tunes except one, it was written by Mellencamp.

While it was pretty clear to me that a Pink Floyd album needed to be among my longtime top 10 records, the decision which one to pick wasn’t easy. I decided to go with The Dark Side Of The Moon but also could have gone with Wish You Were Here. I started listening to both albums at around the same time during the second half of the ’70s.

Pink Floyd_The Dark Side Of The Moon

I’ve chosen to highlight The Great Gig In The Sky. I’ve always liked the incredible part by vocalist Clare Torry.

I believe the first Steely Dan song I ever heard was Do It Again on the radio. By the time I got to Aja, I already knew the band’s debut record Can’t Buy A Thrill and, because of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, their third album Pretzel Logic. While I liked both of these records, the Aja album from September 1977 became my favorite, after a good friend had brought it to my attention.

Steely Dan_Aja

Here is Deacon Blues, which also was released separately as the album’s second single. Like all tunes on the record, it was co-written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

I was hooked to Live Rust the very first time I listened to it. Neil Young’s album from November 1979 pretty much is a live compilation of his greatest ’70s hits.

Neil Young_Live Rust

My, My, Hey, Hey (Out Of The Blue) is among the record’s highlights. The song was co-written by Young and Jeff Blackburn.

Led Zeppelin wasn’t exactly love at first sight. My first exposure was Led Zeppelin IV, the band’s fourth studio album from November 1971. I bought the record because of Stairway To Heaven.

Led Zeppelin_Led Zeppelin IV

I had listened to Stairway on the radio where they always faded it out before the heavy rock section at the end of the tune. I still remember the shock when I listened to the song in its entirety for the first time. I had just started taking classic guitar lessons and was very much into acoustic guitar. I simply couldn’t understand how Zep could have “ruined” this beautiful song by giving it a heavy metal ending. Well, today it is exactly because of its build why this track has become one of my favorite tunes. But instead of Stairway, I’d like to finish this post with Going To California, a beautiful acoustic ballad co-written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Sgt. Pepper Hits 50 And Is Getting Better

Producer Giles Martin and music engineer Sam Okell have created what The Beatles may well have wanted the iconic album to sound like, had they cared about the stereo mix in 1967

On June 1, 1967, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in England. The U.S. release appeared the following day. Since so much has been written about the history of the groundbreaking album, I won’t repeat it and instead focus on the 50th anniversary special edition, which appeared yesterday (May 26). The impressive reissue comes in four different configurations, including a double LP-set I’m proud to own – my first new vinyl in 30 years!

No matter whether or not you agree with Rolling Stone’s bold assessment that Sgt. Pepper “is the most important rock & roll album ever made,” there can be no doubt it’s one of the most famous records of all time. And an album that took recording innovations The Beatles had introduced on their previous studio album Revolver to the next level and completed their transformation into an all-studio band. So why did Giles Martin, the son of George Martin, make the gutsy decision to tinker with it? In a nutshell, he wanted to improve the listening experience of the album’s most common version, the stereo mix.

“In 1967, all care to attention and detail were applied to making the mono LP, with The Beatles present for all mixes,” explains Martin in the liner notes of the reissue [note: I can only quote the liner notes for the deluxe vinyl set, since I don’t own any of the other three configurations]. “Almost as an afterthought, the stereo album was mixed very quickly without them. Yet it is the stereo version that most people listen to today. After forensically working out what the team had been up to when mixing the mono album, engineer Sam Okell and I set out about creating a new stereo version by returning to the original four-track tapes. We soon realised why we were doing this. The music recorded five decades ago sounds both contemporary and timeless; trapped in a time-lock waiting to pop like a cork from a champagne bottle.”

Sgt. Pepper 2

Martin’s comments are a nice way of saying that the previous stereo remix, while representing an improvement over the original rather poor stereo version, still by far did not come close to the mono version. Essentially, his goal was to create a new stereo mix that preserves the best elements of the mono version, which is widely considered to be the best mix. So how did he do?

My point of reference is what must be the initial “bad” stereo mix, which I’ve owned on vinyl since my teenage years, not the mono version. I also should mention my home stereo and loudspeakers are not high-end equipment. Even with all these caveats, and I’m afraid partial hearing loss from my long ago band days as a bassist, there are definitely some obvious improvements I’ve noticed. Getting a good set of headphones would probably reveal more.

One of the things The Beatles’ record engineers did to quickly create stereo mixes back in the ’60s was to put all or most of the vocals on one channel and most of the instruments on the other channel. Unfortunately, this oftentimes made the singing less forceful and muffled some of the music. One of tunes where this is very obvious is the album’s title song. For the remix, Paul McCartney’s lead vocals were moved to the center, making it more like a mono version, which substantially adds to its dynamic.

Another notable difference between the two vinyl stereo mixes I own is that the instruments have a clearer and more vibrant sound on the new version. Good examples are the horns in the title song, Ringo Starr’s drums in With a Little Help From My Friends and McCartney’s bass in Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds. “My father had to record everything on a four track,” explained Martin in an interview with NPR, conducted ahead of the remix’s release. “And that was bounced to another four-track. [Each time sounds are bounced to another tape the sound degrades]. What we do is we go back to the previous generation, so we’re mixing off generations of tape that they never mixed off…What was recorded in ’67 sounds pure and crystal clear — there’s not any hiss or anything.”

Sgt. Pepper 3

In addition to the stereo remix, all configurations of the special anniversary release include earlier versions of the songs. In the case of the vinyl set, it’s one earlier take of each song, with the tracks being arranged in the same order than on the final album. I think it’s safe to say these earlier takes are primarily meaningful to true Beatles fans, less to casual listeners.

Comparing the takes with the final versions certainly is fascinating to me. But I think I’m okay with one alternate take per song and don’t need to have multiple earlier versions. Perhaps the most notable example on the vinyl set is take 1 of A Day In the Life, in which the final E note is hummed by “The Beatles and friends gathered around a microphone,” as the liner notes describe it. But even after overdubbing, the humming was a mismatch to the preceding climax of the orchestra. Therefore, it “was replaced by a cavernous E major chord struck on a variety of keyboards.”

What I find even more intriguing than the unfinished tracks is listening to the conversations right before and after the takes between (George) Martin and The Beatles and among members of the band. One cool example occurs right after Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, when McCartney demonstrates to John Lennon an alternative rhythm to sing the line Cellophane flowers of yellow and green. It’s a nice illustration how the two truly collaborated in harmony, something that would start to unravel only a few months later after Beatles manager Brian Epstein had passed away.

George and Giles Martin

The remix of Sgt. Pepper was not Martin’s first foray into Beatles territory. In 2006, he collaborated with his father on Love, which is part soundtrack to the theatrical production by Cirque du Soleil and part remix album. In fact, as George noted in a 2007 interview with Sound on Sound, he had given up recording because of bad hearing, but when McCartney, Starr, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono approached him about the project, he couldn’t refuse. “But I couldn’t have done it without Giles. He’s my ears.” In 2009, Giles produced the music for the video game The Beatles: Rock Band. He also was executive producer for McCartney’s 2013 studio album New.

The above poses the question whether Martin has any plans to remix other Beatles albums that will hit their 5oth anniversary over the next couple of years. “I don’t know,” he told The Independent. “I speak to Paul or Olivia Harrison or Ringo and Yoko [Ono] about this…We all talk about what’s the right thing to do morally. It’s not a question of keeping the brand going or shifting units…There’s so much love for it that if people want it… I mean, The White Album turns 50 next year which actually, to be honest, I’d love to have a go at mixing. There’s a weird moral context behind this: the mono of Sgt. Pepper’s is the definitive version and the studio was done very quickly, but you can’t say that about The White Album as it was mixed very quickly in different rooms by different people. I think if there’s a desire for it, then yes is the answer…But it’s not my decision. If people want me to work, I’ll work.”

Sources: Wikipedia; liner notes, Sgt. Pepper deluxe 2-LP vinyl package; The Beatles web site; NPR “All Songs Considered”; Sound on Sound; The Independent