Thursday, 4 October 2018

Engineer Geoff Emerick's greatest Beatles recordings

Geoff Emerick died yesterday at age 72. He was one of the Beatles' engineers, arguably their most important, because he helped realized the sounds on the band's most innovative albums, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. In a nutshell, producer George Martin's role was to structure a song and decide what instruments to record in order to fulfill the vision of that song's chief composer. In turn, Emerick's duty was to make to create and record those sounds even though he was handcuffed by the primitive equipment and strict studio regulations at the time. Emerick and other engineers were the foot soldiers in the Beatles' legend. Though they went on to forge impressive careers, their contributions deserve more recognition. This post celebrates Geoff Emerick's finest achievements in recording The Beatles (drawn from his 2006 memoir, Here, There and Everywhere, an essential read).

Tomorrow Never Knows

The first track recorded for Revolver was also the first Beatles session Emerick attended as their regular engineer (he worked them with sporadically before, such as on Beatles For Sale). During his first true session, Emerick had his work cut out for him. The main composer of this song, Lennon, wanted his voice to sound like "the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountain top, miles away." Emerick worked fast (Lennon was an impatient man) to place two mics right up to a revolving Leslie speaker which distorted and swirled Lennon's vocal. "This is bloody marvellous!" Lennon exclaimed after the first take. The revolving Leslie speaker would be trademark sound for The Beatles, and used extensively for the rest of their career.


Paperback Writer & Rain


Revolver was the album where The Beatles aimed to record new sounds, and McCartney wanted his new song, Paperback Writer, to sound as rich and deep as the American soul records he admired. "This song is really calling out for that deep Motown bass sound," the Beatles bassist told Emerick. British recordings at that time featured a thin bottom end, and the equipment at Abbey Road was stodgy and the studio's recording rules strict. No easy feat. As the Beatles rehearsed, Emerick reasoned that loudspeakers are simply microphones in reverse, so why not record Paul's bass with a loudspeaker? "Daft," replied a colleague, but sure enough after some rewiring, this experiment worked, and Paul's bass was forever liberated for all to hear in Paperback Writer, its flipside, Rain, and throughout Sgt. Pepper the following year.



Eleanor Rigby

Martin and McCartney agreed that this song needed "biting" strings like Bernard Herman's theme to the Hitchcock film, Psycho. To fulfill McCartney's wish, Emerick broke several rules during the Revolver sessions, a chief one placing microphones literally next to the instruments. Traditionally, an engineered placed one or two mics high above a string quartet, but Emerick put his mics literally an inch from the stringed instruments. "You can't do that, you know," balked one of the session players. Well, he did, and today we can hear the results on one of the greatest Beatles songs and recordings.


Got To Get You Into My Life
Since close-micing the strings on Eleanor Rigby worked, why not try the same approach with the brass on this song? But Emerick contributed something else to this quasi-soul number. McCartney wanted the "brass sound bigger," so Emerick dubbed the recorded horns onto a fresh two-track tape, then mixed it with the original horns just slightly out of sync. Voila.


the bass on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album
Technical innovation allows performance to flourish. A perfectionist, McCartney demanded more from his recorded bass during these sessions. Emerick boosted the force and presence of McCartney's bass in Revolver, but a new technique during Pepper enhanced its sound. The bass on Pepper is rich and smooth, but does not overpower the vocals and other instruments. Emerick achieved this by moving the bass amp out of the studio baffles and into the centre of the studio, then placed a mic six feet away to capture the ambiance of the room. (What's "ambiance"? Listen to the opening drums of Led Zeppelin's When The Levee Breakss which was recorded in the open hallway of a large country mansion.) Secondly, during mixing Emerick broke tradition by adding McCartney's bass line last, instead of starting off mixing bass and drums (the rhythm) then layering the vocals and other instruments. This approach "sculpt[ed] the bass sound around the other instruments so that you could hear every single nuance." That's especially evident in Giles Martin's brilliant 2017 stereo mix.


Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite
True, Lennon and especially McCartney were experimenting with tape loops in 1966-7, but Emerick claims he had the idea to cut up tapes of sound effects from the EMI library to create the brilliant circus wash that concludes this song. His inspiration was the few seconds of brass band tucked into Yellow Submarine that came directly from the EMI library. Lennon's original idea was to have a calliope play-out Mr. Kite, but locating this giant instrument quickly wasn't going to happen.


Hey Jude

Here, Emerick was like a relief pitcher in baseball, called in at the last-minute to save a botched mix after The Beatles recorded this landmark song at Trident Studios. Possibly due to a technical fault at Trident, the equalization got botched with Hey Jude missing its high-end. By this time in mid-summer 1968, Emerick had quit the White Album sessions because he was (understandably) fed up with the bickering amongst the Beatles who in turn took it out on the studio staff, including him. (In particular, Lennon was nasty.) By chance, Emerick was at Abbey Road on other business when George Harrison spotted him and begged him to re-equalize the track Emerick did by adding massive amounts of treble.

Geoff Emerick went on to engineer to rest of the Beatles' records in which he employed his innovations in mic placement and mixing. Not him, George Martin or anyone else, but The Beatles pushed the envelope in recorded music during their creative peak of 1966-7, but Emerick was on the team that helped fulfill the band's vision. Emerick deserves credit for that. Generations will admire his studio innovations, which are all the more impressive given the primitive equipment of that period. Emerick himself enjoyed a wonderful career engineering for Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Jeff Beck and many others.

Thank you for the magic, Geoff.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The White Album box set sneak preview




(Sept. 24, 2018) - Today is early Christmas for Beatles fans. Apple has released a few selected tracks to preview The White Album box set, set for release on November 9.

Those tracks are the Esher demo, the take 5 backing track and the brand-new 2018 stereo remix of Back in the U.S.S.R. Here's our verdict:



The Esher demo

Each of Paul's double-tracked vocals is placed on a separate channel, with the lead on the left and the harmony on the right. Paul is literally harmonizing with himself, and the blend sounds seamless. Similarly, the main acoustic guitar (playing rhythm) is on the left, while a secondary acoustic strums on the right. Again, smooth.

Later in the song, other elements such as handclaps and slapping the guitar appear on the right channel, and a tambourine on the left. These elements are discreet, yet distinct. The detail in these secondary instruments, even buried in the mix, is startling.

All that hiss from the original 4-track reel-to-reel tape from May 1968 has been completely removed. A slight complaint may be the absence of a higher end, such as on the tambourine. But this version is a sonic upgrade that's light years from those raw tapes.

Verdict: A




Take 5 instrumental

The only surprise with this backing track is hearing George at the start sing a few bars during warm-up and comment that he's been "wonderful on the last two takes" presumably to Paul, the composer of Back in the U.S.S.R. After that, the band launches into a slow, bluesy instrumental run, starting with the guitar squeal (we hear in the released take at the end of the jet plane intro). The bass and drums are mixed up, giving this track a lot of muscle, while the guitars sound dirty and biting. This is a good rock band. Sure, it's a fun listen, but, honestly, how many times will you play this? Me, I consider instrumentals interesting at best, though this certainly is.

Verdict: B




2018 stereo mix

The main attraction is Giles Martin's new stereo mix. After his stunning work on last year's Sgt. Pepper remix, expectations are high for his White Album. He does not disappoint.

Just like Pepper, the lead vocal and drums are placed squarely in the centre, making the song soar after the jet-engine intro. Those sound effects remain woven in the left channel while the barrel-house piano rolls along in the right. George's growling guitar stays in the right, as well. All elements are well-balanced and complement each other. No instrument awkwardly sticks out.

The song is clearer than ever before. The bottom end is warm and powerful. The high end sparkles with detail. This mix is a pleasure to listen to on headphones, and it shakes a room when played on a sound system.

Overall, this Back in the U.S.S.R. rocks. It packs a punch similar to the mono mix. Arguably that mono mix still delivers more force, but this 2018 mix is the best stereo one, hands-down. This track promises that the 2018 White Album will rock. Play loud.

Verdict: A 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

9 things we want in the White Album box set


Paul answered the prayers of Beatles fans and confirmed there'll be a box set of The White Album on its 50th anniversary this fall. Amazing!

Immediately, the internet crackled with speculation about what would be on it, or rather what fans WANT. Keep in mind that The Beatles set the bar high with last summer's stunning Sgt. Pepper super deluxe set that was bursting with outtakes, a dazzling new stereo mix and a stunning 5.1 surround sound mix. For The White Album (aka The Beatles) here's our wish list (in no particular order):


1) The Esher demos

Sure, these 23 acoustic demos, recorded at George's Surrey home in May 1968 just before the band returned to Abbey Road, are widely bootlegged and easily available, but the sound quality varies. We'd like to see every single demo remastered and remixed to the quality of the handful found on 1997's Anthology 2. (Yes, that includes What's The New Mary Jane?) The demos were the blueprints of most of The White Album tracks, so are fascinating to compare and a pleasure to listen to. It's the Beatles unplugged.



2) A new stereo remix. Giles Martin forever banished the lousy wide-panning of the Pepper album (though I still prefer the original A Day In The Life), and he can apply the same formula to The White Album. This means vocals squarely in the center to anchor the mix, with the instruments placed in the left and right channels to create a balanced, yet exciting sonic picture. In particular, the rock songs, such as Back in The U.S.S.R. and Yer Blues would benefit. Studio equalization would punch up the drums and bass, add muscle to the tracks, and allow, say, the horns in Savoy Truffle to sparkle. All mixes of the album to date suffer from compression to some degree when played on today's audio equipment, which can reproduce sounds with higher highs and lower lows. Plus, add a touch of reverb here and there.

3) A 5.1 surround sound mix. If you play music on a home theatre system, then you know how immersive a proper 5.1 mix can be--it transports you into another world. Just listen to the extended instrumental break in 5.1 of Within You, Without You or the circus collage that ends Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite. True, the White Album is a simpler album, with fewer instruments and overdubs, but can you imagine Eric Clapton's sinewy guitar in While My Guitar Gently Weeps gripping your room in 5.1? Or the layers of vocals and instruments in Happiness Is A Warm Gun?


4) Outtakes
Is there a slower Glass Onion? A punk Honey Pie? What we do know from bootlegs is that there was an organ on Happiness Is A Warm Gun

and Paul strumming Helter Skelter on acoustic
 
and that John wrote Good Night and sang it to George Martin who, alas, regrets he didn't record it. But is there a snippet of that somewhere?



5) Sour Milk Sea by George


This is a terrific mash-up of Jackie Lomax's released version married to George's Esher demo. Why the hell didn't this make the album? Is there a proper run-through by most or all of the band kicking around?


6) Other unreleased songs

Not Guilty (Anthology 2), Step Inside Love/Los Paranoias (Anthology 2). Did the band ever run through Circles?


7) Revolution, take 20

Essential. This version includes the long montage that ends this version. Most of those sounds would form Revolution 9. The track bears a resemblance to I Am The Walrus which also featured an experimental, long fade-out. Listening to this, you hear John's original vision for Revolution, which was supposed to sound like a revolution.

8) And yes, the full 25-minute version of Helter Skelter. It'll probably sound boring and repetitive, but why not if we have the space of a box set. Plus, we want to hear it. At least once.


9) Chatter: These were the weird sessions, the ones where the lads were (purportedly) drug free and into TM. It's also the sessions where they seemed to tape everything. Absolutely everything. The original album release had snippets of chatter, and we've heard outtakes of Mother's Nature Son where John suggests the use of brass rather than strings. Any more conversations that might shed light on the recording and songwriting process?

Monday, 28 August 2017

How well did Brian Epstein manage The Beatles?


Seest thou the man who is diligent in his business shall stand before kings.

These words from the Hebrew Book of Proverbs were spoken at the memorial service of Brian Epstein who died 50 years ago from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. Scores of books have praised and/or castigated the Beatles' manager who has been called the Fifth Beatle (along with George Martin, Pete Best, Stuart Sutcliffe). "Eppy" has been praised for ushering the group to stardom, but also cursed for losing them millions in bad deals. Stripping away the legend and hype, we ask, how good a manager was Brian Epstein? We look at Epstein's performance in areas including marketing, negotiating, concerts, records, music publishing and, yes, merchandising.

Backgrounder: the music world in 1961
First, let's remember there was no rock industry when Epstein started managing The Beatles in November 1961. There wasn't even rock. Instead, clean-cut, candyass pop singers and MOR crooners, not bands, ruled the airwaves. Singles sold, not albums. Careers lasted 18 months. Apart from Elvis (and only to a degree), musicians didn't merchandise themselves in dolls, lunchboxes and wigs. No act sold out football stadiums. Pop stars made shallow, low-budget movies to cash in on their fleeting stardom. And singers did not write their own songs; they were expected to sing someone else's, chosen by their label, producer and/or manager. This was the music industry that furniture and record retailer Brian Epstein dove into in 1961 that he and his band would revolutionize.

Marketing
The Beatles were the first punks, swearing, eating and smoking onstage in leather jackets a full decade before the Ramones and Sex Pistols. But let's face it: In 1961 when Epstein signed the Beatles, no band--no matter how talented and especially from northern England--was going anywhere behaving and dressed like back-alley scruffs. Musicians wore suits and combed their hair. No exceptions. Epstein had no choice but to clean up the Beatles' presentation, and contrary to legend, Lennon, the most rebellious Beatle, went along with it. This repackaging worked. The suits made the Beatles presentable to all audiences around the world, most importantly middle America. It was also a canny move, because the Beatles ushered in the mid-60s Mod look with modern suits that boasted colour and expressive styles that still looks sharp today.
Grade: A

Recording Contract
The Beatles ruled Merseyside clubs in 1961, but they couldn't break out nationally without a recording contract. Epstein knew that his role as manager depended on it and the pressure was heavy. Of anyone in Liverpool, Epstein had the best chance to score this prize because he ran the NEMS records department, the largest one in the area. Record labels already knew him and respected his power in selling their discs. That got Epstein into the door. Contrary to promoter Sam Leach (read Sam Leach was The Sixth Beatle? Bollocks on this blog), Epstein's chutzpah landed the eventual recording contract with EMI. The labels didn't roll out the red carpet and hand it to him. (For the full, complicated story, read Mark Lewisohn's exceptional Tune In.) Also credit Epstein for another crucial act: he re-awakened John and Paul as songwriters. It's a little-known fact, but until Epstein signed the Beatles, John and Paul had stopped writing originals. Epstein saw their path to enduring success through original songs. Without those songs, we would have never known the Beatles.
Grade: A

Music Publishing
In 1961, there was no rock industry and bands didn't write their own songs. In fact, bands didn't chart; solo artists did. Elvis was the King, but the King didn't write his own songs. The Beatles and Epstein entered unknown waters when they released Love Me Do and P.S. I Love You. They didn't understand how music publishing worked. Essentially, in the early-60s, a music publisher plugged a new single to TV shows, scored radio airplay, printed the sheet music and convinced other singers to record it. All this generated revenue that Dick James split 50/50 with Lennon and McCartney. This sounds unfair today. Why would a song-plugger receive 50% of the money, especially when Beatles' songs needed no promoting? Remember, this split was standard in that era, and music publishers had overheads like their offices to pay and truly worked to promote a song. Further, when Dick James plugged Please Please Me, the Beatles were unknowns and nobody foresaw Lennon and McCartney turning into a songwriting juggernaut. Certainly, after 1963, Dick James didn't need to plug the Beatles' songs and was coasting on the band's success. But you can't fault Epstein for signing this deal.

However, the scenario is far more controversial with Northern Songs, the Beatles' publishing company that was established in February 1963 after Please Please Me topped the charts. Dick James and his accountant owned 51% of the company shares while Paul held 20%, John 19% or 20% and Epstein 10%. The point is, John, Paul and Epstein held no more than 49%, which meant that James held the voting advantage at 51%. Income from record sales, live  and music publishing was split 50/50 between the two camps, though NEMS received only 10% of sheet music sales. James also received an administrative fee for running Northern Songs in the U.K. as well as abroad where John and Paul actually received a smaller cut of revenues after overseas companies took their cut. (For the full history of the Beatles' publishing, I recommend the excellent Northern Songs by Brian Southall with Rupert Perry.)
Photographed by David Bailey
Back in the early-60s these were standard percentages but obviously exploited songwriters and enriched businessmen. This situation wouldn't change until the early-70s when rock matured into an industry. "John and I were taken for a ride," McCartney understandably complained to Mojo in 2005. "John and I didn't know you could own songs," Paul said in another interview. "We thought they just existed in the air."

Thankfully, Paul now owns his Beatles' songs due to a recent deal, but for most of his career and John's life, the songwriters were the poor men in their own publishing deal. Epstein didn't secure the best deal for his clients.
Grade: C

Merchandising

It's no secret that Epstein's greatest debacle was merchandising. Untold millions were lost, though attorneys on both sides of the Atlantic reaped thousands in the lawsuits that followed. We're talking 100,000 units of wallpaper and 100,000 toy guitars selling overnight in 1964. The Beatles' British, American and international success happened overnight, and the sharks circled to mass-produce almost any product that bore the name "Beatles." Understandably, Epstein could not assess all the merchandising requests that flooded his office or police the companies that were making Beatles merch and ripping them off. So Eppy was relieved when his solicitor, David Jacobs, offered to oversee merchandising. In America, the Beatles' merch operation was called Seltaeb ("Beatles" backwards). For reasons that Jacobs took to his grave, he signed away 90% of the American revenues to a mysterious figure named Nicky Byrne and three partners, leaving the Beatles with only 10% to split amongst them. That's right: 10%. For America, Byrne assigned lawyer Walter Hofer to administer American merchandising licenses which compounded this fiasco. Geoffrey Ellis, who served Hofer in late 1964, recalls licensing Beatles watches to a U.K. company but also fab four jewellery to a different company to be sold worldwide. Deals like this led to lawsuits. Ellis also recalls that Epstein took the appalling 90/10 deal personally and blamed himself for letting his boys down. By fall 1965, NEMS sued Seltaeb, launching a long, expensive two-year legal battle that infuriated the Beatles. True, Epstein wasn't the sole person at fault. Many were, including Jacobs and Byrne, but Epstein's failure to oversee merchandising was his greatest failure and it haunted him until his early death.
Grade: F

Negotiating
Brian Epstein was the most honest manager in show business in the mid-60s, which was his greatest strength and his greatest flaw. He operated on handshake deals, such as his agreement with Sid Bernstein to book Carnegie Hall in 1964 and Shea Stadium in 1965. He also didn't push Ed Sullivan for a higher fee, but demanded top billing for The Beatles for three straight shows even though they were (at the time of signing in late 1963) complete unknowns in the States. In other words, Epstein valued long-term exposure over short-term profit. Shrewd. However, there were moments when he undersold the Beatles. An example was A Hard Day's Night. United Artists producer, Walter Shenson, was prepared to relinquish up to 25% of the profits to the Beatles, but were stunned when Epstein's opening demand was a low 7.5%. On these occasions, Epstein was naive and meek, two deadly qualities in a cutthroat business.
Grade: C

Rapport with The Beatles

It's impossible to quantify the relationship between a musician and his manager. Managers are friends, business representatives, advocates, brothers, fathers and confessors to their clients. Sometimes they are true believers in their musicians. At worst, they are crooks (i.e. The Beatles, ahem, later management). Despite Epstein's shortcomings in business, he truly believed in the Beatles' talent and was a genuine fan. He identified their strengths: charisma, humour, performance and composing. Again, Epstein's encouragement of John and Paul to write original songs was crucial and, I argue, his greatest contribution to the band. At the height of Beatlemania, Epstein could have sold his stake and retired rich, but he remained loyal. Further, the Beatles were not easy masters to serve, not with the unpredictable John Lennon or demanding Paul McCartney.

Sadly, countless musicians were screwed by their managers: Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Stone Roses, New Order, the Rolling Stones and (after Epstein) the Beatles themselves. To his credit, Epstein let the Beatles do what they did best: make music. After selecting the song list for the failed Decca audition of 1962 (mostly showtunes and standards), he never interfered and he did his best to protect them from the sharks in the music business. He never robbed the Beatles. He treated them like artists with respect and even awe. He was never a Beatle, but he was part of their inner circle and essential to their existence. When he died 50 years ago, Lennon immediately (and secretly) knew, "We fuckin' had it," and history proves that the Beatles started slowly disintegrating: Magical Mystery Tour, Apple, Allen Klein, etc.
Grade: A

Overall
If the Beatles' story were to unfold again, then Brian Epstein would have hired a partner to manage the Beatles' business affairs to negotiate better music publishing, concert, record and especially merchandising deals. Likely, Apple would have never happened (that's an entirely different discussion). The Beatles, particularly John and Paul, would have been wealthier and the band probably would have lasted longer. Epstein was a master of packaging and presenting talent. I agree with Ray Coleman's assessment in his definite biography, Brian Epstein, that Eppy channeled his theatrical background and passion into launching the Beatles. I doubt that anyone else could have taken four scruffy rockers from the North and sold them to Middle America and the world. In short, Epstein was a flawed businessman--he could have done better for his boys--but he (and I Want To Hold Your Hand) was essential to breaking the Beatles worldwide. Brian Epstein was a mensch. No, he wasn't the Fifth Beatle (nobody was) and, no, he didn't "make" the Beatles as Ray Coleman insisted. The songs of John and Paul did. But without Brian Epstein, I doubt we would be speaking about the Beatles today.

Recommended viewing on Brain Epstein:

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.