Saturday, November 25, 2006


Is this an event which unites youth in a way that hasn't happened since June 1967? Is it an exercise in money grabbing?

I am referring to the "new" Beatles album entitled "Love". No doubt you've read about it elsewhere so I'm not going to delve into the background too much. I've known about the record for the past few weeks, a bit earlier than the general public here, who only became aware after last Saturday's tv weekly news roundup devoted a few minutes to the subject. By that time I had already downloaded a few songs which had been streamed by an Australian paper, and I was getting to know the material.

I thought that it would be instructive to see what other people had been writing about this album first before essaying my thoughts. I was really surprised: a large number of people were moaning about how the Beatles see this record as another way of milking the public; many were annoyed at how "new" tracks had been created and most of the opinions that I read were against the record.

I might have a few reservations, but I think that George Martin didn't go far enough in creating new tracks by mixing and mashing the old. One person was complaining that he bought the 45 rpm record of "Strawberry Fields" in 1967, and so he knows "what the correct version is". Is he unaware that the version to which he was referring was actually created from two different versions? For those who still don't know this, the invisible seam is at the 1:00 mark. Maybe it's because I spend much of my time creating music electronically, cutting and pasting bits and pieces from different songs and matching them up that I'm not horrified by this concept.

I may be a pathetic anorak, but one of my favourite Beatles cd contains only different versions and instrumental tracks of "Strawberry Fields". This was the first ever mash, and the "new" version revealed here is simply the "original" with yet another different first verse put on the front. To me, the differing versions reveal differing aspects of the music, and the new mixes enable one to hear things which were originally buried.

SFF was the first Beatles song which ever won sufficient respect to require a remake; often they were working to a schedule which didn't allow second thoughts. People have become so used to bands making a record once a year, or once every two years or even once every three years that they don't remember that in the sixties, bands were required to make two albums a year! Recording budgets were miniscule and recording techniques were caveman-like. For some reason, EMI issued an edict that the Beatles' tapes were never to be interfered with; as a result of George Martin's using two track recording to record two separate tracks as opposed to one stereo recording, recordings had been issued with all the instruments on one side and vocals on the other side - and he wasn't allowed to fix them! So even if there were no mashing done on "Love", the chance to remix the original recordings (as much as those recording allow remixing) is one not to be taken lightly.

These days, artists record a song. They make several mixes, maybe with different instrumentation, and have the time and luxury to choose the one which they think sounds best. Sometimes a mix will sound dated after a few years and sometimes the artists may choose to replace the original mix with a different version. Sometimes an artist will have second thoughts: I know that mentioning my music in the same breath as the Beatles' is pure sacrilege, but I'd like to give an example of my own.

As I've written before, I recorded The Band's "Whispering Pines" not so long ago. My original version had piano and organ on it, similar to The Band's version. After a while, I decided to remove the piano and organ, but kept the vocal. A few weeks later, I decided to change the music once again. Another week went by and I recorded a new vocal. I have four, maybe five, complete and different versions on my hard disk. Had I been pressed for time like the Beatles were, at least until "Sergeant Pepper", that first version would have been the one everyone would have heard. Now it's the fourth (or fifth) version that people can hear at The Band's site, the "Late October" mix.

Shouldn't The Beatles be awarded the chance to correct minor mistakes and have their music sound contemporary?

Regarding the mashing, some of it is amazing (especially "Drive my car" or "Within Without You"), some is interesting (SFF, "While my gently weeps") and some just is. But the "unadulturated" songs sound anaemic by comparion; one is always waiting for something new to happen and nothing does. But even a song which supposedly has been "left alone" can sound different - "I am the walrus" finally has a true stereo mix, and in the fadeout, the different vocal lines are much more apparent.

If anyone complains about the price - $18 list - I saw that Amazon were selling it at nearly 50% discount, but I imagine that most people will, ahem, acquire the album at no cost at all. It's not as if the Beatles need more money.....

Incidentally, if one studies their history, it wasn't until they broke up that they really started earning money (the story of many a band). Their original contract with EMI was miserly at best, and Brian Epstein let a lot of money slip through their fingers, not really because of mismanagement, but because they were the first and no one really knew how to handle their business. George Martin too had a raw deal with EMI and didn't make much money at the beginning, although by the time of "Abbey Road" he was probably getting a percentage.

I suppose that compared to most people, I am a Beatles freak, although I wouldn't consider myself a fanatic. I have studied their music both with my own ears and other people's commentary, and I've read their history. I did live through it, although I was too young at the time to go to their concerts. As a result, I hear this album in what is probably a completely different way from someone uneducated about the Beatles; but somehow I doubt that some unsuspecting purchaser is going to believe that these are the canonical versions.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Band

I have a vague memory that in 1971 someone came in to the classroom with a couple of albums under his arm and tried to sell them at a low price. I think that they came without a sleeve, which would tend to imply that they fell off a lorry, as the euphemism puts it. I didn't succumb to temptation, although I did listen to a copy; the only song that I remember was an upbeat number called "Time To Kill".

Several years later, I buy a copy of "Mystery Train" by Greil Marcus (first edition); I bought the book for its chapter on Randy Newman, but of course read it from cover to cover. Whilst I wasn't too interested in Elvis or Sly Stone, the chapter on The Band caught my imagination (I should also note that the chapter on Randy Newman deepened my understanding immensely). I talked this over with a lecturer in the Arts department, and he was kind enough to give me a cassette copy of "The Band" (aka The Brown Album). I found this quite difficult to listen to, and couldn't reconcile easily what I was hearing with what Marcus wrote about.

After emigrating to Israel in 1978, someone was kind enough to give me another cassette, this time with "Big Pink" on one side and "The Band" on the other. Maybe it was the clarity of the recording and maybe it was listening to an album without interruption (the previous cassette had the album spread over both sides of a C60, instead of one side of a C90), but suddenly The Band started to make sense. Around this time, the soundtrack to "The Last Waltz" came out, and I became captivated by some of the tracks, especially "It Makes No Difference".

When I moved from purchasing vinyl to purchasing cds, some of my earlier purchases were the early Band albums, along with a now not available compilation. When the Internet became popular, it didn't take long to find the excellent Band site, which again helped deepen my understanding.

A few days ago, I was looking at this site and noticed that a new page had been added: covers of Band songs by visitors to the site. As it happens, I had recorded a version of "Whispering Pines" a few months ago (several versions, to be accurate), but due to restrictions on the Soundclick site, I was unable to upload it there. So I took this opportunity to make one of my covers available, and one can hear it here. Hope that you enjoy it.

Monday, November 06, 2006


My son has started keyboard lessons (not piano, but electric keyboard), and we promised him that if he makes a go of it, we will buy him an instrument. So on Friday, we found ourselves heading towards Tel Aviv, where the major musical instrument shops are to be found. After a bit of humming and hawwing, we chose the Yamaha PSR-E 303, which I discover afterwards is considered to have very good value for money. One thing which I was looking for was touch response; to quote, "On an acoustic piano, striking a key harder will produce a louder sound, striking it softer will produce a softer sound. With Yamaha's "Touch Response" the PSR-E303 keyboard responds like an acoustic piano."

All the time, my wife was saying that if the boy doesn't continue playing, then I can always use it (no doubt trying to play [no pun intended] on one's natural tendency to buy for oneself something better). Indeed, when we got home and set the keyboard up, it was mainly me playing selections from Van der Graaf Generator (a nice bossa version of 'Man Erg'), rather than my son playing the few simple tunes that he's learnt so far.

After this purchase, we had lunch and then split up for an hour, each person doing his/her own shopping or just wandering around. I was "just wandering around" until I found a shop selling cds - a selection which one could kill for. There aren't very many cds on my wish list anymore, and the few which I do buy normally come from esoteric outlets on the Internet; I find it frustrating to walk into a cd shop and come out empty handed. Not this time: the first thing which I noted were VdGG albums (although not the remasters); following this promising start, I then looked for Peter Hammill and found several of his discs, including the series of remasters, which have been available only for a week or so. I decided to buy 'Over', which is simultaneously one of his most extreme but listenable albums. The price was seventy shekels, which works out as slightly less than nine pounds and thus much cheaper than buying from Hammill directly.

Emboldened by this success, I then found "Walking wounded" by Everything But The Girl; Robin has mentioned them several times, but I've never heard anything by them. For forty shekels (less than five pounds), I didn't think that I was taking much of a risk. To round things out, I bought an old album by an Israeli singer, one which I bought on vinyl when it came out but haven't heard in twenty years. I'm more interested in the musician who wrote most of the songs, arranged and produced the album; this record is like a missing link between his earlier, more straightforward material and his later, more jazzy style.

Once home, I listened to all the discs in rotation. "Over" was definitely louder and clearer than the original; the bonus tracks don't do much for me, but I understand why they are there. I have on order from Amazon the remastered version of "Godbluff"; I feel that the original cd release was sorely lacking the power and clarity of the vinyl version, and judging from what's been done to "Over", the result should be good. "Walking wounded" was ok; I find the percussion too loud and distracting - but then, I'm listening to it in the comfort of my home and not on the dance floor. Maybe their earlier material would be more to my liking. The Israeli disc was a pleasure to listen to, although some of it sounds very dated (early 80s synth technology).

So: even if that day did cost us a lot of money, I think that it was very well spent. My left hand hurts from playing extended chords on the piano and my head is full of Peter Hammill songs.