Welcome to Bill’s Bologna. I know the past week or two have been lacking in posts. The holidays are a busy time of year & I promise I’ll be back in full swing after the new year.
This week, I’ve decided to add a new category to The Bologna.
As many of you know, I’m a musician. Because of this, I’ve learned to appreciate good audio quality, specifically in LPs (short for long play), or records. See, I grew up with a father who showed me what a special listening experience playing a record is. My dad is very meticulous in the way he handles his record collection. He’s had them since he was a child & has always emphasized the care that must be taken in order to keep the vinyl in top condition. I completely agree with him, but I can be a little clumsy at times. That made me a little nervous to start handling them on my own.
At any rate, I figured it was about time I started getting my hands on these things & thankfully, over the Christmas holiday, I got a push to do just that. One of my gifts was a turntable, which is one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve received in a while.
That set me to thinking a bit. I decided to post my experiences as I get new records & listen to them for the first time. It’s not because I’m trying to be pretentious (Yes, I know bragging about LPs can be a very annoying hipster-esque thing), but because I have a genuine love & intense passion for music & I want to share it with you.
Okay, let’s dive into record number one.
Along with the turntable, I was given the 2009 remaster of The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me. I’m a Beatle freak, & coincidentally, it was also the first album I ever owned. My father bought it for me on cassette when I was in the second grade. This was a very appropriate start to the collection.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the record, it’s the one that kicks off with Paul McCartney’s, “One-Two-Three-Faww!” of “I Saw Her Standing There” & ends with John Lennon’s vocal chord-shredding performance of “Twist and Shout.”
The first thing I noticed was the cover artwork. It’s a fairly bland photo of the four Beatles leaning over a railing in EMI Record’s London headquarters. I’d seen the photo a million times in my life, but this was the first time it was different. When blown up from the size of a CD jewel case to the size of a record jacket, it becomes much more impressive. You can tell that regardless of simplicity, much more thought went into the artwork than it does today. That makes sense. It has to catch your eye & there’s more opportunity for that on a large record jacket. The bigger the container, the bigger the artwork. The bigger the medium, more attention to creativity & detail is paid.
Before I get into my listening experience, let me just say that Paul McCartney has stated that the 2009 remasters of their albums are as close as you’re going to get to sounding like you’re standing in the studio with them, without actually doing so. Here’s the thing: that quotation is only regarding the CD, which is completely digital. As such, it has all sorts of limiting & compression. That’s the industry standard for CD & .mp3. Vinyl, on the other hand is unrestricted analog data. In other words, what you hear is what you get – the needle vibrating on tiny ridges in the record grooves. Yes, sometimes engineers still use the compression, but the sound is otherwise unrestricted, full & pure. On top of what was already a pure sound, engineers at Abbey Road took an extra three years to perfect it for vinyl release, removing the limiting & compression that goes into digital files & going through note by note to remove nearly everything which would be considered detrimental to the sound. They did this all while being careful to preserve coughs, sneezes, bad chords & anything the band did that is deemed to be part of the performances. Needless to say, I was very excited to start listening.
Minutes after tearing off the wrapping paper, I carefully pulled the sleeve out of the jacket & taking care only to touch it on its edges, eased the vinyl disc out. I admired it for a few seconds (It’s my very first record, after all) & placed it on the turntable. After taking time to gawk, I lifted the tone arm to start the record spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. I lowered the needle & gently placed it on the record. The needle’s staticky run to the grooves hissed through the speakers. Then, the music started. Now, I don’t have a top notch sound system yet (that will come in time), so I was listening to it through the player’s internal speakers. These speakers are designed to be portable & not to punch you in the face with sound, but even so, I was absolutely blown away. I could hear every uncompressed detail of the music, from George Harrison’s loud guitar solos, to the hand-claps buried under the music. I was thoroughly impressed. When it was over, I wanted to play it again & again.
Now it was time to show my father. That was the ultimate test. He looked over my record player, listened to a few tunes & gave his enthusiastic approval. Then, he turned to me & said, “Let’s put this thing on my stereo & listen to it through some big speakers, just so you get an idea of what you want.”
We walked into the living room where he keeps his sound system & started the record spinning on the turntable. I can honestly tell you that this record is hands down, the best Beatle recording I have ever heard. I could hear Ringo Starr’s bass drum crystal clearly, despite the fact that producer George Martin has said that they never bothered to mic it directly. Meanwhile, on multiple occasions, Paul McCartney has said he wasn’t satisfied with the lack of Bass sound the band had on their early records. It was as prominent as ever & I’m sure Sir Paul is finally pleased. John Lennon’s chunking away on his tiny little Rickenbacker & George Harrison’s jerky & slightly nervous-sounding leads sounded like they’re right in front of me.
Then, we compared it to an 1973 remaster of their last record, Abbey Road. It’s probably not the most accurate of comparisons because they’re two different records, but my dad doesn’t own Please Please Me on vinyl. I know, but you’re saying, “I thought your dad & you were Beatle freaks.” Settle down. The albums released in the United States were drastically different than the English releases, especially the early ones.* We were just trying to compare one remaster to another. Let me tell you, technology sure has advanced.
In a production sense, Please Please Me is not the cleanest sounding album. I don’t mean that in a bad way; it’s supposed to be & that’s what makes it endearing. It was recorded in just 10 hours & designed to simulate their live set at the time. Needless to say, it isn’t very produced & it isn’t very warm sounding. When we played the remastered album, the guys at Abbey Road Studios somehow managed to preserve the raw rock ‘n’ roll feel, while making the record feel a little warmer & more intimate. It is definitely a job well done & a wonderful piece of work. I am extremely excited to listen to the other Beatles’ vinyl remasters because the band’s production quality & sound only improved as they kept inventing studio techniques & releasing records.
I guess I’ve gushed enough about this, huh?
If you’re interested in my listening experiences (& I hope you are), no need to fear. I have a few records coming in this week & next that I can’t wait to get my hands on, including Stephen Kellogg’s new solo album, Blunderstone Rookery & one by the Byrds. I’ll be sure to keep you updated.
* The early US releases had almost no resemblance to the English originals because after rejecting the group three times, Capitol Records A&R man, Dave Dexter took it upon himself to remix the songs, cut & paste the track order, re-title the albums & ever so graciously, give himself a co-production credit. Oh, by the way, he did all this without consent from the band, their real producer, or their English label under EMI, Parlophone. Also, in 1980, a mere 12 days after John Lennon’s death, Dexter went on to write an inappropriately scathing article in Billboard Magazine, which ripped the late musician apart. Stand up guy.