Monthly Archives: February 2014

Record #5: Pet Sounds (1966)

Hello, readers!

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a record & this time, I have a good one for you.  I’m really excited to tell you about it, but first:

Updates:
J.S. Bach- The Complete Brandenburg Concertos (Vanguard): This is my favorite collection of Baroque pieces. I found it, in its entirety for $1 at Turn it Up!, in Northampton, MA. I had to grab it.

Bruce Springsteen- Born in the USA (Columbia): This one was given to me by a friend, Andrew. He had an extra copy sitting around & decided to help me beef up my collection.

Eric Clapton- 461 Ocean Boulevard (RSO): I found this one for about $3 at Turn it Up!. It’s one of my favorites, but I haven’t heard it on vinyl as of yet.

Crosby, Stills & Nash- Daylight Again (Atlantic): Yet another good record found cheaply in Northampton.

Stephen Kellogg- Blunderstone Rookery (Elm City [Universal]):  It’s here. I’ve played it & it’ll be reviewing it next.

Simon & Garfunkel- Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (Columbia): I ordered this last week. It’s a 1966 copy from Columbia. I have the tracking number & it’s en route.

Simon & Garfunkel- Wednesday Morning, 3AM (Columbia): I ordered this one on February 18th. It has yet to be shipped.

Now for the main event:

The Beach Boys- Pet Sounds:
Here’s a little history leading up to the release of Pet Sounds:

The Beach Boys released their first studio record on Capitol Records in 1962. Brian Wilson & his cousin, Mike Love, co-wrote most of their early material, which consisted of summertime rock ‘n’ roll songs. They had great success, but even so, Wilson felt uncomfortable. While the rest of the band were content being pop stars, he had other plans for his music. Those plans started to become a reality after suffering a small nervous breakdown in December, 1964. Being a writer, arranger, producer & performer at the same time had taken its toll, & by January, 1965, Wilson had quit playing live. Now, there was time to devote all his energy towards songwriting.

That same year, he heard an album which blew him away: Rubber Soul. The Beatles eighth Capitol release impressed Wilson so much, it inspired him to make something he thought would be better. The end result was Pet Sounds.

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My copy of Pet Sounds on 180 gram vinyl

Unfortunately, by the time the album was released, in May of 1966, The Beach Boys were typecast as the summertime band that sang songs about California & cars. That, paired with Wilson’s father’s usurping managerial control of the band & insistence that Wilson pander to his audience, caused the album’s  sales to be mediocre, at best. Reviews were mixed to negative.

Not all ways lost, though. The record was noticed by one group of people. The music community was quick to swipe up Pet Sounds & listen. Back then, the music industry was a very different thing, in the way the executives ran it, but in the artist who were part of it. Today, the top 40 is filled with “artists” who have no staying power, making the professional musician job turnover higher than it’s ever been. The stars only interact with each other when they promote a tour or album release & most of the songwriting is done by people hired to write & arrange for them.

In the 1960s, things were different. Yes, there were musicians who didn’t have staying power. Yes, record companies were money grubbing & ruthless, but the majority of professional musicians had camaraderie. People like John Lennon, Bob Dylan & Brian Wilson were friends. Their social lives were intertwined. Successes were helped & encouraged by bouncing ideas off of each other & giving constructive criticism. Songwriting rivalries were there, but they were almost always friendly. It’s been widely documented that The Beatles & The Rolling Stones used to actually work together to set release dates so that each of them could have their own successful time on the charts. They supported each other & it was a wonderful thing.

I say all that because Brian Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds was received with open arms by successful & striving musicians alike. Wilson learned his technique of layering instruments from his friend, producer, Phil Spector, who dubbed the method the “wall of sound.”  Also incorporated, were sounds which hadn’t been used in rock music, such as the bass harmonica & even Coca Cola cans (You can see the gigantic size of the album’s personnel list here). These elements were recognized as innovative by contemporary musicians & inspired many subsequent records, including he legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with Paul McCartney going as far as to say, “I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard [Pet Sounds].”

This is why I wanted to hear it on vinyl. I needed to listen to it the way my musical heroes did.

Cover Art:
Pet Sounds’ cover art is pretty simple; it’s the band at the San Diego Zoo, feeding goats. It was supposed to be a play on the album title, & there really isn’t much else to say about it.

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The cover of Pet Sounds, still in shrink wrap

Sound:
I own Pet Sounds in mono. It’s a re-release, & like most reissues, the record itself was pressed on 180 gram vinyl. People claim it sounds better that regular 120 gram, but that’s debatable. However, one thing that is certain, is that thicker records are more durable & less prone to warping. So I guess you could say that in the long run, there will be an impact on the sound.

Brian Wilson has said that Pet Sounds is a record that you can’t just listen to in passing. He says that the best way to experience the album is to put it on the turntable, put on headphones & shut off the lights. That way the listener experiences nothing but the pure sound of the record. I didn’t quite listen to it like that, though I plan to, but I did listen from start to finish. I also have the album on my computer, & even through nice speakers, the quality isn’t even remotely as good.

The difference between laying it on a turntable versus a computer is like night & day. Pet Sounds is jam packed with sound, & Wilson intended every bit of it to be heard. Much of this is lost during the compression of an .mp3, but  once the needle drops, every sound, from the standard electric guitar, to bicycle bells becomes unbelievably clear.

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Pet Sounds‘ Capitol Records rainbow label

I’d listened to the album a million times before I bought the Vinyl, & while I knew it was ground-breaking, its lack of luster through computer speakers or .ear buds made it sound ordinary. When I made the switch, I can finally say, I get it. I now know what Wilson’s vision was & I understand completely. That, combined with an understanding of the times in which it was released, gave me a musical epiphany. It was the first time this has happened to me so suddenly & with such force. I finally was able to listen to it the way all my musical heroes did & I am unbelievably humbled to be able to say it affected me the same way.

Final Thoughts:
John Lennon & Paul McCartney are widely considered to be the 2 main musical geniuses of the Twentieth Century. I truly believe that the 1960s saw a third musical genius in Brian Wilson. Without any shadow of a doubt, his intricate & beautiful mind was right on par with Lennon’s & McCartney’s. Unfortunately, because of the lack of his band’s support & because his mental state was so fragile, he couldn’t keep up. Wilson eventually had a much more serious nervous breakdown & withdrew to the confines of his bedroom. I truly believe that if he had been given the support he needed, he would have created a much larger catalog of records, many of which would have been held in the highest regard. If things had gone perfectly, Pet Sounds would have been viewed in the same light as Rubber Soul is for The Beatles: a record considered to be the initial departure from the band’s rock ‘n’ roll roots, to something more artful. Thankfully, with age, the recordhas received the recognition it deserves from the general public, earning the title of second greatest album of all time from Rolling Stone.

Hindsight is 20/20, right?

At any rate, Pet Sounds is a wonderful masterpiece, especially when it’s played on vinyl. If you want to hear one of the albums that changed music as we know it, then this is definitely one you need to pick up.

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Sleep Tight: It Means Exactly What You Think it Means

Welcome back to the office, everyone. I hope you all enjoyed the weekend.

I have a fairly quick one today.

Sleep tight: It’s way to wish someone a restful night’s sleep, but why would your rest be tight? We also say, “Sleep well,” & “Have a good sleep,” so where does tight come into play & why is it so grammatically incorrect?

There are numerous reports on the web saying that this phrase originated from the use of old fashioned mattresses. Most of the sources claim their information comes from a BBC report in 2008, claiming that old mattresses were supported by intertwined ropes, instead of modern bed frames & box springs. Every so often, the ropes would need to be tightened, as they’d loosen after nightly use.

After telling someone to sleep tight, you can say, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Bed bugs are like a plague & if you get them, they’re almost impossible to clear. This idea lead to more self-proclaimed experts asserting that it had to do with tucking the sheets in tightly, so it’s harder for the bugs to crawl in with you.

As convincing as those may sound & as credible as the BBC is, they’re just not true. “Sleep tight,” is very a old expression, & the origin comes down to the way the words were used. According to the Oxford Dictionary’s “Word Origins” site & Amazon’s The Word Detective, tight is nothing more than an evolution of the adverb, tightly. Modern spoken English tends to drop the “ly” off of adverbs, so instead of saying something like, “The boy ran quickly,” many people say, “The boy rand quick.” This seems to be what happened, here.

Now that that’s cleared up, it’s time to figure why the word tight is used. Back then, it was a word with multiple definitions, & the one we’re looking at today means soundly or properly. Taken in this context, you really aren’t saying anything more than, “Have a great sleep.” The reason we don’t ever hear it used this way is because it’s is the last known example of tight being used this way.

The origin of sleep tight is deceptively simple. Unlike many expressions we use today, it means exactly what it was originally intended to mean.

Well, that’s it for me for now. I hope you have a good rest of the week. Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Thoughts on The Beatles’ US Album 50th Anniversary Remasters

Hello, everyone. Today, I’m going to do a bit of a special post about something I feel pretty strongly about. It’s not a review or anything, but just an opinion on how something’s being handled. Here we go.

January 21, 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ first major American release, Meet the Beatles!. To commemorate the occasion, Apple, the company that handles the band’s affairs, remastered & re-released the US discography on CD. The hype was pretty high because the UK remastered albums were released on CD & vinyl in 2009 & 2012, respectively, & sounded pretty damn sweet. You can read my reviews of the first two records here & here. Even so, the release wasn’t given as much publicity this time around, purely because the new  generation of Beatles fans grew up with the UK versions. The fan base mainly consists of avid fans my age & those who grew up with the US albums, so the market for the American releases is naturally a a little smaller. Nevertheless, promotion ramped up just before the release & continues this month to mark the 50th anniversary of the band’s first visit to the US. Needless to say, I was interested in hearing the improvements to the sound.

Before I get into how I felt about it, there are a few major questions that probably come to mind, & I’ll do my best to answer all of them.

Why are the mixes in America different from the ones in England? Didn’t English bands have a say in what they released in America?
No, not really, & it’s all because of royalties. Depending on the contract, in England, royalties were paid either by disc sold or by side (remember, records need to be flipped), so, regardless of the number of tracks each side contained, the artist would get a flat percentage of the sale.  On the other hand, the United States paid artists their royalties by song. This meant that if an album had the same number of tracks in the US as the it does in the UK, the labels had to pay the artist more per album here than they did across the pond.

Two major differences between English & American albums arose because of this, & both greatly benefited the record companies:

First, in the States, singles & B-sides were almost always included on the album, where as in England, they were separate. This serves two purposes, both of which allowed the labels to make more money off of a British artist:

1) By including the single on the album, consumers pay for the single twice, without thinking about it.

2)  To make room for the single & its flip side, two tracks from the original album needed to be cut. More on that in a second. Then the motives will connect & become clear.

The second difference is in the number of tracks the album contains. In England, albums stopped being financially feasible for the record company after fourteen songs. In America, they stopped being feasible after twelve. This means that two more songs were cut, making a total of four unreleased songs. See where I’m going? Using this method, English bands releasing music in the US would have surplus of four songs. Since the standard was twelve tracks, then record companies could release an entire extra record for every three albums recorded. They didn’t have to pay for studio time since it was done already, but could charge for a full album. It was free money.

What does this have to do with the Beatles?
Remember, the Beatles were unheard of in the States before 1964 & were no less susceptible to American distribution procedures than anyone else. It didn’t help that their American A&R representative was a man named Dave Dexter Jr, either. Dexter’s employer, Capitol Records, was under the same parent corporation as The Beatles’ label, & because of this, they had first refusal rights of the band’s American distribution. Being a jazz purist who despised the abomination that was rock ‘n’ roll, Dexter exercised the right to the fullest, turning the band down three times, until public demand & pressure from his superiors made him change his mind & avidly pursue the contract.

Once it was secured, he commenced to follow the protocol used on all English imports & remixed & chopped up the tapes as he saw fit, in a process known to Beatles’ fans as “Dexterizing.” The end result was the band’s American major label debut Meet the Beatles!. All in all, it’s a good one, & the changes were minimal. They even used the same cover art. It’s basically The Beatles’ second English LP, With the Beatles, with the removal of the four tracks & inclusion of the single, “I Wanna Hold You Hand.” You can click on the two photos below, to see the track listings.

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My copy of With the Beatles

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My dad’s copy of Meet the Beatles!


As I said, it’s far from being the worst Dexterized album. That would be The Beatles Second Album (Again, it’s not a bad album at all; it’s just the principle of it & the one he went to town on the most). You can get more information on it here & a full analysis of the record can be found in Dave Marsh’s book, The Beatles Second Album (Rock of Ages).

Dexter’s meddling went on until 1967, when the band’s contract was set to be renewed. They re-signed on the condition that Capitol Records would only release the tapes as they were. As a result, 1966’s Revolver was the last record to be altered. The Beatles had set yet another precedent in the music industry.

So, what’s wrong with releasing remastered copies of the American albums?
Well, nothing… if they did it the right way.

My dad still has the original LPs & the re-releases from 2004 & 2006, so I was really looking forward to sitting down with my him & comparing the three at some point (I still am), but then a few days ago, he sent me this email:

Some people are claiming that what Apple (or whoever) did to put together these new US albums was simply use the 2009 UK mixes and put the songs in US order. If they weren’t working off the US mixes, it seem unnecessary to get them. Nothing would be Dexterized or anything like that. Have you heard anything about this?

Well, I hadn’t heard about it & I felt I needed to investigate. It struck me as odd because The Beatles’ master tapes are priceless in the recording community & are kept under lock & key. They’re only brought out on very special occasions & even then, very few eyes see them. When they’re transferred to other formats, more care is taken to preserve the integrity of the performances & mixes, than with any other set of recordings ever made.

In the case of the US remasters, I unfortunately feel that this didn’t happen.

Here’s why:

In the early days, when The Beatles wanted to release a record in America, a succession of things needed to happen to get there. They would first record their songs in the studio, with the intent of making an album for the English public. George Martin, their producer, along with their engineer would create mixes of the best takes of the songs. These final mixes would then be sent to mastering, where they would be put on a master tape, or the tape that would be used to cut the master record. After using this to press the records in England, the same tapes would be sent to Capitol, in Los Angeles for the US pressings.

Before being sent to the presses, they would be Dexterized to fit the American market. The new mixes would be sent to Capitol’s own mastering department & new tapes would be created. This then would go to press & would be released to the public.

What does this have to do with the remasters? Well, here’s the thing. A few of the final versions sent over from the UK were different versions of the ones released in England. For example, the song “I Call Your Name”, released on a four song EP (extended play) in Britain & The Beatles’ Second Album in the US, has a slightly different opening guitar solo. The difference is clear as day. (US/UK) For these songs, you’ll get a full on remaster of what was released here. This is where the authenticity stops.

Capitol Records claimed, since the songs were mixed for AM radio & inferior turntables & speakers, the modern listener wouldn’t be offered the best listening experience they could have. How did they fix this? They did it by backtracking past their own master tapes, to work off of the English ones. Using the remasters which were already done fr the UK releases, engineers recreated the mixes that Dexter had made fifty years ago. This means that, save for the tracks that used different takes, the songs you’re hearing are slightly modified duplicates of what you’re getting on the British albums. Instead of getting an actual remaster, you’re getting a recreation. Again, they were adamant about the fact that it was because they wanted to give the listener the best experience, but if I know major labels, the reason is this: they didn’t want to spend the money remastering the same song twice.

I’ve left out a lot of positives because this is mainly an opinion on the technique use to release these records, however I know there will be plenty. As I told my father, there’s no doubt that they’ll sound incredible for what they are. The guys at Abbey Road always do an excellent job & I’m absolutely sure that they took great care in doing what they were instructed to do.
Another great part of this box set is that you’ll get three American albums which were previously unreleased on CD. The first is the US version of A Hard Day’s Night. In 1964, the production company, United Artists reserved the right to release the record because it was a film soundtrack. Capitol has secured the rights & included it in this new box set.
The second two are Yesterday & Today, complete with peel off standard cover to reveal the “Butcher Cover,” & Revolver. The previous release of the American albums only included records up to Rubber Soul.

If you can get your hands on them, please do. Compare & contrast them to the original recordings & the releases from 2004-2006. You’ll have a good time regardless of how they were made.

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Pipe Down: Whistling Audio Signals

Hello, everyone. I hope you had a good long weekend. I know I did.

The phrase we’re going to talk about today is another which can trace its roots back to life on the ocean, specifically to the job of boatswain, or bosun.

The word boatswain comes from the Old English word batswegen, meaning boat, & the Old Norse word, sveinn, meaning servant. The modern-day job of one of these sailors is to oversee maintenance the hull, deck equipment & the operations which use that equipment. Some of these maintenance tasks include painting the hull, keeping the integrity of the wooden deck & testing out machinery. It was a full plate to have, even without factoring in the other routine duties which were shared with crew members.

Bosun2

A boatswain oversees cargo operations on a U.S. freighter.
(Photo courtesy of Randy C. Bunney, Great Circle Photography)

Alright, let’s roll back the clock to before the days of electricity aboard ships.

Back then, boatswains & their mates had even more to do. Since ships were powered by the wind, the duties of these men were extended to taking care of the sails & masts.

Imagine you’re working up in the rigging, which can tower over two hundred feet above the water, on the biggest ships. It’s very windy up there, so all you can hear are the sails flapping, the rigging snapping & the masts creaking. If your ship is in the midst of battle, you can add the sound of cannons fire to that. You look down & catch a glimpse of your boatswain as he yells up his orders, but you can’t hear him. You only see is his mouth moving. It’s definitely a problem that needs to be addressed. What’s the remedy?

One of these:

Bootsmannpfeife

Photo used courtesy of Wikipedia user ThoKay.

That’s a boatswain’s pipe, or as some sailors called it, a “pippity-dippity.” That last part isn’t a joke; battle hardened sailors actually used that term. Anyway, when the pipe is used, it produces an absurdly loud, shrill whistle, which can be heard over the noises of shipboard life. While it’s largely used  symbolically alongside PA systems & in ceremonies today, in the days before modern vocal amplification, a system of sound signals was used to alert sailors to different orders, tasks, mealtimes & bedtime. The term “pipe down” originally referred to the signal which told the sailors to get below decks. For example, in his 1798 book, Advice to Commanders & Officers: Serving in the West Indies, on the Preservation of the Health of Seamen (because all books had unnecessarily long & specific titles back then), Dr. Leonard Gillespie writes, “At four o’clock, P.M. the hammocks should regularly be piped down.”

A lithograph of a boatswain c. 1820. (Image in Public Domain)

A lithograph of an old timey boatswain c. 1820.
(Image in Public Domain)

How does this relate to being quiet? Well, as with so many other expressions, it’s not 100% clear, but we have some ideas.

The ttrusty Phrase Finder site proposes that it may have links to sending sailors below decks when trouble among the crew started to break out. The author of the site cites this quotation from an April 1850 article in The Gettysburg Star & Banner:

‘I don’t care what happens to me now!’ wept Peter, going among the crew, with blood-shot eyes, as he put on his shirt. ‘I have been flogged once, and they may do it again, if they will. ‘Let them look out for me now’. ‘Pipe down!’ cried the Captain, and the crew slowly dispersed.

Now we know it was spoken on ships before it came ashore. However, we’re not sure how long it was part of maritime jargon.

Though a boatswain’s pipe is loud, “Pipe down” may have actually dealt with a lack of sound. In his blog, Not Yet Published, Shahan Cheong abandons the notion that it was used for sending men below decks. He suggests that “pipe down” refers to the boatswain refraining from using the whistle, especially before an impending battle, as its shrill call would travel across the water, potentially giving the ship’s position away. The phrase itself might have quite literally meant, “Put the pipe down; you’re being too loud.”

Over the course of this blog, I’ve learned that the beginnings of many of the expressions we use today have fallen by the wayside. “Pipe down” is no different. We know it can be drawn back to the shipboard position of boatswain & his pipe & that it was spoken before 1850. It was written prior to 1798. Unfortunately after using that, it starts to become a little gray. Once again, it’s up to you to decide what you think is correct.

I will leave you all at that. I hope you all have a wonderful rest of the week & I will see you in the same place next Monday. Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Back to Square One: Soccer & Children’s Games

Happy Monday, everyone. I hope you all had a good weekend & that you’ve settled well into your mondays. Let’s kick off he week with a new Bill’s Bologna post.

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally have a post about an idiom for you all. So, here it is:

“Back to square one” is a common phrase, which means starting over. Different groups of etymologists argue over how it actually started, but the general consensus is that it came from one of three places. The three explanations deal with popular sports & games, which are still played today.

Here they are:

Hopscotch:
This one’s very simple. In hopscotch, you draw numbered squares on the ground. You throw a stone & hop from square to square in numerical order. The square on which the stone landed is skipped. When you’ve reached the end, you go backwards, to square one.

ALPP_-_Hop-Scotch[1]

Hopscotch as illustrated by Isiah Thomas in his 1767 book, A Pretty Little Pocket Book
(Image in Public Domain)

Chutes & Ladders:
I would be really surprised if anyone reading this hasn’t played Chutes & Ladders because it’s one of the most common children’s board games of all. It’s also one of the oldest.
In 1943, Milton Bradley changed the snakes to chutes, or slides, & marketed it to American children. What most people don’t know is that the game was played as far back as the Sixteenth Century. It was Indian & was called Moksha Patam.

Snakes_and_Ladders[1]

Your journey towards your destiny in the caste system- The original version of Snakes (Chutes) & Ladders, from India
(Image in Public Domain)

The game was played on a numbered grid which vared from 8×8 to 12×12. Across the board, there were ladders & snakes connecting different squares. If you landed on the bottom of a ladder, you could bypass some squares, but if you landed on the head of a snake, you had to backtrack to the square where the snake’s tale was. Unlike most games at the time, which emphasized strategy, this one was meant to symbolize destiny. All you had to do was roll the dice & move your piece. Whether or not you landed on a ladder or snake square was where your pawn (symbolic for your soul) was desined to land. Here’s where the phrase comes in. If you landed on a snake head leading back to the first square, you had to start over because you were sent back to square one. Makes sense, right?

Soccer:
Another group of etymologists believe that it dates back to the BBC broadcasts of soccer.
Back in the 1930s, radio was huge. There weren’t any TVs yet, so this is how sports fans were able to experience games. Radio announcers from the British Broadcasting Corporation would divide the soccer field up a 2 x 4 grid. They’d number the squares, with 1 & 2 on one side, & 7 & 8 on the other. I was easier for someone at home to picture where the ball was if the announcer had a clear area to describe.
BBC fans adamantly argue that this is the true origin, but as the English site, The Phrase Finder, points out, there are a few problems with this one, the biggest one being the fact that just because a ball is kicked into the first square, doesn’t mean that the game started over. The site also mentions that the squares on the field are much more rectangular than square, but I think that may be nit-picking a bit.

Soccer Squares as described by BBC sports announcers

Soccer Squares as described by BBC sports announcers

Any of these seem plausible to me, but then there’s this quotation. It’s from 1952, & it pops up everywhere, as one of the first times the phrase is used in this context.

He has the problem of maintaining the interest of the reader who is always being sent back to square one in a sort of intellectual game of snakes and ladders.

The Phrase Finder claims that it is, in fact, the first time this is documented on paper & that after the 1930s, announcers stopped calling games like this. Therefore, it’s not likely that this is a true story. Again, it’s speculation.

I tend to lean towards the Chutes & Ladders origin, but again, they’re all considered plausible. Which one do you think?

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Have a great rest of the week & I’ll see you at my next post.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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