Thursday, January 24, 2013

In which Michael listens to the Beatles on vinyl for the first time



There is not a single note in the magnificent Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set that is new to me. I have long owned all of it - every song they released during their life as a band - on CD. And I've owned it all in the same configurations, this mixture of British, American and universal releases that became codified as The Beatles Catalog when the music was first issued on compact disc in 1987.

I could not possibly guess the number of hours I have spent listening to these albums over the past quarter-century.

I couldn't even estimate the number hours I've spent listening over the past two-and-a-half years, from the moment I saw Paul McCartney play live and went on a fully-immersive bender that prompted me to read book after book after book about the band, and even incorporate a whole lot of explicit Beatles worship into my novel XL (which is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other fine retailers).

So when I opened the vinyl set on Christmas, even though I knew if was coming, I could feel the same sort of swell I felt when I heard Paul's band play the opening notes to "A Day in the Life."

This isn't an act of nostalgia for me. Though this music was ever-present in my childhood, it wasn't the music of my childhood. I was born too late, between Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album. I gained musical consciousness only after the Beatles split. I knew their songs, but never owned their records. I had a few cassettes - 20 Greatest Hits, Abbey Road, the American version of Revolver, or as we Americans called it at the time, Revolver - but never a bit of vinyl. Just little tapes in nondescript packages, album covers no bigger than baseball cards.

But, oh my, the music. I listened to Revolver over and over, in my room, in the car, anywhere a cassette player could be found or lugged. And I could not have believed that anything was missing. I listened to "Eleanor Rigby" and "Here, There and Everywhere" and could barely believe that music could be so beautiful. I heard "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" and ruefully acknowledged that the awful stories about LSD were probably true.

And then one day I was watching the old Beatles cartoons on MTV and this came on (jump ahead to 2:45 if you must).


It blew my mind in every way, combining power and melody into the perfect rock and roll song. I had never heard it before. I never knew. To my knowledge, no one ever knew.

Now, of course, everyone knows. Or at least everyone who cares to know. I can't imagine what goes on in the mind of someone who doesn't care to know.

Upon returning home after Christmas, I methodically, chronologically worked my way through the collection. After listening to one record, I unwrapped the next and listened to it, a ritual repeated through fourteen albums, including two two-record sets. And each one revealed something new to me, even after all this time. Here's how it went.

Please Please Me: Pick it up. Look at the full-sized cover for the first time. Notice that (unlike the CD) the word "stereo" appears on the top right corner in that stylized sixties font, a feature consistent on the first six albums. Look closer. It's impossible not to notice how young they look, Paul and George especially, virtually schoolboys. Peel the plastic. Pull out the plain white sleeve. Only a transparent circle revealing the label suggests anything momentous. Long Playing * Parlophone * Stereo it says in grandiloquent script. Put the record on the turntable and drop the needle. It starts with a "1-2-3-4!" Just an ordinary count-in, but to hear it now, knowing what we know, with the hard emphasis on the "4," it sounds like a declaration. We four, forever. The first song features Paul singing "I Saw Her Standing There." The last features John shredding "Twist and Shout." You don't have to know much history to understand that a revolution has just begun.

With the Beatles: The iconic cover, faces in shadow against a black backdrop. In just eight months since the first album, the cherubs somehow achieved gravitas. A half-century later, project yourself into the mindset of the time. It must have seemed audacious, almost aggressive. Long-haired bubblegum punks, purveyors of "yeah-yeah-yeah" poetics, demanding to be taken seriously. If the cover doesn't convince you, drop the arm on side one, feel the stomp of "It Won't Be Long." That must have sounded like heavy metal in 1963.

A Hard Day's Night: After thinking about this stuff for thirty years, I start to have some realizations. First off, this is a great album. I always knew that, of course, but I mean it more profoundly. The talk of great Beatles albums usually starts with Rubber Soul and marches forward chronologically. Before 1965, the single was the great artistic and commercial expression, with the album a way to express a little more cash from the consumer's pocket. But this one is so consistent, cohesive and propulsive that it deserves consideration along with its brethren. And this notion strikes me most forcefully when I flip to side two. For the past quarter-century, this had been a single album to me. Now it's two sides. And side two is what seals the deal. Side one has the more famous songs ("A Hard Day's Night," "Can't Buy Me Love"), but side two is a barrage of lesser-known gems that makes the entire record essential listening. We've long heard about the rifle-shot snare that vaults Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited through the speaker and into your mind, but Ringo's blast that kicks off side two preceded it by a year. And in that song, "Any Time at All," the genius of John's singing is reaffirmed. He does for the voice what electrification did for the guitar, imprinting it with the gritty distorted sound that differentiated this generation's music from all that came before. The whole second side (really, the whole album) belongs to John, with "When I Get Home" and "You Can't Do That" hitting with the same power as "Any Time at All," and "I'll Be Back" ending the affair on a wistful note, sounding like a real album closer.

When contemplating the cohesiveness of A Hard Day's Night, it strikes me that this is the band's first great leap forward. Between 1963 and 1964, Lennon and McCartney found their voice as songwriters. There are great songs on the first two albums, no doubt, but considerably less maturity. Another thought strikes me: While I knew before that this is the first Beatles album to consist solely of original songs, I suddenly realize that this is the only album in the entire catalog to consist entirely of Lennon and McCartney tunes (no George or Ringo here). I'm sure I'm not the first person to note that, but it helps explain the record's seamless, unified perfection.

Beatles for Sale: The fourth album by the four is the first to feature a gatefold cover, and it includes four photos of the full band (front cover, back cover, front inside cover, back inside cover). Have at it, numerologists. Compared to A Hard Day's Night, the record seems disjointed, with six cover songs among its fourteen tracks. "Eight Days a Week" is the album's most famous track, but "What You're Doing" is the most interesting, a McCartney original with a soaring vocal in which he combines melody and power like never before, while the band crafts a guitar sound that the Byrds will make a career of. The primacy that John owned within the band on the previous record is gone, never to return.

Above the second of the four photos, the liner notes manage to sound audacious while still somehow underestimating the band. Derek Taylor, the band's PR man, writes:

There's priceless history between these covers. . . . When, in a generation or so, a radio-active, cigar-smoking child, picnicking on Saturn, asks you what the Beatle affair was all about - 'Did you actually know them?' -don't try to explain all about the long hair and the screams! Just play the child a few tracks from this album and he'll probably understand what it was all about. The kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth as we do today.

At that time, music recording was still in its relative infancy, and the notion that a piece of popular music would continue to resonate four decades into the future must have seemed preposterous (not many folks in the 1960s were listening to recordings from the 1920s). But here we are, well past AD 2000, and we're still listening to it, studying it, and (in some cases) worshipping it. My kids were both born after AD 2000, and they love these songs. My daughter plays them on the piano. And if these kids and their friends carry this music with them throughout their lives (and there's no reason to think that they won't), these three-minute pop artifacts will endure into a second century. Mull that over for a minute.

Help!: The fifth album, the fifth consecutive one to include a back-cover pitch for Emitex record cleaner (I use Discwasher, thanks), and the last to include songs authored outside the band. The final original song on the record is among the most celebrated of all time. It's easy to gloss over the majesty of "Yesterday" having heard it so many times, but listen for a minute and focus on the simplicity. "Yesterday" and "Suddenly" are the only two words in the song longer than two syllables. Only nine others - troubles, away, believe, shadow, hanging, over, wouldn't, something, easy - are longer than one. It's just a wisp of a song, but as insistent a piece of popular music as there has ever been. These are the things you think about as you watch a record spin.

Rubber Soul: Hints that this is the great transitional album are right on the cover. The moptops are wild, exaggerated, representing not style but freedom. Inside, there's no era-defining hit, just fourteen songs that explore new territory ("Norwegian Wood," "In My Life") and hold together like a unit.

The first note about sound: I'm not one who will proselytize about the virtues of vinyl and how it sounds so much better than a compact disc. But good lord does this record sound great. The depth, richness, warmth and roundness are spectacular. Paul's bass bounces and thrums, and there's a perceptible sense of space. I've always thought this was a great-sounding album, but it's a spectacular-sounding record.

Revolver: The most radical piece of pop-art I know (Highway 61 Revisited is the only other contender), and a brave one, too, as the world's most popular entertainers defiantly lay waste to their audience's expectations. Sonically, I don't hear anything new on the vinyl (except, perhaps, for a greater focus on McCartney's jaw-dropping bass playing on "Taxman"), just the blueprint for all that comes after, with Paul's genius for formalism, John's revolutionary gift for rock and roll abstraction, and George's growing confidence and consciousness (his first raga!) colliding and showering sparks that no other band could hope to match.

It's when I flip over to the back cover, which I had never before seen, that I have a revelation. I already knew that the template for Oasis's music could be found in the album's grooves. Now I see that the template for the band's visual aesthetic can be found on the back.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: A CD booklet, no matter how lovingly executed, can never match the grandeur of a record sleeve. This one opens up to reveal the boys in their moustaches and their silks, and the front cover reveals details I'd missed before. I had never noticed that the figure of Shirley Temple on the right edge is dressed in a Rolling Stones sweater, for instance. And it comes with the original cutouts (moustache, badge, etc.) that no right-minded person would ever actually cut out. There's Sonny Liston on the front, and Bob Dylan and Lewis Carroll and on and on. The record, unfortunately, is less impressive. The spindle hole on my copy is drilled slightly off-center, which makes for some unpleasant distortion the deeper you get into each side. It's the only dud disc in the box. I'll be ordering a replacement.

Magical Mystery Tour: A nice touch. Because this is the American version, the label says Capitol instead of Parlophone. If you don't already know the reason, you almost certainly don't care, but the short version is that the original British release was a six-song double EP that featured only songs from the film, while the American version added non-LP singles. On CD, the thing has never quite held up as an album, but on vinyl, side two is a juggernaut, one of the greatest compilation records ever released.

The White Album: After listening on CD for all these years, it strikes me that I don't know where the breaks are on this double album. In my mind, I hear "Martha My Dear" right after "Happiness is a Warm Gun," but on vinyl, you have to flip the record in between them. Which is good, because nothing should have to follow that song.

Yellow Submarine: This is how great the Beatles were. You don't want to own this album, but you have to. Because if you don't own it, you don't have the complete catalog, and if you don't have the complete catalog you're a casual fan, and who can be casual about this stuff? I mean, you already have "Yellow Submarine" on Revolver and "All You Need is Love" on Magical Mystery Tour, and side two doesn't contain a single note of Beatles music, but still you have to have it because if you don't, you don't have "Only a Northern Song" and "It's All Too Much" (which are kind of dreary) or "All Together Now" (which is kind of slight), or "Hey Bulldog" (which is all kinds of brilliant). And the best thing about the LP is the back of the sleeve, in which they implicitly acknowledge the weightlessness of the project by running Derek Taylor's review of . . . The White Album.

Abbey Road: The downside to the pristine sound is the "shoot me" that John repeatedly whispers before each verse is wince-producing in light of what happened eleven years after the album's release. The upside is that, instead of the second half of the CD, side two of Abbey Road is side two of Abbey Road, the most spectacular and emotionally-cathartic twenty-three minutes in pop music.

Let it Be: "This is a new phase BEATLES album" the back cover declares, and I suppose the end of the band is technically a new phase, but, crikey, what a bummer. Phil Spector has taken his share of crap for the goop he glopped all over "The Long and Winding Road," but my main takeaway is how direct and immediate the record sounds. He made no effort to create a wall of sound. Instead, on the likes of "I've Got a Feeling," the fourth wall is obliterated, and you're right there with the band.

Past Masters: The end of the story starts at the beginning, with "Love Me Do" (in sparkling mono), then progresses through every officially-released A-side, B-side, and bit of ephemera that don't show up on the albums. As stunning as any of the lovingly-crafted albums, it moves forward, gathers momentum, tells a story, blows the mind, "She Loves You" to "Hey Jude" in twenty-one easy steps. But for all the titanic songs here ("I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Paperback Writer," "Revolution") it's fittingly subversive that a set that includes the entire output of the band ruled the world should end with "You Know My Name (Look Up My Number)," the one time they rolled tape with the sole purpose of amusing themselves. Play us out, boys.

7 comments:

don said...

I'm trying to stay away from these. I still have some of the original US vinyl (some of it hand-me-down mono), I have the Mono CD Box, the Stereo CD Box, I HAD all of the original CD releases but sold them all at $1/ea. in a shelf=space grab operation. I did hang on to the limited edition White Album that was a miniature recreation of the original vinyl release. (yes, that actually means that for a period of time I owned 5 copies of the White Album).

So, even though I am getting back in to vinyl... again (my new grey market Japanese Denon moving coil cartridge arrived yesterday) I feel like I need to draw the line somewhere.

Don't I?

Maybe I just need to get Rubber Soul and Revolver?

Michael Atchison said...

You're going to have to work that out with your own conscience. I never bought any of the subsequent CD releases. I still have the 1987 stuff.

don said...

You ought to consider the Mono set. In many cases the mixes are different and in some cases, startlingly so. If the literature is to be believed, the mono mix got the lion's share of attention from George Martin and the boys as this was the primary format in the UK until '68 or so.

Michael Atchison said...

I probably ought to consider it, but I face the same (unspoken) dilemma that you do: How am I going to explain to my wife that I'm going to buy all the albums yet again?

don said...

Please don't ask me how many copies of Pet Sounds I have.

MacGuffin said...

I don't have a record player, nor the money, or we'd probably get these. We got the CD box set for Xmas a few years ago, and that satisfies me.

Then again, I think I own three copies of Pet Sounds...

Michael Atchison said...

Got my turntable this past summer (a father's day gift), and Pet Sounds was among my first ten acquisitions. I've only bought it twice. Hey Don, I recently found a copy of Something New, which I picked up out of a sense of duty. When combining the British and American releases, that must be the least consequential Beatles album of all. And Mac, say hi to Heather for me. Been a long, long time.