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.

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


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

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

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.

Sunday 28 May 2017

Review: The new remix is the definitive Sgt. Pepper


Fifty years, almost to the day, The Beatles have properly mixed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in stereo. Producer Giles Martin and engineer Sam Okell have reconstructed the album by sourcing the original tracks to present vocals and guitars that sparkle and bass and drums that roar.

Martin has centered the vocals, forever erasing the ugly extreme panning which segregated vocals to one channel and almost all instruments to the other. On every track he has added new details from guitars, keyboards, tablas, strings and backing vocals that ring out of speakers and headphones alike. Layers of sound that The Beatles and his father George with engineer Geoff Emerick first constructed in the winter of 1966/67 burst across the stereo picture in songs such as Getting Better.

Pepper was never my favourite Beatles album. (Revolver is.) In fact, Pepper was down my list. I listened to the 1967 stereo all these years and lamented how the album just lacked something. Too whimsical in places, not enough weight. Sounded flat. However, this 2017 remix makes me reassess Pepper. I now see its depth and appreciate its complexity. Its sheer force is now undeniable--and exciting.

Overall, Martin and Okell have injected the overall album with power and dimension. Long buried in the original 1967 stereo mix, Ringo's drums propel virtually every song, balancing the whimsy in tracks, such as Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, and adding menace to others, including Good Morning, Good Morning.

Sgt. Pepper rocks.

Oh God, you may be thinking, another bloody Beatles reissue. Not at all. This release is not a re-master, but a brand new mix. It ain't a paint job and scrub, but an entire re-design by shifting vocals and re-organizing sounds to realize the effect that The Beatles originally intended in spring 1967. The band oversaw three weeks of mono mixing, but weren't ever around for the stereo mix that lasted three days. Mono outsold stereo in 1967. The audience lagged behind the imagination and ambition of The Beatles. In turn, their Pepper would propel stereo's dominance, usher the rise of the long-playing record and spark the transition of "pop" to "rock."

Giles' stereo mix takes its cue from the mono mix which was the mix that The Beatles intended the world to hear. Mono packs a sonic punch, forceful and aggressive, compared to the thin 1967 stereo. Here's a review of each track, plus the single that was originally planned for the album, Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane:

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Opens with snare drum on the left channel, a much louder bass that rumbles in the center and a guitar that now snarls on the right. The guitar offers far more detail than before and sounds like Jimi Hendrix. The guitar continues to slash as Paul screams the vocal in the centre to create an exciting dialogue. Backing vocals are spread across both channels in exquisite detail. An amazing opening.
Verdict: Excellent

With A Little Help From My Friends
Vocals are centered, and the overall track has a mono feel except that Paul's melodic bass dominates the right channel. This is one of the simpler tracks of the album, so there are no sonic fireworks, but all the elements roll along in the right place.
Verdict: Good

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
The opening keyboard riff dances across the left and right channels to mesmerizing effect that runs through the entire track. It's a subtle, but brilliant touch as if enticing the listener to run down the rabbit hole with vocalist Lennon. John's vocal is centered, anchoring the song. Drums, tamboura are center-left, while Paul's bass is center-right in a delicate balance. This is one of the few tracks where Ringo's drums aren't pushed to the forefront, and I understand why. That would have smothered the sound collage that Lucy creates.
Verdict: Good

Getting Better
The fireworks return with this track. Paul's bass is right upfront and gives the song a whallop that was missing before. Again, vocals are centered. New to my ears were the guitars chiming in both channels and the piano plucking in the right. Ringo's high hat sparkles in the left. The remix shows off the layers of sound like never before which hum together like a mighty machine.
Verdict: Stunning

Fixing A Hole
The opening keyboard has never sounded so detailed. Ringo's drums are predominantly left, guitar mostly right (except the solo) and Paul's vocal at center to anchor the sound picture. Backing vocals also mostly right, but the panning is balanced, not lopsided or distracting.
Verdict: Good

She's Leaving Home
The first thing you notice is how fast this track is, nearly as fast as the mono (which never sounded right to me). This mix demands some adjustment, because I'm used to hearing the slower 1967 stereo version. But in direct comparison, the slower version sounds melodramatic. Also, Giles has separated the individual stringed instruments across the channels giving them room to breathe while allowing Paul's vocal to dominate in the center. Faster, less emphasis on the strings, less melodramatic. Also, John's key background vocals are more distinct and detailed. Overall, a well-balanced track. This faster version gives the song more urgency and bite.
Verdict: Surprising at first, but overall good

Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite
This was one of the worst-mixed songs on the 1967 stereo, your typical hard-pan with the vocals 2000 miles away from the instruments. I hated it. Centering the vocals is a huge step forward here. Secondly, the individual instruments are separated across left and right, and each rings clearly. The difference is immediate and amazing. Third, Ringo's drumming adds weight to a song that was whimsical, even slight, before. And fourth, the wash of sound at the end is downright dazzling. Another WOW moment.
Verdict: Stunning

Within You Without You
Every instrument, stringed and Indian, sparkles on this track. They are spread across both channels instead of lumped together into a dull mess as before. George's vocal in the center literally bridges both sets of instruments. Most astonishing is the extended musical break starting at 2;23 where Giles exploits the soundscape to contrast and blend the Indian and Western instruments. Hands down, this is one of the most breathtaking moments of this remix.
Verdict: Stunning

When I'm 64
Brushes-on-snare on the left, clarinets on the right and Paul's vocal in the middle. Simple and it works.
Verdict: Good

Good Morning Good Morning
Crank this one. This new remix is a monster rock track. Ringo drives a tank throughout this song, adding a layer of menace which injects John's lyrics about a dull day with paranoia and chaos. And I mean that as a compliment. Another WOW moment. This remix is light years from any you've ever heard.
Verdict: Stunning

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)
Given the bass-and-drums boost of every track before, it's a slight letdown to hear this mix. On the 1967 mix, this track rocked the hardest, but no longer. Is this a bad mix? Not at all, but it doesn't surprise like the others. Paul's vocal, though, is crisper, and you can hear him scat in the fade out just like he does on the mono mix.
Verdict: Okay

A Day In The Life
Mixed feelings. John's vocal is centered throughout and--for once--I miss the extreme panning. In the 1967 mix, his vocal starts in the extreme right than gradually shifts to the center and eventually hard-left, counter-clockwise. I miss this sense of disorientation and movement. That said, every sonic element on this track rings clearer with more detail, notably John's unearthly Ahhhh at 2:46. And the final piano chord is a knock-out punch.
Verdict: Mixed feelings

Strawberry Fields Forever
Actually remixed in 2015, but the structure is the same as the other tracks: centered vocals and individual instruments and effects delicately mixed on the left and right channels. The svarmandal still deliciously sweeps across the soundscape. Again, the instruments offer detail and immediacy.
Verdict: Good

Penny Lane
It's subtle, but this is one of the most radical remixes. It's not a hard rock song, but a collection of vignettes that Paul imagines of his hometown, Liverpool. Storyteller Paul is front and centre. Flourishes appear discreetly on the left and right channels, like the piccolo trumpet solo on the right, or the fireman's bell on the left. Again, subtle. My only complaint is that the trumpet near the end of the song is slightly buried in the left channel. (If anyone's asking, on my iPod I've placed SFF/Penny between Within You Without You and When I'm 64 and chucked Lovely Rita altogether.)
Verdict: Good

OVERALL: Though imperfect, the 2017 stereo remix is the new definitive mix of Sgt. Pepper. It comes closest in capturing the Beatles' intentions and in conveying the complex soundscapes created in 1967 when the band was limited by four-track technology. All vocals, instruments and sound effects burst with fresh detail. Centering the vocals is a leap forward and boosting the drums and bass restores the visceral power of this rock album that used to be found only in the mono mix. My only real misgiving is the vocal placement in A Day In The Life, but the remixes of the title track, Getting Better, Mr. Kite, Within You and Good Morning are breathtaking. This remix firmly places this album in the 21st century and (partially) restores Pepper's reputation which has been overshadowed in recent years by Revolver.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Sgt. Pepper box set: What's really new?

Unless you've been in a coma, you've heard by now that a 50th anniversary Sgt. Pepper box set will soon be released on May 26. Never mind the single- and double-CD packages. Anyone reading this blog will care only about the Super Deluxe 4CD/DVD/blu-ray multiorgasmic set that looks promising.
That optimism is based on early reports, including this one by Rolling Stone last month, that covered an exclusive preview at Abbey Road that a handful of lucky mortals in London attended. These reports tell us of mind-blowing early takes from the album and a fresh remix where Ringo's drumming leaps out of the speakers. I hope so.
However, the box ain't cheap: US$150 for Americans and C$199 for poor Canadians. In contrast, 100 quid for U.K. listeners is halfway reasonable. That's still a lot of cash for 6 discs and a 144-page hardcover book. I'm tempted to shout "cash grab," but will refrain until I get my hands on a set.
So, what's on this box and what do we already have, whether it's legit or bootleg? Here's the track listing and our notes:

CD 1
Sgt. Pepper 2017 Stereo Mix

Yes, this is a re-mix, not a typical "remastered" version that no human can distinguish from the old. By all reports, George's son, Gilles, with Sam Okell, have laboured to produce a brand new mix that will dazzle listeners. Compare that to 1967 when most record-buyers owned mono record players while portable music devices like iPods and smartphones were science fiction. Supposedly, Ringo's drum kicks ass in the new mix, and that's a welcome relief. I have every reason to believe this, given the way Ringo's bass drums leaps out of my speakers in Hey Bulldog from 1999's Yellow Submarine Songbook. I hope Gilles and Okell can inject as much percussive muscle into the new mixes, as this will do humanity a great service by replacing the extreme panning of the original (read: horrible) 1967 stereo mix. Expect instruments and vocals you never heard popping up. Verdict: can't wait.

CD 2 (Complete early takes from the sessions, sequenced in chronological order of their first recording dates)
1. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 1]
2. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 4]
3. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 7]
4. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 26]

Takes 1 and 7 of the song that kicked off the Pepper sessions already appear on The Beatles Anthology and, except take 26, as far back as the landmark 1985 vinyl bootleg, Nothing is Real, and boot CDs notably the comprehensive, It's Not Too Bad (which includes take 26). The only thing we can hope for is some sonic polish to these tracks.
5. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Stereo Mix - 2015]
Gilles' mix from the 1 deluxe reissue that year.
6. "When I'm Sixty-Four" [Take 2]
7. "Penny Lane" [Take 6 – Instrumental]
8. "Penny Lane" [Vocal Overdubs And Speech]
9. "Penny Lane" [Stereo Mix - 2017]

As far as I can tell, these are all new. The Anthology 2 outtake is a blend of several takes, which may or may not come from these outtakes. And the stereo mix will be brand new. Rolling Stone reports "a lavish Pet Sounds-style version led by Paul's piano and harmonium [and] a backing vocal track that's all Paul and George doing handclaps and harmonies." 
10. "A Day In The Life" [Take 1]
11. "A Day In The Life" [Take 2]
12. "A Day In The Life" [Orchestra Overdub]
13. "A Day In The Life" (Hummed Last Chord) [Takes 8, 9, 10 and 11]
14. "A Day In The Life" (The Last Chord)

Again, the Anthology 2 outtake combined several outtakes, including 1 and 2, but here these takes will be presented in their entirety. That should be interesting.  I've read that the mythic hummed last chord sounded dreadful and they were unable to maintain the hum long enough without falling into fits of laughter. We've had a short snippet on VHS for many years, but with four takes of this ending, we'll hear for ourselves exactly why it was dumped.

The total effect of all these tracks should demonstrate how The Beatles built their most celebrated (and complex) song.

15. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" [Take 1 – Instrumental]
16. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" [Take 9 And Speech]

New. There have never been any outtakes of this song, so this is meaty. Rolling Stone describes these takes as a "long, raw guitar jam."
17. "Good Morning Good Morning" [Take 1 - Instrumental, Breakdown]
18. "Good Morning Good Morning" [Take 8]

Take 1 is new, but take 8 already appears in Beatles Anthology 2. Why not replace that with another outtake, since anyone buying the box set will own the Anthology set?
Verdict: Despite a few redundancies, the first disc of outtakes promises enough surprises and buried treasures.

CD 3 (Complete early takes from the sessions, sequenced in chronological order of their first recording dates)
1. "Fixing A Hole" [Take 1]
2. "Fixing A Hole" [Speech And Take 3]

New. No outtakes exist on bootleg. Rolling Stone says that Paul takes a rockier, R&B approach and Ringo takes off the drums. Intriguing.
3. "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" [Speech From Before Take 1; Take 4 And Speech At End]
4. "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" [Take 7]

Only take 4 is new. The rest is already on Anthology 2. Again, why not something new??
5. "Lovely Rita" [Speech And Take 9]
New. No outtakes exist on bootleg. 

6. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" [Take 1 And Speech At The End]
7. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" [Speech, False Start And Take 5]

An outfake, based on takes 6, 7 and 8 appear on Anthology 2, so these tracks are new. Yipee! However, it begs the question of why Gilles, Apple and the Beatles themselves didn't select new outtakes for Mr. Kite and Good Morning, Good Morning.
8. "Getting Better" [Take 1 - Instrumental And Speech At The End]
9. "Getting Better" [Take 12]

New. Says Rolling Stone: "Paul leads on Wurtlitzer keyboard for a more aggressive attack."
10. "Within You Without You" [Take 1 - Indian Instruments Only]
11. "Within You Without You" [George Coaching The Musicians]

An unidentified instrumental take appears on Anthology 2, so it may or may not be take 1. Probably not, since the Anthology 2 version sounds polished. In any case, this should be interesting. Likely new.
12. "She's Leaving Home" [Take 1 – Instrumental]
13. "She's Leaving Home" [Take 6 – Instrumental]

14. "With A Little Help From My Friends" [Take 1 - False Start And Take 2 – Instrumental]
New. An early run-through with Paul leading on piano, John on guitar and George on cowbell (yes, cowbell). No bass.

15. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" [Speech And Take 8]
New. Always a kick-ass track, I wonder what this version sounds like.
Verdict: Only two cuts are redundant, while the rest are new. Thumbs up.

CD 4 (Sgt. Pepper and bonus tracks in Mono)

1-13: 2017 Direct Transfer of Sgt. Pepper Original Mono Mix
14. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Original Mono Mix]
15. "Penny Lane" [Original Mono Mix]
Likely the same as the Mono Box Set and countless mono transfers from vinyl to digital.
16. "A Day In The Life" [Unreleased First Mono Mix]
17. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" [Unreleased Mono Mix - No. 11]
18. "She's Leaving Home" [Unreleased First Mono Mix]

New. A little intriguing, since I've never heard of these. I don't expect significant differences, but rather touches here and there that may surprise.

19. "Penny Lane" [Capitol Records U.S. Promo Single - Mono Mix]
This has been around since the 1980 Rarities vinyl LP released by Capitol. It features an extra horn riff at the coda. Will it change your life? Nope. But it's cute.
Verdict: If you already own the mono mix, then only four tracks are really new, and even then that's a stretch.

DISCS 5 & 6 (Blu-ray & DVD)

New 5.1 Surround Audio mixes of 'Sgt. Pepper’ album and “Penny Lane,” plus 2015 5.1 Surround mix of “Strawberry Fields Forever”
This is where owning a 5.1 sound system pays off. What's better than a stereo remix of Pepper is a new surround mix of the album. Excellent!

High Resolution Audio versions of 2017 'Sgt. Pepper’ stereo mix and 2017 “Penny Lane” stereo mix, plus 2015 “Strawberry Fields Forever” hi res stereo mix (Blu-ray: LPCM Stereo 96KHz/24bit / DVD: LPCM Stereo)
Doesn't hurt, though only audiophiles will appreciate these.

Video Features (both discs):
The Making of Sgt. Pepper [restored 1992 documentary film, previously unreleased]
Long bootlegged, this fine film is most welcome here. Can't wait to see the restored video and audio.

Promotional Films: "A Day In The Life" "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" [4K restored]
Will these be any better than the 1 deluxe blu-ray set?

Verdict: Love seeing a new 5.1 mix included (long, long overdue) and the 1992 documentary released.

Overall verdict: Though pricey, this box set contains an overwhelming majority of new studio material, entirely new stereo and 5.1 mixes and presents the often-bootlegged Making of documentary with few redundancies with existing official releases. A splendid time is (likely) guaranteed for all!

Friday 17 February 2017

I hated Strawberry Fields Forever

by Allan Tong

It was the age of vinyl and I had worn out the grooves of the 1973 Apple/Capitol double-compilation 1962-66 ("red" album) and had eagerly taken him home the companion 1967-70 "blue" album from Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street in Toronto. I threw the disc on my father's turntable, cranked it up and dropped the needle on side 1 of the album. I heard this funereal dirge (Paul's mellotron) then this ghostly voice intoning, "Let me take you down..."

What the fuck?

It sounded like shit. It sounded too slow. It sounded ugly. It was Strawberry Fields Forever, released 50 years ago today in the UK.

Like a lover you grow to understand her idiosyncrasies, it took me a long time to first understand just what the hell John Lennon was saying when he sang, "I think I know of me, ah yes, but it's all wrong" and more time to appreciate just how good the song was.

I wasn't alone.

On March 11, 1967, Dick Clark played the video of SFF and Penny Lane to an audience of American teenagers. Most of them had heard I Want To Hold Your Hand, Help! and Yellow Submarine, the band's last number one, and the clever ones would have clued into Tomorrow Never Knows,but this song blew them away...or confounded them. The reactions after seeing the "film" what we call "video" now) included:

"I thought it was great."

"I don't like their hair."

"They looked older and it ruins their image."

"It was funny."

"Their mustaches are weird!"

"Looked good."

Pete Townshend was one of the first to hear the single before release. He noted that Lennon looked gaunt and nearly unrecognizable, and the music that emanated from the turntable was strange:

Brian Epstein had summoned me, with Eric Clapton, to be the first two artist-peers to hear "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane", The Beatles' new recordings, on an eight-track tape recorder. John was nervous, I remember. He was with Cynthia, his first wife, and she seemed more relaxed than he was. After we had heard the tracks, I was speechless.

The New Musical Express' Derek Johnson wrote: "Certainly the most unusual and way-out single The Beatles have yet produced – both in lyrical content and scoring. Quite honestly, I don't really know what to make of it."

The Beatles, like contemporaries Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Brian Wilson and soon Jimi Hendrix and, in jazz, Miles Davis, strove to push the boundaries into new sounds, but they risked leaving their audience behind. Just ask The Beach Boys, whose Smile confused a lot of their fans in the late-60s. With its backwards tapes, slowed-down vocals, audio loops and avant-garde sounds inspired by Stockhausen, Strawberry Fields Forever invaded the pop charts. In the week it was released, the U.S. top 10 looked like this:

1 KIND OF A DRAG - The Buckinghams
2 I’M A BELIEVER – The Monkees
3 RUBY TUESDAY – The Rolling Stones
4 GEORGY GIRL – The Seekers
5 (We Ain’t Got) NOTHIN’ YET – The Blues Magoos
7 98.6 – Keith
8 TELL IT LIKE IT IS – Aaron Neville
9 THE BEAT GOES ON Sonny and Cher
10 GIMME SOME LOVIN’ - The Spencer Davis Group

Some fine songs by great bands here, including The Supremes and Spencer Davis, but the closest song approaching SFF in inventiveness was Ruby Tuesday by their alleged rivals, The Stones. SFF and Penny Lane sounded like something from outer space.

It's a crime that SFF reached only number 8 on the U.S. charts and with Penny Lane only 2 in the U.K. Now it's universally lauded as the greatest Beatles--or rock--song next to A Day in the Life.

What happened?

Once in a while a piece of art will reach its audience that's ahead of its time and the audience must catch up. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example. The Beatles began as a teenybopper band and SFF/Penny Lane announced them to be artistes. This single has endured as a masterpiece and its influence is incalculable.

Me, I hated Strawberry Fields Forever, and now it's my favourite song of all time. Period. It speaks to me like no other. It doesn't just entertain me, but moves me. It means something. A book, a movie, a painting, a song, whatever. You are what you love, and I love Strawberry Fields Forever. It will play at my funeral and birthdays.  It is true and beautiful. It will always be a part of me, and we all need a piece of music like that.