All-Time Favorite Albums - WEEK 6
June, and now July, sorta took off for me and my family, so fast it was "Ludicrous Speed". I can't believe practically TWO months went by since I blogged! To be honest, it's like no one really missed me, except me, so there's that, LOL. I hope everyone is having a fantastic summer, and here is a little comedic reading to add to your summer reading lists. This post was a labor of love for me, and clocks in around 14 mins.....but I think you'll get a kick out of it!
In case you missed my first round of albums and are curious, you can find them here:
Let us begin!!
Day 6 "It was 20 years ago today"
Yes, yes, I know..."Wow RJ, way to pick an obvious one." I get it, I really do. However, before anyone goes trolling me on this pick, all I ask is to hear me out.
For literally the first 25 years of my life, I could give a shit less about The Beatles. During that time, they were always "that band". I just didn't get why they were so, so revered I guess. I always felt they were such a trendy band to say you love, just to make you sound cool. I mean, they had their time....IN THE F'CKING 60'S... WHO CARES?!?! ( like I said, this was 1998-99, I was 25 years old, and just plain tired of hearing about The F'cking Beatles!)
Well, of course like every mid twenty old, you think you know it all. It wasn't until I was surrounded by audio professionals and other aspiring Gen X'ers at my first professional studio gig did I began to...question my belief. Challenge my belief is probably more to the point, for as I was at the beginning of my professional career, one thing kept coming up, and that was recording techniques, and mixing techniques, tried and true, brought to you by, you guessed it, The Beatles and their studio team.
Of course this piqued my interest, cause at the end of the day, I'm an audio junky. Heading towards the Christmas break of 98' I asked my roommate "Z" (named changed to protect their privacy), to do me a favor. If there was one person I trusted to baptize me in Beatles lore, it was him. Not only is he a fellow audio junky, he's an exceptional musician and a rabid Beatles fan, growing up listening to them and knowing how to play their songs on bass and guitar.
As we were leaving for break, he smiled and said, "I got you. I know exactly what I want you to hear and when we get back, we're going to dive in."
Well, it's now 1999 and we both got slammed with work. Our Beatles listening hang was put on hold until one fateful spring evening in March.
It was a Saturday evening and we were getting ready at our Park Slope apartment ( that's right, my crew was part of the gentrification of the Slope) to meet our other roommate and friends at a lounge in Manhattan.
We had some time to kill, so we did a little pregame, drinking some adult beverages. He proceeds to put on a CD that contained "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" that he made when he was home over the break. He then breaks into Professor mode, breaking down the tracks, telling me who is playing what instruments, how they came up with the songs, what techniques they used. I asked "How in the hell do you know all this detail?"
He then shows me The Book, "The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years" by Mark Lewisohn. As we continued to go through "Rubber Soul" and begin to get into "Revolver" he tells me why "Revolver" was such a landmark album. It was their final album before they decided to stop touring. Released on August 5th, 1966 it took their studio prowess to new heights, creatively and sonically. As we continued to listen, and nearing the end of the record, I was reading along in The Book. It was then we decided to let our friend Mary Jane, crash the party, right around "Tomorrow Never Knows".
The album ends and "Z" asks me if I'm ready for what's next? I said lay it on me, and this is what he puts on next:
Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles - Released June 1st, 1967
This second CD contained the albums "Sgt Pepper" and "Magical Mystery Tour"
So...to recap, the stage was set. Libations were consumed, Mary Jane made an appearance, I was all ears, and we were about to listen to "Pepper".
From the opening sound of an Orchestra getting ready to play, to "bam" chugging guitars playing the introduction riff, we were off. "Z" then explains to me the concept of the album, how the album cover plastered with cultural icons was the first hint, that the Beatles decided to make a record not as The Beatles, but as Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, freeing them of the moniker of the Beatles, but allowing them to go where no band has gone before, musically and creatively.
Pushing the limits of studio technology at the time, maximizing the limitations of four track recording, piggy backing off the studio wizardry they began to utilize in "Revolver", "Pepper" quite simply, is their zenith and their masterpiece.
Think about it like this, within five years, the band went from their stellar debut "Please, Please Me" to "Sgt Pepper". FIVE F'CKING YEARS!! Talk about evolving not only musically, but as artists, "Pepper" was light years ahead of where they started, so much so, it was like they went to the edge of the universe. Oh, and one more tidbit of fun facts, Brian Wilson was so blown away by "Rubber Soul" he created The Beach Boys Masterpiece "Pet Sounds". The Beatles at the time were in the thick of finishing "Revolver". It wasn't until after that album was completed, they were able to sit back and listen to "Pet Sounds" and say collectively "F'ck, how do you top that?!?"
Okay, sorry where was I? I went off on a tangent, back to my listening experience of really hearing "Pepper" for the first time. The album starts of with the title track, setting up the listener that we're in for a show from this Lonely Hearts Club Band. As the song is about to end, we get to hear what's coming next:
"I don't really want to stop the show, but I thought that you might like to know.
That the singer's going to sing a song, and he wants you all to sing along.
So let me introduce to you,
The one and only Billy Shears,
(and) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
And like that "Boom" the vocal riser announcing his name,
Followed by what is the definitive 60's jingly jangly guitar tone, then Ringo, I mean Billy himself.
The legendary rock vocalist Joe Cocker covered this song. Hell, it was the freaking theme song to the tv show, "The Wonder Years". I mean, C'MON! One can even argue his version IS the better version, and I ain't gonna be mad at ya.
So what does the Pepper Band have in store for us next? I'm glad you asked, for it's psychedelic perfection.
Inspired by a picture his son Julian, who was 3-4 at the time, brought home, to say Lennon crushed it out of the park is an understatement.
Pop culture legend has it that the song was inspired by LSD and alludes to it throughout the entirety of the track. You know what I say:
Who Cares?!?! Does it really matter? I mean I ask all of us to come up with something close to this song....on our BEST DAYS.
Wait'n some more....
That's the point. Only John Lennon himself could write a song like this, and IMHO, that utterly proves his uniqueness to his artistic craft.
From the opening motif of what sounds like a harpsichord but is indeed an organ, you immediately know you are in a dream world. Anchored by the drone of a sitar...I'll let that one sink in...a sitar drone, punctuated by Lennon's vocal delivery "Picture yourself on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees, and marmalade skies. " Why yes John, I can indeed picture myself in this world thanks to the aural onslaught of other worldly sounds.
The use of ADT ( Automatic/ Artificial Double Tracking ) pioneered by the production team makes Lennon vocal trippy AF.
By the time you get to the chorus, it's a joyful release of what was asked of you to picture. Lyrically and musically, the band more than achieved their goal of making us see, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."
Where do we go from here? How do you follow up that gem? Well.....
"Getting Better" opens with what sounds like an ice pick, but is actually a piano getting plucked physically by a hammer.
Legend has it, as Paul was working on the chorus in the studio, he sang the line "You have to admit, it's getting better, it's getting better all the time" in walks John and he says "It can't get no worse"....and just like that, there it is.
With lyrics that say "I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loves." Standing alone in today's world, I don't know if that shit would fly today. Thankfully the next line clears up whatever horror transpired before, for it was an apology that needed to be said by someone who discovered the error of their ways: "Man I was mean, but I'm changing my scene, and I'm doing the best that I can."
"Getting Better" is classic Paul. He was truly coming into his own as a songwriter, and the songs he contributed speaks for themselves.
Ah, now we're at one of my personal favorites, "Fixing A Hole". As I mentioned earlier, Mary Jane stopped by and made her presence known. To say we were "feeling" her presence was an understatement, but of course we really felt it was only minor. The grove that Paul lays down on bass, is hypnotic like a mother f'cker. To top it off, he delivers a fine lead vocal, delivered with confidence and youthful exuberance. This song just keeps on grooving and just when you think it can't hit another gear, the bridge kicks in with a simple but roaring guitar solo. The song then proceeds to march along to its out chorus. This, this is when my ears perked up, for Paul hit some blues ass melodic vocals that had me saying WTF?!?! As the song was fading out, I said to "Z", can we go back and listen again?
Well we did, with a little help of our good friend Mary Jane, because, as I mentioned earlier, we felt her presence, but you know, we underestimated how much of her presence was there. So we indulged her again and.....
FIVE listen throughs of "Fixing A Hole" later, needless to say, Beatlesfest was in full effect! We were having a blast!
Eventually we got passed our hypnotic state, and soldiered on to "She's Leaving Home".
Hauntingly Beautiful, this is one of Paul and John's exquisite collaborations. Paul's melancholy melody in the chorus, with John's adeptly counter melody makes this an instant classic, and one for the ages. Do to a scheduling conflict, it also features an string arrangement not by Sir George Martin. By no means does this diminish the power that's conveyed in this piece. This composition highlights the maturity of the duo beyond their years, and one of the songs inspired by a newspaper clipping on the record.
Speaking of inspiration, this next diddy that closes out side one, comes courtesy of circus poster found in an antique shop by none other than John Lennon:
If you are at all familiar with the song "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite", all one has to do is read this poster, and you can pretty much see most of the lyrics jumping out at you.
John, unapologetically admits he lifted the poster for the lyrics, and MAN, once again, how his brain worked when it came to his art, just wow.
He tasked his studio team that he wanted a circus like atmosphere, so much so, he "wanted to smell the sawdust." Only there's one problem, a calliope is just too damn big to fit into a studio, so....yeah, how do you solve that one?
For starters, using a harmonium to lay down the basic vibe was a great place to start. Through creative sonic manipulation, and played by Sir George Martin, it lays the foundation of "where" you are, and that's a circus.
This still doesn't solve the calliope conundrum. Then one day, the "Ureka" moment happened. Geoff Emerick and Sir George Martin, took a tape that had a calliope playing. Dubbing this to another tape, Sir George instructed Geoff to start randomly splicing the tape. Then they took these snippets, tossed them in the air, and taped them back together in a random order. Not knowing how it would sound, except they had a calliope, the result was simply a master stroke. Forwards and backwards sounding calliope tones, when added to the end of the song, one cannot help but "smell the sawdust" and enjoy being at the circus. What a fantastic way to conclude side one.
Moving onto side two, to say the opening track was a curious choice is well, truthful. Keeping up with the theme of what does the "Pepper" band have in store for us next, it doesn't get any more surreal than George Harrison's ode to Indian mysticism than "Within you, Without You".
The song itself is a tour de force of Indian instrumentation. Tabla, sitar, oud... this track has this in abundance. Sir George Martin conducted the Indian musicians due to the crazy time signature and tempo variations. George Harrison was knee deep in his study of Indian Culture and spirituality, and the song musically and lyrically reflect this. Utterly 60's with its message, its no wonder it was chosen to kick off side two.
Next up is a song that was in Paul's back pocket for awhile. "When I'm Sixty Four" captures youthful exuberance thanks to Paul's vocals being pitched up. A tribute to a by gone era of 1920's style of music, with clarinets leading the charge, it's a welcome change of pace with its upbeat feel and melody.
So what would you do if you got a parking ticket from a female meter maid? I'll tell you what Paul did and that's write a lovely tongue and cheek ode to her. "Lovely Rita" meter maid....is a positive spin of a parking ticket not warranted.
"Cock-a-doodle-doo" starts the next song off. Keeping up with theme of real life inspiration, "Good Morning, Good Morning" gets its vibe from a Kellogg's commercial. Classic Lennon, with its jaunty time signatures throughout, again only John could've devised a song inspired by corn flakes. Anchored with a saxophone horn section harking to classic 50's rock and roll, this is one rip roaring of a hell of a good time!
Now is the time the "Pepper" band decides to start wrapping it up. "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Reprise" is an uptempo outro of the opening title song. Thanking the audience for its time and hoping they enjoyed show, it's the send off that makes complete sense, bringing it full circle and closing out the journey, or is it?
As the song reaches its zenith, it begins to fade away and morph into the opening of what I consider, the absolute masterpiece of John and Paul's songwriting partnership. Lyrics taken from another newspaper clipping, "A Day in the Life" is as close as a 60's time capsule you can get.
"I heard the news today oh boy..." is the opening line that's simply all one needs to hear. As I said earlier, recounting the events of what was the newspaper clippings of the day, John proceeds to tell us the story of the events that transpired. His vocal take throughout the verses, captivates the listener, for one cannot help but wander what happens next. As we approach the bridge, John sings the line "I'd love to turn you on"
John however didn't have a bridge, but never fear! For Paul had a fragment of something that might just work. Of course he did, but it was getting to this spot that was the challenge.
They now had their bridge, so in order to get to it, they decided to count 24 measures, and a good old fashioned alarm clock was used to mark the end of this transition. Leaving these 24 bars empty with nothing but piano and the rhythm section marking time. Knowing they'll add something at a later date they proceeded to record Paul's ditty.
Keeping up with using happy accidents, they decided to keep the alarm clock and use it to their advantage, for it perfectly sets the stage for the lyrics, "Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head" We now are identifying with a real person, about to start their day. The lyrics tell us this individual was able to drink their cup of coffee, was running late, grabbed their hat and coat and just barely caught the bus. As this dude gets off the bus, they head upstairs, have a smoke and "somebody spoke and I went into a dream"
Then on cue, John sings "Ahhhs" punctuating the dream and just like that, we're back to John telling us more about this "Day in the Life".
As he wraps up the verse, he then sings the line "I'd love to turn you on" one last time.
Now, about that bridge. The session was a festive affair. They decided to record a small orchestra, with strings and brass, and they asked the musicians to show up in costume like attire. This created a fun filled environment, where everyone who was there could feel the excitement and energy of something unique was about to happen.
Sir George Martin simply gave the players their parts. Starting with their lowest notes they each could play and drew a line to their highest note, with the instructions of going upwards for 24 bars. This of course drew curious looks but whatever, the players were getting paid. This session was also the first time a four track machine was synced to another four track machine, show casing the production team's ability to push the limits of the technology of the day.
What was captured was a 24 bar riser, creating a sophisticated sonic buildup not typical for a pop rock song. They also recorded this for the end too, making sure the bases were covered.
The conclusion. All the parts were done, it was literally how do they end the song. All sorts of ideas were tried during another session, from humming, to kazoos. Each idea however failed to convey the tone of the song. They then got 3 pianos, and in groups of 3, gathered around them and hit the final chord in E, in sync. Of course this took a few takes, but when it finally happened....
Geoff Emerick physically turned the gain of the compressor over time, to keep the level of the chord sustain audibly present. What finally went on record was the sonic equivalent of the atomic bomb going off, and the sustaining of the chord was the formation of the mushroom cloud.
To have a song tell a story about everyday life, and then end with, for lack of a better term, a "blast", it stops the listener dead in their tracks and simply say "WTF".
Like oatmeal, this song sticks with you, for a long time. It's so different from the rest of the album, and yet to not have it on the record would've been a travesty. Sir George Martin already confessed not putting "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields" on the album was arguably his biggest mistake, glad they didn't commit another.
Oh yeah, my listening experience. I got so caught up in the breakdowns, I missed documenting some of the play by play. Truth is, Mary Jane was hanging around for so long, we just sat back and enjoyed the show. We were not going anywhere in the state we were in, so we just continued listening to "Magical Mystery Tour".
Now talk about having a good time. That evening still happens to be one of my fondest music listening experiences, and I have had plenty over time. Getting baptized to the Beatles thanks to "Z" and in the presence of Mary Jane launched me on my discovery of this band. I immersed myself in devouring everything I could about The Beatles, from listening to all their albums, to consuming all sorts of literature about the band. I'm still learning to this day, and it's all thanks to Chris, and "Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band".
I hope you enjoyed this blog, for it was truly a labor of love for me to compose. My hope through this writing was to borrow a phrase from John, "I'd love to turn you on", to The Beatles.