It’s hard to believe – or maybe not – that we first heard about the pandemic a year ago. A year. No wonder many of us are feeling more stressed out than ever, and look at the losses we’ve suffered. I recently found out that a few family members and friends have tested positive and it scares me. But a healing thought popped into my head as I was lying awake in bed the other night: keep your eye on the prize.
When my wife was going through two difficult pregnancies, it was one of the toughest things we’ve ever dealt with. She was on bed rest for weeks. But her OB-GYN kept telling us, keep your eye on the prize. Meaning, thinking about the joy of finally having children would get us through the most difficult times of feeling like there would be no end to the uncertain waiting. The doc was right. Twice. Now, as the prospect of getting back to the "prize" – an end to the pandemic – is within closer reach, it’s my mantra once again.
Malcolm was fat. This was a rarity in the undernourished Glasgow of the mid-fifties. Virtually all of us kids in elementary school were rail-thin. But Malcolm was short and rotund, almost spherical.
In those permissive days of prejudice, kids were allowed to express theirs without interference from adults so Malcolm was constantly tormented. He was the class dunce, failing in every subject so consistently that teachers would publicly berate him, making the students laugh every time the test results were read out in class.
I liked him and we would sometimes hang out, but his real attraction for me was that no matter how badly I performed in school, Malcolm was always worse. Once when I received a mark of 8 out of 100 (a new low for me) Malcolm got 4. When my parents saw the results and yelled at me, I would admit that I was bad, but Malcolm wasmuchworse.
Years later a friend of mine, a therapist, said I must have had ADD as a child. Perhaps this was true but honestly, I just found school boring. With the exception of English and math, I couldn’t care a toss about the rest. Scottish history, which is really complicated, put me to sleep. Geography, which I now love, was tedious. Some subjects I did like. Woodworking was one and singing was another.
“Step we gaily on we go heel for heel and toe for toe arm and arm and on we go all for Mairi’s wedding.”
While the girls sang sweetly, us Neanderthal boys belted out the song with abrasive gusto.
Both Malcolm and I left school at the tender age of 15, he to work in a warehouse, me to a knitwear factory. We lost touch with each other but over the years I heard that he often changed from one menial job to another. I then was told by a mutual friend that he had returned to school. I scoffed at this.
Years later while I was managing a furniture store in New Jersey, I once more bumped into that mutual friend.
“Did you hear about Malcolm?” he asked.
“No,” I said with curiosity.
“He’s become a dentist!”
“Can you do this, Sir?” asked the boy in whiter-than-white shorts and a freshly ironed undershirt. In his hand was a newspaper article showing a gymnast horizontally attached to the wall, grabbing the wooden bars on the wall. He was ramrod-stiff as his body, defying gravity, was parallel to the ground.
Mr. Tomney was our gym teacher. Three times a week we had to suffer an hour of activity; running, attempting pushups, throwing a medicine ball at each other, climbing ropes and additional things I couldn’t do. As a fat, out-of-condition 12-year-old, I hated gym with a passion. So much so, I forgot to bring a change of clothes and ran around in my dirty underwear. At 12, I had not yet discovered personal body hygiene and according to my sister, I stank all the time. I hated that boy who was talking to Mr. Tomney. He was always clean and neat and performed all the tasks perfectly and was, I imagined, teacher’s pet. I can still see him now, with his combed hair, white gym shoes and shiny face. Sixty years later I still despise him.
Mr. Tomney was around 50, short, muscular and well turned out in a suit and vest. If he had to demonstrate something, he removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. I neither liked or disliked him until one day, through a newspaper article, we found out that he had been set upon by five or six young men one night and he beat them all up before the police arrived. After that, my respect, or perhaps fear, of him grew.
He frequently berated me for my slovenly appearance. This had the effect of putting me into a trance. The more he yelled, the more I used my mantra. “This will soon pass. This will soon pass…” In those days I used it a lot as I was constantly in trouble with my teachers, my Rabbi and my parents. Instead of listening to their suggestions, I just tuned out the noise and effectively ignored them.
Mr. Tomney looked at the newspaper article showing the gymnast and smiled. He said that exercise was for younger people, not for him. We egged him on. “Do it!” said one boy. Then another joined in, “Do it!” then another and another until the whole class was chanting, “Do it, do it, do it!”
Mr. Tomney grabbed the bars, leaped up and there he was, in his rolled-up shirt sleeves, with a red face and ramrod-stiff, sticking out of the wall, horizontal to the floor.
His crying caught my attention. I was just leaving school when I saw a boy weeping and walking in a strange way. He was about 10 years old and oozing out of his short trousers was a steady stream of brownish green sh*t, seeping slowly down his legs and over his socks and shoes. Spontaneously, one boy fell in behind him, pretending to cry and mimicking his walk. Then, like a flash mob, another joined, and another until about fifty boys, myself included, formed a long snake slithering down the street. He wailed louder as passersby gawked at this slowly, staggering conga line.
One boy started to sing; subsequently a second joined in until all 50 of us were singing in unison to the tune of “Land of Hope and Glory”:
“Land of soapy water, Persil, Daz and Tide, All the folks in the Gorbals, Wash their clothes in the Clyde…”
One of my favorite motorcycling buddies, Ralph, invited me over yesterday to listen to his stereo system. Although he’s retired, he refuses to grow up and is still obsessed with motorcycles and music, just like me. The occasion of my visit was to audition the “new” Cerwin-Vega (CV) speakers he’d found at a thrift shop.
You might ask, “Wow, Ralph couldn’t afford better stuff at his age?”
Yes, he could buy a full Burmester system if he was so inclined. He owns five rental properties in San Diego and a ranch in Idaho. He spends his summers at the ranch, and his winters at the smallest, most dilapidated of his properties in San Diego. He laughingly advises newcomers that his neighborhood is located below the hovering police helicopters with the bright lights. His house has been broken into twice – each time he had to make insurance claims.
The irony is that one of the houses he owns is located in an exclusive beach community in North San Diego County, but he has never lived there. He feels more comfortable in the neighborhood he occupied as a starving student. Only now he doesn’t pay rent, he collects it.
In any case, he expressed delight at his thrift shop find, a pair of almost square, 3-way speakers, each with a 12-inch woofer featuring a red “racing stripe” surround like those found on redline tires. He’d placed them at the same spot we’d situated the Dynaco A25s I sold him a decade earlier, on coffee tables facing the listener about seven feet away.
Although the Dynacos sounded good at that location, I found the CVs to be unlistenable. Ralph seemed to enjoy the improved dynamics, but the shrill highs, exaggerated mids, and flabby bass made me wince like fingernails across a blackboard. The sound wasn’t helped by the poor recording quality of the pop album he was playing. I wondered about Ralph’s hearing acuity.
I remembered hearing CV speakers at audio shows in the 1970s. As they were considered “rock” speakers, I expect tight, deep bass. I knew Gene Czerwinski, founder of the Cerwin-Vega company, was certainly capable of producing it. At the 1972 Toronto hi-fi show, which was located in a hotel next to the international airport, he snuck unto the airfield at night and recorded jets taking off. On the last day of the show, it seemed jets were taking off every two minutes. Attendees complained about the difficulty of auditioning audio systems, and about the noisy location of the hotel. But when they got to the CV demo room, they found the real problem. Czerwinski was playing his jet-sounds tape on four pro audio sub-woofers loud enough to be heard across six floors.
“For god’s sake Ralph, turn it down, before you cause permanent hearing damage!” I demanded.
“What’s the matter?” he innocently asked.
“Remember when we set-up your Dynacos, I talked about the importance of the speaker/room interface?”
“Yah, but I didn’t understand what the hell you were talking about.”
“OK, trust me when I tell you that the perfect spot for the Dynacos is the worst spot for these CVs. Let’s try relocating them to make them sound better?”
“That’s what I was hoping for,” he responded.
“All right, give me a hand.”
In the interests of full disclosure, I secretly harbored a selfish reason for doing all this. Despite his quirks, I really enjoy Ralph’s company, but I’d have to stop visiting him if I was expected to tolerate those Cerwin-Vegas head-on any longer.
They were situated on a coffee table about six feet from the sidewall and three feet from the back wall. I asked him to move the left speaker into the corner and unto the floor – face-up.
“Won’t that plug the back hole?” (He meant the rear-facing bass port.)
“Oh yah, we don’t want to plug the “back hole.” Got some 2×4 lumber?”
Vintage Cerwin-Vega D-5 speakers with that familiar red woofer surround. These have front ports though! Image courtesy of Tony Carrollo.
He led me into the garage. He was obviously excited. It was difficult to avoid tripping over motorcycle parts, old appliances, and sports equipment. No 2×4 pieces anywhere.
“Let’s look around back,” he suggested.
We found a warped 2×4 which had spent its life as a flying buttress for the Leaning Garage of East San Diego. It was vintage grey, highlighted with brown water streaks from the rusted bed frame stored on the roof.
“Nice patina,” he commented as we cut it into four pieces. I guess it’s all in how you look at it.
We placed two pieces under the left speaker already in the corner. Similarly, we placed the right speaker on the floor face-up and jammed into the right corner, also with two chunks of 2×4 underneath it to avoid plugging the “back hole.”
The results were exactly what I’d hoped for. The tweeters and mids sounded much smoother pointed away from the listener. The bass tightened up dramatically given the acoustic reinforcement from the corner. And as I’d anticipated, with relatively louder bass, Ralph was satisfied to listen at lower volumes. Those horrible speakers became listenable, even enjoyable.
“I’m hearing a wall of sound, Montana, just like at a concert,” Ralph hollered over the sound of Steppenwolf. “It’s exactly what I was looking for!”
This is the first time I’d ever set up a system in this manner, and it certainly wouldn’t suit most audiophiles. But hey, different strokes for different folks. We’re not all looking for the same thing in music, audio systems, or life.
Ralph pulled out his best bottle of cheap Scotch and we spent the rest of the afternoon on a musical exploration of the Age of Aquarius. I’m looking forward to my next visit.
The red and the black: today's Cerwin-Vega SL Series loudspeakers still sport the classic carmine trim.
How often do you get the chance to listen to stratospherically priced audio equipment in your own home for an extended period without shelling out a penny or inconveniencing a dealer? I recently had that experience when a friend who was temporarily downsizing offered to let me have his speakers for a few months rather than put them in storage. Call me crazy, but I actually had to think about it – I’d spent the past year scrupulously avoiding exposure to better systems than mine in the hope that I could be satisfied with what I had, and it was working. Another consideration was the fact that I already had four sets of speakers, and I really need to sell a couple of them. That won’t be happening anytime soon due to the COVID-19 lockdowns – I don’t want to risk exposure to strangers in my house. It took another friend of mine to convince me that I would be nuts to turn down this opportunity.
The speakers in question are the top-of-the-lineSilverline Audio TechnologyOde to Love floorstanders. They are 56 inches tall, 13-1/2 inches wide, and 24 inches deep (in other words, big). They weigh around 200 pounds each (the website says 450, but the two of us couldn’t have moved them into place if that were the case). The five drivers in each one are arranged in a vertically symmetrical array, and include a 1-1/2-inch dome tweeter, two 7-inch midranges and two 12-inch woofers. They are housed in a beautiful ported cabinet with a red tigerwood veneer and piano gloss finish. The speakers come with a grill cloth that attaches magnetically, along with an outrigger base. The list price is $90,000/pair.
Silverline Audio Technology Ode to Love loudspeaker. Image courtesy of Rich Isaacs.
Silverline Audio Technology is a company out of Walnut Creek, California, that has seemingly flown under the radar for decades. Reviews of their speakers are few and far between in the high-end press, although their smallest and least-expensive model received a glowing review inThe Absolute Soundin 2011. They offer an extensive line of both monitor (stand-mount) and floorstanding models. Designer Alan Yun founded Silverline in 1996 with the goal of making top-notch, affordable (well, maybe not this model), and aesthetically pleasing speakers. Their least-expensive model is the SR7 at $600/pair.
This is not a review. I am not a reviewer. About a year ago, the editor of another online audio magazine asked if I was interested in doing equipment reviews. He touted the obvious lure of getting to play with very expensive toys at no cost. I thought about it for a while and decided it wasn’t for me. Two reasons: 1) I simply do not enjoy swapping out pieces of gear on a regular basis, not to mention unpacking and re-packing for return shipping, and 2) I can’t write the way the established reviewers for high-end audio magazines do. I have the utmost respect for those writers, and enjoy reading their work. I know when components or systems sound good or not (to me), but describing that sound using the accepted vocabulary of subjective audio reviews is not within my capability. The best way I can characterize my current system* is to say that it gives me a pretty painting, when what I think I really want is a sharp photograph. Does that make sense?
I have a few compilation discs that I’ve assembled with selections that I particularly enjoy and think are well recorded. When I want to assess a system, I use these discs. A lot of the tracks are from my LP collection – I’ve been using Audacity to archive my favorite albums so I can burn a CD for the car or put the AIFF files (no MP3s for me) on my phone or iPod. Some of my friends ask why I don’t just buy the CDs of the original LPs. My answer is that: 1) I already spent the money on the vinyl, and 2) yes, it is a bit of work, but I enjoy the process of recording – it takes little more than an hour to record, remove any significant pops or clicks, enter the track data, download the album art, and transfer it to the player.
It is relatively easy for me to recognize when a system sounds worse than mine. Sometimes it seems muddier or edgier, or there might be a portion of the frequency spectrum that is out of proportion. I find that it is not always so easy to assess sonic superiority. Systems that impress me have a certain quality that makes the presentation seem unaffected by the acoustics of the room. I was anticipating that characteristic as we set up the speakers in my living room. (Editor Frank Doris wrote about a similar sense of expectation in hisIssue 127 pieceabout systems that are “too good.”)
The system with the Silverline Ode to Love speakers in place. Image courtesy of Rich Isaacs.
The moment of truth arrived as I cued up a track on one of the aforementioned compilations. I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed. “Is this really that much better than my MartinLogans?” I thought. The bass was clearly improved, but where was that “holographic imaging” of which reviewers speak? As I went from track to track, it all sounded good, but unspectacular to my ears. However, over the course of the next few days, I became more accustomed to, and appreciative of, the speakers’ sonic characteristics.
I realized that I was hearing much more of what was in the original recording. Instruments were more distinct and independent of each other, presented with a sense of detail that did not conflict with the feeling that, at the same time, there was a more relaxed overall sound. This viewpoint was reinforced with nearly everything I played over the next two weeks. I say nearly, because there were still some recordings that were obviously poorly engineered. No system can compensate for that.
Although I just finished saying that there was a change in my perception of the sound of the speakers, I must admit to being a bit skeptical of the high-end notion thatevery componentneeds a period of break-in. I can buy it for electromechanical transducers such as phono cartridges and speakers (which do loosen up over time), as well as things like vacuum tubes (which need to warm up), but I am less of a believer when it comes to solid-state electronics and especially cables. I think the break-in is more a function of the listener’s brain in those latter cases.
I remember reading a letter in one of the leading high-end magazines wherein the writer told of his experience reacting to an orange filter that he had put on his camera lens. At first, he wrote, everything looked orange through the viewfinder, but as time went by, his brain compensated for that anomaly and he noticed it less and less – things started to look chromatically normal to the point where he didn’t see the orange at all. Any guy who has lived with a moustache for a length of time and then shaved it off has had an analogous experience. At first, you feel every nasal exhalation as a cool breeze on your now-hairless upper lip, but it doesn’t take long before you no longer notice it at all. The only thing that has changed is your perception.
I would love to see the following experiment performed by a panel of reviewers: take two brand-new examples of the same piece of equipment (electronics or cables) and listen to each for an hour or so, making the determination that they sound identical. Put one back in the box and listen to the other for a week or two, then switch to the one that had been set aside. I’m guessing there would be little or no difference – certainly not of the magnitude that is routinely professed in many reviews. I could be wrong.
But I digress. Since they arrived a few weeks ago, I’ve spent several hours each night parked in front of these behemoths, reveling in the sound as I pull out albums and discs that have never sounded so good. One of the greatest areas of improvement is in the bass, which is both tighter and more tonal. I can follow the bass player with greater ease and I’m not even using my subwoofer. One album that I particularly enjoy isMarch, byMichael Penn(actorSean’s brother). It is certainly not an audiophile classic, but it has great songs and some interesting engineering/production elements. The song “No Myth” got a fair amount of airplay when it was released in 1989. Through these speakers, the guitars, organ, piano, and percussion were notably more distinct and present than ever before.
I have yet to go down the rabbit hole of swapping out amps, but I’m beginning to realize that I need to consider a speaker upgrade. I certainly couldn’t afford these Silverlines, but something in thelowfive figures would be doable. I’m going to need a new car one of these days (my 2005 Scion tC that I bought brand-new has 286,000 miles on it, but is still running great), and I’d love to have something like a Lexus IS, but I could live with a Mazda 3 and have big bucks left over for speakers. I like to use that concept when people express shock at the idea of $25,000 speakers – no one thinks the Lexus is out of line, but the Mazda and speakers represent the same amount of money.
Some of the contenders that I’d like to audition in my home are the Linkwitz MagicLX521, an active open-baffle, dedicated-amplification system; the new Eikon Image1 (also a dedicated-amplification system); or one of the Silverline models in that price range (leaving some money for an amp upgrade).
It’s been fun, and I have to thank my friend for this experience, but, dammit, now I’m spoiled!
*My current system:
Linn LP12/Lingo/Ittok/Lyra Delos (LP)
Rega Apollo (CD)
Audio Research SP14 (preamp)
Hafler DH-200 (amplifier – built from a kit in 1980)
If Andy Warhol were alive today, he’d be rolling out his celebrity silkscreens of Taylor Swift, in Life Saver candy colors like those of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elvis Presley.
The difference is that while celebrity stalks Swift, she stalks right back. She is, at her best, a songwriter first, the most celebrated yet elusive singer-songwriter of her era. The gossip press lavishes attention on past relationships with musicians Joe Jonas and John Mayer; the business pages cover her battles with former manager Scooter Braun over ownership of master tapes and music publishing. And Kanye West grabbing the mic from her, rudely interrupting her acceptance of a prize at the 2009 Video Music Awards? In Constance Grady’s wonderful 2019Voxstory noting the 10th anniversary of the monumental moment, it may have been the event that superpowered the arrival of a relatively new platform called Twitter.
All these years later, their rivalry is still being parsed for references in each other’s music, while the event is part of American folklore. Which is the name of one of two albums Swift released in 2020, the making of which is the subject ofFolklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, a Disney+ full-length documentary.
Taylor Swift. Image courtesy of TAS Rights Management.
The video film, directed and produced by Swift, offers a straightforward breakdown of each track on the album in sequence, followed by spare but effective performances by the principals: Swift, her longtime producer Jack Antonoff, and musician Aaron Dessner from the rock band The National. (Engineer Laura Sisk peeks out briefly from another room.) It lacks the tasteful overdubs and mild orchestrations of the already sparsely arranged studio album. But these versions are all the better for it. The ease and comfort with which the three of them hang out and chat is especially appealing. While the talk is almost entirely about the making of the songs and music, it allows Swift to speak of personal things that you might not get otherwise.
Swift wrote most of the songs with either Antonoff or Dessner during COVID-19 quarantine, although the film reveals the emergence of a Swift collaborator originally listed with the pseudonym “William Bowery.” On those three songs – “Betty,” “August,” and “Cardigan” – co-author Bowery is actually Joe Alwyn, a British actor and Swift’s boyfriend. It’s a relationship that appears to be steady, more long-lasting and with less drama than those previously revealed in the gossip media. These three songs were described in a LiveChat by Swift as a “teenage love triangle” trilogy. Perhaps the stability of her relationship with Alwyn has allowed her to look back with the perspective she lacked as a show biz kid.
Stars of Swift’s magnitude don’t often play well with others. But the ability to collaborate in songwriting has been part of the consistent quality and unpredictable variety of her music from the beginning.
Swift was an immediate star at 16 in 2006 with her debut album,Taylor Swift, an almost perfect country album with many of the songs co-written with Nashville songwriter Liz Rose. Swift was too smart and ambitious for country to contain her, but she was still a fine collaborator. To be clear, Swift remained in charge of her own shapeshifting. The break with country music was consummated with a three-album run with Swedish pop-dance hitmaker Max Martin onRed(2012),1989(2014), andReputation(2017), on which Martin leaves only faint fingerprints. They are Swift’s albums.
She moved towards alternative rock with “Cruel Summer” from her rhythmic 2019 albumLover,written with Antonoff and Annie Clark, who records as St. Vincent, andReputationeven flirted with electronic dance music, a move that won some fans and left others behind. Onfolklore, recorded in quarantine, there is a long distance collaboration between Swift and Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon), the bard of Eau Claire, WI, intense and uncompromising.
The boldest attempt to reframe Swift’s fluid styles, and to recognize her power as a songwriter, was her album1989. Named after the year she was born, the 2014 Grammy Album of the Year was covered in its entirety by indie rock star Ryan Adams. It wasn’t a joke, or a diss: it was a standalone success, an indication of how adaptable Swift’s music could be. Swift’s co-writers on the album included Antonoff, Martin, and Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic. In an interview withUSA Todayin 2015, Adams told reporter Brian Mansfield that Swift had called him a few years earlier to collaborate on a song while she was finishingRed. The tune was never released, but Swift had told him that he had influenced her songwriting. The kinship, Adams joked, was “we’re the F to A minor club.” In other words, it’s not about fame or personality; it’s about sharing similar approaches to the work.
He heard in Swift’s songs what she expresses so well in the film, in the small talk she shares with Antonoff and Dessner as they explore tweaks in melody, the accidental chord changes, the intuitive sense that well,thislittle touch might be a little better thanthat. (The New York Timesdid a fine 10-minute interview video on the making of the song “Lover” that is an outstanding peek into Swift’s seriousness of purpose and artisanal dedication to craft.)
“There’s that special, very interesting ingredient where you hear a skeleton of the song, just the bones, and her voice, and you go, ‘Well, of course, this person plays to 60,000 people.’,” Adams said. Later, on Twitter, he said of Swift: “every tune of hers is like the one you wait a whole lifetime to write.”
Almost every song onfolklorehas a lyric line or rhyme that makes you stop and pay attention, because it advances the story with the unexpected effect of its flavor. At the end of the first verse of the first song, “the 1,” Swift is remembering an old relationship, and sings, “I hit the Sunday matinée/You know the greatest films of all time were never made.” Where does that come from? A Sunday matinée is a notion from the era before multiplex theaters and big screen TVs, perhaps even before affordable air conditioning, when loners or couples or families would go to an afternoon movie no matter what was playing to get out of the summer heat, the one community shelter where it was cold: the downtown movie theater.
In “cardigan,” already one of her signature tunes (she displays a wardrobe full of the namesake sweaters in a Capital One TV ad), she follows a romance from teen days to more adult times in New York…mentions of downtown bars, the fine alliteration of “your heartbeat on the High Line.” But later in the song, there’s a line that looks back again: “Chasin’ shadows in the grocery line.” The image just appears, enlivening the song, evoking a past lover, or perhaps the sense that she feels she’s known her current lover forever.
There are songs about madness here, both in terms of anger and insanity. The angry song, “Mad Woman,” seems to be a poison arrow to former manager Scooter Braun. “Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy, what about that?” she sings, with the pride and defiance that Tom Petty brought to “I Won’t Back Down,” also likely about a confrontation with what he considered a greedy record label.
Perhaps my favorite song is “The Last American Dynasty,” which tells the story of the heiress Rebekah Harkness, a brilliant, artistic, troubled woman. The song is about the scandals Harkness caused in old money Rhode Island after her wealthy husband died seven years into the marriage, at their manse in ultra-posh Watch Hill, an estate named Holiday House. She scandalized the neighbors, building a dome for the Joffrey Ballet Company, (and later the Harkness Ballet Company) on which Rebekah spent much of her fortune.
Ostensibly about this madwoman obsessed with the desire to be an artist herself, there are elements of both autobiography and invention. In the song, the locals sneered at the widow of Bill Harkness, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune: Swift imagines the condescending neighbors thinking she partied him to death. “And the town said, ‘how did a middle class divorcée do it’?”
This is not exactly true: Rebekah was not middle class in any way. She was also ruling class rich, from one of the wealthiest families in St. Louis. Her father was co-founder of the investment bank G.H. Walker & Co., the company name belonging to George Herbert Walker, the grandfather and great-grandfather of the two Presidents Bush. According to the New England Historical Society, Rebekah’s St. Louis family also had a summer house in Watch Hill, among blue blood royalty, and some Hollywood interlopers like Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks.
But the song resonates powerfully, because Taylor Swift bought Holiday House, this immense mansion and beachfront land, for $17 million in cash in 2013 when she was 23 years old. And she has had her own noisy parties there. The most vivid line in the song is in the chorus: “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen/She had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
In the movie, Swift says the song is not about herself. And Harkness’ life and that of her family was filled with tragedy, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illness. It’s not a life to envy. And yet there’s a part of Taylor Swift, a driver of her songwriting genius, that kind of loves the idea that “she had a marvelous time ruining everything” would make a fascinating epitaph, or at least a mission statement for this phase of her bounteous career.
EveAnna Dauray Manley is the president of Manley Laboratories, Inc., makers of high-end consumer and professional vacuum tube audio equipment. The company’s audiophile products include the Steelhead RC and Chinook phono stages, Jumbo Shrimp preamplifier, Neoclassic 300B RC preamp (yes, a preamp with 300B tubes) and vacuum tube amplifiers from 18 to 500 watts. Manley’s pro audio line offers microphone preamps, equalizers, microphones, mastering electronics and monitoring gear.
Frank Doris:I always start out by asking: what is your first memory of hearing music? How did it grab you?
EveAnna Dauray Manley:The very, very first memory I think would be the song “The Sound of Silence” [by Simon and Garfunkel].
EM:How ironic! My parents had a Fisher 500C receiver and a Garrard turntable and Acoustic Research 2ax speakers, and it was a good little hi-fi system. I was all over that when I was a very young kid. I was so into rock music on the radio, from the earliest time. I didn’t want to listen to children’s records, and my parents, man, they had this whole-house intercom system in the early ‘70s and my mother would pipe through elevator music; “beautiful music” is what they called it. I thought I was going to go brain dead. I really just wanted to listen to Led Zeppelin or Paul McCartney or anything except for the 101 Strings.
I was born in 1968. I listened to hard rock, yacht rock, disco later in the ’70s, all that stuff. I still really love all that music.
EM:In about 1980 I rediscovered a lot of stuff. My stepfather, Albert J. Dauray, Jr., had owned Ampeg[the musical instrument amplifier company – Ed.]back in the 1960s. He had put a whole bunch of stuff into storage in about 1972, and about eight or 10 years later, it was sent to us in Atlanta. It was like a time capsule from a decade prior – and included my step-siblings’ record collection, which ranged from 1965 to 1970, maybe ’71. I just delved into that. So during the ’80s, I wasn’t listening to synth pop or any kind of music from the ’80s. I was totally listening to all the ’60s stuff that I had missed out on.
I’ll tell you, I am the laziest audiophile these days…I always have music playing in the house when I’m working, and I have a whole bunch of Sonos systems all over the place. But seriously, there are days that go by where I don’t turn on tube amps. I’m just listening to the kitchen radio.
EveAnna Manley with a Manley Labs Absolute Headphone Amplifier.
One radio station I really love that I can stream is calledPsychedelicizedand it plays real odd late ’60s psychedelic kind of stuff, but not what you’ve heard a thousand times that you’re sick of. Another favorite DJ is Larry Grogan who broadcasts a couple of different shows, but the one I like is called“Testify!”on Thursdays on WFMU out of New York. He gets into all kinds of weirdo 45s. There’s another show he does calledFunky 16 Corners.Another favorite is“Honky Tonk Radio Girl With Becky,”also on WFMU.
FD:How’d you get started with Vacuum Tube Logic, going from just being around the stuff to actually working there?
EM:I grew up being a total band geek in high school in Atlanta. I bought my first mid-fi audiophile system then. I worked really hard and saved up my money and did all the research. I knew aboutAudiomagazine,Stereo Reviewand the catalogs you could order from and stuff. I was one of those bad customers – I’d go into the local stores and check out the gear and then order online because it was cheaper. Then I went to college at Columbia and I was studying music, mostly music theory, and one day met Bill Graham, the concert promoter.
His son was in my class and Graham came to teach class that day and explain to us how the music industry worked. Wow, I was sitting in the front row. I knew exactly who he was, because he’s the voice on the beginning of that Big Brother and the Holding Company record[Cheap Thrills].So after that class, I was just so inspired. I decided I would take the next semester off and drive to California and go find him and try to talk my way into some kind of job.
And I needed to take a break out of school for a couple of reasons. One was, I totally needed to go earn some money to finish my degree, because my stepfather was trying to pay for my sister and me in college at the same time and was not able to. Also, I had this big kind of wanderlust; I’d been in school my entire life and I just wanted out and wanted to figure out what my career would be.
"On the road again..."
So in early January 1989, I drove across the country in my red Beetle and stopped at Graceland on Elvis’ birthday, then went on to Southern California, where my old band director [from Atlanta] had moved back to. I did work for him for a couple of weeks. Then my dad had given me names of some of the ex-Ampeg employees who had worked for him about 20 years prior. The first guy didn’t pick up the phone, but the second guy did – Roger Cox at Fender.[At Ampeg, he was responsible for the design of the SVT, still considered by many to be the greatest bass amplifier ever created. He also designed other models for Ampeg and the original Fender Passport portable PA system, and had a hand in many other products. – Ed.]He’s the one who put me in touch with David and Luke Manley. He said, “I know these two crazy South Africans out in Chino and they’re building tube amplifiers. So you should call them.”
What wasthatabout? Tube amplifiers? And then I look for Chino on the map, and I’m halfheartedly thinking, “Oh hell, all right.” But I went out there, and got hired onto the production line. I had to learn how to make a proper cup of tea for David, British tea. My co-workers taught me how to solder and how to screw stuff together and wire things up and build tube amps.
But pretty quickly I found that I had a good propensity for organization. I directed a lot of my focus to organizing things and then training other people. Then, just building primitive business systems at VTL, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just used some knowledge from a previous high school job. I certainly didn’t study anything, just made it up as I went along. And I was working with paper, even before Windows 3.1 came out.
VTL 100/100 integrated amplifier, produced from 1996 – 2003.
At some point I decided I was going [to go] back to college. In the meantime, I hung out with David Manley a lot. By about July 1989, we realized that we really dug each other and fell in love. Who knew? He was really pressing me to quit Columbia and pick up studies at CalTech or something to be close by. And I’m like, “Oh hell no, man. My family and everybody I know have supported me and I’m not giving up a fricking Ivy League degree. I’ve got just three semesters left, I’m going to serve it out at Columbia.”
FD:During that time, you had come to visitThe Absolute Soundin Sea Cliff, New York, which is when we met.
EM:I had driven my red Bug back to Atlanta to see my high school buddies. Then I drove to Sea Cliff in one long day. I got in really late and David had already flown there and met with you and Harry Pearson the day before. So I didn’t meet Harry but remember meeting you in the offices.
FD:Harry had a habit of hiding from people.
The first time I met David Manley was on that trip. I helped him assemble a pair of VTL mono amplifiers, the 300-watt ones I think, the two of us on Harry’s floor with screwdrivers and nuts and bolts, contorting ourselves to put the things together. I remember thinking the amplifiers were unrefined and industrial-looking – screwing together acorn nuts and bolts and steel frames – and then firing them up and being blown away by the sound. Smooth but with great detail and authority. David was not shy about telling me what he thought of solid-state amplifiers – they were something you’d need a pooper scooper for. He was wearing a ratty old white sweater and took a lot of cigarette breaks.
After listening to the amps for a few days, Harry told me to call David and tell him, “these amps are great. If only they had more power!”More power?!
EM:And then David made the VTL 500 amps, the double decker 500s [two chassis atop each other].
Manley 500 monoblock amplifier, built at VTL from 1998 – 1993.
FD:What happened to cause Vacuum Tube Logic to split into VTL and Manley Labs, with Luke Manley taking over at VTL and you staying at Manley Labs and getting into pro audio as well as high-end equipment?
EM:I finished my degree within a year of visiting Sea Cliff, and then David and I got married the following year. Then I was back out in Chino full-time. David, Luke and I were building the hi-fi gear and we had just started to build Manley pro audio equipment. Around 1990 David started his record label, Vital Records, doing live-to-2-track recordings and designing and building all this recording equipment. And his thinking was, nobody else is making everything [in the recording chain] from the microphone to the loudspeaker. So he decided to do it, and that was a pretty special accomplishment. He did it as a marketing device as well as for his love of recording. He built a studio behind our house and every weekend we’d have 30 or 50 people out there and it was just crazy. I mean, the amount of activity was just crazy, and what we didn’t know at the time was that he was bipolar. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder many years later.
So at the time he was in this manic mode, where he’d get phenomenal amounts of stuff done. But he was also alcoholic. He had not been drinking during a lot of the 1980s; then in the 1990s, he started drinking again. So the combination of the alcoholism with the bipolar disorder was…sometimes he could get a lot of stuff done, but it was chaotic. The stuff we were working on wasn’t documented right, and products weren’t developed all the way through.
I’d get products on my bench and would be testing them and finding something wrong, and he’s saying, “just ship it.” And I’m answering, “No, but this thing is really noisy and humming a lot.” He’d get angry and say, “just ship it. Nobody cares!” I knew that the customer would end up calling me.
So that’s where I developed my technical chops, basically as a design assistant. The problem was these designs were already in production because he would just do everything too quickly, order 50 circuit boards, and now we’re building that thing and there’s major problems.
Also, Luke wanted to work with dealers and David wanted to sell direct. That caused a conflict. Then David decided to open a factory in Spain, around 1992, but no money’s coming back from it. Originally there was Vacuum Tube Logic of England, and he asset-stripped that company to form Vacuum Tube Logic of America. So Luke thought, oh, I see what’s going on here, realizing it was happening again. So there was just all this chaos, all this stress. David was not a pleasant person when he was drunk; he’d get very angry, stay up all night and it was just complete chaos.
It led to David and Luke splitting into two separate companies in 1993. A guy from a San Francisco dealer and Luke teamed up to buy David out of Vacuum Tube Logic of America and they formed a new company, VTL Amplifiers, Inc., building amplifiers and preamps. David purchased a building down the street just a mile or so away from the VTL premises. We split up the inventory and the staff and David established Manley Labs in that new building. Things had gotten so traumatic and horrible for me at the time that I was actually in Florida at my mother’s house when that move was happening.
But again, with his manic behavior David could get a lot of stuff done. So all of a sudden, bam, here’s this new factory. Then I walked in and asked, “Okay guys, what orders are y’all working on?” And they’re like, “I don’t know; we sold a pair of speakers last week.” I asked, “Wait, right, who’s going to pay your checks on Friday?”
Manley Stingray integrated amplifier, made from 1997 – 2009 and replaced by the Stingray iTube and Stingray II.
So that’s when I put the sales hat on. I took out every business card from every person I’d ever met at any trade show and just started sending faxes out. “Hi, we’re here. We’ve got equalizers, we’ve got power apps, we’ve got microphones. Can you buy any of these things from me?” That’s how Manley Labs got started.
FD:And Manley Labs and VTL have both continued on.
EM:Well, David was only at Manley Labs for three years and was in this funky depressed mode during this time. Then in 1996, blammo, he just moved to France. So he took himself out of the equation. It was really hard, man. The things that would come out of his mouth were just hurtful and hateful, especially to those closest to him. He moved away and didn’t want to live in America anymore, didn’t want to deal with the factory, didn’t want to deal with me or Luke or anybody. Then we divorced and I negotiated to buy him out. It took three years.
Emotionally, it was very difficult…and I realized, you know what? I don’t have to suffer through this abusive behavior. I don’t have to take this from anybody anymore. I used all that emotion and all that anger to extract my revenge through kicking ass and just being awesome. So that’s when I designed the Stingray integrated amplifier and also the VOXBOX [voice processor/channel strip].
My motivation was, “I’ll show you. Revenge through success. I’m going to make these new products that are way better than anything you’ve ever done before.”
The experimental music scene in New York City in the late 1970s was transfixed by British punk innovators like Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Among the American bands trying to capture that sound was the Young Aborigines. If that group had stuck with its imitative approach, the members would have been forgotten by now. Instead, they changed course and became the Beastie Boys.
The Young Aborigines were John Barry on guitar, Kate Schellenbach on percussion, Michael “Mike D” Diamond on vocals and drums, and Jeremy Shatan on bass. When Shatan left New York in 1981, the other players transformed into the Beastie Boys and aimed for a much more original voice. Adam “MCA” Yauch took over on bass, and soon Barry was replaced by Adam “Ad-Roc” Horovitz. Schellenbach left after the single “Cooky Puss” became a hit in 1983, inspiring the band to lean more heavily toward rap than rock.
Their debut record happened relatively late in their career; they had already toured with Madonna by the time Def Jam Recordings and Columbia Records releasedLicensed to Illin 1986. But the timing was right, according to the music-buying public: This remains one of Columbia’s best-selling albums, and it was the first rap album ever to reach No. 1 on theBillboard200.
The monster hit fromLicensed to Illwas the band-defining “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” which established both their unique punk-rap sound and their party-in-life’s-face attitude. Rick Rubin produced the album, but his Def Jam Recordings co-owner Russell Simmons had some sway over it, talking the band out of the unfortunate original title,Don’t Be a F**got, and bringing in Darryl McDaniels (DMC of Run/DMC) to co-write a couple of songs. One of those was “Slow and Low.” The hard-driving bass on the bottom and chimes on the top, with rhythmic shouting and truck-engine samples in the middle layer creates a distinctive vehicle for humorous, real-life lyrics (“White Castle fries just come in one size”).
The Beastie Boys were not especially prolific. It took three years forPaul’s Boutiqueto follow the debut album. This time they were on Capitol Records, and the producer was the Dust Brothers duo, specialists in the use of borrowed samples who also made some of Beck’s albums. As often happens with groups who had one huge single off their first album, the band felt pigeonholed by “Fight for Your Right” and wanted to show they had more to offer.Paul’s Boutiquedid just that, surprising the public and pushing the envelope.
The Dust Brothers were true pioneers of sampling. Over 100 songs are sampled in the tracks ofPaul’s Boutique, establishing a new norm for hip-hop production. According to engineer Mario Caldato, Jr., they got the rights at bargain prices because there did not yet exist good copyright laws covering licenses for sampling. You can hear several songs by the Beatles sampled in “The Sounds of Science.” Unlike the first album, the lyrics are more witty than frat-boyish.
Caldato took on the role of producer for the next album,Check Your Head(1992). The band seemed to redefine itself again, with more focus on instruments – both their own and others’. The sessions included instrumental versions of several songs, some of which have been added as bonus tracks on subsequent releases of this album.
Another way this instrumental theme showed itself is in the song “Jimmy James,” a tribute to one of the greatest instrumentalists in rock history – Jimi Hendrix. For this song, six Hendrix tracks are mined for samples. It was released as a single but made no impression in the US market.
The collaboration with Caldato continued withIll Communication(1994), on the Beastie Boys’ own Grand Royal subdivision of Capitol Records. The biggest single was the Moog-sampling “Get It Together,” and critics loved Yauch’s bass playing and Ad-Rock’s furious lyrics on “Sabotage,” inspired by the behavior of paparazzi at River Phoenix’s funeral.
Another interesting piece on the album is the instrumental “Shambala,” featuring guest percussionist Eric “Bobo” Correa and a recording of throat-singing Tibetan monks. The seamless connection between that ancient, traditional sound and the funky new tune brings to mind the use of Indian ragas by the Beatles.
It took four years for the next album to see the light of day, during which time turntable man Mix Master Mike joined the band. He brought with him a heavy, edgy beat and a love of experimental sounds from non-musical sources. The delay was far from a problem for the album’s release. Not only didHello Nasty(1998) bolt to the No. 1 spot on the charts, but it also won Grammy awards for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rap Duo Performance (for the single “Intergalactic”).
One song that might have puzzled casual listeners if it had been released as a single is the instrumental “Song for Junior,” a Latin jazz number featuring some fine flute work by Steve Slagle (better known as a saxophonist who toured with Machito and Ray Barretto). In a nod to the traditions of jazz performance, producer Caldato mixed in samples of audience applause after each solo, a gesture in keeping with hip hop’s self-referential tendencies.
After another six-year dry spell, fans rushed to makeTo the 5 Boroughsthe No. 1 album upon its release in 2004. Among the singles was “An Open Letter to NYC,” responding to the 9/11 terror attacks: “Dear New York, I know a lot has changed/ 2 towers down but you’re still in the game.”
In stark contrast to that bittersweet song, “Oh Word” has the salty, sarcastic humor and crisp electronic beat of rappers who refuse to be left behind by the passing years.
The band enjoyed more accolades forThe Mix-Up(2007), winning the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Since then, they have created only one other record,Hot Sauce Committee Part Two(2011).It was supposed to come out in 2009, but the release was delayed for a couple of years while Yauch battled cancer, a fight he sadly lost in 2012.
On theHot Saucealbum, the band attempted some sublimated political-speak with the song “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament.” Its surface is a slow, funky instrumental with some interesting electronic textures. But deep in the mix, distorted and subtle, is a vocal pep-talk: “We can make it happen.” Make what happen? Well, multilateral nuclear disarmament, of course!
Mike D has made it clear that he will not be using the Beastie Boys name for any new music. The band leaves behind a remarkable legacy, having stayed at the cutting edge of its field for decades. That’s worth a tip of the hat in any walk of life, but especially one where fickle fans and changing technology can wipe out success in an instant.
Born in 1940 to working-class parents in Chicago, piano prodigy Herbie Hancock performed Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. His classical ear was turned toward jazz by the recordings of pianists like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. But an even bigger influence was the popular vocal quartet The Hi-Lo’s, who sang standards in tight, jazzy chords with inventive voicings and plenty of syncopation against slick big-band orchestrations.
Self-taught until he was 20, Hancock eventually convinced Chicago-area pianist Chris Anderson to teach him jazz harmony and style. Soon he was jamming with Coleman Hawkins and Donald Byrd and making a name for himself as a session player both in Chicago and New York. Blue Note Records signed him, and his first solo album,Takin’ Off, impressed Miles Davis so much that he hired the young pianist to join his new quintet.
Although he stayed with Davis’ band until 1968, Hancock spent his free time absorbing the language of rock and pop music and using them to grow his career as a composer. He wrote film scores and advertising themes and, most famously, the music for Bill Cosby’s TV cartoon specialHey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert.In the early 1970s he began a lifelong experiment with electronic music, which would lead to his greatest commercial successes in the 1980s, starting with his single “Rockit” from the albumFuture Shock.
This 14-time Grammy Award winner and recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors award is still an active musician at age 81. His recent collaborations include the ambitious Imagine Project, which aimed to pull together top artists from all over the world to demonstrate “the central themes of peace and global responsibility” through music. A devoted educator, he holds faculty positions at Harvard, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and his own Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz.
Enjoy these eight great tracks by Herbie Hancock.
Track: “Three Bags Full” Album:Takin’ Off Label: Blue Note Year: 1962
Like Miles Davis, Hancock was interested in hard bop, which often features trumpet and saxophone along with a rhythm section. For this debut record, the pianist used Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) and Dexter Gordon (tenor sax), along with Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums.
“Three Bags Full,” composed by Hancock along with all the other tracks on the album, has the angular melody lines and nonchalant use of dissonance typical of hard bop. The “Three” in the title is reflected in the waltz time signature. Hancock’s solo, starting at 3:06, moves like a stream, constant and unhurried.
Track: “Dolphin Dance” Album:Maiden Voyage Label: Blue Note Year: 1965
Like all Hancock’s albums up to this point,Maiden Voyagewas produced by Blue Note founder Albert Lion and engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. The Lion/Van Gelder team helped to define the sound of hard bop, leaning toward the brighter frequencies in the drums and horns. This album is no exception. It’s interesting to listen specifically for the piano in the context of this approach; the instrument has a notably rounded, smooth sound.
“Dolphin Dance” is a Hancock-penned tune inspired by Count Basie’s “Silk Stockings.” Joining the pianist on this laid-back, lyrical standard are Hubbard (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums).
Track: “Ostinato (Suite for Angela)” Album:Mwandishi Label: Warner Bros. Year: 1971
In 1969, Hancock left Blue Note and signed with Warner Bros., making three records for them. The album’s title,Mwandishi, is Swahili for “composer,” and Hancock seems to yearn for recognition in that profession beyond what the jazz world could provide. The tracks here are closer to jazz fusion, bringing in pop influences, most obviously with Hancock’s use of a Fender Rhodes electric piano rather than an acoustic instrument.
That said, this is hardly a record aimed at the average pop consumer. “Ostinato (Suite for Angela)” is written in a time signature of 15/8, giving it a free jazz or atmospheric feel.
Track: “Butterfly” Album:Thrust Label: Columbia Year: 1974
Thrustis one of over a dozen albums Hancock made during his long relationship with Columbia Records/CBS. His choice of David Rubinson as producer indicates his strong leaning toward commercial pop; Rubinson would go on to produce chart-toppers by the Pointer Sisters, Santana, and others. Hancock plays Fender Rhodes and synthesizers, and the group uses electric bass (Paul Jackson) rather than acoustic.
The sultry “Butterfly” was co-written by Hancock saxophonist and flutist Bernie Maupin, who plays on this album and had worked with Hancock on and off since his days with Miles Davis. This is the first of four Hancock recordings of this tune. Mike Clark’s drums blend seamlessly with Bill Summers’ percussion to punctuate the musical fabric.
Hancock had not abandoned more traditional jazz sounds and styles. The Herbie Hancock Trio that this album is named after included his old Davis Quintet colleagues, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. It’s a top-notch be-bop record. Oddly, there’s also a 1982 album with the same name and personnel. Both were produced by Rubinson. The 1977 album was also released as a Carter album with the titleThird Plane.
“Whatcha Waiting For” was written by Hancock and features his adventurous virtuosity – on an acoustic piano, this time.
Track: “Tonight’s” Album:Magic Windows Label: Columbia Year: 1981
Magic Windowsis one of several collaborations with R&B/soul/funk songwriter Jeffery E. Cohen. Although Rubinson is listed as producer, Cohen gets an associate producer credit; he also composed several of the songs, a clear indication that this won’t be a straight-up jazz album.
Cohen co-wrote the tune “Tonight’s the Night” with Hancock and Ray Parker, Jr. This funky soul number features the vocals of Vicki Randle. Hancock gave himself the challenge of playing bass, and his rhythmic foundation captures the genre perfectly.
Track: “Junku” Album:Sound-System Label: Columbia Year: 1984
Hancock became a household name in America thanks to a series of three albums in the electro-funk genre that he made with his Rockit Band. The first was the platinum-sellingFuture Shock, which includes his mega-hit “Rockit.”Sound-Systemis the second. Both of them won Grammy awards.
The song “Junku” was commissioned by the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Hancock first lays down layers of synthesizer, and then things take an interesting turn. Around the 1:00 mark you’ll hear some wonderful kalimba work by West African musician Foday Musa Suso, who also co-wrote the tune.
Track: “Dis Is Da Drum” Album:Dis Is Da Drum Label: Mercury Year: 1994
In the early 1990s, Hancock left Columbia and signed with Mercury. WithDis Is Da Drum,he further explores the combination of jazz with blues-based popular genres, an intermixing that is sometimes referred to as acid jazz. There’s also a socio-political element to this album, particularly on the title track.
“Dis Is Da Drum” begins with a (clearly white) narrator, perhaps from a 1950s film clip, attempting to explain the meaning of African drumming in an overly simplistic and condescending tone. That sample is then pitted against complex West African percussive sounds and an electrofunk background.
In previous issues I have gone into some detail about disk recording, tape recording, the technical challenges of accurate reproduction, audio electronics, vacuum tubes and even professional recording facilities. But, while all of these topics are important when sound recording is given any serious consideration, no degree of proficiency in the above can make up for the lack of a good source.
I am not only referring to talented musicians, who are of course essential, but also their instruments. The combination of musician, instrument and the acoustics of the space in which the performance takes place pretty much define the limits of what can be captured in a recording. It is already a challenge to record all of what is there as faithfully as possible.
One of the most difficult instruments to record in a realistic manner is the piano. There are two basic reasons for this, the first one of which is related to the nature of the piano itself. It has one of the widest musical ranges of any instrument, with an 88-key piano extending from a low A at 27.5 Hz to a high C at around 4,186 Hz. These frequencies only represent the fundamental, but the piano is naturally rich in harmonics, extending to very high frequencies. Most domestic listening systems cannot reproduce 27.5 Hz, nor can they reproduce very high frequencies accurately, even if these were captured in the recording, which is questionable in itself. Moreover, a skilled pianist can get a very wide dynamic range out of a good piano, challenging the capabilities of both recording and playback equipment.
The second reason has to do with the fact that many music lovers have often experienced a real piano being played in a room. It is a very common instrument, playing a fundamental role in western musical education. As such, most of us have a solid reference for comparison and the weaknesses in piano recordings really stand out as not sounding like the real thing. Most musicians tend to experience the same effect when it comes to listening to recordings of their own particular instrument, but even non-musicians are usually very familiar with what a real piano sounds like. For example, I can reliably detect even very small amounts of wow and flutter on guitar recordings, because being a guitar player myself, I know what guitar vibrato can sound like and will not confuse wow and flutter for vibrato. But with instruments I am not as familiar with, it would take a greater amount of it for me to detect.
It is a bit like the sound of the human voice. We have evolved as a species to be particularly sensitive to the vocal sounds of other humans and especially the ones who we are the most familiar with. We are able to recognize the voice of our mother even if it’s presented in very low quality, via the telephone or in a voice message, yet it is obvious that their voice is only coming through a loudspeaker. Our hearing mechanism can pick up on even the most subtle hints that our mother’s voice does not sound like it should, from our reference to real-life experiences, and it is difficult to fool someone into thinking that a recording of their mother’s voice is actually her speaking directly.
But, this is exactly what we are trying to achieve in high-fidelity sound recordings: to present a recorded sound of an instrument to an audience familiar with the actual sound of that instrument, hoping that the clues which would inform their hearing mechanisms that this is not how the instrument is supposed to sound will be absent or well-concealed.
I have a particularly soft spot for the sound of the piano and have heard many good pianos in real life. However, I have heard very few convincing piano recordings. My own experiments to date in this regard have never yielded anything I would consider worthy of commercial release, but I have learned a lot about what not to do in the process.
A few years ago, upon completing some modifications to my personal studio, I decided to record my grandmother telling stories from World War II, for historical documentation and preservation for our next family generation. I did the same with all of our close family members, who were all present at the session. Each one would enter the soundproof recording space alone, while I was monitoring the recording from the soundproof control room, alone. The rest of the family waited in the lounge.
When all the stories were told, the family was invited to the control room to hear the recordings. My grandmother’s recording started with her just asking if I can hear her, to which my father reacted by turning towards her to reply, only to be shocked when he realized she had not actually spoken in real life, but only on the recording. My dad has spent most of his life listening to high-fidelity recordings on a decent system and has excellent hearing, so at that point, seeing that my father had been fooled into thinking a recording was a real-life voice, I realized I really was ready to approach piano recording (and recording in general) from a fresh perspective. The electronics in the recording chain, and the recording devices, monitoring conditions and microphones were now on a very good level, and with further improvements in mind for the near future, it was time to give some serious thought to the first link in the chain: The musical instrument itself.
During the course of several years of consideration, experimentation and discussion, I had experienced a wide range of excellent pianos by Steinway, Bösendorfer, Blüthner and several other well-known manufacturers. One thing I realized was that a great concert piano is not necessarily as great for recording purposes, which introduces further challenges in the pursuit of the holy grail of instruments to be used for recording.
Liszt at the Piano, by Josef Danhauser.
The most realistic piano recording I have ever heard involved a vintage Mason and Hamlin grand piano. However, many pianists who I’d had discussions with tended to prefer recently-manufactured pianos, primarily due to the fact that a new piano does not yet have wear on its action and as such, tends to be easier to play. Vintage pianos can of course be kept well-maintained, but if something wrong with a piano is not noticed in time, the pianist would have to deal with a defect which could prove detrimental to the accuracy of their performance.
A piano action is an elaborate mechanical assembly, consisting of thousands of tiny parts, which tend to wear out. When they do, this causes inconsistencies between keys, produces unwanted sounds and makes it difficult for a pianist to control the nuances of their playing. All parts can be renewed when worn, but this is quite a task and requires an experienced piano technician, which often proves uneconomical. Vintage pianos are commonly replaced by newer pianos, ensuring the comfort of the performers with little risk of technical glitches.
But just as with classic cars, vintage audio equipment and carefully-aged wine, vintage pianos can have something really special about them, perhaps worth the extra effort in restoring them and keeping them in good shape.
Also, while some parts in a piano do wear out over time with use, other parts tend to improve and stabilize, such as the cast iron frame.
My early investigation of the option of acquiring a high-quality vintage piano was not particularly fruitful. Many pianos were simply in a terrible state of disrepair and others didn’t sound like anything special.
Until one day, I fell in love! It was a beautiful John Broadwood & Sons grand piano, dating from 1904. It had been privately owned and had seen very little use, as evidenced by the original parts still only showing minimal wear. It was a beautifully made instrument, complete with rosewood finish and ornamental lathe-turned legs.
The frame of J.I.'s John Broadwood & Sons piano.
John Broadwood started out as an apprentice of Burkat Shudi. After marrying Shudi’s daughter Barbara in 1769, he joined Shudi’s venture as a partner, and the company evolved from being a small harpsichord manufacturer, to eventually becoming the foremost piano manufacturer in England. Ludwig van Beethoven owned a Broadwood, and so did several other world-renowned composers of the time. Broadwood pianos were very highly regarded and for some time, the company was considered to be producing some of the finest-sounding pianos in the world.
This particular piano had to be transported halfway around the world, under time pressure, in very challenging circumstances, and required the finely coordinated services of six different specialist companies. It was a daunting logistics nightmare, especially considering the sensitive nature of the piano. Fortunately, through my work, I have become quite accustomed to logistics nightmares involving shipping very heavy and extremely fragile disk mastering systems all over the world on a regular basis, so I had the experience, the contacts and the nerves for it. But it was still daunting. The worst part was when the piano actually arrived: in a gargantuan 1,200 lb. crate that was too large to fit into the building, and was delivered on a cloudy day, with rain being just minutes away!
Since 1969, the name Abbey Road has become synonymous in the world of popular culture with The Beatles’ swan song album of the same title. To Londoners, it is a thoroughfare in St. John’s Wood. To musicians, music producers, engineers and industry personnel, it is an historic, iconic recording studio with a long pedigree that extends far beyond The Beatles.
This year’s AES Fall Show 2020 was virtual due to New York COVID-19 restrictions that prevented the usual in-person gathering at the Javits Center in Manhattan. Among the show’s attractions that all migrated online, the marquee event was “7 Audio Wonders of the World,” a series of virtual tours of some of the world’s top recording studios that have been responsible for the creation of countless music, film scores, movies and TV programs that we have all come to know and love.Copperpreviously covered virtual AES tours ofSkywalker Soundin Lucas Valley, CA,Galaxy Studiosin Belgium,The Villagein Los Angeles, andBlackbird Studioin Nashville. Number five on the virtual tour isAbbey Road Studiosof London.
Mirek Stiles, Abbey Road Studios’ Head of Audio Products, led the tour, which started at St. John’s Wood outside the three-story townhouse that has housed the studios since the 1930s. The relatively nondescript front of the building belies the enormous recording studio facilities built in the secluded rear garden.
Upon entry inside the building proper is the first room: Studio One It’s a huge space; in fact the largest purpose-built recording studio in the world. It can accommodate an entire orchestra. The studio’s original Art Deco design was created in the 1930s with the intent of adding some reverberation to recordings, to simulate the music hall experience. Ironically, the amount of natural room reverb, dating from nearly a century ago, was considered to be inadequate by some classical artists who required a larger sound, so over the years many attempts were made to increase the reverb time. The current acoustic diffusers and panels have been in place since the 1970s with the original art deco design long since buried.
Abbey Road Studios, Studio One.
Studio One’s glamorous history includes its inauguration with a 1931 concert by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Edward Elgar. In its original heyday, Abbey Road Studios was the site for seminal recordings by everyone from Sergei Prokofiev, Pablo Casals, and Yehudi Menuhin to Glenn Miller and Fats Waller.
Studio One is presently used primarily for film scoring, with blockbuster films such asThe Lord of the Ringstrilogy,Black Panther,Skyfall,1917,Avengers: Endgame,Aliens, andRaiders of the Lost Arkamong the studio’s more notable credits.
Abbey Road Studios’ reputation as a film score recording mecca happened as the result of fortuitous timing. By the mid-1970s classical music recording was beginning to dry up. Most of the repertoire had been recorded and there wasn’t a huge amount of new classical music coming through the door. It wasn’t until the release of CD that all the classics were re-recorded and booking seriously took off again.
In nearby Denham Studios, film sound post-production specialist group Anvil had established itself as the premier UK expert in the field, thanks to its work on2001: A Space Odyssey, Superman, Star Warsand other hit movies. However, when the Denham Studios site was converted into office spaces and Anvil’s lease expired, a joint venture between Anvil and Abbey Road was signed, thus creating Anvil Abbey Road Screen Sound Ltd., a relationship that continues to this day (although the Anvil name hasn’t been mentioned for years). The 1981 thrillerEye of the Needlemarked the start of the joint venture.
Studio One’s control room is centered around a 72-channel AMS/Neve 88RS console and Pro Tools HDX, complemented by Classé Audio power amps. In addition, Studio One offers 48 channels of remote Neve mic preamps, vintage and modern equalizers, delays and reverbs, and other equipment racks that float between studios as needed. Since its renaissance, Studio One has been the choice of artists including U2, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Harry Styles and Kanye West when it’s not in use for film scoring.
Entering the fabled Studio Two, legendary for being the birthplace of 90 percent of the Beatles’ recordings, one is struck by the workmanlike layout, efficiency and lack of frills and pretension. Designed in 1931 for swing jazz-era big band ensembles, Studio Two was built with inherently more reverb in its acoustical design, so the studio now has large hanging drapes to help deaden sound. Additional swing out screens can be used for dividing the large space into a more manageable area if needed.
Abbey Road Studios, Studio Two.
The current first floor isolation booth was originally a control room until the late 50s, back when consoles were much smaller. Given its high ceiling, Studio Two’s control room was comfortably moved vertically to overlook the live room and is accessed by a flight of stairs along a side wall.
The newer, larger upstairs control room houses a 60-channel AMS/Neve 88RS desk, Bowers and Wilkins 801 floorstanding monitors and uses Pro Tools HDX for recording. Reflecting its vintage heritage, the studio has ultra-rare EMI TG12412 EQ, TG12413 limiter and TG12414 filter modules as well as vintage Fairchild, Pultec, Teletronix and UREI gear, heard on countless classic rock records from the Beatles, Pink Floyd and many others. Other outboard equipment includes AMS delays, Chiswick Reach, Manley, dbx and Neve compressors, GML and Prism Sound EQs, and much more.
Studio Two’s Beatles’ mystique and vibe is still omnipresent and it’s no wonder that artists such as Adele, Oasis, Ed Sheeran, The 1975 and Joe Bonamassa have all recorded there. Danny Boyle’s Beatles tribute comedy film,Yesterday,specifically chose Studio Two for recording its Beatles tunes.
The famous honky-tonk-sounding “Mrs. Mills” 1905 Steinway upright piano, named for British stride pianist/singer Gladys Mills, and the two Challen upright pianos – heard throughout many Beatles’ records, such as “Lady Madonna” and “Fool On the Hill” – are still in use and available to any Abbey Road client. Other vintage keyboards like Hammond B3 and RT3 organs, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos and a celeste are also still available, as well as an original Ludwig four-piece drum kit similar to Ringo Starr’s and a collection of vintage guitars, basses, and amps.
Studio Two also has an echo chamber, located towards the rear near a fire escape. It is a concrete-walled, hard-tiled room designed before plate reverbs were invented. The presence of heating pipes adds to the reflections. According to Stiles, a favorite trick of Paul McCartney’s was to set up the drums in the fire escape alcove to record the drums adjacent to the echo chamber room, which caused complaints from St. John’s Wood neighbors!
The pipes in the echo chamber.
The comparatively smaller and intimate Studio Three paradoxically sports the largest control room in Abbey Road. Best known as the studio where Pink Floyd’s landmarkThe Dark Side of the Moonwas mixed and Wish You Were Here was recorded and mixed, it’s also the site of Amy Winehouse’s final recordings with Tony Bennett. More recently, it’s been used by Paul McCartney, Nile Rodgers, Brockhampton, Florence + the Machine, Frank Ocean and others.
Studio Three’s live room was designed for chamber music recording in 1931 but underwent significant changes during the 1980s. A few of the innovations introduced during that period include retractable acoustic panels that can be configured for either soft or hard reflections, additional isolation booths, and wiring to accommodate MIDI and other newer technical recording requirements.
Stiles recalled that during the making of Pink Floyd’sWish You Were Here, Syd Barrett, the burned out co-founder of the group and the subject of the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” wandered into Studio Three unannounced, creating an incredibly emotional session for Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright.
Studio Three sports a huge Solid State Logic (SSL) 96-channel J Series console. In addition to much of the same vintage gear found in Studios One and Two, Studio Three has an assortment of AMS/Neve Montserrat mic preamps, AMS/Neve 1081 preamps, Chandler germanium transistor-based preamp/DIs, as well as an assortment of Pultec, Fairchild, UREI, Klark Teknik, Avalon, and other gear.
The Mix Stage is a fully Dolby Atmos Premier-accredited studio that recreates the movie experience with a large screen and theater reclining seats. It is fully digital and equipped for film dubbing, ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) and music and effects mixing, having been utilized forBohemian Rhapsody, Dumbo,andDownton Abbey, among other productions.
The all-digital Penthouse mixing suite is also set up for Dolby Atmos mixing. It has been used mostly for film mixes on projects likeOcean’s 8andSolo: A Star Wars Story. Music artists such as Brockhampton and Nile Rodgers also enjoy music mixing in the Penthouse.
Ironically, during the tour the Penthouse contained a piece of analog history. The sole analog machine in the Penthouse is a vintage workhorse ¼-inch Studer A80 for tape delay that is still in use. Machines like this are used to create tape delays and ADT (automatic double tracking), ADT was a signature Beatles’ vocal and guitar solo sound. As it is located on the top floor of the building, the Penthouse is the only Abbey Road studio with a skylight.
The RS56 Universal Tone Control Unit, known as the "Curve Bender."
Abbey Road is also one of the most experienced and respected mastering houses in the industry. Its four mastering rooms are based around vintage EMI TG Series transfer consoles with EQ, compression and spreader filters. For additional processing, more modern Prism EQs and Manley compressors are available. The mastering studios’ vintage Neumann cutting lathes have been in long-term use; they continued to cut vinyl throughout the CD and download-dominant 1990s and 2000s when vinyl was on the wane, and currently are in operation nearly 24/7 thanks to the resurgence of vinyl over the last decade.
Within the corridors of Abbey Road, you can find the original Studer J37 4-track machine famously used onSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandand other Beatles records. Stiles refers to the Studer as a “beast”; it’s powered by over 100 (!) valves (tubes in US English) and is still fully functional. Next to the Studer J37 is the groundbreaking Abbey Road-designed RS56 Universal Tone Control Unit, better known as the “Curve Bender.” Massively heavy and mounted in a sturdy wood frame, it is arguably the first-ever studio-grade parametric EQ unit ever made.
The Studer J37 tape machine.
Abbey Road’s Gatehouse is situated in the townhouse’s original stables, which were converted first into classical music editing rooms, then repurposed with a higher ceiling into a smaller studio for bands that require only a small space for live recording as opposed to overdubbing and mixing. The Gatehouse offers the full microphone and outboard hardware resources of Abbey Road in a control room-based production suite, built around an AMS/Neve 16-fader BCM10/2 Mk2 desk with Neve 1073 and 1084 preamps. A Chandler EMI TG12345 console, Curve Bender and Tube Tech equalizers, LA-2A and 1176 compressors, API Lunchbox modules and other gear are all within arm’s reach.
The smaller live room has a Yamaha upright piano and can accommodate a 4 or 5 piece band, a string quartet, or other small ensemble. Artists such as Noel Gallagher, Ben Howard and JD Reid have cut records in The Gatehouse.
The last studio on the virtual AES tour was The Front Room. Designed for artists without a need for a live tracking room, it has an SSL Duality 24-fader desk and the identical speakers and digital audio workstation capabilities as the Gatehouse. Nile Rodgers and Chic, Kelela, and Jorja Smith are a few artists who have used The Front Room for producing records.
As Abbey Road’s Head of Audio Products, Mirek Stiles has helped explore Abbey Road’s presence into new technology areas, with research and development efforts being devoted to artificial intelligence, game engines and other innovations in audio technology.
With its landmark status and venerable history, Abbey Road Studios ranks among the most important recording studios of all time, a peer to other famous studio contemporaries such as New York’s legendary RCA Studios and the Record Plant. Sadly, the latter two are just a memory (although the Record Plant currently operates out of Los Angeles), but Abbey Road Studios appears to be well-situated to continue its reputation for excellence through its centennial anniversary and beyond.
When I was working atGoldminemagazine we tried again and again to get a record label to sponsor a flexi disc in the magazine. We first became interested in pitching the idea to labels when Jack White’s Third Man Records had pressed about 1,000 flexi discs to promote his 2012 solo debut recordBlunderbuss.That promotional stunt got our creative juices flowing and also brought back a whole bunch of great memories. When I was a kid, flexi discs, 45 RPM records that were produced on incredibly thin vinyl, were freebies found everywhere. They were often bound into magazines. They were usually squared off at the edges and there would be a perforated line where you could tear them out of the magazine, although my first flexi might have been cut off the back of a cereal box. I can’t quite remember but I think it was a song by the Jackson 5.
At one point I had acquired a small informal collection of flexis. I’m not sure that they ever received more than one or two plays, but the novelty of format was so powerful that whenever I’d come across one in a magazine it was like I had hit the motherlode. The ones I favored offered pre-recorded music. The sound quality was always horrible (but free was free). Because of their poor fidelity, the format was much more conducive to spoken word than music. And because the discs were literally so thin, when you would play them on your turntable the weight of the stylus could bring the record to a screeching halt. That’s why so many so them included markings for where to place a coin to hold them down.
Flexis were never going to become an audiophile’s obsession. But they were great gimmicks. In fact, the Beatles used them every holiday season to promote special Christmas recordings for their fan clubs.
The predecessor to the flexis were intended to be “talking postcards.” In the early 1900s, Europeans came up with the idea that you could record a message onto a resin-covered postcard. That message could then be mailed to a friend who could play it back on a turntable. From there they quickly became a promotional tool largely used by big brands like General Electric. The formats varied, some being distributed in self-playing packaging. These would come with a pre-packaged needle and a cardboard pop-up speaker. The design was akin to a Victrola, only made out of cardboard. You would hold the unit in your lap and spin the flexi with your hand.
The first flexi discs as we know them were introduced by the Eva-Tone company in 1962. In the Soviet Union, in addition to commercially available flexi discs that were produced by the Soviet government from 1964 to 1991, people used the flexi format to secretly share music from the West. They created records that, rather than being pressed on postcards or other kinds of flexi discs, were often put on old X-rays. The resulting records were called “roentgenizdat,” or “bone music.” This pairing of body parts and songs developed a cult-like following and these discs were shared through underground channels.
In the 1980s the idea of promoting music via flexis peaked with the arrival of the British publicationFlexipop!. In a 2007 interview withStylus, one of the magazine’s writers, Huw Collingbourne, said, “Other music mags may have dabbled in flexis, butFlexipop!made a career of it. We had singles by the top bands of the day – everyone from the Jam to Depeche Mode.” The magazine would shutter within two years as major labels began to put their focus on CDs and vinyl record sales began to slide.
To get an expert’s point of view on the history of the flexi, we spoke with flexi disc enthusiast Michael Cumella. The Brooklyn resident’s collection numbers in the thousands, and some of the flexis he owns are truly rare finds. For years he has been trying to get a book deal done on the subject of flexi discs, because, as he says, “this is a totally hidden history of our recorded sounds.” As he shared some rarities from his collection (and even played a few, including some of the self-playing variety) we learned how rich a history the flexi has really had.
Ray Chelstowski:So how did you first get into collecting flexis?
Michael Cumella:I’m old enough that I actually cut a record off of the back of a cereal box when I was a child. I remember being completely fascinated by that idea. I’m the youngest of four children so I grew up with records my whole life.
I remember that moment of [seeing] The Archies on the back of a cereal box and saying to myself, “What?!” I’ve always had a wide interest in records and as I’d buy the them I’d find these weird things. Like, why is there a record [from 1958] that is advertising Christmas wrapping paper…and here’s Bob Hope talking about it? It only got weirder, and these records were almost free.
Wrapper’s delight, featuring Bob Hope.
Over time I just became fascinated by what I call the history of ephemeral records, records that were not meant to last, that were meant to be of the moment. We will listen to a Neil Young record forever. But a campaign record from 1932 of a candidate running for Senate, that was of the moment. It was meant to be thrown away. And there are so many areas that are touched on by this [phenomenon] where the records were not meant to be remembered. So it’s a fascinating area of using recorded technology to disseminate messages, often other than music. Sometimes itisjust music; sure, there’s some of that. I can trace flexis back 100 years and at this point they just find me.
RC:Which flexi in your collection is the oddest/coolest?
MC:Here’s one:An Important Message for TV Service Dealers.It’s basically about where to buy the best radio and television tubes, and Dave Garroway, [who] was the host of the firstTodayshow, [was] the spokesman for this company. Or how about this?Music to Install Gas Vents By!Another cool one is a promo for Alfred Hitchcock’s [TV] show [Alfred Hitchcock Presents], which was coming out in 1955. I’ve never seen another one of these. It contains a short message from him saying, “My new show is coming out. And I hope you do tune in.”
RC:Is there any flexi with a great back story?
MC:Nixon’s The One.Millions of these were sent out. They say that this flexi disc may have been responsible for him being elected. He flooded peoples’ mailboxes with these and I have some that still have the addresses on them. The thinking is that it could have actually swayed the election because it was a direct message to people.
RC:Were any of these known for their fidelity?
MC:There was always a low expectation in terms of fidelity. The message would always transcend the fidelity. It was about getting you to do something. That’s what I like most.
RC:Which flexi in your collection is the rarest?
MC:It’s hard to say. Because a lot of these things I can’t even find a reference on. I have only a few people that I can discuss rarity with [who are knowledgeable about the subject]. There’s a super rare set from the 1920s called “”. One side is a picture of a silent movie star and the back side [has] a few words from them. It was a really short-lived series. If you found the Greta Garbo one it would sell for about $500. Silent film fans would love to hear the voices of these stars. In most cases their voices had never been heard [before]. These flexis are the only known recordings of their voices. [They’re] also really good documents of the promotion of early movies. And again, they were disposable. When a new one came out you weren’t expected to keep [the old one]. You threw it away because it had served its purpose.
I’m not sure whether we will ever see the flexi disc format make the kind of comeback that has happened with vinyl records. But there are companies likePirates Pressin California that are using the format to help independent bands get their music into the hands of would-be fans. They are pressing millions of flexis each year. Some labels are bundling flexi discs with new LPs. I don’t know if flexis will ever make their way back to cereal boxes, but if you like to buy new vinyl, keep your eyes out and you might find a special surprise in the record sleeve. It just might turn you on to your next favorite band and a new collecting hobby.
A “talking” birthday card.
All the flexi discs pictured are courtesy of Michael Cumella.
Women are still underrepresented in vast swaths of society, but when it comes to producing smart, lingering, introspective new music, they are leading the way.
It is challenging to keep track of the many great female artists producing quality work today, stretching and pushing their songs to places that reflect modern life and embody new sounds, while still remaining somewhat rooted in templates created by past icons.
The breakthrough female artists of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s like Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde created their music during a time when society was beginning to wrestle with women’s autonomy and independence, and many of their songs reflected the challenges presented to women during those changing times. Many of today’s artists operate from a more confident perspective – self-empowered and self-realized and more often on comparable footing with their male counterparts.
No one has received more critical love in the last year thanFiona Apple, whose last album Fetch The Bolt Cutters (reviewed by Wayne RobinsinCopper112) is raw, intense and musically ambitious. While much new output from artists is meant to be consumed track by track, Fetch should be listened to all the way through. The songs build on each other; the listener is drawn further into Apple’s personal challenges and experimental palette and the cumulative impact is staggering. We included “Shameika” from the album on Be Here Now but strongly encourage you to find an uninterrupted hour to listen to the entire album.
Angel Olsen’s hypnotic songs, often orchestrated with strings, are represented here by “All Mirrors.”Sharon Van Etten has been making dramatic, personal music for almost a decade and on the amazing “Seventeen,” she addresses her teenage self from the vantage point of her 30s.
Canadian Kathleen Edwards’influences are rooted more in singer-songwriters like Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin and alt-country groups like the Jayhawks. Her song “Hard On Everyone” with its pristine production, perfect hook and heartfelt lyrics is five minutes of impeccable craft.Margo Price, who often works with Jack White (the White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather), finds that hard to locate but so-satisfying intersection of country and rock that Lucinda Williams gets to on her more aggressive songs.
A number of 20-something artists have broken through in the last few years, includingPhoebe Bridgers and Soccer Mommy, who on her single “Your Dog” subversively sings “I don’t want to be your f*cking dog” – over a very hummable melody. 21 year old Holly Humberstone’s “Falling Asleep at the Wheel” starts with her alone on the piano deconstructing a relationship and morphs into a soothing, electronic dance track which only intensifies the frustration she expresses in her lyrics.
There are many other artists on the playlist worth checking out.Girl in Red records in her bedroom and produces sexy songs about her girlfriends, Caroline Rose’s bouncy “Feel The Way I Want” celebrates her freedom, and Arlo Parks taps into a soulful Portishead vibe on “Eugene.”
The featured artists are all artists. In this track-driven era, fans often only listen to one song per artist and many great songs are lost. The performers here have plenty of other outstanding tracks and I encourage you to dig in to the catalogs of the artists you like the most. The breadth and quality of their work is well worth your time.
In 1984 Ian Lloyd of the band Stories calls me and says, “I have an offer to do a concert in San Juan. Do you want to handle it?” (I did a previous article on Stories in Issue 120. The band had a smash hit with “Brother Louie” in 1973.) “They called me directly,” Ian said. Oh, that can be a problem if this guy who called Ian has no experience. People who just turn up out of nowhere and want to be a concert promoter are frequently someone who just had a windfall; maybe they’re a trust fund recipient, a gambler or a drug dealer. There is no due diligence on their part; they think it would be fun, even easy, and they will parlay their money and rub elbows with rock stars. What could go wrong? Ian Lloyd promo photo, courtesy of Kama Sutra Records.
In my experience I have seen this more than a few times, with disastrous results. “These people have no relationship with booking agencies, no history or track record!” I said. “No,” Ian replied, “look, they’ll pay up front before we go. Everything – performance fee, airfare, hotel and local transportation. The concert will be at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum (legit venue) and Rush is the headliner and Blue Angel is the middle act.” I was familiar with Blue Angel. They were kind a cross between New Wave and rockabilly and had been the opening act on some of The Stranglers dates (seeIssue 128andIssue 111). Ian Lloyd and Stories would be the opening act. Ian made a good point, I thought to myself – no matter what happens we were covered and all expenses were prepaid, so even if things fell apart we should be fine.
Then Ian and I worked out my pay and he added a perk. They would buy my wife Jessica an airplane ticket. Even though I knew this gig had potential for trouble (we had no relationships with anyone involved and would be dealing with an unknown and inexperienced new promoter), and I thought most of the potential pitfalls were taken care of, so sure, why not spend a couple of days in San Juan with my wife. And besides, Rush would be headlining and Blue Angel would also be on the bill, so that took the pressure off us. We were part of the show, not the headliner. We had about four weeks before the date so there was time enough for all arrangements to be made.
Blue Angel, Stories and I met at JFK and flew out on Pan Am on a direct flight to San Juan. The promoter and his girlfriend met us in San Juan airport in the baggage claim area. He briefly said hello to me but began to cuddle up to Ian and Cyndi while pretty much ignoring both bands and everyone else. Cyndi being Cyndi Lauper – she was in Blue Angel before going on to a solo career. He definitely had the look and the mannerisms of someone who just recently came into money.
He had a couple of vans waiting and we were driven to the hotel. It was a really nice luxury hotel that was in a state of decline, but still nice enough not to be creepy. A casino and a couple of restaurants were in the lobby. It was Friday afternoon and we were free till Saturday, the day of the show. Jessica and I went down to the bar and met Ian there. We were not in the booth more than a minute when Cyndi waltzed over and sat down next to Ian. They were acting like old friends but in fact, today was the first time they had met. After a minute they stood up and said they were going to look at the pool. We did not see either of them till the next day. That night Jessica and I dined in one of the hotel’s Latin restaurants and then checked out the casino. It looked a bit sleazy, so we passed on that and decided to have a drink in the bar and take a walk. After a while we went up to our room.
Next morning a bunch of us went down to the pool. After lunch everyone took the vans to the Coliseum. The load in was not bad because of the help we received from the stagehands. The set up for all three of the acts was Rush in the back of the stage, Blue Angel in the middle and Ian Lloyd and Stories towards the front of the stage. Each group was going to set up, do a sound check and then the next band would set up. As we were going to be the last to do a setup and sound check, it became obvious we were going to be there all day and we would not leave till after the show.
It was an extremely uncomfortable hot and humid afternoon and even worse inside the Coliseum. Everyone was sweating their butts off. I asked some of the Coliseum staff if they could turn on the air conditioning and they said no. Some of them said there was no air conditioning and others answered me with, “no comprende!” After about five requests I took it to mean that there really was no air conditioning. How could that be? Then again, we were on the Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico and maybe that was the way they rolled. After finally accepting our fate we soldiered on with the sound check and with getting prepared for the concert.
A little after 6:30 pm they opened the doors and the audience started filing in. The big Coliseum was filling up. Around 6:50 I noticed it was more comfortable. I assumed I was just adapting to the heat, but it kept on feeling less humid and cooler. Just after 7:00 I had an “aha” moment. There was no denying it – therewasair conditioning and it was working and working well. Son of a B, they lied to me. Why did they not turn on the AC beforehand? Did the venue really save that much money by keeping the AC off? Could you imagine working there and wearing that wet blanket of humidity every day?
The show started on time at 8:00 and things went relatively smoothly for all involved. The Stories set was good, and the audience went wild when the band played “Brother Louie.” Blue Angel was tight, and Cyndi’s four-octave vocals were outstanding. Then Rush came on and like a true headliner they closed the show, doing their older hits for encores. The evening went better than I had anticipated and that was a good thing. Back at the hotel most of the musicians and crew met at the bar and had a nightcap. Everyone was in good spirits and a few of us, those in the know, were relieved.
Next morning, we all load into the vans and are off to the airport to catch the 10 am flight back to New York. It’s just a beautiful sunny Sunday morning in San Juan, before the heat and humidity get uncomfortable. We check in and walk to the gate. The flight is already boarding. We get in line and board the plane.
As I am walking down the aisle looking for Jessica, I spot “Capt.” Lou Albano, the famous wrestler, sitting with his Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned in an aisle seat in coach. He has a bandage on his head. “Captain Lou Albano!” I exclaim, and he smiles and sticks out his hand. “What are you doing here in San Juan?” He says, “I had a wrestling match last night.” “You’re heading to New York?” I ask, and he replies, “yeah, I live in Westchester.” Then I mention that we did a show at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum the previous night. The aisles are empty, so I kneel in the aisle and continue talking to Lou. I asked him what had happened that necessitated the need of a bandage on his forehead. He smiled and told me that the wrestlers had little razor blades they kept on them and which they used to cut their own foreheads. The wrestling promoters paid bonus money for blood, and a cut on the forehead bleeds a lot but heals pretty quickly.
“So wrestling is fake!” I say, and he shakes his head and says “no, it is not fake. It isfixed.” I look at him and smile. He seems to be in his 40s. I ask Lou, “have you been doing this a long time?” He answers, “yes, over 25 years. I wanted to be a boxer, but I was told I was too short, so wrestling turned out to be a good alternative. I started in 1953 and later that decade I became part of a tag team called ‘The Sicilians,’ and the gimmick was that we were a tag team of mafia mobsters. This was good for years, until some real mobsters showed up one night and asked us to please change the name and our personas. You do not make those people ask twice. The wrestling scene has been good to me and I enjoy it.”
Ian Lloyd, a bandaged "Capt." Lou Albano (middle) and Ken Sander (right) on that history-making plane ride in 1984.
After a few minutes, the stewardess comes over and asks me to go to my seat. I walk back and everyone, Ian, Cindy and various band members want to know who the hell I was talking to. I tell them it was “Capt.” Lou Albano, and it doesn’t really register with them. I say he is a famous wrestler, and they all go “oohh!” and now they get it. Now everyone wants to meet the Captain.
Once we are airborne and the seat belt light is off, I take Ian and Cyndi over to Lou and introduce them. There is a good bit of socializing and picture-taking between Lou and all of us.
A few months later I am watching MTV and Cyndi has a new video, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” To my surprise, Lou Albano is in the video. This was the beginning of “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” for the WWF.
Cyndi’s then-boyfriend was a WWF fan since he was a young kid, so I am assuming that he had been lobbying Cyndi to get involved in that scene after he’d heard about our flight. She went on to appear on a number of wrestling shows with Lou. There was always drama (pro wrestling is all about drama). Sometimes she would play his manager or even the manager of other wrestlers, and Albano appeared in some more Cyndi Lauper music videos.
While this helped Lou and Cyndi’s careers, it probably helped the WWF the most. I am not aware of any other rockers that got involved in the wrestling scene but even so, this was a tremendous boost in popularity for professional wrestling and apparently Cyndi had fun with it. This association seemed to last a few years and then it looked like Cyndi moved on. Without fresh meat the “bit” could only go so far. Lou retired later in the 1980s, but still did promotional fights and played the the part of a wrestling manager on television and at venues for the WWF.
We all know Cyndi went on to have a terrific career in music. “Capt.” Lou Albano knew how to parlay his status. He began appearing in television series and movies such asMiami Vice, Hey Dude,Regis and Kathie Lee,Brian De Palma’sWise Guys, and the wrestling movieBody Slam.. Albano even managed and performed with rockers NRBQ, who released an album in 1989 namedLou and the Q.
A few months later I heard that the promoter of the San Juan concert was shot dead in a drug deal gone wrong. That was proof enough for me. He was not a trust fund recipient.
I have close to 3,000 CDs and LPs – a modest amount according to some people, an extravagant amount according to others. I used to have a large number of open reel tapes too, recorded from LPs with the help of my trusty Tandberg open reel deck and not so trusty Revox recorder (it was almost always in the repair shop). I tossed the reels not too long ago after my recorder broke, tore the tape that was playing, and flung pieces of it in every direction.
Having all that wonderful music to choose from makes me feel good. But the truth is I only play a fraction of those discs and LPs on a regular basis. So to celebrate 2021 here’s an annotated list of 21 of those recordings…a few of my favorite things that might become some of your favorites, too.
Stravinsky:Le Sacre du Printemps/Leonard Bernstein, cond. (Columbia Masterworks LP reissued by Sony Classical)This early recording with Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic is a fierce performance that, according to the album notes, “perfectly captures the raw power and rhythmic intensity of what many consider the finest recording of one of the most influential compositions of the twentieth century.” I agree. Bernstein brings out elements of the score you won’t hear from other conductors. The 1958 sound is spectacular – especially in comparison to later Columbia recordings that had too much treble and not enough bass.
Bernstein:Symphony No. 3/Leonard Bernstein, cond. (Columbia Masterworks LP) This is another sizzling performance led by Lenny. The symphony, dedicated “To the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy,” is one of my favorite pieces. Felicia Montealegre (Mrs. Bernstein) is almost too dramatic as the speaker but the approach is in keeping with the rest of this first recording: raucous, emotional, gripping, eclectic, and often calming. Listen to the original 1963 score and avoid recordings that use revisions Bernstein made later on: The piece races to its conclusion without the pause found in the original version and isn’t as satisfying. And after hearing Montealegre, other speakers can sound too restrained and uninvolved.
Jobim and Bonfá:Black Orpheus/The Original Soundtrack(Verve CD)Black Orpheuswas one of the first foreign films I saw as a kid and has been special to me ever since. The selection “Manhã de Carnaval” became a jazz standard but the entire 1959 score wasn’t promoted as much. The recording was made from diverse sources and varies in quality but if you’ve seen the film, or even if you haven’t, you won’t mind. This CD brings the entire carnival into your home, both the beautiful and creepy parts.
Fanshawe:African Sanctus/David Fanshawe, cond. (Philips LP)David Fanshawe’s composition includes a choir and shouter, African and rock drummers, percussion, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, and Hammond organ.African Sanctusalso incorporates music recorded in Africa that Fanshawe describes as fascinating, weird, wonderful, and rapidly vanishing…an attempt “to fuse different peoples and their music into a tightly knit unit of energy and praise.” This piece grabs me immediately, draws me into its layers of sound, and makes me want to dance – or at least move my feet without having to leave my chair.
Puccini:Madama Butterfly/Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. (Deutsche Grammophon CD)Panned by several critics for being too slow (Sinopoli was famous for conducting pieces at a slower pace than usual) there are sections here where I start to think, “let’s get on with it!” But this happens in only a couple of places. I listen to this album because of the third act performance: a genuine tear jerker that never fails to move me.
Baroque Reflections/Alessio Bax, piano (Warner CD)My guilty pleasure disc. Bax’s approach is more rhapsodic than authentic. At times he plays Baroque music without restraint but who doesn’t like to get passionate every now and then? I enjoy this disc even if I’m not supposed to. Just don’t tell the neighbors.
Debussy, Fauré, Ravel: Piano Trios/Florestan Trio (Hyperion CD)When I first started listening to classical music I only played orchestral music: The larger the forces, the better. Many years later I started concentrating on chamber music and now listen mostly to music performed on a small scale. French chamber music can be elegant and graceful: these are very appealing examples that show off those qualities.
Poulenc:Chamber Music/Pentaèdre (ATMA CD)I bought this disc when I owned speakers from the French company Triangle and it was a perfect match. The disc, played through those sweet-sounding speakers, was captivating. It still sounds wonderful played through my current hyper-detailed Audio Physic speakers warmed up by a hybrid Pathos amplifier and Marantz CD/SACD player (in case you were wondering). My opinion of this wonderful music hasn’t changed a bit.
Suk:Piano Quartet and Quintet/Nash Ensemble (Hyperion CD)Josef Suk was Dvorak’s son in law. Better known for his orchestral works, Suk’s Romantic chamber music is a melodic and attractive discovery. Who knew?
Saint-Saëns:Piano Trios 1 & 2/Florestan Trio (Hyperion CD)Like Suk, Saint-Saëns was better known for his orchestral works. He also wrote chamber music that’s lyrical and a pleasure to hear no matter how many times I listen to it.
Grieg, Hindemith, Poulenc, Martinu: The Beauty of Two/Kennedy Center Chamber Players (Dorian CD)These duos by Grieg (ofPeer Gyntfame) and three 20thcentury neoclassic composers are consistently enjoyable. When I need to relax I play this disc along with two or three of the French chamber music CDs – et voilá!
Miren el nostre ma/Ferran Savall, voice, piano and guitar (AliaVox CD)Ferran Savall (performing with a small group of other musicians) is the son of Jordi Savall, a world-renowned early music performer, scholar and conductor whose primary instrument is the Baroque viola da gamba. Ferran’s entire family consists of talented musicians and their dozens of early music recordings on the AliaVox label are outstanding. This recording combines new compositions, South American pieces, traditional songs and old Catalan melodies that, according to Savall, have been “reawakened by infusing them with the musical and multicultural influences of our own time.” It’s tuneful with a folk music flavor, and a nice addition to the Savall family’s other recordings.
Shirley Horne With Strings: Here’s to Life/Shirley Horne, vocals and piano (Verve Gitanes CD)I generally don’t care for solo vocals with band or orchestra but this disc is an exception. There’s nothing melodramatic or jarring here…just quietly expressive music making. It puts me in a better mood whenever I play it.
Best of Chesky Jazz and More Audiophile Tests Volume 2(Chesky CD)This is an equipment test disc that includes selections from various Chesky Jazz CDs. I’ve purchased several albums based on these samples and never been disappointed. As for the rest of the disc, the “General Image and Resolution Test” (band No. 47 to be exact) is amazing. The test creates the illusion of a line of musicians walking from the far right corner of the room toward the listener, continuing around the listener, and finally back along the left side of the room and exiting…if, of course, your equipment is set up properly. It’s the closest one can get to hearing a binaural recording without using headphones.
Nyman:The Piano Concerto/Michael Nyman, cond. (Argo CD)Nyman, a minimalist composer, wrote a piano concerto based on his soundtrack for Jane Campion’s 1992 filmThe Piano. It’s moody, catchy music that invites me to listen again and again. The runner up toThe Pianopiano concerto in my “adapted soundtrack category” is John Corigliano’s memorableViolinConcerto(BIS or Sony CD) based on his music for the filmThe Red Violin.Both composers have written “earworms” that take root and stay in my mind for several days after being possessed by them.
Gershwin:Piano Concerto, Rhapsody in Blue, Cuban Overture/Jeff Tyzik, cond. (Harmonia Mundi CD)There are many recordings of thePiano ConcertoandRhapsodybut not as many of theOverture. It’s a musical impression of what Gershwin heard while on vacation in Havana – maracas, claves, bongos, gourds and all. I always imagine a line of Carmen Miranda impersonators (even though “The Brazilian Bombshell” wasn’t Cuban) dancing in front of me when I listen to this. In Gershwin’s own words he combined Cuban rhythms with his own thematic material: “The result is a symphonic overture which embodies the essence of the Cuban dance.” It’s a riotous treat recorded in excellent sound like the rest of the disc.
Milhaud:La Création du monde & Suite Provençale/Charles Munch, cond. (RCA Victor Living Stereo Soria Series LP)The Soria series consisted of beautifully slip-cased records accompanied by equally beautiful LP-sized booklets produced by the famous Swiss art book publisher Skira. This is one of my favorites in the series: the pieces are lively and jazzy, and listening to the music while looking through the artsy booklet is always fun.
Nina’s Choice /Nina Simone, voice and piano (Colpix LP)This is an LP I discovered in the cut out section of a record store, and my introduction to the great Nina Simone. From “Trouble in Mind” to “Memphis in June,” every selection is outstanding. I now own several Simone albums, but this is my “go to” choice.
Ella in Hollywood/Ella Fitzgerald, vocals (Verve LP)Another wonderful LP found in a cut out section. Everything about the production, recorded live in a Los Angeles club, is impressive. It has everything: Ella scatting and interacting with the audience, a great selection of standards, smooth sequencing of songs, and lively performances. It sounds like the audience and Ella are having a great time and whenever I listen I have one, too. Nowthat’sentertainment!
Tippett:A Child of Our Time/Colin Davis, cond. (Philips LP)The oratorioA Child of Our Timewas inspired by the circumstances in Europe before World War II and is Tippett’s protest against persecution and tyranny. Absorbing and lyrical with spirituals interwoven throughout,A Childwas written before Tippett started composing in a more atonal style. Most Philips LPs produced around the mid-1970s had terrific sound: opulent and warm, tonally a bit to the right of center (more tube-like) rather than left (more detailed/clinical).
Potions: From the 50s/Lyn Stanley, vocals (A.T. Music LLC CD)I enjoy vocal jazz performed in an intimate manner. Stanley released her first CD in 2013 and she’s the real thing, not an opera singer struggling to sound jazzy. I have several of her discs and it doesn’t matter which recording I pull off the shelf: they all fit the bill. I especially like her second albumPotionsbecause all of the songs are familiar, comfortable and satisfying to listen to. Stanley’s discs are audiophile recordings as well, making the listening even more pleasurable.
Once again, we’re at that time of year where there isn’t a great deal out there in terms of notable new releases, so I’m focusing on some recent finds I’ve made while scrounging through the racks of local thrifts and indie record stores around Atlanta. And occasionally I’ve bought from online sources such as Discogs. I’m at that point in collecting where my library only has a few holes in it in my mainstream collection, so I’m generally much more willing to drop a few bucks for something that either looks interesting or that I’m maybe totally unfamiliar with. At typically a buck or two per disc, even if there’s only one great song, it’s definitely worth the investment. Some of this stuff may not be that new to anyone reading this, but they were definitely new to me, and particularly noteworthy, even for older catalog titles.
A couple of recent trips has yielded a goldmine of available CDs; on one excursion, I stumbled across what appeared to be someone’s entire collection of New Order discs fromTechniqueand on — all of them absolutely mint, including the cases! I also stumbled across someone’s Dead Can Dance collection of early CDs — everything prior toInto The Labyrinth— all of which I was completely unfamiliar with, and once again, all were absolutely mint, and only a buck each. While COVID-19 has made getting out sometimes a bit hectic and hairy, to say the least, I always get strapped up with a mask and take plenty of sanitizer, all for the sake of discovering hidden treasures. God only knows who’s been handling all those CDs and LPs!
Henry Mancini — The Music From Peter Gunn
Henry Mancini — born Enrico Nicola Mancini in 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio — had been a studio composer for Universal Pictures for six years. In 1958, apparently the studio felt that his contributions hadn’t been particularly noteworthy, and decided to send him packing with a pink slip. On his way off the property, he decided to stop in at the studio barber shop for a last haircut before he started trying to figure out what his next career move would be. While waiting in the barber shop, he struck up a conversation with another similarly aged actor-turned-screenplay writer named Blake Edwards. He had just been given his first directing assignment for a new television show,Peter Gunn, which would be a noir-ish series about a hotshot private dick. Edwards envisioned a jazzy big band soundtrack to accompany the onscreen action, and the conversation with Mancini convinced him that he’d found the right guy for the job. Mancini’s chance encounter with Blake Edwards turned into the most fortuitous meeting of his life, and he went on to become one of the most prolific composers of the next several decades for both the small and big screens.
While Mancini’s compositions for the big screen are varied and extensive — think ofBreakfast At Tiffany’s,Charade,Hatari!,The Pink Panther(the entire franchise),Days of Wine and Roses, and just about every Blake Edwards film ever made — his work on the Peter Gunn soundtrack was (and is, at least in my book!) the pinnacle of his career. The scoring for the series was new and fresh, and totally conveyed the feel that Blake Edwards was so keen to achieve. The big band Mancini assembled for the sessions ended up being a literal who’s who of West Coast jazz royalty, featuring greats like Barney Kessel, Pete Candoli, Dick and Ted Nash, Plas Johnson, Victor Feldman, Paul Horn, Alvin Stoller, and Shelly Manne. And playing piano on all the sessions was a (at the time) relative unknown named John Williams — yes,theJohn Williams — who would go on to succeed Mancini as the most prolific and perhaps greatest Hollywood composer of all times!
As the iconicPeter Gunntheme tears across the soundstage of my listening room, I’m pretty sure I don’t think Blake Edwards could have done better if he’d hired Count Basie or even Duke Ellington to conduct the music for the series. This is timeless, classic big band jazz that set a new standard for television scoring for the late fifties; I can’t think of anything that comes to mind that has surpassed it in the more than 60 years since it’s debut. The tunes are all classic, even if they aren’t really part of the mainstream of jazz standards: “Peter Gunn,” “Sorta Blue,” “The Brothers Go To Mothers,” “Dreamsville,” “Session At Pete’s Pad,” “Soft Sounds” — and the interplay between conductor and musicians is absolutely superb throughout the proceedings. It really doesn’t get any better than this. When the soundtrack album was released in 1959, the record buying public snapped it up — it was one of the best-selling albums of the year, and won the Grammy Award for Best Album of the Year. Not too shabby for a man who eighteen months earlier had been given his walking papers by the studio!
The 1999 CD reissue wasn’t remastered by anyone really noteworthy, but I don’t think that makes much of a difference — the sound quality of the original tapes is just about beyond reproach, and this is maybe one of the very best big band jazz albums of that vintage I’ve ever heard. There’s an occasional trace of tape hiss in a few places on some of the quieter numbers, but it’s nothing that will interfere with your listening enjoyment. As much as I’ve enjoyed this CD, I’ll probably start digging around to find a vinyl copy. Very highly recommended!
Buddha/RCA Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)
Roger Waters — Amused To Death
If you’ve read much of my stuff inCopper,you probably realize that I’m a little conflicted by the music of Roger Waters, especially in the aftermath beyond his split from Pink Floyd. I don’t really care for his politics, I hate that he fired Rick Wright duringThe Wallrecording sessions, and I especially haven’t cared for how he bashed David Gilmour and the “new Pink Floyd” in the years since Waters’ departure. All that said, I findAmused To Deathto be a particularly enjoyable and entertaining disc — with only a minimum of the “Watersisms” that he inflicted on every Pink Floyd album he participated in fromThe Walland on.
The version I’m reviewing here is a CD from the original 1992 release of the album. I’d never heard anything from this record until about a week ago; apparently, it has become available on all the online streaming services, and an audiophile friend had posted a lengthy tirade on Facebook about how the version available for streaming is vastly inferior to the original. Which apparently isn’t available for streaming — Roger Waters revisited the album in 2015, and apparently made significant revisions to the work that altered the album’s scope and musical flow, and rubber-stamped his new version as the official one for streaming release. He focused on the 2015 release as a surround sound SACD disc — which won the Grammy in 2016 for Best Surround Sound Album. Waters was highly vocal in the press about the fact thatAmused To Deathwas an extremely underrated album, and which easily stands alongside such classic Pink Floyd works asDark Side of the MoonandThe Wall. The critics were less than enthusiastic about his assessment, essentially damning the album with faint praise. Despite all that, Waters insisted that his revisions to the album — which includes the voice of the HAL 9000 computer from Stanley Kubrick’s2001, A Space Odyssey— represented his true vision for the work. Apparently, Waters had wanted to include some of the dialogue from the movie in his original version of the album, but was rebuffed by Kubrick, who declined to give his blessing to the project.
But Stanley Kubrick is now gone, along with his objections, and the HAL 9000 inclusion wasn’t the only thing my friend was complaining about. Apparently, there are numerous new overdubs and edits, with certain segments from the original being either masked over or entirely removed. He felt that the new revision — while still good — essentially emasculated the power of the original while changing the narrative significantly. Also, the 1992 original was encoded by the new (at the time) QSound technology, which combined out-of-phase elements into isolated tracks with the rest of the recording to create 1) a pretty spectacular sense of surround sound from a stereo recording, and 2) to use those same effects to create a much greater stereo spread than you’d get from a typical stereo recording. Whether that encoding is still present on the 2015 remaster, I’m not sure; I’d imagine with it now available as a surround sound SACD, they’d go full-tilt remaster to achieve all the surround effects on discrete channels. Anyway, at the very least, I was greatly intrigued, and found a minty copy on Discogs that was delivered from Arizona to Atlanta in less than a week, and for $7 total!
Right out of the gate, I was blown away by the QSound presentation; the opening track, “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard,” exhibits a massive soundstage that spreads surprisingly far in both depth and width — you really get the impression that your listening room has about doubled in every dimension. There’s this kind of synthesized, atmospheric background that sets the stage; suddenly, a dog starts barking from off in the distance — seemingly about fifty feet behind you! A trademark and tasteful Jeff Beck solo then sears across the soundstage; suddenly. a voice begins to speak that’s directly to your left — again, seemingly much further away than the boundaries of your listening room. At another point in the album, a telephone startlingly rings behind you; my initial impulse was to jump out of my chair and answer it, even though I haven’t had a conventional telephone at my home in over thirty years!
That’s not to say that the album is strictly about surround sound gimmickry;Amused To Deathis probably the most musically involving album Roger Waters has released since leaving Pink Floyd. While continuing to focus on his usual litany of complaints with the problems of modern life that include rampant greed, organized religion, overbearing bureaucracy, uncontrolled egotism, and continual global conflicts such as seemingly never-ending wars — he still managed to deliver what is perhaps his most lyrical album ever. The core group of players includes Randy Jackson, Patrick Leonard, Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcaro, and Jeff Beck solos on no less than seven of the album’s fourteen tracks. Michael Kamen conducts the National Philharmonic Orchestra, who make multiple appearances throughout, and the cast of supporting players and vocalists who make appearances is simply staggering, to say the least.
Waters has said that he “abandoned his ego” during the almost five-year period it took to recordAmused to Death, and that doing so allowed him to more closely embrace the subject material of the songs. I can’t comment on whether that rings true, but I find the album very musically engaging, and a true audio spectacle with its QSound encoding. I actually did quite the internet search on QSound, only to discover that it was essentially a failed technology for audio purposes; the company still exists, but the number of albums that successfully incorporated the encoding is apparently few and far between.Amused To Deathis quite possibly the crowning achievement of QSound’s legacy.
I’d strongly suggest you dig around and procure a copy of this excellent album for your collection — the classic version is the 1992 release with the ape staring at the TV screen on the cover. I’ve seen countless copies over recent years in thrift stores, and there’s a gazillion available online for less than ten bucks. Very highly recommended — well worth it for the music, and the audio spectacle.
Columbia, CD (download/streaming Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
New Order — Republic
Republicwas the first New Order album for the Warner Brothers label following the collapse and demise of Factory Records, the band’s longtime imprint all the way back to their Joy Division days.Republiccame four years after 1989’sTechnique, and duplicated that album’s runaway success by also rising to the top of the UKBillboardcharts. It reached No. 11 on the US charts, making it the highest-charting New Order album in the US. In addition to the album’s commercial success, it was also critically very well-received, eventually being nominated for a prestigious Mercury Prize. Despite a successful UK and European tour, the band decided to forego touring in the US and North America in support of the album, resulting in what was effectively a lengthy hiatus. Rumors abounded that vocalist and guitarist Bernard Sumner hated flying — especially trans-Atlantic travel — and that killed any possibility of a US tour in support of the record.
I have to admit that my exposure to New Order was previously limited to everything prior to 1987’s double-discSubstance, which was kind of a “greatest hits” package, only in full-blown remix mode. It’s probably the best album that exists for anyone who doesn’t have New Order on their radar and who is interested in learning more about the band. It’s also probably one of my favorite albums of all time. As I mentioned above, I stumbled across a trove of New Order discs at a thrift recently, and I immediately grabbedTechnique,but almost balked atRepublicwhen I picked it up, based solely on its cover. That cover — a Peter Saville design, as are all New Order albums — featured artwork that has a house engulfed in flames on the left, and to the right, a guy and girl playing at the beach. Apparently Saville had relocated to Southern California, and wanted to use images that portrayed the whole California experience — including destruction from forest fires. I’d seen this CD in racks countless times, but didn’t get far enough beyond the cover to fully realize that it was a legit New Order release. I recently saw an interview inTheGuardianwith Peter Saville, where he was asked about his iconic cover designs for Joy Division and New Order. He said there was really nothing to it, and the band never gave him any pushback on the designs; Joy Division was completely focused on trying to learn how to play their instruments, and New Order were too busy arguing with each other in the studio to pay any attention to his album covers.
Upon exiting the thrift and insertingRepublic into my car’s CD player, I was immediately grabbed by Bernard Sumner’s guitar intro to the opening track “Regret,” which is quickly followed by a crash of cymbals and a propulsive drumbeat courtesy of Stephen Morris. It’s a really catchy tune that doesn’t completely abandon the acid/house/dance/rock ofTechniqueand earlier offerings, but was definitely a new direction for New Order. The songs on the album portray a surprising variety of moods, but almost all are awash in Gillian Gilbert’s and Sumner’s layered synths. And Sumner’s guitar playing, while not always the focus, is much more skillful and omnipresent than on New Order’s previous records. Peter Hook’s bass playing perfectly underpins the proceedings, and Morris’ drumming — whether programmed or acoustic — is constantly energetic and dynamic.
Republichas been in constant rotation in my listening room for a couple of months now; it’s an intelligent and entertaining display of New Order at the absolute peak of their creative powers. I’ve always had this really kind of microcosmic manner of focusing on certain periods of bands as their “creative peaks,” often finding out years later that I’ve missed a lot of really great music found at other points along the band’s timeline. That has definitely proved to be true withRepublic, which is now one of my favorite releases by the band, but it’s at least opened my eyes to checking out works I might otherwise have passed on. New Order’sRepublicis very highly recommended!
Qwest/Warner Brothers Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
New Order — Get Ready
New Order went eight years between releases from 1993’sRepublicto 2001’sGet Ready, which would end up being the final album that featured the original incarnation of the band’s lineup. Gillian Gilbert had family health issues she had to deal with; one of her daughters had a serious illness, and Gilbert’s husband, Stephen Morris (the band’s drummer), volunteered to become the child’s caregiver. Gilbert decided that would be too drastic a move for New Order; the loss of Morris’ trademark drumming might spell the end for the band, so she made the decision to drop out instead, just prior toGet Ready’sappearance in the record stores. She was replaced by guitarist Phil Cunningham, a move that was considered by critics and fans alike to be pretty much a disaster as the band went through a poorly-considered guitar-driven phase. Gilbert eventually went through a health crisis of her own when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007; she fortunately was a survivor, and eventually rejoined the band in 2016 for the albumMusic Complete (though by that point, bassist Peter Hook had departed, to significant fan outcries).
Get Readyreceived quite favorable reviews from UK music critics in general, but US reviews were considerably less kind. In his review inThe Village Voice, Michelangelo Matos complained: “…the albumGet Readyfeels as if they’re psyching themselves up for the task at hand — like they’re raring to go but aren’t exactly certain where they’re going, or even necessarily why they’re doing it. The songs carry this out — it’s them, not the sonics, that make this the second disappointing New Order album in a row.” And not all the UK publications were kind —Mojowas even less enthusiastic than theVoice,referring to the album as “less a call to arms than the sound of an old man wheezing out of a creaky armchair.” Talk about harsh! As a kid, I’d hear a song, thinking it was pretty great, and rush out and buy the album and seriously enjoy listening with rarely a negative thought about the band or the music. As I got older and started reading magazines likeCreemandRolling Stoneregularly — where the critics would often trash the band I was so enamored with — I became highly conflicted. Like, I really love this new album, but the critics say it’s absolute rubbish — holy crap! It only took a short while for me to get beyond what the naysayers were spewing, and learn to enjoy and appreciate music that spoke to me and not give two cents for those it didn’t speak to. Despite the mixed critical reception,Get Readywas a commercial success, reaching No. 6 on the UK charts and No. 41 in the US.
And so withGet Ready, from the first bars of the opening song, “Crystal”; Gillian Gilbert’s beautiful keyboard vamp is accompanied by a soaring female vocalist — the sort who appear in a lot of New Order remixes. Suddenly, you’re hammered by Stephen Morris’ pounding drums and Bernard Sumner’s searing guitar chords — the moment he sings “We’re like crystal,” I knew this was going to be one of my favorite New Order songs of all time. It’s a driving, propulsive song that barely lets up for its almost seven-minute duration, only slowing for a bit midway, then Sumner’s guitar chord motif and Morris’ drums hammer back at full speed — it’s seemingly unstoppable. There are at least fivegreatsongs on this record, and severalreally goodones; the second half of the album starts with the track “Slow Jam,” which isn’t really quite that slow, and has a really solid guitar-driven vibe throughout that’s complemented by Gilbert’s textured keyboard work. That’s followed by “Rock The Shack,” which features more amazing, crunching guitar work by Sumner. Don’t get me wrong, Bernard Sumner is no Clapton, but his excellent fretwork adds a significant level of diversity and interest to what is otherwise a synth-driven tune. If there’s a downer moment on the album, it’s probably the closing song, “Run Wild”; it’s maybe the closest thing to a ballad I think I’ve ever heard on any New Order record. It’s not a bad song — and possibly the most personal and humanized that Bernard Sumner has ever seemed in his songwriting — but it seems disjointed with the rest of the record.
Get Ready may not be aperfectrecord, but I don’t think that disqualifies it from being agreatone. Don’t listen to the naysayers — twenty years after its release, it still resonates with stirring authority. Very highly recommended!
Reprise Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Serenade(Fr.sérénade; Ger.Serenade,Ständchen; It.serenada,serenata). A musical form, closely related to the DIVERTIMENTO. The term originally signified a musical greeting, usually performed out of doors in the evening, to a beloved or a person of rank. Walther (Musicalisches Lexicon, 1732) described it as “ein Abend-Ständgen, eine Abend-Music . . .” (“because such works are usually performed on quiet and pleasant nights”). The word, derived from the Latinserenus, was used in its Italian form, SERENATA, in the late 16th century as a title for vocal works . . . and [by the end of the 17th for] purely instrumental pieces. (Hubert Unverricht, 1980New Grove Dictionary)
Herr Professor Doktor Unverricht goes on to tell us “it was the practice to perform [serenades] at about 9 p.m. (the Notturno, a similar kind of work, was usually given about 11 p.m.)” before citing “relics” of the genre in the form of pizzicato (i.e., guitar- or lute-like) accompaniments in Classic string quartets and serenade arias in certain operas, e.g.,Don Giovanni, Il barbiere di Siviglia.
Yet none of this prepares us for the actual sound of Mozart’sGran PartitaK361/370a, a wind serenade by turns witty and voluptuous, lighthearted and heartbreaking. One may gain a better sense of what matters by reading Salieri’s lines in Peter Shaffer’sAmadeuswhen he describeshearing this music for the first time. Or you could listen to a few salient excerpts. First, the Adagio that Salieri waxed poetic over:
Then some of the first movement:
For more, check out this live performance of the work by the very people whose new recording (BIS-2463) I’m recommending this week:
Timings: 0:00 Introduction by clarinetist Olivier Patey (worth watching!) 7:46 (I) Largo – Molto allegro 17:11 (II) Menuetto – Trio 26:23 (III) Adagio 31:43 (IV) Menuetto (Allegretto) 37:17 (V) Romanze (Adagio) 44:12 (VI) Tema con variazioni 53:27 (VII) Finale (Molto allegro)
Isn’t that smashing? These are wind players from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, directed by principal oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk. Their exceptionally fine album is rounded off with a Beethoven rarity,Eight Variations on “Là ci darem la mano,”WoO 28, scored for two oboes and an English horn.
I’m doubly glad that Ogrintchouk and the Concertgebouw winds brought out this album, because it gives me an opportunity to recommendanother of his BIS recordings, this one featuring Richard Strauss’sOboe Concertoand two other works. When this disc came out in 2017, I was put off by the concerto—still am, for some reason. But I bear no such ill will toward the other works, both wind serenades. One is Strauss’s youthfulSerenade in E Flatfor 13 winds, Op. 7. In less than ten minutes, the composer exuberantly cycles through a potpourri of moods and tempi, with more than a few Mozartian flourishes along the way.
The other work, aSonatina No. 2 in E-flat Major (“Happy Workshop”),dates from the period right after the composer’s 80th birthday in 1944. Like Op. 7, it freely evokes Mozart, but with somewhat greater emotional depth. From the very beginning, Strauss also makes considerable demands on the virtuosity of the players:
TheSonatina’s two inner movements are brief, divertimento-like sketches, but the 16-minute final movement nods to the gravity ofMetamorphosen,Strauss’s other major compositional preoccupation in those years. You’ll hear a wistful undertone throughout, a fond remembrance of all the times this composer wrestled “contrapuntal proliferation, melodic effusiveness and enriched tonal harmony” to a draw, as Arnold Whittall’s superb liner notes put it. It’s easy to understand why this movement, the first to be composed, led its publisher to promote it as a “wind symphony.”
Finally, let’s pay suitable homage to a work influenced even more directly by Mozart,theSerenade for Winds,op. 44 by Antonin Dvořák. It’s said to have been written in a scant fourteen days after the young Czech composer returned from an 1878 trip to Vienna, during which he heard members of the Wiener Philharmoniker play theGran Partita.Like that work, Dvořák’s is scored for pair of winds with additional horns and a contrabass. After its first performance, Dvořák added that contrabass (a traditional component of wind-serenade scoring), plus a cello line and an optional contrabassoon. The resulting sound enhances not only the music’s mix of elegance and grandeur but also the attractive Czech folk elements that increasingly came to distinguish the Dvořák “sound.” As in this excerpt from the second movement:
The seductive allure of theGran Partitais most apparent in Dvořák’s third movement, its langorous melodic lines winding themselves over Salieri’s “rusty squeezebox” accompaniment:
A number of good recordings are available; theSerenade for Windsis often paired with the equally charmingSerenade for Strings,op. 22, as in albums from the ASMF, Orpheus CO, and Wiener Philharmoniker. I found an especially dynamic performance of the wind serenade coupled with Dvořák’sString Quartet No. 13,op. 106, captured live—and heard in the two clips above—at the 2008Spannung Festival(Avi MusicAVI8553164). It features, among others, clarinetist Sharon Kam, hornist Marie Luise Neunecker, and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff. (Tetzlaff’s brother Christian joins her for op. 106.) I had never heard of the Spannung Festival (Lars Vogt directs it) until I came across this recording on Qobuz, but their Dvořák album’s a keeper.
We’re going to save the category of string serenades for another day, but I can’t resist recommending just one recording right here. Dr. Unverricht’s mention of thenotturnobrought to mind Boccherini’sString Quintet in C,op. 30 no. 6, subtitled “La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid,” which I hope needs no translation. Nighttime, as they say, is the right time:
From Cuarteto Casals’marvelously evocative recordingfor Harmonia Mundi. The YouTube clip above is set to open at track 3, “Los manolos.” As Christian Speck tells us in his program notes, “‘Manolo’ was the name given in Madrid to a dandyish, uneducated type of young man who made himself conspicuous by singing and dancing in the streets. . . . The indispensable accessory for his evening stroll was the guitar.” You can sample the whole album if you like, although it helps to haveBoccherini’s programmatic remarksat hand.