As you might have seen or heard,AXPONA2022, Audio Expo North America, was a big success. Literally, with more than 7,500 attendees visiting more than 150 rooms. It felt good to see everyone again and be immersed in audio gear, even though we're not out of the pandemic woods yet.
J.I. Agnew, Ray Chelstowski, Cliff Chenfeld, Jay Jay French, Tom Gibbs, Roy Hall, Rich Isaacs, Anne E. Johnson, Don Kaplan, Ken Kessler, Don Lindich, Stuart Marvin, Tom Methans, B. Jan Montana, Rudy Radelic, Tim Riley, Wayne Robins, Alón Sagee, Ken Sander, John Seetoo, Dan Schwartz, Russ Welton, Adrian Wu
Contributing Editors: Ivan Berger, Steven Bryan Bieler, Andrew Daly, Jack Flory, Harris Fogel, Steve Kindig, Ed Kwok, David Snyder, Bob Wood
Cover: “Cartoon Bob” D’Amico
Cartoons: James Whitworth, Peter Xeni
Parting Shots: James Schrimpf, B. Jan Montana, Rich Isaacs (and others)
Audio Anthropology Photos: Howard Kneller, Steve Rowell
I cried a little bit when Jerry Garcia died. I saw the Grateful Dead for the first time in 1967 and was in awe. I became a Deadhead and saw them many more times into the 1970s. Jerry’s stage persona was that of a big teddy bear with frizzed out hair and a warm, gentle demeanor that gave the impression that he was smiling even when he wasn’t.
While Jerry on lead guitar was always the number one attraction for Deadheads, he never tried to steal the show. On stage, Bob Weir handled most of the interactions with the audience. For a number of years, the New Riders of the Purple Sage traveled with the Dead and was their warm-up band. In the beginning of NRPS’s career, Jerry was their pedal steel guitarist, in addition to playing with the Dead. He never tried to upstage the leaders of that group; he was simply their guy on pedal steel. Jerry was also the banjo player in a bluegrass band called Old And In The Way. Again, he didn’t try to be the central attraction. He was the guy on banjo, and a very good one at that.
I saw the Dead several times at New York’s Fillmore East. I recall one midnight concert where we left at 4:30 am and they were coming out for yet another encore. My favorite live Dead song was “Tennessee Jed,” and I remember another Fillmore concert where Jerry had just finished his awesome solo and the band had broken into their chorus of, “Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be.” I caught the eye of the guy next to me who I didn’t know from a hole in the wall and we nodded at each other. The message was clear. There wasn’t anywhere on this planet where anyone should want to be that night other than the Fillmore East.
I saw the Dead for the last time at an outdoor venue somewhere in Connecticut in the mid-1970s. I was distracted and annoyed by the rumble of Harleys and the presence of a number of people with whom I would never want to strike up a conversation. The crowd had changed. It just wasn’t the same.
I cried a little bit when Rick Danko died. Danko was The Band’s bass player and one of their lead singers. He was an accomplished vocalist with an unmistakable, falsetto-ish style. His most recognizable vocal is probably his verse in “The Weight,” the one that begins with, “Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me in the fog.” His shining moment as a singer was “It Makes No Difference” fromThe Last Waltzalbum. That one was all his, an excellent song beautifully sung from the depths of his soul.
I lived in New York’s Hudson Valley in the 1980s and 1990s while working for IBM, and The Band lived a little up-river. I got to see them (without Robbie Robertson, who had left by then) many times. Two of my favorite venues were The Chance, a Poughkeepsie theater, and The Towne Crier, a restaurant then located in Pawling. Sometimes one or another Band member was absent and subbed by an unknown, but Danko would always be there. He also led a group called “Rick Danko and Friends.” I never saw a performer who loved being on stage more than he did.
In 1970, there was a music festival that traveled across Canada by train and included The Band, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, and many others. It is documented in a fine video calledFestival Express. One of the highlights of that film is a drunken jam session on the train led by, of course, Rick Danko. He was the personification of that wonderful John Belushi character, The Last Guy at the Party. That’s where the party had ended, everyone else had gone home, the hosts were dying to go to sleep, and there’s Belushi, ready for one more beer.
I cried a little bit when Richie Havens died. In the 1960s, I was a regular at the Cafe Au Go Go in New York’s Greenwich Village where Havens was the house folk singer. I saw him perform many times and engaged with him in a couple of one-on-one conversations. The first happened while smoking cigarettes between acts in front of the Cafe. I recall being fixated on the fact that he had no upper teeth! I have no idea what we spoke about but was flattered that he truly seemed interested in what I was saying and spoke with me, a know-nothing 19-year-old, as a peer. He was a wonderful, gentle, thoughtful man.
I was at Woodstock in 1969 and was thrilled that Havens was selected as the opening act for the festival. He captivated the audience but I was a little disappointed that he didn’t perform my favorite, “San Francisco Bay Blues.” I saw him many more times into the 1990s at various venues in the NY area, the last time at the Towne Crier. I then had a corporate relocation to Austin, Texas and never saw him again.
Many people from my generation still listen mostly to music from “back in the day.” Their tears are surely of loss and sorrow. While I still enjoy the music of the 1960s and 1970s, my music listening is focused on more recent artists who have satisfied my thirst for music all these years. Examples are M. Ward, Tomasz Stanko, and Arcade Fire. Thanks to them, mine are tears of fond remembrances of a magical era in the history of our music.
About Jeff Weiner:
Jeff Weiner is a docent at theMIM Musical Instrument Museumin Phoenix, Arizona. Born in Brooklyn, NY, he was formerly an engineer at IBM, and a mathematics teacher. He attended the Woodstock festival in 1969 and was a regular at the Cafe Au Go Go in the 1960s.
Nicholas Rodney Drake was born June 19, 1948, in Rangoon, Burma, where his father Rodney served as an engineer with the Bombay Burma Trading Company. A couple of years after his birth, the family returned to the Drake estate, Far Leys,at Tanworth-in-Arden, which was just south of Birmingham in Warwickshire. Drake’s mother Molly sang and played piano, and she taught young Nick to sing and play as well, and he apparently showed a real aptitude for music. Nick’s older sister, Gabrielle, became an actress and eventually starred in a number of BBC television series and movies. Nick Drake enjoyed the typical upbringing of English privilege.
While away at boarding school in his teens, Drake bought a second-hand guitar and started experimenting with odd tunings and songwriting. His schoolwork suffered due to his musical pursuits, but he was still able to eventually land a slot at Cambridge for his university studies. As his musical involvement grew, however, his interest in his education foundered almost completely. Then, Drake’s Cambridge roommate brought a four-track home demo recording of Nick’s songs to the attention of producer Joe Boyd with Island Records. After only hearing half of the first song, Boyd stopped the tape and offered Drake a record deal on the spot in early 1969. Joe Boyd was currently working closely with Fairport Convention and John Martyn in the studio, and through those connections arranged to get Richard Thompson and other local luminaries to play on Drake’s debut. In mere months,Five Leaves Left was on UK record store shelves.
Drake’s debut album,Five Leaves Left, dropped in July, 1969 to limited fanfare.
Since his untimely death in 1974, Nick Drake has achieved a level of cult celebrity that has disproportionately outpaced his lifetime’s creative output. A 2014BBC articlereferred to him as “the patron saint of the miserable,” but then went on to explain why the opposite of that is actually much closer to the truth. That article was in response to the publication of a coffee-table style book,Nick Drake: Remembered for a While,which was co-authored by Drake’s older sister, Gabrielle Drake. She wanted to at least try to more effectively humanize her now-famous brother, and his life and music. Her attempts at achieving that were somewhat disparaged by a number of reviews of the book;Pitchforksaid that while the book was beautiful to look at, it “told us so very little about a man we know nearly nothing about.” Regardless, Nick Drake has remained something of an enigma among musicians, with an enduring mystery that shrouds even the slightest details of his brief existence.
There is no known video footage of Nick Drake performing any of his music, and a single five-song collection exists of Drake recordings performed for a live radio broadcast. And there’s only one extremely brief published interview where Nick Drake offered responses to any questions. Other than his catalog recordings, there’s nothing else in his own words that exists in any format, and that’s scant material to build a legend on. Most of the information about his personal life comes from a handful of remembrances from family members; from a colleague while Drake attended Cambridge; from a handful of musicians; and from Joe Boyd, his producer at Island Records who worked closely with Drake on his first two albums.
Nick Drake died of an accidental overdose of prescription antidepressants in late 1974. The simple fact that he passed away at only age 26 is probably one of the most important factors in his relative anonymity for so many years: had he made it to age 27 prior to his departure from the planet, he would have no doubt been assigned membership to pop music’s infamous “27 Club.” He might have been mentioned in the same dialogue alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and so many others from that era (and onward) who left much too soon – all at age 27. And perhaps, might have drawn a greater level of early interest in his music. When Nick Drake was found dead in his bed on the morning of November 25, 1974 – a mere five years after the release of his first LP, 1969’sFive Leaves Left – his ongoing battle with depression and schizophrenia had reduced him to a level of almost complete obscurity in the music world. His death didn’t even warrant an obituary in any of the major UK newspapers; it was almost as if he had never existed.
Bryter Layter,Nick Drake’s follow up album, arrived in March, 1971.
Both of his first two albums,Five Leaves Left(1969) andBryter Layter(1971), failed to chart upon release, and sold fewer than 5,000 copies each in the UK.Pink Moon(1972) sold fewer than 3,000 copies total between the US and the UK upon release; only a relative handful of Nick Drake LPs ended up with music lovers worldwide, and even fewer (if any) promo copies were sent to the press. It’s very likely Drake’s albums got nearlyzeroairplay on either side of the pond during his short lifetime. This makes it even more astonishing thatPink Moon – Nick Drake’s worst-selling catalog album upon release – would eventually become the touchstone and catalyst for the extraordinary record sales and the cult of celebrity that developed around him decades later.
Pink Moon, Nick Drake’s final studio album, dropped in February,1972 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Pink Moonwas Nick Drake’s only album issued simultaneously upon release in the US and the UK. That occurrence was actually quite miraculous, especially given Drake’s declining mental state and poor record sales up to that point. Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records, was rather smitten with Drake’s music andPink Moonin particular. However, Blackwell was totally disheartened by Drake’s refusal to tour in support of the album or grant interviews to the press. Regardless, the album did receive a few positive notices in the UK music press, including an advertisement in the February 1972 issue ofMelody Maker. Despite that small push from Island Records, the LP’s sales were abysmal, to say the least.
The obvious beginning of Nick Drake’s decline as a live performer began only months after the release ofFive Leaves Leftin July, 1969. The album received very little promotion, got mixed reviews in the music press, and was selling poorly in record stores. As part of the small promotional effort that Island Records did undertake, arrangements were made for him to play live in the studio that August for BBC One’sJohn Peel Show, and also for him to open for Fairport Convention at theRoyal Festival Hallin London a month later. Apparently John Peel didn’t know what to make of Nick Drake, and wasn’t able to do much on his show to help add any uptick to Drake’s album sales. While nothing else from that broadcast is known to exist, surprisingly, the five songs Drake recorded in advance of the broadcast were salvaged, and are available for streaming or download on Qobuz, Amazon, HDtracks, and other online services. Unfortunately, there’s only the music; no studio chatter from John Peel, Nick Drake, or anyone else has been preserved. But the performances here are outstanding, despite the somewhat less-than-audiophile recording quality.
Regrettably, the Royal Festival Hall performance was a disaster by all accounts. In aWikipediaarticle, the prolific Leeds folk singer Michael Chapman, who was also on the bill, made the following comments about Nick Drake’s performance that night:
“The folkies [at the Royal Festival Hall] did not take to him; [they] wanted songs with choruses. They completely missed the point. He didn’t say a word the entire evening. It was actually quite painful to watch. I don’t know what the audience expected, I mean, they must have known they weren’t going to get sea-shanties and sing-alongs at a Nick Drake gig!”
A 2014 article inThe Atlanticmarked the 40th anniversary of Nick Drake’s death. In the article, veteran New York folkie Brian Cullman offered an appraisal of Drake’s 1971 performance at the legendary Le Cousins folk nightclub in London’s Soho district. Cullman had been invited to play that night, and felt his own performance was totally forgettable, but he found Nick Drake’s set (which immediately followed his own) much more interesting. In years of surfing the internet for Nick Drake minutiae, It’s probably the most telling written critique of a Drake performance I’ve been able to unearth:
“His shyness and awkwardness were almost transcendent. A tall man, his clothes – black corduroy jacket and pants, frayed white shirt – hung around him like bed clothes after a particularly bad night’s sleep. He sat on a small stool, hunched tight over a tiny Guild guitar, beginning songs and, halfway through, forgetting where he was and stumbling back to the start of that song, or beginning an entirely different song which he would then abandon midway through if he [suddenly] remembered the remainder of the first. He sang away from the microphone, mumbled and whispered, all with a sense of precariousness and doom. It was like being at the bedside of a dying man who wants to tell you a secret, but who keeps changing his mind at the last minute.”
The Le Cousins performance came not long after the release ofBryter Layter,and it was painfully obvious that Nick Drake had almost completely lost his way as a live performer. From the comments of colleagues and contemporaries alike, it’s obvious that he was ill at ease performing on stage. This is actually quite the shocker, considering the level of polish in his playing and performances on his first two albums. His performance atLe Cousinswould be among his last public appearances. Producer Joe Boyd managed to persuade Drake to get some help with his obvious problems, and he was quickly diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. Drake reluctantly started taking prescribed medications that seemed to help to a certain extent. Boyd also got Drake to agree to his only documented interview, which was featured in the March 13, 1971 issue of the UK’sSounds Magazinewith writer Jerry Gilbert. That very brief interview (here in its entirety) presents the only recorded responses to any questions ever answered by Nick Drake:
Jerry Gilbert:Nick Drake is a shy, introverted folk singer, who is not usually known to speak unless it is absolutely necessary. But Nick is not the kind of folk singer who will drift into your friendly neighborhood folk club; in fact, if you’ve seen him perform, the chances are that it was on the bill of a sell-out [Royal] Festival Hall concert.
Last week I spoke to Nick, and eventually discovered that it has been precisely this kind of gig that had hung him up – the reason why he has shied away from public performances almost without exception.
Nick Drake:“I think the problem was with the material, which I wrote rather for records than performing. There were only two or three concerts that felt right, and there was something wrong with all the others. I did play [Les] Cousins and one or two folk clubs in the north, but the gigs just sort of petered out,” Nick explained.
JG:Nick pointed out that he was not happy with the way the gigs were working out and he couldn’t get into them properly. Why, then, was he performing at such esteemed venues as the [Royal] Festival Hall?
ND:“I was under some obligation to them, but it wasn’t the end of the world when I stopped. If I was enjoying the gigs it would have made much more sense.”
JG:Don’t, however, gain the impression that Nick is not a superb artist. Placed in the right context, his songs produce quite a stunning effect over a period of time. He has worked on two albums with Witchseason [Productions] producer Joe Boyd, the latter having been released only last week. EntitledBryter Layter,it features some of the musicians who contributed to the success of the John and Beverly Martyn albums, notably Paul Harris; and Robert Kirby’s arrangements are just as important as Nick Drake’s songs.
ND:“I had something in mind when I wrote the songs, knowing that they weren’t just for me. The album took a long time to do, in fact, we started it almost a year ago. But I’m not altogether clear about this album – I haven’t got to terms with the whole presentation.”
JG:What’s the next step for Nick?
ND:“I think there’ll be another album and I have some material for it, but I’ll be looking around now to see if the album leads anywhere naturally. For the next one I had the idea of just doing something with John Wood, the engineer at Sound Techniques.”
JG:Would there be any gigs to promote the album?
ND:“I don’t think that would help – unless they were done in the right way. I’m just not very sure at the moment, it’s hard to tell what will turn up. If I could find making music a fairly natural connection with something else, then I might move on to something else.”
Jerry Gilbert noted that during the interview process, Nick Drake rarely maintained eye contact with him throughout the session, and that Drake had alluded to abandoning music altogether, possibly even by joining the military(!). It’s obvious that Drake was unraveling on every possible level, both personally and professionally. Producer Joe Boyd has commented that Drake was smoking a tremendous amount of cannabis at the time, more so than he had observed by any other musician, or anyone, for that matter. He wondered whether Drake’s excessive pot consumption might be interfering with the medications he was taking for his depression. Not long after theSoundsinterview was published, Joe Boyd, who had become Nick Drake’s confidant and friend as well as producer, left the UK for California, which is said to have devastated Drake. John Wood indeed became the producer forPink Moon,Drake’s final studio album.
The commercial failure of his first two albums was a crushing blow to Nick Drake, pushing him even more headlong into the depression that was rapidly taking control of his life. AfterPink Mooncrashed and burned, he retreated to the only place where he could find solace, his parents’ countryside estate, Far Leys, which during the next two years became both his refuge and personal prison. Drake’s existence there offered an escape from the pressures of the outside world, but also (according to statements from his father, Rodney Drake) increased Drake’s feelings of being trapped within Far Leys’ walls.
Drake’s lifeless body was found in his bed on the morning of November 25, 1974. When the ambulance arrived, he was pronounced dead on the scene. He was buried in the churchyard of nearby Saint Mary Magdalene in Tanworth-in-Arden, which has become a point of pilgrimage for legions of fans over the last few decades.
There is no known video footage of Nick Drake as an adult performing or being interviewed, but a 12-second video came to light a few years ago that has been the subject of an increasing amount of online speculation. It’s been posted on YouTube, and has over 300,000 views, which is pretty remarkable for a highly speculative video of such a relatively obscure figure. The very grainy video from around 1970 shows a man walking through the grounds of a UK music festival. You can only see him from behind, but having watched the video multiple times and having seen countless still images of Nick Drake, based on his appearance and style of dress, I’m convinced that it’s definitely him. Apparently so are many others, especially a writer forRolling Stonewho brought the video to the world’s attention a few years ago.
Despite their poor sales performance, all of Nick Drake’s albums remained in print, selling a negligible number of copies over the decades. Then in 1999, four twenty-something art directors for Boston’s Arnold Worldwide ad agency were tasked with the development of a new promotional effort for Volkswagen, and decided to use the song “Pink Moon” – which one of them had heard at a friend’s house years earlier – in theVolkswagen Cabriolet commercialthat launched the campaign. That ad also happened to be the first VW commercial to ever appear on the internet, and the online version came with a download link that allowed you to access the MP3 of the song. In mere months, the level of interest from the public exploded, and “Pink Moon” became Nick Drake’s first and only song to ever appear inBillboard’sHot 100. It had taken longer for one of his songs to become a hit – 27 years – than the time he was alive on Earth. Ultimately, all of his albums have reached Gold Record status, both in the UK and the US. When I saw that Volkswagen Cabriolet commercial for the first time on television, I honestly just about fell out of my chair – holy crap, that’s Nick Drake!
I can’t claim to have been a Nick Drake fan from the onset – that would have been a virtual impossibility for me, or for just about anyone else in the United States at the time. I was only 11 years old whenFive Leaves Leftwas released, but despite my young age, I’d already become relatively music-savvy and had begun to devise ways to earn income and start purchasing LPs. Still, in spite of my personal newfound enthusiasm for music, I had no awareness of Nick Drake or any of his songs, andFive Leaves Leftwasn’t released in the US until 1976. That was seven years after the album’s initial release, and two years after Drake’s death! Even at that point, virtually no one in the US had ever heard of Nick Drake, much less heard any of his music.
The first time I ever read Nick Drake’s name in print was in a review in the oldAudio magazine for the release ofFruit Tree, a 1979 retrospective box set that combined all three of Drake’s studio albums, along with a fourth LP that eventually was released asTime Of No Reply(it culled alternate tracks and outtakes that didn’t make the cut for any of the studio releases). The reviewer waxed poetically about the box set, and my interest was definitely piqued. To my dismay, no one in the greater Atlanta area seemed to be stocking theFruit Treebox set (Tower Records had not yet arrived on the scene locally).
Not knowing any real background on Nick Drake, I went to a good local independent record shop –Fantasyland Recordson Pharr Road in Atlanta. I was surprised to find that they actually had bothFive Leaves LeftandBryter Layter, but on the Antilles label, which I didn’t know was a spinoff of Island Records, created to distribute underserved Island titles in the US market. Both were used, and in mint condition for $9 each, which seemed like a lot for used LPs at the time – but I had no knowledge of their rapidly escalating collectibility. I eventually also tracked down a copy ofPink Moon, and all three were in constant rotation on my turntable for seemingly forever. Nowadays, on Discogs, original Island label LP pressings of Nick Drake albums are frequently listed for upwards of $800, and the Antilles label pressings can go for as much as $400.
In 1998, Universal Music acquired the rights to the Island Record catalog, but CDs from Nick Drake weren’t released in the US until 2000, and that was due in no small part to the success and interest created by the Volkswagen commercial. As part of Universal’sBack to BlackLP reissue series, they released all three Nick Drake titles in 2013 on 180-gram vinyl. By that point, Drake’s CD sales were significant, and with the sudden resurgence of interest in vinyl, the LP releases made perfect business sense. Around the same time, Nick Drake’s albums were remastered again, and Universal also had high-resolution 24/96 digital files created from the master tapes (apparently, the tapes were in rather poor shape). The LPs shipped with accompanying download code coupons, which allowed the purchaser to also get MP3 files for the albums via the internet. Unbeknownst to Universal, the download codes foranyof the individual albums worked to allow you to download MP3s forall threeNick Drake albums. At some point soon after, it was also discovered that you could use those same MP3 download codes to access the 24/96 FLAC files for all three Drake albums, and – I just found this out the other day – this was apparently possible for an extended period of time, but no more. Just my luck – I recently paid full price for all three 24/96 downloads.
I then tried my luck with the Simply Vinyl LP reissues of all three Nick Drake titles; they were basically horrible, awful pressings. After theBack to BlackLPs had been released, Universal decided to combine all three into a 180-gram reissue of theFruit Treebox set, and I decided to treat myself to this as an early Christmas present that year. The sound quality was definitely a slight uptick from my Antilles pressings, but I have no idea whether they were actually sourced from the analog originals, or from those 24/96 digital files. There seems to be a lot of disagreement from online sources (like Steve Hoffman’s forum) as to whether the analog originals were used for the LPs. That said, the pressings are pretty great, despite a few ticks and pops and some minor surface noise that detracted a bit from the overall listening experience. But then, the Antilles label pressings aren’t particularly audiophile quality, either.
Discovering the music of Nick Drake has been a life-changing experience for me. He’s a singular artist – there’s really no one else remotely like him. My overall impressions of the 24/96 digital download files is exceptionally positive. I’ll talk about each album at length in the next issue.
This is the first in a series of semi-serious reviews – unabashedly replete with unsubstantiated speculations, hyperbole, unverified assumptions, conjectures and barely logical conclusions.
But first, a story:
In the summer of my 14th year, I discovered rock and roll…and was crazed.
This was 1974 and the world was experiencing a musical crescendo like no other, with a dizzying abundance of bands at their creative peak. Naturally, for a crazed kid, I took every opportunity I could find to satisfy my new and visceral need to listen (loudly) – especially at those rare times when I was alone at home and didn’t have to hear “turn that down…now!” To counter the limitations, I developed a middle-of-the-night-don’t-wake-the-parents strategy, which consisted of quietly tiptoeing into the den downstairs and turning on just the turntable without the receiver, and putting on my favorite album at the time,Bad Company,amplified only by the stylus in the groove, with my ear inches above the headshell. Sure, it sounded like the band members were performing on electric kazoos, but, hey, it was music, and I for one felt very smart and sneaky having my very own version of a modern-day Victrola.
Fast forward a few decades: I was waiting to check out at Bed Bath & Beyond with a cart full of household items when my eyes landed on a display of turntables on sale at a post-Christmas price. I immediately left my place in line and, formulating my questions, searched for the audio department manager – only to find that they didn’t have one, at least at that location. Nonplussed, I grabbed a box off the stack and added it to my booty of household necessities.
As I unpacked Ion’s diminutive turntable, the unassumingQuick Play LP,it was clear that much creative engineering went into the crafting of this unique, potentially game-changing component. I had never seen anything quite like it.
Along with the pre-mounted tone arm and cartridge and the handy USB port for ripping vinyl to digital files, the most obvious and initially confusing attributes of the Quick Play LP are its size and weight. Bucking convention, the engineers chose none of the proven methodologies to isolate their ‘table from bad vibes – No 2 Hz-tuned suspension; no dense, massive platter; or even any of the variations of sonic-sandwich plinths that dampen spurious vibrations by converting them to heat. They did, however, take the lead in what I speculate will become another viable direction for turntable designers: for lack of a name, let’s call it the Molded Polymer Unibody.
A triumph of minimalist engineering.
The platter, seemingly made of this same material, is a triumph of minimalist engineering. It sports three rubber-like grip buttons that hold the LP in place and, if my intuition serves me, drains vibrations from the vinyl into some proprietary black hole below the plinth.
Another innovation – which does away with the need for a record clamp – is the ingenuous integrated dust cover that absorbs vibrations while playing a record. How? When the dust cover is lowered, it rests its weighton the spindle,soaking up any sonic gunk from the belt drive mechanism below!
The 3-speed semi-automatic turntable features a 45 rpm adapter which is nicely embedded into the deck for those times you come home from a long day of trawling garage sales with a victorious armful of 7-inch singles by The Archies, Tommy James and The Shondells and (dare we dream?) Three Dog Night…you know who you are.
The Quick Play’s unique tonearm design with its integrated head-shell defies easy classification. Its construction doesn’t seem to follow the 12-inch unipivot school of thought (as demonstrated beautifully by companies like Germany’sAMR), nor does it borrow from any of the proven designs such as SME’s classicSeries Varm, or the well-builtKuzma 4Point.This tonearm’s cred is hinted at, but mostly hidden from sight, posing more questions than answers. Adjustments such as VTF, VTA and anti-skating have obviously been pre-set by the engineers in a bid to reduce the chance of user error.
The composition of the arm tube must also be a design secret. Is it a proprietary matrix alloy with extensive internal damping like the Basis AudioVector 4?Or super-rigid, ultra-thin-walled stainless steel tube as in Townshend Audio’s Excalibur 3, or maybe like the vintage solid-titanium double-gimbal Alphason HR100? Are the tonearm wires monocrystal silver or “six nines” OFC copper? From the looks of the shiny clips at the back of the Ion’s integrated cartridge, I believe they must have chosen silver. How they fit all this into the bargain price of this unit I can’t begin to guess.
Regarding the pre-installed cartridge – again, I’ve never seen anything like it. Its fierce look, reminiscent of an elongated dragon’s head, screams confidently of its willingness to track any groove we can throw at it. From its red composite mandible emerges a cantilever (aluminum? Boron?) which holds the stylus at a perfect rake angle, while a quick mirror test confirms its equally perfect azimuth alignment. VTF weighed in at a brawny 3.75 grams.
The Ion Quick Play’s cartridge.
The all-in-one design of this turntable allowed the creators to shorten and optimize its signal path, carefully tweaking all electronic circuitry, so users don’t need to futz with cartridge loading, impedance matching, speed drift, etc. Everything is included, set up and ready to spin.
I’m also guessing that in the dark innards of this turntable lurks some servo tachometer that keeps the platter speed rock-solid, maybe even automatically compensating for stylus drag.
To top it off, I found that that the Quick Play includes an internal RIAA phono stage! By integrating all that circuitry into the body of the turntable, this thing really is ready to go.
How they fit all this technology in one unit remains an enigma likely secured by some long numbers at the US patent office.
Initially, the Ion’s design didn’t jibe with my audiophile sensibilities. However, I soon realized that this baby is a dream come true for both vinyl newbies and audio geeks everywhere. Once you connect the outboard USB wall-wart (no AC power supply, just clean, reliable direct current) and run your interconnects to any free line-level inputs on your preamp or powered speakers…you’re done! I did just that and went to pick out some albums.
I chose a few records from the pile of garage sale duplicates of my reference LP collection, which I know every spiral inch of. The man/chair was in the sweet spot, ears cleaned and ready to detect the subtlest of nuance, inner detail, depth of field, musicality and PRaT. Feet were comfortable, ready to tap if the music reaches them.
On Ray Brown’s solo on the title track of LA4’sJust Friends,I was actually shocked at the depth of bass this unit resolved. And that’s ROOTB (right out of the box) without any advantage of an initial break-in period.
On Ennio Morricone’sThe Missionsoundtrack, the upper midrange sounded a tad distorted, with some glare in the soprano choral voices. In hindsight, this could have been the stylus braving its way through some old welded-on peanut butter or oily cheesy Doritos residue – a legacy left by the carefree (and probably hammered) previous owners.
I decided to put on one of my favorite album sides, Dexter Gordon’s “Tanya” from the LPOne Flight Upon a wonderful Blue Note release. This duplicate was salvageable, and despite a few rough patches, on the Ion it sounded like music – better by a considerable margin than the downloaded file from Apple adjusted for the same SPL. It wasn’t perfect, but the presentation sounded way more alive.
Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like a Rock” also sounded way better than the iTunes download!
Throughout most of my listening – if you’ll pardon the tech-speak – I found my toes a-tappin’, head a-boppin’ and my face a-smilin’!
I can play practically anything on this turntable. Instead of throwing away bad pressings/recordings of good performances, this analog wonder makes them listenable – even harshly bright classic rock albums, purchased for pennies at garage sales (adorned with finger smudges, food particles and a faint but distinct smell of Maui Wowie).
All that said, the bottom line is that this all-in-one ‘table represents the lowest rung on the analogue ladder and still it bested the digital files or CDs of the same recordings. Simply put, nothing can touch this turntable at anywhere near its price point.Nothing.
Ion has since replaced this product with newer, similar models, but this game-changer can still be found on eBay for practically, well…nothing.
Ion Quick Play LP: $49.95 Street price: $25.00 (during Bed Bath & Beyond’s after-Christmas sale)
One of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most beloved works of chamber music is the so-calledArchdukeTrio,named after the Austrian nobleman it was dedicated to. But theArchdukeis only one of over 20 pieces Beethoven wrote for three players. The majority of his trios are for violin, cello, and piano (the combination called a “piano trio”), but there are also other mixes, with and without piano, and some involving only winds. Musicians never seem to tire of recording these skillful works, as several recent releases attest.
The new recordings join a long list of previous forays into Beethoven’s trio output, some of which are just now being transferred to digital. Among those is the four-volume set of the piano trios by the Abegg Trio, a German chamber ensemble active until 2017. Originally released in the 1980s, this series has recently become available on streaming services via the Tacet label. From the mightyArchduke(which you’ll find in Volume IV) to the smallest single-movement pieces like the Allegretto in B-flat Major, WoO 39, it includes everything Beethoven wrote in the genre.
One of the most striking things about these outstanding Abegg recordings is the rich cello sound of Birgit Erichson, reminiscent of Mstislav Rostropovich’s complex intensity. Erichson has ideal colleagues in violinist Ulrich Beetz and pianist Gerrit Zitterbart. Making these Beethoven interpretations more widely available was a true service to the world’s music lovers.
Because there are already so many recordings of the piano trios, some ensembles have tried for an original approach to adding Beethoven to their repertoire. A new release on Naxos has some surprising content: a new piano trio by Beethoven! Well, sort of. This album by violinist Duccio Ceccanti, cellist Vittorio Ceccanti, and pianist Matteo Fossi pays tribute to composer Carl Reinecke (1824 – 1910), including the world premiere recording ofhispiano trio. But the first few tracks are Beethoven’s Triple Concerto – originally for violin, cello, and piano plus orchestra – here played in Reinecke’s arrangement for piano trio alone.
In general, the re-instrumentation forces the piano to do too much heavy lifting, assigning it the impossible feat of replacing the orchestra. In the mid to late 19th century, these kinds of transcriptions were common (see Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of all of the Beethoven symphonies, for example). That is not to say they were a good idea, but they did reflect the popular fascination with the potential of the modern concert grand piano, an instrument that had not been around for very long.
Despite the work’s shortcomings, the players pull together effectively, and it is interesting to hear Reinecke’s theory of what might have gone on in Beethoven’s musical imagination as he was creating this piece (if you can set aside the significant fact that the composer did decide to add an orchestra). Call it a hypothetical draft. Here is the first movement:
Beethoven’s second-favorite type of three-instrument writing was the string trio: violin, viola, and cello. He produced five works for that combination. Because he wrote them all within the short period from 1796 – 1798, some scholars see them as exercises preparing him for the more complex string quartets to come. Even if this is true, the string trios are themselves wonderful pieces worth rerecording. Two ensembles – Trio Boccherini and Trio Arnold – seem to agree.
Trio Boccherini is a young group based in Berlin: violinist Suyeon Kang, violist Vicki Powell, and cellist Paolo Bonomini. Their two-volume set of the complete Beethoven String Trios on the GENUIN Classics label constitutes their recording debut.
It’s a bold start, full of promise for the ensemble’s future. These players have not only the minimal requirement for great Beethoven – virtuosic technique and a deep understanding of early Romanticism – but also a level of daring, even wildness, that turns their Beethoven voyage into a real adventure. Yet they never lose control and are able to capture great pathos when appropriate, as in the opening movement from String Trio Op. 9, No. 1.
Of the two recent collections of string trios, the Boccherini’s is by far the superior one, exhibiting emotional maturity, exquisite shaping of lines, and complex interplay among the instruments.
This is not to say that the other recording has nothing to recommend it. Also a very young group, Trio Arnold, formed in 2018, consists of Shuichi Okada on violin, Manuel Vioque-Judde on viola, and Bumjun Kim on cello. They made their studio debut with a recording of the three Opus 9 String Trios on the Mirare label.
Compared with the Trio Boccherini, the Arnold recording is both more careful and less nuanced. But there are passages of fine ensemble playing, as if the three were a single instrument, as can be heard in this Allegro from Op. 9, No. 3.
Beethoven’s piano trios and string trios tend to get all the attention, but the composer also wrote a handful of trios involving winds. About half of those pieces, however, are Beethoven’s own arrangements of compositions originally for other ensembles.
There are two such examples on the Paraty record label by members of a chamber collective called the DSCH – Shostakovich Ensemble. Its founder and artistic director, Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro, plays piano. He is joined by Pasqual Moraguès on clarinet and Adrian Brendel on cello.
The first work on the CD is the so-calledGassenhauerTrio, Beethoven’s arrangement of his Piano Trio No. 4, with the clarinet replacing the violin. The DSCH musicians approach the piece with a charming slyness in carefully coordinated phrasing. Notice in particular the lines of duet between Moraguès and Bredel in third movement:
This recording also includes the Clarinet Trio in E-flat, Op. 38; its musical material started life as Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20, which has no piano but does include clarinet, French horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and bass. In fact, the score for the trio version specifies that a bassoon can take over the cello part.
As with most composers of the late 18th century, Beethoven tended to write trios because he had only certain instrumentalists available or he needed to appease a patron who wanted something specific. That’s why he often re-used previously composed music – why not get some more mileage out of good ideas? It’s also worth mentioning that he used the trio format to pay tribute to a fellow compositional genius, Mozart. Beethoven’sVariations on “La ci darem la mano”in C, WoO 28, is a trio for two oboes and English horn, inventively exploring the beloved duet from the operaDon Giovanni.
Again and again, Beethoven proved that a threesome is the perfect way to make music.
Warren Zevon could never have been a standard, mainstream rock star. His life started out with too many extraordinary elements to allow him to be mainstream. He was fated to be exceptional, and he certainly fulfilled that destiny.
Son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant who became a bookie for the mob in Los Angeles, Zevon (born in 1947) took music lessons with the great Igor Stravinsky himself. When his parents divorced, the 16-year-old Zevon dropped out of high school and headed east to become a folkie in New York City.
To make ends meet, Zevon wrote songs for other people, including a few for The Turtles and one for the soundtrack of the filmMidnight Cowboy, which was sung by Leslie Miller.He also recorded a couple of singles as part of the duo lyme and cebelle with Violet Santangelo. One of their songs, “Follow Me,” had decent sales, but that was it.
Zevon’s solo recording career started with appropriate strangeness: he was discovered in 1969 by Kim Fowley, an esoteric producer determined to maintain cult status in the music industry by recording cutting-edge acts that no one else was paying attention to. Sadly for Zevon, no one paid attention to his debut,Wanted Dead or Alive, either.
So, he turned his efforts back to practical endeavors, selling more songs and touring as the music director and keyboardist for the Everly Brothers. By the mid-1970s he had befriended and was rooming with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. He also became close with Jackson Browne, who offered to produce Zevon’s first major-label album.
His growing circle of important music friends were also conscripted to play on Warren Zevon, which was released on Asylum Records in 1976 and reached the low end of theBillboard200. Among the guests, besides the Fleetwood Mac gang and Bonnie Raitt, was a singer who turned out to be one of Zevon’s biggest fans. Linda Ronstadt eventually made her own recordings of many of Zevon’s songs.
“Desperados Under the Eaves” is a good introduction to Zevon’s musical and poetic style, as well as his signature delivery. First, there’s the sophisticated harmony of the string arrangement. Then there’s the subtle sarcasm of the lyrics, camouflaged in lush chord progressions usually associated with more sentimental songs. And then there’s the joyous weirdness of it all: note the 16 bars of Zevon humming like an air conditioner.
Browne stayed on as producer, assisted by guitarist Waddy Wachtel, for Zevon’s second Asylum album,Excitable Boy, in 1978. On these tracks, Zevon doubles down on his dark quirkiness on songs like the album’s big hit, “Werewolves of London.” But even more interesting are the ingenious ramblings of a man who sees madness everywhere he looks. Often these have political backdrops, like “Veracruz” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”
The album opens with. “When Johnny Strikes Up the Band.” It is lyrically simple and vague, but Zevon’s impassioned delivery, plus the contributions of session greats Russ Kunkel on drums and Danny Kortchmar on percussion, and a couple of terrific guitar riffs by Wachtel, make this a little-known 1970s rock gem.
Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School came out in 1980, boasting a quartet of singles that included Zevon’s cover of the Yardbirds’ “A Certain Girl,” originally written by Allen Toussaint and recorded by Ernie K-Doe. That was the only one of the record’s singles to chart. This fourth studio album also marked a tentative move to Elektra Records.
As usual, the studio was full of big names offering their services, including Browne, Ronstadt, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley. Guitarist Joe Walsh enriches the march-like rhythm and staid melody of “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” by playing counterpoint against Zevon’s voice.
Continuing his pattern of releasing albums every other year, Zevon madeThe Envoyin 1982, giving Asylum another chance. Although one single, “Let Nothing Come Between You,” did well, the album’s sales were poor. Zevon blamed that failure on the label’s lack of commitment to marketing, but it probably also reflected the reality of the American music-buying public: Zevon’s music and lyrics were always too hip for the room and too idiosyncratic for the masses.
On this album Zevon moves into harder rock territory.The Envoy’s title track, a grimly cynical commentary on war in the Middle East, shakes with power chords played by three different guitarists, including Zevon himself, and the rattling drums of Toto’s Jeff Porcaro.
Sadly, the low sales ofThe Envoyhit Zevon hard, and the next few years found him battling his psychological demons. His previous issues with drugs and alcohol reemerged, and his relationship ended with his fiancée before she could become his second wife. After a round of rehab, Zevon took a break from recording, only playing occasional live shows. His only brief foray into recording was one single for the band Hindu Love God, which included Zevon and three members of R.E.M.: guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry.
In 1987, Zevon was ready to recordSentimental Hygiene, this time on Virgin Records. Buck, Mills, and Berry all played on the album. (At the same time, they laid down some tracks as the Hindu Love Gods, which would be released in 1990.) Michael Stipe sang backup on one track, and Bob Dylan dropped in to play harmonica. A Zevon recording session continued to be an A-list magnet. But this album and the next,Transverse City, did not sell well, so Virgin ended Zevon’s contract.
The rhythm and melody of “Splendid Isolation” are reminiscent of Tom Petty, even if the lyrics are more urban-focused and philosophical than Petty’s usual output. This should be the official anthem of introverts everywhere. (That’s Zevon on harmonica, by the way.)
After leaving Virgin, Zevon landed at the newly-founded label Giant Records. From his first album there, Mr. Bad Example(1991), the track “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” inspired a film by Gary Fleder.
The next decade saw Zevon soldier on despite largely poor sales and having to tour in the humblest of circumstances, often unable to afford a band. But he seemed to revel in the social side of music-making: besides his impressive list of musician friends, he also enjoyed the company of some of America’s most interesting writers who also happened to play music. Several of them – Hunter S. Thompson, Amy Tan, and Carl Hiassen among others – played with Zevon at book fairs in a pickup band called the Rock Bottom Remainders. They even contributed lyrics to some of his songs.
Zevon’s final album was The Wind, recorded in 2002 while his body was being ravaged by mesothelioma. He very publicly made the decision not to pursue treatments that would weaken him so that he could have the strength to write and play for as much of his remaining time as possible. Knowing he was at the end, all his usual buddies showed up to sing on that last record, and longtime fan David Letterman devoted an entire hour ofThe Late Showto Zevon, who chatted with him and performed.
Zevon died in 2003 at the age of 56. It’s fitting to close with this wistful song from that last album, “Keep Me in Your Heart”:
The development of modern stereophonic recording technique is generally credited to British engineer Alan Blumlein, who started experimenting with it during the first half of the 1930s, even though some earlier experiments by others had already taken place. The first stereo recordings were made possible by advancements in magnetic tape recording made during the Second World War by the Germans. Most of these early stereo recordings were destroyed during the War, and a few were taken by the occupying Russian army. Some of the earliest recordings that did survive have subsequently been commercially released in digital format.
The first commercial stereo recording was made by RCA in early 1954, followed shortly by Decca and most of the other major labels. At the time, the technology for producing stereophonic vinyl records had not yet been developed, and these early recordings were only available on magnetic tape. The first stereophonic vinyl record was released in 1957 by Audio Fidelity, probably the original “audiophile” record label. By the following year, most major labels were releasing stereo LPs, at a significant price premium to the monophonic versions that were sold alongside them. Upgrading to stereo at home involved significant expenditure, and many music lovers continued buying mono LPs until around 1969 when their production finally ceased.
Today, collecting monophonic-era recordings is a niche, but audiophiles should not overlook them. Admittedly, the early recordings on 78 rpm shellac, especially the acoustically-recorded discs (made before any electronic amplification was used), often sound very crude. However, some 78s can sound astonishingly alive, since many of these discs were recorded direct-to-disc and at what was a high speed, which many modern audiophiles recognize as the ultimate way to maximize the sound quality of an LP recording (higher disc-cutting speed can equate to better fidelity). Playing back these old shellac discs requires specialized equipment, since few modern turntables run at 78 rpm, and one also needs a 65µm spherical stylus and a preamplifier with all the equalization standards that were in use by the different record labels of the day. It is therefore easier to just concentrate on monophonic microgroove LPs, which first appeared in 1948. One potential problem is that prior to the stereo LP era, there was no standard equalization curve. In reality, many labels followed the RCA Victor New Orthophonic curve, which was eventually adopted by the music industry as the RIAA standard EQ curve by the time stereo LPs appeared.
The first commercial microgroove LP was a Nathan Milstein recording. He was the most popular classical music artist of the day.
Why collect monophonic LPs? For me, the music is the primary reason. The period between the two World Wars nurtured a large roster of outstanding artists, many of whom had direct relationships with the composers of the Romantic era. For example, Bruno Walter was Mahler’s protégé. Pierre Monteux played for Brahms, his mentor was a close friend of Hector Berlioz, and Monteux himself was a close friend of Stravinsky, Ravel, and Debussy. Unlike today’s artists, many of whom graduated from the same music schools and have been tutored by the same professors, the musical personality of these golden era artists was informed more by their experiences than by conventional pedagogic dogma, and there was more individuality and freedom of musical expression.
Some of the more extreme practices in those days would be frowned upon today as being inauthentic, but this does not make the interpretations any less valid. Toscanini was the first to publicly advocate strict adherence to the score as written, but he was not the only one. Someone once remarked to Pierre Monteux after a performance ofThe Rite of Springthat his tempo was different from that of one of the composer’s performances. Monteux replied: “Stravinsky can do what he likes, but I have to obey the composer’s wishes.” Stravinsky insisted on Monteux conducting the ballet’s premiere performance, in what turned out to be one of the most disastrous ballet performances ever. Critics laid the blame on the choreography, and Monteux stoically soldiered through to the end. The music has been associated with Monteux ever since, although he once confided that he did not much like the piece. Therefore, we can see that at least some conductors of the era chose to convey the wishes of the composer rather than their own ego. In any case, there was less emphasis on technical proficiency in those days, and more emphasis on musicianship, not that the top practitioners of the era were technically challenged in any way. The recordings from this era often give unique insights into the music that are simply not replicable. Unfortunately, many of these artists did not survive to the stereo era, and for those who did, they were no longer at the peak of their prowess.
There are sonic reasons for listening to mono recordings too. Early stereo recordings often suffer from the “hole in the center” problem, with the sound panned too far to the two sides. Mono recordings made with only one microphone tend to have a more solid and realistic center image due to lack of the phase anomalies associated with recordings made using multiple microphones. With single-mic recordings, track mixing was not necessary, thus reducing the number of stages during post-production that could degrade the quality of the signal. Recordings made during the mono era utilized tube electronics, which may or may not be an advantage depending on one’s point of view. Since almost all the electronics in my system are tube-based (except for the bass amplifier and the crossover), you know which camp I am in. I actually find listening to solo instrumental and vocal recordings in mono preferable to stereo. Many jazz fans also prefer mono Blue Note recordings over their stereo counterparts.
I estimate about one third of my LP collection to be mono. I had always listened to these recordings with a stereo cartridge, until last month. After having heard from different sources that playing mono LPs with a true mono cartridge can be a revelation, I decided to bite the bullet. Taking advantage of the historically low exchange rate of the Japanese Yen, I bought an Ikeda 9Mono cartridge. It has the exact same dimensions and weight as my current cartridge, the Ikeda 9TT, and almost the same output (about 2 dB higher). Therefore, by mounting it on the same model of headshell, I can just swap the cartridges on my SME 3012 tonearm without needing to make any adjustment.
The first record I reached for after completing the installation rituals was a 1952 recording of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Schubert lieder with Edwin Fischer on piano. The first LP of this recording that I bought was the 1981 reissue on the French EMI Référence label when I was a student. It has become my desert island disc ever since. The young Schwarzkopf had a fresh voice and her interpretation was more free-spirited than her later performances. I subsequently bought two of the original Columbia 33CX Series LPs. Why two? It was because I found out that the cartridge mistracks on some of the more powerful high notes, which I suspected was due to groove damage. Many of these second-hand mono LPs have been played by their original owners using primitive equipment that caused groove damage. Since the LP cost literally pennies, I bought another one when I next came across it. Unfortunately, it had the same problem. In fact, the original LP was cut about 8 dB hotter than the 1981 reissue, at a level which would have been very difficult to track by the cartridges of the day.
Schubert Song Recital, original Columbia issue.
Schubert Lieder, later reissue of above.
Repeated mistracking is a frequent cause of groove damage. I then gave one of the 33CX LPs a quick wash in the ultrasonic cleaner before dropping the needle. The first thing I noticed was how much lower the background noise was. The Ikeda is a true mono cartridge and it only responds to horizontal movement of the stylus. Therefore, noise from vertical stylus displacement is absent. It also tracks better, since I believe the vertical compliance of the suspension is different from the stereo version. There was still slight distortion at times, but much less than with the stereo cartridge, and the LP has become much more listenable. The noise level of the older LP is still higher than the reissue, but I find the sound a bit more transparent.
Violin and cello recordings are my favorites, and I idolize many violinists and cellists that came of age during the interwar years. I came across a sale from a radio station during the early 1990s when I was still living in California. They must have been selling off their library of LPs after they had “upgraded” to “perfect sound forever.” I only found mono LPs in the bins, either because the stereo ones had already been sold, or that the station was selling these more valuable items to record dealers. Nevertheless, I picked up a good number of Capitol LPs featuring Nathan Milstein, along with Heifetz recordings on RCA, and Mercury LPs with János Starker. They were mostly in excellent condition, since they had probably only been played a few times right after acquisition before being filed away and forgotten.
I have subsequently purchased modern reissues of some of these recordings, with the belief that these newer LPs should sound superior. I decided to start re-listening with one of my favorites, a 1956 Capitol LP calledMilstein Miniatures.After listening to just the first few seconds, I had already realized that the sound was remarkable. The violin tone is spot-on, the image is realistic, and one can easily follow the subtle nuances of the playing. A great-sounding recording has a way of grabbing your attention and directing it to the performance. The interpretations of the pieces are incomparable. Milstein’s playing is always so relaxed, unforced and totally unpretentious, moving the player out of the way of the music. The violin has a glowing sound, and the piano has weight and solidity.
I then put on the 2018 reissue by a company called Analogphonic. The packaging of the record has been done well. They have reproduced the cover on thick laminated cardboard. The color tone of the picture at the front is different from the original, tending towards a purple hue. The record labels have been faithfully reproduced. The record is in 180-gram vinyl. This is clearly a product aimed at the audiophile. After the same few seconds, I have already noticed that the sound was different. The tone of the violin had changed, and it sounded harsher. The bowing seemed more aggressive. First impression was that it sounded more dynamic and detailed, but this was only an illusion. It was more fatiguing to listen to, and the sweetness of Milstein’s playing was no longer apparent. The Master was no longer relaxed and sounded quite uptight, as if he was trying too hard. The record was also cut 8 dB louder. The rest of the record sounded the same.
Intrigued, I transferred the first track of both LPs onto 24/192 PCM with my TASCAM digital recorder. I then did a spectrum analysis on the signal withAudacitysoftware (available free of charge online). Both transfers were made at the same level. Analyzing the same 50-second segment of the piece, the spectral content of the music at 2 kHz, 4 kHz, 8 kHz, 12 kHz and 16 kHz in relation to 1 kHz is: original LP: -10 dB, -15 dB, -34 dB, -43 dB, -57 dB. The reissue LP measurements are: -8 dB, -10 dB, -28 dB, -31 dB, -55 dB. As can be seen, the reissue LP has significantly more high-frequency content; +5 dB at 4 kHz, +6 dB at 8 kHz, and +12 dB at 12 kHz compared to the original! Since I don’t have the master tape of this recording, I don’t know whether the original has too little high frequencies, or the reissue has too much. Judging by how the violin sounds in these records, I would guess the latter. I have found the same trend with many other modern reissues, so I guess boosting high frequencies is now an industry standard. Or maybe the mastering engineers are getting older and suffering from high-frequency hearing loss? Since I do have copies of the original master tapes of some other reissued LPs, I will be investigating this issue further in subsequent articles.
Spectrum analyses of the original versus reissueMilstein MiniaturesLPs.
Header image:Milstein Vignettesby Nathan Milstein. All of the Milstein mono LPs in this article, and other, are worthwhile for both their music and sonics.
One man. More than 150 rooms and 200 exhibitors. 25 seminars. 22 hours. AXPONA 2022.
There’s a reason why audio-show coverage is almost always incomplete: no one person can cover it all. The math: if you wanted to see every room and were there all three days like I was, you’d have less than 8-1/2 minutes per room, if you didn’t eat or go to the bathroom or attend any seminars.
I admit I wasn’t exactly blazing through the show the first day. Most of us in the industry hadn’t seen each other in more than two years, so there were a lot of hellos, handshakes and hugs, a lot of catching up to do. Also, apprehension, given that the show was attended by more than 7,500 people and the specter of COVID hung in the air. (In a crowded elevator, one rather thoughtless individual yelled out, “well, if COVID is here, we’re all going to get it!”Really,dude?) It was a calculated risk for attendees, but nevertheless, a celebration, a reunion, a revival. It reminded us of what being in this crazy business is really all about – of course, the gear, but more importantly, thepeoplewho make our not-so-little audio world happen.
There was a Big Announcement: Andrew Jones, formerly of ELAC, Pioneer, KEF and others, has been named the Chief Loudspeaker Designer atMobile Fidelity Electronics,companion company to audiophile label Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. Jones is one of the world’s most talented loudspeaker creators, so, expect some very interesting speakers from MoFi in the future.
The mandatory caveats: I never make definitive judgments about sound at shows. There are too many variables, like unfamiliar rooms, unknown AC power, and lack of system/component break-in time, although I was more than a little shocked at the number of exhibitors whohadn’t even begun to set up their roomsat 5:00 pm the day before the show started. If I don’t mention how a room sounded, don’t presume it’s because I didn’t like it.
If I missed anyone’s exhibit, it wasn’t a snub; in fact, I’m frustrated that I missed somereally importantcompanies and dear friends. Also, I’m not going into mind-numbing detail on every product spec. Click on the links for more information on a given product or manufacturer. I gotta put this out there: I got a lot of sticker shock. High-end pricing has, in many cases, entered a galaxy far, far away.
Ididget to see and hear a lot of cool stuff.
Digging Into the Big Rooms
Krellpremiered its new flagship KSA-i400 stereo power amplifier (shown in the article’s header image), a 400 watt-per-channel behemoth (estimated price: $30 – 35,000, to ship in the fourth quarter of 2022). It was driving the strikingEstelon Forzaloudspeaker (starting at $160,000 per pair), and other system components included a KrellIllusionpreamp, Innuos streamer and some very large Transparent Audio cables. The sound was, as you can imagine, powerful and present, and well, big when the music called for it, though also finely nuanced, as a solo piano track convincingly demonstrated.
Klipschmade a big statement at the show – literally, with the premiere of the Klipsch Heritage Jubilee loudspeakers ($35,000/pair, late-May availability; $40,000/pair for the 75thAnniversary edition). I was told that this gigantic speaker (driven by Rotel electronics, connected by AudioQuest cable) was the late Paul Klipsch’s final design and that he always wanted a two-way speaker, but had to settle for three-way designs because the technology and materials to make his desired two-way ultimate creation were unavailable at the time. The Jubilee employs a horn with a large-diameter titanium-diaphragm compression driver, along with a patent-pending horn-loaded and ported woofer and an active-DSP crossover network. The speaker will be available in black ash and American Walnut. I went into the room before the show opened, while they were still dialing in the sound, and shortly after, so I’ll demur from making any definitive comments other than the fact that you’ll need a big room for this one!
These ain’t no mini-monitors: Klipsch Heritage Jubilee loudspeakers.
Burmestergear is visually stunning, with its polished-metal and burnished-wood aesthetic, but you really have to see the electronics and speakers in person to appreciate just how magnificent these “Art for the Ear” components look. If you demand impeccable fit, finish and quality, you’ll get it here, and I’m thinking you would hardly be disappointed in the sound either. Though I visited the room early enough to where I thought the system might still be warming up, I was impressed by the exceptional sense of scale, the resolution, and the ease of the sonic presentation. A highlight: Burmester debuted itsBC150loudspeaker ($150,000/pair in Apple Wood finish, and customizable) at AXPONA.
The Burmester system.
The company also showed a wide range of digital and analog components (it had been a few years since I’d seen Burmester at a show and I was honestly surprised at how many components they offer), including another powerful debut: the 400-watt Class ABmodel 159mono amplifiers, ($350,000 each). In fact, as Burmester’s Robb Niemann told me, it was probably the only time the amps will ever be seen in public in the US, as all units are currently spoken for in 2022 and through 2023. They also showed what must now be considered a classic, the808 MK5preamplifier ($57,000 as configured at AXPONA), which has been in production for more than 30 years! Other highlights included the strikingmodel 175turntable ($60,000) and for those who prefer digital, themodel 111media server ($55,000).
Not every great-sounding audio component has to carry a five-or six-figure price tag, as proven by the new PSBSynchrony T600loudspeaker. This relatively compact 3-way floorstander ($3,999 each) from designer Paul Barton drew me in with its almost shockingly realistic reproduction of the electric bass on the track “Elephants on Ice Skates” by Brian Bromberg. Powered by NAD electronics, this speaker had superb clarity and dynamics. The system was behind closed doors tucked away in a corner of the Saturday Audio Exchange room, who seemed to be doing a brisk business selling cables, accessories and used records, so this is a room I almost missed. I’m glad I didn’t.
Digging deep for audio treasures: the entrance to the Saturday Record Exchange exhibit. They were selling at a brisk pace.
Considering AXPONA’s location (Schaumburg, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago), it’s no surprise that Morton Grove, IL dealerQuintessence Audioonce again had a big presence at the show – three rooms worth of droolworthy gear. The Knowledge Room (some of the big rooms had unusual names, like Imagination, Connection, Innovation, and Inspiration – kind of appropriate for an audio show, don’t you think?) had a jaw-dropping setup with the Wilson AudioAlexx Vloudspeakers ($151,000 in the special finish being displayed); Audio ResearchReference 10line andphonostages ($33,000, $18,000) and160 Mmono amplifiers ($34,000/pair); ClearaudioMaster Innovation Woodturntable,TT1-MIlinear-tracking tonearm ($62,000), andGoldfinger Statementmoving-coil cartridge ($17,500); $90,000 worth of dCSVivaldi APEXdigital electronics; around $74,000 worth ofTransparentcables and power conditioning; and last but not least, $75,000 worth of Critical Mass SystemsMaxxumcomponent stands. But, who’s counting? As you can imagine, the sound was impressive – Herbie Hancock’sEmpyrean IslesLP had lifelike presence and realism. This was one of the few rooms I was able to come back to, and the sound was better on Saturday than Friday (I should have come back on Sunday as well), proving the point that high-end systems can sound better after being warmed up.
The Clearaudio turntable setup in one of the Quintessence Audio rooms. Keep the cap on that water bottle!
Audio Research Reference 160 M monoblock power amplifiers.
The other two rooms were equally, if differently, impressive, based around Sonus FaberAida MK II, and WilsonSasha DAWloudspeakers. In the latter room, which also includedMoon,Clearaudio,Kubala-Sosna,andFranc Wood Blockgear, yet another adage was brought home – that great audio systems can do subtle as well as bombastic. I was captivated by theGreensleevesLP by the Shoji Yokouchi Trio, which was conveyed with you-are-there palpability. (Later I learned that this is something of an audiophile classic that has been around since 1978, originally issued on Three Blind Mice Records. You really do learn something new every day. The distortion on the electric guitar is the recording, not the system!) This was the first time I’d heard the HanaUmami Redcartridge ($3,950), and although it was in an entirely unfamiliar system, I definitely got what the fuss is all about.
TheT+Aroom featured a wide range of elegantly gorgeous equipment. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo that did any of it justice.) The company was showing its newSeries 200electronics, a complete range of sleek, compact components, which were making sweet, inviting sound through the company’s Talis floorstanding speakers. They also featured the new HA 200 headphone amp/DAC at the Ear Gear Expo, a hall dedicated to all things headphones. The digital electronics use separate circuitry for DSD and for PCM, which T+A’s Jim Shannon told me is a big part of the digital equipment’s excellent sound.
Ben Webster of Periodic Audio at The Ear Gear Expo, a headphone aficionado’s delight.
Although your intrepid correspondent was sometimes disorganized (Ken Kessler, now there’s a guy who knows how to cover a show!), I did have a must-see list, which included attending a seminar that recording engineer/producers Jim Anderson and Ulrike Schwarz gave in theCAT(Convergent Audio Technology)/Magico room. (See Copper’s articles inIssue 156,Issue 157andIssue 158.)They talked about how they recorded Patricia Barber’s Grammy-nominated, audiophile-favorite albumClique,and played recordings on the triode-tube-fueled system, which included the CATSL-1 Legend Extremepreamplifier ($59,990), and a rotating selection of amplifiers: the 220-watt JL7SE ($49,990/pair), 300-watt Class A Statement Extreme ($209,990/pair), and the stereo 120 watt-per-channel JL5SE ($24,995). The loudspeakers were the MagicoS5 MK IIloudspeakers ($38,000/pair), which Jim and Ulrike like a great deal. The two noted that “Patti” likes to record mostly live, and has such control of her singing, playing and dynamics, and that her band has been playing with her for so long, that they’re able to get the songs down amazingly quickly.
Under the hood of the CAT SL-1 Legend Extreme preamplifier.
The selections fromCliquesounded really superb on the system. For that matter, so did the other tracks I heard. I was unfamiliar with the speakers, but I mentioned to Jim and Ulrike that I got the sense that they simply delivered what was put into them, with little coloration but without sounding overly analytical. They agreed. Defying audiophile convention, Jim had shown up with an Oppo UDP-205 disc player a few minutes before the seminar started, and hooked it into the system’s D/A converter. CAT president Ken Stevens told Jim, “maybe we should have put it in the system earlier to let it warm up. Jim replied, “It doesn’t need it!”
One of the most fun things about audio shows are the live performances. I couldn’t see them all, especially the after-hours events, mainly because I was out of shape after being mostly a homebound slug for the past two-odd years. But I couldn’t miss the presentation featuring Anne Bisson in the Acora Acoustics room. She played selections from various albums, including her upcomingBe My Lover,on this most-impressive system, which included the AcoraSRC-2loudspeakers ($37,000/pair) and SRR-V/H racks ($5,500/each),VAC(Valve Amplification Company) Statement electronics ($310,000 worth!), a LampizatOrHorizonDAC ($49,000), the AurenderN30SAnetwork player ($24,000), a TW-AcusticRaven Black Nightturntable ($45,000) with Raven 12-inch tonearms ($6,000/each) and DynavectorDRT XV-1sand Charisma AudioSignature Onecartridges ($8,450 and $3,800), all wired with Cardas cable.
Anne also sang live. When she got there I thought, uh oh, the PA isn’t here yet. What’s she going to sing through? As it turned out, she sangwithouta microphone, just her and her voice, accompanied by instrumental tracks played through the system. Wow! Fantastic! She and the people working the room (Scott Sefton of Acora and Fred Ainsley of LampizatOr) told us that they wanted attendees to hear what a professional singer really sounded like with no amplification or tricks, and thatthiswas the sound that audio gear was striving to replicate.
Point made. I got choked up when they played Anne’s version of “Blue Bayou,” and not just because the song has become a metaphor for life during the pandemic.
Here’s a video (forgive the less-than-stellar audio quality):
By the way – I’ve noticed at AXPONA and other audio shows that Aurender music servers/streamers/network audio players or whatever you want to call them tend to be present in a lot of great-sounding rooms. I’m thinking this is not a coincidence.
One of the displays made one of the show’s boldest statements – without making a sound. Gryphon Audio Designs exhibited a few choice components, including the new, massive 450-poundApexpower amplifier ($99,000), which can be configured for stereo or mono operation. I forgot what the power rating is, but I think it’s safe to say, “enough.” (OK, I looked it up, and an Apex in mono configuration can deliver almost 1,800 watts of Class A powerinto one ohm.)The display also included theCommanderpreamp ($69,000) and one of the most striking audio components I’ve ever seen, theEthostransport/D/A converter ($39,000).
The Gryphon display.
The VTL/Stenheim/Nordost room featured some stunning gear. VTL’s electronics included theS-400 Reference Stereo Amplifier Series II($37,500),TL-75 Reference Line Preamplifier Series II($30,000) andTP-6.5 Series II Signature Phono Stage($12,500). Stenheim was showing theirReference Ultime Twoloudspeakers ($153,000/pair) Source components included the WadaxAtlantis ReferenceDAC and server and something called the Akasa optical system to connect the two ($145,000, $59,000 and $17,495, respectively). Everything was wired withNordostOdin, Valhalla and Frey cable and the company’s QKORE grounding unit, QVIBE Line Harmonizer (a plug-shaped device that plugs into an AC line), QPOINT Resonance Synchronizer (said to “emit a subtle field which manipulates all electromechanical resonances…so that they resonate in unison with each other”), and other devices and accessories (for a total of 23 Nordost products at over $100,000).
Like so many of the super systems at the show, expensive, but, wow. A cut from Cecile McLorin Salvant’sFor One to Lovealbum sounded captivating. An orchestral cut (forgive me, I was too busy listening to take detailed notes) kept the solo violin clearly separated from the rest of the orchestra even when the dynamics got intense, and not every system can do that. An electronic dance music track was simplywalloping;huge, intense, almost scary. I thought the system was going to blow up, or at least distort, but it remained pristine. I wanted to stay in that room, but had dozens more to see and hear, and I hadn’t even covered everything on the first two floors yet.
Head-turning headroom: the VTL/Stenheim/Nordost exhibit.
An Update on Vacuum Tubes
I asked a number of people what they felt about the current vacuum-tube supply situation. The general feeling was that there was no reason to panic. T+A’s Jim Shannon told me that the company was moving away from vacuum-tube designs because of the current state of tube reliability – they reject 50 percent of the tubes they receive. They, like other manufacturers, are committed to servicing existing customers’ units and have plenty of stock on hand. Tim Schroeder of audio distributorSchroeder Amplificationfelt that the situation will stabilize – but things will never be as good as they were. Kevin Deal ofUpscale Audiosaid that people shouldn’t worry, and that some were overreacting to the current situation.
Kevin Hayes of VAC noted to me in an e-mail: “supply chain issues abound in the post-pandemic era. We see it in metals, various electronic parts, and even paper for printing brochures. Our sources in the metals world suggest that things will not be back to ‘normal’ until 2024. It is easy and tempting, but unproductive, to sensationalize the situation. Regardless of the challenges, we have been able to continue normal operations and serve our customers without interruption, and expect to continue doing so.
Regarding vacuum tubes specifically, everything is going to be just fine, as long as everyone resists the temptation to start hoarding.
It is famously said that nature abhors a vacuum (no pun intended); should a major supplier go offline long-term, another will rise to fill the void. Some are already gearing up to do so.
To quote FDR, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Fear is contagious, and it can make people do foolish things. Stay smart, everyone.”
Power to the people: McIntosh displayed some of their gear in a lobby of the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel where AXPONA 2022 took place.
Part Two and Part Three of the AXPONA 2022 show report will appear in Issue 163 and Issue 164.
Header image: the Krell/Stenheim room. All photos by the author.
A Fisher 440-T receiver circa 1964. By this time, transistors were starting to supersede tubes, and this 40 watt-per-channel model is the first Fisher transistor receiver. It’s known for having an exceptional tuner section.
Fisher 440-T detail shot. Photos taken by Howard Kneller atAngry Mom Records,Ithaca, New York.
A 1970s JBL ad with a springtime feel. We don’t know what those pieces of wood are all about, but would sure like to hear those speakers.
One can only imagine the wealth of information contained in this 1959 Mullard publication.
Sony transistor technology, 1962 style. Note that the TV runs on either AC or battery power!
Historical performances don’t get a lot of love from audiophiles. And let’s face it: many historical performances were recorded using primitive equipment, under less-than-ideal conditions. To modern ears, accustomed to the latest, state-of-the-art recording technologies, many of these older performances can be painful to listen to.
But during the first half of the 20thcentury, some of the greatest classical musicians who ever lived gave performances that remain, today, the subject of legend. I’m thinking of artists like Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Felix Weingartner, Alfred Cortot, Ginette Neveu, Jascha Heifetz and many others who are still worshipped as the greatest exemplars of their art.
Contemporary critics wrote of the unique sound that these artists produced. But alas, their “golden” years took place long before the advent of modern recording technology, and today’s audiophiles can only guess at the sounds that they’ve missed. Even artists such as Otto Klemperer and Maria Callas whodidmake recordings during the stereo era nevertheless did their best work years earlier, at least if we are to believe those who heard them during both periods.
Today, we can only dream about the experience of sitting in the audience at La Scala as Furtwängler conducted Wagner’sDer Ring des Nibelungenwith Kirsten Flagstad. Or only imagine the electricity in the air as Toscanini leads the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’sNinthat Carnegie Hall.
Wilhelm Furtwängler conductingDas Rheingold.
But in recent years, a dedicated cadre of committed recording engineers have worked tirelessly to make those remarkable sounds more accessible to modern ears. I’m thinking about engineers like Mark Obert-Thorn, Ward Marston, Peter Harrison, the team at Immortal Performances, and – the focus of this article – Andrew Rose atPristine Classical.
Andrew was a senior sound engineer at the BBC and an innovator in the field of sound restoration. In 2004, he picked up and moved to a small village in France, where he has committed himself to bringing great historical performances to modern ears. His technical skills were also instrumental in uncovering the Joyce Hatto fraud. (A quick Google search will provide loads of information about that scandal.)
But I digress. What Andrew and his team have accomplished is nothing less than bringing back to life some of the greatest performances of the past 100-plus years in greatly improved sound quality. In 2007, Andrew developed a technique called XR Remastering, which he continues to develop and improve. Here’s what Pristine’s website says about XR Remastering:
“It starts with what has been termed elsewhere [as] “tonal balancing.” Most of the microphones used to make historic recordings (and even more so the horns used in acoustic recordings) had very uneven frequency responses. We use advanced computer analysis of the tonal content of these recordings to “reverse engineer” and counter the impact of those tonal distortions. This results in a much more natural and realistic-sounding recording, limited only by the other constraints of the original source (frequency range, noise levels etc.).
But this is just the beginning. We were the first to release recordings where wow and flutter – the inconsistencies of pitch common to all analogue playback systems, but particularly prevalent in older recordings – had been fixed using a groundbreaking German computer solution calledCapstan.Its [expensive] pricing means we remain one of the few companies working in this field to use it and its impact, particularly [on] piano music, can be immense.
Another innovation has been the use of a technique called convolution reverberation. A large number of older recordings were made in especially “dry” acoustics to combat the noisy, low-quality reproduction systems of the time. Yet we hear music in concert halls specially designed for acoustics that complement and enhance the sound of the musicians playing there. Convolution (a complex mathematical procedure) allows us to effectively “place” our recordings in some of the finest acoustic spaces in the world – renowned concert halls, opera houses, churches and cathedrals. When sensitively and delicately applied, this can add an extra dimension and sense of sonic reality to even the oldest recordings. It’s a far cry from using echo or digital reverberation to try and hide problems in recordings!”
As a listener, the results are astonishing. Familiar recordings suddenly sound completely different. Take, for example, Toscanini’s recording of Puccini’sLa Bohème (Pristine PACO110). The original 1946 RCA recording is somewhat dim, with attenuated low frequencies. But in Pristine’s remastering, with the addition of an effect they call Ambient Stereo, it sounds like it was done at least 10 years later. There is a real sense of space and the instrumental colors are allowed to shine through.
Arturo Toscanini conductingLa Bohème.
Earlier, I mentioned Furtwängler conducting theRingat La Scala (in 1950). Those performances starred some of the greatest singers of the postwar period, including the iconic Kirsten Flagstad, in thrilling voice. And theywererecorded and eventually released on vinyl on a Murray Hill box set, albeit in execrable sound. But what Pristine has accomplished with this set is nothing short of a miracle (Pristine PABX002).
If Furtwängler is not your taste but you still crave Wagner, you can choose from restoredRingCycles from Clemens Krauss (Bayreuth 1953, Pristine PABX004) or Erich Leinsdorf (Metropolitan Opera 1961/62, Pristine PABX022). For that matter, there’s also Furtwängler’s laterRingcycle from 1953 with the RAI (Pristine PABX003).
If Wagner is not your particular cup of tea, there are still endless other treasures to explore. How about the legendary 1953 recording of Puccini’sToscawith Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano and Victor de Sabata (PACO080) in hugely improved sound? Or, if your tastes run more to orchestral music, Pristine has done a remarkable job with Otto Klemperer’s legendary Beethoven symphony cycle (PABX012). Recorded in early stereo, Pristine’s remastering makes it sound like it was recorded yesterday. The same loving care was extended to Klemperer’s Brahms cycle (PABX027).
Otto Klemperer conducting Beethoven.
Other great artists who are represented on Pristine include Sergei Rachmaninov playing his own compositions, Leopold Stokowski, Guido Cantelli – Toscanini’s protégé who died tragically young – Lily Pons, Lotte Lehmann, Willem Mengelberg, Karl Muck, and a literal alphabet of the greats of the early 20thcentury.
If your tastes run to jazz, you’ll find wonderful early recordings by Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and others.
Whether your listening predilections lean toward chamber music, solo voice, instrumental music, concerti, symphonic music, or opera, Pristine has offerings that will intrigue and delight you. I invite you to explore and enjoy.
We spoke with Andrew Rose about a variety of topics, enough for a two-part interview. The first segment appears here, and the conclusion will follow in Issue 163.
Ted Shafran:First and foremost, thank you very much for taking your time to do this with me.
Andrew Rose:You’re most welcome.
TS:The reason I proposed this article toCopperis because I admire very much the work you’ve been doing. So, let’s start with a bit of background. You were a studio manager at the BBC?
AR:That’s correct. I did a very unusual music degree at the time – a Bachelor of Science in Music at City, University of London and went directly from there to BBC Radio as a studio manager.
TS:What did your job at the BBC entail?
AR:It was primarily working as a sound engineer on national and, at times, international radio. I worked across a lot of different disciplines: everything from editing tape to mixing complex new shows to sound-balancing different recordings to going out and about recording stuff, and mixing and editing pieces and packages. Basically, anything that was required for the broadcast, so I’ve worked in a variety of radio programs. I joined in 1990 and left in 2004. I did some music programs, I worked in the political section for six years. The crucial thing to say, really: I was there at the time where radio and sound recording and editing and mixing moved from the analog to the digital sphere. I was involved with a show on BBC Radio 4, which is the national [spoken-word] network, which was the first to be edited and mixed and produced entirely on desktop PCs, starting in 1998. So, I was kind of working there on the kind of technical stuff that has enabled me to do what I’m doing here today. Prior to that, everything was reel-to-reel tapes and razor blades and the traditional way of cutting and mixing and editing. I just happened to be there at the right time to catch the waves of the internet and digital recording, and on that wave of new technology that came in while I was there.
Andrew Rose (with record) with BBC Radio Three presenter Andrew McGregor. Courtesy of Andrew Rose.
TS:What was the reason you decided to leave?
AR:[My family] emigrated to France for various personal reasons. I had already set up Pristine in the UK in my spare time as a sideline business, working mainly on private transfers for people digitizing recordings off different media, including reel-to-reel tapes and 8-track cartridges and all kinds of stuff. Generally, personal recordings, but also some commercial recordings that I was doing before we left. I had reduced my hours at the BBC and we had a viable business and we brought it with us here to France. And one of the things that I had planned to do while were here was to do the kind of work I’m doing today, albeit I didn’t envisage [ultimately] setting up my own record company.
I had contact with a couple of large record companies in the UK and things were looking promising. I had acquired a big collection of 78 RPM discs that I was transferring, and putting together potential releases, but of course, 2004 was not a good time for the music business. I did end up doing a few releases for a small record label, but the kind of thing that we were hoping to get – I won’t name the company involved but basically one of the larger independent classical music companies – we were on the brink of doing a deal with them when they had to pull the plug on that, and [on] a lot of their own business, just because finances were getting squeezed at that time. I was looking at the internet and thinking, “Hmm, this is possibly the solution to the problems that people have got at the moment.” And I figured that as soon as we could figure out a way to construct a website that I could manage myself, if only to set up a shop window for my work, I could have some kind of online store selling a few downloads of historic recordings that I had remastered. So that’s where it all began.
TS:It sounds like Pristine started as a side business. But I’m curious what your business volume looks like these days. For example, how many downloads are you selling in a month?
AR:That is a very, very good question, but it isn’t actually easy to calculate. Let me go back to the launch of Pristine, which was February 2005.We had only a few downloads available and it took five weeks to sell our first download. We were very lucky at the time. The editor ofGramophoneMagazine at time, James Jolly, figured that this might be the way things would go, and he decided, a couple of months after we launched, to begin a downloads column inGramophone– they needed something to write about. At the time there was ourselves, iTunes, and Chandos, nothing else at all. So Pristine, as a tiny little two-page website, got equal billing to Apple and iTunes for several months. But we were selling very, very, very small quantities. The business started to grow, I guess by 2008/9/10. I was winding up the other side of [my career at the time], telling my private customers that I’m sorry, I’m just too busy and really need to concentrate purely on the Pristine Classical business.
So that was probably maybe 12 – 13 years ago that this became our total source of income. We came over with enough money to get started, but we needed a business that would be able to sustain us and it took maybe four or five years before that was the case. What’s interesting is that maybe just over 55 percent of our income is from downloads, but still maybe 40 – 45 percent is [from] CDs. So, it’s not all downloads. It started that way, but we had so many people asking for CDs that we quickly realized that mail order CDs was a market that we had to pursue.
TS:Interesting. And that begs a question. Since a large chunk of your salesareCD-based and since some of your downloads are 24-bit, have you thought about doing SACDs?
AR:No. To be brutally honest, we’ve been waiting and waiting for CD sales to drop off. It’s increasingly a difficult thing to manage. We make CDs to order. We’ve got about 1,100 different products and some of those will be a single CD, while some will be double, triple, or quadruple sets. With a catalog that big, we can’t keep stock – it’s just not financially viable. Some of these releases won’t sell for months or years, and then one order will come in. And it has been the downfall of other record companies; producing a certain number of discs of any particular release and then leaving them in the warehouse for years because they’re not selling. The other problem is that since COVID, the cost of shipping has gone through the roof. So, from our perspective, anything that moves people away from hard, physical media towards downloads or streaming is something the we would welcome. I’m not entirely sure what kind of market there would be for SACDs. We offer 24-bit downloads because people kept asking for it. I actually work in a 32-bit media when I’m remastering. It retains the quality, but I don’t really see a benefit to 24-bit with historic recordings.
TS:One more business question before we talk about music. I know that some of your recordings have been restored by people like Ward Marston and Mark Obert-Thorn, but do you have any other staff beyond that, or is it basically all you?
AR:I started out with a guy from England called Peter Harrison, who unfortunately died about eight years ago. He was producing a third of what we released while I was producing the other two-thirds. About 2007 or 2008 I decided it would be nice to widen this a little bit and I got in touch with Mark, and then with Ward, and it’s worked well with Mark. I’ve got the volume of work that I like so I’ve never really looked for anyone else. Mark puts together [short- and long-term] projects, and that works nicely. It gives me enough work to keep myself busy and enough time to keep on top of the business and have some time for myself.
I have had other people inquire [about doing work for Pristine] and frankly I’m not particularly keen on what they have to offer, [or] on how much they wanted to charge me. Mark and I have had a really good working relationship. I have actually met him [only] once on my only visit to New York. He drove up from Philadelphia and we had lunch together. We get on really well. And I encourage him to do his own pet projects, [and] to not worry too much about the commercial viability of what he does, although it’s nice when they do sell in any significant numbers. We get the collectors coming in for his output whereas mine is more often the more mainstream – the stuff that actually sells, usually not the rarities. For example, one of his current projects is the [conductor Fabien] Sevitsky recordings with the Indianapolis Symphony [Orchestra], which have been originating from Sevitsky’s nephew. I think we’re currently up to Volume Six. I would never have heard of Sevitsky, let alone known where to look for the recordings.
Word travels slowly but [news about our recordings] gets picked up in various reviews, which bring people to our website. I wouldn’t say any of it sells in vast quantities. If I put out a Maria Callas recording that everyone’s already got three or four [versions of], I’m [still] going to sell a lot more of that than I would a Sevitsky recording. But that’s the kind of thing that I really welcome from Mark – these kinds of projects that bring in some of the more obscure performers. And Mark’s approach is different from mine and that’s interesting.
TS:Yes, I noticed that, for example, he doesn’t use Ambient Stereo.
AR:No, and there was a time where, if he was working on a project from vinyl rather than shellac, he would send it to me and I would “Ambient Stereoize” it, because people were asking for it. But then I decided that he should produce his own finished product in the way that he prefers. I would say that I’m definitely more interventionist. Ultimately, we come at similar problems from different angles.
This interview will conclude in Part Two in Issue 163.
About the Author:
Ted Shafran is the president ofConnectability.com, a Toronto, Canada-based IT solutions company. He has studied piano, music theory, and voice, and sings with theToronto Mendelssohn Choir,the oldest arts organization in Canada. He is also a long-time record collector and audiophile.
The 1980s glam metal scene is retrospectively revered by some and derided by others. While it ultimately may be diplomatically viewed as a mixed bag, one thing is certain – the scene still has legs to this day.
One of the more interesting bands of the decade was Jetboy, San Francisco natives turned Los Angeles. transplants. The group’s eclectic mix of punk-infused glam presented something of a different spin on a bustling and overcrowded late ’80s scene.
Looking back, Jetboy’s 1988 debut record, Feel The Shake, is a true outlier, a gem of a record that not only warrants repeated listens, but seemingly gets better and better as more intricacies become heard. At the heart of it all is Mickey Finn, Jetboy’s vocalist and de facto leader. Their most recent album isBorn to Fly,released in 2019 throughFrontiers Records.
While Jetboy would experience only modest ’80s success, their latter-day rejuvenation has seen them exceed previous expectations. A hot ticket on the festival and supporting-act circuit, Jetboy has seen something of a revitalization among a nostalgic fanbase. And Philadelphia Flyers fans may know that “Feel the Shake” is the song played whenever their team scores a goal. Although the future currently seems murky for Jetboy, Mickey Finn is ever-optimistic for what’s to come, and thankful for what he has.
I recently had a chat with Finn, where among other things we discuss his origins, the life and times of Jetboy during a buzzing 1980s heyday, the peaks, valleys, and pitfalls of Jetboy’s journey, and more.
Andrew Daly:Mickey, thanks for digging in with us. Going back, what events first sparked your interest in music?
Mickey Finn:Radio and commercials. As a child, I sang everything instead of talking! Then I was attracted to slightly strange pop stars like [David] Bowie and Elton John.
AD:Prior to the formation of Jetboy, what were some of your earliest gigs where you first cut your teeth?
MF:Well, I started in [a] garage jamming with friends. Then, I was in some punk bands like Reign of Terror, Executioner, and my first metal band, Sweet Evil. These were all South Bay Area bands.
AD:Unlike many of your metal contemporaries, Jetboy’s rise began in the San Francisco Bay Area, rather than in LA. Paint a picture of the scene around that time.
MF:Our shows right from the beginning were an amazing mix of punk, metal, glam, and everything alternative. The North Beach scene of Broadway was a great spot for alternative music. I mean, you had the Stone (the Keystone family of clubs), the Fab Mab (Mabuhay Gardens), and then the On Broadway literally across the street from each other. Every weekend was an experience of awesome music, drunk kids, and sometimes violence (laughs). San Francisco was a great music city at that time.
AD:Walk me through the initial formation of Jetboy. How did the puzzle pieces first fall into place? The band was initially the brainchild of guitarists Fernie Rod and Billy Rowe, right? How did you come into the picture, and what were your first impressions?
MF:I was friends with (bassist) Todd Crew through our girlfriends, and at the time, I was playing in a South Bay band called Sweet Evil. At one point, I had Todd come audition for us, and afterward, he thought I would like Jetboy better, who he had just recently started jamming with. After some coaxing and unorganized planning, we finally all got together, and I was the last piece to complete the lineup that would go on to success and a major label record deal. Although initially reluctant, I instantly felt the vibe of the songs they had written, and on the spot, during the first rehearsal, I started writing the lyrics needed to complete the songs. I probably even started singing that first day as well, and we all knew it clicked and felt amazing.
AD:I know this is going back a bit, but what do you recall regarding Jetboy’s first official gig?
MF:It was a high school graduation party, I believe, and then what followed was the first of our many performances at the Fab Mab, which was North Beach Broadway’s famous underground and punk music spot that had to be witnessed to be believed. That spot was also the location of my first punk rock show a couple of years before. RIP Ness Aquino and the glory of the Mab, and Piss Alley. (laughs)
AD:The Bay Area was bursting with thrash bands around this time [the early-to-mid 1980s], but Jetboy found itself a band that embraced its influences, including blues, metal, and punk. Was that a conscious choice to try and break from the established mold?
MF:No, not really. We were all into metal, thrash, punk, and every kind of cool alternative music we could devour. However, our musical taste definitely could not be satisfied with just thrash metal, so we just did what felt good as well as what was emanating from our many influences to produce what was Jetboy. Our fashion and look were equally important to us.
AD:Initially, Jetboy garnered a lot of attention from record executives, but being in the Bay Area, you were away from the action on the LA strip. What made you decide to inject yourselves into the bustling Hollywood scene?
MF:Our manager pushed for it, and it just made sense, as that’s where all the [record] labels were located. It was easier to get them out to see the band perform there. We had also conquered the NorCal music scene, so moving to LA was the first step to spreading our wings to see if we had the mass appeal to succeed.
AD:Jetboy signed on with Elektra Records around the same time the band moved to Hollywood. What did the courtship look like?
Jetboy, Elektra Records promo photo.
MF:It took forever; it was something like a year for them to finally commit, and then for the lawyers and contract negotiations to be completed. They started meddling and criticizing every move we made, and as they say, too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the recipe, which is kind of what happened. We got through it and came out with a decent first record, although much different than [what] we had imagined.
AD:My understanding was there were delays in regards to the release of Jetboy’s debut,Feel The Shake. Did the parting of ways with original bassist Todd Crew have anything to do with those delays, or were there ongoing issues with Elektra?
MF:Our record was shelved a couple of weeks shy of its official release date due to the East Coast parent company firing all of the West Coast branch, along with our A&R guy, and the president of Elektra. This was also around the time that Todd became out of control, and we were advised to find a new bass player or risk our careers, but that’s a story in itself. My love for Todd runs deep and we did what we could to help him, but it wasn’t enough, he overdosed and died way too young. I wish to god we could have known what was to come and tried to help more, but we were all kids. (The band subsequently signed with MCA Records and the company releasedFeel the Shake.)
The delays resulted in us losing momentum. While all the other bands [who were] signed around that time went on the road and did their thing, we were left behind. This was [a] critical [blow], as our collective glory days were short-lived and would burn out in just a couple of short years. Also, when Sony Music came in and purchased MCA Records, everything changed at the label, and once again, the timing for us could not be worse, we got zero support and literally no push for our records. At this time, we were in every rock magazine and were critically well received by the music world, yet we had no label support, and that was that, [the] end of the road in the flash of a second.
AD:Jetboy’s first chapter came to an end in 1993. After the breakup of the band (which reformed in 2006), grunge and alternative rock moved in, in full force. The 1990s were a proverbial minefield for rockers of your ilk, Mickey. How did you ride the decade out?
MF:In the wake of all that went down, we then relocated back to the Bay Area and reformed, even changing our name to MindZone, working with Bill Graham Management, and changing our style to full-blown metal. We created some of the best music of my lifetime, some of which was released on indie labels, and if you can find it you will be impressed. We came close but failed to secure a new deal in ’97. I called it quits, got married, then divorced, and for about ten years worked as DJ Melo, establishing myself and my products and clubs in Hawaii. In 2006, we found ourselves answering the call to reunite after Brian Perera at Cleopatra Records offered to work with us, and convinced us the time was right.
AD:After a long absence, 2010’sOff Your Rockerwas a return to form for Jetboy. After so many years away, how was the band able to recapture the sound of its heyday so clearly?
MF:Easy. We had gotten cut short and had more to say, and Billy, Fern, and I were always a magic combination for writing music. We also had grown and became better musicians, so we had no struggles when we began working together again.
AD:I wanted to touch on the 25thanniversary show Jetboy put on at the Whisky A Go Go, which was a big success, in celebration ofFeel The Shake. The years have been extremely kind to that record, and retrospectively, people have grown to understand its importance to the genre. If you can, walk me through some of your emotions during that performance, and your overall feelings regarding the record.
MF:Yes, I agree. However, there are really only a few songs I like to perform fromFeel The Shake. The title track is a timeless anthem, which I hope never dies. I hope to play that one ’till I’m in the grave. TheDamned Nationalbum actually has more of my favorite [songs]. But yes, that show saw us come full circle, and showed what some might have missed, as well as what we got cut short of completing.
AD:A lot of so-called legacy acts sit back and rely on their older material but not Jetboy. 2019’sBorn To Flyis proof that the band is stronger than ever. Walk us through the intrinsic musical relationship yourself, Billy, and Fernie seem to have.
MF: When we wroteBorn to Fly, the [record] deal came out of nowhere, through our manager Chuck at Artists Worldwide, and we just flowed like always. I was still in Hawaii, Billy, and Fern in San Francisco, and we just started sending music files back and forth, and working [via] phone calls. We wrote, demoed, recorded [and produced] the whole thing in less than three months, including artwork, all with a very limited budget from the label. And then we waited for about a year for Frontiers Records to release it. (laughs). It’s still one of my favorite pieces of work, and I wish more people would check it out! We also did five videos, all on a shoestring budget, but with lots of cool personality. They’re great and entertaining videos.
AD:Having weathered many storms, Jetboy seems like a band poised for continued success in an era where nostalgia for this music is king, but things have been quiet. What’s the status of Jetboy?
MF:Unfortunately, Jetboy is on hiatus, as Billy is always busy with his guitar [manufacturing] company,Rock N’ Roll Relics,and is also now in Buckcherry, and constantly touring. Fern has retired, and if we are to continue, we will have to find a new lead guitarist. So, anyone interested, please contact me!
AD:What’s next on your docket, Mickey?
MF:I now reside in Las Vegas with my beautiful wife and our beautiful little monsters. Damian, my son, is 6 and is in kindergarten, and Evie is 3 and keeping us busy. I long for music projects, but for now, being a dad is the best thing I almost didn’t do, and love it more than anything!
After recently interviewing Scott Newnam of Audio Advice (Issue 161andIssue 160), I reflected on the answers to one of the questions I had asked him:
What question do audiophiles very rarely consider that they should?
Newnam answered: “As audiophiles we often get too caught up in the specifications and measurements. Ultimately, what we want is fabulous sound. As we get older, we might need an increasingly less-flat response curve from our system to achieve the perceived sound that was intended and that we enjoy. So, don’t be afraid to test adjustments that might theoretically produce slightly too much bass or high frequencies if the result sounds better to you.”
His response, combined with the fact that I had previously experienced personal hearing issues, prompted me to do something about addressing my own limitations. It’s true that hearing loss is a very personal thing, and relative to every individual in terms of its significance and degree of severity. But, if you can make improvements to what your perception is, and perhaps more effectively enhance or compensate for which areas of your hearing have been reduced, then surely the first part of the process is to identify what is adversely affected.
I was aware that I had lost some treble sensitivity over the years, particularly in my right ear, not least of all due to a lifetime (so far!) of listening to music, owning and running a guitar shop, attending gigs, and, like all of us, being subject to the vagaries of aging. I distinctly remember being in my guitar shop and in one ear hearing the blaring tones of Marshall 100-watt stacks being put through their paces by over-zealous potential future rock stars, while at the same time trying to decipher conversations on the phone with my other ear! I also remember testing a Mesa Boogie Mark IV combo after it had been returned from the amp technician, and witnessing the expression on his face when it was truly cranked. (It was only for a very short time.) It was necessary to test gear at volume for regular gigging use. (The Mark IV is a great-sounding guitar combo! Especially when loaded with a Celestion “Greenback,” compared to the very-bright-sounding 200-watt Electro-Voice speaker versions. I like both for different reasons; the Celestion for rich warm harmonics and mid-tones which suit blues and rock, whereas the E-V has more of a harder edge and crisp crunch to distorted sounds and is a brand often known for PA installations.)
The ability of human hearing to handle such a dynamic range (roughly 120 dB) truly is remarkable, even if our ears are subject to wear and tear! I have always been a bit of a self-confessed treble head. I just love the definition and articulation in upper-register detail; crunch, snappiness and liveliness in well-voiced snares and hi-hats, for example. Don’t get me wrong – I’m also a bass-head who appreciates everything the low end does to enhance the midrange and listening spectrum in general, but I do love top-end clarity and “harder” definition a little more than most. There’s something truly special about listening to a drummer with real bite, playing a beautifully tuned kit. Neal Peart, Gavin Harrison, Keith Carlock, Simon Phillips, Steve Gadd, Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta, Buddy Rich, Mike Portnoy, Nick D’Virgilio and Virgil Donati immediately spring to mind. Their talents and feel are just humbling to behold. Here’s a Keith Carlock solo from the 2005Modern Drummerfestival which is truly stunning:
Back to the subject of dealing with your personal hearing loss, and how it may be impacting your own listening: what can help point you in the right direction if you are either suspicious of having hearing loss, or want to confirm that there is in fact something going on?
You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that there are a variety of audio-enhancement software programs built into many modern Android- and Apple-based phones and tablets, which can offer surprisingly good improvements when listening with earbuds or headphones. Perhaps the greatest value of such software, though, is in identifying the extent of the problems you may have that you were perhaps initially unaware of. Hearing loss tends to happen gradually, unless, of course, as a result of some high-level exposure for a damaging period of time.
To name one example: the Samsung Android operating system built into my tablet has a useful feature calledAdapt Sound.Under the Settings menu – Sounds and Vibration – then Sound Quality and Effects is a menu entitled Adapt Sound which allows you to run a basic hearing test. You must plug in your headphones for the program to run. It will then play a series of beeps at different volume levels for each respective ear, and you respond affirmatively when you hear the beep by tapping the screen. It’s simple but very insightful, and portrays the result of your test results in a graphic EQ style with the areas of reduced hearing shown in pale blue, and conversely, what you should expect to be able to hear by turning on Adapt Sound shown in dark blue.
There is a choice of available Adapt Sound settings. The first is Off, with no boosts to any frequencies. The Under 30 Years Old setting boosts higher frequencies. The third preset is the 30 to 60 Years Old option, which will boost high and mid frequencies. Fourth is the Over 60 Years Old preset, which increases all frequencies but just not quite as much as in the upper treble range settings for the Under 30 Years Old mode. If you run the hearing test and save your own personal profile, you may then make a comparison between the graphic displays of the different-age presets and your own result, which will guide you in picking the best setting for your needs. My personal result is closest to the Over 60 Years Old in my right ear but within the 30 to 60-year-old group for my left.
Adapt Sound app menu.
Adapt Sound app showing measurement results.
Although I don’t own an Apple phone or device, I was able to find a function called the Apple Headphone Safety Report which may be found under the Headphone Safety menu. It is designed to protect your hearing by measuring your cumulative exposure to given audio levels, and if you exceed the limit that is recommended within a week, you will receive a notification, and in true Apple style, the feature takes control and turns the volume down. It also has a Reduce Loud Sounds mode. This analyzes your headphone audio and will similarly reduce the volume above a preset dB threshold. Perhaps the results will provide motivation for a further test with an audiologist.
So, I decided to do just that. Some time ago I had developed vertigo symptoms and balance issues, and had some remaining hearing impairment. At first I thought that perhaps it was congestion from an infection, but it wasn’t. Perhaps it was some form of labyrinthitis? The symptoms had reduced in their severity after a period of weeks after I first felt ill, but I was still experiencing some sense of inner-ear pressure. I needed to see a professional. I went to an audiologist.
The audiologist’s initial tests included a basic, press-the-button-when-you-hear-a-signal test, followed by a repeat of the same test but with an overlaid noise (it sounded like a pattern of dithered static) which partly obfuscated the test tones. Like me, perhaps you’d then recognize just how much of your hearing is actually calculated by the brain as you interpret the impulses. The overlaid noise signal is played at slightly varying volumes, as are the test tones, and you can’t help but anticipate what you think the correct response timing is – when in fact you are not so sure.
The test is conducted over a relatively partial slice of the audible spectrum, and when examining my results, I discover that the test tones were played at 250 Hz, 500 Hz, 1 kHz, 2 kHz, 3 kHz, 4 kHz, 6 kHz and 8 kHz, useful but not what you might consider extensive. The range primarily covers what is important for detecting conversation, plosives (sounds that are associated with saying the letters p, t, k, b, d and g), and other consonants.
The third test involved atympanic membrane measurement,obtained from sensing the tension on the eardrum by pulsing a short blast of air down the ear canal. After determining that the results of this test were perfect and that my loss of sensitivity was due to some inner-ear cochlear issue, I was surprised to then be issued with hearing aids. I was gobsmacked but grateful. In my naivete I had expected to be given a prescription for something for inflammation, or be told to turn the volume down in the car when listening to music, or something along those lines, but alas, no! My hearing loss was real, albeit not as impactful as it could have been.
After being tested a second time about three months later, I’d had some mild further improvement, so perhaps some inflammation or congestion had in fact played a part. The doctor told me I was probably more attuned to listening to sounds more carefully than before, because I was paying more than the usual attention to what I was hearing (or not), but I disagree. My sense of excessive inner-ear pressure was very real and still remains, though to a lesser degree.
The moral of the story for me: look after the hearing youdohave. It may sound obvious, but the reality is that hearing damage may happen gradually without your (at first) conscious awareness, particularly if you are a musician who is gigging regularly, or someone who is subject to prolonged periods of exposure to volumes above approximately 85 dBA.
Food for thought is provided in the filmSound of Metal,starring Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, a punk metal drummer who loses his hearing. The film covers Stone’s journey, and those around him, of coming to terms with the losses in his life. It may be sobering, but the film will perhaps make you appreciate your hearing, and the need to preserve it, more than ever before.
Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/RODNAEProductions.
Our last installment(Issue 161)found A&M in transition, moving away from the vocal and instrumental pop and vocal sounds into some British rock and domestic rock and folk acts, as well as the anomaly that was the Carpenters. A&M at this point was on a roll. Having million-selling albums from artists like Yusuf/Cat Stevens and Joe Cocker, and a continuing run of hit singles and albums by the Carpenters, the label had the financial footing and higher profile needed to attract talent they could develop and sell records. (Part Oneof this series appears in Issue 160.)
Growing up in the 1970s, nearly everyone I knew with a rock collection had a copy of this 2-LP set: formerly of Humble Pie, Peter Frampton set out on his own, recording four albums that sold in moderate numbers until he found his biggest success with the double-live albumFrampton Comes Alive!in 1976. Three of the tracks from the album were released as hit singles, the album topped theBillboard200 album chart for ten weeks, and it was the best-selling album of 1976. “Show Me The Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do” featured the “talk box” effect on his guitar.
Named after a town in Pennsylvania (from the first line of The Band’s classic song “The Weight”), the Scottish rock band Nazareth was one of the overseas bands A&M licensed for release in the US. In 1975, the band’s sixth albumHair of the Dogproved to be their most successful, with the title track becoming a staple on classic rock radio. Their biggest hit, though, was a song once performed by the Everly Brothers – “Love Hurts.” The song peaked at Number 8 on theBillboardHot 100, and reached Number 1 in many other countries.
One British band signed to A&M did not see much success until their breakthrough album,Crime of the Century, was released in 1974. This Supertramp album made it to the Top 40 in the US, while reaching Number 6 in both the UK and Canada. It’s also an audiophile favorite for its exceptional sound quality. Below is the band’s first hit single, “Dreamer.” Supertramp would achieve major success with their 1979 albumBreakfast in America, which topped theBillboard200 for six weeks and sold millions of copies worldwide.
One way to get your foot in the door at A&M was to send in a demo tape. Another was to stalk the front of the A&M lot at 1416 North LaBrea Avenue for hours, and chase the label’s owner down when he appeared outside the building. While Alpert and the A&M lot security guard were alarmed about being rushed at the gates, the young musician/singer from Montreal begged Alpert to hear a few of his songs. After returning later that afternoon to play a few of his compositions for Alpert, the label signed Canadian singer Gino Vannelli, and Alpert produced Vannelli’s first album,Crazy Life. Vannelli’s last album for A&M would be his biggest, spawning the Adult Contemporary radio staple “I Just Wanna Stop.” This song, “People Gotta Move,” is from his second albumPowerful People, released in 1974.
In the late 1960s in Chicago, a young pianist and accordion player, Dennis DeYoung, joined the basement band of twin brothers Chuck and John Panozzo, calling themselves the Tradewinds. Afterward, they met guitar player John Curulewski while attending college in that city, and renamed themselves TW4. Later, James Young joined the group, and they settled on the name Styx. A chance gig attended by a talent scout got the band signed with Wooden Nickel for four records (scoring a hit with “Lady”) before moving over to A&M. Curulewski would leave the band after their 1975 A&M debutEquinox, but they lucked out in finding replacement Tommy Shaw, a young guitarist/singer from Alabama. Over the course of several albums, they would produce many top-selling albums and singles, including a Number 1 hit with “Babe” and the Number 1 albumParadise Theater. Here is a favorite of mine, “Lorelei,” fromEquinox.
Proving that pop music wasn’t dead, a husband/wife duo took a Neil Sedaka song to the top of the charts for four weeks in 1975. Captain & Tennille were Toni Tennille and Daryl Dragon (son of legendary conductor Carmen Dragon, brother of Dennis Dragon of the Surf Punks). “Love Will Keep Us Together” not only had an impressive chart run, it was the top single of 1975, and won a Record of the Year Grammy award for them as well as a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year for songwriters Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield. It was one of the last songs the two composed together.
The days of offering purely instrumental music like the Tijuana Brass were pretty much in the past for A&M, but the label still managed to squeak out something every now and then that caught the ear of the record-buying public. Trumpet and flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione, who at first was a jazz musician and a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, recorded a handful of early albums on Riverside with his brother, keyboardist Gaspare (Gap) Mangione in the early ’60s. He then recorded with larger ensembles for Mercury, then signed with A&M in 1975 and recorded nine albums for the label. His fourth A&M album would be the charm – the title track from the 1977 albumFeels So Goodwould reach Number 4 on theBillboardHot 100 chart, and hit Number 2 on theBillboard200 album chart.
Another 1977 album would bring A&M even more success. Rita Coolidge recorded 14 albums for A&M, but her best-selling effort wasAnytime…Anywhere, which featured threeBillboardtop 20 hits – covers of the Boz Scaggs song “We’re All Alone,” the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and a remake of the Jackie Wilson hit “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher” that made it all the way to Number 2 on the Hot 100.
A&M was no stranger to soft rock and California pop, and Pablo Cruise could almost be considered an update of the type of music the label released in the ’60s. Having signed to the label in 1975, The group found their third album,A Place in the Sun, to be their commercial breakthrough with the featured hit “What’cha Gonna Do?,” but their biggest success was achieved with their next release,Worlds Away, featuring the hit singles “Don’t Want to Live Without It” and “Love Will Find a Way.”
Although A&M was firmly established in the rock and pop groove, the label also had success in other musical genres. We will look at A&M’s releases in soul, funk and R&B in our next installment, and in the following one, examine the winds of change that took A&M into the 1980s.
Like vintage watches, pre-owned tapes are best appreciated with mint, original packaging. Ken Kessler finds they often disappoint.
It was our friend Jeff Dorgay atTONEAudiowho first identified me as an “Audio Historian,” even going so far as to list me as such on the magazine’s masthead. Despite having written or collaborated on five books about hi-fi, and having inspired John Atkinson ofStereophileto coin the term “anachrophile” when we worked together atHi-Fi Newssome 39 years ago, I had never considered myself worthy of such a career identifier. Me? An historian? My high school teachers’ laughs can be heard from their graves.
Atkinson created the anachrophile label for the then-new growth in interest in vintage hi-fi equipment – amazing to think this goes as far back as 1983. Why “amazing?” Because at that time, it must be remembered, CD was just about to hit the market, “digital” was the buzzword, the vacuum-tube revival was still a niche (though growing steadily), and elevated values for old, second-hand gear only applied to certified classics like Marantz’s Models 7, 8, 9, and 10, tube McIntosh amps, Tannoy Red and Gold monitors, and the like. Then as now, most hi-fi components depreciated faster than day-old bread. That a love for antique audio even happened is akin to a miracle.
Despite covering hi-fi classics now for nearly 40 years, I do not claim to be the first to have been fascinated by audio’s past. When I got bitten by the vintage bug, the industry was then still a young-ish 30-years-old, if you count its dawn as the first half of the 1950s. The extreme high-end was even younger, but by the time I learned to worship tubes in the late-1970s, the seeds had been sown for the creation of a vintage-gear-oriented underground: long before I started to write about classic hardware, the French, Italian, Japanese and Korean audiophile communities were peopled with those who loved, cherished, and honored such equipment.
Hence, Atkinson’s clever neologism “anachrophile” was warranted because there were enough of us globally to merit a category of our own. In those days before single-make histories were published, collectors were inspired and supported by academic studies from the likes of Japan’sStereo Sound, with whole issues devoted to companies of McIntosh’s stature, and articles by noted authorities such as Jean Hiraga in France.
My vintage hi-fi fixation has remained a constant since the 1970s when – as an impoverished audiophile – I acquired a Rogers Cadet III tube integrated amplifier and a pair of Goodmans Eleganzias from a friend who was upgrading to Radford tubes and Spendor BC1s. This would later enable me to write books and produce articles from time to time on specific components from the past, based on hands-on experience, so it was inevitable that my rediscovery of open-reel tape would go beyond simply listening to a source I feel is superior to all others.
Naturally, it was the incredible sound of pre-recorded tapes which seduced me, regardless of the ordeal (and cost) of establishing a library of tapes sufficient to justify the acquisition of tape machines. It didn’t occur to me as I was seduced by the sound ofSgt. PepperthroughFalcon LS3/5As,EAR electronicsand a Denon DH-710 at the Tokyo International Audio Show in 2017 that I was about to embrace an obsolete technology with challenges not unlike the ownership of an Edwardian motorcar made in 1910, or a passion for plate cameras. But nothing would stop me, having once been bitten.
Denon DH-710 tape deck.
It is, however, in my nature to obsess about any new interest which attracts me. Over the years this has caused me to study wine, fountain pens, wristwatches, etc., instead of merely enjoying them for what they are, without the background information. Which brings us to one of the aspects of the tape revival which in turn both delights and frustrates, depending upon your level of geekiness.
One soon learns with open-reel tapes that not every box reveals some factual nugget to enrich our knowledge of audio’s first four decades. It’s worse than that: they tend to carry the absolute minimum of information. Despite commercial pre-recorded tapes being aimed more at enthusiasts than at casual users (if only because of the elevated prices), they suffered for the most part a dearth of liner notes, and not just about the recording technology: most tapes simply list the tracks, a situation made worse by an absence of songwriter credits, dates, musicians’ names, and other grievous lapses.
Let’s dispense right away with the tapes whichdidregale the owners with probably more data than they needed. The 1950s – 1960s specialist labels, in particular Audio Fidelity, Command, Everest and others which were present in the earliest days of the medium, printed information on the boxes or on separate inserts explaining how the sessions were recorded. Typical was Bel Canto’s specifications printed on the back of the boxes. This info also appeared on titles from other labels for which Bel Canto undertook the tape duplication.
For the curious audio enthusiast, the specs would explain that the tape was “produced in accordance to NARTB standards.” It would “insure a frequency response of 50 to 15,000 cycles per second.” Even more impressive were words to warm the cockles of any tape fetishist’s heart: “Latest 2 and 4 track Ampex duplication equipment provides a wide dynamic range at 1:1 ratio of duplication.” (Note that the labels used 2-track and 4-track to describe the formats, rarely 1/2-track or 1/4-track.)
Technical data provided for a reel-to-reel tape.
Cynics might point out that real-time duplication would have been financial suicide, and that high-speed duplication was probably the reality, simply for costs and expediency. All I know is that – as I sit here listening to The Lettermen tape,I Have Dreamedon Capitol, and it’s in the lowest-common-denominator format of 3-3/4 ips 1/4-track – the sound is simply staggering despite any economies taken during duplication, made even more incredible when one considers how pre-recorded open-reel tapes began as 1/2-track 7-1/2 ips. When compared side-by-side to the vinyl, the only listener who could possibly prefer the LP would be a cartridge or turntable manufacturer.
This brings me to a reason why most tapes suffered a dearth of information, though I am loath to defend the music industry. It’s worth noting that the premium labels, primarily with repertoires of classical, soundtracks, and some jazz, invariably included separate sheets, e.g., librettos, for opera tapes. This applied to record companies such as Columbia and RCA, not just the audiophile labels. But these were the exceptions. Confusion reigned when the vinyl LP’s artwork was reproduced in either exact or reduced form for the front and back of the tape box, and without corrections.
I’ve noted previously, for example, this happened when A-sides and B-sides were flipped, or – worse – when the track orders were changed, and more frequently than you might suspect. Sometimes the label glued to the tape spool would indicate the flipping of A- and B-sides. Aggravating this, though, is that early tapes rarely included the track listings on the spools because the stick-on labels were tiny, the contents listed only on the boxes.
Read it if you can: a Bel Canto tape reel label.
Bel Canto was particularly diligent in this respect, despite the tiny stickers on the spools. Each box showed the song listings for both the 2-track and 4-track versions, the former usually containing fewer numbers than the latter. To indicate the speed, the box’s spine would have “1/2-track” printed on it, while an orange sticker would cover this to indicate a 4-track tape. The labels on the spools were printed with “2-track 7-1/2 ips” and rubber-stamped for 4-track. The boxes often added, “Also available on vinyl record” or LP along with the catalogue numbers.
While most classical tapes and those from specialty labels (regardless of musical genre) included either extensive liner notes printed on the back and inside the lid, or with 7 x 7-inch insert sheets, all the way up to multi-page booklets for releases which warranted them, e.g., multi-tape opera box sets, the vast majority offered nothing. Where this became a major loss for the customer is in the rock era.
Prior to the Beatles’Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, most LPs contained minimal artwork, with the tracks listed on the back, some with copious liner notes, e.g., Atlantic’s jazz LPs. As for the inner sleeves, these were often filled with a grid of LP covers from the labels’ other artists. Amusingly, those Capitol advertising-filled inner sleeves that came withMeet the Beatles,Beatles ’65and all of the others prior toSgt. Pepper’spink-and-white inner sleeve (and sheet of cut-outs) now add value to second-hand copies, in the way that collectors of die-cast car models or vintage watches want the original packaging as much as the actual models or watches.
What was sacrificed for the tapes were all the goodies. For example, I have yet to find a single rock-era tape from 1967 onward that included even a printed facsimile of a special inner sleeve on a single-sheet insert. They certain didn’t bother to reduce any internal 12 x 12-inch artwork to add to the contents, the way that Japanese labels produce miniaturized reproductions of inner artwork for their deluxe CDs issued in card sleeves. As for Japanese tapes, just look at this photo of the studio layout which came with a Japanese pre-recorded tape a half-century ago:
Recording data insert for a Japanese pre-recorded tape, held by the late master, Tim de Paravicini.
Perhaps someone can provide further information, but working with tapes I actually own, I’m under the impression that the Capitol open-reel ofSgt. Pepper, for example, contained none of the LP’s inner artwork nor insert of cut-outs, nor doesMagical Mystery Tour(which was really avoidable because it was originally a 7-inch EP with a booklet that was sized just right for inclusion in an open-reel tape box). As forLet It Be, forget it: the original UK release came with a proper book. Indeed, not one tape I have of an LP which was issued originally with deluxe packaging, or a printed inner sleeve or poster, provides such materials. From James Taylor’sSweet Baby Jamesto assorted Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears albums, I guess we just have to make do with sound that blows away the other formats.
Header image: a selection of tapes from early specialist labels. Photos courtesy of Ken Kessler.
I’ve been reviewing the autobiographies of many of the producer/engineers who are responsible for a great many of the records thatCopperreaders and music fans around the globe have loved for over the past three quarters of a century. It’s been an enlightening journey. The evolution of the recording studio has paralleled the development of audiophile listening equipment, and the people responsible for capturing those artistically-resonant musical moments that many of us cherish deserve their accolades.
I’ve reviewed books byGeoff Emerick,Al Schmitt,andBill Schnee(in Issue 161 and Issue 160). While they have all made incredible records and contributions to recording techniques, Phil Ramone (1934 – 2013), founder of A & R Recording in New York, not only has had his recordings find their way into the music libraries of millions, but he was also responsible for pioneering numerous innovations in sound reinforcement for Broadway theaters, outdoor concerts, White House speeches, and in the recording of live theatrical and movie soundtracks. These advancements have become standard practice in the industry – an embarrassingly revelatory discovery for me, who had followed Ramone’s work with Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, the Band, and Paul Simon, among others, but was previously unaware of his other monumental achievements..
Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Musicdiscloses many of the historical events that led to Phil Ramone’s reputation as the sonic wizard who could solve any audio obstacle. The book reveals a good deal of his acoustic engineering methods, his philosophies about music and audio, and some humorous anecdotes about the music industry.
Phil Ramone. Courtesy of Clyne Media.
Crediting Bill Putnam, Tom Dowd, John Hammond and others as mentors, Ramone’s early training as an assistant engineer included working with Tom Dowd in recording some of the 4-track earliest experiments of the harmolodic double jazz quartets of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. Their open-ended and extended improvisations forced the young engineer to think on his feet and be ready to cue up a back-up 2-track machine in order to continue recording and not miss a note of the performances as the 4-track tape ran out. Ironically, Ramone noted ruefully in the book that such preparedness is often lacking today due to the ubiquity of digital audio workstations (DAW), where longer recording times are taken for granted. When producing Slash on analog tape at Electric Lady Studios, an assistant engineer started rewinding a tape according to company policy, before loading a fresh reel of tape, during an extended Slash solo, thus losing the opportunity to capture the lightning in a bottle magic that had inspired what Ramone described as some of “Slash’s finest playing ever on that song.”
This early education in preparedness and in improvising solutions served Ramone in good stead as he put his lessons to the test when he launched A & R Recording in the 1950s. Working with producers like Quincy Jones led to Ramone’s burgeoning reputation, and subsequently working closely with many top artists. Notable landmark projects from that era include:
Elton John, whose live trio album,11-17-70was recorded at and broadcast live from A & R.
Dionne Warwick: “What the World Needs Now,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Alfie,” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” were all engineered by Ramone at A & R.
Ramone engineered the landmarkGetz/Gilbertoalbum for producer Creed Taylor at A & R, the album that included “The Girl From Ipanema” and put bossa nova on the map in the US.
Ramone would also work with Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett and many others, in addition to his standout projects with Paul Simon and Billy Joel.
Ramone’s early years in learning how to create acoustic “spaces” and generate and control echo, delay and reverb took place under the tutelage of engineer Bill Schwartau. This experience would become invaluable in Ramone’s later work, which would confound acoustic theory scholars who were trained according to orthodox accepted methods, and then stumped at how Ramone transformed his mad-scientist approaches into state-of-the-art sound systems.
Phil Ramone realized early on that the ability to control echo and reverb was a very strong selling point for independently-owned A & R Studios. In the book, he goes into technical detail regarding his discovery of how to properly tune EMT plate reverbs, and his subsequent investment into additional EMT units, which caused the number of his recording projects to snowball. A & R’s reputation for excellent sound spread throughout the music and jingle industry in New York.
A & R Studio’s midtown Manhattan address also situated Ramone in an ideal location to become a go-to solution provider for film sound and Broadway theater sound recording and performance, leading to his work on such projects asLiza With a “Z,” A Star is Born, Yentl, Flashdance, Midnight Cowboy,and many others.
An accomplished musician and engineer in his own right (he engineered all of his projects up to and including Billy Joel’sThe Stranger), Phil Ramone’s creative instincts drew him more and more towards producing, which he likened to a combination of “friend, cheerleader, psychologist, taskmaster, court jester, troubleshooter, secretary, traffic cop, judge, and jury rolled into one.”
While Ramone goes into fascinating details about the making of such iconic albums as Paul Simon’sStill Crazy After All These YearsandThere Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Billy Joel’sThe Stranger, 52nd Street, The Nylon CurtainandThe Bridge, Paul McCartney’sRam, and Bob Dylan’sBlood On The Tracks, he also cites lesser-known records of personal sentimental value, such as the overlooked and underrated Karen Carpenter solo album (released 13 years after her death), or Julian Lennon’sValotte, equally valid musically, although significantly less critically acclaimed.
Far less publicized but historically momentous are Phil Ramone’s innovations for sound reinforcement and theatrical sound, and subsequent methods he put into place for recording original cast albums..
As A & R Recording’s reputation grew, Ramone and partner Don Frey received so many requests for concert and television production sound that they got on the radar of the White House in 1961. This led to A & R being asked to work on the atrocious acoustics at the Washington D.C. National Guard Armory and remedy the problems before a scheduled broadcast of a President John F. Kennedy speech and National Symphony Orchestra performance.
Improvising a jerry-rigged speaker system he devised with Altec to be hung in tiers, and an ingenious use of 10,000 experimental NASA weather balloons loaded with Styrofoam to dampen the Armory’s cavernous echoes, Ramone humorously recounts that he received a 7 am phone call from President Kennedy following the event. Kennedy was calling Ramone to congratulate him and Ramone hung up, thinking it was a practical joke. He then profusely apologized when JFK called back, laughing and explaining that it was really him.
The triumphant success with the Armory sound solution led to Ramone creating the acoustic design and the recording system for the East Room at the White House. His design has since become standard. As the go-to sound person for President Kennedy, it would fall upon Ramone to oversee sound for the historic Madison Square Garden event highlighted by Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK in May 1962.
New York City concerts in Central Park have been a standard summer event for over 50 years, but it was Phil Ramone who set the bar for acoustic engineering design and for sound quality. In 1967 he was introduced to Barbra Streisand after he was approached by her manager, Marty Erlichman, to design a sound system for a first-time-ever concert in Central Park’s 99-acre Sheep Meadow, for a live album recording and CBS-TV broadcast videotaping. With an anticipated attendance of 10,000, Ramone was given the unprecedented task of creating an open-air sound system that would allow listeners to hear the music clearly thousands of feet away without any time delay.
The fixed, frequency-limited sound systems then used in open arenas like Yankee Stadium were inadequate to meet the needs for high-quality live and recorded sound quality. In addition, the sound system would have to be assembled for the concert and then torn down afterwards to restore Central Park to its normal environment.
With mad scientist aplomb, Ramone put on his creative thinking cap and conjured up the following solutions:
Creating a series of 12 speaker towers that utilized then-experimental JBL long-throw horns to mitigate delay issues for the listeners farthest from the stage.
Hiring an air-conditioned trailer to keep the humongous power amps needed for the sound system from overheating.
Taking out a rain insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London.
At one point a lighting truck accidentally severed a large cluster of microphone cables, and a six-man team had to splice them back together.
A mobile multi-track recording truck was hired, but Ramone wound up having to oversee the recording himself, as the assistant who came with the truck was drunk, and passed out before the show had begun.
The resulting record,A Happening in Central Park,went gold, and the broadcast received great acclaim. It was released on home video in the 1980s, and subsequently on DVD and Netflix. The attendance for the concert totaled around 125,000, 12 times more than initially anticipated.
In 1981, Ramone was called in to replicate his Central Park sound reinforcement conquest and take it up several notches when Simon and Garfunkel decided to hold a reunion concert, to be recorded for an album and televised. Expanding upon his earlier efforts, Ramone accommodated for the larger anticipated crowd, and the 500,000 concert attendees were enthralled. This historic event was a huge success, and both the record album and DVD became best sellers.
While Phil Ramone’s work on movie soundtracks makes for quite an extensive list, his pioneering work in surround sound is worth noting.
The book has a fascinating breakdown of the intricate system that Ramone devised to record the live music performances while filming the 1976 version ofA Star Is Born, which featured the mammoth single, “Evergreen.” Streisand wanted music and vocals to be recorded live on the movie sets and then transmitted through 60 Class-A phone lines between The Burbank Studios and Todd-AO’s facilities. (Class A telephone lines are normally used for official government business.) Ramone would have to mix the music and then send it over the phone lines, and Streisand would later supervise the assembling of the dialogue, music and sound effects. This necessitated the first-ever use of experimental satellite technology developed by Pacific Bell, and resulted in the first magnetic Dolby Stereo surround-sound film, which premiered in true surround sound in 15 theaters throughout the US. Dolby Stereo encoded four channels of surround information – left, right, center and surround – onto a 2-channel format.
Ramone’s insights into original cast Broadway recordings are particularly enlightening. Unlike a studio recording, Ramone viewed doing an original cast soundtrack album as capturing a piece of history, since Actors’ Equity rules are strict with regard to recording a show for commercial purposes. As a result, his approach was more akin to doing a live radio broadcast than creating a meticulously recorded and mixed Paul Simon or Billy Joel album.
Ramone’s original cast recordings involved recording entire run-throughs and two additional full takes, expanding the pit orchestra to enrich the sound, and placing the actors at the back end of the studio so they had room to use their bodies while singing in order to capture the same energy that they exhibited on stage. Rather than rein in actors from projecting their voices the way they did on stage, Ramone would use microphones that wouldn’t distort when the actors were singing loudly, in order to allow the actors to replicate their stage performances as closely as possible.
When Phil Ramone producedPromises, Promisesin 1968 (his first Broadway original cast recording, for which he won a Grammy), he was approached by composers Burt Bacharach and Hal David to redesign the acoustics of the Shubert Theatre to better approximate the pristine sound of the pair’s past recordings with Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield as Ramone had engineered them.
Adapting a new process of measuring and analyzing acoustics called Acousti-Voicing for its first-ever use inside a theater, Ramone and his partners charted the frequency response at different areas within the room. They then designed a speaker placement system to create the illusion that the sound was coming from the stage. The audio system incorporated as many as 24 amplifiers, 180 microphones, 18 Altec speakers, a custom-built Langevin broadcast console, graphic equalizers, and Ramone’s standby EMT reverb plate. Additionally, the orchestra pit was reconfigured with an added ceiling, plus sound baffles separating different orchestra sections, and space for a vocal group.
The Shubert Theatre’s transformation via a radical combination of studio equipment, acoustic analysis, and then-primordial surround sound stymied professional acousticians, but the results were state-of-the-art, and soon became the benchmark upon which most professional theatrical sound is currently predicated.
Taking things a step further, Ramone would go on to fabricate the first seamless technical combination of studio-recorded and live theatrical sound for film with the 1972 Liza Minnelli television specialLiza With a “Z.”Choreographer Bob Fosse wanted live vocals instead of pre-recorded songs to accompany the intricate dance routines, as he was concerned that camera close-ups on Liza would reveal lip-synching.
Ramone solved the problem by utilizing a wireless radio microphone hidden in Minnelli’s skimpy Halston dress, with the plan for her to only lip-synch during the strenuous dance sections while singing live for the rest. Expertly fading the pre-recorded track in and out, he was able to fool Fosse from differentiating between the live and recorded vocals, andLiza With a “Z”would go on to win four Emmy awards and a Peabody award.
Phil Ramone begins and endsMaking Records – The Scenes Behind The Musicwith a tribute to his musical idols, and the personal delight he took in producing some of their iconic records during the twilight of their careers. He recounts the blow-by blow-events and emotional upheavals in the making ofDuetswith Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles’Genius Loves Company.
The pugnacious and acerbic Sinatra had become thoroughly entrenched in his ways and was a notorious curmudgeon by 1990. The 1993 recording sessions forDuetsbegan against a backdrop of historical baggage: the recording would be for Capitol, the label Sinatra parted acrimoniously from back in 1962. Sinatra refused to record without a 55-piece live orchestra playing, with any notion of recording with a smaller ensemble immediately rejected. There was concern from Ramone and engineer Al Schmitt that even the suggestion of an overdubbed vocal could invite a physical attack.Duetswould mark Sinatra’s return to the studio after nearly 10 years. And while reluctant to redo his old hits as duets with younger singers, he also, unlike Tony Bennett for example, steadfastly refused to sing with them in the studio.
Upon making Sinatra comfortable by repositioning him with the orchestra instead of in a vocal booth, Ramone finally got him to agree to record by promising him, “If you’re unhappy with what we do, I’ll personally erase the tapes. No one will ever hear them. Don’t worry – this will be great!”
Sinatra’s response: “it better be.”
The recording of Ray Charles’Genius Loves Company, which became his last and biggest-selling record, took a 180-degree opposite approach. Charles insisted that the duets be done live with the guest artists in the same room.
Due to his blindness, Charles was most comfortable recording in his own studio, built in 1964, where he could navigate all the rooms from memory. He even knew the console well enough to do mixes himself. Yet, Charles was not only able to recordGenius Loves Companyin an unfamiliar studio, he would point out to Ramone when a tempo was off by a single beat per minute.
Both records featured timeless collaborations between the two music legends and the stars who grew up on their music, including Natalie Cole, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, Norah Jones, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and many others. The stories of the making of both albums are fitting bookends to a captivating read for anyone interested in Phil Ramone’s sometimes-unsung contributions to music, recording and live sound.
In ourprevious episode(Issue 161), we discussed the “lightweight” category of monophonic cutter heads made from the 1930s through the 1960s. These moving-iron record-cutting heads, manufactured by RCA, Presto, Rek-O-Kut, Fairchild, Neumann and several others, all range between 5 oz. and 18 oz. in weight. They were lightweight enough to be easily compatible with most disk recording lathe assemblies out there at the time, and, with very few exceptions, they were most often “floated.” This involved suspending the cutter head over the surface of the blank record by means of a spring or a counterweight, or sometimes both. In a floating head system, the depth of cut is set by adjusting the spring height, the spring tension, or the counterweight.
Small variations or irregularities on the surface of the blank disk would cause the cutter head to move up or down, vertically, but the heads would literally ride it out, and the quality of the record cutting would not be affected. Larger disk irregularities, however, would result in an irregular depth of cut. The heavier the cutter head, the more difficult it would be for it to ride out any surface irregularities on the blank.
Western Electric took a different approach to pretty much everything, but especially to cutter head mass, and their method of adjusting the depth of cut. From the early days of electrical audio, Western Electric made some unusually large cutter heads. While on the East Coast of the US and in Europe it was rare for a cutter head to even approach 18 oz., Westrex heads were routinely well above 5 lbs. Many lathes of the time were too small and too weak to handle them. The Western Electric cutter heads usually found refuge in Scully lathes, which were substantially built and could accept pretty much anything one might consider throwing at (or mounting on) them.
They sure didn’t do no floatin’ business over at Western Electric.
In fact, if one was to attempt to find the dead opposite of a “floating head,” I don’t believe they would find anything closer than the Western Electric system. The suspension on which Westrex cutter heads were hung still contained a spring, which was adjustable by means of a knob, but this would not set the depth of cut. It would only vary the vertical force applied to the “advance ball” system, which was mounted on the cutter head.
The advance ball assembly on a Westrex 43D cutter head. Courtesy of Tor H. Degerstrøm at THD Vinyl Mastering, Oslo, Norway. Photo by Anja Elmine Basma.
The advance ball was a tiny sphere of a hard material such as sapphire, attached to the end of an adjustable arm. It was placed right next to the cutting stylus and just slightly ahead of it. The cutter head would essentially rest upon that ball, which would ride on the surface of the blank disk, and would ride out irregularities. By adjusting the arm, by means of a large knurled knob located on the front of the cutter head, the relative height of the advance ball would change, allowing the cutting stylus to sink deeper into the blank disk material, or in the opposite direction, withdrawing the stylus from the blank, up to the point where it lifts off completely, and no groove is cut. For a cutter head weighing in excess of 5 lbs., the advance ball system was a simple, effective and reliable way of setting the depth of cut.
Cutting stylus (made of red ruby), with heater wire wrapped around it, and advance ball (made of clear sapphire), on a Westrex 2B cutter head. it’s modified by the author to accept currently-available cutting styli, as the original Westrex taper shank is no longer available. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.
An example of such a cutter head was the Westrex 2B, introduced in 1954 as a replacement for the Westrex 2A, which made its debut in 1948. These were gigantic cutter heads, compared to other monophonic heads of the time. They were a moving-coil design, with a large magnet, and motional feedback generated by a separate feedback coil. The design was elegant and curved, beautifully machined and carefully finished. It is worth noting that back then, there were no CNC machines and no CAD (computer-aided design) software to assist with generating such shapes. The design was drafted on paper, by hand, and subsequently machined using a range of manual machine tools. Each one of these curved parts would require several days of machining to create, using machines that required skilled and experienced humans to operate. After milling the rough shape out of a chunk of metal, several of the parts were then finished on a jig grinder, as evidenced by my investigation of the tool marks under high magnification. During a conversation with Len Horowitz of theHistory of Recorded Sound(who had also been an employee of Westrex from 1975 to 1995, when he purchased the disk recording division upon the closure of the company’s facilities), he related that several of the intricate parts for Westrex cutter heads were made using what would have most probably been one of the very first commercial uses of electrical discharge machining (EDM), where an electrode accurately removes material from a workpiece submerged in an electrolyte bath.
The elegant curved shapes of the Westrex 2B monophonic motional feedback cutter head. It was far from easy to generate such shapes in the 1940s, before CAD and CNC machines arrived. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.
The machining of all the prototypes, as well as all of the parts during the research and development stage for every single Westrex cutter head ever made, was handled by a single individual by the name of Otto Hepp, in-house at Westrex. The actual production thereafter was outsourced to just three machine shops over the entire time span of cutter head manufacturing at Westrex. All three were small, family-run businesses. This offers an indication about how much of a niche market disk recording equipment manufacturing has always been. The whole thing was kept operational by a small handful of very talented and very passionate individuals. Without them, sound recording technology and the concept of high fidelity may have ultimately meant something entirely different. Their dedication to their craft, their determination, and a constant drive for self-improvement is what has presented the world with the gift of high-fidelity recorded sound, and the cultural heritage that has to a certain extent shaped and defined the identity of the Western world of the mid-twentieth century, which the rest of the world embraced and moved towards in large strides.
This cultural ecosystem was rendered possible through an underlying infrastructure of quality manufacturing; a certain work ethic characterized by a desire to achieve significant and challenging goals; a widespread appreciation of the value of education and scientific discourse; and a sense of pride in one’s craft and a desire to pass something down to future generations, not least as a contribution to the collective body of human creation and knowledge, which is a prerequisite for further development. The aforementioned was also a significant contributing factor to securing the economic conditions prevalent in the parts of the world where it was possible to expend time and resources in activities not directly essential for basic survival. In these times of rapid change and disruption, it is important for older generations to remember and for younger generations to discover what it took to reach the present state of cultural and technological advancement. Over a relatively brief span in the middle of the 20th century, we put men on the Moon; connected the world with telecommunications that led to the development of the internet; put large fins on motor vehicles powered by impressive motors and made it possible for the average person to drive to work or take a family trip in them; improved the average quality of life at home, at work and in our communities, and significantly furthered all the ‘graphys,” from typography and photography to phonography/discography.
Automotive design has always reflected the prevailing mood of the time. Bright colors, design statements, luxurious and comfortable interiors, generous dimensions, and powerful V8 engines were indicative of a general mood of optimism, self-confidence and prosperity. It acted as an incentive for what your hard work could bring home. This culture was reflected in the music and film industry of the time and was influential in the development of the high-fidelity audio scene. To quote Jeremy Clarkson, “nobody puts fins like that on a car unless they are pretty sure of themselves!” In 1958, Westrex entered the stereophonic era and introduced the 3A cutter head, which, in adherence to company policy (or perhaps just tradition) was still bigger and heavier than anyone else’s cutter head. There was never anyone or anything out there that could challenge Westrex cutter heads in terms of size and weight, although Fairchild’s commendable efforts to this effect resulted in their 642 stereophonic cutter head. Every bit as heavy as the Westrex cutter heads and also equipped with an advance ball system, the bizarre Fairchild 642 was unfortunately nowhere near as successful in the market. The 3A was succeeded by the 3B and later the 3C, with a total of around 50 units being made, all three models counted in. These were produced up until the highly successful Westrex 3D was introduced in 1964. In disk-recording terms, highly successful translates to around 250 units made in total, including all the variants of the 3D, over the course of 30 years. Courtesy ofPexels.com/Mike van Schoonderwalt.
Interestingly, while the competition was introducing solid-state cutting amplifiers, Westrex held on to their vacuum-tube RA-1500 Series (such as the RA-1541 and its variants) cutting electronics for way longer than anyone else, well into the solid-state era. According to one of their research papers published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society at the time, this choice was explained by the fact that many of these systems were purchased in countries where the transistor had not yet arrived. As a result, it was much simpler for engineers in those countries to do any field repairs and maintenance on familiar vacuum tube electronics, rather than having to deal with technology they had never before encountered, and where they would not be able to find repair components in their local markets. While the solid-state 1700 Series cutting amplifiers are more commonly encountered nowadays, the vacuum-tube 1500 Series are more highly regarded for their sound and fetch a premium on the second-hand market, if they can be found at all.
All the Westrex cutter heads were equipped with an advance ball system, and the tradition continued into the stereophonic era. However, it was also possible to float them, and there was an aftermarket suspension unit developed at A&M Records that specifically designed to float the Westrex 3D cutter head.
The Westrex 3D stereophonic cutter head being floated, with the advance ball assembly removed. It is held on an A&M suspension unit on a Scully disk mastering lathe, with heavy modifications. Courtesy of Eric Conn,Independent Mastering,Nashville, Tennessee, https://independentmastering.com.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Neumann and Ortofon were developing stereophonic cutter heads which were smaller and lighter, with no provision for an advance ball system. These heads were always floated, and this tradition persisted up until the end of disk-recording equipment development and manufacturing in Europe in the late 1980s.
In the next episode, we will discuss the pros and cons of floating a head versus using an advance ball system.
Header image: advance ball and stylus assembly on a Westrex 2B cutter head, repaired and modified by the author. The wires wrap directly around the red ruby stylus are for “hot stylus” recording.
There are a thousand reasons why Jack Tempchin is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Of course, some of these reasons are tied to the timeless tunes he has written for the Eagles, like “Already Gone” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Then there’s the 14-year collaboration with Glenn Frey that produced hits like “The One You Love,” “You Belong To The City,” and “Smuggler’s Blues.” And let’s not forget how A-listers like Johnny Rivers, Tanya Tucker, and Sammy Kershaw found their way to his songs and made them into hits.
But the reasons that really matter are those tied to how great a friend and creative collaborator Tempchin has always been to the artists he’s worked with, and why his work is so well-received by so many. Jack’s an easy person to quickly connect with, and his style is exactly what you hear in his music. When you talk to him it’s like you just resumed a conversation with a lifelong friend, someone with whom you share so much history. Now, Jack is bringing new material forward with San Diego-based rock outfit Mrs. Henry. The band members met through a tribute show for the Band’s albumThe Last Waltzwith Jack playing the role of Neil Young, and discovered a symmetry that they’ve taken forward with the release of a series of singles.
We had the opportunity to speak with this American music legend about his biggest hits, his longstanding friendship and collaboration with Glenn Frey, and why Mrs. Henry has lit a creative fire that has Tempchin writing in a way that has him excited and ready to do more.
Ray Chelstowski: How did you get introduced to the band, Mrs. Henry?
Jack Tempchin: Chad Waldorf is a guy who books shows at the Belly Up club where I’ve been playing for 30 years. He told me that Mrs. Henry was doing a tribute show forThe Last Waltzand they just wanted me to play a couple of Neil Young songs with them. I didn’t know anything about them orThe Last Waltzshow that they do, but I told them that I’d do it. So, I went to their rehearsal facility down by the Mexican border where they have a giant warehouse with a big stage. We went through a couple of songs and then when they did the show, I played the part of Neil Young which was really strange for me because I rarely sing other people’s songs.
RC: The music you are making together is more straightforward rock than the Neil Young music you performed at that tribute show.
JT: Yes. Part of that is because for many years I haven’t had a band. I’ve had a lot of bands in my life, but I went solo about six or eight years ago when having a band was no longer practical. And I love that this isn’t just any old band. They’re incredible and while they are younger than me they are focused on the era of music that I come from. So, I wrote them a note after [the tribute show] and said that while I’m not Bob Dylan and they’re not the Band, we ought to get together and make some music. I played them a bunch of songs that we started to then learn together. For me it’s always a magical combination of people that make music together. You can’t engineer it. You have to get lucky and that’s what happened here.
RC: Did you write these songs with Mrs. Henry in mind or did you already have them in hand?
JT: I didn’t write with them in mind. The first song, “Waiting,” I did on an album years ago. The others were songs that I had written during the pandemic. I had them but didn’t know what to do with them. Then there are a bunch of songs that I had written in the past and I picked out the ones that I thought would be good for this band.
RC: You recorded the first single in one take. How did you know that you had it nailed after only one run-through?
JT: I’ve done all kinds of recording projects over the years, especially making albums with Glenn Frey. But for this we had a great rehearsal space with a big stage. When we rehearsed they had a PA set up and nowadays you can take one line from your mixing board and feed it to your computer and it will transfer every single track. So, they transferred all of the tracks into Logic (software), which made me think that we didn’t even have to go into the studio. We had one day there where we had three photographers, a lighting guy, and the sound was just being recorded. So, we just did the songs. We did them a couple of times and just picked the best [takes]. We also shot videos for each song and they ended up being completely live. No overdubs. People don’t do it like this [anymore] because they correct everything. They even put pitch correction on the bass! I’m not into that and the band isn’t either. We thought that doing something live would be refreshing for people because they could feel the energy of the performance.
RC: Do you have a certain kind of writing protocol where you commit to writing a certain number of songs each week?
JT: I don’t have anything like that. Over the pandemic I spent a lot of time writing over the phone with my friend, (singer/songwriter) Gary Nicholson. He’s an amazing fellow who’s written songs with Willie Nelson and John Prine. He’s had 600 songs recorded by other people. Everyone from Buddy Guy to Fleetwood Mac and Ringo Starr. You can’t even think of someone whohasn’trecorded a song by Gary Nicholson. One night he told me that Bob Dylan now has his own brand of whiskey. It’s called “Heaven’s Door.” So, we wrote a song about a guy looking to write a song that could change the world and gets inspired by drinking some Bob Dylan whiskey. So as far as the writing goes, I just do it all of the time and I’ve done it every possible way. The thing that appeals to me most is that I’m back to writing a lot of songs. I’m writing a couple of songs a week and I can’t keep up with myself. So instead of putting a 10-song album out every year and spending months in the studio we can do a couple of songs every week.
RC: People learned to work remotely during the pandemic. But you’ve done this for years.
JT: I have written a bunch of songs with Bobby Whitlock that went on to be recorded by a number of people. He called me “Jackie T.” One day he calls me and says, “Jackie T. I had this dream,” and as he’s telling me about it I’m just typing, and it’s the first time I remember writing over the phone like that. Even when I wrote with Glenn Frey we’d have a song going and maybe we’d get on the phone to talk about the lyrics.
RC: How did you come to work with the A-list names that have recoded your songs?
JT: A lot of the people who’ve recorded my songs weren’t people I wrote for [specifically]. I just wrote songs and somehow they found their way to these artists. The most “out there” ones for me were Coolio and Jay Z when they sampled songs that I wrote with Glenn Frey, “Smuggler’s Blues” and You Belong To The City.” That was pretty far afield.
RC: Your longest co-writing relationship was with Glenn Frey. What was that like?
JT: I met Glenn and we became good friends years before he put the Eagles together. Then he recorded two of my songs with the Eagles, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone.” Then I didn’t seem him often because he was with the Eagles! Then they broke up and he called me and asked me to come over to write a song. We had never written together before. We’d just been friends. The first night I went over and we wrote “I Found Somebody” and “The One You Love”; they both became hit songs. That night that I went over to his house he had over a hundred candles burning and I asked if he had a date later that night. He said “no. These are for the Muse. We’re not the only ones trying to write a song tonight. We want her to come down and hang with us!” That night began our songwriting partnership which lasted for 14 years.
RC: I’m particularly partial to theSoul Searchin’album that you and Glenn did together. His liner note comments for each track were really special, and his thoughts on the song “Livin’ Right” that reference you have really stayed with me.
JT: Glenn was such an amazing person. We came out of the era where you’d stay up all night. Then one day he said, “Jack, nothing happens now after midnight.” He hired a trainer and had the guy show up every day at a quarter to five in the morning and he’d work out. He changed his life with this “turn on a dime” decision. I ended up doing the same thing.
RC: So, you are making new music and performing it live. It must be different than playing your hits.
JT: As Van Morrison has said about performers from my era, “fans don’t care who you are. They care who you were.” They just want him to play “Moondance” for the rest of his life. I’m writing so many songs now that I don’t care about the fact that I’m not playing my hits. I’m playing songs that people have never heard before and it’s a huge thrill and it’s really working.
Header image: Jack Tempchin and Mrs. Henry, courtesy of Andrew Huse.
The early morning sun blasted through the shade of my window like a World War II searchlight mounted on the neighbor’s roof. I tried to avoid it by turning over, but it burned through my blanket.
I’d had a nasty dream of trekking cross Death Valley, hauling a ton of Borax in a backpack, with nothing to eat but kitty litter. The weight of the Borax made it hard to sit up, so I had to steady myself on the night table as I tried to rise. I must have lost my balance at Dante’s View just before falling off the cliff. I couldn’t remember it but the body aches were a constant reminder. My skull felt cracked like the dried sand at Badwater. I sat on the edge of the bed for a long time pondering my aches.
When that got old, I pulled the window shade, revealing a second-story overlook of Chip’s corrugated steel garage. Right, I’m at Chip’s place in Minneapolis. All the Harleys were gone from the alley. My bike was not where I’d parked it the night before, so I assumed it was inside the garage. My luggage was in my room, though I didn’t remember carrying it upstairs.
At the bathroom down the hall, I unloaded the Borax, drank a gallon of water straight from the tap, and stood under the shower till it turned cold. Then I stood there some more till I was fully braced. As Death Valley lost its grip, I donned some fresh clothes and made my entrance into the dining room. Chip and Candy were having breakfast with Spider.
“Hey Montana, how ‘bout some coffee?” Candy’s voice sounded as sweet as a canary, and I nodded.
“You’re moving a little slow man, you all right?” Spider asked.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The beers kind of snuck up on you last night,” Chip said, “It didn’t help that you were drinking KP’s 12 percent Belgian ale like Budweiser for most of the evening.”
Candy brought a cup of steaming coffee and I smiled.
“Oh yes, KP; how’s he doing?”
“He went to an urgent care facility early this morning where they re-bandaged his thumb with a proper splint and gave him some pain killers. Nothing broken but he won’t be riding for a couple of weeks.” Spider responded.
“Oh wow, I feel bad for him.”
“Don’t feel too bad, Montana,” Chip commented; “He was into those Belgian ales well before he started working on his bike.”
“Probably not a good idea. And it wasn’t a good idea for me to join him, but I didn’t know the beers he was handing me were 12 percent.”
“I tried to tell you man, but it was probably too late because you didn’t seem to care,” Spider added.
Candy brought a large plate of eggs, ham, toast, and a cut-up avocado.
“You’re an angel Candy; there’ll be a special place for you in heaven.” She melted my heart with the smile which followed.
At breakfast, we discussed the night before, Red’s mom, KP’s thumb, and Gimp’s rum. That was the first I’d heard of it. I wondered if I’d drank that too.
I thanked Candy for the perfect breakfast and went out to the garage to check my oil level and a few other things on my bike. I found some fasteners that needed tightening, adjusted the clutch cable, and added a little motor oil.
Somebody slowly rolled by the open garage door in a black Mercedes 500 sedan and stopped. He rolled down the passenger power window and asked, “do you know if Candy’s home?”
When I indicated that she was, he parked the car and introduced himself as Candy’s brother, Jake.
“Nice car; I thought you were the President or something.”
He laughed. “I’m the president of my company,” he responded, “Which is not bad for a grade 10 dropout.”
When I started to tell him who I was, he interrupted – “right, Candy told me you helped Red in the Bighorn mountains. Dammed decent of you. You didn’t even know the guy. I’m not sure I would have stopped for someone that looked like him. Come on, he looked like Ratso Rizzo inMidnight Cowboy.No way of knowing who he is or what his intentions were. He could have shot or knifed you. They’d have found your body and no one would have known. I’ll tell you what man, you are a hero. That’s what Candy said. You know what, next time you need a set of tires, you look me up, here’s my card. I’ll treat you right brother, I feel I owe you.”
With that, he walked into the house.
This was the second time this trip I’d been called hero; must be a Midwestern colloquialism, I thought to myself.
I grabbed a Coors Light and a lawn chair to commence the third stage of my post-hangover treatment after the shower and breakfast.
A half-ton truck pulled up and KP poured out. The driver was a hefty woman wearing a big smile. “You must be Montana,” she said as she got out of the truck and shook my hand. “I’m Lula Mae, KP’s wife. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“You can’t believe all that,” I responded; “where could anyone hide that many bodies? Besides, I was acquitted in court.”
She laughed heartily. “You’re a hoot, you know that Montana, you’re a hoot!”
“And I’ll bet you’re a Southern girl – my favorite kind.” I flattered.
As she walked back towards the truck, she yelled, “I’ve got to go; you and KP can nurse your wounds together.
KP was already at his bike looking things over. He started it up, semi-engaged and disengaged the clutch a few times, and listened to the motor. “I think those guys might have got it right,” he commented, referring to the primary chain replacement.
“Looks like you’re ready to ride.”
“Ready enough to ride it home. I don’t sleep well if my bike’s not where it belongs.” He grabbed a beer from the fridge and pulled up a chair next to mine.
“How’s the thumb?”
“They injected it with some pain killer, and it feels a hell of a lot better than it did earlier. It’s pretty swollen and it’ll take a while to heal.”
“I just met Candy’s brother, Jake. He’s in the Mercedes over there. I didn’t know she had a brother.”
“Half-brother,” he responded. “Two different fathers and neither of them know who they were. I went to school with Jake. He hated it. He failed grade four and had to do it over again. That was a big disgrace at the time. He didn’t get much respect.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Looks like he’s doing OK now.”
“Well, let me finish the story; it’s pretty interesting. He quit school the day he turned 16 and took a job mounting tires at Firestone. He learned everything he could about tires. When they found out he was pretty good at selling them, they moved him to the sales floor. He did so well there, they offered him a manager’s position.”
“No, it was bad for him, that’s where things went to hell. He just wasn’t management material. He made some big mistakes so they fired him.”
“Oh god, that’s terrible, especially for a guy who sees himself as a failure.”
“No that was the best thing that ever happened to him. It inspired him to start his own tire shop. Much of the Firestone clientele remained loyal to him and he soon had to hire staff to mount tires so he could focus on selling. Before long, he moved into larger premises, and then he did the smartest thing he ever did; he hired a shop manager with experience. This guy looked after all the executive details while the guys in the back did the mounting and he did all the selling.
He sponsored some kids’ sports teams, made large donations to the Big Brothers organization, and adopted the responsibility for a little brother himself. He used to be a little brother you know. Anyway, he ended up being featured on a local news special about the Big Brothers organization. He was interviewed and was shown on TV playing baseball with his little brother. This became a public service commercial for the Big Brothers organization and was re-played regularly. His manager decided to run some tire commercials featuring his face, and that brought even more business.”
“Probably more than he could handle.”
“Right, so hebought– not rented – a much larger location which includes motorcycle tires. He gives us great deals so everyone buys their bike tires from him. We can often be found at his shop on Friday evenings raiding his beer fridge at the back of the shop. He keeps it filled and when he has time, he joins us at one of the three picnic tables he’s set there.”
“What a great story man, I love it. It’s so nice to hear about a grade-school failure doing really well.”
“Well, there’s more. He hired Candy to work in the office, and she was attracted to all the bikers in the back on Friday evenings. That’s how she met Chip.”
“Oh wow, does Jake ride?”
“Riding is a lot like dancing, Montana, you’ve got to have a sense of rhythm. Jake doesn’t have any. He tries to ride a bike like he drives his car. He’s an accident waiting to happen, so Chip talked him out of riding for his own good.
Editor’s Note: we are aware that “gimp” can have a derogatory meaning and mean no insult to anyone disabled. In the story, the person with that nickname doesn’t consider it as such, and we present the story in that context.
It was called progressive rock, but when Emerson, Lake & Palmer played this genre, it looked as much back into music history as it did forward into the newest reaches of sound technology. The group’s inspirations included a wide range of classical music of the 18th through 20th century, not to mention jazz elements. The result was elaborate and mesmerizing, making ELP one of the most influential bands of the early 1970s.
Keith Emerson, the founder of this British trio, played keyboards, especially Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer, but also acoustic classical piano. Greg Lake sang and played bass and guitar as well as being the band’s producer. Just as essential to the band’s character was Carl Palmer’s drumming. In a way, ELP was the forerunner to today’s DIY indie bands, inventing new sound worlds and handling all the details of production on their own.
In the late 1960s, Emerson was the keyboardist for the prog-rock pioneers The Nice, while Lake was King Crimson’s singer and bassist. The two musicians hit it off, and by 1970 they had poached the drummer Palmer from a band called Atomic Rooster. Their first performances as a trio featured arrangements of Mussorgsky’sPictures at an Exhibition(which ended in live cannon fire!) and Dave Brubeck’sBlue Rondo à la Turk. There were rumors that they planned to play with Jimi Hendrix, which would have been a spectacular match-up, but it was not to be. By autumn, Hendrix had died.
Largely thanks to Emerson’s pre-existing fame, ELP had no trouble finding a record deal. In 1970 they signed with Island Records, plus Atlantic for the American market, and had their eponymous first album out by the end of the year. Their first hit single was “Lucky Man.”
Side One ofEmerson, Lake & Palmeris mostly taken up by two classical arrangements. Béla Bartók’s “The Barbarian” was one of the first pieces they had worked on together. There’s also a medley of music by J.S. Bach and Leoš Janáček, with added words by Lake and Richard Fraser, a co-lyricist on a few ELP numbers.
Sandwiched between those classical works is a wholly original song by Lake, called “Take a Pebble.” It’s a perfect exemplar of each ELP member’s contribution to the group: Emerson’s imaginative use of the piano, including strumming the strings like a zither, Lake’s dreamy-eyed singing, and Palmer governing both rhythm and texture at the drums. And halfway through, the track momentarily morphs into a bluegrass romp.
The next album,Tarkus, came out in 1971, a mixture of ideas that together typified a prog rock album: an exploration of a mystical concept on Side One and whatever else they wanted on Side Two. For the concept side, Emerson (with one section by Lake) wrote a 20-minute abstraction that seems to be about an armadillo-like creature called Tarkus who battles an ancient Persian monster called a manticore (human head, lion’s body, spikes like a porcupine). But we get that information more from the album art than from the lyrics.
The live albumPictures at an Exhibition(1971) captured a performance of one of the band’s early classical arrangements, their version of the beloved Mussorgsky work. The movements ofPicturesare musical interpretations of artworks by Russian painter Victor Hartmann. The piece was originally for solo piano but became known mainly through orchestrations by Maurice Ravel and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
The ELP suite relies on Mussorgsky’s music as a starting point, building new creations around the original ideas. “Blues Variation,” for example, uses the theme from Mussorgsky’s movement called “The Old Castle,” turning it into a manic, punctuated jam for Hammond organ.
The band’s popularity grew quickly in America. The 1972 albumTrilogyincluded their biggest US single, “From the Beginning.” Part of that album’s appeal on this side of the pond might have been the experimental arrangement of “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s balletRodeo. Since Copland was himself inventing a new take on traditional sounds, the ELP “Hoedown” could be described as Americana twice removed.
Not surprisingly, these pioneers of DIY music wanted complete control of their product. They started Manticore Records in 1973 in time for their next album,Brain Salad Surgery. Much of Side A is filled with individual songs, including Lake’s “Still…You Turn Me On.” Although that unusually melody-driven track has become popular – even emblematic of the band over the subsequent decades – it was not released as a single at the time.
As if to remind the world that their vision was not subject to trends, more than half of that record is taken up by a massive, four-movement prog-rock symphony of sorts called “Karn Evil 9.” Here’s the first part. The interplay between Lake’s voice and the acoustic percussion is particularly interesting.
After only a few years as a band, the three musicians were already getting restless. Instead of putting out regular albums, they began making music in the studio only sporadically. By 1977, they were ready to release the result: a two-volume set of three years’ worth of creativity, calledWorks.Vol. 1 included their single of Copland’sFanfare for the Common Man.But that project was not enough to keep them moving forward.Love Beach(1978) was released right before the band split up. They didn’t even tour in support of it.
The long-awaited ELP reunion finally happened in 1992. The trio was determined to do more than just tour their old songs, but also to create new music. They released a record calledBlack Moon. Critics complained that they were phoning it in when it came to composition and arrangement, but Lake was happy enough with new songs like “Farewell to Arms” and “Paper Blood” to keep playing them after this short-lived reunion.
“Changing States” was an instrumental composed by Emerson, a tour-de-force for synthesizer and organ that also shows off Palmer’s skill and control on high-speed patterns.
The revivified ELP didn’t last long. Their final album is from 1994,In the Hot Seat.Because of nerve damage in his arm, Emerson had lost control of his right-hand fingers. On the last record, he had to overdub the piano parts with two left-hand tracks. The project was both a critical and a popular failure.
But fans did not forget ELP. Their 40th anniversary in 2010 sparked some live performances by ELP (without Palmer) playing old material, plus the release of many remasters and live tracks from the vault.
Emerson continued to make solo albums until 2013, when he was honored with an induction into the Hammond Organ Hall of Fame. Tragically, he died in 2016 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Lake died from cancer later that same year. Palmer, now 72, most recently made four albums with a group he called the Carl Palmer Band; he continues to perform. ELP’s days are over, but no amount of time can erase the spot these innovative musicians carved for themselves in the history of rock music.
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