Tag Archives: Abbey Road

Rocks In The Attic #800: Black Sabbath – ‘Paranoid’ (1970)

RITA#800Post number 800 of this humble blog finds us with one of the greatest albums in rock and metal, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.

It’s one of those cornerstone records, like AC/DC’s Highway To Hell or Led Zeppelin IV, which just feels bigger than the sum of its parts. If the Beatles’ 1969 swansong Abbey Road served as the blueprint for rock albums for the 1970s, then Black Sabbath’s celebrated second album surely served as the heavy metal equivalent. The musical leap from Come Together to War Pigs feels like light years, but the two album openers were released only 12 months apart.

Released in the same year as their doom-laden debut album, Paranoid arrived in September 1970 on the Vertigo label in the UK (and Warner Bros. in the US market). The record company, satisfied with the band’s debut, asked for more of the same. Black Sabbath was recorded in one day, a marathon sprint of twelve hours, but for Paranoid the band were afforded the luxury of a whole six days to record.

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Much has been written about hit-single Paranoid being written in five minutes, tossed off to make up one last song for the album. Bassist Geezer Butler claims it was done and dusted in two hours, from the moment Tony Iommi came up with the monster guitar riff, to the band laying down the track to finish off the album. But as good as the song is, its oversaturation on rock radio makes it one of the least interesting things about the record.

Things start off with War Pigs, the quintessential long-form metal song. A languorous opening and ominous sirens announce something big is on the horizon, before the song stops dead. Bill Ward’s hi-hat counts in Iommi’s stabbing power chords, as Ozzy Osbourne sings the opening verse. This leads to the main riff, before it breaks down again. Clocking in at almost eight minutes, the song doesn’t ever get boring.

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After the comparatively throwaway title track, the band slips into neutral on the stoner favourite Planet Caravan, before picking up speed again on the album’s other big guitar centrepiece, Iron Man. Across those first four songs, Iommi provides some of the genre’s greatest guitar riffs – War Pigs alone has half a dozen different sections – and it makes for the best ‘side’ of metal until perhaps the second-side of AC/DC’s Back In Black or the first side of Def Leppard’s Hysteria (both of which would have been categorised as metal before history downgraded them to heavy rock).

RITA#800cSilverchair’s debut Frogstomp from 1995 is a good example of a Sabbath-influenced metal album that matches the riffs-per-song ratio of Paranoid. But for the rest of the band’s career, Iommi would be a little less generous with his riffs. Paranoid’s less celebrated second side is therefore more representative of the albums that followed: moderate-tempo doom-based rockers with screaming banshee vocals, usually based around one or two killer riffs per song.

Paranoid was the first Sabbath album I heard, and so it was my gateway into the band. After digesting everything I could from Aerosmith and AC/DC, I skipped the Allman Brothers and shifted to the ‘B’ section of the record shop. But like AC/DC’s albums, I was always a little let down by Sabbath’s mid-90s CD remasters. Aerosmith’s CD remasters had great little fold-out booklets with photos and artwork from the albums’ promotional campaigns. In comparison, AC/DC, Sabbath and Motörhead had nothing in their reissues – usually just a tracklisting. I’d have loved an essay, or some retrospective liner notes, but maybe record companies don’t think heavy metal fans can read?

Hit: Paranoid

Hidden Gem: Planet Caravan

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Rocks In The Attic #793: The Beatles – ‘Abbey Road (3LP Anniversary Edition)’ (1969/2019)

RITA#793Christmas continues to come twice a year for fans of the Fab Four, with 2019’s banner Beatles release. 50 years and a day after its original release on 26th September 1969, Abbey Road  has been given the same makeover afforded to last year’s White Album anniversary set.

Packaged in a similar sized box to the White Album / Esher Demos package, the set is comprised of the new 2019 mix by Giles Martin (with credit given to mix engineer Sam Okell on the hype sticker) in its own sleeve, two LPs of outtakes from the sessions presented in an ‘alternate’ cover sleeve, and a four-panel booklet of liner notes, featuring forewords by Paul McCartney and Giles Martin.

It’s a wonderful package down to the smallest details. The blue font used on the hype sticker and in the ‘3LP Anniversary Edition’ labelling on the side of the box echoes the blue sky that takes up the negative space on the album’s world-famous cover shot. Or is it the blue of the dress worn by the girl blurrily walking out of shot on the rear cover? Maybe it’s just the same blue as gravedigger George’s double-denim?
RITA#793aAs with the White Album’s 2018 mix, the 2019 mix of Abbey Road is intimately revealing. Casual listeners probably won’t be able to spot the changes, but if you grew up listening to the album on headphones during your formative years, the differences are massive. Following on from Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s remastering campaigns in recent years, the key words here are clarity and presence. It isn’t merely a money-grab release by simply making things LOUDER, although I’m sure the EMI accountants will all be in line for a sizable end-of-year bonus. Thankfully, Giles Martin and team have done more than just ‘make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder.’

John’s vocal on the first stop in Come Together – ‘got to be a joker, he just do what he please’ – reveals the first tweak. You can hear him bite down – or hold back? – on that last word even harder than before. George’s jangly guitar on Octopus’s Garden is even janglier, strengthening the song’s Country credentials. And Ringo’s fills, particularly on The End, have more weight in them. ‘The sound was the result of having new calfskin drum heads,’ Ringo explains in Kevin Howlett’s liner notes. ‘There’s a lot of tom-tom work on that record. I got the new heads and I naturally used them a lot – they were so great.’

The biggest change in the remix however is in the bottom end. Paul’s bass is pushed further into the front of this mix – if such a thing is possible given how front and centre it already was in the original 1969 mix. This is a good thing; the bass playing throughout the album represents the peak of McCartney’s playing, and his fluid, walking basslines are one of the album’s key ingredients.

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In terms of bonus content, it feels like a missed opportunity that Martin Jr. wasn’t tasked to produce a mono mix of the album. With the White Album being the last Beatles record to enjoy a mono mix upon release, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be have only been available in stereo, the decade’s eventual winning format (even though Martin Sr. and team were still mixing the singles in mono in 1969, with Get Back appearing in April of that year as the band’s final mono single in the UK). If mono mixes of Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be don’t already exist somewhere in the archive, even as reference mixes, then it seems a missed opportunity to not hand this challenge to Martin The Younger. Of course, nobody really needs a mono mix of these albums, but given his achievements, from 2006’s Love soundtrack album of the Cirque du Soleil show, to the remixes of Pepper, the White Album and now Abbey Road, he’s the perfect candidate to do something a little different sonically to compliment the respective stereo mixes.

What we do get as extras are still brilliant: twenty-three tracks of demos, outtakes and orchestral instrumentals. As with the outtakes in last year’s White Album set, some have seen the light of day in one form or another across the Anthology project, but the vast majority have been officially unreleased until now.

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The studio chatter preceding the first track – a run-through of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) at Trident studios – offers a glimpse at the joys that lie ahead:

“Is it possible, without affecting yourselves too much, to turn down a little?” somebody politely asks in the background, off-mic. “Apparently there’s been a complaint.”

“From who?” asks John.

“Somebody outside the building,” comes the reply.

“Well, what are they doing here at this time of night? What guy?” fires back a frustrated John.

Several voices debate for a few seconds. In the background, Paul says ‘It’s his own fault for getting a house in such a lousy district!’

John then comes back on the microphone. “Well, we’ll try it once more very loud, and if we don’t get it, we’ll try it quiet….Last chance to be loud!”

As much as I love hearing the alternate versions of these fifty-year old songs, it’s the banter in the studio that’s just as revealing. As we’ve heard before, Paul is always the most playful in the studio. At the beginning of a take of You Never Give Me Your Money, a croaky Paul – at exactly half-past-two, he tells us, presumably in the A.M. – sings ‘You never give me your coffee.’ At the start of the first take of Golden Slumbers, he changes the piano chord from minor to major (specifically from Am7 to D6), singing ‘Day after day…’, the opening line of The Fool On The Hill, before stopping abruptly to concentrate on the task at hand. It’s annoying when the later, solo-years McCartney peppers his releases with this kind of studio tomfoolery. Listening to him larking about as a grown-up feels akin to tolerating a precocious child. Here, as a fresh-faced 27-year old, he’s just endearing.

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As for the album itself, fifty years young, for me it represents their artistic peak. It’s always been in my top 3 Beatles albums, and contests that top spot on an almost daily basis with Revolver and the White Album. It has such a magical vibe, and seems to be full to the brim with positivity. Even John’s default songwriting setting – pessimist – doesn’t seem to derail the proceedings.

Speaking of which, forget other contenders (The Who, The Byrds, and the Beatles’ own Helter Skelter) for the first heavy, heavy sound. Surely the roots of heavy metal can be traced back to John’s doom-laden arpeggios in I Want You (She’s So Heavy). It’s surely the song that feels it’s opening the door for Black Sabbath’s debut just five months later. Lennon and Harrison’s use of arpeggios thoughout their Beatles career – from songs as varied as And I Love Her to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer – feel like one of least celebrated aspects of their musicianship. Mark Lewisohn, in the first volume of his Beatles mega-biography, goes to great pains to point out that it was the band’s vocal harmonies that made them stand out from their contemporaries in their early years. I hope Lewisohn will give the band as much credit for their intricate rhythm guitar lines, in the eagerly anticipated next volume of his biography (currently due in 2020).

Abbey Road also represents the songwriting peak of George Harrison, with two of the album’s songs penned by him. It’s a peak that would last at least as long as his debut record, arguably longer, but there’s no debate that in terms of maturity, both Something and Here Comes The Sun are miles ahead of anything he submitted to the White Album or the Let It Be sessions.

Those calfskin toms on Ringo’s drums get the spotlight at the end of the record, with the break leading into The End serving as a brilliantly held-back bit of drumming. Some might see it as a half-hearted drum-solo, but Ringo’s subtlety and less-is-more ethos, as always, works wonders.

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More than anything, it sounds like McCartney’s enthusiasm – the driving force of the band since the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967 – has led the band to this point, from movie-making and the aborted attempts to get back to their roots as a performing band, to getting together to record again with George Martin. The studio banter on the sessions discs sound as good natured as the biographies would have us believe all these years, and there doesn’t sound to be any kind of tension from the business affairs that were looming in the background.

The album’s very special to me for one specific reason. Once, during my teens, I was on a holiday over Christmas in the snowy highlands of Scotland. My parents fell sick with food poisoning for a few days, and so I was left to my own company. Out of boredom one day, I decided to walk to the next village and back – a 6-mile round trip, through heavy snow. I took off, with the last Beatles album to be unlocked in my brain – Abbey Road – sitting in my portable CD player. I probably listened to the album 6 or 7 times, back to back, as I made my way through the snow. Those magical elements to the album seemed to be heightened in the landscape and even now I associate it with that hike from Newtonmore to Kingussie and back. In terms of location, it’s not a million miles away from the Mull Of Kintyre, where McCartney might have been wintering with Linda at the time, and so the connection feels just right.

Hit: Here Comes The Sun

Hidden Gem: Goodbye (Home Demo)

Rocks In The Attic #718: The Beatles – ‘The Beatles & Esher Demos’ (1968)

RITA#718You can hear the differences straight away. Paul’s snare beat on Back In The U.S.S.R. is punchier and his vocal ad-libs in the fade-out are much clearer. Then John’s acoustic guitar fades into Dear Prudence and Paul’s pulsing bass sounds on top of everything, front and centre.

Released yesterday to celebrate the record’s fifty-year anniversary, Giles Martin’s new 2018 stereo remix of the Beatles’ ‘self-titled’ White Album is an early Christmas present for fans of the band.

Repeating the successful formula employed on last year’s stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s, Martin Jr. has broken down the White Album recordings, and built them back up again. Untrained ears might not be able to tell the difference, we’re talking subtle changes. Clarity and focus are the operative words, not revisionism.

RITA#718aThe sliding, uptempo bass line in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da transforms one of my least favourite Beatle songs into a stormer. Eric Clapton’s swirling guitar lines in George’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps feel even more hypnotic. Paul’s bassline in Why Don’t We Do It In The Road sounds funkier. Birthday sounds as insane as the band probably intended it to. Paul’s screaming salvo into Helter Skelter sounds at war with Ringo’s drums. The horns in Savoy Truffle are sharper, the electronic piano line closer to the front of the mix.

The 2014 mono remaster was previously my favourite version of this album. I didn’t think anything could beat that. How wrong I was. All in all, this new release is like listening to the album for the first time, with fresh ears. And if that wasn’t enough, the other half of the box-set is just as revelatory.

In May 1968, fresh from their Rishikesh trip, the Beatles convened at Kinfauns, George’s house in Esher, Surrey. There, they recorded demo versions of 26 of the White Albums’s 40 tracks, plus songs that didn’t make the intended album.

Glimpsed on 1997’s Anthology 3, Giles Martin has now remixed these tapes and re-sequenced them into a double-LP with – where possible – the same running order as the 1968 album.

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Hearing McCartney doing a loosely double-tracked Back In The U.S.S.R. on an acoustic guitar – complete with a sung guitar solo – is just fantastic, and really fills me with hope that there’s more material like this yet to see an official release.

The songs that were worked out in the White Album studio sessions – Wild Honey Pie, Martha My Dear, Don’t Pass Me By, Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, I Will, Birthday, Helter Skelter, Long, Long, Long, Savoy Truffle, Revolution 9 and Good Night – don’t appear here in demo form. Instead we get a raft of songs intended for the album, but which appeared elsewhere: George’s Sour Milk Sea (a single for Jackie Lomax), Not Guilty (re-recorded for his 1979 record, George Harrison), and Circles (re-recorded for 1982’s Gone Troppo), Paul’s Junk (soon to be heard on 1970’s McCartney), and John’s Child Of Nature (reworked as Jealous Guy from 1971’s Imagine). Two other Lennon demos presented here – Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam would be reworked into the medley on Abbey Road in 1969.

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The demos make for a fantastic listen. Complete with between-take chatter, coughs and sniffs, the sound quality is mostly very good with the occasional bit of tape-hiss evident on some tracks. In hindsight, the Beatles probably didn’t need to go to Abbey Road and Trident to re-record these demos – they could have just released this back in 1968.

While it now seems inevitable that Giles Martin will provide similar remix duties for next year’s half-century release of Abbey Road, followed by Let It Be in 2020, I really hope he continues with the pre-Pepper albums as they begin their sixty-year celebrations from 2023.

And hopefully he’s training his son in the finer techniques of audio engineering, ready for the next generation of reissues…

Hit: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Hidden Gem: Helter Skelter

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Rocks In The Attic #568: Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington – ‘Thrillington’ (1977)

RITA#568.jpgIn 1971, Paul McCartney had just recorded his second solo album, Ram (actually his third if you include his 1967 soundtrack to The Family Way). He had credited the record to ‘Paul and Linda McCartney’, to get around the publishing contract he had signed as a Beatle. Under that contract, any solo recordings he made until 1973 were owned by Northern Songs, so wisely he credited the album to himself and his wife.

It’s not surprising that McCartney was pleased with Ram; despite a fair bit of whimsy, it’s a massive improvement on his uneven debut solo record. If a comparison were to be made, you could argue that the melodies on Ram follow on from the more powerful moments of Abbey Road. However, where his contributions to the Beatles’ final recorded studio record were tempered with songs by John, George and even Ringo, Ram found McCartney writing and performing the whole thing by himself in fifth gear.

Before Ram was even released, McCartney had asked arranger Richard Anthony Hewson to orchestrate the whole record as a collection of light orchestral instrumental songs, intended for a separate release. Among the orchestra who played on these sessions at Abbey Road were the cream of the studio players of the day – James Bond Theme guitarist Vic Flick, bassist Herbie Flowers and drummer Clem Cattini.

The end result is an oddity. It is thought the indulgent project was undertaken to please his father, who played in bands of this nature during the First World War – but as Howard Sounes, author of Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney, points out, ‘the record…sounds like incidental television music, with a soupcon of the tea dance’.

Following the release of Ram in May 1971, and the recording of the instrumental version in June 1971, Paul formed Wings alongside Linda, Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine and session drummer Denny Seiwell. As a result of this new direction, the instrumental Ram was shelved, and McCartney’s band went on to record and release Wild Life instead.

rita568a‘When Paul did finally put this off record out,’ Sounes writes, ‘he did so as quietly as possible under a pseudonym, titling the album Thrillington after an invented character named Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington “Born in Coventry Cathedral in 1939”. Somehow this wasn’t as amusing as Paul obviously thought it was.’

Thrillington finally saw the light of day in April 1977, released between 1976’s triple-live album Wings Over America and 1978’s London Town. While McCartney is pictured on the record’s rear cover as a reflection in the glass of the studio’s control room, and thus identifying him as the true producer of the album, Thrillington went largely unnoticed until McCartney revealed the connection during a 1989 press-conference. Following this admission, the record tripled in value and hasn’t been reissued on vinyl since its original release.

Hit: Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey

Hidden Gem: Smile Away

Rocks In The Attic #566: Duke Ellington – ‘Anatomy Of A Murder’ (1959)

rita566Forget Sgt. Pepper’s and Nevermind. Forget Axis: Bold As Love, Abbey Road and Dark Side Of The Moon. The greatest album cover in the history of recorded music is this one, designed by Hitchcock alumnus Saul Bass.

Of course, that’s only my opinion, but that’s what the internet is all about, isn’t it?

Saul Bass’ titles of Hitchock’s films throughout the late ‘50s are peerless – and his work here on Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Anatomy Of A Murder is probably my favourite if I had to choose a single image.

A couple of years ago, this album cover was quite rightly included in a touring exhibition, Degas To Dali, which was showing at the Auckland Art Gallery. I wonder how long it will take until art galleries are showing album covers as exhibitions in their own right. We can’t be that far away, if it hasn’t happened already. The world of album cover design is as strong as any other medium, and contains as many surprises as you can find turkeys. I’ve just glanced at Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Album Covers – I’d question a lot of them, but isn’t that what art’s all about, to provoke discussion and to continually question what has come before?

Hit: Main Title And Anatomy Of A Murder

Hidden Gem: Flirtbird

Rocks In The Attic #414: The Beatles – ‘Let It Be’ (1970)

RITA#414I always knew Phil Spector killed that woman – he murdered Let It Be.

Do you ever wish that a record didn’t exist? If the Beatles had ended on a high – with the second side of Abbey Road, their run of albums would have been perfect. Instead we get this half-arsed bookend of a record, essentially a collection of out-takes from a project the band had enough sense to knock on the head.

That’s not to say that there aren’t great moments on here. In fact it’s nearly all great – I could just do without the junk mental state of Lennon’s songwriting (Dig It, Dig A Pony), McCartney’s gushing over-sentimentality (The Long And Winding Road, Let It Be), lazy ideas (Maggie Mae, The One After 909) and just the general way it’s (poorly) presented. George Martin’s absence in the producer’s chair is severely noted.

I don’t envy Spector’s task – putting together an LP’s worth of good material out of a seemingly endless bunch of recording sessions where the band were clearly running out of direction would have been a horrible task. Taken on their own, some of the songs are as strong as anything else in their canon – their just diluted by poor production, and cursed by a back-to-basics approach that the band was following (effectively appeasing McCartney who was trying to play leader again – a musician who had seldom flashes of brilliance after 1969, and has probably done more harm than good in that time).

Maybe the problem of Let It Be is that it’s effectively presented as a studio album – and to the average listener that’s all it is – but in fact it’s something different: half a live album (the Twickenham studios material, and Get Back from the Saville Row rooftop) and half a studio album (the Apple studios material). At least it’s daring to be different. Maybe I should stop being so hard on it.

Hit: Let It Be

Hidden Gem: For You Blue

Rocks In The Attic #379: Wings – ‘Wild Life’ (1971)

RITA#379This is the debut record of Paul McCartney’s second band – the name of his first one escapes me at the moment. In terms of where this is placed in his solo career, it’s record number three after McCartney and Ram. Those two albums showed a natural progression – from the back to basics experimentation of McCartney to the sublime perfection of Ram – which sadly ends here. You can almost imagine his new band-members Denny Laine and Denny Seiwell looking at each other and wondering ‘Well…where are the songs?’

I love Ram – alongside Band On The Run, it’s probably the one album in his career that gets close to escaping from the shadow of that former band. His songwriting on Ram is just as good as anything he contributed to Abbey Road, which makes it even more dumbfounding how he really pressed the reset button with this one. There are songs on the album – Wild Life itself is a nice tune – but gibberish like Mumbo and Bip Bop are reminiscent of the out-of-ideas DIY wankery on his first solo album.

Album closer Dear Friend is a thinly veiled attempt at a reconciliation with Lennon, after Lennon’s no-veil snipe at McCartney on Imagine’s How Do You Sleep? If I was McCartney, I would have written a rebuttal song titled Quite Well Actually, How About You, You Wife-Beating Smack-Head? I doubt it would get picked for a single though, but you can’t win them all.

Hit: Dear Friend

Hidden Gem: Wild Life