Tag Archives: George Martin

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 #775: Michael Jackson – ‘Monsterjam’ (2017)

RITA#775I recently watched Quincy, the 2018 documentary about Quincy Jones, co-directed by his daughter Rashida Jones (with Alan Hicks). I was hoping it was going to be a feature-length episode about the Los Angeles medical examiner, but you can’t have everything.

Watching it, I was suddenly hit by the realisation that I’m not really a fan of Michael Jackson – I’m a fan of his partnership with Quincy Jones. I can take or leave most of Michael’s earlier material both with the Jacksons, and solo; and the same goes for most of his work after he stopped collaborating with Quincy, the 1930s-born producer who outlived him.

RITA#775aThose three classic albums – 1979’s Off The Wall, 1982’s Thriller and 1987’s Bad – are perhaps the perfect blend of artist and producer; maybe the greatest collaboration since Sir George Martin and the Beatles. Without Quincy, Michael would have continued making records; and vice versa. Neither would have had the same success though. Together, they made pure gold.

This unofficial release from 2017 is a lazy wedding DJ’s wet-dream: four 20-minute continuous mixes of the King of Pop’s hits over two LPs – one blue, one red. It’s a little Stars On 45 at times, but decent nevertheless.

Hit: Billie Jean

Hidden Gem: Scream

Rocks In The Attic #745: Jeff Beck – ‘Blow By Blow’ (1975)

RITA#745I’ve been getting my funk back, these last few months. Something I’ve been meaning to listen to again was this, Blow By Blow, Jeff Beck’s head-first dive into funk from 1975.

It’s a stunning album. Produced by George Martin (at his AIR studios in London), it’s a fully instrumental record – aside from a few appearances by a talk-box on the almost unrecognisable cover of the Beatles’ She’s A Woman, and the funk workout, Thelonius.

What’s this honky doing, recording a funk album in the middle of the 1970s, you might ask. In fact, only the drummer of the group, Richard Bailey, is black. The bass player, Phil Chen, is Chinese, while Beck and keyboardist Max Middleton are as white as you can get. And that’s not even mentioning George Martin, who’s so white, he’s almost transparent.

RITA#745aStill, Stevie Wonder was heavily involved with this record, which gives it more than an air of authenticity. Two of Wonder’s unrecorded songs, Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers and Thelonius were gifted to Beck, with Stevie even playing a FUNKY (but uncredited) clavinet line on the latter.

Of course, I shouldn’t be so glib. It shouldn’t be about race. Anybody can be funky. It’s just that the common misconception is that white man can’t funk. But try telling that to the Average White Band. Or the Goodies.

Hit: Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers

Hidden Gem: You Know What I Mean

Rocks In The Attic #601: John Barry – ‘The Great Movie Sounds Of John Barry’ (1966)

RITA#601I recently watched a double-bill of The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only at the cinema. The two films – scored by Marvin Hamlish and Bill Conti respectively – are both missing something, a key vital ingredient that makes them feel in some way that they’re lesser Bonds. Even The Spy Who Loved Me, undoubtedly one of the stronger films in the Bond canon, feels a touch unfinished. That missing ingredient, of course, is the work of the great John Barry.

Drafted in to re-arrange and record Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme for Dr. No, Barry went onto become the de facto in-house composer of the Bond films, eventually scoring eleven of the next fourteen films.

Those non-Barry films are always interesting for their non-Barry-ness, but his absence is always to the film’s detriment. I don’t know what Live And Let Die would sound like without George Martin’s score. Would Barry’s brassy sludge have evoked the same calypso feel as Martin’s orchestration of the wind section? In The Spy Who Loved Me, what would Bond have sounded like skiing down the mountain in the pre-credits sequence soundtracked by Barry instead of the disco beats of Hamlisch’s Bond’77?

In working with other composers instead of Barry – unavailable due to his falling out with producer Harry Saltzman (Live And Let Die) or for tax reasons (The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only) – it seems the Bond producers used the opportunity to do something different. They worked with the Academy Award-winning fifth Beatle (Martin), the Academy Award-winning composer/adapter of The Sting (Hamlisch), and the Academy Award-nominated composer of the Rocky films (Conti), with varying degrees of success.

John Barry, like a lot of composers, regularly re-uses his own work. Like John Williams, it’s easy to hear snippets of minor sections of his scores re-used as more major themes in later films. Sometimes, just the feel of a score can lend itself to re-appropriation. I recently heard Barry’s score to 1985’s Out Of Africa and couldn’t help but spot the likeness to his earlier score for the Moonraker soundtrack.

This LP from 1966, is a nice little taster of Barry’s Bond scores up to that point – From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and of course, the ever-ubiquitous James Bond Theme. The second side features some lesser-known works, themes from films I’m very unlikely to ever see – The Chase, King Rat, The Knack, and Seance On A Wet Afternoon. However, the final two tracks – themes from The Ipcress File and Born Free – really show that Barry was untouchable around 1965-1966.

Hit: The James Bond Theme

Hidden Gem: The Knack

Rocks In The Attic #507: Prince – ‘Prince’ (1979)

RITA#5072016 has been a terrible year for celebrity deaths, particularly those from music, films and television. The year started off tainted by the death of Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister just a few days before New Year. Then things started to go crazy with David Bowie dying suddenly on the tenth of January. Following him, we’ve also seen the passing of Eagle Glenn Frey, Beatles producer George Martin, Keith Emerson, Merle Haggard, Elvis’ guitarist Scotty Moore, and many, many more.

Losing Bowie was bad enough, but any year where we lose somebody as iconic as him, plus Prince, plus Muhammad Ali is just plain crazy. It’s like the icons of the late twentieth century are falling off the planet. I’m half expecting a plane carrying Madonna, Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen to crash into the Hollywood sign, while Los Angeles succumbs to a devastating earthquake.

Prince’s death seemed to hit a little closer to home, only because he had just played in Auckland a few weeks earlier as part of his Piano And Microphone tour. I would have loved to see Prince, backed by a full band but I didn’t really like the idea of seeing him play unaccompanied. There’s a part of me that regrets not chasing down a ticket, just because it was my last chance to see him perform, but with his passing I’m even more glad that I didn’t go – I like to think that my seat went to a more deserving fan.

I can take or leave Prince. His Batman soundtrack was the first album I ever owned, and I like a good deal of his big hits; I just don’t like all the Sexy Motherf*cker bullshit that he descended to in the early nineties. His contractual dispute with Warner Brothers around that time – leading to him changing his name to the symbol and writing ‘Slave’ on his cheek also turned me off him. All of a sudden, just as I was getting into music in a big way, he didn’t seem to be about the music anymore.

His Greatest Hits album is superb though, and the song off that record I’ve always liked the best is the opening number I Wanna Be Your Lover, taken from this, his self-titled second album. The recent repressing of his back catalogue on vinyl has given me the opportunity to buy the album (I’ve never seen an original pressing in the wild), and it’s a great record.

The album version of I Wanna Be Your Lover sounds even better, being a few minutes longer than the single edit available on his Greatest Hits, and the other singles from the record are all worthy additions to his canon. I can’t remember the last time I liked a record so much from start to finish.

What’s not to like? All the upbeat songs are of a similar quality to I Wanna Be Your Lover, and the slower ballads don’t grate as much as some of the soppier ballads from later in his career. I might put my toe further in the purple water, and try out some of his other records now that they’re widely available again.

Hit: I Wanna Be Your Lover

Hidden Gem: Bambi

Rocks In The Attic #431: America – ‘History – America’s Greatest Hits’ (1975)

RITA#431The thrift stores / charity shops in New Zealand aren’t great. We call them op shops here, short for ‘opportunity’. I’m not really sure why. I guess it’s like jandals (flip-flops) and trundlers (trolleys) – they just decided on their own name when they started up over here.

I check the op shops every now and again, but aside from a face-full of Nana Mouskouri (and what a face!), I tend to leave empty-handed with dirty hands and a smell of dead people in my nostrils. Fingering Nana Mouskouri seldom has its rewards. I might find an album like this for a dollar; and of course the name of the producer on the back (the Beatles’ George Martin) means that a dollar will be well-spent.

If you look at George Martin’s post-Beatles’ career in the ‘70s, there seems to be a lot of material along the lines of America – safe AOR, possibly more suited to Martin’s age at the time. All accomplished musicians but hardly anything to rock the boat. He probably deserved something a little stressful after revolutionising recording techniques with the fab four. This was like his retirement. It was either this or cruising.

Oddly, the artwork for the album cover was by Phil Hartman, at the time a little-known artist who would end up on Saturday Night Live and on the early seasons of the Simpsons as Troy McClure. Hartman was eventually murdered by his wife in the middle of the night in 1998.

Gun-control might make America the country very dangerous, but America the band are very safe. It’s almost impossible to believe that George Martin produced them, given how similar every song sounds production-wise. They’re well recorded of course, but there’s just no production.  I think I bought this record on the same day as I bought Seals & Croft’s Greatest Hits, a collection of similarly radio-friendly hits and Chicago’s X album. They were probably from the same person’s collection. It’s nice that I was able to keep them together.

Hit: Horse With No Name

Hidden Gem: Woman Tonight

Rocks In The Attic #425: Paul McCartney – ‘The Family Way (O.S.T.)’ (1967)

RITA#425Long before any cherries were spilt, this was the first solo offering by Paul McCartney – in fact the first solo offering by any Beatle. It is entirely un-Beatle-like, and offers nothing related to the fab four’s summer of love, psychedelic state of mind except for maybe a blast of brass before Sgt. Pepper’s band tuned up.

There’s nothing particularly mind-blowing about the score – most of it is simply a selection of cues to soundtrack a “nice little film” set in the north of England.  I haven’t seen the film by the way, and while I expect it would play on the BBC every once in a while, there’s absolutely no chance it would get anywhere over the cultural Berlin Wall of New Zealand’s borders so I’ll have to find it by other methods.

Certain sections of the score – which sound like they are used over city scenes showing ‘swinging London’ (London buses and Carnaby St miniskirts) – sound extremely dated with heavy bass and uptempo brass. It’s in the quieter moments that the soundtrack shines though, and while it’s not essential listening it’s definitely a must-hear for Beatle fans and completists.

Hit: Love In The Open Air

Hidden Gem: Cue 2M5