Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Beatles in Mono: Revolver

The vagaries of jet lag. So some musings on the Beatles in Mono. Glorious monophonic sound.
Tonight, I bought two of the Beatles' albums on LP in Mono, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. I am saving Sgt. Pepper for after work (later today), but I listened to Revolver when I got the record home. Rather than blaring it out loud on the turntable, I put on my noise canceling headphones to absorb it. The album is such a fine piece of work. Most of you are familiar with the major songs on it; but in case, here are the evergreens from Revolver:
"Got To Get You In To My Life"
"Eleanor Rigby"
"Here, There & Everywhere"
"Yellow Submarine"
"Good Day Sunshine"
None of those are John's songs. His contributions are amazing, one in particular was game changing ("Tomorrow Never Knows"). However they are not well known to the casual listener. One of his songs, "And Your Bird Can Sing," did become the theme for the Beatles cartoon's final season. Someone thought it should have been a hit. That was how I first heard it. In 1987, at the height of my own Beatlemania, MTV reran those cartoons and I kept hearing this catchy deep album cut. "And Your Bird Can Sing" is still one of my favorite recordings and it was one of my favorite songs to play live.
Back to the listening experience. Monophonic sound brings everything front and center; really drives the performance. It's the way the Beatles originally intended you to hear their music, as that was the standard in the 1960's, rather than gimmicky (expensive) Stereo.The notes on the cover sticker state that the transfer is strictly analogue and followed the production notes to the letter. What it bears out is how buttery Paul wanted his vocals. How processed John wanted his. George and Paul's lead guitar parts really rock, get jagged and distort. So much presence in Paul's bass as if it was a lead instrument. George's vocal harmonies are even more distinct.
But to borrow the phrase of one of my musical gurus David Roberts, the Beatle MVP on the record is Ringo... And his snare drum. Hokey smokes. Never before had I heard Ringo's drumming so distinctly and with such immediacy. All of his percussion work gets renewed life. Some say that the Beatles sound didn't truly coalesce until Ringo joined. When I listened to his work here, that truth is borne out. He is unifying all of the disparate styles. The hard rock of "Taxman," the baroque pop of "For No One," and the psychedelic "Tomorrow Never Knows" rely on Ringo's steady beat. That snare on "Good Day Sunshine" just snaps. Knowing how difficult GREAT drumming is to perform and record, kudos to Ringo. MVP!
True story, the 20-something clerk at the record shop said, "Oh, Revolver. My least favorite Beatles' album." He then continued to say that "And Your Bird Can Sing" was his favorite song. Now, he's young. I didn't take offense. I understood what he was trying to say: the Beatles made so much fantastic music, something has to wind up your "least favorite." I just don't know if I would say it as someone was making a purchase.
Personally, there are days when Revolver supplants Sgt. Pepper as my favorite album. Not just favorite Beatle record. But don't ask me that after I listen to Pepper tomorrow. Can't wait to spin it. I would have gotten Rubber Soul, too, but it was sold out.
Revolver has so much going on musically. The LP cover by Klaus Voorman is cool. I have stared at the back cover at length. Revolver is chock full of spectacular moments and experiments. Only two years after A Hard Day's Night and the rush of Beatlemania, they were delivering social commentary on "Taxman" which hits hard in Mono, genius pop tunes like "Here, There and Everywhere" (which were never singles, but would have been gigantic hits), while bringing backwards guitar tracks and tape loops to the kids on John's songs. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That must have sounded funky to the fan base. To my ears, it says sonic adventure.
I connect with Revolver for another (odd) reason. In 1984, Paul made the poorly received Give My Regards to Broadstreet. The soundtrack relied heavily on rerecordings of his contributions to Revolver. I didn't know it at the time. But, as a 15 year old fan, I saw the movie then immediately walked through the mall to the record store and bought the song score. So, three years later, when I finally graduated to Revolver, my soul was ready to be stirred.
Now, as I get older and as a composer myself, one track on Revolver strikes me more and more as one of the greatest singular achievements in pop. It's the moment that even Sgt. Pepper lacks as a punch to the gut. It's the lone track the Beatles muster without the album's MVP. "Eleanor Rigby."
When you hear this song in Mono, it is thrilling and even more heartbreaking. The opening voices come right at you. Those "ah's" are smack-in-your-face and your heart cannot retreat from them. Paul's vocal is centered, no panning to the side. He commands your attention. His double-tracked pre-choruses sound spectral. When John and George rejoin him stacking the harmonies, they are a class unto themselves. Yes, the stereo version of "Eleanor Rigby" is lush and loud, but it loses some of the intended desperation and desolation. Those Bernard Hermann-inspired strings are still inescapable, but lower in the mix they allow Paul's voice to be the primary instrument. It is like you are in the studio with the string section and the three singing Beatles without the distraction of the stereo separation. I cannot help but be astonished when I hear "Eleanor Rigby" in Mono. Lyrically, this song has few rivals. It tells such a complete story, yet asks questions that linger beyond the last strains of the violins. Where do they all belong?
The Beatles accomplish this bit of magic in 2:08. Two minutes and eight seconds.
Who does that?
No one.
They don't make 'em like that anymore.
They never did.