Friday, 28 August 2015

The Beatles - The White Album in Blue

I visited The Beatles Story in Liverpool this week, it's been about five years since I last went and while for Beatle Heads its a little basic, there is still some gems to whet your fab-appetite. 

This is the only known copy of The Beatles (aka The White Album) pressed on Blue vinyl. It was made in 1978 by Colin Mcdonald who was working at the pressing plant, having just finished a run of Linda Ronstadt's Bayou In Blue on blue vinyl, McDonald popped in the coloured vinyl to make himself a bespoke copy. He since met Paul McCartney who signed it for him, making this a very valuable record.

This isn't the first time that a one off copy has surfaced, it wasn't unusual for people working the presses to make a "souvenir" that would turn up leaving collectors scratching their heads. These are extremely rare however, in a large part to the dubious legality (pressing a record and taking it home is theft). 

So three cheers to Colin, for giving myself and millions of others a chance to see this wonderful example. 

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Who - Reaction Singles Box Set

The Who - Reaction Singles Box Set

The Reaction singles box set was always going to be the “difficult” one, mainly due to the brief period The Who were with this label between the Brunswick & Track years and the Substitute legal wrangling. The Who’s Reaction output was three singles an EP and the “Quick One While He’s Away’ LP, how was this going to stack up over the 8 disc Brunswick box set which included “The High Numbers - Zoot Suit” on Fontana and a never released “Instant Party” with the full version of “Instant Party Mixture” on the B side?

The Reaction Set is a slimmer tome a 5 discs, with not a whiff of The USA mix of Substitute or the alternate version of “I’m A Boy” in sight. That’s the bad news out of the way, time to warm up the ears with the original 60’s pressings & the Who Hits 50 versions before we see how these half speed mastered at Abbey Road 45’s sound.

The singles themselves look fantastic, resplendent with cut-outs and fairly accurate colours (The 3rd issue of Substitute was a lighter blue), Entwistle’s name is still incorrectly spelled on the writing credits and the flip back cover on the EP show some good attention to detail.

Substitute/Circles - Putting on the first disc, Substitute just comes alive, Moon’s kick drum hits you like never before, this is certainly the best I’ve heard this track on any version. The B side (listed on the box as Circles but on the single as Instant Party) again is superior to any version I’ve listened too. This second version of this song is often viewed as being trumped by the earlier Brunswick recording, here it holds it’s own.

Substitute/Waltz For A Pig - The same A side as the last disc, shame it’s not the US version with altered lyrics and an edit but we’ve gone for authenticity, who am I to argue. The B side is not The Who but The Graham Bond Organisation (under the moniker The Who Orchestra), again this sounds far superior to the original pressing. 

I’m A Boy/In The City - I’m A Boy is the only song on this set that sounds the same as The Who Hits 50 version. Whilst this Who period is not renowned for fidelity, it still sounds superior to the sixties pressing. In The City again here sounds better than I’ve ever heard it before. The Who Myth department once told a tale of how John & Keith recorded this in secret without telling Pete & Roger, which many old Who biopics repeated, despite both Daltrey & Townshend being clearly present to anyone with an ear. 

Ready Steady Who EP - I’m impressed how good this sounds, whilst not as good as the other single 45’s in the set, cramming more songs on a 7 inch will always take it’s sonic toll. Back to back with the original and re-issue pressing of the 80’s, this stands head shoulders legs and toes above them. 

Happy Jack/I’ve Been Away - Again, both tracks sound better here than I’ve ever heard them, with Happy Jack’s “I Saw Yer” all present and correct. 

Like Sun’s rock & roll & Motown's sixties output, this period’s Who was made for the 45rpm single as best exemplified here. Niggles be dammed, I’m over the Keith Moon with this package, top marks again!

For more on the Substitute versions visit - Brunswick Box Set

Thursday, 13 August 2015

More Help!

Fifty years ago today, the USA had their first taste of Help!

Released on the 13th of August; a week after the UK LP, Capitol released their version using songs from the film (side one of the UK album) interspersed with orchestral scores in the same way that United Artists had done in the “A Hard Day’s Night” North American version. This time the scores were composed and conducted by Ken Thorne, Richard Lester’s composer of choice. 

EMI made tape copies of their masters which were given to Capitol, they then re-mastered these for an “American” audience. (See my last blog “Help Is 50” to hear how bad this got). Capitol released Help! in Mono and  Stereo for this release, the mono sounds like a “fold down” of the stereo to me, certainly comparing it to the UK Mono mix it’s a different version. However, Capitol didn’t have a stereo master for “Ticket To Ride” so they created a duo-phonic stereo version for this release. This was achieved by splitting the mono signal into two paths (left & right) and passing one through a delay and/or tone filters to create a stereo effect. 

Exactly what an American audience thought when they heard an Indian version of A Hard Day’s Night is hard to say, however its influence on George Harrison and the Beatles would become evident over the next few years. 

To hear this version now, you either need to get hold of a US version of the Help LP on Capitol or Apple, or to get hold of the Capitol Albums Volume 2 on CD (2006). The 2014 US Help CD re-issue, whilst using the original track listing and soundtrack songs are sourced from the 87 remix/2009 remasters. Both these CDs have the mono & stereo versions. 

As for the UK’s side two songs, these ended up on other Capitol albums.

Over a month earlier (the 10th of July to be exact) the Beatles VI contained You Like Me Too Much", "Tell Me What You See", and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy". The US Rubber Soul would be released with “I've Just Seen A Face" and "It's Only Love"while the infamous “Butcher” album Yesterday & Today had "Yesterday" and "Act Naturally"


The extra dollar for a fancy gatefold sleeve didn’t put the American audience off either, by the end of the year Capitol had shifted over 1.3 million copies of this album. 

Apparently United Artists (who had released the Hard Day’s Night soundtrack in the US) weren’t too happy about missing out on this considerable slice of Beatle pie, so they approached George Martin; who didn’t hit it off with Richard Lester, to conduct a classical version of Help, cheekily using the working titles for three tracks on the finished album. Auntie Gin’s Theme (I’ve Just Seen A Face), That’s A Nice Hat (It’s Only Love) and Scrambled Egg (Yesterday). In 1973, when Pink Floyd were at Abbey Road recording the heartbeat for the end of the album, they were supposedly using the same tape that George Martin had used to record his classical version of Ticket To Ride on which some claim they can hear. I must listen closer next time I put this on…


For the original Help! Is 50 Post -





Thursday, 6 August 2015

HELP! Is 50

Help! Is 50

Fifty years ago today, The Beatles fifth UK album “Help” was released, going to number one in the UK album charts, where it would remain until mid-October.
As a child, this was my favourite record and even now listening to this, I’m transported to the beautiful innocence of life in my hazy single figure age. However, the journey through adolescence to now has been a rocky road, which began on the 15th April 1987.
I’d left home, but the family records remained firmly in the living room, so on the aforementioned date I purchased the CD release of Help to try out a CD player that had been lent to me. During the first listen I knew something was wrong, it didn’t sound quite the same, more sterile and thin. These were the days before the internet and the reams of information & forums that is available today, having not heard the album for a number of years I (wrongly) assumed that it had never been that good in the first place and that I fallen foul of short term nostalgia. 1994 saw the release of the book, “Revolution in the Head” by Ian McDonald, each song on all The Beatles UK albums are critically evaluated, sometimes confirming Beatle brilliance and sometimes trashing personal treasures in the same way the beloved family heirlooms get outed on Antiques Roadshow. The album Help did not come out of this unscathed and reinforced what I thought I already knew.

Sometime around seven years ago, I was having an in depth discussion with someone about all things Beatles, he was adamant that the best Beatles recordings were the mono versions and that Help & Rubber Soul CD’s were awful stereo remixes. George Martin was unhappy with the stereo mixes of both these albums, with Help he claimed it sounded "very woolly, and not at all what I thought should be a good issue". Having listened to an early pressing stereo and mono mix (Stereo YEX158-1 YEX159-1 / Mono XEX549-2 XEX550-2) I believe that Martin was mistakenly referring to the Mono mix, the tracks Help & You’re Going To Lose That Girl do sound woolly and lack top end. The original stereo sounds great and in my view superior to the 87 Martin mix to which he added digital effects (most notably Lennon’s vocal on “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”), that sadly were also used in the 2009 re-masters. Ian McDonald used the original 87 CD releases as the basis for his book (Revolution In The Head - first editions), in my view that is a great shame and led to some unfair criticism, he points out mistakes that are on the stereo versions that are not on the mono ones. The 2014 Mono Help highlighted these issues once again and having written about this extensively already (See )
I won’t go over it again, suffice to say these two aforementioned tracks (Help & You’re Going To Lose That Girl) are the only blots on the finest box set ever released and even in this case, you can’t blame the mono remasters engineer Sean Magee & mastering supervisor Steve Berkowitz as the brief for these mono albums was to make them sound exactly like the UK first pressings.
All this has put me on somewhat of a quest, what did the other pressings in other countries sound like? Many people, myself included, believes that the mono French Barclay pressing of Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” is superior to the original Track version (and in many ways to the re-issued Sony/Legacy version) so what does the French Odeon pressing of Help sound like?

Mono Mix Versions
Listening to side one of an Odeon Red Label (third pressing – Matrix XOPX 1005 21) “Les Beatles Chansons Du Film Help” I’m immediately impressed as the title song sounds brighter than the UK Mono. Doing some A/B-ing between the two albums, the Odeon sacrifices some of the lower end definition & warmth, but even on the UK version, the bass is still quite buried to stop the kids cheap Dansette record players from skipping.

Listening to a 1965 Dutch pressing it sounds like this was pressed using the same masters as the UK original, a quick glance at the Matrix in the deadwax area shows that this was actually cut from the same lacquer as the original (XEX549-2). A lacquer is cut on a lathe using the master tapes as a sound source; this then goes off to be used to press records.

Stereo Mix Versions
While I prefer the Mono mix, I prefer side one’s mastering on the stereo.
For those who don’t know, I’ll give a quick mention on the difference between mixing and mastering. Simplified, Mixing is getting 2 or more tracks in balance. You could have guitar on track one and vocals on number 2 and you can adjust the volume (along with many other things, EQ, effects etc.) on each one. Mastering is taking the whole track and applying some equalisation (tone), along with preparing it for its destination format (Mastering for vinyl should be different to mastering for CD etc. but thats another argument for another day).
The Original UK Stereo Help sounds very good, indeed so good this lacquer was used on several UK represses up to 1973, albeit with a second lacquer being used in 1970, before switching back to the original. 1976 saw a third lacquer being used and by 1984 a fourth. Listening to the original stereo master and this fourth lacquer, I personally think there is more definition on the bass end of the original, possibly due to Abbey Road studios having sold off all the valve equipment and replaced it by solid state equivalents – Oh those crazy 1980’s...

George Martin Stereo Versions
All releases after 87, including the vinyl record ones were the remixed George Martin version. I have an “unofficial” Russian pressing & a repro of the 70’s Dutch Shell sleeve that use these mixes. The George Martin mix is narrower (less separation from left to right) and features some new (for the time) digital echo/reverb on some vocal tracks. These mixes lack the warmth of the original stereo, in part due to the primitive analogue to digital converters used at the time and the lower resolution digital mastering. Martin also re-mixed Rubber Soul for the original CD releases; both of these mixes were used in the 2009 re-mastered CD series, in turn used for the 2012 stereo vinyl record releases. Listening to the 2012 Stereo record of Help, it sounds less dynamic, flatter and more clinical than the original stereo. The string quartet on “Yesterday” probably best exemplify the difference between the two versions, on the 87 remix they sound like they are coming out of the left speaker, on the original stereo they are in the room with you.  Along with some of the changes I’ve already mentioned, side two’s “It’s Only Love” includes a vocal clunker by Lennon. On the last word of the song (yooooouuuuuuuu) the original faded out the vocal towards the end, on the 87 remix, you can clearly hear the reason for the fade as John gets some flem jam at the end of the note, now it’s lovingly highlighted for all time by this shoddy mix.

Other Versions
The US/Canada Help released in mono and stereo on Capitol was a different beast altogether, songs from the film along with soundtracks from the film make this a very different listening experience. Whilst I don’t have an original Capitol release, I have a later Apple stereo re-issue, which like many of the US albums was cut from 4th or worse generation masters (Capitol’s Magical Mystery Tour LP was from a 6th generation master) not helped by Capitol’s insistence that they re-master the masters for an American audience.  As an example of how bad this got take a listen to Capitol’s version of “She’s A Woman” but be warned, you can’t un-hear it.

Help – MOFI Version. Whilst I’ve not yet heard this version I can confirm this is a stereo remaster, NOT a remixed version as some have erroneously claimed. Some say it sounds amazing, others with audio opinions I’ve come to respect say it’s awful.

Help - DMM 1988. DMM stands for Direct Metal Mastering, instead of a lacquer (which is an aluminium disk covered in a substance not dissimilar to nail polish) a copper plated disc is used. Like the MOFI debate opinions are divided on the subject, this did utilise the Martin 87 mix though; if I get one I’ll let you know. But don’t hold your sonic breaths…
Further investigations show that several earlier pressings done in Germany were also done using this method, some such as the version in the Blue Box contain the original stereo mix.

Recording Help
The Beatles returned to Abbey Road Studios on Monday 15th February 1965 to begin work on the as yet untitled film/album, using a new technique of rehearsing songs with the tape running and spooling back to record proper versions over the rehearsal tapes. The first song was Ticket To Ride, recorded as a backing track (drums, bass, guitars) then over dubbed with vocals and lead guitar. Listening to the original backing track instantly dispels an old “Beatle Myth” that Paul plays the main intro riff (that even made it into the first published book “The Beatles Recording Sessions” by Mark Lewisohn, although later editions have corrected this). As talented as Paul is he is unable to play bass and what is clearly George’s 12 string Rickenbacker guitar at the same time. The mono mix was completed several days later on the 18th of February, the stereo being done in the absence of George Martin by engineer Norman Smith on the 23rd with the song fading out 7 seconds later than the mono. Norman Smith made another mono mix on March 15th which was used in the first prints of the film “Help”. Monday also saw the completion of “Another Girl” save for George’s lead guitar overdubs which was replaced by Paul the following day.  The Mono mix was completed under Martin on the 18th while the stereo by Norman Smith on the 23rd of February. There was also time to record the backing track for George’s “I Need You”, with vocals, guitar and cowbell overdubs being completed the following day, Tuesday 16th. Martin mixed the mono on the 18th, Smith again the stereo on the 23rd.
Wednesday 17th February The Beatles recorded “The Night Before” & “You Like Me Too Much”, both mixed in mono on the 18th by Martin & in Stereo on the 23rd by Smith. Martin did create a second stereo mix of “The Night Before “on the 18th April as part of the mixes being made to United Artists for the film, this stereo version was never used.
As well as all the mono mixing going on, Thursday 18th saw the complete recording  of two songs that would end up on the album, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and “Tell Me What You See”. Both mixed in mono by Martin on Saturday the 20th while Norman again mixed the stereo on the 23rd.
Friday 19th February, The Beatles recorded “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” which was mono mixed on the 20th by George Martin. There were three stereo mixes, the first two on February 23rd by Norman Smith, the second being used on the UK stereo. The third on April 2nd by George Martin remains in the EMI vaults.
The Beatles returned from filming to Abbey Road on Tuesday 30th March to record a second and ultimately unused version of “That Means A Lot” (The Anthology version was recorded on the 20th February). More filming meant The Beatles didn’t return to Abbey Road until the 13th of April to record the title track “Help”. This time the backing track was recorded slightly differently, drums and bass on track one, guitars on track two. Then John performed his lead vocal with George and Paul’s backing on track 3, followed by John double tracking his vocal with Ringo playing the tambourine on the final track four. This Take 9 version still needed George’s lead phrases to be added to it, however there were no tracks left. For the first time, a Beatles song was “bounced” down, at the time it was referred to as a “reduction”; the tracks being recorded onto another tape with track 1 and 2 having the same instrumentation but track three would contain a “mix” of 3 and 4, thus leaving track 4 free on the new tape. On the third attempt (take 12) George Martin had a version he was happy with and George could record his parts onto track 4. The Mono & Stereo mixes were done on the 18th April by George Martin. Much has been written about the differences between these mixes that clearly used different vocal takes. It would seem that the original mono mix was unusable for the film, so at some point before May 24th, Martin made a new mono mix without vocals and other elements that are in the stereo (e.g. Ringo’s tambourine) which he took to CTS Studios in London where John, Paul & George recorded new vocal tracks. This CTS mix was used in the first print of the film and for the most part of the UK mono mix version, however just to add to the confusion the original mono mix intro was spliced into the beginning. The Stereo would be remixed on the 18th of June by Martin from Take 12.
On Monday the 10th May, The Beatles recorded “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, mono & stereo mixes being completed the same day by George Martin.
Monday the 14th June saw the recording of “I’ve Just Seen A Face” mixed in mono & stereo on June 18th while “Yesterday” was recorded the same day, the quartet added on the 17th and mixed into mono, the stereo being completed on the 18th all under Martin’s supervision.
Tuesday 15th saw the recording of “It’s Only Love”, mixed in mono & stereo on the 18th under Martin.
Thursday 17th The Beatles recorded “Act Naturally” mixed in mono & stereo on the 18th under Martin.

George Martin remixed and re-mastered Help in 1985 for stereo Compact Disc release in 87. Remastered again for the 2012 Stereo LP’s

Giles Martin & George Martin remixed & re-mastered the track Help in stereo for the LOVE Cirque Du Solei project.

Help was remastered for the 2014 Mono LP releases.

So where do we end up then? Side two of the original Mono is my preference, however side one is a more complicated affair. This original mono mastering starts poorly, begins to improve then dips sharply on track 6 before springing back into life in time for “Ticket To Ride”, whilst the French Odeon Mono is better in places it lacks the bass end clarity of the original UK Stereo pressing.

Then this arrived. 

This is a Mono Mix of Help; the side one matrix XEX 549 – 3, which was released in 1981 all resplendent in its use of classic yellow Parlophone disk labels. Using the original analogue master a new lacquer of side one was cut for this release.  After the first 5 songs, I’m thinking that I have found the Help Grail, a great sounding mono mix with superior mastering. Sadly however, “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” has the same woolly feel to the original mono version. I do believe though that this version of the lp Help is the best mono one I’ve heard so far and quite possibly the best I may ever hear.

How do I feel about this album now?

Well after to listening and A/B-ing all these versions, I probably won’t be popping it onto the platter any time soon. It’s not my favourite Beatles LP, it isn’t even in my top 5 but I do still have a big soft spot for it, for the reasons I originally gave and because it still is a phenomenally great POP record, containing 4 of the greatest songs ever written and recorded. When I do play it again I’ll be listening the mono 81 though, although the 65 Stereo pressing sounds great too. Getting hold of 70’s stereo reissue is the budget choice, these sound much better than the 2012 stereo reissues and are cheaper.
Despite already owning 14 copies of this LP (along with 6 CDs and a reel to reel version) I will be on the look out for some of the other pressings, although if I do end up like that guy that collects White Albums (he has over a thousand at the last count) I will need Help!

Further Reading-

My orginal Beatles Blog Posts

Part 1 Mono V Stereo
Part 2 Analogue V Digital
Part 3 First Pressings V Remasters

For more details on the 2014 mono mastering

In researching this album, I came across this informative blog post regarding the cover