Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Wonder of Cylinder Recordings

What is the greatest invention of the modern world? A former professor of mine insists that is the radio, and he emphasized this while fully cognizant of the computer and the internet. However, for me the object in question appeared in 1877, when Thomas Edison uttered the opening verse to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into a horn that collected those sound waves through a vibrating needle that etched a groove into wax paper wrapped around a spinning cylinder.

The moment heralded an enormous change, a miraculous event; ensnaring echoes of voices no longer there. This device proved that we could literally rob history of its sanctity. Other technologies, such as writing, photography and other visual arts could also restore the past and remove the clouded veil from memory’s eyes, but none of them could capture the sound of the memory. And while the telegraph, the telephone, and soon radio would bring distant voices closer together, they were not restoring the past; they were speeding up the “currentness” of the present. The phonograph instead slowed the departure of time by preserving the sounds of the past for the present—hence the term “recording,” recording the past for the future in perpetuity.

The world would never be the same again. Instead of performing a famous work on a musical instrument in order to hear it again, you could listen to a recording of the first time it was ever played. Instead of just anybody performing an old popular song in the present, a specific recording from days past became the version of record (so to speak!).

This is not to say that recording technology was miraculous for everyone in its early days. American composer John Philip Sousa spoke to Congress in 1906, saying:

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

And yet he too took advantage of the new medium. Many cylinders still exist today of
Sousa conducting his marches.

Arguably many of the earliest cylinders that still exist today are of such low quality as to be of little use. But many early records can be used today as surely as they could before, provided they and their playback instruments have been properly maintained.

However, we have found new methods of recording and replaying sound. We have made improvements with better fidelity that are more sturdy and more efficient, and this is proven by comparing cylinders not only to the latest digital technologies – the Compact Disc and the iPod – but even to the cylinder's immediate descendants – the flat circular 78 RPM phonograph, the 45 and the 33 1/3 Long Playing phonograph. Such technologies are not any different in their basic purpose, but they have improved the design of the mediation by which sounds originating in other environments are brought to our ears.

Oddly enough, in recent years, sound no longer needs to have originated anywhere else. It can be created digitally and silently, sent through cables in binary form into electronic storage, pressed to a disc, and sent to you to play, having never actually passed through the air as a sound wave until you play it for the first time. Think about that – we can record sounds that aren’t even sounds!

Today, it is so easy to take recordings for granted. They are so ubiquitous in our culture that no longer do we really observe the miracle they provide. They are all however descendants of the early Edison invention. In my opinion, when listening to recorded sound, you are indeed listening to an audible Wonder of the Modern World

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Maybe Elvis Costello Is Illiterate...

The other day, I read a quote attributed to Elvis Costello: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture; it's a really stupid thing to want to do." It's a provocative statement and its ambiguity begs for clarification. Is he discussing the music press, music criticism, or any and all intellectual or spiritual writings about music? And what caused him to say this? Was he upset by a record review? Maybe someone wrote that he pales in comparison to his idols -- "You, sir, are no Burt Bacharach."

[My friend Andy just now pointed out that Costello borrowed this from the original line, "Writing about love is like dancing about architecture," which is perhaps taken from the film Playing by Heart, though the film may have lifted it from somewhere before that.]

The question it raises for me -- and I think the question that really needs to be asked -- is what can be written about music that music itself doesn't already say? As a music-lover and musician I hate to think that music is incapable of speaking for itself. But Costello doesn't elucidate why writing about music is "stupid." Perhaps music communicates via different brain receptors where spoken language does not travel. So what, then, is music designed to say? Well, Leonard Bernstein said, "Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable." A very lofty assertion, but maybe that's where Costello was headed.

Taking into account both Bernstein's and Costello's quotes, if music speaks to the unnameable and unknowable, then where indeed can any intersection exist with verbal discourse? Is it possible that music is too primal, too other that verbal analysis is futile? Reminds me of another quote by either Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, or Fats Waller (maybe all three, and anyway I'm paraphrasing): "If you have to ask [what jazz is], you'll never know." In order to understand music one must (at least as a component of that endeavor) experience music in non-verbal ways. In other words, if you haven't interfaced with music on it's own terms, then any rhetoric to explain it is difficult to comprehend.

That said, I do not intend to say that music is understood the same way by everyone. Yet it is in this very disparity where writing about music is important. After all, even if verbal discourse is not capable of distilling music's elemental truths, the dialectic itself can at least engender each participant's journey toward his or her own potential truth. Therefore, one must I believe give props to a reviewer of Elvis Costello's records even if such (lukewarm?) receptions are the cause of Costello's self-aggrandizing witticism. There are certainly many more maddeningly meaningless and unnecessary jobs out there (how does a "personal life coach" sleep at night with his or her conscience howling at the moon?).

And I would further counter to Costello that beautiful architecture can be very dance-like. Architecture can demonstrate a striking shape, the dramatic movement of contour and line, the delicate details, soft or bold, vast or intimate. Maybe Costello needs to get those oversized glasses of his checked because he may be more blind than he realizes.

Friday, March 14, 2008

What a Responsibility!

Recently I read that babies in utero can hear after the first few months, and that music and other sounds they hear in the womb (the mother's or father's voice, or a particular lullaby, for example) can later be recalled. Reportedly, a crying child was calmed upon hearing the theme song of a soap opera that his mother had previously watched while pregnant with him. I guess the music reminded him of the safety and comfort of the womb, and he was lulled by the music's sentimental connection.

I can't remember the first piece of music I ever heard, but I was born in the fall of 1970, and I can bet my parents listened to the radio back then (and what a time to listen to music!), so perhaps the Jackson 5's "ABC" or "Mama Told Me Not to Come" by Three Dog Night, or maybe "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "The Long and Winding Road" – those were all playing in the months leading up to my birth. What effect might these songs have had on my early love of music I can only begin to imagine. Music has had a strong presence in my life. I can't imagine my life without it, and it has made so many events in my life more memorable and/or more bearable. The thought that maybe my musical journey began prenatally is fascinating to me.

But what if it had been something else? I mean, what a responsibility! What if my father had decided to blast Charles Ives quarter-tone piano pieces into the womb? Would I have any appreciation for traditional tonal harmony? I shudder to think of the attention deficit issues I might have had if I had been subjected at that impressionable developmental age to Philip Glass!

So what should one play for a prenatal child? Mozart? Children's songs? Songs with logical and beautiful tonic harmonic progressions? Upbeat or contemplative? Aggressive or leisurely? Major or minor? Songs with words or instrumentals?

Musical philosophers throughout history have commented that music has great power on the mind and body. Harmony, mode and key all affect the mental state (see: http://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html) . Plato discussed in the book iii of The Republic that certain musical modes were dangerous and ill-fitting for warriors to hear -- the Lydian and mixo-Lydian modes were too dirge-like, that Ionian and Lydian promoted drunkenness and sloth. The Dorian mode, however, was best suited to "fittingly imitate the utterances and the accents of a brave man who is engaged in warfare or in any enforced business," and the Phrygian mode ideal for "a man engaged in works of peace, not enforced but voluntary...acting modestly and moderately and acquiescing in the outcome." Certain keys were considered appropriate for operatic dramatis personae not only because of vocal range, but because keys conveyed specific characteristics and therefore used to reinforce particular character traits.

If we accept that there is any truth to these assertions, imagine then the power that an initial piece of music would have on a brain when it first develops. Could this impact the synaptic geography? Would the ears, when first able to sense vibration, be skewed to accept certain aural presentations as the emotional and physical basis from which all other sound is judged? "Mozart's piano sonata in A is all well and good," the child would say, "but it pales in comparative beauty and logic to Billy Ray Cyrus's 'Achey, Breaky Heart.'" ...Yikes!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

R.I.P., CD & LP?

Is the CD dead and buried? Ethnomusicologist, banjoist, and all around good guy Toby King, a friend of mine in New York, said to me once that the CD era was over several years ago. I found his pronouncement hard to take, given that I was and am a record collector and that annually (well, monthly, weekly, even daily perhaps) I purchase an impressive number of CDs. Worse, few people revere the LP anymore. The loss of the physical object as a medium is a difficult transition for me.

What's the big deal? Am I overreacting? Am I just a recording fetishist, unwilling to part with the physical object? Well, yes, I have sentimental attachment to them, and more for LP records than CDs. I remember the day in December of 1983, for example, that I bought Deep Purple's Machine Head at Musicland up at the Miller Hill Mall. Arriving home, I carefully slit the plastic and took the record out of the sleeve. I lifted the turntable lid and placed the LP on the platter. Leaning in, holding my breath, I lifted the tone arm and gently set the needle on the edge of the record with that barely perceptible "fffffft–ssssssss," and POW! that great opening riff of "Highway Star" cannoned across the room. It was a violent and glorious punch in the gut.

With a CD, the drawer opens, you drop the CD in, you hit PLAY and, Bob's your uncle, the music starts. Easy, yes, but you can do it while drinking a soda or talking on the phone, maybe even at the same time. It doesn't require you to engage. With an LP, setting the needle down requires your attention. It makes you quietly focus. Maybe not for very long, but long enough that you're open to it and the sound from that wonderful vibrating diamond needle has you hooked. Putting the needle to wax is a personal connection. The record album (and the 45 rpm single) experience may not be as tactile as live music, but it is more concrete than any CD or iPod could be.

Twenty years ago, the CD had finally begun to outnumber LPs at the record shop. Some, including me, hated to hear the death knell of the iconic phonograph. The LP had such an impressive canvas. Through the mid-to late twentieth century the album cover had become an established contemporary art. On CD, it's hard to appreciate the cover of Led Zeppelin III when you can't shift the inner picture disc, much less make out the iconography on the cover (at 25% its original size). CDs also come in easily breakable plastic cases. If the case cover doesn't break, the tines in the middle probably will and then the CD always falls out.

Nonetheless, the exciting new technology won out over the old. The industry promised a basically indestructible item with crystal clear sound. The cost to the consumer was greater, but the advantage of the technology was apparently worth the price. Never mind that the CD production was one-third the cost of LP production ($1.00 for the LP material and pressing cost, about $0.35 for the CD), the 50% increase in price was what the market would bear. Never mind that we now know that the CD is certainly destructible. Never mind that digital recording has undergone several improvements that obligated some old records to be re-remastered to CD two or even three times over the years (each time with the promise, "Okay, now we've got it, THIS is the best you'll ever hear!"). CDs do NOT yet, in my opinion, come close to the smooth warmth of analog recordings. I'll take the dusty sound of a record any day over brittle, sharp, digital sound.

Fifteen years ago, e-mail and the web came into vogue. Ten years ago it became a normal part of communication and interaction for many businesses and homes. In the last decade, networking has transitioned from telephone and ethernet modems to wireless communication, making the computer useful anytime and virtually anywhere. Computers gradually lowered our defenses to the point that, today, almost all of our work, communication, socialization, and entertainment is done via some form of electronic device.

During all this, six years ago, the iPod was born. Irrevocably, everything in music changed.

Suddenly everybody was ripping their CDs to their computers, and transferring the music to that sexy little gadget, which holds thousands of songs. Also, six years ago, Apple and some other companies made it possible to download music at a competitive price. No longer did you need to rip a CD, because the CD was irrelevant. It was an unnecessary step between the manufacturer and your computer/iPod. The age of the hard copy was over. Today the new iPods can even download the music directly, making your computer irrelevant too. (Take THAT, Bill Gates!)

So, why do I still want those LPs and CDs on my shelves? Because I believe there is still a need for a hard copy. I've lost data on computers; they crash, files get accidentally deleted, a magnet or an EM storm wanders by and goodbye, information. It may be easy and less cluttered, but electronic storage is very fragile. I don't care if it's better for the environment because it saves on materials. I don't care if it saves space, I don't care that it is easy to use. Sure, I've got an iPod. I've got over 9,000 songs on it, and I admit I sure can't carry 700 LPs around with me to have the same number of songs at my fingertips. But I sure wish I could, because someday that little iPod is going to break down and then 9,000 songs will evaporate into thin air like a Saharan mirage.

Remember the big blackout a few summers ago that shut down the northeastern US? I was sitting in the Columbia University music library in New York City. Other people were typing notes into their computers. Then poof! the power went down. Everyone grimaced and grumbled; nothing more they could do (at least after their battery inevitably ran down). But I, with my trusty fountain pen and notebook, sat in a comfy chair in the afternoon sunlight and kept right on working. The point is, let's not put all our eggs in the electronic basket. Certainly, the virtual world is an exciting place, but if we never walk around outside of it then the real world will run us over time and time again.

So, tell your kids to turn off the Nintendo Wii and send them outside to play in the snow. Get out your old LPs (or if you must, CDs), put them on and relax in a comfy chair under a blanket with a cup of tea. Take a slow deep breath. Your psyche will thank you.

[My wife just pointed out the irony that this essay is posted electronically on a blog. Despite the Luddite overtones of this essay, I'm not saying technology should be discarded, merely that it should not be our only resource. - Chris]

Friday, January 11, 2008

Review: The Return of America's Voice

Levon Helm, Dirt Farmer
Vanguard Records 79844-2 [2007]

Levon Helm's strong return scratches a musical itch that had been nagging me for years, but it was an itch I had been at a loss to locate. You know those days when it seems none of the music on your record shelf will quite satisfy? Problem solved. The album Dirt Farmer, produced by Larry Campbell, is a an album of contemplation, reminiscence, reflection, and joy.

Three of the saddest days for devotees of the inaptly named "country rock" were the suicide of keyboardist/drummer Richard Manuel in 1986, the death of bassist/fiddler Rick Danko in December of 1999, and drummer/mandolinist/guitarist Levon Helm's diagnosis of throat cancer in 1996. The Band's three eccentric but hauntingly beautiful voices were silenced. These losses were cause for recollection of some great music, but also decades of substance abuse and heartache. Like Manuel and Danko, Levon Helm was at one time a man of addictions. Compare "The Weight" from The Band's Music from Big Pink to "Strawberry Wine" from Stage Fright and you can hear how drugs affect a man's singing ability. Yet while death is a loss that aches for a while but can eventually move toward acceptance, the irony of losing one's voice - and then having to live with the loss - is reminiscent of Beethoven's deafness.

How does one continue when one's instrument is taken away? Helm, with the support and encouragement of his daughter Amy Helm and others, slowly brought his voice back, not to the full swagger of his earlier days, but beautifully and powerfully present. And how to celebrate this return? Thankfully, through a balanced and subtly restrained statement of everything Levon Helm is and ever was.

Wielding a mix of traditional and contemporary songs, Dirt Farmer sits comfortably in the pocket, and has the tone of good friends who have come over to play for a while in your living room. The performances feel natural, from veterans who use whatever talents are in the room to make the song whatever it can be in the moment. Their respect for the material supercedes their awareness of the listening audience. The music has a traditional context, but is not historicized. Don't you think if a drum set was available a century ago in some farmhouse in the mountains that they'd have used it for making music?

Unlike much of the contemporary folk, country and country-rock fare, Helm is in that tier of artist whose work speaks volumes without unnecessary preening, which I appreciate in an age where people pursue fame for essentially doing nothing. Peter Carlson of The Washington Post remarked, "These days, country music stars are created in a factory in China, molded out of plastic by workers earning 38 cents an hour, then shipped to Nashville, where they are fitted for a cowboy hat and taught to sing ditties written by a committee of moonlighting Hallmark employees." [November 8, 2005] I've also suffered through countless old-timey records where great pains were taken to give the performances pathos, the "this-is-the-music-of-my-people-so-take-me-seriously" attitude, and I can say with experience that this rarely succeeds.

Levon Helm, to the contrary, simply does what he does best: he sings the damn song. His is for all intents and purposes one of the most distinctively American voices. He was raised in the cotton fields of Arkansas, bathed in the sounds of the Opry on WSM out of Nashville and Sonny Boy Williamson on KFFA in Helena, and he earned his stripes playing the rockabilly club circuit in Ontario, Canada with Ronnie Hawkins. Levon Helm and the Band were a touchstone of cultural unity. Southern enough to please rednecks, ornery enough to please renegades, and Dylanized enough to please folkies and hippies. They were a safehouse amid the musical tumult of the late 1960s. Their songwriting collective (especially Robbie Robertson's lyrics) gave Helm's singing a legitimacy for which few modern cookie-cutter country crooners could dare to hope.

That same spirit is evident here. Dirt Farmer contains fourteen tracks, and there's not a bum in the lot. A song can be found for just about anyone. For the fans of his earlier work, "The Girl I Left Behind" resonates with the classic grooves of The Band, and "Got Me a Woman" by Nashville songwriter Paul Kennerley would have been in good company among The Basement Tapes. Their rendition of the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl" is half-timed a la "Up on Cripple Creek." For fans of traditional material, Campbell's fiddling on "Little Birds" and "Anna Lee," and the three-part harmonies by Helm, his daughter Amy, and Teresa Williams will be sure to soothe. Blues fans will enjoy the gut-bucket performance of J.B. Lenoir's "Feelin' Good." Perhaps the final track, "Wide River to Cross" may be, after all, a tad shaded by a veil of pathos, but after listening to the thirteen preceding songs the effect is actually quite welcome.

Here's a record that, like the Levon Helm of old, unifies the disparate and soothes the musical tumult.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Aural Rays of Sunshine

"Hey, you got a second?" he asked over the intercom, like a man with a couch that needed moving. Certainly the last question you want to hear your boss ask you at five-thirty in the afternoon.

Sigh. "Sure. I'll be right over."

Like walking that last mile of the way, I marched down the hall, through the lobby, past his receptionist and into his office. His stony face held for a brief moment, but quietly muttered, "Shut the door."

Shut the door? What had I done? Was my 15-minute coffee break running too long? Had I inadvertently absconded with petty cash? He'd been in closed door meetings with one of his superiors for most of the afternoon. Given the choices now before me, moving that couch was sounding like a great option. I could move it right into my therapist's office and spend an eternity on it.

"I want you to hear something," he said quietly. "But before we listen, you must understand that you can't say anything to anyone, and I'm sorry but you can't have this when we're done."

Curiouser and curiouser. Inside, I felt like my heart and my body had separated, and I had no sensation of my limbs being connected to me in any way. Just get it over with and get me the hell out of this room. "Okay. What's up?"

"I've been working on a project." He explained that his boss had asked him to do a personal favor and digitize some recordings. His boss was the son of a famous songwriting team, and these recordings were demos that his parents had made for various artists who went on to make great records of these songs.

In a flash, my heart transformed from a dark pit of dense lead to a brilliant supernova of fusing gasses. "Don't be f---ing kidding me," I blurted with a flood of relief and despair. Despair because I'd been talking to him over the previous several months about the impact that our employer's parents had on my musical life, my endearment to their songs and the legends that these songs helped to create, and here he offers me an opportunity to look through a unique portal into a scared realm. For a record collector to hear demo tapes of musical gold being forged is like a minister being shown the rough draft of Genesis.

"No, really," he said with a wry smile.

I took a slow, deep breath. "What have you got?"

He showed me a file listing that read like the Billboard charts of the mid-twentieth century. Songs that reshaped the boundaries of rock, country and rhythm and blues. Songs that realigned the molecules of the eardrums of anyone who ever heard them so that one could then walk forward in life knowing that he or she knew what harmony was all about, and that the agony of heartbreak explained in sublime lyrics set to such harmonies had more beauty than young motherhood and the sunrise put together.

"So, what do you want to hear?"

Hell if I know. What do you want God to say to you at the pearly gates?

I named a song or two. He clicked a button. Suddenly, he and I were sitting in some living room fifty years earlier with the sound of a big gentle man in a chair next to us, clearing his throat and calling out a title. The small body guitar was melodious and finely tuned. The man and the woman sang plaintively and gently, and each note was like manna from heaven.

In a couple minutes it was over, and we sat in a silence that only the cloistered would recognize. These were about the most beautiful yet fragile recordings I'd ever heard. "Do you realize," I finally uttered, "that other than the two of them, their son, and the artists who went on to make the records, that you and I are probably the only others who have ever heard that? That was..." I stammered, "I--"

"I figured you'd might want to hear these," he smiled. "Want to hear another?"

I coughed, took a deep breath and shifted in my chair. "Well, I guess..." We methodically sifted through others, each one falling down like aural rays of sunshine. The signposts of music history flashed steadily past, but my heart had stopped beating.

"I'm sorry I can't let you have these. I was helping him with this project, but I've got to delete them. He'd fire me if I didn't."

"Achhh! my God!"

"Yeah, well. This is just for his iPod. Nothing else," he replied.

"Ohhhh, man. His iPod? Get out. How can he not see the opportunity he has here? Why doesn't he release these? He'd sell a million copies – to music industry people alone! Can't you reason with him? They're priceless; they've got to be preserved."

He shrugged helplessly. "You've heard enough?"

"Well, let me clear my calendar for the next ten years." I wanted to drown in these songs until my eardrums were waterlogged. But deep down I realized that just the several songs I heard were so precious and how could I really demand more? I sighed and slowly shook my head. "Go ahead."

He reached to the mouse, selected the folder and hit Delete. Such awesome power in such a simple act. But then, those very simple songs themselves had an even greater power. I was grateful these songwriters had shared them with artists who made records we've all enjoyed for decades.

Friday, December 28, 2007

On the Canonization of Rock and Roll: Which Version Is Correct?

One inroad into my ongoing exploration of the canonization rock and roll is a query into the meaning of a song's existence. Time was that a song was a combination of sound and words emitted in a singular moment in time, and whoever sang it was singing the song in that moment for whoever heard it. Though some songs were attributable to one composer or another, for the most part a song lived for the moment it was uttered, by anyone and in any location or style.

The creation of musical celebrity was inevitable. A person may have a voice of a distinct and/or superior quality and therefore they are regarded as the go-to performer. And, perhaps a particular song is done favorably by this performer to the degree that the song and performer become linked (e.g., Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas"). Such links have been observed for centuries.

But in the wake of Thomas Edison's 1877 invention of recorded sound, a song can be more than a living vibration sent into the ether by a mouth to the ear and lost once is has been absorbed. Now, one can hear a previous moment in time, a past captured for the future. That, my friends, is a paradigm shift if ever there was one. That we can hear today the performance of John Philip Sousa and the U.S. Marine Band performing "The Washington Post March" from a recording made over a century ago is nothing short of miraculous. (Ironically, Sousa hated the concept of recorded music, saying, "These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country... Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Philip_Sousa)

With the nearly coincident advent of radio at the turn of the century and the subsequent shift on radio over the years from live performance to the easier (and cheaper) playing of phonograph records, you end up with not just a repeated song but a repeated playing of the same recorded performance of song. When a song is attributed to one recording/performer/songwriter, there develops an expectation that if a song is to be presented, you expect it to be THE recording of THE version of THE song by THE performer you've heard so many times before. Imagine hearing "Stairway to Heaven" but not caring who the performer is. Compare that with hearing Beethoven's fifth symphony. Would you say that there is only one recording of that work that is legitimate? (Well, okay, there may be some who argue that YES, there is one recording Beethoven's Fifth that they consider to be definitive, but you get my point).

Here's an example. I am collector of Beatles records. I have over 100 distinct Beatles albums - a considerable number when you consider they really only made 12 albums in their career (14 including two collections of their non-album recordings). How can such collecting gluttony be explained, much less supported? Well, their records were released worldwide in coincident markets and during a moment when the technology (and therefore listening experience) was balanced on an aural divide. First, Beatles records were made in London, and released as they intended in the UK, but sent to the U.S. where they were reshuffled into a greater number of releases (e.g., three British albums of 14 songs are turned into four 10-11 song albums, so Capitol Records gets an extra few bucks out of you -- it's the American Way.). Second, for a time records were released in two versions, stereo or monaural. At the time, mono was preferred by many, since not everyone had two speakers with their hi-fis, and stereo was a new concept just gaining ground in the 1960s. The two versions were often markedly different. They did not take the stereo mix and simply squash the left and right channels into one. They used the master tapes and mixed the album separately for each version (and for a while the mono was the favored mix). Third, the U.S. releases were often reprocessed by Capitol engineers who thought the records needed to sound more "American." (Who were these American idiots who thought they knew better than George Martin and the lads? Though we know who they were, their names are so insignificant that it insults the Beatles to utter them in the same sentence). Long story short, the net result is numerous incarnations of ideally singular recordings. Hence, my meticulous collection of different versions of the same recordings: Revolver on Capitol Records in mono, Revolver on Capitol Records in stereo, Revolver on Parlophone in mono, Revolver on Parlophone in stereo, etc. That the US and UK versions of many Beatles albums did not share the same song listings warrants a whole other blog posting, which may come along someday...

Now, the Beatles and their contemporaries clearly didn't yet think of their recordings as having one explicitly definitive version, or they wouldn't have made distinct mono and stereo versions. But over time, certain versions came to the fore. As FM album-oriented radio won out over AM single-oriented radio, the stereo recordings gained acceptance as the definitive versions, and in America, the American versions were the accepted and expected recording. When the Beatles' albums were released on CDs in the 1980s, any Americans were not only surprised but dismayed to find that the versions they'd spent years absorbing were not to be heard on CD because the original EMI/Parlophone (British) recordings were to be exclusively produced in digital form.

But then, a few years ago Capitol decided to release the American versions of the albums (both mono and stereo) not seen in record stores since they ceased pressing LPs in the late 1980s. American fanatics (myself included, standing outside Tower Records at 8am on the drop date), knowing full well that this was a generous gift, eagerly consumed the new releases with their CD-sized cardboard replicas of the American LP covers. Some were quick to note, however, contrary to the promise that we were being given the original, authentic US releases, that some of the CDs were not actually taken from the correct master tapes. The mono version of Rubber Soul, for example, was merely the stereo album compressed into monophonic form, evident by the appearance of several clues (including the false starts on "I'm Looking Through You") that should only have appeared on the stereo version. Our adamant dismissal of the "inauthentic" version given to us is a perfect example of the expectation that a song is not merely a song unless it is THE recording of THE version of THE song to which we've become accustomed.

A contrasting example, though, from a few years earlier: the week of February 9, 1957, Sonny James had a number 1 pop hit with "Young Love," for one week, supplanted the week of February 16, 1957 by Tab Hunter's recording of – amazingly – "Young Love." Can you imagine in this day and age if Bruce Springsteen's recording of "Radio Nowhere" were topped by a Tom Petty version of the same song a week later? Not going to happen. These days, if it ain't Bruce singing his hit songs, what's the point?

Granted, maybe everyone else isn't like me (in most respects, quite possible), and maybe they aren't as uptight about the "correct" recording being considered. Not everyone has over 100 Beatles albums, I'll wager. But what if I told you that Hank Ballard's recording of "The Twist" precedes Chubby Checker's by several months, is very nearly an identical recording, and is in many ways superior? Chubby Checker copied everything, even Hank Ballard's vocal quality, which makes it seem rather strange that Chubby carries on about how important his recording was (and that he invented aerobics! hmph.) On that note, I maintain that Carl Perkins's prececdent "Blue Suede Shoes" bests Elvis's cover, and The Valentino's "It's All Over Now" is far superior to The Rolling Stones cover of that song that too-immediately followed. Yet the latter recordings have been accepted as the definitive versions by the public.  I could go on ad nauseum with more of those examples, but the point is, for some listeners it doesn't matter who was the creator, rather it is the version that is the most familiar that gets placed in the pop lexicon and is eventually placed in the rock and roll "canon."