Finally got around to listening to this Giles Martin remix of The Beatles’ Ninth.
I was nine the first time this double-album came out. Hearing this is like staring at the cover art (inside joke) for the first time all over again. It also reminds me of one of the awful realities of being a musician: writing the music is just the first step in a terribly long chain of ultimately disappointing partnerships and processes between the song’s creation and any audience hearing it. So much can and does go wrong! Even when the process is error-free (as if) there’s the fundamental problem of taking real and/or unreal sounds, squishing them together and presenting the deracinated hoodoo-gust as anything other than a visitor from Unreal Space.
I was friends with a fairly well-known Rock Critic (of great erudition and wit) who wrote for very early versions of Rolling Stone, and Creem, et al, and his intriguing quirk was to eschew headphones on the grounds that “that’s not how the music was designed to be heard”. Well: how was it “designed” to be heard? However it was “designed” to be heard, it generally sounds unreal. It depends upon which tweaks and distortions appeal to you.
(Sidebar: I once asked an audio engineer why vocals aren’t generally recorded in stereo and he said, “Because the vocals have a pinpoint source,” and I said, “No they don’t.“)
The recording/mixing process strips sound-events of the natural components of initial environment… the natural reverb/ delay/ peaks/ decay… and vertically stacks the curated audio-events like panes of tinted holographic-glass: this ghost-glass is reconstituted in a rigid, overdetermined array via speakers (or headphones) and while you can insert yourself between “Left” and “Right” of this model and enjoy “stereo” in a controlled way, you could never do so in a room in which an actual four-piece band is jamming. Try it: as you approach the guitar amp, the riffs drown out the vocals, as you approach the drummer, the fills drown out the riffs. Run to the back of the room (say the room is fifty meters long) and the bass seems clearer than it did when you could see the singer’s cavities.
That’s how a band, generating one-off sound events, in real time/space, serves how music was initially “designed” (as apples were “designed” to be eaten) to be heard: with your physical location, in relation to the band’s, as a feature of the event. Which could sound and feel beyond great in ideal circumstances. Perhaps popular music has become an almost entirely Looks-driven cult of irrelevant pageantry around quasi-religious avatars because the average circumstance of live musical experience (on an audio level), has been so fucking very not ideal for so long? Listening to a studio recording had nothing of the excitement of attending a live performance, in 1968, but the trade-off felt worth it because live concerts generally sounded Tinny and/or Boomy and trains-station-pissoir echo-clogged. Fans didn’t flock to these concerts for the acoustics.
Studio albums were a cure (or consolation) for the terrible acoustics of concert events that, themselves (the albums), sounded rather weirder than we might care to admit, normalized as studio albums have become. Imagine people jitterbugging happily to a 78 rpm in 1939 and thinking the sound was awesome. Now imagine sitting cross-legged in a dorm room thirty-one years later, listening to CSN&Y, and thinking the same thing…
Studio albums in 1968 were the audio equivalent of 2013’s heavily filtered, completely unrealistic, bizarrely-pretty i-phone selfies of teens who considered that look accurate, absolutely requisite for the self-esteem and totally, totally normal. And that was the best case scenario, when a given album had the benefit of very good speakers to sing through. Coming up through that circle of perforations, in the fiberboard shelf behind the back seat of your uncle’s sky blue Ford Falcon, (what he called a “speaker”), in the late 1960s: only the best songs and singers (with the weirdest EQs) could transcend that cheerfully shitty sound. We’ve been enjoying these garbled or flattened sounds for decades, now, and thinking they were awesome.
Purists and Calvinists and men sporting van dykes will affect to prefer the original mixes of “The White Album”… preferring the mono mixes the very most. And some people pretend to like stinking French cheeses for dessert.
Not that anything was “wrong” with the original mixes of “The White Album”… but the songs now sound like band performances and The Beatles again sound like interrelating performers, whether or not the revelatory richness of the new low-end (for example) is more mere trickery.
Listen to the whole thing here: