The Clash • Cut the Crap [LP, CD]

Today being Joe Strummer’s birthday, I thought I’d republish this review I did in 2010.

Saw a very nice copy of THE CLASH’s 1985 swansong, Cut the Crap, at one of my favorite record shops the other day. I didn’t have a copy of this record—the only one I was missing by the only band that matters—so I picked it up. Now, you may remember the reviews of this final album under that storied band name from when it came out, and they were uniformly bad. Not B.A.D., as in the band Mick Jones started with Don Letts after he was kicked out of his own band (and who were a better group than the one on this record), but C.R.A.P.

Joe Strummer, bless his populist little heart, decided to carry on under the name he helped promote to #1 Punk Band in the Land, recruited some young punks (no new boots or contracts), and cut an album of new generation singalongs. A few of these songs aren’t that bad, including the two singles “This Is England” and the severely misguidedly-titled “We Are the Clash,” neither of which charted very high. Part of the problem here is that Strummer co-wrote the tunes not with his old mates in the band (or even the new ones), but former Clash manager Bernie Rhodes. Some songs retain a bit of the old grit-and-go the band once had, but let’s face it, this one was not helped by BR’s input. Basically, it’s the arrangements and the constant “everybody sing with me!” choruses that wear on you.

Clearly, Strummer must’ve felt he had something to prove when he undertook this record. Despite the fact that The Clash had Top 10 hits everywhere, had successfully toured the globe in support of their 1982 Combat Rock album, and had garnered more great reviews than any punk band ever, he’s definitely giving it his all here. “This Is England” ain’t half-bad, “Movers and Shakers” and “North and South” are alright, too, but overall, you can’t really listen to this one much. And that may be why, when in the early ’90s a box set of the band’s work was released, mysteriously this record’s name was missing from the band discography and not one cut from it appears on any of the three discs. I like to think that maybe even those few years later Strummer realized that he’d sullied his band’s name and decided to try and forget the past. In the late ’90s all of the band’s albums were remastered and reissued—all except this one. I guess they really did cut the crap.
2/5 (Epic FE 40017, 1985)
[review originally published 1/27/2010 on Skratchdisc]

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The Dukes of Stratosphear • The Complete and Utter Dukes [Box Set]

They’ve taken both of XTC’s alter ego releases as THE DUKES OF STRATOSPHEAR and put them into an ultra-mega-deluxe box set called The Complete & Utter Dukes that includes both CD and vinyl versions (180 gram, too!), a 7″ single, a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, some Dukes Dollars, and a coupon for a Dukes t-shirt of your very own. All of this comes in a real nice purple velvet box. So if you haven’t picked up 25 O’Clock or Psonic Psunspot since they were reissued by Andy Partridge’s Ape House label, now’s the time. The remasters are much better than the ones Virgin originally put out, the CDs feature extra demos and stuff, and the vinyl is very psychedelically psupreme. (The vinyl versions come out separately in their own right anytime now.)
5/5 (Ape House APEBOX002)
[blurb originally published 1/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]
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The Dukes of Stratosphear • 25 O’Clock [EP], Psonic Psunspot [LP]

As alter egos go, there aren’t too many as psychedically pspot-on as THE DUKES OF STRATOSPHEAR. The nom de plectrum of Swindon, England’s XTC, it was used as the name of a pfictitious rock group circa mid/late ’60s that was actually a mid/late ’80s “tribute” to the music that Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory grew up on. Thirty years ago this month the Dukes released the second of their two records, Psonic Psunspot; as the successor to 1985’s 25 O’Clock it was the logical conclusion of an exercise that started out as a lark and ended as a favorite pair of platters by both band and fans alike.

By 1985 XTC, a nominally successful new wave/alternative rock group started in the late ’70s, were starting to run out of psteam. The band’s last two albums (Mummer and The Big Express) had failed to capitalize on the momentum gained by hit singles “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Senses Working Overtime,” and their label (Virgin Records) was noticeably worried. To keep their creative juices flowing, the record company agreed to give the band a tiny budget to record what became the 6-song 25 O’Clock EP and for them a fun break from the pressure of trying to write and record a proper XTC LP. Partridge, Moulding & Gregory enjoyed themselves immensely. Free to do basically whatever they wanted (within the reported £6,000 budget), the musicians fuzzed-up their guitars, played tapes backward and did anything else they felt psuited the concept. What they created in 25 O’Clock was not only a half dozen great tunes, but a virtual Trivial Pursuit of Psychedelic Rock. Here there’s a mellotron like the one on “Penny Lane,” there there’s a guitar lick recalling The Pink Floyd. Though the Dukes didn’t do actual cover versions of the psych and pop songs they got their inspiration from, they clearly channeled their heroes in a wholly believable manner.

25 O’Clock did so well for the band and Virgin Records that XTC had a new mandate (and pressure) to make a successful record under their own name. Their 1986 album Skylarking was just that, with the song “Dear God” becoming a ubiquitous track on alternative and college radio in the USA. By 1987 XTC was given the go-ahead to do another Dukes of Stratosphear record, with a larger budget than the first release. Psonic Psunspot, a 10-track album, expanded the Dukes’ influences so much that it actually comes off as more of a hybrid Dukes/XTC album—too current-sounding to be believable as a ’60s release, but too psychedelically inclined to be credited to XTC. Still, some of the songs, such as the Beach Boys-influenced “Pale and Precious” and single “Vanishing Girl,” are XTC in all but name.

This time, XTC’s US label, Geffen Records, took notice and released the album on both vinyl and CD (under the title Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, including the 25 O’Clock tracks). Once more XTC took a backseat, not hopping into the driver’s seat again until Spring 1989’s Oranges & Lemons. Thirty years after their final release, the Dukes of Stratosphear continue to thrill with their recorded righteousness—often outshining releases by XTC proper. If “Little Lighthouse,” “What in the World??” and “My Love Explodes” don’t smother you in their organic guitar goodness, you may well be a lost cause.

In 2009, frontman Andy Partridge’s record label, Ape House, reissued the albums separately on both vinyl and CD (and in a super deluxe box set called The Complete & Utter Dukes). The 180-gram vinyl versions sound even better than the original UK records do (I still have mine), and the CDs added bonus demos and unreleased tracks to fill in the rest of the picture. These days the band members look back at the Dukes fondly, if maybe a little jealously—after all, if it weren’t for them, XTC may have never had another chance to dazzle us with the likes of Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and 1992’s Nonsuch. Declaring, on their debut record, that “it’s time to visit the planet smile… it’s time the love bomb was dropped… it’s time to drown yourself in soundgasm,” the Dukes of Stratosphear were both of their time and of all time.

4/5 (Ape House APELP023 [25 O’Clock] and APELP024 [Psonic Psunspot])

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Various • Making Time: A Shel Talmy Production

I finally made time for this one. A compilation of tracks produced by an American ex-pat, Making Time: A SHEL TALMY Production is a 25-track platter of mostly British rock and freakbeat from the early/mid ’60s. Talmy is most famous for producing The Who’s first album (and its same-titled single) My Generation, a few Kinks records and The Creation’s greatest, errr, creation, “Making Time.” Ace Records, the UK label known for putting out quality compilations of this ilk, has once again sorted out a quality collection of tunes, including some big names and lots of lesser known ones—and even a pseudonymous track by a fellow called Davy Jones (not that guy from the Monkees). What you don’t get with Making Time is the feeling that Talmy was the great producer that legend has him, but really just a hustler with a good ear.

After all, Shel Talmy is famous not only for a handful of great singles but the fact that he lied his way into producing in the first place. In the early ’60s there was no such thing as the internet or even fax machines; Talmy flew across the Atlantic with a stack of records he hadn’t produced, presented them as his own and landed himself a job with Decca Records UK. (He was supposedly given the okay to do so by the man who did produce them, Capitol Records’ Nik Venet, who passed away in 1998.) Apparently Talmy was a good enough salesman to quell any doubts there may have been about his CV because the next thing you know he’s producing The Kinks—represented here with “Tired of Waiting for You”–and then The Who. Along came The Easybeats, Manfred Mann, The Creation, Chad & Jeremy and a load more. Hell, he even produced a female singer with the unlikely but cool name of Perpetual Langley! Later down the road he started his own label, Planet Records (not to be confused with the one started by Richard Perry in the late ’70s). Talmy gets a bad rap for keeping The Who in mid-sixties limbo with litigation that severely curtailed their early momentum, but that was eventually sorted out by both parties.

Making Time presents such a varied group of artists that it’s hard to make a case for him being such a great producer. His productions are fine, for the time, but they don’t stand out as being all that unique, like Phil Spector’s and even Brian Wilson’s do. He did pick some talented groups to produce, though, so perhaps we should really salute his ear for talent rather than production. This compilation presents a reasonable number of great artists and tunes, but there are some definite duds, too; good lord please don’t make me listen to anything else by Lee Hazlewood if it’s as bad as “Bye Babe”! And I could live without ever hearing Tim Rose or Trini Lopez again. In all, though, this CD is of Ace’s usual high quality level and worth the price.

Bonus notes: One track here is by The Rockin’ Vickers, which was a group that included the young Ian Kilmister under the name Ian Willis (who finally achieved fame as Lemmy of Motorhead). Also, the Davy Jones track, “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving,” is a “previously unissued alternate overdub” of the young David Bowie’s 1965 Pye single.

2.5/5 (Ace Records CDCHD 1497; 2017)

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The Beach Boys • 1967 Sunshine tomorrow [CD]

Here’s another in a series of releases designed to bring you more of THE BEACH BOYS’ mid/late ’60s output. This time, since they’ve already mined the Pet Sounds/ Smile era about as much as must be possible, we’re getting the very next chapter in their story: the sessions for their following album, 1967’s Wild Honey. Unsung by the mainstream press but acclaimed by those with a deeper appreciation for Hawthorne, CA’s favorite sons/cousins/best friends, this new release covers a year’s worth of activities from a time when the Wilson Bros. & Co. were much busier than anyone knew.

1967 Sunshine tomorrow [capitalization is theirs, not my typo] is a 2CD set with a mind-numbingly large quantity of tracks, 65 in all. The Wild Honey album itself is quite good—this, after all, is where the single “Darlin’” comes from—the band’s first LP outing in which they produced themselves, played most of the instruments, and really began to cut loose from Capitol Records’ short leash. Chances are, after the lukewarm reception Pet Sounds garnered, and then the Smile catastrophe, record company suits were okay with letting the band just go away for awhile. Who knows, they may have secretly been giving them enough rope to hang themselves, making it easier for the label to cut ’em loose and let their current slump become some other executives’ problem.

Whatever was the label’s master plan, The Beach Boys themselves started a number of projects in 1967 and no less than seven of them are represented here. Wild Honey itself makes up disc one, with a brand new stereo mix (it was never mixed that way back in the day) that shines a nice bright light on the album, including some great songs of their own and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her.” Some thirteen tracks of outtakes from the album’s sessions are next, which comprise an interesting look at what the Boys were doing but which aren’t that revelatory to their working practices. (We’ve already been given two different 4CD anthologies of how they made Pet Sounds, and though these WH tracks were primarily recorded at their own personal studio, aside from sound quality they don’t show anything new of the group’s arranging and recording methods.) Still, disc one is Wild Honey through and through. Disc two, however, is much less focused. Here we get Smiley Smile sessions (the album prior to WH that ultimately became the sad reminder of what Smile might have been, had the band ever finished it), live and simulated live tracks for the aborted Lei’d in Hawaii album, more live tracks, and a few pre-Surf’s Up studio tracks. I found the Lei’d tracks quite depressing. I hoped (or is it expected) they’d be exciting, but instead they were slow and dull. Clearly The Beach Boys were in transition, and it’s been documented that they, indeed, seemed rudderless at this point. Sadly, this is the proof. The actual live tracks are as lifeless as the studio recordings they planned to add audience sounds to in order to hoodwink America. Luckily, the band—or some entity close to them—sensed these dreary tracks would not help their case and chose not to go ahead with the project. That they have now speaks to either their wish to give the hardcore fans what they want or to their failing memories. After all, the Boys are now Old Men.

1967 Sunshine tomorrow would have made a dazzling single disc. As a crammed 2CD venture, though, Wild Honey gets lost in the morass-o-tracks presented here. I’d have preferred a one CD affair. And yes, I can choose to just not listen to the other disc (which I will likely do), but in reviewing the entire thing, I gotta say, the “sunshine tomorrow” we’re given today is sooooo bright that it’s hard to see the Wild Honey at its core.

2.5/5 (Capitol Records)

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Robyn Hitchcock • Robyn Hitchcock [CD]

It’s been awhile since ROBYN HITCHCOCK put out a proper full-band album. Or at least, since he did one in the same spirit as his Egyptians-era albums of the mid to late ’80s. This one, cleverly titled Robyn Hitchcock, is a lot like those heralded albums such as Fegmania! and Globe of Frogs. Recorded in a short stint in Nashville, Robyn apparently decided it was time he unleashed a batch of songs on an untested group of musicians and see what happens. Luckily, the results are in and this 2017 release is available for us to hear for ourselves.

Having started his recording career as founding member of The Soft Boys, Hitchcock went solo for a couple of albums before, in 1985, putting together the Egyptians (really The Soft Boys minus one) and releasing Fegmania! The Byrdsy, Barretty band came up with some great arrangements of RH’s tunes, including “Egyptian Cream,” “My Wife and My Dead Wife” and the odd but good “The Man with the Lightbulb Head.” The band went on to do a handful of albums until, in the early ’90s, they disbanded and Hitchcock went on to pursue extra textures (within and without group settings) with varying results.

What I like about his new one—I still can’t believe he didn’t come up with a better title than Robyn Hitchcock—is that it recalls the Egyptians but adds some interesting vibes via pedal steel guitar (don’t get yer panties in a wad; it ain’t a country record!) and the sheer kismet of making music with a new group of people. At times the tunes feel like they were channeled through the Egyptians—or that the band, perhaps subconsciously, asked themselves, “what would the Egyptians do?” when approaching these songs. Definitely, “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” and “I Want to Tell You About What I Want” have that classic vibe. But a few, like “Virginia Woolf,” “Autumn Sunglasses” and “Raymond and the Wires” go that extra mile to reveal something different. Maybe it’s that pedal steel adding those swirly, stretchy, almost keyboardy soundscapes. Or even just the difference in the bass—Jon Estes has a different tone and approach to the instrument than Andy Metcalfe did. Whatever it is, if you’re a seasoned fan of RH&E then you’ll be pleased and even surprised at how good this album sounds. If you’re more attuned to Hitchcock’s post-Egyptians epoch then this will feel good, too. Robyn & Co. have given us a record that all of us Hitchcock fans can enjoy, and that’s pretty awesome. And one with a lot less insects crawling around.

3/5 (YepRoc YEP-2483, 2017)

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David Bowie • Cracked Actor (Live in Los Angeles ’74) [3LP, 2CD]

Talk around the internet forums and blogs in April of this year was that this splendid release, DAVID BOWIE‘s Cracked Actor (Live in Los Angeles ’74), would probably be out on CD at some point. After all, the vinyl-only Record Store Day release sold out quickly and surely there was plenty of still-mourning fans who’d missed out. I’m not sure any of us figured the CD would be out barely sixty days later, but here it is: the 2CD reissue of a release not even two months old. Clearly it was always the plan. Crank up the hype machine, sell out of the initial vinyl run and then unleash the compact disc set while the iron was still hot. [Does that count as a mixed metaphor?]

Cracked Actor is an exciting live album and worth every penny regardless of the configuration you chose/choose. If you didn’t get the vinyl – for whatever reason – and you still thrill to a live Bowie show then you’ll want to add this release to your collection. Recorded in concert at the Universal Amphitheatre in September 1974, it’s a show and band lineup that appeared between the Diamond Dogs and Philly Dogs tours of that year. Bowie seemed to be tinkering with set lists and musicians incessantly and this transitional date was, luckily, recorded by the BBC to bolster a documentary they were working on at the time. The band included Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitars, Mike Garson on keys and David Sanborn on sax, and they were a startlingly solid group considering how recently they’d come together. Vocalists included Warren Peace, Ava Cherry and a certain Luther Vandross, who worked with DB on his next studio release, Young Americans. Songs include numerous cuts from Dogs, plus some from Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust as well as “All the Young Dudes” (written by Bowie and a then current hit by Mott The Hoople) and a cover of “Knock on Wood.” I really like the muscular, saxified “Cracked Actor” and the sublime “It’s Gonna Be Me,” ultimately an outtake from Young Americans. Cracked Actor is another case for Bowie as the amazing interpreter of his own songs that he was, and how every concert of his was an event because of that.

Indeed, the show has been bootlegged fairly extensively (apparently there was more stage banter and a longer intro than appears on this official release) so it’s not news to the more intrepid Bowiefans that this show even exists, but you won’t be sorry for buying this version even if you do have one of the boots. In a deluxe three panel album jacket, the 3LP presentation is a 5-sided, 20-song show that features rearrangements of even his then most recent material. (Side 6 features an etching of the distinctive Bowie logo that dons the cover of this release, as well as Dogs.) Sound quality is pretty top-notch for a live show, given its 1974 recording but late 2016 mix by longtime Bowie partner Tony Visconti, and mastering by Ray Staff at AIR Mastering. The pressing itself is on 180 gram vinyl and is dead quiet, with the records coming in static-free poly-lined black sleeves. The 2CD comes out tomorrow and features the same track listing but some liner notes and photos not in the vinyl package. It ought to be just as compelling, albeit maybe not as warm as the wax. At least you won’t have to flip the discs over as often. Either way, vinyl or CD, I wouldn’t miss this one!

4/5 (Parlophone DBRSD 7476 [0190295869373], 3LP, 2017) [I reviewed Bowie’s other 2017 RSD release, BOWPROMO, here.]

Here’s a clip of the title track from this very record, as broadcast on the BBC’s Cracked Actor documentary in 1974.

 

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John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band* • Sometime in New York City [album]

“Boy, he sure does cover a lot of Beatles-related stuff in this blog.” – Yes, I Do

JOHN & YOKO got together in the late ’60s when they were still John Lennon, one of The Beatles, and Yoko Ono, fairly obscure avant garde artist. The kindred spirits not only made love together, but art and music, too. At the time they made 1972’s Sometime in New York City with their Plastic Ono Band the music and other aural delicacies they’d created were quite often looked upon as liberal rubbish. Sometime, though, was the first time they put out a record of actual songs and music under both of their names – so they were really laying it out on the line. Of course Lennon didn’t have a lot to lose; he was, after all, still considered a Beatle. Yoko, as we all know, willingly lured Lennon into a life of aural degradation (ahem) and broke-up her husband’s band, so she also had little to worry about as she was already the lowest of the low! Forty-five years ago today he and his wife committed this double album to wax (and 8-track tape) and let the dice fall where they may.

To call Sometime in New York City a political album would be putting it mildly. Nine of the ten songs that make up record one (the second is comprised of live cuts) are political in one way or another, whether it’s “John Sinclair” or “Angela” (about Sinclair and Davis, both who had been jailed [separately] for very minor offenses), or the main, lead off track, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.” The fact that Lennon & Ono chose it as the album’s only single shows that they must have been ready to tackle all comers and (naturally, considering the title) go to lengths to defend its title and what it was actually about. And, not surprisingly given its name, the single pretty much tanked. (Released on 45 in the US, it made it only to number 57.) Not a bad song at all, “Woman…” catalogs some of the many crappy ways women are treated (“we make her paint her face and dance…/We insult her every day on TV and wonder why she has no guts or confidence”) and is one of Lennon’s most fully realized political messages. You might argue that its title is over the top, and by today’s standards it’s definitely politically incorrect, but you can’t argue that the song’s point isn’t clear. Other songs on the LP tackle “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “The Luck of the Irish” (both concerning then current events in Ireland), “Attica State” (about a prison riot and how the authorities poorly handled it) and a few other topics. Only “New York City” lets up on the polemics, coming at the end of side one and a nice 12-bar blues breather before getting back to business on the other side of the record.

As noted above, Sometime features both John and Yoko songs, and indeed, Ms. Ono sings lead on half of the studio tracks. This may be the one time before 1980’s Double Fantasy that Yoko’s singing isn’t difficult listening. In fact, her songs here are as pop as she ever got, even considering “Kiss Kiss Kiss” or 1981’s “Walking on Thin Ice.” Seriously, if you think all she was capable of was caterwauling you’re wrong. I’m not saying that her vocalizing isn’t an acquired taste to most of us, just that if ever there was an argument against the standard that ain’t singing, that’s noise line, this album is it.

Hampered somewhat by its mixes, the Lennon and Phil Spector-produced studio part of the album is a fairly murky presentation of John & Yoko’s latest. The second record, internally called Live Jam, sounds much better. It was recorded in concert in London, 1969 and at NYC’s Fillmore East in ’71 on a bill with Frank Zappa & The Mothers (that set resulting in The Mothers’ acclaimed Fillmore East – June 1971). A few of the songs here are of Lennon & Co. and Zappa & Co. together jamming (as we used to call it) on some blues and other concoctions.** In 2005 Yoko Ono oversaw a remix of the studio cuts and most of the live tracks for a single CD reissue, ending up with a much clearer, more palatable mix of the album. (She had all of Lennon’s albums remixed in that decade and they’re worth checking out if you don’t find the exercise completely sacrilegious.) While its not necessarily how Lennon would have wanted us to hear it, this version of Sometime in New York City does give new life to his and his wife’s early Seventies co-billed creation.

3/5 (Apple SVBB 3392 [2LP, 1972]; Capitol CDP 0946 3 40976 2 8 [CD, 2005])

* Full original credit: John and Yoko/Plastic Ono Band with Elephants Memory and Invisible Strings [sic].  ** Frank reissued these cuts in a more Zappa-centric mix on an early 1990s compilation called Playground Psychotics.

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Barry Hutchinson • The Damned – The Chaos Years: An Unofficial Biography [Book]

Not many books have been written on THE DAMNED. Luckily, über fan BARRY HUTCHINSON has just published a deep dive into the first twenty years of punk’s greatest group. The Damned – The Chaos Years: An Unofficial Biography is an exhaustive look at the band’s beginnings, its exciting first few years and its slow descent before re-emerging in the early 2000s as mainstays of the movement’s first wave.

Hutchinson created the book from “exclusive interviews from all band members past and present,” and indeed there are quotes from founders Brian James, Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian and Rat Scabies, as well as just about every other guy or gal who’s ever played guitar, bass, keys or drums with the perpetually unstable band. At 400 some odd pages, you’ll be thrilled by the wealth of info covered by the author, as he seems to not only know of every anecdote worth describing (and maybe even a few that could have been skipped), but seems to have witnessed the anarchy, chaos and destruction firsthand. The author’s writing style is pretty raw – he’s clearly more of a fan than a professional writer – and the book does suffer some from that. But there’s no denying that this guy knows his subject matter and is definitely qualified to tell their story. Some of the quotes sound like they came from question-and-answer sessions submitted via email (something a pro editor could have tightened up), but that unfiltered presentation allows the various band members’ true characters to come through loud and clear. I contacted Barry via Facebook and he tells me that, because the book was published via Lulu’s “self-publishing” platform, he can revise the book pretty much at will. “The handy thing with print on demand,” he says, “means its fairly easy to do.”

If you’ve ever wanted a better look at the band than Carol Clerk’s The Damned: The Light at the End of the Tunnel provided (it was severely shortened to serve as more of a tie-in to a late ’80s compilation than a serious book), Hutchinson’s book is worth checking out. Not unlike Wes Orshoski’s documentary, Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead (which I reviewed in this blog; read it here), it’s a telling of The Damned’s story by someone who really does give a damn(ed).

3.5/5 (Lulu.com; order the book directly at this link)

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The Beatles • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band [2CD Anniversary Edition]

Today being the 50th Anniversary of its release, here’s my take on THE BEATLES’ quintessential record.

“I get high with a little help from my friends,” sings Ringo Starr near the beginning of the most written about album in rock. I still feel “high” when I listen to it, having discovered it among my parents’ records as a kid. For its 50th anniversary, THE BEATLES have released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in a new mix and a bevy of formats designed to shed new light on their pop art masterpiece. Of course, five decades on the album has been both heralded and hacked. But the fact of the matter is: it’s still being written about. You can say all you want about it – badmouth it, throw sticks and stones at it – but it refuses to be influenced by naysayers or acclaimists. So let’s skip all of that (after all, fifty years of criticism is hard to summarize) and just get to the heart of this release.

Giles Martin, son of legendary producer and “fifth Beatle” George Martin (who produced the original), got the go-ahead to give the legendary Sgt. Pepper a makeover. Giles & Co. used the original 4-track tapes (including session tapes that, luckily, weren’t recorded over or discarded) and created a new stereo mix designed to deliver the punch and clarity of the original mono mix, which was done by George Martin and The Beatles over the course of a few weeks in the Spring of 1967. The original stereo mix – the one we’re all used to – was created over a few days without the Fab Four’s oversight. It became the de facto official version because stereo became the default configuration for future rock releases. Eventually the mono mix was put out to pasture, and that’s too bad because it was quite good (though it’s now again available on both vinyl and CD). Giles Martin’s new stereo mix relies less on gimmicky over-separation and goes for a more evenhanded approach, and it largely succeeds. (Stereo was new to the pop audience of the mid ’60s so exaggerated separation was the order of the day – sort of like over-enunciating in order to be understood.) Though some changes on the new stereo mix are too subtle for the typical listener to notice, it’s just as enjoyable. I like the more pronounced bass and drums, the clarity of some of the guitar and piano parts, and of course, the lovely sound of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s vocal harmonies. I could go into detail (I took notes during my first playback), but really, you can find that online in many places. Go ahead if you want to, or just go pick up a copy and hear for yourself.

As for the various formats available of this 50th Anniversary release, there are Sgt. Peppers to suit every budget and lifestyle. I decided to start with this 2CD version, which features the new stereo mix on disc one and a similarly-sequenced program on disc two that features early versions, false starts, instrumentals and more. It comes with a 50-page book (quite generous with photos and notes) and the original cutouts in a nice little slipcase. I got it on sale for $20 locally so it’s pretty affordable. You can also buy a single CD (just the new stereo mixes), a 2LP version (new stereo mixes on record one, some alternate versions and such on record two), and of course, the super deluxe 4CD/DVD/Bluray box set with even more alternate takes, a 140-page hardcover book and a brand new 5.1 surround mix in high resolution audio. Don’t get me wrong – I will get the big deal box – but the 2CD version is probably your best Beatles buy if you’re not bothered with all the extras. My purchase of it came with a nice poster of the inside of the original gatefold album cover (pictured above), which is pretty cool despite the extreme cropping of a very familiar image.

So there you have it, hopefully not too long-winded and with just the right info to pick the perfect Pepper.

4.5/5 (Apple/Capitol/UMe B0026524-02)

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