Giles Martin’s new remix of The Beatles’ “White Album” sounds terrific, and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do: it helps me hear a 50-year-old album with fresh ears. In fact, I was surprised how new it sounded, considering it’s the Beatles record I’ve spent the most time with. When I was around 15 or 16, I sat with my headphones and a copy of Beatlesongs, and tried to map out all the instruments in the mix:
Truthfully, I think my obsession with the album had a lot to do with learning about its influence on Radiohead’s OK Computer. (I also listened to a lot of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, but I think that one was a bit beyond my grasp.)
The White Album also appealed to me because it sounded really homemade, like something I could maybe copy with my little Tascam 4-track Portastudio.
I distinctly remember setting up 3 microphones in my mom’s living room and trying to record a “Blackbird” knockoff.
And I remember starting to play with microphone placement — putting the drums in the living room while my mom was at work, and recording with the microphones in the kitchen.
I spent so much time trying to figure out new sounds I could make with my primitive equipment. I’d comb through music magazines for tips and tricks and paste them into my recording notebook. I’d keep a long list of recording ideas for later:
But mostly, I spent so much time listening. Time is the very thing that young people have. (Although, I fear today that it’s being overscheduled away.) I can’t imagine listening to a piece of music as closely now as I did back then. (I can’t imagine arranging my life in a way that I could perform such close listening.)
My sons listen that closely: my six-year-old can differentiate all the different instruments in mixes, and my 3-year-old can recite all the narration passages from this Leonard Bernstein CD. And some adults still listen that closely: In a 2006 interview with Arthur magazine, Joanna Newsom described the way Bill Callahan listens to music:
The way he listens to music is one of the most endearing and sweet things I’ve ever seen. He takes off his shoes, sets them down and gets comfortable. He kneels or sits in front of the record player, lifts the cover, reverently chooses a record, puts it on, closes the cover and just listens, start to finish. Whenever I go to see him and we listen to music like that, I register in myself how much better it feels than other ways of listening, which are like rushing to eat a meal because you’re super-hungry. You need to eat, just like you need to listen to music, but it never feels good if you do it like that. So I am trying to set my life up in a way where I don’t have to listen to music anyway other than putting on a record and sitting and listening.
Though I didn’t become a professional musician or producer or recording engineer, I like to think that this kind of exercise — studying something you love in depth — is valuable no matter what the field or the genre. The results don’t matter. When you study something so closely, in so much depth, you learn what it is to really pay attention. And paying attention is the art that builds a more meaningful and creative life.
The transistor radio sounds right to me in summer. Monaural AM radio reception changes with the weather, the temperature, the time of day, and just as we expose our bodies to the elements more in summer, it makes sense to me that audio should do the same. Plus, mono suits summer broadcasts so well: baseball games, violent storm warnings, the local oldies station (which plays mostly mono records anyway). How would stereo improve any of these?
I saw The Beatles in Mono box set at the library last week and checked it out. Not sure how many people know, but The Beatles saw stereo as a fad, and spent almost all of their time mixing their records in mono, leaving it to the engineers to make the stereo mixes. Brian Wilson mixed Pet Sounds in mono partially because he was deaf in one ear — he literally couldn’t make sense of stereo. (Mono also gave him control over what listeners would hear.) Later, Bruce Springsteen would mix Born To Run in a way that emulated that mono Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” style.
Related: Have you ever noticed how wonderful music from the first half of the 60s and earlier sounds on your tiny iPhone speakers?
Flipping through the booklet that comes with the 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I fell a little in love with this photo of McCartney re-positioning a microphone. I’ve cropped and zoomed him in the image above, but here he is in context:
The others are all at their posts. George at the organ. John in front of an amp. Ringo drumming. But there’s Paul, up on his feet moving a microphone. Why isn’t an engineer doing it for him?
In Geoff Emerick’s memoir, Here, There, and Everywhere, he writes about all the strict rules and restrictions of the recording studio in that era. (When the Beatles first started out, the engineers were still wearing lab coats.) They broke all sorts of rules and protocol for the albums leading up to Pepper’s, and, clearly, the rules had mostly been thrown out the window at this point. Emerick writes that Paul was the most curious of the crew about the recording process. He wanted to get hands-on, which is what he’s doing in this photo: He’s not waiting for some engineer to fix the sound.
Paul would also stay at the studio late after the other band members had gone home to overdub his bass lines one section of the time, getting them as perfect as he could. “There were nights when he would labor until dawn,” Emerick writes, “keeping at it until his fingers were literally bleeding.”
Paul was never my favorite Beatle, and Sgt. Pepper’s has never been my favorite album. (Too much of what John Lennon called “Paul’s granny music” for me.) But looking at this picture and hearing those huge, sweet bass lines on the remix, I admire him more and more. He was working. Moving his own damned microphone.
Last weekend at the Texas Book Festival I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author of one of my favorite books of the year, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. I had a hunch that we’d have a lot to talk about, so I recorded our discussion and edited it down (liberally) to the post below. Enjoy.
AK: Let’s start out with The Lone Genius Myth.
JWS: I argue in the book that the lone genius is a mythical creature. Which is not to say that we don’t require solitude and it’s not to say that we might not take sole ownership over our work as you and I both do — we don’t have anybody else’s name on the covers of our books. Yet, there are very often characters offstage who are not acknowledged.