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John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band 50th Anniversary Boxed Set, Part 3: The Outtakes, The Alternates & Other Things

My deep dive into the 50th Anniversary super deluxe boxed set celebrating John Lennon’s landmark solo album Plastic Ono Band concludes today exploring some of the outtakes, alternates, and other fascinating bonuses on this rich collection. In case you missed Part II on the new Surround Sound mix, please click here. And for Part I on the Stereo remix, click here

Plastic Ono Band presents multiple visions for the album. Each CD — also included on the Blu-ray Disc — gives you 14 tracks, corresponding album tracks plus period singles in various states of being. New “ultimate” mixes of studio out-takes are offered as well as new mixes/remasters of demos and new mixes of the “elements.”  

You get “raw” studio mixes including the outtakes (different outtakes!). And then the “evolution” mixes are mini audio documentaries of each track’s birthing process. There are the jam sessions! And, on the Blu-ray you get all the live sessions the band did with Yoko Ono (which became the core for what became her first solo album, also titled Plastic Ono Band). 

The CDs generally sound excellent but if you want to hear the fullest versions, listen on the Blu-ray Discs which are presented at 192 kHz and 24 bit resolution in Stereo. The vinyl LP version of Plastic Ono Band also sounds excellent but only offers you one series of the outtakes (more on that in a bit).

There is so much here I really can’t get to it all in this already-too-long review series, so I’ll try to be as complete as I can (without going to a fourth review!)

OUTTAKES ’n ALTERNATES

All of these tracks sound amazing and offer incredible fly-on-the-wall insights into the process John Lennon went through creating Plastic Ono Band. The remarkable thing is that for all these years many of us thought that Plastic Ono Band was this stripped down raw affair which couldn’t possibly have been as intense a production as, say, The Beatles’ Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper.  

But when you look at the number of takes Lennon did of some of these songs you realize he went through quite a process to get to that final sound.  He went through nearly 100 takes of “Mother” to get to the final version that opens the album! 

It takes a lot of work and skill to create something seemingly this simple.

My favorite outtakes thus far include the heavily overdubbed 23rd take of “Isolation” with multiple vocal takes all at once. Take 6 of  “Love” is a simple acoustic guitar demo, like he is playing it on a back porch. Take 2 of “Look At Me” is innocent and folksy. Take 27 of “God” is amazing with its somewhat different introduction and vocal style. Take 1 of “Cold Turkey” mesmerizes.

On the Two LP vinyl version of Plastic Ono Band you get a second disc featuring the “Raw” studio mix outtakes as found on the Blu-ray disc (different than the CD). The LP sounds great if you like that format and is a nice complement to the super high resolution Blu-ray version.  

THE DEMOS

On Disc 6 of the CDs (again, also on the Blu-ray) you get a full set of John’s earliest cassette demos. These “are what they are” sound quality wise, but are an essential part of the journey. Some highlights include the early take of “Mother” played by John on guitar on a heavily vibrato-laden electric guitar. The piano and vocal demo of “Isolation” is a tear jerker as is the similarly produced “Remember.” 

“Look At Me” sounds like it was recorded over a telephone line and is wonderful as the essence of the song is all there even at this early stage. “God” is probably the most radical departure, strummed early on as a somewhat fast folk song on a guitar. 

Essential listening, no doubt. 

ELEMENTS MIXES

Stripping each song down to its most basic essence, these are a fascinating study in the power of isolating performance details

“Mother” is especially haunting, stunning and beautiful presenting Lennon’s vocal take in its entirety without any backing. It is especially harrowing to feel the emotion in his voice toward the end, alone on the high wire without a net.

“Hold On” is beautiful just as a solo electric guitar and vocal mix. “I Found Out” is an alternate vision of the song with funky congas changing up the vibe. Lennon breaks into some rock ’n roll oldies during the ensuing jam session — this would have been an amazing song for Lennon to play live!  

The “Jews Harpboinging in the background behind “Remember” is a fascinating timekeeper, establishing a bouncing beat reminiscent of McCartney’s bridge section on The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.” The extra resolution on the Blu-ray Disc version is important here as the harp is more audible their than on the CD — at roughly four times the resolution of a CD, this is an easy to comprehend example of what the 192 kHz, 24 bit version delivers. 

The elements take of “God” places Lennon’s voice in an enormous echo chamber!  His vocal approach is completely different, almost like a quiet church prayer vs. the soul-torching take that ended up on the final take. 

“Cold Turkey” without vocals is tremendous. Listen for the ring of Ringo’s snare drum and bits of sweet feedback chiming from the guitars. Ringo’s kick drum and Klaus’ bass are way up in the mix, making it very powerful on the low end. This sounds especially great on the Blu-ray Disc. 

THE RAW MIXES

These versions may actually rock a bit more than the regular album given they are unencumbered by any real production beyond how the microphones were set up. Each song is mixed raw without effects, tape delays or reverbs.  In someways, these raw mixes are more pure John Lennon without the relative vagueness of Phil Spector’s aesthetics.   

Lennon could have put out Plastic Ono Band like this back in the day and it would have perhaps shocked even more. When you hear his throat-tearing vocals on “Mother” you realize that most of the sound of Plastic Ono Band was nailed down before Spector added his final touches.  “Remember” is remarkable as it rocks madly stripped naked to its core.

THE JAMS

Disc 6 features fun outtake jams from the session with John and the band letting loose working through some rock ’n roll oldies. Included are “Johnny B. Goode” and “Ain’t That A Shame.” They break out  a track the early pre-fame Beatles used to do live called “Glad All Over” (there are BBC recordings of them doing this, with George singing). And there are neat oddities like “Lost John” and The Weavers’ traditional folk classic “Goodnight Irene.” We even get treated to an early acoustic guitar version of a song that ended up on the Imagine album, “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier,” which sounds more like the Grateful Dead than an ex-Beatle!

THE EVOLUTION MIXES

As in the prior Imagine boxed set, here in this new Plastic Ono Band collection we get a series of fascinating audio-only quasi documentaries. Here the producers take you through the formation of each track leading up to the final take. Its fun hearing John working out “Hold On,” even getting a little playful along the way. “Isolation” with the organ at the start of the song is a fascinating church-like variant.

It is also wonderful to hear John interacting with Yoko from the mixing booth on these recordings. Along the way she offers great input to what Lennon was trying to accomplish and clearly has solid working knowledge of the studio process even that early on in their relationship.  

Speaking of Yoko, there is a fascinating bonus Blu-ray Disc in the set which I am still exploring featuring her complete live sessions with the band. These tracks became the basis for her first solo album, also titled Plastic Ono Band and featuring a similar cover design to Lennon’s release here. Once I get deeper into this I plan to write a follow on review as I also recently picked up one of the nice vinyl reissues of her album on vinyl issued on the Secretly Canadian label. More on that soon…

THE BOOK

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the 100-plus page hardcover book included in the set. This is essential reading as it goes into remarkable micro-detail on all the facets of the set as well as insights into what was going on in John & Yoko’s universe at the time.

Included is fascinating information on the genesis of the Plastic Ono Band name as a group, what it meant and how it was brought out to the world at the time — finally, we get some understanding of the cover image on the “Give Peace A Chance” single! 

The pictures alone are a fantastic treat, everything from original tape box shots to period pix of John and the band members. Klaus Voormann even contributed drawings he’d made from the sessions (Beatle fans know he drew the iconic cover for The Beatles’ Revolver album). 

You also get a wonderful “War Is Over (If You Want It) poster and postcards featuring art from Lennon’s early singles from this period. 

So… wow!  Plastic Ono Band is 50 years old and sounds more vital than ever. And now we have this fantastic periscope into Lennon’s artistic creative process which will no doubt be important to music scholars and Beatle-philes for ages to come.  

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

First Time Vinyl Earworm Experience Report: Pugwash’s Jollity

I’ve written about Ireland’s Pugwash before. And at risk of sounding like a broken record, you really should listen to them. Driven by the rich-voiced Thomas Walsh, this group has come up against all odds and garnered the support of no less than Jeff Lynne of ELO, Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory of XTC and also Ray Davies of The Kinks.  Brian Wilson is even a fan and chose their song “It’s Nice To Be Nice” (from this album) as one of his favorites — Wilson even asked to meet Walsh while on tour after hearing the song (click here to read about that)!

So my reviewing these fine first time vinyl editions put out by Sugarbush Records is not just me being a big gushing fanboy (although I am). No, its more like I’m trying to do “the right thing” by giving this extremely talented singer, songwriter, producer behind Pugwash — Thomas Walsh — the limelight he deserves. 

Had these recordings been issued in 1978 at the dawn of the New Wave movement, they would have been a smash. Had Pugwash emerged on the heels of Michael Penn’s happy MTV-era ascension in the late 1980s with his brilliant hit “No Myth,” they would have had strong shot. While Pugwash came out in the 21st Century as a classic “indie band” Walsh has aspired and escalated the group way beyond the scope of most modern DIY groups.

So if you are a fan of any of the artists I mentioned earlier, you should probably be listening to Pugwash. Walsh’s rich round voice recalls his musical heroes to form a distinctive sound all his own that falls somewhere in the grand spaces between Badfinger’s Pete Ham, Paul McCartney and XTC’s Andy Partridge. Listening to Walsh’s voice like spreading sweet jam on the finest of scones. I’d love him to record one of my songs someday, frankly (I know, dream on). 

Anyhow, all this set up is necessary for most of you who are not familiar with this artist and to tell you that the new first time vinyl release by Sugarbush Records of their brilliant 2005 album Jollity is quite wonderful. This is the album that contains Brian Wilson’s favorite Pugwash song — “It’s Nice To Be Nice” — and also the wonderful quazi-Wilson-esque homage “Anchor” which was co-written with Andy Partridge of XTC.  

This is likely a digital recording but it holds up well even when you play it loud – and there are times when you’ll want to play this album loudly! I am certainly enjoying the vinyl edition more than the CD quality download I’ve owned for some time (original CDs are hard to find in America). 

The music on Jollity is rich with acoustic guitars and piano, chiming electric guitars, mellotrons and organs, harpsichords, sleigh-bells and more. The harmonies are spotless. The melodies are thick with memorable hooks and beautiful turns of phrase. 

Some of my other favorites on Jollity include the absolutely gorgeous “A Rose In A Garden Of Weeds” which is one of several tracks featuring spectacular orchestral arrangements by Dave Gregory of XTC.  

You can order Jollity from Sugarbush Records directly (click here) and it includes a special seven-inch 45-RPM single with two versions of “It’s Nice To Be Nice.” There is even a picture disc version of the album!

If you want to catch up on some of my past Pugwash reviews, please click on the titles that follow to read about: The Good, The Bad & The Pugly (a recent album of previously unreleased recordings), The Olympus Sound (recorded at Abbey Road!), Silverlake (produced by Jason Falkner), Almond Tea (their debut!) and Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends) which was recorded at The Kinks’ Konk Studios and was their first album to be distributed in America (by Omnivore Recordings). There are also several “Greatest Hits” type compilations out there including the most recent called Popularity Pending: 20 Years of Pugwash (released in Japan)

You can also find the A Rose In A Garden Of Weeds compilation (also issued by Omnivore) quite readily available — it is a good place to start if you’ve never listened to Pugwash. That album is streaming up on Tidal (click here) and Qobuz (click here). Heck, its even on Spotify (click here) so anyway you like to listen, please do check out Pugwash. 

Pugwash is pop music royalty waiting in the wings. Many wonders await you…

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Remixes & Remasters Vs. Originals: No Easy Answers (Part 1)

Recently somebody suggested an idea to me which I thought was pretty cool: do a little “analysis” — in the loosest sense — of whether certain re-mixes and re-masters are better or worse than the original mixes. As I dove into writing this I seem to have opened a bit of a Pandora’s Box of thinking, while not having a conclusive answer to the question.  But it is still worth discussing since the topic is obviously on some of your minds as well, Dear Readers. 

This is a touchy subject which I’ve seen divide scores of collectors and even friends… Really, this is surprisingly a quite personal topic which objectively has no “correct” answer, at least as far as the listener is concerned. My tastes and desires are unique from yours, both equally valid.  

That said, I swing both ways when it comes to the argument of originals vs. remasters and even remixed versions of favorite recordings. There are so many variables to consider — from how the remaster or remix was created to simply relative availability of an original copy. 

As I pointed out in my review of the recent Blue Note Tone Poet reissue of Kenny Burrell’s 1956 debut (click here to read that) finding an original in any condition is very difficult and the new version actually presents more of the music that was originally captured on tape.  That isn’t to say I wouldn’t want to own an original pressing for some of these albums — I’m holding onto my Kenny Burrell album even though it is beat up! — but having the new edition is a great close second, this side of finding a pristine original. 

Many people who are fans of a particular beloved recording feel it should remain untouched. Others get very upset somehow thinking that when an album gets remixed it immediately means that the original is no longer in existence (I’m not kidding folks, I’ve encountered this perspective from people many times over the years!). Some people get upset when they learn that what they’ve been listening to actually is a remix and not the original.

I’ve even gone to some extremes on social media (if you will) talking some people down from the ledge to calm them down, particularly when The Beatles’ albums were being remastered.  Forget about talking to some of those folks about the remixes, but do remember that you can always still play your original vinyl pressings of those albums, of which there are millions of copies around the world to choose from. No one is taking them away from you. 

The impetus for this article believe it or not came about as a result of a Facebook post I made about The Grateful Dead’s third studio album, Aoxomoxoa.  Discussions arose about the remix of that record which the band made in the early 1970s  (as well as to Anthem of the Sun) as to whether one was better or worse than the other? And of course, the answer to that is, inconclusively: it depends on your perspective

If you are a purist and want to hear the specific vibe the band crafted in the 60s, then the original mixes are the way to go. If you are looking to just hear the music in as clean a presentation as possible, the remixes might well be better for you.  The remix definitely sounds more like a 1970s mix than even one from a just a couple of years earlier.

In some instances a remix can be justified. For example, on the digital Stereo remix of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, you can now hear much more detail as the many tracks of music that went into making that album are now mixed in first generation quality. The resulting drums and bass in particular sound fuller and more dynamic than before. Interestingly, the overall vibe is closer to that of the original Mono mix — the mix the Beatles themselves put their energies behind at the time.  But… to get that one pays the price of listening to music from a digital source which ruffles the feathers of many an analog purist.  You can click here to read my review of that mix if you are interested.

Those Grateful Dead albums which Phil Lesh remixed in the early 1970s are generally fine but most serious fans of the band seem to prefer the original mix.  You can read about them on the Wiki (click the titles following):  Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa

When it comes to Aoxomoxoa — one of my favorite Dead albums — I lean toward the original, if only to hear the choir on “Mountains Of The Moon” (which neatly pre-echos the end of side one of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells!). I haven’t spent enough time with the Anthem of the Sun remix to make a definitive choice. And you know what? There is no reason to. If you like a particular album a lot you will probably want both versions!

There is also the question of whether remasters are “better” or worse than the originals? Many people are justifiably gun shy these days having endured a seemingly endless barrage of remasters of favorite albums over the years across a multitude of formats and music delivery platforms — from LP to cassette to CD, SACD, DVD-A, Blu-ray, HD Downloads, Streaming. If you are a regular purchaser of music, you have no doubt seen the buzz words whizz by you on hype stickers applied to the packaging and promotional materials for albums over the years: analog, digital, DMM, Half-Speed, Ultradisc One Step, DSD, PCM, Quiex, etc. It is confusing at times as these are diverse processes and technologies, some unique to the vinyl production process and others used in preparing the actual original final recordings for release. Some are used separately or simultaneously. Some are great. Some have delivered mixed results.

So, take a deep breath…. As I said earlier, there are no easy answers to this question…

Having done a fair amount of recording myself I understand the value of both re-mastering of older recordings and new mastering of new projects. There have been significant progressions in technology over the years with certain capabilities that can actually improve the final sound of a recording if handled properly.  Recent remasters of albums by Frank Zappa, XTC and others have been at times revelatory. 

Tune in tomorrow when we’ll explore more of that in Part 2 of this series…

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

High Resolution Streaming McCartney III on Qobuz and Tidal

Initially I wasn’t entirely sure about how to approach reviewing Sir Paul McCartney’s new album. But I realized recently that I had a little something to perhaps offer to my friends out there in music appreciation land: perspective

This was prompted by watching an interview with McCartney the other night on a popular talkshow.  Somewhat bemused, I got the sense that the host was unfamiliar with some of the artist’s history even though he did seem to try to come across as being a serious fan (of which I’m sure he is, no disrespect).

I’ve been a fan of Paul McCartney’s music for almost literally my entire life — one of the three earliest memories I have is The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, when I was maybe 3 years old!  So, there are fanboy details which I take for granted and assume everyone just knows. 

Clearly, many people don’t! It has indeed been interesting watching people’s comments on social media. I read one post by someone who was genuinely surprised to learn that McCartney could play all his own instruments… 

So before I get to the new album I’ll mention some things about his old albums which form a loose trilogy of sorts when taken together. For example, one underlying function of McCartney’s first solo album (simply titled McCartney) was to begin to blaze a path away from the universe of The Beatles. It was a bold statement at the time which even shocked some fans. 

There, McCartney showed the world that he could do pretty much everything from playing the drums and lead guitars to all the vocals and even the production. And he did it with fairly bare-bones equipment – – well, bare bones by Beatle standards!  Basic tracks for much of that album were made without a mixing board, he just plugged his microphones right into the back of a Studer four-track multi-track recorder. An unconventional approach for sure, but at the end of the day it accomplished his goal. And while there were some inevitable Beatle-worthy cuts — notably the brilliant instant classic “Maybe I’m Amazed” — much of the album didn’t sound like Beatle Paul McCartney.

Perspective may help the unfamiliar with understanding the shock of that album. Consider that it came out right after The Beatles’ pinnacle that was Abbey Road — still considered to this day by many as one of the best produced albums ever — and right before the super glossy Phil Spector over-produced version of Let It Be. Basically Paul McCartney created the D.I.Y. indie rock album on that first solo album in 1970. It was panned at the time by many critics, but it still became a big hit (#1 US, #2 UK)

Ten years later he put out his McCartney II album which again came at a point where he needed to rethink and reinvent himself, especially after his second band (Wings) had run its course.

While there were some classic Macca melodies — such as the beautiful song “Waterfalls,” the big hit “Coming Up” and the still fresh computer-vibe of “Temporary Secretary” — in general the album didn’t sound like anything that Paul had done in the past. And, yet it somehow fit in and felt right for the times.  Despite negative reviews it did make it to #3 on the charts at one point (for five weeks according to the wiki!)

Fast forward to the end of 2020 and the release of McCartney III, it makes sense that Sir Paul might want to do another album like this especially given the circumstances with the current pandemic. I mean, why not?! He had the time, the songs and recording studio at his fingertips.

I haven’t been able to get my hands on a vinyl copy of it yet but I have been listening to McCartney III on two of the high resolution streaming music services at 96 kHz and 24 bit resolution. It is sounding pretty great all things considered as modern Paul McCartney records go — don’t expect to feel a lot of rich analog warmth to it but that doesn’t make it any less listenable… its just a different texture.

In keeping with the tradition of its predecessors, parts of McCartney III sounds like he is working on reinventing himself. Parts of it sound like things he’s been doing on recent albums like Egypt Station.

To that, Sir Paul has been reinventing himself over his last several albums made with his band and other producers. His album called New was a lot of fun and it boasted some different textures and production styles. I reviewed it when it came out and later when it was reissued (click here). I also reviewed his last album Egypt Station  twice, once for the CD (click here) and later when the vinyl became available (click here).  And if you haven’t heard his collaborations with producer Youth as The Fireman (a project which started in the ‘90s), you might be in for some surprises.  

The point is, Macca has always been pushing his musical envelope and reinventing himself!

If you haven’t heard those more recent McCartney albums you should listen as it will put McCartney III into some perspective and continuum. Either way at the end of the day it’s great that we have a new Paul McCartney album to enjoy as we wrap up this quite awful year.

Some of my favorite tracks thus far include the Beatles-meets-Bowie “Seize The Day” with its lovely mashup of descending chord ideas and Mick Ronson-flavored glam guitar hook ala Macca’s “Hello Goodbye” as well as Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things”’ and “All The Young Dudes.”  The opening and closing numbers which book end in the album revolve around a quirky King Crimson-esque acoustic guitar riff. I like the nearly nine minute long excursion that is “Deep Deep Feeling.” 

There are some good rockers that will be cool to hear once Paul can play out again with his great band.  Current McCartney band members Abe Laboriel Jr. and Rusty Anderson add slammin’ drums and rawk guitar (respectively) on “Slidin’.

“Lavatory Lil” is a surprisingly fun one too! 

“Kiss of Venus” is a nice acoustic folk piece which starts off with a finger-picked acoustic guitar figure that reminds me of the kind of back porch blues Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen lives and breathes, yet he mixes it up with a nifty Harpsichord solo toward the end.  

The album’s initial single “Find My Way” is catchy fun too (again with Harpsichord!)

I have been listening to versions of McCartney III on Tidal (click here) and Qobuz (click here).  Both are streaming at 96 kHz, 24-bit resolution and both sound about the same. As modern (likely) digital recordings go, especially one that was self produced during a pandemic lockdown, this sounds really quite good. But the album is a bit raw, a warts ’n all scenario and that is one of the hallmarks of these Macca solo albums.  It is what it is. 

You can get McCartney III on vinyl, CD, cassette, and even in a special CD songbook package. And of course there are innumerable colored vinyl variants, all of which seem to have sold out so I won’t even bother you with that stuff here. I’ll be sure to do an update for this review as soon as I get my hands on a physical version of McCartney III. But for now, if you like Paul McCartney’s music you’ll probably want to make some time to listen to this new one.

McCartney III is a nice way to end the year. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review