Friday, April 29, 2016

River Redux Part II: The Wrath of Phil


Dear God, no. This is about Phil Spector, after all, and the guy's still alive. Batshit crazy and locked up, but alive.

Until he somehow ended up with scrambled eggs for brains, Spector had a certain talent (not genius - let's save that for cats like Bob Dylan who never ended up killing anyone/rotting in jail) for startling innovation. What today would be called thinking outside the sound booth. The more I listen to this stuff, the stranger it gets: what he was able to do, the way he filtered and watered and plunged, how sound waves bent and quavered. 

I am in considerable distress however, because the deeper into this topic I get, the shallower it is. This is because of the gross limitations of what I call the "YouTube mentality". There may be plenty of recordings of Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me and Unchained Melody on YouTube, but to a recording, they all seem to be "Best Version!", "High Quality!", "Remastered!" - in other words, STEREO, which is not what Spector was thinking about at all. Not at the beginning, certainly, and probably not ever.

He was a traditional, even Jurassic sort who liked sound to be boxed and limited. That way he could truly mix his pigments, smear them together into something that was almost jellied. The upflashing of the chorus on River Deep, Mountain High reminds me of a brush fire surging out of control on a mountaintop at midnight: but there's nothing to see, not even smoke. Just a sudden flash of heat singeing the hairs on your face.

Somehow - I don't know how because the technical aspects of this subject don't interest me - someone has taken these amazing mono puzzle-boxes of sound and s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d them out, separating the auditory blur neatly into its component parts. No longer are all the musicians sitting in a 95-degree, semi-lighted box with a tiny, demonic, sweaty producer pacing back and forth and shouting abuse at them in a tinny Bronx accent.

Now, the drums are over HERE, and the string section is over HERE, and the chorus is - and you get the picture. Everyone is exactly where they'd be in a proper recording setup. None of this primitive Gold Star Studio shit, no sir. 

No more sweatbox, no more smeared pigments. It has all been pulled apart like the individual colours in white light.

So is that good?

According to YouTube, which seems to have its head back in the early '80s somewhere, why, gosh, yes! Isn't stereo always better than mono? What can you be thinking? "It's a mono record, a really old one. Ohhhh. Guess I'd better throw it away, then. Put it in the oven and make a sculpture out of it. Flea market stuff." 

This is the very same mentality that caused people to tack orange shag carpet down over glorious distressed hardwood, its gloss so deep you could see yourself. The kind of thing that still makes realtors scream when it's finally ripped up. 

Enhanced. Best version. Best sound. Stereo!! Dad showing off the New Stereo to guests, putting on some thundering Beethoven symphony with the bass turned up full because thundering bass is always a sign of a Good Stereo. And stereo, it's, you know, it's like better than that old thing, mono. Listen, the sound comes out of both sides! And you can't play your stereo records on a mono player or you'll ruin them. (Or else you can't play your mono records on a stereo player.)

It shocks me that YouTube still thinks that way. Even old Caruso records are souped up so that they "sound like" stereo. Why? They're not. The recording method in 1910 consisted of a horn, a rubber tube and a stylus making a little groove in wax. These restorations or whatever they call them often sound as if they're coming from inside a five-thousand-mile-long cigar tube or a deep well made of cheap aluminum. Weird squeaks and fragments of chopped-up feedback completely wreck the beauty of the music. It's depressing. 

It's disappointing that I'm not finding very many original versions of Spector classics on YouTube, in glorious monaural where the sound was all in the middle. This was A.M. radio stuff, after all, and it came out of a tinny little 2 x 2-inch speaker clogged with beach sand. Spector had found the trick of creating three dimensions in one: a sort of trompe l'oeil at 45 rpmThe recorded sound was concentrated because the delivery device was even more concentrated: it was a transistor radio, the life support system of every teenager from 1950 to 1975, when the boom box began to take over.

Wrecking classics by forcing them into a "Best Version" format causes a peculiar form of hurt. It's as if someone has insulted your pride. You make a joke, it sails over the other person's head because they don't understand irony, and then they "correct" you for being so ignorant. Somebody pins you to the wall at a party and begins to lecture you on a subject you learned when you were in Grade 3. You can't keep saying "I know all this. I know all this," and are expected to clasp your hands, flutter your eyelashes and say, "Oooooh! Tell me more!" The thing is, you KNOW you're in the right, and nobody else gets it. The only way to "restore" these things is maybe to find a way to play them without the skips and scratches (but please, not with sound from the inside of a pickle jar). If I could, I'd place the record on the ground, maybe in my back yard, take a giant stylus, place it on the record, and run around it frantically at 45 rpm, broadcasting the sound from reverberations inside my skull.

ENCORE. The commentary below sounds like a Masters thesis or PhD dissertation or something, in which the writer effuses about this ethereal thing Spector does by turning off the guitar track on "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" by Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans (which I have posted above for your consideration). When I listen to it - a particularly raucous and ugly piece of pop music - it's hard for me to make out just what everyone is talking about. I sort of hear a guitar, or a not-very-resonant thunking sound, but the magic eludes me. Somehow or other, through being famous or influential for a long time, every little thing Spector did has become hallowed. It's even worse with Bob Dylan, who is at least still walking around. 

During the mixing for Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans' version of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah", Spector turned off the track designated for electric guitar (played on this occasion by Billy Strange). However, the sound of the guitar could still be heard spilling onto other microphones in the room, creating a ghostly ambiance that obscured the instrument. In reference to this nuance of the song's recording, music professor Albin Zak has written:

It was at this moment that the complex of relationships among all the layers and aspects of the sonic texture came together to bring the desired image into focus. As long as Strange’s unmiked guitar plugs away as one of the layered timbral characters that make up the track’s rhythmic groove, it is simply one strand among many in a texture whose timbres sound more like impressionistic allusions to instruments than representations. But the guitar has a latency about it, a potential. Because it has no microphone of its own, it effectively inhabits a different ambient space from the rest of the track. As it chugs along in its accompanying role, it forms a connection with a parallel sound world of which we are, for the moment, unaware. Indeed, we would never know of the secondary ambient layer were it not for the fact that this guitar is the one that takes the solo. As it steps out of the groove texture and asserts its individuality, a doorway opens to an entirely other place in the track. It becomes quite clear that this guitar inhabits a world all its own, which has been before us from the beginning yet has somehow gone unnoticed.

Thank you, Professor Zak. You may go home now.

(Not Phil Spector. It's Al Pacino. But at least he's still walking around.)

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