Monday, June 26, 2017

Debbie Gibson - 'Out of the Blue'-Era 7-Inch Singles: A's and B's (1987-88)


If you were tuned into Top 40 radio 30 years ago, you would have been catching your first earful of a new singer-songwriter named Debbie Gibson. The Long Island-bred musical prodigy was just 16 years old at the time, but she was writing her own songs and burning up the charts with the first of a bunch of hit singles, "Only In My Dreams."

"Only In My Dreams" had actually come out in Dec. 1986 as a 12-inch single, but it didn't hit the Top 40 until the 7-inch was released in March of 1987. By May 9, 1987 it had made the Hot 100 (click on Billboard chart graphic at right) and it eventually got to #4 by early summer. Depending on your disposition, Gibson's brand of chirpy, ultra-commercial freestyle dance music was either pure pap or pure pop. I fall into the latter camp. I think her music helped define '80s pop, much the way girl groups defined early '60s music.

Gibson's chart run wasn't long, but it definitely left an impression on the music biz because she influenced the scads of teen-pop singers who ruled the charts a decade later. It's hard to believe now that Britney Spears came along only eleven years after Gibson. I was young then and time moved slower, so the chart reins of each seemed as if they were from two completely different lifetimes.

This collection features Gibson's first five singles and their flip sides. And by that I mean the actual 7-inch singles. These rips are from 45s that are part of my personal collection. They're presented along with high-quality scans of the discs and picture sleeves (including the rare sleeve for the "Staying Together" 45). None of the B-Sides have ever come out on CD and most are specific to the 45 record. Only one of them appeared on one of Gibson's 12-inch singles (which I compiled here).

All of these records have that classic trebly, compressed 45 record sound, which was designed so these songs would "pop" when on radio. This collection should accurately capture what all of us from that era were hearing when we tuned into the local Top 40 station.

Track notes:


1. Only In My Dreams
The original vinyl 45 of Gibson's first single has mix that's different than the LP/CD version. For starters, some of the percussion sounds are panned right instead of centered and in the intro, while the synth sounds themselves are different and much thinner. Also, the electric rhythm guitar is mixed way down. Producer Fred Zarr must have beefed up the backing track for the LP, which came out a few months later, in Aug. 1987. There are also a couple of elements here that aren't on the LP version. First, there's echo on the last few vocal ad libs during the solo. Second, the fade includes some sax playing that was nixed when they mixed it for the album.

2. Only In My Dreams (Dub)
This is a  bare-bones remix/restructuring of the A-Side sans the lead vocal. This mix is unique to this single and never made it onto a 12-inch single.

3. Shake Your Love
Here's the 45 version of Gibson's signature song, which is pretty much the same as the LP version. But since this is directly from the single, it's a bit more trebly and effervescent than what you now get on the CD.

4. Shake Your Love (Bad Dubb Version)
This B-Side is less hard to find than the others because it was also put on the 12-inch single. This is actually a pretty good electronic freestyle groove; they take the song apart and reassemble it into something else entirely. I'll bet this got at least some play in dance clubs at the time.

5. Out Of The Blue
It's hard to tell if this is a slightly different mix than the LP version or if the mastering and compression make it seem different. The high-hat is more trebly here and it's panned center instead of center-right. Also, the track has less reverb -- something that's especially apparent during the guitar solo, which is more in-your-face here. Conversely, the bell-like keyboard sounds during the verses aren't as prominent. Finally, the backing vocalists on the chorus are more prominent here. At the time, this became Gibson's biggest hit to date, getting to #3.

6. Out Of The Blue (Dub Edit aka Edited Dub)
This one is called "Dub Edit" on the sleeve and "Edited Dub" on the label. So, we'll go with both titles here. Unlike the previous B-Sides, this one doesn't have any fancy electronics or cut-and-paste editing. Instead, it's a pretty straightforward edition of the backing track with vocals removed and keyboards replacing parts of the vocal melody. There's also more guitar at the end.

7. Foolish Beat
Gibson's first #1 single is the same as it is on her LP. She produced this herself and remains the youngest artist to write, produce, and sing a #1 single. After George Michael died, she confirmed something I'd long suspected by saying this song was inspired by "Careless Whisper," right down to taking the song title from a line in the second verse, as opposed to the chorus.

8. Foolish Beat (Instrumental)
A Lite Jazz reworking of the A-Side. It features Spanish-styled acoustic guitar and saxophone in place of the vocal (which makes a surprise appearance when the title comes up in the lyrics). As Lite Jazz goes, this is pretty impressive and in some ways as good if not better than the A-Side.

9. Staying Together
For Gibson's fifth and final single from her first album, she re-cut the vocal track. Because of that, Gibson and Zarr (who co-produced) had to give the song a new mix. The biggest difference between this and the LP version (besides the vocal) is that the single has a much heavier bass sound. In fact, it sound to me like they took the twangy synth bass from the album version and layered it with another, deeper bass sound. This might not seem a big deal now, but in that era, the "stacking" of electronic sounds using MIDI was considered cutting-edge.

They also did some tweaking of the drum sounds, most notably altering the sound of the snare drum (MIDI again!). The tambourine that was featured on every other snare drum beat is also brought down in the mix and panned over to the right (instead of dead center).

Finally, the single version runs at a slightly faster tempo and it includes an extra out-chorus before the end. The extra chorus comes in at the 3:30 mark and gives Gibson the chance to do some high-pitched vocal ad libs. All of this makes the single around 15 seconds longer than the LP version, which is weird because singles are usually edited down. Maybe this is why "Staying Together" became Gibson's first effort to miss the Top 10. It only rise to #22 in summer 1988. Then again, five hit singles from one LP is an achievement for any artist, so you can't expect everything to be a grand slam.

10. Staying Together (Dub Edit)
This "Dub Edit" is different than the "Dub Version" on the 12-inch single, which runs over a minute longer. This one is pretty much the single mix without the lead vocal. They did, however, leave in all the backing vocals plus Gibson's harmony vocal, so anyone who wants to sing lead over this should have an easy time. Maybe they should have called it "Karaoke Edit."

Before I sign off, I want to mention that Gibson is still active in the music scene, despite being diagnosed with Lyme Disease a few years ago. Her big appearance this summer will be headlining Brooklyn, New York's Unicorn Carnival, a multi-artist music festival that will take place Saturday, July 8, 1-9 p.m. The festival will be held at Greenwood Beach at Coney Art Walls. Just Google the festival for ticket info.  Update: I just read on Gibson's Facebook page that this festival is being postponed until September and she now won't be there when it happens. Oh well.

Related posts (i.e. the largest collection of Debbie Gibson rarities on the Web):
Debbie Gibson - 12-Inch Singles (1986-88)
Various Artists - The Songs Debbie Gibson Gave Away (1988-92) 
Debbie Gibson - The Alternate Electric Youth (1989)
Debbie Gibson - Rarities (1990-1999)
Debbie Gibson - Acoustic Live (1991) 
Chris Cuevas - Somehow, Someway (1991) 
Deborah Gibson - Memory Lane Volume 1 (2004)
Deborah Gibson - Memory Lane Volume 2 (2005)

Track list:
1. Only In My Dreams
2. Only In My Dreams (Dub)
3. Shake Your Love
4. Shake Your Love (Bad Dubb Version)
5. Out Of The Blue
6. Out Of The Blue (Dub Edit aka Edited Dub)
7. Foolish Beat
8. Foolish Beat (Instrumental)
9. Staying Together
10. Staying Together (Dub Edit)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Dozen Tips for Creating Clean Vinyl Rips


I've mentioned several times on this blog that I planned on writing up a rundown on how I create my vinyl rips -- or "needle-drops," as they're also called. Well, here it is. This is an overview of most of the techniques I employ to convert old albums and 45s into high-quality MP3 files.

When I do needle drops, it's because I want to listen to rare (non-CD) vinyl in my car or on my computer with headphones. Therefore, I try to make my rips as close to CD quality as possible. That means: Clean starting and ending points for each track, no scratches, no surface noise, very little residual turntable noise, and a consistent volume throughout. Over years, this has become an obsession for me and I've discovered more and more ways to get the sound I want.

What follows are the most important techniques I employ in attempting to attain crystal clear vinyl rips. I marked the quirkier techniques I developed myself as "helpful hints," to set them apart from the main text. And, trust me, some of these ideas really are quirky, if not outright strange. But they work for me and should also work for anyone who chooses to use them.

In writing this up, I went on the assumption that everyone reading knows (and has) the basics when it comes to recording vinyl into a computer. You should have an above-average turntable, a good receiver, a pair of high-quality headphones, and some know-how about basic sound editing. Did I mention headphones? I did? Well, I'll mention them again. I can't recommend strongly enough that you monitor the editing process on headphones for close listening. Also, you should do all this in a quiet room, where you don't hear the buzz of the refrigerator or the "whooshing" sound of the HVAC system.

Also, even though USB turntables are sold for this specific purpose, you don't need one to do this. You can just as easily wire the "tape out" jacks of your stereo directly into the "line in" jack on your computer. You also don't need to buy ProTools or any fancy editing program. You can download an excellent freeware program called Audacity and use that to both record and edit. I taught myself digital sound editing with this program in 2002. So can you, I'll bet. For the record (pun intended), when I use Audacity, I set the recording level at 35 and the "Project Rate" at 48000 Hz. Then I hit record, and I'm off-and-running. Now, here's ten other things I recommend.

1). Clean the discs...obsessively
For me, cleaning a record means more than using the popular Discwasher Record Care System. When you have records that are 40- or 50-years old, dust gets embedded deeply in the grooves. Using Discwasher (and its liquid solution) will help, but it can't completely remove decades of dust. I found that water actually works better. Fill a sink up with warm water, then dip LP or 45 in vertically and rotate it, while trying to avoid getting the record's label wet. Then dry thoroughly with a thick, fluffy towel. Then use Discwasher, but without the solution. Use it just use it to collect up the excess dust. And get used to this because you'll be doing it several more times.

Helpful hint: I warned you this was gonna get weird. Well, here the weird part. To bring down the surface noise on old record, play it backwards at least once. Yes, you read that correctly. Backwards. Make like John Lennon and George Martin on "Rain."

Seriously, I discovered by accident that playing a disc in reverse can often wipe away residual noise. I found this by accident while making mixtapes (way back when) and cueing up the beginning of a record. After spinning an intro backwards and forwards to find the perfect "opening" spot, it hit me that the record suddenly sounded cleaner. Who knew?

I used to do this by hand, but started thinking that only insane people spin entire LPs backwards manually. So I went on eBay and bought a used disc jockey turntable -- a Numark TT200 -- that has a switch that allows you to play discs in reverse. (See below.)


To summarize, my entire cleaning ritual is as follows: Clean with water, play disc forward, play disc backwards, then play disc forward again. Preferably twice. And I keep dusting with Discwasher after each spin. Remember: The more you prepare the disc itself for recording, the less editing and correcting you'll have to do later on. An ounce of prevention and all that. Conclusion: When it comes to cleanliness and records, pretend your name is Alice or Hazel (look them up, Millennials).

2). Use ClickRepair...and use it like this
After I record the disc and create a WAV file in Audacity, I run all of my needle-drops through ClickRepair. This program is by far the best when it comes to removing scratches, tics, pops, and surface noise. You can use it for free during a trial period, but after that it's definitely worth it to buy the program and support the guy who invented it, Brian Davies. For me, sending out a vinyl rip without ClickRepair is like leaving the house without clothes.

Helpful hint: I found out that this program is more effective if (you guessed it!) you reverse all your WAV files and run them through ClickRepair backwards. Why is this? Because scratches are percussive in nature and sometimes ClickRepair "interprets" percussive drum hits and hi-hat sounds as scratches -- which leaves you with an awkward popping sound on the drums. But if you flip the music running into it backwards, it "hears" the drums as "whooshes" but still hears the scratches as scratches. Therefore, it works better this way and leaves you with a cleaner, more error-free sound.

I use this program sparingly and have found it works better that way. Less is more. The "DeClick" and "DeCrackle" functions can be set as high as 100, but I only use them at 30 (see below). Sometimes if there's a lot of surface noise, I'll set the "DeCrackle" to 40 or 50.


Helpful hint #2: When dealing with albums (as opposed to 45s), I've found it's most efficient to run each full side individually through ClickRepair. After you do noise reduction (see below) you can then split the WAV up into individual files of songs and do close listening to make sure they're clean enough. But beware of one little quirk regarding albums: The closing tracks on each side of an LP usually sound poorer that the others because the grooves are scrunched closer together. This sometimes results in a bit more noise. If you hear a "sizzle" on the vocal or if the track sounds "fuzzy," what you can do is take that individual song file, make sure it's reversed (of course), and run it back through ClickRepair, using ONLY the DeCrackle feature, set to 45-60. That should clean the rest of it up.

3). Reduce noise, don't try to eliminate it
It's called "noise reduction," not "noise elimination." There's a reason for that. The overuse of noise reduction ruins a lot of needle-drops. If you notice a "swirling" metallic sound when your files fade out, you're overusing this function. That means higher-end frequencies are being reduced along with the noise. You might not notice the loss of high end on its own, but if you do a side-by-side comparison with the original record, it'll become apparent.

As I mentioned, I use the program called Audacity to do my editing. I also use it for noise reduction. The settings I found work best are: Noise reduction (dB): 6; Sensitivity: 4.00; Frequency smoothing (bands): 1. I keep the "noise" option at the bottom set at "Reduce." (See below.)


4). Use noise reduction more efficiently
So how do you reduce noise, but keep the sound of the record intact? First off, let's backtrack a bit. When recording the album, make sure you record a generous portion of the "blank space" on a record before the music starts. This way, you have enough noise from which to grab a "sample." (Noise reduction effects allow you to "sample" a portion of the noise, then subtract it from the file.)

This should go without saying, but after running the files through ClickRepair when you go to do noise reduction, be sure to "un-reverse" them. That way you can sample the noise from the beginning of the album's side as opposed to the end. But...

Helpful hint: I found you you can make your noise reduction much more effective if you employ the effect on each channel individually. Audacity allows you to separate the left and right channels and edit each one independent of the other. To do this, use the "Split Stereo Track" feature in the "Audio Track" function, located directly to the left of your actual WAV file (see the red markings in the graphic below).


Once you've separated the channels, it's time to reduce some noise! First, grab a sample that's drawn from the pre-song blank space at the start of left channel and reduce noise on that channel. Then do the right one. This works wonders. Why does it work so well? Well, if you listen to a record with headphones, you'll notice during the so-called "silent spaces" that the surface noise you hear is slightly different on each side. So doing noise reduction globally (to both channels) is really a compromise that doesn't do justice to either channel. But doing it separately for the left and right sides allows you to remove the specific noise from each side of the stereo spectrum.

Helpful hint: I found it best to use noise reduction after I employ ClickRepair, which is why I've numbered them in this order. Doing this works better for me because sometimes noise reduction smooths out a record "hides" tiny scratches or surface noise artifacts from ClickRepair.

Helpful hint #2: Noise isn't consistent throughout the side of an album. So, someone I'll split up the tracks and do noise reduction to the individual songs. This isn't necessary for most LPs. In most cases, reducing noise for an entire LP side works fine. But for really old noisy albums, doing it per song or to groups of songs (i.e. tracks 1-3/tracks 4-6) might be what's needed.

5). Create clean beginnings and endings for each track
One of the things that annoys me most when listening to some needle-drops is when an MP3 begins three or four seconds into the track. We shouldn't have to wait that long after hitting "play." But on the other hand, files shouldn't start instantaneously when you hit play, because then they can come off sounding like their intros are truncated (especially when you put them in playlists). So...

Helpful hint: I found that placing exactly 30 milliseconds (0.30) of silence before the sound of a WAV file commences gives you the ideal starting point. (See graphic below.) It's just enough for breathing room, but not enough so that the track sounds delayed when it starts.


Helpful hint #2: I use the "fade-in" function to assure these milliseconds before the music starts are totally silent. To assure complete silence in those 30 milliseconds, use the fade-in effect three or four times, sometimes starting at the 10 ms mark and moving outward to 30 ms.

As for the end of tracks, my rule is to put three second of silence after each track...unless there is a special circumstance. Some albums have oddly-timed silences that are part of the presentation (i.e. Elvis Costello's Get Happy!!). In cases like this, I honor what the producer wanted and mimic the exact blank space between tracks.

(Once again, I'll stress that you really need to monitor all this on headphones if you want to make absolutely sure your 30 milliseconds of blank space is silent and your fade-outs are smooth. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you do with with speakers, then decide one day to listen on headphones, you may be in for some disappointing surprises.)

6). Make "spot corrections" on WAV files
Occasionally, you'll find that after all of this, there is still a problem. Call it "the scratch that won't go away" syndrome. Repairing such things can get complicated. I've developed so many solutions to this, that I may do a full write-up on them in the future. For now, I'll relate my simplest solution: Do "spot repairs" on just the offending section, not the while file. Here's how.

Audacity allows you to "cut" a section of the WAV file out, then "paste" in back into the exact same place seamlessly. So what I do is I cut out the offending few seconds that have a scratch, create a new file, and then paste that section into the new file and hit "save." (Audacity requires you to name files when you save them. It makes sense to name these correction files something like CRX.)  Then I run the CRX file through ClickRepair, but this time I push the settings to their limits -- upwards of 70 for DeClick and DeCrackle. So I really hammer the error with ClickRepair. Usually this fixes the problem.

Since the repair portions are so small, you usually don't have to worry about spinning the WAV file in reverse. But you can do that. When ClickRepair is done, just open your CRX file, hit "copy" and paste it back into the main file. You should have a seamless edit.

Helpful hint: Spot corrections can be done on specific channels. Meaning: If the offending scratch is just on the right side (let's say), I use the Split Stereo Track feature and "cut" that portion of just the right channel. Then I make a file for it, send it through ClickRepair, then pull up the file in Audacity. I then delete the blank left channel and cut-and-paste only the corrected right channel back in where I cut it. Yes, it's complicated but it usually works, and Audacity is great with these seamless edits, so long as you don't mess with the original file after you do your cut.

Finally, sometimes when you record a record, a pop will resound during that specific play because nature or the gods or whomever intended it. Go back to the actual disc and listen to that. If the pop isn't there, it was a one-time thing because that's just the nature of vinyl. Sometimes. So re-record that song from scratch. This doesn't usually happen, but it has happened to me, and it's worth at least looking into.

7). Make sure the file is loud enough
Once you're done cleaning up and editing the WAV files, you can convert them to MP3s. But before doing that, make sure they have enough presence. Presence = volume. Listen to your WAV files next to your favorite MP3s. Are they too low? Are they too loud? Usually, LP files are a bit too low and need a little boost. Use the "amplify" function to be sure the WAV file is raised to its maximum level. If the music still doesn't seem loud enough, that's likely because of the idiosyncratic nature of vinyl. Often a record will have big sonic "spikes" and those will prevent you from raising the volume on the whole track, since a few small sections stand out so much that they prevent the rest of the track from being raised (see the red circle in the graphic below).


Helpful hint(s): There are two effects in Audacity you can use to beef up the volume. The first is the limiter which shaves off the peaks. The second is the amplify effect, which then lifts the overall volume. Whatever amount of limiting you do, you'll do the same amount of amplifying. So if you limit - 1 dB, you'll then be able to raise the volume 1 dB. For the record, I never go beyond 3 dB.

Why? Because if you use any more than that, I found, starts to affect the sound -- something that has caused controversy among audiophiles since modern-day producers overuse limiting and compression to make their tracks sound hotter. Unless your goal is competing with Katy and Miley, keep the limiting to a minimum and use it only to saw off the sonic anomalies.

8). Make like the Cookies and use chains
Employing these two aforementioned effects one after the other can get confusing and tedious. So what I've done in Audacity is developed "chains," which let you apply both effects at once. Just make sure you do them in the right order (limiter>amplify). I created a bunch of "limiter/amplify" chains for different occasions, ranging from - 0.50 dB to 3.0 dB.

As for Audacity's chain device: It isn't found in the effects section. Rather, they put it under the "file" tab (first one on the left). Clicking file>edit chains lets you set one up. This can get complicated to explain, and not everyone uses Audacity, so for details, go to the Audacity Forums online. One final note about chains: When you use them, do not highlight the file with your mouse. If you do, Audacity adds a few milliseconds to the end of the tile for some reason.

I personally like doing things like setting up chains and spending days exchanging ideas on the Audacity Forum. Not everyone does, however. So if developing custom chains seems too much of a pain, you can also do limiting and then amplifying individually to each file, as I mentioned earlier. But I found that got too time consuming and left a lot of room for error. I'd be in the middle of doing ten files and then stop to think "Wait, did I limit Track #4 already, or do I need to do that?" The learning curve here is a pain, but once you get it down, it's easy to do (even if it's not so easy to explain in writing).

9). Avoid equalization
Sometimes it's not what you do, but what you don't do that matters. If you want to preserve the integrity of a record, don't use any equalization, ever when ripping vinyl. The goal should be to capture the exact sound of the disc. Yes, using limiting (above) will slightly affect the dynamic, but if you use it sparingly, it will be inaudible. Altering the EQ settings, on the other hand, will change the tonal quality of the recording. The way I see it, when I do rips, it's not my job to alter the amount of bass or treble on a record and second guess the recording engineer and/or producer. If Quincy Jones had wanted more bass on that Lesley Gore LP, it would have had more bass.

10). Converting WAVs to MP3 files in batches
To do this, I use another freeware program called Format Factory. This enables you to do conversions in batches and, again, this leaves less room for error than when you do them one by one through Audacity. I set the MP3 conversion to 320 kbps and 48 khz.

11). Save the WAVs!
I also recommend saving backups of your WAV files. I bought an external hard drive specifically for this. I learned the hard way why you need to save old files. A few times I created rips that I thought were high-quality, only find later on that they had nasty sonic artifacts I missed the first time around. Oops. This recently happened with the rip I did of Marshall Crenshaw's "U.S. Remix." It sounded good last year, but listening again it sounded lame. But I didn't save the files, so I had to re-record the entire disc and re-do the project. Luckily, it was a short EP and not an LP, but still: Lesson learned.

12). Watch your speed
Before doing any needle-drops, make sure your turntable is running at the proper speed. I didn't include this earlier in the list because it sort of goes without saying. But it still needs to be said, so here it is. Fewer things bug me more than finding an old record I love on YouTube only to discover that the person who recorded it has a turntable that runs at (let's say) 36 r.p.m. not 33. I can't listen to things like this.

I found people with belt drive turntables have the biggest issues because the belt stretches over the years and that affects the speed. Even if you have a direct drive turntable, be sure to reference the record your spinning against its CD counterpart. In most cases, this will expose speed issues. What was that old saying? Oh yeah: "Speed kills!" In this case, it kills the ears of those of us who can spot flawed turntables.

Some of my better needle-drops:
Chad & Jeremy - Yesterday's Gone (Mono Mix, 1964)
Cristina - Cristina (Vinyl Edition, 1980)
Keith & Donna - Keith & Donna (1975)
The Kids from C.A.P.E.R. - The Kids from C.A.P.E.R. (1976)
Lindy Stevens - Pure Devotion (1972)
Lucy Simon - Stolen Time (1977)
The Lonesome Rhodes - Sandy & Donna (1967)
NRBQ - RC Cola and a Moon Pie (1986)
The Sidekicks - Featuring 'Fifi the Flea' (1966)
The Velvet Underground - Squeeze (1973)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Various Artists - Sharp Cuts (1980)


The line between good and bad sometimes starts to blur when music recedes into the past. Case in point: This multi-artist collection of new wave acts.

Sharp Cuts, which was subtitled "new music from American bands," was considered a disappointment when it was released in 1980 on producer Richard Perry's vanity label, Planet Records. The review in Trouser Press magazine stated "...this album makes the underground scene seem dead, unoriginal, and dreadfully behind the times." It's definitely not as good as a lot of other compilations of the time, such as 415 Music, which I ripped and posted last year.

Not surprisingly, Sharp Cuts has never come out on CD. This is a high-quality rip from my own mint vinyl copy, replete with cover and label scans, (as well as a scan of the Trouser Press review). Before doing this rip last week, I hadn't played this record in decades. Listening to it again was like being transported back in time. It's not great by any stretch, but it's a lot more interesting now than it was way back when. Why? Because it offers a unique glimpse into a long-gone era -- one that's untainted by memories, since most of these songs were never played on the radio.

The time period it covers is the one just before the dawn of MTV. It was the era of power pop, skinny ties, new wave, and post-punk. A time when rock music by white guys ruled the radio waves. Heck, the time when guys in general ruled the radio. In that sense, it doesn't just represent another time period, but another culture.

To digress a bit from the topic at hand, I've found the same goes for low-budget movies of the same time period: They seem to say more now than they did then. Back in the 1980s, teen flicks like "Hardbodies," "Party Camp," or (my all-time fave!) "The Malibu Bikini Shop" were looked upon as the cinematic equivalent of junk food. These days, they function as windows into our collective past and unwittingly provide insights into the way Americans used to interact and perceive the world. In some perverse way, those trashy films say more about our culture than blockbuster movies like "Top Gun," because their low budgets and hastily-written scripts assured a level of honesty you wouldn't get from big-time movies, where every line was approved by committee.

So it is with this record. The acts presented here weren't guided by record company executives, steering them into money-making trends. What you hear are the grass-roots efforts of a bunch of struggling musicians from various local scenes around the country. Most of the music here might not be brilliant, but this is what was bringing 'em into the clubs back then, so in that sense, it's an honest look at what working musicians were doing and thinking circa 1980.

So, we get founding Blondie member Gary Valentine unironically shouting "I Like Girls" with his band The Know. These days, that statement would bring with it all sorts of political ramifications, but back then it was taken at face value. The Willys (who?!) chime in with "She's Illegal" which I'm pretty sure is a song about jail-bait. This sort of thing was considered a source of humor back then, but would likely get a performer labeled as a "perv" today.

Suburban Lawns, as expected, are weirder than weird, and their track "Unable" packs a lot of angst into its short length. Peter Dayton (now a successful visual artist) chimes in with "Last Supper," a somewhat nihilistic track that seems to be about facing imminent death in the good ol' U.S.A.

Then there's the music itself. There are guitars. Lots of 'em. And old-fashioned analog synths. Without even listening to the words, these sonic elements evoke a feeling. At no other time in pop music would you have heard sounds like these.

OK, enough sociological pretentiousness. Here's are few notes on the tracks.

The version of Single Bullet Theory's "Keep It Tight" included here isn't the same one that became a #73 Hot 100 hit in 1983. This is an earlier version and (in my opinion) a much better one. It received airplay on album rock stations at the time, and seemed hit bound then, but wasn't. The dB's "Soul Kiss" has a different mix than the familiar one that was included as bonus track on CD editions of their first album. It also omits that squiggly opening guitar note.

And if the Billy Thermal number sounds familiar, that's because it was covered by Pat Benatar on her second LP, Crimes of Passion. Billy Thermal was the name of a group headed up by songwriter Billy Steinberg, who went on to co-write some of the biggest hits of the 1980s with partner Tom Kelly, including Madonna's "Like A Virgin." From what I can tell, this song marks his first foray into the music industry.

Related posts:
Various Artists - 415 Music (1980)
Various Artists - The 98 Rock Album (1978)
Various Artists - WKTK Presents Baltimore's Best Rock (1978)

Track List
1. Single Bullet Theory - Keep It Tight
2. Billy Thermal - I'm Gonna Follow You
3. Bates Motel - Live Among The Dancers
4. Peter Dayton - Last Supper
5. The Alleycats - Black Haired Girl
6. The Know - I Like Girls
7. The Willys - She's Illegal
8. The Fast - Kids Just Wanna Dance
9. The dB's - Soul Kiss
10. Suburban Lawns - Unable

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Traffic - Single Mixes and Rarities (1967-74)


If any band exemplified the genre of “album rock” it was Traffic. Some of the group’s best songs were the longer ones that seemed custom-made for the old FM format of the '70s and '80s, like the album rock standard “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” Because the group became AOR favorites, their singles are less known today, even though they had several big hits in England. But in the U.S., they never cracked the Top 40, which now seems curious considering group member Steve Winwood's success in the 1980s.

But during the band's heyday, not only did Traffic regularly release 45s, but they put out some dedicated 45 mixes and/or edits that never made it to CD. I’ve rounded up a bunch of them here. Before I get into what’s what, there’s is one caveat to this collection: I only included tracks that are out-of-print and not currently-available on CD. So the standard single mixes from the group’s first two albums aren’t included because you can get them on the reissue CDs.

What follows is a set of rarities I put together from my own collection. The tracks are in chronological order except for the four bonus rarities (more on this below). In the track descriptions, I only included U.S. record chart info even though some UK singles are included. That's because I only have the Billboard books that cover the good ol' American charts.

Also, I’ve made it a point to accurately transcribe the titles on these singles. So “Rock & Roll Stew...Part 1” gets an ellipses (...), while the various version of “Walking in the Wind” are all written out the way they appeared on the labels. Scans of the discs are included so everyone can see what these elusive singles actually look like.

Track descriptions:

1. Paper Sun (Full-Length Stereo Version With Talking At The End)
“Paper Sun,” which was Traffic’s first charted hit in the U.S. (#94 in Sept. 1967), has an odd history when it comes to full-length stereo mixes. There are two such mixes: The more common one has a regular fade at the end but a rarer one features singer Steve Winwood’s chatter just before the fade. This is that latter, which is why it's included here.

The less-rare stereo mix without the talking appears on the Traffic Gold greatest hits CD and that’s not hard to find. But the rare one that has Steve Winwood, saying “That’s the one” at the very end was only included on an out-of-print CD from 1991 called Smiling Phases. This “talking version” has now become a rarity.

Addendum: If you plan on investing in either the U.S. or UK reissues of Traffic’s debut CD with the bonus tracks, you should know that neither edition has a full-length stereo version without the talking. The U.S. release, titled Heaven Is In Your Mind, has the stereo “Paper Sun,” but it's split into two sections, with the second titled “We’re A Fade, You Missed This.” On the UK album Mr. Fantasy, the full-length mix without the talking appears, but it’s a mono single mix.

2. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (Original 45 Mono Mix With Fade-In)
This is another mix that seems to have made it only to CD on the Smiling Phases CD. It’s the original mono single mix of Traffic’s Nov. 1967 single -- replete with the fade-in. Why is that unique? Because the mono mix that was added as a bonus track to the Mr. Fantasy CD doesn’t fade in, but instead starts when the vocal starts. (To make matters more confusing, the stereo mix added as a bonus cut on the Heaven Is In Your Mind CD does fade in -- but it’s a stereo mix, not the original mono single mix.)

3. Medicated Goo (Mono UK Single Mix)
The mix of this Nov. 1968 single has a different edit starting at the 2:27 mark. At that point, the single comes to a dead stop and then goes into a final chorus. The album mix goes into a percussion break there, and then there’s a short sax solo followed by a short guitar solo. The 45 mix also fades out quicker and runs slightly faster than the version on the Last Exit album.

4. Shanghai Noodle Factory (Mono UK Single Mix)
This was the B-Side to “Medicated Goo” and like that single mix, this one also runs slightly faster than the Last Exit version. It’s also a different, dedicated mono mix. It features more of Chris Wood’s flute, especially on the first break (at 0:57) and during the verses. The vocal harmonies also sound different, with Winwood’s lower register harmony more pronounced. The drum track is also more accentuated, especially the hi-hat.

5. Empty Pages (Stereo US Single Mix)
This unique stereo mix/edit has the instruments placed differently in the stereo field than in more familiar version from the John Barleycorn Must Die album. It also omits the final 30 seconds of the keyboard solo that comes up halfway through the song. Oddly, it also adds (yes, adds) and additional few seconds between the introduction and the entrance of the vocal. Guess they chopped off part of that intro when editing for the LP and for some reason decided to leave it in here.

All of this was done for the U.S. market and the effort was not wasted. The July 1970 release became Traffic’s second single to crack the Hot 100 in the U.S., getting to #74 (“Feelin’ Alright?” had Bubbled Under at #123 in 1968). The flip side was “Stranger To Himself” and it’s the exact same mix from John Barleycorn Must Die, so it’s not included here.

6. Gimme Some Lovin’ Part One
This live version of “Gimme Some Lovin’” runs a full nine minutes on the 1971 album Welcome To The Canteen. For the single, which came out in October of that year, they split the song into two parts, which was the custom back then. But how did they do it?

For the A-Side, they lopped off about a minute of the introduction. After the second chorus, they cut out about fifteen second of guitar riffing and went straight into the organ solo, which is what it fades on. And here’s a bit of trivia for you: This was the highest charting of all Traffic’s four singles that made the Billboard chart. It got to #68.

7. Gimme Some Lovin’ Part Two
The second part fades in from the LP version’s 4:52 mark and is the same from there on in. By the way, if you’re wondering how I made all these “album vs. 45” comparisons (including the one that’s gonna follow below), I did it by utilizing a sound editing program. I lined up the WAV files on top of each other and synced them up as best I could, panning the album tracks to the left and the 45 tracks to the right. Then I listened (and watched) where they diverged.

8. Rock & Roll Stew...Part 1
This gets confusing, so read carefully. To get to what this single is all about, we first have to examine the two different edits of this song that have come out on CD.

The original “Rock & Roll Stew,” which was on the 1971 LP The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, ran 4:25. A longer version was added as a bonus track to the CD edition of that album and it runs 6:09 (and is subtitled “Parts 1 and 2”). Both of these versions are from the same recording (despite what Wikipedia claims), but they’re edited different and each one contains elements specific to it.

The edit point where the two tracks diverge is at 1:47. At that point, the shorter version goes into a guitar solo that’s not included on the longer version (which goes directly into the second verse). But the longer version has a much longer fade which obviously isn’t part of the short version.

That brings us to the actual 45 single, which is what we have here. As the subtitle “Parts 1 and 2” suggests, it’s culled from the longer 6:09 edit. It’s faded on the A-Side near the middle at the guitar solo (at 3:24) then faded back in for the B-Side at that point. Not exactly revelatory, but if you ever wondered “Where did they break it between sides?” now you know. It hit #93 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in Feb. 1972.

9. Rock & Roll Stew...Part 2
See Track 8.

10. Walking In The Wind (Stereo Single Edit)
The single mix of this track from the original (pre-reunion) Traffic’s swan song, When The Eagle Flies, isn’t a complicated edit. It runs almost seven minutes on the LP, and they fade it out early here, at 4:35. Oddly, the single edit contains the 18-second fade-in, replete with the wind sound effect. Had I been doing the editing, I’d have edited most of that out and gotten to the vocal quicker. But I didn’t do the editing so this intro, in my opinion, is a bit meandering for a single. This Oct. 1974 release was Traffic’s final single before the band split up. It didn’t chart in the U.S.

11. Walking In The Wind - Instrumental
This is the B-Side to the above stereo single edit. Its title might make you think it’s an instrumental mix of the whole song, which would have been cool. But, alas, it’s just the final 2:20 from the album version, which is an instrumental section. Hence the title.

12. Walking In The Wind - Short Version Mono
The mono mix of the short edit was only made available on the promo copy of the single. This is the same edit that’s on the stereo single except, obviously, in mono. The other side of this single contains the familiar album version in stereo, so it’s not included here. I’m using the term “other side” here to avoid using the phrases “A-Side” and “B-Side.” That’s because there is no B-Side. This promo single was put out as a double A-Side. The serial number on each side is E-45207-A.

Bonus tracks:

13. I Just Want You to Know (Demo)
This was a bonus track from the 1999 reissue of John Barleycorn Must Die. That one-disc reissue has now been superseded by the “Deluxe Edition,” a two-disc set from 2011. But the newer set omits four bonuus tracks from the 1999 release. This is the first. It’s a Steve Winwood demo where he’s on all instruments. Apparently, Winwood didn’t want this out, which is why it’s been rescinded.

14. Sittin’ Here Thinkin’ of My Love (Demo)
Same history as Track 13.

15. Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring (Live at the Fillmore East, Nov. 18, 1970)
This live cut, from the 1999 edition of the John Barleycorn reissue, isn’t the same one included on the two-disc on the 2011 two-disc set. The one on that set was recorded at the Fillmore East Nov. 19. Since Traffic played that venue for two night and this recording is different, it’s safe to assume this one was from the previous night, Nov. 18.

16. Glad (Live at the Fillmore East, Nov. 18, 1970)
Same history as Track 15.

Track list:
1. Paper Sun (Full-Length Stereo Version With Talking At The End)
2. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (Mono Mix With Fade-In)
3. Medicated Goo (Mono UK Single Mix)
4. Shanghai Noodle Factory (Mono UK Single Mix)
5. Empty Pages (Stereo US Single Mix)
6. Gimme Some Lovin’ Part One
7. Gimme Some Lovin’ Part Two
8. Rock & Roll Stew...Part 1
9. Rock & Roll Stew...Part 2
10. Walking In The Wind - Short Version Mono
11. Walking In The Wind (Stereo Single Edit)
12. Walking In The Wind - Instrumental
Bonus tracks:
13. I Just Want You to Know (Demo)
14. Sittin’ Here Thinkin’ of My Love (Demo)
15. Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring (Live at the Fillmore East, Nov. 18, 1970)
16. Glad (Live at the Fillmore East, Nov. 18, 1970)

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Elvis Costello and the Attractions - Get Happy!! (US Vinyl Pressing, 1980)


As I mentioned in my last post about Marshall Crenshaw, I'm not blogging regularly anymore, but will post on special occasions. This is one such occasion.

That's because NOWHERE on the Web does anyone seem to remember that the American vinyl pressing of Elvis Costello's Get Happy!! was markedly different than its British counterpart. Since the British edition became the standard for the CD releases of Costello's fourth LP, the American vinyl version has become a rarity -- so much so that no one seems to know it even existed.

What's so different about it? Well, it's not the mix per se, but the mastering. The U.S. version was mastered with less bass and more treble and midrange. It also has a constricted stereo soundscape, with the instruments and effects being "centered" more.

It's surprising that no one knows about this now, because the tweezy sound of the release at the time irked Trouser Press magazine founder Ira Robbins enough that he opened his review of the LP with a complaint about it. I included a full scan of the review inside, but here's part of what Robbins had to say:

"Sound quality on the US version is so thoroughly inferior that the music is largely obscured, making a fair appraisal impossible. Comparing the two versions, the domestic release sounds as if it were mastered from a cassette of the import by someone with distorted hearing...A spokesperson for Columbia (Records) maintains that their version is satisfactory to the company; the implication was that the record was made to sound this way by intent, not error."

After this review was published, Trouser Press received a letter to the editor praising the album sound for recreating the "scratchy sound of AM radio," which may well have been the intent. However, that writer also compared Get Happy!! to Motown, which drew a rebuke from none other than rock critic Dave Marsh, who wrote into the mag to note that the correct comparison should have been to Stax Records, not Motown. Both of these letters to the editor have also been scanned, so read 'em and draw your own conclusions. (I myself hear both Stax and Motown, plus a big helping of Merseybeat, but we're getting off-topic.)

I'll admit the sound quality of the American pressing is "inferior," technically speaking, but it's what I grew up on and what I'm used to. The "bigger" and cleaner sound of the UK LP and reissue CDs pressings never connected emotionally with me. I'd play the CD in the car and be left cold, but when I put my ratty old copy of the U.S. vinyl on the turntable I'd turn it up. So, after years of trying to track down a mint American vinyl copy of Get Happy!! I finally found one and was able to do one of my super-clean rips and create a digital version.

(Note: If you're new to this blog and are the type who avoids vinyl rips because they often sound bad, you should know that the ones I do are high-quality. I take great pains to reproduce mint vinyl with precision and make sure my rips have no scratches or surface noise...nor do they contain the residual effects of using too much noise reduction. I've developed a unique way to reduce scratches and noise that I may someday outline on this blog.)

Back to the story: My rip of Get Happy!! took a while to do, but I made it a point to get it accurate. How precise is it? It's accurate right down to the way I reproduced the uneven silent spaces between each song. Some of the tracks have one second between them. Some have four. Etc. Whatever the case, all of the spaces here are just as they appeared on the vinyl -- to the millisecond.

One sidenote on all of this:. I also own the Columbia Records cassette of Get Happy!! and noticed it was mastered the same way as the U.S. vinyl. My question is whether there was ever a CD issued in this manner? The CDs issued in the 2000s by Rhino and Rykodisc sound like the old UK vinyl did. But I noticed Discogs lists a CD release by Columbia with the catalog number CK 36347. They don't list a date, but I wonder if an early CD release of this version was put out in the '80s or early '90s?

More technical weirdness

A funny thing happened as I was spending weeks under headphones listening intently to the American vinyl and comparing it to the CD pressing. I noticed that not only were the equalization settings markedly different, but so was the stereo spread of the instruments, as mentioned above. The British pressing and CD pressing places them wider in the stereo field. This makes me think the aforementioned letter writer was correct saying they were going for an AM radio sound, since the U.S. pressing brought things one step closer to mono.

But then there's the reverb effects. These also sound different on the U.S. pressing. Maybe it's because the effects are in stereo and, as mentioned, there is less of a stereo spread. Or, maybe they did a different "submix" of the effects for the American release. This might get confusing to people who haven't spent time in a recording studio, so I'll explain what I mean.

A lot of the unique sound of Get Happy!! was due to producer Nick Lowe's and Costello's idiosyncratic use of effects. All producers mix instruments and voices through effects that are either part of the mixing board or patched into it. However, most of the time a standard "plate reverb" or room reverb is used. For this LP, Lowe and Costello avoided all that and instead exclusively used the then-new effect called "gated reverb" on the drums. On top of that, they only used slap echoes on the voice and guitars. These sound different on the U.S. pressing, especially when you listen on headphones.

Gated reverb is an effect used a lot in the '80s and it  makes the drums (or any instrument) sound huge, but then cuts off. Phil Collins and producer Hugh Padgham are usually credited with pioneering the concept of this with the  drum sound of "In the Air Tonight." Collins also used it to great effect on his remix of Howard Jones' 1988 hit "No One Is To Blame."

Despite all this, Lowe and Costello got there first and they got there with this album, which preceded the release of "In the Air Tonight" by a year. They also got there in a more clever way. Not only did they gate the drums, but they used a delay effect in the daisy chain that came before the gate (i.e. instrument>delay>gate). They made sure the result was used rhythmically, so the gate came off in a way that some people mistook for a high-hat. The best example of this comes in the song "B Movie." Listen to the snare drum and the "thwack" that follows it. That's not the high-hat. That's the delayed gate! It's a very cool sound and, again, if you listen with headphones it sounds different on the American pressing.

As for the album itself, it's pretty classic stuff at this point so I don't think there's any need for me to expound on Costello's songwriting or the Attractions' instrumental prowess. Suffice to say that this record (along with efforts by the Jam and Style Council) got me to look back again at the Top 40 soul music I grew up with, and I became a soul music fanatic. Hence the importance of this album to me.

Addendum

I forgot to mention something in the original post, so I'm adding it in now. If you listen to this rip on headphones, you're going to find some imperfections, particularly elements that sound like "pops." One in particular stands out in "New Amsterdam" -- the pop next to the syllable "spring" in the line "Down on the mainspring." This isn't because of my rip. This artifact (and others elsewhere) were part of the master since they also show up on the CDs. I checked. Just letting everyone know. Now enjoy and get happy!!

Related posts:
Andy Adams & Egg Cream - Egg Cream (1977)
The Attractions - Mad About the Wrong Boy (1980) 
Various Artists - Sharp Cuts (1980)
Color Me Gone - Color Me Gone (1984)
Marshall Crenshaw - U.S. Remix (1984)
Marti Jones - Unsophisticated Time (1985)

Track list:
1. Love For Tender
2. Opportunity
3. The Imposter
4. Secondary Modern
5. King Horse
6. Possession
7. Man Called Uncle
8. Clowntime Is Over
9. New Amsterdam
10. High Fidelity
11. I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down
12. Black and White World (called "Black & White World" on the UK back cover)
13. 5ive Gears In Reverse
14. B Movie
15. Motel Matches
16. Human Touch
17. Beaten To The Punch
18. Temptation
19. I Stand Accused
20. Riot Act