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.
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!!
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)
1. Love For Tender
3. The Imposter
4. Secondary Modern
5. King Horse
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
19. I Stand Accused
20. Riot Act