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!!

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


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  2. Does the length of the album have anything to do with the sound? At 20 songs don't the vinyl grooves have to be made smaller...or something like that? Does that have anything to do with the sound? But you are right about the sound of this LP. One of my favorite EC LP's along with Taking Liberties. Thanks for the share

    1. The length probably didn't alter the sound quality per se, but that depends on how it was "cut," and I'm not an expert on that. I do know that at 48 minutes, it's only a minute longer than "Abbey Road," which always sounded good. Also, Costello's own "Imperial Bedroom" runs 50 minutes and Squeeze's "East Side Story" is around 49 and to me they also sound really good.

  3. Praise the Lord for special occasions. Thanks for this one. Believe it or not, Costello was always a little too commercial for my tastes at the time. But as time has worn on he has grown on me. Like disco grew on me. Only different.

  4. I only mention it cause as I recall wasn't there something about the size of the grooves on Todd Rundgren's Initiation LP and I know that runs over an hour.

  5. " I've developed a unique way to reduce scratches and noise that I may someday outline on this blog"

    yes, please!
    may someday arrive soon.

  6. A much appreciated share, and a very interesting discussion of the album's production and sound. I too had heard somewhere that the sound quality of this LP was affected by the narrow grooves necessitated to squeeze in all the songs. But the counter argument about Abbey Road is a good one.

    Wasn't Nick Lowe known to be a producer who "bashed out" records quickly, and who favored a trebly sound?

    You specifically mentioned "B Movie" (one of my all-time top ten EC songs, though I can't claim to have heard his entire discography.) The song employs dub reggae effects on the guitar, and a prominent bassline. A very spacious sound, despite the constricted stereo field. Also a drastically different arrangement from the "B Movie" demo. Thank you for explaining the use of a delayed gate effect on the drums. You increased my appreciation of one of my most-loved tunes!

  7. I had never noticed this. I listened to the U.S. LP. It was one of the five CDs my wife had during a school year in France so she listened to it a lot and loved it a lot. At some point we got the Ryko CD. Never noticed the difference. Can't wait to hear it for myself.

  8. Thanks for this post - one of my all-time favorite albums. I'm very interested in different masterings of this album, and I can't wait to listen to your needle drop. I, too originally owned the US version but replaced it with the UK import because it was supposed to be better.
    You ask in your post about th early USA Columbia cd's and as to whether they sound like the vinyl - I can tell you this :
    After the original Columbia cd's came out, a few years later there were "secret remasters" done for them and these went out on the market. There was no way to tell the new ones from the old ones - not on the disc, matrix, covers, nada. The new remasters were supposedly from the UK Demon cd's that were touted as being better, folks complained about those first cd versions as sounding "tinny". There's a good chance those first cd pressings are the same as your USA vinyl, I'd say. Lot's of discussion about this over at the Steve Hoffman Forum - threads are now locked up, but lots of good info and reading there :

    Love your blog, by the way! - John

    1. Thanks for the info and the kid words. Lots of info on the CD reissues, etc. at the Steve Hoffman Forum. I used to participate over there. No one on that board would probably appreciate why I like the worse-sounding master, but sometimes bad is good IMO.

  9. I agree. Sometimes bad is good.

    Thanks for this! - Stinky

    1. Stinky? You mean the kid from "Growing Pains?" Speaking of all things 1980s...

  10. OK, last Sunday I finally had a chance to carefully listen to my old LP and a CD. The song I chose was "High Fidelity." Back when I first bought and played the LP I had always got a kick out of a song called "High Fidelity" sounding so crappy like it was coming out of a car radio (not an installed stereo but the crap easily overloaded single speaker Detroit put in them). Later when I would play the CD to hear that effect and didn't hear it I had assumed it was because of the volume I had played it at back in college and the "teentone" speakers I had back then (very BIG, but not very good). Now I could tell it was the difference in mastering. My daughter had to listen to my playing the versions a couple of times each (she DID like the song) and then my excited discussion.

    So thanks!

  11. I worked in a library in high school and taped a copy of their Get Happy! album. Wore that poor tape out playing it constantly. Still my favorite Costello album. -sr71

  12. Thanks for the rip, so many good tracks.
    B Movie jumps out of the speakers, the bass & drums are perfect.
    Get Happy vinyl is back in the heavy rotation.
    Well done friend!