George Benson: “The Other Side of Abbey Road”

The Beatles’ final studio album Abbey Road was released on LP in the United States on September 26, 1969. As will be discussed after the jump, audio-industry maven Philip O’Hanlon pulled together (under the “Magnum Opus Rediscovered” banner) a coast-to-coast Abbey Roadlistening party” for Saturday, September 28, 2019, in which 40 audio dealers will play the remastered album on “fine audio” (or “high end”) equipment, from 3:00 to 6:00 PM (local times).

Which is all fine and good. But I for one wish that the participating audio shops would have extended the duration of their events by not all that much time (32 minutes), and spin what is to my mind, far and away, the best Abbey Road cover album ever, George Benson‘s woefully under-appreciated The Other Side of Abbey Road. Will they, won’t they? Matters not. It’s easy to add this gem to your collection!

Starting only three weeks after Abbey Road‘s US début (October 22-23 & November 4-5, 1969), producer Creed Taylor (who produced this record for Herb Alpert’s label A&M) convened a rather astonishing gathering of participating musicians at engineer Rudy van Gelder’s legendary studio. Don Sebesky was in charge of their comings and goings, in that he was the arranger. (Benson sang, as well as playing guitar.)

How’s this for an (incomplete) lineup? Ray Barretto, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Bob James, Hubert Laws, Idris Muhammad, George Ricci (brother of Ruggiero Ricci), and Emanuel Vardi? More information (and sound samples) after the jump.

Click here to visit the Magnum Opus Rediscovered website.

But first, all praise and honors to Philip O’Hanlon for (I am sure) dropping everything else and trying to do what I have been advising the “fine audio” industry to do for more than 15 years. That is, to forget all this nonsense about “if someone can afford a $30,000 wristwatch, he can afford a $30,000 stereo.” That makes no sense to me.

I may be in the minority, but I absolutely can’t believe that simply because somebody is rich, they are automatically going to buy an expensive stereo. Please really give thought to how typical luxury goods exist, and how they get used, and what the demands they make (or don’t make) are. For instance, a Turnbull & Asser shirt. OK, it’s hundreds of dollars, but everybody needs at least one good dress shirt, and it might draw a compliment. (Whereas Beau Brummell supposedly stated that if you noticed a man’s clothes, he was not well-dressed.)

A Porsche 911. It stays in the garage. And even if all you do is (as shown in the TV commercial), drive your habitually-late daughter to school after she intentionally misses her school bus, you have the experience of driving it (and the experience of being seen driving it, if you need that too). (That said, reportedly the two most popular vehicles with US millionaires are the Ford F150 truck and the Jeep Grand Cherokee station wagon.) The Porsche does not live in the living room; it does not take up space in the home.

A Rolex watch. OK. It takes up about six square inches on your dresser; you do not need to dedicate a room to it. People will react to it however they react. The Rolex is not something that one’s spouse will worry about the maid’s hitting with the vacuum cleaner; or, not vacuuming close to it and leaving dust on the carpet (both of which have been stated as objections to floorstanding loudspeakers, arguing in favor of in-walls).

A wine cellar. OK, it’s in the basement.

Fine art takes up a little wall space. People can ooh and aah. Low maintenance. You walk past it and you see it. You don’t have to sit still in front of a painting for an hour, as you have to in order to enjoy a Mahler symphony. A passing glance is all that is needed.

Whereas when you are trying to sell a rich guy a $100,000 stereo system just because he is rich and not because he is a music lover, he pretty much has to dedicate a room to it, and he won’t get the benefit of it unless he sits down in front of it and shuts up and pays attention.

For hours at a time. Does it make sense for someone to spend up to $100,000 on something he will use on average less than one hour a week? No.

I think that the rich guy who wants to sit at home and listen to music really deeply as the sole focus of his attention is the rare exception, and certainly not the rule. Alec Baldwin might listen to Mahler and he might even be crazy about Mahler (as well as just plain crazy); but as far as I know, Johnny Depp does not listen to Mahler… . And Elizabeth Holmes does not strike me as someone who is passionate about Beethoven’s late string quartets.

Drawing equivalences between a high-resolution full-range stereo system and any and all of, a prestige sports car, expensive wine, fine art, watches, or any other luxury good has long been a shibboleth or a mantra for some high-end pundits. But I think it has been misguided, self-defeating, and an expensive distraction.

Steinway & Sons’ Spirio playback piano.

(Whereas I can easily easily easily envision a rich person who is not all that much of a music lover spending the money to buy a Steinway Spirio playback piano, simply for the “Wow!” factor. Even better, Steinway’s technology is so slick that, by using the provided iPad, the owner can adjust the playback level of the piano(!). That way, the guests at your cocktail party won’t have to shout over the Debussy.)

So, thank you, Philip O’Hanlon, for shifting the focus to actual, erm, how can I put, this?, listening to the music. If they can pull this off with Abbey Road, perhaps they can also do it with masterpieces that are not household names. That brings us back to The Other Side of Abbey Road.

The image from the back cover of The Other Side of Abbey Road.
Seen together, they are a parody of
Abbey Road‘s iconic cover image.
Photo by Eric Meola.

George Benson was a child guitar prodigy who recorded in New York City for RCA-Victor at the age of nine. My favorite story about Benson’s early years is that he was to audition for an agent or a record executive and by happenstance, some well-known singer was visiting the office at the same time (it could have been Sarah Vaughan or Dinah Washington). The singer (whoever it was) agreed to sing with him, and suggested “Summertime,” to which the young Benson replied, “What key?”

With that kind of background (and six albums as a leader behind him—as well as playing and recording with Miles Davis), the 26-year old George Benson was ideally positioned to buy a copy of Abbey Road, quite obviously fall in love with it (as well as assimilating its worldview), and start working on his re-imagining of it. (I think he made the absolute right decision in concentrating on Side 2, of course.) Getting into the studio a mere three weeks after Abbey Road‘s release certainly was a case of “striking while the iron was hot.” Furthermore, The Other Side of Abbey Road is, I think, an unheralded example of “Baroque Pop,” as the presence of a harpsichord, a string quartet, and various orchestral winds in the sound samples below indicates.

The albums immediately after The Other Side of Abbey Road and up to 1976, as a general rule, did not feature Benson’s voice. George Benson’s career peaked starting around 1976. Ironically, what brought him to the highest heights of popular music was the singing that (obviously) quite a few record executives along the way had thought was not his strong suit. Later, Benson successfully transitioned from child prodigy to elder statesman. Of his 10 Grammy awards, the next-to-last came in 2007 for “God Bless the Child,” with Al Jarreau and Jill Scott.

And now for the music; one sample from each of the five tracks.

1. “Golden Slumbers” (end) / “You Never Give Me Your Money” (beginning)

 

2. “Because” / “Come Together” (start of “Come Together” section)

 

3. “Oh! Darling” (first minute or so)

 

4. “Here Comes The Sun” / “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (beginning of “I Want You”)

 

5. “Something” / “Octopus’s Garden” / “The End” (all of “The End”)

 

Used LPs of The Other Side of Abbey Road go for reasonable money on the used markets. You can hear it on Tidal and almost doubtless on other streaming services. The CD version seems to fetch high-ish dollars. I am not aware of any hi-res downloads, but HDTracks does offer the similar Benson album White Rabbit as a 24/96 album-only download.

# # #

This article originally appeared at The Tannhauser Gate.

46 Replies to “George Benson: “The Other Side of Abbey Road””

  1. AvatarJohn C.

    The album cover reminds me of the Supremes album where they dress like the Beatles in their mop top days and perform covers. It.s nice that people can finally admit that cross pollination of culture happened in both directions.

    If one is in the mood for baroque pop, I would highly recommend the late 60s work of the Bee Gees. Especially the ones sung by Robin Gibb, Songs like “Holliday”, “Odessa”,”New York Mining Disaster 1941″ and “the Sun will Shine” are just superb. To think they were written and arranged by people in their teens just adds to the awe

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn Marks

      Thanks for your comment. As far as I know, “Baroque Pop”‘s breakthrough in the US was “Walk Away Renée” by The Left Banke. Keyboard player Mike Brown wrote that at age 16.

      Complete coverage here:
      http://thetannhausergate.com/index.php/2019/08/26/the-left-banke-just-walk-away-renee/

      Even better: Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” is a song about listening to a song, and the listened-to song is: “Walk Away Renée.”
      http://thetannhausergate.com/index.php/2019/09/02/boston-more-than-a-feeling/

      Ciao,

      jm

      Reply
      • AvatarJohn C.

        Left Banke was quite good even though there was only one album with the lineup. The songs “Pretty Ballerina” and “Barterers and their Wives” were also excellent. Their singer was Spanish and he gives Barterers a real old world feel. Brown himself even sang a country song which admittedly didn’t really come out well but was a few years before everyone discovered the swamp. As far as I know, Brown never got anywhere with Renee, she was dating the bass player.

        Reply
        • AvatarJohn Marks

          She only dated the bass player briefly, and to this day is perplexed by the song. She went on to be a successful voice teacher and musician in California. For a time she was the director and vocal coach for an ensemble specializing in Medieval vocal music, so she really must know her apples. IIRC, she was 15 when Mike Brown fell for her.

          BTW, Mike Brown’s father Harry Lookofsky was a violinist who not only played in Toscanini’s NBC orchestra; he was a jazz musician who is almost unknown today, IMHO for three reasons. One, his name and heritage; two, that he had his accompanying musicians play from charts rather than improvise; and three, he was an early adopter of multi-track technology such as overdubbing, when the prevailing ethos in jazz recording was to prefer recording all in one (preferably live) take.

          But to me at least, Lookofsky’s playing reminds me of Grappelli’s. BTW2, because I met Grappelli twice when I was living in Nashville(!), I am only one handshake away from Django, and I can imagine Jack’s enduring a moment of envy over that.

          BTW3, good catch, knowing that the Left Banke’s vocalist was Hispanic!

          jm

          Reply
  2. AvatarCarl Kolchak

    I’m probably one of the few people who liked the music from the “Sgt. Peppers” movie. I’m a huge ” Gibb head” and probably no music group handled the up’s and downs of the music industry better than them. “I Started a Joke” is awesome but a tough listed since Robin’s passing.
    I think part of the Beatles magic is that they broke up before they got stale. How many big “Wings” or John and Yoko” fans are out there?

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn C.

      With Robin, there was a 10-11 year gap between the solo hit “Saved by the Bell” and the early eighties next effort “Juliet”. To here the change from baroque pop to new wave was just mind boggling. He just wasn’t that involved with their defining disco era I’ll bet he was thrilled when the music changed again.

      On the Beatles, “Band on the Run” always struck me as exactly what kind of music the Beatles would have been making in 1973. Recording it in Nigeria also sounds like something they would have done to stir the part. Paul was always testing if what he did was a hit only because of Beatles’ success. Remember when he released a single version of him singing “Mary had a Little Lamb” and all those baroque songs he passed on to Peter & Gordon.

      Reply
    • AvatarJohn Marks

      Wings was an abomination of desolation. But for McCartney’s name, they would have been as successful as Klaatu.

      Ponder this, by the way. Everyone thought that “The Beatles” were so “British,” but the truth is that the only echt Brit among them was Richard Starkey.

      McCartney of course is an ethnic Irish Name. Lennon–hard to get more Mick that that. And Harrison as a surname can be English or Irish, and George Harrison’s mother was of Irish Catholic descent. AFAIK Paul and George were Baptised as Catholics, and that for sure is not “English.”

      jm

      Reply
      • AvatarTrucky McTruckface

        “Wings was an abomination of desolation. But for McCartney’s name, they would have been as successful as Klaatu.”

        This is such a silly comment. There’s no Wings without McCartney; The “group” was just a vehicle for Paul to keep Linda close and LARP as a bandmate again. The only other constant in Wings was Denny Laine, best known as the guy who left the Moody Blues before they became interesting. The limited contributions from Linda and Laine were pure filler; Paul was obviously the star. That said, aside from Band on the Run (and Ram, which the critics hated but I’m fond of), McCartney really overindulged in some cringeworthy schmaltz.

        Too bad, as I think Paul was the most diverse of the Beatles and had the best pop sensibilities. Lennon, meanwhile, typically surrounded himself with a much higher caliber of sidemen in his solo years, but ruined it by either giving half the songs on the album to Yoko or by being too busy getting thrown out of bars with Harry Nilsson to write anything worth a damn. And the songs that don’t feature Yoko are still always about Yoko or some preachy pseudo-hippie BS that hasn’t aged well. Frankly, I find the vast majority of his solo output to be completely unlistenable.

        Harrison, as great a talent as he was, just didn’t have the disposition to be a commercial solo artist. Interestingly, George was the only one who ever really tried to collaborate with artists (Traveling Willburys) that were at his level post-Beatles. John mucked around a bit with Elton John, and Paul with Michael Jackson, but neither ever attempted to be in a true group of equals again.

        What made the Beatles work was how well John and Paul complimented/counterbalanced each other. They knew how to finish one another’s songs and rounded off each other’s worst instincts. No way they could have continued to coexist into the ’70s (it’s remarkable Abbey Road ever got recorded), but I suspect they would have burned out by about ’73 regardless. Most ’60s acts didn’t navigate the ’70s well and it’s for the best that the Beatles collectively were spared the indignity.

        Reply
        • AvatarJohn Marks

          I entirely agree with:

          “McCartney really overindulged in some cringeworthy schmaltz.”

          Which I think proves that my observation was not silly. Had a guy named Haimish Zukerberg recorded the tripe Wings did, he would have sunk like a stone. I knew a VP of Marketing who was proud to have been part of splashing out $2 to be a name sponsor (not THE name, but a name) of a US McCartney tour. I am sure that 99% of the people thanking their lucky stars that the company whose products they sold had arranged for them to stand behind a velvet rope and say Hi! to McCartney felt that way because of The Beatles and nothing else.

          In fact, [metaphorically speaking] the Beatles should have gotten on their knees every night and thank God for the fact that Elvis Presley had existed, because otherwise they would be the most over-rated musical act in history.

          Just sayin’.

          jm

          Reply
      • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

        הַשִּׁקּוּץ מְשׁוֹמֵֽם – nice to know there’s a culturally literate crew around here.

        Reply
  3. AvatarTrucky McTruckface

    Any discussion of Abbey Road cover albums is incomplete without also mentioning Booker T. & The M.G.’s McLemore Avenue, also recorded in late ’69.

    And Joe Cocker’s version of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.”

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

      I visited the Stax museum and did the obligatory walk across the street when I went south for this year’s Summer NAMM show.

      It’s hard for those of us under the age of sixty to understand just how thoroughly the Beatles were covered by other bands in-period. It wasn’t just George and Booker — Wes Montgomery covered Beatles songs frequently. Hell, the whole CTI records operation seemed to have a real Beatles cover fetish. As late as Herbie Hancock’s “The New Standard” you still had people putting Beatles tracks on jazz vinyl. Maybe after.

      Reply
      • AvatarTrucky McTruckface

        Thanks for saying what I couldn’t articulate last night. I wasn’t there either, but you really get an appreciation for just how huge and influential the Beatles were when you realize just how widely they were covered/copied by their contemporaries across the musical spectrum.

        Sadly, a lot of really great recordings have largely slipped from popular consciousness, but their songs were everywhere. There are plenty of great examples, but a favorite of mine is Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude.” Duane Allman was bumming around FAME Studios as a session musician and talked Pickett and Rick Hall (who both thought it was a stupid idea) into doing the cover…Allman’s solo blew Eric Clapton away, which lead to Derek & the Dominoes.

        I also love that McCartney’s tribute to Fats Domino, “Lady Madonna” was quickly covered by Fats himself.

        Reply
      • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

        One reason why the Beatles were able to retire from live performances in 1966 was that their record sales, and royalties from covers of Lennon & McCartney compositions were massive. The same is true for Bob Dylan after his motorcycle accident. Most musicians make their money playing live. 90+% of the gate at an arena show can be a seven figure payday for three hours of work. The Beatles and Dylan could afford not to tour.

        For what it’s worth, Peter Noone, from Herman’s Hermits, says that in the beginning the Beatles were just another band, but when they got back from months of doing a half dozen sets a night for drunk GIs in Hamburg they were a kick-ass rock and roll band.

        Reply
        • AvatarJohn C.

          Peter Noone also said that the working class roots of the Beatles gave a big leg up to the rest of the British invasion who mostly were from the upper classes, kids who had gotten music lessons. The average bloke there can’t stand the posh folks

          Jeremy Clyde effectively ended the career of Chad & Jeremy in the UK when it came out he was in line to be a Duke.

          Reply
  4. AvatarCharles Altemus IV

    An Italic tag was not closed at the end of the article, making all the comments and lower page italicized.

    Reply
  5. Avatarjc

    Well, the “what key?” comment doesn’t really have any significance. Any half-decent musician will ask a singer what key she wants a song in. “Summertime” is one of the dead-easiest standards there is. It is totally unsurprising that a young George Benson was prepared to ply it in any desired key. This is jazz, not rock and roll where people learn the one true lick and then regurgitate it forever.

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn Marks

      Obviously, I disagree.

      The significance is that we are talking about a kid who was years away from getting a driver’s license. He not only could play a standard in the keys a female singer might request, he was not put off his game by being in the setting of, for lack of a better term, a job interview where he had to accompany someone famous.

      I was a pretty good violinist at the student-orchestra level (principal second violin of a youth orchestra), and I could play impressively at times. But having to play for a grade in front of strangers, especially adults with big credentials, flummoxed me. So the fact that the very young George Benson aced an audition impresses me.

      Had I been talking about a Berklee student who was 20 years, old, of course there would have been something remarkable if the kid could NOT transpose on the fly. But the young George Benson was years away from that.

      YMMV.

      jm

      Reply
      • Avatarjc

        Not being overawed by the name-brand singer – impressive. Being super young and being able to hang with those world class players – impressive. Being able to play “Summertime” in any key – not really all that impressive.

        That’s like saying “we knew he was really going to be something else when he was able to play all the major scales.”

        Reply
    • Avatarstingray65

      I’m struggling to think of any well known popular music star less than 40 years old who can play a musical instrument with any dexterity or innovation. I can think of lots of pretty boys and pretty girls who have made a name for themselves singing and dancing to pop songs mostly written by others, and some ghetto rap “artists” who have an amazing ability to come up with clever lyrics that rhyme with “killing cops”, “killing whitey”, “killing Trump”, “beating/screwing whores”, and other delightful additions to our cultural heritage, but are there any that could without embarrassment play guitar with George Benson, piano with Jerry Lee Lewis, bass with Paul McCartney, or drums with Ringo Starr?

      Reply
        • Avatarstingray65

          Jack – thanks for the recommendation – I looked them up on YouTube and I assume it is the band found there under the name Vulfpeck, who indeed seem to have serious ability as musicians. Since I haven’t heard of them before, the only question is whether they are actually well known (i.e. top 40 visitors, gold records) or am I just 20 years behind the times? Certainly in the past there have been popular singers who couldn’t play an instrument besides their vocal chords (i.e. crooners, du-wop and Motown groups), but it also isn’t difficult to think of dozens of individuals and groups from the 50s into 90s who used their serious skills with one or more instruments to strum, pick, beat, or blow their way into the top 40 with regularity.

          The fact that you and Mr. Marks (or any other commenter) seem to struggle to come up with multiple examples of top musical acts with serious musicianship chops who are under 40 would seem to confirm the sad state of popular music in recent times.

          Reply
      • AvatarJohn Marks

        I think that John Mayer, who is slowly aging out of his Pretty Boy phase but who is still under 40, is at least by the larger populace very under-appreciated as a guitar player. If you have not seen it, check out his “Axis: Bold as Love” cover:

        http://thetannhausergate.com/index.php/2017/03/24/the-john-mayer-trio-axis-bold-as-love-jimi-hendrix/

        But I have to admit that at the moment, nobody else who is a well-known pop star under 40 comes to mind!

        ATB,

        jm

        Reply
      • AvatarSteve

        Dependent upon your definition of well-known popular music, but all of these artists get regular radio play:
        Derek Trucks (Just turned 40)
        Gary Clark, Jr
        Marcus King
        Shakey Graves
        Jake Kiszka (Greta Van Fleet)

        Reply
  6. Avatarpanatomic-x

    wow, a lot to chew on here. thank you, john.

    after hearing my daughter noodling around with let it be on our piano (she hasn’t ha a lesson in years), i got the idea of buying her the beatles fake book as a middle school graduation gift in june. it has proved to be the gift that keeps giving. last week, she explained to me what a plagal chord is and then demonstrated by playing the phrase “yesterday came suddenly.” she’s teaching herself composition by dissecting paul mccartney songs. there are worse way to learn.

    love the benson cuts, i will get a copy and play it for my daughter. she’s expressed some interest in jazz but hasn’t developed a taste for it yet. maybe this will do the trick.

    i remember listening to benson’s breezin’ on the radio back in the day and being astonished at the tone he achieved. i didn’t know a guitar could sound like that. i spent hours on a borrowed gretsch hollow body trying to sound like him and failing miserably.

    as to walk away renee, interesting side note… the song was engineered by a 17 year old prodigy named kenny schaffer in a studio of his own design. he later went on to invent the schaffer-vega wireless system which transformed rock concerts. and he also was a friend of john lennon’s and designed the electronics for a very interesting guitar that lennon played on double fantasy.

    as to wings being an abomination, i think that’s a little harsh. there are some good tracks. venus & mars hold up well and i would say that letting go is up there with his beatles work. still, there is no doubt that the sum of lennon mccartney was greater than the parts. also, i don’t think mccartney gets enough credit for how hard he works. ringo starr has gone on the record as saying that it if it wasn’t for paul ringing them up in the morning, the beatles wouldn’t have stayed home rather than going into the studio every day. ringo said that john used to roll there eyes when paul would call nagging them to work. thank god for paul.

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn Marks

      Well, praise and honors both to you and to your daughter! Mind if I make a few suggestions?

      To get one’s pinky toe wet on Cultural Literacy in Music, I think that the Voyager Golden Record is a good place to start. There’s a coffee-table book:

      https://www.amazon.com/Voyager-Golden-Various-VARIOUS-ARTISTS/dp/0692973826/

      But the tracks can be heard on Spotify and perhaps elsewhere. For each track, the learner should ask herself or himself, “Why did they include this track, and what were the material-cultural and technological and social aspects of the creation of this music.” I.e., to write a piano sonata you need both a piano and usually someone to patronize the work or people to buy the sheet music. To have an electric-guitar solo, you need not only a guitar, but electricity too. Whereas for chant, you only need people to sing, and some degree of training, even if it is only monkey-see/monkey-do.

      A fascinating deep dive into why music is so important to us is, “Do Not Sell At Any Price,” a young woman rock critic’s memoir of getting sucked into the vortex of obsessively collecting old 78 rpm records.

      https://www.amazon.com/Not-Sell-Any-Price-Obsessive/dp/145166706X/

      If you email me privately I can send you the text of a lecture I delivered at Thomas More College (NH) on the continuing significance of the string quartet, which might go a ways to explaining why the final track on the Voyager Record was a Beethoven Late String Quartet movement.

      johnnywehardly chez gee male

      ciao,

      jm

      Reply
  7. Avatar-Nate

    As always ;

    Educational reading with a few ‘I need to make sure everyone knows how ignorant I am’ comments tossed in for good measure .

    -Nate

    Reply
  8. AvatarShocktastic

    “And Joe Cocker’s version of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” I’m not a Joe Cocker fan but I bet he absolutely could slay that song. His version must be terrific. Thank you Jack for letting John Marks crosspost.

    Stingray65: there are a ton of great young musicians out there. Musicianship hasn’t died, you just aren’t hip to the current music distribution channels (not saying I am very hip either since “hip” is a dinosaur slang phrase). The problem is too much consolidation both in radio/broadcasting and in the major recording companies in the US. When my 15 year old wants fresh music he hits YouTube and various listening apps via his phone. So if you search the American FM dial it’s a homogenous blur of TheSameCrapOverAndOver. European radio turns over artists and fads much faster than US radio. Discussing music over the Internet is kind of a fools errand, but I found Caro Emerald from The Netherlands fantastic although her albums (a decade old) are peppered with stupid electric-swing producer tricks but her song Liquid Lunch is the funniest hangover song ever. For some reason she doesn’t tour in the US but I wish she would.

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn Marks

      Well of course you have put your finger on the problem. Except, it might be even worse than you think. I was really taken aback by “The Shazam Effect,” an article by Derek Thompson in the December 2014 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Thompson pointed out that Shazam [a smartphone app used to sample and identify unfamiliar recordings] does a lot more than provide song titles to its users. Shazam also harvests data about where you heard the song, and so on. The article linked that two-way exchange of data to the narrowing of musical styles: Now that the music business has unprecedented information about what people like, it wants to deliver more of the same. http://www.tinyurl.com/shazameffect

      The irony is that today’s technology can deliver nearly unlimited variety, but what people ask for is increasingly—and unprecedentedly—similar. Recent research indicates that 77% of the total revenue from sales of recorded music goes to the top 1% of artists and bands. Further, today’s 10 best-selling tracks have 82% more market share than did the Top 10 singles of 10 years ago.

      Here’s a perfect example of how technological advances have been a mixed blessing for music and for musicians. Back in the glory days of rock, a record label had a very simple way of forcing you to hear music other than you had chosen for yourself: they could take the brave step of declining to release a single (except for promo copies to disc jockeys). “Stairway to Heaven” was never a single; people had to buy the (LP) album, because the band wanted listeners to hear their entire creative vision for the album.

      Today, the music market is a school cafeteria without adult supervision, and if the kids want to eat cheesecake and nothing else for lunch, there is nobody around to dispense wisdom.

      Wow, spoken like a true old fart, hunh?

      Ciao,

      john

      Ciao,

      John

      Reply
      • AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

        “Stairway to Heaven” was never a single; people had to buy the (LP) album, because the band wanted listeners to hear their entire creative vision for the album.”

        Not sure if it’s the label, the musician, or the provider, but iTunes still does that. There are many songs you can only get if you buy the entire album. Doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a new release or something that is decades old. Case in point; the only way to set the song Telegraph Road is to buy the album.

        Reply
  9. AvatarGeorge Jetson

    meh, this album is not very good. I’ll take Benson’s “Give Me the Night” anytime, over this dreck. Reimagining? I suppose, but not in a good way. I don’t question that the musicians involved were all heroes, or that the source material is solid, but this reworking does not please me.

    I like cover versions, when done well. Sergio Mendes did a great version of “Killing Me Softly”, Senior Coconut did a great version of “Smooth Operator” and Kraftwerk’s “Showroom Dummies”, and DJ Towa Tei did a great version of “Private Eyes”.

    Ryan Adams also covered Taylor Swift’s “1989” and it stunk, just like Benson’s “Other Side” album. Sometimes homages are misguided. “Abbey Road” is great, but please, just let it be.

    Sometimes you gotta go back to the original.

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn Marks

      Thanks for commenting. I think it’s a case of, Horses for Courses. Benson’s Abbey Road cover LP was perfectly designed to appeal to my 15-year old self, in that I was already recording my junior-high school chorus, the Allied Radio catalog was my Bible, and I wondered how real records were made. Plus, as a violin student, the occasional “Baroque Pop” release made me feel less an outsider.

      I still think that “Other Side” is a great album, but, perhaps I am giving it a lot of credit for striking while the iron was hot.

      jm

      Reply
  10. AvatarShocktastic

    Question for John Marks: so if the majority of modern music and downloads are experienced through crummy portable electronic devices, what is the state of high fidelity? I’m not trying to be churlish, and I have probably missed a huge series of Stereophile articles about this, but how does a recording engineer master a session these days knowing that most people these days experience their music through tinny portable devices? I assume they record a super good master, then create a full range secondary master for the CD crowd and a compressed secondary master recording for listening on little machines. My “body count” of high end audio equipment is embarrassingly large and long. But these days I wish I had stuck with my original system, purchased more records and CDs, and attended more shows….although I helped a whole bunch of stereo salespeople put food on the table 🙂

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn Marks

      You might want to read my final, swan-song Stereophile column, in which I interviewed Bob Ludwig, who had recently racked up eight Grammys in three years. https://www.stereophile.com/content/fifth-element-93

      Bob was quoted in, and then relied upon for a major correction to, an NPR article on “Mastered for iTunes.” There is not enough space here to get into that issue, but here’s the link: https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2012/02/24/147379760/what-mastered-for-itunes-really-means

      The traditional approach to mastering had the ideal of doing the best job possibly for the benefit of the music, ignoring downstream limitations (such as the “suitcase stereo” upon which I first listened to Tchaikovsky and Debussy). But even so, it was often the case that below a certain frequency, the bass was shelved down or even summed to mono, to avoid having some needles jump out of the groove (on suitcase stereos).

      Today, many projects arrive at the mastering lab on reels of 30 ips half-inch two-track analog stereo tape, because that’s the way the producer wants them to sound. In nearly all cases, the mastering engineer will make a flat, no-frills transfer. What happens to that–whether any consumers get to hear it–is another issue. If the release is a downloads-and-streaming-only release, the Mastered for iTunes version (which enables engineers to do a better job of encoding than one-size-fits-all algorithms do) will be it. If an album takes on a life of its own, the genius of capitalism will find ways to re-release it time and again in search of the ultimate fidelity, examples of that run from Steely Dan’s “Aja” to Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me.”

      In this regard it is important to remember that back in the day when physical media was the only alternative to radio, the average purchased pop LP got played 50 times before the owner tired of it and was listening to something else. Why? Because most people listen to music only as an accompaniment to to other activities rather than as an end in and of itself. How many records got bought because they would be good “background music” for other activities? And how many of those were mastered with reduced dynamic range so that the music would not call attention to itself.

      When I got started in the record business, I was haunted by the knowledge that 83% of the new releases never broke even. The entire industry operated on the 12% or so that made a little money and the 5% or so that made lots of money. Funny thing, the story of John Marks Records did not budge the needle on that metric. “Rejoice! A String Quartet Christmas” (classical crossover, now owned by and sold by Steinway and Sons, Inc. http://steinwaystreaming.com/steinway/album.jsp?album_id=518065) surely has sold more than 200,000 copies; “Sonatas of Brahms and [Amy] Beach” died before hitting 1,000 copies.

      Anyway, if you want to hear how amazingly good a modern recording can sound, check out https://thetannhausergate.com/index.php/2017/06/12/joel-fredericksen-and-ensemble-phoenix-munich-requiem-for-a-pink-moon/ which is also a Jack Baruth favorite https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/review-2014-chevrolet-captiva-lt-2-4/

      Pax et Lux et Veritas,

      jm

      Reply
    • Avatarstingray65

      I can’t answer your question, but can comment that Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound in the 60s was supposedly mixed to sound best on the transistorized AM radios that were all the rage at the time.

      Reply
    • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

      During Motown’s heyday, the final mix was done using a single, full-range 6″x9″ car speaker mounted in a box because Barry Gordy figured that that’s how most people would be hearing it.

      Reply
  11. AvatarShocktastic

    I have commented too much on this thread, but find Caro Emerald’s song “A Night Like This (Acoustic Version)”

    Reply

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