As a teenager, I was seldom without my Walkman. Among my more prominent memories of 1986 is of sitting on the bus on the way home from summer school (frackin’ Algebra), listening to the MCA cassette of The Who’s Odds and Sods, trying to decipher the lyrics to “Put the Money Down.” It was one of my favorite Who songs; I loved the synth line, the peculiar rhythm, the sense of longing that was conveyed by the emotions of the vocal. The words themselves surely meant something deep and profound, the way that most of Pete Townshend’s music felt to me at the troubled age of thirteen, but I couldn’t figure out what Daltrey was singing most of the time, no matter how loud I played it. And I played it loud, right into my fragile aural canal. Is someone’s phone ringing, or is that just me?
It wasn’t just Daltrey’s phrasing and/or Townshend’s frequently obtuse imagery keeping me from unlocking the mysteries of this particular universe. Hell, it could have been a spoken word piece done in a perfect Northwest Fresno dialect and I probably still wouldn’t have understood, so muddy was the sound of the store-bought tape. Based on what little has been written about the song—as usual, nobody else likes it as much as I do—”Put the Money Down” is another in a very long line of Townshend songs about the travails of being a rock’n'roll star. A life which bore no resemblence to mine, to be sure, yet I connected with it in that way that most depressive teenagers do. (Oh, the spin that Pink Floyd’s even more alien The Wall would put me into shortly thereafter!) That I didn’t pick up on the recurring theme is why I could never be a rock critic. For that matter, I’m still surprised whenever I discover that a Neil Young song uses a C-D-G chord progression, even though they all do. It’s all one song.
I knew the sound sucked, but there wasn’t much I could do about it aside from not listen, and that sure as hell wasn’t an option. Townshend worship is wired into Connelly DNA, and it’s especially bad during adolescence. Buying the cassette had made the most sense, seeing as how I knew I’d mostly be listening to it on my Walkman. If I bought the LP I’d simply record it and listen to the tape, so why not eliminate a step? A pre-recorded cassette would surely sound better than a tape made from the record, wouldn’t it? Being closer to the source and all?
Uh-huh. Wasn’t the first instance of faulty logic in my life, and it sure wouldn’t be the last.
Not everything sounded bad, and certainly not on vinyl. Though my brothers instilled in me an appreciation for Dylan from a very young age—”Ballad of a Thin Man” is the first song by anyone I can remember recognizing—I really discovered his music around that same time, in 1986. That first time the needle dropped into the groove of Blonde on Blonde and “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” played was a revelation, and I still don’t understand why Planet Waves is so underrated, as if an album with the studio versions of “Dirge” and “Going Going Gone” can be anything but classic.
At the same time, there were records I didn’t want to go near. There was something about them that prevented me from putting them on the turntable. I resisted Dylan’s Street Legal. I’d also gotten into Led Zeppelin around that time, but I wouldn’t go near Houses of the Holy or Presence. The first four albums, sure, Physical Graffiti, even In Through the Frackin’ Out Door, no problem, but I didn’t want to take those other two out of the sleeve. (I had no interest in The Song Remains the Same either, but by all accounts that was a wise decision.) It was like an intuitive sense that I wouldn’t like not just the music, but how the music sounded.
Sometime in late ’87 or early ’88 I bought my first CDs: Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, and The Who by Numbers. The former was for sonic/budding stoner reasons—dude, Dark Side on CD! that’s gotta be the greatest thing ever!— and the latter was my favorite album for emotional reasons, as I listened to it daily, sometimes not even skipping past “Squeeze Box.” I wasn’t enough of an audiophile to realize they didn’t sound very good, nor did I realize that the disclaimer about how “the Compact Disc can reveal limitations of the source tape” was a copout. I figured it was proof that the CD technology was just that powerful!
All I knew, or felt that I needed to know, was that they didn’t snap and sizzle and the way an LP seemed to after the third or fourth play. Sure, the static endemic to waxen discs wasn’t so bad for certain kinds of music; to this day, Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night sounds weird to me without the vinyl crackliness, and of course that all-important skip halfway through “Speakin’ Out.” (Yours did that too, right?) Hell, I still have a tape of Yehudi Menuhin solo violin recorded from a staticky LP, and the net result is just about the most beautiful, atmospheric thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t want to hear it on CD. In fact, I need to digitize the tape to preserve that particular ambience. No, it won’t be quite the same, but the tape won’t last forever, either.
Anyway, analog was all wrong for Floyd. I wanted to hear that first heartbeat, not obscured by static, and while a pre-recorded tape theoretically allowed for that, CD was preferable. Best of all, I could record it to tape and it sounded just fine. I’d read that digital lacked the warmth of analog, and while I didn’t doubt that was the case, I had to take their word for it. Such pronouncements were made by people with much better ears and electronics than myself. My speakers and headphones were out of necessity the least expensive available, so such abstract concepts such as “warmth” were moot.
The bone turns into a spaceship, twenty years pass. I’m finally able to use non-sucky equipment—Sennheiser, I’m your bitch—and even with the oft-cited lossiness of mp3, music sounds better than ever before. The albums I grew up with, the ones which had previously lived mostly on music-killing home-taped cassettes (Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass b/w Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking was my primary soundtrack for the summer of ’89) and scratchy records through craptastic speakers, it was hearing them all over for the first time, again. If I’d had this kind of quality the first time around, I might not have fux0red my hearing. Then again, I might have anyway. I ought to get a hearing aid and be done with it. Can’t look any dumber than those Borg-implant-looking cell phone earpieces.
As near as I could tell, the key to this was something called “remastering.” After the first (second, third, fourth and fifth) wave of CDs, they started to be reissued, often super-deluxe editions and boasting the magical r-word. I don’t know remastering works, and I don’t want to know how it works. It’s a magic trick which I’ll enjoy more if it retains its mystery, so I’ll remain willfully sans clue, just like I am about Second Life. (I’m sure there’s at least one person out there who knows why I’m totally wrong about all this remastering stuff. Your mother must be very proud.) All I know is that when done right it brings the music, the instruments, the sound…closer, even closer than when I used to put my ear next to the speaker in the living room to hear the deep sounds in the “Strawberry Fields Forever” coda. As far as “Put the Money Down” goes, lines like “twas a beautiful day in Columbus when the fences fell” remain difficult for me to decipher even with super-high quality, and I don’t think I’ll ever understand the second verse of “Baba O’Reilly” without the words in front of me. Such is the eternally familiar mystery of The Who.
Stuff made in the modern recording era sounded good enough to begin with to my dysaudiophilic eras, though I’ve noticed that stuff which was released as recently as the late nineties is being reissued in remastered editions. I’m going to give the record companies the benefit of the doubt on this one, since the technology does keep marching forward, so maybe it isn’t only customer-gouging. When Antichrist Superstar gets the remastered SACD treatment, I’ll be the first in line.
In the meantime, not only am I rediscovering old passions (wow, I love the piano in “Just Like Tom’s Thumb’s Blues” so damn much), I’m finally trying albums I’d arbitrarily passed on before. This is as good as Street Legal is going to sound for a long time, as it’s not only been remastered but and people who thought it sucked before seem to like the new remix a lot better, so I dove in. Some of it’s a little weak, but hey, there are a couple tracks on Bringing It All Back Home I don’t care for, so there you go. But when it works— “New Pony” invokes my girlfriend both literally and metaphorically, and the last couple of verses of “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” feel applicable to my life right now, or not at all, or maybe I just wish it was, or maybe I’m glad it isn’t, or maybe I’m missing the point entirely. In other words, classic Dylan.
Would it have meant as much if I’d heard it at the same time was I was making my way through Blonde on Blonde? I don’t know. Am I more receptive to the album (or those two songs, with “Changing of the Guards” thrown in for good measure) now because they finally align with my idiosyncratic prentensions? Yeah, probably. Is it logical? Duh. Of course not.
While I get why it was considered something of a letdown at the time, listening to Street Legal now from the remixed and remastered SACD, it feels like I’m finding it at the right time for me. Which is always the case with the best music, whatever the format.
- Odds and Sods
- Yehudi Menuhin
- Wikipedia: Home Taping is Killing Music
- Street Legal – Encore