From Records to Playlists…Audio Tech

What a long strange trip it’s been through all the ways to buy and play music.

For my dad, it started with 78 RPM (revolutions per minute) records. The reason we call a collection of songs an “album” is because the first collections were like large photo albums that contained multiple 78 records in the sleeves (pages) of the album.

I became familiar with 45 RPM records through my two older sisters, Veronica and Janice, who bought records by artists like Ricky Nelson and The Everly Brothers.  My sisters could harmonize like the Everly Brothers too!

It was about the time of the British Invasion (1964) when I started to buy records of my own.  We lived in Leigh, Nebraska, a small town with no record store, but I was able to buy old jukebox 45’s at “Flossie’s Café”.  The guy who stocked the jukebox would leave a box of singles that were either used, or new overstocked records. They were 25-cents each.  I remember getting “I Want To Hold Your Hand”.  Every once in awhile, my family would make a trip to one of the nearby towns that had record stores. The first new album (33 1/3 RPM) I ever bought was Little Deuce Coupe by The Beach Boys, and the first new single was “Because” by The Dave Clark Five.  I still have the record sleeve:

Thus began decades of buying records…thousands of them.  During high school, it was mostly 45’s, and of course The Beatles’ albums.  Dad provided an old record player for my room, and once in awhile I’d even play records on the console stereo in the living room.  Life was pretty good for a music-loving teenager.  My collection progressed so well that I was the designated player of records at our school dances.  It wasn’t really being a DJ, although there was a microphone for announcements, such as introducing the King & Queen at the Homecoming Dance.

Buying lots of records wasn’t always a given.  When my wife, Jeannette, and I were first married (so young!), spending a few dollars on an album was more of a big deal.  During a time in Memphis, we’d go to a record store that had open copies of popular albums and listening stations.  We’d listen to albums, and then eventually buy the one album we thought was best.

 (Newlyweds near Memphis in 1970 with our cool ‘63 Dodge Polaris coupe.)

The other thing that became part of our listening experience was a Sony stereo reel-to-reel recorder.

I was making tapes and saving the records from the repeated ravages of a diamond-tipped needle.  I could make my own “Greatest Hits” albums too!

For a time in the 70’s, there were 8-track tapes.  Never owned one.  They did make music portable.  Good idea.  If you’ve ever heard 8-tracks, you know some changed tracks in the middle of songs.  Bad idea.

At some point in the 70’s, Cassette tapes took the place of 8-tracks.  Cassettes were good, but not the lo-fi pre-recorded ones.  Instead I still bought records and transferred them to cassettes that had high-quality tape.  So at this point, we had shelves and boxes filled with records, and self-recorded cassettes (that had replaced all those reel-to-reel boxes).

A miracle was about to happen…Compact Discs!  Sure there were some early CD’s that had less than fantastic equalization, but damn they were so cool!  I used to call myself a “record collector”, but the CD format made me realize the term should really have been “music collector”.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the experience of getting record albums, reading all the information on the covers, etc.   I know there are die-hard “vinyl” fans who love the analog warmth of record albums…but there were problems.  It’s not that the format is inherently bad; it was mostly the manufacturing problems of the records themselves.  You would take off the plastic and remove the record, being careful to handle it by the edges, and gently place the needle at the beginning.  Too often, the record would be printed off center (like Jackson Browne’s Pretender album), or be filled with “clicks & pops” (like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 4-Way Street).  Today’s vinyl is a lot better, but also costs about $25+ per album.

CD’s have no wow-and-flutter, no surface noise, no wear, and never a click or pop as the final chord of a song fades.  An average album might have four really good cuts, and even the best albums could have songs you wanted to skip.  That was not a problem with programmable CD players.  CD’s were first introduced to mainstream America in 1983.

I always needed a way to record, so sometime in the 1990’s, I bought one of the first CD recorders.  Blank CD’s were $6 each back then, and had to be special ordered.  When my first CD recorder developed problems, The Phillips Company replaced it with a new model.  Even today, I can plug an audio source into it in a way I can’t do with my computer.

(Shown with my 1990’s CD recorder is a Bakelite radio from the 1940’s, and a wooden radio from the 1930’s.)

If you’re like me, you never imagined the next step.  Our son, Paul, showed us something new.  He said it was an iPod.  OMG!

 (Above is the first iPod model, like our son showed us.)

Record albums could hold about 45-minutes of music.  Tapes normally held an hour or so.  CD’s hold an hour and 20-minutes.  My 160-Gigabyte Classic iPod is the size of a cassette, has about 18-thousand songs on it, and it’s not full.   A giant leap for mankind!

That brings us to today.  CD sales have dropped dramatically as digital downloads and streaming services have taken over.  Apple Music, Spotify and other services are the norm, especially for younger generations.

So where does that leave an old guy like me?  I love the Playlist format. Using iTunes, I’ve loaded-in all my music, and have at least a thousand rare, alternate, and bootleg versions that no streaming service would have.  Everything is at the highest-quality audio available, which is very similar to today’s CD’s.

I made a choice at the beginning to make almost all of my playlists CD-length (80-minutes max).  Not only is that long enough to listen to an artist, but if a friend or family member likes the playlist, I can simply burn it to a CD (which costs about a quarter now).  They can then load it into their own computers if they wish.  Even though the CD format is fading, this still works for most people.

(Our stereo…two HomePods.  We just ask for our playlists.)

I absolutely love being able to organize my music collection with playlists. Too often we would lose track of music we liked, because the album or CD was stuck on a low shelf, or we just forgot about it.  Now, we can simply scan the playlists to see our whole collection.  Artists who’ve only had one or two hits can be included in multiple-artist playlists.  Playlists can also be developed using streaming services, and by using the playlists they provide we can discover music from new artists.

With technology, the musical road goes on forever, but it’s not bad at this roadside stop.

 

Melody/Paul McCartney

You can have a song…only if there is a melody.

You can have lyrics…but without a melody…it’s poetry.

You can have rhythm…but without a melody…it’s just a beat.

Of course lyrics and rhythm are important aspects in music, but the only essential ingredient is melody.  A song without lyrics is still a song…an instrumental…and you can vary the rhythm.

There’s an excellent book Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo.

He interviews over 60 songwriters.  One of the more fascinating revelations is that songwriters tell him some of their best songs come to them almost like the universe is presenting them with a gift.  Three famous examples of this are the songs “Yesterday”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “You’ve Got A Friend”.  Paul McCartney, Paul Simon,  and Carole King say the songs came to them in dreams.  Plus, so many times songwriters have said…”It practically wrote itself”.

So who is the best melody writer?  Paul Simon says it’s Paul McCartney.  Let’s check the evidence.  The most recorded song of all time is “Yesterday”.  For years, the second most recorded song was “Michelle”.  A recent search of the top ten most recorded songs found “Yesterday” still at #1 with “Eleanor Rigby” now at #2.  Also in the top ten are “And I Love Her” and “Blackbird”.  No other songwriter has more than one song in the top ten.  John Lennon has “Imagine”, and then there are older classics like “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “Summertime”.

Here’s a playlist of some of McCartney’s Beatle songs.  (You can tap or click it to make it larger.)

By the way, my playlists include “Beatle Songs by John”, “Beatle Songs by Ringo”, and my favorite title: “Beatle Songs By George”.

While nearly everyone knows The Beatles were the top Billboard singles artists of the 1960’s, it might come as a surprise that Paul McCartney was the top singles artist of the 1970’s (he was mistakenly listed as #2 earlier).  Sir Paul has had 37 top 40 hits, 9 number one singles and 8 number one albums.  McCartney opens himself to criticism at times for less than poignant lyrics, but no one questions his melody writing.  “Silly Love Songs” spent five weeks at the top of the charts.  At one point in the song there are three melodies beautifully intertwined.

A playlist of some of McCartney’s best solo songs:

Today, there’s a lot of criticism about the lack of great melodies, and of course Rap is often devoid of melody altogether.  The trend in Pop music is to have teams of writers manufacture the hits.  This results in some interesting arrangements that can have “hooks”, but most do not have the classic flow of great melodies.  Maybe there needs to be a little less teamwork and commercial intent, and a little more soul and inspiration.

The Beatles: You Had To Be There

To truly understand the impact and amazing musical development of The Beatles, you had to be there.

Sorry, but discovering them fully formed after they had made their progressions, after they had written all those songs, and after you’ve heard more recent recordings just doesn’t cut it.  You can historically and intellectually appreciate what happened, but that’s not feeling it happening.

Nothing replaces first hearing The Beatles as they were hitting the American airwaves…that excitement for something so different from the Teen Idols and the smooth pop music of the early ‘60’s.  Not that there weren’t good singers and songs, but it was only slightly rock & roll at that time.  In early 1964 The Beatles broke bigger than any act ever.  Just the impact from their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show was enough to encourage so many future music stars.

It all could have simply been an exclamation point in music history, except for two things.  One, The Beatles became amazing songwriters, and two, they were great musical innovators.  You needed to hear it as it happened. There is no replacement for being in your room, closing the door, and dropping the needle on Rubber Soul, then Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper, and through the remainder of their albums as they were released.

Rubber Soul wasn’t any kind of shock.  It was a maturing of their songwriting, and simply a high quality album.  The American version didn’t even have any singles. But we all know “Norwegian Wood”, “Michelle”, “In My Life”, “I’m Looking Through You”, etc.  Of course the British version included “Nowhere Man”.  Plus, on the same day the album was released, “We Can Work It Out” & “Day Tripper” were released as a two-sided single.  Those seven songs would make a nice side of a greatest hits collection.

The first “What are they doing?” release of The Beatles was Revolver.  Why does the album start with that odd count-in at the beginning of “Taxman”?  One interviewer even asked them if they meant to do that. Nothing previous could have prepared fans for “Tomorrow Never Knows”… the one with John’s voice through a Leslie organ speaker, and the lyrics “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream”.  You couldn’t play that one for your parents. Instead, you played “Here, There, And Everywhere” to try to get them to understand the musical quality of The Beatles.

Revolver, along with two tracks that should have been on the album, “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, were filled with studio innovations…backward guitars, backward vocals, tape loops, odd microphone placement, and so much more. Great melodies, lyrics and arrangements abound…”Eleanor Rigby”, “For No One”, “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Here There And Everywhere”, and basically the whole album.  It’s easy to see why many fans list this album as their favorite.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band brought even more wonder.  Crowd noise, then The Beatles calling themselves another band, the title song introducing the singer of the next song, and then flowing right into it!  That was new. What, no silence between “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”?  And it turned out all of the cuts lacked the few seconds of separation that was normal on albums.

To understand the difference in popularity between The Beatles and any other artists, look at the songs on the album.

Do you know them?  Most people of the era will recognize almost all of the song titles even though there weren’t any singles released from the album.  No other artists were so popular that the public knew so many of their album cuts. Not even close.

The White Album, released a year later, was another change.  It contained just about every style of music. It was probably named The Beatles, because it represented nearly all of the group’s musical influences, and showed how versatile they were…Rock & Roll, Blues, Country, Music Hall, Ballads, Pop, Hard Rock, Humorous, Experimental, Acoustic, Electric, Orchestral, etc.  When The White Album was released, a Lincoln, Nebraska FM station, KFMQ, played the whole thing.  As two DJ’s commented on the album, they said they didn’t know how The Beatles even came up with a running order, because the songs were so different from one another.

The next two albums, Let It Be and Abbey Road (which The Beatles recorded last), were released in the opposite order from which they were recorded.  Let It Be is often looked upon as a lesser album, but would an album with “The Long And Winding Road”, “Two Of Us”, “Across The Universe”, “Get Back” and “Let It Be” be considered a “lesser” album for anyone else?

Abbey Road is a favorite of many fans, especially those who came later.  It has two of George Harrison’s best songs “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun”, plus Lennon’s “Come Together”, and the side two medley, which is mostly McCartney.  “Carry That Weight/The End” is a great way for The Beatles to finish…trading guitar licks, Ringo’s excellent drumming, and a final message about love.

The quality of their album cuts from their 7 years (1963-1969) of recording together would make a fantastic greatest hits double-album.  No other artist could possibly put together anything like it from their own non-singles.  Here’s a playlist of songs not released as singles during The Beatles era.  (You can tap or click to make it larger.)

Please look over the above list for any songs you think would have made good singles, or that you thought were singles.  So many of these album tracks are generally recognizable by so much of the public.

Oh, and The Beatles had 46 singles in the Billboard Top 40 chart during their active years.  If you watched that chart in the ‘60’s, you saw 21 of those hits make it all the way to number-one.  In fact, The Beatles spent a record 132 weeks at #1 on the Billboard singles chart.  The next closest (Garth Brooks) has a very-distant 52 weeks.

It’s important to note that they did this when all of the rock and pop songs were competing on one chart, not the high number of charts today, when it’s much easier to have a number-one somewhere.  We can’t really measure popularity anymore, because sales are so slight, and the majority of people have never even heard the songs that reach the top of a chart.

It’s almost unbelievable that The Beatles recorded all of their singles and albums in just 7 years in the 1960’s (only “I, Me, Mine” was worked on in January of 1970 by Paul, George, & Ringo).  And, when they broke up, all four of The Beatles were still in their twenties!

Maybe today’s fans are feeling similar excitement about current artists.  It’s also fantastic that other generations keep discovering The Beatles and love their music.  But, they can never know the amazement the first Beatles fans experienced as each new album was released.