Sometimes an item in my record collection begins unspooling in my mind until I’m forced to pull it off the shelf and play it. So it was with the Grateful Dead’s Steal Your Face. The only way to exorcise the earworm tyranny of Bob Weir’s vocal on “Black Throated Wind” was to give it a proper play. Once the stylus hit the vinyl, another familiar mental process began running through my mind as I grappled with the horrific distortion on the vocal, systematically loving the music while disregarding the way it was recorded.
My brain seems to have written a special piece of software that enables me to prioritize musical pleasure over bad sound. As I played through all four sides of the Dead album, I meditated on how and when that software kicks in. It does not operate every time I hear a badly recorded, mixed, or mastered album. Instead it seems to be tied to certain albums, morphing into different kinds of mental filters that target different kinds of sonic disability.
Then my mind (what a compulsively busy little bee it is) started making a list of other albums where it has learned to snatch musical victory from the jaws of technical defeat. A pattern became apparent. The albums in question were almost entirely LP releases from the 1970s, my first fully engaged decade as a music lover. It was also a time when I was relatively penniless and needed the investment in an album to pay off. So my then young and limber brain constructed a whole series of filters to salvage the musical essence from technically poor sound.
The ’70s overall were a golden age of rock recordings. Analog multi-track recording technology had matured, offering a combination of creative versatility and potentially great sound. There was no excuse for an album to sound as bad as Steal Your Face. And yet, there it was. Let’s discuss the mental filters I constructed to cope with ten bad-sounding yet still somehow wonderful albums, moving from flagrantly awful sound to almost good sound.
Grateful Dead, Steal Your Face: I’ll let Wiki tell the story of how Owsley’s infamous 600-speaker Wall of Sound undermined this album: “Because the sound system was stacked behind the band, restricted-frequency, differential microphones were used in pairs, to prevent bleed and feedback loops. One was wired out-of-phase in a phase-cancellation scheme that required the singers to position very close to the microphones. This, along with the lack of a true sound/mixing board created sonic anomalies when it came time to mix the tapes.” But this is still the Dead at the peak of their powers and the song selection avoids duplicating anything on the far better recorded Europe ’72, making this album a worthy followup despite its need for aggressive mental filtering.
Bert Jansch, From the Outside: Indifferent engineering hampered this strong collection of songs from the great acoustic guitarist and still criminally underrated songwriter. Jansch was at a low ebb at the time, still a couple of years away from beating alcoholism. Apparently he didn’t have the energy to impose his will on the low-budget Danish and English recording engineers who left his voice and guitar on some songs sounding distant and adrift in echo — the otherwise vigorous political anthem “Shout” suffers the worst. The CD remasters reportedly improve the sound and fiddle with the track roster. However, I haven’t heard them. My version is the original Belgian LP release, of which only 500 copies were pressed. I acquired it from the Trouser Press magazine slush pile, a bunch of unwanted records sitting on the floor. As a collection of songs, it is still a brilliant mix of concerns private (“Change the Song”) and public (“Read All About It”).
Derek & the Dominoes, In Concert: Eric Clapton was another artist at a low ebb when he went out on the road with the most of the band that recorded the milestone Layla. Even without Duane Allman, this was a high-flying outfit playing a fine set of songs and stretching them into luxuriant jams. What undercuts this live album is a brash mix that buries everything beneath Jim Gordon’s cymbals (including his excellent drumming). This is where an old-fashioned treble knob on an old-school stereo receiver might come in handy. Just turn down the treble, turn up the volume, and listen to history being made. A later release, Live at the Fillmore, repeats six of the original nine tracks and is reportedly better mixed, which wouldn’t be hard. But I don’t need it. I have an original pressing, acquired as a cheap cutout, and my little filter lets me hear Clapton’s tireless licks and Bobby Whitlock’s honkytonk piano and splashy organ just fine. I play a ripped version of this double LP (complete with minor surface noise) on planes.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends: Kids, never record your career-defining live album in a stadium. It took me about two decades to construct the especially elaborate filter necessary to extract the epic live album from this triple-LP endurance contest. It’s not that Greg Lake (wearing his producer hat) couldn’t muster a great-sounding live album. Pictures at an Exhibition, recorded at Newcastle City Hall, is as burnished as any studio album in the ELP discography. So it’s all the more difficult to go from that up-close shot of reimagined Mussorgsky to this nosebleed-seated concert replica, which turns the world-beating power trio into a dinky windup toy. Keith Emerson’s airborne grand piano and Carl Palmer’s formerly pulverizing drums suffer the most but I have to filter gurgling stadium reverb out of pretty much every instrument.
John Lennon, Walls and Bridges: I’ve chosen this album as the unfortunate poster child for a solo Beatle discography that suffers extensively from hamhanded production though I could just as easily have chosen anything between Some Time in New York City and Double Fantasy. Lennon’s insecurity about the natural sound of his electrifying voice undercut most of his solo work; he doubletracked it obsessively and buried it under layers of processing. What’s noteworthy about this album is that what I heard of it on the radio was so lackluster, I put off buying it for 40 years — I wasn’t sure if I was equal to the task of constructing a filter that would save it. But the temptation of adding the transcendent “#9 Dream” to my library finally proved overwhelming, and when I shelved my vintage street-fair pressing, it was with the knowledge that I would soon come back to it. There are some good songs and heartfelt performances buried under all that sludge.
George Harrison, All Things Must Pass: Yes, it’s his best album, and yes, much of it sounds gorgeous, despite (not because of) Phil Spector’s production. But the bad-sounding songs on this album are awash in echo, something Harrison later openly regretted. And Spector baked in the echo, making it impossible for later remastering to salvage the most heavily damaged songs, including “My Sweet Lord,” “Wah-Wah,” and “Art of Dying,” all of which kick my mental filter into high gear. While the grand statements got all the airplay (giving me plenty of chances to perfect the filter) there are several other good songs, mostly ignored, that show off Harrison’s sweet whimsical side (and require less filtering). The balance of the two makes this a lovely album.
Procol Harum, Exotic Birds and Fruit: It’s hard to fathom how Procol Harum followed the beautifully recorded Grand Hotel with this sonically claustrophobic mud fest, especially with the same producer (Beatles veteran Chris Thomas) and studio (George Martin’s AIR). Supposedly they wanted to follow the lush orchestrations of the previous album with more of a live-in-the-studio feel, and indeed, the album does sound like radio broadcasts from the same period. But the sonic deterioration is striking. In lieu of the grand wide-open spaces and beefy drums of the previous album, the band sounds as if it were recorded in a closet and compressed to its knees. Yet the first side in particular is one home run after another, mating lyrics that ponder the decline of civilization with savory melodies. And as intended, it actually does rock.
The Clash, untitled debut: Low-budget recording is the sonic shortcoming of this album. Perhaps that is not a crime. In the first flush of the punk era, technical perfection would have seemed almost an act of class betrayal, sound quality being an obsession of prog-rock wankers (who frankly I found a lot more fun than the early punks). But this tight, constricted sound is too small for a band with such large aspirations. To my ears, the Clash didn’t reach their potential until they got into a good studio with a smart producer, Guy Stevens. Who will ever forget the way London Calling burst out of the starting gate with its meatier drum sound and greater space and depth? Compared to that, this album sounds paltry, though songs like “White Riot,” “Career Opportunities,” and “I’m So Bored with the USA” punch above their weight. I close my eyes and try to imagine I’m hearing them in a sweaty little club. The Clash, live, were awe-inspiring.
Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street: We all know the story of how the taxman drove the Stones out of Britain to the south of France, where they holed up in the basement of Keith Richards’ rented mansion and banged out the basic tracks for this expansive near-masterpiece. What is emphasized less in the usual retelling is that the band later decamped to Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, where Keith Richards’ genius for getting the right feel gave way to Mick Jagger’s genius for finishing things off properly. As a result the album is an amalgam of muck and polish, in contrast to the better-recorded Sticky Fingers (though not nearly as mucky as Goats Head Soup). It took me a long time to get through the whole thing in one listen, though the effectiveness of my mental filter improved as my system did. My best-ever experience with this album was just a couple of years ago, with a pair of $3999 Focal Utopia headphones, which according to my review “raised the ratio of clarity to murk…while remaining true to the smoky atmosphere.”
Steely Dan, Katy Lied: If you’re like me, you’ve heard dozens if not hundreds of trade-show audio demos featuring Steely Dan tracks and enjoyed them all. But odds are you won’t have heard any clever manufacturer demoing loudspeakers with tracks from this album. A snafu with pre-digital dbx noise reduction technology nearly ruined the whole thing, and even after the damage was mitigated, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker still refused to listen to the album. Still, Steely Dan’s worst-sounding album sounds better than most other people’s best-sounding albums. Those boys had good ears and Katy Lied requires a whole lot less mental filtering than Steal Your Face.