Friday, December 23, 2005
One of the earliest albums I bought was, naturally enough, The Beatles' Abbey Road. The sound of this record is unique among all Beatles' records - clear, warm and open. It is by far the best sounding - as in naturalistic - Beatles' album outside of, ironically, their first album. Their first record sounds good because the primitive (by contemporary standards) recording equipment available forced an essentially live-in-the-studio performance that captures the band very well. Even the deficiencies in the bass (bass guitar and bass drum) do not hurt this record that much.
Abbey Road, in contrast, finally put The Beatles into a 16-track studio (albeit without the benefit of Dolby noise-reduction) allowing the band to forgo the repetitive mixing down to mono track that was necessary to create their multi-tracked productions from their earliest records through The Beatles. (Let It Be, recorded largely live in the studio is a different beast altogether). This created dense, compressed, recordings that were artistic triumphs but nonetheless contained elements of artificiality. Abbey Road changed the sound dramatically, and it really is a tragedy that the band collapsed before they could explore these new sonic vistas.
Nonetheless, Abbey Road spawned remarkably few records that actually capture its sound. This is a testament to George Martin's and The Beatles' production skills, but why so many early 1970s records succumbed to a murky muddiness really is a mystery. Perhaps it was an attempt to be heavy that was mostly misplaced, but few producers managed to emulate The Beatles' punchiness and clarity. Led Zeppelin did so with their fourth album, Pink Floyd with Dark Side Of The Moon. Few others though.
However, of those few others, one band managed to produce an Abbey Road-sounding record that actually rivals The Beatles' achievement. The Pretty Things' Parachute is an astonishingly fine record that confounds all expectations one might have of the band, even those generated by their prior album, S.F. Sorrow, generally accepted as the first rock opera. Much of this is due to the (temporary) departure of founding guitarist Dick Taylor and the consequential ascendancy of bassist Wally Allen and singer Phil May who brought a much more ornate pop sensibility to the band's sound. Furthermore, Parachute was actually recorded at Abbey Road studios with Beatles' engineer Norman Smith producing resulting in harmonies (particularly in the opening medley The Good Mr. Square through The Letter) that closely resemble but without in any sense aping those of The Beatles' Sun King.
But in some ways Parachute even outdoes Abbey Road, most clearly in the rockers which have an altogether dirtier and more convincing drive than those on Abbey Road even allowing that Come Together is a assured masterpiece. Cries From The Midnight Circus and Sickle Clowns hew closer to a Rolling Stones sensibility, but that band would only really rival these songs with those on their down and dirty masterpiece, Exile On Main Street. Amazingly, The Pretty Things get away with the best of both worlds on Parachute. Absolutely essential listening for anyone interested in 'classic' rock (or any rock, for that matter), Parachute is a true gem.