Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Audio Aroma Flashback

They do say that our sense of smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, and I can well believe it. I just picked up some more vintage hi-fi bits and pieces that I really don't need (at a price that I couldn't pass up), which give off an aroma that takes me right back to my childhood. I have fond recollections of tagging along with my dad when he would visit the electrical department in Beatties department store in Wolverhampton to demo the latest Pioneer or Trio amplifiers. This would have been back in the early-to-mid 1970s, so the lighting section that we walked through on our way to the hi-fi department was a dizzying display of lurid lava lamps and swaying fibre optic dandelion lamps. They provided the perfect mood-setter for the racks of illuminated dials, UV meters and glowing receivers that awaited us. I could always smell the amps and tape decks before I caught sight of their aluminium facades. The smell seems to be unique to hi-fi components of that era. It is the smell of the air the moment before a thunderstorm, of ozone, of the cooling breeze coming off the sea at the end of a hot day. These days the only time I smell something similar is when I walk past the Kwik-Fit tyre centre, but there, it is tainted with the odours of rubber and oil. My wife thinks I'm insane because I insisted she inhale the air in my man cave, but to me it's more than a smell: it's pure nostalgia. It is for me what the smell of steam trains was to my dad: an olfactory gateway to happy childhood memories. It is, as if I needed one, another reason to own vintage hi-fi.


For the miserly sum of £25 I managed to secure a Philips Sound Project TA 12000 receiver, N2537 tape deck, AF 777 automatic turntable and a rather underwhelming modern pair of Acoustic Solutions AV-20 Mk II bookshelf speakers. Amazingly, considering that they must be over 35 years-old, none of these Philips components has lost that distinctive smell. If I close my eyes and breathe deeply, it's 1974 again and Slade are still in the charts. You don't get that with an ipod.

Being from another era, the receiver has those horrible slot and pin speaker inputs and din connectors which make it a challenge to hook up to my Linn Sondek and CD player. So, until I raid Maplins, I have had to content myself with listening to cassettes and that deceptively cheap and cheerful Philips turntable. The fast forward and rewind functions on the tape deck are painfully slow, but playback is good, and the whole unit has a bullet-proof, built-to-last feel to it. It's been fun listening, for the first time in years, to my tapes of Diamond Head and Y&T at the 1982 Reading festival. The backlit tape compartment and dancing level meters just add to the experience. The receiver is similarly tank-like of build with beautifully turned aluminium knobs, satisfyingly smooth and weighted response from the tuning dial and a nice 'n chunky, click-step, incrementally graduated volume control. And this thing weighs a ton. These receivers seemed to sell well and be highly regarded in mainland Europe, but rarely appear for sale in the UK, so information on them, in English at least, is a bit thin on the ground. I'll reserve judgement on the sound quality of the receiver until I've had the chance to hook up my usual sources, but initial impressions are very good. And it kicks out a meaty, for its time, 60 watts per channel.

One huge surprise is just how good that light-weight, fully automatic, Philips turntable sounds. It came fitted with a Philips GP 400 Mk II cartridge with spherical stylus which I was expecting to sound like a dog, particularly as I had no way of knowing how many hours service it had seen, but as it turns out, it punches well above its weight.

Talking of weight, the AF 777 turntable has a nifty, built-in VTF gauge which makes setting up the cartridge completely foolproof. Despite that, the previous owner had it set over the recommended tracking force, so I dialled it down a half gram and got this little deck singing. I've not entrusted anything other than my duplicate LPs to the mercy of that stylus so far, but it tracks wonderfully, without so much as a hint of inner groove distortion or sibilance. I'm planning on keeping this deck to give to my kids when the time is right, as its fully automatic operation and cheap-to-replace stylus will make it a perfect way to introduce them to vinyl. I wish I'd had a first turntable as good as this.

Read more about it here.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Re-imagining The Beatles #7 - Zoot

The Beatles have long been my favourite band. Why wouldn't they be? If it's power pop, piano balladry, proto-heavy metal, musique concrète, psychedelic experimentation or childlike whimsy that I want to hear, the Fab Four can provide it all with a verve and vitality that remains unequalled. Why then it's taken me until 2015 to get myself to a Paul McCartney gig is a mystery - perhaps a fear that he might not live up to expectations, or perhaps the cost of tickets (£125 each on this tour) played a part - but I finally crossed Macca's name off my bucket-list last month at London's  O2.

Macca puts on a show

McCartney is 72 years old, but you wouldn't know it to see him perform. His nearly-three hour show features a set-list that ranges from the oddball electro-pop of Temporary Secretary, through the drama and bombast of Live And Let Die, to the tender regret of Yesterday, even managing to shoehorn in a guest appearance by Dave Grohl on I Saw Her Standing There. McCartney's peerless back catalogue, the surefootedness of the band that he's assembled around him and the enduring cultural significance of The Beatles made the O2 show an emotional and life affirming event. During the opening bars of Paperback Writer it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks that I was watching an ex-Beatle performing on stage and the emotional weight of the moment got the better of me and my bottom lip. Elsewhere in the set a faithful run-through of Eleanor Rigby got me thinking about some of the cover versions of this Revolver classic that I've enjoyed. And so, in honour of the godlike genius that is Paul McCartney, I figured it was time to revive my Re-imagining The Beatles feature. 

There have been numerous attempts by bands to stamp their own identity on this Beatles classic. Notable examples include those by Vanilla Fudge who turn in a typically waffling, overwrought performance which gets bogged down in its own pomposity and self-importance; The Ides Of March who add stabbing horns and fuzz guitar wailing to the mix; and Pure Food & Drug Act featuring the one-time Canned Heat guitarist Harvey Mandel in full-on extended jam mode sparring with the fiddle player from hell.

All seem to have ignored the lyrical themes of loneliness and regret that inform the wistful sonic texture of the Beatles original and have toughened up the sound considerably. If you can get over the incongruity between the tone of the lyrics and the muscular reworking of the music in these covers, there is much to recommend them (even the Vanilla Fudge one if you're in the mood for a spot of earnest, po-faced, self-aggrandisement.)

Superb though these covers are, the best, and most brutal of all the Eleanor Rigby re-workings is by Aussie band Zoot who featured a young Rick Springfield (of Jessie's Girl fame) on guitar (but don't let that put you off.) I feel a bit of a fraud featuring this version here because I don't own the record. If you saw the prices it goes for on the rare occasions that it comes up for sale, you'd appreciate why I've yet to snag a copy. Any criticisms of Zoot's re-imagining of Eleanor Rigby (it's bludgeoning lack of subtlety, its disregard for McCartney's melancholic lyric) are all theoretically valid, but rendered moot by the sheer shit-kicking heaviosity of the riff that Zoot graft onto the song to transform it into a driving, proto-Metal monster. Like it or loathe it, there's no denying that it re-invents the Beatles' original. But is it better? Whoever posted this YouTube video seems to think so.