Audiophile Music: What I Can Hear and What I Can’t

by James Wallace Harris, 10/18/22

For the past couple of years, I’ve been following several YouTubers that review audiophile equipment. Audiophiles are a subculture of music fans who are fanatical about playback equipment: amplifiers, speakers, DACs, CD players and transports, turntables, headphones, streamers, etc. Most music lovers just get a system from Bose, Sony, Apple, Sonos, Yamaha, Devon, etc., and are happy enough.

Audiophiles are obsessed with every aspect of sound reproduction and are on a never-ending quest to find better equipment. Low-level would-be audiophiles like me spend four figures on a setup, while the hardcore aficionados spend five figures, and the rich dudes and they are always dudes, spend six figures on their equipment. The $64,000 question: Can they hear what they claim?

I love listening to music. One of my big regrets at this time in life is I don’t have any friends who want to come over and listen to music with me anymore. For most people, music is something they put on in the background. When I listen to music, I give it all my attention like watching a movie or reading a book.

When I was young, I and my friends would sit around and listen to albums. Back then I had friends who were like me and spend much of their income on buying records. But those were the years before I got married. And even in my early married life, Susan would go record shopping with me, and we’d listen to albums together. We also went to a lot of concerts. But at some point, Susan, and most of my friends lost interest in buying new records. Susan still loves going to concerts but if I ask her if she wants to listen to some albums from the bands she’s going to go hear with her friends she always says no. She only likes live music. And I gave up on live music years ago.

I consider albums are works of art that should be studied and admired. Audiophiles like to think they can buy equipment that will allow them to hear the music at a deeper level and I bought into that belief.

Listening involves two main factors. One is the limiting factor of our ears. What frequencies can they handle? As we get older, this degrades. The other factor is how much can we discern in what we hear. And that can be a lot. Have you ever considered how many details an artist who paints realistic scenes can see? Looking over my monitor out a picture window, I see mostly trees, but if I examine them closely, there is an infinity of details to be discerned. The same is true of listening to music.

Audiophiles make astounding claims, some of which are questionable. Back in the 1970s, I had a friend, Williamson who love the music of Duane Allman. He claimed when he listened to At Filmore East, a live album, he could hear when Duane adjusted the knobs on his guitar or amplifiers or changed a setting with a foot peddle. Is that even possible? Was Williamson just bragging, or lying? Or is such close study and listening possible?

Audiophiles often talk about listening to the decay of individual notes created by different instruments. They have a whole lexicon used for describing sound qualities. Many audiophiles claim they can tell the difference between records mastered with all analog sources and those that have digital recordings somewhere in the reproduction path. (Those people were recently embarrassed when they learned a company that claimed to sell expensive editions from all analog sources had been lying to them.)

After spending over a year researching reviews I bought a new stereo system that cost twice as much as my previous system. I knew I wouldn’t hear twice as much, but I hoped for a noticeable increase in sound quality. All the reviewers claimed the components I bought were superior to the ones I had. My new system sounds great, but so does my old one. They each sound different. But I don’t know if I can say one is better than the other.

Maybe these systems have gone beyond the level of my hearing ability and my ability to make finer discernments. I’m already losing interest in watching my audiophile reviewers, and they were my favorite thing to watch on TV for the past year. Many of those reviewers claim buying an $800 DAC would let me jump to the next level, but I wonder. And by the way, there’s a level of DACs beyond that in the $3,000-5,000 range they rave about, and more after that which run $10,000 and up. And those audiophiles swear they can hear so much more!

Can they? Could I?

I’ve already shifted my YouTube watching away from equipment reviews to album reviews. The LP came out in the late 1940s as record manufacturers shifted away from producing 78s. I’ve heard only a tiny fraction of albums that were produced since then. There are thousands of great albums to be discovered, so that’s what I’m working on now.

I’m beginning to realize how I’m different from most people. I spend most of my time focused on works of art: books, music, movies, TV shows, paintings, computers, etc. Most people like doing real things, eating, going out, socializing, exercising, being in nature, and interacting in the real world. I like the artificial world of art and abstraction. I guess that’s because I’m an introvert.

So every day I listen to a couple albums from over the last seventy years. I sit by myself and listen with all the discernment I can muster. I listen to people in the past express their creativity. I’m never sure if I hear everything they intended.

JWH

Did Henry Mancini Invent Spy Music When He Composed/Conducted The Music From Peter Gunn in 1958?

by James Wallace Harris, 9/20/22

The Music From Peter Gunn was composed and conducted by Henry Mancini and recorded on August 26, 31, and September 4, 29, 1958 for the TV show Peter Gunn that premiered on September 22, 1958. The original soundtrack was released in 1959 and won the very first Grammy award for Album of the Year that year, beating out Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Van Cliburn.

The soundtrack was very popular, eventually earning a Gold Record. And the song, “Peter Gunn” has become iconic, inspiring many covers and interpretations. The album was so successful that RCA came out with More Music From Peter Gunn later that same year.

You can listen to a rearranged compilation of those two albums here while you read on.

But this brings up my second question for this essay: How many songs were recorded in those original sessions for the Peter Gunn TV show? The tunes on the YouTube video sound slightly different from the original album, and the lineup of songs are different too.

I have found these two albums that call themselves complete, but they are different. The first has the original two albums, plus two more albums on two CDs. The full description is here. The second is just the original two soundtracks on one CD.

The first album is described at Discogs as:

This release contains the complete original Henry Mancini albums "The Music From Peter Gunn" and "More Music From Peter Gunn", scores for the Blake Edwards' "Peter Gunn" TV series. Also included two further complete LPs presenting alternative versions of this music by Pete Candoli and Ted Nash, plus a single tune omitted from the companion volume "Shelly Manne & His Men Play Peter Gunn"

The second two albums are a mystery to me, even though I once owned the Nash LP. I now wish I hadn’t given it away. If anyone knows why the Ted Nash and Pete Candoli albums are considered part of the complete Peter Gunn, let me know below. Were they connected with the show? Were these songs alternated arrangements for the show?

I’ve heard a lot of reissues and even the ones that are supposed to be the Mancini originals often sound slightly to somewhat different from the original LPs, with a different lineup of tunes, and song titles. One thing that’s really confusing on Spotify, is the album they list as The Music of Peter Gunn & More From Peter Gunn is actually the soundtrack to the 1967 film Gunn … The One! – which has newer versions of some of the songs they used on the TV show, along with newer songs for the movie.

The original album feels like a special subgenre of cool 1950s jazz, the kind of jazz that people who hate jazz thinks of jazz and loves to hear. Mancini in his autobiography said, “The Peter Gunn title theme actually derives more from rock and roll than from jazz.” But the rest of the album does sound like jazz. I do wonder if all the guys who recorded at Blue Note considered it jazz? And did they resent its success?

The first LP I bought with money I earned (from cutting lawns) when I was fourteen was the soundtrack from Our Man Flint, with its music composed by Jerry Goldsmith. I quickly acquired soundtracks for Goldfinger and Thunderball, composed by John Barry, and the soundtrack for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which was arranged and conducted by Hugo Montenegro, but I believe at least the title tune was composed by Jerry Goldsmith.

I loved the music on these soundtracks and thought of them as Spy Music. I’m not the only one that uses that label. You can find playlists on Spotify under the title Spy Music, and even the All Music Guide has it as a category. The songs on these albums sound a bit like jazz, but I don’t know if the music would really be considered jazz. But I do like this music a lot.

When I started trying to find out how many songs were recorded for the original Peter Gunn show it occurred to me that Mancini’s music might be the origin of what I call Spy Music. It’s gotten me back into listening to Spy Music. When I get time I’m going to make my own playlist for Spotify. Some of the Spy Music playlists I’ve listened to use cover tunes. That bugs me. I want the originals, well, at least the songs from the original albums.

This bit of research is also making me want to research soundtrack music. For movies and TV shows, each scene only uses pieces of a song. Do composers write whole songs and then the editors clip out what they want. Or are composers given clips of scenes and asked to compose music just for them? Are soundtracks fleshed-out clips? And why are so many soundtracks missing from Spotify?

That’s why I wondered just how many songs were composed for the Peter Gunn TV show? Did Mancini just create a batch of tunes for Blake Edwards? Were Nash and Condoli on set arrangers? This blog quotes the whole chapter on Peter Gunn from Mancini’s autobiography, but it doesn’t answer all my questions. I’d love it if some YouTuber researched all of this and produced a 30-minute documentary that answered my questions.

Update: 9/22/22:

I got The Music From Peter Gunn – Complete edition, a 2-CD set in from Discogs today. Its booklet answers some of my unanswered questions.

The Pete Candoli and Ted Nash albums were recorded in 1959. It says the recording location for all the albums was Hollywood. I wonder if it was in the same studio? The first two albums were from RCA but the other two were from Dot and Crown, but they all could have been recorded in the same location. Many of the musicians were the same. Was the 1959 recording done to give the musicians their own album and chance to earn additional money, or were they extra recordings for the TV show?

JWH

Mingus Ah Um

by James Wallace Harris, April 15, 2022

I’m not an experienced jazz aficionado but I do love to listen to that genre from time to time. Today, for my afternoon album I played Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus via Spotify. You can listen to it while you read by clicking on the YouTube video below. Unfortunately, it will play at the fidelity of your computer/phone/tablet and that won’t do justice to this legendary album. It’s best to listen to jazz in a dark room on a great stereo when you can devote your mind and soul to the experience.

My love of jazz depends on the tempo. I prefer the dreamy numbers that I imagine are heard in smoky clubs at 3 a.m., like the cuts “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and “Pussy Cat Dues.” I listen to music because it triggers emotions, and slow jazz is often very emotional and moody.

I do admire, and even enjoy the medium-tempo pieces like “Better Git It in Your Soul,” and “Jelly Roll.” This is head-bopping speed and generally focuses on solos. At this speed, I can still process what each instrument is saying.

And depending on my mood, I can get into the fast pieces like “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” and “Pedal Point Blues.” The faster the jazz guys jam, the more they’re showing off. Usually, at this speed, if my mind is following along, I can dig the piece intellectually, but it’s stopped pushing my emotional buttons. This is how I often feel about listening to classical music. To truly appreciate these pieces I think it would be helpful to be young, high, and manic.

The frantic-pace performances push my limits to appreciate the form, like “Bird Calls,” which Mingus says wasn’t inspired by Charlie Parker, but bird calls. Parker is generally too speedy for my tastes. There are times when I feel Mingus is playing his bass twice as fast as the tune. The cuts on Mingus Ah Um aren’t nearly as fast as the hotter jazz from the early 1950s.

Jazz constantly mutates, so there’s no real one kind of jazz. Right now I prefer it from the late 1950s and early 1960s. 1959 was a fantastic year for jazz music. Two of the most accessible jazz albums ever came out that year: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Those two albums are often loved by people who never listen to jazz. We could consider them suitable for freshmen students of jazz. The other great jazz album of 1959 is The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman. That’s graduate-level. Mingus Ah Um is more advanced than Kind of Blue and Time Out, but far from The Shape of Jazz to Come. It’s still very accessible. I’d recommend it for juniors majoring in the genre. I don’t think it should be anyone’s first jazz album. Kind of Blue and Time Out are the gateway drugs.

However, I should amend what I’ve just said. One of my all-time favorite songs regardless of genre is “Moanin'” by Charles Mingus, and it’s an assault on the senses. It makes you feel like you’re dancing with a tornado. I love it. There are many versions of this song, even many by Mingus, but this is the version I have to have.

If you go to buy this album, be careful, there are many editions, some not so good. The $7.98 CD from Amazon is a good entry-level choice.

JWH

Paying Closer Attention to The Beatles

by James Wallace Harris, 8/6/22

Yesterday morning while riding my stationary bike I watched a video about The Beatles. Eric Callero of Vinyl Rewind covered his least favorite Beatle song from each album. I think it’s fascinating that young people are into The Beatles and their albums that came out over fifty years ago. Can you imagine Baby Boomers excited about bands from the 1910s or 1920s when we were young.

I started listening to The Beatles in 1964 and bought all their records as they came out in the 1960s. My nostalgia finds it confusing because The Beatles albums on sale today were not the same ones we bought back in the 1960s. I bought all The Beatles standard albums again in the late 1980s when they came out on CD, and then bought them again this century when they came out on remastered CD.

The Beatles were tremendously exciting back in the 1960s but they weren’t my favorite band back then. That was The Byrds. I did play each Beatle album quite a bit as they were released, but I forgot about them in a few weeks. Then over the decades whenever Susan and I watched a documentary about the Fab Four I’d get the albums out again. When the remastered CDs came out several years ago I bought them but only listened to each album one or two times.

Yesterday, inspired by the Vinyl Rewind video I listened to Please Please Me and With the Beatles. Unlike Eric Callero I couldn’t pick my least favorite song from each album. I was surprised by how good all the songs sounded. I also notice something. I couldn’t distinguish between John and Paul’s voices. Sometimes I thought I could but I was never sure. I did spot the two songs sung by Ringo, but I didn’t even notice that George was the main singer of five of the songs.

This made me realize that I’ve never paid close attention to The Beatles’ songs. Susan and I love watching documentaries about The Beatles, and we’ve read a few biographies on them. Susan can sing their songs, but we’re not Beatlemaniacs.

While watching the Vinyl Rewind video I envied Eric Callero for being able to cite so many details from each song. I’ve always listened to music as a kind of drug. Music stimulates my brain, setting off emotions. I take in each song as a gestalt. To be honest, I hardly even pay attention to the lyrics.

I got out a book we had on The Beatles, tell me why by Tim Riley, that lists the main singer for each song and started trying to train my ear to discern whether John, Paul, George, or Ringo was singing. This website also gives that information.

I’m going to keep playing these albums after lunch and see just how much I can get out of each song. I remember noticing in the past I didn’t know who was singing. And I also remember noticing in the past that the songs are recorded weirdly, with what appears to be the bass, drums, and George’s guitars on the left, and the singing and John’s guitar, and sometimes other instruments, on the right. I also knew that some songs were covers, but never really paid that much attention to which were originals and which were covers.

The desire to notice more in songs comes from several motivations. For being such a major music addict I feel bad about not knowing more about the music I love. But I also feel bad that I don’t pay more attention to the details of life. I’m curious if I can become more discerning. I’m also curious if I can change myself so late in life.

At seventy, I feel my mind is slowly decaying. I know my body is, so it’s natural to assume my brain is too. I eat better and exercise to squeeze more out of my body. I wonder if paying attention to details will it help sharpen my dull mind?

JWH

“Glad and Sorry” by Ronnie Lane

by James Wallace Harris, 3/23/22

For many many years, the song “Glad and Sorry” from the album Down by the Old Mainstream by Golden Smog has randomly played from my main playlist. I bought the CD because I was a fan of The Jayhawks and some of their members were playing on it. The song originally appeared on Ooh La La by the Faces in 1973 (originally, the Small Faces). I’m pretty sure I had that album back in the 1970s but didn’t remember it or “Glad and Sorry” when I first listened to Down by the Old Mainstream back in the 1990s.

I like to play whole albums after lunch and Spotify offered up Ooh La La. When I heard “Glad and Sorry” I recalled that album by Golden Smog. That’s when I started my research and discovered the song was written by Ronnie Lane of the Faces. Then I found a lovely remembrance of the song which I’ll quote below.

Here’s how the Faces did “Glad and Sorry” in 1973

Here it is again by Golden Smog.

The song is loved enough that it inspired 14 playlists on Spotify, and there are many cover versions. I love how some songs inspire countless performers to sing and record them. Here’s a nice jam session.

The lyrics are very simple:

That beautiful interpretation of the song is at the site One Week // One Band but without the name of who wrote the essay. Here’s the quote I mentioned, but it’s worth reading the entire piece. This is the way I wish I could write about music (I took this quote starting about halfway down the page, after the history of the song):

“Thank you kindly/For thinking of me/If I’m not smiling/I’m just thinking.”

All my life I’ve been the Quiet One, the one who (mostly) doesn’t say what he’s thinking, the one who doesn’t interact with others because he’s too withdrawn, or too self-serious, or too afraid that he’s bothering people. Always thinking, never sure he’s thought of anything worthwhile to say. “Smile,” they used to tell me, back when I had people in my life who would regularly engage in what they called encouraging me. “It’s not that bad.” Well, no—but smiling for the sake of smiling feels like dishonesty to me. Anyway, I’m thinking.

“Glad and sorry/Happy or sad/When all is done and spoken/You’re up or I’m down.”

It’s never “I’m up,” it’s never “you’re down.” There’s always a fundamental disconnect, we never meet in the middle, and I’m always lower. Not class or any bullshit like that, just circumstance. I can never meet your needs—emotional, physical, social, financial. The person who is You changes every so often, as people pass in and out of my life, but the relationship, once begun, is always the same. It’s bittersweet every time; the emotions are always tangled up. Glad, happy, sorry, sad—and then, at some point, I’ve done everything and said everything I’m going to do or say.

I wish I could relate to lyrics and poems like that.

I’m writing this because this song moves me, but I don’t know how to describe how it moves me. I’m writing this because I love how some songs stick with us for years. I’m writing this because I love how some very simple songs resonate deeply with people. I’m writing this to remember this afternoon, and to remember “Glad and Sorry.” Sadly, I won’t remember it every day, but on those days the songs pop up in my playlist, and I’ll add the original to my main playlist.

JWH

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