Saturday, January 15, 2011

Flashback: October 2004

I just went back into the "archives" to combine several old postings from 2004 for a new one on a music board I frequent. As I use this blog to preserve my precious thoughts so that future generations of humans (or aliens) can bask in my wisdom, I will occasionally be posting these "Flashbacks" from the days of yore. This one concerns one of my favorite subjects, The Beatles, and one of the most hated villains in all of Pepperland -- the Capitol Records A&R man Dave Dexter, Jr., who was in charge of all their U.S. albums and singles in 1964 and 1965. He's hated for adding unnecessary reverb to their songs and for chopping up their near-flawless British LPs to multiply them, loaves-and-fishes-like, for the American consumer. I think the guy was probably a cranky old cuss who didn't like this newfangled rock music, but I also think he helped make the Fab Four the biggest thing since Elvis' underpants. I don't know what that means, but I like the sound of it. Read on...

In Defense of Dave Dexter Jr.

I know bashing Dave Dexter Jr. is like a recreational sport for Beatles' fans, but I gotta say, I think he gets a bit of a bad rap. IMO, his "crimes" are only criminal in hindsight; at the time, he was just a guy with a job to do, and his job was to move units, not to sabotage the sacred perfection of the Fab Four. He wasn't a mustachio'ed evildoer adjusting his monacle and cackling "Mwuuhahahahaha!!!" as he tied poor defenseless Beatles records to the railroad tracks! He was a mid-1960s Capitol employee who was given the task of making a British rock group (an oxymoron to many at the time) appealing to the US masses -- masses of TEENAGERS, mind you, not audiophiles, not music professors, not GROWN-UPS. In short, he was not a bad man who was worthy of the hatred that gets spewed on him; he was a guy doing his job who made choices that history has judged poorly.

Was he an older guy who didn't "get" the Beatles? I guess. Did he mess with the sound? Yeah, yeah, yeah. But people act like he killed every track he touched, and it simply isn't true. Granted, "I Feel Fine" and "She's A Woman" are ghastly, but y'know what -- those are the WORST examples among dozens that are more or less harmless. And actually, the MONO Dexterizations of those two tracks, found on the 45, sound thick and exciting -- and those reflect Dexter's true intent for them, before they were subjected to duophonic "stereo" and MORE reverb on the LP. A Beatles fan one complained that he knew within "5 seconds" of hearing the UK "I Feel Fine" that he'd been "screwed for years." My experience was different: When I first heard the UK "She's A Woman" I thought, "This doesn't even sound like a finished recording!" I've since learned better, but after years and years of the US mixes, my initial reaction was that the UK mixes were wrong, and I'm sure many many less obsessive US fans felt the same way when they innocently bought their first Beatles CDs. When I was a tot in the late 1970s (sorry, but I can't help not being alive in 1965) listening to my first Beatles records on my sky-blue Fisher-Price record player -- well, that reverb sounded pretty sweet to me.

As the Capitol Albums CDs have reminded us, many of the more subtle Dexterizations did what I imagine he wanted them to do -- add a little "punch" and fatten up the sound of this odd British rock group that his bosses shoved on him after he had rejected them three times. We forget that the phrase "British rock group" was almost laughable in 1963; Dexter was probably convinced he had a turkey on his hands. Once he was proved wrong, his "velvet touch" got a lot lighter, to my ears (with the exception of the single mentioned above). After the 1964 onslaught, there is less rechanneling, more true stereo, and less superfluous reverb. By 1965, aside from the chopping up of the "real" albums -- which is offensive now, but a common practice back then -- the MUSIC sounded mostly the same on both sides of the pond.

As for the "butchering" of the Beatles' early albums by Capitol, it's time to give it a rest. Hey, when Meet The Beatles was being assembled, who knew there would BE a Second Album? Once Meet The Beatles sold in record numbers and Beatlemania swept the nation, the bean-counters started doing what they do, and some guy probably stood up at a meeting, cleared his throat, loosened his tie, and said with a glimmer in his eye, "If we cut a track from the next album, it will still sell X million copies, and we'll save $XX,000 in royalties." Then some guy from marketing, who probably wasn't going to say anything, blurted out, "If they send us 2 albums and 3 singles a year, we can turn that into THREE albums and as many singles as we want!" The "Hurrah!"s were heard all over Capitol Tower, and they all went out for a 3-martini lunch. While Dexter's nimble knob-twiddling seems regrettable NOW, it's hard to argue with the track listings of the above-mentioned LPs or the U.S. Rubber Soul -- or the sales results. (The last one was particularly brilliant and well-timed, as it capitalized on the "folk-rock" craze and inspired Brian Wilson to write Pet Sounds.)

I say (or think) the same thing every time a Beatles fan spews righteous anger towards Capitol and Dave Dexter, Jr.: I don't think the Fab Four tore up any of Capitol's checks when Beatles For Sale sold 3 million in the UK while Beatles '65 and Beatles VI (the two U.S. albums it spawned) sold 3 million EACH here in the States. We reflexively call it greed, but some would call it prudent budgeting and marketing. The Beatles were hula hoops to Capitol -- Beanie Babies, Tickle-Me Elmos, Cabbage Patch Kids -- and they wanted to maximize profits before all those dumb kids moved on to the next group. You can rip them for not respecting their artistic merit until Sgt. Pepper (which admittedly was one altered classic too late), but in 1964 the Beatles were just a product to be exploited. Were U.S. fans screwed? I don't know -- 2 bucks for an 11-track, 28 minute album vs. 2 bucks for a 12-track, 31 minute album? Not THAT big a deal -- plus we also got single and EP tracks in convenient LP form, exclusive tracks ("Bad Boy") and songs still unreleased in Britain (the Revolver songs on Yesterday & Today). Sure, the duophonic mixes were bad -- but again, this was CANDY for CHILDREN: sweet, cheap and disposable.

Dave Dexter, Jr. didn't know he was supposed to be preserving "art" ... you know what he was? He was the guy in the snack booth at the schoolyard carnival. He took 2 cents worth of sugar, whipped it into cotton candy, and sold it to kids for 2 bucks. And he sold a TON of cotton candy -- more than any other cotton candy salesman in the history of carnivals. He did his job as he knew it. It was only later that WE realized that the original "sugar" was precious. Sometimes, I think it's possible to love the Beatles TOO much. We want to put them in a glass case like a $300 mint mono UK Revolver and bow down in awe of them. But once upon a time they were just FUN and nothing more. Paul loves to tell the story of how when things got tense with John, he would pull his glasses down his nose, peer over them and say "It's just me, you know."

I miss a bit of that every once in a while.

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