J u n e   2 0 0 5

A new spin: Reformatting turns existing albums upside down and inside out.
Guest Writer

'Let It Be' ... or not
Hooked on reformatting
by Matt Haynes

'm not sure exactly when I started getting hooked on reformatting albums.

I recall some earlier efforts that sprung up when, at 17, I decided that the Who's Tommy didn't make sequential sense and the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street was diluted with lazy numbers.

And I always felt like rock critics (particularly from Music Hound) were subliminally egging me on – claiming that Van Morrison's Moondance and Street Choir would make a great double album or that the Japanese 12-song version of the Clash's Sandinista was actually superior to the original three-record set.

Meanwhile, starting with my first listening to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon at 15, I have been studying, studying and studying album formats. The albums that I've really come to worship are formatted in ways that heavily influence the way I reformat other albums.

Here's a random-order list of 10 albums that I love and wouldn't touch:

Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd)
Rust Never Sleeps
(Neil Young)
(Peter Gabriel)
Remain in Light
(Talking Heads)
Plastic Ono Band
(John Lennon)
The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle
(Bruce Springsteen)
Darkness on the Edge of Town
(Bruce Springsteen)
Purple Rain
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
(Midnight Oil)
Sticky Fingers
(The Rolling Stones)

About three years ago, I got into reformatting full force. Now, every album that comes my way has a 75 percent chance of getting a reworking. When all is said and done, I do this to find my own way into the album ... arrange it so I can appreciate its contents in a context that makes more sense to me.

Sometimes I put together something that isn't any better than the original but is better for me.

Don't change a thing: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is clearly among the untouchables.

Other times I feel like I've put together something extraordinary that would have probably gotten even more critical attention and praise than it did as the original album.

I'll pose the obvious question: Is this really a productive way to spend one's time?

My answer: Definitely.

The practice of reframing things is a noble one that extends well beyond rock 'n' roll albums. In life, we're often stuck with what we've got and it's up to us to perform personal feats of alchemy so that what we've got becomes more enjoyable.

John Lennon once called Let It Be "The shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a bad feeling to it ever." When the album was about to be released, an executive begged for it to be shelved, claiming that it would be a shoddy cardboard tombstone on the Beatles' elegant grave, Abbey Road. Then you have other folks claiming that Let It Be is a rough classic: Take it or leave it.

With these thoughts in mind, let the fun begin:

Let It Be / original order
Let It Be / reformatted
1) Two of Us
2) Dig a Pony
3) Across the Universe
4) I Me Mine
5) Dig It
6) Let It Be
7) Maggie Mae
9) I've Got a Feeling
10) One After 909
11) The Long and Winding Road
12) For You Blue
13) Get Back

1) Get Back
2) Dig a Pony
3) Old Brown Shoe
4) Lady Madonna
5) Don't Let Me Down
6) Hey Jude
7) I've Got a Feeling
9) I Me Mine
10) Across the Universe
11) Let It Be
12) Two of Us
13) The Long and Winding Road

Before hearing the album proper, I had heard the great hits from it: The title track, "The Long and Winding Road," "Get Back (single version)" and "Across the Universe." All are great. How could an album housing these beauties possibly have flaws?

Take it or leave it: Let It Be contains flaws along with obvious beauty.

Then I purchased the album my senior year of high school and listened to it on a stale November afternoon.


I saw what detractors meant. Besides clunky, unrewarding throwaways like "Maggie May," "Dig It," "One After 909" and "For You Blue," the group manages to screw the classic cuts through awkward placing (what the hell is "The Long and Winding Road" doing in the middle of Side Two, only to be followed by "One After 909" and "For You Blue"?), obnoxious intros (thanks, John) and abortive endings (the album version of "Get Back").

And isn't the overproduction on some tracks equally to blame? People who believe that's the flaw will probably be rewarded with the "naked" edition that came out a while ago.

But I don't think Phil Spector's grandiose production touches to the original are the core of the album's problem. Let It Be contains great highs and was organized with a crappy attitude. Meanwhile, you have Hey Jude, another incomplete album with some classic cuts mixed in with reissues from previous albums. You know where this is going ...

I wanted to make a 10-song wonder out of Let It Be but I just couldn't. There were just too many good tracks and too much variety to be gracefully housed under my lean-and-mean regime.

So, I made an album in the style of classic Beatles: Sprawling, varied, fresh and rolling joyfully toward a moving, poetic conclusion. It's basically a more fleshed-out and sincere version of the first side of Abbey Road (which I think is basically an unsettling retrospective parody of the Beatles' Many Sides ... a great set up for the trail-blazing Side Two, but incomplete on its own).

We start with "Get Back," which contains the implied thesis of the album: "It's time to put our differences and lofty aims aside and do what we did at the beginning of all this: make some plain old great music together."

I like to start this with the live chatter from the album version and end it with the clean fadeout of the single version. The effect is that of a ragtag airplane sputtering its way to a start, then getting up to full speed and soaring.

Next we have the swaying gasp at fresh air and fresh concepts, "Dig a Pony."

John's The Beatles (White Album) angst has been cast aside for a punch-drunk ode to all things neat in the world culminating into a plea to a lover.

We then dig into the coppery gallop of "Old Brown Shoe," which hands its baton off to the hustling, bustling "Lady Madonna."

Both these songs have the old-school vigor of the non-psychedelic tracks from Rubber Soul and Revolver.

Ripe for reformatting: Hey Jude is less than perfect.

Both use bouncy piano as the lead instrument and both play to the Beatles' comical strengths: Self-effacing love songs ("Old Brown Shoe") and societal character studies ("Lady Madonna").

Time to chill out and get a little more personal, which gets up to "Don't Let Me Down."

The lyrics aren't much to treasure; sort of what Bob Dylan might spew drunkenly into a late-night payphone. But man, what a delivery: John sounds like a doomed North Pole expeditioner howling his final agony/ecstasy in the middle of a frozen tundra of backup playing that's punctured by minty icebergs of organ.

Then we come in from the cold and get the glowing parlor and chicken noodle soup of "Hey Jude," the sweetest and most unpretentious epic in rock 'n' roll. It's a fine way to put Side One to bed.

Side Two starts with "I've Got a Feeling," which carries a mood both of innocence (Paul's bits) and experience (John's bits). The song yawns and stretches, getting us ready for the rush of "The Ballad of John & Yoko."

With its narrative, pace and pepper-shaker percussion, "Ballad" echoes "Old Brown Shoe" and "Lady Madonna" from Side One, only this one is a measure heavier and nastier.

That lands us splat into George's despairing "I Me Mine." The track alternately runs and falls through red flames – a full descent into hell before we make our way up into the sad/sweet paradise of the remaining four tracks.

"Across the Universe" licks the wounds of "I Me Mine." John's cracking, empathetic vocals keep this soaring journey through enlightenment grounded in human vulnerability. The song becomes John's last hurrah as a Beatle. He drifts away into the heavens, leaving Paul to light a candle and pick up the serenity prayer with "Let It Be," which crashes to a gospel finish, revealing the bare landscape of "Two of Us."

Everything has been swept away except John, Paul and an acoustic boxcar back up. The Beatles have crumbled and you're left with two vagabond chums taking a breath, shaking hands and heading home.

If John got his closing statement with "Across the Universe," Paul gets his with "The Long and Winding Road."

Both "Universe" and "Road" have a similar production strategy but, whereas John's lyrics are reflective and expansive, Paul's are reflective and focused. John goes his way, with sights set on the universe and Paul goes his way, sights set on a single figure.

Musically, it ends on a bang but lyrically it's an elegant decrescendo.

Reformatting heaven: Moondance and Street Choir better as a double album?

For a final snippet, a la "Her Majesty," I follow the original Let It Be and add John's chatter at the end of the album version of "Get Back": "I hope we passed the audition!" What ended the original album with a shrug ends this one with a wink.

Even if you think I'm full of shit, I hope that both the prospect of reformatting and my passion for it might inspire you to take a fresh listen to your existing collection.

You may very well not need to buy new albums for quite some time, just a lot of blank CDs.

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