Stern Words from Betelgeuse
By Beppe Colli
Mar. 26, 2017

One thing I can't help but notice when going for a walk in the sunny town I happen to live in is the great quantity of magazines on sale at newsstands. Placed behind clean glass, they offer themselves to the eye: Dog, Cat, Horse, and all the possible variations, from Hunting Dog to Killer Dog, with maybe a few duplications here and there (I still can't tell if there are two magazines, one called Horse, the other The Horse, or if an issue of, say, Clocks, obscured a "The"). Of course, one has to wonder about the sales of such publications. I suppose there are people who are interested in this stuff, and it's only my lack of imagination that makes me think of their financial survival as an impossibility.

My sense of wonder only increases as I watch the sector where music mags are located. Above, Mojo, Uncut, Q, The Wire (still going on!), Mojo 60s, Prog, and all those "special edition" by this or that about this or that. Sunk into the Ocean, for ages now I haven't seen a single issue of once-mighty U.S.A. mags such as Rolling Stone, Downbeat, Keyboard, Guitar Player, and others whose names totally escape me at the moment.

Below, those mags Made in Italy, whose number in the last few years has actually increased. Which is quite paradoxical, given the fact that just a few years ago my friends and I used to have bets on which mag would have gone under first, if Friend of the Music Industry or the other one. I'm almost certain somebody still buys them. But what about the black and the red? Record companies and distributors, when still alive, are definitely not in better financial shape compared to five years ago, sales of physical music are on the wane, ditto for sales of magazines, the price of paper, printing, distribution, and transportation has not come down, tariffs for ads are quite affordable. And I doubt compensation for those who provide written content could get any lower.

(Talking about a more prosperous field than music mags, a couple years ago I happened to spend a whole month in an Italian region quite far from where I live, and I noticed that in the local pages of Repubblica - Italy's leading newspaper - one could find ads by butchers and tiny shops, which immediately made one aware of the low price asked for local ads.)

Looking at newsstands is a surreal experience. Since music mags increasingly must have "known names" on their covers, which for the most part are yesterday's glories, one is confronted with a sea of faces that for the most part represent the best music "classic rock" has created. This, while young listeners, who are for the most part practically illiterate, only like sing-along type songs. While retired people - yes, that's what most Boomers are by now - have stopped competing for the "Best Downloading Grandfather" and now spend their time "Doing The Stream".

This is not a situation that encourages people to have "dissenting opinions". For quite a while now Mojo readers have protested about the high number of reviewed albums that get Four Stars (out of Five). While when it comes to re-releases, reviewers tell the story of the group/album, not saying much about the physical object buyers will actually buy. Even a writer of some renown as Douglas Wolk, reviewing the vinyl Bowie Box titled Five Years for Pitchfork, made no mention of the actual vinyl albums he was - in theory - reviewing. The same being true when it comes to boxes such as Stones in Mono, and all the rest.

Arguing this point with a light touch, I'd really like to see pictures of vinyl record reviewers standing in front of their (working) turntables, just to make sure, you know? But even putting those suspicions aside, I wonder what's the point in reviewing a re-release of a legendary album now in a triple configuration - stereo LP, mono LP, stereo CD - just to tell the familiar tale over and over again, only to add that one is a stereo LP and the other a mono LP. I wonder why nobody adds that the LPs were perfectly round, just to provide some spice.

Given such a framework, the quality of those reviews proves to be surely lacking. Nowadays there are those who can't even copy a Press Release, with terrible results. Of course, in order to find traces of Ray Charles and James Brown on The Doors' first album one has first to know Ray Charles and James Brown. But in order to say something that makes sense about the featured music, listening with care to The Doors' first album should be enough. Some say that writing about "facts" is enough. But for facts we already have Wikipedia, right?

A topic that has been widely discussed in recent times is - let's put it this way for the moment - the disappearance of Jazz from the pages of the New York Times.

Of course, readers know quite well the great financial difficulties that stand in front of all quality press, given the gradual disappearance of the paper editions and their ads - a phenomenon whose rate appears to be accelerating - and the low price of digital advertising.

All papers and magazines go on by trial and error, with papers such as Guardian adopting a "free access" model, with donations, subscriptions, and various forms of membership as an additional financial resource (full disclosure: after the people at the paper worked night and day following the unexpected outcome of the "Brexit" poll, I sent a donation), while papers such as the New York Times increasingly rely on high quality content accessed through a subscription model.

Something unforeseen happened in the States, too, with Donald Trump becoming President. This had the New York Times increase the budget assigned to the paper's Washington bureau in order to cover the Presidency and Congress by five million dollars.

As everybody knows, the newsroom - already subject to downsizing, and not for the last time - is asked to "rationalize". One of the criteria being those figures related to people accessing the paper's digital content on its Web pages.

The fine article by Max Cea titled "Welcome to the Jazzless Age: Change in New York Times coverage spells trouble for a scene" which appeared in Salon magazine on Thursday, Feb 23 with the caption "What changes in music coverage at the New York Times mean for jazz" clearly argued the problem.

The figures - collected in the last five years - clearly show that not many people are interested in reading album and concert reviews. Which has a disastrous impact on Jazz, since "niche" artists rely a lot on the "validation effect" provided by being reviewed on such a widely read, prestigious paper as The New York Times.

There's no "exclusion" process at work. It's just that monetary issues have made it impossible to avoid dealing with facts that were already widely known "intuitively" but that for a long time it had been possible to pretend didn't exist.

The "reorganization" process - there's a weekly Playlist now in the form of a Podcast, but further changes are announced - is just a consequence of the previous state.

Proving the existence of a gap between one's being able to access something through technical means and one's understanding of the way those technical means actually work, many people lament the fact that contents often disappear from the Web, with no understanding of the way one's actual behavior can be the real cause of such an outcome.

Ethan Iverson, pianist in The Bad Plus and curator of the blog called Do The Math, has said very often: " I link to pieces I found to be of interest, why don't you go and see for yourself? I know you are tired and so busy, so I don't think you'll have to necessarily read them in full. Some of those artists maybe you don't even like. Click on those links all the same. (I know, Ethan Iverson's writing is much more elegant than what I wrote, but you get the idea.)

I consulted a colleague based in Washington, who confirmed my data. He asked me about the situation in my Country, of course he's puzzled by the great quantity of music mags full of reviews still in operation. "How do they survive, do they have lots of advertising?" He tells me that in Washington there are almost no newsstands left, and that the ones that are still going don't carry such review-intensive mags such as Mojo and Uncut, reviews by now being the almost exclusive province of Web magazines such as Pitchfork and PopMatters.

"People access the New York Times to read about Trump, not to read records reviews". He also talked about audience fragmentation and the lack of relevance of rock music in today's culture.

Not too long ago, talking to a colleague based in La Spezia, I discussed my terror about what the music press could write this year, 1967 being a pivotal year for my personal development. And as we all know too well, such anniversaries - half a century has passed! - get celebrated.

The release of the Beatles single Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, Light My Fire by The Doors at #1, the world-wide smash A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procol Harum, We Love You by The Rolling Stones, Homburg by Procol Harum, You Keep Me Hanging On by Vanilla Fudge. All important events in my life, stuff that I'd be horrified reading about as written by some "Italian answer to Robert Christgau".

"Wait, it's also the 40th anniversary of 1977, with Punk and all that stuff", he said, trying to comfort me.

Well, one has already passed. The Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever anniversary, last February, passed with no notice. People are obviously concentrating on the 50th anniversary - June, 1st - of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - I can see reviewers checking that they have enough ink.

I had no such luck with The Doors. It was sad seeing all the enthusiasm summoned up for London Fog - so glad it didn't sell, together with the whole farce about the Matrix "original tapes" being the last nail in the coffin of fans' trust in the group's management.

But anyway, is there anything new that could be said about The Doors first album?

More varied, more subtle, and a lot more sure of itself, The Doors' second album, Strange Days, lacks (let's be clear here: due to conscious, deliberate choice) the sonic "rock push" of their first album. And I couldn't fault those who - not knowing a single note by the group and only having the sound of Morrison Hotel as their yardstick - would define the group's second album as being "older" than their first one.

The funny thing is that - as stated by some who listened to the tapes from the original sessions - the tapes of the first album do not resemble at all the finished product.

Acting as "Production Supervisor", Elektra's president, Jac Holzman - a man of great taste and assured commercial instinct - asked for a "punchier" sound. Hence, the music on the original four-track was transferred to a second four-track recorder, while adding bass guitar, percussion, vocals, and "sonic treatments" by sound engineer Bruce Botnick, Paul A. Rothchild acting as Producer. More treatments were added going to the master.

Just to give readers a for instance, it's obvious from day one that Soul Kitchen features two drum sets, as one can easily hear by listening to the left channel only, paying particular attention to those "empty" moments which also highlight the electric bass played with a pick. The electric bass is more apparent on Twentieth Century Fox, less so on Light My Fire, I Looked At You, and Take It As It Comes (while it's been reported that Backdoor Man features the group's guitarist, Robby Krieger, sitting on bass).

For reasons one can only speculate about, Bruce Botnick has never stressed his creative contribution to the album, with just an added detail here and there - check the moment he talks about the overdubbed drums, as listened to on the multi-track, on the DVD-V in the Classic Albums series dedicated to the group's first album. But let's listen to the left channel of Light My Fire, and especially the long section where the organ and guitar solo in the right channel. Lotsa echoes and effects - simplifying a lot, here valves/tubes act like a kind of equalization - for sounds that one could almost call "dub". A drum sound that, in those days, was quite unprecedented.

Beppe Colli 2017 | Mar. 26, 2017