Wide Awake in an Unforgettable Fire – U2 in 1984

Since it’s a rainy, wet day here as I’m writing this, I thought it would be the perfect time to share some thoughts on one of my favorite albums from 1984, or any year for that matter, U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire”.

To me this album is U2 at its peak – passionate, mysterious and a bit edgy.

I saw the group perform in 1985 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in support of this album and that show and the “Unforgettable Fire” album itself cemented U2 in my mind as one of the truly great bands to rise out of the ashes of the 60s generation.

This is the first of many posts where I’m going to compare and contrast different pressings I own of a particular favorite album of mine and share not only a bit of what was in the air at the time I bought it originally but also give a sense of which version sounds best.

So, let me take you back to 1984 for a minute.

This album was released in the fall of 1984 and I had just graduated high school the previous spring. I was in a major flux as to what to do with my life and when this album hit the store shelves it was a refuge of sorts for me.

That fall I was attending a local trade college trying to decide where my life was going. I eventually went to a four-year college but the 1984-85 time frame was a bit murky and filled with turmoil.

Not to mention the mythic vibe that the year 1984 was given due to the book of the same name by George Orwell. Seems we’re actually closer to his vision of Big Brother in 2017 but back then things in that year seemed to be going in a bad direction.

Nonetheless, U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” was the perfect soundtrack for the times, at least for me.

“The Unforgettable Fire” album was dark and murky with spots of hopefulness among a group of songs that spoke about loss and being lost.

The album had an overall feeling of imminent danger approaching and the passion that Bono, the group’s lead singer, put into his vocals and the musical textures the group wove into the music was (and is) mesmerizing.

I can put this album on, as I frequently have over the decades, and it still feels out of time or timeless to me.

It doesn’t sound like 1984; it isn’t full of drum machines and slick production. It feels now, as it did then, like an impressionist painting come to life through audio.

Now on to the CD pressings I own (I don’t own this on vinyl … yet!)

I own the first U.S. CD pressing on Island Records that was made in Japan that came out around the time the album was released, a gold CD pressing by Mobile Fidelity Sounds Labs (a audiophile reissue label) released in 1995 and a Super Deluxe Box Set with 2 CDs, DVD, hard back booklet and pack of photos that U2 released in 2009.

In comparing the three issues of this CD, the first issue is very dark and murky sounding much like I remember it. The bass is a bit thin and the instruments seem to lack clear highs like they’re under a bit of a blanket but in my mind this is how I remember the album sounding.

The Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs (MFSL) pressing is a step up for sure. The bass is fuller, the guitars and production shine through the haze more and the album’s sound is crisp and clear and a bit louder than the first U.S. CD pressing.

The MFSL pressing also has a few longer or maybe alternate mixes on some songs so it is a bit of a different sounding pressing but overall is an excellent representation of the album sound wise.

The cream of the crop is the Super Deluxe Edition issue. The album sounds excellent though maybe a bit too loud. It’s got the best bass and clarity of all the issues but one point down for a bit too much compression, for me anyway.

BUT you get a disc full of b-sides and outtakes from the album and a great DVD that includes the terrific documentary of U2 making the album which they recorded in a castle in Ireland.

You also get a great booklet and photos which make this set a must for fans of this album.

Overall, I feel the best audio version of the album by itself would have to go to the MFSL issue but any of the three would make a nice choice.

I still pull out my first CD issue of this album from time to time as its murkiness in sound appeals to my memory of the the times in which it was released.

If I just want to listen to the main album I more often reach for the MFSL pressing just because it sounds so good.

I do enjoy the DVD from the Super Deluxe set as well so really I’m glad I have all three.

See why I love physical media so much?!! Different pressing are like wine, they each have their own merit and have different flavors and hues lol!

For those strictly going by sound grab the MFSL issue if you can find it cheap. It’s a bit expensive now as it’s out of print.

The box set, which represents the best issue of this album for fans, is kind of pricey now too so it’s your call as to how much you like this album.

If you can’t find the MFSL, grab the most recent CD issue which is the same as the box set pressing. The original CD issue is dirt cheap and plentiful in used bins though so that might be a good choice if you just want to dip your toes in so to speak just to experience this terrific album.

Happy hunting!

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Lighting Strikes, Maybe Once, Maybe Twice … Fleetwood Mac’s “Mirage” Deluxe Box Set proves a timeless treasure

Every now again an album you once loved and haven’t listened to in ages comes creeping back into your life taking you on an emotional roller coaster ride through the past.

All of the highs and lows that are associated with the time that album arrived in your life come rushing back over you like a tidal wave of sound – sometimes leaving you warm and satisfied and other times just leaving you cold and wet.

Well, with Fleetwood Mac’s album “Mirage” I’ve been taking a very enjoyable warm ride back to 1982.

A year ago this September a new Deluxe Edition of “Mirage” was released that included three CDs filled with the remastered album plus outtakes and alternate versions from the sessions that produced the album plus a live show performed in Los Angeles from October 1982.

A fourth disc contains a DVD with a 5.1 Surround mix of the album along with a 24/96 HiRez stereo version for those folks who really enjoy hearing their music spread out around them or all polished up in pristine high quality sound.

A vinyl Lp of the album is also part of the package and adds a nice touch of vintage that makes this package a real treat – at least for me.

As for the album, it’s always been one of my favorite Fleetwood Mac albums.

I can see how at the time some critics viewed the album as a retreat back to the style of the mega successful 1977 “Rumours” album after the much more experimental 2 Lp “Tusk” album from 1979 but I’ve always found the album to be quite good especially Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks’ material.

Stevie Nicks in particular was at her vocal peak and could sing anything and infuse it with passion and on these sessions she sounds superb.

Two of her songs, the country tinged “That’s Alright” and the rockier “Straight Back”, are two of my personal favorites of her Fleetwood Mac material and it’s a treat to hear the vinyl album version of the latter song (on CD Disc 2) as it was replaced with a remixed version for the CD age.

The nice thing about this set is that with the addition of the outtake material from the sessions, this set takes on a more “Tusk”ish vibe especially Lindsay Buckingham’s material for it was Buckingham who was the architect of the “Tusk” album and the one most prone to being experimental.

Hearing his works in progress gives me a new appreciation for his material on this album which I’ve always felt could be a bit too quirky for me at times.

Maybe it’s the from the vantage of time or my own advancing age but I like Lindsay’s songs on this album much better now especially the rawer versions of this material on the outtakes disc.

You can now make a nice double album from the material on this new Deluxe Edition which could definitely now be seen as a step brother to the terrific “Tusk” which to this day is my favorite Fleetwood Mac album.

Some of the lovely Stevie Nicks songs like the outtakes “If You Were My Love”and “Smile at You” (later part of the “Say You Will” album) along with Lindsay Buckingham’s very Brian Wilson infused cover of “Cool Water” (which was the B-Side to “Gypsy”) and his “Goodbye Angel” really flesh these sessions out and make for a much more interesting collection of songs.

This album will forever be tied to my sophomore year in high school and one of my first part-time jobs (hanging letters for advertisement signs at a local shopping center) and the video for “Gypsy” which was a stable of the early days of MTV.

Ahhh, to be young again.

With this album I am young once more and through this new set the album takes on a much deeper and eclectic feel through the discarded songs left sitting in Fleetwood Mac’s vaults for all these years.

“And you will fly
Like some little wing
Straight back to the sun
The dream was never over
The dream has just begun”  – Stevie Nicks “Straight Back” from Mirage 

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The Beat Goes on 50 or How I was Dextorized into Submission

1964, what a great year for music!

I remember it well.

Well actually I don’t remember it at all since as I wasn’t born until 1966 but it was a great year for music nonetheless.

Even looking back through the mists of time I can see The Beatles’ music to this day feels like a jolt of dynamite compared to what music was popular before them especially in the few years right before they broke in America.

Ah, America. Now we’ve come to the point of this particular post – The Beatles American albums.

Love ’em or leave ’em, The Beatles U.S. Capitol albums tend to generate a lot of heated discussion for fans all over the Net as those who love them are really passionate about them.

I, for one, grew up listening to the American albums and loved them at the time. I’m a second generation fan who first got the Beatles bug listening to the The Beatles 1962-1966 set (the “Red Album”) in 1975 a couple of years after it was released.

Shortly thereafter my grandmother bought me a copy of “The Beatles Second Album” (a copy on the Apple label lol) in a Sears store no less because  I was fascinated by the cover that was filled with photos from The Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show from February 1964.

Now, fast forward to 2014 and the 50th anniversary of The Beatles landing in America.

Capitol Records and Apple (The Beatles company Apple, not the computer company) decided to commemorate the event by issuing “The Beatles U.S. Albums” box set with the CDs also available to purchase separately.

“The Beatles U.S. Albums” set comes in a study box with a slip out tray to hold the CDs and includes a nice, thick booklet that’s chock full of good information (and photos) about the U.S. Beatles Capitol album.

The box set has the added draw of the exclusive appearance of “The Beatles Story”, a somewhat cheesy audio documentary of the group that was issued on Lp in 1964.

Of course most Beatles freaks have a soft spot for the album and Capitol wanted to entice them into buying the whole box – bingo, it worked lol!

Anyway, there was a lot of buzz on music Internet sites about the fact that instead of making direct transfers of the Capitol albums from the American Capitol master tapes, Capitol and Apple decided to mostly use the 2009 UK mono and stereo remasters and only use the unique Capitol mono and stereo mixes where appropriate.

There were a few songs mixed especially for Capitol that only exist on the U.S. album masters – thus that is what I refer to as being unique Capitol mixes.

You see the American Capitol albums were vastly different to the UK Parlophone issues. The UK albums mainly contained 14 songs and almost never had the hit singles on them. Singles were considered a separate thing in Britain, at least by The Beatles.

The U.S. albums usually had 11 or 12 songs and always contained the hit singles on them to entice buyers.

Capitol, or Dave Dexter who was assigned by Capitol to oversee The Beatles U.S. albums, had a tendency to add echo to the albums as well and make mono tracks that weren’t available in stereo into fake stereo or Duophonic as they called it.

The Capitol albums also had vastly different lineups than their British counterparts. The different lineups and shorter song selections created much more product for Capitol as there are many more U.S. albums than what The Beatles issued in the UK.

Having said all that, there is a place for the U.S. albums as they are historic artifacts of the time and valuable to go back to as that is how The Beatles broke in the U.S. and it is the way U.S. fans were introduced to The Beatles work.

Over time I have come to be more a fan of the original UK releases as I believe that is what The Beatles and their producer George Martin had intended at the time and it is how the remaining Beatles feel their legacy should be viewed or enjoyed.

A lot of Beatles fans are still, over three years later, really miffed that Capitol didn’t use the exact tapes that originally generated these U.S. Capitol albums.

For me it’s not a big issue and I’ll tell you why.

Firs off, Capitol and Apple DID release the first eight U.S. Capitol Beatles albums in 2004 and 2006 in two box sets called “The Beatles Capitol Albums” Vol. 1 and 2 which DID use the exact Capitol tapes with all the echo and fake stereo in all its glory.

And I’m so glad they did as those sets are a great timepiece and the Capitol albums are a fun listen especially “The Beatles Second Album” where the added echo actually works to make the songs really pop out at you and rock a bit harder.

Some of the Capitol albums – Meet the Beatles, The Beatles Second Album, Rubber Soul -work quite well in their Capitol forms.

Most of the time though the Capitol albums feel like the hodge podge collections they are and I prefer the clean, crisp sound of the original UK versions. The U.S. albums were a few generations removed from the original UK tapes and you can tell it by the sometimes muffled and distorted sound of the Capitol tapes.

BUT for the first time with the 2014 “The Beatles U.S. Albums” set I feel like I have the best of both worlds – great UK sound with the unique Capitol lineups. The sound of this new set is impeccable!

“The Beatles U.S. Albums” includes both mono and stereo mixes on one CD and has fantastic mini cover reproductions of the Capitol albums in sturdy cardboard as well as reproductions of the groovy Capitol inner sleeves.

Plus the mono mixes are true mono now as many of the early Capitol albums used a process where they folded down the stereo master to create fake mono and then added echo on top of that – jeesh.

To me this new set is just an extension of Capitol using the best sources to compile new immaculate versions of these historic albums.

Throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s Capitol often upgraded the sound of the Capitol albums by substituting better sources than they originally used.

Some purists vehemently hate this set but remarkably I’m not one of them. I love everything about this set and now it is my go to for listening to the Beatles early music.

Most of the unique Capitol mixes (mixes only available in U.S. and not on UK albums) are here and sound great. They missed three unique stereo mixes from the “Yesterday and Today” album but those stereo mixes were upgrades that didn’t appear until the late 60s or early 70s and weren’t available on original pressings.

Sure I’d love to have them but I can see the reasoning for making these albums represent the mixes of the first issues, well mostly.

One note: they did use the 1987 stereo remixes George Martin did for the “Help!” and “Rubber Soul” CDs which IS one of the flaws of this set. Thy should have used original stereo mixes but the new CDs sound great despite that mistake.

The 2009 masters also sound better on this set as I read that they were re-transferred from directly from the HiRez source and the mono and stereo are the same volume which gives a nice edge to the mono versions, I feel anyway.

Truly superb is how I would rate this set!

If you buy the titles individually, you may note that the labels on the individual CDs are a bit different. The CDs in the box have the original vinyl album catalog numbers on the discs where the individual ones don’t (see photos below).

The publishing info is a bit different on the labels as well between the box and individually. Nitpicky I know but that’s the kind of stuff collectors love to know. Trust me.

Oh and you also get a cool “Butcher Cover” (a story for another day) and a trunk cover sticker for the “Yesterday and Today” CD. This CD is like that whether you buy the box or individually (again, see photo below).

You’re never going to convince the naysayers, who do have a valid point, but for the novice fan or someone who bought these albums in this form originally these recreations will surely please, please.

It’s probably the obsessives anyway that even remotely care that the original vinyl had extra echo, etc.

Have a gander at the set below as well as the single releases with the black Japanese obi looking strips (yes, I couldn’t resist owning both, it’s a sickness lol!) and the promo CD for the set to boot!

It will take you back in time or let you experience another era from bygone days.

Happy Beatleing!!!

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