In December 1967, The Beatles released Magical Mystery Tour, an EP that contained six new songs written as the score for an original Beatles film. Author Mark Lewisohn has pointed out that until Abbey Road, all Beatles recordings were released in mono and stereo. The Beatles themselves were only directly involved in the mono mix, while George Martin and EMI staff engineers would typically create the stereo version at a later date. (Lewisohn 1988, p. 108) However, it seems that as early as Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles and their collaborators were actively exploring the aesthetic potential of stereo sound. Individual tracks from the stereo version of Magical Mystery Tour exhibit remarkable sonic qualities when one listens alternately to the right and left channels. The following discussion will examine three tracks from the stereo version of Magical Mystery Tour (Flying, Blue Jay Way, and I Am The Walrus) in order to highlight the peculiar aesthetic qualities created by stereo mixing. Using the work of Marshall McLuhan as a guide, it will pay particular attention to the ways in which the stereo versions create a context in which the listener has the option of choosing from various musical elements in the mix.
In 1966, The Beatles permanently retired from live performance. This remarkable decision had a profound impact on the group’s creative process, since they now had more time to experiment freely in the recording studio. In an interview with this writer on 5 August 2003, Beatles confidante Peter Brown pointed out that: “…prior to ’66, albums were made between tours. They were squeezed in because there was a finite amount of time to produce them. Once they stopped touring, there was nothing else to do. There was no other call on their time except recording, and so there was the freedom of time so they could experiment more, and this they took great advantage of.” (MacFarlane 2007, p. 154)
In June 1967, The Beatles released the celebrated album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In addition to its many noteworthy musical features, this album signaled the group’s full integration of recording technology into the compositional process. In the book, Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald described the way in which The Beatles and their collaborators realized Sgt. Pepper’s final track, “A Day in the Life”:
“McCartney had decided that the 24-bar bridges would be filled by a full symphony orchestra going from its lowest to its highest note in an unsynchronised slide – a ‘freak out’ or ‘aural happening’. Charged with realising this, George Martin halved the number of players and scored the glissando individually to ensure the right ‘random’ effect. Rather than a chaotic tone-cluster, each player was asked to finish on whichever note in the E major triad was nearest the highest note on his instrument. A second four-track machine was slaved to the one running The Beatles’ own stereo track (the first time this had ever been tried in a British studio) and each orchestral glissando was recorded in mono four times before being mixed back to the master as a single monstrous noise (presumably remixed with ADT to take up the spare track).” (MacDonald 1994, p. 183)
The Beatles’ next project, Magical Mystery Tour, was a record and a film that attempted to sustain the experimental style of Sgt. Pepper. The origins of this work are almost as intriguing as the music itself…
“When Paul McCartney was in the USA in early April 1967 he came up with the idea for a Beatles television film about a mystery tour on a coach, and during the flight home on 11 April he jotted down his ideas. He showed them to the other Beatles when they got together a few days later and by the end of that day, between the four of them, a 60-minute `special’ was conceived: Magical Mystery Tour.” (Lewisohn 1988, p. 110)
Opinions differ as to the relative merits of Magical Mystery Tour. Producer George Martin noted that The Beatles “…were into their random period – they said `If Laurence Olivier walks in this room we’ll record it and it’ll be great’. All that sort of thing, the John Cage influence. It was chaotic…Some of the sounds weren’t very good. Some were brilliant but some were bloody awful. `I Am The Walrus’ was organised — it was organized chaos. I’m proud of that.” (Lewisohn 1988, p. 122) Engineer Geoff Emerick sensed that there “…was something lacking about Magical Mystery Tour. It wasn’t going to be another album, or another single, it was probably going to be a film. It was a funny period.” (Lewisohn 1988, p. 122) Peter Brown claimed that the project “…was a mess, because Paul in his typical fashion, wouldn’t listen to anyone and just got on with, “Let’s do something,” which really was probably right, but at the same time, it wasn’t properly planned.” (MacFarlane 2007, p. 155)
In spite of the confusion surrounding the making of the film, the musical results were very satisfying. Still, the recordings themselves remain something of an anomaly. As previously noted, until Abbey Road, all Beatles albums were released in mono and stereo. As indicated by authors Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew, “…the Beatles themselves had little interest in stereo, actively participating in mono mixes, but usually leaving the stereo mixes in the hands of Geoff Emerick and George Martin.” (Ryan and Kehew 2006, p. 428) But evidence also suggests that, during the sessions for Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles and their collaborators were keenly aware of the expressive potential of stereo sound.
The Medium is the Message: Mono or Stereo / Hot or Cool?
In the film Annie Hall (1977), the character of Alvy Singer settles an argument with a haughty college professor regarding the differences between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media. He does this by magically pulling Marshall McLuhan himself into the scene.
It’s the influence of television. Now
Marshall McLuhan deals with it in terms
of it being high – uh, a high intensity, you
understand? A hot medium as opposed
to – as opposed to print.
What I wouldn’t give for a large sock with
horse manure in it. (To camera) What do you
do when you get stuck in a movie line with a
guy like this behind you? It’s just maddening!
Wait a minute, why can’t I give my opinion?
It’s a free country!
I mean, do you have to give it so loud? I mean,
aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that? And
the funny part of it is – you don’t know anything
about Marshall McLuhan’s work!
Really? Really? I happen to teach a class at
Columbia called “TV, Media, and Culture.”
So I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan,
well, have a great deal of validity.
Oh, do you?
Well, that’s funny, because I happen to
have Mr. McLuhan right here. So here,
just let me – come over here for a second.
Marshall McLuhan enters.
I heard what you were saying. You know
nothing of my work. You mean my whole
fallacy is wrong. How you ever got to teach
a course in anything is totally amazing.
(To the camera)
Boy, if life were only like this!
(Annie Hall, 1977)
This encounter, drawn from the comedic mind of Woody Allen, is not only the highpoint of a very funny film; it also emphasizes the continuing relevance of a lanky Canadian named Marshall McLuhan.
Marshall McLuhan, the father of media studies, was born in Edmonton, Alberta in 1911. (McLuhan, Zingrone 1995, p. 1) McLuhan’s specialty was English literature, but as his career progressed, he began to develop a fascination with media, and ultimately came to believe that…“All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical.” (McLuhan, Fiore & Agel 1967, p. 26) His phrase, “The Medium is the Message,” stresses that media “…are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The groundrules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns of environments elude easy perception.” (McLuhan, Fiore & Agel 1967, p. 68)
McLuhan asserted a distinction between, what he called, ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media. In an interview given in March 1969, he clarified the differences:
“Basically, a hot medium excludes and a cool medium includes; hot media are low in participation, or completion, by the audience and cool media are high in participation…In any case, the overwhelming majority of our technologies and entertainments since the introduction of print technology have been hot, fragmented and exclusive, but in the age of television we see a return to cool values and the inclusive in-depth involvement and participation they engender. This is, of course, just one more reason why the medium is the message…” (McLuhan, Zingrone 1995, p. 236)
|Renaissance painting||Abstract Art|
Table 1: Hot vs. Cool – Examples (adapted from Federman 2005, p. 2)
As one engages with McLuhan’s descriptions of technological artifacts, it becomes clear that his ideas are consistent with those of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), who developed phenomenology as an investigation into the nature and content of human consciousness. Husserl’s approach stresses the suspension of natural beliefs in order to better understand the essence of phenomena. To experience something in this way requires the bracketing out of all that is non-essential. (Ferrara 1991, p. 63) In an effort to facilitate this process, Husserl developed two phenomenological reductions: The first, the Epoche, is an attempt to bracket out any biases regarding the object; the second, the Eidetic, is an engagement with the essential characteristics of the object. (Ferrara 1991, p. 64-66)
The following section will present a phenomenological analysis of two songs from Magical Mystery Tour: Flying, and Blue Jay Way. Patterned on the work of Edmund Husserl, this analysis will focus on the right channel of the stereo versions of each track. Since it will also endeavor to engage the stereo mix as a technological artifact, this discussion will be guided by Marshall McLuhan’s ideas regarding the interactive nature of ‘cool’ media.
Flying to Blue Jay Way
The basic tracks of Flying (takes 1-6) were recorded in Abbey Road’s Studio Three on 8 September 1967. (Lewisohn 1988, p. 123) The session was produced by George Martin, and engineered by Geoff Emerick, and Richard Lush. Further overdubs were added on 28 September 1967. The musicians on the final mix were John Lennon: mellotron, vocal; Paul McCartney: guitar, bass guitar, vocal; George Harrison: guitar, vocal; and Ringo Starr: drums, maracas, vocal. (MacDonald 1994, p. 217)
Phenomenological Description: Flying
The track begins in the left channel. Although the right channel is silent, faint music can be heard in the distance. At 0:13, an electric guitar enters on the right channel playing an arpeggiated chordal pattern. The sound is warm and soothing. A foot that is quietly beating the pulse can be heard below. At 0:21, the guitar plays a descending pattern. At 0:31, a keyboard enters. It is punctuated by gentle tapping on maracas. The electric guitar continues, but now plays single notes in the lower register. At 0:52, the guitar re-states the descending line first heard at 0:21.
At 1:02, a chorus of male voices joins the instrumental ensemble. They intone a rising melodic line that suggests hopeful resolve. The voices seem encouraged by the instrumental ensemble, which now includes a flute-like keyboard line. The electric guitar expands the line first heard at 0:31, now with enhanced linear motion (rising and falling). At 1:30, the instrumental ensemble and voices give way to a series of electronic sounds (guitars, keyboards?) that seem strangely altered. These sounds noodle aimlessly before fading away into silence at 2:19.
Blue Jay Way
The basic tracks of Blue Jay Way were recorded in Abbey Road’s Studio Two on 6 September 1967 and 7 September 1967. (Lewisohn 1988, p. 123) The session was produced by George Martin, and engineered by Geoff Emerick, and Ken Scott. Further overdubs were added on 6 October 1967. The musicians on the final track are George Harrison: double-tracked vocal, backing vocal, Hammond organ; Paul McCartney: backing vocal, bass guitar; John Lennon: backing vocal; and Ringo Starr: drums, tambourine. (MacDonald 1994, p. 216)
Phenomenological Description: Blue Jay Way
The track begins in the left channel. Although the right channel is silent, the faint swell of an organ can be heard between 0:02-0:08 (headphone leakage?). A rising organ line begins at 0:09 (continued headphone leakage?). A slurred cello line enters on the right channel at 0:18. At 0:22, a sleepy vocal enters with the words, “There’s a fog upon L.A.” At 0:26, a vocal chorus in the upper register answers the main vocal. The chorus fades in and out very quickly, and is accompanied by what sounds like a reversed cymbal. This pattern continues until 0:48 with slight pitch alteration in the vocal chorus.
At 0:48, the main vocal begins a new melodic pattern in a higher register with the words, “Please don’t be long. Please don’t you be very long. Please don’t be long. Or, I may be asleep.” In the background, a percussive pulse can be heard (headphone leakage?). At 1:06, a brief swell of instruments appears and then recedes. At 1:08, the main vocal reiterates the pattern first heard between 0:22-0:48. This time, there is variation in the vocal chorus, and increased activity in the cello line.
At 1:32, the main vocal reiterates the pattern first heard between 0:48-1:06. The tambourine taps out the pulse. The vocal chorus answers the main vocal, while the cello line plays freely throughout. At 1:50, the main vocal once again reiterates the pattern heard at 0:48 and 1:32. The vocal chorus continues to answer the main vocal, as the cello plays freely. In addition to the tambourine, a drum kit becomes faintly audible. At 2:13, the track repeats the pattern heard at 0:48 and 1:32. At 3:20, a new melodic variation is heard with the words, “Don’t be long,” which is then answered by the cello at 3:31. A brief organ swell is heard at 3:34. At 3:45, vocals, cello, and percussion recede leaving only the organ, which fades slowly into silence at 3:51.
In both Flying and Blue Jay Way, one is struck by the fragmentary nature of the audio data presented on the right channel. Instruments and vocals enter in a random fashion that suggests the logic of a dream. Since these tracks are very well known, one continually searches for the missing elements in order to create a sense of completion. At the same time, the audible material is very well balanced from the standpoint of musical timbre, thereby suggesting that these are alternate versions of the original tracks.
McLuhan’s Method: The Tetrad
As previously noted, McLuhan’s ongoing attempts to accurately describe the nature of various media connect him with the descriptive phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. At the same time, his interest in the cultural changes wrought by technical innovation resonates with the hermeneutic phenomenology of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who described how listeners understand the “life-world” of a composer of the past through the historical traditions that embody both. (Ferrara 1991, xvi-xvii)
McLuhan was increasingly fascinated by man’s origins in tribal (oral) cultures. Such cultures “live in an acoustic, horizonless, boundless, olfactory space, rather than in a visual space.” (McLuhan, Fiore & Agel 1967, p. 57) This ‘acoustic space’ was later abolished by the development of the phonetic alphabet, which in turn spawned the literate, visually based societies of the West. In a televised interview on 4 Jan 1971, McLuhan articulated the differences between literate (visual) and pre-literate (oral) cultures:
“The visual man has very much an inclination to make things contain things, but visual space has very peculiar properties. Static, most people think of space as static… as something that is constant, that is, between you and me there are so many inches or so many measures and that those are the same no matter who’s sitting there. To a pre-literate man space has no static properties at all, they’re entirely determined by the people or things that are involved in the spatial relationship, so that a person is thought of as creating his own kind of space and not as being inside space. The pre-literate man, the man who lives more by ear than by eye does not think of himself as being in space at all.” (http://www.ubu.com/sound/mcluhan.html)
The following table highlights the differences between visual and acoustical ways-of-knowing as manifest in the functions of the right and left hemispheres of the human brain.
(Controls right side of body)
(Controls left side of body)
|Linear, Detailed||Artistic, Symbolic|
Table 2: Functions of the Human Brain (adapted from McLuhan, Powers, 1989, p. 9)
The transition from acoustic to visual space, initiated by phonetic literacy, was intensified by the invention of the printing press. The shift created by this technology spawned a mechanical culture, which in turn gave birth to the “Electric Age.” The resultant cultural ‘speed-up’ engendered a return to the acoustical space of tribal man. In The Medium is the Massage (1967), McLuhan described the effects of this process:
“Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men. It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale. Its message is Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism. The old civic, state, and national groupings have become unworkable. Nothing can be further from the spirit of the new technology than ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’ You can’t go home again.” (McLuhan, Fiore & Agel 1967, p. 16)
In his later work, McLuhan developed the Tetrad as the means for exploring the effects of technology on culture. The Tetrad is a series of questions one may ask of any new technological artifact in an effort to ascertain its ultimate effects:
1) What does any artifact amplify or enhance?
2) What does it erode or obsolesce?
3) What does it retrieve that had been earlier obsolesced?
4) What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the full limit of its potential
(McLuhan, Powers 1989, p. 9)
This fourfold process helps re-contextualize the technological artifact, thereby bringing right and left-brain processes back into balance. The significance of the Tetrad is further clarified in The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (1989):
“The tetrad, as a right-hemisphere visualization, helps us to see both figure and ground at a time when the latent effects of the mechanical age tend to obscure the ground subliminally. Its chief utility is that it raises the hidden ground to visibility, enabling the analyst to perceive the double action of the visual (left hemisphere) and the acoustic (right hemisphere) in the life of the artifact or idea. As such, the tetrad performs the function of myth in that it compresses past, present, and future into one through the power of simultaneity. The tetrad illumines the borderline between acoustic and visual space as an arena of spiraling repetition and replay, both of input and feedback, interlace and interface in the area of an imploded circle of rebirth and metamorphosis.” (McLuhan, Powers 1989, p. 9)
By adapting McLuhan’s Tetrad to focus on the shift from mono to stereo sound, it may be possible to explore the ways in which The Beatles’ active incorporation of recording technology into their compositional process reflected a cultural movement from ‘hot’ to ‘cool’ media.
The following section will present an examination of I Am the Walrus. The analysis will focus on the right and left channels alternately, and will be followed by a phenomenological account of the experience. As in the two previous examples, this discussion will be informed by McLuhan’s ideas regarding the nature of media. However, it will also employ the Tetrad in order to ascertain the work’s possible meanings with regard to the cultural shifts engendered by technological innovation.
I Am the Walrus (“‘No you’re not!’ said Little Nicola.”)
Takes 1-16 of I am the Walrus were recorded in Abbey Road’s Studio One on 5 September 1967. The session was produced by George Martin, and engineered by Geoff Emerick, Ken Scott, and Richard Lush. (Lewisohn 1988, p. 122) The musicians on the final recording were as follows: John Lennon: lead vocals, electric piano, mellotron and tambourine; Paul McCartney: bass guitar; George Harrison: electric guitar; Ringo Starr: drums; Sidney Sax, Jack Rothstein, Ralph Elman, Andrew McGee, Jack Greene, Louis Stevens, John Jezzard, Jack Richards: violins; Lionel Ross, Eldon Fox, Bram Martin, Terry Weil: cellos; Gordon Lewin: clarinet; Neil Sanders, Tony Tunstall, Morris Miller: horns; The Mike Sammes Singers: backing vocals. (MacDonald 1994, p. 212)
I Am The Walrus is especially relevant to this study, since it expressively combines mono and stereo mixing within the same track. Engineer Geoff Emerick explains that this effect was achieved by splicing two different mixes together:
“Ken [Scott] engineered the mono mix, but I was asked to do the stereo mix when I returned from vacation. We tried twiddling the radio dial that time, too, but the results weren’t as much to John’s liking as the Shakespearean play he happened to tune into during the mono mix, so we had to splice the end of the original mix in. We flanged it in order to spread the signal out in stereo, but avid listeners can still hear the image shift dramatically after the splice point…” (Emerick 2006, p. 215)
Phenomenological Description: I Am the Walrus
The track begins in the left channel with electronic keyboard sounds in a gentle rocking motion. Between 0:02 – 0:03, the analyst pans to the entrance of the right channel. A prominent string section in the lower register is heard, with no trace of keyboards. At 0:13, a drum riff signals the beginning of the song proper. Lead vocals enter at 0:20. The texture is thick and spacious. At 0:33, rising horns punctuate the opening section. Between 0:56-1:00, high-pitched vocals alternate with the lead vocal, while the cellos play a repeating microtonal slide.
At 1:02, the analyst pans back to the left channel, which features the rhythm section and the lead vocal, but no strings. The sound is full, but strangely metallic. At approximately 2:00, the splice point between the stereo mix and the original mono mix is heard. The radio feed from a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear now becomes audible. Between 2:02-2:03, the left channel cuts out. At this point, the analyst initiates a gradual pan to the right channel, which sustains the silence on the left. Between 2:16-2:17, the left channel is slowly faded up, revealing that the sound image has shifted dramatically from stereo to mono.
From 2:17 until the end of the track, the texture is consistently thick and full, yet no longer spacious. Since the listener cannot move freely through the audio field, the overall sound could be described as claustrophobic. This quality is intensified by a lead vocal chant (“Jooba, jooba, jooba”) at 3:24, an additional vocal chant by the chorus (Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper – everybody’s got one, everybody’s got one…”) at 3:30, and distorted radio tuning sounds at 3:33. Ultimately, the entire track dissolves into a sea of white noise at 4:33.
I Am the Walrus (Tetrad)
1 The first two minutes of I Am the Walrus amplify individual participation through active listening. As on the previous tracks (Flying, Blue Jay Way), the listener is encouraged to explore the gaps and intervals that exist between the various elements in the stereo mix.
2 The first two minutes of I Am the Walrus obsolesce passive listening (the mono mix). The high definition mono mix has now given way to a more fragmentary stereo field that invites listener participation.
3 The first two minutes of I Am the Walrus retrieve the hunter-gatherer, as the listener becomes a hunter in search of audio data in the stereo ‘field.’ The listener moves through the audio ‘image’ at will, and is thus encouraged to find possible connections between disparate elements in the mix.
4 Initially, I Am the Walrus offers increased participation in the stereo field. But at approximately 2:00, the track reverses suddenly into mono (high definition – low participation), thereby dramatizing how a medium, when pushed to the limits of its power, will flip into the opposite form. (A loop that leads back to mono via surround sound?)
Individual tracks from The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour exhibit remarkable qualities when one explores the particulars of the stereo mix. An analysis that focuses alternately on the right and left channels reveals the presence of gaps between the various musical elements of each song. As a result, the listener is encouraged to actively explore the audio field in order to find new connections and possible meanings therein.
Magical Mystery Tour thus resonates with Marshall McLuhan’s work regarding the essential nature, and cultural effects, of electronic media. Remarkably, Lennon’s I Am The Walrus begins cool (stereo), but ends hot (mono), thereby creating a reverse narrative of the historical development from mono to stereo sound. At the same time, I Am The Walrus could also be seen as a mythical rendering of the Tetrad’s assertion that any medium, when pushed to its outer limits, will flip into its opposite form.
In From Cliché to Archetype, McLuhan pointed out that the philosopher Giambattista Vico believed “…that all ancient fables and tales are really records of moments of technical breakthrough…” (McLuhan, Watson 1970, p. 125) On Magical Mystery Tour, through their ongoing engagement of recorded sound, The Beatles create a technological fable (myth) that charts the cultural journey from hot to cool media, from low participation to active completion…
About The Author
New York University
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