Getting It Right (Part 1)

One of my little obsessions involves differences between 45 versions and album versions of the same song. Until recently, it never occurred to me to ask a simple question: Why did record labels release different versions, often in seemingly random ways? There’s one person who would know: the inestimable Yah Shure, former radio man and record expert extraordinaire. He comments here every now and then, and in 2008 he shared his memories of being on the air the night John Lennon died.

So I asked: “I get remixing singles to sound better on the radio, but what’s the purpose of changing only a couple of lines (as on “Couldn’t Get it Right”), releasing multiple edits (as on “All Right Now”), or putting a different performance on the single versus the album (as “Two Tickets to Paradise” seems to be)? Sometimes it seems like it was done mostly to give collectors something else to chase down. Surely there must be other reasons.” Yah Shure responds (I’ve added some links):

Only one reason truly mattered: airplay. With it, platinum riches beckoned. Without it, the world’s best marketing campaign fell unheard in the forest. With few exceptions, it was the single that played the vital role of getting even the biggest album on the radio. The single’s crucial role put it squarely under the microscope, probably more so than any other track from its parent album, assuming it had one at the time of release. The artist, producer, engineer, A&R department, marketing execs and label suits were all riding on the single’s success and often weighed in on what eventually ended up in its grooves. Radio personnel were also consulted at times. Some of this feedback was taken into consideration before, during and after the recording process:

“Less Is More.” David Sandler showed how effective this approach could be on the finished vocal version of Northern Light’s “Minnesota”, after he stripped it down from the initially-intended backing track that wound up on the B-side of the record. The “less is more” approach might have factored into the minor first-verse changes made to “Couldn’t Get It Right,” “Six Man Band” or “Chewy, Chewy,” if the producers were looking to add a slight bit of extra detail to the subsequent verses. Some would call that perfectionism, but even the most subtle alteration may have made a big difference to what the artist or other creative person had in mind, even if few others ever noticed it. On a larger scale, the initial construction and subsequent deconstruction of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” [released in a stripped-down version after being recorded originally with a lot more musical detail] demonstrated how refining this technique could hone a great tune into an exceptional, smash hit.

“More Is More.” Take, for example, Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” mono single. Neil’s second verse vocal was double-tracked, there were a couple spots with some extra tambourine, and there were a few bell chimes under the line beginning with “take my hand in yours, walk with me this day . . .” Somewhere along the line, someone thought the song could use a little spiffing up in those places, and yet, how many people ever took notice? Not that many would now, since the original Uni 45 went out of print decades ago.

Evolution. A new idea or a different approach may have come to the artist after the initial recording was already in the pipeline. I’m speculating here, but this might be why the 45 and LP versions of “Two Tickets To Paradise” were so different. If a single was released well ahead of its first album appearance, a minor tweak, remix, major overhaul or an entirely new recording may have been undertaken for inclusion on the album. The reverse could have also been true if the parent album preceded the release of the single. A perfectionist artist also could have wanted to rectify an earlier performance with which he or she may not have been overly thrilled.

Lyrical revision. A few words or a line may have been changed due to a flub during the initial session (“Laugh At Me” by Sonny Bono) or objections raised by the label, retail or radio.

We’ll continue along this line next time, with more from Yah Shure on the role of good old fashioned screwups, as well as the eagerness of record labels to please radio stations by any means necessary.

2 responses

  1. I love posts along this line. Years ago I read the autobio of Clive Davis (when he had just left Columbia) and he said that Chicago and B,S & T were offended when their singles were edited down. Their “artistic integrity” was offended but their pocket-books were enriched.

    Think of how many extra ears were reached because the following were whittled down:
    Frankenstein, Hocus Pocus, Don’t Fear the Reaper, Smoke on the Water, Money (Pink Floyd), Do it Again (S.Dan) to name but a few.

    Interesting to read about all of these tweaks. About a month ago I first heard Black Crowes’ “Hard to Handle” with horns, never knew that version existed. Same station played a version of “Bad Case of Lovin’ You” that sounded “different”; I then read online that it was sonically “updated.”

    One also realizes that long songs eat up air time, reducing the amount of commercials stations need to air in order to stay in business.

  2. By far, the most important resource online to determine which CD’s contain proper 45 versions, mixes, lengths or just LP versions is Pat Downey;s Top 40MusicOnCD.com. Well worth the annual subscription fee to take a journey through the database.

    Yes, there are many cases where the 45 version has never appeared on CD, so that’s where a decent turntable, quality sound card and really good quality cartridge come into play so you can make a nice, clean vinyl dub.

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