It’s the time of year for saving money!
This is a curious little comparison folks as its one of those instances where a known digital remaster sounds better than an earlier analog pressing.
That sort of thing conceptually can befuddle many audiophiles who assume that an original analog pressing of any sort is always the best thing. But you see folks, as I learned in High School history class — a point driven home by my teacher who even wrote it in my year book as I was leaving — there are always multiple causes for everything!
Case in point is the rare first full length album by San Francisco’s own Flamin’ Groovies. One of those groups revered for their authentic and passionate rock and roll which seemed to get lost in the sauce of time even though they were sharing stages with the likes of Iggy & The Stooges, the MC5, Mountain, Commander Cody, Boz Scaggs, Cold Blood, Cactus, Mitch Ryder, Sopwith Camel, Barry McGuire and many others. One of the Flamin’ Groovies’ albums (Teenage Head) is even rumored to have been closely studied (admired?) by none other than Mick Jagger for its pure raunchy rock ‘n roll that arguably outshines The Stones’ own Exile On Main Street.
But this review is about the band’s first full length album called Supersnazz which was put out by Epic Records in 1969. A wonderful listen, the album is in some ways a tad disjointed, with slinky covers like “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and rockers like Eddie Cochran’s “Something’ Else.” Often seen as one of the precursors to the power pop movement of the mid-late 70s, the reality is that the Flamin’ Groovies were mining some of the same blues based boogie rock twists on the jugband flavors many other bands around the world were mixing in to their sound such as The Lovin’ Spoonful, Savoy Brown, Badfinger, etc. Some of the songs have an acoustic flavor with Beatle overtones, other tunes such as “The First One’s Free.” “Pagan Rachel” might have been an B-side outtake from The Kinks Village Green Preservation Society era (1968) with tack piano and campy “ooh la la” refrain.
Whatever the case, that was then and this is now and we, as listeners have matured a great deal so in many ways it is now much easier for us to enjoy the rollercoaster ride of styles and sounds the band was putting out than, say, the music many were listening around that time. You were either pegged as a hard rock band (Hendrix, Cream, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Mountain, Blue Cheer, etc.), psychedelic rock (Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Moody Blues, Procol Harum) or mining the rootsy country folk blues back woods band (Crosby Stills & Nash, The Band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Byrds, even The Rolling Stones for that matter). And thus bands like The Flamin’ Groovies, The Pretty Things and The Kinks were overlooked by the mass buying public. Heck, just look at the trajectory early David Bowie took in the mid-to-late 1960s, jumping trends from theatrical pop to free-festival hippie folk until he found life on Mars with a band called the Spiders which led him to fame and fortune — it wasn’t easy for artists to find their niche.
Music history lesson aside — you really don’t need any justification for listening to a band like The Flamin’ Groovies! — Supersnazz came and went in a heartbeat back in the day and quickly became a sought after collectors item. Heck, I remember being in the 7th or 8th grade in the mid-70s and seeing this very album displayed on the walls of hip used record shops which I was beginning to frequent — it was one of those expensive, desirable and rare records well out of the realm of my non-existent teenage budget.
I never did find a copy at a garage sale back in the day…
And it wasn’t until relatively recently at a record collector’s swap meet sale that I bought a almost perfect condition late 70s pressing for $15. I figured I couldn’t lose as (a) finding an original pressing was next to impossible (b) import pressings were almost as pricey and rare as the originals and (c) I had never seen a late 70s pressing of this before. Similar in the way that early 80s Columbia-era Paul McCartney reissues are now desired among collectors for their better sound and scarcity, this Blue-label Epic pressing was very clean and sounded quite good, especially in comparison to some CD copies Supersnazz which I’d picked up along the way.
When I put on the newer reissue from the good folks at Music On Vinyl, which in fact was mastered from a 96 kHz, 24-bit digital source, the sonic difference was immediately apparent. Firstly, there is a distinct sense of air and space not present on the blue label Epic pressing. The bass is larger and rounder while the mid ranges and highs present a more complete picture of the music.
Reading that last paragraph back to myself, the copy I wrote there feels like so much audiophile blather that is often lost on most people. So for the rest of us, I’ll re-invent my description: Firstly, you can hear more of the room sound that the band was recording in on this new pressing, a presence that is not apparent on the blue label Epic pressing. The drum and bass guitar sounds are fuller while the acoustic guitars cut through the mix neatly alongside the amplified electrics. You can hear more of the high end sparkle from cymbals, bells and other percussive elements.
That feels better…
Meanwhile, back to that digital vs. analog discussion, you might be wondering why would a most-likely all analog pressing might sound less dynamic than a digital remaster? There could be many reasons (remember my high school teacher’s comment I mentioned earlier?). There may have been more compression put on the recording in that particular LP mastering stage. Another possibility is the issue of which tape was actually used to make this LP? Was it the master tape? Was it a safety copy? Was it a dub of a dub? Each generation of copying added hiss and reduced fidelity. Added hiss may have been EQ’d out at some point along the way, thus potentially reducing the dynamics of the recording.
Case in point: on “The Girl Can’t Help It,” the drums sound like they have a wet towel on the snare, with the drum kit recorded in a room far away from rest of the band. On the Music On Vinyl version, the drums sound more alive, you can hear more of the smack of the drum snares.The time counting hits to the closed high hats is all but buried on the blue label Epic pressing. The vocals sound is much more distinct and alive on this new version. You can make out that there are a couple saxophone parts playing in the background on this new Music On Vinyl version, not just one as it sounds on the blue label pressing. Roy Loney’s “A Part From That” sounds quite glorious with its Beatles-meet-The-Left-Banke-flavored proto-ELO cellos and Brit-inspired vocals.
There is a greater sense of stereo separation on this reissue. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that the thick, dark 180-gram vinyl is dead quiet and perfectly centered, something I can’t say about most domestic US vinyl from the mid-late 70s and early 80s. The album comes complete with the fine (and fun!) original artwork reproduced in super high quality. Period accurate yellow Epic Records labels grace each side of the disc. Music On Vinyl did a nice job on this!
So, bottom line, is this Music On Vinyl the definitive version of Supersnazz? For most of us it will be a fine fine upgrade. Sure, it would be great to get my hands on a super clean original 1969 Epic Records pressing, which would be relatively easy if I wanted to spent upwards of $100 or more. But… well… for an album that is generally rare as hens teeth in any condition, I am not going to hold my breath on that happening any time soon. So for now, this pressing is a great sounding alternative to seeking out a rare original copy. And you can find it on Amazon for less than $30. That is a supersnazzy price for an album from one of the granddaddy bands of power pop and punk flavored rock and roll.
Supersnazzy… I like that word.
Everyone should have some supersnazzy music from The Flamin’ Groovies.
And Music on Vinyl’s version is a supersnazzy place to start building your Flamin’ Groovies collection.