It’s the time of year for saving money!
Unless I missed something along the way, it is perhaps quite telling that seemingly nowhere on the original Quadraphonic vinyl LP of Mott The Hoople’s 1974 swan song The Hoople that no one person takes ownership or responsibility for the four-channel mix. This is only magnified by the new SACD reissue of the album from Dutton Vocalion which likewise doesn’t quite spell things out clearly other than listing four “remix engineers.” This is exacerbated further by the liner notes not even mentioning that a Quadraphonic mix was created and featured on this actual release!
Does no one want to take responsibility for this thing?
Where do I start? Well, I’ll begin saying that the Stereo mixes on this SACD do sound good. My original UK pressing (orange label CBS Records) sounds a bit warmer but the SACD stereo layer is pretty solid, perhaps with a somewhat brighter high end. I even spot check compared it to CD quality streams on Tidal (click here) and Qobuz (click here) which sound almost as good as the Stereo layer on the SACD, albeit showing a bit more sibilance and crispness on the high end but generally feeling full-bodied and tight-knit.
Those last two couplings I used to describe the Stereo mixes are really important to consider, especially when it comes to rock ’n roll recordings. There are many albums where the essence of the band’s sound rely on the tightness of the mix, an integral factor to the success of the recording. Drums and bass especially are frequently locked in together in the mix, with the kick and snare drums in particular playing off of the low throb of the bassist and vice versa. Together, those elements help to create that “full bodied” sound I mentioned earlier. So, next time you play a favorite rock music track, listen for those kicks and thumps weaving their magic spell.
Some years back I remember reading an article about The Rolling Stones, I think it was around when they released their whole catalog on SACD. Responding to a question about why they hadn’t done any surround sound releases, the person being interviewed — whom I think was Keith Richards, but I can’t remember for certain, thus I’m not formally quoting him here — indicated that one reason was because they feared the music would fall apart when spread out into multiple channels beyond Mono or Stereo.
This is a real concern and one of the reasons why increasingly we hear surround mixes of rock bands where the core rhythm section is anchored tightly in the front and center channels — sometimes almost in Monaural — to hold everything together.
It is like audio glue bonding the mix together… The surround channels get used for guitars and keyboards and the rear surrounds are relegated to studio ambience and selective overdubs that may exist — backing vocals, orchestral strings, horns, solos, etc. Every mix is different but that is the basic concept.
“So how does all this relate to Mott The Hoople and the new Quadraphonic SACD,” you ask?
Well, its no fault of Dutton Vocalion’s but the Quad mix on this SACD is messy. It is one of those cases where things fall apart around you as you listen… that is, until you get to the closing track, “Roll Away The Stone” where the mix changes and suddenly seem reigned in more appropriately presenting the song in all its Phil Spector-meets-Dylan-meets-Bowie splendor. That song makes particular sense both as rock ’n roll presentation and a surround / quadraphonic listening experience.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love immersion and I especially love wild, edgy mixes. But there is a point where someone should have said: “hey, is anyone going to want to listen to this thing more than once if they even get that far?”
What are my problems with the Quadraphonic mix? Well, for starters the drums are generally buried down too low as are the lead vocals. This is even evident when you play the original Quad LP (which I happen to own) and just listen to it in compatible Stereo — vocals and drums are too low in the mix.
The Quad mix often feels like like it is teetering out of control. Listening to operatic-leaning tracks like “Marionette” and the mad “Crash Street Kids” are kind of like being in a small plane being tossed around by turbulent winds while trying to make an emergency landing.
And yet when you listen to the Stereo layer on the SACD, that mix on those corresponding tracks sound just fine.
I can’t help but imagine that whomever made this Quad mix back in the day put all their time into “Roll Away The Stone” and then, perhaps running out of budget, churned out a rough mix of the other songs. And, that became this version of the album.
What about the other two albums on the two SACD set, All The Young Dudes and Mott?
Well, both of those albums are presented in Stereo and for what they are those are fine. They sound like the albums should sound, generally bearing no harsh sonic edges coloring the sound. But, I really dislike the presentation of the albums. You see, Side One of All The Young Dudes is tagged on to the end of the Stereo layer of Disc 1 (the one with The Hoople album). Side Two is at the start of Disc Two, which is fleshed out by the Mott album.
What you end up with are three diffused albums, each of which deserve their own individual discs. Sure that might have bumped up the cost a bit but it might have left room for bonus tracks like outtakes, single mixes and live recordings. I would have rather paid a little more for an expanded edition that honors the original albums a bit more. Breaking up an iconic album like All The Young Dudes just feels wrong.
Anyhow, if you are a Mott The Hoople or Ian Hunter fan with a curiosity for Quadraphonic sound, you’ll probably want to hear this. The Stereo mixes do sound quite nice. But you also might well be satiated by a regular CD or an original vinyl pressing. I know that I’ll be continuing to look for an original UK pressing of some these albums on LP.