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Listening Report: Hedwig & The Angry Inch First Time Vinyl

Mark Smotroff prefers to flip his wig at 33 1/3 RPM…

Last week I learned that the original cast recording of the groundbreaking late 1990’s rock musical called Hedwig And The Angry Inch has just been released on vinyl for the first time. This show is arguably one of the most important musical events of the period breaking down social and conceptual walls. This was done all the while delivering some of the most powerful pure rock songwriting since the heyday of many of the show’s musical influences including David Bowie, Iggy Pop, T-Rex, Alice Cooper and Mott The Hoople. 

Many of you know about Hedwig And The Angry Inch from the fabulous movie version released in 2001. As much as I love the film, the ultimate way to experience Hedwig is on the live theatrical stage and I’m grateful that I was a relatively early fan of Hedwig’s original off broadway production as performed in The Jane Street Theater in New York City. This is not really as obvious as it may seem given that I live in Northern California, not Manhattan where the show was an off-Broadway cult hit. 

Let me share a bit about my Hedwig travelogue…. 

When my late partner — who was a massive student of and expert on all things vocal musical theater — first got this original cast recording of Hedwig and played it for me I was utterly gobsmacked. It was like I was hearing an alternate version of the entire early 1970s glam rock movement, encapsulated.  These fantastic songs performed with such authority that they could easily playlist alongside Mott’s “All The Young Dudes,” Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” T-Rex’s “Bang A Gong” and Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” and so many others.  And then there is the incredible story of Hedwig which these tunes tell…

Soon enough, we were flying to New York to see Hedwig, grabbing the first tickets we could get and building our trip around the show. We sat toward the right of the stage as I remember.  Michael Cerveris was our Hedwig (I think he was the second Hedwig, who also triumphed in the Broadway production of Pete Townshend’s Tommy). The show was utterly fantastic — it was everything I imagined and dreamed it might be and more. 

I think the core band was the same as on the original cast album so it really resonated for me hearing them live after immersing myself in the album which was only available on Compact Disc up until now).

The new first time vinyl edition of Hedwig released by Rhino Records as part of its “Rocktober” series of featured reissues — which you’ll need to go to your favorite independent music store to purchase — goes a long way to improve the sound over the original 1999 compact disc. The drums and bass are so much more present on this edition its like a night and day experience.  The snarling electric guitars are ripping, rich and round. The acoustic guitars are delicate and woody.  John Cameron Mitchell’s lead vocals as Hedwig sound fuller and more defined than on the CD version. 

Generally I’m quite happy to have this album on vinyl in any form so it is good to know that it generally sounds good, at times great. If I have any complaint its that the pretty pink colored vinyl is a wee bit noisy at times, only really noticeable on one or two quieter tracks and in the silence between tracks.  One of my discs was a little off center but it wasn’t a terrible deal breaker ultimately. 

The great part is that even for a likely digitally recorded album (hey, it was the late ‘90s) it sounds pretty terrific even when you turn it up loud. 

And really, Hedwig is one of those albums you need to play loudly. 

Some of you may wonder how this earlier version of Hedwig And The Angry Inch’s Original Cast Recording stacks up against the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack? I’ll be frank: as much as I love the film version, I prefer this take on Hedwig which is rawer, more period accurate in its glam-tastic proto punk feel, less polished and more rock and roll. Ultimately, it feels like the performers are giving it everything they’ve got and more. This production feels more apropos to the music. 

You can hear this when comparing versions of the song “Angry Inch.” Both are performed at the same tempo but the movie version sounds tighter, kind of like if Weezer was playing it while the original cast version feels as if the early Ramones were playing it fresh from the stage at CBGBs. “Exquisite Corpse” channels the amphetamine mania of early Sex Pistols and The Clash on the original while the movie version is paced a bit slower and cleaner, a bit more Americanized. The movie versions feel a bit more chunky and chuggy (if you will), akin to Bob Mould’s great band Sugar (which isn’t entirely surprising since he plays guitar on the film version). Again, this isn’t a bad thing but it is worth noting that there is a difference.

Both versions are valid and important however given the the film version has some alternate songs on it vs. the original cast so ultimately you’ll need both in your collection. 

You can find the original cast recording of Hedwig streaming in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz CD quality on Tidal MQA (click here) and Qobuz (click here).  

So, how great is it that Hedwig is out on vinyl and streams for a new generation to discover?!

Now you have no excuse. Go grab your old cigarette lighter out of the drawer, stand up on your chair, lift up your hands, sing along and and turn on your “Midnight Radio” …  

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