Tag Archives: musical multiverse

Things We Lost in the Fire – The Masters Lost in 2008’s Universal Backlot Fire

There is no commercial analogue playback format that is capable of reproducing the sonic quality of an analogue master. Unless you’re into storing and playing back your digital music as 24 bit WAV files at a sampling rate of 192kHz, there’s no way to come close in the digital realm, either (and how close 24 bit/192kHz actually gets to accurately representing the soundwaves captured, well, that’s a huge can of worms it’s better not to open right now as it’s a side issue).

Whether held on 2-inch analogue tape, or 1-inch, or as digital files on a hard drive, masters are the recording, from which all commercially released mixes of a song are derived. They are the primary source. Let’s say it again: the masters are the recording.

It’s only when we grasp this that we can understand what was lost in the fire on the Universal backlot in 2008, the full details of which have apparently been something of an open secret within the industry but are only now being reported to a wider public thanks to Jody Rosen’s excellent piece for the New York Times Magazine.

In 2008, a fire swept through the backlot, destroying several iconic sets (the New York skyline, the town square from Back to the Future and more) and swiftly consuming a building known to Universal employees as the video vault. That would have been bad enough, but the vault also contained a large store of audio masters. Rosen itemises what has been lost:

There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland. The tape masters for Billie Holiday’s Decca catalog were most likely lost in total. The Decca masters also included recordings by such greats as Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five and Patsy Cline.

Virtually all of Buddy Holly’s masters were lost in the fire. Most of John Coltrane’s Impulse masters were lost, as were masters for treasured Impulse releases by Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and other jazz greats. Also apparently destroyed were the masters for dozens of canonical hit singles, including Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88,” Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley/I’m A Man,” Etta James’s “At Last,” the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”

[Also probably lost in the fire were] recordings by Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Les Paul, Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Burl Ives, the Weavers, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bobby (Blue) Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, the Four Tops, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Eric B. and Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.

I’ve quoted from Rosen at length as it’s only when we see his lists written down that we begin to grasp the full extent of what was lost.

Why does this matter so much?

Two reasons: firstly, session reels contain sessions, not just the final take of a song and its attendant overdubs. Every time you buy an expanded edition of a record with alternate takes and unreleased songs, someone has been going through the archive to source that material. Who knows how many incredible alternate tales of canonical recordings we now have no chance to discover in future, how many stunning outtakes? You may think, well, we still have the released records, and that’s right, we do. But I’ve been delighted by too many work-in-progress versions and rough mixes and outtakes in my lifetime to be cavalier about what may have gone up in smoke.

Just yesterday, I listened to some of the material that Radiohead have made available from Thom Yorke’s leaked Minidisc archive from the OK Computer sessions. Within 10 minutes of the first disc starting, there is an astonishing early version of Airbag – a much looser, live-sounding take with Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway playing very different parts to those that made it to the album. What burned in the fire are the millions of potential instances of the delight I took from hearing that kind of audio snapshot of a song’s development.

But that’s not all. As I said up top, commercial playback formats lag a long way behind both analogue and digital masters in terms of the sonic quality. Neither vinyl nor any commercially widespread digital standard get close to the 24bit 44.1kHz masters of the recordings I make, let alone a 2-inch 24-track analogue master made by a good engineer in a world-class studio.

While new, higher-resolution digital formats are becoming a little more widespread among listeners, we have lost the ability to go back to the master tapes to create higher-res digital masters. You can’t simply take a CD and upsample it – you can’t put back what wasn’t captured in the first place. You need the masters. This is before we begin to factor in all the “audiophile” vinyl releases sourced from copies of the master or even the CD mixes. That’s why many of us prize the expanded/remixed/remastered editions of catalogue releases. Going back to the source is the only way you can improve on older-generation transfers made in a hurry on inferior equipment, as was the case for the first CD releases of the majority of heritage artists.

My apologies to Rosen for stealing his metaphor but it’s the best way to explain the issue. Listening to a vinyl record or a CD or an MP3 is like looking at a print of a great work of art. Some formats get closer to capturing the true experience of seeing the artwork, but there’s always a gap between the two. What burned in that fire were the paintings, not the prints.

The prints we still have, the paintings are lost for ever. And until yesterday, most of us didn’t know what we’d lost.

Kathy’s Song (Songbook version) – Paul Simon

Managed to score tickets for Paul Simon’s farewell gig in Hyde Park this summer. To celebrate, here’s a look at one of his most beloved early songs. If you enjoy this post, you might like this old one too:

Paul Simon’s first solo record was not his self-titled album from 1971, made in the wake of his split from Art Garfunkel (and one of my favourite records ever). The first album to be released by Paul Simon as a solo artist was 1965’s The Paul Simon Songbook, recorded in London, released in the UK only, and deleted from catalogue at his own request in 1969, at which point he and Garfunkel were among the biggest stars in the world of music, following the back-to-back triumphs of the Graduate soundtrack and Bookends.

In 1964 and 1965, Simon made several trips to the UK on his own, to tour provincial theatres and folk clubs. While he and Garfunkel had already released two albums by January 1965, they weren’t available in the UK. Sounds of Silence would not be released in the UK until 1968, and was available on import only when Simon came over on his solo tours. So the UK arm of Columbia Records (named, confusingly, CBS – confusing because CBS stands for Columbia Broadcasting System, the parent company of the American Columbia Records label of which CBS was the UK offshoot) decided to capitalise on Simon’s growing popularity by having him bash out a quickie album in a cheap studio for UK release only.

Simon cut 12 songs for the record in an upstairs studio on New Bond Street. Compared to his lavish albums with Garfunkel, which were meticulously recorded and produced by the pair’s genius engineer and guiding hand Roy Halee, The Paul Simon Songbook was a low-key, lo-fi affair. Songs were recorded in just a couple of takes each with one microphone, with Simon playing and singing live and minor flubs left in. This is how countless albums by the UK folk scene’s big names were recorded (live to tape, usually in an afternoon), but it’s fascinating to hear immortal Simon songs like I Am a Rock, The Sound of Silence and Kathy’s Song in this more intimate, less controlled setting, the balance favouring his voice over his guitar playing. And of course it’s fascinating in an alternate-history kind of way, too – this is what his records might have sounded like throughout his whole career if he’d stayed at the level of a Davy Graham, Bert Jansch or Jackson C Frank, beloved only by a cult audience and subsisting on the proceeds of small gigs more than from the sales of albums.

Kathy’s Song is one of Simon’s finest early compositions, one of his most deeply felt and most mournful. Simon met Kathy Chitty and the Railway Inn folk club in Brentwood, Essex, in 1964 and was smitten. They began a relationship and are pictured together on the cover of The Paul Simon Songbook, sitting cross-legged on a wet cobbled street, playing with puppets. If that sounds a bit precious and twee, well, Simon was a bit precious and twee in those days. The main fault of early S&G was the duo’s relentless ra-ra earnestness, which clashed with and undercut their wish to be seen as intelligent and bohemian. Yet Simon’s affection for Chitty was real enough; she reappears in one of his greatest songs, America, and he was hit hard when she ended their relationship. While travelling around on tour with him in the US, she realised how big he and Garfunkel were becoming off the back of The Sound of Silence and she wanted nothing to do with that life.

So she returned to England and now lives in a village in Wales. Simon re-recorded Kathy’s Song for the S&G album Sounds of Silence and went on to become one of the best-selling artists of all time. The first version of Kathy’s Song captures him at a moment before he chose the life of a star over the life of a folk singer whose heart lay not just in England, but in my own county of Essex.

The Paul Simon Songbook was recorded at Levy’s Sound Studios. If the history of recording technology interests you, or of the British music industry generally, read this article by a former mastering engineer at the studio.