July 28, 2010

Elton John: 11/17/70

[NB: About a month ago, I inherited my parent's collection of records. This is the first in an occasional series of the highlights and, potentially, the low points, therein. The Best of Bread, a record that hasn't hit my turntable just yet, comes to mind in regards to the latter.]

Elton John first played in the United States in 1970, and on November 17, in the middle of his inaugural US tour, he recorded what would become one of the most famous bootlegs of all time, 11-17-70, at A&R Studios, for radio broadcast in New York City.

The performance itself is legendary. John has stated in more than one interview that he's never given as strong a live performance, and Dave Herman, a New York City radio DJ who hosted the event, noted that at some point during the performance, John cut his hand, and by the end of the set, the piano was covered in blood.

The record is an excellent introduction to the qualities you'll get with a record that you won't get with a CD or mp3. Everyone says that vinyl sounds "warmer" than pretty much everything that followed it in terms of hi-fi systems, and there's a reason for that. Without getting too detailed (because I can't, really, I don't know all that much about it), essentially each advancement in recording technology has been an improvement of condensing. In recording terminology, this can mean a couple of things, but the general idea is that you're condensing a track (vocal, instrument, whatever) by eliminating recorded frequencies that the human ear can't hear. With advanced digital recording technology, studio techs have been able to maintain and sometimes even mimic these frequencies (FLAC files do this, I believe, but they're massive), but nothing comes close to vinyl (except of course reel-to-reel, but you've got to be a pretty sadistic audiofile to get into that kind of thing.).

So that "warmness" that everyone's always talking about is actually the over and undertones that were recorded on the original reels and are maintained on vinyl records. On tapes, 8-tracks, CDs and digital files, these tones are slaughtered, and you're left with a much "chillier" sounding record.

Because of this, live recordings are a great place to start when you're listening to vinyl, because you can actually hear dynamics. I've shown three separate groups of people now, all with pretty distinct musical tastes, this particular record, and each time the same thing happens: After Dave Herman's introduction, some applause, and maybe the first sixteen bars of "Take Me To The Pilot," somebody says:

"Holy shit."

Elton John is just that talented. Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson (bass and drums, respectively) round out the band, and they're showcased nicely. The most glaring difference I've noted with regard to vinyl recordings has been the quality of the low end. With CDs &c., low end recording (bass tones) is always somewhat indistinct. On vinyl, you can distinguish everything, and this quality really complements Murray and Olsson's work here.

My only complaint about the record is that it's too short. The original bootleg was comprised of something like 12 songs, but only six remain on the US version of the record. This, however, is a product of a different music market.

In summation, if you're looking to start a record collection, this is a decent place to get started. It's a record that says, "This is why you should be listening to records."

Elton John: 11-17-70: 9.0/10


Emily K. said...

I feel like I now know everything I need to know about vinyl.
Great job explaining it.

Bruce said...

As someone who grew up listening to vinyl and reel-to-reel and then experienced the advent of CDs, I think your simple explanation of the sound and experience of vinyl (and this particular recording/performance)is perfect.

And yes, if you are going to start collecting vinyl and even remotely like Elton John, this is a great one to start with.