Accuracy & Resolution: the Jagger Effect Page 2

High-end audio is like religion: Now and again you've got to question your principles, if only to keep dogmatism and blind faith at bay. (As the famous theologian Paul Tillich put it, you've got to have faith and doubt.) Well, my trip down Penny Lane made me feel like the fifth Beatle—Doubting Thomas.

You do have to wonder: If you can enjoy music so much with a car radio or a table-top special, why spend thousands on some high-resolution equipment that will just break the bank and distract you with details the musicians and producers were trying to hide in the first place? And what readers of this magazine haven't let audiophilia seduce them into the ultimate sin against music—not playing records or CDs because the hardware's not quite up to snuff? "Nah, the amp's not warmed up...and besides, Seinfeld's on in an hour."

Well, my redemption was around the corner. As I sat and listened, I wondered if the other LP might sound better. It sounded worse. (Judging by Capitol's MMT pressings, their Jacksonville plant beats their one in Scranton.) So I mustered what faith I had left and played the first one again. Immediately, something new caught my ear—but not something that distracted me from the song. Instead, it had to do with the very words Paul was singing.

Remember the line, "and the fireman rushes in from the pouring rain—very strange"? I'd always thought its counterpart in the first verse was "the banker-man wears a mac in the pouring rain—very strange." Why, you ask, would that be the lyric? What's so strange about someone wearing a raincoat in the rain? I'd always thought it made perfect sense—"banker-man" rhymes with "fireman"—but, more important, everything is strange on the Mystery Tour. Think of the album's picture-book with the bathtub-sized plate of spaghetti, and the band playing in front of those huge concrete bunkers and looking like characters in a Magritte painting. And what about all that weirdness packed into "I am the Walrus"? The Mystery Tour was "coming to take you away" from ordinary music, ordinary consciousness, and ordinary life.

So, even though "Penny Lane" is not an official part of the MMT soundtrack (footnote 1), it still makes sense for Paul to call the banker "strange" for wearing a raincoat. Like the children who "laugh at him behind his back," I assumed that Paul was poking fun at the conventionality and conformity of suburban life. Besides, if you've ever had the pleasure to have known your own head in those particular modes of consciousness the Beatles were exploring, you know that wearing a raincoat could indeed be a very strange thing. Heck, even rain can seem strange, if you look at it right—even if you live in Britain (footnote 2).

But I was wrong. Paul really sings "...the banker never wears a mac in the pouring rain—very strange." Sonically, of course, the difference is slight, and just another instance of the Jagger Effect (footnote 3). But for me it makes a big difference: perhaps Paul was never really such a stranger to life on Penny Lane. I don't want to get into the old John vs Paul debates, but the fact remains that Lennon was the band's socio-political radical. The others never followed him into territory that was, by conventional standards, truly "strange." While George found God, and while Paul composed for James Bond soundtracks, John was posing naked for album covers, proclaiming atheism ("God"), singing about Utopia ("Imagine"), and holding week-long press conferences with Yoko from an Amsterdam hotel bed. So I shouldn't have been too surprised to hear Paul sing just what your neighbors, parents, or teachers would have said about that "strange," soggy banker.

This difference also goes with the well-known dynamics of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team: Paul's experiments with traditional song-styles and his melodic sensibilities were the perfect complement to Lennon's interests in dissonance, distortion, tape-loops, and so on. Lennon was not big on Bach trumpets (or oratorios).

Well, whatever you think about the Beatles, the point is that my system's resolving power put things in perspective and redeemed my high-end soul. My system didn't really kill "Penny Lane," it showed me more of what it really is. Only a high-end system could have done this for me. I thought I knew the lyrics, so I would never have bothered to look at a lyric sheet (footnote 4); and I wouldn't have had the inclination to research the song's production and recording just to see if, by chance, there was something I didn't know.

So how much resolution is enough? If what you enjoy about listening to music includes understanding what it is you're listening to, then there's no such thing as too much. Of course, if you belong to the euphony-first crowd, you probably won't agree, preferring components that are more musical and euphonic. But you can't sensibly criticize high-resolution systems for having too much resolution. Only this will let a system dig into—sorry, carefully decipher—those grooves (or pits) and let you know as fully as possible what's going on in your recordings. After all, with too little resolution, listening to everything becomes a mystery tour. Sure, the textures may be smooth and the colors warm—but what are you really listening to? Where are you going? What does it all mean? I'd rather hear the Beatles ask these questions—not my audio system.

Footnote 1: Because Capitol wanted enough songs to issue MMT as an LP, not a 7" EP as EMI had in the UK, they filled up side 2 with five recent singles, including "Penny Lane."

Footnote 2: Paul and John had already been over this ground, anyway: "Rain, the weather's fine; "Rain, I don't mind." That's why no one needs a mac in the rain. All you need is love.

Footnote 3: My favorite is "She's So Cold," where Mick seems to sing, "I'm so affable, I'm so affable...but she's so cold!" Others from the "Penny Lane" era include John Fogerty's directions that "the bathroom's on the right" ("Bad Moon Rising"), and Joni Mitchell's shocking confession: "I was raised on rubber beans" ("Raised on Robbery"). [Lyrical victims of the "Jagger Effect" are also known as mondegreens, a term coined by Sylvia Wright in a 1954 Atlantic article. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll has an archived collection available on the Web.—John Atkinson]

Footnote 4: There was no lyric sheet for side 2 of MMTRichard Lehnert