The Fifth Element #7 The Master-tape Experience

Sidebar: The Master-tape Experience

As far as I can tell, those who fetishize master tapes usually haven't had much hands-on experience with them. The problem isn't so much last-minute fixes as it is undocumented and forgotten last-minute fixes. Case in point, if memory serves: The tempo change and key modulation in the instrumental segment of Eric Clapton's "Layla" are not "on the master tape." A consensus developed at the LP mastering session that the song was too long and dragged a bit. Simple fix: At that point, speed up the (analog) tape while cutting the LP lacquer. You get a key modulation, with a faster tempo thrown in for free.

In much the same way—and, again, relying on a mind like a steel trap but unfortunately filled with dead rats—the master tape of the Beach Boys' (actually, Brian Wilson's) "Caroline, No" (from Pet Sounds) is in one key, while the single and the album track were released in another. (In a curmudgeonly frame of mind, I'd be tempted to call the song whiny and manipulative—why the hell does he think the length of his former girlfriend's hair is any of his business? But just having listened to it again, I say: Let he or she who has never over-invested in a fragile object cast the first stone.)

Brian Wilson's father thought the song was too much of a downer, and also thought that the lower key made Brian sound less like a teenager and more like an adult. So they sped up the master tape.

Brian Wilson later recalled in an interview that the song was in C and was sped up to D. Hmmm. I have both versions, and to me it sounds like E minor sped up to F minor. Several websites claim G sped up to A-flat. That there can be such confusion is a backhanded compliment to the harmonic complexity—and ambiguity—of Wilson's song. You can view the chord structure of the faster version as A-flat major tending toward minor, or as F minor tending toward major. Or just call it modal. By the way, Brian: I think most women look great with short hair.—John Marks