REVIEW OF THE RE-MASTERED CDs
Grand Funk RR Reissues Do It Right The First Time
If you're like me, you scratch your head from time to time wondering why the CD catalogs of your favorite 60's & 70's artists are in such disarray. Remastering, reissuing, extra cuts, original masters, two track masters, blah blah. What does it mean? Should you and I keep stacking up "new" versions of the same CD's? In December, I bought Elvis Costello's "My Aim Is True" (now a 2 disc set) for the third time. While it was a superb purchase that made my top ten reissues of the year (www.buzzmix.com) it really irritated a friend of mine who is quite happy with version #2, and wonders why those extra sides weren't included in the previous issue. A few years ago, Jimi Hendrix' historical "Band Of Gypsys" finally made it to domestic release on Capitol, only to be supplanted a few months later by a nearly identically packaged "official" version that claimed to be the first to use the original tapes. Then two years later, came the 2 CD "Live at Fillmore" set that, yet again, packaged some of the same material. Who can afford to keep up with these Joneses? Steely Dan's catalog is now in stores for the third time. Those who bought the 1992 series that proudly boasted optimal track mastering supervised by the band, are now being told that whoops...those weren't the right masters after all, but we've got them now and we'll gladly sell them to you again. Ditto The Police, AC/DC and some of The Who discs. Ask Jethro Tull about the 1996 "Aqualung" debacle, wherein a heavily hyped reissue was a muddy mess that had fans demanding their money back in droves. Most of Tull's catalog is still in it's original watery sounding late 1980's form.
I'm no fool. I realize the quantum leap in sound technology that has taken place in the past ten years. 8 bit mastering was the standard then, and 30 bit is on next year's horizon. This means, simply, a much more accurate and uncluttered transfer of analog sound to the digital medium. But there is a point (Ozzy's catalog received a nice 22 bit overhaul in 1997 and it's already been replaced by 24 bit discs this year. Hey, this is metal, not Shastakovich) at which you're simply gilding the lilly. Absent total incompetence the first time around, who can tell the difference between 22 and 24 bit masters? Answer absolutely nobody. Not you, not me, not George Martin. Then there's the issue of prices. Seen those spiffy new Rolling Stones discs all nice and tidied up? They're now sold at $18.99 for what is often less than 30 minutes of music that has been released twice before. What the hell are these people thinking ?
Which brings me to my pet band of the 1970's, Grand Funk Railroad. This was the very first band to have ten consecutive platinum (millionseller) LP's. They still own the record for ticket sales at both Shea Stadium and Budokan in Japan. The band reunited briefly in the late 90's and was playing before huge sell out crowds across the country. But Grand Funk Railroad's Capitol Records CD catalog was, well.... a train wreck. A few select titles (We're An American Band, Live Album, Closer To Home, E Pluribus Funk) were mastered decently and released in the US. However, their availability was spotty and some came and went in the blink of an eye. But most were only available as expensive, poorly packaged imports with awful sound. One notable album; the band's final Capitol LP Born To Die ; never had a legitimate release anywhere and became the holy grail for classic rock collectors everywhere. BTD was an excellent record; many GFR fans regard it as their best; but it sold squat in 1976 and presaged the band's initial breakup a few months later. In the interim, it's safe to say that no band of equal popularity (GFR out sold Zeppelin, Sabbath and everyone else in 1970 & 71) has had such a shabby treatment of their catalog.
Grand Funk's drummer Don Brewer explains it this way. "We've gone through this revolving door of A&R people and shakeups at EMI/Capitol. A few times it seemed a major campaign to get our music on the streets was days away. Then someone would quit or get fired and we were back to square one, knocking on doors and explaining who we are to someone who can't remember or was too young to know. All the while, bands that sold a fraction of what we did are getting the star treatment. I can't tell you how frustrating it was." He also notes that the band had a litigious history with Capitol in the 70's and 80's that didn't help matters in the 90's. "Hell, we had a litigious history with everyone but the Pope. I got to know process servers by name. I knew their kids' birthdays. No, I'm sure that didn't help us, but it was a two way street. There were some people who remember lawsuits while they forget that only the Beatles sold more records for Capitol than Mark, Don and Mel." Brewer sighs.
With the band's heyday 25 years behind them, there were now fractured relationships within the band, with Capitol Records and with former manager Terry Knight. Knight owns the rights to much of GFR's early material. These acrimonious histories were put to the test with a 3 CD box set that was released in 1999. "Yes", Brewer explains "It required people who didn't care much for each other to get on the same page. That proved to be far less of a problem that you'd expect it to be. Everyone had their say and everyone made some money. It was pretty simple, actually, and the quality and popularity of the box set shows what you can do if you put differences aside for a minute or two." So, the ground work was then laid for the complete overhaul of Grand Funk's 12 CD catalog of Capitol LP's. All it needed was a catalyst; someone who would take the ball and run with it, in football parlance. That someone was David Tedds.
Tedds had helmed the 3CD retrospective "Thirty Years Of Funk" and had impressed the band, the label , music critics and fans alike. As a former Capitol employee, he knew the corporate landscape well. He was the natural ("The ONLY, I'd say" Brewer adds) choice to take on the gargantuan task of finding original tapes, editing , cleaning up, remastering and repackaging them on a budget. He also knew he had to make it do more than sound good...it had to look good and represent everyone well. Again, given the complex and troubled history of all the parties involved, that could be difficult. Brewer understood that all too well "Someone could complain about the font size their name was in on one CD insert and that could crash the whole project. It was part of David's job to see that this didn't happen". Thankfully, with the successful "TYOF" Anthology as a backdrop, everything was as smooth as the discs sound.
In September 2002, the first of three sets of 24 bit/96khz reissues hit stores. "On Time", "Grand Funk", "Closer To Home" and "Live Album" boasted a raw, thick, tough sound that LP's and previous discs had never had. In December, the last of the Terry Knight produced discs "Survival" and "E Pluribus Funk" were paired with the transitional "Phoenix" and the Todd Rundgren helmed masterpiece "We're An American Band". In February, the band's sonic legacy is complete, as "Shinin' On" (also a slick Rundgren production), "All The Girls In The World Beware!!!" (the band's final "hit" LP) their second live offering "Caught In The Act" and finally the long awaited "Born To Die" were made available to enthusiastic public response. Most discs have previously unreleased tracks and all feature photo stocked booklets that describe the times and events that brought each album to fruition.
But as I said, a set of cool new CD's wasn't enough, even with all the bells and whistles these discs feature. So, the entire 12 disc set is available in a numbered, limited edition, cleverly designed "Trunk O' Funk" that resembles an old railroad steamer trunk. It also includes a sticker and a copy of the "Shinin' On" 3-D glasses that were featured on the vinyl LP cover. Considering the price...which can be as little as $120 for the trunk and everything in it...it's an example from concept to delivery...of how a band's back catalog should be handled. It's great music, treated and packaged well so a fan can get (Well, almost. There is a smattering of post Capitol material on a couple of other labels; none of it had any commercial impact.) everything in one fell swoop, or pick and choose their favorites from a list of newly mastered discs.
As much as I complained for years that so many of these discs were either unavailable or badly botched, I now see how this project was clearly worth the wait. I'm happily enjoying two or three of these CD's each week, and have done the obligatory side by side comparisons with those wretched Japanese imports. Despite a tangled and touchy history, it's truly amazing what a band and record company can do, when everyone agrees on the right engineer and stokes up this Railroad's locomotive with a full head of steam, just one more time. All Aboard!
Closer To Home
E Pluribus Funk
We're An American Band
All The Girls In The World Beware!!!
Born To DieYYYYY
Caught In The ActYYY
Misha L. Ben David
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