The Fifth Beatle

If, like me, you grew up listening to the Beatles you may have wondered about the strange-sounding “piano-or-is-it-a-harpsichord” solo on the song “In My Life,” on the Rubber Soul album. It goes like this:

This was the work of the “Fifth Beatle,” George Martin, so called because of his work playing, producing and arranging many of the Beatles’ finest recordings. Both classically-trained and open-minded, Martin engineered subtle soundscapes which complemented and enhanced the band’s work, especially Paul McCartney’s melodies – including “In My Life”. Hunter Davies reveals the secret to that puzzling keyboard sound in his book The Beatles Lyrics (which I recommend as a fascinating insight into both song-writing generally and the Beatles canon in particular):

The music is greatly helped by what sounds like a harpsichord, tinkling away like a Bach minuet, giving it a classical timeless quality. This was George Martin, on a piano with the sound speeded up.

rubber soulHere is the solo, slowed down by 25% (very nearly the same as playing a 45rpm record at 33⅓), the speed at which it was originally played.

(Full disclosure: this processed segment was taken from a different, stereo release. This meant I could separate the piano from the other sounds, such as the drum track.)

Nice enough. Dignified. But it has nothing of the magic which the speeded-up version drops into the finished song. And here is the whole song – as released. The record has been bashed about a bit, but that is okay. It shows that someone once loved this LP, and played it over and over. Just listen.

  • Artist: The Beatles
  • Album: Rubber Soul
  • Track: B4 In My Life
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Capitol-EMI
  • Made in: USA
  • Catalogue: T 2442
  • Year: 1965

A bratwurst wearing lederhosen

The Germans, it is said, have a word for everything. What we call a “Long Playing record”, for example, is a Langspielplatte. It is popular to scoff at the Germans for their long, compound words. According to the Guinness Book of Records the longest German word in common use is Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, “legal indemnity insurance companies”.

1039-cuHere on Planet Vinyl, we do not engage in such Brexit trash talk. If you love Veraltete Tontechnik (“obsolete sound engineering technology”) you quickly develop a great respect for German craftsmanship. Those Deutsche certainly knew how to make a Grammophon.

1039-disc-and-sleeveOne of the great things about music is its capacity to smash stereotypes. This is a recording by the pianist Helmut Rollof of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E Flat Major” (also known as the “Erioca Variations”). German composer; German pianist; German record label. As German, in short, as a bratwurst sausage wearing lederhosen, and as beautiful as a butterfly landing on a cherry blossom.

  • Artist: Helmut Roloff
  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
  • LP Title: 15 Variationen Mit Fuge In Es-dur Op. 35 (Erioca)
  • Side 2, Track 1: “Variation 14”
  • Format: 10” LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Catalogue: 16009 LP
  • Manufactured in: Germany
  • Year: 1952

Many of the records featured on this blog are for sale via Discogs


Chopin and the stingray

Whenever I hear Chopin, it makes me touch a scar on my hand, just between my right thumb and forefinger. The scar, you see, carries a story.

Not long after finishing secondary school – just on 30 years ago now – I went snorkelling with some friends near an old ruined pier. It was a sheltered beach with seaweed beds around, so full of life. We saw flathead and leatherjacket, toadfish and whitebait, crabs and mussels.
6008 sleeveOn the way down, one of my friends had told me how it was possible to catch a ride with a banjo shark. This shark, also known as the fiddler ray, is harmless. The trick was, my friend said, if you saw a banjo shark resting on the bottom, to duckdive down and grab it by the tail. It was fun, he said. “You just have to be sure it is a banjo shark, not a stingray.”

We had been out in the water for a good while, and despite wearing a wetsuit I was feeling the cold, and headed in to shore. I looked down and saw a banjo shark. I checked: no sign of the whip-like tail extension which marks a stingray. I dived down and reached out … With an angry twitch, the stingray shook off the sand concealing its whip-like tail extension, jabbed me in the hand, and swam away.


A stingray. Note the whip-like tail extension

The razor-sharp spine on the stingray’s tail comes with a venom which causes extreme pain. It can kill if you have a weak heart or, as happened to Steve Irwin, are stung in the chest, but if a healthy human is stung on a hand or foot, there is no real danger. I didn’t know this at the time. Blood poured out of the gash (the venom has an anti-coagulant) and excruciating pain started to spread up my arm. I did know from first aid how to handle venomous bites in general: I knew not to rush, to swim steadily back to shore. There I wrapped the wound tightly, and held it high, above the heart.

With my friends’ help, I got to a swimming pool behind the beach, and found an attendant there. He did basic first aid and, very kindly, drove me to hospital.

There was a cassette tape playing in the car, classical piano of some sort. As I held the wrapping tight on my hand and tried to breath slowly – the pain was still spreading, but more slowly – I felt both scared and a complete idiot, but the music was comforting.

“That’s nice, the music”, I said to the kind pool attendant. “What is it?”

“That’s Chopin. Heard of him?”

And so the distinctive sound of a Chopin piano piece, like this lovely etude played by Vlado Perlemuter, always makes me think of the stingray, and I touch the little crescent-shaped scar on my right hand.

  • Artist: Vlado Perlemuter
  • Composer: Frederic Chopin
  • EP Title: Chopin Favourites
  • Track: Side 2, Track 2 “Etude, Op. 10 No. 3”
  • Format: 7” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Concert Hall M 959-A
  • Manufactured in: United Kingdom
  • Year: 1961

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Dissolve into it

I mused a little while ago about how the Soviet Union, as oppressive and bureaucratic a society as ever shot a dissident, managed to produce great art. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter (no relation to the earthquake guy) personifies the paradox.

6009 coverBorn just before the Bolshevik Revolution, Richter’s father was German by origin. During the Second World War, this made Richter senior an automatic target of Soviet paranoia, and he was arrested as a spy and shot in 1941.

Young Richter, a largely self-taught musical genius, survived the war and in 1949 won the Stalin Prize for his music. He began to tour extensively, first in Communist countries but later – despite the political tensions of the time – in the West as well. He is widely regarded as one of the finest pianists of the 20th century. I am not qualified to judge, but his playing is certainly lovely beyond words.

Richter’s approach to music was that the player was a channel, a medium, from the composer to the listener.

The interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer’s intentions to the letter. He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the work. If he is talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn’t dominate the music, but should dissolve into it.

This track comes from a 1965 EP released on Concert Hall, a budget reissue label. It has a lot of wear, but even so the beauty of Richter’s playing of Schubert’ “Allegretto in C Minor” shines through.

People used to weep, hearing Richter play. Even through the crackle and hiss I understand why.

  • Artist: Sviatoslav Richter
  • Composer: Franz Schubert
  • EP Title: Richter Plays Schubert
  • Side 2, Track 1: “Allegretto in C Minor”
  • Format: 7” EP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Concert Hall SMS965
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1965

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs





Pigeon pie

A tin whistle. A parade-ground drum. A slightly out-of-tune pub piano playing sort-of boogie-woogie. Someone who sounds like a dero growling out “mo-oo-ouldy old dough!”.

What part of this combination suggests “four weeks at the top of the British pop charts”?

lt pig mouldyJust in case you were unaware that truth is stranger than fiction, I offer you Lieutenant Pigeon, an impromptu band which put together a silly, novelty, mostly-instrumental number, “Mouldy Old Dough”. It was released as a single in 1972. After being ignored at first, it became popular in Belgium, and was re-released in the UK, and went to the top the charts. In fact, it became the second-best selling single of that year, beaten only by Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”.

Even with the Planet Vinyl philosophy – open minds, open ears – it is a little hard to understand what people saw in Lt. Pigeon. But maybe that is the charm: it is a silly, lightweight, muck-around piece of nonsense. Maybe, in an overly earnest world, there is something to be said for that.

The ancient wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures declares:

 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11, (King James Version)

A point surely proved by “Mouldy Old Dough”.

  • Artist: Lieutenant Pigeon
  • Single Title: Mouldy Old Dough
  • Track: Side A “Mouldy Old Dough”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Decca, Y-9960
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1972

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Glittering and rippling

Another star of another time, now pretty much forgotten. Carmen Cavallaro. “The Poet of the Piano”, they called him. American born, of Italian heritage, Cavallaro was classically trained but in the 1930s he shifted to playing jazz and swing in ballrooms and nightclubs. He used his classical expertise to adorn popular tunes with what the liner notes to this 10-inch LP describe as “glittering and rippling arpeggios to augment his melody, which was often arranged in thick and lush triple- and quadruple-octave chords”. If this makes you think of Liberace, you are on to something: Cavallaro pretty much invented that style, “light music” it used to be called.cav sleeve front

Though I have, myself, occasionally been called both “thick” and “a lush”, I must admit, I can live without rippling arpeggios. Syrupy is the word which comes to mind. A lot of people loved it, and it probably works better in performance than on a slightly battered mono LP – even so, just not my cup of tea.cav label

However, on Planet Vinyl, we give everything a listen, and this is why. On the last track of Carnival in Venice, after many lush and thick moments, is the sorta-title-track “Carnival of Venice!”. This is an old folk tune which has been arranged in dozens of different ways – the tune was borrowed for “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” – but this recording is a jazz adaptation. By no means stripped down, but low on ripple, low on arpeggios, high on energy and dexterous musicality. It rocks.

  • Artist: Carmen Cavallaro
  • LP Title: Carnival in Venice
  • Side 2, Track 4: “Carnival of Venice!”
  • Format: 10” LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Festival FR10-899
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: no date (1950s)


Sliding doors

Kurt Maier was born in Germany in 1911, and became a skilled pilot. He fought with the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, and rose to the rank of Major. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, for bravery and leadership. Perhaps surprisingly, Maier survived the war.

All the above is true, but that was another Kurt Maier.

The Kurt Maier who plays the piano on this record was a Jew.

He, too, was born in 1911, but in what was then Czechoslovakia. By the time the Nazis seized the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he was a successful musician. He escaped to the relative safety of Prague, but at the end of 1941 he and his mother were deported to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, and later to Auschwitz. His musical skills kept him alive: he played in the camp band. He was transferred to a slave labour camp, and then again to Buchanwald. Astonishingly, this Kurt Meier also survived the war.

Amazing the different paths a life can take.7069 Maier 1964 A CU

In 1946 Maier migrated to the United States, and became popular pianist in the night club scene. He took the classical works he had grown up on, and arranged them with a jazz-tinged up-tempo flavour. This could easily be gimmicky – a sort of early model Hook On Classics – but it actually works well.

Piano Favourites was released in 1964, though the recordings are almost certainly older. It was one of those EPs that people would stack up on the radiogram and play at parties. And played a lot it has clearly been – it is a bashed and battered old thing. But like Kurt Maier, it has survived, and it carries an astonishing and inspiring story.

The track here is Maier’s ragtime take on Antonín Dvorak’s “Humoresque”.

  • Artist: Kurt Maier
  • EP Title: Piano Favourites
  • Track: A3 “Humoresque” (Dvorak)
  • Format: 7” 45 rpm
  • Label: Bravo BR 332
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1964