Let me pose you a question. What would be your reaction if Van Gogh, assuming he was still alive, decided that his Sunflowers were all wrong and painted them out to be repainted as Lilies? Or if Rodin were to hack off The Thinker’s arm in order to re-site it by his side rather than cupping his chin? Established works of art should not really be tampered with, should they? Although painting out details in ‘finished’ pictures is nothing new, it feels wrong somehow. So what about re-mixing Classic Albums? Hmm.
Since the advent of digital music, engineers have taken the opportunity to re-master old analogue tapes for the new medium. Up until now most of these efforts have been poor, in my opinion, but of late things have changed. Recent re-masters have improved significantly and I cite The Beatles’ catalogue, Paul McCartney’s Archive series and Steve Hackett’s early albums as evidence. But progress has now reached the stage where artists are re-mixing as well as re-mastering their old albums in a ‘this’ll fix what I didn’t do at the time’ sort of way. Can they do this? What about my memories?
I have three examples of this desire to tinker; Deep Purple’s ‘Machine Head’, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Ommadawn’ and Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’. In each case, the original multi-track recording has been re-mixed using today’s technology in an effort to improve on the original. In the case of ‘Aqualung’ I have to say that this has been a spectacular success. The re-mix doesn’t really change the musical emphasis very much from the original but what it has done is breathe new life into what was a very stodgy final master. Suddenly there is space around the instruments and their tonality bursts out of the speakers at you. Drums sound like drums and less like wet cardboard boxes – hurrah! Steven Wilson, who is the engineer responsible, has a magic touch with old masters as his work on the King Crimson and Caravan catalogues has shown. His re-mixed ‘Aqualung’ is fabulous and I’d choose it over the original every time.
‘Mike Oldfield’s ‘Ommadawn’ also works well but to a lesser degree. The re-mix doesn’t really alter the sound of the album too much but it does sound clearer and fresher. However, I understand that his re-mix of ‘Tubular Bells’ does sound significantly different but as I haven’t heard it, I couldn’t possibly comment. My real gripe is reserved for ‘Machine Head’ and that is because the modern re-mix uses alternative instrumental takes, such as guitar solos, that were not used in the original. This is a step too far as it changes the music wholesale and I don’t like it – it has ceased to be ‘Machine Head’ and is now something else.
Whilst I object to the concept that once discarded music is now viewed as an improvement, I am disconcertingly aware that my attitude has been conditioned by the last 100 years, or since music became recorded. Prior to then, all music only existed in written form and every performance of it was different, so there was no definitive version, just a series of interpretations. Now that music is cast in stone for all eternity by the recording process, we are led to believe that there is only one interpretation, but perhaps that is wrong?
Re-mixing raises a whole series of ethical questions about art and it will take more than this post to get to the bottom of it. I’m still unsure and will probably just take on a case by case line until someone can convince me one way or the other.