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Big in Japan with Peter, Paul and Mary

Sections: Love Hz

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Okay, I admit this post is utterly random in the grand scheme of things, but hey, that is how I roll ’round these parts.

Late last year I saw an ad in Collector’s Choice’s catalog for a new live album by, of all people, Peter, Paul and Mary (PP&M), recorded in Japan in 1967.  For the benefit of those of you who have no idea who PP&M were, in the early 1960s, they were pretty much the first superstars of the folk music revival, alongside a young Joan Baez and several others.  They were hugely popular and hugely influential, kickstarting the careers of the likes of Bob Dylan (covering his “Blowin’ in the Wind”) and, a few years later, Laura Nyro (covering “And When I Die”) and John Denver (their only #1 hit was his “Leaving on a Jet Plane”).  All that would be of little consequence if they weren’t good, but the reality is that PP&M were a great trio, with impeccable harmonies, undying passion, and a good sense of fun to boot.

So why am I writing about this here and now? Well, besides the fact that there is this new CD out (which I have yet to buy, but I will, promise!) and a whole series of reissues going on in Japan according to their website (clearly PP&M are still huge in Japan!)?  Part of my my inspiration for writing about PP&M today began last year when I picked up two original 1960s pressings of their seminal albums, which were shocking not only for their relative lack of surface noise, but also for the fact that they were pressed on red vinyl.  Cool!

1960s Red Vinyl Japanese Press of PP&M’s 1966 “Album”

You see, PP&M albums are prized among audiophiles for their extremely high-quality recordings and sonics.  They are simply but gorgeously recorded, with lush round harmonies and big fat acoustic guitar tones (later albums add everything from rock instrumentation to harpsichord).  When I was first cued into this (by my cousin, a pretty serious audiophile) I realized I had to upgrade my collection and thus began a process over the years of picking up endless pressings in search of pristine copies. Fortunately, PP&M albums aren’t uber pricey and you can often find them in thrift shops and garage sales. The challenge, of course, is the condition. Most times these records were played out and often on inferior equipment, resulting in worn grooves, especially toward the center of the disc.

Which brings us up to the here and now:  yesterday, I came across a bargain at one of my fave used record shops, a place that specializes more in rock, soul, and jazz than folk. For two measly bucks I got a pristine used Japanese pressing of PP&M’s fabulous 1967 release Album 1700 (engineered by Phil Ramone)!  Despite one rather dated-but-still-fun ode to the psychedelic rock movement that was happening that Summer of Love (“I Dig Rock and Roll Music” a #9 hit on the charts), the album has held up remarkably well with songs that could sit neatly alongside your fave Belle & Sebastian and Fleet Foxes cuts. This album has the aforementioned mega hit written by John Denver on it, but it also has tremendous tunes like the rollicking opener “Rolling Home,” and the ever-powerful “The Great Mandella (The Wheel of Life).”

How does it sound?  Spectacular!  This is a 1970s pressing (it’s on the “palm tree” Warner Brothers label from that period).  The only competition I can give this pressing is my mint mono white label promo copy of the album, which loses out only because it is mono — the stereo soundstage on these PP&M albums is really really nice. The early ’60s Gold Label Stereo pressing sounds almost as good as the Japanese pressing, but has a bit more surface noise.

Mid 70s Japanese Press includes Lyric sheet.

I really am pretty stunned by this. I mean, Album 1700 has always been a great sounding record, but this pressing is remarkably quiet — the LP fully disappears and the music just projects. You can hear little details like someone clinking a glass in rhythm during “If I Had Wings” and the breathy jazz of “Whatshername” soars with that wonderful sort of intimate silence one would hear if you were one of the last people left the club at 3 a.m.  (and why isn’t this song a standard already?).

I can honestly say without hesitation that this Japanese pressing of Album 1700 is among the best sounding records I own.

All this makes me wonder why HDTracks hasn’t landed any of the PP&M albums? In our odd world chock-full of well-off baby boomer-era doctors and lawyers willing to pay premium coin for a gorgeously recorded but heartlessly performed “audiophile” albums to play on their $100K stereos, one would think there would be interest in some of PP&M’s beautifully made, heartwarmingly performed seminal recordings for the digital set. Sure, the PP&M catalog was released on CD in the  early ’90s, but those are still CDs, 16-bit and 44.1 kHz.

There aren’t that many people like you and me who enjoy the chase of searching for a cool used deal that also sounds amazing.  I’m sure there are folkie-boomer audiophiles who would jump at the chance to buy the PP&M catalog in 192/24 bit fidelity.

Whatever the case, if you get a chance, pick up Album 1700 by PP&M.  Along with their prior release from 1966, simply titled Album, these two recordings capture the trio at an artistic and popular peak.

Now, listen…

“The Great Mandala (The Wheel of Life)” from Album 1700

And remember, all you need is love…

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  • Songislove

    Good to see this astute review! Their quality and meaningfulness as performers has always been like a shiny golden needle lost in the haystack. You have good vision!