LISTENING TO MOBILE FIDELITY’S PRESSING OF THE CARS’ EPONYMOUS 1978 DEBUT ALBUM
Audiophile outfit Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, who are probably best known for their Pink Floyd and The Beatles re-releases, have been issuing ‘Original Master Recording’ LPs since 1977. Over the last few years I’ve picked up a number of their pressings ranging from classic Dylan albums to alternative-ish items such as REM’s ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ and Ryan Adams’ ‘Love is Hell’. Benefiting from a half-speed re-mastering process, Mobile-Fidelity records always sound crisp and clean. Importantly, though, they still sound like the original records. Here we are talking about re-mastering as opposed to re-mixing, with the latter process often changing the ‘feel’ of songs. The Mobile-Fidelity records themselves are also solid and heavy; there is an experience of physicality when you take a Mobile-Fidelity record out of its sleeve and put it onto a turntable. They are, in addition, flat. This is especially important for me as I’m a devotee of Decca London pick-up cartridges, which even a gentle record warp will send into a St. Vitas dance of mistracking.
The Factory recently began handling Mobile-Fidelity products. I knew that there was a Mobile-Fidelity pressing of The Cars’ first album, but I hadn’t been able to buy it through the usual channels, so I asked Bill whether he could get one for me. I was delighted when he said he could – and especially so when I realised that this year is the 40th anniversary of that record’s release.
After a short wait, which consisted largely of staring into space wondering where the years have gone, I got the record home and played it. Listening to The Cars for the first time in several decades, it occurred to me that a good way of summing them up would be to think of them as a muscular American version of Britain’s Roxy Music. In 1972 Roxy Music had brought avant-garde art to popular music. Roxy songs were musical collages in which various sounds and styles from the distant and recent past were self-consciously cut-up and then re-assembled. Later that decade The Cars did something similar – though this time without the obvious art-school baggage.
The Cars were accomplished musicians but, having been influenced by punk and new-wave music, they opted for a far more straightforward presentation than Roxy. The Cars album is simple pop music that combines the bubble-gum and power-pop genres. Although the power-pop genre owed a great deal to The Kinks and The Who, at the time it was experiencing a new-wave-inspired resurgence, most notably among the acts associated with Stiff Records such as Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and Wreckless Eric. Unlike these acts, however, The Cars’ music also contained elements of the synthesiser-based techno pop pioneered by Gary Numan and Ultravox.
In the 1980s this electronica would lead to an effete sameness that characterised the whole pop-music genre. But in the case of The Cars this tendency was kept in check by an authentic simplicity derived from The Velvet Underground – or, rather, The Velvet Underground via The Modern Lovers, with whom The Cars’ drummer had played. The Cars also limited themselves to very straightforward – often risibly so – lyrics; eschewing Roxy’s interesting though sometimes gnomic lyrics, which, in retrospect, were probably more within the prog-rock tradition, The Cars were usually content merely to rehearse teen-love and teen-angst themes from the rock-and-roll era.
The Mobile Fidelity pressing of The Cars conveys the simple, elemental power of the music, while at the same time making you aware of the disparate elements within the songs themselves; listening to the Mobile-Fidelity pressing is rather like getting a musical anatomy lesson. But it’s a musical vivisection that results in the patient not only surviving, but also thriving because realising how well constructed the songs are makes you enjoy them even more.
The Cars’ album is basically fun. And the Mobile-Fidelity pressing is so good that, not long after the anatomy lesion, you end up forgetting about the pressing and just enjoying the music. At this point a demon on your shoulder will ask why you bothered paying over the odds for something that you aren’t noticing. But on the other shoulder there sits an angel who will point out that that’s precisely what you paid you money for. After all, aren’t productions, pressings, etc. so much the better for making you forget they’re there? These things are – or at least they should be – like Wittgenstein’s ladder, which you use to ascend to a higher level, but which you conceptually dispense with once you’ve got there. Besides, thanks to rapacious high-street retailers of ‘vinyls’, all records are expensive now. So it’s definitely worth paying what is just a few bucks more to get the Mobile Fidelity pressing of The Cars, rather than going to a mainstream outlet and picking up a standard re-release. A few bucks to let the good times roll? Let’s go!
Dr Walter Kudrycz