Two I Missed the First Time Around: Judee Sill and Murray Head

July 2018

By the early 1970s, rock music was firmly established as a cultural force, and the influx of cash from increased album sales gave record companies incentive to try new things. It was a time when musicians beyond category, such as Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, could have recording contracts with a major label. The ambition of bands both famous and obscure over the previous five years had opened the minds of listeners to all kinds of possibilities, and that willingness to permit and encourage experimentation extended to pop music of all genres. Stevie Wonder, to choose just one example, released some of his most ambitious and groundbreaking recordings in the early ’70s.

Inevitably during such a rich period, it was easy to miss some great music. I wish I could say I’d picked up Judee Sill’s two original albums when they were released, in 1971 and 1973, but alas, I started hearing about her only some 15 years ago. Rolling Stone did a feature story on her in 1972, back when I read the magazine from cover to cover. It could be that, at 16, I wasn’t yet interested in searching out something that wasn’t guitar rock -- or, more likely, I never saw Sill’s records in my local shop.

Judee Sill was the first artist David Geffen signed to the label he founded, Asylum Records. After her second album, Heart Food, Asylum dropped Sill because of low sales and Sill’s own difficulties -- she didn’t like opening for other acts, and was critical of what she viewed as Asylum’s lack of support. Even by the standards of rock musicians at the time, Sill was problematic. She’d had a painful growing up, did a stint in reform school for armed robbery, and had a long history of drug abuse. When she died of an overdose, in 1979, at the age of 35, her albums were out of print, and no obituary appeared.

Intervention Records has reissued Sill’s two Asylum recordings, remastered from the original analog master tapes by Kevin Gray; each album is pressed on two 45rpm LPs. Here I compare these reissues with original Asylum and white-label promo pressings of Judee Sill, and with original US and UK Asylum pressings of Heart Food.

It’s not hard to hear why Geffen was drawn to Sill. Her compositions had a lot in common with some of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters of the ’70s who also ended up on Asylum, such as Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, but her lyrics had strong religious overtones, and her music often took surprising turns of melody and chord changes. Her voice had an almost fragile, even girlish quality that served the complexity of her lyrics. I also hear the strong influence in some tracks of Laura Nyro, another of Geffen’s early clients.

Beginning with Judee Sill: In “Crayon Angels” Sill accompanies herself on nylon-string guitar, and when I compared the original release with the white-label promo, I heard a bit more low-end fullness on the promo, especially when a second guitar joins her in the left channel. The oboe in the introduction has more presence on the promo. On the Intervention, all elements of the song come out more clearly and more three-dimensionally. The guitars are rounder-toned and more separated, Sill’s picking technique is easier to follow, and the oboe sounds cleaner. Sill’s voice is more focused on the Intervention than on the other pressings, and farther out on the soundstage. The surrounding reverb is somewhat smeared on the other pressings, but here it’s cleaner, and gives her voice more weight. The light kick-drum accent and other percussion toward the end of the song are only just audible on the older pressings; they’re much more present on the new, without overwhelming the other instruments.

Judee Sill

“Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” Sill’s best-known song, was covered by the Hollies, Cass Elliot, and Warren Zevon, and ex-Holly Graham Nash produced the track (Henry Lewy produced the rest of the album, with help from John Beck and Jim Pons). Sill’s piano sounds larger and fuller on the Intervention pressing, its low notes firmer. Sill’s multi-tracked vocals are more layered and harmonically satisfying, and as various instruments enter, each is more cleanly separated from the others and more precisely positioned on the stage. The strings, for example, sound vastly richer and more enveloping. Most impressive is the bass, which here has greater heft and articulation, to give this track a striking completeness.

Gray’s remastering has brought out so much more of the richness of this music. The left-channel percussion in “Ridge Rider” provides a solid clip-clop that now echoes more resoundingly in the right channel, adding to the song’s atmosphere. The pedal steel is more haunting, and the strings, which feel reserved in the original pressings, are much more integrated into the song. The flugelhorn that occurs at several points has a richer tone, and it adds impact to the song.

One of the most compelling tracks on Judee Sill is “The Archetypal Man.” Beginning with hints of Southern California country rock, complete with weepy pedal steel, it then moves into baroque pop. The strings sit beautifully beside the steel guitar, and then there’s a brief interlude for strings and voices that combines a Bach-style chorale with ’60s jazz vocalise. Gray has brought every instrumental and vocal component of this exhilarating track into greater relief. The pedal steel echoes with more clarity, the strings are more textured, and it’s easier to hear each line in Sill’s multitracked harmonies.

The white-label promo of Judee Sill is more dynamic and exciting than the original mass-market Asylum pressing, but Intervention’s new edition is better than both. The bass has so much more force and impact, giving the music a much firmer floor without crowding anything out. The soundstage is deeper, which lets instruments come out farther and register with more detail. On the earlier pressings, the position of Sill’s voice on the stage is occasionally vague; here it’s precisely front and center, its aural image more realistic and holographic.

Don Bagley and Bob Harris wrote the orchestrations for Judee Sill, but for Heart Food Sill decided to take on those duties herself. With Lewy, she also coproduced the album, and they lined up a list of notable musicians to play on it, including Doug Dillard, Jim Gordon, and Spooner Oldham. The first song, “There’s a Rugged Road,” doesn’t sound jarringly different from anything on Judee Sill, but Sill sounds more confident and more in control of the music. This track conveys plenty of sparkle from the acoustic guitars on the original US and UK pressings, and Sill’s voice is well centered and vivid. I felt the UK edition was a little bright and threw off the balance, obscuring the bass and some details of the guitar. The Intervention pressing is a marked improvement over both. Sill’s voice is stronger and more centered, but also more nuanced and less sibilant than on the other two pressings. Gray brings the bass out more convincingly, and, as on Judee Sill, lets it give the music more body without crowding out other instruments.

Heart Food

On the US and, especially, the UK pressings, the harmony vocals are too close to Sill’s lead vocal. On the Intervention they’re placed around her, which makes the music richer and more involving. Similarly, the strings are more expansive and deep in the soundstage. In “The Kiss,” the strings enter the song more completely to create a more dramatic effect than on the earlier pressings. Sill’s piano is more resonant, with a stronger presence in the low notes. On the older pressings I can hear the French horns that enter about two-thirds of the way in, but with the Intervention I can better hear their deep, luxurious tones and more clearly visualize them. Sill double-tracked her lead vocal here; on the new pressing these tracks are locked more tightly together, with the result that her voice has more authority.

The acoustic guitars and banjo in “The Pearl” sound brighter and more fleshed out in Gray’s remaster, with a fuller bottom end that gives it more life. The electric organ in “Down Where the Valleys Are Low,” thin and a bit cheesy-sounding in the older pressings, now sounds more realistic -- and Louis Shelton’s guitar cuts through with more detail and a stronger midrange.

Sill’s gospel-style piano in “Soldier of the Heart” sounds too bright on the earlier pressings; here it’s bigger, with deeper, more involving tone and house-rocking drive. Shelton’s guitar fills are now no longer in the background, but have been brought forward to embellish Sill’s voice and piano, the clearer sound of his guitar tone making his own solo more expressive. The backing singers -- Oma Drake, Gloria Jones, and Carolyn Willis -- sound more enthusiastic and sanctified now, with audible conviction.

It’s the more sparely arranged tunes that highlight how much sensitivity Gray has brought to these recordings. Sill accompanies herself on piano in “When the Bridegroom Comes,” about a fallen sinner reaching for salvation. The piano’s tone and Sill’s use of dynamics come through so much more from the Intervention pressing -- the singer’s longing and sincerity are more palpable.

Heart Food ends with the nine-minute epic of “The Donor,” and Gray presents the delicate beauty and spiritual depth of this song as if for the first time. The vocal chorus pulled me in and enveloped me -- I could hear a clear separation between male and female singers much more clearly now. More important, while on the older pressings the backing singers seemed placed simply to Sill’s left and right across a flat expanse, now they’re around Sill to create a beautiful tapestry of heavenly voices.

The Intervention reissues present the range of Judee Sill’s musical vision in far greater scope and detail than have past vinyl editions -- and my copies of those LPs are far better than my CDs of the same recordings. Gray’s deepening of the soundstages has let the instruments bloom more. He’s presented the low notes of piano and guitar in more detail, and brought out the beauty and delicacy of Sill’s singing. Nearly 50 years after their release, we can hear how amazing these records actually are.

English singer and actor Murray Head is best known for singing the role of Judas Iscariot in the original studio recording of Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), and for his appearance in Chess (1984), a musical by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Head wrote and recorded his first album under his own name in 1972, a concept album called Nigel Lived. The elaborate packaging of the original LP included pages from the diary of the fictional character on whose story the record is based.

Nigel Lived sold few copies, but when Intervention reissued it last fall in a deluxe package of two 45rpm LPs, it became one of the label’s fastest sellers. The music is hard to describe -- an odd and exciting combination of progressive rock and musical theater that veers off in unexpected directions just as you get a grip on it. Record labels in 1972 might not have known how to promote Nigel Lived, which told the story of a young man who arrives in London to pursue fame and fortune but ends up in defeat, addicted to drugs.

I wish I’d been one of those smart enough to have grabbed a copy of Nigel Lived from a cutout bin in the early ’70s, but I do have a copy of the CD, released in the UK in 2001. Arnie Acosta mastered it for Voiceprint Records, and it’s very good -- but Kevin Gray’s new 45rpm edition for Intervention reveals more realism and body in the sound.

“Pacing on the Station” begins with the sounds of chirping birds, traffic, footsteps, and a passing train. The sound effects are fuller and more convincing on the LP, and when the acoustic guitar enters, its sound is brighter than on CD; the bass that then joins it is sharper toned, with stronger attacks. A drum roll panned across the channels is easier to follow, and Head’s singing is more emotionally shaded. As the arrangement grows more complex, backing voices and instruments flatten out on CD -- the LP lets the horns, for example, register fully and seem to reach out toward me.

Track 2, “Big City,” reveals the scale of Gray’s contributions to this recording. The CD sounded fine to me -- until I switched to the Intervention LP, on which the piano that accompanies Head’s voice sounds larger, with more pronounced low notes and more plangency. Cozy Powell’s kick drum provides more force and foundation, Barry DeSouza’s congas are easier to “see,” Mark Warner’s slashing, dissonant guitar chords cut more deeply, and Chris Mercer’s saxophone is grainier and more emotionally satisfying.

The first half of Nigel Lived charts Nigel’s entry into swinging London and his initial good feelings about it all, and this pressing lets small details come to life. The sound of the voices in “The Party” is more 3D, the strings in “Ruthie” sound bigger yet more delicately beautiful, and the transition to “City Scurry” is all the more gripping because Warner’s guitar rocks with more conviction, Clive Chaman’s bass thumps harder, and Cozy Powell’s hi-hat splashes out brightly.

Nigel Lived

“Why Do We Have to Hurt Our Heads” opens part 2 of Nigel Lived, and Gray’s remastering brings all the instruments out into the open. It’s easier to place each of the drums and hear their distinct tones. Graham Preskett’s electric violin is more aggressive, textured, and gritty, and Clive Chaman’s bass sounds sharper and easier to follow.

The church organ in “Pity the Poor Consumer” sounds grand on the Intervention, as if echoing between the walls of a church, and Head’s voice at the beginning sounds angelic. The transition to hard rock at song’s end is more convincing and forceful. The baritone sax in “Dole” has more visceral impact on this pressing, and the double-bass notes sound more like they’re resonating from a large, wooden instrument.

The closing, nine-minute-long “Junk,” comprising a series of vignettes that follow Nigel’s descent into addiction, is perhaps the most unusual and impressive track on a remarkable album. Peter Giles’s bass guitar is more threatening and edgy behind Head’s hesitant, stuttering vocal not long after the beginning. The string arrangements have far more presence on the new LP than on CD, and the sections in which strings and prepared piano create a feeling of dread are enveloping and hallucinogenic.

As with the Judee Sill LPs, Gray’s remastering of Nigel Lived put me at the center of the music, letting it fill my listening room to make the narrative more involving. Small things --- a faint heartbeat in “Junk,” the street noises behind Chris Mercer’s baritone sax in “Dole” -- were easier to hear and made the story more vivid. The subtlety of the arrangements, especially for strings, is more striking and satisfying on this reissue. Perhaps most important, the enormity of Murray Head’s talent is clear and compelling. He’s a convincing rock and soul singer, but his background in theater gives his singing a dramatic impact that makes this narrative come alive.

All three of the Intervention releases reviewed here were pressed at RTI, and all were flat, with quiet surfaces. The jacket stock is heavy cardboard, with old-style tip-on covers. I compared the graphics on the older copies of the Judee Sill albums, and their reproductions on the new jackets are vivid and bright. Glued into the gatefold of Heart Food is a four-page insert on which are printed the lyrics and musician credits. A similar eight-page insert in Nigel Lived includes the song lyrics, the pages from Nigel’s diary that form the base for the story, and striking graphics.

These recordings are a reminder of how ambitious rock could be in the heady early 1970s, and of how it was possible for even the most open-minded music fan to miss great things. But rather than agonize over having missed these the first time around, I’ll enjoy them in these beautiful reissues.

. . . Joseph Taylor
josepht@soundstagenetwork.com

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