Make the right U-Turn with turntables

U-Turn Audio's Orbit turntable. Photo by Dave Thompson.

U-Turn Audio’s Orbit turntable getting ready to test a new John Mayall record. Photo by Dave Thompson.

By Dave Thompson

Forty years — it scarcely seems possible. But that’s how long it is since the first Ramones album, and that’s how long we’ve been waiting for the mono mix that was apparently the band’s dearest wish. Or so say the liners to the 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Ramones (Sire/Rhino), a 3-CD/1-LP package that does indeed drop a fabulous mono platter into our laps, and it sounds…

Well, it sounds like the first Ramones album in mono, with added count-ins, added weight, and a monstrous roar that reminds you of the very first time you heard it, on whatever passed as your teenaged stereo system back in ’76. You know, the one that hummed when you turned it on, skipped when you didn’t put a coin on one end of the arm, and didn’t quite understand the intricacies of playing at the right speed. Oh, and don’t forget the sticky tape that got attached to one speaker, and makes a funny fuzzy sound whenever you turned it up to 10.

That’s how the Ramones should sound. And that (minus the hum and the fuzz) is how they still sound. The CDs in the package are great, of course — disc one piles both remastered stereo and mono mixes atop one another; disc two rounds up out-takes, rarities and single mixes, including the so-called “uncensored” version of “Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World,” and the best ever transfer of the oft-bootlegged 1975 Dick Charles Studio demos; and disc three captures both of the band’s sets from the Hollywood Roxy in August 1976.

But it’s the vinyl that you’ll want to keep returning to, and not only because they almost burned out the Abbey Road cutter head during the remastering. A common complaint about the Ramones today is that musical advances over the past four decades have rendered them a little less breathtaking than they originally were. Other bands play louder, other bands play faster, other bands play dumber.

The mono kicks all those complaints to the curb, at the same time (and this is the important bit) reminding us just what a pure pop phenomenon the Ramones were at the start. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” has to be the best Crystals record that Phil Spector didn’t produce; “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” is the soundtrack to every great Hollywood B-movie of the early ‘60s; and if you close your eyes and try real hard, can’t you just see The Shangri-Las singing “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”?

Okay, maybe not.

Talking as we were of turntables, though, and hankering for that back-to-basics glamour that seems so far away these days, U-Turn Audio recently unveiled the Orbit, an entry level (under $200) model that arrives in the most brilliant shade of vivid red (among others), and takes less time to set up than the Ramones box took to open. Seriously.

U-Turn Audio's Orbit turntable

U-Turn Audio’s Orbit turntable

It is, by many standards, a rudimentary little thing (see photo). Connections run through an RCA cable, and the only tinkering it requires is when you choose whether or not to deploy the built-in pre-amp, should your model have one (it’s an optional extra – $89).

The belt simply wraps around the platter and stretches out to a drive in the top left-hand corner, and that’s as far as speed control goes. There’s no cueing arm on the basic model (another option – $40), and the on-and-off switch is exactly that. What the manufacturers describe as an “innovative unipivot tonearm” appears to be a smart way of saying it’s pretty rudimentary, but at this price, why wouldn’t it be? It tracks nicely, and was weighted well enough to both dance gleefully through the Ramones, and then churn manfully through a much-played and scratchy copy of “The Martian Hop.”

Oh, and there’s no 45 adaptor with the basic model — yet another optional extra ($10) — and nowhere in either the accompanying one-page manual or on the company’s website could I find any reference to replacing the stylus and/or cartridge. Not a problem now, but a few hundred well-loved LPs down the road, it will be. Likewise, the turntable belt could (and probably should) be replaced at the earliest opportunity — it’s effectively a piece of very thin elasticated string, which does the job well enough, but can be fidgety, too. A flat belt would be a definite improvement.

But it’s a hefty beast, with a sturdy dustcover that a cat can happily sit on without any ill-effects (it happens), and the cushioning that awaits the tone arm when you return it to rest is a nice touch, too. True, it makes absolutely no difference to the turntable’s performance, but it might save a butterfingered beginner a heap of hurt somewhere down the line.

A couple of other new releases also took a spin on the Orbit this month — one that, like the Ramones, wasn’t too concerned about audio fidelity, and one that contrarily demands all of your attention. It did a great job with them both.

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers Live in 1967 – Volume Two (Forty Below) is, surprise, the second half of the in-concert cornucopia that appeared last year, five London clubs’ worth of Peter Green/Mick Fleetwood/John McVie-era Bluesbreakers distilled to 13 tracks of awesome magnificence. Another 13 turn up here, three titles duplicated from the earlier set (savage renditions of “Stormy Monday,” “Double Trouble” and “So Many Roads”), but the remainder marching into fresh territory to remind us just what a fabulous line-up this was.

It’s no surprise at all that the bass and drums combo of McVie and Fleetwood holds things together better than any past (or, indeed future) Bluesbreakers rhythm section, and the young Green’s brilliance is already carved in stone. So much of this line-up’s reputation, however, is built upon their studio work, and the other odds and ends that have escaped over the years. Here we hear them not only in their element, but with the added cohesion that a great live show, in a small, packed club, lent to the proceedings. And if the sound quality (mono, once more) isn’t an audiophile orgasm in your living room, it probably wasn’t much better on the night. The excitement and energy levels, though, are through the roof.

The liners add little (read “nothing”) to those that accompanied volume one, so there’s no specific recording dates, and no way to tell whether, for example, the six tracks recorded at the Marquee Club hail from one show or more — the Bluesbreakers played the venue at least three times during this line-up’s brief (April-July 1967) lifespan. But in terms of what you do get, that’s not really a concern. History likes to tell us that it was the earlier, Clapton-fired Bluesbreakers that marked the apex of John Mayall’s career. History has just been proven wrong.

Finally, this month, an album that would push any turntable test to the limit, as the Soundwalk Collective and Jesse Paris Smith combine with Patti Smith for Killer Road – A Tribute to Nico (Sacred Bones). An utterly spellbinding collection of atmospheric themes and effects, over which Patti softly intones both poetry and lyric, the project was born with a clutch of live performances in 2014, three songs from which are included here.

The remainder is a studio recreation of the same show, spoken word recreations of “My Heart is Empty,” “Evening of Light,” “Saeta,” “Secret Side” and “My Only Child” (“Fearfully in Danger,” “I Will Be Seven” and “The Sphinx” are the live cuts), all built around the eeriest of soundscapes; lazily, you could call it “ambient,” but the collision of intent and delivery raises it far above that term’s most common definitions.

Patti Smith is the “name attraction,” of course, but even compared to her own poetic performances, this is a revelation. Her voice is as soft as a lullaby, reshaping Nico’s lyrics as whispers and echoes, sometimes barely audible over the occasional near-silence of the backing tracks, but never less than blindingly visual. And while you would never dream of comparing these performances with Nico’s own (because, of course, you shouldn’t even try), “Killer Road” does line up alongside X-TG’s 2012 recreation of “Desertshore,” and especially alongside its download only “evil twin,” as a flawless vision of all that Nico meant to those who love her music.          

For more information on U-Turn Audio’s Orbit turntable click here.

One thought on “Make the right U-Turn with turntables

  1. I have a Kenwood turntable that I purchased in 1971 for $300. Finding styluses has been a hassle over the years, so 5 years ago I bought 5 of them. enough to last my lifetime, I think (I’m 70). I love playing my records and they never sound old to me. I took very good care (my kids say ‘anal’ care) of them and my oldest one is Elvis’ 1956 RCA album (yes, I bought it when I was 10 years old with money earned mowing lawns and shoveling snow).

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