Best Pressing Shootout: Can, Tago Mago — 1971 (?) UK First Pressing (?) vs. 1981 Celluloid French Reissue

When I realized sometime last summer that vinyl really did (or could) sound better than digital, I was thrilled and horrified at all the records I had to track down. In my digital days, I would smugly think how economical streaming was — but deep down inside, miss the fun of tracking down those big pieces of cardboard and vinyl. Now it was time to get re-obsessed with record collecting.

Can’s Tago Mago went right to the top of my iPhone note titles “Records to Track Down.” It’s one of my favourite records of all time, it has not one but two of the coolest album covers ever (see below!) — and it’s a record I could never quite afford in a decent pressing when I was rabidly collecting in my twenties.

But which of the many rather-expensive pressings would I buy? Or rather, me being me, which two would I buy?

The pressings

Rather quickly, I came across what was for me the holy grail of Tago Mago pressings: a 1971 UK first pressing with the alternate, “non-brain” cover. (“Non-brain” is such a great way of referring to something, isn’t it? “Two of the non-brain peppers, please.”) It was just sitting there on Discogs, waiting to be snapped up for a very, very reasonable price ($60USD if I recall). No one was buying it because it from a Canadian seller who only shipped to Canada. Well, that’s me.

The only snag was that, when it arrived, I could see that it wasn’t exactly the version I’d been promised. The labels of these UK United Artists pressings are thoroughly confusing; slightly variations in font between the labels seem to indicate totally different years of production. Discogs has identified the particular mismatched cocktail of labels on my copy as a 1973, not a 1971. But I personally see no reason why this would be correct. So I prefer to think of it as a 1971. Here are all four labels, for any sleuth who is willing to help me out.

I believe the particular printing credit on the (astoundingly cool) rear sleeve (with foldover, single-tab pocket) is of some significance in dating these, too:

Now let’s zoom out a little bit and see that rear sleeve next to the very cool rear sleeve of the Celluloid. Non-brain, meet brain.

If you’re wondering, I’ve been renovating my garage, and this is the minimalist setup I’ve got going out there while I paint: a Naim Nait 2 and a Rega Brio (both integrated amps; they’re in competition!) sitting on my LP12 setup jig, feeding Mission 701 speakers I bought when I was 16.

The Celluloid was born in 1981, same as me, and has a reputation — along with the Spoon German pressing of the same year — as the best of the reissues. I came across this for a reasonable price from a UK seller from whom I was buying a few other things. I think it was still a little more than the UK first pressing. But who would want to live without that brain cover?

My digital comparator is the Tidal version of the (well-regarded) 2014 remaster.

Verdict

I’ve been really looking forward to this test, and have indeed been listening to both of these pressings quite a lot. I have the United Artists UK pressing in my list of LP12MF Test Tracks, so I listen to that a lot. When I just feel like listening to the record, I usually put on the Celluloid. I also have another Celluloid Can pressing, of Ege Bamyasi, that I listen to a lot. (The Can record I listen to a lot is Future Days, of which I have a US first pressing.) My sense from these listens is that the Celluloids sound really good, but have a wee bit too much bass on them. I love the UK pressing, but I’ve noted many times in my LP12MF listening tests that the sound is pretty flat for the first minute or so, after which it gets a lot better — a strange phenomenon that I’ve only ever noticed on this particular record — with insane amounts of life and slam on the drums.

Well, that’s pretty much what this Best Pressing Shootout revealed. They are both excellent pressings, with lots of detail and plenty of “audio thrills,” and both easily better my digital comparator. The Celluloid is just a little too bass-heavy for my taste, and sometimes all that bass drowns out some of the finer details. The UA UK pressing is a little flat at first, then gets amazing, with tons of clarity and “slam.”

It’s UA UK pressing for clarity, realism, impact, excitement, slam. Celluloid for smoothness and fullness, though still with lots of detail and good spatial presentation. 

So you can’t really go wrong with either. Given the relative expense of the UK first pressing over the Celluloid (though the Celluloid isn’t cheap, either), you’ve got some cogitating to do, my friends.

Listening notes

Current setup: LP12 (Mober DC motor and PSU, Cirkus bearing, SSP12 subplatter, Mober subchassis, Linn Ekos 2 w/ stock cable, ESC-retipped Linn Troika), Dynavector P75 MkI, Linn Silver RCA, Schiit Mjolnir w/ Telefunken E88CC, Hifiman HE1000v2 w/ stock balanced cable. (See here for my digital setup.)

Side A

Celluloid. Definite “this sounds good feeling” from the start — though maybe a little bass-heavy? Electric guitar is nice and sharp, soundstage is wide and clear with the piano standing out as a nice delicate detail I haven’t much noticed. Main guitar riff has the Mober DC “sizzle.” As “Paperhouse” quiets down, the drum sounds (snare especially) are very nice and natural, and the cymbals are crisp. Maybe just a bit too much (foggy) bass coming through here for my tastes, but the sharp sounds (like the Strat) are really nice. “Mushroom” is a little bloated on the bass and a little hollow on the drums. When Damo Suzuki’s vocals suddenly get clearer, the effect is pretty surprising. “Oh Yeah” is a thick, soupy song — but the bass (deep, more felt that heard) sounds cool on this pressing, no doubt. Things get a little foggy toward the end of the song — I’m grooving along but could definitely imagine a bit clearer focus. 

UA UK. Feels a little flat, especially the snare, with doesn’t have much after-shimmer. The piano is a little out of focus, I think. Ah, but then when the pace picks up and the drums come in, the “groove” settles in and things sound really nice and driving, with an amazing combination of sharpness (the palm mutes) and roundness (the toms). And Damo’s spooky whispered vocals sit over the whole thing. Big audio thrills there, for sure, after the somewhat flat opening (hmm, this is playing out pretty much like “Halleluwah” on the other side, which I’ve listened to many hundreds of times…). When things quiet down, the snare is maybe a little less in focus, but the spatial details are good, as are the cymbals and toms. Soundstage is really nice and clear right to the end of the track. Never got the sense of too much foggy bass. “Mushroom” not getting that sense of too much bass, either: it’s tight and controlled. And the rest of the production is clearly deliberately hollow and washed out. When Damo’s yelling “I’m Gonna Get My Despair,” there’s what sounds like some distortion on his voice. The explosion to start “Oh Yeah” is massive here, and then fades out very slowly and softly into rain. Really nice. Then very well-positioned instruments — lots of ‘em, very wide soundstage — as it kicks in. Not getting the fogginess here — some instruments are foggy, but others (toms and snare, Strat) are really clear here. Pretty clear that this track sounds a lot better on this pressing. 

“Paperhouse”

Full digital. Again, so much vinyl listening this weekend, I’m getting spoiled. This sounds really flat and tinny. I can barely hear the piano in the background: no clarity or definition at all. Not feeling much impact when the drums come slamming in. The palm mutes are definitely sharp (yow!) but the toms are barely audible, so none of that roundness. When things quiet down, the cymbals are at least nice and clear. 

S-2-s UA UK vs digital. A bit of flatness on vinyl, but not as much as on digital. Better space, finer details on vinyl. Piano is a little clearer. It’s not until the fast part that vinyl pulls quite far ahead, with more impact on drums. Maybe 15% better? Int he palm mute/snare/spooky whisper part vinyl crushes digital on detail, impact, definition, soundstage, 20%. As usual, it’s the realism — the “drum-ness” of drums, “guitar-ness” of guitars — that separates them. And it’s really mostly drums here. I’d say right at 20%. In quieter part, yes, big difference in the naturalness and decay of the cymbal and the “sizzle” on electric guitars. Not an amazing-sounding track on vinyl, but definitely much better than on digital. 

S-2-s Celluloid vs. digital. Wow, yes, tons of bass in this pressing. Too much, I think. I mean, switching back to digital, it sounds horribly shrill. But I think the bass is just a little fuzzy and overwhelming. It’s a shame, because the details are really nice in this pressing: all the delicate stuff, like the pianos and the cymbal hits, are all there and really nicely defined. But all sitting above that flubby bass. In the palm mute/snare/spooky whisper part, it’s too soft — though the “groove factor” is high and it’s enjoyable. Switching back to digital I was actually having a hard time following the beat (might just be something wrong with my brain after too much listening today!) Yeah, wow, switching back and forth is really painful with the harshness of the digital and the really enjoyable smoothness and heft of the vinyl. The direct comparison I wish I could make is between the two vinyl pressings. I have a feeling it would be a bit of a wash, with a slight preference for the UA UK, since it has a bit more impact and slam, especially on drums. Say also 15% better than digital, but and differently from the UA.

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