Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Fourteen)

PAST MASTERS
 
In 1987, it finally happened.  The British versions of every studio album they ever made (with one notable exception) became available on CD for the very first time internationally.  Unfortunately, there was a problem.  The Beatles didn’t just release full-length records.  They also put out non-album singles, as well.  However, none of these were included as bonus tracks on the new CDs, which posed a dilemma.  Since listeners were also clamouring for these other numbers there had to be a way to put them out in a satisfactory manner.
 
The solution was to release two more CDs in 1988.  Past Masters: Volume One collected A-Sides, B-Sides and rarities that covered 1962 to July 1965 and Past Masters: Volume Two offered all the remaining leftovers released between December 1965 and 1970, minus all the 1967 singles which you can hear on Magical Mystery Tour. 
 
In 2009, the entire catalogue was reissued again on CD, this time with remastered sound, expanded liner notes and, on early pressings only, enhanced material.  Instead of re-releasing two separate CDs of their non-album songs like before, all the contents from those original discs were collected in a two-disc set simply entitled Past Masters.  This 93-minute and 27-second double album is proof that The Beatles cared just as much about their stand alone material as they did their proper albums.
 
Three different drummers played on three different versions of Love Me Do, the less-than-stellar opening track on disc one.  The original, which remained unreleased for 33 years until its inclusion on Anthology 1, features Pete Best.  Ringo Starr plays on the Please Please Me version.  Producer George Martin insisted that session drummer Alan White play on the single.  I like all three takes even though the lyrics are as basic as you can get.  This is the song that began the brief harmonica period which lasted until 1964.  (That being said, the mouth harp did return in 1967 on Sgt. Pepper’s Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! and also popped up on Yellow Submarine’s All Together Now and “The White Album”‘s Rocky Raccoon before disappearing for good.)
 
Speaking of the harmonica, it’s notably absent from the opening bars of From Me To You, the band’s third British A-Side.  (You can hear it on 1, though.)  Thankfully, it finally pops up later on in the track.  Since it’s an integral part of the entire song, one wonders why its first appearance was taken out of this remastered mix.  Regardless, this version is instantly hooky with spot-on, reverberating harmonies by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  Thank You Girl, the B-Side, offers more of the same.  (Ringo gets a welcome opportunity to just wail away on his kit on that one.)
 
Two of the band’s biggest early hits, She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand, are also presented here in German, the only foreign language recordings the band ever produced (not counting portions of Michelle and Sun King, of course).  The former is about a mutual friend of a couple in crisis.  He wants to assure his buddy that his screw-up, whatever it was, has been forgiven and he just needs to make amends to sooth his understanding girlfriend’s wounds.  As the friend wisely notes, “Pride can hurt you, too”.  The German version is a pretty faithful rerecording but with odd sounding lyrics.  It’s just not one of the most romantic sounding languages.  But I still like it. 
 
The latter is very similiar to I Wanna Be Your Man and is easily one of the most overrated songs the band ever released.  But that hook is irresistible and though the lyrics don’t even come close to matching the excellence of the band’s later material, you’ll still be singing along.  It’s easy to understand why Bob Dylan thought “I can’t hide” sounded like “I get high”.  (Lennon used the second phrase as the opening three words of It’s Only Love.  It was also part of the chorus on With A Little Help From My Friends.)  The German version is basically the same backing track with a new vocal.  The two middle eight sections sound particularly strange.  The biggest irony about both these Teutonic recordings?  They were made in France.  They are entertaining curiosities, nothing more.
 
I’ll Get You, She Loves You’s B-Side, features some lovely harmony vocals from Lennon and McCartney as they make a play for a resistant woman.  Bold to the point of cockiness, the lyrics clearly reflect the growing confidence in their songwriting.  There’s a bit too much harmonica in this one, particularly during the verses.  It should’ve been restricted to the choruses.  A minor complaint of a good song.  This Boy is the superior British B-Side to I Want To Hold Your Hand.  (I Saw Her Standing There was the American flip which is even better.)  An engaging ballad in 12/8 time, an enraged ex-boyfriend is trying to win back his love from his romantic rival.  Interestingly, the gender of the love isn’t specified, although considering the times, we’re obviously talking about a woman here.  But by being ambiguous about the object of both men’s affections the track has universal appeal.  Lennon’s forcefully plaintive vocals during the middle eight give me chills.
 
The second half of the first disc begins with the four songs that made up the Long Tall Sally EP.  The title song gives Paul McCartney another opportunity to pay loving tribute to Little Richard, the charismatic American who co-wrote and performed the original version.  He’s unrestrained in his affection for this cheeky rocker about the exploits of a cheating husband as told from the point of view of his delighted nephew.  I Call Your Name is a Lennon/McCartney original foolishly given away to Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas during a time when the duo were writing songs for other clients represented by their manager Brian Epstein.  With an arrangement not unlike You Can’t Do That, Lennon continually bemoans the absence of his lover, a role he inhabited in many early Beatle tracks.  The middle eight section is absolutely stunning.  The way the band transition in and out of it is so smooth.  Harrison’s twangy lead guitar ascends and descends while Lennon reaches the apex of his heartfelt emotions.  It’s so good I get goose bumps.  Christopher Walken should dig this one, too.  Lots of cowbell. 
 
Slow Down, originally the B-Side to Larry Williams’ Dizzy Miss Lizzy (The Beatles covered the latter for Help!), begins with a long but enjoyable 30-second intro (rare for the band) before Lennon once again tries to win back yet another girl who’s clearly moved on without him.  Targetted at teens, Lennon begs and pleads and screams for her attention but to no avail.  Harrison’s solo is curiously low-key.  It gets the job done but I think he could’ve ripped it up large here.  I can’t imagine this song working without that glorious piano.  Matchbox, a Carl Perkins song, is the obligatory vocal showcase for Ringo Starr.  (Interestingly, George Harrison didn’t get to sing on the Long Tall Sally EP).  An uptempo blues rocker, a self-loathing Ringo is conflicted about fooling around with another guy’s woman.  The best lyric is clearly this one:  “If you don’t want my peaches, honey/Please don’t shake my tree”.  Innuendo, a rock and roller’s best friend.
 
A creamy melody allows Lennon to get away with less than original lyrics on I Feel Fine.  The track begins with a low, ringing bass tone and some nifty feedback before shifting into gear, an early sign of the experimentation that was to become more prevalent in the following years.  Harrison’s guitar work is just superb, especially his brief solo.  Listen for Paul McCartney’s dog-like whooping on the fadeout.  She’s A Woman, that song’s B-Side, is a Ray Charles-inspired original that opens with the piano and guitar in staccato synchronicity.  McCartney sings the praises of his gal (“She don’t give boys the eye”) while pooh-poohing naysayers (“People tell me she’s only fooling/I know she isn’t”).  With its tight, choppy guitar chords and slightly loopy solo, not to mention those interesting lyrics, it’s one of the better early numbers from their catalogue. 
 
Bad Boy, another rocking Larry Williams cover, is funny at times with its tale of a true juvenile delinquent, a fearless cat who “puts some tacks on teacher’s chair” and “chewing gum in little girl’s hair”.  This is the only time you’ll hear John Lennon sing the word “poop”.  The lyrics Williams wrote are better than anything The Beatles were devising in their early years. 
 
Disc one ends with two B-Sides from 1965.  Yes It Is, the flip to Ticket To Ride, uses the same volume foot-pedal technique that George Harrison employed for I Need You.  A wounded guy is reminded of a past love when his current squeeze wears something in red.  Torn between his longing for his ex and a possibly happy future with someone new, there’s a nice attempt at complexity in the lyrics.  This situation is far from cut and dry.  The harmonies aren’t as pretty at times as perhaps they should be but this song, which I didn’t like initially, is an effective ballad.  I’m Down, which was paired with Help!, is a chaotically bluesy moaner about a humiliated boyfriend frustrated with his rather meanspirited chick.  When they’re alone, she won’t put out (“She will still moan ‘Keep your hands to yourself'”) and she keeps refusing to marry him (“Man buys ring, woman tosses it away/Same old thing happen every day”).  One wonders why McCartney sticks with her.  John Lennon’s organ solo is a lot of fun to listen to.
 
Disc two begins with the sensational Day Tripper.  Commencing with that killer George Harrison guitar hook, Ringo Starr then shakes his tamborine and the rest of the band soon join in.  A hot chick torments Lennon and McCartney by only taking them “half the way there” and by generally being “a big teaser”.  Looking for something serious with her, the lads complain that “she only played one-night stands”.  In other words, she’s long out of the picture.  Ringo’s drum pattern variations at the end work really well.  We Can Work It Out doesn’t require too much of an explanation.  McCartney and his lover are quarrelling over an unspecified issue.  Stubbornness is getting in the way of their reconciliation.  He thinks he’s absolutely right and that her way is the road to ruin.  You could argue that the character in the song is a bit chauvinistic thinking that a man knows best but like his lover, he’s just determined to get his way.  The middle eight section, written by John Lennon, tries to put their silly fight into perspective (“Life is very short/And there’s no time/For fussing and fighting, my friend”).  I like how the seque into swing time suggests that they’re constantly going in circles, nowhere near reaching a compromised solution.  Repeating words in the second half add to this impression.  The inclusion of a harmonium, easily mistaken for an accordian because of their similiar sounds, is unorthodox but effective.  
 
The Beatles ceased being a pop band in 1966 with the release of Paperback Writer.  A full-on rocker, there’s not a twangy guitar to be heard.  Conceived as a query letter to a potential publisher McCartney is a driven young man eager to see his work appreciated by the public.  The premise of his book sounds rather intriguing (“It’s a dirty story about a dirty man/And how his clinging wife doesn’t understand”).  Unfortunately he got the idea from another author (“It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear”) and the manuscript is a bit long (“It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few”) so the chances of him getting a book deal are pretty remote.  It also doesn’t help that the letter is not addressed to anyone specific, a big no-no.  Like Dr. Robert, it’s all one big sales pitch.  And it’s brilliant.  Listen closely during the latter verses and you can hear “Frere Jacques” sung in the background one word per line.  Ringo plays the tamborine so fast throughout the track it sounds like he’s scraping utensils.
 
Rain, that song’s flipside, maintains the new edgier rock sound as a confident sounding John Lennon snidely criticizes those who hate precipitation.  Not terribly deep and not always in rhythm, I used to dismiss this as a throwaway.  But, much to my surprise, it’s working for me now thanks to this reissue.  I particularly like the backwards vocals in the final seconds.  It’s a good song for sure, but as not as great as some would lead you to believe.
 
Lady Madonna, a tribute to the mothers of the world, does something particularly tricky.  It begins with a brisk piano melody and gently brushed drums.  Then, Ringo adds another drum track at a slightly slower tempo right on top of the mix.  Drop in a few saxophones, joyful handclaps and George Harrison’s steady guitar playing at appropriate intervals and you’ve got quite the arrangement.  Unfortunately, there is one misstep in the form of a dreadful sax solo that barges in midway through the track.  It sounds totally out of place and has driven me crazy for years.  It’s quick but not painless.  It should’ve been excised altogether.  McCartney’s lyricism evokes the curiosity and puzzlement of those who wonder how all those women are able to raise great kids.  A rather sweet sentiment, actually.  Love the backing vocals on this one.  Very 20s sounding.
 
George Harrison’s burgeoning admiration for East Indian music led to that song’s unusual B-Side, The Inner Light, a personal breakthrough.  Exotically spiritual in its arrangement and sensibility, it marked the first time a Harrison original was issued on a stand alone Beatles single.  The lyrics are pretty much taken directly from a book called Tao Te Ching, an ancient text integral to understanding the Chinese religion, Taoism.  If the song had been conceived today, I’m afraid it would sound more of a tribute to The Internet than old-fashioned philosophy.  I used to enjoy the lively instrumental sections more than the slowed down vocal parts but now it all works for me.  It just sounds so cool and different.
 
One of the most touching singles the band ever released, without a doubt, was Hey Jude.  What initially began as a tribute to Julian Lennon, John’s first born son, whose well being Paul McCartney was greatly concerned about (at the time, his parents were breaking up and John was involved with Yoko Ono), ended up being a lot more fictional in its meaning.  Nevertheless, it’s such an emotional song.  Once again, the piano takes the lead as McCartney, effortlessly delivering one of his warmest vocals, takes it upon himself to encourage the title character to be unafraid in his pursuit of love and happiness.  The line “take a sad song and make it better” is so perfect in its simplicity and wisdom.  Midway through the song, we arrive at the famous “na na na” section which never gets boring to listen to no matter how many times you play back this track.  McCartney breaks away from his melodic restraints and unleashes a series of endlessly entertaining ad-libs and freak outs.  Meanwhile, the song is fading out ever so slowly, a process that takes a few minutes to complete.  I’m wondering now whether that was truly necessary.  Maybe this glorious epic should’ve ended cold.  At any rate, despite being 42 years old, it’s grown into a timeless track.  One more thing.  Close to three minutes in, you can barely hear McCartney say, “Oh! Fucking hell.”.  He hit a bad note.
 
Even better is Revolution.  Next to Helter Skelter it’s the closest to heavy metal The Beatles ever sounded.  An electrified version of Revolution 1 from “The White Album”, it is indisputedly the best take on the song.  Released during the turbulent year of 1968, on this version John Lennon wants no part of any rioting (“But when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out”) as he digests the very idea of revolution presented to him by an unnamed party.  The abrasive riff is right out of 50s rock and roll while the sophisticated lyrics, among the most lucid John Lennon ever put on record, could’ve been written today.  His orgasmic grunting during the guitar and electronic keyboard solos is fun to mimic.  Exhilarating from start to finish, this might be the greatest Beatles song ever.
 
The late Billy Preston appears on the next two tracks, Get Back and Don’t Let Me Down.  The former is a bit different from the Let It Be album take.  For one thing, it doesn’t feature any extracurricular banter.  For another, it has a false ending and goes on for about half a minute longer.  What is common to both tracks is the relentlessly chugging rhythm and McCartney’s entertaining stories about his first wife’s ex-husband (“Jo Jo”) and a transsexual named Loretta.  Preston’s organ playing blends in nicely with the soulful arrangement.  John Lennon, surprisingly, is given plenty of time to keep the song moving with his memorable guitar playing. 
 
The latter is an unabashed love song for Yoko Ono.  Lennon is riveted by the purely sexual nature of the relationship (“She done me good”) but typically, remains quite vulnerable (“Don’t let me down”) despite his middle eight assertions (“Don’t you know it’s gonna last/It’s a love that lasts forever”).  I love how during the chorus each symbol crash coincides with the vocalization of each word in the title.  A bit moody for a romantic number, it’s nonetheless grown on me over the years.  Preston does a good job soloing on the organ while Lennon and McCartney are faintly heard vamping in the background.  Perhaps they could’ve kept quiet like they do on Get Back but thankfully they don’t take anything away from the guest performer.
 
The Ballad Of John & Yoko only features Lennon and McCartney.  Reliving the tale of how difficult it was to secure a licence for his second marriage, Lennon dusts off his self-pity as he complains about the inevitably negative media coverage his union with Yoko received.  The stupid Bed-In For Peace stunt is given its own verse and there are references to Yoko’s ridiculous “bagism” nonsense, as well.  Even in the last section when “the men from the press” wish the newlyweds well, he still declares, “The way things are going/They’re going to crucify me”.  That being said, it’s fascinating to hear Lennon’s take on his crazy, whirlwind romance.  In between his singing, there’s a nice, screwy guitar lick that exemplifies the surreality of the whole thing.  McCartney’s harmony vocals are well done, too, especially in the second half.  Overall, the arrangement suits the lyrics.
 
Old Brown Shoe, its B-Side, is a love song heavy on oppositional wordplay.  Written by George Harrison, its musical emphasis on the off beat is a nice change of pace from the usual 4/4 framework (although the time signature does switch to a conventional rhythm during the middle eights).  Six years after Don’t Bother Me, his first composition to make the final cut on a Beatles album, Old Brown Shoe proves once and for all that Harrison, like Lennon & McCartney, improved greatly over such a short period of time, even though it was difficult to convince his bandmates to include much of his material.  I like the cleverness of this one. 
 
The original version of Across The Universe, which originally appeared on a WWF benefit album called No One’s Gonna Change Our World, differs a bit from the Let It Be mix.  The pace is faster (Phil Spector slowed it down) and there’s no choir or orchestration (Spector additions).  However, there are kiddie backing vocals and some bird sound effects, particularly at the start and finish when you hear them flying away.  (You can also hear children playing at the start.)  Plus, I detect the ever reliable sitar.  In my review of Let It Be, I felt Lennon was attempting to describe how it feels to meditate.  But after consulting my copy of A Hard Day’s Write, Steve Turner’s insightful book about the origins of Beatle compositions, it turns out he’s actually singing about creativity.  When you think about it, not only does that make a lot of sense it makes you appreciate the great lyrics to this song even more.  Still, when you throw in a line like “jai guru deva, ohm” and use it like a mantra, it’s difficult to let go of your earlier interpretation.  As much as I like this 1969 mix, it sounds too fast.  Spector was right to make all the changes he did.  I prefer the Let It Be version.
 
Speaking of that album, the single version of the title cut is also slightly different from its LP counterpart.  Oddly, there’s a different George Harrison guitar solo.  Also, when Ringo hits the hi-hat during the second verse, it’s less echoey.  Plus, some of his other drumming deviates from the album mix.  Other than that, it’s exactly the same which means it’s still great.  When McCartney presses down on those piano keys and sings about his mother reassuring him during a serious professional crisis, it’s deeply moving.  The backing vocals heighten the emotion. 
 
The second disc of Past Masters ends with the least serious track the band ever committed to tape.  You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) shifts from rock to lounge to jazz all while the title is sung and spoken countless times.  McCartney amusingly screams the title with Lennon during the first section.  After Lennon introduces him as “Dennis O’Bell” (a real-life film producer who worked with Ringo Starr), McCartney turns into a drippy lounge singer.  It gets even goofier after that as Lennon starts sounding like Dame Edna.  In the last section, Lennon makes unintelligible grunts that, quite frankly, go on far too long.  The funniest part of the whole song involves McCartney interjecting well-timed groans at some point during the final minute.  He sounds like he’s trying to take a huge dump and it just won’t come out.  This song drove me absolutely bonkers back in the 1990s.  I can’t believe I’m saying this but I actually like it now.
 
That missing harmonica part from From Me To You aside, Past Masters preserves the integrity of the music.  Quite frankly, it sounds great.  Like all the other reissues, it’s not too loud nor is it too soft.  Longtime complainers will have to find something else to grumble about.  The liner notes expertly document the historical and recording history of all 33 tracks in one long essay.  As you flip through the numerous pics, it’s startling at times to see how much the band changed over the course of seven years.  As an example, look at the back cover photo and then go back one page.  Like I said, startling.  Unlike Past Masters: Volume One and Volume Two, with the exception of four songs, everything is in stereo here.  By the way, this is the only reissue in the series without enhanced content.  Unlike the proper studio albums, there is no CD-ROM documentary to check out.  With so much good music to listen to again and again, you won’t care about the exclusion.
 
Past Masters is a very fine collection of non-album material.  Disc two is clearly better than disc one, though, as you’ll hear some of the finest individual tunes in the band’s rightly celebrated history.  Seek it out and you won’t be disappointed.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 14, 2010
12:39 a.m.  
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Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 12:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Thirteen)

LET IT BE
 
It is the most unfairly maligned record in their entire catalogue, the swan song that detractors can’t stop complaining about.  The original idea was to film the band rehearsing new material at Twickenham Film Studios in England for a possible TV documentary.  All of this would lead to a stripped down studio record, not unlike Please Please Me or With The Beatles, and ultimately culminate in their return to the live stage.  For about a month in January 1969, The Beatles set about putting together the follow-up to their sprawling, magnificent self-titled 1968 double album in front of the ever intrusive movie cameras.  But there was a chilly atmosphere as the band members failed to find common ground about the film and the songs.  As a result, another album was made before the entire project was revisited.
 
After the massive artistic and commercial success of Abbey Road (which earned an Album Of The Year Grammy nomination), what was originally entitled The Beatles Get Back would soon be renamed Let It Be.  The new name perfectly exemplified in three words the collective resignation of the whole Beatles enterprise in 1970.  The TV documentary idea was scrapped and the footage was edited into a feature film released that spring.  (It later won an Oscar for its music.)
 
So, what is it about this record that has given some Beatle fans conniption fits for the last 40 years?  Two words:  Phil Spector.
 
The eccentric producer was brought in by Beatles manager Allen Klein to clean up the raw material that had been sitting on the shelf for a year, much to the consternation of Paul McCartney.  In truth, only three songs from the twelve-song collection are notably affected by Spector.  (Most of the changes involved the addition of orchestral sounds and a choir.)  McCartney was understandably upset, though, because the whole point of the project was to offer listeners a raw, ragged, return-to-basics repertoire, flaws and all.  Some of Spector’s contributions immediately put the kibosh on that.
 
Three of the best all-time Beatle songs appear on this terrific album.  Despite (or perhaps, because of) its slowed down tempo, the addition of an orchestra and that aforementioned choir, this second version of Across The Universe (the slightly different original is on Past Masters) is the full realization of John Lennon’s mystical lyricism.  While it’s true that the lifelong Lewis Carroll fan couldn’t resist passing nonsensical words for philosophical deepness in a number of his compositions (because he could get away with it), Universe is a potent exception.  As you listen along, it sounds like he’s describing the process of meditation, even throwing in a mantra at the start of every chorus (“jai guru deva, ohm”).  Filled with rich imagery this utterly beautiful arrangement showcases Lennon at his most vulnerable.  Most puzzling, though, is the repeated line “Nothing’s gonna change my world”.  Is he trying to say that despite all the flooding of positive emotion he’s experiencing, the sadness he’s long felt will never truly leave him?  Only he knew for sure.  If you listen closely to the ending, you can hear the famous ascending bassline from Hello Goodbye.
 
Let It Be is Paul McCartney’s incredibly moving tribute to his mother Mary who sadly died of breast cancer when he was just a teenager.  Bittersweet in so many ways, the track is as close to gospel as The Beatles ever came.  Curiously, this album version features a different guitar solo than the single.  All credit to the player, George Harrison, for his skilled playing on both.  The lyric says it all.  Although the final mix of The Long And Winding Road has long annoyed McCartney, Spector thoroughly rescued it.  Another Beatles song that just kills me every time I hear it, that sympathetic string section is a major reason for my strong emotional reaction.  Essentially a romantic melodrama about a guy unwilling to let go of a past love, through simple, utterly devastating words McCartney’s understated singing underscores the deep hurt captured in those strings and horns.  You can easily imagine this song popping up during a climactic moment in a movie.
 
The rest of the album, as good as it is, never quite matches the excellence of these three songs.  Two Of Us sounds like a folksy ode to juvenile deliquency with its references to bad behaviour and general tomfoolery.  The acoustic arrangement is light and breezy with Lennon and McCartney harmonizing like the old days.  Like much of this album, it feels bittersweet.  Lennon whistles the “hey la” vocal line from Hello Goodbye in the dying seconds.  I’ve Got A Feeling combines McCartney’s verses with Lennon’s two incomplete Everybody Had A Hard Year sections.  It’s neat when each sing their parts at the same time near the end.  Somehow, it all flows together quite naturally.  At times, McCartney lets loose like his idol, Little Richard, reminding us once again that there were two capable screamers in the band.  There’s even a reference to Oh! My Soul at the end.  The guitar work simply rocks.
 
Dig A Pony might not mean very much on the lyrical side of things, but it’s neat nonetheless to hear Lennon easily rhyme the fourth words of every second and third line of every verse.  Clearly inspired by Joe Cocker (who famously covered With A Little Help From My Friends), the offbeat time signatures suit the material.  The performance is good and McCartney whoops it up in a couple of places.  That’s always fun to listen to.
 
The Carl Perkins-inspired One After 909 is an oldie that never made the cut for any of the earlier albums.  (Check out how it originally sounded on Anthology 1.)  I never used to like this Let It Be version until I heard this reissue.  The arrangement’s slightly eccentric but it’s grown on me in the many years since I last had a listen.  Despite the growing tension between them, Lennon and McCartney sound like they’re having a blast reviving this one from the archives.  No idea why Lennon feels the need to sing a little of Danny Boy at the end, though.
 
George Harrison contributes For You Blue and I Me Mine to the proceedings, both good songs.  Blue is a sweet, staccato confection that features some nice slide work by John Lennon.  Mine alternates from a swing to a full-out rocker and back again as Harrison, using simple language, describes not only the tension within the band but the difficulty of shedding one’s ego.  Pretty thought provoking for a two-minute number.  Spector wisely added strings to increase the song’s emotional impact.
 
Sprinkled throughout Let It Be are little bits of dialogue (found either at the start or end of songs), some of which we could do without like the lame quips Lennon offers before the beginnings of both Two Of Us and Let It Be.  Also, two snippets of songs are thrown into the mix.  The best of these is Maggie Mae which you wish went on longer.  Dig It is a short improvisation featuring Lennon referencing government institutions and celebrities for some unknown reason as he’s egged on by an organ.  It ends at just the right time, long before you would ever start to get fed up with it.
 
Get Back, the song that inspired the entire project, ends the record on a rocking note with McCartney offering the occasional vocal quiver during some of the verses.  Guest organist Billy Preston adds the right amount of funk to the performance.  The rest of the band sound great and Lennon’s humourous quip at the end (not to mention the basic premise of the song) couldn’t be more ironic.  The gender-bending second verse sounds like a precursor to David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel.
 
Despite the long festering anti-Spector sentiment, there should be no grumbling about the sound on this reissue.  It’s not too loud nor is it too soft.  All in all, it’s a clear mix.  Early pressings are enhanced with a 3-minute mini documentary featuring banter and commentary by all four Beatles.  (The footage was taken from The Beatles On Record.)  You can only access it through the CD-ROM drive on your computer.  (The minimum requirements are Windows 2000 and QuickTime.)  You’ll see various clips from the Let It Be movie and hear snippets of the album’s contents.  Too bad the audio and video are never in sync.  Ringo Starr has the best soundbite when he notes that when the band was enthused about a particular song it was working on, you can hear that excitement in the recording.  (He’s right.)  Paul McCartney mentions how playing the previously unheard One After 909 was a nostalgia trip for him and John Lennon.  And George Harrison talks about how the idea of recording a live album is pretty much the premise of MTV’s Unplugged show.  Seeing the clips make you eager to see the film on DVD, if they ever release the damn thing.
 
You can hear the scorn in McCartney’s voice as he reminisces about how the original album was re-tooled by Phil Spector.  Meanwhile, the documentary deftly demonstrates how the producer’s alterations transformed The Long And Winding Road from a good song into a great one.  The difference is almost night and day.  One last observation:  Ringo looks sad much of the time, except for that humourous moment when he glides by the camera.  
 
The problem with these reissue mini documentaries is two-fold.  They’re too short and even if they were much longer, it’s not certain whether anything new would be revealed.  After all, we are talking about one of the most documented bands in history.  Still, this is one of the better ones in the series.
 
As for the liner notes, it’s disappointing that the original 160-page booklet that only appeared in the early vinyl British release was not reproduced for this reissue.  It would’ve been neat to have a look at the transcribed conversations all these decades later.  Instead, we get a barebones booklet featuring the standard Historical and Recording Notes and a whole slew of photos, far too many of McCartney in that awful beard of his.  He has too much of a babyface to pull it off.  Ultimately, there’s nothing really new to see or read here.
 
Despite what the critics have said for 40 years, this version of Let It Be is the one to get, unless you have the original CD, of course.  The complainers can pick up Let It Be…Naked instead.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 13, 2010
12:44 a.m. 
Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 12:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Twelve)

ABBEY ROAD
 
It all started with a phone call.  Paul McCartney rang up George Martin one day to ask if he was interested in producing one last Beatles album.  Remembering the tumultuous Let It Be sessions, Martin agreed on one condition.  He would only do it if the band was willing to go back to the way they were used to working together.  They were, especially John Lennon.  Martin was on board.
 
That fateful decision led to the creation of Abbey Road, named after the street where the EMI Studios are located.  (The mass popularity of the LP no doubt inspiring the name change to Abbey Road Studios as it’s known today.)  Like “The White Album”, it’s an eccentric record featuring a mix of bluesy rockers and sweet ballads running at various lengths.  Pulling back a bit on the experimentalism that defined many of their late 60s offerings, it still finds room for new sounds, most notably a synthesizer that pops up on a few tracks.  Far from their best, it is nonetheless a very fine piece of work.
 
Originally conceived as a campaign theme for controversial professor Timothy Leary (who used the original version for his abbreviated 1969 run for Governor of California which was derailed after he was pinched for drug possession), Come Together opens the album on a strong, bluesy note.  With its eerie, subdued atmosphere and puzzling lyrics, the song is a far cry from earlier album openers.  Featuring one of Ringo Starr’s all-time greatest performances on the drums, the mostly low-key arrangement (based on Chuck Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me who successfully sued for plagiarism in 1973) allows plenty of room for Lennon’s self-assured vocals.  Despite the dense nature of a good number of the words, occasionally lucid lines of autobiography poke through like “Got to be a joker/He just do what he please” in verse one and “Got to be good-looking/’Cause he’s so hard to see” in verse four.  More than 40 years later, it’s still spooky to hear Lennon say “Shoot me” numerous times in between the verses.  It might not always make sense but the clever use of pseudo jive suits the melody.  George Harrison’s guitar work here is terrific as is Paul McCartney’s anchored bass playing.  The organ’s a nice touch, too.  It’s no wonder the song’s been covered so many times.
 
Also remade by numerous musicians over the years is Harrison’s Something (which Frank Sinatra mistakenly thought was a Lennon/McCartney original).  Reminiscent of a Phil Spector production with its lovely orchestral arrangement backing the band’s traditional rock instrumentation, it wouldn’t have been out of place on Let It Be.  Directly inspired by a James Taylor composition (the first two lines are a direct steal from “Something In The Way She Moves”), it’s a pretty love song with very straightforward lyrics.  Interestingly, though, despite the mutual infatuation that’s developing, the middle eight section reveals surprising doubts about a lasting, long-term relationship.  (“You’re asking me will my love grow/I don’t know, I don’t know/You stick around now it may show/I don’t know, I don’t know”)  Harrison’s guitar solo immediately follows and it’s the opposite of insecure.  It’s one of his best, actually. 
 
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is the most charming song about mass murder I’ve ever heard.  Maxwell Edison is a psychotic college student “majoring in medicine” who tricks Joan, a solitary, amateur scientist, into thinking he’s into her.  After successfully asking her out to a movie, he arrives at her door only to kill her with his unusual choice of weapon (the hammering is represented by Ringo banging on an anvil).  Later, he offs his teacher in the same manner for making him stay after class to write lines on a chalkboard (“Maxwell plays the fool again/Teacher gets annoyed”).  The guy is so demented, in the final verse he even knocks off the judge at his own hearing in the presence of two of his overly supportive groupies (“Rose and Valery, screaming from the gallery/Say he must go free”).  Deeply despised by George Harrison, who called it “fruity”, and John Lennon who dismissed it as “granny-style” music, it is easily one of the most underappreciated tunes in The Beatles’ catalogue.  Cheerfully depraved (McCartney nearly cracks up at one point but instantaneously recovers without missing a beat), the song bounces along as unashamed as its villainous title character.  The then-pioneering sounds of a Moog synthesizer after the first verse is unexpected and effective.  Superb lyrics on this one.
 
Channelling Little Richard, McCartney endlessly pleads for reconciliation in Oh! Darling, a song I used to dismiss as being routine.  Mostly set to a 6/8 rhythm, quick guitar jabs punctuate every line of the verses as he starts off with a warm tone before screaming like a maniac on the choruses.  He occasionally alternates the two styles when warranted in the second half.  Lennon believed he would’ve sang this better but he’s wrong.  McCartney was the right choice here.  In fact, his sometimes overwrought vocal performance enhances the less-than-original lyrics.  He sounds downright scary at times.
 
The country-sounding Octopus’ Garden, Ringo Starr’s sole songwriting contribution here, is in the sweet tradition of Yellow Submarine with its innocent tale of a young guy yearning to escape with his girlfriend from a world that interferes with their freedom (“No one there to tell us what to do”).  Comforting backing vocals (which turn gurgly during the guitar solo) swoon behind Ringo’s optimistic vocals.  The piano sometimes sounds like it was recorded in a saloon adding to the western flavour.  It’s a song begging to be animated.
 
Lennon’s burning desire for Yoko Ono is once again nakedly expressed in the epic I Want You (She’s So Heavy).  Clocking in at 7 minutes and 45 seconds, it’s one of the rare Beatle numbers that allows room for extended jamming.  With a succinct lyric that is anything but ambigious, Lennon is so horny for his muse “it’s driving me mad”.  He even lets out a frustrated scream at one point.  Lennon’s anguished vocal is well matched note-for-note with Harrison’s duplicated guitar playing.  In between the lyrical sections, an old-school organ maintains the sexual tension.  With a little over 3 minutes to go, the lick that opened the song is extended into a hypnotic real-time loop as Ringo wails away on his kit and a whooshing Moog synthesizer effect slowly fades in like an ominous sonic fog.  Then, it all suddenly cuts out.  Good song, even though I wonder if it could’ve been greater with a few more sexually charged lyrical ideas.  I understand the intentional economical approach but maybe it could’ve been more explicit, more daring.
 
The acoustically driven Here Comes The Sun, the second and final George Harrison contribution, is a soothing clash of differing musical ideas.  On the one hand, you have Harrison’s unplugged lead guitar, Ringo’s steady drumming and McCartney’s dependable bass playing.  On the other, you have a mix of classical instruments and a Moog synthesizer.  All of these sounds collectively give the song an unusual feel for a ballad, especially when the pace is quickened.  The uniformly positive sentiments expressed in the lyrics are hopeful and endearing.  Despite enduring “a long, cold, lonely winter”, there’s nothing but light at the end of a depressing tunnel.
 
The Moog springs up again in Because, a beautifully harmonized love song very reminiscent of The Beach Boys (but directly inspired by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata).  George Martin’s harpischord is the only other instrument heard here as Lennon, Harrison and McCartney vocally rhapsodize about the wonders of Earth.  Minus the middle eight section, it’s quite a lovely environmental anthem.
 
The rest of Abbey Road is divided into two, distinct medleys.  You Never Give Me Your Money commences the first one and, appropriately enough, it’s really three songs in one.  After the moving piano introduction, McCartney softly complains about his lack of financial compensation from EMI (“You never give me your money/You only give me your funny paper”).  Then, in the rocking second verse, with its saloon-style piano tinkling, he sings about the dreary existence of post-college life (“Out of college, money spent/See no future, pay no rent/All the money’s gone, nowhere to go”).  Finally, he’s longing to escape the rock star life for good (“One sweet dream/Pack up the bags, get in the limosine/Soon we’ll be away from here”).  All of this heavy subject matter is seamlessly covered in a little over four minutes.  A wonderful achievement.  Then, as the song fades out, the sounds of nature fade in as a crescendoing cymbal crash leads into Sun King.  Operating at a gentle gallop, it’s another showcase for George Harrison’s terrific guitar work.  Soon, more Beach Boy-style harmonies present themselves as Harrison, Lennon and McCartney once again put their voices together.  Lyrically, it’s pretty much a joke, particularly the mix of incompatible foreign words strung together at the end.  But it’s fun to sing along to, nonetheless.
 
Immediately following Sun King is the superb Mean Mr. Mustard, a fascinating albeit goofy one-minute character study.  Essentially, he’s an irritable, homeless man with a filthy mouth (“Always shouts out something obscene”).  His sister is Polythene Pam, the even quirkier protagonist of the next song.  “Attractively built” despite her manly features, she cross-dresses in a bag made of plastic (“Well, you should see her in drag/Dressed in her polythene bag”).  Originally a critic of these tracks, they zip along so quickly I wonder why it took this reissue to allow me the opportunity to finally embrace them.  Maybe I missed the humour, initially.
 
Polythene Pam charges into the easygoing She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, a bizarre, not entirely sensical tale about a wacked out rich girl, an overworked dancer working “15 clubs a day”, who breaks into a cop’s house for unknown reasons.  (Boredom, maybe?)  Curiously, he quits his job in pursuit of a more stable profession while this mysterious female tries to help him out by committing a felony (“She could steal…”) but then changing her mind (“…but she could not rob”).  Thanks to her patronage (“Protected by her silver spoon”), she’s able to avoid being arrested and somehow remain in the ex-police officer’s life.  Ok, it wouldn’t work as a film, but when matched to this irresistible McCartney melody, it somehow holds together.  It’s fascinatingly strange.
 
The second medley opens with the brief but lovely Golden Slumbers.  That heartbreaking string section returns as a piano-playing McCartney appears to be resigned about the inevitable end of The Beatles (“Once there was a way/To get back homewards”) while simultaneously attempting to get his child to go to sleep.  Then, with Ringo erupting on the drums, McCartney unleashes on the next two lines before calming down again.  Just before he does this, though, it’s amusing to hear him sing “Sleep, pretty darling/Do not cry/And I will sing a lullaby” in a more gentle manner.  How the kid could dose off while he’s belting out some of the words here remains anybody’s guess.  Nevertheless, the song gets to you.
 
It naturally seques into Carry That Weight which musically references You Never Give Me Your Money.  While the choruses clearly refer to the sadness enveloping the band’s state of affairs, the Money verse is more unclear.  Ringo Starr’s vocal stands out the most during the Carry That Weight portions.  George Harrison’s guitar lick leads right into The End, which picks up the tempo and once again, features a Paul McCartney vocal freak-out tinged with sexual energy.  Immediately afterwards, Ringo delivers his famous, often imitated solo.  Then, the band rocks out as Harrison, McCartney and John Lennon take turns soloing.  Finally, a piano cuts everybody off and the famous couplet “And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to the love you make” leads into the last round of Beach Boy harmonies.  Backed by that heartbreaking string section, that final lyric is devastating.
 
15 seconds later, the rejected medley cut, Her Majesty, cuts through the silence as McCartney breezes through this sweet little tribute to Queen Elizabeth.  It would’ve been nice if it had been fleshed out into a longer cut (you can imagine a verse consisting entirely of whistling) but in 23 seconds, it gets the job done.
 
Overall, this 2009 reissue sounds great.  It’s not too loud nor is it too soft.  I liked the original 1987 CD, myself, but those who hated the way it was mastered will have no such qualms about this update. 
 
Early pressings are enhanced with a brief documentary only accessible by a PC or Mac.  (For the former, you need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime.  Consult the back cover for more information.)  Each of The Beatles and producer George Martin are heard in brief voiceover snippets as various photos from the album’s sessions are shown along with clips from the Something video.  (All of this footage was included in The Beatles On Record TV special.)  Like the other reissues, the audio is quite glitchy, unfortunately.  Nothing terribly earth shattering is revealed but there are a few interesting bits.  It’s fun hearing John Lennon cursing after a musical miscue.  Immediately afterwards, Paul McCartney admits that he screwed up earlier but kept quiet about it.  There’s an interesting photo of Linda McCartney and Maureen Starkey watching Ringo Starr do his thing, something that was unheard of before 1968.  But the best moment occurs after the conclusion of The End when Paul quips, “Keep that one.  Mark it ‘Fab’.”.  Classic.  Other than that, you’ve seen and heard this material before. 
 
As for the liner notes, the usual Historical and Recording Notes, standard to all fourteen of these reissues, are here, as well as a series of photographs from the era.  (Check out some of the album cover outtakes.  They picked the right shot.)  Lots of good information here for newbies but longtime fans won’t learn anything new.  As for the photography, it’s interesting to gauge the mood of the band members in every shot.  Sometimes there’s smiling but in one stunning photo, there’s nothing but sullen expressions.  (Look for that one on the second page of the Historical Notes section.)
 
Abbey Road doesn’t come close to matching the excellence of Sgt. Pepper nor is it in the same league as Revolver or “The White Album”.  Blame its less sensical lyricism and toned down experimentalism.  Nevertheless, I like it even more now that I did in the mid 1990s when I first heard it.  I used to have problems with Oh! Darling, and several of the medley cuts.  No longer.  Because of their sheer craftmanship, these 17 songs add up to nearly 50 minutes of solid entertainment.  Despite the chaos behind the scenes, there’s nothing but beauty to behold here.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 12, 2010
12:22 a.m.
Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 12:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Eleven)

YELLOW SUBMARINE
 
The Beatles’ third movie was a cartoon loosely based on a Revolver single.  Released in Britain in the summer of 1968, the soundtrack didn’t surface until January 1969.  During scheduled breaks from the making of each of their earlier live action productions, the band also put together new collections of songs.  Half of their third LP would end up in A Hard Day’s Night while half of album number five was used in Help!  Unfortunately, the non-movie songs wouldn’t surface on the American releases of these albums.  Instead of two full-length studio offerings, we got two soundtracks made up of movie songs and original film orchestrations.
 
Because the band were so thoroughly exhausted from making “The White Album”, the Yellow Submarine soundtrack only featured four previously unreleased songs, none of which were conceived for the film.  They were basically leftovers from past sessions that took place in 1967 and 1968.  As a result, the album is filled out with two well-known hits plus a whole side of classical material created for the movie by producer George Martin.
 
Even though he hits a bum note on the third word of the very first line, Ringo Starr’s warm vocals on the title song are part of its charm.  (His performance gets progressively better, thankfully.)  Cheerfully bouncy and supremely innocent, Yellow Submarine never fails to put a smile on my face.  With its quirky use of sound effects, not to mention that brass band cameo, it’s both amusing and sweet. 
 
All You Need Is Love, the other previously released track, has grown on me immensely over the years.  Although it’s still quite easy to be cynical of its naive, undoubting, endlessly positive nature, it’s next to impossible not to be emotionally swept up in its irresistible arrangement.  You want to believe in its too-good-to-be-true message and the music allows you to do that for its entire four-minute running time.  Even when it gets goofy at the end with references to past Beatles hits and even In The Mood, of all songs, it never loses its power.  The ultimate cheer-you-up anthem.
 
In between Yellow Submarine and All You Need Is Love are the four new tracks.  Cheekiness abounds in Only A Northern Song, a psychedelic Sgt. Pepper outtake written by George Harrison, released for the first time here in its original mono version.  The musical equivalent of an inside joke, Northern Songs was the name of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s publishing company.  Harrison and Ringo Starr signed on, too, when their songs started appearing on Beatle releases but their share of the loot was quite small (1.6 percent each compared to the 30 percent stakes Lennon and McCartney each had).  They both eventually broke away to form their own separate entities.  Excellent decision.  By the way, at no point have Lennon (when he was alive), his estate nor McCartney ever had a majority ownership.  (Long story.)  Deeply sarcastic, Only A Northern Song amusingly downplays the significance of itself (and every George Harrison contribution, for that matter) in two ways.  In three verses, it suggests that the music is a little off and in two choruses, no matter how it was conceived, its of little importance to the chief songwriters in the group.  (“It’s only a northern song.”)  Along with its trippy arrangement (dig that warped horn, man) and airy melody line, sung by Harrison, this wouldn’t have been out of place on Sgt. Pepper.
 
All Together Now spends most of its two minutes sounding like an adorable children’s sing-a-long.  But in the third verse, there’s a hint of naughtiness.  (“Can I take my friend to bed?”)  Basically a cute little throwaway, its most charming element is the succession of sped-up “all together now”s and collective hand claps in its final half-minute.  The harmonica continues its unexpected comeback with this low-key, triumphant appearance.
 
Hey Bulldog features some of the best music Lennon and McCartney ever wrote together but good luck figuring out the lyrics.  Every once in a while, however, there’s a sly, lucid insert.  At one point, it sounds like Lennon is taking a dig at his fans.  (“Some kind of solitude is measured out in you/You think you know me, but you haven’t got a clue.”)  Essentially one of their nonsensical dream-like numbers, Hey Bulldog is filled with rich imagery and enough puzzling lines to keep you thinking about it for as long as you care to.  The ad-libbed ending with McCartney’s oddly convincing barking and Lennon’s maniacal laughter, not to mention their banter, is quite enjoyable.  The Beatles at their silliest.  Thanks to this reissued version of the soundtrack, you can hear the dialogue a little clearer than before.
 
Over the years, It’s All Too Much has aged into one of Harrison’s all-time greatest Beatle tracks.  This utterly brilliant six-and-a-half minute epic features some of his deepest lines heard against a full-on psychedelic rock-out.  Ringo’s tambourine playing gives me the chills.  How it never made the cut for Sgt. Pepper remains a mystery.  It would’ve fit in perfectly.
 
The second half of the soundtrack is handed off to producer George Martin and his 41-piece orchestra as they run through seven instrumental numbers. all re-recordings of material heard in the movie.  The strings on Pepperland are heartbreaking in their loveliness.  Sea Of Time echoes elements of Within You Without You with its sitar-drenched opening before settling into a brief series of beautiful orchestral vignettes.  (More elegant string work to behold in that one.)  Sea Of Holes is pretty much a static mood piece despite the use of some backward sound effects.  It can be skipped.  The uneven Sea Of Monsters works best when it reprises the key string line from Sea Of Time.  Other cool moments include a bit where the violins appear to be laughing and the galloping section near the end.  Unfortunately, for the rest of the duration it’s pretty forgettable.  March Of The Meanies, on the other hand, is the best of the lot with its dramatic tension greatly conveyed by Martin’s first-rate string section.  Pepperland Laid To Waste does a wonderful job at establishing mood without the safety net of a visual accompaniment, always a challenge for movie score albums.  And Yellow Submarine In Pepperland is a strong finale, both moving and whimsical.
 
Like the previous releases, the sound quality is excellent, although I had no qualms with the original CD from 1987.  Early pressings include a three-minute mini documentary that you can only access via your computer.  (You need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime in order to watch it.  Check the back cover for more details, especially if you’re a Mac user.)  Featuring far out clips from the Yellow Submarine movie (honestly, can you think of another animated feature that looks like this?) and short clips of some of the soundtrack material, it’s one of the better ones in this reissue series.  Paul McCartney expresses his admiration for Lennon’s quirky songwriting.  (There’s a short scene from the Hey Bulldog promotional film that plays while he speaks.)  However, he sounds a bit disappointed that the final film was less Disney (as he hoped) and more Sgt. Pepper (as he believes it turned out to be).  As Ringo helpfully points out, Yellow Submarine is less of an album and more a collection of Beatle tracks that would work in an animated setting.  Although there’s nothing truly revelatory here (all this footage was previously contained in The Beatles On Record documentary), it’s still an entertaining segment.
 
As for the liner notes, there’s lots of stills from the film to check out.  Also, the original writings from both the British and American album sleeves have been restored.  The former features a goofy, at times remarkably honest paragraph from The Beatles’ on-again/off-again press agent Derek Taylor as he briefly introduces a well-written rave review of “The White Album” by London Observer critic Tony Palmer.  The latter, written by Dan Davis, unwittingly appears to give away the entire plot of the movie in a rambling, overwritten, sometimes irritating piece that puts the theme of the movie (pleasure: good, deprivation of pleasure: bad) into historical and mythological context.  Finally, there’s the standard historical and recording sections standard to all fourteen of these releases.  I’m not sure I knew this before but there was a plan to release the four new Beatle songs from the film along with Across The Universe as part of a stand alone EP in 1969.  For some reason, this idea never became a reality.  The liner notes also explain the technical side of Only A Northern Song and Hey Bulldog.
 
Despite one too many George Martin pieces, for most of its 39 minute, 43 second running time, Yellow Submarine is a lot of fun, featuring some of George Harrison’s best work.  If you don’t care about the orchestral selections, seek out the 1999 Songtrack collection which features just The Beatle tracks taken from the movie (except A Day In The Life).  I don’t know about you but listening to this record makes me want to see it on DVD.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, February 11, 2010 
12:24 a.m. 
Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 12:24 am  Leave a Comment  

Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Ten)

THE BEATLES (“THE WHITE ALBUM”)
 
Two words on a white cover.  More than two dozen original songs spread out over two discs.  A total running time of 93 minutes and 40 seconds.  John Lennon naked.
 
Two days shy of the first anniversary of the release of Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles finally offered its successor:  a self-titled double album as contradictory as the four men who made it.  Alternately modern and old-fashioned, beautiful and chaotic, revelatory and mysterious, loosely experimental and traditionally tight, upbeat and downcast, innocent and cheeky, what became better known as “The White Album” forever obliterated any simple, remaining preconceptions one might have had about this band.  They weren’t just a pop group specializing in easy-to-digest romantic themes anymore.  They also weren’t just an increasingly edgy rock outfit, either.  If anything, at this point in time, they were musical nomads constantly scouring their imaginations and the world at large for interesting ideas, hoping to avoid stagnation. 
 
While far from perfect, The Beatles is such an advancement from Please Please Me and their other early records, even today, 42 years after its release, despite the warm familiarity of the voices and those naturally flowing melodies, it’s hard to believe that all of these albums were made by the same band over such a compacted period of time.  How they continued to flourish and grow as musicians and songwriters while simultaneously coming apart at the seams is a puzzle even Adrian Monk couldn’t solve.
 
The sound of an airplane fading in kicks off Back In The USSR, the entertaining opening number on disc one.  Written as a tribute to the band’s Russian fans who could only hear illegal imports of their music at the time, it tells a simple tale of a homesick lad glad to be back on home turf after a brief stint in the sunny climes of Florida.  (We never do find out why he was there in the first place.  Business, maybe?  Vacation?)  Mike Love of The Beach Boys suggested including a section paying homage to the lovely ladies of The Soviet Union.  It was wisely adhered to.  If any of The Beatles actually lived in The USSR it’s doubtful these positive lyrics would’ve come to mind.  Athough it’s hard to believe that anyone would prefer the bitterly cold Russian winters over year round sunshine in Miami (not to mention the lack of democratic freedoms), there’s a refreshing lack of condescension in the lyrics.  McCartney’s occasionally quivering vocal technique would be recycled for Get Back.
 
Those airplane effects that play throughout the song lead right into the next track.  Based on a real story, Dear Prudence is John Lennon’s affectionate plea to Mia Farrow’s sister to not keep to herself so much and hang out with the group of friends who joined the late Maharashi for a spiritual retreat in India.  Sweet and complimentary, the real highlight is that haunting, open-picked guitar riff.  Lennon spends the entire time attempting to lure Prudence out of her reclusiveness and isolation by simultaneously extolling the lovely weather (“The sun is up, the sky is blue”) and her physical appeal (“It’s beautiful and so are you”) while reminding her that she’s never really alone (“The wind is low, the birds will sing/That you are part of everything”).  I hope she was flattered.
 
Glass Onion overtly references five Beatles songs in a midtempo arrangement that finds room for both rock and classical instrumentation.  One of those it’s-not-as-deep-as-you-think numbers that John Lennon absolutely delighted in writing.  In the final thirty seconds, there’s an abrupt end to the rocking as the string section takes over the proceedings.  (Bush did the same thing for Glycerine.)  Their loveliness soon turns eerie, however, in the dying seconds.  A musical curveball that works well.
 
The quirky Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a fun-filled romp about the blooming romance between a marketplace retailer and a rock singer.  Light and bouncy, it’s hard not to be tickled by its cheerfulness.  Like Get Back, the song flirts with transsexualism in its last verse, albeit in a sillier manner.  Speaking of silly, the wacky guitar lick on Wild Honey Pie is ruined by the unnecessarily repetitious singing of the last two words of the title.  Thankfully done in less than a minute, if it had to stay, it should’ve been an instrumental.  As it stands, it’s a rare Beatles track that should be skipped.
 
The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill is a derisive campfire sing-a-long based on real events.  John Lennon was none too pleased with Richard Cooke III, an American photographer who was visiting his mom in India at the exact same retreat The Beatles, The Farrow Sisters and Mike Love attended.  Lennon hated Cooke’s tiger hunt story and incorporated many real details into the song.  Its only flaws are Yoko Ono’s awful singing and the needless applause at the end.  Starting with a seemingly out-of-place flamenco guitar intro, like a good number of Beatle tunes, Bungalow Bill comfortably and constantly alters its tempo.  The pace is quick for the choruses, much slower for the verses.
 
The first of four George Harrison compositions immediately follows and it’s easily the best of his “White Album” contributions.  Guest guitarist Eric Clapton wisely tones down his usual mile-a-minute guitar noodling for his friend’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, a sophisticated rock ballad about a disappointed guy saddened by all the repression and lack of progress he sees both in a love interest and the world at large.  The lyrics are first-rate (even the unexpected joke in the third line of the first verse) and Paul McCartney nicely harmonizes with Harrison’s lead vocal.  The piano and acoustic guitar work is also terrific.  At nearly 5 minutes, it’s one of the longest tracks on the album but it’s also one of the best.
 
In their earlier compositions, Lennon and McCartney were careful not to be too explicit when it came to matters of sexuality.  Happiness Is A Warm Gun pretty much throws that whole idea out the window.  Released right in the middle of the sexual revolution, the song mixes Lennon’s compliments for Ono with typically surrealistic imagery.  With none-too-subtle references to the clitoris (“…I feel my finger on your trigger”) and the penis (the metaphorical title), the “fix” that Lennon is aching for is obviously sex with his muse.  What’s most interesting is how there’s different music for each lyrical section, the weakest of which is the Mother Superior bit.  Despite its flaws, this is one of the standout tracks on disc one.
 
Insecurity is at the heart of Martha My Dear, one of the last songs McCartney wrote about his longterm relationship with actress Jane Asher.  Bursting with melody, the piano introduces it, McCartney quietly sings it and then a brass section reprises it during one of the interludes.  It’s hard not to get the chills from its beauty.  Lyrically, the track sounds like a last ditch effort to resuscitate a dying love.  Begging not to be forgotten or treated bad, McCartney reminds his gal pal of his wealthy lifestyle in a shameless bid to keep her around (“When you find yourself in the thick of it/Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you”).  Early on, it appears she’s broken up with him and is devastated as a result.  (“Hold your head up you silly girl/Look what you’ve done”)  Not the least bit angry, McCartney’s vocals remain as soft as a pillow as he calmly makes one last plea near the end.  (“Take a good look around you/Take a good look you’re bound to see/That you and I were meant to be for each other/Silly girl”)  The relationship didn’t work out but it’s a very pretty song.
 
On Revolver’s I’m Only Sleeping, John Lennon wanted to be left alone as he preferred letting his mind wander in the deep recesses of his sleep-induced imagination.  On “The White Album”‘s I’m So Tired, he would do anything for some solid sack time.  Greatly distracted by his desires for alcohol, nicotine and Yoko Ono, “it’s been three weeks” since his insomnia started and he’s evidently “going insane”.  As someone who would went through a somewhat similiar situation two years ago, it’s easily relatable.  Lennon delivers a believable vocal as he’s backed by a sympathetic arrangement.
 
Blackbird is one of McCartney’s most accomplished ballads.  A clever metaphor for the American civil rights movement, the images of “broken wings” and “sunken eyes” represent the physical scars of human struggle.  In one encouraging line, he urges Black Americans to “fly/Into the light of the dark black night”.  Knowing how long they’ve suffered for their cause, he senses the historical significance of their plight (“All your life/You were only waiting for this moment to arise”).  The chirping sound effects are a bit too loud in the last half of the song.  If it was my call, they’d be excised altogether.  But even they can’t take away the sense of solidarity McCartney shares with the men and women fighting on for equality. 
 
George Harrison’s Piggies, complete with oink sound effects, sounds like it was recorded in a completely different time and place with its use of a Baroque-inspired harpischord.  While it’s not quite clear who all the targets are in this one, to my ears, in one verse it sounds like he’s hammering away at gossip columnists who thrive at discovering and disclosing the dirty laundry of celebrities (“You will find the bigger piggies/Stirring up the dirt”).  This is a subject he would return to nearly 20 years later on Devil’s Radio, a more rocking track from his accomplished 1987 solo record, Cloud Nine.  Its peculiar ambiguity and disdainful disposition make it an underrated track.
 
What I like about Rocky Raccoon is how unpredictable its story is.  A young guy from Dakota with an odd name seeks vengeance against Dan, the man who stole his girl, Nancy (also known as Magill and Lil), and punched his lights out.  Shaping up as a David and Goliath morality tale, Rocky sneaks a gun into a hotel saloon and later confronts the jerk who “had broken his dreams” at a hoedown.  Unfortunately, Dan is a formidable opponent and Rocky gets shot unexpectedly (as represented in the song by a quick snare shot).  After getting stitched up by a doctor “stinking of gin” the kid ends up finding solace in a Gideon Bible as he recovers from his injuries eager to fight on another day.  Practically begging for a sequel, the song is heavy on basstones and empathy.  The honky tonk piano playing is perfect.  You feel like you’re right in that saloon with the characters.  After its unceremonious return in Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! on the Sgt. Pepper album (its first appearance on a Beatles song in three years), the harmonica is back for a return engagement.
 
For several years poor Ringo Starr repeatedly attempted to get his first decent composition recorded by his bandmates but they were completely disinterested.  They finally changed their minds in 1968.  Don’t Pass Me By is an oddly effective country reggae about a worried and somewhat naive boyfriend foolishly waiting for the non-arrival of his cowardly girlfriend, who offers only excuses of avoidance instead of telling her confused man the truth about their dead romance.  I initially found the inclusion of a violin very discordant and distracting on this 2009 reissue.  But after giving the song another chance, much to my surprise, I found myself embracing its extensive use.  It’s actually quite tuneful.  Overall, the arrangement is very unique, a cross between The Velvet Underground and Bob Marley.  If only Lennon, McCartney, Harrison or even producer George Martin had earlier encouraged more of Ringo’s songwriting, who knows what other good stuff he could’ve come up with.  (His equally good Octopus’ Garden from Abbey Road was his only other original contribution (his songwriting credit on What Goes On notwithstanding).)
 
I’m not sure how many women would be receptive to an invitation of road sex but McCartney’s frisky throwaway Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? makes a good argument for the idea (“No one will be watching us”).  As long as the road is closed, of course, and you don’t mind lying down on unsmooth asphalt.  (You know, on second thought…)  From its percussive opening to its overall bluesy arrangement, it’s just an excuse for the bassist to scream for two minutes.  I like it.
 
In 1968, McCartney was ready to settle down with photographer Linda Eastman who would go on to become the love of his life until her untimely death from breast cancer 30 years later.  I Will is an early example of the kinds of love songs he would ultimately write for his greatest muse.  Soft and tender, this pretty acoustic ballad features effortless vocals and some Pet Sounds-style percussion.  Short and simple, there’s little to gripe about with this one.
 
Disc one ends with the emotionally naked Julia, John Lennon’s wonderful tribute to his late mother.  Like the pre-choruses on Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Lennon gets away with a one-note melody, for the most part.  Dreamlike in tone and lyric, his longing for her presence is quite moving.  The opening line “Half of what I say is meaningless” might be the most believable set of words he ever wrote.  One of his greatest songwriting achievements.
 
Few things in life are more horrifying than hearing a group of people butcher Happy Birthday to an unfortunate soul who just wants to make a wish and blow out the candles on their cake already.  Wouldn’t it be cooler to play the first song off the second disc of “The White Album” instead?  A rip roaring rocker that can jolt any dead social gathering to life, Birthday is a true party anthem.  Paul McCartney screams like a man possessed as Ringo Starr keeps time by pounding his snare.  The guitar work is superb, too, and even Yoko Ono’s ghostly backing vocals are effective.  Even though the song is about a mutual celebration (“They say it’s your birthday/It’s my birthday, too, yeah!”), I’d much rather hear this than the bland Happy Birthday any time.
 
A worldweary John Lennon is out front during the ragged Yer Blues.  Repeatedly declaring his wish for a swift demise as he poetically and, at one point, arrogantly describes his worsening depression (“My mother was of the sky/My father was of the earth/But I am of the universe/And you know what’s it worth”), only his growing love for Yoko Ono keeps him hanging on (“If I ain’t dead already/Girl you know the reason why”).  You can hear the terror in his voice as he wails about his ordeal.  George Harrison’s guitar solos in the second half are sensational.  I like how Lennon repeats one of the verses off-mic so you can barely hear him in the dying seconds.
 
Mother Nature’s Son is a complete change of pace with its acoustic gentleness.  There’s some pretty guitar passages here, especially after every two-line verse.  Backed by brass instruments and occasional percussion, its spare lyrics evoke a sense of peace within one’s environment.  Paul McCartney doesn’t aim for greatness but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.
 
The tone changes again with the full-on rocker, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey.  An unusually joyous sounding John Lennon (with an occasionally whooping McCartney in the background and Ringo playing a triangle) succinctly captures the burgeoning feelings he’s experiencing regarding his affair with Yoko Ono.  Sensing a lot of hostility from the world about their inappropriate relationship (Lennon was married at the time, remember), the song basically urges his distractors to chill out (“take it easy”) while attempting to express what it’s like to fall in love (“The deeper you go/The higher you fly”).  Setting aside this controversial relationship, the track packs a whollop.  Harrison’s dependable guitar work gets yet another strong showcase.
 
Regardless of what one thinks of the now deceased Maharashi, John Lennon’s accusatory tone in Sexy Sadie is deeply unfair.  Based on a false accusation of sexual harassment, not to mention his general disappointment and cynicism about the man, he pointedly portrays the late transcendental meditation master as a fraudulent tease.  Despite the change of name and gender, Lennon comes across as the bigger fool.  That being said, I can’t stop singing along to these acidic lyrics (as long as I don’t think of The Maharashi).  The piano-led arrangement and Lennon’s light-as-air melody don’t help matters.  If the music wasn’t strong, it be easier to dismiss this one.
 
Few Beatle songs rock as hard as the sexually charged Helter Skelter.  The amps are cranked as the guitars blast away McCartney’s raw-throated melody to smithereens.  Ringo is there every step of the way pounding the shit out of his kit.  While I’m sure the line “You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer” is purely a throwaway, a set of meaningless words selected purely for the rhyme at the end, who cares?  All the remaining ones are as horny as the music.
 
George Harrison’s Long Long Long is a quietly compelling ballad about the thrill of rediscovering a lost love after an emotionally draining separation.  Despite its generally low-key nature, there are welcome drum bursts from Ringo and an unusual ending more likely to conclude a rocker than a tender love song.  I like Paul McCartney’s organ playing, too. 
 
Although the single version of Revolution is the standard bearer, Revolution 1 is also worthy of praise, despite my being reflexively dismissive of it initially.  A slowed-down bluesy shuffle compared to the single’s heavy metal onslaught, Lennon is uncertain of whether violence is the answer to solving global problems in this version.  There’s a bit more orgasmic grunting in the final minute, a horn section, and “shoo-be-doo-wop” backing vocals in between many of the lines.  Like Bungalow Bill, it’s got a campfire sing-a-long feel to it.  What hasn’t changed is the sensible, literate nature of Lennon’s message:  you can’t change the system but you can change people’s minds.  Timeless.
 
After dusting off the ten-year-old When I’m Sixty Four for Sgt. Pepper to great success, McCartney offers another superb old-style number with Honey Pie (not to be confused with the needless throwaway Wild Honey Pie on disc one).  Great lyrics here as he sings about a needy guy “too lazy” to visit his famous girlfriend as she thrives in Hollywood (“You became a legend of the silver screen”).  He’d rather she come home, instead.  Good luck with that, pal.  Perfectly capturing the tone and feel of 1920s music hall, it’s a surprising highlight of this ecclectic rock and roll album.
 
Savoy Truffle, the fourth and final George Harrison creation, is another accessible rocker, this one heavy on the saxophones.  Lyrically, Harrison has an insatiable appetite for various types of chocolates, none greater than the title brand.  But he’s also well aware of the consequences of too much consumption.  (“You know that what you eat you are/But what is sweet now, turns so sour”)  An earlier section sounds like the withdrawal stage of addiction.  (“You might not feel it now/But when the pain cuts through/You’re going to know and how/The sweat is going to fill your head/When it becomes too much/You’re going to shout aloud”)  All of this gives new meaning to the familiar phrase “food for thought”.  Really clever stuff here.
 
Loosely based on a childhood nursery rhyme, Cry Baby Cry offers brief, episodic glimpses of imaginary royal family life set to a lovely melody backed by acoustic guitar, occasional electric guitar flourishes and omnipresent piano.  In one verse, the fictional Queen of Marigold plays with the children while her husband, the King, makes her breakfast.  In another verse he’s “picking flowers for a friend who came to play”, suggesting an extramarital affair.  Later on, there’s an amusing bit involving a phony seance.  Lennon’s vocals are soft and breezy, a total 360 from Yer Blues.
 
And that brings us to Revolution 9.  What a needless monstrosity this is.  Originally part of Revolution, it was wisely excised from it but then unwisely retooled as another track on the album.  A mix of incoherent nattering, noise and snatches of music, it is easily the worst Beatles selection ever.  It begins with hard-to-hear studio banter.  Then, while some dude keeps saying “Number 9” over and over and over again, as he does at various points throughout this 8 and a half minute disaster, you hear a piano briefly play.  Then, in no particular order:  a cooing baby, an opera singer, a crackling fire, a gunfight from what sounds like a TV western, a choir, orchestration, Yoko Ono saying “You become naked”, John Lennon naming famous rock dances (“The Watusi.  The Twist.”), Lennon and George Harrison saying a whole bunch of nothing even when you can hear them clearly, backwards effects, and a lot of noise.  There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this nonsense.
 
The touching Good Night ends the album on a much more positive note.  It marks the only time Ringo Starr ever got to sing the closing number on a Beatles record.  Backed by those heartbreaking strings, Ringo (along with some back-up singers) sweetly urges listeners to enjoy a restful slumber and “dream sweet dreams”.  His gentle whisper at the end moves me every time I hear it.  There’s a gently sweeping sense of inner peace embodied throughout the arrangement.
 
All in all, the sound quality on this 2009 update is superb.  Like the previous reissues, it’s not too loud and not too soft.  The slightly increased volume notwithstanding, this sounds like the same album released in 1968.  Few, if any, will be disappointed.
 
Early pressings feature a 5-minute CD-ROM documentary about the making of the album.  You’ll find it on disc two.  In order to see it, PC users need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime.  (Read the back cover for more information.)  You’ll hear each Beatle and producer George Martin offer commentary while stills and clips of the band in the studio as well as footage of their time spend with The Maharashi are seen.  (All of this stuff was used for The Beatles On Record TV special.)  It’s during the Indian stuff that you’re reminded of just how foxy Paul McCartney’s then-girlfriend Jane Asher really was.  Her red hair was fabulous.  There’s also a brief shot of Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister, smiling and looking cute in sunglasses.  (Her reticence in joining in with the others inspired Dear Prudence.)  As expected, there’s not a lot of new information here to tickle your fancy making the documentary rather redundant.  John Lennon talks about how disinterested he was in topping Sgt. Pepper.  He just wanted to make a back-to-basics album.  George Martin mentions how the band were recording different material simultaneously in different studios at Abbey Road.  While appreciative of being associated with Pepper, Ringo is much more fond of “The White Album” because he felt it was more of a band effort.  McCartney remembers what he wanted out of Helter Skelter:  volume.  Like a number of the other reissued CDs in the series, the audio sounds bad when you watch it the first couple of times so patience is a must. 
 
Regarding the liner notes, a mini version of the foldout poster from the original vinyl release is included (as it was in the 1998 Limited Edition 30th Anniversary reissue) as well as a standard booklet featuring photos, Historical & Recording Notes and lyrics.  Actually, on one side of the poster there are lyrics, as well.  On the other side, you also find lots of pics including one of a nude cross-legged John Lennon on the phone with Yoko Ono lying beside him in bed.  My candidate for best Beatles photo of all time is in the booklet.  All four members are sitting on the lawn of a British church surrounding a sign that reads “Please Keep Off The Grass”.  They’re all smiling.  A perfect snap in so many ways.
 
Despite its flaws, The Beatles captures so many different facets of the band in one setting it’s staggering.  You’ve got your balls-out rockers; your tender, affectionate ballads; your political statements; your musical short stories; your experiments; your nostalgia trips.  While it is not the best of their studio albums, surely it’s somewhere in the Top 5.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
1:17 a.m.
Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 1:17 am  Leave a Comment  

Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Nine)

MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR
 
In Britain, it was a six-song EP.  In North America, an eleven-track album.  The soundtrack to a critically bashed TV special, the music from Magical Mystery Tour is better remembered today than the actual show.  (For those not around during its initial airing on Boxing Day 1967, it’s available on DVD.)  British listeners were only able to hear the new songs from the hour-long program on two 7-inch vinyl records.  The North American release put all the show songs on side one and five 1967 non-album A-Sides and B-Sides on side two of a 12-inch LP.  (It would take about a decade for that version to surface in Ol’ Blighty.)
 
Of all the 2009 reissues, like the 1987 CD releases, Magical Mystery Tour is the only title that follows the American track listing, which isn’t a bad thing at all.  In fact, these 5 bonus tracks make all the difference in the world.
 
Beginning with the title cut and ending with All You Need Is Love, the album is not only delightfully odd, it features some of the best material the band ever committed to tape.
 
Magical Mystery Tour kicks things off sounding like one of the most warped theme songs you’ve ever heard.  The vocals drift in and out of tune, the time signature is constantly changing and every once in a while a bus motors through loudly.  (The premise of the special involves a group of people going on a road trip.)  Another track that mixes horns with traditional rock instruments, despite its experimental loopiness, you’re willing to go along for the ride.  The lyrics are necessarily basic.  Not a lot of room for deep thoughts here.  By the time the singing stops, there’s some lovely piano playing that, inevitably, turns demented.  All in all, not a bad way to start.
 
The Fool On The Hill switches gears entirely with its soft, piano driven tale of a seemingly simple mind drowning in the wonders of the world and annoying everyone else with his unexplainable grinning, unresponsive nature, misunderstood point of view and stationary positioning.  Paul McCartney’s vocals are high and sympathetic while the music backing him up evokes the more whimsical moments of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album.
 
The next track, Flying, might be the most unusual in the band’s entire catalogue.  There are no lyrics in this psychedelicly funky instrumental.  The only singing comes courtesy of unidentified male singers who “la la la” along to the organ melody line in the song’s second half.   Like all good rock numbers, it turns you into a bobblehead for its tight two-minute duration.
 
Your Mother Should Know is a moving little throwaway that repeats slight variations of its only verse several times.  It sounds more like a B-Side than a soundtrack number but it’s still worth singing along to.  It’s yet another example of how The Beatles could make literally anything work, regardless of how silly, nonsensical, juvenile or repetitive the words could sometimes sound.
 
The best of the show songs is easily I Am The Walrus, a strong contender for best Beatles track of all time.  Simultaneously surreal and moving, it is literally crammed with unusual and entertaining sounds (not all of them from instruments) to match its imagination.  At the start, it sounds like someone is rhythmically sharpening a couple of knives.  Perhaps that’s an unintentional foreshadowing of this acerbic line, “Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?”, one of the few times John Lennon appears to tweak his audience on disc.  At a couple of points, you hear segments of Shakespeare’s King Lear taken directly from a BBC Radio broadcast.  It somehow blends in with this mishmash of sound.  The original 1987 CD version features some annoying feedback.  For the most part, it’s still here in this 2009 reissue, although the first time it happens it’s not nearly as ear piercing, thankfully.  Also, the use of outside backing singers works very well.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone that some of the lyrics were inspired by two separate acid trips.  For those unwilling to stick a tab on their tongue, settling for this far out number instead sounds like a smarter idea.  And safer, too.  Just an amazing song despite Lennon’s insistence on writing some of the most bizarre lyrics he could think of.  The last minute sounds better here than on the original CD.
 
George Harrison calls in from the spirit world on the truly weird Blue Jay Way.  Based on a true story, it’s the most challenging song to get into on the album.  When I heard the song on this reissue for the first time, it left me cold which was odd since I remember liking it back in the 1990s when I first went through the original Magical Mystery Tour CD.  Subsequently, after a few false starts, I finally got through a complete, follow-up listen.  With ghostly vocals dancing around throughout in the background and Ringo’s skillful drumming on display, I found myself more drawn to the arrangement.  I’m not sure I would ever sing along to this one (the melody line is a bit odd), but it’s definitely not out of place on this record.  Its otherworldliness blends in nicely with the other tunes.
 
The rest of the album is filled out with several strong numbers only previously available on single releases.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Hello Goodbye despite its very simple lyrics.  I used to think it was about the very pronounced differences in the personalities of Lennon and McCartney, how opposite they are in general.  But now that I know how the words aren’t nearly as significant as I once believed, it’s not nearly as great now.  Still, I sing along like a fool and that musical backing remains brilliant.  As is his custom from time to time, McCartney rips it up when he gets excited, especially near the end.  I never get tired of that.
 
Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, the first two songs to come out of the Sgt. Pepper sessions, pop up next.  With his voice slightly altered and his thoughts often going in several directions at once, Lennon nonetheless offers some of his most insightful, albeit egotistical lyrics in the former.  In the first verse there’s a simultaneous sense of frustration and contentment with his celebrity (“It’s getting hard to be someone, but it all works out”) followed by a baffling malaise (“It doesn’t matter much to me”).  By the second, there isn’t anyone who compares to him (“No one, I think, is in my tree”) or can relate to him on his level (“…you know, you can’t tune in”) but he sort of accepts that (“…but it’s alright/That is, I think it’s not too bad”).  By the final verse, he’s completely confused about what’s real and what isn’t.  Musically, the song is as exceptional as the words.  Ringo’s on fire during most of the choruses and the endings (the false one and the real one) as he drives the beat faster during the up-tempo moments.  The unusual combination of modern effects with rock and classical instruments underscores the disorientating feelings in Lennon’s lyrics.  Lots of beautiful melancholia to be felt here.  Another strong contender for the all-time best singles list. 
 
Penny Lane, the flip of that song, couldn’t be more different with its cheerfully nostalgic, slice-of-life breeziness.  We briefly get to know a proud barber, a fireman devoted to Queen Elizabeth, a nurse who sells poppies and a driving banker as, once again, classical instruments play a prominent role in the arrangement.  McCartney’s wistful vocals are affectionate for these people and the place they inhabit.  Just a lovely tune.
 
With its chugging bass line, infectious handclaps and occasionally falsetto vocal lines, Baby You’re A Rich Man is very much a product of its era both in sentiment and arrangement.  For three minutes, we all can be one of the beautiful people.  I like how in the lyrics it’s never quite clear what that actually means which is probably the point.  There is no one definition.  It’s a universal concept.  The jokey line thrown into the chorus is goofy and, you would think, out of place but, this being The Beatles. it’s not. 
 
The album ends with the spectacular All You Need Is Love.  Opening with a few bars of The British National Anthem, it quickly turns into an anthem of its own with its boundless positivity and deeply moving arrangement.  Reflecting what was happening in teenage culture in 1967, it perfectly captures the mood of a woefully naive movement, that whole nothing-is-impossible silliness.  The recording’s party atmosphere makes you wish you were there in person.
 
Overall, the sound quality is superb with noticeable improvements regarding I Am The Walrus.  There should be no more complaining from the fussiest of Beatle fans.  Early pressings are enhanced with a short documentary about the making of the TV special and the album.  (The basic requirements to see it are QuickTime and Windows 2000.  Consult the back cover for more info.)  All the footage, which features voiceovers from every band member and producer George Martin, also appeared in The Beatles On Record.  Watching it with the sound off allows you to better appreciate some of the artsy shots from the special, like the tinted shots of landscapes set to Flying.  Unlike some of these reissues, I didn’t experience any audio troubles with the documentary.  The ever pesky sync problems, however, remain a burden.  Nothing really revelatory here but it’s cool to hear Ringo praise Lennon’s poetry, particularly his succinctness with certain lines, and Lennon praising his own I Am The Walrus in one clip and humourously noting how people take it way too seriously in another.
 
Besides the new Recording and Historical Notes, there’s plenty of photos, lyrics to the TV songs and the uninspired multi-page comic book summary of the actual special (which is more for hardcore fans, I’m afraid) that appeared in the original vinyl artwork.
 
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band opened up exciting new avenues for The Beatles in the recording studio both musically and lyrically.  With the occasionally brilliant Magical Mystery Tour, their “psychedelic period” ended on a very positive note.  No more Love Me Dos from here on out.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, February 9, 2010 
12:46 a.m. 
Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 12:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Eight)

SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
 
Brian Wilson was blown away by Rubber Soul.  Although he had only heard the North American version (which excised three songs from the British track listing and added I’ve Just Seen A Face and It’s Only Love from Help!), Wilson was greatly impressed with what The Beatles had accomplished.  That album sparked something in him, a competitive spirit that inspired him to attempt to produce a better LP.
 
The result of his intense labours was Pet Sounds.  When Paul McCartney heard it, it immediately became one of his favourites.  Close to the end of the Revolver sessions, he only had time to write one Beach Boys-inspired number:  Here, There & Everywhere.  He would have all the time in the world for the next record.
 
By the summer of 1966, The Beatles were through with live performances.  The tours were a constant grind and artisically unsatisfying.  Already a proven success with staying power, the band confidently opted to go a different route.  For the rest of their time together, they found solace, for the most part, in the big, cavernous rooms at EMI Studios.  With an open-minded producer willing to go along with even their most outlandish ideas, The Beatles utilized their creative freedom in ways never possible at the start of their career.
 
McCartney was the architect of Revolver’s follow-up.  After mishearing something a trusted friend and employee had said on a flight one time, he had part of the title.  Then, he developed the concept.  He wondered what it would be like for The Beatles to pretend to be a fictional band.  How different would they sound?  What kinds of ideas would be expressed in their lyrics?  His bandmates were definitely onboard with this approach as they set out to come up with material worthy of this adventurous idea. 
 
When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band surfaced in the spring of 1967, some ten months after Revolver, it was met with universal acclaim.  Released during an exciting year for rock and roll (The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Doors and Are You Experienced? were three of the best LPs issued that year), it finally solidified the album as far more artistically and commercially important than the single.  Of all the albums The Beatles made, none were greater than this one.  In truth, McCartney’s concept didn’t really extend beyond four songs (the first two and the last two) but because of the brilliant realization of the material that was recorded, it didn’t matter.  43 years after its momentous release, this 39-minute and 55-second album remains an influential landmark.
 
It all begins with the title cut which sounds a little warped at the start creating an immediate sense of disorientation.  The audience is bustling as a few members of an orchestra briefly tune up before getting ready to perform.  12 seconds later, The Beatles take over.  George Harrison’s psychedelic guitar licks puncture the open spaces in the band’s spare, potent arrangement.  An uninhibited Paul McCartney excitably introduces this veteran, fictional group who despite not always being in fashion are “guaranteed to raise a smile” nonetheless.  John Lennon kisses up to the crowd (“You’re such a lovely audience/We’d like to take you home with us”) and McCartney finds a clever way to link the song to its successor.  In between there’s some applause, inexplicable laughter and some charming horns.  I love this one even more than I did in the mid-1990s.
 
Ringo Starr, or “Billy Shears”, as McCartney calls him at the tail end of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, earnestly sings With A Little Help From My Friends, the first song on the record to be overtly influenced by The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds LP.  (Listen closely to McCartney’s bass playing.)  When he’s not fretting about his own vocal limitations, Ringo worries about the absence of his woman (“What do I do when my love is away?”).  From the second verse onward, the song shifts to a call-and-answer approach as Ringo finds comfort in the company of his buddies especially at his loneliest, most vulnerable moments.  During the choruses, the band dramatically tightens up as Ringo’s confidence grows, especially in the dying seconds when he nails that high note.  A good song that was greatly improved by Joe Cocker, whose cover, I would argue, is the definitive version.
 
Next comes Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, one of the greatest songs in their entire catalogue.  Its vivid, dream-like imagery is easily matched by its surrealistic arrangement which mainly consists of a trippy organ, McCartney’s thumping, at times economical bassline and George Harrison’s fluidly atmospheric tambura.  In between the lyrical sections (an ironically traditional verse-prechorus-chorus set-up with no middle eight), Ringo tap-tap-taps his snare like a percussive conductor which ignites the song through several thoroughly enjoyable rock-outs.  Artficially raising John Lennon’s vocals to that of an awestruck child was a stroke of genius.  Just superb.
 
It’s Getting Better is actually better now even though I’ve long admired it, thanks to a deeper appreciation of its blunt lyrics and choppy chorded arrangement.  (Near the end, listen for George Harrison’s sitar which sounds more like a lathe slicing through wood than a musical instrument.)  McCartney assumes the persona of a once ruthless lower-class thug finding redemption through a new, loving relationship.  (He’s essentially singing about his songwriting partner.)  Before, he resented authority figures (“I used to get mad at my school/The teachers who taught me weren’t cool”), refused to listen to reason while enraged (“Me used to be angry young man/Me hiding me head in the sand”) and was a horrible boyfriend (“I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the/Things that she loved”).  Now, thanks to his current squeeze, “It’s getting better since you’ve been mine/Getting so much better all the time”.  John Lennon subtly adds the line “It couldn’t get no worse” high in the background after the second line of every chorus, a sly contrast to the reformed optimism of McCartney’s protagonist.  A surprising, spiritual sequel of sorts to Run For Your Life.
 
Fixing A Hole really isn’t about heroin addiction.  Rather, it’s an innocuous album cut about a stubborn guy who refuses to accept that his residence is far from a pristine castle.  It shouldn’t be a surprise at all that McCartney, the eternal optimist, sings this one.  Even though there’s a hole in the roof “where the rain gets in” and there are “cracks that run through the door”, he insists “I’m right where I belong”.  I like how repairing his place gives him something to do when he’d much rather live within his own imagination.  It’s only when he paints his bedroom that he allows himself to zone out.  Beginning with producer George Martin’s lively playing of the harpsichord (which gives the song an old-fashioned feel), Ringo Starr slows down the tempo with his hi-hat as McCartney’s voice echos against the slower-paced rhythm of his bandmates.  Evoking Brian Wilson’s voice when he emphasizes his higher register, he delivers yet another good vocal performance.  Generally, the music is taken straight from the Pet Sounds playbook, especially the gently moving backing vocals.
 
McCartney’s superb Wilson imitation is given a more prominent showcase on the frightfully good She’s Leaving Home.  A song with roots in a British newspaper article, a teenage girl reaches her breaking point with her conservative parents.  One morning, she leaves behind a letter explaining her reasons for her departure.  Later on, when her mother finds it, she is deeply dismayed by what she reads, totally shocked at this sudden turn of events.  Two days later, the girl “is far away/Waiting to keep the appointment she made/Meeting a man from the motor trade”.  All the while, the thoughts of the panic-stricken parents, beautifully vocalized by John Lennon in the choruses, are heard against McCartney’s soaring read of the song’s title and its one variation.  I love how the song has just as much empathy for the girl, especially her eagerness to be an independent woman, as it does for her mom and dad, two loving, decent people who had no idea that all their sacrifice, wealth and lifelong care for her were not enough to keep her happy.  Wisely, no one is portrayed as a villain here.  If nothing else, She’s Leaving Home is an incredible parable about the timeless conflict between the generations.  Despite its more complex storyline, musically, it’s right up there with Eleanor Rigby, thanks to its extraordinary classical sensibility.  Another of the band’s all-time greatest numbers.
 
Who would’ve thought that an old poster advertising a 19th Century circus would inspire such a unique song?  Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! basically steals the gist of that antique document while providing an advertiser-friendly psychedelic soundtrack to go with it.  With Ringo’s hi-hat high in the mix, Lennon makes a  convincing sales pitch.  It sounds like Pablo Fanque knew how to put on a show.  Most of the tempo changes go smoothly except for the last one which is a bit clunky, the track’s only misstep.  The prominent sounds of organs, tape loops, a harmonium and a glockenspiel greatly establish the big top atmosphere the song needs to work.  For the first time since A Hard Day’s Night, the harmonica makes a surprising return.  Welcome back, old friend.  The song is even better now after all these years.
 
Two more great songs follow.  George Harrison’s Within You Without You might be his greatest songwriting achievement as a Beatle.   Surrounded by a mix of the airy sounds of East India and the collective swoon of soothing strings, it’s a more experimental and more spiritual All You Need Is Love.  The lyrics are cosmically compelling, the atmosphere supremely meditative.  I’m not sure what the giggling is all about at the end, though.  An outstanding contribution, nonethless.  Originally written in the late ’50s, When I’m Sixty Four is Paul McCartney’s loving tribute to the music of his father’s dance hall days.  (Only a few lyrical tweaks were needed before it was recorded for this album.)  Led by an old-school clarinet and lots of basstones, the song is a charmer from start to finish.  Unapologetically uncool, it still manages to win you over with its cheeky, clever lines and winning melody.  I’ve always had a soft spot for this one.
 
It’s too bad that the first two minutes of Lovely Rita aren’t nearly as fantastic as its ending.  After McCartney sings about his successful first date with a progressive meter maid he fancies (she pays for dinner), John Lennon starts rhythmically panting and orgasming while the band cooks up a delicious groove.  It’s so great you wish the jam lasted a lot longer.  Before then, McCartney observes his love interest for the first time while she’s on the job.  Thankfully, only one line of courtship ends up being corny:  “When it gets dark I tow your heart away”.  Sweet and quintessentially polite, Lovely Rita is a good song that could’ve been spectacular.
 
Immediately afterwards comes the rocking Good Morning Good Morning.  A cock’s crow signals the start of a new day as a sometimes croaking saxophone section and Ringo Starr’s booming cymbal crashes awaken a driftless Lennon.  Bored and bereft of interesting things to say, as well as “feeling low down”, he wanders around his city looking for something to perk him up.  Unfortunately, “Everything is closed it’s like a ruin”.  Shortly thereafter, though, he starts to feel better (“…you start to smile now you feel cool”).  With everybody else leaving work to return home, Lennon finds his rhythm with the ladies (“Watching the skirts you start to flirt now you’re in gear”).  George Harrison’s frenetic Middle Eastern guitar solo is as jolting as the cymbal crashes and the song’s constant but professionally smooth time signature changes.  By the end, as Ringo loosens up percussively, that rooster kicks off a succession of animal sounds which include birds, cats, dogs, horses, elephants and cows.
 
The final sound of a chicken clucking leads into the first note of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise).  Basically a sped-up version of the earlier track, the band thanks the appreciative audience for coming out and warns them that “it’s getting very near the end”.  Exceedingly tight, Paul McCartney hiccups and whoops early on, unable to contain his excitement.  This is even better than the opening number.
 
And that brings us to A Day In The Life.  With references to real-life news stories and his appearance in the film, How I Won The War, John Lennon delivers perhaps the finest vocal performance ever on a Beatles’ song.  It’s pitch perfect in tone and feel.  In between the words, Ringo Starr demonstrates his full potential as a drummer.  His fills are so exceptional, to remove them from the final mix would’ve made this an inferior number.  Ditto the maracas and that mesmerizing piano which kills me.  The absence of a major role for Harrison’s lead guitar is quite striking when you think about it.  There’s no need for it.  Where would it have fit in the arrangement?  During the orchestral sections, the music increases in emotional intensity.  (And yes, you can still hear someone counting in the measures in the background which I think sounds cool.)  It sounds like a swarm of killer bees invading a peaceful, unsuspecting landscape.  Back in the mid-90s, I used to find the McCartney section entertaining but intrusive and not nearly as great as Lennon’s contributions.  I was so wrong.  Thanks to the seamless editing of the arrangement, its inclusion not only provides a much needed middle eight section, it also perfectly explains the echoey, reference-heavy storytelling of Lennon.  When a hustling McCartney (exemplified by a briefly panting Lennon) finally gets on that double decker bus to try to make it to work on time and falls asleep again, Lennon returns and it’s just perfect.  After the final orchestral flourish, out of nowhere comes a piano with its pounded, haunting chords that linger like the remnants of a discordant dream.  This is easily one of the best Beatles tracks of all time. 
 
Early pressings include a brief documentary that you can only see on your computer.  (PC users need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime to access it.  Consult the back cover for additional information.)  You’ll hear producer George Martin and all four Beatles offering bits of audio commentary regarding the making of the album.  As each of them speak, you’ll see lots of photos (including a couple of rare shots of Ringo Starr’s original Premier drum kit) interspersed with footage from the Yellow Submarine movie as well as short highlights of the night an orchestra was brought in to record its key parts for A Day In The Life.  (If you’ve seen The Beatles On Record, all this material will be familiar to you.)  George Harrison is seen playing the sitar with Ravi Shankar (Norah Jones’ estranged dad).  Ringo wryly notes that he learned how to play chess during the making of Sgt. Pepper.  A cocky Paul McCartney claims that The Beatles weren’t the leaders of their generation, just the spokesmen.  As always, there’s little here that wasn’t already known before. 
 
On the other hand, the expanded liner notes are spectacular, easily the best of any of these 2009 reissues (some of the material, like the number guide to all the objects on the cover and a photo of the original paper cut-outs, also appeared in the 1987 CD booklet).  Paul McCartney nicely summarizes the origin of the album’s loose concept.  Photographer Peter Blake explains how the famous album cover came together.  Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn solicits comments from producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick while offering his own insight.  Not only that, there’s plenty of enjoyable colour and black & white photography (Canadian fans will enjoy the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) patch on the left arm of McCartney’s blue Pepper costume), the usual Recording and Historical Notes sections, a tremendously helpful chronological overview of the recording sessions and mostly complete lyrics (“No I can’t complain” and “It couldn’t get no worse” from It’s Getting Better are the only lines not printed.)  All that’s missing are quotes from the other Beatles.
 
All in all, the flaws are few and far between and not terribly consequential.  For almost 40 minutes, listening to this album is a riveting experience, one you’ll want to partake in many, many more times.
 
Some will argue for Rubber Soul, others “The White Album”, Revolver or Abbey Road.  But for me, personally, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the essence of “the clever Beatles”, to borrow John Lennon’s phrase.  If you only purchase one of these fourteen 2009 reissues, this is the one to invest in.  To these ears, they never made a better album.     
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, February 8, 2010
12:05 a.m.  
Published in: on February 8, 2010 at 12:05 am  Leave a Comment  

Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Seven)

REVOLVER
 
A bubblegum act.  During the first three years of their recording career, time was so precious there was never enough of it to be more than that.  As a result, their melodies were always stronger than their lyrics.  By the middle of the 1960s, though, they began to develop a split personality.  On the road, they maintained their cleancut, spiffy image playing R&B covers mixed in with those mostly straightforward originals recorded between 1962 and 1965.  But in the studio, ambition took over.  By the summer of 1966, the old identity would be tossed aside for good as they made the fateful decision to spend their remaining years together creatively hibernating in Abbey Road.  From this point forward, there would be no more road trips.  Writing and recording great music became their sole priority.
 
300 hours.  That’s how long it took The Beatles to put together the follow-up to Rubber Soul, a record that impressed Brian Wilson so much he was determined to top it with The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album.  By the time Paul McCartney got his hands on a copy, Revolver was almost complete.  Only one song would be directly influenced by it.  However, Pet Sounds would play a major role in the evolution of their next album.  With fewer distractions to impede their progress, gung-ho experimentation would be the order of the day.
 
It takes only 34 minutes and 45 seconds to listen to The Beatles’ seventh studio album in its entirety.  But while it plays, you can’t help but marvel at how free spirited it all sounds.  The guitars have become louder and more abrasive.  There’s more room here for classical instruments than on previous albums.  Like its predecessor, the lyrics at times evoke darker imagery and real feelings in more pronounced ways.  New sounds, like a guitar lick being played backwards, are creeping their way into the arrangements.  And yet, amongst all these significant changes to their musical palette, there remains a general sense of joy and wit set against a consistently strong line-up of melodies.  This is easily one of the best collection of songs the band ever released.
 
For the first time ever, a George Harrison original kicks things off.  And what a song it is.  Taxman is a brilliant satire that every English rock star of the 1960s and 70s can easily relate to.  With ridiculously high tax rates eating away so much of their hard-earned fortunes, it’s no wonder many of them, like The Rolling Stones, became tax exiles for extended periods of time back then.  Using first person narrative, Harrison infuses the title character with enough greedy cynicism to make even low-income earners appreciate the plight of rich, overtaxed rock stars.  With its dynamite hook at the forefront, Taxman warns the listener of the remarkable power government officials have over your money, regardless of your financial status.  With tongue firmly in cheek, Harrison’s snide lyrics and superb melody are personal breakthroughs.  The references to then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson (the then-leader of The Labour Party who, ironically, had pushed for The Beatles to receive those MBE (Members Of The British Empire) medals in 1965) and then-Conservative Leader Edward Heath, who both wanted to impose a 95% supertax on the rich (hence the lyric “should 5% appear too small”), mark the first time any Beatles song entered the realm of politics.  One of Harrison’s greatest achievements, with or without The Beatles.  Believe it or not, that’s Paul McCartney playing that awesome solo twice.
 
Eleanor Rigby maintains the level of excellence established by Taxman.  With rock instruments replaced by an outstanding string octet, McCartney’s moving character study of two forgotten souls both lost in isolation might be the saddest song The Beatles ever recorded.  (Ironically, Ringo Starr, Harrison and friend of the band, Pete Shotton, offered important lyrical ideas and suggestions while Lennon’s contributions were generally agreed to be very little.  Lennon is the only one who ever disputed this.)  The title character (originally named Daisy Hawkins) is a lonely spinster secretly pining for love and affection as she waits in vain for a suitor who never arrives.  Father MacKenzie (originally Father McCartney) is a priest who is so unappreciated by his congregation, “no one comes near” and he wastes his time “writing the words of a sermon no one will hear”.  Because of the strict celebacy rule for Catholic men of faith, the most exciting non-work related aspect of his life is “darning his socks at night when there’s nobody there”.  Like Rigby, he has no idea how to connect.  In the final verse, one character buries the other but “no one was saved”.  If the roles were reversed, the result would be just as heartbreaking.  One of those Beatles songs that stays with you long after you hear it.
 
John Lennon’s I’m Only Sleeping is an acoustic sing along about the pleasures of pulling away from the hustle and bustle of society by enjoying some peaceful, solitary slumber, the polar opposite of Rigby.  Sounding very innocent in a mostly higher register, Lennon finds solace in dreaming and defends himself from accusations of procrastination (“Everybody seems to think I’m lazy/I don’t mind/I think they’re crazy/Running everywhere at such a speed/Til they find there’s no need”).  A very European sentiment.  If you listen closely, you can hear him yawning late in the track.
 
Love You To is George Harrison’s splendid Indian-flavoured paean to the sexual revolution and a possible shout-out to the many Beatle groupies.  In the first three lines of the first verse, though, he appears to be indirectly referencing the amazingly quick musical transformation of The Beatles to the point of absolutely refusing to be described in a simplistic manner (“Each day just goes so fast/I turn around, it’s past/You don’t get time to hang a sign on me”).  But then, he instructs potential paramours to cut right to the chase “before I’m a dead old man”.  In the second verse, after advising listeners to appreciate their limited lifespan because “a new one can’t be bought”, he suggests day-long sex and sing alongs to fill our days.  Sounds good to me.  The last verse offers one last bit of wisdom.  Beware of bad influences because they’ll “screw you in the ground” and “fill you in with all their sins”.  Great lyrics in this one.
 
Here, There And Everywhere is one pretty love song greatly inspired by The Beach Boys.  With elegant backing vocals steering him throughout, Paul McCartney sweetly sings of contentment whenever he’s with his lady love.  They’re so in tune with each other than when another man tries to speak to his girlfriend, “she doesn’t know he’s there”.  Now that’s commitment!  The feeling is mutual as McCartney insists on being with her all the time no matter where she is.  You could argue that times of separation to do other things is always good for couples but the song nonetheless accurately captures how a new love becomes the total focus of your life. Nothing else matters unless you have that special someone to lean on always.  The idea of being apart for just a second is agony.
 
The album turns whimsical with the endearing Yellow Submarine.  Leave it to The Beatles to make the idea of living underwater in a giant tube sound like fun rather than the claustrophobic torture it would actually be.  A goofy detour from the heavier tracks, it’s a song that clearly couldn’t have come together three years earlier.  The sound effects add to the production without taking anything away from Ringo’s singing and the warm acoustic arrangement.  Listen closely during the chorus and you can hear George Harrison’s rather unusual harmony vocals.  It’s quirky but it works.  Even on a kid-friendly number like this, the band and producer George Martin are still able to carry forth with their winning experimentation.
 
She Said She Said brings back the edgy, electric guitars as John Lennon is eager to get away from a wacky broad who freaks him out with her odd comments (“I know what it’s like to be dead”).  Stuck in a dead-end conversation and feeling less and less comfortable as time goes on, Lennon is eager to pull away from her (“I know that I’m ready to leave”).  With its sly time signature changes and strong drumming, the song is more evidence of the band embracing harder material, both lyrically and musically.
 
The cheerfulness returns on Good Day Sunshine, another light and breezy romp led by a forthright piano.  The spare arrangement demonstrates the musical versatility of the band.  While many songs are loaded with various instrumentation and unusual sounds, here’s one so unfettered it doesn’t even have an electric guitar on it.  McCartney really was the only member of the band who could sing this with conviction.  The overlapping vocals in the dying seconds allow for a memorable ending.
 
And Your Bird Can Sing is a clever rocker about a woman more interested in her personal effects and the sights and sounds of the world than John Lennon.  He hopes once she’s bored with the former that she’ll give him a chance (“When your prized possessions/Start to weigh you down/Look in my direction/I’ll be round”)  Lennon wrongly dismissed this in subsequent years.  The lyrics are quite good.
 
For No One feels like a prequel to Yesterday as it portrays the sad deterioration of a once loving relationship but from an outside point of view.  McCartney’s all-knowing narrator sympathizes with the crestfallen boyfriend (“A love that should’ve lasted years”) who, despite being in denial during one verse, is growing all too aware of the inevitable.  Nothing is softened or sugarcoated here.  (Even the superb french horn solo is oozing with pathos.)  This couple is on the verge of severing their partnership for good.  With the woman constantly crying and the boyfriend in endless agony (“Your day breaks/Your mind aches”), in less than two minutes it paints a painful picture of love in complete disarray.  Without a doubt, For No One is one of the best songs on the album.
 
The electric guitar is out in full force for Dr. Robert, a crackling rocker that comes across as a two-minute musical infomercial.  Lennon shills away for a man who’s always at one’s beck and call when needed (“Day or night, he’ll be there any time at all”), a layman (“He helps you to understand”) and is the best in the business (“No one can succeed like Dr. Robert”).  Sounding at times like Bob Dylan, Lennon is a master pitchman for what sounds like a shady character.  Not sure I’d want to drink from the guy’s “special cup” but never mind.  The track still works.  As an aside, one wonders why it fades out when you can clearly hear it ending cold.
 
I Want To Tell You is the third and final George Harrison composition, yet another track bolstered by the appearance of a piano.  Slithering maracas, occasional fits of percussion madness, rhythmic hand claps and unusual vocal harmonies help spin a tale about a guy too tongue tied to declare his love to a young lady.  (The Police produced the similiarly themed Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic many years later.)  A universal tale well told, the track fades out with some cool Indian-style singing from Paul McCartney.
 
The brassy Got To Get You Into My Life is a love song for Mary Jane.  Subtle and cheeky, a smitten McCartney declares his devotion to his favourite drug.  Harold & Kumar’s favourite song. 
 
Without question, the most unusual track on Revolver is the last one.  Tomorrow Never Knows (something Ringo said during a 1964 interview) is the musical equivalent of an acid trip as John Lennon instructs listeners on how to derive the most pleasure from that little tab.  Loosely based on The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, even stone cold sober you can appreciate the sheer weirdness of its structure, mainly the otherworldly tape loops and that halting, distinctive drum pattern.  I still get chills when the tamborine makes its first appearance.  Featuring spectacular lyrics, the song ensures that the album ends the same way it begins, with The Beatles reaching the full potential of their creative powers.
 
Although I always liked the way the original 1987 CD sounded, this 2009 update also sounds great.  It’s not too loud and not too soft.  There’s absolutely no reason to complain.
 
Early pressings are enhanced with a mini documentary about the making of the album which is only accessible by computer.  (To view it, PC users need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime.  If you have a Mac, check the back cover for more requirements.)  You’ll hear all four Beatles and producer George Martin offer commentary while shots of the band at Abbey Road are edited together with short clips of the Paperback Writer video.  (All of this can also be seen and heard in The Beatles On Record.)  It’s neat to see how the editors enhance the photography to give it a three-dimensional look as they transition from one part of a picture to something else within the same shot.  Once again, the audio can be glitchy at times but I was able to get through a complete viewing eventually without incident.  (During the problematic screenings the audio sounds gargly and in the beginning, you can barely hear George Harrison and Ringo Starr as the music is playing.)  Not much relevation here, although there’s a brief shot of a smiling Mick Jagger hanging out with Paul McCartney and John Lennon in the control booth.  Harrison talks about how pleased he was with his songwriting progress during this period feeling like the songs he was contributing “fit in” with the others he didn’t write.  (He was correct.)  McCartney talks about how a tape operator accidentally put a tape in backwards so that when it played back it sounded like far out Indian music which led to accidental genius.  (He does a very good impersonation of that sound.)  Lennon claims The Beatles did that on record before The Who and The Jimi Hendrix Experience along with all the other “fuckers”.  (In The Beatles On Record, that word was bleeped.  It’s uncensored here.)  Lots of clips of notable Revolver tracks play throughout the documentary which just makes you want to play the album again.
 
The liner notes present the usual mix of pics and Historical & Recording information.  The photos are great but you’re not going to learn anything new about the album, unless you haven’t read any of the hundreds and hundreds of books already devoted to the band’s music.  Newbies, on the other hand, will be enlightened. 
 
After years of being rushed out the door to do another tour or a TV appearance or be interviewed by a music magazine, like Rubber Soul, Revolver benefits greatly from deeper focus and fewer distractions as The Beatles allow more room to play around with new ideas.  It was a wonderful sign of even better music to come.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 7, 2010 
12:02 a.m. 
Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 12:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Six)

RUBBER SOUL
 
It was time for a change.  For three years, they had written and recorded variations of the same songs to a great deal of acclaim and financial success.  They knocked off these simple ditties in a remarkably short period of time in between their commitments to the concert stage and publicity tours, while also trying to enjoy life outside the music business.  Averaging two new studio albums a year, as well as additional material generated for singles, they made writing and recording look effortless even if they weren’t yet operating at their peak potential. 
 
But after meeting Bob Dylan in 1964, it was clear they needed to evolve.  With only limited studio time at their disposal, however, true advancement, the result of many hours of dedication and uninterrupted creativity, was just not possible.  By the autumn of 1965, the band was more eager than ever to grow as songwriters and musicians.  From October to November that year, they set out to make their best album yet without any distractions.
 
The result was Rubber Soul, an LP loaded with smarter lyrics, tighter harmonies, and traditionally moving arrangements now sprinkled with interesting new sounds and ideas.  Running just 35 minutes and 32 seconds, it’s a major improvement over their previous five LPs.   
 
The rollicking Drive My Car, the album’s opener, sets the tone immediately.  Paul McCartney and John Lennon are smitten suitors who fancy an aspiring actress, a cheeky tease who humours them by offering an opportunity to be her personal chauffeur.  The job doesn’t pay very well but they don’t mind.  They’re more interested in pursuing a romance (“Working for peanuts is all very fine/But I can show you a better time”).  Unfortunately, she doesn’t have any work for them to do (“I got no car and it’s breaking my heart”).  However, she likes them (“But I found a driver and that’s a start”).  In every chorus, while absolutely certain of her future in the limelight (“Yes, I’m going to be a star”), she also admits an attraction (“Baby, you can drive my car”) and offers faint hope for a relationship (“And maybe I’ll love you”).  A nice twist on one of the oldest metaphors for sex, it’s McCartney who does a good job playing lead guitar here and George Harrison who provides a solid bass foundation.  Ringo Starr’s lively drumming and McCartney’s piano fills add emotional texture.  And if that weren’t enough, there’s plenty of cowbell. 
 
Norwegian Wood is a deeply moving ballad greatly enhanced by Harrison’s sitar, an instrument that would play a major role in so many of their later tracks.  John Lennon delivers one of his finest vocal performances as he recounts with a bit of bemusement the time he tried to get laid with a hippie who had no desire to sleep with him.  (Despite the even temperament of his voice, you can feel the rage as he attacks the strings on his acoustic guitar.)  Despite being invited to spend the night with her (“She asked me to stay”) and patiently waiting for an awkward pause (“We talked until two/And then she said, ‘It’s time for bed'”), he has absolutely no shot with her (“She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh”).  The next morning, after what had to be an uncomfortable “sleep in the bath”, he’s abandoned.  Feeling humiliated, he torches her room (“So I lit a fire/Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood?”).  A chilling, deadpan ending to a very pretty song. 
 
More humiliation is in store for Paul McCartney on the beautifullly arranged You Won’t See Me.  Desperate to get through on the phone to his elusive love, he’s fed up with the whole situation (“I have had enough”) even though he still loves her (“And I will lose my mind/If you won’t see me”).  By the end, she’s dumped him and he’s really feeling her absence (“Though the days are few/They’re filled with tears/And since I lost you/It feels like years”), so much so he repeats that final verse.  The longest song the band had recorded at that point (almost three and a half minutes), like Norwegian Wood, You Won’t See Me embraces the messy reality of troubled relationships in a more pronounced way than past efforts.  At this point, the band is more than willing to show the dark side of men, most especially their frustration with the women in their lives who aren’t immediately compliant to their needs which can lead to emotional breakdowns and terrible personal choices.  Just three years after Love Me Do, The Beatles were already abandoning simple romantic themes, cliches of a certain style they easily got away with because of their superb melodies, and replacing them with universal complexities.  Love really isn’t such an easy game to play after all, they’ve bitterly discovered.
 
In the tradition of I’m A Loser and Help!, John Lennon’s Nowhere Man is a brilliant breakthrough, a song with no “love”, “I” or “tears” in its lyric.  Feeling stuck and aimless, Lennon, in simple language, perfectly captures his state of mind during a troubled personal period despite standing outside the character he’s describing.  In a rare moment of humility, he even tries relating his depression to his devoted audience (“Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”).  Like You Won’t See Me, the backing vocals, consisting mainly of “la la la’s”, are a necessary ingredient to this emotional stew.  It’s neat to hear Lennon trying to cheer himself up and encourage a positive plan of action as he wallows in a misery of his own making.  I love how George Harrison’s empathetic solo ends with a surprising harmonic note.  Just a great song, all in all.  I regret underrating it all these years.
 
Speaking of personal breakthroughs, George Harrison offers two of his own.  With a fuzzy bass leading the charge, he puts a deceptive ex-lover in her place in Think For Yourself.  Maintaining the “trouble in paradise” theme common to many songs on Rubber Soul, he wants no part of a woman who he believes is setting him up for more failure.  That being said, he’s open to some kind of closure (“The future still looks good/And you’ve got time to rectify/All the things that you should”).  Ringo’s menu of crunchy maracas and energetic drumming (with a pace quickening tamborine making a last-minute cameo) nicely fuels the tension throughout.  If I Needed Someone, which features Harrison’s twangy 12-string Rickenbacker, is a hooky albeit coy love song.  Although lyrically inferior to Think For Yourself, it features lovely harmony vocals (which curiously drown out Harrison at various points) and an instantly catchy melody.  Two years after Don’t Bother Me, Harrison himself was advancing quickly as a burgeoning songwriter.
 
A precursor to All You Need Is Love, The Word is a straightforward attempt at a counterculture anthem.  With occasionally hissy maracas, staccato guitar work that darts in and out, and the piano, bass and drums working in tandem, the arrangement is extremely confident.  Sounding like gurus pitching a product you must embrace, The Word is an easy sell. 
 
In Michelle, Paul McCartney is in love with a French broad but he can’t quite communicate how he feels to her because she’s not bilingual.  The best he can do is compliment her beauty, note how “Michelle, ma belle” is a good combination of words (“These are words that go together well”) and hope the message gets through.  Ultimately, he’s determined to stick it out until they both find a way to communicate effectively.  The backing vocals really make all the difference here giving the song an old-fashioned feel.  The melancholia expressed in the acoustic melody and McCartney’s low-key guitar solos suit the words.
 
What Goes On is a true Beatles rarity, an album cut that credits three songwriters (Ringo Starr, Lennon & McCartney).  Another love-gone-wrong song, the lyrics are actually quite good.  Like Act Naturally and a number of the cuts from Beatles For Sale, it has a very distinct country/western flavour to it.  (The harmony vocals during the choruses nicely emphasize this.)  How appropriate, then, that Ringo gets to sing it.  He’s in his element here.
 
Another frustrating female is the subject of Lennon’s Girl.  Continuously sighing over his girlfriend’s rudeness and icy demeanour as the band woefully shuffles along to his sorrowful vocals, he nonetheless can’t quite let go of his attraction to her.  Famous for its cheeky use of the word “tit” in the background during the middle eight section, what shouldn’t be forgotten is how dark the overall lyric is, particularly the final verse which is stunning in its unvarnished bleakness.  The acoustic guitar playing here is excellent.  This is one of the most compelling melodies The Beatles ever devised.
 
Like What Goes On, I’m Looking Through You is more country than rock and roll, for the most part.  McCartney is humiliated all over again as he complains about the unwanted changes in his girlfriend’s personality.  Although somewhat vague at times about what she actually does that specifically bothers him, as the track progresses, control and respect are clearly revealed as key stumbling blocks to their mutual happiness.  (“You’re thinking of me/The same old way/You were above me/But not today”)  Deep cynicism has entered his lyricism in a particularly striking way (“Love has a nasty habit/Of disappearing overnight”).  The Night Before aside, this is usually John Lennon territory, an unexpected breakthrough for the bassist.  The music here is deceptively upbeat in its horse-like rhythm, but McCartney’s vocals are unmistakably bitter.  The song is quite a contrast from his tender, easygoing balladry.  Furthermore, where in the past, he was doing the heartbreaking (for the most part), that’s no longer the case on Rubber Soul.  He’s not taking it very well, either.
 
Featuring the greatest George Martin piano solo ever, In My Life is a tremendous second half highlight, despite being one of the more overrated songs in the band’s catalogue.  John Lennon is in a reflective mood about the important people and special locations that molded him when he was younger as he realizes how deeply in love he is with his current girlfriend.  He’s so smitten with her that his former loves matter less now that he’s in this happy relationship (“And these memories lose their meaning/When I think of love as something new”).  Is it one of the greatest songs ever?  Despite popping up time and time again on those kinds of “best of” lists, I would argue in the negative.  Simply put, The Beatles created far better tracks than this, especially in their latter years.  That being said, In My Life is still very good.  Lennon’s vocal is warm and vulnerable, his autobiographical lyrics are sweetly honest and I love the off-beat use of the guitars and drums. 
 
Although the album reflects more conflict and darker subject matter, there’s one song that could’ve easily fit on any of their earlier releases.  (It was actually an outtake from Help!)  That would be Wait, a more traditional sounding number that features a more subtle use of a volume pedal, a device previously used on I Need You.  John Lennon and Paul McCartney sing about a bad boy eager to make amends with a former flame (“You ought to know/That I’ve been good/As good as I can be”).  He’s so reformed he offers a reasonable proposal upon his return (“…if your heart breaks/Don’t wait/Turn me away/And if your heart’s strong/Hold on/I won’t delay”).  Throw in a typically catchy hook and you have another decent sing-along on your hands, even though the song is reminiscent of It Won’t Be Long.
 
If the last verse of Girl wasn’t disturbing enough for you, how about the entirety of Run For Your Life?  Rubber Soul’s concluding track is pure vitriol as John Lennon’s “jealous mind” leads him to make unwarranted threats against his likely terrified girlfriend.  (“Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl/Then to be with another man”)  Seething in his mysogyny, Lennon is blunt and deadly serious as well as being riddled with deep, penetrating insecurities.  It’s a startling lyric, one of the best Lennon and McCartney ever wrote because of its utter lack of sugarcoated varnish.  It captures the raw intensity of an abuser in such stark, unapologetic terms it’s no wonder Lennon distanced himself from it for years after its release.  (Too revealing, perhaps?)  The country-sounding arrangement which mixes acoustic and twangy electric guitars adds to the creep factor.  Easily the most surprising song in the band’s catalogue, Run For Your Life is undeniably brilliant.
 
Overall, the album sounds terrific.  The instrumentation and vocals are quite clear as the integrity of the original stereo mixes have been preserved.  Although I liked the 1987 CD, this 2009 update has been beautifully remastered.  There shouldn’t be any complaints about it.
 
Early pressings are enhanced with a brief documentary only accessible by computer.  (PC users need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime to view it.  Check the back cover for more information.)  Brief voiceover commentary by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and producer George Martin are sprinkled throughout this short presentation which features cool black and white photography and a bit of footage from one of the band’s mid-60s promo clips.  Lennon does a funny George Martin impression as he explains how the producer would present a musical idea that would get them all jazzed.  Ringo believes marijuana was one of the major factors in their musical evolution at this point in time.  (Dig his blue granny glasses.)  McCartney comments on how The Beatles tried to sound different on every album in order to lose their original Mersey beat sound.  And there’s some funny in-studio behind the scenes tomfoolery, as well.  Overall, this is one of the better docs in the reissue series despite a lack of new details.  But, as always, the audio is glitchy, so be warned.
 
The liner notes add some pictures not included in the 1987 package and offers the standard Historical and Recording Notes sections.  Newbies will be enlightened, longtime fans won’t learn anything new.
 
Coming just four months after Help!, Rubber Soul ended the first half of the 1960s with the band inching that much closer to greatness.  It wouldn’t be long before they would achieve it outright.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 6, 2010
12:18 a.m. 
Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 12:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Five)

HELP!
 
A young woman is about to be sacrificed by a strange cult but is saved at the last second because she’s not wearing a red ring, the same red ring that Ringo Starr has foolishly decided to put on and can’t get off no matter what he tries.  That’s the premise of The Beatles’ second feature film.  Released in 1965, it was accompanied by a new studio album.  Half the songs were made for the movie, the rest to fill out side two.  Only in Britain could you hear all 14 songs on one record.  (North America only got the movie songs and selections from Ken Thorne’s original score.)
 
With a tight running time of just under 34 minutes, like A Hard’s Day Night (or any of the early albums, for that matter), time is considered so precious that not a single second is wasted here.  Unlike the music from that movie, not everything is original.  However, the Please Please Me formula of six covers paired with eight originals is finally discarded with this release.  Only two remakes were needed to fill out the second half of the album.
 
The title song sets the tone with John Lennon swallowing his pride and openly admitting he’s too weak to go it alone anymore.  He sounds like an old man when he sings, “my independence seems to vanish in the haze”, the best line in the entire track.  A blast of energy from start to finish (Harrison’s slightly off-kilter guitar playing gives it character), despite not being terribly specific, Help! is startling evidence of lyrical growth on the part of Lennon and Paul McCartney.  In just two years, you could already hear their advancement as personal vulnerability is increasingly creeping into the material.
 
Speaking of McCartney, he sounds deeply bitter about his lover’s change of heart in The Night Before, a rollicking number filled with the pounding sounds of Ringo’s Ludwig drum kit.  (You can hear him constantly thrashing about on the cymbals.)  After one incredible night of passion, he’s shocked to discover that she just doesn’t need him anymore.  (“Now today I find/You have changed your mind”)  Clinging desperately to the idea of rekindling that sexual chemistry, he begs her over and over again “to treat me like you did the night before”.  Simply remembering all that hot sex reduces him to a puddle of tears.  Ah, the catch-22 of groupies.  Strong hook here.
 
The melancholic ballad You’ve Got To Your Hide Love Away, which showcases some terrific acoustic guitar playing, casts Lennon in the familiar role of the sad sack who’s just been dumped.  Furthering the themes of its predecessors, Lennon now imagines people laughing at his misfortune to the point where they suggest he never try his luck with a woman ever again.  Pretty brutal.  Already feeling emasculated by the break-up, he just piles on the growing layers of self-loathing.  At times, you can even hear the ache in his voice.  Like I’m A Loser from Beatles For Sale, Lennon’s pessimism is downright devastating to listen to.  You can really start to hear him reveal his own insecure identity in these compelling semi-autobiographical numbers.
 
George Harrison’s I Need You is one of his least remarkable compositions, distinguished mostly by its melody and the constant use of a volume-controlled foot pedal on his electric guitar.  Pleading for the return of his disinterested lover, it’s pretty standard fare but not singing along isn’t an option.  Christopher Walken, take note.  The cowbell returns for the middle eight sections.
 
Another Girl features a coldly diplomatic Paul McCartney trying to convince a persistent ex that he’s moved on.  He dismisses her repeatedly with the line “I ain’t no fool and I don’t take what I don’t want”.  With a straight face, he asserts to his former lover’s face, “I don’t wanna say that I’ve been unhappy with you” and then proceeds to talk up the attributes of his new girlfriend.  Classy.  I like how the chorus leads into the middle eight section.  Very smooth transition, unlike the cad’s girlfriend switching.  McCartney stays low for the verses and aims high for the middle eights.  One of a few Beatle tracks that I didn’t like at first but have warmed to over time.
 
Two more entertaining movie songs take us to the midway point of the album.  You’re Going To Lose That Girl is a breakthrough for John Lennon.  Instead of the usual wallowing in depression over lost love, he’s ready to steal someone else’s girl.  Claiming that his rival doesn’t deserve her, he boldly announces “I’ll make a point of taking her away from you”.  Although he allows the guy countless opportunities to fix his own relationship, you get the feeling Lennon hopes he keeps treating her badly so he can swoop in and save the day.  George Harrison offers a cool Chuck Berry-inspired guitar solo and Ringo keeps the energy up with his bongo playing and drumming.  It’s hard not to be moved by Lennon’s higher register.
 
Ticket To Ride showcases some of the best drumming Ringo ever committed to tape.  Harrison’s unique guitar lick is quite good, too.  Lennon’s back to being the wronged guy again as he complains about his ex abandoning him for a train ride to freedom.  A rare early Beatles number that’s over three minutes long, Lennon’s self-pity is on full display here most especially at the end (“my baby don’t care”).
 
It’s Only Love is one of the best songs of the second half, maybe even of the whole album.  A mostly acoustic affair (with the occasional appearance of a neat sounding electric hook on top), it has a gorgeous melody and features some wonderful lyrics.  In the first verse, Lennon’s heart is aflutter over a beautiful woman (“I get high when I see you walk by/My, oh, my”) he can’t even bring himself to talk to (“Why am I so shy/When I’m beside you?).  By the second, he’s somehow overcome his shyness and they’re now a couple.  Unfortunately, things aren’t going so well (“Is it right that you and I should fight/Every night?”).  He wants to bring an end to that tension but it’s a struggle (“…it’s so hard loving you”).  The stubborn naivety expressed in the band’s earlier numbers where potential problems weren’t foreseen and love is supposed to last forever, has wilted away in favour of more relatable scenarios like this one, one of the strongest tracks in their catalogue.
 
It’s surprising that Paul McCartney sings the beautiful Yesterday because it’s yet another number about a single guy bemoaning a lost relationship.  This is usually the terrain of John Lennon who co-wrote and sang many of these similiarly themed tracks.  Perhaps only because of its high melody line was the idea of Lennon singing it not possible.  Backed by a sympathetic string quartet who confidently play in the key of heartbreak, McCartney softly reveals that a slip of the tongue may have ended his happiness (“I said something wrong”).  Sadly, we never do find out what exactly caused his romance to collapse.  (Could one dopey comment really change everything?)  Like the depressed characters in a good number of the earlier tracks, McCartney’s instinct is to retreat from the world and suffer in silence.  After all these years, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most covered songs in music history.  It’s a stunner.
 
With its honky tonk piano tinkling and catchy melody, Harrison’s You Like Me Too Much is the strongest of his two contributions here.  I like how the piano and the guitar trade licks during the solo.  A straightforward tale about a cocksure, not entirely nice fellow who is absolutely convinced that, despite threats to the contrary, his woman will never truly leave him, this is the best song the lead guitarist had written up to this point.  He would easily top it many times over during the course of the next several albums.
 
Lennon and McCartney trade lines on Tell Me What You See, a mid-tempo number that would’ve fit comfortably on Beatles For Sale.  Ringo’s nicely restrained drum work and that cool Hammond organ are the elements that stand out the most in the arrangement, most especially during those moments when there isn’t any singing.  Both men try to reassure an uncertain love interest about their devotion to her (“If you put your trust in me/I’ll make bright your day”).  She’s a difficult one to reach because of an unexplained depression that McCartney insists isn’t permanent (“Big and black the clouds may be/Time will pass away”).  On earlier records, the lyrics wouldn’t have been this interesting.  What could’ve easily been a throwaway is instead an admirable attempt to branch out a bit from the usual subject matter.  Romance is still an important theme for the songwriting duo but the characters in their songs are quickly learning it’s not all wine and roses.
 
I’ve Just Seen A Face is an endearing, fast-paced country skiffle that has a misleading introduction.  The lovely open-picked acoustic guitar opening leads you to believe you’re about to hear a ballad but then, the pace picks up and McCartney can’t contain his excitement about this new woman who’s interested in him.  After years of unhappiness, this new love interest has taken center stage in his life.  You sense the euphoria in his singing.
 
Two covers bookend the originals on the second half of the album.  Act Naturally, a remake of the famous Buck Owens hit, is an appropriate choice for Ringo’s vocal showcase.  Even more overtly country than I’ve Just Seen A Face, its cinematic theme makes it a suitable selection.  The guitar playing really sucks you in while Ringo delivers a good performance.  He even harmonizes with himself on this one.  Dizzy Miss Lizzy is the traditional album-ending screamer.  Originally a Larry Williams song, when he’s not singing pleasantly, John Lennon shrieks, whoops, yelps, groans and wails about a chick who’s so hot he can’t contain his feelings for her.  It’s nice to hear him have fun and not sound so woeful, for once.  The band is right there with him every step of the way.
 
Those who complained about the 1987 CD version of Help! (not me) will be pleased with this 2009 update.  It sounds great and there’s no reason to hang your head and moan.  Early pressings are enhanced with a brief documentary about the making of the movie and the subsequent album.  (You’ll need QuickTime and at least Windows 2000 to have a look at it.  Check the back cover for more details.)  You’ll hear commentary from most of The Beatles (no John Lennon this time, for some reason) and producer George Martin.  Like some of these reissues, the audio sounds pretty terrible and there are the ever present sync problems no matter how many times you run through it.  (I stopped at three.)  Once again, not a lot of revelation here although there’s plenty of Help! clips where Ringo wears an incredibly silly hat.  There’s a funny inside-the-studio moment where someone (it sounds like John but it could be Paul) does a very funny high pitched goof on the Ticket To Ride melody.  Harrison makes a funny remark at the top, as well.  I love the bit where McCartney talks about how either him or Lennon would mention a title of a song one of them had an idea for and that would be what they would work on that particular day.  So cool.  Other than that, you’ve seen and heard it all before, and that includes the Shea Stadium footage. 
 
The liner notes have lots of pictures and the standard Historical and Recording Notes sections, common to all fourteen of these reissues.  However, like the documentary, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen or read elsewhere. 
 
Two years after the release of the Please Please Me album, despite their incredibly hectic schedule and tight deadlines, The Beatles were evolving.  The words were becoming more personal and complex, the music moving further away from pop and closer to rock.  Help! isn’t one of the great albums in their catalogue but it is a good one proving that the foursome were getting somewhere with their experiments and their timeless melodicism.  If you don’t own the original CD, pick this one up.  You’ll be singing along to these 14 cuts again and again and again.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 5, 2010
12:50 a.m. 
Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 12:50 am  Leave a Comment