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.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 14, 2010