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Thursday, December 20, 2012

THE BLUE ALBUM - sides three and four

The inner gatefold of the Blue Album
SIDE THREE

Back in the U.S.S.R. - The opening track of The Beatles, aka the "White Album."

While My Guitar Gently Weeps - George finally gets a song on this collection (on the seventh side of the two packages) - another selection from the "White Album."  By the time of this release in 1973, it was well on its way to becoming a mainstay of FM radio.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da - The third and final well-known track from The Beatles.

Get Back - The monster single released in the spring of 1969.

Don't Let Me Down - The strong B-side of that single.

The Ballad of John and Yoko - Another single, released hot on the heels of Get Back.  It hit number one in the UK (and it was the last for the Beatles in their home country during their career), but it stalled at number eight in the US.

Old Brown Shoe - While George's B-side is a fine song, but I find its inclusion here questionable.

SIDE FOUR

Here Comes the Sun - One of George's finest numbers, from Abbey Road.

Come Together - The opening track of Abbey Road, later released on a double A-sided single.  It went to number one in the US.

Something - The pinnacle of George's songwriting career was both an album track and his only A-side with the Beatles.

Octopus's Garden - Ringo's second and last composition for the Beatles is a fun little number, but truly not deserving of placement in a collection of their best work.

Let It Be - The last official single in the group's catalog went to number one in the US.

Across the Universe - A popular track from the album Let It Be.

The Long and Winding Road - Another outstanding track from Let It Be.  In the US, Capitol Records also released it as a single and it went to number one.

The Beatles: 1962-1966 has more hits, as the group released more singles in the first half of their career, but The Beatles: 1967-1970 has two more songs, and the running time of the average song was longer in the late '60s, so fans got more bang for their buck from the second collection.  Together, the Red and Blue Albums present an excellent overview of the band's development and extraordinary output.

Friday, December 14, 2012

THE BLUE ALBUM - sides one and two

The first half of the Beatles' career had already been tackled twice in retrospective packages, both in A Collection of Beatles Oldies and now in The Beatles: 1962-1966, aka the Red Album.  But a chronicle of their work from 1967-1970 had not yet been attempted, and it provided a bit more of a challenge.  The group had never lost the ability to deliver an accessible, well-crafted single on occasion, but their focus in the second half of their career had definitely shifted to the more complex possibilities that the long-playing format offered.  Assembling an expanded "greatest hits" look at this period therefore became a more subjective task at times, though there were plenty of landmark album tracks on which nearly all fans would no doubt agree.

SIDE ONE

Strawberry Fields Forever - This song was never intended to be a single, but the demand for new material from the Beatles in early 1967 forced it to become half of a double A-sided release - a curious choice, since it clearly stretched the boundaries of what the public considered an A-side at the time.

Penny Lane - A much more obvious choice for an A-side, hitting number one in the US, but kept out of the top spot by Englebert Humperdinck in the UK.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The title track of their most famous album.

With a Little Help from My Friends - As on the Sgt. Pepper LP, the title track segues directly into this signature tune written for Ringo.

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds - The sequence of the original album continues with this well-loved track.

A Day in the Life - The magnum opus which closes Sgt. Pepper is presented here, and we are treated to the opening strums of acoustic guitar which were buried under the segued cheers of a crowd on the original album.

All You Need Is Love - A Day in the Life is an impossible act to follow, so side three should logically have ended with the fading piano chord from that song.  The fact that this is one of the group's weakest singles doesn't help its placement much.  In the summer of '67, it had been a worldwide number one nonetheless.

SIDE TWO

I Am the Walrus - This haunting song is from the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack, but it was also issued as a B-side to...

Hello Goodbye - Another worldwide number one single.

The Fool on the Hill - A well-known tune from Magical Mystery Tour.

Magical Mystery Tour - The running order is somewhat peculiar on this side, from starting out with a B-side to placing the title song from the soundtrack last, especially since this track was recorded many months in advance of any of the above songs.

Lady Madonna - The first single of 1968 was a number one hit in the UK, but it only reached number four in the US.

Hey Jude - A monster hit and truly one of their best songs.

Revolution - Now, this easily could have been a double A-side with Hey Jude, but they chose to release it as the B-side.  For the purposes of this album, it might have made sense to flip these two songs, letting the extended fadeout of Hey Jude bring the proceedings to a close.

Friday, December 7, 2012

THE RED ALBUM - sides three and four

SIDE THREE

Help! - Though the Red Album bore the Apple label, it was still distributed by EMI's various affiliates worldwide.  Thus, the 1973 Capitol version in the US featured a bit of Ken Thorne's "James Bond" theme music from the film soundtrack, just like the original American Help! album had, before the Beatles launched into the title tune.  This was eventually eliminated in reissues.

You've Got to Hide Your Love Away - A well-known track from the film.

We Can Work It Out - The first of eight tracks from the Rubber Soul sessions, the most highly-represented period on the Red and Blue albums.  This song was on a double A-sided single, going to number one in the US.

Day Tripper - The other half of the double A-sided single.  This side went to number one in the UK.

Drive My Car - The opening track of Rubber Soul.

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) - A well-loved Rubber Soul track.

Nowhere Man - Also from Rubber Soul.  In the US, Capitol released this song as a single, peaking at number three.

SIDE FOUR

Michelle - The run of Rubber Soul tracks continues.

In My Life - Yup, you guessed it - from Rubber Soul.

Girl - The final Rubber Soul track.

Paperback Writer - A single from the Revolver sessions, released months ahead of that album.

Eleanor Rigby - Simultaneously released on the album Revolver and on a double A-sided single.  It went to number one in the UK.

Yellow Submarine - The other half of the double A-sided single, also appearing on the album Revolver.  This side was the hit in the US, but it peaked at number two.  Ringo sings the lead vocal, trumping George, who is shut out on this collection.

As was the case with side two, there are only six songs on side four.  Once again, this could have been rectified with a great B-side such as I'm Down or Rain, or a familiar album track from Revolver like Taxman, which would have given poor George some well-deserved love.

A couple of extra tracks would have also increased the value of the package for fans.  The four sides of the album go by very quickly, with only Ticket to Ride exceeding three minutes in length.  But overall, the Red Album is a brilliant look at the first half of the Beatles' career.  It almost made A Collection of Beatles Oldies redundant, since every track from that earlier package (minus the bonus track Bad Boy) now appeared on this new album.

Friday, November 30, 2012

THE RED ALBUM - sides one and two

In 1973, finally accepting that the Beatles had no intention of reuniting and noting that fans continued to purchase the back catalog in impressive numbers, EMI decided to put together a retrospective package worthy of the greatest act in recording history.  Though the group had only issued recordings for about seven and a half years, both the quality and quantity of their material pushed the limits of a typical greatest hits collection.  The result was a sprawling four-record set combining all of the number one singles with many well-known album tracks and a few B-sides.   

Asking fans both new and old to shell out the money for a four-record set was a bit much, but since the group's career neatly split into two pretty distinct halves, the obvious solution was to create two two-record sets.  The public could thus decide to concentrate on only one half of the Fab Four's output or all of it, if they so desired.  The collections were officially titled The Beatles/1962-1966 and The Beatles/1967-1970, but because of the colors of the packages, they quickly became known as the Red and Blue albums. 

With only a few exceptions, the selections are laid out chronologically according to their original release dates.  And though there are some tracks that are questionable for their inclusion and others that are curiously absent, these are mercifully few.  Indeed, part of the fun for die-hard fans is arguing such issues for each and every compilation that has followed over the ensuing years.

SIDE ONE

Love Me Do - The single that started it all.  It was a number one hit in the US a year and a half after its initial release.

Please Please Me - Their first big hit, a number one on all of the British charts except the Record Retailer, where it peaked at number two.

From Me to You - The first undisputed number one in the UK.  Amazingly, this collection marked the first time that this song appeared on Capitol Records (or on an album) in the US.  It had only been available as a single on VeeJay Records during the group's career.

She Loves You - The monster hit that spawned Beatlemania.  It was the group's biggest-selling single in the UK.

I Want to Hold Your Hand - The song that conquered America.  The British Invasion soon followed.

All My Loving - The first album track in this collection, from With the Beatles.  Technically, it should be placed ahead of I Want to Hold Your Hand in this collection, as the album was recorded and released first.  This song made the charts in the US as an import single from Capitol of Canada.  It was the first number the group played on their historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. 

Can't Buy Me Love - Recorded in Paris, this single topped the Beatles' jaw-dropping domination of the US charts in the spring of 1964.

SIDE TWO  

A Hard Day's Night - The title song of their first film.

And I Love Her - A well-known and loved album track from the film.

Eight Days a Week - An album track from Beatles for Sale.  In the US, Capitol released it as a single in February of 1965 and it became a number one hit.

I Feel Fine - This single was released ahead of Beatles for Sale and should appear before Eight Days a Week in this running order, even though the latter song was recorded first (confusing, I know).

Ticket to Ride - From the Help! soundtrack, but released as a single well ahead of that film.

Yesterday - The most famous song in the group's catalog.  Initially, it had only appeared on the non-soundtrack side of the Help! album in the UK, but Capitol released it as a single in the US in September of 1965 and it became a huge number one hit.  As far as this collection is concerned, the song is out of sequence, as Help! and You've Got to Hide Your Love Away were recorded months earlier, but it works well in this position to bring the album side to a beautiful close. 

Note that side two only has six songs.  A superior B-side like This Boy or She's a Woman, or a great album track such as Twist and Shout would have fit nicely on these first two sides with a little juggling of the running order. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

GET BACK - side two

For You Blue - A little chatter and a false start lead into the same take of this Harrison number that Phil Spector used for the Let It Be album, but this mix by Glyn Johns tones down Paul's piano and brings some fine acoustic guitar work by George (which Spector oddly buried) to the fore.  We also hear George's actual vocal, which for some reason he chose to wipe and re-record in January of 1970.

Two of Us - On this take of McCartney's acoustic tune, Paul and John begin singing different lyrics at the start of almost every line until one of them wins out.  Despite this, they somehow manage to turn in a full runthrough of the song.

Maggie Mae - The group only did this snippet of an old Liverpool ditty once, so it's the same version we're used to hearing except that Johns begins to fade it out before it petered out on its own.

Dig It - Johns gives us the last four minutes of this twelve-and-a-half-minute-long jam, proving that Spector chose the only interesting section of the piece for the Let It Be album, wisely eliminating Paul's monotonous simultaneous vocal in the process.

The Long and Winding Road - This is the version of the song we are now familiar with from Anthology 3, before Spector overdubbed an orchestra and choir.

I Me Mine - This version is also available on Anthology 3.  Since George was seen strumming and singing a bit of the number in the documentary, Johns had to include this recording made in January 1970 even though it contained overdubs.

Across the Universe - The other late addition to the line-up was this number also heard briefly in the film.  The song was now available on the World Wildlife charity album.  Johns returned to the February 1968 master, stripping away almost all of the instrumentation except for acoustic guitar, tamboura and percussion.  For some reason, he kept the Lizzie Bravo and Gayleen Pease backing vocals while eliminating those by the Beatles themselves.  Best of all, he neither sped it up like George Martin nor slowed it down like Phil Spector, making this the only version available at the actual speed at which it was recorded.  

Get Back (reprise) - The album concludes with the coda of the title song.  Though it fades out early on the single, the group naturally played on for some time with Paul ad libbing and adding some goofy "ho ho hos."  Johns fades it out one more time after giving us a little taste of it.

As had been the case with the first Get Back album compiled by Johns, the group rejected this second effort.  It is perhaps understandable since this would have been the only release of most of the material contained herein.  The decision by Johns to use several inferior takes (and in the case of I've Got a Feeling, an incomplete one) did not show the band in the best light, even though he tried to stick to the no overdubs concept.  Though Spector threw that concept out for many of the tracks on Let It Be, there is no longer any question that he chose the best takes for every song.

Friday, October 19, 2012

GET BACK - side one

The story goes that in the spring of 1969 Glyn Johns was called into a meeting with Lennon and McCartney.  They pointed to a large pile of tapes and said to him, "Remember that idea you had about making an album out of those sessions?  Do it."

"Those sessions" were the infamous Get Back sessions of January '69.  Glyn Johns had been the engineer then, and in the absence of George Martin (who was absent for much of that time), he had also served as producer.  The problem was that hours upon hours of music had been taped with no proper takes because the sessions were technically just rehearsals.  Now, Johns was given the daunting task of finding an album's worth of releasable material from the mostly unstructured days of jamming, chatter and occasional bursts of complete song.

His strategy was to treat the project as the Beatles themselves had originally conceived it - as an attempt to "get back" to their roots and perform live in the studio with no overdubs as they had done on their very first album Please Please Me.  The culmination of those sessions was to have been the group's first concert in years, broadcast on television and later released as a live album.  Since that idea had been scuttled, this album and the accompanying documentary film would have to do.

Johns presented his finished album to the group in May of '69, but they rejected it for being too raw.  In January of 1970, as the documentary was nearing completion, he made a second attempt with a slightly different track list.  McCartney's song Teddy Boy was dropped and two songs featured in the film were added.  This entry is based on that second version of the album.

One After 909 -The album opens with guest keyboard player Billy Preston sliding his fingers down the electric piano followed by some barely audible chatter before the band launches into this first number.  We are on the rooftop of the Apple building in Savile Row where the group performed an impromptu lunchtime concert on January 30th in lieu of the grand live show they had originally planned.  Sadly, this is the only piece Johns uses of that historic event, the same take that Phil Spector would use on the Let It Be album.  It serves as a great kickoff to the proceedings.

Rocker - Unfortunately, things go rapidly downhill with this snippet of a jam recorded days earlier in the studio.  Though we only hear a brief bit of it, the riff becomes immediately tiresome before it fades out.

Save the Last Dance - After a little more chatter, Paul and John sing a sloppy version of this song by the Drifters.  A nice moment occurs when they suddenly and unexpectedly shift into Don't Let Me Down.

Don't Let Me Down - A rather good performance of Lennon's best song from these sessions is turned in after a false start.  It is marred by Paul's falsetto "One more time!" near the end, the kind of ad lib that would probably be mixed out of a proper studio album.

Dig a Pony - After John's statement "We'll do Dig a Pony straight into I've Got a Fever" - a typical Lennonism - the band proceeds to do exactly that, turning in a fine performance of this Lennon number.

I've Got a Feeling - The runthrough of this joint Lennon/McCartney collaboration breaks down, however, just before the point where Paul and John would have sung their sections simultaneously.  Too bad, because Paul's vocal on the bridge is a nice variation from the rooftop concert version Spector chose for the Let It Be album. 

Get Back - The title track is the same version that Johns had chosen for the single released in April of 1969.  This and the B-side version of Don't Let Me Down (also selected by Johns) would be the only pieces the world would hear from these sessions for almost a year.

Let It Be - This is the same take that would appear on both the single and the album a year later.  Johns opted to use George Harrison's guitar solo from April '69, also used by George Martin for the single.  This is the only instance of Johns using an overdub on the entire album.  Thus, we get to hear John and George's original, simple backing vocals and some other guitar work from George mixed out of the later versions.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

LET IT BE - side two


I've Got a Feeling - This is the last Lennon-McCartney collaboration on a single song.  The bulk of it belongs to Paul; John's unrelated section merely uses the same backing before it serves as a counterpoint to Paul's section when they sing simultaneously at the end.  John provides some harmony in the early section before Paul cuts loose for a vocal solo during the bridge.  Producer Phil Spector chose a rooftop performance of the number, but Anthology 3 allows us to listen in on a studio runthrough days earlier which falls apart before the final verse.

One After 909 - On first hearing this song, I could have sworn I'd heard it before.  I hadn't, of course, but the reason it sounded familiar is because it comes from the earliest days of the Beatles.  Lennon says it was one of the first songs he ever wrote and, in fact, the group had recorded it way back on March 5th, 1963 at the same session which produced their third single From Me To You b/w Thank You, Girl.  Anthology 1 presents a sequence of takes from that session, giving a good indication of why it wasn't released at the time.  The tempo is slow and George's guitar solos are definitely lacking in quality.  The Let It Be version is played at a brisk pace at the rooftop concert, with the band giving a truly inspired performance.  John and Paul's shared vocal reveals the true joy of the moment, keyboardist Billy Preston plays some tasty licks and George's solo is impeccable.

The Long and Winding Road - Despite the controversy surrounding the released version of this recording, there is no denying that this composition by McCartney is magnificent, combining his usual innate sense of a great melody with some of the finest lyrics he ever wrote.  I once again have to wonder, as I did with the single Let It Be, how he could let this song lie unreleased for so long.  On Anthology 3, the basic January 31st, 1969 performance by the Beatles and Billy Preston is presented.  Phil Spector decided the recording needed a massive orchestra and choir, so he overdubbed both on April 1st, 1970.  According to all reports, this was the last straw for Paul, resulting in the actual demise of the group.

Under manager Allen Klein's new agreement with Capitol Records, the American label was able to release this song as a single a week before the album came out, giving the Beatles their twentieth number one in the US during their career.

For You Blue - The Beatles only worked on this Harrison number for one day during the sessions, but it made the cut for the album, probably because of its playful quality.  Paul plays honkytonk piano and John tackles a slide guitar.  A different take appears on Anthology 3; the liner notes on that CD also indicate that George overdubbed a new vocal onto the album version on January 8th, 1970.

Capitol Records chose this song for the B-side of the single The Long and Winding Road.

Get Back - McCartney's original title song for these sessions had been released as a single a year earlier than this album.  Spector used the same performance as that single minus its coda, but surrounded it with chatter from the rooftop, creating the illusion that this was a different take.  The album (and the group's career) ends appropriately with John's comment "...I hope we passed the audition."

Paul's solo album McCartney was released in April of 1970, against the wishes of manager Allen Klein and the other Beatles.  They had tried to persuade Paul to delay his release, fearing that it would hurt sales of Let It Be.  Not only did an angry Paul ignore their pleas, but he issued a press release which stated, in effect, that the Beatles were no more.  Instead of hurting sales, this announcement produced a great deal of anticipation among fans.  Knowing that it would be the final release, advance orders in the US alone reached 3.7 million.  It was released worldwide in May of 1970.

A final irony - though some of the songs bore little resemblance to the way they were actually performed in the film Let It Be, the album earned the Beatles an Oscar for best soundtrack.                 

Friday, May 25, 2012

LET IT BE - side one

The single Instant Karma! by the Plastic Ono Band looms large in the story of the Beatles.  Lennon's exercise in writing, recording and releasing a song as quickly as possible resulted in legendary American producer Phil Spector's involvement with Let It Be.  Spector produced John's single, and John and George Harrison, who played on the record, were so impressed with Spector's work that they decided to give him the tapes from the Get Back sessions to see if he could produce a suitable album from the more-than-a-year-old tapes.

Between March 23rd and April 2nd, 1970, Spector assembled his package.  Unlike Glyn Johns, whose rejected Get Back albums matched the tone of the film - unpolished and, sometimes, unflattering - Spector cleaned up the tracks and, in a few instances, fabricated performances that the composers, particularly McCartney, never envisioned.

Two of Us - The album opens with some spoken nonsense from Lennon followed by this gentle number from McCartney.  Because the original premise of these sessions was to play live with no overdubs, the Beatles forced themselves to do things they had not done for some time, such as sing a duet.  Paul and John perform most of this song in that fashion, with Paul singing the bridge solo.  To create the effect of a fadeout, the band simply gets quieter at the end, with John wistfully whistling.  An early runthrough is available on Anthology 3, but this version was recorded on January 31st, 1969, the final day of work on the project.

Dig a Pony - This unusual Lennon composition was mistakenly listed as I Dig a Pony on early US copies of the album.  The song is a midtempo rocker with typical Lennon wordplay.  John sings it with some occasional harmony from Paul.  Again, an early take of the song is on Anthology 3.  The album version is from the famed rooftop concert on January 30th.  Spector curiously decided to delete the "All I want is" sections from the opening and closing of the performance.

Across the Universe - In the film Let It Be, John plays this song at the earliest sessions at Twickenham Film Studios.  Since there were no proper recordings done at those sessions, Spector was forced to return to the original February, 1968 master.  Not wanting it to sound like the recent World Wildlife version (derived from the same master), he deleted many of the instrumental overdubs, as well as the Lizzie Bravo-Gayleen Pease harmonies and the backing vocals by the Beatles.  Whereas George Martin had decided to speed up the original tape, Spector opted to slow it down.  Finally, he added an orchestra and choir.  In Ray Coleman's biography Lennon, John says, "He did a really special job."

I Me Mine - Harrison is seen in the film playing this composition about the ego, which also had no actual take available, so George, Paul and Ringo gathered on January 3rd, 1970 to record the final song attributed to the Beatles during their career.  Since the number only ran about a minute and a half, Spector decided to repeat portions of it in order to stretch it out.  Orchestra and choir were also added.

Dig It - Just a snippet of a long, meandering jam credited to all four Beatles, but really led by John.  Spector chose what is by far the best section, but wiped Paul's simultaneous vocal from the mix.  John's falsetto comment at the end is from another runthrough of Dig It recorded a few days earlier.  His reference to Hark The Angels Come is a perfect segue into the title song.

Let It Be - This is the same take as the single with numerous differences.  Spector went with George's hard-edged guitar solo from January 4th, 1970 and gave George Martin's brass and cello overdubs more prominence.  He also applies heavy echo on Ringo's drums.  And, for some reason, he repeats the refrain one more time at the end.

Maggie Mae - Another song snippet - this time, a Liverpool ditty about a lady of the night.  John and Paul share the vocals before the performance simply falls apart.  This public domain number is the only cover version recorded and released by the group since Act Naturally on Help!  They actually covered quite a few songs at these sessions, some of which can be heard on Anthology 3.  At one point, according to Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles: Recording Sessions, an entire album of such material was considered, but, like many other ideas floating around at the time, it was soon forgotten.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Let It Be b/w You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)

In early 1970, Michael Lindsey-Hogg's documentary of the January '69 Get Back sessions was nearing completion.  Since the song Get Back had been released as a single almost a year earlier, it was decided that another McCartney composition would replace it as the title of the film.  And, in anticipation of the film's release, that song would be issued as a single.  Though they may not have realized it at the time, it would turn out to be the final official single in the group's catalog.

Let It Be - This inspirational hymn-like composition was a very personal one for McCartney, as it was based on a dream he had of his mother, who had died of cancer when he was a teenager.  It is difficult to understand how he could let this recording lie dormant for so long, but the title came to represent something very different from what he intended - the general attitude of the group as their partnership finally came to an end.

The version presented on Anthology 3 is from January 25th, with the band feeling their way through the song.  On January 31st, the day after the famous rooftop concert, they gather for the definitive version, although it was later subjected to numerous overdubs - the first song from these supposedly live sessions to get such treatment.  The line-up for the basic track features Paul on piano, Ringo on drums, George on guitar, John on bass and Billy Preston on organ.  In April of '69, as Glyn Johns was assembling his first attempt at a Get Back album,  George decided to re-do his guitar solo, giving a mellow performance well in keeping with the overall feel of the track.

After the Get Back album was rejected by the group, the recording went untouched until the new year, when Johns was ready for a second attempt.  On January 4th, 1970, Paul, George and Ringo went into the studio and added several overdubs to the song.  This marked the last day that any of the Beatles worked together as a group during their career.  George re-did his guitar part yet again, this time delivering a stinging solo.  Ringo added more drums and producer George Martin scored a brass and cello overdub.  Finally, Paul and George (and, according to at least one source, Linda McCartney) sang backing vocals.  However, Glyn Johns ignored all of these new additions and stuck with the first guitar overdub from April, but the Beatles once again rejected his proposed Get Back album.

In preparing the song for release as a single, Martin also chose the mellow April guitar solo, but used all of the other new additions, although he kept his brass and cello overdubs mixed quite low.      

You Know My Name (Look Up the Number) - This comedy number by Lennon has the longest recording history of any song by the Beatles.  The group spent three days working on the backing track, which is composed of five different sections, on May 17th, June 7th and June 8th, 1967, sandwiched around the release of Sgt. Pepper.  The track then lay dormant for two years, until John, Paul and assistant Mal Evans added vocals on April 30th, 1969 - the same day that George recorded the first guitar overdub for Let It Be.  Again, the song was forgotten until John edited it down from six minutes to a more manageable four minutes for release as the A-side of a Plastic Ono Band single on November 26th of '69.  That single (backed with the even more bizarre What's the New Mary Jane from the "White Album" sessions) never materialized.  Ultimately, the song was chosen for the B-side of this final single.

The song is a wacky delight, with Paul turning in an especially outrageous vocal part in one section as lounge lizard Dennis O'Dell.  Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones was invited to the June 8th, 1967 session and unexpectedly showed up with a saxophone, which he played on two sections - the cheesy ending and a ska-like piece which was completely deleted when the song was edited for release.  It can be heard on Anthology 2, which also happens to be the only stereo version of the song.

The single was released in early March, 1970.  It hit number one in the US, but peaked at number three in the UK.    

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Across the Universe

Like a few other songs released at the end of the Beatles' career, this much-loved composition by Lennon has a long and complex history.  It merits its own entry here due to its unique first release a few months after the single Something/Come Together.

Across the Universe was recorded in February of 1968 at the sessions specifically designated to create a single which would be released while the group was in India.  Lennon was unhappy with the recording of his song and pulled it from consideration; the ensuing single thus became Lady Madonna b/w The Inner Light.  But what, exactly, was wrong with the recording?  John simply felt that it never quite achieved what he was hearing (but could somehow not communicate to the group) in his head.

Anthology 2 presents take two, which has become my favorite version.  John is still learning how to sing the song, with its tricky meter and breathing patterns.  George plays what sounds like an autoharp, but is probably the high end of the strings on his sitar.  The take is more ethereal than any that followed, suiting the lyrics perfectly in my opinion.  The basic track of the master, take seven, is not significantly different, but overdubs changed the recording in a number of ways.  John and Paul decided that high female harmonies would be a good idea, so Paul went outside and brought in two of the always-present Apple Scruffs to sing on the track.  Thus, Lizzie Bravo and Gayleen Pease found their way into Beatles lore.  John, Paul and George added backing vocals and John played a tone pedal guitar part, completing the track.

The song almost surfaced a year later, when plans to release a Yellow Submarine EP with Across the Universe as a bonus track were briefly considered.  At some point, the group agreed to donate the song to a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund.  When the release date for that album was imminent, producer George Martin added bird sound effects to the beginning and end of the track, and for some reason, he decided to speed up the entire recording by a semi-tone.  Other acts, including the Bee Gees, the Hollies and Cilla Black were represented on the collection, but landing the Beatles was such a coup that the album was titled No One's Gonna Change Our World, slightly altering the lyrics of Lennon's refrain.  It was released on December 12th, 1969.

Less than a month later, producer Glyn Johns was in the studio creating a different version out of the same master recording.  The plan for a Get Back album had not died, especially since the documentary film of those January '69 sessions was nearing completion.  In that film, John was seen playing Across the Universe, so it would have to appear on the accompanying album, but there was no proper recording of the song as it was performed in the film.  Glyn Johns returned to the master and eliminated the Beatles' backing vocals, almost (but not completely) removed the female harmonies, and presented the song at its original tempo.  His work went unused, however, as the Beatles once again rejected his proposed Get Back album.   

The World Wildlife Fund version of the song later appeared on both the UK and US versions of the  compilation Rarities.  One more version of the song would be created before the group officially disbanded. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Something/Come Together

It was common practice in the music business in the US to release a single made up of songs from a previously released album - not so in the UK.  By 1969, the Beatles' company Apple was in such disarray that they were actually cash-poor.  So, purely to make some money, their new manager, Allen Klein, decided to issue these two songs from Abbey Road as a double A-sided single worldwide.

Something - And so it was that George Harrison got his one and only A-side on a single in the group's official catalog.  The fact that it was the finest composition of his life is purely coincidental.  In Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles: Recording Sessions, producer Chris Thomas claims that George played this song for him the day he recorded Piggies for the "White Album" in 1968.  Anthology 3 has his demo from February 25th of '69, including some additional lyrics in the bridge which were later dropped.  He gave the song to Joe Cocker, even playing guitar on Cocker's version, which was recorded before the one by the Beatles, but released later.  The opening lyrics are taken directly from the title of a song by James Taylor, who was an Apple recording artist at the time.  Overall, the lyrics are wondrous in their simplicity and universality - so much is left unsaid.  And the melody has to be the most beautiful that George ever wrote.  No less an authority than Frank Sinatra declared it to be "the greatest love song of the past fifty years," - a span which would encompass his entire recording career.  Despite this praise, when singing it in concert, Sinatra would mistakenly introduce it as a Lennon/McCartney composition. 

The Beatles first recorded the song on April 16th, the same day as George's Old Brown Shoe, but this version was scrapped, and a remake was begun in May.  Billy Preston joined the group for the backing track, which included a long, extended coda not unlike the ones for Hey Jude and I Want You (She's So Heavy).  This coda, too, was eventually (and wisely) scrapped.  Overdubs were added over the next few months, with most of them done in Lennon's absence, so the bridge features the unique vocal blend of George, Paul and Ringo.  While producer George Martin did score an orchestral part for the recording, the highlight of the piece is the complex interplay between George's guitar and Paul's bass in the instrumental break.  Paul's playing is brilliant throughout, sometimes threatening to overshadow the work around it, but never quite crossing that line.

Come Together - Also the opening track of Abbey Road, this composition by Lennon is the most forward-looking recording of the Beatles, creating a sound that others emulate to this day.  Like George on the other side of the single, John nicked the first line of his song; the publishers of Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch Me were not as forgiving as James Taylor, and Lennon wound up recording Berry's tune as part of a lawsuit settlement for his 1975 album Rock and Roll.  The rest of the lyrics are Lennon at his most obscure - read what you will into them.

The track is stripped-down, yet highly-polished rock.  Take one on Anthology 3 gives us the basic track of Ringo on drums, Paul on bass, George on guitar and John singing a guide vocal, providing handclaps and occasionally adding tambourine.  His tragically ironic repeating of the phrase "shoot me" at the top of each verse is in the clear; the final mix buries it under his heavily-echoed handclaps.  The tasty keyboard lick was Paul's invention, but accounts differ as to whether he or John plays it on the recording.

In the UK, the single was released a month after Abbey Road.  That, and the fact that it was such an unusual move, probably contributed in keeping it from reaching the top of the charts.  In the US, it followed the album by only a week.  It charted for sixteen weeks, finally hitting number one - but which song achieved the feat?  The 1982 Capitol compilation 20 Greatest Hits only contains Come Together.  In William Dowlding's book Beatlesongs, Come Together gets credit for hitting the top spot and Something is listed as peaking at number three.  But a look at the Billboard charts from the time reveals that the single only hit number one after the chartmakers decided to combine the statistics for both songs for some reason.  This is why both appear on the 2000 collection 1.                  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

ABBEY ROAD - side two

Here Comes the Sun - A glorious composition by Harrison opens the second side of the album with a gentle acoustic guitar passage.  The Moog synthesizer enters and slides from speaker to speaker before George starts singing his welcome to spring.  He uses the Moog quite effectively for the build during the "Sun, sun, sun, here it comes" bridge.  George Martin adds an elegant orchestral score; the track also features trademark Beatlesque backing vocals and handclaps.  George performed acoustic versions of this song in 1971 at the Concert for Bangladesh and several years later on Saturday Night Live with Paul Simon.

Because - The last stand-alone song on the album is this beautiful composition by Lennon.  He continues to simplify his lyrics here, yet still manages to throw in some subtle wordplay.  The backing track features Paul on bass, John on guitar and Martin on electric harpsichord.  Harrison overdubbed his Moog synthesizer part days later.  Of course, the highlight of the piece is the vocal harmonies of John, Paul and George, scored by Martin and recorded three times over to give the effect of nine voices.  On Anthology 3, the instrumentation is deleted, leaving only the voices for your maximum enjoyment.  Though this song is not part of the medley which follows, the way the final note hangs in the air somehow manages to link it up perfectly.

You Never Give Me Your Money - Partly inspired by an earlier work of his songwriting partner and by such compositions as The Who's A Quick One While He's Away, and encouraged by Martin, who urged him to "think symphonically," McCartney conceived of a medley made up of several unrelated (and sometimes, unfinished) songs, running almost the entire length of an album side.  Like Lennon's Happiness is a Warm Gun, this opening number is practically a medley in and of itself.  A somber piano leads into the first two verses with lyrics based on the ongoing business woes at Apple.  The song then shifts gears into various sections featuring a rollicking piano, a chiming guitar, rich wordless vocal harmonies, more layers of guitar and one final rocking sequence before settling into the "all good children go to heaven" chant for the fadeout.  The segue into the next number proved problematic.  At one point, it was simply an organ note, until Paul came in with tape loops of several sound effects including crickets and bells.

Sun King - Lennon initially expressed disinterest in the medley until he was asked if he had any song snippets that he wished to contribute.  He came up with three.  The basic tracks of Sun King and Mean Mr. Mustard were recorded as one continuous piece.  The night sounds of the segue blend right into Ringo's cymbal and the hushed opening segment of this unusual composition.  All instruments come to a stop as vocal harmonies almost as lush as those in Because enter.  After a few simple and beautiful verses, the lyrics suddenly veer into the absurd for no apparent reason.

Mean Mr. Mustard - Lennon wrote this composition in India and recorded a demo at George's house in Esher in May of 1968 before the "White Album" sessions.  The demo is available on Anthology 3.  Note that the title character's sister was named Shirley, not Pam, at that time.  This brief number segues right into the next in the medley, but the recording actually came to a full stop.  The final chord is heard much later on the album.

Polythene Pam - Another Lennon number written in India and recorded as a demo at Esher in May of '68 with slightly different lyrics, and also available on Anthology 3.  For the medley, this song and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window were recorded as one.  John thrashes at his guitar before each verse, and uses his best Scouse accent for the vocal.  A brief guitar solo after the verses is followed by a series of descending chords leading straight into the next song.

She Came in Through the Bathroom Window - The rest of the album is all McCartney songs beginning with this rocker.  On Anthology 3, you can hear the group rehearsing the song at the Get Back sessions in January with Billy Preston.  Interestingly, the tempo was slow and bluesy at that time.  The released version is brisk and features those great Beatlesque backing harmonies.  At the conclusion of this number, the medley comes to a full stop before continuing.

Golden Slumbers - McCartney discovered a song based on a 400-year-old poem by Thomas Dekker in a book at his father's house, added a verse and wrote his own music for it to create this wistful, nostalgic number.  This was recorded together with Carry That Weight as one continuous piece in Lennon's absence.  For the basic track, Paul is on piano, George on bass and Ringo on drums.  Martin later wrote the orchestration which figures in both sections.

Carry That Weight - This is the song that ties the medley together by using a third verse of You Never Give Me Your Money and a recapitulation of the closing theme from that earlier number.  The refrain features all four Beatles singing the eerily-prescient line "you're gonna carry that weight a long time."  They would all spend the next decade trying to escape the group image, but ultimately, each would learn to come to terms with their unparalleled legacy.  The end of this recording was cut off abruptly to accommodate a segue to a yet-to-be-determined closing number.

The End - McCartney found a way to encapsulate the group's career in this aptly titled number.  A hard-rocking intro leads straight into Ringo's brief, but characteristic drum solo, then another brief section (Love, yeah) sets up the famous guitar duel.  Paul, George and John take turns playing a few bars three times each, displaying their various personal styles in the process.  According to engineer Geoff Emerick in his book Here, There and Everywhere, they nailed it in one take and shared one final great moment of camaraderie.  A solo piano takes over for a moment before the ultimate couplet "And, in the end..." sung in Beatlesque harmony builds up to a grand finale with full orchestra behind them.

Her Majesty - The shortest song requires a lengthy explanation.  McCartney quickly recorded this little ditty with his acoustic guitar one day before the others arrived.  It was originally inserted into the medley between Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam, but after hearing it there, Paul asked for it to be cut out and discarded.  In The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn relates that engineer John Kurlander was told to never throw anything away, and so, he spliced it onto the end of the medley with a long piece of leader tape.  It startled the group at the next listening, but Paul loved it and decided to leave it in as a sort of bonus track, only requesting that the final chord be cut off.  The crashing chord at its top is actually the last chord of Mean Mr. Mustard.

The album was released on September 26th in the UK and October 1st in the US, and was immediately hailed as their latest masterpiece.  Unbeknownst to the public at large, Lennon announced to the group around this time that he was quitting.  The facade would be maintained for another six months.             

Monday, April 9, 2012

ABBEY ROAD - side one

Abbey Road defies the odds.  By all rights, the Beatles should have gone their separate ways after the acrimonious Get Back sessions, yet they continued to work together on numerous tracks throughout the late winter and spring of 1969.  During this period, Glyn Johns produced the Get Back album which John and Paul had requested of him, but it was rejected by the group as sounding too rough and was considered to be unreleasable.  It wasn't until the summer that Paul asked George Martin to help the group produce an album "the way we used to do it."  With engineer Geoff Emerick also back on board, the team that had created the masterpieces Revolver and Sgt. Pepper managed to find the magic one last time.

After the raw, live-in-the-studio feel of the Get Back sessions, the decision was made to go to the opposite extreme and produce their most polished album.  In his book Here, There and Everywhere, Emerick opines that eight-track technology actually made it too mellow, and waxes nostalgic about the old four-track work they had done together, which required more creativity and problem-solving.  But, for good or ill, the production values achieved here set the standard for the industry well into the 1970's.    

Come Together
Something  - These two tracks were released as a single about a month after the album, so I will cover them in a later entry.  Suffice it to say that they get the proceedings off to a tremendous start with a brilliant one-two punch.

Maxwell's Silver Hammer - This cute little ditty by McCartney definitely falls into the "you either love it or hate it" category.  An early take is on Anthology 3, but the song was rehearsed at Twickenham Film Studios in January and appears in the film Let It Be.  At that time, assistant Mal Evans hit a piece of metal with a hammer on cue, but for the recording, an anvil was brought into the studio for Ringo to use.  Some new sounds that appear on the album came from an invention called the Moog synthesizer.  George Harrison had been among the first to acquire one for his solo album Electronic Sound.  Now, the group wisely resisted the temptation to go crazy with it, using it on only a few tracks.  The conventional way to play it is with its keyboard, but Paul, a musical adept, uses the much more difficult ribbon-slide for the harmony line he plays on this song.  John was present for the sessions for this track, but may not have participated at all.  The backing vocals are by Paul, George and Ringo.

Oh! Darling - A bluesy screamer by McCartney, in which he gives one of his greatest vocal performances.  He had debuted the song one day back in January during the Get Back sessions.  At that time, he sang it alongside a harmony vocal from John and some fine electric piano work by Billy Preston, as can be heard on Anthology 3.  The Abbey Road version was begun in April, this time with John playing the distinctive piano part.  It wasn't until July that Paul went into the studio every day for almost a week to attempt his lead vocal first thing before his voice was warmed up to get the raw feeling that he wanted.  It's too bad the rest of the track doesn't match that rawness, opting instead for slick backing vocals and the pristine production values used throughout the album.

Octopus's Garden - The second composition credited to Richard Starkey is a rockabilly joy.  Ringo got his inspiration for this song during his brief walkout from the "White Album" sessions while on holiday with his family in Sardinia.  In the film Let It Be, George helps him with the chords at a piano, so the tune was at least partially written by January of 1969.  The basic track was recorded in April with the full group involved.  The sound effects are reminiscent of Yellow Submarine, featuring water bubbles blown through a straw and high harmonies by Paul and George made to sound as if they are singing underwater.  But the trademark rockabilly guitar work by George is the standout work on the recording.  He and Ringo would team up on several tracks in this manner throughout their solo careers.

I Want You (She's So Heavy) - Side one comes to a close with this monster track by Lennon, which had also been rehearsed during the Get Back sessions.  He took some heat when the album was released because of the simplicity of the lyrics, but this song is all about the feel of the music.  The basic track was the first to be recorded for the album, at Trident Studios on February 22nd, less than a month after the Get Back sessions ended.  Billy Preston was still working with the group at the time, and provided the swirling organ part.  As he had done with Strawberry Fields Forever, John combined different takes of the song for the master, this time patching together three of them.  John and George added several layers of guitars to this master in April, on the same day that George completed his B-side Old Brown Shoe.  In August, John used the Moog synthesizer for a white noise effect during the extended coda.  The song received multiple mixes, and John decided to combine two of these for the final master, running just over eight minutes in length.  However, at seven minutes and forty-four seconds, John instructed Geoff Emerick to simply cut the tape, bringing the album side to an abrupt and unexpected end - a jarring effect.

Of the four tracks I covered above, only Maxwell's Silver Hammer was produced exclusively by George Martin.  The basic track for I Want You (She's So Heavy) was produced by Glyn Johns, and the basic tracks for Oh! Darling and Octopus's Garden were produced by Chris Thomas.                     

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Ballad of John and Yoko b/w Old Brown Shoe

The single Get Back had barely hit the stores when John Lennon, fresh from his whirlwind marriage and honeymoon with Yoko Ono, showed up at Abbey Road Studios on April 14th, 1969 with a new composition in hand based on those experiences, wanting to record it immediately.  Only Paul, always eager to record, was available.  Undeterred, the two of them set to work on the next single.

The Ballad of John and Yoko - Imagine the chutzpah it takes to believe that you can write a song about yourself and your new wife, put your names in the title, and expect that people will actually want to buy it and listen to it.  That is exactly what Lennon did and, amazingly, he was right.  Whether the press loved them or hated them, they could not get enough of John and Yoko, and the couple was smart enough to use that to their advantage at every turn.  The lyrics of the verses in the song are factual, and the journey they trace is pretty outrageous.  The refrain and the bridge comment on the action, putting it all in an equally-outrageous perspective.

None of this would matter if the song were not entertaining, and John was a master showman.  He and Paul spent the day concocting a simple, perky three-minute pop record that was hard to resist.  From all accounts, the two of them had a blast laying down the basic track of rhythm guitar, lead vocal and drums, then overdubbing every other instrument and some typically bright vocal harmonies.  Engineer Geoff Emerick, who had quit working with the group about a third of the way into the sessions for the "White Album" due to the tension, was back with them for the first time on this day, and had nothing negative to report.

Old Brown Shoe - With the single in need of a B-side, Harrison chipped in with this uptempo number.  He was really hitting his stride as a composer at this time and had begun to stockpile quite a few songs, especially since John and Paul had given short shrift to several of his offerings during the Get Back sessions.  He made three solo demos on February 25th - this song among them - all of which would eventually see the light of day.   (These demos, which include the title song of his landmark solo album All Things Must Pass, are all on Anthology 3.)

Only two days after John and Paul recorded the A-side, all four Beatles were available and met to work on this number.  George's lead vocal, recorded huddled in a corner at his request, sounds muddy on the track, but if you can pick out the lyrics, they contain some fun yin/yang wordplay.  Paul's bass line, particularly in the bridges, is a marvel, and George plays a wonderful lead guitar during the instrumental break.  I have always felt that the tempo of this song is so brisk that Ringo sounds as if he is trying to keep up with the group instead of driving them, as he usually does, but that is a minor criticism.  George overdubbed a Hammond organ part on April 18th to complete the recording.

The single was released on May 30th in the UK and on June 4th in the US as Get Back was still sitting at number one on the charts - a curious move.  In the UK, The Ballad of John and Yoko still managed to take over the top spot and, in fact, it proved to be the group's last number one in their native land.  In the US, the refrain, which opened with the word "Christ" and ended with "they're gonna crucify me," did not go over well with the same people who had been offended by John's "We're bigger than Jesus" interview in 1966, and the song received either limited airplay or none at all in some parts of the country.  I can remember WPRO-AM in Providence, RI broadcasting a version of the song which edited out the word "Christ" at the top of each refrain, and I'm sure this was used elsewhere, as well.  The record peaked at number eight on the Billboard chart.  Both of these songs appeared on the US compilation album Hey Jude in February of 1970.  (So did the B-side of the previous single, Don't Let Me Down, a fact I failed to mention in my last entry.)

This was the first single by the Beatles to be released in stereo worldwide.  No mono mixes exist for either one of these songs.  And these sessions marked the last time that the group went into the studio for the express purpose of recording a single.                       

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Get Back b/w Don't Let Me Down

Cover photo shoot for the unreleased Get Back LP
You would think that after spending five months in the studio working on the "White Album" the Beatles would take a prolonged break, but only two and a half months later, on January 2nd, 1969, the group convened at Twickenham Film Studios to commence rehearsals for a new project.  The germ of the idea for these sessions had been planted while making the promotional film for Hey Jude in front of a live audience.  The band had been rejuvenated at that shoot, and the thought of performing live again no longer seemed out of the question.  The rough idea was to begin rehearsing a batch of new material that could be debuted in a high profile live concert.  Director Michael Lindsey-Hogg and a film crew would simultaneously shoot a documentary that would follow every step of the process leading up to the big show.

But the sessions for the double album had been fraught with tension, and while some fine ensemble playing had occurred, many of the overdubs and several of the songs had been solo work.  Now, in order to prepare for a live set, they were forcing themselves to be with each other every moment.  As a result, these rehearsals famously imploded.  By the end of January, after the historic rooftop concert (which, great as it was, was not the grand perfromance they had originally imagined), they pretty much abandoned the Get Back project, as it was then known.  Lindsey-Hogg did go off to begin putting together the documentary, however, and in March, John and Paul approached a fellow named Glyn Johns, who had served as producer much of the time in George Martin's absence, and told him to see if he could pull together an album from the thirty-plus hours of tape.

Since the sessions had technically been rehearsals, there were no proper takes, so it proved to be a monumental task for Johns to find decent runthroughs of any of the songs.  He did manage to find two strong performances from January 28th, and these were soon released as this single.

Get Back - McCartney wrote this jaunty, galloping little number as the title song for these sessions, the idea being that the Beatles were getting back to their rock and roll roots.  Except for a brief bit of harmony from John during one chorus, Paul handles the vocal chores.  John plays the subtle lead guitar on the track, providing some tasty licks.  Billy Preston is on electric piano, brought into the sessions mid-way by George both to enhance the live ensemble and to help put everyone on their best behavior, as Eric Clapton's presence had done on While My Guitar Gently Weeps.  Preston certainly brings a style of playing into the mix that none of the Beatles could have duplicated.  After a false ending, Ringo brings everyone back in for a reprise which fades out on record, but which went on a while longer with Paul getting a bit goofy and throwing in some "ho ho ho's."  Glyn Johns used a piece of this for the final track on the Get Back album.

Don't Let Me Down - Lennon's best offering from these sessions was his first love song for Yoko.  The refrain is a cry of desperation balanced by the quieter verses and bridge.  Glyn Johns used a different take of the song for the Get Back LP on which you can hear John tell Ringo to let loose on his crash cymbal at the top "to give me the courage to come screaming in."  Paul plays an attention-getting bass line and supports John vocally with strong harmonies throughout.  Preston's playing on the track is absolutely indispensable.

The single was released in April of 1969 and hyped as being "the Beatles as nature intended" to promote the live aspect of the recordings.  It was a huge hit worldwide.  The UK version was still in mono, but the US single was in stereo for the first time.  There was no producer credit for either George Martin or Glyn Johns, but both sides of the record listed the artist as The Beatles with Billy Preston, the only time any other musician was so honored.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

YELLOW SUBMARINE

In January of 1969, not even two full months after the release of the double album The Beatles, this album surprisingly appeared - surprising not only because of the closeness of the release dates, but because the film Yellow Submarine had been released back in the summer of 1968.  The group had not wanted the soundtrack album to come out months before the double album, fearing that it would hurt sales, yet they were okay with it coming out hard on the heels of the "White Album."  At any rate, they need not have feared the competition from themselves, because Yellow Submarine is far and away the weakest entry in the catalog.

SIDE ONE

Yellow Submarine - The title song is from August of 1966, available as both a single and as a track on the album Revolver.  For my look at this song, see my entry Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine.

Only a Northern Song - The basic track for this Harrison composition was recorded in February of 1967 as George's first offering for Sgt. Pepper.  Final overdubs were added in April of '67 after it was left off of that album.  The song is a throwaway, with the lyrics poking fun at George's junior status in the group and its publishing company, Northern Songs, Ltd.  The Beatles attempted to play the trumpet part themselves.  There is a lovely photo from the April overdub session of manager Brian Epstein smiling as John, Paul and George play around him, probably making a horrific noise.  A glockenspiel was also put to extensive use on the track.  The song is used quite effectively for the most psychedelic sequence in the film.

All Together Now - McCartney's only new song for the soundtrack is this fun singalong number recorded in May of '67.  John plays harmonica and sings lead on the bridge, and everybody in the room joins the chorus.  In Tell Me Why, Tim Riley points out how much discipline is required of the group to keep the gradual acceleration from spiraling out of control.  The song is used twice in the film - once for an animated sequence and at the end with the Beatles themselves.  The group had pretty much kept away from the project until it was nearing completion and they suddenly realized just how good it was.  Only then did they agree to make an onscreen appearance to bring the film to a close.

Hey Bulldog - Lennon's sole contribution was not recorded until February of 1968 while the group was making a promotional film for Lady Madonna.  Instead of miming to that song, they were seen in the studio working on this great little-known rocker.  During the extended fadeout, John and Paul have way too much fun trying to crack each other up.  This song was given to the film so late in the game that its sequence did not even make it into the American prints.  When the film was released on DVD in 1999, not only was the animated sequence restored, but the promotional film was re-edited and broadcast to show the boys really doing Hey Bulldog. 

It's All Too Much - The only Beatle with two new compositions on the album is Harrison, who adds this psychedelic number recorded in May and June of '67 at the De Lane Lea Music Recording Studios to the soundtrack.  The song begins with some Jimi Hendrix-like feedback before settling into a heavy, droning groove that lasts almost seven minutes.  The film only uses a few minutes of it, but still includes a verse not on the album.  Four trumpets and a bass clarinet were overdubbed.

All You Need Is Love - The single from the Summer of Love (also available on the American Magical Mystery Tour LP) closes out side one.  I cover this song in my entry All You Need Is Love b/w Baby, You're a Rich Man.

SIDE TWO

Pepperland
Sea of Time
Sea of Holes
Sea of Monsters
March of the Meanies
Pepperland Laid Waste
Yellow Submarine in Pepperland

All of the above selections were incidental music by George Martin.  Another reason for the delay of the album was that, instead of using the music as it appeared in the film, Martin wanted to rerecord these tracks for disc.  This did not happen until October of 1968 after completion of the "White Album."  As entertaining and inventive as this music is, it was not why most fans bought the record.  The Beatles had been highly critical of the American releases of their early soundtracks - the United Artists version of A Hard Day's Night and the Capitol version of Help! - both of which had intertwined the group's songs with incidental music from those films, yet here they were doing essentially the same thing.  Aside from separating the music on opposite sides of the album, the main difference in this instance is that the group's songs are of a decidedly inferior quality.

When the album was released, it became the only one during their career to not hit number one in both the UK and the US.  It was also criticized for reasons I have stated above.  Mark Lewisohn reports in The Beatles: Recording Sessions that they took the criticism to heart and had a master for an EP prepared in March.  The EP would have played at LP speed and included the four original songs plus a bonus track, the still-unreleased Across the Universe from February of 1968.  For some reason, it was never released.


Friday, March 16, 2012

THE BEATLES - side four

Revolution 1 - This is the first instance of the Beatles releasing an alternate version of a song that was already available.  The B-side Revolution had been out for almost three months when the "White Album" came out and offered us this earlier take on Lennon's political stance.  Though the lead vocal is much more laid back than the single version, this track features more layers of sound, including backing vocals plus trumpets and trombones scored by producer George Martin.

Honey Pie - Though he was equally represented on sides one and three and dominated side two, this is McCartney's only credited composition on side four.  The song sounds like it could have come straight out of a 1930's Hollywood musical.  Paul helps to set up this illusion in the introduction by making the line "now she's hit the big time" sound as if it is playing on an old 78 rpm record.  All four Beatles play on the track, with George on bass and John adding some fine period guitar work.  And Martin writes a fabulous score for clarinets and saxophones.  The recording was not made until October, but on Anthology 3, you can hear Paul's demo from the Esher sessions way back in May.

Savoy Truffle - Harrison wrote this nice rocker about, of all things, Eric Clapton's chocolate addiction.  Once again, only George, Paul and Ringo play on the basic track, with John unfortunately getting into the habit of skipping out on George's sessions.  Chris Thomas was persuaded to write the score for saxophones by Martin, and it is a fine piece of work, featuring some great interplay between George's lead guitar and the saxes during the instrumental break.

Cry Baby Cry - A haunting number from Lennon.  Lyrically, it is the dark side of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.  Anthology 3 presents us with take one, demonstrating that all of the elements (minus overdubs, of course) were in place right from the start.  The track builds very slowly in intensity, something the group was always intuitively capable of.  At the end, the song comes to a full stop, but after a second's pause, we hear an uncredited song snippet from McCartney, which sounds as if it were written expressly to link up with John's song.  However, this "can you take me back" section is simply an ad lib from the I Will session.  It is an intriguing piece, and certainly not a throwaway on the order of Wild Honey Pie from side one.  

Revolution 9 - This sound collage from Lennon is the reason many people either did not listen to side four or simply picked up the needle after Cry Baby Cry, but it is a fascinating piece and definitely worth a listen.  The basic track running underneath is actually the last five minutes of Revolution 1, which became a chaotic jam by all four Beatles.  This track rarely bubbles to the surface, but John built everything else on top of this.  In addition to the dozens of sound effects and samples of music, John and George read a series of phrases that are heard from time to time.  Most famous of all is the anonymous voice intoning "number nine" on a tape loop.  With the influence and assistance of Yoko, John managed to weave an amazing tapestry of sound over eight plus minutes, which may seem random at the first listening, but, as Tim Riley says in Tell Me Why, "the track has its own inchoate logic."  Furthermore, "no musical novice would have arrived at just this set of combinations."  There is clearly someone with a musical sensibility at the helm.

It was not the first time that the Beatles had created such a work.  Back in January of 1967, during sessions for Sgt. Pepper, Paul had taken the lead in recording a piece called Carnival of Light for a London theatre.  And George had done a brief sound collage as part of the Wonderwall soundtrack.  But never before had they included such a piece on one of the group's albums.

Good Night - The album closes with a lullaby and another solo performance, this time by Ringo, but, as the selection on Anthology 3 illustrates, it was a group effort.  As poor Ringo is learning the song, all three of the other Beatles and George Martin are giving him instructions.  And, at that time, someone is accompanying him on piano.  Lennon wrote the song, and he ultimately asked Martin to write a score for orchestra and chorus.  In 1980, John told Playboy that the score was "possibly over lush," which is an understatement.  The song itself is simple and beautiful, written for John's son Julian, and Ringo is the perfect choice to sing it.  It provides the most unexpected ending to any Beatles album, especially on the heels of Revolution 9.  Yet, given the wild, eclectic nature of the entire album, it absolutely makes sense.

When the album was released in November of 1968, it had been almost a full year since Magical Mystery Tour, and fans everywhere gobbled it up.  Because of the stark white cover, conceived as the antithesis of the psychedelic collage on Sgt. Pepper, it was immediately nicknamed the "White Album."  It quickly became the best-selling double album in history, until it was eclipsed in 1977 by the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever.               

Monday, March 12, 2012

THE BEATLES - side three

Birthday - Some of the best ensemble playing is on side three, this song being a case in point.  McCartney had the riff in his head when he showed up at the studio, finished writing it, taught it to the band and they recorded it - all in one night.  Yet, as any band that tries to learn it soon discovers, it is a deceptively tricky little number.  Everyone gets in on the fun, with John singing the "Yes, we're going to a party" section, and Yoko Ono and Patti Harrison singing the high "birthday"s.  Paul is once again credited with playing piano, but it has to be an electric piano or an organ.

Yer Blues - It's an odd choice, I know, but this brutal number by Lennon has always been one of my favorite tracks.  All four Beatles rock hard and heavy, and John delivers a killer vocal.  After the final verse, the band switches into a swinging tempo for the instrumental break, with John playing a two-note solo that would make Neil Young proud, then George taking over with a stinging lead of his own.  An edit into another take is used for the fadeout, with John's guide vocal off-mike.

In December of '68, John played this number with a one-time group called the Dirty Mac on the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus television special.  This supergroup consisted of Lennon and Eric Clapton on guitar, Keith Richard on bass and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience on drums.  A year later, he performed it in Toronto with the Plastic Ono Band, also featuring Clapton.

Mother Nature's Son - This beautiful McCartney composition was inspired by one of the Maharishi's lectures in India.  In the Playboy interview from 1980, John claims that the same lecture prompted him to write a song called Child of Nature, which later was given new lyrics and became Jealous Guy.  Producer George Martin writes a score for brass instruments for this number; otherwise, Paul once again plays everything else.

Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey - This is a little-known and underrated rocker by Lennon.  One can argue that the lyrics are trite, but so are the lyrics to Birthday, and this song rocks just as hard, if not harder.  Using vari-speed, half a minute was cut off of the rhythm track, which is why the band sounds so incredibly fast.  On an album full of outstanding bass lines, Paul's little solo run near the end of this track takes the prize in my estimation.  And, for much of the song, someone is going crazy on cowbell.  This number should have been included on the compilation Rock and Roll Music in 1976, which is heavily weighted toward the first half of their career. 

Sexy Sadie - A nasty song from Lennon directed at the Maharishi, who had the misfortune to be the latest in a line of father figures that John at first idolized, then scathingly rejected.  In The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn prints an original verse that John sings for Paul which is so vile that the Beatles could never have released it.  An early take of the number is presented on Anthology 3.  The tempo is a bit slower, but it is not radically different from the released version, yet the song was remade twice in sessions spread out over a few weeks.  Though the track has a heavy 1968 feel overall, John adds a throwback doo wop element to it, as he did with Happiness is a Warm Gun. 

Helter Skelter - In 1985, McCartney told Musician magazine that he read a quote from Pete Townsend saying that the Who had just recorded the loudest, most raucous rock and roll song ever.  Taking that statement as a personal challenge, Paul claimed that his composition was a deliberate attempt to top the Who.  Yet the first three takes, recorded in July, were slow and somewhat bluesy.  These takes were also remarkably long for the Beatles, each becoming an extended jam.  A section of take two is presented on Anthology 3, giving a taste of what would have been a very different release.  The group returned to the song in September and attacked it with a vengeance, resulting in the cacophonous version on the album.  Paul's vocal, Ringo's drumming, the dissonant guitars - everything is an assault.  John tackles the saxophone, and assistant Mal Evans the trumpet, but all they can get out of them are squeals and squeaks.  The mono version of the recording ends at the fadeout.  The stereo is a different mix and runs a minute longer, fading back in and then crashing to a halt, followed by Ringo's famous cry of, "I've got blisters on my fingers!"  The mono is available on the US Rarities LP from 1980.    

Long Long Long - At the end of the hardest rocking side of the album comes this quiet mood piece from Harrison.  George revealed in later years that what sounds like a straightforward love song is, in fact, the first of many devotional songs he would write in his career.  Only he, Paul and Ringo play on the track, which moves from hushed verses to a strident bridge and back again before a very strange ending.  When Paul hit a certain note on the organ, a bottle of Blue Nun wine on the speaker began rattling around.  A microphone was set up to capture this sound over which George moaned as he and Ringo added to the mix with guitar and drums before a final thud.                     

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

THE BEATLES - side two

From the photo shoot known as Mad Day Out with Don McCullin
When John, Paul and producer George Martin laid out the four sides of the album on October 16th and 17th, 1968, they set themselves a few guidelines, according to Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles: Recording Sessions.  Though none of the songs were related in any way, they decided to eliminate the gaps between tracks, as they had done on Sgt. Pepper.  Furthermore, no composer would have more than two tracks in succession.  In most cases, strong contrasts from one song to the next were emphasized; in only a few others, similar tracks were paired.  And on this side, which is predominantly acoustic, all of the animal titles were grouped together.

Martha My Dear - An unexpectedly elegant piano solo opens side two, setting up this delightful McCartney number.  Lewisohn, who has listened to every tape from every known session, believes that Paul is the only Beatle playing on this track.  Paul and Martin had obviously conferred in advance, because strings and brass scored by the producer were recorded on the same day that Paul laid down the basic track of piano and drums at Trident Studios.  Overdubs of guitar and bass at the same venue completed the song the following day.  A descending bass line at the end is used to create a clever segue into the next track.

I'm So Tired - A similar bass line climbs up to begin this Lennon composition written in India.  All four members of the group play on what Lewisohn accurately termed a "lethargic rocker."  The sense of sleeplessness is palpable in the sound they create in the verses, punctuated by the frustration in the bridge.  This short, simple recording only required a few overdubs before moving onto, and completing, Bungalow Bill in the same session.

Blackbird - There is no question that this is a solo performance by McCartney.  Engineer Geoff Emerick used three microphones - one for the vocal, one for acoustic guitar and one for Paul's tapping foot.  After thirty-two takes, the recording was completed with a vocal overdub and the sound effect of a blackbird.  This absolutely gorgeous piece has proven to be a fan favorite over the years.   

Piggies - This is another social satire number from Harrison, in the same vein as Taxman.  Though George Martin scored strings for the track, the master was produced days earlier by Chris Thomas, who also plays the all-important harpsichord part.  John does not play on the track, but he did put together the sound effect tape loop of pigs.

Rocky Raccoon - This country and western tune is a performance by the whole group, the only such instance on a McCartney song on this side.  John pulls out his harmonica for the final time with the Beatles, and Martin plays his signature honky-tonk piano.  As you can hear on an earlier take on Anthology 3, Paul was pretty much making up the lyrics as he went along.

Don't Pass Me By - The first solo composition credited to Richard Starkey.  Ringo returns to the country and western style that had suited him so well earlier in the group's career.  Sadly, only Paul joins him from the group to play bass and organ (although most sources say this is a piano!) on the track.  A fiddler named Jack Fallon adds the distinctive country touch.  The mono version of this track has a vari-speed lead vocal that is higher in pitch, and a different fiddle part during the fadeout.  It was made available on the US version of Rarities in 1980, since the double album had never been released in mono in America. 

Why Don't We Do It in the Road? - An outrageous little ditty by McCartney.  Ringo plays drums; Paul does everything else.  Originally, he sang one verse sweetly and gently, switched to his raucous voice for the next, and then alternated back and forth.  Even take four on Anthology 3 is done this way, but for take five, the master, he just let it rip throughout.  In an interview for Hit Parader magazine in 1972, John said that this was one of Paul's best songs, which sounds like a back-handed compliment, but I believe he truly appreciated the boldness and simplicity of this number.

I Will - McCartney goes from the ridiculous to the sublime with this beautiful ballad (I always thought the layout of these two songs was a deliberate joke).  The basic track has Paul on acoustic guitar, with John tapping wood on metal and Ringo supplying various other bits of percussion.  It took sixty-seven takes to get it right (a number I mistakenly attributed to Happiness is a Warm Gun in my previous blog - that track required seventy takes).  It was a fun session, featuring Paul slipping into a version of Step Inside Love, a song he wrote for Cilla Black, immediately followed by an ad lib piece called Los Paranoias, prompted by a comment from John.  This sequence is presented on Anthology 3.  Another ad libbed piece found its way onto side four of the album.  Paul later overdubbed all other instruments and, for some reason, decided to sing the bass line.  Listen closely - that is not a bass guitar.

Julia - Side two closes with this poignant, heartfelt song by Lennon about his mother and his new love, Yoko, the "ocean child."  This is a major composition for him, moving directly into the personal style of writing that he had been drifting towards ever so slowly for years.  It is also the only solo recording he ever makes for release by the Beatles.  He once again plays guitar using Donovan's fingerpicking technique and double tracks his vocal, overlapping it in places as he did years earlier on Any Time at All.

Anthology 3 reveals that, though it is a solo recording, Paul was in the control booth for take two, which breaks down.  John then nailed it on take three, but before he did, he and Paul have a little discussion about the song.  Amazingly, John sounds sheepish, almost embarrassed, as Paul encourages him.  This is reminiscent of an exchange on Anthology 2 where a take of Being for the Benefit of Mister Kite breaks down and Paul offers John some advice on how to sing the song, even demonstrating how he would phrase it.  While it is impossible to know exactly how John felt about this, the fact is that he takes the advice and sings in that manner on the released version.  I find these little snippets fascinating; they speak volumes about the relationship between the partners.                

Thursday, March 1, 2012

THE BEATLES - side one

My favorite trivia question: What is the actual title of the album known as the "White Album?"  Few know that it is simply called The Beatles.  Critics are quick to point out the irony in the fact that the album named after the group is the album where the break-up began, and the album with the most solo tracks.  But there is also more ensemble playing on this record than on Sgt. Pepper, and it stands with some of the best work of their career.  Though it is not generally considered to be one of their masterpieces, it is my personal favorite.  It is one of the most eclectic batches of song ever released in one collection, displaying an astonishing range that few acts could ever hope to achieve.

Before commencing, the group met at George's house in Esher and recorded twenty-three demos of songs that they had written, most of them in India armed with their acoustic guitars and fellow musicians Mike Love of the Beach Boys and Donovan Leitch on hand.  The actual sessions were spread over five months from May 30th, 1968 to a 24-hour sequencing session run by John, Paul and producer George Martin on October 16th and 17th.  It was perhaps inevitable that such a long stretch together, even doing the one thing that they all loved to do the most, should test the limits of their friendship even more than years of touring, movie making and sporadic recording sessions had done.  The evidence is apparent on the first two tracks.

Back in the U.S.S.R. - Only three Beatles played on this rocking opening number by McCartney after tensions boiled over and, of all people, Ringo quit the group.  He had always done what he had been told, either playing endless takes of the same song or being kept waiting for hours as other details were worked out.  On this occasion, he couldn't get exactly what Paul wanted and left in frustration.  Though they petitioned to get him back, the others carried on in his absence.  By all accounts, Paul played drums on the basic track with John on bass and George on lead guitar.  Overdubs include more layers of each instrument, plus piano and the sound effect of the jet that opens the track and reappears sporadically.  Great backing vocals by John and George confirm the fact that the song is a Beach Boys parody, with Russian women taking the place of the typical California girls.

Dear Prudence - Ringo was still holding out a few days later when the others returned to Trident Studios, where they had recorded Hey Jude, for the opportunity to record this beautiful Lennon composition on eight-track.  The jet sound from the previous number is used as a segue into the gentle fingerpicking guitar technique which Donovan had taught John and the others in India.  Paul plays drums again, turning in a fine performance as the track slowly builds in intensity.  He and George play surprisingly heavy bass and guitar lines under John's mellow lead.  Backing vocals by Paul and George also include Apple recording artist Jackie Lomax, among others.  Multiple sources credit Paul playing a flugelhorn part, though I have never been able to hear it in the mix.  

Glass Onion - All four Beatles play on this angry follow-up to I Am the Walrus.  Once again, Lennon targets those who were reading too much into the group's lyrics, this time mentioning numerous songs to confound things even further (although he had mentioned Lucy in the Sky in the earlier song).  The most obvious red herring, "the walrus was Paul," only added fuel to the fire during the "Paul is dead" hysteria a year later.  This track is the first example of the full group turning in a fine ensemble performance, with Paul playing an exceptionally heavy bass line and adding a brief bit of recorder after the Fool on the Hill reference.  George Martin also took a break from the group during these sessions and was away while this track was recorded, prompting John to add sound effects to the song.  Upon his return, Martin scrapped the sound effects and added a slurring string section, which brings the song to an eerie fadeout.  The version with sound effects is available on anthology 3.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da - This perky McCartney number drove the other Beatles to distraction as they spent almost two weeks in early July working on it.  After spending three consecutive nights recording it, and bringing in saxophone session players to boot, Paul was unhappy and wanted a re-make.  This first version is on Anthology 3.  According to Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles: Recording Sessions, John arrived very high on the fourth night and pounded the keys of the piano, shouting, "This is it!  Come on!" and inadvertently created a new intro to the song.  On the fifth night, they started a re-re-make before going back to version two.  Days later, after many takes and another sax overdub scored by Martin, it was finally complete.  Paul wanted it out as a single, but John and George vetoed the idea.  Despite its fitful creation, it has proven to be highly popular with fans of all ages right from the get-go.  In the June 1988 issue of Musician magazine, Stewart Copeland of the Police called it "...one of the first examples of white reggae."

Wild Honey Pie - A solo ditty by McCartney that defines the term "throwaway."  Even as a link between other songs, it is uninteresting and unnecessary.   

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill - An odd, but fun number from Lennon, written in reference to a fellow student at the Maharishi's camp.  The intricate flamenco guitar flourish which opens the song had long been a mystery to me until I learned that it is one of the earliest known instances of sampling, lifted straight off of the Mellotron used at the session.  The Mellotron was played by a young assistant named Chris Thomas, who actually produced several sessions in Martin's absence.  This recording was made on the same October night as I'm So Tired and begun after midnight, involving everyone in the room for the singalong chorus.  Maureen Starkey and Yoko Ono took part, with Yoko also getting the solo line "not when he looked so fierce."

While My Guitar Gently Weeps - One of Harrison's all-time great compositions, although John and Paul somehow did not recognize it at the time.  George made an exquisite demo of the song in July, with an extra verse omitted in the released version.  This demo is available on Anthology 3.  The Beatles made many lackluster takes of the song in sessions scattered over August and September before they started a re-make on September 5th.  The next day, George brought in Eric Clapton to play lead guitar and interest in the song suddenly spiked, resulting in a rock classic.  It was during sessions for the first version that the group learned that Abbey Road had acquired an eight-track machine and brought it into Studio Two for their own use.

Happiness is a Warm Gun - Side one ends with this outrageous pastiche by Lennon which combines three or four unfinished songs in about two and a half minutes.  On Anthology 3, he demos the "I need a fix" and "Mother Superior" sections during the Esher sessions in May, also adding a section about Yoko.  The master required 67 takes, mostly because of the tricky time changes.  Measures are dropped during the "Mother Superior" section, and in the section that begins "When I feel my finger..." Ringo stays in 4/4 time as the guitars and vocals switch to 3/4 to create a sense of disorientation.  The heavy guitars, "bang bang shoot shoot" backing vocals and lurid lyrics all blend together to make the track live up to its nasty name.  George and Paul both claimed it to be one of their favorites on the album.  For Paul, John's skillful weaving of unfinished songs proved to be a big influence a year later and, indeed, throughout his solo career.