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Sunday, January 29, 2012

SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND - side two

Within You Without You - Side two fades in with the by-now-familiar drone of Indian instruments.  Harrison's only composition to appear on the album is one of the most complex and ambitious pieces of music he ever wrote.  He employed a small complement of Indian musicians to play tamboura, tabla, swordmandel and dilruba for the backing track, then asked George Martin to score the song for violins and cellos, thus creating a brilliant East meets West blend.  Many critics, including Tim Riley, have derided the lyrics as preachy and simplistic, but there is no denying the originality and ingenuity of the music.  Anthology 2 treats us to a music-only version of the recording, allowing closer scrutiny of the various elements.  For example, Martin reveals in his book All You Need is Ears that he noted that the dilruba, a bowed instrument, always bent the notes as it slid from one to another, so he instructed his violinists and cellists to play in the same manner.  The instrumental break, one of the longest in the group's catalog, is a true East-West dialogue, and a great collaboration between the two Georges.  No other Beatles appear on the track, though their assistant Neil Aspinall and George overdubbed additional tamboura parts.  At George's request, a few seconds of laughter were added to undercut the seriousness of the song at the tail end.

When I'm Sixty-Four - McCartney claims that this was one of the first songs he ever wrote, perhaps as early as age fifteen.  It was recorded after Strawberry Fields Forever when the concept of an album about the group's childhood was still in play.  It stands here as a nice contrast after Harrison's Indian excursion.  And the throwback quality of the song makes it fit in nicely in Sgt. Pepper's vaudevillian world.  John and George supply their usual topnotch backing vocals behind Paul's vari-speeded lead.  For this number, Martin's impeccable score is for clarinets, including one bass clarinet.

Lovely Rita - While this song by McCartney is fun, it is probably the weakest composition on the album.  Paul's piano and bass parts drive the ensemble, with George Martin adding one of his trademark honky-tonk piano solos.  The fun is provided by Paul, John and George's backing vocals, which include comb and paper for some truly whacky low-tech sound effects.

Good Morning Good Morning - A rooster crow opens this Lennon number inspired by a commercial for corn flakes.  Two different groups appear on this track - the Beatles provide the rhythm on their usual instruments, and Sounds Inc add the powerful horn arrangement.  The scorching guitar solo is by Paul, played in a manner not unlike the nondiatonic, Indian-flavored one he did on Taxman.  For the fadeout of the song, John instructed engineer Geoff Emerick that he wanted a progression of animal noises.  The end result of this was the happy accident of the final animal sound, a chicken cluck, sounding remarkably like the guitar at the top of the next track.  Martin blended these two elements into an almost seamless segue.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) - After nearly four months in the studio, McCartney decided that the album needed a closing number to make the concept come full circle.  On April 1st, the Beatles recorded this faster-paced version of the opening song, with Paul, John and George sharing the lead vocal.  The band rocks as hard as they have at any other point on the album, and audience sounds once again enhance the illusion of a live performance.  But, as the final note hangs in the air and the applause of the imaginary audience dies out, a cross-fade leads us into an encore.

A Day in the Life - In my presentation The Studio Years: 1967-1970, I make only a passing reference to this song, stating that it is a topic unto itself.  That being the case, I will devote my entire next blog to this magnum opus.

At the completion of A Day in the Life, the Beatles decided to have a little fun and added two finishing touches to the album.  At John Lennon's suggestion, a high-pitched dog whistle sounded in the runout groove, and in the concentric groove in the middle of the record, there were a few seconds of gibberish, which would play continuously if you did not own an automatic turntable.  These effects were only on the original vinyl pressings, but were resurrected for the CD in 1987.

The album package was as unique as the record within, featuring the boys in wild psychedelic uniforms standing before a collage of people who had influenced them in one way or another.  For the first time on a pop album, the words to all of the songs were printed on the back cover.  Inside was a sheet of cardboard cutouts, which today, if still intact, is a rare collectors' item (I, like many others, no doubt, not foreseeing their eventual worth, actually cut them out).

Upon the album's release in June of 1967, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, setting the tone for the Summer of Love and raising the bar for every other act in the business.  It established the album form as the new unit of commerce in the industry, pushing the single to secondary status.  And it justified the group's risky decision several months earlier to quit touring and become a full-time studio band.  The Beatles had achieved a new, unexpected height.  

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND - side one

The Beatles' best album.  The greatest album of all time.  The most influential album of all time.  The most famous album of all time.  Take your pick.  Sgt. Pepper has been called all of these and more, and whether or not any or all of these labels still apply, there is no denying that it was, and still is, a landmark recording.

Once they abandoned the concept of an album about their childhood following the release of the Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever single, it wasn't long before McCartney came up with the idea of an alter ego for the group, with an absurdly long and flowery name like many of the newer California bands.  But it was only after recording the title song that the idea extended to a virtual performance by this alter ego band, spanning the two sides of the album.  To make this imaginary performance continuous, the Beatles requested that the usual pauses between songs be practically eliminated, so that the music almost never stops, the only exception being the time it took to turn over the record.  The fact is, except for the segues at the beginning and the end of the album, the songs are not really related at all, thematically or otherwise, but as Lennon later said, "it works 'cause we said it worked."

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - As they had done on Please Please Me and Revolver, the Beatles clue us in right at the top as to what we are about to hear.  In this instance, as Tim Riley states, "we're listening to a pretend audience that is pretending to listen to the pretend Sgt. Pepper's...Band."  It's an amusing premise from a group that only months earlier had decided to stop playing live.  Except for the French horns, it is one of the only instances of straight-ahead rock on the album, with just the group on their usual instruments for this McCartney composition.  Paul sings as the emcee with John and George singing backup.  Sound effects from several sources enhance the conceit of a live performance.  The orchestra warming up is from the session for A Day in the Life.  The audience murmuring at the top and the laughter in the middle come from the Abbey Road sound archives, and the screaming at the segue into the next song is from the Capitol Records Hollywood Bowl recordings of the Beatles.  This segue is the only true link on side one as Paul introduces the singer Billy Shears.

With a Little Help from My Friends - Ringo's signature song was written primarily by McCartney, but finished off with a little help from Lennon at a session attended by the group's authorized biographer Hunter Davies.  His highly entertaining account sheds some light on the collaborative method they employed.  The recording features Ringo at his most relaxed, backed by some fine call-and-response vocals from Paul and John.  The instrumentation is one of the most stripped-down on the entire album.  Compare this breezy, laid-back performance with Joe Cocker's smouldering version from 1968, and it's hard to imagine that it is the same song.

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds - The first truly psychedelic recording on the album is from Lennon, who always insisted that the song was based on a drawing by his son Julian, and that the letters LSD in the title were purely coincidental.  The writings of Lewis Carroll also inspired some of the images John used in this trippy fantasy number.  The distinctive opening phrases are played by Paul using the celeste stop on a Hammond organ.  When John's voice enters, vari-speed makes it sound incredibly high.  On take 6 from Anthology 2, he strains to hit the same notes with the tape running at regular speed.  George adds an Indian instrument called a tamboura to create a droning effect for the verses and a fuzzed guitar for the refrains.  If anyone ever wants to know what psychedelic rock was all about, they need look no further than this recording.  Elton John's 1974 attempt to recapture that psychedelic feel, though his version had the assistance of Lennon and was a number one hit, misses the mark.

Getting Better - Clipped chords introduce this upbeat number from McCartney.  The playful backing vocals from John and George are reminiscent of those from Help!, commenting on the lead by Paul.  The darker lyrics - "I used to be cruel to my woman..." - were added by Lennon as a contrast to McCartney's sunny lines.  George once again plays the tamboura and Ringo overdubs bongos onto the track.  But the most unique sound is George Martin playing piano by striking the strings directly instead of using the keyboard.  This effect is punched up for the fadeout.

Fixing a Hole - McCartney writes a state of mind composition.  He also adds harpsichord to the list of keyboards he played during these sessions.  George plays an absolutely fabulous guitar solo on this track, and he and John supply some fine backing vocals, as well.  Abbey Road Studios was fully booked on the night the Beatles were scheduled to work on the rhythm track of this song, so for the first time ever, they went to another studio in London - Regent Sound.

She's Leaving Home - McCartney took his inspiration for this song from a newspaper article about the generation gap.  While rather melodramatic, it works in part because Lennon, channeling his Aunt Mimi, added the voice of the parents to the refrain.  The syrupy score is by a fellow named Mike Leander, because George Martin was not immediately available to write it and Paul was impatient.  The harp which opens the song was played by Sheila Bromberg, the first female musician to work on a Beatles' track.  Paul and John's vocals are the only contributions by the group.

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! - Lennon took the lyrics for this song almost verbatim from an old circus poster that he found while the group was shooting a promotional film in Kent for the recent single.  The complex recording has George Martin on harmonium, Paul playing the guitar solo, George, Ringo, and Beatles' assistants Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans on harmonica, plus John on Hammond organ and Martin on a Wurlitzer organ.  But the piece de resistence is the calliope.  Martin was unable to find one that did not require punched cards to play prerecorded songs, so he found a tape of a calliope playing Sousa marches and had Geoff Emerick cut it into segments, throw them in the air and splice them back together at random for the final section of the song.  This amazing swirl of sound brings side one to a close.

The sequence of songs was considered crucial to the flow of the album, and so, for the first time, Capitol Records in the US was required to release the exact same version as in the UK.  To get seven songs on one side of an album was as extravagant treat for American fans.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever

It had been almost six months since Revolver, the last release of new material by the Beatles, when Capitol Records in the US told manager Brian Epstein that they needed something new for the American market.  The group had been back in the studio since November 24th, 1966 recording tracks for a new album with the loosely-based concept of childhood - specifically, their childhood in Liverpool.  When Epstein approached producer George Martin to see what they had, Martin admitted that they had only three songs so far, but two of them were the best they had ever recorded.  It was decided that these two songs would be released as another double A-sided single, with the result that the Beatles abandoned the childhood concept for the upcoming album.  A totally new concept would soon emerge.

Penny Lane - This wonderful McCartney composition is pure pop perfection.  In the book Tell Me Why, Tim Riley praises the song's boundless musical invention from moment to moment.  And that doesn't even take into account the actual recording, which is a marvel of invention in and of itself.  To this date, people in the music industry are astonished at how many levels of sound Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick were able to compress onto only four tracks of tape and still come away with such a pristine result.  The recording took place over several days spanning a few weeks between December 29th, 1966 and January 17th, 1967.  On the first night alone, multiple piano tracks were recorded and more were added in the days to come.  By the time the song was complete, there had been three separate sessions involving outside musicians, including parts for piccolo, flugelhorn, trumpet, cor anglais, oboe and double bass.  But most famous of all is the piccolo trumpet part played by soloist David Mason.  On Anthology 2, you can hear all of these parts brought to the forefront, some of which were later eliminated, including Mason's final flourish, which had been left in on early promotional copies played on the radio in the US.

In the lyrics, McCartney paints a vivid picture of the area of Liverpool which he frequently passed through on his way to visit John's house.  Several characters, each with a distinctive quirk, populate the neighborhood in his mind's eye.  The melody and the mood are upbeat, and once again, Paul uses a modulation before the final repeat of the refrain, taking the song out on an even sunnier note.

Strawberry Fields Forever - Lennon began composing this song in Spain in the fall of 1966 as he whiled away the hours on the set of Richard Lester's film How I Won the War.  The refrain refers back to Strawberry Fields, an idyllic place from Lennon's childhood memory, but the verses are about his troubled search for identity, and the conversational, almost stream-of-consciousness style were the result of long hours of work.  A bootleg tape given to me years ago has John alone on acoustic guitar playing the song numerous times, and it evolves and takes shape at an extremely slow pace.

The recording is legendary for its complexity.  On Anthology 2, the brilliant take one is miles from the finished product, but easily could have stood in for it.  After days of recording, John was briefly satisfied with take seven, but a few days later, the Beatles began a remake which included an orchestration by George Martin.  Again, John was momentarily satisfied with take twenty-six, but then asked Martin to use the first part of take seven and the latter part of take twenty-six for the master.  Because the two takes were in different tempos and different keys, Martin and Emerick had to play with vari-speed - slowing down one and speeding up the other - to make John's request a reality.  The splice occurs exactly one minute into the recording.

The song opens with Paul playing the Mellotron, an eerie-sounding early synthesizer.  Other than that, the first section features the Beatles on their usual instruments.  The second section is decidedly heavier, with Martin's cellos and trumpets adding to the sound.  The ending features an additional wild drumming track by Ringo and the bizarre effect of a fadeout, a fade-in and a second fadeout, which proved to be quite problematic for AM radio.

Ultimately, the decision to make it a double A-sided single probably kept it from hitting number one in the UK.  Martin admitted as much in later years.  As great a song as Strawberry Fields Forever is, it simply was not radio-friendly in 1967.  Penny Lane should have been the obvious choice for the A-side, and without competition from the flip side, it would have easily vaulted into the top position.  As it turned out, it stalled at number two, unable to dislodge Release Me by Englebert Humperdinck.

In the US, Penny Lane did hit number one and Strawberry Fields Forever was a remarkable number eight.  Both songs were later featured on the Capitol version of Magical Mystery Tour.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A COLLECTION OF BEATLES OLDIES

I daresay many of you have never heard of this release, but it follows Revolver sequentially in the Beatles catalog on the Parlophone label.

In 1963, '64 and '65, the boys had stuck to the master plan devised by manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin, releasing two albums and a handful of singles in each of those years.  But in 1966, they broke the mold, first by spending two and a half months in the studio working on their masterpiece Revolver.  They then embarked on a world tour which was a disaster on many levels.  I cover this all-important event in detail in my presentation The Beatlemania Years: 1962-1966.  Suffice it to say that by the time they flew out of San Francisco after giving their final performance at Candlestick Park on August 29th, they knew that their days of touring were over.  Upon their return to England, they went their separate ways for a few months, uncertain of how, or even if, their career as a group could continue.

By October, Parlophone knew that there would not be a new album by the Beatles available for the Christmas market, and so, the powers that be decided to compile a greatest hits collection.  There would be both mono and stereo versions of the album, but since some of the songs had never been mixed for stereo, four sessions were necessary for Martin, engineer Geoff Emerick, et al. to rectify that situation.

It was also decided that there would be sixteen songs included - thirteen of them from singles, two well-known album tracks plus a bonus track.  Noticeably absent are the first two singles, Love Me Do and Please Please Me.

SIDE ONE

She Loves You - The song that inspired Beatlemania in Britain in August of 1963 is the perfect way to kick off the album.

From Me to You - The group's first indisputable number one from April of 1963 is the earliest song in this collection.

We Can Work It Out - From the double A-sided single released in December of 1965.

Help! - The title song of the second film, released in July of 1965.

Michelle - An album track which had attracted much attention, from Rubber Soul, released in December of 1965.

Yesterday - From the album Help!, released in August of 1965.  It was a number one single for Capitol Records in the US, and a major hit worldwide.

I Feel Fine - A single from November of 1964.

Yellow Submarine - From their latest double A-sided single, released in August of 1966. 
Back cover
SIDE TWO

Can't Buy Me Love - A single from March of 1964.

Bad Boy - The bonus track is a rocker by Larry Williams.  It was recorded by the Beatles on May 10th, 1965 along with Dizzy Miss Lizzy, another Williams number, specifically for the Capitol Records compilation Beatles VI.  While the latter song was soon added to the British version of Help!, Bad Boy remained unreleased in the UK until this time.  The recording features a fierce vocal by John and some great lead guitar work by George.  The lyrics are decidedly American in nature, with references to hula hoops and laundromats. 

Day Tripper - The other A-side of the December, 1965 single.

A Hard Day's Night - The title song from their first film, released in July of 1964.

Ticket to Ride - The single from April 1965.

Paperback Writer - Single from June of 1966.

Eleanor Rigby - The other A-side from the most recent single, released in August 1966.

I Want to Hold Your Hand - It may not have made much sense to the British fans, but closing the album with this November 1963 single, which helped the Beatles conquer America, has some logic to it.

The album was released on December 9th, 1966, just in time for Christmas.  It is interesting to note that Capitol Records in the US resisted the temptation to produce a similar package at the time.  Yet only a few months later, they would be clamoring for new material by the group, prompting the release of what many believe to be the greatest single ever, and altering the concept of the album in the works.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

REVOLVER - side two

Good Day Sunshine - A song of unbridled joy by McCartney opens this side.  It comes as something of a relief after the angst of She Said She Said.  A pulsing piano and bass start off as if in anticipation of a sunrise until the drums join in and a glowing chorus sung by Paul, John and George bursts forth.  Other than Paul's bass, no guitars are used on the recording.  Piano is the dominant instrument here, with George Martin playing one of his signature solos.  In his book Tell Me Why, Tim Riley points out that the end of the song features one of the only instances of a modulation in the group's catalog.

And Your Bird Can Sing - Lennon was never proud of this composition, considering it a throwaway, but it features some incredible guitar work by George, John and Paul on bass.  Like If I Needed Someone, it pays homage to the sound of the Byrds, but is much more intricate than George's effort.  An earlier take on Anthology 2 is even more Byrds-like, plus it has John and Paul giggling hysterically as they attempt to overdub additional vocals.

For No One - A haunting ballad by McCartney, another uncharacteristic piece for him and all the more impressive for that reason.  Paul on piano and bass and Ringo on drums are the only members of the band playing.  At Paul's request, George Martin brought in a French horn player named Alan Civil (credited in the liner notes) to play a beautiful solo of his own devising.

Doctor Robert - A most peculiar composition by Lennon about an actual New York doctor who dispensed vitamin shots laced with speed and LSD to Andy Warhol's circle and other beautiful people.  As with most of John's songs on the album, it is guitar-driven, although John does play the harmonium for the choir-like bridge.  The recording has a curious ending, as it begins to fade out, yet we hear it come to a complete stop.

I Want To Tell You - Harrison's third composition on the album sets a career high for the junior songwriter of the group.  The song begins with a fade-in, like Eight Days a Week.  The lyrics are about miscommunication, and to illustrate this musically, there is a good deal of dissonance provided by Paul, either in his vocal harmony or on piano.  George revived this tune many years later for a tour of Japan with Eric Clapton.

Got To Get You into My Life - This McCartney tribute to Tamla Motown is unlike anything else the Beatles ever released.  For the first time, they ask George Martin to add a horn section to one of their recordings.  Bass and drums propel the entire track forward as Paul delivers an inspired vocal performance.  When a guitar finally enters near the end of the song (and some accounts have Paul playing this instead of George), it is a glorious moment.  For the fadeout, the horns are allowed to cut loose alongside Paul's vocal gymnastics.  The early version of the song on Anthology 2 is a rhythm track barely hinting at the transformation this tune would undergo and featuring backing vocals from John and George which were eventually cut.

Tomorrow Never Knows - This apocalyptic piece by Lennon is also unique in the group's catalog.  John deliberately chose another Ringoism as a title to undercut the self-important nature of the lyrics.  A droning sitar fades in and is quickly joined by Ringo's lopsided drum pattern and a single note plucked continuously by Paul on his bass.  Tape loops of various sounds created by all four Beatles swirl in and out of the entire song, mixed live by engineer Geoff Emerick at a playback session.  A backwards guitar appears during the instrumental break - supposedly Paul's Taxman solo cut up into segments.  Most amazing of all is John's voice delivering lyrics based on Timothy Leary's version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, especially after the instrumental break when Geoff Emerick put the vocal through a rotating Leslie speaker to create a swirling effect.  

Anthology 2 gives us take one of the song, which had a completely different background - a repetitive wash of sound with a more straightforward drum pattern by Ringo.

The album was released in early August of 1966.  The US version omits And Your Bird Can Sing and Doctor Robert.  These two songs plus I'm Only Sleeping from side one had already been released in the US on the compilation "Yesterday"...and Today in June.  Once again, limiting Lennon's presence on side two gives a very different feel to the US album, but this time, Capitol cannot be held to blame.  When the American label requested three songs for their compilation, Martin had numbers from McCartney and Harrison to choose from, as well, but for some reason, the three selected were all by Lennon.