Wednesday, 29 April 2015

How Essential?

The first Beatles album I ever owned was a cassette copy of The Essential Beatles.

My uncle made that tape for me from his vinyl, and I played it a lot even though I have no recollection of the device I used.  I didn't have my own cassette player until I was older and I think dad still had a reel to reel at that time. But that cassette was my real introduction to Beatledom.

Looking back I find it odd that it was issued with that title. While I personally consider all Beatles music to be pretty much essential, many of these songs don't really fit that description. It's true that apart from one track (With A Little Help From My Friends) every song hit the top 3 on the Australian charts, but what is not clearly stated is that some of them were as B sides of singles or filler tracks on EPs.

Honey Don't, Baby You're A Rich Man and Blue Jay Way? Hardly essential. But it means, of course, that while I was still in primary school I was listening to Beatles songs that many of my friends probably still have never heard.

I've always quite liked the cover design  - tasteful, and certainly better and more relevant than those on other compilations, such as Rock 'N' Roll or Love Songs. And the rear, with its graphic showing the evolution of the four lads behind the timeline of tracks, is rather lovely.

Along with the odd selection of tracks there are a few sonic oddities on it as well. The left and right channels on Long Tall Sally have been reversed, and despite not including a stereo mix of Baby You're A Rich Man, they managed to source one for Penny Lane which not only runs slow but has a distinct warble. Very strange.

And yet this is the configuration in which I first came to know these songs. I recently played the album for the first time in almost thirty years, and I found I was able to anticipate the next song, and the next, and the next.

As a collection, I like it. It works. Or maybe it's just because for me it's nostalgic and familiar.

The Tracklist:

Love Me Do
Long Tall Sally
Honey Don't
PS I Love You
Baby You're A Rich Man
All My Loving
Penny Lane
Magical Mystery Tour
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
With A Little Help From My Friends
All You Need Is Love
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Let It Be

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Almost Beatles Album

After The Beatles broke up in 1970, fans were desperate for any sign of reconciliation. They would grasp any rumour or gossip that the four had re-united. Of course this led to a number of bizarre situations, such as the tongue-in-cheek reunion offer on Saturday Night Live, and the instant fame of Klaatu.

The SNL offer came closer to a reunion between Paul and John than anyone at the time could have possibly realised. Stories vary as to whether they only joked about accepting, or made it all the way down to the street but couldn't find a cab. We can only speculate at whether they may have continued on the reunion path had they actually made it down to the SNL studio. Klaatu, on the other hand, were a trio of Canadian musicians who remained anonymous as they wanted their music to speak for itself. A journalist noted the musical similarities to The Beatles, which rapidly evolved into a rumour they actually were The Beatles in disguise. The record label chose not to deny it, which then ruined the band's future career as the public presumed it was a deliberate hoax. While they certainly wear their influence on their sleeve, one listen to that first album should have been a clear indication it wasn't the fabs. Sad. It's a great album that's largely ignored and forgotten.

But in 1973 reports circulated The Beatles had reunited, without Paul, to record tracks for Ringo's solo album. Klaus Voorman had played bass for Manfred Mann and had been suggested as a replacement for Paul three years earlier. He'd known the boys since Hamburg, dated Astrid Kirchherr and lived with George and Ringo for a period of time. Later he'd won a Grammy for  designing the cover of Revolver. Add Billy Preston on keyboards and fans had reason to believe it was just like old times.

Richard Perry, the producer, reportedly could not believe his luck. Here he was producing The Beatles. "Just like that; no planning. The three ex-Beatles recorded one of John's songs. Everyone in the room was just gleaming. It's such a universal gleam with The Beatles."

It was not quite a reunion, simply one session that ran for eighteen minutes. Ten takes of I Am The Greatest, which suggests most takes must have been incomplete and the whole process was rushed. It was a song Lennon had penned, supposedly intended for Ringo, and it sounds like it could have opened a Beatles album. Harrison and McCartney played on other tracks on this album as well, though notably not together. Both contributed songs, while Harrison co-wrote one with Ringo.

Even Ringo has sole writing credits on a couple of songs, although I wonder how much help he received. The film Let It Be makes it quite clear Harrison played a major part in the writing of Octopus's Garden. And the other songs he wrote around this time, such as Going to Carolina, display little in the way of sophistication. It Don't Come Easy, a single not on the album and credited solely to Ringo, is a good song. And certainly more complicated than anything else he'd done thus far. The demo version, complete with guide vocals by George and 'Hare Krishna' backing vocals, suggests Ringo wasn't the main author.

And so we had the most Beatlish of the post Beatles albums. Billy Shears gets a mention. All four wrote songs and played on it. Beatles alumni, such as Klaus Voorman, Nicky Hopkins and Billy Preston, all made contributions. Heck, even Mal Evans finally got a co-writing credit.

And then there's the cover art. A not too subtle nod to Sgt.Pepper. George certainly liked the idea as he revisited the concept on Dark Horse.

Forty years later and it's still the most Beatles sounding of any of their solo albums. It holds up reasonably well, although there's only so much of Ringo's singing voice I can take. If Ringo had sung only one track, George had sung two, and Paul and John had taken three each, we'd have a reasonably good Beatles album.

Alas we only have what we have. I find Ringo as an album more satisfying than their other output from 1973. Mind Games was uneven, Living In The Material World was too Krishna, and Band on The Run, while a close second to the Ringo album, is simply too twee in parts.

If only they'd put aside their differences and used their powers for good.

If only.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Beatles' Progress

I recently discovered Love Me Do: The Beatles' Progress by Michael Braun. Written during 1963 and 1964 while on tour with the band, his book is surprisingly daring and honest for the time. Braun describes the boys drinking, smoking, swearing and talking about women - everything a good Beatle didn't do.

At the time it seemed as though the press had a moratorium on publishing accounts of their behaviour on tour. I've read tales of journalists being extremely aware of the band's indiscretions (and sometimes involved) but opting not to write about them. And although Braun doesn't go into too many specifics, he gives a fascinating insight on what they were really like.

Hunter Davies' biography from only a few years later was authorised, and as such was heavily sanitised. John Lennon recognised this, and in an interview with Jann Wenner in the early 70s pretty much described the book as being a work of fiction. Braun's book, on the other hand, rips the curtain open and portrays the boys as real humans, real personalities who are more than their caricatured personas.

"That was a true book," Lennon said. "He wrote about how we were, which was bastards … You have to be a bastard to make it, man. That's a fact, and the Beatles were the biggest bastards on earth."

While there's little doubt The Beatles behaved exactly like suddenly rich young men with incredible fame (and dare I suggest, while shouldering the burden of  being the coolest four guys on the planet), there's little evidence they were as ruthless as Lennon seems to think. The above quote was said at a time when Lennon loved savaging the Beatles myth. He took delight in tearing down their reputation. But more than that, he was an unreliable witness. He was prone to hyperbole, or even making up stories. He longed to be the rebel to Epstein's image-creating guidance, the non-conformist while everyone else remembers him willingly going along with their plans for musical world domination. His assertions the boys smoked dope at Buckingham Palace have been pretty much refuted by everyone. He described the 1964 Australian tour as Satyricon. And while I've no doubt they had veracious appetites, none of it would have compared with Led Zeppelin or Vanilla Fudge in the 70s.

Edgewater Inn, anyone?

But Lennon was on the right track. Braun's book certainly goes further than the others. Music papers generally ignored the existence of this book. The 1995 reprint with a foreword by Mark Lewisohn was the first time many fans even became aware of it. Me? I accidentally stumbled across the 1964 edition only a few months ago. I'm embarrassed I'd never sought it out before.

A Hard Day's Night was a loving, photoshop of a day in the life of a Beatle. On the other hand, Love Me Do: The Beatles' Progress is a raw, grainy polaroid of the same moment in time.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Teenage Adventures In Bootlegs

I was a teenager when I held my first foray into the world of bootlegs. An older friend played me a couple of his latest acquisitions, a pair of titles by The Rolling Stones. They were raw, rough, and fun to listen to. I loved the primitive artwork, and I suspect, I loved the knowledge they were illicit. I think I was secretly thrilled to be part of the underground, that none of my other friends knew these records existed. I felt older, more into music than them. Whatever the reasons, it was enough. I was hooked.

So it wasn't long before I went in search of bootlegs by my beloved Beatles.

In hindsight I'm sure they were around, but for a naive boy like me they weren't particularly visible. If I'd been a little older, a little more 'street-smart', I'd have probably found a stack in a tiny record shop in the suburbs where the counter-culture held sway. At the time, however, I only knew of one shop which sold them, the shop where my friend had scored his Stones albums.

The guy behind the counter was friendly, even chatty, until I mentioned I was looking for a particular title. His manner changed instantly. He had never heard of that disc, never had them in the store, didn't know what I was talking about, and thanks for calling. I never even mentioned the 'B' word.

A short time later I stumbled across my first Beatles bootleg at a market. Live In Anytown was a bizarre mash of songs from several different shows across different years. Even the producers were vague about the source with this note in the credits. "There are rumers (sic) that part of this album was recorded at the very famous Smithsville concert, but we asked both Mr W. Z. Ardo and Dr. Terrence and they said that was definitely not so, but perhaps a couple of the tracks might be from Horsesneck and if that’s the case Big D. would say that’s not very kosher."

As an album I found it less than satisfying and never played it all that much.

File Under: Beatles was my next vinyl bootleg. A mix of  Get Back outtakes, unreleased demos and tracks lifted from The Boardroom Tape, I enjoyed this one a lot more. Sure, it was patchy and some songs were incomplete, but the audio was pretty good. This was the first time I heard tracks like Come and Get It, Goodbye and Leave My Kitten Alone. For a short time I played this disc a lot. I mean, I had new Beatles songs.

But the love affair didn't last. It's an album I listened to from time to time, but for some reason I didn't find it anywhere near as satisfying as those early Stones bootlegs I had. I'm afraid they still got more playtime, even though I only had cassette tape copies.  I figured vinyl bootleg was a medium that suited the jagged edges of the live Rolling Stones. Plus the covers on Stones bootlegs were funnier and had more interesting artwork than the Beatles covers.

Skip forward to the late 80s and circumstances had brought me to Japan to live for a few years. One day while out walking, I wandered into a discount store. Surrounded by piles of cheap, brightly colored plastic crap-o-ware, and  jammed into a rack of budget label discs of oldies and crooners and such, I discovered Beatles On The BBC. I played that thing to death. It was a two disc package, well presented, good selections and great sound quality. Finally I had a Beatles bootleg I could listen to repeatedly. And it still stands up, even against the more recent official Apple products.

Ah Shinjuku. Bootleg central of Tokyo. And for the years I lived in Japan, Tokyo was bootleg central of the world. Shop after shop crammed with titles you could only imagine. We were spoiled for choice in those days. But shortly before I discovered this district, I experienced a defining moment in my life.

I bought Ultra Rare Trax 1 and 2.

I have vivid memories of the store, which ironically wasn't a bootleg specialist. The discs were reasonably cheap and I was concerned I was being ripped off. I needn't have worried. The moment I got them home and hit the play button I was completely blown away. Beatles outtakes in studio quality. Very different versions of songs I was oh so familiar with. The first take of I'm Looking Through You, stripped back and stunning in its simplicity. Take 2 of Can't Buy Me Love with the backing vocals. Even hearing That Means A Lot and How Do You Do It? in good quality.

I was in heaven.

And these are discs I still listen to from time to time. They're certainly more listenable than the official Anthology albums. They hold up well over more recent bootlegs. And I guess I recall them like my first love, a warm nostalgic memory of the halcyon spring afternoon when I first heard them.

It didn't take me long before I possessed all six volumes of Ultra Rare Trax issued by The Swingin' Pig. (I even owned the extra two volumes tacked on by another label) They varied in quality, had some highlights, but never were as amazing as these first two discs.

I remember being amazed at the idea that someone had somehow nicked these tapes from the studio. These days I know more about the source of this material, although there still seems to be some dispute as to whether it was through John Barrett or Roger Scott. A lot more material has emerged from these tapes. And with more recent releases like Rockband extractions and OOPS remixes which give us an insight into the recording process, we have lots of great stuff out there. So much. Too much, in fact. I feel overloaded at times, and I think we can get a bit blase about what we have access to.

Recently I played all these discs, just to see what it was that kindled my passion for Beatles bootlegs. And boom, I was there again. A teenage boy in his bedroom listening to Mick Jagger snarl his way through a 1978 setlist.

The flame took. And as I progressed through my other discs, it flared. I fell in love with The Beatles yet again.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

It's Linda. Oh No!

Last week I accidentally listened to a Linda McCartney track. I didn't mean to. It just came on the player.

While I realise there may be some out there who truly believe Cook of the House is an all time classic, it's not something I ever choose to listen to for pleasure. In fact I usually skip that track while listening to Wings At the Speed of Sound.

But it wasn't that track or even that album on this occasion. I was listening to a Paul McCartney sampler - Oobu Joobu Ecology. It's an episode from his Oobu Joobu radio show, where Paul played DJ and reminds us that we should be elated he went into making music instead. This disc highlights the episode where McCartney gets all preachy on the environment, animal rights and vegetarianism. And there's not much worse than when he does that. One thing that is worse, is when Linda does it in song.

Linda wrote and recorded this little ditty called Cow, and Paul, being Paul, just had to include it. Frankly it's awful. Embarrassing. And halfway through I suddenly realised that it could have been sung by Yoko, my other favourite non-singing ex-Beatle spouse. The phrasing, the tonal qualities, the lack of talent - it could have been a Yoko song.

That's one thing Linda and Yoko shared. Little musical talent but the encouragement of husbands who wanted them to be great. (Although I personally believe Linda was dragged into the studio by Paul (at first) while Yoko pushed John to record her.)

When I was young I almost had a soft spot for a couple of Yoko songs. I remember watching Sweet Toronto, and watching Yoko sing Don't Worry Kyoko. Subtitled Mummy's only Looking for a Hand in the Snow, it's about her search to find her missing daughter. I remember the startled glances Eric Clapton kept sending her way as she tried to find the place in the song to come in. But I also recall where she looked worried, scared, and John comforted her. I 'got' the song and what she was doing. And for a time I thought I understood the pain she was going through.

No. I was mistaken. I recently watched it again and I can't find that special moment Yoko and I shared.

Was it just my imagination? My desire to try and love all things connected to The Beatles? Did I view a different edit? Or did that event occur in a different song and my memory has caused them to collide?

I don't know.

She grinned at the end of the song as though she'd accomplished a great feat, and I suspect she had no idea of how little the crowd enjoyed the song. Not many people believe she is truly musical, despite John's assertions that when he first heard The B-52s playing Rock Lobster he'd finally found musicians who had caught on to what Yoko was trying to do. Except she was doing it first, of course. I think that was simply John making musical connections where connections didn't exist in order to try and defend someone he loved.

For many years I've tried to understand the need for John and Paul to bring their wives along for the music-making ride. John needed the constant mothering and 'you're a genius' assurance from Yoko. She had him convinced she was an amazing and original artist and that music is simply another art-form in which she could create.

I suspect Paul, on the other hand, had a desire to keep up with the Lennons. You have Yoko, I have Linda. As well as the constant companionship of a seemingly domestic wife and the country homelife he'd always desired. But PaulAndLinda was never going to be the conjoining JohnAndYoko was.

And even though I enjoy Ram, credited to them both, Paul's albums would have been stronger without Linda's atonal singing, and John's albums would have been stronger if they hadn't been shared with the unique vocal stylings of Yoko.

Don't even get me started on the political New York stuff he poured out with Yoko in the early 70s.

Try it. See how much better John is when he's not punctuated by Yoko. Take only his tracks from Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey and combine them onto a single album. It works pretty well.