The Beatles Remasters – Part 2

13 Sep

The major difference between ‘Revolver’ and ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonley Hearts Club Band‘ is thematic unity. ‘Sgt Pepper’ isn’t a concept album as is sometimes stated – it had a concept to begin with but it was soon abandoned when they realized they could no longer function as a proper band, exchanging ideas and songs. However it works extremely well as an album, from start to finish, something the band had being surprisingly neglectful in trying to achieve up until this point. The standered was 14 songs per album in the UK, and 12 on any US album. There was also a rigid structure to every album released in the early 60s which involved leading with the singles and ending with the worst material or ‘filler’.  Even revolver seemed to have little care spent when it came to arranging the tracklisting.

But Sgt Pepper was very well compiled, a result of the band’s early ambition to make this an album with a continuity and purpose. It begins with the title track and the splendid ‘with a  little help from my friends’. These two songs are the only ones to carry any kind of ‘concept’ – that of a band led by Sgt Pepper and consisting ‘Billy Shears’ (ringo) who sings lead on the second track. After this the concept doesn’t reappear until the reprise of the title track at the end which morphs into the classic end piece ‘A Day In The Life’. In between the songs are all more ambitious and more colourful than any of their prior records. Each track attempted something new and something unique, from the lyrical splendor of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, the orchestral flourish of ‘Shes Leaving Home’ and the Circus sampling ‘For The benefit of Mr kite’. individual I doubt any of these tracks would rank amongst people’s favourites, but in the context of this album they all work perfectly.

One song that is often called The Beatles masterpiece closes the album. Enough has been written about ‘A Day In The Life’ to justify it being called one of the most influential and important songs of all time, and it certainly ranks at the top of my Best of The Beatles list. But even this track works best in the context of the album, listened to on it’s own it lacks the epicness that it gains by being placed at the end of one heck of a journey. The strings rise as it nears the conclusion resulting in an almighty crash and wallop, that ranks as one of the defining moments of 2ost century pop.

For years after it’s release this album was called not only the best Beatles album, but even the best album ever released. In more recent years this has resulted in a rather large backlash, and it’s now usually ranked behind ‘Revolver’, ‘The Beatles’, and sometimes even ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Rubber Soul’. But even if this isn’t their best album – and I don’t think it is, then it still ranks as one of the most important, era defining, ambitious and game raising records ever made.

Magical Mystery Tour‘ was originally an e.p released as the soundtrack to their psychedelic film of the same name. The version that has just been re-released is a version of the American album that combined the e.p with all the major singles of the period. As such it shouldn’t be considered a real studio album in the same breath as the ‘Sgt Pepper’ or ‘The White Album’ but it is still one of the defining Beatles releases. The first half (the soundtrack to the film) follows on from the more atmospheric parts of ‘Sgt Pepper’. The two tracks which lie at its heart are the instrumental ‘Flying’ and the George Harrison penned ‘Blue Jay Way’. These songs are as psychedelic as the band ever got and although they are hardly spectacular they are brilliantly placed on the album in between ‘The Fool on The Hill’ and ‘Your Mother Should Know’. The latter is one of the most underrated Beatles tracks out there and it’s particularly wonderful in the film, where the band tap dance and mime along. However the best track on this first half is ‘I Am The Walrus’. Enough said.

If the first half serves it’s purpose as an atmospheric soundtrack well then the second half goes right for the jugular. It’s basically a compilation of some of the best pop songs ever made. ‘Hello Goodbye’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’ are two of the weaker singles the band released during this late period but they are great ways to start and end the second half. In between are two tracks John and Paul wrote to be the centrepiece of a real concept album about their childhood in Liverpool. One can only imagine how brilliant that album would have been (the idea was scrapped as the label wanted a single and so in a rush the band handed over the two tracks, and decided instead to make ‘Sgt Pepper’), but ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ found a good home here as the heart of the second side. Both songs rank (in my opinion) as the best singles Paul and John ever wrote, demonstrating a perfect balance of pop structure and psychedelic ambition. Lyricly they are both vivid, dreamy and more advanced than most other bands could ever imagine. ‘living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see’. Both tracks are perfect odes to a half remembered, dreamlike childhood.

How do you follow up that then? Well the answer is – you don’t. The Beatles had gone as far down the psychedelic path as they were able to creatively go. ‘Sgt Pepper’ had been a masterpiece of ambition fully realized and ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ had, to some, been a forward thinking, groundbreaking success but to others it had been one step to far. Next, rather than attempt to follow up their most cohesive and forward thinking work to date (something they clearly thought was impossible), they would shock everyone by handing the reigns over to their fans. That is to say they made ‘The Beatles’ or The White album as it is known.

By creating such a huge collage of an album the band were essentially asking you to pick the tracklisting, they were asking you to select the way you heard it. personally I would skip ‘Bungalow Bill’, ‘Piggies’, ‘Yer Blues’, ‘sexy Sadie’ and ‘Savoy Truffle’, but these may be the cornerstones of the album to somebody else. Over 30 tracks there is so much to love, and almost as much to throwaway – yet every single track is an essential fragment of this large album, love it or hate it.

As a band they were starting to fall apart at this point. It feels like a collection of songs by solo artists rather than a ‘group’ album. Most of the tracks started life acoustically and this also shows, especially on the finger pickin good ‘Blackbird, ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ and ‘Cry Baby Cry’. The other major trend throughout this album is the embrace of ‘rock’, particularly on George Harrision’s part. Whereas all albums since ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ had been perfectly executed, pored over pop, the band could no longer work together for long enough or well enough to make such well crafted songs. As well as this the drugs had started to play their part and John and George in particular grew tired (and bored) much more easily and now prefered to knock out quicker and heavier material. It works well on ‘Why My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ but grates from time to time elsewhere. They are always best on the well produced, highly intelligent songs such as ‘Back In The USSR’, ‘Goodnight’ and ‘Happiness is a warm Gun’.

I could go on forever about this brilliant album but The Beatles moved on quickly and so must I.

Let it be was worked on next but Abbey Road was released first. In fact their creations largely cross over as songs written and demoed during the making of ‘Let It Be’ were eventually released on ‘Abbey Road’ – many on the beautiful long Medley.

‘Let It Be’ was an attempt to get back to playing live, and recording the sort of quick fire rock n roll that so captivated them to music in the first place. The real reason this was no doubt attempted was because it must have seemed a quick and easy way to make an album. However the recording was a very stressful time (not helped by the cameras that were capturing their every move for a movie). The original idea was to record the results live before an audience and release that as an album but the band hadn’t played live in front of an audience for years and so in the end the idea was scrapped (Although they did play a sort of gig at the famous ‘roof concert’). Despite all the talk of arguments and bitterness, not helped by Yoko, the songs they made are  mostly brilliant. ‘Two of us’ is one of their most tender tunes and ‘Get Back’, ‘let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ are all established as Beatles classics.

However, the stripped back album was put on the shelf because they couldn’t agree on how to handle it. It was only after Abbey Road and with the split approaching that Lennon asked Phil Spector to Finnish the album. Spector is undoubtedly one of the greatest producers of the 60’s but it’s fair to say that by 69′ he had lost his way. It was always going to be a disaster letting the producer known for his full on approach to recording produce what was meant to be a back to basics album. Truth be told he destroyed many of the tracks, adding choirs and strings to songs that required a much lighter touch. The tracklisting was also chopped and changed too many times resulting in an album with no symmetry and too much filler. To see how this album should have sounded you need to buy ‘Let It Be Naked’ the much superior, remixed, stripped down version of the album released (and resequnced) by Paul in 2003.

‘Abbey Road’ was the band’s attempts to make one last, brilliant album as a band of 4. They achieved this, to a certain extent, and Abbey Road is certainly many peoples favourite Beatles album. It is noticeably warmer than any of their previous albums because of the huge leap in technology in the recording desks, and it was also their only album to be entirely recorded on 8 track. The brand new moog synth also adds a layer of depth to songs like ‘Maxwell’s silver Hammer’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’. So in terms of sound this is The Beatles defining statement and the new remaster makes it sound even better.

In terms of songs this is also a belter. It is unquestionably Paul’s masterpiece, and it is his voice and pen that created the majority of it. But it is also George’s best album as a Beatles, the one where he truly came into his own as a writer (his two best songs feature here) and as a guitarist. Ringo produced his second song as a Beatles, the wonderful ‘Octopus’s Garden’, and his drumming was also at it’s best on Abbey Road. If there is a Beatle who perhaps under achieves it is John.  ‘Come Together’ opens the album, and although it is a good song it remains one of his weaker singles. ‘I Want You (She’s so heavy)’ is a rare moment of rock indulgence that finds John howling for Yoko for well over 6 minutes. Although one of his most passionate vocals the songs soon gets repetitive and boring. His contributions to the medley are made up of rejects or mere doodles of songs from ‘Let It Be’ and it’s fair to say the add little to the flow of things. Only ‘Because’ can be called classic Lennon, and it certainly is, the harmonious are the best the group ever recorded.

No doubt about it, this is Paul’s baby. Whilst ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ gets a lot of flack, I find it charming and cheerful and vastly underated. His doo wop pastiche, ‘Oh Darling!’, is another one that gets unfairly overlooked. His vocal is one of the best he had done in years. But the real reason this is Paul’s album is the final medley he came up with that ranks as one of the band greatest achievements. Although merely fragments of songs tied together, the effect is startling. ‘Golden Slumbers’, ‘Carry That Weight’ and ‘You Never give me Your Money’ rank as some of the most touching songs the band wrote as they knew the split was only around the corner. ‘The End’ marks The Beatles end  and it shows that even at the finish line the band weren’t scared to try new things. This marks Ringo’s first drum solo as well as a three way guitar duel between George, John and Paul. After this blistering pace we are left with just a piano and Paul’s beautiful final words…

‘And In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’.

What a way to end your band’s career. Whilst Abbey Road is fairly hit and miss compared to their earlier material, and feels more like a collection of solo songs than a proper Beatles album, it still remains a favourite for all it’s flaws (which are considerably fewer than most bands could manage). It was a fitting way to end and remains a must own, as truth be told most of these new remasters are. This collection of albums rank as one of the greatest achievement of the 21’s century, certainly in popular music. Most startling of all is that the band did all this in 6 and a half years when most bands today can muster one album every 2 or 3 years.

If I have learnt one thing from revisiting these albums it is that they truly were the best band of all time – no question. If you haven’t already got them, then this newly re-released boxset is a must.

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