Sunday, 16 October 2016
Classic Albums No. 19: The Beatles
It took me a while to discover The Beatles. My oldest sister was a fan of John Lennon and George Harrison, as they had launched their solo careers whilst she was still in her youth, and she liked them in the same way she was also liked other singer songwriters from the same time period, like Cat Stevens and Harry Chapin. She later told me that she was too young for the Fab 4, and after getting into Lennon, saw no real reason to go back and buy the old records he had made with his former band. She liked Lennon because he was Lennon - and not because he was “John out of The Beatles”. So, I too got into Lennon and Harrison via her LP‘s, and somewhere along the way, eventually fell in love with Wings, after somebody bought a copy of the live “Maybe I’m Amazed” 45 - but not, at that point, The Beatles.
My mum, for whatever reason, didn’t get them either - same with Elvis. She preferred Cliff and then Scott. My dad, though, did own some records by both The King and The Fabs, but my parents got divorced when I was about ten, so I didn’t really get to hear what he had. So, whilst I developed a love of Bowie by virtue of the fact that everybody in the house seemed to have one of his albums, The Beatles just didn’t happen to me, because there were no records in the Shergold household for me to discover them through.
In 1995, the broadcasting on TV of the “Anthology” series started to focus my attention. The Lennon connection was probably a starting point, whilst those dreadful Stars On 45 singles from the early eighties had, at least, made me aware of things like “Do You Want To Know A Secret”. I began to develop a fascination with this band, helped along by the fact that Oasis were name checking them left right and centre, a band I had recently fallen in love with. I figured that if I was going to be buying records by Liam and Co, then I should also be going to the original source. A bit like buying “Give Out But Don’t Give Up” by Primal Scream, but not buying “Let It Bleed”.
I got hold of the ‘Bread Bin’ boxset of the albums, lugging it home on the bus from HMV in Romford, causing my arms to ache the longer I carried it. I recall listening to each disc in order on a daily basis, and by the time I had got to “Let It Be” and the “Past Masters” sets, well, my jaw had dropped. Several times. This wasn’t just good music, this was ASTOUNDING music. Where had this band been all my life? I later accused my mother of child cruelty on the basis that she had never owned a copy of “Rubber Soul” that I could listen to, and that it had thus affected my development during my youth. “Scott 3” and “Scott 4” eased the pain though.
My favourite Beatles album changes from day to day, month to month. Sometimes it will be “Revolver”, thanks to the psychedelic buzz of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, or the guitar drenched power-pop of “And You Bird Can Sing”. Another day, it will be “Sgt Pepper” - too cool to be name checked by the Hoxton hipsters now, but home to both “She’s Leaving Home” AND “A Day In The Life”. Say no more. If I want to cheat, I might go for “Magical Mystery Tour”, which by housing both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am The Walrus”, is therefore home to two of the Beatles’ greatest ever recordings. And I have long had a love of “Abbey Road”, thanks to the masterful beauty of Harrison’s “Something”, the stoner rock thumping that closes “I Want You” and the proggy medley that fills up most of side 2.
But at the moment, my favourite is the 1968 self titled effort. “The White Album” as it is more commonly known. The first time you hear it, it might all be a bit too much to take in in one go, being a double album. But the more and more I listen to it, the more and more I love it. Sure, there is filler all over it, but the sheer diversity contained within is staggering, and the fact that it lasts for more than an hour and a half actually works in it’s favour, as listening to it becomes an immersive experience. Sure, it’s fun to listen to the snappy “Yesterday And Today” on the way home from work, but put “The White Album” on, and it’s time to prepare yourself for one hell of a ride.
It was recorded just as the band were beginning to fall out with one another. The beginning of the end. Ringo walked out at one point. The follow up album, the aborted “Get Back”, had started life as an attempt to go back to their roots, only for the band to more or less break up by the year’s end. And yet, rather than sounding like a band on the verge of collapse, “The White Album” is a masterpiece, a sprawling work admittedly, but one that contains some of the best work they ever committed to tape. Fair enough - several of the songs are notable for featuring at least one or more Beatles absent from the actual recording - but The Stones did the same, and of course, we already had “Yesterday”.
OK, so the likes of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” are throwaway bits of nonsense - but because of the way the LP is structured, these otherwise minor pieces of work are part of what makes “The White Album” so special. It is designed to flow, to be listened to in order, and in full. So, pull the minute long insanity of “Wild Honey Pie” from the album, and it would actually lose something. Strip out the bit where Lennon shouts out “Ehh up” in a Yorkshire account just before “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” kicks in, and the LP simply wouldn’t sound the same. Part of the brilliance of “The White Album” is it’s sometimes ramshackle nature.
The album was designed not as a collection of 30 songs, but as four sides of music, as many of the songs cross faded into each other, or started quickly after the previous song ended. As such, the quick fire feel of the album makes it feel akin to listening to a concept album, and as such, songs that might, in isolation, feel like filler, become quite important - they feel more like incidental music being used to link together other more substantial pieces, and the variety of musical influences on even these linking pieces, just add a greater colour and texture to the album. I am not going to sit here and claim that “Rocky Raccoon” is better than “Nowhere Man”, but in my opinion, it is a 100% essential ingredient to “The White Album”.
Once you start listening to this album, it’s hard to escape it. The opening rush of “Back In The USSR” kick starts it all perfectly, complete with it’s 1950s Rock N Roll vibe and Beach Boys style vocals in the middle eight. It segues into the gorgeous “Dear Prudence”, a song completely at the other end of the scale, all minimalist guitar parts, simple but effective drum patterns, beautiful key changes and sublime Lennon vocals. It probably helps that out of the four band members in the group, the band included, well, four vocalists, meaning that not only did the Fabs have the ability to approach songs without any view as to whether or not they were recording a “Beatles sounding” song, but the option of then featuring a different singer just helped to add to the kaleidoscope of sounds that they could get into an album. And with a double LP like “The White Album”, well, it just stretched the ’sound’ of the record even further than they’d gone before.
The album, at times, gets quite heavy musically. “Glass Onion” is a grizzly Lennon sung rocker, in which the band brilliantly quote their past in clever pop culture style (“I told you about Strawberry Fields“, “I told you about the fool on the hill”, “The Walrus was Paul”). Side three opens with the roaring “Birthday”, and continues with the grunge driven sludge of “Yer Blues”, hated by some, by to these ears, a magnificently vicious piece of stoner rock, years before the likes of Queens Of The Stone Age had even been born. And then we have the astounding “Helter Skelter”. Essentially, the beginning of heavy metal starts here (I‘m afraid). The brilliance of this song, of course, is that unlike most metal bands, who go down the idiotic route of playing their guitars louder and faster than everything else and assuming that makes you “the heaviest”, it’s really the bass here that makes this song what it is. There is a level of fury here no doubt, but that twanging of the bass, as if it is the lead instrument, coupled with Paul’s near psychotic vocal delivery, make this a truly standout moment on the record. What a shame it did, in the long run, gives us the likes of Slipknot and Guns N Roses. Furthermore, with it’s lengthy drawn out ending, it all feels absolutely gargantuan - further proof that maybe, just maybe, Paul’s contribution to this band has been unfairly overlooked in favour of the material we got from the “cooler to name check” John. Oh, and it ends of course with the famous "I've got blisters on my fingers" call from Ringo on the stereo version - another bit of seemingly pointless nonsense, but ultimately, another quite cool bit of pop art. What a shame it got left out of the mono mix entirely.
If you ever wanted proof of how George was also criminally underrated whilst in the band, then look no further than this LP. The wonky beauty that is the epic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on side 1, with what sounds like a broken, out of tune organ battling the Harrison/Clapton double act. The magnificent Hammond fuelled majesty of “Long Long While” on side 3, complete with it’s slightly eerie, creaking, closing passage that sets you up perfectly for the shambolic brilliance of the following “Revolution 1”. And on side 4, the saxophone driven roar of “Savoy Truffle”, a magnificently upbeat and joyous rock & roll romp, one of the standout tracks made even more brilliant by Harrison’s “sweets” inspired totally nonsense lyrics (“Cool Cherry Cream, nice Apple Tart”). It is so much fun, so indescribably catchy, words can’t really do this moment of genius justice. All in, evidence that George’s songs were all killer, no filler.
But then, even some of the stuff long dismissed as filler, sounds utterly vital. The rambling hotpotch that is “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill” has a warm glow, everything from Yoko’s ‘vocal solo’ to the crowd terrace chant of the choruses, I wouldn’t want it to sound any other way. The music hall inspiration that drives the charming “Martha My Dear” or the 1920s 'flapper' stylings of “Honey Pie” might, on “Revolver”, have sounded daft, but here, sound completely at home amidst the myriad of styles that surround them. Even “Ob La Di Ob La Da”, routinely written off as ‘the worst song ever recorded’ sounds positively glorious here, the ska/reggae shuffle has a delightful bounce that is joyously good fun. If you think this is the worst reggae song ever, then may I redirect you instead to the works of post-"One In Ten" UB40 and ask you to rethink your position.
There is a lot of acoustic stuff on side 2, mainly as a lot of these songs were demoed as acoustic tracks originally. But far from sounding like unfinished sketches, or a band struggling to work out how to add any instrumentation to the bare bones, the likes of “Blackbird” have a simplistic beauty to them that doesn’t need anything more. This is particularly notable on Lennon’s affecting “Julia”, which ends the first half of the record, a tearful solo outing about his mother, who died when he was still a teenager. It is arguably more heartbreaking than any of the psychotherapy stuff that he put out on “Plastic Ono Band”. The opening lyric, “half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you Julia”, followed by a monumental key change in the next line, just hits me every time. It is simple, but stunningly effective and seems to provide a fitting conclusion to the end of the first disc.
There are a couple of songs on here that do “sound” like “Classic Beatles”. Both Lennon vocals, the mesmerising “Sexy Sadie” opens with ‘that’ piano solo, and then settles down into a piece of flawless Fabs pop. Similarly, the beautiful “Cry Baby Cry” has ‘that’ piano sound again, the one that Oasis nicked for “Don‘t Look Back In Anger“. Both these songs are quite understated in their approach, but at the same time, seem to have a lot going on. That probably doesn’t make sense, but then again, if you know these songs, then perhaps you know what I mean. In their early days, The Beatles best moments were where they went for the spine tingling harmonies and hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-key changes (“She Loves You“, “Please Please Me“), and these songs both flow in that classic tradition.
What else have we got? Oh yes, the brilliant Ringo starring rinky dink country stomp that is “Don’t Pass Me By”, a song he had first written in 1963 but which the band refused to record. Here, again, within the context of this album, it’s nigh on essential. The shape shifting rumble of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, a sign of how great the band were as musicians, something often overlooked in favour of their superstar Beatlemania popularity. The ‘upper class’ vocal delivery of the sneering “Piggies”, Harrison’s piece of social commentary complete with a musical backing that sounds like something from a period drama. The beautiful acoustic strum of “Mother Nature’s Son”. The raucous rock and roll rabble this is “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey”. Lennon’s laid back groove/noisy scowled anger of the slightly shambling “I’m So Tired”, like Badly Drawn Boy twenty years too early. By the time we have got to the end of side three, it’s already been one hell of a journey.
Because the sound collage that is “Revolution 9” is fast approaching at this point, I have always found that whenever I listen to “The Beatles”, that by this point, we are on a sort of final stretch. As if the album is building up to a big climax, and I find myself “preparing“ for the big ending, getting ready for that long bit of sonic surrealism. Each song that follows feels like it is providing a stepping stone to the next one, until we get to the “ultimate“ moment in the world of Beatles experimentation. So side 4 kicks in with the messy alternate version of the “Hey Jude” b-side “Revolution”, named here as “Revolution 1”, the high energy, distorted, punk rock vibe of the single version replaced with a Bo Diddley blues style shuffle, everything being slowed down but also being slightly roughed up a bit. The following fun of the aforementioned “Honey Pie” and “Savoy Truffle” lead us into “Cry Baby Cry”, which ends with a brief snippet of the unfinished “Can You Take Me Back”, where McCartney appears almost ghostlike from the ether, with his clipped acoustic guitar sound and fading out vocal. It was described recently by 6Music DJ Stuart Maconie as a moment that he feels is one of the “most disturbing ever” on record - and he’s right. As it disappears from view, in comes the “weird” sounds of “Revolution 9”. It feels as though, so simplistic is it’s nature, that it is leading you unaware into the madness that follows.
The first time you hear this ’song’, you will probably hate it. But after repeated listening, it becomes fascinating. Unashamedly avant garde, “Revolution 9” probably still remains one of the most unusual things ever released by a “big” pop act ever. It was, in 1968, sort of akin to Adele deciding to cover anything by Cannibal Corpse. An eight minute long barrage of sound, tape effects, somebody talking like Ringo who isn’t Ringo, shattered excerpts of Lennon screaming, Yoko muttering, backwards noises, it is terrifying at first. But listen to it again, and again, and you will find yourself trying to get “into” the recording, seeing what sounds you can hear that you might have missed before. It’s placement near the end of the album feels totally correct, as if the glorious genre mashing that has gone on in the previous eighty minutes was all leading up to this. As it ends, and the beautiful orchestral hum of the stunning “Good Night” starts up, the perfect end to the album especially with that title, it’s difficult not to feel as though you have been on some sort of ’experience’. This isn’t just an album, this really does feel like a work of art.
“The Beatles” was originally issued in November 1968. It was released in both mono and stereo, with the mono mix featuring numerous differences to the stereo one. “Revolution 9” was not mixed in mono, simply being a ’fold down’ from the stereo version, but everything else was mixed into mono especially, with more attention being paid to this LP as regards the mono mix than to any that had come before it. As such, if you get a mono copy of this album as well, I would suggest you listen to all of it, as at least half of the record has significant differences - most notably the aforementioned “missing“ false ending on “Helter Skelter“. It was, coincidentally, the last ’proper’ Beatles album to be issued in mono.
Original copies, famously, were housed in a simple white sleeve, with the band name embossed on the cover, and each copy numbered. The reason for the minimalist packaging was designed as a response to the OTT artwork for the “Sgt Pepper” album, whilst the numbering system was done ironically. Everybody knew the album would sell like hot cakes, and so the idea of having a “numbered” edition, normally used to denote a limited edition, but here being used on an album where the number of editions would run into the millions, was deliberately tongue in cheek. This hasn’t stopped Beatleheads the world over paying ridiculous sums of money for a “low numbered” copy, despite the fact that number 500 is really no rarer than number 99999. Seems that nobody got the joke.
The original LP was packaged quite brilliantly, aside from the “non” cover and number thing. The lyrics were printed on the back of a poster that was included inside, along with four now iconic portraits of each of the band members. In order to stop these photos from falling out, the gatefold album came with top opening slots, as opposed to side openings. Amazingly, I don’t think this simple idea has ever been repeated on any other album I own, indeed, Lennon’s own “Imagine”, which came with a free 6”x4” postcard, was housed in a normal (side opening) sleeve, meaning the photo could easily ’come out’ if you held the record to one side. The 2014 mono reissue of the LP was designed to replicate the ‘68 original, so was not only numbered, but also included the top opening design and the poster and postcards as well. The original catalogue number was even used (in part). Because LP’s nowadays need to have barcodes for sales reasons, copies were shrinkwrapped and had a sticker on the front, with the track listing, album details, and said barcode. That’s the image of one such copy at the top there. If you ripped off the wrap and binned the barcode, the album would look, more or less, like an original. I have already mentioned in an earlier blog, that the first CD pressing of the album in 1987 saw some artistic license take place, where the band name was printed in grey on the front of the cover just so people knew exactly what it was. The original free photos, and images on the poster, were reprinted throughout the enclosed booklet, along with the lyrics. The 2009 CD pressing, went for a similar approach, but this time around, the band name was printed “wonkily” on the front, just as the original vinyl embossed editions had been.
There were no singles lifted from the album, although “Hey Jude” was issued as a 45 some months before, with the aforementioned alternate version of “Revolution” on the flip. This single has been reissued, as have most Beatles singles, on numerous occasions since. First in 1976, as part of an EMI “cashing in” exercise following the end of Apple’s distribution contract with EMI, which allowed the label to flood the market with new “old” Beatles product. There was another reissue in 1982, one of several to mark the 20th anniversary of “Love Me Do”, and then another one in 1988, as part of the ongoing “It Was 20 Years Ago” reissue campaign. I mentioned in my first ever Beatles blog the various boxsets that were issued back in the day, and a 3” CD Singles Boxset was made which contained within, picture sleeved reissues of the band’s original singles, each of which were also sold separately - and so “Hey Jude“ appeared again in 1989. The subsequent 1992 reissue, as a standard 5” disc, emerged as part of it’s inclusion in a second CD Singles boxset. Last I heard, if you fancy owning these boxsets, the 3” one is worth a lot more than the 5” one.
It sometimes seems incredible that, soon, “The Beatles” will be fifty years old. Because it makes you wonder where music has gone since then. Yes, I know, we are just happening to be going through a particularly lean patch at the moment, like we did in the eighties, with only a few beacons of light from the “new” boys and girls (a quick name check here for Bat For Lashes, somebody who does seem to embody The Beatles‘ maverick spirit), but even so, it does feel as though bands today simply have nowhere new to explore. And so, they simply nick bits from what has gone before, and recycle it. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does mean that few people are making music that has the same power, gravitas, or sheer inventiveness of The Beatles. This LP in particular, showcases just how daring, bloody minded, and UNCOMMERCIAL they could be, despite being the biggest group in the world at the time. Go on Adele, I dare you to make an album this bold. Of course, it won’t happen. A lot of modern music is too safe, too polite, too much in awe of what the record company might say. Those acts shifting the units, are usually the ones whose music is the most bland. 1985 all over again.
But “The Beatles” transcends all of this. The biggest pop band in the world, making one of the most the left field, diverse, and experimental records of all time - and yet, coming up with something that was still mesmerisingly brilliant which then sold by the bucketload. It ticked all the boxes. I suppose it just happened to be that by the time we got to the noughties, everything you could do and say in music had been done, making it that much harder for somebody now to come up with something “new”. But in 1968, with pop music in it’s infancy still, perhaps that allowed The Beatles free reign to try anything they wanted. Still, the sheer scope and sound of this album is staggering, and whilst worshipping at it’s alter does make me sound, again, like a Mojo journalist, I can’t help it. It really is one of the greatest albums ever made.
The Beatles (1987, 2xCD, Apple CDS PCS 7067/8, Stereo mix, with booklet)
The Beatles (2014, 2xLP, Apple 6025 3773 4535, Mono mix, numbered, originally shrink-wrapped with sticker, plus poster, “Love” insert and 4 postcards, original cat numbers on vinyl [PMC 7067/8])
NOTABLE RELATED SINGLES
Hey Jude/Revolution (1968, 7”, Apple R 5722, company bag)
Hey Jude/Revolution (1976, 7” in “Singles Collection” p/s, Apple R 5722)
Hey Jude/Revolution (1982, 7” in “live” p/s, Apple R 5722)
Hey Jude/Revolution (1988, 7” in “parrot” p/s, Apple R 5722)
Hey Jude/Revolution (1988, 7” Picture Disc in clear sleeve, Apple RP 5722)
Hey Jude/Revolution (1988, 12” Picture Disc with backing insert, Apple 12 RP 5722)
Hey Jude/Revolution (1989, 3” CD Single, “parrot” p/s, Apple CD3R 5722)
Hey Jude/Revolution (1992, 5” CD Single, “live” p/s, Apple CDR 5722)