Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Deep Thoughts

In the year 2000, I decided to take my (mostly) American pressings of Fab vinyl albums, and re-created my own (perfectly legal) CDR version of The Beatles catalogue. I had been inspired by articles in Goldmine magazine about The Beatles original U.S. catalogue, and found myself longing for the albums I grew up with. In theory, I sided with The Fabs and their original "artistic vision" of how their albums should be sequenced. But, even though I wouldn't admit it to myself, many of the bastardized American configurations were more appealing than the ones officially sanctioned by the Fabs. The CDs released in the late 1980s were not only based on the original U.K. albums, but also had lackluster mixes, and shoddy packaging. Considering the Beatles' stature, the resulting releases were a disappointment.

Reading the Goldmine articles, which I assume were written by Bruce Spizer, brought back the excitement of buying Beatles records back in the day. While I was a bit too young to get all the albums when they were new, by the late 1960s I was all caught up. So eight years ago, I decided to take all of my records, and burn the whole lot onto CDRs, each disc chock full of music. Besides being able to enjoy the original Beatles albums, I was able to become reacquainted with the original sequences, and the original chronology of the releases.

The first step was to record all the albums onto cassette (to make sure they wouldn't skip). Then I needed to decide on the sequencing, and try to (ideally) fit two albums - with bonus material - onto each CD. The final product was twelve discs : Ten CDs of the regular albums, plus two extra discs: One featuring the Hollywood Bowl and the U.S. Rarities albums, the other had both the mono and stereo mixes of Magical Mystery Tour.

While listening to these CDs after I originally made them, I developed a new found respect for their early material. Previously, if I felt like putting on an official Beatles album, it was usually something from their "studio years". The original early Capitol albums had been so maligned (and often packaged with cheesy graphics) , that I would just focus from Sgt. Pepper onwards. Since The Fabs were constantly progressing as artists, I considered their later years as being "superior", even though hearing their earlier songs on the radio continued to bring me much joy. I was also more aware of the later releases when they were brand new, so I had more of an emotional connection to those albums. Plus the Capitol albums were so short, you had to get up to change sides every 15 minutes ! Once I made my own CDR collection, with each disc close to 80 minutes in length, I could listen to Beatles CDs uninterrupted, with over 20 (if not 30) songs on many of discs.

My eldest son has been getting into the Beatles after reading a book about them. He seems intrigued by the quirky differences in various Beatles songs (like the hi-hat intro on the German E.P. version of "All My Loving"). He has his own favorite songs - and parts of different songs. Currently, he's into the period from Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper.

This inspired me to dig out my own home-made CD collection. I first wanted to revisit Rubber Soul. Once I got started, I couldn't stop. One CD led to another, and I pretty much listened to their entire session works from 1964 through 1967.

Of course I've must have heard these songs hundreds of times or more over the decades, yet they still sounded fresh It was interesting that while listening to all these familiar songs in my car, I still discovered (or re-discovered) many wonderful aspects in these recordings.

Since I was driving, I couldn't really take notes, but there were certain aspects that I remember jumping out at me. It was not a new observation that the lengths of many of their early songs, including classics like "Yesterday" and "Norwegian Wood", were in the two to two-and-a-half minute range. Indeed, some of the early Capitol albums were less than a half-hour in length. However I found it interesting that while listening to songs on albums like A Hard Days Night and Beatles VI, even within the tight 150 second barrier, the writing team of Lennon and McCartney would often repeat a verse or two within that framework. For example: The title song from the Fabs first movie was written to order virtually overnight, and features a very simple lyrical pattern: One verse repeated three times, another verse half repeated later in the song (after the solo) , and a middle eight repeated twice. This technique was quite prevelent in those days.

I was trying to think about what I found so appealing about their records when I was a kid. The fact that many songs were short and upbeat must have made it irresistible to someone so young. The repeated verses must have made them instantly memorable.

The arrangements also kept your ears on their toes. One thing that stood out in the earlier material was the percussion. Ringo kept changing his drumming patterns in innovative yet unobtrusive ways, which would subtly keep the listener tuned in. Energetic tambourine playing also kept the excitement going, and filled in the basic guitar-bass-drum sound. The interplay of George's guitar lines, Paul's bass playing, and the occasional addition of producer George Martin's piano playing all complimented and contrasted each other, with the instruments often "speaking" to each other in an almost call-and-response manner, playing sympathetically and effortlessly. The addition of Harrison's ringing twelve-string guitar added an additional, fuller, exotic element to the mix.

The most appealing aspect of these songs was probably the feeling of the "warmth" that comes through the speakers while listening to these tracks. One factor is the addition of acoustic guitars, as both primary and secondary instruments. But the most seductive aspect had to have been the dual lead harmony vocals of John and Paul.

Hearing Lennon's thinner, tougher, nasal vocals blended with McCartney's warmer, optimistic voice just fills the heart with joy. This is not just limited to their love songs. Even the ones about being hurt still sound optimistic.

A good example would be "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" (Beatles VI) . The constant chord changes and cascading guitar riffs in the introduction lure the listener in. John and Paul are soon sharing the lead vocals; Lennon seeming to be the one who actually was at the party, with McCartney beautifully echoing John's thoughts and emotions. The lyrics make it sound like John is depressed, yet the harmonies lift the spirits, as does the middle eight. There they sing about how even thought his girlfriend let him down, he was still in love, and was optimistic about finding her. It's interesting to revisit this song as an adult. Lennon and McCartney were in their early-to-mid 20s, having lots of fun on the road (and elsewhere), yet could still write convincing, adolescent, pseudo-naive love songs.

It was also interesting to listen to the configurations of the American albums in this context. Many people have already commented on the differences. I agree, for instance, that the U.S. "acoustic" version of Rubber Soul is a more pleasurable listening experience than the official 14-song U.K. album. But over the past few years I've been getting into the U.S. equivalent of the late 1964 release, Beatles For Sale album. When I was young. I asked for the Beatles '65 and Beatles VI as presents one year, not realizing they both made up the Beatles fourth British album, with eight "bonus" tracks. This period is seen as a side-step, or even a step down, after the effervescent early "Beatlemania" phase, epitomized by the only all Lennon-McCartney album, the U.K. version of A Hard Day's Night. But I come here today to sing the praises of this unfairly maligned phase in Beatles history.

Most people chalk it up to being exhausted after world tours, a film, TV and radio appearances, press conferences, a non-stop flow of recordings, and the introduction of marijuana. Even Sir George Martin has been quoted as feeling lukewarm about this period . On the cover of For Sale, the Fab Four seem tired, no longer like smiling, happy-go-lucky mop-tops.

The sequencing of the U.K. album was uninspired. Although it starts out strong, the only tracks featuring George and Ringo as vocalists, both written by Carl Perkins, were relegated to side two. Also the choice of "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby" as the closing number seems puzzling. Any of the three songs at the end of side one, as well as side two's "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party", would have been a better choice as a sonic send-off.

After an album of all-original material, the Fabs resorted to the previous formula of mixing covers with original songs. The new Lennon/McCartney originals, however, showed a new maturity, with an obvious Bob Dylan influence, especially in the opening Lennon-centric trilogy. The songs seemed darker, more mysterious. The Beatles were now stepping into some deeper, emotionally richer, territory. The tone and delivery of Lennon's vocal, particularly in "No Reply", made it all ring true, with a dramatic reading enhanced in the jarring realizations of the situation, echoed by the vocal enhancements. The unusual structure of the middle-eight also grabs the listener's attention. This tour de force gives the album a powerful beginning. It also sets the experimental tone for things to come.

Country music was also highlighted later in the album. Besides covering two of Carl Perkins' rockabilly classics (with Ringo replacing John as lead vocalist on "Honey Don't") , Lennon and McCartney come up with the country-tinged "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party." There were also a few minor treasures tucked away on side two of For Sale (and Beatles VI), like "What You're Doing" and "Every Little Thing". Even "Mr. Moonlight", which ended up on Beatles '65, (and often competes with "Revolution 9" as the worst Beatles track ever), has a certain charm.
The great out-take "Leave My Kitten Alone" is also from these sessions. All in all, a great selection of songs, a giant step forward in their evolution, and something that deserves to be revisited and re-evaluated.

Over the years, there has been a battle over which is the better Beatles album - or possibly the best album of all time: Revolver or Sgt. Pepper? I've long ago stopped categorizing music like that. It seems to get in the way of enjoying art for what it is. However, it is still an interesting debate. Pepper was more than an instant classic - it was a global event. Praise went through the roof (in most quarters). It threw out the rock and roll rules book. Yet over time there was a back lash, and Revolver (and Rubber Soul) were thought of as superior albums, and all of these album were challenged by the Beach Boys 1966 album, Pet Sounds.

Of course what is "better" is in the ears of the beholder. For me, Revolver will always be marred by the fact that I originally bought the U.S. version of this 1966 release, which had three of John's songs missing. These tracks had already been pulled for the "Yesterday" . .and Today album, complied and released earlier in the year. This left a lop-sided impression of the album for American fans. John was represented by only two songs, which was one less than George had! . The Lennon tracks included were the most bizarre and radical songs the band had done up to that time, and they made John seem like he had gone completely over the edge. Also, the "warmth" of just about all other Fab albums was sacrificed in order to explore more "serious" musical experimentation.

I often wonder if Capitol had decided to butcher Revolver just like they had done all other Beatles albums, would it have changed my opinion? For instance, if "I'm Down" replaced "Nowhere Man" on Y&T, and a couple of more songs were removed from Revolver, and we had a final lineup something like this:

1. Taxman
2. Eleanor Rigby
3. Rain
4. Here There and Everywhere
5. Yellow Submarine
6. She Said She Said

1. Paperback Writer
2 Nowhere Man
3. For No One
4. I Want To Tell You
5. Got To Get You Into My Life
6. Tomorrow Never Knows

Maybe then I could appreciate it more ? Not that I don't think it's a great album. I love everything the Beatles have done. Of course I like some things more than others. Most artists aren't even worthy of comparison (not that it's a contest). It's just I think that if the Capitol version had it's own "personality", it might give me a different perspective.

The growth of the Fabs' musical talents was getting more impressive with each album, especially in 1965 and 1966. After listening to my CDR that had Y&T and Revolver, it was time to listen to the "1967" disc. It started with the single of "Strawberry Fields"/"Penny Lane", then went into the entire Sgt. Pepper album, then the rest of their songs that eventually ended up on the Magical Mystery Tour album.

The first time I became aware of Sgt. Pepper was when I went to my music class while I was in elementary school. It was held in a special room adjacent to the cafeteria. The music teacher brought the album in, and I guess we listened to it, and learned about it. Soon afterwards I had my own copy. This must have been in the fall of 1967. It was a fantastic listening experience, even though it was a little over my head. The cover art was mesmerizing, and the elaborate costumes, exotic instruments, gate fold sleeve, moustaches, and psychedelic sounds were pretty mind-boggling for a second-grader. The fact that we learned about in school (of all places) made it that much more impressive.

After forty years of listening to this album, I wasn't expecting to be blow away. But on the heels on Revolver, Sgt. Pepper was once again a revelation. To say it was innovative is an understatement. They were more than nice little rock and roll combo. They were innovators. They were inspired. Their talents were overflowing. The texture of the music was breathtaking.

Those that criticize Sgt. Pepper tend to focus on things like inferior songwriting and that the concept doesn't go anywhere. These people miss the point. This is a listening experience. Billy Shears is leading you on a dream-like trip. There's no script for you to follow. The reason it works is that you (the listener) let your imagination take you from the circus to India and then back to the Big Band Era. It means whatever you want it to mean. The songs were less defined than previous efforts, but that's what made them work. The arrangements were miles ahead of what anyone else was doing at the time, including the Beach Boys, Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, or even the Revolver-era Beatles. All of those artists were achieving other individual artistic breakthroughs at the time. It was a great time for music. It's easy to be cynical and jaded when thinking about this era. But I invite you to listen to Sgt. Pepper again, with an open mind, and experience the album for what it is. Hopefully you'll be able to appreciate it anew, just as I did.

1 comment:

chris-huff said...

Really love the blog! Isn't that interesting about Norwegian Wood being so short? I play this song at gigs all the time, and it's always like "whoop it's over"...so many of their songs just cut to the chase. When Oasis first came out, I remember being like "Their songs should be half as long" because they were clearly imitating the Beatles (and not half bad at it) but they would repeat the ENTIRE song to make it 5 minutes instead of 2 1/2....

I own the original mono vinyl version of Sgt. Pepper, and you can totally tell that it was intended to be listened to in mono (actually I read a comment by George Martin or someone in one of the books where he says this, that's why I paid for the LP lol). Sounds were meant to be listened to in combination to form new sounds (combine a trumpet and a Mellotron for example mixed together so that you can't tell what the hell it is). It was never meant to be broken down so that you could hear all the parts. So, while the CD is still awesome, the mono version is genius! That's something most people miss about Sgt. Pepper - the innovative quality of the combinations of sounds. Cool blog!