Fly-by: Coming Soon

Hey there!  Sorry for the delay in posts…it’s been quite the busy month here in JoncWorld.  What with tax season, preparations and travel for a week’s vacation back to New England, some serious revision work going on, as well as other personal events, I’m afraid I’ve been lax here at Walk in Silence as of late.  I aim to change that (again).  So!  A short list of possible upcoming posts….

–Radio Radio: College radio versus Progressive radio in the 80s

–The Audience-less Live Album:  A (brief) subgenre, or shameless re-recording?

–Wanting My MTV: Free-form, New Wave and other subgenres on pre-1984 MTV

–Teenage Thunder: An overview of Sigue Sigue Sputnik (no, really!)

–Collecting in the Digital Age: Building an mp3 collection of classic albums and tracks

 

I hope to start writing these within the next week or so, after the Easter holiday.  Stay tuned! :)

Throwback Thursday: Spring 1989

Ah, twenty-five years already, then? A quarter century already since I was a pimply, music-obsessed, self-proclaimed nonconformist and budding writer, twitchy and moody and waiting for my senior year in high school to be over and done with so I could go out and live in the Big Bad World. My senior year felt like a badly scripted, unwanted denouement, to be honest. I really should have been a year ahead. I say this now, well after the fact, because after twenty-five years of contemplation, I realize it wasn’t that I was lazy or had any learning deficiency, it’s that I was bored. And boredom begets distraction. And distraction begets so-so grades. And I never quite got out of that slump, not really. I think if I’d graduated in 1988 instead, it would have forced me to put more effort into it, made me work to my potential. It would have made me mature a hell of a lot quicker. As it happens, I ended up coasting for the rest of my education years instead when I should have excelled.

But that’s a different post altogether. This is a music blog, isn’t it?

Credit: flyerize.com

Credit: flyerize.com

Spring 1989 was right about the time when that beloved radio subgenre of mine, college rock, finally emerged from its late night perch and started making its presence known elsewhere. Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s a lot more to it than a wider audience. Consider the following:

–In late 1988 (the September 10th issue, to be exact), Billboard acknowledged the subgenre for the first time with a “Modern Rock Tracks” chart.

–The Top 40 of the late 80s was in flux, with all different kinds of pop music gaining traction. Top 40 rock was giving way to Top 40 dance music. Many production-ready sounds had emerged as well, thanks to production houses like Stock Aitken Waterman. This was especially embraced by the poppier end of the MTV playlist, thanks to heavy rotation as well as shows like Club MTV. This let the occasional unexpected hit sneak into the charts now and again, giving other subgenres an opening for success.

–The rock sounds of early in the decade and the one before it–the arena rock, the LA glam metal, the Michael-Mann-approved, Miami Vice-ready mood pieces, and the last dregs of 70s bar band sounds–had begun to age, and age badly. Harder, more serious rock like Guns n’ Roses and Metallica became the accepted norm. [Come to think of it, this is probably around the same time many FM rock stations divided between "current rock" and "classic rock" formats.]

credit: discogs.com

credit: discogs.com

–Several British subgenres of rock emerged or were noticed in America about this time as well: shoegaze, Madchester, Britpop, etc. Many were noticed and release by major American labels at this time. They may not have made high chart placement, but they were starting to get noticed. Several local US scenes were gaining traction as well: Seattle, Boston, Athens, and so on.

–Even the American punk scene was in flux, many of its major late-70s/early-80s players (Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Black Flag, et al) either having broken up, evolved considerably, or on their way to self-destruction. There would always be the hardcore punk in its many sounds and guises, and it would remain in the shadows where it wanted to be, but the newer sounds were more steeped in the post-punk sound–equally as emotional in its delivery, but more melodic and adventurous in its sound. This sound was less influenced by the DIY punk ethos and more by the UK post-punk sounds of just a few years earlier.

credit: thequietus.com

credit: thequietus.com

–Two years earlier in late 1987, we also saw an influx of uniquely college-rock bands releasing highly lauded albums, elevating them past the college-radio-only playlists and onto commercial radio: The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode, REM, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and so on. Many of these were on Warner Bros-related labels, and a number of them had the backing of Sire Records head Seymour Stein. [Seriously, we need a bio of this man, STAT...he was such a big influence on the New Wave scene.]

By 1989, for this music nerd and self-proclaimed nonconformist, I felt both liberated and a little saddened by this change in the weather. On the one hand, I was thrilled that the music I had so loved since that fateful evening in April 1986 was finally getting its due…but at the same time, it felt like it was losing its mystique in the process. After all, this was the music I listened to on my own. It was my music, the songs that spoke to me. I tried to take the high road with this one, though…I felt it was high time my peers stopped listening to the prepackaged crap that radio was feeding us and listen to music with substance.

Credit: discogs.com

Credit: discogs.com

Style versus substance…that was the big debate of the 80s, wasn’t it? Do you want something pleasing to the eyes and ears but superficial, or do you want something of deep meaning but not exactly pretty to look at or listen to? I’d like to think that’s why New Order chose Substance as the title for its 1987 hits collection (and by extension, its Joy Division collection as well); they may also be making sequenced dance music, but put “Blue Monday” side by side with “Never Gonna Give You Up” and one can definitely hear the difference. One was destined for status of classic dance track that’s still embraced today, the other the subject of a hokey (yet admittedly amusing) internet meme. The genre could be similar, but the quality couldn’t be any more different.

Then there’s also the change that comes with the change in decades as well. It’s often been noted that the last few years of a decade tend to show a decline in the interests that once defined them–the flower power of 1967 gave way to the high-octane politics of 1968; the blissful haze of the 70s gave way to the discontent of the late 70s. The paranoia and the wackiness of the early 80s was giving way to the more serious and reflective late 80s. There was also the fact we were coming in on the last decade of the millennia as well. We wondered what the 90s would bring us–the promised jetpacks? World peace? Information at our fingertips? The possibilities!

I’d like to think that this calmer introspection was yet another piece in the puzzle that led to college rock, and in effect other rock subgenres, becoming more acceptable. Yes, I know, it might be a stretch, but think about it–when you’re thirteen, things you dislike are stupid (or in the 80s New England parlance, fucken retahded), but when you’re hitting eighteen and about to head off to college, these things aren’t as important on your popularity scale and you start accepting different things easier. Where Metallica was once only listenable to those long-haired smoking weirdos who wore denim jackets and drove to school in Camaros, in 1989 they had a massive hit with the song “One”–a song based on a 30s war novel at that. By 1989 we had chart hits from Faith No More, Fine Young Cannibals, Love and Rockets, REM, The B-52s, Nine Inch Nails, and more.

Credit: discogs.com

Credit: discogs.com

In early May, just as I was finally winding down my educational years in my small hometown, The Cure released what would be considered their best album ever, Disintegration. It was prefaced by two different singles: in the UK, the slinky and creepy “Lullaby” reached all the way to #5, and in the US the darker and angrier “Fascination Street” became their first US chart hit, hitting #1 on the new Modern Rock Tracks list. This was new stuff for those unfamiliar with the band, and for those like me and my close friends, this was definitely new stuff. The Cure had always retained a darker sound since their inception, but after the much brighter sounds of 1985′s The Head on the Door and the poppier, more psychedelic sounds of 1987′s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Disintegration was an altogether different affair. It was epic not only in scope but in sound, “mixed to be played loud so turn it up” as the liner notes suggest. It was as dark, it was moody, and it was absolutely, stunningly gorgeous.

This album fit perfectly as a final step towards the end of the decade, and it was the soundtrack to the last remaining days I spent in my hometown. I’d spend the summer working for the DPW in the town cemeteries, and I’d be listening to this album on repeat on my Walkman while I pushed lawn mowers all over the place. I’d listen to it at night that summer, now that WAMH out of Amherst College was off the air for the season. I’d been writing a gloriously doom-laden teen roman à clef and several poems/lyrics at the time (you know how it is when you’re that age), and used this album as a soundtrack as well. And when August rolled around and my buddy Chris had his first of a few “fiasco” parties as his grandfather’s cabin out on Packard Pond, this album got heavy airplay both on our tape players while we laughed, played cards and did other silly things, and again on my Walkman as I finally climbed into bed later that night.

On the last day of that party, after we all cleaned and straightened up and headed back to our homes, I sat on the front porch at my parents’ house and listened to it one more time on my headphones, composition book in hand in case inspiration arose. “Homesick” came on, and I latched on to the lyrics: “So just one more, just one more go / inspire in me, the desire in me, to never go home.” It was the perfect ending quote to my life up to that time–not that I don’t like it here, but PLEASE give me a reason to move on. It was the end of summer, I’d be heading to Boston for college in a month, and I was just itching to get started with the new chapter of my life. And to add to the bittersweet end of the season, the last track, “Untitled”, came on with its slightly-offkey melodica intro, creating a melody that would repeat ad nauseum until all the instruments left again, leaving the offkey melodica drifting way. The lyrics to “Untitled” were the polar opposite of “Homesick”, a last tearful goodbye delivered with such a mortal finality it felt like heartache. While the former was “okay, time to move on and embrace the future”, the latter was “oh, and by the way–you can never return to the past.”

Indeed, I could not, no matter how much I may have wanted to.

*

I’ve returned to my past many times over the years, mostly with writing works in progress, song lyrics and poems, and quite a few blog posts, but I understand that I can’t stay there indefinitely. It took me little while in college to understand that, but I eventually got over it. Now, I enjoy heading back to the days of the late 80s, especially with my overly large music collection. I like to listen to what came out back then and compare it to what’s out now. I can see and hear the cycles now, the songs of yesterday hidden in the songs of today. I talk with many of the same people in that circle of friends online now, even though a continent separates us. I might not be the twitchy self-proclaimed nonconformist anymore, though I am still that writer and music nerd.

So I think after twenty-five years, it’s a good balance.

WiS: We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!!

I’ve been wanting to write this post since the two remastered cds came out in the middle of last year, and now I can finally do so! We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!!, aka Fuzzbox here in the states, was a cute and punky quartet out of Birmingham UK, and one of my first music crushes when I started listening to alternative rock. They’d been brought to my attention right about the same time as Sigue Sigue Sputnik in the glossy music mag Star Hits, and upon seeing their crazy-colored and spritzed hair and Goodwill-chic punky fashion, I was completely hooked–which in all honesty wasn’t really hard, considering it didn’t take much to rebel in a small town like mine. They made me realize punk wasn’t just about rebelling against society, like American punk had suggested–it was also about doing your own thing, however out there it might be, and not giving a shit about what other people thought about it.

Fuzzbox was only together for a short time, releasing only two albums and a handful of singles (like most punk bands were wont to do during the 80s, it seems) before going their separate ways, but they were just so damn fun to listen to that it didn’t matter.

Credit: last.fm - l-r, Tina, Vix, Magz & Jo

Credit: last.fm – l-r, Tina, Vix, Magz & Jo

Fuzzbox started sometime in 1985 with four friends who’d decided to start a band. And like any punk band worth their salt at the time, mastering your instrument wasn’t exactly high on the list of priorities. Consisting of Vickie Perks (aka Vix) on vocals, Tina O’Neill on drums and sax, and sisters Maggie (aka Magz–vocals, keys and guitars) and Jo Dunne (bass, guitars and keys), they immediately jumped in on the occasional open mike night at the local bars and learned their chops onstage. It’s said Maggie was the creator of the band name, announcing that they did in fact have a fuzz distortion guitar pedal they were about to use.

Their debut single was the gritty and poppy “XX Sex”, with shockingly direct feminist lyrics about exploitation and sexism in the media. They followed up with a ridiculous and silly summer single with labelmates The Nightingales and Ted Chippington with “Rockin’ with Rita”, and by summer’s end they were given a spot on the highly influential NME C86 compilation with “Console Me”. They prefaced their debut album that October with a jittery and bass-heavy single about unrequited love, “Love Is the Slug”, my musical introduction to them via MTV’s 120 Minutes.

Credit: fuzzbox.angelfire.com

Credit: fuzzbox.angelfire.com

Bostin’ Steve Austin (released as a self-titled album here in the states, but with the same cover) was released in December of 1986, featuring a dozen gems about the girls’ life in Birmingham–not just containing the teen heartbreak of “Love Is the Slug” and “Jackie”, it also contains the confrontational “XX Sex” and “What’s the Point” (their follow-up single released in January of 1987) and “Preconceptions”, as well as a weirdly hypnotic cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. The quality of the music here is surprisingly tight, even when it hints at sounding on the verge of disintegrating into a distorted mess. Vix’s lyrics alternate between playful, angry, and emotional, and despite the simplicity of the melodies there’s a lot going on musically. The stop-start of “You Got Me”, the building tension in “Love Is the Slug” and even the 60s-girl-group pastiche of “Hollow Girl” works perfectly.

Bostin’ Steve Austin got a ridiculous amount of play on my tape players between early 1987 and mid-1989–this was the side of punk that I gravitated to, the revelation that I didn’t have to try fitting in with the in-crowd anymore. I didn’t really need to do much, of course–wear some of my college rock tee-shirts, my grandfather’s green trenchcoat, and let my hair grow out of its quintessentially 80s spiky ‘do (but not to the point of longhaired metaldom), and start writing music reviews for albums hardly anyone else in my school listened to.

Meanwhile, Fuzzbox disappeared for a short while, and would reappear in early 1989 with a completely new and unexpected look and sound. I admit I wasn’t entirely sure how to approach it at first, having twitched and thought “oh god, they’ve become Jem and the Holograms.” But there was something about it…something about the slick late 80s production, the chart-ready poppiness, that called to me. I began to realize that this was the forbidden candy for me as a fan of college rock, the ultimate test: do I dare admit that, after labeling myself an alternative music nerd and a nonconformist, that I actually enjoyed this admittedly catchy music?

Credit: www.independent.ie - clockwise from top left: Vix, Maggie, Tina, Jo

Credit: http://www.independent.ie – clockwise from top left: Vix, Magz, Tina, Jo

Gone was the thrift-shop fashion as well, replaced by glitz and glamour. The fuzziness of their sound was also gone, replaced by shiny synthesizers and sequencers. They now had an outsider as a cowriter of songs in the form of session musician/producer Liam Sternberg. And yet…

…and yet, there was something about this new album, Big Bang, that I just could not give it up. I was older and now in college, and yet the music hinted at the readymade poppiness of 80s Top 40, the kind that was throwaway and yet catchy and likable at the same time. The Brummie humor was still there, hiding in the lyrics of lead single “International Rescue”, a loving ode to the Gerry Anderson tv classic Thunderbirds (and, in the video, a humorous nod to Jane Fonda’s Barbarella as well).

Credit: musicstack.com

Credit: musicstack.com

Big Bang kicked off with the irresistibly poppy “Pink Sunshine” (and also released as the second single) and my immediate reaction was to wonder where the hell my punk goddesses had gone off to…but I soon understood what they were doing. This wasn’t about rebelling, not anymore. It was about being an adult now, having gotten over the teenage growing pains. These were the Brummie girls stuck in their jobs, dealing with the drudgery of the real world and letting it all loose at the end of the working week.
There’s a lot of flirting and emotion going on with this album, and that’s part of what makes it so irresistible. There’s the rocking sci-fi of “Fast Forward Futurama”, the heartbreak of “Self!” (featuring the guitar work of none other than Queen’s Brian May!), and the gorgeous dancefloor bliss of “Versatile for Discos and Parties” (quite possibly my favorite track off the album). There’s even a brilliant cover of Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice”, retaining the song’s mystique but giving it additional emotional beauty. The album ends on a very somber yet lovely note with a track called “Beauty”, which sounds like nothing else they’ve ever recorded.

Big Bang‘s shameless pop wasn’t shameless at all–it was a loving tribute to the dance pop of the decade, one that was about to come to a close. The sound of 80s pop would age, and often not for the best, but when it was done right, it was still fun to listen to. A few years later, once I discovered anime movies and series, from Urusei Yatsura and Silent Möbius and later to the Gall Force series and Sailor Moon, I began to realize that, thanks to Big Bang, I now had begun a long-lasting love affair with Japanese Pop (aka J-Pop). I began seeing the album as an unintended but spot-on paean to the J-Pop so prevalent in the credits and montages in anime, and that made me love the album even more. It’s pure pop, but it’s still irresistibly fun.

In 1990 they would release a final single, “Your Loss My Gain”, written for a never-realized third album, and while it seemed they were progressing in a more mature pop direction, they soon split up. They all went their separate ways. Only Vix remained in the music industry, recording under various band names including Vix n’ the Kix. Three compilations would surface a bit over a decade later: two albums of demos and outtakes called Fuzz and Nonsense and Rules & Regulations to Pink Sunshine: The Fuzzbox Story, and a greatest hits collection amusingly titled Look at the Hits on That (a very Fuzzbox-worthy pun title). And in 2010, Vix, Maggie and Jo reunited with the help of Vix’s backing band for a one-off single, a cover of M’s classic track “Pop Muzik”. Sadly, Jo would pass away from a cancer-related illness in 2012, but a year later, Vix decided it was time to rerelease the band’s 80s discography. Bostin’ Steve Austin would finally have its debut on compact disc, and Big Bang would contain all the remaining 80s tracks, including the “Your Loss My Gain” single.

We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!! was a band that influenced not just my listening habits but my way of life when I was growing up in the late 80s; it was a refreshing view of punk-as-freedom rather than punk-as-anger, and helped me realize that the music I listen to, then and now. My tastes still lean towards the alternative, but I’m not above the shamelessly pop, especially if it’s done well. In relistening to Bostin Steve Austin I now hear a lot of the intelligence and fearlessness in the lyrics, which makes me appreciate it all the more. And as an added bonus, they’re there if all I want is some great and fun music to listen to.

Check it out:
Bostin Steve Austin: Splendiferous Edition, at Amazon.co.uk
Big Bang!: Orgasmatron Edition, at Amazon.co.uk
“Pop Muzik” single on iTunes

Blogging the Beatles 55/56/57: post-breakup releases, “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”

When the Beatles officially broke up in 1970, the world didn’t so much end as it soldiered on, just as it was supposed to.  It was truly the end of an era–the band that defined the sixties pretty much stayed within the confines of its decade, and its four band members moved onto newer and more personal phases of their musical careers. There were of course many fans who wished it were otherwise, that the four would iron out their differences and reconvene, but it was not to be. They’d already started focusing on their own personal projects as early as 1966, perhaps thought about splitting up when Brian Epstein died in 1967, and definitely started doing things on their own by 1968. It was time for a new chapter in their lives.

John Lennon had already made a name for himself separate from the band via his music, his art and film projects, his personal politics, and his relationship with Yoko Ono. By 1970 he’d created his own ersatz group, the Plastic Ono Band, whose members shifted with whoever happened to be available at the time. This was less of a group than it was merely an umbrella name that he only use whenever he felt like it. After three experimental albums with Yoko and one shaky live album, his first post-band project would be the harrowing, brutally honest John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, released in December of 1970, his “primal scream” album wherein he exorcised as many personal demons as he could–his lack of parental guidance, his distrust of idolatry–but it also gave us the gorgeous “Love”. John would follow up the equally personal but much less abrasive Imagine, the dangerously political Some Time in New York City, and the lost-weekend trio of Mind Games, Walls and Bridges and Rock & Roll before deciding to call it a day. In 1975 he would give up the public life so he could raise his on Sean. It wasn’t until 1980 that he and Yoko would come back recharged with enough material to release two albums: the lovely Double Fantasy and, after his unfortunate assassination that December, the equally fantastic Milk and Honey in 1984.  His legacy still lives on separate from the group, seen as many things: an innovator, a misguided cynic, a downright bastard, and a loving husband.

Paul McCartney would have the most prominent and prodigious post-Beatles career. He followed up his official solo debut McCartney (1970) with an equally creative album under both his and Linda’s name, Ram, in 1971. Soon after that he created a new band named Wings, which, after a few bumps in the road (live, as well as with the releases Wild Life and other early singles), he soon hit his stride. He understood and accepted the fact that he could write a good, catchy pop song at the drop of a hat, and released a long string of singles and albums, starting with 1973′s ballad “My Love”, the killer James Bond theme “Live and Let Die”, and Red Rose Speedway. He followed this up with a string of hit singles and albums: Band on the Run, Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Light, “Jet”, “Silly Love Songs”, “Listen to What the Man Said”, “Let ‘Em In”…all the way up to 1979′s danceable hit “Goodnight Tonight”. The band would break up during the 1980-1981 period for various reasons, some personal, some public–but Paul soldiered on into the 80s with another string of hits. This era may have also been chock full of albums and singles, but by 1986 and Press to Play his star seemed to be waning a bit. He briefly returned to the limelight with the excellent Flowers in the Dirt in 1989, using new backing players and working closely with Elvis Costello on a number of tracks. More well-made but indifferently-received albums and singles followed, including a fantastic electronica-based side project called The Fireman, but it wasn’t until 1997′s Flaming Pie that he was back in the limelight. That album, inspired by the Beatles’ Anthology project as well as his relationship with Linda during the last few years of her life before she succumbed to cancer, gave fans not only a fresh and updated sound but melodies steeped in nostalgia. His output would slow down from here on in, but he would never completely stop. Last year’s unexpected album New was a lovely treat and a great example of a man who simply loves the craft of music, regardless.

George Harrison’s solo career may have been bumpy, but he never let that stop him. Having created an impressively large backlog of as-yet-unrecorded songs, some rejected by John and Paul for Beatle work, he released the impressive three-disc All Things Must Pass in November of 1970, and it still stands as one of the best post-breakup albums. His following output did lean towards the spiritual side, but it didn’t always smother the end result with proselytizing. For every “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” and “My Sweet Lord” there was “This Guitar (Can’t Keep from Crying)” and “All Those Years Ago”. There were a few misses here and there, but he was always true to himself, rarely if ever writing a throwaway song that he’d later be embarrassed by. By 1982 and Gone Troppo, however, he’d decided to let go of the music for awhile, focusing instead on his private life and his film production company Handmade Films. It wasn’t until 1987′s brilliant comeback Cloud Nine that he came back into focus, not just with that album but the supergroup Traveling Wilburys, who would release a much-heralded self-titled album the following year. By 1992, however, he’d only released the Live in Japan as a follow-up, and would not release any further solo albums in his lifetime. He had been working on a final album, 2002′s Brainwashed, before his death from cancer in 2001.  His son Dhani had played a significant role in those final recordings, and his legacy lives on in his son, who now sings and plays guitar in his own band, thenewno2.

Ringo Starr, on the other hand, would have the most interesting and varied post-band career. After a one-two punch of albums in 1970 (Beaucoups of Blues and Sentimental Journey) recorded more for his own (and, supposedly, his mother’s) enjoyment, he would release a number of albums chock full of fun pop and rock songs, starting with 1973′s Ringo. This album featured not only an incredibly large and varied number of cameos from his musician friends, it would also feature music and even separate performances alongside a few of his former bandmates. They would always show up on his releases, writing a song or two or playing guitar on a few tracks. He too caught the film bug, becoming an actor for a number of odd, quirky films such as Candy, The Magic Christian (filmed during the final Beatle days), Son of Dracula, and more. His last major role would be in the b-movie farce Caveman in 1981, but he would continue to show up in other productions, from Paul’s 1984 Give My Regards to Broad Street, the kid’s show Shining Time Station, and multiple cameos in other places. His solo albums would become somewhat scattered from the early 80s onwards, but he more than makes up for it by his consistent touring under the “All-Starr Band” moniker, playing beside all his musician friends in a hit-filled revue.

*     *     *

The Beatles’ music itself never really fell from the spotlight in the 70s, for varying reasons. As EMI owned their music for a long time to come, they would occasionally release compilations to satisfy public demand and keep the band in the limelight. Starting with 1973′s dual compilations 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 (aka the “red” and “blue” albums respectively, for their colored covers that reproduced the iconic Please Please Me/Get Back photos), there would be at least one new compilation every couple of years all the way up to 1982′s 20 Greatest Hits. Some of them, like Rock n’ Roll Music, were obvious cash-ins, but others such as the excellent Love Songs (featuring the brilliant Richard Avedon band photo from a 1967 issue of Look on its cover and inlay) and the curious Rarities made up for it. There were always hints of more rarities being publicly released, such as the aborted Sessions album in 1985, but they never came to pass. By the mid-80s, there was a distinct lack of any new output, and for obvious reasons: the Beatles were finally coming to compact disc!

In 1987 into 1988–most likely to tie in with the “20 years ago today…” Sgt Pepper theme–EMI/Capitol once and for all decided to release the entirety of the Beatles canon on CD. And even more excitingly, the albums were finally going to be released worldwide in their British formats, ridding collections of the endless overlaps and superfluous releases. All the non-album singles were to be collected onto two additional albums called Past Masters Volumes 1 and 2. The vinyl and cassette releases would follow suit, and any previous international and US releases would be considered in the past tense. These releases would remain the last word in Beatles music from here on in.

Sometime in 1992, the remaining Beatles had decided to reconvene to work on a documentary of the band’s history. This had been a background project almost since their breakup in 1970, but in the 90s interest had returned. They would be interviewed by musician-cum-tv-personality Jools Holland and filmed all over the place, from Paul’s Sussex studio to George’s Friar Park mansion to Abbey Road Studios itself, finally telling the real story behind the band after all the years of speculation and confusion. The documentary, simply named The Beatles Anthology, would be a multi-episode documentary as well as a three-volume, multi-cd collection, and a book. By 1994 they were doing much of the post-production on the project, and all three had decided that they were going to work on some incidental music. That idea, however, changed when they felt that they may want to work on a true Beatles project again. George Harrison and Neil Aspinall (their former road manager and later business manager) had known of John’s penchant for demoing his music in the late 70s, and asked Yoko for assistance. She handed them rough tapes of four tracks, two of which would become the all-new Beatles tracks in over two decades.

This would pose a bit of a problem, however: how to record as the Beatles, when it simply wasn’t the Beatles without all four members?

*     *     *

Credit: beatlesbible.com

Credit: beatlesbible.com

Single: “Free As a Bird”
Released: 4 December 1995

“Free As a Bird” started life as one of John’s countless demos that he recorded throughout the 1970s, this one arriving sometime in 1977 during his tenure as stay-at-home dad at their Manhattan apartment, the Dakota. It’s somewhat of a slow and meandering song, but it’s got all the qualities of a true Lennon original: it contains a number of fascinating chord changes, its lyrics are wistful and heartfelt, and despite its somewhat somber melody, it’s truly a hopeful tune. And once the other three fleshed it out into a complete song, it contains some of the most breathtaking sounds and production since the days of Abbey Road. Ably co-produced by former Electric Light Orchestra frontman and fellow Traveling Wilbury (and huge Beatles fan!) Jeff Lynne, it is one of their strongest tracks ever, and with good reason: this is the Beatles of 1994-95, influenced not only by their old sounds but by their combined solo output. It’s equal parts Abbey Road, Double Fantasy, Flowers in the Dirt, Traveling Wilburys, and Time Takes Time, all in one four-and-a-half minute track.

The answer to the above problem was in the form of a few cassettes from John’s demo collection, handed over from Yoko to Paul. The band took this project very seriously; if any of the members disliked what they heard, they would not release it. There was also the trick of taking a homemade recording of somewhat dubious quality, and supplementing it with a full band in the studio. They would rely on their old studio tricks for this: the recording would be processed to as clear quality as possible, vocals beefed up by Paul and George, and the arrangement would be supplemented by bridges and a few different chord changes by them as well. The new lyrics turned the theme from one of John’s “I feel just fine at home doing little at all” lyrics into an altogether different one; it now became a wistful song of remembrance–similar to John’s “In My Life”, it became one of both sadness and hope.  And luckily, all three members felt the end result was fantastic.  Even Ringo commented that “it sounds like them” (meaning his old band)!

A whimsical video was created for the song, directed by Joe Pytka, and was originally used as a supplemental piece to the Anthology television airing. The video is chock full of visual cues of Beatles songs and history. We see shots of the band at the Cavern, all the lonely people crossing the Liverpool docks heading for work, eggmen making their deliveries, pretty nurses selling poppies from a tray, a long and winding road, a helter skelter…the list goes on, eighty to a hundred visual cues coming up throughout. It’s a fantastic feast for the eyes and a hell of a lot of fun for the fan who has waited decades for this moment, to hear and see something new again.

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Credit: beatlesbible.com

Credit: beatlesbible.com

Single: “Real Love”
Released: 4 March 1996

After recording “Free As a Bird”, they chose the somewhat easier track “Real Love”. This one was nearly complete and its demo version had already been released officially on the soundtrack to the 1988 documentary Imagine John Lennon, and they did not need to spend nearly as much time working on it. Once again they’d needed to clean up the cassette and punch up John’s singing by having Paul sing alongside, and John’s guitar playing was supplemented by both Paul and George. It’s not nearly as strong a track as “Free As a Bird”, but it’s definitely catchier and therefore received more airplay than the previous. John’s composition is lighter and brighter, perhaps influenced by the more positive songs he’d written for both Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey, and the end result with the rest of the band is very indicative of the poppier sound of perhaps Rubber Soul. It definitely sounds like an earlier-era track composition-wise. Though the band did enjoy working on this recording as well, it seemed they were not as excited about it as the previous one, perhaps due to the fact that it was for the most part an almost-complete track; at this point they were merely session men completing it.

The video for this track showed up on a later episode of the Anthology airing, and is a much more straightforward visual. Half of it contains footage of the three members recording the track at Paul’s studio in Sussex, the other half being a mystical visual of a white piano–hinting at the same one connected to John and seen in the “Imagine” video–rising up from a pool of water and flying up into the air alongside other instruments and objects. A slow motion sequence of the band’s profiles shows up about halfway through, using footage from John’s film Smile and supplementing it with the slowly smiling faces of Paul, George and Ringo.  It’s an uplifting performance, and in its own way it’s a heartfelt nod to their long-missed, much-loved best friend and former bandmate.

*     *     *

“Free As a Bird” would be the lead-off track on the first Anthology cd, which would be released 21 November 1995, and “Real Love” would lead off the second volume, which was released on 18 March 1996. The two other possible “new” tracks, “Grow Old with Me” (originally on Milk and Honey) and “Now and Then” (unreleased but found on many a bootleg) were not followed up on, although a brief tryout was attempted on “Now and Then” but never recorded. The third Anthology cd would arrive on 28 October 1996, sans any new track. These two songs would remain the last new Beatles tracks recorded and released.  The three volumes however did contain a shockingly large amount of previously officially released recordings, including at least a dozen or so tracks that were recorded for albums but ultimately left off.  This series pretty much clears out the closet, leaving only a scant few remaining tracks unheard by the public.

The Anthology project effectively turned Apple Records back into a living entity, and a long stretch of projects began in earnest. In 1994, we were treated to a fine collection of songs recorded during their frequent visits to BBC Radio (a second volume would arrive years later in 2013). In 1999, a major remastering of the 1968 film Yellow Submarine would be released, and would also treat fans to an altogether new experience: its tie-in album, Yellow Submarine Songtrack, released 13 September of that year, would be the only collection of Beatles tracks completely remastered to multiple tracks. The result is a bit odd, as many of the songs were originally on four tracks and thus sounds a bit empty, but on the other hand, the songs were finally given a lot of breathing room and one can hear many different facets otherwise unavailable.

On 13 November 2000 the new compilation 1 arrived, a collection of songs that would hit Number One on the charts either in the US or in the UK (or both). Exactly three years later, the album Let It Be…Naked popped up, a fascinating look at the band’s final album reimagined without Phil Spector’s overwrought meddling. Some songs retained their Spectorization, such as the creative editing/lengthening of “I Me Mine”, though others like “The Long and Winding Road” and “Across the Universe” finally saw the light as intended, without the sappy strings and choruses.

In 2004 and 2006, Capitol released the two The Capitol Albums box sets, containing the first eight American albums (minus A Hard Day’s Night, originally released on United Artists Records) in their unique remixes. Also in 2006, right around the same time as the mash-up craze, the famed dance/performance troupe Cirque du Soleil created a show called Love, containing nearly all-new mixes and mashups of Beatles tracks and spearheaded by George Martin’s son Giles.

On 9 September 2009, the world was treated to something even better: official Beatles remasters. Although their albums had been lightly touched up and slightly modified over the years as deemed necessary, mainly by George Martin, they had never had such a complete overhaul starting from the original master tapes. They were a significant improvement over the original cd masters–cleaned up and clarified, properly balanced and equalized, prepared for the new generation fans and audiophiles. Both the stereo and mono mixes were given the process and released in glorious box sets reproducing the original album covers, and in some cases even their inner sleeves. The 1987 cd editions were phased out and replaced by the stereo versions of these albums, which have become the standard.

In 2012, the Beatles’ catalog finally got its electronic day in the sun as mp3s, available exclusively (and some say ironically) through iTunes, which later in the year releases a special collection of the band’s loudest tracks, fittingly entitled Tomorrow Never Knows. At the end of 2013 an odd iTunes-only release created solely to circumvent copyright issues sneaks out called The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963, filled with Please Please Me-era alternate takes and BBC recordings. And lastly, the US discography gets another box set release in 2014 (on my birthday, no less). The US Albums is a curious release in that it faithfully reproduces all the albums unique to the US, this time including A Hard Day’s Night as well as The Beatles’ Story (a 1964 documentary album), Yesterday and Today, and Hey Jude, right down to the inner paper sleeves…but contain all the remastered versions, rather than the US remixes that were evident on the 2004/06 box sets.  It’s generally a box set for completists, but it’s well worth it for those interested.

And lastly, Paul and Ringo themselves are continuing to play Beatles songs live on tour to this day.

*     *     *

And in the end…

The band may have broken up over 40 years ago–a year before I was born–but it’s evident that their legacy lives on, as strong and healthy as it always has been. They may not show up on the radio nearly as often as they may have in the 1970s and 1980s, but they continue to be one of the most-loved, most influential, and most important bands in the genre of rock music. Other bands have come and gone that are of equal status, of course. Other bands have also changed the face of music in one way or another, have inspired countless wannabes to pick up an instrument or write a song of their own. The Beatles are merely one of the first in a long line, founding fathers in this particular format of popular music.

They’ve influenced me, inspired me, frustrated me, and been part of my life’s soundtrack since I was around five years old. They’re still one of my top favorite bands ever. When I started writing this series, I made it a point to also learn how to play a number of the songs on guitar. I expected to just know a few more songs in the process, but instead I actually started learning a number of things: unconventional chords, interesting chord changes, how the parts of a melody work together, and how a number of sometimes completely disparate parts make up a unified whole. That last part in particular is of interest, as it made me think more seriously about my writing in general. In seeing how the Beatles deftly created their songs, I now saw how I could make my own prose better. In seeing how they created not just a number of songs but a complete and cohesive album, I now all the moving parts of my stories and make them a complete and cohesive novel. And lastly, I even learned how to listen to music even closer, to not so much analyze it as figure out how they put it together, the flourishes, the creative timing, the dissonance and the dualities.

The Beatles were one hell of a creative band, and in retrospect, I think that simple point is why they’ve stayed with me all these years.

Link/Shameless Plug: Bass playing and other fun musical things

Hey there!

Do me a solid and head on over to my bud Mark Stratton’s blog Aggaspletch (yeah, I’m not sure either, but I like onomatopoeia, so there you go).  He’s got a nifty iPod Challenge series going over there, and that there link is to a guest post about bass playing written by yours truly (yay me!).  He’s got quite the eclectic tastes in music, but he knows his stuff and he’s a great writer to boot.  So check it out!

Blogging the Beatles 53/54: “Let It Be”/”You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” and Let It Be

By early 1970, all four members of the Beatles were already busy with their own solo projects. By the end of 1969, John had already come out with four albums–three of them experimental noise recorded with Yoko, and the fourth being a live album he’d recorded in Canada with a hastily gathered all-star band–as well as two big singles, “Give Peace a Chance” and “Cold Turkey” (with “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” to be rush-released in early February 1970). Ringo had recorded an album of standards called Sentimental Journey that would be released in March. George had only snuck out a single experimental album in May 1969, Electronic Sound, but by the end of 1970 he’d have a triple album release of All Things Must Pass.

Paul, on the other hand, had chosen to lay low. He’d been recording himself, and had only chosen to release his debut solo release, McCartney, when he was good and ready. As luck would have it, however, the original release date of Let It Be would originally conflict with McCartney, and it was only through stubborn will and frustration that he would win out, pushing the final Beatles album out a month. The decision was not without acrimony, however. On Paul’s side, he’d planned the 17 April release date for some time, and was not informed of the Let It Be release date until he’d already made concrete plans. On the other hand, the other members argued that he should move the date, considering the band’s release was more important. Paul would eventually win the debate, it was a bitter victory. John and George had sent Ringo, the always amicable best-buddy to plead one more time…only to have Paul explode at him in a rage. He wasn’t so much angry at Ringo, per se…it was more that they’d been so coy about breaching the subject and sending someone else. And it ended up being one of the final wedges that split the band. Perhaps not entirely due to this event but certainly related to it, when promotional copies of McCartney were sent out, he’d attached a self-scripted Q & A, which contained vague but telling news: he really didn’t see the Beatles recording anything else anytime soon. He hadn’t exactly come out and said they’d broken up…but he hadn’t dismissed the idea, either.

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Credit: jpgr.co.uk – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Credit: jpgr.co.uk – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Single: “Let It Be”/”You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”
Released: 6 March 1970

By March, the planned Get Back project had gone through multiple revisions, and was now being given to Phil Spector to see if he could do anything with them. In the meantime, they chose to release the next single from the sessions as sort of a precursor to the eventual album. This particular single was recorded at the recently built (and rebuilt, to working order this time) Apple Studios, in the basement of their Savile Row business office, with George Martin stopping by to produce. It was recorded on 31 January, technically the final date of the Get Back sessions, and a day after their ersatz “live” rooftop concert the previous day. This session was primarily to record tracks they would not have been able to perform up on the roof; it was a sort of “live in studio” performance instead. Three songs would be recorded and finished after multiple takes, and would all eventually show up on the album.

It was also at this time that the end result of the sessions had changed its name to Let It Be, not just to coincide with the latest single (and one much closer in date than “Get Back”), but also because of the change in the related film/performance project. The filming, originally planned as a “band at work” documentary to release alongside a potential television special, had turned into a full-blown feature film documentary instead. The idea of “getting back” to their roots was now obscured enough that a new title was necessary. This single would have been the first official mention of the title, its picture single cover saying as much.

Side A: Let It Be
Paul’s lovely piano piece dates back to late in the sessions for The Beatles (Paul was noodling around on the piano with this piece at least around 15 September 1968), and finally gets its full, gorgeous release here. It’s a solemn ode to his long-departed mother Mary, who’d been a nurse and midwife and definitely a force of nature in the McCartney household in his youth. She was strong and independent, but she was also deeply caring to everyone she loved, and she’d deeply affected Paul in that way. The lyrics are said to be very indicative of her, a solid emotional anchor when everything around was chaos (which makes sense, considering when Liverpool had gotten bombed in the early 1940s, she would gladly offer assistance to any wounded civilians).

The performance here is strong and heartfelt, with Paul on grand piano, John on bass, George on guitar, Ringo on drums, and their guest Billy Preston on organ. Interestingly, however, by this time their “no overdubs” policy had pretty much been dropped, so any tweaking on the music was given the go-ahead. On 4 January 1970, George Martin added a simple orchestral backing quite similar to “Hey Jude”, with the orchestra playing minimal notes. Also during that session, George Harrison dubbed on a guitar solo to replace the one he’d recorded on 30 April 1969. This solo is how one can tell the difference between the single version and the album version, as otherwise they are exactly the same: George’s solo is much slower and more meandering here.

Side B: You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)
This would most likely have to be the most curious of Beatles b-sides, and for many reasons. Originally started way back on 17 May 1967 during the Yellow Submarine sessions, it was dropped and returned to on multiple occasions as time and interest warranted. It’s somewhat similar to their cabaret/pantomime Christmas recordings of that era, recording the same melody and lyric (the entirety of it being “You know my name” and “look up the number”, natch) in varying music styles. The May ’67 recording was the crunchy and boisterous first segment; it was revived on 7 and 8 June of that year with additional styles added, with Rolling Stone member Brian Jones playing an admirable alto saxophone solo. It wasn’t until 30 April 1969–the same day George overdubbed the above solo–that John and Paul revived it once more, this time on a later-aborted plan to release it as the b-side to “What’s the New Mary Jane”, itself to be a Plastic Ono Band single. It was eventually edited down from a nearly six-minute track (its nearly full version is available on Anthology 3) and used as the b-side to their final single. Perhaps an odd choice, but an interesting one nonetheless, as each song balances the other out quite nicely.

*

This would be the final Beatles single in the UK canon, at least until whatever became of the Anthology sessions of 1994. However, the US chose to release one last single after this, the equally strong ballad “The Long and Winding Road” with George’s “For You Blue” as its b-side. Either way, this is a fine choice for a final single–despite everything, the band soldiered on and delivered a highly memorable and much-loved release.

*     *    *

Credit: jpgr.co.uk – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Credit: jpgr.co.uk – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Album: Let It Be
Released: 8 May 1970

For those who have not followed the history of the band and only know them by their releases, this album is somewhat of a let down, especially after the brilliance of Abbey Road. Its many flaws are apparent; some of the songs only reach jam session-level professionalism, others are tightly played but weak in melody, and others suffer from the Spector-ized bombast of overproduction. It’s not entirely a soundtrack to the movie’s tracks, either; some were recorded at Twickenham, others at Apple after filming had ended, and there are many overdubs and edits, despite the album’s liner notes commenting otherwise. Still, it’s an interesting collection in and of itself, and there are fine moments that rose out of the troubled sessions.

*   *   *

Side A

Track 1: Two of Us
Paul’s folky traveling song may have originally been inspired by his northern travels with Linda Eastman, but it can also easily be seen as a return to the folky singalong of “Love Me Do” in a way. With Paul and John dueting on vocals and Martin acoustics (George is on bass and overdubbed electric guitar, Ringo on drums), it’s a lovely example of the band recapturing their early to mid-60s folk-based sound. The lyrics are simple, maybe even a little silly and self-deprecating, but that’s part of its charm…it’s supposed to be that way. The album version was one of the songs recorded “live in studio” on 31 January 1969, and it’s actually a different take on their original version, which was much more electric and upbeat. [This version can be heard in part in the Let It Be film.]

Track 2: Dig a Pony
John’s first offering isn’t one of his best–he’d dismissed this one as “garbage” later on his career”–but it’s certainly up his alley in terms of quirkiness. This one of the few tracks recorded on the roof of the Savile Row Apple building, and after a quick false start (which you can see in the movie–Ringo yells “Hold it!” so he can quickly stub out his cigarette and pick up his drumsticks), it kicks into a quick 6/8-time introduction that has little to do with the main melody, which is a much slower 3/4. The song itself is a sort of blues, but its constant and unexpected chord changes give it an off-kilter ambience, which fits nicely with the odd wordplay. The lyrics don’t really mean much, an attempt at playing with as many differing and strange variations of “You can do anything if you set your mind to it”. The verses are balanced out with an “All I want is you” passage which may or may not serve as a chorus, and borrows the melody from the introduction. Again, it’s not one of John’s best, but it’s an interesting attempt nonetheless.

Track 3: Across the Universe
The first Spectorized Beatles song makes its appearance here. This is also a strange choice of track, as the version here is the early 1968 recording massively remixed and overdubbed with orchestral and choral layers and slowed down to its original speed. The band did practice full versions during the Get Back sessions, but the original was used instead. One reason was that a portion of the track does show up in the movie, but the other is that John’s donations to the album are so slim here that they felt this would be a good addition. The album version is the most well known version, and does have its own dreamlike quality similar to the No One’s Gonna Change Our World version, and though the strings and chorus sound like overkill now, it does in fact sound more polished and cleaner than the latter.

Track 4: I Me Mine
George provides his first of two tracks for the session here, and it’s one of his most personal and scathing. It’s partly inspired by his ongoing studies in Indian philosophies, but more to the point, it’s his second track in just under a year, just after “Not Guilty”, that’s squarely (but obliquely) aimed at John and Paul. By early 1969 he’d about had enough of his two leading bandmates’ egos, having passed over so many of his songs, only to work on half-baked tracks like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or some such. The result is short (just under two minutes in the original April 1970 studio recording), but in those few minutes he spares nothing, all but singing “yes, it’s all about you, isn’t it?” This is also one of the tracks on the album that actually benefits from Phil Spector’s remixing; he repeated one full section to lengthen it by another thirty seconds or so, and the horns are only added to the back end of the verse. It’s one of the rare times where Spector truly understood how the Beatles worked with overdubs.

Track 5: Dig It
This fifty-second snippet is part of a much longer jam recorded at the Apple studio on 26 January, much shorter than even the four minute version shown in the movie. There’s not much to say here other than it’s a three-chord repetitive riff echoing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” but much bouncier, and featuring Billy Preston on organ and George Martin on maracas. John’s ad-libbed vocals don’t go very far other than riffing on the Dylan line and listing off random famous names. The only excitement here is John’s silly ad-lib at the end (taken from an earlier version of the same jam), which dovetails nicely with the next song on the album.

Track 6: Let It Be
Paul’s lovely piano ballad makes a return here. Again, it’s features the same backing tracks as the single version, though Spector tweaks this one as well. The orchestration has been punched up, some effects have been added, and a few of the lyrics have gotten slightly rearranged, especially near the end. A livelier guitar solo (recorded 4 January 1970) played by George is used here instead. The two versions are so similar that it’s quite hard to tell the two apart other than by George’s solo, but this one seems much more complete.

Track 7: Maggie Mae
The first side closes with a forty-second leftover from the Apple studio jams, which they would often rely on for warming up. On 24 January 1969 this particular morning’s warmup featured a number of their old skiffle favorites from their Quarrymen days, including this old standard about a prostitute who would rob her clients. It dies out rather quickly, but it’s a fun little aside nonetheless.

Side B

Track 1: I’ve Got a Feeling
The second track on the album to be culled from the rooftop concert, it’s a catchy track equal parts Paul and John. John kicks off the song with his excellent fingerpicking style he’d honed so carefully during sessions for The Beatles, but it’s Paul’s offering of the main “I’ve Got a Feeling” melody that drives the track. John’s “Everybody Had a Hard Year” (a Beatles demo that never got recorded) and “Watching Rainbows” (the origin of the fingerpicked riff, and found on many bootlegs) is a perfect counterpoint to Paul’s melody. An almost unintelligible bridge pops up twice in the middle of the track, a pounding, climbing riff, only to stop cold and be brought back down to earth by George’s quick solo guitar drop. [That drop may have been quite the source of contention during the sessions; soon after a run-through of this track in the movie, Paul and George quietly argue until George delivers the infamous "I'll play whatever you want me to play" remark.] This is probably the strongest song of the entire rooftop concert.

Track 2: One After 909
Paul mentions this old track (probably written around 1957 and attempted but never released in 1963) in the film as one of the “Lennon-McCartney Originals” they wrote in the pre-fame days. They dismiss it as a rather corny lyric, but chose to include it in the sessions as part of their warmup jams of old favorites. While the original from way back when was a bluesy rocker, the album version, recorded as part of the rooftop concert, is more of a honkytonk country track. It’s played very loosely, perhaps a little too much so, as their performance sounds less than enthusiastic. On the other hand, it’s obvious that they’re having fun playing this old gem.

Track 3: The Long and Winding Road
Paul’s slow piano ballad may have been a hit single in the US and a much-loved track for many, but it has one of the most troubled of histories of any Beatles track. Musically, it’s inspired by Paul’s drives with Linda through the sparse landscape of Scotland, to and from his farmstead near Kintyre, and the original version, heard in the film and later on the 2003 release Let It Be…Naked, is actually quite lovely. It’s very sparsely arranged, with Paul on piano, John on bass, George on quietly-strummed guitar, Ringo on delicate drums, and Billy Preston on organ, including quite a moving hymn-like solo. However…the album version is the end result of an increasingly unstable Spector, who added such cloying and overbearing orchestral and choral overdubs that it turned a decent ballad into a horribly over-the-top schmaltzy track. The version is so precious that it enraged Paul to the point of quitting the band once and for all. He’d asked to have it redone without the overdubs, but his request was ignored and the version was the one released. Paul sued Allen Klein (their ersatz manager at this time, but more of a financial manager if anything) and the other three to dissolve the company they’d only created a few years before, and used Spector’s mishandling of the track as one of the major points. He’d hated Klein for some time and had never trusted him (John and George liked him, and Ringo was his usual ambivalent self), but he’d chosen to be the bigger man for some time…but this blatant mishandling had been the final straw. No other track in the Beatles catalog has this sound, and thankfully so.

Track 4: For You Blue
George brings things back to normal with an easy, fun twelve-bar blues track recorded at the Apple studio on 25 January. It’s jangly and lightly played, with George on acoustic guitar and vocals, John on a slide guitar (the slide used was actually a shotgun shell!), Paul on restrained piano, and Ringo playing soft but tight drums. It’s clear they’re all having fun playing this track–it’s evident even in the movie, where all four are full of smiles as they play. Lyrically it’s a simple love song that could easily have fit in with the lyrics of their early years, but the highlight is George’s asides of “Go, Johnny, go!” and “Elmore James has got nothing on this, baby!” during John’s spirited slide solos.

Track 5: Get Back
The album ends with another version of their early 1969 single. It’s exactly the same take, though expertly rearranged by Spector here to sound like a different one. He adds a bit of studio chat, including a tongue-in-cheek rewrite of the lyric from John (“Sweet Loretta Fart, she thought she was a cleaner, but she was a frying pan”), and instead of the breakdown at the end of the single version, he treats that as the end of the song and edits the classic ending line of the rooftop concert and the movie itself: ” “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition!” This is a bittersweet line, considering it’s a play on their very early days of auditioning for shows, as well as the very last lines heard by the band on vinyl as they broke up. Saving the track for last was a brilliant move, as it leaves the listener on a high note. It’s a reminder that, despite the band’s history (and the dodginess of the album itself), the band remained as true to their goals as entertainers and accomplished musicians.

*      *      *

Let It Be is often seen as a flawed masterpiece, and not exactly a fan favorite, due to its unhinged performances and lack of inspired musicianship. It’s glaringly obvious that this was an album of tracks where Spector was given, in the words of John a year later, “…the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it.” Glyn Johns had done what he could, and the Get Back version of session does sound admirable if extremely disjointed, but John had a point–the band had been in a bad place and going in a bad direction after sessions for The Beatles, and no one was really in the mood. They’d been trained so soldier on despite their mental and emotional states, however, as that was the norm for the music industry in the sixties. Had they truly taken time off, time away from each other, and especially after sessions for Sgt Pepper back in 1967, perhaps things would have turned out differently. As it stands, however, the era of 1968 into the first half of 1969 was a band on the wane.

That said, the album itself does have merit. There are many interesting tracks that, if taken in a chronological context, serve as a middle ground between the angry and organic The Beatles and the slick and poppy Abbey Road. Many of the tracks here could fit on either album. “Two of Us,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” would have fit nicely on the former; “Let It Be” would have been a brilliant standalone single on par with “Hey Jude”; the non-Spectorized “The Long and Winding Road” and “I Me Mine” would have fit on the latter; “Get Back” could have remained a great standalone single as well. This view would also make Abbey Road the final album, which also makes sense, considering its own deliberate finality.

It also has been given much love over the years as well; in 1988, Slovenian industrial band Laibach recorded their own interpretation of the album (minus the title track) in a multitude of interesting ways, including a disturbingly dark “Get Back”, an operatic “Two of Us”, and an angelic “Across the Universe”. Many of the tracks have been covered over the years, and Paul himself has revisited “Get Back”, “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” many times during his solo tours. It’s by no means their best album, but as Beatles albums go, it’s still a solid one, despite its faults.

It would be the last new Beatles album released during their career, and the last release of their official canon, but it was by no means the last release ever. In 1973, Capitol released the 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 compilations, and for the next ten years they released various further compilations, each one a solid mix. In 1987 these compilations were all out of print and the entire catalog finally released on compact disc, with only the two Past Masters volumes serving as a compilation, collecting all non-album tracks. Still…these were all albums of previously released tracks. There would be no more new Beatles tracks.

At least, not until twenty-five years later, in 1995.

Next Up: the Anthology series, and the “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love” singles

Forty-five Minutes a Side

[Note: the last two Blogging the Beatles entries will arrive soon, promise!]

My friend Mark posted a picture of a 1991 Radio Shack ad earlier today, and it got me thinking about the amount of money that I spent as a kid at that place. Back in the early to mid 80s, it was on Main Street in downtown Athol, next door to Cinnamon’s Restaurant and just a few doors from my dad’s office. A few years later it moved just over the border into Orange, just across the road from the Shop & Save strip mall, but that never stopped me from asking my parents or my sisters to drive me over there so I could pick up my “toys”.

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a budding tech nerd back then, really. I wasn’t really that into most of the electronics that they had over there; no, this was more about the audio accessories they sold. Some time around 1983 or 1984 I came to the realization that I could connect our well-worn tape recorder to my stereo via a 3.5mm-to-1/4″ audio cable and dub things from vinyl, or even better, from tape to tape. This eliminated having to lay the tape recorder next to a speaker for a tinny, crappy, live sound, as well as having to worry about someone walking into the room and making noise. Pretty soon I had a small but very useful selection of audio components at my fingertips.

Credit: tapeheads.net

Credit: tapeheads.net

Radio Shack was also my go-to for the blank tapes as well. I’d bought them elsewhere, but this store had the best quality tapes, not those smalltime knockoffs with questionable quality. The store brand worked pretty well, but it was the slightly more expensive Memorex tapes that worked well for me. Their 80s version of the popular DBS 90 (see pic) was quite colorful, and decently priced as well. This was the go-to tape for your general music fan–basically, the “it doesn’t need to sound pristine, just decent…I’m listening to it on my boombox from Sears and I just want the music” music fans like myself. It was also the perfect size, for multiple reasons: if you were taping stuff off the radio or making your own mixtape, you could easily fit about ten average-length songs on each side. If you were dubbing your friends’ albums and tapes, you could fit one album on each side with a bit of room to spare for b-sides or filler. I filled a lot of holes in my early collecting years this way. And yes, I did eventually end up buying or downloading the real thing.

This of course was the age of Home Taping Is Killing Music, which was the 80s version of this generation’s file sharing controversy, which most people found quite ridiculous. For the most part, at least in my view, it didn’t kill music at all–if anything, it spread it out at a time when buying music could be quite the chore. Those like myself who were headlong into college radio then had a bitch of a time trying to find half the stuff we wanted; you would most likely not find many punk records at your local department store or small-time record shop, and record clubs rarely if ever carried what you were looking for (unless it was on Sire, then you could probably find it via Columbia House–Seymour Stein was cool that way!). Our main source for albums was our friends’ collections. And if anything, we were the type of fan who would eventually buy the album anyway, once we finally found it.

I haven’t used a blank tape at least since 2004, I think. That was probably the last time I made one of my compilations to fit a ninety-minute tape. [And for the record, those were most likely bought at Newbury Comics alongside the new cds I was buying then.] For many and varying reasons, I stopped using tapes and went mostly all digital from there on in. It’s only this past New Year’s season that I started following the “forty-five minutes a side” rule on making compilations–that is, pretending that I was in fact making this playlist via home taping, complete with attempting the perfect segue from one song to another–and to tell the truth, it was a hell of a lot of fun.

It was like making the old mixtapes again. It may even have inspired me to make more this way!