Tag Archives: The Beatles

The Beatles • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band [2CD Anniversary Edition]

Today being the 50th Anniversary of its release, here’s my take on THE BEATLES’ quintessential record.

“I get high with a little help from my friends,” sings Ringo Starr near the beginning of the most written about album in rock. I still feel “high” when I listen to it, having discovered it among my parents’ records as a kid. For its 50th anniversary, THE BEATLES have released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in a new mix and a bevy of formats designed to shed new light on their pop art masterpiece. Of course, five decades on the album has been both heralded and hacked. But the fact of the matter is: it’s still being written about. You can say all you want about it – badmouth it, throw sticks and stones at it – but it refuses to be influenced by naysayers or acclaimists. So let’s skip all of that (after all, fifty years of criticism is hard to summarize) and just get to the heart of this release.

Giles Martin, son of legendary producer and “fifth Beatle” George Martin (who produced the original), got the go-ahead to give the legendary Sgt. Pepper a makeover. Giles & Co. used the original 4-track tapes (including session tapes that, luckily, weren’t recorded over or discarded) and created a new stereo mix designed to deliver the punch and clarity of the original mono mix, which was done by George Martin and The Beatles over the course of a few weeks in the Spring of 1967. The original stereo mix – the one we’re all used to – was created over a few days without the Fab Four’s oversight. It became the de facto official version because stereo became the default configuration for future rock releases. Eventually the mono mix was put out to pasture, and that’s too bad because it was quite good (though it’s now again available on both vinyl and CD). Giles Martin’s new stereo mix relies less on gimmicky over-separation and goes for a more evenhanded approach, and it largely succeeds. (Stereo was new to the pop audience of the mid ’60s so exaggerated separation was the order of the day – sort of like over-enunciating in order to be understood.) Though some changes on the new stereo mix are too subtle for the typical listener to notice, it’s just as enjoyable. I like the more pronounced bass and drums, the clarity of some of the guitar and piano parts, and of course, the lovely sound of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s vocal harmonies. I could go into detail (I took notes during my first playback), but really, you can find that online in many places. Go ahead if you want to, or just go pick up a copy and hear for yourself.

As for the various formats available of this 50th Anniversary release, there are Sgt. Peppers to suit every budget and lifestyle. I decided to start with this 2CD version, which features the new stereo mix on disc one and a similarly-sequenced program on disc two that features early versions, false starts, instrumentals and more. It comes with a 50-page book (quite generous with photos and notes) and the original cutouts in a nice little slipcase. I got it on sale for $20 locally so it’s pretty affordable. You can also buy a single CD (just the new stereo mixes), a 2LP version (new stereo mixes on record one, some alternate versions and such on record two), and of course, the super deluxe 4CD/DVD/Bluray box set with even more alternate takes, a 140-page hardcover book and a brand new 5.1 surround mix in high resolution audio. Don’t get me wrong – I will get the big deal box – but the 2CD version is probably your best Beatles buy if you’re not bothered with all the extras. My purchase of it came with a nice poster of the inside of the original gatefold album cover (pictured above), which is pretty cool despite the extreme cropping of a very familiar image.

So there you have it, hopefully not too long-winded and with just the right info to pick the perfect Pepper.

4.5/5 (Apple/Capitol/UMe B0026524-02)

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John Lennon • Rock ’N’ Roll [album] vs. Paul McCartney • СНОВА Б СССР [album]

lennon-rocknroll_400pxOr Battle of The Beatles Heavyweights! Right about now in 1975, former Beatle JOHN LENNON released an album of Rock ’N’ Roll oldies – and it was to be his last for over five years. At the time the critics weren’t exactly singing the praises of it or their hero’s seeming lack of new songs. In fact, they were fairly forthright about it. It doesn’t really matter anymore, though, as today Rock ’N’ Roll stands as the man’s unique tribute to the music that inspired him, eventually to form his own band and then change the face of popular music forever.

PAUL McCARTNEY, on the other hand, was then on a roll with his band Wings. By 1987, though, Lennon’s esteemed Beatles bandmate was having a rough time of it. The hits had slowed considerably and, in an attempt to recharge his psyche, Macca revisited his rockin’ roots and did a covers album of his own, Choba Б CCCP. It was initially only available in Russia (hence the title: Back in the USSR). The record was imported and bootlegged heavily, and after McCartney issued a few of the songs as B-sides to a 1987 single, “Once Upon a Long Ago” (not released in the US), he eventually relented and released an extended version of the album on CD for all the world to hear.

mccartney-chobabcccp_400pxLennon and McCartney, though once united in rhyme in The Beatles, chose different songs for their respective tributes. They both relied heavily on the big names of ’50s rock: Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame” was the only song covered by both, with McCartney also doing Fats’ “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” and “I’m in Love Again”), Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and Little Richard. The albums were recorded over ten years apart, with different bands and under different circumstances (by ’87 Lennon had been dead for seven years, which must have weighed heavily on McCartney’s mind as he went about making his record). So pitting the two records against each other isn’t really a fair fight. But since I’m the referee in this ring, I’ve chosen to go for it anyway and render my decision. No punching below the belt, no name calling, gentlemen, let’s have a fair fight and may the best man win!

lennon-mccartney-hamburg_400pxLennon’s LP, Rock ’N’ Roll, is a very thick-sounding record. Replete with not only guitar and keyboards but a horn section, its production – by Lennon and “Wall Of Sound” originator Phil Spector – is multi-layered and at times suffers from too-much-happening-all-at-once. Yet the arrangements are quite spectacular, sometimes unique (the slow reggaefied rhythm of “You Can’t Catch Me,” for instance), and delivered with commitment. When John sings “Stand by Me” you can feel the song’s import on his life. The album’s been reissued many times. I highly recommend the 2010 vinyl, remastered from 24/96 digital files (purportedly taken directly from the analog master) but very detailed and with no noticable digital ick. For a different take on the material, find the 2005 CD – it was remixed at the time and de-clutters some of the arrangements to give you a different, maybe even better idea of just what was going on at Record Plant East Studios (“everybody here says ‘hi’”) all those years ago.

As for Choba Б CCCP, McCartney’s take on some of his favorite rock ’n’ roll classics, it’s also a winner. (I know, I know: There are no ties allowed. Wait for it.) Sparse compared to Lennon’s, these arrangements pretty much stick to your standard guitar/piano/bass/drums variety, making for a more immediate feel. Yes, the snare’s a bit overbearing (this was the mid ’80s, after all) and the guitar sometimes has a slightly over-processed tone, but this album sounds no more “Eighties” than Lennon’s does “Seventies.” McCartney, too, sounds like he means it when he’s singing Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” or Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” a song fabled in Beatles lore as the one he impressed Lennon with in 1957 or so when the two boys met and cemented their connection to each other forever. Though McCartney’s covers album was second in release (and really, Ringo Starr did an album of covers in 1970! – not a rock ’n’ roll outing), it’s hard to say which one is first in terms of greatness. But because there are no ties in pugilism – and because America loves a winner – I gotta go with Lennon. By a hair. Yes, those who know me know that McCartney is my man, but Lennon ain’t no slouch either. “But Marsh,” you might say, “McCartney’s put out a lot of crap as a solo artist.” And I would reply with, “Had Lennon kept releasing records for another thirty plus years, he might have put out a similar number of stinkers himself.” Besides: YOU WON. Let it be.

4.5/5 (Lennon, Parlophone/Apple); 4/5 (McCartney, Capitol)

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Ron Howard, The Beatles • Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years [Blu-ray/DVD]

In 1995 The Beatles created or at least oversaw Anthology, a three part, six hour documentary that aired on television to edify the world on the band’s story. The three surviving members of the band were interviewed specifically for the project, except John Lennon, who had passed away in 1980. Sure, since the documentary was funded and curated by the band, there were probably some subjects that were cleansed or completely avoided in order to show the band in a better light, but over three nights you got a very good examination of their story without any obvious revisionism. When it came out on DVD, VHS and Laserdisc, there was an additional chapter included that didn’t make the final cut. That’s not to mention the three volumes of Anthology on CD and LP that came out, loaded with unreleased outtakes, live versions and more, and a coffee table book with tons of photos. It was a Beatles bonanza.

Eight Days a Week BD/DVDFast forward twenty years to 2016 and Ron Howard‘s Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years. Here we get a 105 minute documentary that covers only three to four years of the band’s history and uncovers hardly anything new or revelatory. (There’s both a standard one disc version and a “Special Edition,” both on Blu-ray or DVD, with an extra disc of bonus material.) The fact that the project started out as a highly publicized idea to examine the band as a live act is interesting. Either Howard and his pals were unable to come up with a good story (hard to believe, given: The Beatles!), even enlisting the public to share their stories and/or audio or video, or for some other reason they changed horses midstream and scrubbed the original plot. Well, you may have guessed that I think they botched it up, big time.

In order to keep this short, I’m just going to bullet-point what I didn’t like here:

  • The subtitle to this documentary shows that the filmmakers were hedging their bets after changing the concept for the film – they end up telling a very disjointed story with no clear mandate or viewpoint;
  • Only the two remaining Beatles were able to contribute, and those contributions don’t really add anything that existing interviews already covered;
  • Consistency! Howard covers the subject from a very U.S.-centric standpoint, yet uses The Beatles’ U.K. album releases as timestamps throughout;
  • Audio and video don’t sync up properly. At the beginning it seemed like the live footage was synced but the talking-head footage wasn’t; by the end it seemed like nothing was synced (not sure if this may in part be due to problems with Blu-ray vs. DVD, as I’ve encountered in the past);
  • Colorization of some of the footage looked unnatural. The Beatles were the most photographed, filmed pop group of all time. People know what they’re supposed to look like! So if you’re going to colorize these guys, don’t make them look like Donald Trumps in nehru jackets.

I’ve already reviewed the “accompanying” reissue of The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl and how that was riddled with problems, so it’s real disheartening to see that Imagine Entertainment, White Horse Pictures and Apple Corps itself let things get so out of hand. I seem to remember some words to live by uttered to me as a kid and over the years to the tune of if you’re gonna do something, do it right. That tune apparently wasn’t in Ron Howard and Company’s hit parade, and that’s too bad. They had a great opportunity to bring something unique to the story of The Beatles and they blew it.

At least you can still pick up a copy of Anthology on DVD to try and put this one out of its misery and out of your mind.

2/5 (UMe/Capitol)

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The Beatles • Live at the Hollywood Bowl (CD, LP)

beatles-livehollywoodbowl-2016Released to coincide with the premiere of Ron Howard’s documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, this reboot of the band’s sole, totally official live record is a mixed bag. Yes, I wanted to love this. I mean, I’m glad they’ve finally revisited The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, the 1977 record and document of the Fab Four in concert circa 1964-1965, but they did a real half-assed job of it. I understand the idea: reissue the album to coincide with the documentary, which is ostensibly about The Beatles as a live act, but since that original concept turned into a much wider vision, the reissued Hollywood Bowl album feels like a real after thought.

First off: the artwork for The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl is horrible. While the cover image is cool and works well as the documentary’s main ad and poster image, as an album/CD cover it just looks wrong. Not that I’m overly enamored with the original cover, but it’s miles better than this new one. 1977’s release looked pretty classy as a 12″ album cover, and would look fine today. What they ended up using looks like an ad for an album, not an album.

beatles-hollywoodbowl-1977Second, calling it “an entirely new release” is a lie. The new version contains the word “live” in the title, which is new, but the album has the same original 13 tracks in the same order, with four more for a bonus. The sound, remixed by George Martin’s son Giles, is pretty good and punchy, but even today there’s not a lot they could do to rescue the sound quality. (The concerts were recorded on three-track tape, giving the engineers little to work with in terms of a mix.) George Martin’s 1977 version sounded pretty good, actually, and his son’s 2016 mix isn’t all that different. So, again, this reissue feels forced.

I wanted to be Mr. Positive in this review – I’ve been known to be a curmudgeon (though I thought you had to be old to be one of those!) – but I can’t help but feel they should have reissued the original with the same cover, but with updated sound and as a true “companion to the film” and not a second-thought, half-assed appendage to the documentary. That being said, I can’t wait to see the film!
3/5 (Apple/Capitol/UMe)

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Paul McCartney • Pure McCartney (4CD, 2CD, 4LP)

puremccartneyIt’s amazing that Paul McCartney hadn’t gotten around to a compilation of his solo/Wings material of this magnitude until now. Pure McCartney follows in the footsteps of his previous best-ofs in that it completely overlooks chapters of his output as if he’s embarrassed by them… Or warning the marketplace that a certain album is about to be given the Archive Series treatment and thus including none of its tracks. Could he be that canny? That crass? I hate to say it: Yes.

As is the custom these days, this compilation comes in multiple form factors: you have the budget 2CD version, the 4LP version and the mega 4CD version. With 67 tracks on this behemoth, you’d think Macca could cover all of the ground he’s trodden since his first solo album in 1970 and yet he completely avoids Driving Rain (not the greatest album), Run Devil Run (a ’90s album of covers) and 1989’s brilliant Flowers in the Dirt. I’d expect a 4CD collection of a 45 year solo career to favor some albums more than others – Band on the Run and Ram are heavily represented – but I’d also figure at least one song from each album would be manageable. And since Flowers is such a classic, you’d think a big hit like “My Brave Face” would make the cut. Nope. (Don’t get me started on the fact that there’s only two songs from Venus and Mars here.) There’s no reason to not represent Flowers except that he’s trying to avoid cannibalising an Archive Series release later in the year. And that smacks of pure commercialism.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 5.32.25 PMMy grumbling aside, Pure McCartney still has no trouble showing what a brilliant songwriter, bass player and singer the man is. What he does include here sees to that handily, even on the 2CD version. No need for me to go over the individual tracks except to say I’m sure no one could match this man’s output in terms of quality. Still, it’s not like each CD is 80-minutes-full, so there was certainly room for reps from Flowers, Driving Rain and Run Devil Run. Oh well. It’s his best-of and he can do what he wants with it. In fact, it IS pure McCartney to purposefully skip over bits ‘n’ bobs of his catalog. Wings Greatest (a one LP comp from 1978) skipped “Listen to What the Man Said” (a #1 hit!) and 1987’s All The Best! and 2001’s Wingspan similarly missed key tracks depending on what country’s version you bought. (All the Best! in the UK featured his then current single, “Once Upon a Long Ago,” which wasn’t even released in the US and thus didn’t make the American version of the compilation. Yet here on Pure McCartney there are five songs from his latest, New. Maybe his memory’s going and so the most recent stuff is at the forefront of his genius brain.)

Take a look at the tracklist of the various versions to decide whether you need this release. For me, I have everything on the 4CD version so I expect to be skipping over this one, at least for now. And that, my friends, is Pure Gooch.

3/5 for contents, 5/5 for quality! (Hear Music)

 

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George Martin • All You Need Is Ears (Book)

martin_ears-1RIP Sir George Martin (1926-2016)

This 1979 autobiography was written by George Martin with Jeremy Hornsby. It’s the tale of Martin’s life, growing up in post-WWI England, joining the Royal Navy, attending music school (to learn piano and oboe), going to work for the BBC and then EMI, a British company that had a number of record labels, including Columbia and Parlophone. Martin worked his way up at the latter label and eventually started producing records, including comedy records by The Goons (featuring Peter Sellers). In 1962 he stuck his neck out to check out Liverpool’s finest, finally signed them to the label, and you know the rest.

All You Need Is Ears is interesting for the stories in it, though they’re not told with the most exciting of prose. Still, I enjoyed hearing the anecdotes from Martin’s own mouth. At this point in my life I’ve read more books on The Beatles than probably everything else in the world combined, so Martin’s own opinions about some of the happenings are appreciated. Granted, though, that at the time he wrote this all four Beatles were still alive so there was likely a good helping of diplomacy added to the narration. Either way, if you can find this book online or in your local library it’s a good, quick read.

We will probably never know a phenomenon like The Beatles again, and we wouldn’t have gotten the chance to in the first place if it wasn’t for a small number of people like George Martin who had the ears to hear it.

3/5 (St. Martin’s Press, USA, 1979)

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George Harrison • Cloud Nine (LP)

harrison_cloudnine_350pxThe Quiet Beatle, George Harrison, caught his second wind with Cloud Nine in ’87. There wasn’t really a big change in the sound from this to his last studio record, 1982’s Gone Troppo, except he had some better songs this time – and a pretty stellar crew to support him.

For most of the decade he’d laid low, musically, but apparently had found a great foil in kindred spirit Jeff Lynne. The two of them recorded the “comeback” album at Harrison’s F.P.S.H.O.T. (Friars Park Studio, Henley-On-Thames) with an all-star cast that included those two, Ringo Starr, Elton John, Eric Clapton and others. Who knows whether it was the spell of that cast or some other magic that made Cloud Nine such a hit. In fact, it was George’s biggest album since All Things Must Pass nearly fifteen years earlier. Regardless of reason, here’s the album that laid the groundwork for the enormously successful Traveling Wilburys and their ouevre.

Most people know Cloud Nine for its three hit singles, “Got My Mind Set on You,” “When We Was Fab” and “This Is Love.” Strangely, the bigger hit (“Mind”) is a cover, but a fine cover nonetheless. “Fab,” of course, is a nostalgic Beatlesque tune that anybody else would’ve been taken to task for – but when you’re George Harrison, let’s face it, you do what you want. And so he wrote a fun song that just may have laid to rest the convention that George was also The Serious Beatle. The song itself isn’t humorous, but the video that went with it was definitely cheeky and it got a ton of play on the video channels of the day.

As an album, Cloud Nine is a pleasant work, but nowhere near as monumental as All Things or Living in the Material World. I mean, I like aspects of all four Beatles’ careers, but I think what has always held me back from completely embracing George’s work is the shortage of uptempo tunes on his albums. Not that McCartney, Lennon and Starr were exactly barreling down the M1 with their tunes (okay, Macca did with “Helen Wheels” – wait, that was M6 South). I don’t know what it is. Could it be that it doesn’t matter? Yes; it is what it is. And this is a nice enough record which can be enjoyed regularly, including today, which is George Harrison’s birthday. He would be 73. If he was still alive today that would be fab.

3.5/5 (Dark Horse)

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THE BEATLES • 1 & 1+ (CD, Bluray, DVD, Vinyl)

Beatles-1-DVDBluraysThe Fab 2+2 don’t miss a chance to pry as much Beatle money out of our pockets as they can, do they? Now, the 2 surviving Beatles and the other 2’s ladies have announced the new DVD and Bluray video compilations, 1 and 1+, which will ship the first week of November… just in time for another Beatles Christmas! You’ll get all 27 of their #1 hits in video format – either the original “promotional film” (as videos were called back then) or live footage of one origin or another that has made it this far down the line without being tossed into the proverbial rubbish bin. And if you plunk down the extra dinero for 1+, you’ll get a second disc with even more of the promotional films and live footage. AND… there’ll be NEW stereo and 5.1 mixes! Yippee!

Oh, uh, If you missed it on CD or vinyl the last two times it was released or reissued, have no fear. Those Beatle people, they don’t miss a… errr… beat. (Ugh.)

If only I were cynical enough to exclaim, “Bah! I don’t need this shite!” But I’m not. As a matter of fact, I think there are some 19 or 20 different configurations of this thing (that ain’t cynicism, bud, that’s sarcasm!), so once I figure out which version to get and can afford the most expensive one – naturally! – expect my review in this very blog.

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John Lennon • Shaved Fish

shavedfish_AAdding this to your Lennon collection may not be a must but it’s pretty close. Since its original release in 1975, there have been a number of compilations of the man’s solo work, including some very nice single and double albums such as The John Lennon Collection and Lennon Legend. Shaved Fish, though, was the first – and the only one overseen by the man himself. It’s a slim volume. Just eleven songs made the cut, but what an eleven! There were non-LP singles such as “Instant Karma!,” “Power to the People” and “Cold Turkey,” there were edited album versions of songs that were also hit singles (“Mother” and “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”), and straight up hits like “Mind Games” and “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.” And then there were the truncated “Give Peace a Chance” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” in versions that were unique to Shaved Fish. The artwork was unique, too: each song had its own illustration to show you what it was about.

shavedfish_BLast year Shaved Fish was reissued in a 180-gram pressing complete with the original artwork and inner sleeve (which included the lyrics on one side and a Japanese flag on the other), pressed for worldwide release in Europe (mine says it was pressed in France). It’s basically the same as the original, all the way down to the Apple labels on the record itself. I’m not sure what source the reissue was cut from, but it’s a very good sounding pressing, whether it’s from the original analog master tapes (doubtful) or from 24-bit/96kHz digital files (highly likely). Neither analog or digital is necessarily better – it’s all about making whatever source that’s being used sound its best. Naturally, us analog geeks want to believe that analog is always going to sound better, but that’s just not always the case.

If you want this particular collection in your collection, then, this reissue is a great way to get a great-sounding copy of Shaved Fish for a relatively great price. An original ’75 issue in pristine shape will set you back a whole lot more.
4/5 (Apple/Universal)

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John Lennon • Lennon Signature Box Set [8 LPs]

Well, well, well. A few months ago they finally released the John Lennon Signature box set on vinyl. I finally got a copy when a couple of stars aligned in my own universe: I got a good paying job again and the price went down enough to make it doable. Comprising all eight of Lennon’s studio albums, the 9-record set (one album is two records) puts almost everything John ever recorded as a solo artist in the studio together in one place. There lennon_vinylboxare some singles missing, though. “Instant Karma!,” “Cold Turkey” and “Give Peace a Chance” weren’t on any of his albums until the best of compilation Shaved Fish (see a forthcoming review), so for those you’ll need to go back to your record library and dig out that or one of the many other collections (Lennon Legend, The John Lennon Collection) that they showed up on. (The CD version of this box set actually had a disc with these songs and some stray B-sides on it; they didn’t reproduce that here. And no, I don’t know why.)

What you do get is: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, Some Time in New York City, Mind Games, Walls and Bridges, Rock and Roll, Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. All are mastered from the digital 24-bit/96kHz digital files they used for the 2010 CD box, which, after The Beatles In Mono vinyl box of last year, seems like a bit of a let rock_roll_sleevedown – at least on paper. Those were all mastered in analog from the original analog master tapes. But put any of these albums on your turntable and you’ll find the blokes at Abbey Road did a helluva careful job making sure things sounded great. Aside from one colossal boo boo, this box set is amazing. Here’s the big oopsie: Rock and Roll has one song on there twice and another missing completely. This kind of thing can happen when you’re mastering from digital – the wrong song title gets linked to the wrong digital file in the workstation – so it’s not exactly unlikely, though you’d think they would have caught that in quality control. Have no fear, Lennonites. If you got the box set and yours is one with the bad disc, you can get a replacement. (Click here for details.) So don’t let that stop you from picking this up if you want all of Lennon’s studio stuff on wax.

Aside from Live Peace in Toronto and Shaved Fish, all of Lennon’s non-posthumous solo output is here and it’s a great addition to your Beatles vault. Having these eight albums together in a nice, simple but elegant box set is, ummm, just like starting over.
4.5/5 (Universal/Calderstone)

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