Friday, October 25, 2013

Tony's Picks - The Beatles

A little while ago I wrote a blog about Beatles songs that suck.  So having done that, where were they at their best?  What’s the other side of the coin?  That’s hard to say since there’s so much for a Beatles obsessive like me to like.  So I set a limit – the songs have to fit on two 80-minute CDs.  By the numbers, it looks like 1965, 1967, and 1969 were very good years for Beatles music.  Here’s my list…I borrowed very liberally from previous blogs.

CD 1:
I Saw Her Standing There [B-side, 1963] – This is the flip side to I Want to Hold Your Hand.  IMO, this is a much better song.  By Beatles standards this is a long solo from George.  Fifty years after this track was cut, you can still feel the excitement bursting from your stereo speakers.

All My Loving [With the Beatles, 1963] – The Beatles opened their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 – a wise choice.  My favorite bit is John’s rhythm guitar.  I still haven’t figured it out.  When I do I’ll be very happy.

She Loves You [Single, 1963] – Yeah Yeah Yeah!!!

A Hard Day’s Night [A Hard Day’s Night, 1964] – This is what Beatlemania sounds like.  The opening chord is like the “Big Bang” of the British Invasion.  George proves it is possible to play a solo on a twelve-string.  There’s a piano matching the twelve-string note for note on the solo, giving the sound a very unique character.

Can’t Buy Me Love [A Hard Day’s Night, 1964] - Like She Loves You, this one starts with the chorus.  George's solo is pretty sick [in a good way].

Help! [Help! 1965] – After two years of love songs John wrote this, which he said this was written during his “fat Elvis period.”  He was miserable and this was how he chose to let the world know about it.

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) [Rubber Soul, 1965] – John wrote a song about an affair that he didn’t want his wife to know about.  Paul suggested the character burn down the girl’s house after she made John sleep in the bathtub.  Cool sitar, George… J  The first version of the song was recorded a couple of steps lower than what appeared on Rubber Soul.  This version can be found on Anthology 2.  John didn’t like the result, but when he put a capo on his guitar at the second fret, presto! 

Ticket To Ride [Help! 1965] – John once claimed this as the “first heavy metal song.”, John.  That’s George’s twelve-string riff.

I Feel Fine [Single, 1964] – The feedback effect at the beginning was a happy accident.  When the band heard it and found they could do it again, they left it in the song.

Paperback Writer [Single, 1966] - Paperback Writer is notable because this is the first Beatles song where you don’t have to strain to hear the bass. Credit John Lennon for demanding why American records had far more bass than their own records. At that time, British producers were loathe to record the bass at a high volume for fear that it would make the needle jump off the record during playback. According to Geoff Emerick [the guy responsible for getting the sounds the Beatles wanted], several things factored into the louder bass sound. First, Paul McCartney switched from his Hofner violin-shaped bass to a Rickenbacker. Emerick also used a loudspeaker placed directly in front of Paul McCartney’s amp as a microphone. Emerick stated that the Paperback Writer/Rain single was cut louder than any other Beatles record up to that time, due to a new piece of equipment used in the mastering process, referred to as "Automatic Transient Overload Control." Unlike Tomorrow Never Knows, the instrumentation on Paperback Writer is the standard two guitars/bass/drums. As such, it was the only new song from 1966 to be performed on the Beatles final tour. John Lennon described Paperback Writer thusly: “It's sort of Paul's version of Day Tripper, meaning a rock 'n' roll song with a guitar lick on a fuzzy, loud guitar - but it is Paul's song.” Indeed. It’s also their first single in the UK that wasn’t a “boy/girl” song [in the US, that honor went to Nowhere Man]. Paul McCartney’s reputation as very melodic bass player started with this song. One could make the case that he plays “lead bass” on the song.

Taxman [Revolver, 1966] - George’s ode to Britain’s Inland Revenue [our version of the IRS]. In the Anthology series, George explained his motivation for writing Taxman:

“It was in April 1966 that we started recording Revolver. Taxman was on Revolver. I had discovered I was paying a huge amount of money to the taxman. You are so happy that you’ve finally started earning money – and then you find out about tax. In those days we paid nineteen shillings and sixpence out of every pound (there were twenty shillings in the pound), and with the supertax and surtax and tax-tax it was ridiculous – a heavy penalty for making money. That was the big turn-off for Britain. Anybody who ever made any money moved to America or somewhere else.”

A couple of notes - John came up with the lines “And my advice for those who die/Declare the pennies on your eye” and suggested adding the names of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath when George sings “Don't ask me what I want it for (ah-ah, Mister Wilson)/If you don't want to pay some more (ah-ah, Mister Heath).” Guitar solos courtesy of Paul McCartney, rhythm guitar by George.

Rain [B-side, 1966] - another favorite of mine from John, which was the B-side of Paperback Writer. According to John, Rain is “about people moaning about the weather all the time.” Like its A-side, Rain had the two guitars/bass/drums. The bass is very loud. It also is not a love song. That’s where the similarities with Paperback Writer end. During the recording of Tomorrow Never Knows, the Beatles discovered they could get different tonal qualities of their sounds if they sped up or slowed down the tape they recorded on. In this instance, they played the song at a fast tempo then slowed the tape to the tempo they wanted. This gave the song a hazy, murky kind of drugged-out quality. The vocals were recorded at a slower speed and sped up [go figure!]. The other feature of Rain is the backwards vocal. According to John Lennon, this innovation was discovered by accident. After a long recording session, John took home a tape of that day’s session. He was a bit stoned at the time and he threaded the tape on his machine backwards. He liked what he heard and wanted it on the record. During the outro, you can hear the words “rain,” “sunshine,” and "If the rain comes they run and hide their heads” all backwards.

Tomorrow Never Knows [Revolver, 1966] - – the first song recorded for Revolver, and due to its highly experimental nature, the only place it could go on the album was last. This was as if the Beatles were saying goodbye to the “moptops” and hello to mind expansion, Eastern mysticism, and music one could not possibly play live. This one from John is my favorite from Revolver. The production of the music is the “everything including the kitchen sink” approach. The first half of the vocal track utilizes Automatic Double Tracking, known as ADT. John Lennon hated the process of singing overdubs to his own voice, so he prodded the Abbey Road staff to come up with a technical solution. John told producer George Martin that he wanted to sound like a hundred monks chanting from the Himilayas. He suggested to Martin that he be suspended from a rope and [with a good push] sing into the microphone as he spun around it. George Martin thought that idea was unworkable, but recording engineer Geoff Emerick came up with an idea. He figured out how to route John’s vocal through a Hammond organ’s rotating Leslie speaker. You can hear the effect starting at 1:27 into the song […Love is all and love is everyone…], the second half of the vocal track. That’s just the vocals…

The music itself was an Indian drone in C. Usually Western music has several chord changes, but not Tomorrow Never Knows. George Harrison plays a sitar and a tambura droning over the bass and drums. Then there are all the sound effects. These effects were created by utilizing tape loops. Paul McCartney had been listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic music, and thus inspired during this time he experimented on a home tape recorder. He discovered that by removing the erasure head from his tape recorder, he could keep recording over the same piece of tape, saturating it with sound. He brought a bag full of these tape loops for the session for Tomorrow Never Knows. During the session, the Beatles had about five of these loops playing at the same time while George Martin and Geoff Emerick moved the faders of each tape machine up and down at random. Since all the tapes were going at the same time, it was a “live” performance of the mix, which prompted George Martin to state that the finished mix of the song could never be duplicated. The effects ranged from a “seagull” [which is really Paul McCartney laughing, or so I've read], a Mellotron playing on the flute setting, another Mellotron playing on a ‘violin” setting, and an orchestral chord recorded from a Sibelius symphony. They mixed those with a tape of the guitar solo from Taxman, which was cut up, reversed and overdubbed onto Tomorrow Never Knows at a later date.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967] – This is one of Paul’s best vocals.  He plays lead guitar too.

With a Little Help From My Friends [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967] – Paul wrote this one, with a little help from John.  John contributed What do you see when you turn out the light/I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.

I Am the Walrus [Magical Mystery Tour, 1967] - . One day while reading some of his fan mail, he came across one letter that told the tale of some music teacher trying to explain the meaning of Beatles songs. Thus inspired, he wrote a song that strung lots of nonsensical words together, accompanied by a string section written by George Martin that sounds as if he was tripping on acid. “Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye” always grossed out my friend Brian when we were kids. The bit that always got me was “elementary penguins singing Hare Krisha/Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.” To go along with the music, there’s a boy-girl choir adding “ho ho ho hee hee hee ha ha ha,” “oompa-oompa stick it in your joompa” in the background. While mixing the song, John plugged a radio into the mixing board and changed the station until he found a BBC production of Hamlet. This is probably one of the first examples of what’s known as “music concrete”, the introduction of non-musical elements into songs. This is a technique that Pink Floyd later used to great effect. The result is all very surreal. As for the song as a whole - go ahead, figure that one out – I dare you. It’ll give you an aneurism if you try. When he finished the song, John told one of his friends “there, let the fuckers try and figure that one out.” The result – another very cool "headphone" song. For the record, John WAS the Walrus, and it’s “goo goo ga joob”, not “koo koo ka choo.” While Paul came up with such songs as “Hello Goodbye” and “Penny Lane”, John was coming up with stuff like this. Any wonder why the Beatles broke up? Don’t blame Yoko – John and Paul just weren’t on the same page anymore.

Here Comes the Sun [Abbey Road, 1969] – After the doom of I Want You [She’s So Heavy], Here Comes the Sun provides the proverbial breath of fresh air. John doesn’t appear on this song. He was in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident in Scotland. George wrote this one in Eric Clapton’s garden. He was playing hooky from Apple. Said George:
Here Comes the Sun was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: 'Sign this' and 'sign that'. Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton's house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric's acoustic guitars and wrote Here Comes the Sun.”

Get Back [Single, 1969] - In 1970, when Jann Wenner interviewed John Lennon for Lennon Remembers, John stated that if George was the “invisible vocalist” in the Beatles, then he was the “invisible guitarist.” John didn’t play lead too many times, but he did on Get Back. In addition to John’s two solos, Billy Preston got to play an electric piano solo in the middle. Such was his contribution that Get Back was credited to The Beatles with Billy Preston, as was the flip side Don’t Let Me Down. Let It Be should also have been so credited [].

Let It Be [Single, 1970 – actually recorded in 1969] – Paul had a dream about his mother, Mary.  The words are autobiographical.  There are three versions of this song – the single [which I prefer], the album version [given the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” treatment], and one from Let It Be...Naked.  Billy Preston plays the church-sounding Hammond organ on the song.  It should have been credited to The Beatles with Billy Preston like Get Back – it was recorded the same week.

Come Together [Abbey Road, 1969] - as I was growing up I thought each one of the verses was about a member of the Beatles. Now that I’m an adult I really don’t know what this one is about, not that it matters. Maybe John didn’t know either. I’ve written before that John Lennon had a batch of songs that I dubbed “the Seinfeld songs.” Jerry Seinfeld often said his TV show was a “show about nothing.” So it is that John Lennon wrote some “songs about nothing.” Come Together is one of them. It started out as a song for Timothy Leary. He wanted to run for governor of California in 1970 and he asked John Lennon to write him a campaign song. Leary was subsequently busted for marijuana possession [back then such a thing was a very big deal], and so ended any thoughts of a political campaign. But John still had this song. All I know is this is one very cool song. When John originally conceived the song he thought it should be like an up-tempo Chuck Berry-type of song. He even pinched the words here come old flat-top from a Chuck Berry song. Paul suggested they slow it down, make it “swampy.” Kudos to Paul for making the suggestion – kudos to John for taking it. What makes Come Together cool - Paul’s bass playing? Ringo’s drumming? John’s non-sensical lyrics? John’s electric piano playing? George’s guitar solo? The answer – yes.

Something [Abbey Road, 1969] - After six years of hits from the pens of Lennon and McCartney, George finally got the A-side of a Beatles single. Technically, it was a double A-side as John’s Come Together was the flip side. Both John & Paul agreed this one was the best song on the whole album. Paul plays this on the ukulele during his live shows as a tribute to George. Frank Sinatra said it was the best love song ever written. Recording engineer Geoff Emerick wrote plenty about the recording of Abbey Road in his book Here, There and Everywhere. Aside from the medley on Side 2 he paid particular attention to this song. What struck him was George’s new-found confidence as a guitar player. When it came time to overdub George’s solo, he was told there was only one track left on the tape, and they were saving that for the orchestra. George replied [and I’m paraphrasing here] “no problem, I’ll cut it live with the orchestra.” And wouldn’t you know George nailed the solo in only one pass. Having learned to play it myself years ago, I can appreciate what it took to just walk in the studio, plug in and play without making a single mistake.

Revolution [B-side, 1968] – This one is as loud and nasty as Paul’s Helter Skelter.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps [The Beatles, 1968] – That’s Eric Clapton on lead guitar.  This has one of Slowhand’s best solos on one of George’s best songs.

Strawberry Fields Forever [Magical Mystery Tour, 1967] – The Beatles did two versions of this song.  John liked part of one version and part of the other version.  He wanted George Martin to put them together.  But the two versions were in different keys and tempo, but George Martin slowed down on version and somehow they fit together.

A Day in the Life [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967] –This is the Beatles’ best song – period.

CD 2:
I Want You [She’s So Heavy] [Abbey Road, 1969] - a lyrically simple song from John. If you don’t count Revolution #9 as a song (most people don’t, including me), this one is the longest song in the Beatles canon.  The lyrics are the only thing about this song that one could call “simple.” The song repeatedly switches back and forth between 4/4 time and 6/8 time. The boys make the transitions effortlessly. Unlike most Beatles songs, John plays the lead guitar. His solo mimics his vocal. I like it because I can play it without messing it up. Billy Preston plays the Hammond organ. Paul’s bass lines are especially fun to play once you learn them, but it takes a lot of concentration for me not to screw it up. In one respect I Want You [She’s So Heavy] is like Hey Jude in that after the main part of the song, there’s a long finale. But there the similarity ends. Hey Jude’s finale is a long sing-along, whereas I Want You [She’s So Heavy] has a long instrumental finale. John and George recorded track after track of the same riff hammering away for what seems like an eternity. The guitar sound is massive. On top of the massive riffage, John added white noise from a Moog synthesizer. Usually recording artists want to avoid white noise like the Plague, but here John Lennon deliberately introduced it. At first it sounds like the wind, but as the song goes on the “wind” gets louder until it almost smothers the song in noise. Then suddenly, at the 7:44 mark, complete silence. The very first time you hear the song the silence is quite unexpected. It’s as if the repeating riff for the last three minutes puts you in a trance, then the silence hits you and you feel like huh? what? I always thought John’s songs were the most interesting and I Want You [She’s So Heavy] is just another example.

I’ve Got a Feeling [Let It Be, 1970 – actually recorded in 1969] - taken from the rooftop concert on January 30th, this song sees the Beatles rediscovering their inner rock stars. If anybody ever has any doubts about whether the Beatles could cut it live, one needs to look no further than this song. In my opinion it’s one of their most underrated songs. The guitar intro is John’s. Paul is in full-throated tonsil-shredding form in places. George’s playing is flawless. His entrance kicks in like a mule. This is really two songs put together. Paul’s I’ve Got a Feeling is another song for Linda, the girl he’s been looking for all along. The other is John’s Everybody Had a Hard Year. This rooftop performance is flawless.

Oh! Darling [Abbey Road, 1969] - This is Paul McCartney at his tonsil-shredding best. I wish I could sing like Paul does on Oh! Darling. John thought it was an outstanding piece of work but thought he could sing it better. I disagree – I don’t think John could touch this one. Paul wanted his voice to sound like he had been singing the song on-stage all week and would try to do the vocal one time daily until he was satisfied with the result. He once remarked that five years prior he could have nailed the vocal take in one pass, but now he had to break his voice in to get the desired effect. John is the piano player, George provides more excellent guitar. I don’t think Paul ever played this one live which is a shame. If he had trouble nailing the vocal when he was 27, I’m sure he couldn’t come close now that he’s 71. Oh! Darling is very, very good.
Octopus’s Garden [Abbey Road, 1969] - a Richard Starkey original. It’s a happy song that had its origins during an unhappy time for Ringo Starr. During the recording of the White Album, Ringo lost all confidence in his abilities and quit the band for a couple of weeks. Paul ended up playing the drums on Back in the USSR and Dear Prudence. Meanwhile, Ringo took his family on a holiday in Sardinia. While there he heard stories of how octopi gather up stones and shiny objects to build their own underwater gardens, and thus a song was born. The finger-picked electric guitar playing is John’s while all the tasty solos and fills are George’s. George’s playing on this song is what first grabbed my attention. The honky-tonk piano from Paul also quickly grabbed my attention. While George plays the solo you can hear George and Paul singing harmony that sounds like they’re underwater. This one is fun.

Old Brown Shoe [B-side, 1969] – One of George’s songs, this is the flip side of The Ballad of John and Yoko.  IMO, it’s a much better song.  John played rhythm guitar, but the guitar part was erased and replaced by George playing the Hammond organ.

Back in the USSR [The Beatles, 1968] – Paul played lead guitar, piano and drums.  John played a six-string bass while George played a four-string bass.  It was during the recording of this song that Ringo quit for two weeks.

Dear Prudence [The Beatles, 1968] – This one was recorded around the same time as Back in the USSR.  Paul is the drummer here as well.  The subject of the song is Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence.  She was in India at the same time as the Beatles, but she was more hardcore when it came to meditation.  Hence the plea won’t you come out to play.  John’s fingerpicking on the song is something he learned from Donovan while in India.  Note:  Prudence lives here in Northwest Florida and runs a Transcendental Meditation center in Destin, about 15 miles from my house.

Helter Skelter [The Beatles, 1968] – Paul wanted to make something loud and raunchy.  Hard rock and heavy metal bands have tried this song [Aerosmith, Motley Crue, etc] have tried to be this heavy and failed miserably.  Paul and George played the guitars, John played bass.  That’s Ringo shouting “I got blisters on my fingers.”

Lady Madonna [Single, 1968] – After the experimentations of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, this one is a no frills, back-to-basics track that foreshadows things to come on the White Album.

Hey Bulldog [Yellow Submarine, 1969 – actually recorded in 1968] - is from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, but instead of using weird sound effects, surreal strings and the boy-girl choir, this is a straight ahead rocker (and it DOES rock). Recorded five months after I Am the Walrus, Hey Bulldog uses the same lyrical approach, but the musical approach was just straight-ahead rock and roll. When I burn CDs of Beatles songs I put these two one after another because lyrically they are similar in that they don’t mean a damn thing – just bits of words strung together.  This song has the nastiest solo George recorded with the Beatles.

Across the Universe [Let It Be, 1970 – actually recorded in 1968] - this one is a Lennon original that was originally recorded in February 1968 before the Beatles went on holiday with the Maharishi in India. It was done during the same sessions as Lady Madonna, Hey Bulldog, and George’s vocal for The Inner Light [Lady Madonna’s flip side]. It was the first song he wrote since I Am the Walrus. This song appeared first on a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund called No One's Gonna Change Our World. Joe Satriani once cited this as one of his favorite songs like this – when the clown says something serious, you notice, or something along those lines. For the longest time I had no idea what Jai Guru Deva Om [जय गुरुदेव ] meant, so I looked it up. In Sanskrit, it’s loosely translated as “Praise to the teacher.” It was one of John’s favorite songs.

Penny Lane [Magical Mystery Tour, 1967] – Paul’s character study of strange people who visit a barbershop on a street in Liverpool is the flip side to Strawberry Fields Forever.  He got the idea of the Bach trumpet from hearing Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on the BBC.

All You Need Is Love [Magical Mystery Tour, 1967] – John wrote this one especially for a TV show to be broadcast live via satellite all around the world.   The vocals, Paul’s bass and George’s guitar were done live.

Eleanor Rigby [Revolver, 1966] - no Beatle plays an instrument on this tale of an elderly spinster. It’s just the voices of John, Paul and George with a string octet. Paul started the song, but others put bits in as well. George came up with the hook "Ah, look at all the lonely people," Ringo suggested Father McKenzie be "darning his socks in the night". John Lennon’s friend Pete Shotton suggested Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie be united at her funeral, then Paul finished the words.

Got To Get You Into My Life [Revolver, 1966] - for the first time on a Beatles record…brass, Motown-style. I’m not sure who came up with the horn arrangement, but it’s a good one. For those who think this is another Paul song about a girl, it isn’t – it’s about marijuana. Imagine that – a drug song from Paul McCartney. Paul loved it [pot] then, and still loves it 47 years later. John thought it was about LSD.

Drive My Car [Rubber Soul, 1965] - Paul and John sang the lead vocals together.  George played the same lines on guitar and the six-string bass in unison.  One can’t tell where the guitar ends and where the bass begins – it sounds like one instrument.  George got his inspiration for that after hearing Otis Redding’s Respect.  Paul played the lead guitar track.

Nowhere Man [Rubber Soul, 1965] - George played one of his most recognizable solos on Nowhere Man.  I still have no idea how he got that “ping” at the end of the solo.  If you want to know what a Fender Stratocaster without any effects sounds like, play this song.  The three-part harmonies of John, Paul and George are exquisite.  John was trying to write a song, but inspiration was lacking.   When he stopped thinking about it so hard, he said this song came to him, words, tune, everything all at once as he was drifting off to sleep.  Here’s an example of what happens when you try to “force it” and when you don’t try to “force it.” After two or three years of writing love songs, he came up with this.  Who was this Nowhere Man?  John Lennon, of course…

Day Tripper [Single, 1965] - John came up with the riff and most of the words.  Paul sang lead on the verses while John harmonized.  This went against type as for almost all Beatles songs, the main writer sang lead.  John played the guitar solo, too.  Apparently the “she’s a big teaser” line was originally written as “she’s a prick teaser.” 

Girl [Rubber Soul, 1965] - John’s song about a not-very-nice girl with whom he can’t help but fall in love.  She’s the kind of girl who puts you down when friends are there, you feel a fool/When you say she’s looking good she acts as if it’s understood, she’s cool… Listen closely and you can hear tit tit tit tit in the background vocals.  Somehow the censors missed that one…

In My Life [Rubber Soul, 1965] - This is one of the best songs John Lennon ever wrote.  A British reporter once challenged him to write a song about his childhood.  John did, but didn’t like what he came up with, so he made changes from very specific things, places and people to more general things [There are places I remember/Some have gone and some remain…Lovers and friends I still can recall/Some are dead and some are living …].  George Martin recorded the piano solo at half speed.  The harpsichord sound comes from playing the tape at regular speed.

No Reply [Beatles For Sale, 1964] – I can’t put my finger on it, but I’ve always liked this one.  This tale of stalking predates Every Breath You Take by 19 years.

She’s a Woman [B-side, 1964] – The flip side to I Feel Fine.  It has a great McCartney vocal, and I love the interplay of John and George’s guitars during the solo section.

Things We Said Today [A Hard Day’s Night, 1964] – I just like this one.

You Can’t Do That [A Hard Day’s Night, 1964] – This has a nifty twelve-string riff from George, and John takes the solo.

Twist and Shout [Please Please Me, 1963] – The Beatles recorded their first album Please Please Me in a single night.  John had a cold – they saved this song for last because John could do the vocal only once.  If you listen closely, as the final chord fades you can hear John cough.

Tripped Up at the Finish Line -
Hey Jude [Single, 1968] – Killed by Sir Paul himself.  The coda is about two minutes too long.  I had one long Beatles song to choose, and this one didn’t make it.

The Abbey Road Medley – aka “The Long One.”  If I included this, there would be sixteen minutes of other Beatles music that wouldn’t make the cut.

Please Please Me [Please Please Me, 1963] – The harmonica is a little annoying.

Julia [The Beatles, 1968] – John’s ode to his late mother is the only Beatles song on which John plays by himself.

We Can Work It Out [Single, 1965] - I had enough songs from 1965 as it is, and I like Day Tripper better.

The Ballad of John and Yoko [Single, 1969] – I had enough songs from 1969, and its flip-side [Old Brown Shoe] is a better song.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rush - Vapor Trails Remixed

The trouble with writing about an album that’s been remixed is that you have to go back and listen to the original, especially if the mix of the original is hard on the ears.  Such is the case with Rush’s album Vapor Trails.  How did the original Vapor Trails get to be such a mess?  To make a long story short - in 1997, Neil Peart’s daughter died in a single-car accident.  Ten months later his common-law wife died of cancer.  At her funeral he told Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson to consider him “retired.”  He wasn’t in the mood to make music.  He locked up his house, got on his motorcycle and went wherever the mood took him.  This road trip lasted roughly three years [which he chronicled in his book Ghost Rider].  There was much doubt among the Rush fandom whether there would be another album after Test For Echo [1996].  I imagine Geddy Lee thought Rush was history, hence his My Favorite Headache album in 1998.

A couple more years passed and Peart decided he was ready to make music again.  Rush regrouped and made Vapor Trails.  After a five-year absence they were learning how to be a band again.  It took them about 15 months to make, the longest time they ever spent on making an album.  After spending so much time on making an album, the band lost their objectivity.  They didn’t have a fresh set of ears to tell them that what they produced sounded horrible.  There was plenty of aggression and energy in their playing [always a plus], but the results were lost in the production.  There’s much distortion.  For a band that prides itself on crystal-clear production [see their 1980s output], the original mix of Vapor Trails is complete shit.  Vapor Trails was a victim of the “loudness war.”  It was recorded too loud, it was mastered even louder.  The songs themselves sounded so much better on the live Rush In Rio set.

Fast forward seven years to 2009.  Atlantic Records released a Rush compilation, Retrospective 3 (1989-2008).  Contained therein were remixes of two songs from Vapor TrailsOne Little Victory and Earthshine.  I liked what I heard.  So did a lot of Rush fans.  It was a good start.  The drums got fixed, and the guitars weren't quite so blurry.  Rumors abounded whether they would take the leap and remix the entire album.  The guys in the band see this as a blotch on their recorded legacy that wanted to fix.  To my surprise they did, and there was much rejoicing.

Guitars – For the first time since Caress of Steel, Vapor Trails didn’t have any keyboards or any synthesizers of any kind [many thumbs up!], so this left the instrumental heavy lifting to Alex Lifeson. There were lots of guitars on the original release, so many that they stepped on each other and created an unlistenable Wall of Sound.  Tool producer David Bottrill remixed the album.  When he did the remix, he didn’t use the original mix as a reference.  He went into it with fresh ears so he could pick and choose what parts to keep and what parts to lose.  He found some guitar parts that have gone unheard until now [like in Out of the Cradle and Ceiling Unlimited].  He pulled the guitars back from the forefront of the original mix.  You can hear acoustic guitars [like those on Earthshine] clearly.  You can hear separate guitar parts.  The sound isn’t a blur.

Bass - One problem I have with remixes is that sometimes the parts you liked the first time around go missing.  As far as Rush is concerned my fear was that the bottom end would find its way to the cutting room floor, and that Vapor Trails would sound spineless, like Roll the Bones and Presto.  The good news is that Geddy’s bass, though toned down a bit, is still heard and felt.  But this mix gives the bass a more trebly feel than what one would find on the subsequent Rush works Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels.  Geddy plays lots of bass chords that got buried in the original mix.

Drums – On the original album, Neil Peart’s drums sounded like trash cans.  Now they sound like drums.  Not as good as Snakes & Arrows [not as much punch], but better than the original mix. [Yeah, I like Snakes & Arrows a lot...]

Vocals – You can hear them above the noise now where they were struggling to be heard before.  But on the minus side, the vocals are sometimes brought too far forward at the expense of the instrumental work.
If you thought the original Vapor Trails album was a turd because of the songs themselves, this remix won’t change your mind.  To you this is a newer, polished buffed-up turd.  But if you disliked the original album because of the distortion and the crappy mix, this remix is worth getting to give the songs a new listen.  At least when I listen to Vapor Trails now, my head doesn’t hurt.  But since Rush knowingly put out a crappy product in 2002, can I have my money back?

Tracks I like – One Little Victory [all guns blazing on this one], Ghost Rider, Vapor Trail, Earthshine [the best one on the album], Sweet Miracle, Nocturne

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Where The Beatles Actually Sucked...

Contrary to what people may think, I do not like every note the Beatles ever recorded. Nobody is perfect, not even the Fab Four. There is a website called Something Else Reviews that I visit occasionally. They’ve done two articles on Beatles music they don’t like – Gimme Five: Songs Where the Beatles, well, Sucked! and Gimme Five: Songs Where the Beatles, well, Sucked (Again)! Marty Neubauer thought it might be something worth discussing on Facebook. So I’m laying down my marker here to get the discussion started.

Paul’s Granny Music
After the Beatles broke up, John Lennon was not shy about making known his distaste for some of Paul McCartney’s songs. He labeled these cheesy songs “granny music.” I’m inclined to agree. It is primarily because of these songs that John Lennon and George Harrison are my favorite Beatle and ex-Beatle (respectively). These songs are just too cutesy. To give the richest ex-Beatle his due, he’s written many songs that are, in a word, great. But the greatness sometimes gets overshadowed by the dreck. These were out of place on Beatles albums, but they would have been quite at home on Paul’s Kisses on the Bottom.

Maxwell’s Silver Hammer [Abbey Road, 1969] – A song that George would label “fruity,” this one is about a homicidal maniac. John refused to play on it. Ringo [ever the diplomat of the group] said the Beatles’ worst sessions were the recording of this song. This song keeps Abbey Road from being a perfect album. If I had to record this one repeatedly, I’d probably turn into homicidal myself. I’m surprised George and Ringo didn’t turn. Yes, it’s that bad.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da [The Beatles, 1968] – Paul McCartney tries his hand at Ska and fails miserably. This one got made and re-made until the group was sick of it. John was so pissed at doing take after take that he banged the piano furiously, and out of this anger came the intro we all know.

From Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions:

“John Lennon came to the session really stoned, totally out of it on something or other, and he said, 'All right, we're gonna do Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. He went straight to the piano and smashed the keys with an almighty amount of volume, twice the speed of how they'd done it before, and said, 'This is it! Come on!' He was really aggravated. That was the version they ended up using.”

From Geoff Emerick's book Here, There and Everywhere [the Beatles' recording engineer who quit after recording this song]:

“Throughout the preceding weeks I had noticed that John's behavior was becoming increasingly erratic — his mood swings were more severe, and they were occurring more frequently. That was definitely the case with the recording of 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.' One moment he'd be into it, acting the fool and doing his fake Jamaican patois, the next minute he'd be sulking and grumbling about how the song was more of Paul's 'granny music shit.' [...] So when Paul announced several nights later that he wanted to scrap everything that had been done so far and start the song again from scratch, John went ballistic. Ranting and raving, he headed out the door, with Yoko trailing closely behind, and we thought that we'd seen the last of him that evening. But a few hours later he stormed back into the studio, clearly in a highly altered state of mind. 'I AM FUCKING STONED!!' John Lennon bellowed from the top of the stairs. [...] 'I am more stoned than you have ever been. In fact, I am more stoned than you will ever be!' [...] 'And this,' Lennon added with a snarl, 'is how the fucking song should go.' Unsteadily, he lurched down the stairs and over to the piano and began smashing the keys with all his might, pounding out the famous opening chords that became the song's introduction, played at a breakneck tempo. [...] 'Okay, then, John,' [McCartney] said in short, clipped words, staring his deranged bandmate straight in the eye. 'Let's do it your way.' [...] The remake, I had to admit, was quite good.”

I loathe this song with every fiber of my being. Who the hell cares about Desmond and Molly Jones?

Honey Pie [The Beatles, 1968] – This is a homage to the 1920s British music hall style. This is old music for old people. The grannies might dig it, but I do not.

When I’m 64 [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967] – See Honey Pie. Just because you can play music in a certain style doesn’t mean that you should.

She’s Leaving Home [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967] – Two Beatles [John and Paul], harps and strings. This isn’t rock and roll – this is chamber music. This approach worked on Eleanor Rigby [because unlike this song, there was an actual tune], but not here.

Other Crap
There are songs in the Beatles’ canon I just don’t like and I would be just fine if I never heard them again. Some of these may surprise you…

The Long and Winding Road [Let It Be, 1970] – This song is so depressing. When I first heard this song it was the last song on the 1967-70 Blue album. It was the last song and I always associated it with the group breaking up. At first I thought it was bad because of the horns, harps, strings and female voices that Phil Spector dumped on this song like they were toxic waste. But when you hear it on Let It Be…Naked, all that crap is removed. Underneath it all, you realize the crap goes much deeper than the Spector’s Wall of Sound syrup. This song really sucks! Paul quit the Beatles over this? Perhaps this was what John referred to as the “shittiest load of badly recorded shit…”

Don’t Let Me Down [B-side, 1969] – This was the flip side of Get Back. This is a love song for Yoko that I’ve been trying to like since it came out. If it’s taken me this long to try to like it, I never will. Sorry John, but I don’t love Yoko either…

I Want To Hold Your Hand [Meet The Beatles, 1964] – Sure, this was the song that “broke” the Beatles in 1964. I must be one of the few Beatles fans that loathes and despises this song. I Saw Her Standing There was the flip side of the single. It was a much better song, and much more exciting. With the title of the song repeated ad nauseum, and those annoying handclaps, I can’t stand to hear it.

Revolution #9 [The Beatles, 1968] – What is understood need not be discussed.

You Know My Name [Look Up the Number] [B-side, 1970] – It was funny the first time, but after that…

Blue Jay Way [Magical Mystery Tour, 1967] – This single-chord dirge gets boring very quickly. How many times can George sing the line “Don’t be long”? Answer: 25.

Run For Your Life [Rubber Soul, 1965] – John wrote this song and even he hated it. Why should I like it?

Mr. Moonlight [Beatles For Sale, 1964] – What makes this song so bad? Paul’s cheesy organ. They recorded another cover called Leave My Kitten Alone [it’s on Anthology 2] during the same recording session that was much better than this steaming pile. Why they chose Mr. Moonlight when they had something much better remains a mystery.

They Just Bore Me
The Beatles recorded thirteen albums in seven years. There’s bound to be filler. These songs fit that category. This category isn’t “suckage” per se, but here are some more songs that if I never hear them again, I won’t miss them. In the beginning, there were many covers. Some of them were done very well [Twist and Shout, the Chuck Berry covers, the Carl Perkins covers, etc]. The others are listed below. But the more Lennon and McCartney wrote there weren’t so many of them. But that doesn’t mean that everything those two wrote was great, or even good. They’re just “there” taking up vinyl space [the definition of “filler”]. Here’s where it gets a little dicey, because what might sound good to me [Octopus’s Garden, for example] might sound like a novelty song to others.

Misery [Please Please Me, 1963]
Anna (Got To Him) [Please Please Me, 1963]
Chains [Please Please Me, 1963]
Boys [Please Please Me, 1963]
Ask Me Why [Please Please Me, 1963]
There’s a Place [Please Please Me, 1963]
Till There Was You [With The Beatles, 1963]
Please Mister Postman [With The Beatles, 1963]
You Really Got a Hold On Me [With The Beatles, 1963]
Devil In Her Heart [With The Beatles, 1963]
What Goes On [Rubber Soul, 1965]
Wait [Rubber Soul, 1965]
Every Little Thing [Beatles For Sale, 1964]
Words of Love [Beatles For Sale, 1964]
I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party [Beatles For Sale, 1964]
What You’re Doing [Beatles For Sale, 1964]
You Like Me Too Much [Help! 1965]
Tell Me What You See [Help! 1965]
Yellow Submarine [Revolver, 1966]
Your Mother Should Know [Magical Mystery Tour, 1967]
Baby, You’re a Rich Man [Magical Mystery Tour, 1967]
Wild Honey Pie [The Beatles, 1968]
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill [The Beatles, 1968]
Martha My Dear [The Beatles, 1968]
Piggies [The Beatles, 1968]
Don’t Pass Me By [The Beatles, 1968]
Long, Long, Long [The Beatles, 1968]
Only a Northern Song [Yellow Submarine, 1969]
All Together Now [Yellow Submarine, 1969]
Dig a Pony [Let It Be, 1970]
Dig It [Let It Be, 1970]
Maggie Mae [Let It Be, 1970]