Friday, 9 December 2011

Ace Soul Reviews

What do you get for the Beatles fan who has everything? Once they’ve got all the albums, the Anthology DVDs and all the movies... well, there’s still Beatles books, T-shirts, mugs, keyrings, fridge magnets and so on. But if you want to give them something they’re less likely to have, try digging around the website of Ace Records. This label specialises in reissues of music from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and they’ve been good enough to send me a bunch of stuff from their back catalogue. This material is largely overlooked by other labels, and there’s a good chance that even keen fans of this era in pop won’t own it.

Most obviously of interest to Beatles fans is Come Together: Black America Sings Lennon & McCartney. It lives up to its title, so – sorry, George! Nothing for you here. But it’s an excellent selection of soul and R&B covers from the Beatles catalogue, spanning the years 1965-76, with lots of leftfield selections you’ll rarely hear anywhere else. Little Richard’s 1970 cover of I Saw Her Standing There, for example, falls well outside his ‘classic’ period and it’s nice to hear him return the Beatles’ compliment. The Moments’ cover of ‘Rocky Racoon’, which takes a rambling joke song and transplants it into the contemporary ghetto, is remarkable and Fats Domino’s ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey’ is a highlight.

It’s most interesting when the songs are less obviously derived from soul and R&B in the first place – the group’s most consciously R&B-influenced record, Rubber Soul, attracts no covers here (although both sides of the single which accompanied it do), but then neither does the group’s least R&B record, Sgt. Pepper. The ‘White’ album, with its stripped-back arrangements, proves especially fruitful, with versions that rival the originals.

From Beatles covers to an artist covered by The Beatles: Arthur Alexander, whose best material is collected on The Greatest. A versatile musician and songwriter with a rich, warm singing voice, Alexander’s output spanned soul, R&B, gospel and country. Largely remembered only by people who’ve studied the credits on Please Please Me, he deserves more recognition: at least The Beatles’ appreciation means subsequent generations are always likely to happen upon his name. Rushing through their version of ‘Anna (Go To Him)’, the group couldn’t really get close to Alexander’s superb original.

The Beatles’ big influences are usually considered to be the likes of Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry, but Alexander’s records were the kind of thing they were listening to in the run-up to making their first records. It forms a great insight into how they finished their sound, as well as being an excellent collection in its own right. Play something like ‘You Don’t Care’ and it feels like the world stops to listen. The highlights are loaded at the beginning, but once they put you in the mood you want to stay there.

Alexander also occupies a key spot on Ace’s lavish new collection The Fame Studios Story 1961-1973. I didn’t know anything about Fame before flipping through the excellent sleevenotes (calling them ‘notes’ sells them short: it’s a small full-colour book with the CDs packed at the back), but this was an establishment in the middle of Nowheresville, Alabama who started out recording local musicians like Alexander (whose first record was deemed ‘too black for white audiences and too white for black audiences’, but Fame’s faith in the song was rewarded with success). The quality of their productions eventually attracted the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, and their own label later signed Candi Staton.

The collection contains the odd staple of soul collections such as Pickett’s ‘Land Of 1000 Dances’ and Arthur Conley’s ‘Sweet Soul Music’, but is mostly filled with material you’d be unlikely to see anywhere else. Most of this is new to me: I’m far from an expert on the genre and so I’d never heard Chess Records’ attempt to replicate the success of Sam & Dave, Maurice & Mac: their exuberant ‘Why Don’t You Try Me’ is a highlight. The mod staple ‘Fortune Teller’, covered by the Stones and the Who but perhaps best of all by Timebox, appears here in a taut early version by The Del-Rays. In 1997 the BBC used a track for its Glastonbury coverage which featured a naggingly catchy sample: I know finally know that this was from ‘Everybody’ by Tommy Roe, a terrific pop record.

Several tracks, like Mitty Collier’s showstopping take on ‘Take Me Just As I Am’, have never been released before. They’ve dug so deep in the archives that one track, a searing demo of ‘Another Man’s Woman, Another Woman’s Man’, is credited to ‘Unknown Female’ – the vocalist’s identity having been forgotten long ago. Whilst the accent is mostly on soul and R&B, the album also touches on other genres – David & The Giants’ amazing ‘Ten Miles High’ pulls the Fame sound in a psychedelic direction, for example.

I did briefly think ‘What’s this shit?’ when some drippy sub-Jackson 5 nonsense came on: gratifyingly, this turned out to be ‘One Bad Apple’ by The Osmonds. But I still haven’t fully taken this collection in: there are three discs and the breadth of it is remarkable.

By contrast, You've Gotta Believe It's Sharon Tandy – collecting the best of this South African vocalist of the 1960s – has been one of my most-played CDs of the year. I happened upon one of her tracks, ‘Hold On’, while trawling YouTube for a track by her backing band Les Fleur De Lys. It’s a perfect freakbeat record, a superbly breathy vocal paired with a blistering guitar solo. But there’s more to her than that – the opening track, ‘You’ve Gotta Believe It’, is a stunning Dusty Spingfield-style orchestral pop number, and likewise the original A-side of ‘Hold On’ was a great version of ‘Stay With Me’.

But Tandy’s real forte was soul: she’d been a member of contentious mixed-race groups in South Africa, and she later recorded at Stax Studios where she was backed by Isaac Hayes. Her version of ‘Our Day Will Come’ (just released as an Amy Winehouse single) and ‘Toe Hold’ are highlights of the collection. Her versatility may not have done her any favours back in the 1960s – she doesn’t seem to have quite found the right audience – but it lends welcome variety to this collection. Shame she never made a full album with Les Fleur De Lys though.

That’s enough for one post – I’ll round up some psych and garage stuff from Ace sometime soon.

Friday, 31 December 2010

Let It Be (2)

When Let It Be... Naked was released in 2003, the critical focus was very much on the removal of Phil Spector’s post-production work. This is understandable. Although Spector was a fine producer (past tense, as he’s unlikely to do anything decent again), bringing him in to work on already-recorded material was a huge mistake. A notorious control freak, he was always likely to smother the tracks in overdubs to ensure his own stamp was on them. Perhaps the greater surprise is that more of the tracks weren’t affected. Hearing Spector’s work on ‘The Long And Winding Road’ throws into sharp relief just how thoughtful and tasteful George Martin’s orchestrations for The Beatles are: I always feel horribly deflated when the 1 album stumbles into this puddle of slush at the end.

However, this focus on Spector’s work obscured two important issues about Let It Be... Naked: one, that the album’s title was so bad that it’s difficult to use it in ordinary conversation; the other, that although the album had been improved substantially by stripping it down, it had benefited just as much from the tracklisting being rearranged.

No amount of polishing and shuffling can disguise the fact that this isn’t a strong collection of Beatles tracks. In his haste to get The Beatles started on a new project, McCartney harried the group into the rehearsal studio just ten weeks after wrapping a 30-track double album, and it shows. Lennon’s three-and-a-half songs on the original album include one that was over a year old and had apparently been abandoned by the rest of the group (‘Across The Universe’) and one that had been written in 1957 and been abortively recorded at the ‘From Me To You’ session in 1963 (‘One After 909’, which cops the skiffle style so completely it even has a railway-themed lyric). And of the other one-and-a-half, ‘Dig A Pony’ seems to be a cunning steal from Joe Cocker’s radically reworked cover of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, released in October 1968. So the tracks aren’t top-drawer. But just as a film can be made or ruined in the edit, an album can be made or ruined in the sequencing.

‘Two Of Us’ is a good opener, but ‘Across The Universe’ kills the pace of the album early on, whilst the two most melodramatic tracks – ‘I Me Mine’ and ‘Let It Be’ – are used up too soon. The second side also begins well but badly loses its way – ‘For You Blue’ doesn’t really go anywhere and is a terrible choice for the penultimate track. ‘Get Back’ is a logical choice for the closer – it was the last song they played at the rooftop gig – but Spector’s odd decision to lop the end off means the album peters out in an anticlimactic splutter.

Also, whilst the studio chatter is entertaining in itself it breaks up the flow of the album. The false start on ‘Dig A Pony’ deflates the entire track, and Lennon’s comment before ‘Let It Be’ is snide mockery of a song he wasn’t keen on (admittedly it’s a poor man’s ‘Hey Jude’, but still a very good song. It has also been widely misinterpreted – ‘mother Mary’ is not the Virgin Mary, but McCartney’s dead mother, whose name was Mary). The chatter is all Lennon, and he seems to have been responsible for the final sequencing. Given that he later suggested he was glad the album had blown the Beatles ‘myth’, I wonder if he arsed it up on purpose (Ian MacDonald also suggests that Lennon was responsible for okaying the use of the dodgy take of ‘The Long And Winding Road’, when McCartney could easily have been called in to redub Lennon’s inept bass-playing).

This project originally had a clear focus – to create a stripped-back album of live performances – but the finished product seems totally unsure of what it’s trying to be. The studio chatter gives it a ‘documentary’ feel which reflects the film it’s meant to be a soundtrack for – but Spector’s heavy overdubs on ‘Across The Universe’, ‘I Me Mine’ and ‘The Long And Winding Road’ work against this aesthetic and are nothing like the music heard in the film. Several attempts were made at compiling an album from the tapes, including drafts that featured McCartney’s ‘Teddy Boy’ (included on Anthology 3) and a brief cover of ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ (bafflingly left off Anthology 3), and they still made a hash of it. The Beatles always left sequencing to George Martin, and when you see what happened when he wasn’t involved you realise how good at it he was.

The Naked version is an infinitely better piece of sequencing. ‘Get Back’ is still truncated, but by making it the opening track the effect is to make the album move on more quickly, and removing the false start from ‘Dig A Pony’ creates an excellent transition. ‘For You Blue’ is still a minor track, but placing it earlier in the album rescues it and gives it a chance to breathe. The album now opens with three upbeat rockers, so ‘The Long And Winding Road’ is a welcome change of pace. The most successful segueway from the original album, ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ into ‘One After 909’, has been retained. ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ – by far Lennon’s best song in these sessions, which could easily have been on the original album even though it had already been released as a B-side – raises the overall quality by replacing ‘Dig It’ and ‘Maggie Mae’. But best of all, a new closing sequence has been created from three tracks originally located on side one. ‘I Me Mine’ is much better for the removal of a heavy-handed orchestra, and thunders tempestuously before the zen moment of ‘Across The Universe’ (at the correct speed, for the first time ever – and the stripped-down clarity improves it hugely) and finally the catharsis of ‘Let It Be’. The album is tighter and flows much better, with the only minus point being that the unsung gem of these songs – ‘Two of Us’ – gets a bit lost.

I’ve heard people say they don’t like the Naked version as much; that McCartney took advantage of the death of his colleagues to indulge in some spurious revisionism. For me, this is a case where you’re entitled to your opinion but you’re wrong. The original album is still out there – has now, in fact, been cleaned up and reissued – and after a month of both albums in rotation, I’m in no doubt which is the better. That’s possibly cheating the original intention of the blog, but it’s still true.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Let It Be (1)

When The Beatles failed, it was rarely for want of ambition. Take Magical Mystery Tour, for example (the film, not the EP). The group’s only experience of making films had been as actors, and their knowledge of what was involved in scripting and overseeing a production was far too limited. Their ambition outstripped what they were capable of. Yet this was partly rewarded in retrospect: although their naivety made the film incoherent, the same quality also produced something unique, with some interesting imagery and genuinely funny moments.

By contrast, the ‘Get Back’ project – as Let It Be was originally titled – demonstrates that The Beatles’ ambition was failing them. McCartney conceived it as an album written to be performed and recorded live, at an exclusive one-off gig to be filmed for television. (Ian McDonald oddly claims that the gig was originally to be an hour long and feature eight songs, even though the longest eight tracks The Beatles ever recorded add up to less than fifty minutes.) A number of outrĂ©, grandstanding venues were considered, including the Pyramids at sunset and the deck of a cruise liner. A perhaps more practical suggestion was the Roundhouse: in the end, the group could only be arsed to go as far as the roof of the Apple building. Iconic as this was, it was indicative of diminishing enthusiasm for the project and was hardly conducive to performance or sound quality, given that these would be the definitive renditions of the songs. The Beatles had essentially decided to perform their new album in the guise of celebrity buskers.

If the gig been done properly, it would certainly have been a huge event and I’m not sure anyone had ever recorded an album of original songs this way (The Yardbirds’ debut ‘Five Live Yardbirds’, for example, was a covers album). Yet would the music have really stretched them? The intent was to refocus on the four of them as a playing ensemble, which was logical in the light of McCartney’s desire to rediscover the unity they’d had in their touring days. Given Lennon and Harrison’s wariness of the project, he probably didn’t want to overcomplicate it. Additionally, in the wider music scene the arena-rock groups of the early 70s were starting to emerge, with a similar emphasis on ‘live’ musicianship ahead of tracks layered up in the studio. But The Beatles’ take on this was disappointingly ordinary. They all seem to have grown tired of studio artifice (particularly Lennon, who was becoming fixated on tedious notions of ‘honesty’ in music) but came up with nothing fresh to replace it. There are good tracks in this lot but other bands could have done it just as well, and that was never what The Beatles were about.

The ‘Get Back’ project should have changed people’s notions of what a rock concert could be. It shouldn’t have just been about getting the group back onto a stage together. They’d quit touring in 1966 partly because they music they were making was difficult or impossible to recreate onstage: perhaps, for a one-off gig, they should have looked to do so. Or injected some unique aspect to the performance, making the event into a piece of performance art incorporating the ‘random’ elements they’d used in their music since ‘I Am The Walrus’. Or radically reworked their existing songs. A group of their talents was capable of creating a late-60s equivalent of The Wall or Stop Making Sense, and if they’d still been at the peak of their powers I think they would have done. But the group was fragmenting, the end was in sight and they just didn’t have the energy.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Toppermost of the Poppermost RESULTS SHOW

Thanks for all your votes. Here’s the final top ten, with number of points next to them (five points awarded for first-ranked songs, four for second and so on). As we had a pretty small sample, some ties were inevitable and we have an annoying three-way tie for second place. The votes centred heavily around 1965 and 1966 and Lennon dominates with four-and-a-half of the top five. The winner surprised me – although it’s always been a favourite of mine, and I’ve often cited it as my overall favourite Beatles song, I’ve never seen it top a Beatles poll or even come second or third. But here it established an early lead and was the winner by miles. Good work, everyone.

1) Tomorrow Never Knows – 24
2=) In My Life – 15
2=) Strawberry Fields Forever – 15
2=) A Day in the Life – 15
5) Rain – 13
6) Eleanor Rigby – 11
7=) Help! – 10
7=) Here Comes the Sun – 10
9) For No-One – 9
10) Across the Universe – 8

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Toppermost of the Poppermost

People always moan when a magazine or website runs some witless, space-filling, cheap attention-grabbing Best Ever Beatles Songs poll. But not me! I like witless, space-filling, cheap attention-grabbing Best Ever Beatles Songs polls and I’m going to do one of my own. Post your top five in the comments section down there. I’ll start the ball rolling:

1) Eleanor Rigby
2) Tomorrow Never Knows
3) Strawberry Fields Forever
4) Paperback Writer
5) Long, Long, Long

Results will be posted as soon as I can be bothered to collate them. Depends how many people vote, really. I reserve the right to discount stupid/"comedy" votes as I see fit.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Abbey Road (2)

Going from vague anecdotal evidence collected by me, most Beatles fans think of Abbey Road as the last Beatles album. This is partly because it was the last to be recorded (ALTHOUGH just to be annoying there was one final session, without Lennon, in January 1970 to knock off a proper recording of ‘I Me Mine’) and therefore any analysis of their development should consider it their last. It’s also partly because it makes for a better final Beatles album and, given the choice, we’d rather it was the final Beatles album. It finishes their career on a high and side two’s ‘long medley’ has the feel of a grand finale. And unlike the brisk forced-bonhomie of Let It Be, attempting to recreate the solid unit they’d been in Hamburg and during their early touring days, Abbey Road not only looks ahead to the future but deals with their break-up head-on, with ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ referring to the legal battle within the group and ‘Carry That Weight’ (one of my favourite Beatles songs) addressing the magnitude of what they’d achieved together.

So the consensus is that Abbey Road, although not the final Beatles album to be released, is the final Beatles album in spirit. A more controversial issue, in my experience, is whether they were right to stick ‘Her Majesty’ at the end. The ‘long medley’ had been crafted to conclude with ‘The End’, featuring a drum solo from Ringo, a guitar solo from each of the others and then a lovely piece of quintessentially 1960s cod-philosophy (‘And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make’). It also seems to rattle through their career, running from an ‘Oh yeah!’ and a squalling rock ’n’ roll riff to a closing orchestral sting and languid guitar wash.

Then, when the album was being mixed, McCartney discovered that a track he’d decided to drop from the ‘long medley’ had been placed at the end of the master tape for convenience (once they became successful, nothing The Beatles recorded was ever junked – hence the Anthology albums). He decided he liked it that way and kept it there. So, did he spoil his beautifully crafted coda by chucking this acoustic doodle after it?

I don’t think so. To me this track sums up the story of The Beatles’ latter period, and that’s entirely because of where it is on the album. There are few groups who’ve shifted quite so decisively from one member leading the group to another. In fact, the only one I can think of are Ride. No offence to Ride, who I think were brilliant, but we’re not really talking about the same ballpark. Although The Beatles were very much a group – the first group to project themselves as four personalities – they were originally Lennon’s group. Yet as their working methods evolved, McCartney – with his multi-instrumental talent and greater interest in production – became more central, and it’s clear he continued to see The Beatles as enabling him to do things, rather than – as Lennon and, especially, Harrison did at times – holding him back.

The Beatles arguably became McCartney’s group around Sgt. Pepper, and there’s no doubt that they were his group after Brian Epstein died. For example, an interview with Richard Hamilton in Mojo about his sleeve for the ‘White’ album reveals that all his meetings were held with McCartney. Most of The Beatles’ projects in their last couple of years were McCartney’s idea. He often arrived at the studio ahead of the others, laying down demos and basic tracks – sometimes completing tracks without bothering to involve the others. Because McCartney was the first to announce that he was leaving the group, some people who don’t know the backstory assume that the group might have carried on without him. The truth is that by this stage he was the only one who cared. The Beatles without him was unthinkable.

And that’s why ‘Her Majesty’ feels so apt to me. At the end of an album where the group pulled together one last time, this track conjures an image of McCartney alone in the studio. The others have all gone home and turned out the lights, whilst he carries on regardless. But rather than playing some doleful lament for the group he’s lost, he’s being whimsical and irreverent. Yes, it treads on the gesture of giving each of them their solo spot in the final minutes of their final album – but after the effort McCartney had put into holding the group together long enough to make this record, I don’t begrudge him the last word.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Abbey Road (1)

One of the most popular pastimes among Beatles fans is to compile hypothetical follow-ups to Abbey Road, made out of the best tracks from the 1970 solo releases. (Yes! We know how to party, don’t we?) I’ve tried it myself but it’s not as simple as it seems. Do you make the best album you can make from the material, or try to assemble the album The Beatles might actually have made?

Harrison’s All Things Must Pass has so much good stuff, it’s tempting to pick out four or five tracks – but many of them had already been rejected by the group and there’s no reason to think Lennon and McCartney would have changed their ‘You’ll get two songs and you’ll like it’ policy. Then there’s the question of McCartney’s contributions: unlike Lennon and Harrison, he gave his all to The Beatles until the end and his early solo efforts are less full-blooded. His solo debut is a lovely record, but the tracks sound small and inconsequential next to the heavily-produced Harrison material. ‘Instant Karma’ is hard to resist, but can you justify including a track which might never have been written if Lennon had remained a Beatle? And so on.

Yet if the aim is to define what The Beatles might have sounded like in 1970 or 1971, there’s actually no need. They saved you the bother when they made Abbey Road.

This is a lot of people’s favourite Beatles record, but it’s one I’ve always found hard to get to grips with. I think that’s because it sounds so different to any of the others. That’s a slightly stupid thing to say, because as we’ve established most of The Beatles’ records don’t sound like any of the others (in particular those from Revolver onwards). But when I think of The Beatles, I think of 1960s music and much of Abbey Road doesn’t sound like 1960s music. Harrison’s tracks are pure early-70s AOR. Lennon contributes two of the least Beatles-sounding Beatles tracks in ‘Come Together’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, both far more like the product of early arena-rock bands. Even McCartney’s doo-wop revivalism on ‘Oh! Darling’ anticipates the likes of Bowie’s ‘Drive-In Saturday’ and even Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’.

We’re covering the records in release order rather than recording order, so Let It Be comes last (I placed Yellow Submarine before The Beatles partly for convenience, but also because the film came out much earlier and so the songs were in the public domain). But applying the knowledge of what Let It Be sounded like, it’s clear that since finishing Sgt. Pepper the group had been putting less and less effort into sounding ahead of their time. There are some forward-thinking tracks on The Beatles, but also a lot of pastiches and doodles. Then, the ‘new phase’ of Let It Be was (as noted by Mic Wright on his blog about that record) actually a retrograde step, returning to a ‘live’ sound which comfortably accommodated a song they wrote in 1957.

On Abbey Road, knowing it would be their last album, they pulled their fingers out and did it properly. Because they hadn’t been thinking ahead for a while, when they did the result was a jarring leap. It’s bizarre to hear synths on a Beatles album (they were practically the only ones who could afford one, so few of their contemporaries were using them) – but here it is, bouncing merrily over ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and swirling menacingly in the outro of ‘I Want You’. The ‘Long Medley’ on side two, and in particular ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, fuse the group’s pop sensibility with prog’s ‘symphonic’ approach. The album all but dispenses with the notion of music as something you might want to dance to, embracing it instead as a mode of ‘serious’ expression. This divergence between pop and rock characterised much 1970s music, and perhaps wasn’t fully bridged again until the turn of the next decade.

As solo artists, the members of The Beatles were never really at the forefront of popular music again (although McCartney has made creditable efforts to keep pace via collaborations). We could speculate whether that might not have been the case had they stayed together, spurring each other on (in 1978 Lennon sent his former bandmates a postcard telling them they should be making records like Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’, not that he could be arsed to do so himself). But I think that’s fruitless: the spirit of friendly competition that had made them a great band was no longer friendly, and for them to have stayed together would require them to have been fundamentally different people in the first place.