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.