Wilson and Alroy's Records Reviews: The Beatles

The classics albums part two
Forget it, I won't even try to make some new and profound generalizations about the most famous, influential, talented, and over-analyzed musical performers of the last half-century. Suffice it to say that you won't be able to understand the first thing about 60s rock - or Western pop music in general, really - until you sit down and memorize the half-dozen most important Beatles records. Almost every new LP shattered the previous boundaries of rock 'n' roll, and Lennon and McCartney's songwriting surpassed that of almost all their contemporaries.
There are three more points I just can't restrain myself from making: first, avoid all greatest hits packages, such as 1, as virtually every Beatles record is a greatest hits package unto itself. Second, the ratings here are conservative, spread out to give some guidance to the novice fan. If we were to rate these records relative to everything else being done in the 60s, virtually every disc would get four or five stars. Finally, the Beatles' rhythm section is, if anything, under-rated - brilliant singing, songwriting, and production weren't the only things the Beatles had going for them.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
- The most famous rock record in history, and it deserves most of the acclaim. What seems to have been forgotten in all the hoopla is that the songs mostly just expand and consolidate earlier innovations that were played out on Revolver - showcases of complex orchestration ("A Day In The Life"), abrasive, slice-of-life rockers ("Good Morning Good Morning"), giddy 60s anthems ("It's Getting Better"), bizarre studio experiments ("Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite"), George's Indian-influenced pearls of wisdom ("Within You Without You"), and especially the lush psychedelia that John had mastered ("Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"). Even "She's Leaving Home" is a bathetic rip-off of the more sincere "Eleanor Rigby," and the title track's booming, unstoppable herd- of-elephants sound is mirrored by "Taxman." Say what you might, though, the record did blow open the 60s like a double-strength hit of Purple Haze. (JA)
- There are a few significant things about this album that Alroy hasn't mentioned. It is the first Beatles album conceived as an album, not just a bunch of songs (their first released identically in the US and the UK), and the first rock album where the songs blend into each other with no breaks. Also, while it's not true that there are no love songs here ("Lovely Rita" and "Getting Better" both have romantic aspects) it's lyrically far removed from the boy-girl topics that dominated the Beatles output through Revolver. And Revolver's experimentalism produces consistently musical results here -- in my book that's a major advance. (DBW)

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
- The Beatles' relentless musical tour ran in place this time. It took them several months more to realize that their carefully crafted fusion of Dylanesque lyrics and Brian Wilson-esque production values was a dead end, and, instead, to move in a million directions at once on their next album. However, they managed to toss off a superb collection of songs while jogging on their treadmill (title track, modelled on its Sgt. Pepper's counterpart; "I Am The Walrus," another elaborately tripped-out Lennon tune). Paul dominates a bit too much, with some of his upbeat pop numbers wearing thin ("Your Mother Should Know"), but others being marvelous ("Hello Goodbye"). Half the record is a newly-recorded double EP, and the other half is singles from the previous 12 months, including some truly classic hits: John's extraordinary acid-rock production "Strawberry Fields Forever," which almost topped the Beach Boys' contemporary "Good Vibrations"; Paul's marvelous, cleverly orchestrated "Penny Lane"; and irresistable, perfectly timed Summer of Love anthem "All You Need Is Love." (JA)
- Let me get this straight: Alroy's arguing that this is more essential than the White Album? It's a collection of single sides (two of which, "Baby You're A Rich Man" and "Hello Goodbye," are far from the Beatles' best work) and failed experiments (Harrison's "Blue Jay Way," the Mellotron mess "Flying"). (DBW)
That's what I'm saying. "Flying" is far more enjoyable than White Album experiments like "Revolution #9" - and the other three "bad" tracks are better than the abundant second-rate material on that record ("Happiness Is A Warm Gun"; "Goodnight"; "Wild Honey Pie"; etc., etc.) or even on Sgt. Pepper's ("Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite"; "She's Leaving Home"). (JA)

The Beatles (a.k.a. "The White Album": 1968)
- Brilliant and amazingly eclectic, but long-winded. You know a record's good when Eric Clapton drops by to deliver a blistering guitar solo ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps") and it's not the only high point of the record - there are many of them, including kick-ass rockers ("Birthday"; "Helter Skelter"), harmonic experiments that put the Byrds to shame ("Dear Prudence"), simple but unforgettable ballads ("Blackbird"; "Julia"), pure, crafted pop songs ("Martha My Dear"), a wild, lengthy sound collage ("Revolution #9"), and then all the clever rip-offs - blues ("Yer Blues"), country-western ("Rocky Racoon"), 20's jazz ("Honey Pie"), the Beach Boys ("Back In The U.S.S.R."), MGM movie soundtracks ("Goodnight"), even the Beatles themselves ("Glass Onion"). Still, there are way too many toss-offs and misfires. (JA)
- George has four songs here, and he's rapidly nearing his peak as a songwriter, with the horn-powered rocker "Savoy Truffle," a mellow number in the style that would dominate his 70s work ("Long Long Long"), and of course "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." The experimentalism gets way out of control, and the fragmentation of the group adds to the confusion. The hilarious "Back In The U.S.S.R." parodies not only the Beach Boys but also Chuck Berry ("Back in the U.S.A.") and Ray Charles ("Georgia On My Mind"). (DBW)

Yellow Submarine (1969)
- A major ripoff. Only six Beatles tracks, two of them are recycled from earlier records (title track; "All You Need Is Love"), and the entire second side consists of assorted George Martin elevator music instead of the pile of additional tunes that appear in the film. And the four new songs, mostly from early 1967, are of variable quality. The child-like, acoustic "All Together Now" and raucous early 1968 heavy rocker "Hey Bulldog" are amusing but silly knock-offs, and Harrison's two tracks are fascinating and clearly serious efforts ("Only A Northern Song," which almost made it on to Sgt. Pepper's; "It's All Too Much"), but weighed down by layers of freaked-out instrumentation. (JA)
- Bleah. (DBW)

Abbey Road (1969)
- Buy this, now. The first use of synthesizers on a rock record that made any musical sense (in contrast, see the Notorious Byrds Brothers), but that's hardly the reason this record burns itself into your soul. It's simply brilliant, from start to finish. If you haven't heard gems like "Here Comes The Sun," "Something" (both by Harrison!), Lennon's devastating "Come Together" and dreamy, harmonious "Because," and McCartney's infamous "pop symphony," which dominates side 2, you haven't lived. (JA)
- Not a lot of innovation from a recording standpoint (although they do throw in a white noise generator on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"), but conceptually and production-wise it's their finest work. Harrison's two finest compositions are both here, as is Ringo's ("Octopus's Garden"), and although Lennon's compositions are far from his best there's pretty damn good anyway ("Come Together," "Because"). Paul doesn't contribute any of his immortal ballads, but his impeccable musicianship is on display throughout (soul vocals on "Oh! Darling," bass on "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window," the multi-part "You Never Give Me Your Money"), not to mention his sense of humor ("Maxwell's Silver Hammer," "Her Majesty"). (DBW)

Let It Be (1970)
- Be wary. An album to be entitled Get Back was recorded months before Abbey Road as an experiment in filming the band "live in the studio," and then allowed to languish when no one could agree on a finished product. A year later, with the film's release date nearing and the title now changed to Let It Be, the already-disbanded Beatles talked producer Phil Spector into cobbling together a "soundtrack." Spector, who had never worked with the band before, proceeded to butcher several songs by plastering on a full orchestra and a nauseating female chorus (Paul's formulaic ballads "The Long And Winding Road" and the title track, a rehash of "Hey Jude"; George's mournful, waltzing "I Me Mine"; John's leftover psychedelic anthem "Across The Universe"). The unmutilated selections are either trivial toss-offs (their resurrected early 60s rockabilly number "One After 909"), pleasant but unremarkable pop songs ("Two Of Us"; "Dig A Pony"; Paul's Aretha Franklin-like "I've Got A Feeling"; "For You Blue"), or slightly different versions of songs that you can get on Past Masters Vol. 2 ("Get Back" and its B-side "Don't Let Me Down," which isn't on the album; title track; "Across The Universe"). Billy Preston contributes keyboards throughout, but it hardly helps. (JA)
- No wonder they couldn't agree on a version they liked. The only major compositions are Paul's gentle "Two Of Us" and the title track, the band sounds bored with itself, and Spector's production redefines "heavy-handed." Un-Spectored versions of most of the tracks surfaced on Anthology 3 in 1996, but in 2003 the two surviving Beatles went to the well one more time, issuing the new, remixed, un-overdubbed Let It Be... Naked. There's not much to recommend that release if you already have the other stuff; Preston is mixed louder, but his organ often doesn't suit the mood. Naked does include a version of "Don't Let Me Down," which should have been on the album in the first place, and gets rid of all the studio chatter meant to fool you into thinking the tunes were performed live. (DBW)
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1 comment:

J Neo Marvin said...

Magical Mystery Tour is highly underrated. I love the album because it shows the Beatles at their most wildly experimental. The only flaw is that several tracks have that awful "simulated stereo" sound. ("I Am The Walrus" even changes from true stereo to simulated mid-song!) I would love to hear a future ediyion of the album that corrects this.