Category Archives: The Beatles

Rocks In The Attic #793: The Beatles – ‘Abbey Road (3LP Anniversary Edition)’ (1969/2019)

RITA#793Christmas continues to come twice a year for fans of the Fab Four, with 2019’s banner Beatles release. 50 years and a day after its original release on 26th September 1969, Abbey Road  has been given the same makeover afforded to last year’s White Album anniversary set.

Packaged in a similar sized box to the White Album / Esher Demos package, the set is comprised of the new 2019 mix by Giles Martin (with credit given to mix engineer Sam Okell on the hype sticker) in its own sleeve, two LPs of outtakes from the sessions presented in an ‘alternate’ cover sleeve, and a four-panel booklet of liner notes, featuring forewords by Paul McCartney and Giles Martin.

It’s a wonderful package down to the smallest details. The blue font used on the hype sticker and in the ‘3LP Anniversary Edition’ labelling on the side of the box echoes the blue sky that takes up the negative space on the album’s world-famous cover shot. Or is it the blue of the dress worn by the girl blurrily walking out of shot on the rear cover? Maybe it’s just the same blue as gravedigger George’s double-denim?
RITA#793aAs with the White Album’s 2018 mix, the 2019 mix of Abbey Road is intimately revealing. Casual listeners probably won’t be able to spot the changes, but if you grew up listening to the album on headphones during your formative years, the differences are massive. Following on from Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s remastering campaigns in recent years, the key words here are clarity and presence. It isn’t merely a money-grab release by simply making things LOUDER, although I’m sure the EMI accountants will all be in line for a sizable end-of-year bonus. Thankfully, Giles Martin and team have done more than just ‘make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder.’

John’s vocal on the first stop in Come Together – ‘got to be a joker, he just do what he please’ – reveals the first tweak. You can hear him bite down – or hold back? – on that last word even harder than before. George’s jangly guitar on Octopus’s Garden is even janglier, strengthening the song’s Country credentials. And Ringo’s fills, particularly on The End, have more weight in them. ‘The sound was the result of having new calfskin drum heads,’ Ringo explains in Kevin Howlett’s liner notes. ‘There’s a lot of tom-tom work on that record. I got the new heads and I naturally used them a lot – they were so great.’

The biggest change in the remix however is in the bottom end. Paul’s bass is pushed further into the front of this mix – if such a thing is possible given how front and centre it already was in the original 1969 mix. This is a good thing; the bass playing throughout the album represents the peak of McCartney’s playing, and his fluid, walking basslines are one of the album’s key ingredients.

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In terms of bonus content, it feels like a missed opportunity that Martin Jr. wasn’t tasked to produce a mono mix of the album. With the White Album being the last Beatles record to enjoy a mono mix upon release, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be have only been available in stereo, the decade’s eventual winning format (even though Martin Sr. and team were still mixing the singles in mono in 1969, with Get Back appearing in April of that year as the band’s final mono single in the UK). If mono mixes of Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be don’t already exist somewhere in the archive, even as reference mixes, then it seems a missed opportunity to not hand this challenge to Martin The Younger. Of course, nobody really needs a mono mix of these albums, but given his achievements, from 2006’s Love soundtrack album of the Cirque du Soleil show, to the remixes of Pepper, the White Album and now Abbey Road, he’s the perfect candidate to do something a little different sonically to compliment the respective stereo mixes.

What we do get as extras are still brilliant: twenty-three tracks of demos, outtakes and orchestral instrumentals. As with the outtakes in last year’s White Album set, some have seen the light of day in one form or another across the Anthology project, but the vast majority have been officially unreleased until now.

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The studio chatter preceding the first track – a run-through of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) at Trident studios – offers a glimpse at the joys that lie ahead:

“Is it possible, without affecting yourselves too much, to turn down a little?” somebody politely asks in the background, off-mic. “Apparently there’s been a complaint.”

“From who?” asks John.

“Somebody outside the building,” comes the reply.

“Well, what are they doing here at this time of night? What guy?” fires back a frustrated John.

Several voices debate for a few seconds. In the background, Paul says ‘It’s his own fault for getting a house in such a lousy district!’

John then comes back on the microphone. “Well, we’ll try it once more very loud, and if we don’t get it, we’ll try it quiet….Last chance to be loud!”

As much as I love hearing the alternate versions of these fifty-year old songs, it’s the banter in the studio that’s just as revealing. As we’ve heard before, Paul is always the most playful in the studio. At the beginning of a take of You Never Give Me Your Money, a croaky Paul – at exactly half-past-two, he tells us, presumably in the A.M. – sings ‘You never give me your coffee.’ At the start of the first take of Golden Slumbers, he changes the piano chord from minor to major (specifically from Am7 to D6), singing ‘Day after day…’, the opening line of The Fool On The Hill, before stopping abruptly to concentrate on the task at hand. It’s annoying when the later, solo-years McCartney peppers his releases with this kind of studio tomfoolery. Listening to him larking about as a grown-up feels akin to tolerating a precocious child. Here, as a fresh-faced 27-year old, he’s just endearing.

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As for the album itself, fifty years young, for me it represents their artistic peak. It’s always been in my top 3 Beatles albums, and contests that top spot on an almost daily basis with Revolver and the White Album. It has such a magical vibe, and seems to be full to the brim with positivity. Even John’s default songwriting setting – pessimist – doesn’t seem to derail the proceedings.

Speaking of which, forget other contenders (The Who, The Byrds, and the Beatles’ own Helter Skelter) for the first heavy, heavy sound. Surely the roots of heavy metal can be traced back to John’s doom-laden arpeggios in I Want You (She’s So Heavy). It’s surely the song that feels it’s opening the door for Black Sabbath’s debut just five months later. Lennon and Harrison’s use of arpeggios thoughout their Beatles career – from songs as varied as And I Love Her to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer – feel like one of least celebrated aspects of their musicianship. Mark Lewisohn, in the first volume of his Beatles mega-biography, goes to great pains to point out that it was the band’s vocal harmonies that made them stand out from their contemporaries in their early years. I hope Lewisohn will give the band as much credit for their intricate rhythm guitar lines, in the eagerly anticipated next volume of his biography (currently due in 2020).

Abbey Road also represents the songwriting peak of George Harrison, with two of the album’s songs penned by him. It’s a peak that would last at least as long as his debut record, arguably longer, but there’s no debate that in terms of maturity, both Something and Here Comes The Sun are miles ahead of anything he submitted to the White Album or the Let It Be sessions.

Those calfskin toms on Ringo’s drums get the spotlight at the end of the record, with the break leading into The End serving as a brilliantly held-back bit of drumming. Some might see it as a half-hearted drum-solo, but Ringo’s subtlety and less-is-more ethos, as always, works wonders.

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More than anything, it sounds like McCartney’s enthusiasm – the driving force of the band since the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967 – has led the band to this point, from movie-making and the aborted attempts to get back to their roots as a performing band, to getting together to record again with George Martin. The studio banter on the sessions discs sound as good natured as the biographies would have us believe all these years, and there doesn’t sound to be any kind of tension from the business affairs that were looming in the background.

The album’s very special to me for one specific reason. Once, during my teens, I was on a holiday over Christmas in the snowy highlands of Scotland. My parents fell sick with food poisoning for a few days, and so I was left to my own company. Out of boredom one day, I decided to walk to the next village and back – a 6-mile round trip, through heavy snow. I took off, with the last Beatles album to be unlocked in my brain – Abbey Road – sitting in my portable CD player. I probably listened to the album 6 or 7 times, back to back, as I made my way through the snow. Those magical elements to the album seemed to be heightened in the landscape and even now I associate it with that hike from Newtonmore to Kingussie and back. In terms of location, it’s not a million miles away from the Mull Of Kintyre, where McCartney might have been wintering with Linda at the time, and so the connection feels just right.

Hit: Here Comes The Sun

Hidden Gem: Goodbye (Home Demo)

Rocks In The Attic #756: Various Artists – ‘Stax Does The Beatles’ (2008)

RITA#756This year’s Record Store Day was an embarrassment of riches. Not only did it deliver a bunch of sought-after soundtracks, but the funk and soul fan in me was well looked after too.

First released digitally back in 2008, a now double-LP of Stax artists doing Beatles covers sounds like something I’d make up in my dreams. Two of my favourite musical pillars colliding, the only thing that would beat this would be the unearthing of a secret LP of Stax songs recorded by the Fab Four themselves between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s. I’ll keep dreaming about that one.

In fact, it doesn’t take much to imagine what Stax Does The Beatles sounds like. Much of the material collected here is available on the individual Stax releases they’re culled from, with only one or two hard to find tracks included. Probably the most famous cover, Otis Redding’s Day Tripper, is presented as an alternate take that’s just as rocking as the well-known version found on his Dictionary Of Soul from 1966. Another gem is a cover of And I Love Her, a b-side by Reggie Milner who only recorded two singles for Stax.

RITA#756aStax house-band Booker T. & The M.G.s  – once going so far as to record an entire LP in homage to the Beatles – turn in the highest number of performances on the album, responsible for four of its fifteen tracks (five if you include guitarist Steve Cropper’s solo effort of With A Little Help From My Friends, the title-track of his 1969 album).

The album’s liner notes make reference to the little-known fact that Brian Epstein once scouted the Stax studios as a potential place to record the Beatles. His visit to Memphis in March 1966 ultimately led to nothing – Epstein abandoned the idea due to fears over security – and the resulting album, 1966’s Revolver, was recorded back at Abbey Road like the majority of their work. It sounds like a match made in heaven though. “Who knows what it would have sounded like had we recorded it at Stax,” ponders Cropper.  Paul McCartney’s soulful Got To Get You Into My Life, covered here by Booker T. & The M.G.s, remains Revolver’s only glimpse of how close the Beatles came to recording a soul and R&B-influenced album in 1966.

The liner notes do make a glaring omission, however. Of all the records in the world, this really was the place to mention that John Lennon used to jokingly refer to the Stax house-band as Book-A-Table & The Maitre-D’s.

Hit: Day Tripper (Alternate Take) – Otis Redding

Hidden Gem: Something – Isaac Hayes

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Rocks In The Attic #718: The Beatles – ‘The Beatles & Esher Demos’ (1968)

RITA#718You can hear the differences straight away. Paul’s snare beat on Back In The U.S.S.R. is punchier and his vocal ad-libs in the fade-out are much clearer. Then John’s acoustic guitar fades into Dear Prudence and Paul’s pulsing bass sounds on top of everything, front and centre.

Released yesterday to celebrate the record’s fifty-year anniversary, Giles Martin’s new 2018 stereo remix of the Beatles’ ‘self-titled’ White Album is an early Christmas present for fans of the band.

Repeating the successful formula employed on last year’s stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s, Martin Jr. has broken down the White Album recordings, and built them back up again. Untrained ears might not be able to tell the difference, we’re talking subtle changes. Clarity and focus are the operative words, not revisionism.

RITA#718aThe sliding, uptempo bass line in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da transforms one of my least favourite Beatle songs into a stormer. Eric Clapton’s swirling guitar lines in George’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps feel even more hypnotic. Paul’s bassline in Why Don’t We Do It In The Road sounds funkier. Birthday sounds as insane as the band probably intended it to. Paul’s screaming salvo into Helter Skelter sounds at war with Ringo’s drums. The horns in Savoy Truffle are sharper, the electronic piano line closer to the front of the mix.

The 2014 mono remaster was previously my favourite version of this album. I didn’t think anything could beat that. How wrong I was. All in all, this new release is like listening to the album for the first time, with fresh ears. And if that wasn’t enough, the other half of the box-set is just as revelatory.

In May 1968, fresh from their Rishikesh trip, the Beatles convened at Kinfauns, George’s house in Esher, Surrey. There, they recorded demo versions of 26 of the White Albums’s 40 tracks, plus songs that didn’t make the intended album.

Glimpsed on 1997’s Anthology 3, Giles Martin has now remixed these tapes and re-sequenced them into a double-LP with – where possible – the same running order as the 1968 album.

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Hearing McCartney doing a loosely double-tracked Back In The U.S.S.R. on an acoustic guitar – complete with a sung guitar solo – is just fantastic, and really fills me with hope that there’s more material like this yet to see an official release.

The songs that were worked out in the White Album studio sessions – Wild Honey Pie, Martha My Dear, Don’t Pass Me By, Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, I Will, Birthday, Helter Skelter, Long, Long, Long, Savoy Truffle, Revolution 9 and Good Night – don’t appear here in demo form. Instead we get a raft of songs intended for the album, but which appeared elsewhere: George’s Sour Milk Sea (a single for Jackie Lomax), Not Guilty (re-recorded for his 1979 record, George Harrison), and Circles (re-recorded for 1982’s Gone Troppo), Paul’s Junk (soon to be heard on 1970’s McCartney), and John’s Child Of Nature (reworked as Jealous Guy from 1971’s Imagine). Two other Lennon demos presented here – Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam would be reworked into the medley on Abbey Road in 1969.

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The demos make for a fantastic listen. Complete with between-take chatter, coughs and sniffs, the sound quality is mostly very good with the occasional bit of tape-hiss evident on some tracks. In hindsight, the Beatles probably didn’t need to go to Abbey Road and Trident to re-record these demos – they could have just released this back in 1968.

While it now seems inevitable that Giles Martin will provide similar remix duties for next year’s half-century release of Abbey Road, followed by Let It Be in 2020, I really hope he continues with the pre-Pepper albums as they begin their sixty-year celebrations from 2023.

And hopefully he’s training his son in the finer techniques of audio engineering, ready for the next generation of reissues…

Hit: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Hidden Gem: Helter Skelter

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Rocks In The Attic #522: The Beatles – ‘1’ (2000)

rita522Last week, I was lucky enough to see Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years. I look forward to any new release relating to the fab four, but once every couple of years something comes along that gets a little more hype than usual.

Do we need a new documentary charting the Beatles’ experiences touring the UK, the USA, and beyond between 1963 and 1966? Probably not. The subject matter has been covered well enough by the Beatles Anthology TV series and The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (itself a re-edited version of the Maysles brothers’ 1964 documentary What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA).

There was more than enough archive footage in Eight Days A Week that I hadn’t seen before to keep it interesting, and my only criticism was that they could have done a little more to bring the still images to life other than bizarrely highlighting the band’s smoking habits by adding animated smoke plumes from their cigarettes.

The thing I was really looking forward to though was the full performance from 1965’s Shea Stadium concert, restored in 4K and presented after the documentary. I’m still holding out that this will see a home media release, but everything I’ve read in relation to Eight Days A Week states that the Shea Stadium film is strictly “in cinemas only”.

The Shea Stadium show is just nuts. The Beatles look awesome, with their military shirts and sheriff badges, obviously having lots of fun. Their stage is a long way from the audience, lit from lights on the edge of the stage where their monitors would usually be in today’s standard concert set-up. The lights add an odd glow to their faces, giving the impression that they’re playing a concert in the pits of hell.

But it’s the audience that just defies belief. Girls screaming themselves faint, being carried away by policemen or propped up by family members and friends. It’s the closest to a true religious experience that music has ever become – without the influence of drugs of course.

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Having seen the film on its first night here in New Zealand, I rushed home to send my review to BBC’s flagship film show – Kermode And Mayo’s Film Review on BBC Radio 5 Live. I got the email through a couple of hours before the show, thinking I may have missed my chance, but luckily I was just in time. From the sounds of it, I raised the ire of the notoriously cranky Mark Kermode, so I can tick that off my list. As Frank Skinner once said, I’ve marked a few commodes in my time.

(And for the record, they were random American celebrities – the appearance of Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver were really jarring in the middle of a Beatles documentary, although I admit both were in there for eventually decent reasons).

1 was released in 2000, as an attempt by Apple Records to release a single-disc CD compilation of all of the Beatles’ number one singles (the vinyl release was fortunately split over two discs). Essentially, it’s a re-tread of 1982’s 20 Greatest Hits – the last official release to have different UK and US variations. That record collected each of the number ones in their respective markets, aside from Something which was left off due to running time. 1 combines the two collections, adding Something back in, to stretch the tracklisting out to twenty seven songs. Magic.

Hit: She Loves You


Hidden Gem: The Ballad Of John And Yoko


Rocks In The Attic #490: John Lennon – ‘Imagine’ (1971)

RITA#490Post-Beatles album number two finds John hitting his stride as a solo artist. I love his first record, the minimalist John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band; there’s a certain charm to it, but it’s by no means a record for the Beatle-loving masses. Here we find him producing a piece of work as commercial – but still as artistically valid – as anything released by the Beatles from 1965 onwards.

The only sour note on the record is How Do You Sleep?, a nasty attack on McCartney in retaliation for comments he had made in public about John and Yoko. I’ve never heard these comments, nor have I ever deciphered McCartney’s lyrics on Ram, which are supposed to be just as negative.

Still, if you’re going to have a go at somebody, at least be subtle about it. Lennon’s lyrics on How Do You Sleep? just make him out to sound nasty and childish. He even precedes the song by a short blast of an orchestra tuning up, the same idea thought up and used by McCartney on the intro to the title song on Sgt. Pepper’s.

One of the points stressed by Mark Lewisohn in his fantastic Beatles biography, Tune In: The Beatles – All These Years, Vol 1, was that Lennon could be so brutal and nasty in the way he would ridicule others. Usually, it would be people outside his circle of friends who would feel the brunt of his antagonism, but from time to time those close to him would get a earful too. How Do You Sleep? finds him completely unrestrained, doing everything except actually mentioning McCartney by name. The lyrics are so thinly veiled that he might as well have called the song ‘Paul Is A Douchebag’. In fact, a more Beatle-y insult might have been to name it ‘The Wally Was Paul’.

Always the most honest Beatle, Imagine finds John admitting that he doesn’t have all the answers on songs such as How? and Crippled Inside. It’s refreshing to hear such uncertainty from a ‘rock star’, and it’s almost the exact opposite of what you would hear from a global superstar in the twenty first century. It’s hard to imagine somebody as egotistical as Kanye West writing a song like How? Kanye knows everything of course, yet it’s strange how he couldn’t stop that knowledge from preventing his descent into bankruptcy.

One of my favourite moments on Imagine, the closing track Oh Yoko!, was included on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s 1998 masterpiece Rushmore. It’s a lovely song, and used to great effect in the film when Max and Herman decide to join forces to win Rosemary’s affections. A song like that shouldn’t work in a film; it’s a love song written for somebody in particular – Yoko Ono, of course – and she’s name-checked repeatedly in the song. It should only really make sense if the love interest in the film is named Yoko.  I’m not sure if the lovely Olivia Williams could pass for Japanese though.

Imagine represents an artistic peak for Lennon. His later albums would find him trying to repeat the success of this record, not least on its (official) follow-up, Mind Games, in 1973. Imagine is a fantastic record, and one of the reasons he never managed to match it is that it’s so bloody good – the curse of perfection.

Hit: Imagine

Hidden Gem: Oh Yoko!

Rocks In The Attic #414: The Beatles – ‘Let It Be’ (1970)

RITA#414I always knew Phil Spector killed that woman – he murdered Let It Be.

Do you ever wish that a record didn’t exist? If the Beatles had ended on a high – with the second side of Abbey Road, their run of albums would have been perfect. Instead we get this half-arsed bookend of a record, essentially a collection of out-takes from a project the band had enough sense to knock on the head.

That’s not to say that there aren’t great moments on here. In fact it’s nearly all great – I could just do without the junk mental state of Lennon’s songwriting (Dig It, Dig A Pony), McCartney’s gushing over-sentimentality (The Long And Winding Road, Let It Be), lazy ideas (Maggie Mae, The One After 909) and just the general way it’s (poorly) presented. George Martin’s absence in the producer’s chair is severely noted.

I don’t envy Spector’s task – putting together an LP’s worth of good material out of a seemingly endless bunch of recording sessions where the band were clearly running out of direction would have been a horrible task. Taken on their own, some of the songs are as strong as anything else in their canon – their just diluted by poor production, and cursed by a back-to-basics approach that the band was following (effectively appeasing McCartney who was trying to play leader again – a musician who had seldom flashes of brilliance after 1969, and has probably done more harm than good in that time).

Maybe the problem of Let It Be is that it’s effectively presented as a studio album – and to the average listener that’s all it is – but in fact it’s something different: half a live album (the Twickenham studios material, and Get Back from the Saville Row rooftop) and half a studio album (the Apple studios material). At least it’s daring to be different. Maybe I should stop being so hard on it.

Hit: Let It Be

Hidden Gem: For You Blue

Rocks In The Attic #384: The Beatles – ‘Mono Masters’ (2009)

RITA#384So the plan was to buy the Beatles In Mono vinyl box set, and then sell the stereo box set that I bought a couple of years ago. That was the plan. But then I got it home – from supporting my local independent record store, I like to add – and plonked it down on my shelves next to the stereo set. I couldn’t split these two up, could I? Not when they’re both so…different.

The differences – both minor and major – are a wonderful thing between these two sets. I do agree that mono is king, especially here when the Beatles contributed to the mono mixes, and left the ‘after the fact’ stereo mixes to the studio engineers. It’s just such an oddity how some of the changes can be so noticeable. For a band known for their high quality control, it’s amazing that the stereo mixes were handled so poorly. People applaud George Martin and the Beatles for being so innovative and forward-thinking. Here, they were largely disregarding an audio format that would go on to dominate the music industry by the end of the decade.

It’s nice to see that they expanded this record into a triple, rather than reduce the running time due to some of the later singles not receiving a mono mix. In place of those later singles, we get some tracks mixed in mono intended for a Yellow Submarine EP that never saw the light of day. As welcome as this is, it does change things slightly – in the past I always say the two Past Masters discs as representative of each half of their career. Past Masters Vol. 2 begins with Day Tripper, recorded during the Rubber Soul sessions just as the Beatles were starting to wholeheartedly reflect outside influences, in this case the Motown sound. On Mono Masters, Day Tripper turns up halfway through the third side.

With the Beatles In Mono box set, I now own the core catalogue three times over (I already owned them all prior to the stereo remasters). Do I need three copies of the White Album? Three copies of Revolver and Rubber Soul? Three copies of Sgt. Pepper’s? Damn right I do!

Hit: She Loves You

Hidden Gem: Hey Bulldog