Tag Archives: Abbey Road

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 #568: Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington – ‘Thrillington’ (1977)

RITA#568.jpgIn 1971, Paul McCartney had just recorded his second solo album, Ram (actually his third if you include his 1967 soundtrack to The Family Way). He had credited the record to ‘Paul and Linda McCartney’, to get around the publishing contract he had signed as a Beatle. Under that contract, any solo recordings he made until 1973 were owned by Northern Songs, so wisely he credited the album to himself and his wife.

It’s not surprising that McCartney was pleased with Ram; despite a fair bit of whimsy, it’s a massive improvement on his uneven debut solo record. If a comparison were to be made, you could argue that the melodies on Ram follow on from the more powerful moments of Abbey Road. However, where his contributions to the Beatles’ final recorded studio record were tempered with songs by John, George and even Ringo, Ram found McCartney writing and performing the whole thing by himself in fifth gear.

Before Ram was even released, McCartney had asked arranger Richard Anthony Hewson to orchestrate the whole record as a collection of light orchestral instrumental songs, intended for a separate release. Among the orchestra who played on these sessions at Abbey Road were the cream of the studio players of the day – James Bond Theme guitarist Vic Flick, bassist Herbie Flowers and drummer Clem Cattini.

The end result is an oddity. It is thought the indulgent project was undertaken to please his father, who played in bands of this nature during the First World War – but as Howard Sounes, author of Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney, points out, ‘the record…sounds like incidental television music, with a soupcon of the tea dance’.

Following the release of Ram in May 1971, and the recording of the instrumental version in June 1971, Paul formed Wings alongside Linda, Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine and session drummer Denny Seiwell. As a result of this new direction, the instrumental Ram was shelved, and McCartney’s band went on to record and release Wild Life instead.

rita568a‘When Paul did finally put this off record out,’ Sounes writes, ‘he did so as quietly as possible under a pseudonym, titling the album Thrillington after an invented character named Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington “Born in Coventry Cathedral in 1939”. Somehow this wasn’t as amusing as Paul obviously thought it was.’

Thrillington finally saw the light of day in April 1977, released between 1976’s triple-live album Wings Over America and 1978’s London Town. While McCartney is pictured on the record’s rear cover as a reflection in the glass of the studio’s control room, and thus identifying him as the true producer of the album, Thrillington went largely unnoticed until McCartney revealed the connection during a 1989 press-conference. Following this admission, the record tripled in value and hasn’t been reissued on vinyl since its original release.

Hit: Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey

Hidden Gem: Smile Away

Rocks In The Attic #566: Duke Ellington – ‘Anatomy Of A Murder’ (1959)

rita566Forget Sgt. Pepper’s and Nevermind. Forget Axis: Bold As Love, Abbey Road and Dark Side Of The Moon. The greatest album cover in the history of recorded music is this one, designed by Hitchcock alumnus Saul Bass.

Of course, that’s only my opinion, but that’s what the internet is all about, isn’t it?

Saul Bass’ titles of Hitchock’s films throughout the late ‘50s are peerless – and his work here on Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Anatomy Of A Murder is probably my favourite if I had to choose a single image.

A couple of years ago, this album cover was quite rightly included in a touring exhibition, Degas To Dali, which was showing at the Auckland Art Gallery. I wonder how long it will take until art galleries are showing album covers as exhibitions in their own right. We can’t be that far away, if it hasn’t happened already. The world of album cover design is as strong as any other medium, and contains as many surprises as you can find turkeys. I’ve just glanced at Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Album Covers – I’d question a lot of them, but isn’t that what art’s all about, to provoke discussion and to continually question what has come before?

Hit: Main Title And Anatomy Of A Murder

Hidden Gem: Flirtbird

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 #379: Wings – ‘Wild Life’ (1971)

RITA#379This is the debut record of Paul McCartney’s second band – the name of his first one escapes me at the moment. In terms of where this is placed in his solo career, it’s record number three after McCartney and Ram. Those two albums showed a natural progression – from the back to basics experimentation of McCartney to the sublime perfection of Ram – which sadly ends here. You can almost imagine his new band-members Denny Laine and Denny Seiwell looking at each other and wondering ‘Well…where are the songs?’

I love Ram – alongside Band On The Run, it’s probably the one album in his career that gets close to escaping from the shadow of that former band. His songwriting on Ram is just as good as anything he contributed to Abbey Road, which makes it even more dumbfounding how he really pressed the reset button with this one. There are songs on the album – Wild Life itself is a nice tune – but gibberish like Mumbo and Bip Bop are reminiscent of the out-of-ideas DIY wankery on his first solo album.

Album closer Dear Friend is a thinly veiled attempt at a reconciliation with Lennon, after Lennon’s no-veil snipe at McCartney on Imagine’s How Do You Sleep? If I was McCartney, I would have written a rebuttal song titled Quite Well Actually, How About You, You Wife-Beating Smack-Head? I doubt it would get picked for a single though, but you can’t win them all.

Hit: Dear Friend

Hidden Gem: Wild Life

Rocks In The Attic #281: The Beatles – ‘1967 – 1970’ (1973)

RITA#281The lines have since been blurred by subsequent compilation albums, but the Red and Blue Albums used to serve as an excellent line in the sand. Did you prefer the moptop Beatlemania of the Red Album, or the maturing experimentation of the Blue Album? The turning point chosen was the Blue Album’s opener, John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever­ – a key moment of evolution in studio production, and a chance for the Fab Four to try out their new moustaches.

The Blue Album is definitely a more balanced offering than its counterpart. Whereas Allen Klein topped up the Red Album’s shorter running time by including many songs from Rubber Soul (presumably his favourite album), here the tracks are more evenly spread out: four album tracks from Sgt. Peppers, three from the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack, three from the White Album, four from Abbey Road, three from Let It Be, and the rest of the songs coming from singles and b-sides. If anything you could say that the White Album is the least represented – a sprawling double-album with only three songs present – but given that this compilation collects all of their lengthier late-period songs, I guess some allowances had to be made to be able to make it a double-album, symmetrical to the Red Album. These four years could easily have been extended into a triple-album, but maybe Klein figured that a triple-album wouldn’t have had any more pulling power than a double.

I do question the inclusion of George Harrison’s Old Brown Shoe – the b-side to The Ballad Of John And Yoko. There are definitely stronger album tracks from around that period, which I would probably have substituted in its place – but I welcome its obscurity, a song that would later see the light of day on Past Masters Vol. 2, but at the time a definite hidden gem in their back-catalogue.

While I see the point of the 1 compilation – 2000’s attempt at putting all of the band’s number one singles in one collection – the Red and Blue Albums have the luxury of including album tracks. On 1, the years between 1967 and 1970 are represented by just eleven songs, while the Blue Album manages to cover the same period with twenty eight tracks (and doesn’t ever seem overlong or outstay its welcome).

For me, the only real sour note on this compilation is the inclusion of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – one of my least favourite Beatles songs. It’s definitely the catchiest track from the White Album, and probably only included here as it was such a hit single for Marmalade in January 1969 – with this single they achieved the notoriety of being the first ever Scottish band to hit number one in the UK singles chart.

Hit: Hey Jude

Hidden Gem: Old Brown Shoe

Rocks In The Attic #223: Jack White – ‘Blunderbuss’ (2012)

RITA#223I’d avoided this album throughout 2012. I hadn’t heard particularly good things about it, especially from one particular critic, and that really put me off even trying the album. Towards the end of the year though, I started hearing claims such as ‘Best Album Of The Year’ or ‘Best Rock Album Of The Year’ emitting from magazine, newspaper and website round-ups of the year.

I then heard that Blunderbuss was the best selling vinyl record of 2012 (in the U.S.), narrowly beating the 2012 stereo remaster of Abbey Road (which I did manage to get my hands on before the end of the year, as part of the Beatles’ stereo vinyl box set). Although, Jack White’s album came out in April, whereas those Beatles records didn’t see the light of day until November, so I’m not sure too much should be read into that. There are also two Mumford & Sons albums in that top-10 vinyl chart for 2012, so I guess that proves that charts shouldn’t be relied on for any artistic recommendation.

So I thought I’d dip my toe into the water, for old time’s sake. You have to understand here that I used to be a big White Stripes fan, but over the last five or so years, I’d really started to think that Jack White was washed up. I have all of the White Stripes records on vinyl (except Get Behind Me Satan which they didn’t release on the format) – even the Under Great White Northern Lights live album – and they’re the only contemporary band I can say that about; but I haven’t even bothered to take Icky Thump or Under Great White Northern Lights out of their shrinkwrap yet (I’ve heard Icky Thump on my iPod and I’ve seen the film of that live album).

But, Blunderbuss, is to me a huge success. It’s received many, many plays on my turntable in the couple of weeks since I bought it; and thanks to the free MP3 download that came with the record, it’s rarely been off my iPod. The last White Stripes album I can say that about was Elephant, not because it’s a great album from start to finish, but because there are a handful of songs on there that are as good as the band at their peak on De Stijl.

The album’s well produced – very, well produced – with a bunch of great songs and a diverse range of instrumentation. Thankfully, there’s not too much of the dull garage-rock sound that had blighted some parts of the White Stripes’ records from White Blood Cells onwards. Essentially the album sounds like it will stand the test of time, and I can’t say that for the last couple of White Stripes records.

I hadn’t been a fan of any of Jack White’s side-projects, so I didn’t think I would like Blunderbuss, but I think it might just be as good as De Stijl, and that’s a huge thing for me to say.

Hit: Love Interruption

Hidden Gem: I’m Shakin’