Tag Archives: Ringo Starr

Rocks In The Attic #836: The Beatles – ‘Live At The Hollywood Bowl’ (2016)

RITA#836Bravo, James Clarke.

You might never have heard of James, but he’s an unsung hero, a worker bee (or Systems Analyst, to give him his official job title) at London’s Abbey Road Studios. It was James who spent hours developing software to ‘demix’ the original live recordings from the Beatles’ Hollywood Bowl concerts in 1964 and 1965.

If you’ve ever heard the original 1977 album, you’ll know that it isn’t exactly the cleanest recording of the band. George Martin describes the constant screaming of the audience as akin to the high-pitched wail of a jumbo jet engine. And so how the hell do you remaster something like that?

RITA#836aEnter Giles Martin, son of George, and heir to his father’s legacy. Live At The Hollywood Bowl represents the first in a long line of remixes of the band’s output by Martin Jr. and engineer Sam Okell, a series of release which would gather steam with Sgt. Pepper’s in 2017, the White Album in 2018, and Abbey Road in 2019.

James Clarke’s audio-modelling process separated each instrument and vocal track from the din of the aircraft engine audience, to provide Martin and Okell with individual elements to build up a new remix with. ‘It doesn’t exist as a software program that is easy to use,” Clarke says. “There’s no graphical front end where you can just load a piece of audio up, paint a track, and extract the audio. I write manual scripts, which I then put into the engine to process.”

Pulling out the bass guitar and bass drum was simple, with their low frequencies being easy to isolate. The hard part was separating the guitars, vocals, snare drum and cymbals, which commonly share the same frequencies as the screams of the teenage audience. Here, Clarke used the studio recordings of the band to help the software identify what needed to be pulled out of the live recording. “I went back to the studio versions to build the models,” he says. “They’re not as accurate, as there are usually temporal and tuning changes between playing in the studio and playing live, but the Beatles were pretty spot-on between studio and live versions.”

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Even though Clarke achieved ‘nearly full separation’ of the music from the audience, they decided to keep the sound of the audience on the record for the explosive atmosphere it generates. On the finished product, the audience scream is 3 decibels lower than on the original 1977 release. “They could have pushed it a lot further if they wanted to,” Clarke says, “but I think they got it spot on.”

This 2016 reissue is an odd release, given that it’s the companion piece to Ron Howard’s documentary on the band, Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years. In lieu of a traditional soundtrack release, Apple Records decided to pair the film with Giles Martin’s remixing experiment, even though the Hollywood Bowl concerts are only mentioned in passing in Howard’s film.

Although I’m very excited with the new remix, I would rather have had an original release of the band’s 1965 Shea Stadium concert. This remastered concert footage was played in full after Howard’s documentary when it was released in cinemas, and it was just a joyous experience: euphoria, mass hysteria, John, Paul and George’s faces lit from below due to the placing of the stage-lights, military jackets, elbows on keyboards, and fans breaking out from the crowd, tackled midfield by police officers.

Hit: A Hard Day’s Night

Hidden Gem: Things We Said Today

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Rocks In The Attic #828: The Backbeat Band – ‘Backbeat (O.S.T.)’ (1994)

RITA#828One of my favourite soundtracks from the 1990s, from my favourite Beatles biopic, it was a touch of genius to put a contemporary band together to record these early Beatles favourites.

Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) and Greg Dulli (The Afghan Whigs) share lead vocals, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Don Fleming (Gumball) provide vocals, Mike Mills (R.E.M.) plays bass and Dave Grohl (Nirvana) completes the band on drums. In fact, it’s the last Nirvana-related release before the death of Kurt Cobain just four weeks later.

The film, directed by Iain Softley, feels very Hollywood, despite it being a UK / German co-production, and it reeks of the ‘90s with heartthrob Stephen Dorff in the lead role as the doomed Stuart Sutcliffe. The script is effervescent, and the casting is superb, but it is Ian Hart’s uncanny turn as the acerbic John Lennon that stands out (the second of three times he has played the character).

RITA#828aThe Backbeat Band play a selection of covers the Beatles played in their Hamburg days – no expensive licensing required here – and they’re belted out with gusto. There’s just enough reverence for the songs, and the late ‘50s era of rock and roll, to prevent the songs from descending into a grunge-fest. It was great to see them play a couple of these songs live at the 1994 MTV Music Awards, followed by a heavy cover of the White Album’s Helter Skelter.

The final shot of this film, showing Sutcliffe and Lennon and their respective girlfriends (Sheryl Lee as Astrid Kirchherr and Jennifer Ehle as Cynthia Powell) playing in the twilight on a German beach is a deeply evocative moment of 1990’s filmmaking. The first screams of Liverpool’s Beatlemania fade away, replaced by the stark guitar and piano of Don Was’ score. Slowly, the intertitle text tells of cruel twisting of fate around Sutcliffe and Lennon’s doomed friendship:

Stuart Sutcliffe died of a brain haemorrhage in Hamburg on April 10th 1962. His legacy is a highly acclaimed collection of paintings that has been exhibited all over the world.

That same year, Pete Best left the Beatles and was replaced by Ringo Starr, on December 17th they entered the charts with “Love Me Do”. The following year, the McCartney / Lennon song “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sold 13 million copies worldwide.


They went on to top the U.S. charts a record 20 times and remain today the biggest selling pop group of all time.

Klaus Voorman designed the cover of the Beatles’ 1966 “Revolver” album. After the break-up of the Beatles in 1970 he joined John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, playing bass on the “Imagine” album.

Today Astrid Kirchherr’s photographs are recognised as the definitive record of the Beatles in Hamburg, and her visual ideas influenced the Beatles’ “look” throughout the sixties. She now lives happily in Hamburg.

On December 8th 1980 John Lennon was shot dead in New York City.

Hit: Twist And Shout

Hidden Gem: Bad Boy

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Rocks In The Attic #824: George Harrison – ‘Somewhere In England’ (1981)

RITA#824What happens when George Harrison walks on stage, and the band breaks into the wrong version of With A Little Help From My Friends?

I recently read a beautiful story about George Harrison in Steve Lukather’s autobiography. Following the untimely death of Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro in 1992 –  the man who popularised the headband a long time before Mark Knopfler – his former band members organised a tribute concert.

Unfortunately, Porcaro’s death is the closest that real life has ever come to the Spinal Tap drummer who died in a ‘bizarre gardening accident.’ He was spraying pesticides in his garden, without wearing a mask. Somehow the pesticide got into his system, and he was supposedly dead before he hit the floor. Terrible.

The benefit concert sounds like one of the best shows ever. Toto hosted all of their musician friends and colleagues – a long list, considering their session-band credentials (they comprised most of the session band on Michael Jackson’s Thriller among many, many other hits). Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald, Don Henley, David Crosby, the film composer James Newton Howard, Eddie Van Halen and Donald Fagen all took part.

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The cover of the 2004 reissue, originally rejected by Warner Bros. in 1980.

Around this time, Lukather also met one of his earliest musical heroes, George Harrison. He spotted him at a club in a private area and begged a bouncer to be allowed to speak to him. ‘George’s guitar is the reason I breathe and I wanted to thank him for inspiring me to play,’ he writes.

George sent word to let him through. ‘He stood and shook my hand, and was so gracious and welcoming. I told him that he was the reason that I played music, but also that my band had recently suffered a tremendous loss and that I understood that he of all people would know what that felt like.’

After getting on well due to their mutual connections, Lukather mentioned the upcoming benefit concert for Porcaro, and that the last song of the night was going to be With A Little Help From My Friends. ‘“I know this is a long shot and no pressure,” I told him, “but I’ll have a couple of tickets left for you at the back door.’”

Midway through the show, one of the crew guys tapped Lukather on the shoulder and said ‘Someone from Liverpool is here to see you.’ After a brief catch-up (‘You didn’t think I was going to turn up, did you?’), George agreed to sit in on the night’s closer, playing Lukather’s ’59 Les Paul.

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Eddie Van Halen onstage with George Harrison at the Jeff Porcaro tribute

‘I had asked George to wait in the wings so I could bring him on in my own words. “As if this wasn’t the most amazing night ever, we have one last surprise for you. This guy doesn’t need an introduction, but, ladies and gentlemen…George Harrison”!’

They played the rocked-up Joe Cocker version of the song, because that was the version that Porcaro used to play in his high-school band. When they kicked it off – a far different arrangement of the song to the Beatles’ original – George shouted over to Lukather ‘Well, me and the lads didn’t do it like this!’

Lukather ended up becoming friends with Harrison. The next time he saw him, George invited him for dinner in Los Angeles. Lukather turned up, and Bob Dylan was also sat at the table. ‘I’m now sat between George and Bob, but I don’t know what the fuck to say to Bob Dylan.’ Racking his brains, he struck up a conversation about Sammy Davis Jr. and Harrison leaned over and reassured Lukather. ‘He looks at me, smiles and says “I haven’t seen him this animated in years.”’

The With A Little Help From My Friends story seems to illustrate a theory I’ve always had about the occasional gaps in the musical knowledge of all four Beatles. In their own bubble, they didn’t have to learn the craft after the fact like a lot of other professional musicians. They were superb songwriters, arrangers and performers, but I wonder how they would have fared in, say, the early ‘70s, performing covers of contemporary artists.

Of course, they were an expert covers band – starting off covering ‘50s rock and roll – but it seems that the music that they influenced was always of a different level. Not better, or worse, just different. Even McCartney – arguably the most prolific of the four – can be seen making the odd error of judgement. In the documentary of the 9/11 tribute concert, he can be seen explaining to Eric Clapton which scales he could solo with on a song in the key of G (G Major or E Minor, if you’re playing along at home). Clapton looks back, with a poker face suppressing a massive internal eye-roll.

Lukather points to another example of this in his book, when he was invited to a jam with Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Kim Keltner. ‘I start playing George’s song I Want To Tell You off Revolver. I’m playing the piano part of the B section – a flat-9 – on the guitar while holding the low E open. George says “Stop. How are you doing that?”
“It’s a flat-9,” I say.
“I didn’t know you could that on the guitar as it’s the piano on the record.”’

RITA#824cSomewhere In England is George’s ninth studio album, release in 1981 on his own Dark Horse records label. Co-produced with ace studio-percussionist Ray Cooper, it was recorded in his home-studio FPSHOT (Friar Park Studio, Henley-On-Thames) and features a host of contributors including Keltner, Ringo Starr, Herbie Flowers, and Al Kooper.

The album starts off with the Dylan-tinged Blood From A Clone, but it is the fourth song on side A that stands out from the rest. All Those Years Ago, a song originally written for Ringo’s Stop And Smell The Roses album, was rewritten in light of John Lennon’s assassination and features Starr’s drums alongside backing vocals by Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney and their Wings bandmate Denny Laine.

Clearly affected by Lennon’s death – they parted on bad terms, with Lennon disappointed about his lack of mention in Harrison’s I Me Mine autobiography – Harrison offers a quote on the liner notes in tribute to his former bandmate:

Sri Krishna says in Bhagavadgita:
“There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you. Nor will there be any future when we cease to be.”

J.O.L. 1940-1980

Hit: All Those Years Ago

Hidden Gem: Blood From A Clone

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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 #754: George Harrison – ‘Cloud Nine’ (1987)

RITA#754Imagine if George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Ringo Starr and Jeff Lynne had got together and formed a band, maybe recorded an album together. What a project that would have been! Well imagine no more, as it did happen, in the form of this, George’s eleventh and final (in his lifetime) studio album from 1987.

The stars were definitely aligning around George around this time. The players on this album attest to the strength of this; neither of them needed the work. And it wasn’t the only supergroup that George would play with before the decade was out. A year later he and Jeff Lynne would form the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison – itself the result of a need to record a b-side for a Cloud Nine single.

In fact, it’s Jeff Lynne who I see as the unsung hero behind these two projects. His production is the reason Cloud Nine sounds so focused, compared to some of George’s more meandering efforts. It sounds upbeat and now, mainly thanks to that big drum sound – something he would apply again to Ringo’s drums ten years later on the Beatles’ ‘reunion’ singles, Free As A Bird and Real Love. Lynne would apply the same formula to Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl and Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever in 1989, before pulling Paul McCartney back on creative track with 1996’s Flaming Pie.

It’s sad that George didn’t release any more studio albums after this, before he died in 2002. Aside from working on the Beatles’ Anthology project, I guess he was happy just to tinker around in his garden, and bring up his son, Dhani.

Speaking of Dhani, I was happy to see his name credited as the composer of HBO’s recent documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed.  Alongside his writing partner, Paul Hicks, he’s been working as a composer for films and TV shows since 2013. Given the soundtrack success of partnerships Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, it’s more than likely that we’ll hear more from Harrison and Hicks in the near future.

Hit: Got My Mind Set On You

Hidden Gem: Fish On The Sand

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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 #599: Honeycrack – ‘Prozaic’ (1996)

RITA#599In the early to mid ‘90s, when I first started seriously listening to music, I had two great loves.  Aerosmith were always my number one favourite band, but my favourite British band was the Wildhearts. Aerosmith were always a distant prospect, they didn’t tour the UK very often – although I did see them three times in the ‘90s – but the Wildhearts were always much more accessible and easy to see perform live. Always on tour – even when they didn’t have any releases to support – I quickly lost count of how many times I saw them in and around Manchester between 1993 and 1997.

The Wildhearts had great songs and great fans. I was once let into Rio’s, a rock club in Bradford, for free, simply because the doorman, presumably a fellow fan, appreciated the fact that I was wearing a Wildhearts t-shirt. Ah, those were the days.

In 1994, while recording the band’s second full studio album, P.H.U.Q., the Wildhearts’ leader and chief songwriter Ginger fired guitarist C.J. due to personal differences. C.J. responded by forming Honeycrack with guitarist Willie Dowling who had contributed piano and keyboards to the Wildheart’s debut record, Earth Vs. The Wildhearts, and its follow-up, the fan-club only mini-album Fishing For Luckies.

Honeycrack didn’t fit the usual mould of a rock band. Willie Dowling had an androgynous look, to the extent that he looked like a girl I went to school with, and C.J.’s Guyanese and Seychellois descent stood him apart from the – usual – white twenty-somethings ranking among most rock bands. Two other band members were black – third guitarist Mark McCrae, formerly a member of Rub Ultra – a band I saw support Headswim in the same venue I would later see Honeycrack, and a band that would lend its name to a party game among my circle of friends – and bass player Pete Clarke. The only member of the band who looked like a normal white guy was drummer Hugo Degenhardt.

The band’s record company, Epic, tested the waters with a pre-album single, Sitting At Home, in late 1995. I bought this on the strength of C.J. and Dowling’s history in the Wildhearts, and I wasn’t disappointed. Essentially a re-tread of the Wildhearts’ T.V. Tan, the song is similarly written around an upper-register earworm guitar riff, with lyrics evoking the guilty pleasures of staying in.

But it was the b-sides to Sitting At Home that got my attention – If I Had A Life, which would be re-used on the album, the awesome 5 Minutes, which sadly wasn’t, and a bouncy cover of the Beatles’ Hey Bulldog. These were the days when I used to listen to a band’s b-sides as much as I would their album tracks. I was happy to see that right from their very first release, Honeycrack seemed to be as proficient at releasing decent b-sides as the Wildhearts were.

RITA#599b[I often regret the fact that I more or less stopped buying records in the mid-‘90s. I did buy the odd thing on vinyl, but in general like most music buyers I mainly bought CDs (until I switched back to records around 1998). However, if I had restricted myself to only buying records, I would have missed out on a heap of CD-only material – particularly b-sides, and let’s not forget that a lot of contemporary albums were only released on CD. Case in point: in 1994, I was quick enough to order the Wildhearts’ Fishing For Luckies mini-album. Rejected by their record company, it was offered to fan-club members only as a throwaway release in limited quantities. Pre-internet, I wrote a cheque and posted it away, hoping that I had acted quickly enough. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later – probably ’28 days or more’, as everything seemed to take by mail order in those days – a jiffy-bag turned up on the doorstep with the 6-track CD inside. If I had purchased only vinyl back then, I would have missed out on this – such a milestone album during my teens.]

I played Honeycrack’s Sitting At Home single repeatedly until I heard that the band were to play at the Hop & Grape in Manchester (now the Academy 3) in February 1996. I bought tickets and went along with friends. One of the best things about the Hop & Grape is that the room is so small, the band usually enters the venue through the same door as the audience. Arriving early to check out the support band and drink beer, I was sat against the windows on the stage-left side of the room when Honeycrack walked in, making a bee-line for the green room. Seeing no other way around, C.J. stepped over my stretched out legs, to get past me. This blew my mind as a 15-year old – I had just come into close contact with a Wildheart!

I remember the gig well – they played all four songs from the Sitting At Home single, and the rest of their set was filled with songs from the as-yet unreleased album. Prozaic eventually saw the light of day in May 1996 and, as was customary back then, I purchased it on release day.

The album is a much poppier affair than I was expecting. Where the Wildhearts always straddled the line between metal, rock and pop, Honeycrack were a bit easier on the eardrums. It’s still a rock album, but not quite as heavy as the Wildhearts’ output. The imprint of C.J. and Dowling’s former band is easy to hear though – lot’s of stream of consciousness vocals, à la Caffeine Bomb, multiple sections to each song (it’s as much prog-pop as it is rock-pop), and harmonies galore (each of the five members contributed vocals).

The band seemed to have a bit of a push behind them. Epic got them spots on Top Of The Pops and TFI Friday, but the album didn’t go anywhere, peaking at an unremarkable #34 in the UK charts. I went off to University and sort of forgot about them, given the amount of new bands I was exposed to there. After they parted with Epic, they released a single, Anyway on EG Records – the last thing I bought of theirs – before disbanding. In 1997, Anyway would be re-recorded by Dowling and used as the theme tune to the Channel 4 show Armstrong & Miller – the last piece of Honeycrack genius I remember before I closed that chapter of my life.

Dowling and C.J. continued to form several other bands following the demise of Honeycrack. C.J. eventually re-joined the Wildhearts in 2001, and it was great to see that classic Earth Vs. line-up play in the Manchester University Debating Hall (now the Academy 2) in 2003. Weirdly, Honeycrack drummer Hugo Degenhardt got more exposure anybody elsee from the band, joining the Bootleg Beatles and touring the world as Ringo Starr between 2003 and 2016.

Hit: Sitting At Home

Hidden Gem: Animals

RITA#599a