Love (2006)


Title: This is the tie-in album for a Cirque du Soleil theatre show of the same name, which was based on and used the music of the Beatles. George Martin and his son Giles mixed the show’s soundtrack from the band’s original multi-track recordings, using 130 different songs and mashing up and cross-editing elements left, right and centre. They had the entire Beatles discography to play with to create their soundscape…

Cover: It uses swishes of yellow, orange and red, presumably to suggest some kind of hippy trip, but it’s pretty bland and corporate.

Best song: For its sheer bravado, the mash-up of Drive My Car, The Word and What You’re Doing is fantastic. The 114-second track takes three songs recorded over a spread of 14 months and makes them seem inseparable. (The guitar solo from Taxman is also thrown in for good measure.)

Honourable mentions: The opening ‘movement’ is extraordinary. We begin with Because’s pure, clean vocals and no instruments, then the famous piano crash from the end of A Day in the Life is played in reverse (so rather than fading out, it ‘powers up’). When that peaks, the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night acts like the swish of the stage curtains: the show has started. Next comes Ringo’s drum solo from The End, thrillingly set to the pumping guitar of Get Back, before the latter song kicks into gear; we then dramatically cut to a section of Glass Onion. This is fantastic stuff, showing real invention and wit on the part of the producers. And the highlights keep coming… Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite! has a sinister new ending: a nightmarish leap into an abyss, using the music from I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and vocals from Helter Skelter. Conversely, one of the album’s most beautiful moments comes when 26 seconds of Blackbird’s finger-picked guitar gracefully acts as an overture for Yesterday. Strawberry Fields Forever is a mash-up all on its own: various takes, including a John Lennon home demo, are blended together with invisible edits. The effect is music that grows in intensity and complexity as it goes along, echoing the song’s original writing/production process. There’s also an anarchic play-out that quotes numerous other songs, such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, In My Life, Piggies and Hello Goodbye. One of the most attention-grabbing sections of the album is Within You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows, which combines the former with the latter’s relentless bassline and drum pattern. It’s a remarkable fit, giving George’s Indian song an almost trance quality. The track then segues into Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds via a deliberately disjointed segment that spaces out the notes of Lucy’s guitar riff. More great ‘new intros’ follow: the music from Good Night is used as an opening on Octopus’s Garden, while Lady Madonna is teased by repeating a drum fill and bringing the saxes up front before the song proper begins. Finally, one of my favourite sections of the whole album is the way Hey Jude merges into Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise). The music drops out, leaving just Paul’s evangelical singing, the backing vocals and the drumming. Then the deliciously plump bass rejoins, followed by the orchestra for a few more iterations of ‘Naaah, nah, nah, nah-nah-nah-nah’ – then the horn section’s notes are stretched out to provide a platform for Sgt Pepper’s rock guitar to kick off. Superb.

Worst song: Whether we need Sun King played in reverse is debatable.

Notable outside contributions: The only new recording on the album is a string accompaniment, written by George Martin, for the acoustic take of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Alternate versions: Three songs worked on at the time but left off the album were Girl, The Fool on the Hill and She’s Leaving Home. The first two were later released as iTunes exclusives: The Fool on the Hill is my favourite:

Review: The Martins showed genuine vision in creating this 79-minute mash-up. As a listening experience it’s magnificent. It couldn’t fail to be with this track listing. And as a formal exercise in remixing, it’s both fascinating and engrossing. Some tracks are essentially left ‘as are’ – for example, other than being programmed into a segueing sequence, Help! and Revolution are presented as we all know them. But the album’s real joy comes when songs crash, collide and cross-pollinate. For those of us who have known the Beatles canon for longer than we can remember, spotting how different elements are being used – a piano part here, a bassline there – is an endlessly enjoyable puzzle. (“Oh, it’s Hey Bulldog’s guitar riff!” “Are those the backing vocals from Nowhere Man?”) Few would suggest that Love betters any of the original productions. But as a fresh, exciting, vibrant, new context for the greatest music of all time, it’s a total triumph.

Ten little hideaways beneath the waves out of 10.

Anthology 1 (1995)/Anthology 2 (1996)/Anthology 3 (1996)


Title: Apt enough. This is a three-volume chronological collection of pre-fame recordings, alternate takes, variant mixes, live performances, TV appearances and interviews. The first two releases were headlined by new Beatles songs, created by Paul, George and Ringo playing along to John Lennon demos from the 1970s. (Plans for a third ‘Threetles’ track, Now and Then, fell through when George got cold feet.)

Covers: Sumptuous artwork from Klaus Voormann, which combines images from throughout the Beatles’ career into a collage of poster fragments. The complete piece smartly divides into thirds for each individual album cover.

Best song:

* The best ‘song’ on the first volume is actually a clip from the Beatles’ appearance on Morecambe & Wise’s ITV show Two of a Kind in 1963. It’s stunningly likeable – a meeting of popular-culture giants, who are all on fantastic form and clearly loving the experience. Watching the clip is even better than hearing it. The *priceless* comedy banter begins at the seven-minute mark:

* On volume two, the best bit is John’s home recording of an embryonic Strawberry Fields Forever. It’s so stark and delicate.

* On volume three, I love the *joyful* rehearsal of Oh! Darling with Paul and John having a whale of a time with the vocals.

Honourable mentions:

* The two ‘new’ Beatles songs – mid-tempo rock ballads Free As a Bird and Real Love – are diverting enough, though the old joke that producer Jeff Lynne spent the 1970s making ELO sound like the Beatles, and the 1990s making the Beatles sound like ELO, is funny because it’s true. Free As a Bird has a fantastic video, while Real Love is currently being covered by Tom Odell for a TV advert. Elsewhere, the quality, quantity and variety of alternate and unreleased studio recordings are astonishing.

* On volume one, I especially like: an early take of You Can’t Do That; some experimentation with I’ll Be Back; an unused George Harrison song called You Know What To Do; a terrific demo of No Reply; an outtake of Lennon mucking up Mr Moonlight’s vocal; and Eight Days a Week with a killer intro that was later abandoned.

* Volume two’s highlights include: some entertaining banter before a take of You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away; two songs recorded in February 1965 that were then both shelved (the turgid If You’ve Got Trouble, sung by Ringo, and Paul’s rather good That Means A Lot); John and Paul giggling through And Your Bird Can Sing; a rehearsal jam of I’m Only Sleeping; early takes of Strawberry Fields Forever; a composite of early attempts at A Day In The Life; and the basic track of I Am the Walrus. There’s also a raft of first takes: Yesterday, Norwegian Wood, I’m Looking Through You, Tomorrow Never Knows, I’m Only Sleeping and Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite! – all absolutely fascinating.

* Anthology 3’s best bits include: seven demos recorded at George’s house in May 1968 when the Beatles had returned from a long holiday in India; a cool-as-fuck early take of Helter Skelter; a good alternate version of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da; take four of Blackbird; George demoing While My Guitar Gently Weeps; John and Paul busking in the studio and making a song up on the spot (a spoof polka track called Los Paranoias); a few decent cuts from the Let It Be sessions; George’s demo of All Things Must Pass (he later recorded it for a solo LP); Paul’s multi-instrumental demo of Come and Get It (whether intended for Abbey Road or to give to another band is unknown; in the event, the latter happened); and a beautiful a cappella version of Because.

Worst songs: Volume one features spoken-word clips between the songs, an idea that was then wisely dropped. On Anthology 2, we could do without 12-Bar Original, a derivative song the Beatles recorded in 1965 then forgot about. The album was, allegedly, originally going to contain this song. However, George vetoed its inclusion, so it was replaced with some backing tracks of Eleanor Rigby and Within You Without You. Unreleased at the time, What’s the New Mary Jane (written by John and recorded in 1968) was long considered the Holy Grail of Beatles recordings – on Anthology 3, we can all hear what self-indulgent rot it is.

Notable outside contributions: Early bassist Stuart Sutcliffe appears on a few tracks, as does sacked drummer Pete Best. (The take of Love Me Do the latter plays on from the group’s first EMI session shows why he was replaced by Ringo: it goes out of time.) Tony Sheridan, who the Beatles worked with the Hamburg, sings lead vocal on My Bonnie.

Review: When these albums came out, I devoured them – barely a week went by without me listening to them. But before #BeatlesReview, I hadn’t heard them for donkey’s years, so it was great fun to familarise myself again. A bit like the BBC albums, they’re interesting rather than entertaining – but they’re very, very interesting. The accompanying TV series, by the way, is my all-time favourite documentary. It was shown on ITV in 1995, then later a much longer edit was released on VHS and DVD, and it tells the history of the band from childhood to split. While clearly biased – being the official Beatles story, it pulls its punches when it comes to drugs, arguments, failed projects and the breakup – the power of the storytelling is immense. The three living Beatles gave wide-ranging and (mostly) frank interviews, while Lennon is represented by archive material. A huge trove of fantastic footage is cleverly arranged and juxtaposed; we get full-length performances of most key songs; and there’s no authoritative voiceover or presenter – the whole thing zips along confidently and engrossingly.

Eight lives that we once knew out of 10.

Live at the BBC (1994)/On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2 (2013)


Title: Between March 1962 and June 1965, the Beatles regularly took part in BBC radio sessions. They appeared on 52 shows, recording 275 performances of 90 different songs* (36 of which were never part of their EMI discography). These two volumes compile 56 and 40 tracks respectively, mixing them with snippets of the band being interviewed by the shows’ presenters.

*Sources vary over the total of unique songs. I’m going by the index in Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle.

Covers: Each volume uses a different photograph of the young Beatles – in both, they’re wearing suits and walking confidently down a London pavement. The first image has a rusty wash, while the second is full colour. I’ve been unable to find out when the first was taken, but On Air’s cover photograph dates from 2 July 1963. On that day, the group were at the Beeb’s Maida Vale Studio, taping episode five of radio show Pop Go The Beatles.

(Thanks again to Fraser Dickson for help with the image for this post.)

Best songs:

* Some Other Guy is, in many ways, one of the big missed opportunities of the Beatles canon. It was a 1962 hit for Richie Barrett, and reportedly fascinated Lennon for the rest of his life. The group recorded it three times for the BBC; it was in their set list for a couple of years; and the only time they were ever filmed in the Cavern – just days after Ringo joined the band – they enthusiastically played Some Other Guy. Given some of the lacklustre cover versions they put on early albums, it’s hard to see why they never tackled it for EMI. The take on the first Live at the BBC album is from an episode of Easy Beat and – unlike most of the stuff here – was recorded in front of a live audience.

* The version of And I Love Her on volume two is notable for George playing an electric (rather than acoustic) guitar. It gives the whole song a different feel.

Honourable mentions:

* We get the only ever Beatles recording of Lennon-McCartney song I’ll Be On My Way – it’s a pleasant enough tune, but has terrible lyrics.

* Terrific covers of Soldier of Love and You Really Got a Hold On Me are well sung by John.

* Paul’s vocal on Long Tall Sally is super (we get a different take on each volume); he’s likewise impressive on two other Little Richard tunes: Lucille and Ooh! My Soul.

* There are good run-throughs of I Saw Her Standing There, Please Mister Postman, Twist and Shout, I’ll Get You, She Loves You and From Me To You.

* Things We Said Today and Till There Was You almost match the versions on With The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night respectively, while She’s A Woman is interestingly loser than the B-side recording.

* Lend Me Your Comb, originally recorded by Carl Perkins, is good fun, while the Beatles were never as C&W as on this cut of Perkins’s Sure to Fall (In Love With You) – it’s like listening to Gram Parsons.

* And finally, fantastically, volume two features an unedited sequence from a November 1964 session: the Beatles attempting I Feel Fine and discussing the take with the studio staff.

Worst songs: Nothing especially offends, but on the first volume we could probably cope without a sugary, earnest rendition of To Know Her Is To Love Her. (It’s also always a disappointment how tired Johnny B Goode is. Marty McFly did it better.) On volume two, a poor quality recording of Beautiful Dreamer (a 19th-century song with a speeded-up beat) can’t mask what a dull song it is. It even has a key change to try to keep our interest.

Notable outside contributions: Everything was recorded ‘as live’ or with minimal overdubs – so we’re hearing the musical product of four men. One exception is during A Hard Day’s Night on the first volume. Unable for some reason to recreate George Martin’s piano solo, it was rather inelegantly copied in from the single! (The take redeems itself at the end, though, when the boys and host Brian Matthews ridicule the song’s fade-out.)

Review: As an approximation of what the group must have been like live, these albums are lovely: plenty of well rehearsed performances of some covers, plus a smattering of alternate versions of existing Beatles tracks. Yet I doubt many fans dig these CDs out very often (unless they have an unquenchable thirst for rock’n’roll covers). There’s nothing essential here, while no take betters any EMI equivalent. The bits of between-song chat are fun on a first listen – all four Beatles are witty, charming and quick, while the hosts keep things light – but drag the album down when you can recite the jokes in your head. (Volume two also has some longer interviews, one per Beatle, recorded on the eve of Rubber Soul’s release. Paul sells a funny gag about Indian music.)

Five June lights turning to moonlights out of 10.

Past Masters Volume 1 (1988)/Past Masters Volume 2 (1988)


Title: When the Beatles’ back catalogue was released on CD in 1988, all the singles, B-sides, variant mixes and other rarities that don’t feature on the official LPs were compiled for this two-volume album. A lovely move that appeals to my completist brain. If only as much thought had gone into a fun title.

Covers: Bland. The logo is superb, though. Read about its creation here:

(Thanks to Fraser Dickson for combining the two album covers into one image for this post.)

Best songs:

* On volume one, it’s John’s Latin-flavoured I Feel Fine, a single from 1965. After its cheeky opening of deliberate feedback, we get a swinging rhythm, a complex guitar riff and some tremendous drumming from Ringo. It’s Merseybeat meets Cuba and is infectious.

* The best song on volume two, meanwhile, is my favourite Beatles song of them all. Rain, also written by John, was the B-side to Paperback Writer in 1966. It’s a kaleidoscope of controlled chaos. Front and centre are Ringo’s flamboyant drumming and Paul’s wildly inventive bassline, but they’re matched by the dreamy drag of Lennon’s vocal, the innovative use of backwards singing and the track’s general hypnotic sense of space: if I play it loud on headphones, I can get lost in it and forget the real world exists.

Honourable mentions:

* On volume one, non-album singles From Me To You, She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand (all true Lennon/McCartney collaborations) are blockbusters of early 60s pop. The first has a delightful dark turn for its middle eight; the second grabs you straightaway by beginning with the chorus; while the third has a very cute finale in a different time signature.

* She Loves You’s B-side, I’ll Get You, is a lovely little tune with a minor explosion of a chorus.

* One of the Beatles’ best cover versions is Long Tall Sally, which was issued on an EP in 1964. Paul’s vocals go punch-for-punch with Little Richard’s raucous original.

* Although I’ve rarely heard a good word about it, I’ve always really liked John’s catchy I Call Your Name (from the same EP).

* Paul’s jazzy She’s A Woman (I Feel Fine’s flipside) is a total joy – I love the clipped strikes of guitar, the swaggering bass sound and the superb, soulful singing.

* Volume two begins with both sides of a 1965 double A-side: the riff-tastic Day Tripper and the crafted We Can Work It Out. The former, by John, is a bluesy gem: simple but incisive. The latter, a joint effort based on Paul’s idea, has the same freewheeling confidence as contemporary album Rubber Soul – the contrasting sections and the way they musically hook up are just wonderful.

* Paperback Writer, an A-side from 1966, is Paul at his most rock. The chrome-sounding guitar riff is matched in its power by a superb arrangement, shining harmony vocals and a tremendous melodic bassline. Incidentally, I’m not sure men have ever looked more stylish than the Beatles do in the Paperback Writer video:

* Other super McCartney singles included here are the honky-tonk Lady Madonna and the massive Hey Jude, both from 1968.

* Don’t Let Me Down is a yearning song of John’s recorded during the Let It Be sessions; guest keyboardist Billy Preston’s work is lovely.

* Lennon also wrote the fun, autobiographical rocker The Ballad of John and Yoko – despite various fallings-out around this time, Paul enthusiastically helped him record this for a quick single while George and Ringo were out of the country.

* Finally, I also adore its B-side, George’s foot-tapping Old Brown Shoe.

Worst songs: Volume one has a trio of equally forgettable cover versions: Slow Down, Matchbox and Bad Boy. Volume two includes George’s tedious B-side The Inner Light.

Notable outside contributions: George Martin plays piano on Slow Down and Matchbox. Some saxophonists – Ronnie Scott amongst them – appear on Lady Madonna, while the backing track of The Inner Light was recorded with local musicians in India. Rafts of violins, violas, cellos, double basses, flutes, clarinets, bass clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoons, trumpets, horns and trombones appear on Hey Jude and Let It Be. Nicky Hopkins plays electric piano on Revolution; Billy Preston plays one on Get Back, Let It Be and Don’t Let Me Down. Two teenage fans – Lizzie Bravo and Gayleen Pease – were invited in off the street to sing backing vocals on Across The Universe. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones plays a sax on You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).

Review: Past Masters is a brilliant listen, showing how good the Beatles were for their entire career. Any Beatles collection needs these albums. The opening four tracks of volume two – Day Tripper, We Can Work it Out, Paperback Writer and Rain – make up the best run of four songs on *any album I can think of*.

Nine one-way tickets, yeah, out of 10.

Let It Be (1970)


Title: It’s named for Paul’s song about his mother coming to him in a stress dream and calming him down. The LP is essentially a soundtrack album for the documentary film Let It Be.

Cover: Each Beatle photographed separately – a deliberate nod to the fact the group had split up, maybe?

Best song: I’ve Got A Feeling, the last collaborative Lennon/McCartney. They combined two song ideas – positive from Paul, reflective from John – into a united whole, which works really well when both halves are sung at the same time. The performance is terrific too, especially when you consider they were playing live on a London rooftop in a cold January wind.

Honourable mentions:

* Paul’s Two Of Us is a jaunty acoustic tune, well sung by him and John. (It sounds a bit Crosby, Stills & Nash to me. This is a good thing.)

* John’s Across The Universe had been recorded a year earlier than the rest of the album and released on a various-artists charity LP with some awful backing vocals from two Beatles fans. Its lyrics might be naff, but they suit the metre of the music nicely. Because the film Let It Be included the band busking the song, the raw take was dug out for use on this album. Sadly, producer Phil Spector ignored the stark tenderness of the original, slowed it down and swamped it with an orchestra.

* Paul’s title track is a classically beautiful piano ballad, which has a gospel feel – my only niggle with it is the tiresomely repetitive lyrics. Give him his due, Spector’s work here actually enhances what is already a tremendous song.

Worst song: Aside from the inclusion of 50 seconds of improvised jam Dig It? Or 40 seconds of traditional folk shanty Maggie Mae? (These two bits of detritus are either side of the title song in the album’s running order, a move assumed to be a slight against Paul.) Of the rest, John’s Dig A Pony is the most, um, pony.

Notable outside contributions: Keyboardist Billy Preston was brought in by Harrison to help record the album ‘as live’ with no overdubs. He plays on seven of the 12 tracks and is essentially a fifth member of the band.

Alternate version: The original plan was to rehearse some new material while being filmed for a fly-on-the-wall TV special – then record it live in front of an audience. The band gathered for rehearsals at Twickenham Film Studios in January 1969, but little serious work was achieved and tensions were high. The film crew captured Paul and George having a tiff, but missed a blazing row between George and John that resulted in George quitting the band. He agreed to return only if they abandoned Twickenham and moved into the studio. So the group continued to record (and be filmed) in their own facility at 3 Savile Row. Losing enthusiasm for a concert, they decided simply to go up to the building’s roof and play until the police ordered them to stop. For the next few months, various versions of the album were compiled from the mass of available material, but no one was ever happy. Finally, in March 1970 – behind his colleagues’ backs – Lennon brought in famed producer Phil Spector. He ignored the project’s ‘no overdubs’ principle, added orchestras and choirs, and the album was finally released in May. By this point, the TV special had morphed into a theatrical movie, the Beatles had recorded and released an entire other album (see previous review), and Paul had tersely announced the band’s break-up. Famously unhappy with the final product, McCartney got his chance to re-edit the album in 2003. Let It Be… Naked strips away Phil Spector’s overdubs, jettisons the silly pieces of filler, adds contemporary B-side Don’t Let Me Down, and rearranges the running order. It’s a *much* more entertaining listen. (It has a bonus disc: a 22-minute sound collage of song snippets and banter from the January 1969 rehearsals.)

Review: The weakest full-length Beatles album. There are a few good songs, but the slipshod way they were recorded results in a pretty tatty end product. The film, by the way, is hard to track down but worth seeing if you get the chance. Despite punches being pulled, there are some fantastic insights, both positive and negative, into the Beatles of January 1969. The climax is the entertaining rooftop gig, which is intercut with footage of crowds – disgruntled men in suits, young woman in miniskirts, bemused policemen – gathering on the street below as the sound of the Beatles wafts across Mayfair…

Five words of wisdom out of 10.

Abbey Road (1969)


Title: The road in north-west London where EMI Studios – now called Abbey Road Studios – can be found. The Beatles recorded there for most of their career.

Cover: George in double denim, Paul without any shoes on, Ringo in a black suit and John in a white one striding across the pedestrian crossing outside the studio. A Volkswagen Beetle was coincidentally parked in shot. I visited Abbey Road in September 2000 and – like EVERYONE WHO’S EVER BEEN THERE – had my photograph taken while crossing the road.

Best song: George’s lush, soft-focus ballad Something is so good that Frank Sinatra used to call it his favourite Lennon and McCartney song. It kicks into a powerful gear for a heartfelt middle-eight and has a cool, relaxed guitar solo, while I could spend hours listening to just Paul and Ringo’s inventive, melodic work on bass and drums.

Honourable mentions:

* John’s Come Together is full of attack and attitude. Lennon snarls the nonsense lyric like it means everything in the world, and he’s supported by a laid-back yet still menacing production of funky bassline, bass-drum kicks and vamping on an electric piano.

* Oh! Darling is Paul at his pastiche best: here he’s aping doo-wop ballads of his youth. He blasts out the vocal with commitment and obvious joy, while the music is genuinely excited.

* Ringo began to write Octopus’s Garden while he was in Sardinia, having quit the Beatles temporarily in 1968, and a fisherman started explaining how octopuses search the seabed for stones. There’s a lovely moment in the documentary film Let It Be where Ringo shows the chords to George, who then suggests an improvement. Three minutes of charm, clearly made with love by the whole group, it’s the best song Ringo either wrote and/or sang on a Beatles record.

* Side A of the album closes with the gargantuan I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – it’s John pleading for seven minutes, so earnestly his voice rips open at one point. The repetitive music – rock riffs, bubbling bass, stadium drums – sounds very 70s supergroup. The hypnotic, rolling play-out is so dogged it has to be cut off by the needle running out of vinyl. There’s a tremendous cover of this song by Booker T & the MGs:

* Side B begins with George’s bucolic, beautiful Here Comes The Sun. He wrote it one morning in Eric Clapton’s garden while he waited for his pal to get up. Its general light touch is wonderful, Ringo’s drumming is lovely, and cute handclaps give a bit of extra bounce to the bridge. The only thing wrong with it is how low George Martin’s orchestra is in the mix: the flutes sound delightful, but don’t shine through enough.

* John’s Because is a complex vocal harmony with minimal instrumentation. John, Paul and George actually recorded three parts each, making nine voices in all: the resulting sound is what I imagine angels would sound like.

* The final 16 minutes of Abbey Road famously consists of an eight-song medley. (In truth, there’s actually a beat of silence between two of them.) It’s a wonderful encore, a final flourish before the curtain falls. A few of the sections are bits of fluff, but Paul’s You Never Give Me Your Money (a mini-medley in itself) and She Came In Through the Bathroom Window are both really good. Unity is enforced by clever cross-mixing and, in the case of Carry That Weight, one song quoting another. The last segment is called The End. It features guitar or drum solos from all four Beatles, and the final lyric is an end-of-an-era valediction: “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” (Well, it’s not quite the end. After 20 seconds of silence, we get the earliest ‘hidden track’ in pop music: a snatch of Paul singing about the Queen.)

Worst song: If Maxwell’s Silver Hammer vanished from existence, I doubt I’d miss it.

Notable outside contributions: George Martin, back as a proper producer after the chaos of the Let It Be sessions (see next review), plays an electric harpischord on Because and an organ on Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Sun King and Mean Mr Mustard. Billy Preston plays organ on Something and I Want You (She’s So Heavy). There are many uncredited violins, violas, cellos, double basses, horns, trumpets, trombones, piccolos, flutes, clarinets on Something, Here Comes The Sun, Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight and The End. Long-time Beatles roadie Mal Evans hits an anvil during the chorus of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.

Review: Embarrassed perhaps by a series of half-arsed, mixed-bag projects (one of which was stuck in post-production hell), the Beatles resolved to make one last great record before calling it a day. Abbey Road is a glorious swansong, a real return to the craft, class and quality of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. The fact George Martin was back producing with real authority for the first time since Pepper is probably hugely significant. This is music of overwhelming beauty – wonderful songs brilliantly played, magnificently recorded and skillfully produced. The Beatles really were the best, you know.

Ten mojo filters out of 10.

Yellow Submarine (1969)


Title: The animated movie Yellow Submarine was made with virtually no interest from the Beatles themselves, aside from donating a few largely second-rate songs and quickly filming a live-action cameo. This LP is its soundtrack album – it’s made up of four new tracks the group dashed off without much thought, two songs that had already been released, and an entire side of movie score.

Cover: Stylistically true to the film: 1960s cartoon imagery with as many colours as possible.

Best song: John’s Hey Bulldog is fantastically punchy and aggressive. It was recorded when the Beatles gathered in the studio to film a music video for upcoming single Lady Madonna. Rather than waste the session acting for the camera, they decided to work on a new track while being filmed. I love the sound of the guitars – George’s solo is piercing – and the chaotic ad-libbing at the end works really well too.

Honourable mentions: George’s action-packed It’s All Too Much is quite fun. It’s one of the longest songs the band ever recorded: 6.28. Only Revolution 9, Hey Jude and I Want You (She’s So Heavy) beat it.

Worst song: All Together Now, Paul’s depressingly simplistic sing-along.

Notable outside contributions: Side B is exclusively cues from the film, written by George Martin and recorded by a 41-piece orchestra. Unless you count seeing the movie, this #BeatlesReview process has been the first time I’ve *ever* heard this half of the album.

Alternative version: In 1999, to celebrate 30 years of the movie, an album called Yellow Submarine Songtrack was released. It took the six tracks from side A of the original LP, dumped the instrumental cues, and added nine previously released Beatles songs that had been used in the film. Some minor remixing was done.

Review: The strangest album in the Beatles’ canon – some people understandably discount it, given how little new material it contains. It’s sadly another example of the band’s variable post-Pepper form. Martin’s incidental music is pleasing enough, but I’m afraid to say the movie itself has never done anything for me. I’m immune to its charms.

Six wigwams out of 10.

The Beatles (1968)


Title: It was going to be called A Doll’s House, but then another band put out an LP with a similar name – so the Beatles instead went eponymous. The entire world chose to call it The White Album, thanks to the…

Cover: Just the band’s name embossed on a white background.

Best song: I’m going to break my own rules here and not pick one. I’ll explain why in the review section.

Honourable mentions:

* Back in the USSR (written by Paul) opens Side A and is a trad rocker with witty lyrics.

* Dear Prudence (John) is the first of many lovely examples of finger-picking guitar work on the album. (It’s also one of four White Album songs recorded at Trident Studios in Soho, just a minute’s walk from my office.)

* Glass Onion (John) has lyrics that reference previous Beatles songs, mocking fans who look for hidden codes, and a pleasing chug-chug bassline.

* Ska pastiche Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Paul) has really grown on me over the years (I used to hate it, as John, George and Ringo did at the time, but now find it fun).

* FM-radio-friendly While My Guitar Gently Weeps is George’s best song since Revolver and features a guitar solo from Eric Clapton, an outsider brought in by Harrison to try to improve morale in the camp.

* The mysterious Happiness is a Warm Gun (John) is a number of song ideas skillfully bolted together – apparently, everyone involved really enjoyed tackling the challenging structure.

* The laconic I’m So Tired (John) will always have a place in my (long-time insomnia sufferer’s) heart.

* Blackbird (Paul) is a stunningly beautiful guitar piece.

* I Will (Paul) has a cute sung bassline.

* The delicate Julia, John’s paean/farewell to his dead mother, is heartbreaking.

* Yer Blues (John) is brutally raw and a tight ‘live’ performance.

* Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey (John) is throwaway but worth it for the terrific section near the end featuring garbled singing, a relentless cowbell, a heavy guitar riff and a mixed-highly bass.

* Sexy Sadie (John) is classy doo-wop done as a rock ballad. (The song is about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Transcendental Meditation guru who the group followed for a time. Lennon – probably incorrectly – came to believe that the Maharishi was a dirty old man, and the original lyrics were: “Maharishi, you little twat/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Oh, you cunt.” Harrison suggested being more opaque.)

* Helter Skelter (Paul) is fantastically raucous, loud and ‘punk’: the Beatles at their wildest since Twist and Shout.

* Long, Long, Long (George) is largely dull but I love the ending – during the recording, Paul’s sustained note on the Hammond organ audibly rattled a wine bottle in the studio and the band improvised a banshee-wail of a climax.

* Honey Pie (Paul) is an accomplished exercise in style: I easily picture bob-cut flappers dancing the Charleston at the Ritz.

Worst song: Come on, who actually listens to Revolution 9?

Notable outside contributions: Lots of pals provide backing vocals (Yoko Ono even gets a line to herself in The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill), while the group was by now routinely employing session musicians to provide trombones, trumpets, clarinets, cellos, violins, saxophones, tubas, French horns, stumpf fiddles, flugelhorns and the like. The most famous playing on the album by a non-Beatle is Clapton’s guitar solo.

Review: John, Paul and George wrote a cache of new songs while staying in India for a few weeks in early 1968, enough in fact for a double LP. There is plenty of good stuff here, but nothing to equal the best of 1965-67. Instead, the album’s joy comes from a) its rambling, eclectic nature (brilliantly, listening to one track gives you no idea what the next one will be like), and b) the fact it’s significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Producer George Martin has said he wished they’d cut away the flab and made one really strong single LP. I don’t agree. Meaning and power lie, as it were, ‘in between’ the songs: there’s a nebulous cumulative effect, helped by the smart running order worked out during the Beatles’ only ever 24-hour studio session. That’s why I struggle to name a standout track – The White Album is a successful football team with no star players. Ironic, then, that there wasn’t much teamwork behind the scenes. The recording sessions were famously tense. Lennon and McCartney rowed often, George Martin found excuses not to be around, Paul grew more patronising, Yoko Ono’s presence in the studio caused resentment, and Ringo even quit the band and fled to Sardinia (he was convinced to return a few days later by his contrite colleagues). Many songs were recorded essentially as solo pieces: only 15 of the 30 tracks feature all four Beatles. The long break-up had begun.

Nine all-American, bullet-headed Saxon mother’s sons out of 10.

Magical Mystery Tour (double EP, 1967)


Title: The second of Paul McCartney’s ‘wheezes’ in 1967 was that the Beatles should go on a working-class sharabang. The group hired a coach, filled it with actors picked on whims from Spotlight, and headed for the West Country. A huge amount of unscripted, self-directed and generally slapdash material was filmed for a 50-minute TV special, which was accompanied by a six-track double EP of new songs…

Cover: Bold, colourful, eccentric. The four Beatles appear in the costumes they wore while filming the I Am the Walrus section of the TV show.

Best song: I Am the Walrus, John’s psychedelic tour de force – not so much a song as an immersive experience. The writing was influenced by a letter Lennon had received from a pupil at his old school telling him the class were analysing Beatles songs. Tickled by his work being on the syllabus, he decided to compile an OTT, surrealistic, razzle-dazzle lyric (“Let the fuckers work that one out!” he joked at the time). It includes slang from his childhood, a reference to Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, lots of fantastic internal rhymes (“Expert textpert choking smokers/Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?”) and invocations of Lewis Carroll. The chords are just as brilliantly bonkers – every musical letter from A to G is used, and the fall and rise of the music during the chaotic fade-out is engrossing. And the production is endlessly interesting. I love the effect on John’s voice, George Martin’s arrangement, the various sounds effects, the snatches of a radio broadcast, and (in the pre-remastered version anyway) the dislocating switch from true stereo to fake stereo, which sounds really trippy on headphones.

Honourable mentions:

* The Fool on the Hill, written by Paul, is a pretty little tune.

* I also like the written-on-the-spot-by-the-whole-group Flying – it’s often described as an instrumental, but has (admittedly wordless) vocals.

Worst song: Blue Jay Way, inspired by a house in the Hollywood Hills that George Harrison had recently rented, is dreary, interest-free and dawdles on for four minutes.

Notable outside contributions: An orchestra plays on I Am the Walrus, four trumpeters on the title song and three flautists on The Fool on the Hill. In the live radio transmissions randomly mixed into I Am the Walrus is a performance of King Lear. Although he’s not in the relevant clip, the cast featured future Doctor Who star Roger Delgado.

Alternative version: The American release of Magical Mystery Tour added five songs (taken from contemporary singles) to pad the EP out to a complete album. That edit was released in the UK in 1976 and has since been the official version in the Beatles discography. The additional stuff contains two masterpieces and a fantastic little gem. Strawberry Fields Forever was written by John in Spain while he was taking on a rare acting role:

George Martin’s vision in creating a fascinating soundscape is astonishing – especially when you consider that the finished song is actually two takes, recorded at different tempos and with different ‘feels’, outrageously cut together at the 1.00 mark. We get a mellotron, trumpets and cellos, some typically inventive drumming from Ringo, some backwards guitars and a fake ending – it’s thrilling stuff. The lyrics are a mish-mash of self-doubt, childhood nostalgia and deliberate linguistic uncertainly (“I think, I know, I mean, a ‘yes’, but it’s all wrong/That is, I think I disagree”). The song was released as a double A-side with Paul’s Penny Lane (the greatest 7” of all time?). McCartney wanted a ‘clean’ sound for this song, and the jaunty, precise instrumentation is an absolute joy. The lyrics, meanwhile, are full of wonderfully rich imagery and poetry, and contain both naughty slang (“Fish-and-finger pie…”) and surrealism (“The pretty nurse… feels as if she’s in a play; she is anyway…”). B-side Baby, You’re a Rich Man, which was written by John (verses) and Paul (chorus), is generally considered to be about Brian Epstein. I’ve always adored its strangeness – the Middle Eastern-sounding whine of a clavioline, the prominent ‘thwud-thwud’ bassline, and John’s high singing.

Review: In order to have peaks, you need troughs. After 24 months of unbeatable form, the Beatles took the foot off the pedal. Unlimited studio time, less pressure from the record company and the death of manager Brian Epstein in August 1967 all chipped away at the band’s quality-control setting. There’s greatness here – music of genuine world class – but also the kind of substandard work we haven’t had for a while. The proto-Python TV show is worth checking out for a handful of fun sequences: the performance of I Am the Walrus, John playing a grinning waiter shoveling food onto a fat woman’s plate, Victor Spinetti’s cameo, John amusing a little girl with some nursery rhymes, and a performance from The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. But you have to sit through a lot of boring, self-indulgent, badly filmed rubbish to get to the good stuff.

Eight semolina pilchards climbing up the Eiffel Tower out of 10.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)


Title: The band had quit performing live in August 1966, a move championed by John and George. Keen to prevent the group falling into any studio-bound lethargy, Paul came up with a series of gimmicks intended to gee his band mates along. The first was the idea they adopt another persona, one with a deliberately kooky name and who liked dressing up in colourful Edwardian military suits.

Cover: You may have seen it before. It’s quite famous.

Best song: I would need space significantly bigger than the internet to adequately articulate how good A Day in the Life is. Not only this album’s crowning glory, it’s the Beatles’ too. Fuck it, it’s *music’s* best achievement. By this point in their career, John and Paul were mostly writing separately. This, however, is a collaboration. Lennon wrote the verses (about, amongst other things, a friend of a friend who’d died in a car crash) while Paul provided the bouncy middle section about catching a bus. The orchestral linking sections were Paul’s idea, but arranged by George Martin. Whether the full lyric makes literal sense is to miss the point: it’s free association, all based on the idea of perception. Consider these lines: “I read the news today…”, “I saw the photograph…”, “He didn’t notice that the lights had changed…”, “A crowd of people stood and stared…”, “They’d seen his face before…”, “I saw a film today…”, “A crowd of people turned away, but I just had to look…”, “And looking up, I noticed I was late…”, and “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream…” The song is obsessed with what it means to subjectively experience reality. It’s existentialism as a pop song: how cool is that? The music, meanwhile, has detail and nuance in each and every aspect. Ringo proves what a superb drummer he was: never a virtuoso like Keith Moon or Ginger Baker, he instead *wrote* great drumming. Just listen how skillfully he answers John’s singing in the opening verses. Paul’s bassline dances around, giving rise and fall and texture to everything. And the orchestra… Holy shitballs, the orchestra. The two crescendos generate more energy in 30 seconds than entire power stations. The beat of silence between the end of the second example and the crashing piano chord that climaxes the album might be the single most thrilling moment in popular culture.

Honourable mentions:

* As its lyrics suggest, With a Little Help From My Friends was written by John and Paul expressly for Ringo to sing. None of the many cover versions we’ve had since have a fraction of Ringo’s everyman likeability.

* John’s dreamy, fairy-tale-ish Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds has Lewis Carroll-aping lyrics full of gorgeously anarchic references to newspaper taxis and cellophane flowers. Sadly the mix sounds a tad clumsy, with odd snatches of vocals where they shouldn’t be. (Lennon always denied that the title was a code for LSD.)

* Getting Better, by Paul, is an interesting little track. The sharp, severe guitar cuts juxtapose so well with the dynamic singing and swaggering bassline, while John and George’s backing vocals (“It can’t get more worse…”) add a lot.

* Another example of Paul McCartney’s world-beating form in the mid 1960s is the achingly stark She’s Leaving Home. The lyric is storytelling in widescreen: a kitchen-sink drama without a happy ending. It’s based on the real-life story of a runaway girl, Melanie Coe, who coincidentally had been photographed in the audience of a Beatles TV appearance a few years earlier. I always think of this song as a beautiful bit of black-and-white in this otherwise rainbow-streaked album.

* John’s Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite! is a triumphant combination of writing and production. The witty words are based on an 1843 circus poster he’d bought in a junkshop, while producer George Martin helped enormously to evoke the Victorian seaside vibe by using a harmonium and library recordings of calliopes.

* On this album, we’re hearing John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their (super)powers. However, by ‘George’ I mean George Martin. George Harrison is noticeably on the sidelines. His only significant contribution is Within You Without You, the second of his songs using the classical Indian idiom. It’s easily the best of them. When I was a kid, I always fast-forwarded past this track, but I now can’t imagine the album without it. The music is dark and mysterious, and the lyrics (paraphrase: “Don’t be selfish.”) twist round an elaborate melody. Just in case you think it’s taking itself too seriously, Harrison added a bit of embarrassed laughter on at the end.

* Paul’s singing on his gentle music-hall pastiche When I’m Sixty-Four was speeded up in the final mix to give his voice a boyish quality. (He was a whopping 24 years old at the time.) There are also bits of vocal business that help keep the track alive – the way Paul puts on an accent for the line ‘Grandchildren on your knee’ and the audible smirk near the end of the song.

* Another superb McCartney track is Lovely Rita, which he wrote after an encounter with a female traffic warden. There’s a stunningly uplifting honky-tonk piano solo played by George Martin (which stays only a fraction of the time you want it to!), while Paul, John and George add some funny comb-and-paper-kazoo sound effects. The whole song is made of joy.

Worst song: Nothing’s less than very good. Fixing a Hole is perhaps the least distinctive. It’s the kind of easy tune Paul could knock off with his hands tied behind his back at this point.

Notable outside contributions: Dozens of other musicians played on the title track, She’s Leaving Home, Within You Without You and A Day in the Life. A sax sextet called Sounds Incorporated appears on Good Morning, Good Morning. George Martin’s contribution – as producer, player, arranger, sounding board and ideas man – is *enormous*.

Review: When I was a child first getting into the Beatles (we’re talking the 1980s here), everyone seemed to consider Sgt. Pepper inarguably their best achievement. Its 20th anniversary in 1987 was maybe the reason. But in the 90s it went out of vogue for some reason, with Revolver and the White Album more popular. Therefore, whenever you hear Pepper, it’s shocking just how stupidly magnificent it is. It’s in a class with Citizen Kane and Fawlty Towers: praising it has become such a cliché because you can never praise it enough. It’s often called the first ‘concept album’, although beyond the title track cutely segueing into With a Little Help From My Friends and then being reprised near the end, it’s not a very rigourously applied concept. No, it’s in mood and feel – and now history and nostalgia – where the LP’s power comes from. The great Beatles critic Ian MacDonald argued that Pepper bettered Revolver not in form but in *spirit*, and that’s spot on. There are perhaps fewer individually great songs here, but the overall effect is stunning. It’s an escapist fantasy of an album and you never want to come home.

Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, out of 10.