Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2016)

hollywoodbowl

Title: When released in May 1977, this LP was called The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. It was the group’s first official live album and consisted of tracks taped at two gigs in 1964/65. When remixed, remastered and rereleased in 2016 – to tie in with a documentary film called The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – it was given a slightly different title. It’s that later version I’ve used for this review.

Cover: A photo of the boys in casual suits and sunglasses. George looks a bit bored.

Best song: She’s a Woman cuts and swings just as much as the version released in November 1964 as the B-side to I Feel Fine. Ringo Starr’s enjoying himself with a few extra drums tricks, Paul McCartney belts out the vocal with energy, and the rocky coda (which is understated on the studio cut) is hammered home. Paul once described the Beatles as being just a good little rock’n’roll band – it’s effortlessly cool performances like this where you most see what he meant.

Honourable mentions:
* Dizzy, Miss Lizzy is introduced by John Lennon: “We’d like to do a song now that’s from an album of ours… An LP… Album…” (Listen to just a few recordings of the Beatles playing live in America and you’ll get used to John and Paul never knowing which term to use.) This 12-bar track pounds away and betters the studio version for intensity.
* Ticket to Ride – or as Paul introduces it, A Ticket to Ride – has a couple of fumbles. John sounds off-mic to begin with, for example, but it still jingles and jangles.
* Can’t Buy Me Love was knocking on a bit, having been released 17 months before this 1965 performance. The last third of the take features a pleasing shuffle rhythm for a short while, though Paul’s voice sounds strained.
* Things We Said Today is preceded by George Harrison saying, “We’d like to carry on now…” – another phrase heard often at Beatles gigs. He also tells the audience that he thinks the song is on the “newest album over here” – ie, Something New, which had been released the previous month. (He was right.) The performance features some mucked-up backing vocals around the 0.58 point, which Paul audibly smirks about, then the track kicks into an entertaining higher gear.
* A Hard Day’s Night, John tells the crowd, is from the group’s first film: “…the one we made in black and white. We’ve only made two…” He then puts on a Scottish accent to introduce the track. Once the music starts, John and Paul often sound knackered on vocals!
* Help! is also introduced by John: “We’d like to do another film song now but from a different film because we’ve done two. It’s also our latest record over here. That means it’s a new single.” Sadly, George’s guitar doesn’t punch through as much as on the studio version. John also runs out of puff after two minutes and almost gives up singing.
* All My Loving rocks brilliantly. Paul introduces it by saying, “We’d like to carry on with a song which was on our first Capitol album…” – ie, the US-only release Meet the Beatles! (1964).
* She Loves You is great. With his tongue in his cheek, John calls this song an oldie. “Some of you older people might remember it,” he quips. “It’s from last year.”
* Long Tall Sally ends the album, as it often concluded Beatles gigs. Before launching into his Little Richard impression, Paul asks if people have enjoyed themselves. The crowd answers with an even louder sustained scream than usual. Sadly George’s guitar solo is virtually inaudible in the mix. Paul also does some silly improvising on the high notes of his bass. But the climax is good fun.

Worst song: Boys is sung by Ringo. He gave it a go, at least.

Alternate versions: Four tracks have been added to the album for its 2016 reissue: You Can’t Do That, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby, and Baby’s in Black.

Review: The first Beatles concert taped for a potential live album was their 23 August 1964 appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, an open-air venue built in 1922. However, the sound of 17,000 screaming fans almost masked the music, so two more attempts were made the following year. Sadly the tapes of the band’s gigs at the same venue on 29 and 30 August 1965 were equally poor and the project was shelved. Bootlegs slipped out over the years but it wasn’t until 1977, when a rival company planned to release some live Beatles material from their Hamburg days, that the Hollywood Bowl recordings were finally released on vinyl. Then, nearly 40 years later, Giles Martin remixed and digitally restored the album for this rerelease, which reduces the crowd noise and allows us to hear the Beatles in their pomp. The bass levels are good and the performances exciting. As a record of gods among men, it does the job.

Eight lips I am missing out of 10

Two years of reviews…

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Over the last two years, I’ve written 268 reviews for this blog. Most (204) have been about films, while 33 have been about TV and 31 on music. (A full index can be found here.)

A year ago I did a post rounding up the first 12 months, which you can read here. So I thought it’d be fun to do another.

Series-by-series, the reviews break down like this:

* James Bond: 26 reviews
* Steven Spielberg: 31
* Police Academy: 7
* The Coen Brothers: 16
* The Beatles: 17 (covering 21 albums)
* Star Trek: 13, including Galaxy Quest
* Superman/Batman: 20 – eight Superman films, nine Batman films, Supergirl, Catwoman and The Lego Movie
* ABBA: 8
* Carry On: 36
* Dracula: 29
* Star Wars: 13, including Spaceballs
* The Smiths: 6 (covering seven albums)
* Fawlty Towers: 12
* Back to the Future: 3
* John Hughes: 6
* Blackadder: 6
* Blade Runner: 3
* The Omen: 5
* Alien/Predator: 11 – six Alien films, three Predator films and two crossovers

For every review except the Police Academys, I’ve given a score out of 10. The 49 reviews that have gained 10 out of 10 are:

Abbey Road
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Alien
Aliens
Aliens: Special Edition
Back to the Future
Back to the Future Part II
Back to the Future Part III
Blackadder Goes Forth
Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut
Blade Runner: The Final Cut
Batman (1989)
The Big Lebowski
The Breakfast Club
Casino Royale (2006)
The Dark Knight
The Empire Strikes Back (actually, because it’s so good I gave it 11 out of 10)
The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Fargo
Fawlty Towers: The Anniversary
Fawlty Towers: Basil the Rat
Fawlty Towers: The Builders
Fawlty Towers: Communication Problems
Fawlty Towers: Gourmet Night
Fawlty Towers: The Hotel Inspectors
Fawlty Towers: The Kipper and the Corpse
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
GoldenEye
Hatful of Hollow
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Jaws
Jurassic Park
The Lego Movie
Licence to Kill
Love
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
The Queen is Dead
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Return of the Jedi
Revolver
Rubber Soul
Schindler’s List
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (actually, I gave it 4,000 out of 10, but that’s the same thing)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Star Wars

The other scores break down like this:

9.5/10: 1 review (Blade Runner)
9/10: 39 reviews
8/10: 45 reviews
7/10: 38 reviews
6/10: 29 reviews
5/10: 24 reviews
4/10: 12 reviews
3/10: 11 reviews
2/10: Five reviews
1/10: Eight reviews (Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, Batman & Robin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest, Carry On Emmannuelle, Carry On Laughing, Dracula Reborn, The Ladykillers, The Star Wars Holiday Special)

That’s an average of 7.16. (It was 7.45 when I did a round-up of my first 128 reviews this time last year.) The most popular years, meanwhile, has been 1979 and 1987 with 11 reviews each.

Thank you to everyone who’s ever read, liked, commented on, discussed, asked me about, or generally engaged with all this nonsense. It means the world to me.

My 10 favourite albums

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Rubber Soul (The Beatles, 1965)

Abbey Road (The Beatles, 1969)

Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd, 1975)

The Queen Is Dead (The Smiths, 1986)

The Stone Roses (The Stone Roses, 1989)

(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (Oasis, 1995)

Moseley Shoals (Ocean Colour Scene, 1996)

A Maximum High (Shed Seven 1996)

OK Computer (Radiohead, 1997)

United By Fate (Rival Schools, 2001)

A year of reviews…

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A year ago today, on 2 April 2014, I posted a quick review of Dr No to Facebook. I’d watched it the previous evening, having decided on a whim to redo every James Bond film in order. The reviews I wrote of the series seemed to go down well, and I was thrilled by the feedback and interaction they generated. So I did the same with every Steven Spielberg movie – and then kept going with various other series.

In January 2015, after a few friends suggested it, I built this blog. I copied across all the stuff I’d already put on Facebook and now post new reviews here as well.

Over the last 12 months, I’ve written 128 reviews of 111 films and 17 albums (well, 21 albums actually: seven were condensed into three reviews). A full index can be found here. Series-by-series, they break down like this:

James Bond: 25, including the two non-official entries, Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again
Steven Spielberg: 30, including Poltergeist, which he’s rumoured to have directed
Police Academy: 7
The Coen Brothers: 16
The Beatles: 17
Star Trek: 13, including – for a laugh – Galaxy Quest
Superman/Batman: 20 – eight Superman films, nine Batman films, Supergirl, Catwoman and The Lego Movie

For every review except the Police Academys, I’ve given a score out of 10. Twenty-five things have received a maximum mark:

Abbey Road
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Batman (1989)
The Big Lebowski
Casino Royale (2006)
The Dark Knight
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Fargo
GoldenEye
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Jaws
Jurassic Park
The Lego Movie
Licence to Kill
Love
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Revolver
Rubber Soul
Schindler’s List
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

The other scores break down like this:

9/10: 22 reviews
8/10: 22 reviews
7/10: 15 reviews
6/10: 13 reviews
5/10: 12 reviews
4/10: 3 reviews
3/10: 6 reviews
2/10: 1 review
1/10: 2 reviews (Batman & Robin and The Ladykillers)

That’s an average score of 7.44628099. Or ‘7ish’, as I like to call it.

The most popular year, meanwhile, has been 1989. I’ve reviewed six films from those glorious 12 months – Always, Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Licence to Kill, Police Academy 6: City Under Siege and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. That’s apt: I was 10 years old in 1989 and the huge volume of genre movies released that year played a big role in turning me into a film geek. (In second place are 1984 and 1987, with five each.)

Thank you to everyone who’s ever read, liked, commented on, discussed, asked me about, or generally engaged with all this nonsense. It means the world to me.

Love (2006)

LOV

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MTMq17m0_0

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)

ANT

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysfvM9uhFdg

* 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)

BBC

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)

PM

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:

www.beatlesbible.com/features/drop-t-logo/

(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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OhvriAfqRk

* 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)

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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)

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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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjqn_zvS-D0

* 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.