Monday, June 9, 2008

The 5 Best and 5 Worse Controversial Beatles Tracks

When I say this, I am aiming at those kinds of songs that people have strong opinions about, one way or another and this generally is in terms of whether or not a particular track was worthy of inclusion on a particular album.

For instance, probably no one has ever said anything bad about the song, I've Just Seen a Face from Help! Everyone pretty much loves it. On the other hand, there are many tracks among the Beatles' oeuvre that people disagree over.

Nevertheless, the Beatles had a few tracks that were not strong on their own merits, but that worked within the context of the greater work. Most of these are probably Pepper or White Album or Abbey Road tracks.

Fixing a Hole, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!, Why Don't We Do it in the Road, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, Polythene Pam and Mean Mr. Mustard come immediately to mind, which while all pretty weak as singles out of context, within their album's framework act in terms of creating a mood or suite and accordingly these types of tracks won't make my list.

I am also inclined to be less harsh on B-sides, as they really don't ruin the mood of an album and most of us buy them for the A-side anyhow. Most of the Beatles' B-sides were better than a lot of groups A-sides, but their last single, Let It Be, had You Know My Name (Look Up the Number), a truly dreadful and pointless song, as its B-side, but since it wasn't on the album, the harm was minimized.

So Without further ado, here are the five best controversial Beatle tracks:

1. Within You, Without You -- This long track opens side 2 of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and many people apparently dislike it intensely. I am tempted to say that either you get this track or you don't, and woe unto those small minds who don't get it, but I will take the high road and simply say that this is the spiritual hymn that opens side two and prepares the mind for what comes, particularly with the nervous laughter that ends the track.

Great art isn't always easy and it isn't always fun. Very few famous tracks in the history of rock music have lyrics of this depth in terms of meaning and existence, and few have had more influence in terms of the world music phenomenon. This was one of the most important moments in Beatles' history and all of the Beatles and George Martin agreed upon its inclusion and thought it was top-notch musically. This was an incredible triumph by Harrison.

2. Revolution No. 9 -- I'm So Tired of hearing people complain about this track's inclusion on the White Album. This is a monumental moment in mainstream rock history. What other group ever tried anything like this? I don't find it boring at all and while I don't have it loaded on my iPod, the whole point of the White Album was to be something different from Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper. To tell the truth, this track scarred the bejesus out of me late at night back in the early 80's when I first heard it.

Some uninformed people (such as George Martin) say that the White Album should have been a single album but there was way too much material for that. If you took Hey Jude, Lady Madonna, the Inner Light, Old Brown Shoe, Not Guilty and added those tracks you could easily have had two excellent albums and this is while recognizing that the Beatles had so much backloaded material that they already had to release Yellow Submarine at the same time as the White Album, and that George would release a triple album in 1970.

3. Birthday -- This track opens side two of the White Album and so, many of the arguments in favor of Revolution No. 9 apply here. But on top of that, this is an infectious song that is different from virtually anything they had ever done before and let's face it, while not their greatest song, it is way better than the other "birthday" song.

4. Helter Skelter -- Part of the reasoning behind the White Album was to use a scattershot approach and show just how talented the Beatles were, in a variety of styles ranging from show tunes to avant-guard and here, to heavy metal. This song just kicks ass and the White Album just wouldn't be the same without it: "I've got blisters on me fingers...." Helter Skelter apparently was a British name for the very high sliding boards that one used to see 30 or more years ago, that one road down on a mat, usually for a small fee, at least in the U.S., but McCartney here seems to use it as a metaphor for sex, which is always especially delicious in backward, puritan countries:

When i get to the bottom i go back to the top of the slide
And i stop and i turn and i go for a ride
And i get to the bottom and i see you again

Well do you, don't you want me to make you
I'm coming down fast but don't let me break you
Tell me tell me tell me the answer
You may be a lover but you ain't no dancer.

Look out helter skelter helter skelter
Helter skelter

I can tolerate great amounts of dissension but no one who dislikes Helter Skelter is allowed to comment on this blog.

5. Yellow Submarine -- This track rounds out side one of Revolver, but some fans feel that it is more of a children's song and lacks the proper tone to go along with the rest of this top-notch album, which many see as the Beatles' zenith. These critics have a point, but at the time, I believe that many fans saw Yellow Submarine as a drug-influenced metaphor for something else, rather than simply a children's song. I guess it could have been released as a single B side with say, Eleanor Rigby and Rain could have taken its place on the album. Nevertheless, without this song being issued in some form, we would not have had the incredible Yellow Submarine animated movie and so I would put it at number five even, just for that.

Here are the five worse controversial Beatle tracks:

1. Mr. Moonlight -- This song made it onto Beatles for Sale and no one really knows quite why since there seems to have been far better material that went unused. Most Beatle fans dislike this track, and since the boys didn't even write it, there seems to be little to recommend its inclusion.

2. Honey Pie -- This song was too crummy to merit inclusion even on the sprawling White Album. It is nothing more than a boring and much less interesting re-hash of Your Mother Should Know and When I'm Sixty-Four, without any of the charm and the insight of the Pepper tune. This is by far the worst real song on the White Album, grrr, although Wild Honey Pie would have given it a run, but since that song is under one minute long, it is not eligible for our list. Nevertheless, whatever you want to say about the White Album, it could have used a lot less honey....

3. Your Mother Should Know -- This is awful stuff, which may have made it out the door because it was intended for the double E.P. Magical Mystery Tour and was used to round out the six song selection. Unfortunately, with respect to this song's gaining even more undeserved recognition, Capitol in the U.S. came up with a unique idea, and an excellent one, for once, of turning the double E.P. into sort of a real album that ended up having a fantastic selection of Beatle songs, all of them worthy except for this dog. It was only sort of cute the first time when Paul made When I am Sixty-Four, and then he kept trying to do the show tune thing over and over again.

4. Maxwell's Silver Hammer -- This song pretty much ruins the mood on side one of Abbey Road.

Some say that the song without the words is actually quite good but I am sorry, I cannot get passed the ever-so-dopey lyrics: "Bang, bang, Maxwell's silver hammer came down upon her head"--bang, bang is what you may feel like doing to yourself after hearing this song. The lyrics of Ringo's song Octopus's Garden are almost as bad but at least form sort of a bridge to another song that Ringo sang, Yellow Submarine, and the music and harmony on Garden makes up partially for the bad lyrics.

Once again, what was Paul thinking? Some have conjectured that he was going for a Syd Barrett type of song from early Pink Floyd but I just don't see it. It would be great to see Paul (or anybody) fashion new lyrics for this song to see what it might be. I know that a lot of people into music, don't pay attention to the words, and Paul, himself said this about Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, but many of us also see the Beatles and Dylan as poets of a sort and it is a shame when a bad lyric ruins a song. I'm crying....

5. I Dig a Pony -- Many people cite Let It Be as the Beatles' worst album (it isn't) and perhaps we are due for a John song to fill out this list, so at number 5 is this horrid track by Lennon. Lennon himself reportedly called the song a "piece of garbage" and I see little reason to deviate from that opinion. Unlike some of the crummy snippets on this album, which were removed from the later version, Let It Be ... Naked, this is a full-fledged song that provides neither mood nor really much of anything except for tedium.

I mean, I love I am the Walrus and I respect Glass Onion. I like Lennon's Lewis Carroll-esque stuff, but these lyrics make even those of Maxwell's Silver Hammer look good by comparison. I can only conjecture that Lennon thought the band was breaking up and tried to submit the worst song possible that he could come up with. The only reason that I Dig a Pony isn't number one on my list is that it doesn't really ruin the mood of Let It Be because the album already, in the words of John once again, had "a lousy feeling."

And as an extra, here are the two worst (controversial) original releases in Beatle's album history:

1. Yesterday and Today

2. Revolver (Capitol)

As most Beatle fans now know, the Beatles' albums diverge in the U.K. and U.S. prior to Sgt. Pepper.

This is usually blamed on two facts. First, the U.K. had different copyright procedures back then which made longer albums more economically feasible for the record company and second, one often hears that in the U.K., there was a distinction between singles and albums that didn't exist in the U.S.

The first reason was true and did affect the economics of the record releases in the two countries.

With respect to singles, the U.K. policy never was a strict rule and I find the reasoning behind the Beatles' single releases to often be hard to decipher. Paperback Writer and Rain were not included on Revolver because they were deemed singles, but Eleanor Rigby and Yellow Submarine were included on Revolver in spite of also being released as a single. The same reasoning was used by George Martin to keep Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever off Sgt. Pepper, and Hey Jude and Lady Madonna of the White Album, but Something was released as a single and was included on Abbey Road. Basically, the Beatles didn't put singles on albums in the U.K., except when they did, seems to have been the rule.

This led to far more album releases in the U.S., and on some of the albums where the song order is not so important, such as Meet the Beatles! or Beatles '65, the American albums could arguably be said to be better in some respects. The American Rubber Soul ended up mostly intact, but with a more folk-type feel that some people preferred.

The last two of the American batch, however, basically chopped up two great albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver, and added some unreleased singles, in order to issue Yesterday and Today and an 11-track Revolver.

While I am not recommending the American Rubber Soul, at least it did not have its very heart and soul ripped out, the way that the American Revolver did, especially since two of the three songs removed from the U.K. Rubber Soul were arguably the weakest tracks on the record, What Goes On and Act Naturally, and the third, Nowhere Man always felt a little more progressive than much of the rest of Rubber Soul anyway.

By contrast, three Lennon songs were taken from Revolver in the U.K. and placed on Yesterday and Today, ruining the beautiful integrated whole that was the U.K. Revolver in order to give us a butchered compilation album with the butcher cover. It does still have some pretty good songs and I do own it on LP, but I am a completist.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Why You Need to Buy the Original Album

I am not a big fan of greatest hits compilations. They simply do not work at all in the field of Jazz music and are generally woefully inadequate for any musical artist of any depth. This is because, with the great artists, there are often far better tracks that never get chosen for the compilation albums and which furthermore, never even make it onto the radio.

Let's take a look at the Beatles second U.K. album, With the Beatles, which is somewhat similar to the American vinyl LP, Meet the Beatles!.

This album is especially noteworthy for its fascinating album cover, which shows a photographic and psychological depth that we would come to expect from future Beatles' albums. Four faces, partially in shadow--how well do we know them--are we with them or not? Only partially?

Meet the Beatles is one of the few pre-Revolver American albums that actually has almost the same exact album cover as its U.K. forebear. Until recently, it was not available on CD, but Capitol has recently re-issued some of the early American Beatles albums on CD, although the catch is that you have to buy a package of four at a time, meaning at a cost of some $40 to $70!

For most Beatle fans, the U.K. versions are probably the ones to buy as they contain more tracks and are closer to the Beatles' original artistic conception in terms of lay-out and mixing, while the American versions had fewer cuts and may be mixed in what many call "false stereo."

I believe that the Capitol box sets of the American albums contain both stereo and mono versions of their first 8 American albums and so, if you want early Beatles in stereo, this may be your only option. And just to make things even more confusing, for those who listen to L.P.'s, the American versions may sound better on an excellent rig due to their having fewer cuts, as vinyl L.P. quality can be impacted by the length of an album side, but this is not really a consideration for CD purchasers.

Also, simply in terms of which album has the stronger cuts, there is little doubt that Meet the Beatles! is the stronger album, as it includes two all-time Beatles classics, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and I Saw Her Standing There, while deleting Money and You've Really Got a Hold on Me.

The early American versions of the Beatles albums generally follow this same pattern, that of having fewer but often stronger cuts, which was due to the fact that British albums generally contained 3 extra cuts, giving them more breadth, but at times also more filler. Beatles '65 is arguably also better than its British forebear, Beatles For Sale, and some fans prefer the American Rubber Soul to the British version.

The American Revolver is a travesty and is to be avoided at all costs, however.

Two other major exceptions, are the film soundtracks from A Hard Day's Night and Help!, which are vastly superior in the U.K. format because the American albums were truncated and then filled out with orchestral theme music. You cannot fully understand how great the Beatles were without hearing A Hard Day's Night and Help! in the U.K. format, as these were their first albums which were great, great works as an integrated whole, not merely a collection of tracks, setting the path for Rubber Soul and then Pet Sounds by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

Now, the Beatles actually did a far better job in terms of marketing compilation records than most groups. Their Red and Blue Albums (1962-1966 and 1967-1970) actually include a fair number of songs that were either B-sides or not necessarily hits, but With the Beatles is almost untouched. Only one track, All My Loving, is included.

Opinions differ, as one reviewer does select this as the best track from With the Beatles, , and it certainly was the biggest hit from the record. Probably, the next most well-known song on the record is Till There Was You, followed by I Wanna Be Your Man. These were all Lennon/McCartney standards(although Till There Was You was actually a cover) and I understand the bias in terms of airplay and marketing towards these three standards, but in my humble opinion, these are just about the weakest tracks on the record.

With the Beatles is a pretty great record, but to a casual fan perusing the CD bins, it probably is not so apparent. I doubt many Beatle fans think All My Loving is close to being an essential Beatles track, unless said fan also loves Michelle and Honey Pie. The song simply is too saccharine for my tastes, but there are some real gems here.

Much of this album's charm comes not from hits per se, but from the Beatles' individual performances and the way the songs complement each other on the record.

Starting off, It Won't Be Long is a great track, with a startling amount of energy, akin to Twist and Shout or I Saw Her Standing There. It Won't Be Long is an essential track.

All I've Got to Do is another essential track. Lennon's vocal performance is amazing and I think in general, With the Beatles emphasizes the Beatles' vocal talents more than just about any other album of theirs.

Don't Bother Me is Harrison's first credit and amounts to a pretty decent start and would later be featured in the film A Hard Day's Night, albeit without credit, as the film attributed all the tunes to Lennon and McCartney. It's not Harrison's best song, but far better than say, I, Me, Mine and the lyrical depth is quite interesting given that this is during the Beatles' early period, where most of their songs were still love songs and Don''t Bother Me is basically an anti-love song and points towards the superior If I Needed Someone in terms of meaning.

The album meanders a little with a couple of weak (by Beatle standards) cuts like Little Child and Hold Me Tight and a couple of somewhat pedestrian covers--Please Mr. Postman and Roll Over Beethoven, but then picks up steam again with Lennon's rendition of Smokey Robinson's You've Really Got a Hold on Me.

Lennon grabs this song by the throat and really puts in a great performance and shows why so many expected so much more from his 1970's rock and roll cover album with Phil Spector.

We then have the so-so tracks of I Wanna Be Your Man, Devil in Her Heart, and Not a Second Time, which are not the best of the Beatles by any measure.

Luckily, we have another fantastic cover to close things out and once again it is Lennon doing Money--"that's what I want," a raucous and exciting end to a somewhat uneven album by Beatle standards. Most of the highlights here are from Lennon, and to a lesser extent, from Harrison and this is why With the Beatles is a step down from the truly great Beatles' classics, all of which had far better participation from Sir Paul.

So, we see, that the cuts that really are exciting and show off the Beatles's talents, are the lesser-known ones such as It Won't Be Long, All I've Got to Do, Don't Bother Me, You've Really Got a Hold on Me and Money. And although the American public's exposure to the Beatles' singles was more compressed, they essentially agreed that With the Beatles was essentially devoid of any interesting singles, as only two songs, All My Loving and Roll Over Beethoven even charted in the U.S. and neither made the top 40.

Considering the Beatles' first two albums, I would say that neither Please, Please Me, nor With the Beatles is really a great Beatles album but I would diverge with many critics and pick With the Beatles as the superior of the two, because it is noteworthy for showing just how talented they were and what heights lay just around the corner.

I have previously tried to rank the Beatles' U.K. studio albums which is a difficult endeavor because they are so uniformly excellent, and I still think this is pretty much how I feel, although I believe you can make convincing arguments that any of the top seven below is, in fact, their "best" album. That is how good and how consistent they were. The bottom four albums listed below are arguably better than anything ever done by the Byrds, or the Monkees, who were their chief American rivals during the 60's, or even by the Beach Boys, unless you count Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds, or the Beach Boy's early 1970's work, which is far superior to their 1960's stuff.

1. Rubber Soul
2. Sgt. Pepper's
3. Abbey Road
4. The White Album
5. Revolver
6. Help!
7. A Hard Day's Night
8. With the Beatles
9. Let it Be
10. Beatles for Sale
11. Please Please Me

Critics can quibble and Beatle fans change their opinions all the time as to which of their albums is "best" but looking back from the time of With tthe Beatles, the Beatles' soon-to-be-released albums associated with their films, A Hard Day's Night and Help! were arguably going to be the best work they ever did.

So, getting back to the original point of this post (maybe I need an editor), when you are looking at great groups like the Beatles and the Stones, you have to buy the studio albums. There just are too many great tracks that you will miss otherwise.