Music  |  Reviews

The Beatles: The Long and Winding Repertoire

[Capitol]

September 8, 2009  |  8:00am
The Beatles: The Long and Winding Repertoire

Capitol remasters and reissues the entire Beatles catalog

From California to Canterbury, England, the 1960s were a period of great musical innovation. Artists as varied as Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd and later the Soft Machine and George Clinton were turning simple surf music, girl-group rock ’n’ roll, folk, country, Philly soul and jazz into swirling symphonic opuses, psychedelic mayhem and other blends of avant-garde weirdness.

Perhaps the one thing all of these artists had in common was that
they—like the rest of the world—had been swept up in Beatlemania.

In 1963, when John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo
Starr rushed out their debut album Please Please Me on the heels of
their #2 U.K. single of the same name, there was no “world music”
genre, no psychedelia, no avant-pop or electronica. Bohemians listened
to folk or jazz, not rock ’n’ roll. And radio wasn’t arty—it was all
sweet love songs and hip-shaking, head-bobbing dance tunes made and
marketed for teenagers. Within four years, though, popular music would
change forever, The Beatles leading the charge. From 1963 to 1967, the
band recorded nine collections of music that evolved from the bouncy,
innocent “Love Me Do” to the symphonic sprawl of Magical Mystery Tour.

On Sept. 9, Capitol will reissue the band’s nine albums, four
soundtracks and Past Masters compilation of non-album songs (perfectly
timed to coincide with the much-hyped release of The Beatles: Rock Band
video game). Earlier this summer, the label’s publicity team brought
the project’s chief engineers and documentarians to Electric Lady
Studios in New York for a series of listening sessions. At these
events, the remastered recordings sounded markedly cleaner and
beefier—the bass line of “Taxman” had more punch, “Yesterday” felt
warmer, and you could practically hear every violin, cello and brass
instrument in the orchestration of “I Am the Walrus.”

The
albums, in stereo, are available separately and as part of a box set
featuring tons of bonus material: photos, album art, recording notes
and mini documentaries. A second box compiles mono versions of the
first 10 albums plus the Past Masters collection. It’s the first time
the entire Beatles catalog has been remastered since 1987, just after
the birth of the CD.

Please Please Me (1963) – 92

“Basically,
this album is just what we do live in a club,” says John Lennon in the
mini doc that comes with the reissue of The Beatles’ debut. Of course,
that’s exactly what Please Please Me sounds like. From Paul McCartney’s
“One, two, three, fah!” count-off that kickstarts “I Saw Her Standing
There” to Lennon’s throat-ripping wails on “Twist and Shout,” the album
packs all the excitement and electricity of an early-’60s Cavern Club
performance. You can imagine crowd chatter and tinkling cocktail
glasses during the ballad “Anna (Go To Him)” and sweaty dancing to
gritty rocker “Boys.”

It’s difficult to put into words just
how new and exotic these songs sounded in early 1963, coming from four
working-class kids in Liverpool, England. Before The Beatles arrived,
this kind of country- and R&B-based music came from
scratchy-throated black guys in the American South—like Alabama-born
Arthur Alexander, who wrote “Anna”—or pompadoured white dudes with
Southern drawls.

The Beatles took those styles and injected them with
chirpy harmonies inspired by Northeastern American girl groups such as
The Shirelles, who originally recorded “Boys,” creating a sound the pop
world had never heard. What’s more, The Beatles wrote some of their own
songs, which was nearly unheard of in early-’60s pop. Those
originals—spirited rocker “I Saw Her Standing There” and the
harmonica-fueled “Love Me Do”—sounded as good as cuts from the American
rockabilly cats and bluesmen Lennon and McCartney were mimicking.

With the Beatles (1963) - 87
Issued
in the U.S. in radically different form in 1964 as Meet the Beatles!,
this album is almost as strong as the band’s debut. Smart cover
choices—Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and Motown hits such as
“You Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Money”—blend effortlessly with
originals like the raw, rocking “I Wanna Be Your Man” and sweet pop
tune “All My Loving.”

Nevertheless, With the Beatles revealed a
weakness that would follow the band throughout its career: Paul
McCartney’s taste for schmaltzy Tin Pan Alley pop. His acoustic-based
cover of “Till There Was You,” from Broadway play The Music Man,
remains one of the most egregious songs in The Beatles’ catalog.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964) – 100
By
1964, The Beatles were the biggest band in the world. This soundtrack
to their movie A Hard Day’s Night is not only the group’s first set to
feature all original material, it’s the first of several flawless
albums in their catalog. Lennon, in particular, delivers songs with a
depth and confessional quality the band had not yet displayed, and from
his bittersweet acoustic ballad “If I Fell” to the Dylan-inspired “I
Should Have Known Better,” he surfaces here as the Beatles’ soul and
major creative force.

McCartney steps up, too, on the peppy “Can’t Buy
Me Love” and Latin-tinged ballad “And I Love Her,” in which he hones
his Tin Pan Alley obsession into a perfect pop love song. On “Tell Me
Why,” the band equals the song’s main inspiration, Martha Reeves and
the Vandellas’ hit “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave.”

Beatles for Sale (1964) - 79
The
Beatles plateaued momentarily on their second disc of 1964. Beatles for
Sale
is more subdued and less focused than their first three efforts,
but the caliber of songwriting on the few originals remains high.
Lennon continues his confessional-folk bent on the self-deprecating
“I’m a Loser” and country-tinged “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” and
McCartney follows suit with a pair of bittersweet love songs, “I’ll
Follow The Sun” and the Lennon-sung “Every Little Thing.”

The band
returns to covers with a vengeance, tossing out overly faithful
renditions of Chuck Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music,” Carl Perkins’ “Honey
Don’t” (sung by Ringo Starr) and “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”
(sung by George Harrison), and a note-for-note take on Buddy Holly’s
ethereal “Words Of Love.”

Help! (1965) – 100
The group’s
second movie, Help!, wasn’t nearly as good as A Hard Day’s Night, but
its 1965 soundtrack is equally great, from the driving title track and
chiming “Ticket to Ride” to Ringo’s twangy cover of American honky-tonk
singer Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally.” Harrison surfaces here as a
formidable songwriter, taking center stage on “I Need You” and “You
Like Me Too Much.”

But the album’s masterpiece is McCartney’s brooding,
deceptively simple chamber-pop ballad “Yesterday.” After decades of
oversaturation by classic-rock radio and cheesy lounge singers, it’s
tempting to dismiss this track as just another schmaltzy McCartney love
song. But it’s compositionally complex, one of the first major pop
songs to draw directly from classical music, juxtaposing acoustic
guitar with a string quartet, shifting from minor to major chords. It
set the stage for one of the most groundbreaking and innovative periods
in The Beatles’ career, not to mention pop music in general.

Rubber Soul (1965) – 97
The
band’s musical innovation began in earnest with the late-1965 release
of Rubber Soul. Though, in hindsight, the album wears its influences on
its sleeve, at the time it was an unprecedented synthesis of elements
from folk-rock and beyond. Lennon’s Dylan affectation flowers on tracks
like “Run for Your Life” and “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),”
the latter setting his oblique lyrical snapshot of a one-night stand
into a mix of acoustic guitars and fuzzy Indian sitar. (Harrison had
become obsessed with the instrument after The Byrds’ David Crosby
turned him on to Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar.) The Beatles
also adopted more of a Byrds-style jangle (which The Byrds had likely
picked up and perfected after hearing “Ticket to Ride”) in “Nowhere
Man” and “If I Needed Someone.” 

Revolver (1966) – 100
With
Revolver, The Beatles completed their transformation from the mop tops
of three years earlier into bold, groundbreaking experimental rockers.
By this time, producer George Martin had a heavier hand in the music,
writing more string arrangements and helping the group create new sonic
textures with tape loops, drones, processed vocals and backward
instrumental tracks.

The stark alienation in McCartney’s “Eleanor
Rigby” is wrapped in a double string quartet. The whirling, dreamlike
images in Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping” are mirrored by a backward
guitar part. Harrison’s “Love You To” is pure Indian raga—sitar and
tablas punctuated by the occasional luminous guitar riff jolting
through the song’s paranoid, drug-fueled lyrics like a blinding ray of
sun into a dark forest. And yet, Revolver is a pop album—McCartney’s
“Good Day Sunshine” is all sweetness and light, albeit very different
from the earlier, cuddlier “She Loves You.”

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) – 89
The
Beatles and Martin hit their creative peak together on 1967’s blast of
avant-rock genius, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. As a
pioneering work of studio wizardry, this loose concept album is
amazing, and Martin deserves most of the credit for creating its dense
layers using multiple four-track machines.

Lennon’s “Being for the
Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is a sound collage of looped circus organs and
electronic noises. Harrison’s “Within You Without You” is a feast of
Martin-arranged sitars, tablas and droning harmonium. And
Lennon/McCartney’s “A Day in the Life” is one of pop’s greatest
examples of two songs blended brilliantly into one single composition.

But for all its sonic richness, Sgt. Pepper remains one of rock’s most
overrated albums—its songwriting isn’t nearly as consistent as
Revolver‘s, and its storyline is abandoned after the first two tracks
and artificially reprised near the end. McCartney lapses into his old
Tin Pan Alley-inspired shtick on “When I’m Sixty-Four” and Lennon’s few
contributions—including “Kite” and the throwaway “Good Morning Good
Morning”—are not among his best.

Magical Mystery Tour (1967) – 94
Compiled
for a U.K.-only TV special, Magical Mystery Tour is a sort of Sgt.
Pepper’s
Part 2, but it breathes easier and includes stronger songs:
McCartney’s “The Fool on the Hill,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “Hello
Goodbye” and “Penny Lane,” Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I
Am the Walrus,” and the duo’s collaboration on “Baby You’re a Rich
Man,” not to mention Harrison’s wonderfully wobbly “Blue Jay Way.” With
much better material and no forced concept to weigh down the
proceedings, Martin’s production work shines, particularly on the
Lennon tracks.

The Beatles [White Album] (1968) – 100
After
Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles began to splinter, but the group’s
self-titled double-length LP of 1968—the White Album—benefits from each
member’s wildly different ideas. It’s a dizzying collision of
McCartney’s cutesy pop (the ska-influenced “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”),
country-folk (“Rocky Raccoon”), Brian Wilson-inspired rock ’n’ roll
(“Back in the U.S.S.R.”), and proto heavy-metal (“Helter Skelter”);
Lennon’s self-referential navel gazing (“Glass Onion”), confessional
writing (“Julia”), political proselytizing (“Revolution 1”), raw
blues-rock (“Yer Blues”) and avant-garde excursions (“Revolution 9”);
and two of Harrison’s finest moments (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,”
with Eric Clapton wailing on lead guitar, and the surrealistic soul of
“Savoy Truffle”).

The White Album has been called three solo works in
one (plus a Ringo song), but that’s not true: Each track is anchored by
the unmistakable collaboration of The Beatles as a solid musical unit.

Yellow Submarine (1969) – 49
This soundtrack to the
1968 animated film of the same name is the only nonessential Beatles
album. What isn’t film-score orchestration is mostly throwaway
children’s fare (“All Together Now,” “All You Need Is Love”), a pair of
experimental Harrison songs (the meandering bore “Only a Northern Song”
and marginally more interesting “It’s All Too Much”) and Lennon’s “Hey
Bulldog,” which bites but never really breaks the skin.

Abbey Road (1969) – 100
Abbey
Road
is among The Beatles’ finest works, even if it foreshadows the
cigarette-lighter-waving arena rock that technically skilled but
critically maligned artists from Journey to Meatloaf would belabor
throughout the ’70s and ’80s. McCartney’s “Golden  Slumbers”
medley—while much stronger than the watered-down music of those later
bands—is a blend of power ballad, theatrical rock and glammy New Wave,
and Harrison’s lovely “Something” opened the doors to countless
sensitive singer/songwriters in the James Taylor vein. Still, the album
is brilliant.

From Lennon’s slinky “Come Together” to McCartney’s
passionate ’50s-style rocker “Oh! Darling”; from the Buddy Holly-like
rumble of Lennon’s “Polythene Pam,” with its spine-tingling segue into
McCartney’s “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” Abbey Road
would’ve been the perfect swan song for a monumental musical career.

Let It Be (1970) – 78
The Beatles recorded Let It Be in
early 1969, but shelved it until the following year. While not a bad
record, it suffers from fatigue and ill-conceived remixes by
wall-of-sound production legend Phil Spector. Even the strongest
tracks—McCartney’s piano-based title song and string-drenched “The Long
and Winding Road”—signal a kind of stylistic fragmentation that plagues
popular music to this day.

Around this time, R&B singers
began pulling away from their rock ’n’ roll roots, and rock became the
dominion of predominantly white, Beatles- and Dylan-influenced artists
experimenting with folk, hard-rock, prog-rock and psychedelia. While
some of the music on Let It Be is clearly indebted to R&B, so many
other white bands had arrived on the scene by this time that a new
genre was born: Album Oriented Rock (minus the roll).

It was the sound
played by rock stations on the newly-popular FM-radio band, which—less
commercially viable than AM—allowed for more separation of pop styles.
In the end, The Beatles—by retooling the American pop and R&B of
the early ’60s, and allowing for experimentation with musical
traditions from all over the world—ironically and inadvertently brought
on a powerful new kind of musical segregation.

Past Masters (1988) – 92
This
double-disc collection of singles, B-sides, EP tracks and other
non-album material combines a pair of compilations initially released
as two separate volumes. It remains the most comprehensive Beatles
singles anthology, including the massive hits “I Want to Hold Your
Hand,” “She Loves You,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Paperback Writer” and
“Hey Jude” (none of which appeared on official albums), as well as
top-notch B-sides ranging from the early “Thank You Girl” (the
flip-side of “From Me to You”) to the psychedelic-era “Rain” (flip-side
of “Paperback Writer”) and “The Inner Light” (Harrison’s Taoist-themed
raga that was the flip-side of “Lady Madonna”).

Two other curiosities
here are the band’s German versions of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”
(“Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand”) and “She Loves You” (“Sie Liebt Dich”).
It’s an essential set for completists and casual fans alike.

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