THE BEATLES: PAST MASTERS, VOL. 1 (1962-1965; 1988)
1) Love Me Do; 2) From Me To You; 3) Thank You Girl; 4) She Loves You; 5) I'll Get You; 6) I Want To Hold Your Hand; 7) This Boy; 8) Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand; 9) Sie Liebt Dich; 10) Long Tall Sally; 11) I Call Your Name; 12) Slow Down; 13) Matchbox; 14) I Feel Fine; 15) She's A Woman; 16) Bad Boy; 17) Yes It Is; 18) I'm Down.
In the CD age, one way to treat the Beatles' extensive singles catalog could have been to scatter it as bonus tracks tacked on to contemporary LP releases. On a certain level, that would have worked well, because the singles frequently shared the same spirit as the LPs. Clearly, ʽWe Can Work It Outʼ is very much a Rubber Soul-type song, ʽPaperback Writerʼ embraces Revolver, and ʽHey Judeʼ is every bit as 1968-ish as The White Album.
Since the Beatles had, from the very beginning, enacted a very strict «no-filler» policy, they never shared the «save the best stuff for the singles, use the worst stuff to pad out the LPs» ideology that plagued the record industry all the way up to the «concept album» revolution. Instead, the singles were tasty trailers — insightful previews of things to come that were every bit as good as the things to come themselves, only shorter. ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ left your head spinning, but it also left you craving for more, and somehow, you knew more was coming.
On the other hand, bonus tracks are all right, but a proper chronological sequencing of all the officially released non-LP material may be even more right. The release of Past Masters way back in 1988 was probably the first time in history when a major band's «odds and ends» were treated with equal respect to the band itself and its fans: for comparison, no such comfortable collection has so far been made available for The Rolling Stones. And it gives you one more chance to witness, this time in a brief, condensed, but equally «legitimate» version, the band's amazing development from teen pop fakirs to seasoned magicians. These songs are every bit as good as LP material, and in quite a few cases, better; fossilizing them as «bonus» additions would be a psychological disservice to the listener.
Vol. 1 is, expectedly, slightly less revered than Vol. 2, since it only manages to cover the band's early period — right up to Help!, stopping short at the breakpoint after which the Beatles would begin to regard themselves as superheroes and, consequently, act like ones. But that should not imply that the songs are in any way inferior to LP material from 1963-65. ʽFrom Me To Youʼ, ʽShe Loves Youʼ, ʽI Want To Hold Your Handʼ and, a bit apart chronologically and stylistically, ʽI Feel Fineʼ rank among the greatest A-sides ever released in the era when rock'n'roll was young, innocent, stylish, and British. Do I need to write about them? Probably not.
Ah, but what about ʽI Feel Fineʼ and its allegedly pioneering use of feedback on record? Pete Townshend used to scoff at that, claiming that The Who had already become good friends with manually controlled feedback by then — unfortunately, The Who never got around to recording their first feedback-containing singles until 1965, so, as far as I know, Liverpool still holds the trophy here. What is more important from a non-historical standpoint is that the single feedback note gives the song an odd shade of «rough mystery». Let's face it, it is somewhat monotonous, what with that cool, but repetitive riff dominating the entire song, and there's nothing like a sharp twaaaaang of feedback to set up an intriguing start.
But enough about the big ones. Most of the rest of the tracks are B-sides and EP material that was previously available on the old Rarities LP, which the regular average fan never bought — depriving himself of a wealth of beautiful material. Well, not all of it is equally beautiful. The German versions of ʽShe Loves Youʼ and ʽI Want To Hold Your Handʼ are sheer novelties that do not even let you properly ridicule the boys' accents due to harmony singing and echo. That the Beatles, too, had to undergo the humiliating ritual of recording in a poorly mastered foreign language «to capture an overseas market», like so many of their peers, says a lot about the record industry, but does not add much to one's respect for the band.
The EP Long Tall Sally from mid-1964 is hardly a major conquest in Beatles history either, but it does feature some of their most inventive cover versions. The title track is such a stone cold Little Richard classic that I cannot bring myself to asserting that the Beatles did it better: it is a milestone in the «McCartney Screams» saga (supposedly, it was John who goaded Paul into giving it his all, convincing him that he could yell it out along with the best of 'em), but still, Paul McCartney is no Richard Penniman when it comes to revving up the larynx.
But all three covers (Little Richard's ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ, Carl Perkins' ʽMatchboxʼ, and Larry Williams' ʽSlow Downʼ) share the same advantage: they take basic rock'n'roll numbers that used to be pure entertainment, albeit with a naughty subtext, and add an odd pinch of desperation, at times descending into sheer madness. When Larry Williams sang ʽSlow Downʼ, it was fun. When Lennon took the lead, it turned into an open-text anthem of acute sexual hunger. ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ is screamed out by Paul at the top of his screaming range — yes, it is shakier and shallower than Little Richard's version, but way more hysterical. Coupled with George's equally hysterical guitar leads, it turns the band's take on the song into their wildest bit of «outside» rock'n'roll ever. Even ʽMatchboxʼ, given over to Ringo whose «range» is non-existent in principle, gets a slightly apocalyptic gloss with its echo effects over everything and double-tracked vocals. Funny, only the sole original on the EP, John's ʽI Call Your Nameʼ, remains completely hysteria-free — it is set in John's «chivalrous» mode (compare ʽAll I've Gotta Doʼ or ʽAnytime At Allʼ), even if the lyrics are about separation and longing, and is of a completely Hard Day's Night caliber.
Then there are the B-sides. Personal favs here would include ʽI'll Get Youʼ, one of their best early «kiddie love songs» (I've always loved the way its vocal melody unfurls without a single glitch from the opening "oh yeahs" to the chorus), and, naturally, ʽThis Boyʼ, arguably the greatest B-side from the band's early period — if only for its mid-section, where the intensity of John's vocal performance would not be truly matched again until... well, for quite some time.
I have to admit that ʽYes It Isʼ has always been too slow moving for me to enjoy it fully — even though I also admit that the song, solemnly dirge-like as it is, would not really work at any other tempo, and that in terms of depth of sentiment, it beats ʽBaby's In Blackʼ all to hell. It's also intriguing: is it just about trying to pull oneself together after a breakup, or is she dead? Is it a song about a dead loved one? Could it be?...
I also have to admit that ʽI'm Downʼ has always seemed way too much of a self-penned Little Richard imitation/tribute for me to enjoy it fully — even if, technically, it is one of those classic McCartney rock'n'roll numbers. In reality, though, it is a hybrid. Behind all the rock'n'roll screaming and Harrison's stinging leads lies a classic pop chorus, seeking its strength in vocal harmonies. I mean, the song is bluesy and all, but the chorus really belongs in the ʽPlease Please Meʼ ballpark, doesn't it? Not even sure if Paul ever wrote one wholesome «non-pop» rocker in his life. Not that it's a big problem or anything. But in between ʽI'm Downʼ and John's cover of Larry Williams' ʽBad Boyʼ — two of their loudest tracks from early 1965 — I always found myself veering towards the latter if there was any frustration to be vented.
Actually, it is kind of a funny thing: with the Stones on their heels, the Beatles never laid a claim to the title of «bad boys of rock'n'roll», yet there still is a very small handful of titles in their catalog where John's mean, aggressive side comes out with a vengeance — you know that at moments like these, he'd be beating poor little Mick to a pulp in his corner. I sometimes think that when he was recording ʽBad Boyʼ, he simply let that nasty 15-year old Liverpudlian hooligan reinhabit his body once again — that, despite the lack of personal authorship and the essentially comic lyrics, he felt some sort of intimate bond here, almost to the point of making a pledge to turn this humorous number into something much more dark and troublesome. Maybe it is not a complete success (it is very hard to intensify and terror-ify songs that were originally conceived as comic parodies), but the very fact that, for instance, the cover version omits kooky backing vocals ("he's a... bad boy") that accompany each line of the original, supports my point.
Anyway, altogether I would say that the ratio of good-to-great titles on Vol. 1 is more or less consistent with the band's normal LP ratios from 1963-64; omit the German versions and the interesting, but rather useless alternate single version of ʽLove Me Doʼ (with session drummer Andy White replacing Ringo on a rather pointless whim from George Martin), and you just got yourself another high-level early Beatles album. Congratulations.