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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Beatles: Past Masters, Vol. 2

THE BEATLES: PAST MASTERS, VOL. 2 (1965-1970; 1988)

1) Day Tripper; 2) We Can Work It Out; 3) Paperback Writer; 4) Rain; 5) Lady Madonna; 6) The Inner Light; 7) Hey Jude; 8) Revolution; 9) Get Back; 10) Don't Let Me Down; 11) The Ballad Of John And Yoko; 12) Old Brown Shoe; 13) Across The Universe; 14) Let It Be; 15) You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).

The second volume of the singles oversees the band enter adulthood, and, consequently, will be of more interest to those who like to see these guys chasing the meaning of life instead of you-know-what. Of course, I respect the opinions of people who assert that you-know-what and the meaning of life are the exact same thing, and that the Beatles did the world a major disfavour when they stopped thinking of happiness as the art of «just to dance with you» and began thin­king of it as a «warm gun». I get their point, but I'm not one of them — and, therefore, Vol. 2 by definition is going to show up more frequently on my playlists than Vol. 1.

One tiny element of displeasure is that Vol. 2, for sheer technical reasons, lacks the smooth con­tinuity of Vol. 1. Since all of the band's A- and B-sides from 1967 already constitute the second side of the Magical Mystery Tour LP, they are not included in this collection; thus, we have a straight jump from ʽRainʼ to ʽLady Madonnaʼ, as if the band went on hiatus at the height of the Flower Power era, and neither ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ nor ʽAll You Need Is Loveʼ ever exis­ted. In a more perfect world, a well-rounded Beatles CD catalog could perhaps consist of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour proper (the movie soundtrack) on one disc, and the ac­companying singles properly distributed among the two volumes of Past Masters. But, obvious­ly, that is not going to happen — and, anyway, with the little plastic discs on their way out, it's all up to you to program your sequencing the way you like it.

For a bit of fun, let us talk about the weaker or less famous stuff on this release, and then we'll see if I have anything revolutionary to say about the likes of ʽHey Judeʼ or ʽGet Backʼ. So here we go — random observations on an incidental compilation.

ʽThe Ballad Of John And Yokoʼ. Apparently, the only thing that puts the «Beatles» tag on this song is that Paul happened to be hanging around in the studio when John got the urge to record it (and a well-trained ear with seasoned knowledge of Paul's solo career will probably recognize his own, rather straightforward, drumming style). Otherwise, not only do the never-ending lyrics vio­late the Beatles' autonomy, but they seem to be far ahead of the melody as well. I've always en­joyed it for a laugh, but it is odd that Paul vetoed ʽCold Turkeyʼ (which, with a little doctoring, could have been turned into a proper Beatles song), but okayed this rather pedestrian travelogue. John must have caught him in a good mood.

ʽLet It Beʼ. I do not like George's solo on the single version. The Leslie speaker effects are fine, but the effect is subdued and humble, compared to the far more dynamic and passionate solo on the album track. Some people might say that this repetitive stateliness is exactly what the song needs, but I always saw ʽLet It Beʼ as a song that goes up and comes down — not a stern church hymn or anything: Paul McCartney ain't no Handel. But in the end, it's good to have both ver­sions so that we can happily waste away hours of our lives arguing about these things.

ʽThe Inner Lightʼ. Probably the weakest of all of George's «Indian» songs (but, in true eclectic fashion, the lyrics actually paraphrase the Tao Te Ching) — but in terms of effect, not structure: structurally, it is often described as particularly complex, unusual, and the closest in tone and ar­rangement to true Indian music. Which might just be exactly why it never struck me as all that amazing: a personal achievement for George, perhaps, but if I want something fairly close to In­dian music, I'll probably just go straight ahead for some real Indian music. The «galloping» sarod rhythms are funny (by the way, there is no sitar on this song — just sarod and Indian wind instru­ments), but not convincing enough for me to see George himself — he's kinda lost in the conse­quences of the novel idea to set basic Chinese philosophy to an Indian melody.

ʽAcross The Universeʼ. Uh... nice birdies. No limits to the happiness of The World Wildlife Fund, for whose purposes the song was originally recorded. Teenage girls singing backup instead of Phil Spector strings. Your choice or mine? Funny enough, every time I replay the song in my head, I only remember Lennon and his guitar anyway — meaning, honestly, that I don't care.

ʽYou Know My Name (Look Up The Number)ʼ. A frickin' LOST MASTERPIECE. Probably the only more or less «genuine», if utterly tongue-in-cheek, «jazz» number the Beatles ever recorded, an almost vicious send-up of its lounge variety, and with a brief and dashing sax solo at the end contributed by no other than the Rolling Stones' own Brian Jones. The only time in Beatles histo­ry that a sheer musical joke dared to make it to a B-side — and, although one time is quite eno­ugh, wouldn't we feel a little poorer without at least one?

ʽOld Brown Shoeʼ. This one is surprisingly rough rock'n'roll for George's «late Beatles» period, when his Carl Perkins fandom phase was already long overcome: he would never again play in such fast tempos for a long long time. In fact, this «aggressive love song» style is usually John's, not George's. It was not included on Abbey Road, and for good reason — it is too brutal to up­hold George's ʽSomething / Here Comes The Sunʼ image on that album. But I dare say that, this once at least, the band could have given him the honor of having the song as an A-side, since it is in every way superior to ʽThe Ballad Of John And Yokoʼ.

And then come the «biggies» that require no extra publicity. ʽRainʼ, originally hidden on the B-side of ʽPaperback Writerʼ, these days finally gets its deserved dues as one of the greatest classics of the psychedelic era. And while, spirit-wise, it is a John show all the way — «birth of the cool», Lennon-style — its finest asset is still the rhythm section; the more I listen to it, the more I am inclined to think that Paul and Ringo were trying to work a bit in the style of The Who, where Paul would play faster, more complex runs (fitting in plenty of bass expressivity, considering the song's slow motion), and Ringo would be working in energetic «drum leads» that keep threate­ning to take the listener's attention away from the guitars. But since Paul is no Entwistle, and Rin­go is no Keith Moon, the end result is still different.

Lastly, the rocker in me is always a little sad that ʽRevolutionʼ always gets such a reserved wel­come compared to its A-side, because on the sheer musical side of things, the rock sound that the band gets on that thing is, again, something utterly without precedent. The whole track just sizzles with electricity — every time I listen to it, I get the feeling of standing near a high voltage power trnasmission line. There's been lots of people known to professionally handle distortion, but this particular way goes beyond Hendrix. I'm pretty sure George must have played his part with rub­ber gloves on his hands, for safety reasons.

And the best song of the lot? I am going to play the game of «being special» here — and, instead of the predictable ʽHey Judeʼ, nominate ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ. It is curious that, where in the next few years John's «Yokosongs» would mostly be of a purely romantic nature (ʽOh My Loveʼ and suchlike), in 1969 he must have really been scared of his own feelings — ʽI Want Youʼ is where he almost goes over the top with that fear, but ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ is a little more restrained. The verses are like a sledgehammer, driving that feeling of eternal, unbreakable love into the ground — the final «she done me good» borders on animalism — and then comes the fear that this love might be breakable, after all. It's one of the greatest «this-moment-is-so-good-please-God-don't-let-it-end» songs in pop history, and the energy that John lets out with this perfor­mance is unprecedented. When they played it on the roof, they didn't require plugging in.

Overall, Vol. 2 covers lots more ground than Vol. 1 — from the still relatively early days of ʽDay Tripperʼ, which announced the beginning of the «maturation» process, through the «psycho» and «elder statesmen» years, you have here the folksy Beatles, the psycho-cool Beatles, the back-to-roots Beatles, the let's-get-personal-Beatles, and the don't-give-a-damn-Beatles. What you do not get at any of these stages is let-the-standards-fall-Beatles — even the «worst» songs I mentioned are still memorable and engaging. Everything is a must hear, even ʽThe Ballad Of John And Yo­koʼ. Admit it, it's more fun to learn about their daily activities when John sings it to you than when you read about it in some sloppy biography.

Check "Past Masters, Vol. 2" (CD) on Amazon


  1. So, nothing on Hey Jude? Or did I miss it?

    1. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. To be fair though, it is Hey Jude! I wouldn't be surprised if George just felt that this is a song that ultimately speaks for itself by this point. It's probably my favourite Beatles song either way.

  2. And its John Lennon with "Don't Let Me Down," for the win...Most soulful Beatle song there ever was.

    1. I second the motion. Something about those mellow chords, that slow grooves that kills me everytime. It's the same reason Sun King works for me, but less so, because it's less developed and the lyrics are indecipherable (which was probably the point).

    2. I'll third it. There's so many great John songs, but this one is my favorite. The primal screams, the slow groove, and the instrumentation as a whole just clicks with me. (I love the way Billy's playing locks in with Paul's bassline at the end.)

  3. Correction: it's actually John who plays the lead on "Revolution". If you look at the video, it's obvious -- George is just standing there, passively strumming along. John got the dirty sound by overloading his preamp -- which EMI DID NOT like at all, fearing it would make the record sound defective.

  4. Ah so I see you've come to love "You Know My Name". I myself am a huge fan of that one - first heard it on an old Rarities compilation (which is no longer in print, I understand). Silly, yes, but even when they are silly - they remain tasteful, melodic and utterly convincing.
    Unlike George, I actually think that "The Inner Light" is Harrison's best Indian song. I don't know - I just love that hazy little tune so much.
    The rest is pure gold, of course, with "Lady Madonna" being pretty much my definition of the perfect pop song.

  5. I feel like "You Know My Name" is one of the very few songs that is better in its original form. I love the extended/stereo version on Anthology.

  6. Yeah, I agree with a lot of this review! No less than McCartney himself believes "You know My Name" is a lost classic.

    I love that the new "Mono Masters" adds the four 'new' songs from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.

    I agree with George that the side two Mystery Tour material very much belongs on Past Masters.

    What an amazing musical journey to listen to Past Masters straight through from "Love Me Do" to "You Know My Name."

  7. Hey George, I just want to thank you for these blog posts on the Beatles, which together make for the best "thing" I've ever read on the band. You argue so persuasively... Though I will say that I love "The Ballad of John and Yoko," and the sort of difficult balance it strikes between "compact pop single" and "wordy travelogue." Fantastic work... looking forward to some new Bob Dylan reviews! (fingers crossed)

  8. For heaven's sakes, if we can't even agree "Hey Jude" is the best song on its album then what hope does humanity have?

  9. The Brian Jones on "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number) is *not* the Rolling Stones musician, but is Brian Jones the saxophone player, who also plays on the 1974 album "McGear" by Mike "McGear" McCartney. This incorrect attribution is all over the place, yet is easy to double-check. To the best of my knowledge, the Stones' Jones never played saxophone. He was more of a string-instrument and percussion guy.