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Friday, March 27, 2015

Vee-Jay takes a gamble

Based in Chicago, the small American outfit Vee-Jay Records specialized in jazz, blues and R&B artists, but their biggest act in 1962-63 was a white vocal group called the Four Seasons, whose first three singles for the label - Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and Walk Like a Man - had all gone to number one on the charts.  Though the powers that be at Vee-Jay could not possibly have realized it at the time, they scored a major coup in early '63 when they obtained the rights to a single by an obscure British rock and roll act called the Beatles.

Thus, the single Please Please Me b/w Ask Me Why was released in America on February 25th of that year, only a few days after it had hit number one in England.  Though this was the Beatles' second single in their native land, it marked their first test of the waters across the pond.  But the US was a vast market and despite Vee-Jay's success with the Four Seasons, the label did not have the necessary clout to get more than limited airplay for a song by a group that most had never even heard of in this country.  Nor did they have the resources or the desire to mount a promotional campaign on behalf of the record.  As a result, it went virtually unnoticed by both the American music industry and the general public.

A few months later, the Beatles had an even bigger hit in the UK with the single From Me to You b/w Thank You Girl.  Once again, the US rights were granted to Vee-Jay and it was duly issued on May 27th.  And once again, with no promotion and little or no airplay, the results were the same - initially.

Ironically, the Beatles were actually competing against themselves, as Del Shannon had also recorded From Me to You and released it on Bigtop Records shortly afterwards in early June.  He had appeared with the Fab Four at the Royal Albert Hall in April and was impressed by the songwriting ability of Lennon and McCartney, so much so that he thought he would be doing them a favor by giving one of their tunes an airing in the US market.  According to Beatles expert Bruce Spizer, Shannon's version finally spurred Vee-Jay into sending out some promotional copies of the single stamped "The Original Hit."

A disc jockey in Los Angeles named Dick Biondi had recently relocated from Chicago, where he had been the first DJ in the US to play Please Please Me on the air.  He now treated his listeners in L.A. to the Beatles' version of From Me to You.  The interest he sparked helped to push the song to number 116 on the Billboard chart - the first real blip on the American radar for the Beatles.   

It was around this time that a significant event in the fortunes of Vee-Jay Records took place.  Ewart Abner had held several positions at the label, working his way up from manager to vice-president and, eventually, president.  The story goes that Mr. Abner spent some time in Las Vegas, ran up some considerable gambling debts and decided to tap into the company till in order to pay them off.  Naturally, such recklessness had serious repercussions not only for the label, but for all of its acts, as well, including the Four Seasons and, for the short term at least, the Beatles, as we shall see in our next installment.  

Monday, March 23, 2015

The American Versions

Let's "get back" to the very beginning, shall we?

Since I have now covered all of the original UK albums and singles of the Fab Four, as well as the bulk of the post-career compilations, I would like to go back to square one and take a look at the releases as those of us in the US remember them.  Though this is not the way producer George Martin and the Beatles themselves wanted their work to be issued, it was the only way that most American fans in the 1960's knew of their music.  The first time I heard the British version of Rubber Soul, I was confused by the fact that it opened with the track Drive My Car.  I had not even been aware that there was a difference in the way the albums were released in the two countries, let alone the variations in every other country worldwide.  Nor did I realize at the time that we had been getting a skewed picture of the group's development in the first half of their career.

The release in January of 2014 of The Beatles US Albums box set (pictured above), as well as the individual release of each album contained in that set, confirmed that there is still a strong interest for those packages.  Indeed, the 2004 release of The Capitol Albums Vol. 1 and the 2006 release of The Capitol Albums Vol. 2 had already proven as much.  These collections each contained both mono and stereo versions of four albums.  Vol. 1 featured Meet the Beatles, The Beatles' Second Album, Something New and Beatles '65.  The line-up for Vol. 2 was The Early Beatles, Beatles VI, Help! and Rubber Soul.  A third volume never appeared, so the remaining US albums temporarily remained in limbo.

The 2014 box set almost completed the picture.  In addition to the eight albums listed above, it also included "Yesterday"...and Today, Revolver, Hey Jude, the United Artists soundtrack album A Hard Day's Night and the two-record documentary The Beatles' Story.  Unfortunately, the Vee Jay album Introducing the Beatles was left out.  This meant that the songs Misery and There's a Place were nowhere to be found, as they never appeared on a Capitol release during the group's career.     

Back in 1963, manager Brian Epstein was not required to share in the vision of his artistic team.  He understood the need to compromise in order to reach his ultimate goal - to break his boys in the American market, a feat no British act had ever successfully accomplished.  The Beatles recorded for Parlophone, a small label belonging to the conglomerate EMI, which also owned Capitol Records in the USA.  When the band's second single, Please Please Me, went to number one in the UK, Epstein approached Capitol with great confidence, but Capitol turned him down, telling him there was absolutely no interest for a British rock and roll act in America. 

Knowing that he was now free to pursue other companies, Epstein contacted numerous US record labels, only to be rejected time and time again.  Only Vee Jay Records, a small outfit in Chicago, was willing to take a chance on an unknown guitar group from England.  This was in early 1963, almost a full year before the Beatles finally "conquered" America.  And it is where I will pick up the story in my next entry.

(Please note that I choose not to cover any of the recordings that the Beatles made in Hamburg with Tony Sheridan for producer Bert Kaempfert.  Though these were repackaged many times in the US after the boys became world famous, they pre-date their EMI contract and I do not consider them to be part of the group's official catalog.)

Friday, March 20, 2015

LET IT BE...NAKED - side two & Fly on the Wall

One After 909 - Apart from a tiny piece on Fly in the Wall, the only officially released version from these sessions of this early Lennon/McCartney number is the one from the rooftop concert which appeared on both Get Back albums, the original Let It Be album and this new release in 2003.  It is hard to imagine a more spirited performance.  And, without a doubt, it is a vast improvement over their 1963 attempt to record the song.

Don't Let Me Down - The Beatles and Billy Preston played this song twice during the famous rooftop concert.  From all reports, this is an edit combining the best bits of both of those performances.  It is not significantly different from the B-side studio version we all know except that George's voice is prominently added to the chorus here.

I Me Mine - There are a few curious decisions made concerning this track from January of 1970.  Though Let It Be re-producer Phil Spector's embellishments are gone, his extension of the song is approximated (but not exactly).  And Paul's final meandering notes on the organ are eliminated.  I guess since Anthology 3 already gave us the original recording at its actual length, an attempt was made to offer us something else instead, but it is a real head-scratcher nonetheless.

Across the Universe - To date, three versions of this song had been produced using the same master tape from February of 1968.  This is version number four.  In order to differentiate it this time, it is almost completely stripped down, leaving only John's vocal and acoustic guitar for much of the song.  George's tamboura and/or sitar are added for the second verse, and what may be a swirling organ part quietly appears in verse three.  I especially applaud the decision to keep the tape at its original speed.

Let It Be - The album closes with a remixed version of the title song.  The new mix punches up Billy Preston's organ part, making it sound more church-like than ever on its entrance.  The backing vocals by Paul, George and Linda McCartney from January '70 are used, and a guitar solo by George from another take is added, straying from the "as nature intended" concept one final time.

The exclusion of both Dig It and Maggie Mae further distances this package from the original sessions (although they do appear on Fly on the Wall), but I'm sure most fans honestly do not miss either of those spotty tracks.
  
For me, the best part of this release by far is the bonus disc Fly on the Wall.  Most fans are aware that there are countless bootlegs that have surfaced over the years from the hours upon hours of tape from these sessions, and I know I have only heard a small fraction of them, so most of what is included here was new to me the first time I listened to it.  Quite a few musical selections are scattered throughout, but they are mere snippets for the most part.  The good stuff is the chatter between the boys, confirming the long-held notions that Paul was the driving force, Ringo didn't want to go abroad, George thought the whole idea of going off on an ocean liner to do a concert was insane and John, surprisingly, was open to whatever - at least, he said he was.  The only disappointment about Fly on the Wall is that it is just under 22 minutes in duration.

Friday, March 13, 2015

LET IT BE...NAKED - side one

This is possibly my least favorite post-career collection of material by the Beatles.  It was touted as being the definitive version of what the 1969 Get Back sessions sounded like when it was released, but since it meddled with the recordings in numerous ways thanks to the new technology available in 2003, it immediately rendered itself irrelevant and unnecessary to my mind.  Thus, I was somewhat taken aback as I did my research for this entry to discover that a sizable number of fans not only prefer this package but agree with the hype.  While it is easy to argue the relative merits of individual tracks on this release versus the 1970 Phil Spector re-productions, I wonder how many of those fans have ever heard either of Glyn Johns' Get Back albums which truly capture the spirit of the original sessions "warts and all."   

Get Back - We all know this performance of the one-time title track of the sessions.  As with every other recording presented here, it has been remastered and remixed for the occasion and sounds quite nice, I must admit.  The familiar coda is not included, as that was recorded the next day and was edited onto the original single release along with a bit of echo for the entire number.  So, yes, right away in April of '69, they were tampering with the live-in-the-studio premise.

Dig a Pony - This is the same rooftop concert version presented on the Let It Be album minus the ambient chatter before and after the take.  Why, oh, why was the decision made to retain Spector's omission of the "All I want is..." vocals from the top and tail of the song?  They are an essential part of the tune as you can clearly see in the film (you can find it on YouTube), even managing to get George vocally involved, however briefly. 

For You Blue - A nice clean mix of the Let It Be version with George's acoustic guitar part audible, which Spector had mysteriously buried.  With Glyn Johns producing, George re-recorded his vocal on January 8th, 1970 - another example of the Beatles themselves not adhering to the original no-overdubs concept.

The Long and Winding Road - It is refreshing to hear a different take of this song instead of the one we usually do (either in its stripped down version or with orchestra and choir).  This is the final time the group went through the number for the cameras on January 31st and it is the performance seen in the documentary.  Billy Preston is allowed to take a little electric piano solo - it's simple, tasteful and surprisingly not all that interesting. 

Two of Us - This new mix of the version we are familiar with has one oddity - it fades out a few seconds before what we all know is a complete stop.  Too bad, because it was a rather clever trick of the band to create the effect of a fadeout even though they were playing live.

I've Got a Feeling - The group played this number twice during the famous rooftop concert and both are represented in this composite version.  I cannot figure out exactly where the edit is, but we first hear the second performance featuring some tasty licks from Billy Preston on electric piano.  George's voice is also a bit more audible in the "oh yeah"s.  At some point, perhaps just before Paul's vocal bridge, we segue into the familiar first version.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

1

The Beatles greeted the new millennium by releasing what should have been the ultimate greatest hits collection.  While it does achieve the feat of putting all of these recordings on one CD for the first time, as usual, there are disputes about what does or does not constitute a number one hit in a few instances.

All tracks were remastered for this release, which was not as controversial a decision for most fans as the remixing done for the Yellow Submarine Songtrack, especially since the band's original producer, George Martin, was involved in the process this time.

Of course, the collection was also released in a vinyl LP format, so I will list the tracks (along with any pertinent comments) as they appeared on that 2-record set, as is my wont.

SIDE ONE

Love Me Do - This is the version with Alan White on drums and Ringo on tambourine which went to number one in the US in 1964.
From Me to You
She Loves You
I Want to Hold Your Hand - Starting with this track, all songs are presented here in stereo, though up until 1969, all of the original singles were mono.
Can't Buy Me Love
A Hard Day's Night
I Feel Fine
Eight Days a Week

SIDE TWO

Ticket to Ride
Help! - This, too, is the stereo version, but since this package is supposed to represent number one singles, it should be the mono release with the alternate Lennon vocal.
Yesterday
Day Tripper - This remastered version finally fixes the momentary guitar dropout in the final verse.
We Can Work It Out
Paperback Writer
Yellow Submarine
Eleanor Rigby

SIDE THREE

Penny Lane
All You Need Is Love
Hello Goodbye
Lady Madonna
Hey Jude

SIDE FOUR

Get Back - This was the last single to be released in mono in the UK, yet the first to be issued in stereo in the US.
The Ballad of John and Yoko
Something
Come Together
Let it Be
The Long and Winding Road

If you can find printings of the actual charts from the 1960's, the inclusions of both Yellow Submarine and Something are questionable (even William J. Dowlding's book Beatlesongs from 1989 does not list them as number one hits), yet they have come to be regarded as number ones due to some revisionist history.  But the exclusion of Please Please Me, the single acclaimed as the group's first number one in early 1963, is simply inexcusable.  Sadly, the Record Retailer, the chart used as a resource to assemble this collection, was the only UK chart on which the song did not hit the top spot at the time of its release.

Despite these inconsistencies, fans both new and old eagerly embraced this collection in a record-setting way.  Appropriately enough, the CD debuted in the number one position in the US, hit the top spot in many countries all around the world and eventually became the biggest seller of the decade.  Not too shabby for a group that had ceased to exist thirty years earlier.

Friday, February 20, 2015

YELLOW SUBMARINE SONGTRACK - side two

Still from the film's live action sequence
Baby You're a Rich Man - This was the first song to be specifically written and recorded for the film in 1967, but after it was hastily used as a B-side to All You Need Is Love only the intro made it into the movie.  The odd-sounding clavioline is more prominent than on the 1987 Magical Mystery Tour CD (though not as prominent as on my original vinyl album), and the vocals and echoing handclaps are right up front in the mix.

Only a Northern Song - In his excellent website The Beatles Recordings, Graham Calkin notes that this collection marks the first time this Harrison number had ever been released in true stereo.  Recorded in February '67 as a contender for Sgt. Pepper, it features multiple layers of sound, made even more complex when two different takes were overlaid to create the master in April of that year.  The many components are spread across the sonic landscape for maximum listening pleasure in this new version.

All You Need Is Love - The recording which benefits the most from these new mixes is this anthem from the Summer of Love.  The original always sounded muddy due to the fact that it combined parts recorded live during the Our World broadcast on top of an already-dense backing track.  Every element is cleaned up nicely here, giving the tune a new immediacy.  Though used in an abridged form by the animators, it is central to both the action and the message of the film.

When I'm Sixty Four - My ears do not detect any significant improvement to this whimsical track from Sgt. Pepper.  This song is used in a clever sequence as the submarine travels through the Sea of Time.

Nowhere Man - The original stereo mix of this Rubber Soul track was simply vocals on one side and instruments on the other (except for George's gorgeous guitar solo).  Here we have a beautifully-centered mix with a fuller sound overall.  

It's All Too Much - Harrison's psychedelic extravaganza closes out the album in all of its sonic glory.  This six-minute-plus track actually ran over eight minutes, which explains why we hear a verse in the movie that is not available anywhere else - and the film version is still extremely truncated.

The only song missing from this collection is A Day in the Life, though only the orchestral crescendo from that track is used in the film as the submarine voyage begins.  Of course, numerous other songs by the Beatles are referenced throughout the movie in the dialogue, as when Old Fred arrives in Liverpool and calls out, "Won't you please, please help me?"

Many purists were upset by the remixing when this package was first released in 1999, but they seem to have misunderstood that these mixes were done for the soundtrack and were never intended to replace those in the band's official catalog.  They merely offer an interesting alternative to the recordings we've known for all these years.  

Friday, February 13, 2015

YELLOW SUBMARINE SONGTRACK - side one

Taking advantage of new technology, a digital version of the soundtrack was created for the 30th anniversary re-release of the film Yellow Submarine.  This naturally extended beyond the work of the voice actors and the many sound effects to include the musical selections by the Beatles, as well.  The new mixes - some of them close to the originals and others dramatically different - were compiled for a tie-in album.  Perhaps recalling the criticism heaped upon the 1969 album - that it shortchanged the record-buying public - the decision was made to include all (well, almost all) of the songs used in the movie, even those that are represented by mere snippets in the context of the film.

Yellow Submarine - The new clarity of the digital sound is immediately evident on the title tune.  The sound effects are not brought to the forefront as strongly as they were on the Anthology's Real Love EP, but they certainly have more presence than on the master version we all know.  And John's echo of "a life of ease" is kept in.

Hey Bulldog - Lennon's late addition to the soundtrack features more prominent vocals, as do most of the tracks on this collection.  The promotional film for Lady Madonna, which was shot during the recording of this number in 1968, was re-edited and broadcast with this song to promote this new package in 1999.

Eleanor Rigby - The vocals are stronger without sacrificing the sharpness of the string octet.  And Paul's "Eleanor" at the top of the first verse is no longer double-tracked.  The use of this song as the submarine arrives in Liverpool is perhaps the best sequence in the movie, rivaling Can't Buy Me Love and Ticket to Ride from the group's earlier films as a stand-alone video.

Love You To - Only the slow introduction to this song is heard in the film when George's character is introduced, but his first Indian piece was remixed in full for this release and it sounds wonderful, with the vocals and instruments nicely balanced.

All Together Now - This song is used twice in the film.  First, when the submarine voyage commences, and in the live action sequence at the end featuring the Beatles themselves.  You can actually pick out individual voices in the chorus as they are spread out in the new stereo mix.

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds - In truth, even though it was only done on four-track tape, the production on the Sgt. Pepper album was so far ahead of its time that little improvement can be discerned in the new mixes made from those master versions.

Think for Yourself - On the other hand, the new mix for this tune from Rubber Soul (one of the earliest songs used for the movie) is a marked improvement.  The film only uses the vocal track from the one line "and you've got time to rectify..."

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - You can really appreciate the vocal blend of Paul, John and George with the clarity of the new mix.  This song is central to the action of the film as the boys impersonate the real Sgt. Pepper's band in order to rouse the people of Pepperland.

With a Little Help from My Friends - As on the Sgt. Pepper album, the previous song segues straight into this number, though we only hear a bit of this one's first verse in the film.  This track sounds practically identical to the brilliantly-produced original version we all know and love.