Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Beatles capsules: the American LPs

This page exists solely as a symptom of my lifelong disease of Beatles completism, though I hasten to add that obsessing over Beatles minutiae is also a source of great comfort and mental stability for me, and I say that without irony. The Beatles' discography was standardized worldwide in 1987 to (mostly) reflect their original British releases, but before that, American fans -- and those in other countries, but America most famously -- had a much messier and more confusing set of records and tapes to contend with. Capitol adapted the band's albums to fit the U.S. standard of shorter LPs with generally twelve tracks rather than fourteen, they padded things out and retreaded singles, and used their own wild and wonky sequencing, album art and album titles while also at times issuing different mixes. Some of said mixes were terrible fake stereo or mono fold-downs, some simply added reverb to existing masters, and some were actually provided by George Martin. All this is described below. Note that again, these are by no means essential releases for any normal person, but it can be interesting for harder core fans to hear things the way they were processed in America at the time, or at least to learn about this alternate-universe version of the same discography. Most of the really significant alternate mixes are included on Purple Chick's bootleg expansions of the individual LPs, and I've addressed them in my reviews of those collections as well.

As a reference, I have included tracklists for each record that indicate which mixes are used; I used the invaluable Usenet Guide to Beatles Recording Variations to keep track of this often confusing situation. "Canon mix" refers to the widely available version of a given song issued as part of the band's standardized CD and digital catalog, with the exception of the tracks that originated on the British albums Help! and Rubber Soul, in which case I refer to the original 1965 UK mixes as "canon" rather than the now-standard 1987 remixes.

The Beatles: Introducing... the Beatles (Vee Jay 1964) [r]
{Mono, side one, all canon mixes except noted:} I Saw Her Standing There [canon version with count-in edited]; Misery [possible unique mix, longer intro]; Anna (Go to Him); Chains; Boys; Ask Me Why [later pressings only]; Love Me Do [first press only] / {Mono, side two, all canon mixes:} Please Please Me [later pressings only]; P.S. I Love You [first press only]; Baby It's You; Do You Want to Know a Secret; A Taste of Honey; There's a Place; Twist and Shout / {Stereo, side one, all canon mixes except noted:} I Saw Her Standing There [canon version with count-in edited]; Misery; Anna; Chains; Boys; Ask Me Why [later pressings only]; Love Me Do [first press only, mono mix] / {Stereo, side two, all canon mixes:} Please Please Me [later pressings only]; P.S. I Love You [first press only, mono mix]; Baby It's You; Do You Want to Know a Secret; A Taste of Honey; There's a Place; Twist and Shout

The story of how the great Chicago independent gospel and soul label Vee Jay ended up, for about two years, with the rights to the Beatles' early EMI recordings is complicated and fascinating and told extremely well, with rich detail, by Bruce Spizer in his book The Beatles' Records on Vee Jay, available now in lavishly illustrated ebook form on his website and strongly recommended. The short version is that when EMI's American label Capitol rejected the first few Beatles singles and their first LP, George Martin shopped around for a Stateside distributor and Vee Jay, who'd had some great success in the pop market with the Four Seasons and with EMI's British signee Frank Ifield, picked up the option and released the singles "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You" in 1963. Both had some regional success but failed to take off nationwide. ("She Loves You" and its German variant "Sie Liebt Dich" would be issued by a smaller label, the formerly Dick Clark-affiliated Swan Records from Philadelphia, previously best known for Freddy Cannon's classic "Palisades Park.") Then, when the first U.S. major label single "I Want to Hold Your Hand" started to take the country by storm, accompanied by Capitol's huge marketing push, Vee Jay realized they were still sitting on a goldmine in the form of the other masters for the Beatles' first album. The LP had been delayed in 1963 thanks to some unsavory financial practices at the label, and there were now legal questions about their rights to the material, but they threw caution to the wind and got this reconfigured version of Please Please Me onto the marketplace and in record stores nationwide nearly simultaneously, give or take ten days, with the officially sanctioned Capitol debut Meet the Beatles!. Both records were enormously popular and Vee Jay would sell more than a million slabs of Introducing over the next year, on top of milking the material they had for multiple singles (including a #1 hit, "Love Me Do," on the Tollie subsidiary), several strange repackagings of the album and even an EP.

Alas, legal questions about the release continued to dog the label, as indicated by a few oddities. All versions of the album contain two fewer songs than Please Please Me, but which two are missing varies by pressing. The original inclusion of "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You" was stymied by legal action from EMI's publishing arm Aardmore & Beechwood, and they were immediately replaced by "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why," though Vee Jay coyly snuck the first version into the stockpile as well. The record was such a rush release that it exists with three different rear covers, including a blank one and one comprised strictly of ads for other Vee Jay albums. Then there's the fact that both Vee Jay and Capitol put "I Saw Her Standing There" on their respective LP releases, a further indication of how much confusion there was around who was actually allowed to release this material. You can read all about it in Spizer's book. The important thing is that Introducing is not really necessary for fans today, since we all have access to the complete Please Please Me. The songs are in the same sequence and have the same exact mixes in both mono and stereo, with just two very minor editing anomalies: the mono "Misery" seems to have the full piano intro from the stereo version rather than just the last three notes, but it's been argued that this means the whole mono record is simply a fold-down (apart from "Please Please Me" which features the correct mono take without John's vocal flub and would be the only inarguable "tell" that the LP was a fold). And, somewhat amusingly, "I Saw Her Standing There" lops off part of the count-in so it sounds for all the world like the record begins with Paul shouting "fuck!" Vee Jay managed to secure permission to keep the record on the market until the end of 1964, and the following year Capitol prepared their own even more cut-down version of the PPM tracks known as The Early Beatles; see below. [Note: Introducing may also hold a claim to being the most counterfeited record in history; if you're a collector trying to determine if a copy is legitimate, Spizer's your man for that too.]

The Beatles: Meet the Beatles! (Capitol 1964) [r]
{Mono, side one, fold downs of Capitol stereo album except noted:} I Want to Hold Your Hand [canon mix]; I Saw Her Standing There; This Boy [canon mix]; It Won't Be Long; All I've Got to Do; All My Loving / {Mono, side two, all fold downs of Capitol stereo album:} Don't Bother Me; Little Child; Till There Was You; Hold Me Tight; I Wanna Be Your Man; Not a Second Time / {Stereo, side one, canon mixes with reverb added except noted:} I Want to Hold Your Hand [fake stereo]; I Saw Her Standing There; This Boy [fake stereo]; It Won't Be Long; All I've Got to Do; All My Loving / {Stereo, side two, all canon mixes with reverb added:} Don't Bother Me; Little Child; Till There Was You; Hold Me Tight; I Wanna Be Your Man; Not a Second Time

The heavily marketed -- "the Beatles are coming!" the ads proclaimed -- Capitol debut looks and sounds explosive, and served as a tremendous soundtrack to the whirlwind two months in which they took the nation by storm, flew to JFK and appeared on Sullivan, but it hasn't aged as well as the British counterpart from which it's condensed, With the Beatles, mostly just because of the slightly disappointing song selection on the back half. Side one is all gangbusters with the American breakthrough "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and its domestic and foreign b-sides followed by the three sterling openers from With: "It Won't Be Long," "All I've Got to Do," "All My Loving." And nothing on the back half is less than very good, only lackluster compared to the murderer's row on the other side with the exception of the stunning "Not a Second Time." These songs all make better sense with the smoky vibe of their proper brethren in the UK sequence, which in volume and set variance approximates a Beatles Cavern set, late '63-style. Still, Dave Dexter (Capitol A&R man and architect of the Beatles' American recorded output) and company knew what they were doing when they put this together, as the record did in fact sell in unprecedented numbers. Capitol also controversially added echo to nearly all of the songs (while even more controversially using "duophonic" -- fake stereo -- rechanneled mixes of "Hold Your Hand" and "This Boy" in place of stereo tapes they hadn't received); the reverb does add a bit of extra power to already exciting recordings, but your tolerance for it will depend on whether you grew up hearing the songs this way. At any rate, unlike some of the later American albums, this one is not just enormously significant as an artifact but is tremendously fun to listen to, especially in tandem with its sequel.

The Beatles: The Beatles' Second Album (Capitol 1964) [hr]
{Mono, side one, fold downs of Capitol stereo album except noted:} Roll Over Beethoven; Thank You Girl; You Really Got a Hold on Me; Devil in Her Heart; Money (That's What I Want); You Can't Do That [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI] / {Mono, side two:} Long Tall Sally [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; I Call Your Name [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; Please Mr. Postman [mono fold-down of Capitol stereo mix]; I'll Get You [Capitol-made mono remix with added reverb]; She Loves You [ibid] / {Stereo, side one, canon mixes with reverb added except noted:} Roll Over Beethoven; Thank You Girl [canon mix]; You Really Got a Hold on Me; Devil in Her Heart; Money (That's What I Want); You Can't Do That [fake stereo] / {Stereo, side two:} Long Tall Sally [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI]; I Call Your Name [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI]; Please Mr. Postman [canon mix with reverb added]; I'll Get You [fake stereo]; She Loves You [fake stereo]

A happy accident of sequencing and commercial opportunism somehow resulted in the most blistering half-hour (actually, 27 minutes) of rock & roll ever laid down by the planet's greatest rock & roll band as of 1964. Cynically rushed out just two months past their American explosion and smugly given a title that's completely inaccurate, and filled out with just eleven songs -- mostly the unused covers from With the Beatles that didn't make it to Meet!, plus three songs heretofore issued in the States by indie labels Vee Jay and Swan and three actual new-at-the-time recordings -- it's nevertheless an unqualified triumph. There's a reason Dave Marsh was able to wring a whole book out of it, and a reason why the Flamin' Groovies and Yo La Tengo have had a field day parodying its iconic cover art. George Martin and the Beatles favored a lot of variance and careful pacing on the Beatles' real LPs over in England; eleven straight hard rockers and R&B numbers wouldn't have likely been viewed by those parties or manager Brian Epstein as a good display of their many strengths any more than a whole album of ballads would have been. Indeed, this very eclecticism is why the Beatles continue to matter so much, but Second Album proves handily that a speedy, powerful, huge-sounding collection of the band's most pounding, propulsive rockers from the '63-'64 period is more than credible, it's actually a stunning display of their unassailable ferocity as a band. There's no quicker way to appreciate just why they made waves here and at home that were incomparable to anything else that was happening, or would happen.

Once again, all of the mixes have been, in fan parlance, "Dexterized" -- beefed up with reverb and a towering sound meant to add to their commercial appeal. It still feels a bit superfluous. Whatever you do with it, the Beatles' version of the Miracles' "You Really Got a Hold on Me" is for instance an almost unrelentingly filthy masterpiece of pent-up tension; and their "Money" howls to the very verge of sanity. These aren't performances that have any interest in matching or bettering the Tamla-Motown originals; they simply show how much and how deeply the band, John Lennon in particular, responded to those records' passion, energy and lyricism. As a happy corollary, hearing this brilliant highlight reel summing up Beatlemania -- and peaking with "She Loves You," which sounds muddy as hell here but still somehow perfect -- makes you want to go and listen to With the Beatles again. This stuff is incredibly addictive, and while I no longer believe quite as strongly as I once did that the Beatles' early work towers massively over their more "adult" material from later on, even if I do still prefer it, I don't think there's anything wrong with labeling this as a snapshot of their very peak as a band. Note that in addition to their own tweaking, Capitol was provided a couple of special mixes for the American market; "Long Tall Sally" and "I Call Your Name" were not yet released in the UK and would be newly mixed for that market when the time came, so both have subtle differences, which are especially apparent in the double tracking, lead guitar and percussion on the latter. The hot-off-the-presses b-side "You Can't Do That" is also reputed to be a unique mix in mono and was apparently made separately on the same day according to studio paperwork, but there are no audible differences.

The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night OST [U.S.] (United Artists 1964)
{Side one, canon mixes unless noted plus instrumental score:} A Hard Day's Night; Tell Me Why; I'll Cry Instead [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI with extra verse]; I'm Happy Just to Dance with You / {Side two, canon mixes unless noted plus instrumental score:} I Should Have Known Better; If I Fell; And I Love Her [unique U.S. mono mix with single-tracked vocal]; Can't Buy Me Love

American teenagers who trotted out to the shops in 1964 to get the album accompanying the Beatles' terrific new movie were given, sure, all of the new Beatles songs in the film plus "I'll Cry Instead" (listed erroneously here as "I Cry Instead"), but rather than the peripheral tracks that occupied Side Two of the British album, the eight Beatles originals were joined by oddball Muzak versions of the band's hits orchestrated by George Martin. Only two of these were actually used in the film, one quite effectively ("This Boy") while the rest just serve as album filler. The record is unmitigated consumer fraud but if you like this era of easy listening and "Beautiful Music" (and don't forget that Beautiful Music titan Bert Kaempfert gave the Beatles a shot before almost anyone else), and of course if you like Martin's kitschy orchestral albums, there's something perversely fun about the release, even though it's obviously pointless today. Martin's "And I Love Her" is especially schmaltzy and glorious... but don't expect the genuine artistry you can find in his Yellow Submarine score; this is all rather goofy stuff with a very, very limited audience. The mono LP uses the regular British mixes except in the cases of "I'll Cry Instead" with extra verse and "And I Love Her" single-tracked, both more conveniently available on Something New (see below). The stereo LP is a total sham; it just uses mono mixes and slightly pans them to one side (except "I'm Happy..." and "I Should Have Known Better" which don't even make that half-assed attempt to approximate stereo), while Martin's recordings are in actual stereo. I suppose you could make the argument that this blatant false advertising beats "duophonic" mixes... but really, it's astonishing that this thing stayed in print as long as it did -- and ultimately made it to compact disc!

The Beatles: Something New (Capitol 1964) [r]
{Mono, side one, canon mixes except noted:} I'll Cry Instead [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI with extra verse]; Things We Said Today; Any Time at All [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; When I Get Home [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; Slow Down; Matchbox / {Mono, side two, canon mixes except noted:} Tell Me Why; And I Love Her [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI with single-tracked vocal]; I'm Happy Just to Dance with You; If I Fell; Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand / {Stereo, side one, all canon mixes:} I'll Cry Instead; Things We Said Today; Any Time at All; When I Get Home; Slow Down; Matchbox / {Stereo, side two, canon mixes:} Tell Me Why; And I Love Her; I'm Happy Just to Dance with You; If I Fell; Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand

The first of Capitol's truly daft LP packages for the Beatles, though in a sinister commercial sense you have to admire the sheer ballsiness of this one: released as immediate competition to United Artists' soundtrack album for A Hard Day's Night, already a bit of naked consumer fraud anyway, while cannibalizing a considerable percentage of its actual Beatles content, and then throwing in the Beatles singing one of their hits in German for literally no conceivable reason. To its credit, it does get closer to matching the tone of the masterful British album than the other label's "soundtrack"; in fact, if not for title recognition, one suspects it would have sold better than its sibling, since it clearly has more bang for your buck sans repetition, with no non-Beatles instrumentals cluttering it. There is considerable humor in the Beatles' massive star power at the time, though, considering that for months they had the #1 and #2 albums on the charts with much of the exact same material. The second big boon with Something New for big fans is that the mono version contains quite a few fascinating oddities, and in contrast to all the piled-on after-the-fact echo on the earlier Capitol LPs, these are variations actually mixed by George Martin and company at EMI. (The stereo LP is less interesting, consisting entirely of the standard mixes, with even Dave Dexter -- despite coyly snatching a coproducer credit -- leaving them alone.)

As on the American A Hard Day's Night LP, "I'll Cry Instead" provides the most noticeable anomaly with an entire extra verse -- not a loop of the song's opening as was often reported by enthusiasts who didn't listen quite carefully enough, but an edit floated in from a different performance. While the add-on is basically redundant (constructed specifically for the aborted idea to use the song in a chase scene in the film), for anyone who treasures the song it's nice to have a bit more of it -- and it made it feasible for Capitol to push the song as a fairly uneventful single release. "And I Love Her" also, as on UA's album, has its character altered a fair bit with the absence of the double-tracking on Paul's vocal (which makes it, in some ways, lonelier and more effective). "Any Time at All" almost wholly mixes out the piano, which is especially evident during the instrumental break; some percussion is also missing. Lastly, "When I Get Home" has some major vocal differences on the bridge, due to John's double-tracking being mixed out on the stereo and British releases. It all makes for a fun bit of scavenging, somewhat redeeming just how goofy the whole entity is as an "album." Cool artwork, too.

The Beatles: The Beatles' Story (Capitol 1964) [c]
Not strictly a Beatles LP -- more a spoken word album with occasional musical interludes from the band and the Hollyridge Strings -- and in fact something I only finally listened to in full for this project, but included here because Capitol has always labeled it as part of their official Beatles discography and kept it in print for decades -- and transferred it to DAT for some unknown purpose in the 1990s -- culminating in a CD release on the Apple label a few years ago. It's a painfully uncool kitsch item useful only as a mirror into the way the straight world viewed Beatlemania as of 1964, primarily as a way of siphoning money from adolescents; there's only scattered talk of music, and a lot more about business and haircuts, though there is a bit of hyperbole about a future in which there will "always be" Beatles fans, which turned out to be prophetic. Still, the occasional kernel of truth in the narrative doesn't make up for the overall superficial nature of the (admittedly handsome) package, and the narration is stilted and unconvincing. It seems like a piece of commercial fraud, but do consider that Capitol was copycatting a similar and apparently somewhat beefier Vee Jay album called Hear the Beatles Tell All. It does boast the dubious honor of being the first ever official Beatles double album, at any rate.

The Beatles: Beatles '65 (Capitol 1964) [r]
{Mono, side one, all canon mixes:} No Reply; I'm a Loser; Baby's in Black; Rock and Roll Music; I'll Follow the Sun; Mr. Moonlight / {Mono, side two:} Honey Don't [canon mix]; I'll Be Back [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; She's a Woman [unique U.S. "echo" mono mix from EMI]; I Feel Fine [unique U.S. "echo" mono mix from EMI]; Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby [canon mix] / {Stereo, side one, all canon mixes:} No Reply; I'm a Loser; Baby's in Black; Rock and Roll Music; I'll Follow the Sun; Mr. Moonlight / {Stereo, canon mixes except noted:} Honey Don't; I'll Be Back; She's a Woman [fake stereo made from U.S. mono mix]; I Feel Fine [fake stereo made from U.S. mono mix]; Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby

Again, this is not a defensible package, apart from its rather stylish graphics; it's Side One of Beatles for Sale with the same album's closer, the current single and an errant A Hard Day's Night leftover tacked on. But folks, in fourth grade a few months before I finally joined the space age with my first CD player, I bought a copy of this from a real-life Beatles collector my dad knew and I will never forget what a big impression the first three songs made on me. I knew the White Album and Sgt. Pepper already, but they almost seemed like a different band to me from the Help!-era mop tops; here, the Beatles sounded like their younger selves but the songs they were singing seemed so sullen and grown-up and, well, stark. That carried through for most of the record's songs I didn't already knew ("I'll Be Back" in particular, which is still one of my favorite Beatles songs), and I loved the entire thing. I have no doubt I would have loved it even more if I'd sprung for Beatles for Sale instead... but those positive associations are not meaningless. Because the slowed-down mono "I'll Be Back" sounds like some sort of an error (with odd, wobbling speed that sounds like a tape problem), the most interesting variations are the U.S. single versions of "I Feel Fine" and "She's a Woman," which are positively slathered in echo to a degree that seems very antithetical to the band's intentions; word is it was Martin's attempt to approximate the strange "Dexter"-ized sound of Meet the Beatles! and The Beatles' Second Album. There's some accidental appeal to the American versions, and I don't think it's just because they're the ones I grew up with; obviously I prefer the dryer mixes, but "I Feel Fine" has a rather striking "vastness" here that sort of places emphasis on the Beatles' larger-than-life quality. The vocals sound distant, strange, like some proto-Loveless thing (and with the tape flutter on "I'll Be Back," this is practically Shoegaze '65, am I right folks!?). On the stereo album, these two songs were given "fake stereo" mixes that add even more absurd reverb and sound absolutely dreadful. (Apparently there was a lot of extra reverb thrown onto early masterings of "I'll Be Back" on this LP, but that was eventually repaired.) All that said, at this stage there's no use denying that Capitol's dicking around was getting sillier and sillier.

The Beatles: The Early Beatles (Capitol 1965)
{Mono, side one, all fold-downs of Capitol-made stereo remixes except noted:} Love Me Do [fold-down of fake stereo album version]; Twist and Shout; Anna (Go to Him); Chains; Boys; Ask Me Why / {Mono, side two, all fold-downs of Capitol-made stereo remixes except noted:} Please Please Me; P.S. I Love You [fold-down of fake stereo]; Baby It's You; A Taste of Honey; Do You Want to Know a Secret / {Stereo, side one, all Capitol-made stereo remixes except noted:} Love Me Do [fake stereo]; Twist and Shout; Anna (Go to Him); Chains; Boys; Ask Me Why / {Stereo, side two, all Capitol-made stereo remixes except noted:} Please Please Me; P.S. I Love You [fake stereo]; Baby It's You; A Taste of Honey; Do You Want to Know a Secret

Boasting "NOW ON CAPITOL!" in bold letters on the front as though that were a serious selling point for most consumers, The Early Beatles was the label's reissue and revision of Introducing the Beatles after Vee Jay finally lost the rights to the Beatles' pre-"She Loves You" material in late 1964, thus allowing it to join the rest of the catalog. Apart from the slightly more attractive (though period-inappropriate) cover art, the release is a severe downgrade in every way. For two decades, this was the only way most of the Beatles' Please Please Me album was in print in the U.S., which is quite a cheat because it's such a cynical, whittled-down pale imitation of the real thing, robbed of three of the record's songs ("Misery," "There's a Place," "I Saw Her Standing There"), the last because it had already been on a Capitol LP (Meet the Beatles!), and the others lopped off for a poor-selling single on Capitol's budget Starline subsidiary and never heard again on a long-player until 1980. Capitol's reasoning for shortening the album to this extent is hard to figure. They could have substituted "From Me to You" for "I Saw Her Standing There" (having already put "Thank You Girl" on an album) and had done with the whole shebang, but apparently there were too many other potential opportunities for future money grabbing. The result is one of the shortest and weakest of Capitol's Beatles LPs, though at least the songs do all belong together, and of course are top-tier material in and of themselves, though closing out with "Do You Want a Know a Secret" (a hit single in the U.S., granted) and moving "Twist and Shout" to the forefront is perverse. Capitol didn't promote the record heavily, really intending it as a catalog hole-filler (most fans as of '65 would already have owned the Vee Jay album), which is exactly what makes its lack of completeness so irritating. Dave Dexter also did some twiddling around with the stereo mixes (as far as I can hear they're just volume-boosted, very marginally slowed down, and the two channels are perhaps separated slightly) and the tape copies sound a little distorted. The mono album is just a fold of the stereo record; you can tell because "Please Please Me" includes the stereo-only vocal flub. It's just a weak experience on the whole and there's no compelling modern reason to queue it up.

The Beatles: Beatles VI (Capitol 1965)
{Mono, side one, all canon mixes:} Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey!; Eight Days a Week; You Like Me Too Much; Bad Boy; I Don't Want to Spoil the Party / {Mono, side two, all canon mixes:} Words of Love; What You're Doing; Yes It Is; Dizzy Miss Lizzy; Tell Me What You See; Every Little Thing / {Stereo, side one, all canon mixes:} Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey!; Eight Days a Week; You Like Me Too Much; Bad Boy; I Don't Want to Spoil the Party / {Stereo, side two, all canon mixes except noted:} What You're Doing; Yes It Is [fake stereo]; Dizzy Miss Lizzy; Tell Me What You See; Every Little Thing

Another month, another Capitol hodgepodge with "Beatles" in the title -- the rest of Beatles for Sale (including the Stateside hit "Eight Days a Week") plus some advance non-soundtrack sides from Help!, and the only occasion on which one of these Capitol LPs is a "proper" home for a song, the cover of Larry Williams' "Bad Boy" that was laid down specifically for the American market. ("Dizzy Miss Lizzy" was too but ended up being used on the next UK release.) This was the package that George Harrison once called out specifically when complaining about Capitol's strategy, and it really is the worst of these to date as a listening experience, supplanting Something New because the material is considerably weaker. There are some great songs ("I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," "What You're Doing," "Every Little Thing"), some covers of varying innovation and quality, some oddities and some of the more lackluster originals in the catalog ("Tell Me What You See," "You Like Me To Much"), but "Eight Days a Week" really leaps out as the only burst-out-of-the-speakers classic. Not the best cut here, but the sole relief from what feels like a haphazard gathering of odds and ends ripped of their original context. It's just a further reiteration of how good George Martin was at sequencing Beatles music and putting albums together; none of the British records lacked bite to this extent. One big evolutionary point, though: with the exception of the missing stereo version of the b-side "Yes It Is," these songs all made it to America in their fully intact original mixes. If you consider it as a double album with Beatles '65, it has its utility, or did at one time.

The Beatles: Help! OST [U.S.] (Capitol 1965)
{Mono, side one, fold-downs of stereo mixes plus instrumental score:} Help!; The Night Before; You've Got to Hide Your Love Away; I Need You / {Mono, side two, fold-downs of stereo mixes unless noted, plus instrumental score:} Another Girl; Ticket to Ride [canon mix]; You're Going to Lose That Girl / {Stereo, side one, all canon mixes plus instrumental score:} Help!; The Night Before; You've Got to Hide Your Love Away; I Need You / {Stereo, side two, plus instrumental score:} Another Girl [canon mix]; Ticket to Ride [fake stereo]; You're Going to Lose That Girl [unedited version with very, very brief stray sound at beginning; I mean insanely brief, like I-can't-believe-this-is-listed-as-a-variation brief]

I've used the word "fraud" three times already on this page, but to be fair to Capitol Records, in a lot of ways they were just conforming to industry standards of the time; it's only in retrospect that all this seems nefarious rather than just inconvenient. Still, one wonders how millions of fans were subjected to a package like this without instituting some kind of revolt -- maybe this gives a clue to why they didn't succeed in changing the world a few years hence. The seven new Beatles songs in their second film are joined by Ken Thorne's score, which is admittedly a bit more successful than George Martin's for A Hard Day's Night, insofar as it quite cleverly rearranges Beatles songs as dramatic crescendos and at one point transforms "A Hard Day's Night" into a sitar-driven Indian piece. (Like Martin, Thorne actually wrote very little music here.) It's sometimes alleged that Thorne's score led directly to George Harrison becoming interested in the sitar, but I increasingly suspect this is largely apocryphal; still, if nothing else the incorporation of these then-exotic instruments on a mainstream "rock" LP does seem somewhat forward-looking. But that's about it, as far as positive things you can say here. Ahead of its time or not, Thorne's score couldn't have held any interest to the bulk of those buying the record.

The graphics are a bit better than those on the UK album; there's even a gatefold with lots of pix of the hot guys from the film. But you just don't get much for your theoretical money here. One interesting note is that "Help!" is here presented with a dramatic prelude provided by Thorne that's more or less a parody of the James Bond theme. Certain American fans still think of this as the intro to "Help!"; even though it wasn't on the single, it (probably accidentally) got tacked onto the 1962-1966 "Red" album. I used to include the Bond intro when I played "Help!" at my DJing gigs so that if any of the half-dozen people in the room were hardcore Beatles fans they might want my friendship, perhaps even my body. I did not, in the end, meet my wife in this fashion.

The Beatles: Rubber Soul [U.S.] (Capitol 1965) [r]
{Mono, side one, canon mixes unless noted:} I've Just Seen a Face; Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown); You Won't See Me; Think for Yourself; The Word; Michelle [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI] / {Mono, side two, all canon mixes:} It's Only Love; Girl; I'm Looking Through You; In My Life; Wait; Run for Your Life / {Stereo, side one, canon mixes unless noted:} I've Just Seen a Face; Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown); You Won't See Me; Think for Yourself; The Word [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI]; Michelle / {Stereo, side two, canon mixes unless noted:} It's Only Love; Girl; I'm Looking Through You [unedited version with false starts]; In My Life; Wait; Run for Your Life

Let's put this to bed once and for all: Capitol's condensation of the UK Rubber Soul album is not better than the original, and while I understand feeling that this version more cohesively plays up the "acoustic Beatles" folk rock angle, I strongly object to the whole theory becoming conventional wisdom. On top of being two songs shorter, the U.S. album actually lacks four songs from the original record, replacing two of them with castoff Help! tunes: "I've Just Seen a Face" (which I readily admit fits well) and "It's Only Love" (which is fine but hardly a classic). And the missing songs are not slouches -- "Drive My Car," "Nowhere Man" and "If I Needed Someone" all major, "What Goes On" minor if charming. Moreover, the theory that the rockers are all gone and therefore the experience is more consistent doesn't really hold, with half the songs still being fairly fast and hard-edged. Plus ending the record with the solid but not revelatory "Wait" and "Run for Your Life," uninterrupted here by one of George's most sensitive ballads, feels somewhat anticlimactic. The color scheme on the cover is slightly better than on the original release (and the 1987 CD would go on to inherit it, perhaps unintentionally) and I always really loved the two false starts that open "I'm Looking Through You" in stereo, which add to the feeling of a campire Beatles session even though it's really just the result of an engineer forgetting to cut them off. I enjoy listening to the American album, don't get me wrong, but there's absolutely no question that the UK variant is a better, fuller experience.

The Beatles: Yesterday and Today (Capitol 1966)
{Mono, side one, canon mixes unless noted:} Drive My Car [fold-down of stereo mix]; Nowhere Man; Doctor Robert [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; Yesterday; Act Naturally / {Mono, side two, canon mixes unless noted:} And Your Bird Can Sing [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; If I Needed Someone; We Can Work It Out; What Goes On; Day Tripper / {Stereo, side one, canon mixes unless noted:} Drive My Car; I'm Only Sleeping [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI (early pressings use fake stereo)]; Nowhere Man; Doctor Robert [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI (early pressings use fake stereo)]; Yesterday; Act Naturally / {Stereo, side two:} And Your Bird Can Sing [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI (early pressings use fake stereo)]; If I Needed Someone [canon mix]; We Can Work It Out [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI]; What Goes On [canon mix]; Day Tripper [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI]

The weirdest of Capitol's Frankenstein creations, issued in the summer of 1966 and containing material from three extremely different UK albums -- Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver -- as well a double-sided hit single and more Ringo lead vocals (two) than any of the band's canon releases. It's as odd a selection of songs as Beatles VI, with leftovers from various releases plus three completed Lennon numbers from the forthcoming Revolver (two of them rather pedestrian), though with two U.S.-only hit singles ("Yesterday" and "Nowhere Man") it might well have seemed like a pop miracle at the time. The biggest problem with the American discography is how it prevents you from getting a handle on the Beatles' actual evolutionary narrative. It makes very little sense for "If I Needed Someone" to coexist with "Act Naturally," or "What Goes On" with "I'm Only Sleeping," etc. The songs are mostly excellent, but it feels like shuffle mode.

That said, as a package this is one of the most interesting of the Capitol LPs; there is first the novelty of its recalled cover, a rather appallingly eccentric bit of pop art popularly known as the Butcher Cover, adorned with Robert Whitaker's avant garde, pointedly satiric shot of the Beatles posing gleefully with baby doll heads and butcher meat. It's one of the best and most genuinely outrageous album covers of the 1960s, and it's a miracle that it made it to stores at all; regardless of its immediate recall, you wonder how on earth anyone at Capitol signed off on it. The Beatles' own approval of it is less mysterious; not only is a handy bit of subversion at a time when they were bristling at the limitations of their role in the universe, it also foretells the dark, cynical sense of humor they would employ on Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album. Its existence is easily the most memorable thing about this collection's existence, though its rush-release also produces a number of interesting features in mix terms. The Revolver numbers sound varying degrees of different from their later UK canon incarnations, particularly "I'm Only Sleeping" whose overdubbed backward guitar wanders unpredictably around the verses. It's all such a weird entity that you barely notice how incompetently sequenced it is.

The Beatles: Revolver [U.S.] (Capitol 1966)
All canon mixes in both stereo and mono - {Side one:} Taxman; Eleanor Riby; Love You To; Here, There and Everywhere; Yellow Submarine; She Said She Said / {Side two:} Good Day Sunshine; For No One; I Want to Tell You; Got to Get You into My Life; Tomorrow Never Knows

Not much to say about this one; it's just Revolver with three songs missing, and my inclination is to say it has no value whatsoever -- it has no unique mixes, no real reason to be considered in lieu of the proper canonical version of the album. But I'll say this: it drops two of the three weakest songs, so there's that. If you switched out "I Want to Tell You" with the missing "I'm Only Sleeping," a part of me might actually favor it, but don't tell anyone. Undoubtedly the oddest thing Apple has chosen to reissue on CD in the modern era.

The Beatles: Hey Jude (Apple 1970) [r]
Only issued in stereo - {Side one, all canon mixes except noted:} Can't Buy Me Love; I Should Have Known Better; Paperback Writer [rebalanced stereo mix]; Rain; Lady Madonna; Revolution / {Side two, all canon mixes:} Hey Jude; Old Brown Shoe; Don't Let Me Down; The Ballad of John and Yoko

The most attractively packaged of all the unique U.S. albums (apart from the butcher cover version of Y&T, naturally), and one of the most sonically bizarre, with two seemingly random A Hard Day's Night-era cuts slapped onto a compilation gathering most but not quite all of the Beatles' non-album cuts from 1966 onward. ("I Should Have Known Better" and "Can't Buy Me Love" apparently find their way here because of their absence from any EMI-controlled LPs on these shores, since both were left off Something New, which still doesn't explain the absence of "A Hard Day's Night." This album marked the American stereo debut of both songs -- and most of the album, actually.) It served as a handy enough compendium, nevertheless, that it became a popular import album in the UK and was eventually released there, where it functioned as a de facto companion to A Collection of Beatles Oldies despite being superseded by the Red and Blue sets. Today, with its mixes no longer special (there is an unusual "Paperback Writer" with reversed channels and some rebalancing that's never surfaced otherwise, but that's not especially important) playing the in-print compact disc of Hey Jude (initially labeled The Beatles Again) feels like you're listening to the second disc of Past Masters while regularly employing the skip button. But it's quite good anyway, and you can tell it was conceived by someone (Allen Klein) with a decent sense of quality control a far cry from stuff like Beatles VI despite the weird time machine effect of the first couple of songs; it's been argued that this allows the disc to provide a good cross section of the Beatles' appeal, and its surfeit of absolutely brilliant b-sides ("Rain," "Don't Let Me Down," "Revolution") certainly makes a strong argument for their infallibility above and beyond virtually any other '60s band. The strangest omission is "The Inner Light," which really seems like it belongs and wouldn't make it to a longplayer until Rarities. Stick to Past Masters unless you're nostalgic or like the photos (which are great).

(Why the everloving fuck did Spector leave "Don't Let Me Down" off Let It Be? Boggles the mind.)


Generally that's considered the extent of the Beatles' American catalog in terms of its divergences from the canon, but that's not quite true, though only absolute froot loops like me are likely to catalog the other differences. A new Capitol contract in 1967 prevented the label from altering the band and George Martin's track selections on their LPs, but the U.S. Sgt. Pepper lacks the hidden tone and inner groove; the White Album was unissued here in mono; Yellow Submarine has mythology-heavy liner notes based on the film, an improvement on the British record's White Album promo; Abbey Road listed "Her Majesty" on the back cover; and Let It Be was a gatefold with an ominous-looking red apple on the label. Nothing major, obviously, but worth mentioning someplace, and no doubt collectors interested in the Beatles' American legacy will still want the U.S. versions of those albums from the years prior to the catalog standardization.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Best Songs of the 2010s

It's rather easy and understandable to denounce a list like this as a superficial, arbitrary round of aimless geekery. What difference does it make whether a song was released in 2009 or 2010, or whether one is #22 or #24? For me, however, this became an extremely important task I set for myself throughout this last year of the decade. The 2010s were an eventful time, a transformative time for me, and I have felt obsessed with cataloging its phases, not only to try and capture the full spectrum of emotions these songs and years evoke but in order to ensure that I, myself, will remember. Albums are one thing: cultural signifiers maybe, long-term companions with ample secrets besides, but songs are the most powerful piece of the puzzle in the great quest of my life, which is to articulate -- as a non-musician -- why rock & roll (as opposed to "rock," which is just one part of rock & roll), its antecedents and subdivisions and digressions, speaks more for me than anything else. Makes me feel freer, explains more to me, shows me more, yet provides me no language for these revelations. I try desperately to find it but it usually isn't forthcoming, and then I keep trying.

In essence I have to provide the disclaimer that this is a highly personal list; claiming it to be idiosyncratic or something would totally miss the point, and certainly wouldn't explain why I spent an entire year putting it together, listening to something like 2,000 individual tracks that I had earmarked at some point from '10 to '18 as being special in some manner. I wanted to do detective work myself to find out what songs from this time are sitting with me at this stage as really speaking to me on the deepest possible level, standing easily with the music that's been with me for decades or for a whole lifetime, and what has attained so much history and so many associations already that I am entirely sure it will be with me till I die or go deaf.

The logistics of all this were a profound illustration of how music consumption has changed since 2010. I used my hard drive and Winamp library to shuffle and revisit all the earmarked songs released from 2010 to 2013 -- plus errant non-streamers -- because back then I torrented everything or was given downloads for review, then switched to a Spotify playlist for everything after. I still download new stuff now but there's no logical way or reason to keep up to the minute on it anymore, so the only way to be thorough was to have two separately constructed playlists from two entirely different spans of time and somehow meld them together. You will notice I'm sure that the resulting list leans heavily on the first half of the decade... but because those songs have had longer to sit, I think that's inevitable, and I don't have a big problem with it; the ranking was honest, and I accept whatever shortcomings it has.

This also served as an interesting one-time experiment; it's unlikely there will ever be another decade in which I hear more new music and catalog it quite so carefully. Lots of things have conspired to prevent this from being a repeatable event, but I'm actually at peace with that: I wanted to do it, and I did, which sounds like a lofty statement for just sitting and listening to a bunch of songs then attempting to rank them, but what I mean more specifically is the act of actually keeping sufficiently abreast of a whole subfield of popular music to be able to provide what I feel is an accurate listing of the best moments within a broad but specific timeframe. I greatly enjoy my archival lists of this nature -- though I haven't been so bold as to try and tackle a full decade yet -- but there's really no replacement for being actually in the weeds with all this, in real time. I'm sure that there are plenty of songs included here that, if I were making this list thirty years from now, would have faded into (undeserved) obscurity and wouldn't naturally have come up on any cursory or even relatively devoted examination of the time. Conversely, I have no doubt there are major works I missed in the 2010s that will be hailed by myself and others as indispensable artifacts -- and even some things that passed by me at the time that will grow in my estimation, will gain relevance and grace with age -- which is why I don't think my lists of songs from 1958 or 1974 or 1996 are bullshit. But there's no doubt the experience, the scope of knowledge produces something different.

So here are 250 songs -- painfully extracted from a longlist of 500 -- I would classify as extraordinary, maybe for reasons that don't apply to anywhere beyond myself and my home, or maybe not. In most cases, if you dig into the archives here, you can find my thoughts on a given individual song by looking for the corresponding album in the index, though there are some I already can verify I underestimated back then. I only realized what an earthshaking masterpiece Leonard Cohen's "Going Home" was, for instance, when I heard Marianne Faithfull's cover version and briefly thought she was enlivening a decades-old classic. I also don't know if I ever really addressed Charli XCX's "Porsche" with the reverence it deserves as a stunningly fleet, laser-focused piece of escapism tinged with mysterious, incalculable yearning -- that a song of its modest ambitions can achieve so much helps me understand why some listeners devote so much energy to finding the same kind of emotional directness and depth in modern studio pop, the way I still do with Shangri-Las and Monkees records (this is also true of Khalid's spirited, telling "8TEEN"), and I've found myself oddly haunted by it in the last few weeks of the '10s.

One other basic comment I'd like to make here is that I hope some of these songs that have slipped through the cracks manage to get a longer life somehow or another. The legacy of something like "Depreston" or "All of the Lights" or even "Hey Jane" is secured, justifiably I think, but what of my two favorite love songs of these ten years? "Bricks to the Bones" is from the second album by Suckers, a band from Brooklyn with versatile, hook-heavy songwriting; its towering production, opening with amplifier cacophony and ultimately reaching for the cosmos with a wordless hook as evocative as the one at the center of Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels," captures romance as blood through the veins, as a force of life, but responds to it with ecstasy and peace. And the Wave Pictures, maybe the world's best rock band at the moment, whose collected works from City Forgiveness on could constitute so much of this list if I'd allowed it (by the way, I limited this list to three songs per album, though I cheated a few times when I had multiple versions of a track to choose from), articulate love in the chalkmarks and details of vivid memories filled with smells, tastes and sights, the urgency and calm of finding home in a person rather than a place, the experience of being on such a cloud that every single thing surrounding you seems important and poetic. "I saw your handwriting, written on everything, and I liked it." Too beautiful to be clumsy, too clumsy not to be true.

By my count, I feel safe calling the first 181 of these songs "great." I may or may not make a Spotify playlist to represent this list if I get time, though I'm a bit reluctant given that the Joanna Newsom songs will inevitably be excluded. Speaking of whom, any of the top five here could be #1, but "Good Intentions Paving Company" became my choice because it feels the most timeless; in all of folk-rock history, it may be the song that most successfully meets such large-scale, lofty ambitions while maintaining an emotional intimacy that is nothing short of harrowing. Newsom can bring you to tears when she performs something like "Sawdust and Diamonds" on stage, equipped with nothing but her own voice and her harp, but when I heard "Good Intentions" and "Baby Birch" for the first time (both live, actually, because I wanted to listen to the album on vinyl first and we couldn't find it anywhere until we went to her show in Durham) with their dramatic arrangements, it was the sensation of a world expanding and a musical genius meeting every one of its larger demands. No doubt that Newsom is the artist of the decade for me, maybe the artist of the century.

1. Joanna Newsom "Good Intentions Paving Company" [Have One on Me, 2010]
2. Titus Andronicus "The Battle of Hampton Roads" [The Monitor, 2010]
3. Miguel "Adorn" [Kaleidoscope Dream, 2012]
4. Joanna Newsom "Baby Birch" [Have One on Me, 2010]
5. The Tallest Man on Earth "Love Is All" [The Wild Hunt, 2010]
6. Leonard Cohen "Going Home" [Old Ideas, 2012] / Marianne Faithfull "Going Home" [Give My Love to London, 2014]
7. The Wave Pictures "Slick Black River from the Rain" [A Season in Hull, 2016]
8. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever "Tender Is the Neck" [Talk Tight, 2017]
9. Love Is All "A Side in a Bed" [Two Thousand and Ten Injuries, 2010]
10. Allo Darlin' "History Lessons" [We Come from the Same Place, 2014]
11. The Walkmen "Juveniles" [Lisbon, 2010]
12. Courtney Barnett "Depreston" [Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, 2015]
13. Robyn "Dancing on My Own" [Body Talk, 2010]
14. Spiritualized "Hey Jane" [Sweet Heart Sweet Light, 2012]
15. Kanye West ft. Rihanna "All of the Lights" [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010]
16. The Wave Pictures "We Fell Asleep in the Blue Tent" [Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon, 2015]
17. Anthony Joseph "Neckbone" [Caribbean Roots, 2016]
18. Perfume Genius "Hood" [Put Your Back In 2 It, 2012]
19. Twin Shadow "Run My Heart" [Confess, 2012]
20. Tune-Yards "Wait for a Minute" [Nikki Nack, 2014]
21. Frank Ocean "Lost" [Channel Orange, 2012]
22. Suckers "Bricks to the Bones" [Candy Salad, 2012]
23. The National "This Is the Last Time" [Trouble Will Find Me, 2013]
24. Owen Pallett "The Great Elsewhere" [Heartland, 2010]
25. Tune-Yards "Powa" [whokill, 2011]
26. Saint Etienne "Tonight" [Words and Music by Saint Etienne, 2012]
27. Leonard Cohen "Amen" [Old Ideas, 2012]
28. The National "Bloodbuzz, Ohio" [High Violet, 2010]
29. D'Angelo "Really Love" [Black Messiah, 2014]
30. N.E.R.D. ft. Rihanna "Lemon" [No One Ever Really Dies, 2017]
31. TV on the Radio "You" [Nine Types of Light, 2011]
32. Kelis "Breakfast" [Food, 2014]
33. Janelle Monae & the Wondaland Arts Society "Hell You Talmbout" [single, 2015] / David Byrne "Hell You Talmbout" [live, 2018]
34. Tune-Yards "Doorstep" [whokill, 2011]
35. Fiona Apple "Anything We Want" [The Idler Wheel..., 2012]
36. Superchunk "This Summer" [single, 2012]
37. Twerps "I Don't Mind" [Range Anxiety, 2015]
38. Susanne Sundfor "Fade Away" [Ten Love Songs, 2015]
39. The New Pornographers "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk" [Together, 2010]
40. Rihanna "Love on the Brain" [ANTI, 2016]
41. Hot Chip "Alley Cats" [One Life Stand, 2010]
42. Joanna Newsom "The Things I Say" [Divers, 2015]
43. (Sandy) Alex G "Bobby" [Rocket, 2017]
44. Janelle Monae "Make Me Feel" [Dirty Computer, 2018]
45. Arcade Fire "Sprawl #2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" [The Suburbs, 2010]
46. Chromatics "Kill for Love" [Kill for Love, 2012]
47. Surfer Blood "Anchorage" [Astro Coast, 2010]
48. The Chemical Brothers ft. Beck "Wide Open" [Born in the Echoes, 2015]
49. Charli XCX ft. MØ "Porsche" [Pop 2, 2018]
50. Courtney Barnett "Sunday Roast" [Tell Me How You Really Feel, 2018]
51. Das Racist "Michael Jackson" [Relax, 2011]
52. Girls "Oh So Protective One" [Broken Dreams Club, 2010]
53. Joanna Newsom "Divers" [Divers, 2015]
54. Hot Chip "Take It In" [One Life Stand / We Have Remixes, 2010]
55. Saint Etienne "Over the Border" [Words and Music by Saint Etienne, 2012]
56. Beach House "Norway" [Teen Dream, 2010]
57. Vampire Weekend "Unbelievers" [Modern Vampires of the City, 2013]
58. Kendrick Lamar "untitled 08" [untitled unmastered., 2016]
59. Leonard Cohen "Show Me the Place" [Old Ideas, 2012]
60. Cut Copy "Take Me Over" [Zonoscope, 2011]
61. Black Marble "A Great Design" [A Different Arrangement, 2012]
62. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down "Millionaire" [A Man Alive, 2016]
63. The Mountain Goats "Damn These Vampires" [All Eternals Deck, 2011]
64. Camp Cope "I've Got You" [How to Socialise & Make Friends, 2018]
65. Yoko Ono "7th Floor" [Take Me to the Land of Hell, 2013]
66. Passion Pit "Take a Walk" [Gossamer, 2012]
67. A Tribe Called Quest "We the People" [We Got It from Here, Thank You 4 Your Service, 2016]
68. Yo La Tengo "Ohm" [Fade, 2013]
69. Nicolas Jaar "Three Sides of Nazareth" [Sirens, 2016]
70. Beyonce "Love on Top" [4, 2012]
71. Rhye "The Fall" [Woman, 2013]
72. Colette "When the Music's Loud" [When the Music's Loud, 2013]
73. Titus Andronicus "To Old Friends and New" [The Monitor, 2010]
74. Royal Headache "Carolina" [High, 2015]
75. Chastity Belt "Drone" [Time to Go Home, 2015]
76. Shannon and the Clams "The Boy" [Onion, 2018]
77. Allo Darlin' "Half Heart Necklace" [We Come from the Same Place, 2014]
78. Eleanor Friedberger "He Didn't Mention His Mother" [New View, 2016]
79. Slowdive "No Longer Making Time" [Slowdive, 2017]
80. The Walkmen "Lisbon" [Lisbon, 2010]
81. Fiona Apple "Hot Knife" [The Idler Wheel..., 2012]
82. Titus Andronicus "Theme from Cheers" [The Monitor, 2010]
83. Kanye West "Black Skinhead" [Yeezus, 2013]
84. Tierra Whack "Cable Guy" [Whack World, 2018]
85. Deerhunter "Desire Lines" [Halcyon Digest, 2010]
86. The Tallest Man on Earth "Graceland" {Paul Simon cover} [b-side, 2010]
87. Sheer Mag "Nobody's Baby" [III, 2016]
88. Lady Lamb "Penny Licks" [After, 2015]
89. Curren$y "Breakfast" [Pilot Talk, 2010]
90. Ezra Furman "Love You So Bad" [Transangelic Exodus, 2018]
91. Underworld "Nylon Strung" [Barbara Barbara We Face a Shining Futyre, 2016]
92. Kaki King "Sloan Shore" [Junior, 2010]
93. Disclosure ft. London Grammar "Help Me Lose My Mind" [Settle, 2013]
94. The Wave Pictures "Before This Day" [City Forgiveness, 2013]
95. Kelela "All the Way Down" [Hallucinogen, 2015]
96. D'Angelo "Another Life" [Black Messiah, 2014]
97. Tierra Whack "Pet Cemetery" [Whack World, 2018]
98. TV on the Radio "Killer Crane" [Nine Types of Light, 2011]
99. The National "I Need My Girl" [Trouble Will Find Me, 2013]
100. The Wave Pictures "Hazey Moon" [Look Inside Your Heart, 2018]
101. Cat Power "Manhattan" [Sun, 2012]
102. Vince Staples "Big Fish" [Big Fish Theory, 2017]
103. Courtney Barnett "Houses" {Elyse Weinberg cover} [single, 2018]
104. Flock of Dimes "Birthplace" [If You See Me, Say Yes, 2016]
105. Khalid "8TEEN" [American Teen, 2017]
106. Vampire Weekend "Diplomat's Son" [Contra, 2010]
107. The Julie Ruin "Just My Kind" [Run Fast, 2013]
108. Shura "Touch" [Nothing's Real, 2016]
109. Belle & Sebastian "The Ghost of Rockschool" [Write About Love, 2010]
110. Danny Brown "Really Doe" [Atrocity Exhibition, 2016]
111. Twin Shadow "When the Movie's Over" [Confess, 2012]
112. Beach House "Bluebird" [Depression Cherry, 2015]
113. Kanye West "Bound 2" [Yeezus, 2013]
114. Horse Feathers "Fit Against the Country" [Cynic's New Year, 2012]
115. Nadine Shah "2016" [Holiday Destination, 2017]
116. Yo La Tengo "Butchie's Tune" {Lovin' Spoonful cover} [Stuff Like That There, 2015]
117. The Wave Pictures "Atlanta" [City Forgiveness, 2013]
118. Vince Staples "Yeah Right" [Big Fish Theory, 2017]
119. The Julie Ruin "Run Fast" [Run Fast, 2013]
120. PAPA "Ain't It So" [A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, 2011]
121. Jay Som "The Bus Song" [Everybody Works, 2017]
122. Vampire Weekend "Diane Young" [Modern Vampires of the City, 2013]
123. Azealia Banks "212" [single, 2011 / Broke with Expensive Taste, 2014]
124. Vampire Weekend "Run" [Contra, 2010]
125. Beyonce "Party" [4, 2012]
126. The Wave Pictures "Remains" [A Season in Hull, 2016]
127. Leonard Cohen "You Want It Darker" [You Want It Darker, 2016]
128. Cut Copy "Need You Now" [Zonoscope, 2011]
129. Tirzah "Holding On" [Devotion, 2018]
130. Arcade Fire "Half Light 2 (No Celebration)" [The Suburbs, 2010]
131. The Walkmen "Blue as Your Blood" [Lisbon, 2010]
132. Kate Tempest "Tunnel Vision" [Let Them Eat Chaos, 2016]
133. Twin Shadow ft. D'Angelo Lacy "Old Love/New Love" [Eclipse, 2015]
134. Tirzah "Devotion" [Devotion, 2018]
135. Love Is All "Early Warnings" [Two Thousand and Ten Injuries, 2010]
136. Titus Andronicus "Crass Tattoo" [A Productive Cough, 2018]
137. LCD Soundsystem "I Can Change" [This Is Happening, 2010] / Ezra Furman "I Can Change" [Songs by Others, 2016]
138. Pity Sex "September" [White Hot Moon, 2016]
139. The xx "I Dare You" [I See You, 2017]
140. The Walkmen "Line by Line" [Heaven, 2012]
141. Joanna Newsom "In California" [Have One on Me, 2010]
142. Beach House "New Year" [Bloom, 2012]
143. American Wrestlers "Real People" [Goodbye Terrible Youth, 2017]
144. Kanye West "Runaway" [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010]
145. Courtney Barnett "Avant Gardener" [How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose, 2013]
146. Beach House "Other People" [Bloom, 2012]
147. Kendrick Lamar "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" [good kid, m.A.A.d. city, 2012]
148. The Weeknd "Secrets" [Starboy, 2016]
149. Rihanna "Work" [ANTI, 2016]
150. Pet Shop Boys "Thursday" [Electric, 2013]
151. Sheer Mag "Pure Desire" [Need to Feel Your Love, 2017]
152. Killer Mike "R.A.P. Music" [R.A.P. Music, 2012]
153. Ellie Goulding "Lights" [Lights, 2012]
154. Yo La Tengo "Rickety" [Stuff Like That There, 2015]
155. Royal Headache "Wouldn't You Know" [High, 2015]
156. The Wave Pictures "I Could Hear the Telephone (Three Floors Above Me)" [Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon, 2015]
157. Nicolas Jaar "No" [Sirens, 2016]
158. DJ Koze "Pick Up" [Knock Knock, 2018]
159. Smith Westerns "Dance Away" [Dye It Blonde, 2011]
160. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba "Madou" [Jama Ko, 2013]
161. Crystal Castles "Celestica" [Crystal Castles, 2010]
162. ceo "Whorehouse" [Wonderland, 2014]
163. Hot Chip "Hand Me Down Your Love" [One Life Stand, 2010]
164. Kwabs "My Own" [Love + War, 2015]
165. Destroyer "Kaputt" [Kaputt, 2011]
166. Pantha du Prince "Stick to My Side" [Black Noise, 2010]
167. Buddy "Real Life Shit" [Harlan & Alondra, 2018]
168. Rhye "Open" [Woman, 2013]
169. Miguel "Waves" [Wildheart, 2015]
170. Kate Tempest "Lonely Daze" [Everybody Down, 2014]
171. The National "Lemonworld" [High Violet, 2010]
172. Tune-Yards "Manchild" [Nikki Nack, 2014]
173. Wilco "One Sunday Morning" [The Whole Love, 2011]
174. Vampire Weekend "Taxi Cab" [Contra, 2010] / Tracey Thorn "Taxi Cab" [b-side, 2010]
175. Cut Copy "Corner of the Sky" [Zonoscope, 2011]
176. Killer Mike "Reagan" [R.A.P. Music, 2012]
177. Paramore "Hard Times" [After Laughter, 2017]
178. Leonard Cohen "Different Sides" [Old Ideas, 2012]
179. Dark Dark Dark "Tell Me" [Who Needs Who]
180. Whitney "No Matter Where We Go" [Light Upon the Lake, 2016]
181. Daft Punk "Get Lucky" [Random Access Memories, 2013]
182. Broken Bells "Perfect World" [After the Disco, 2014]
183. Lyla Foy "No Secrets" [Mirrors the Sky, 2014]
184. =N.E.R.D. "Rollinem 7's" [No One Ever Really Dies, 2017]
185. The Mountain Goats "Shelved" [Goths, 2017]
186. Heems "Patriot Act" [Eat Pray Thug, 2015]
187. Ezra Furman "Been So Strange" [Day of the Dog, 2013]
188. Nicolas Jaar "Problems with the Sun" [Space Is Only Noise, 2011]
189. Das Racist "Rainbow in the Dark" [Shut Up Dude, 2010 / Relax, 2011]
190. Tune-Yards "Gangsta" [whokill, 2011]
191. SOPHIE "Immaterial" [Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides, 2018]
192. Kendrick Lamar "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" [good kid, m.A.A.d. city, 2012]
193. The Roots ft. Raheem "Tomorrow" [...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, 2014]
194. Terry Malts "Gentle Eyes" [Lost at the Party, 2016]
195. Le1f "Wut" [Dark York, 2012]
196. Hot Chip "Flutes" [In Our Heads, 2012]
197. The Goon Sax "We Can't Win" [We're Not Talking, 2018]
198. Courtney Barnett "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party" [Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, 2015]
199. Surfer Blood "Swim" [Astro Coast, 2010]
200. Yo La Tengo "Cornelia and Jane" [Fade, 2013]
201. Arcade Fire "Suburban War" [The Suburbs, 2010]
202. Anthony Joseph "Jimmy Upon That Bridge" [Caribbean Roots, 2016]
203. The New Pornographers "Crash Years" [Together, 2010]
204. A$AP Rocky ft. Drake, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar "Fuckin' Problems" [LongLiveA$AP, 2012]
205. Teena Marie "Luv Letter" [Beautiful, 2013]
206. The Walkmen "Love Is Luck" [Heaven, 2012]
207. Curren$y "On G's" [Weekend at Burnie's, 2011]
208. Pink "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" [The Truth About Love, 2012]
209. Solange ft. Lil Wayne "Mad" [A Seat at the Table, 2016]
210. Janelle Monae "BaBopByeYa" [The ArchAndroid, 2010]
211. Yoko Ono "Bad Dancer" [Take Me to the Land of Hell, 2013]
212. Twin Shadow "Castles in the Snow" [Forget, 2010]
213. Ezra Furman "Haunted Head" [Perpetual Motion People, 2015]
214. The Tallest Man on Earth "The Dreamer" [Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird, 2010]
215. New Build "Do You Not Feel Loved?" [Yesterday Was Lived and Lost, 2012]
216. Gil Scott-Heron "New York Is Killing Me" [I'm New Here, 2010]
217. Hospitality "Last Words" [Trouble, 2014]
218. Soccer Mommy "Your Dog" [Clean, 2018]
219. The Mountain Goats "Song for Ted Sallis" [Hex of Infinite Binding, 2018]
220. Pet Shop Boys "Vocal" [Electric, 2013]
221. Vampire Weekend "Giving Up the Gun" [Contra, 2010]
222. Laura Marling "Always This Way" [Semper Femina, 2017]
223. Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx "My Cloud" [We're New Here, 2011]
224. Blood Orange "EVP" [Freetown Sound, 2016]
225. Ratking "Snow Beach" [So It Goes, 2014]
226. Deerhunter "Basement Scene" [Halcyon Digest, 2010]
227. Austra "Painful Like" [Olympia, 2013]
228. Janelle Monae "Oh, Maker" [The ArchAndroid, 2010]
229. Kanye West "Power" [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010]
230. Tirzah "Reach Hi" [Devotion, 2018]
231. Daniel Bachman "Sycamore City" [The Morning Star, 2018]
232. Ezra Furman "My Zero" [Day of the Dog, 2013]
233. Weekend "Mirror" [Jinx, 2013]
234. Chromatics "The Page" [Kill for Love, 2012]
235. Vampire Weekend "Worship You" [Modern Vampires of the City, 2013]
236. Kelela "A Lie" [Cut 4 Me, 2013]
237. Yo La Tengo "I'll Be Around" [Fade, 2013]
238. Danny Brown "Lonely" [Old, 2013]
239. Das Racist "Happy Rappy" [Relax, 2011]
240. Petite Noir "Kinshasa Waltz" [internet-only, 2013]
241. Daft Punk "Doin' It Right" [Random Access Memories, 2013]
242. Kwabs "Make You Mine" [Love + War, 2015]
243. The xx "Fiction" [Coexist, 2012]
244. A$AP Rocky "Trilla" [LiveLoveA$AP, 2011]
245. Tame Impala "I Don't Really Mind" [Innerspeaker, 2010]
246. Kids See Ghosts "Reborn" [Kids See Ghosts, 2018]
247. Andrew Bird "Pulaski at Night" [I Want to See Pulaski at Night, 2013]
248. The Last Poets "Rain of Terror" [Understand What Black Is, 2018]
249. Janelle Monae "Screwed" [Dirty Computer, 2018]
250. Solange "Cranes in the Sky" [A Seat at the Table, 2016]

Songs from 2019 are excluded from this first version of the list; my last lingering projects dealing with that year will follow in the next week or two, and this year's List of Lists will revise both this and the album countdown to incorporate 2019 products. I'm sorry for leaving them off at this stage but it was really the easiest way for me to make this happen in a timely manner. See you in the next decade.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Pet Shop Boys: Release (2002)



Release is the result of an exceptionally productive series of recording sessions initiated a year after the completion of Pet Shop Boys' uneven, image-shaking Nightlife, and like that record it makes much of the idea of reinvention. The hype at the time concentrated on the deceptive portrayal of this as Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's move toward warmth, toward an organic guitar-based sound, away from arch ironies, wacky hairdos, computer animation. (Those who've paid close attention will be familiar with this as a nearly constant career path for the duo's LP discography, from Please and Actually onward; almost always they follow a brash ground-up, visually audacious reimagining of themselves with a pulling back of the curtain to show off who they really are.) Not "back to basics" so much as a first encounter with basics. This is largely a coy bit of marketing; in fact, the album was recorded in the usual synth and programming-heavy fashion, with many of the supposedly organic sounds actually just being the result of major progression and innovation in electronic music. But Johnny Marr does audibly contribute to several tracks, there is certainly more here that resembles traditional, if soft, rock music than usual, and there's no doubt that Tennat and Lowe's songwriting approach -- modest, emotional and drenched with melancholy -- stands in extreme contrast to the impression-making four-on-the-floor anthems on Nightlife and the fervent, ambitious optimism of Very and Bilingual. The main distinction is how slow and contemplative everything is, and the final effect is a plainspoken record that can feel like a most welcome salve.

As ever, the title has two divergent suggestions: firstly, another in the run of absurdly minimalist, matter-of-fact labels that brought us Very and Please and Actually and Alternative and a song called "Single"; of course it's a release, nothing more and nothing less. (Maybe significant, by the way, that Revolver was once UK slang for a 12" record.) But also, as ambiguously echoed by the carnivorous plant on the cover -- which seems in some strange way to be wailing out in a kind of surrender -- "release" is catharsis, an escape from tension and despair, a sigh of relief, and for all the anxieties that constantly permeate Tennat's writing, it is this sensation that seems to permeate so much of this record, which stands as a unique installment in PSB's long career, with a communicative compassion. It felt very reassuring to hear Tennant's voice again after what seemed far too long in 2002, especially on a song as generous and welcoming as "Home and Dry," and the weathered mode of this music has made returning to it quite valuable in the years since.

The landscape that Release entered was wildly different from the one that greeted Nightlife in 1999, when the parameters of clubbing and end-of-history abandon were still more or less in place. It can be hard now to remember what a bizarre time the early 2000s were in the aftermath of 9/11, and the atmosphere of fear and dread that overtook social life and culture on an international level. Nightlife had been the first PSB album from which AIDS felt almost completely absent (with, to be sure, some residue from the attendant anxieties in "In Denial" but an audacious return to freedom on "New York City Boy"), and now Release is the first transmission from a world undergoing incomprehensible levels of upheaval, even though most of it was recorded by the moment everything changed. There was a sensation in those days of being unmoored and uncertain, and sadly it's one that hasn't entirely left since then; however, the jingoism, violence and puritanism of the three years just after 9/11 is hard to deny as some sort of nadir, when all voices of reason seemed entirely drowned out. And even though Neil isn't necessarily singing about any of that, in the one-two punch that opens this record, joined later by the wistful, unapologetic immigration narrative "London," the resignation and welcome he expresses feel deeply vital, especially when he immediately turns it around into a raw examination of his own insecurities.

First single and album opener "Home and Dry" was accompanied by the most controversial Pet Shop Boys video to date, a boldly minimalist, amateurishly shot paean to the communion and dietary scrounging of rats in the London Underground. Anger and consternation greeted the clip in Britain and its rather intense nonconformity, this being an age when videos mattered a hell of a lot more than they do now, was widely blamed for the single and album's relatively lackluster chart performance -- though the song was still a sizable hit in England and on American dancefloors, not surprisingly since it's one of the group's most beautiful and well-produced songs ever. Despite some sparing and stylistically appropriate use of Autotune, the warts-and-all ideology of Wolfgang Tillmans' video is matched by the way that Tennant embraces the fact of being weathered by the years; but he's as assured as ever, and he and Lowe have written a celebration of love and security that sounds exactly like what it's about: expounding on the massive universe ("there's a plane at JFK") from the comfort of clean bedsheets, matching its enraptured breathlessness with genuinely bracing intimacy. It's kind of an embrace, an assertion that despite all that's happened, everyone still belongs here.

"Home and Dry" closes out with Lowe repeatedly speaking the words "we're going home" in his usual determined, steely monotone. It sounds like he's trying to dispel the fears of the entire world, but he's also referencing the Beatles; Paul McCartney ends "Two of Us," one of the most beloved of his love songs for Linda Eastman, with the same spoken words before John Lennon whistles out into the fade. Part of the point may be just to make plain that Tennant and Lowe intend to carry themselves forward as an infallible team through a third decade, even as the ground shakes under them; but it's also a statement of the kind of pop mood they're aspiring to evoke here. (The Beatles fan in the group is almost certainly Tennant, as Lowe's relative distaste for rock music is well-known and a running joke; there is also a direct lyrical nod to "A Day in the Life" in 1996's "Metamorphosis.") The Beatles allusions in the tremendous song that follows "Home and Dry," "I Get Along," are more abstract but no less striking -- it's a melodic nod to Britpop and by extension to its grandfathers, with a particular resemblance to George Harrison's melodic sensibility (Harrison died the month work on Release was completed) and a bridge whose delivery (listen to the way Tennant sings the word "diverted") shoots for the pleasing rawness of Rubber Soul... but perhaps more significant is the act of naked self-examination the song initiates. It's not the first or the last time the band would issue a song that sounded achingly personal, but one of the few in which Tennant sounds actually vulnerable, given that his tendency to hide behind layers of cleverness and characterization have been a hallmark of the band's work since the beginning. Whether it's as direct a breakup song as it seems to be or not, "I Get Along" is the most devastatingly direct bit of exposure he's permitted since the b-side "Your Funny Uncle," about the loss of a loved one to AIDS. And Lowe dutifully takes the very unusual step, also common to "Uncle," of removing all evidence that this is a dance group.

The song is lengthy and pointed, tellingly detailed in its chronicle of a fraying affair, though Tennant typically deferred questions by claiming it was about politics. But even if it is, it isn't, you know? The lyrics are perfect, the melody astonishing, and the group proves adept at concocting a midtempo rock ballad that's as effective and moving as "Kings Cross" or "Only the Wind," and the mixture of actual hurt and tearful resilience in the words and vocal ("I've been trying not to cry when I'm in the public eye... stuck here with the shame and taking my share of the blame while making solemn plans that don't include you") absolve any sense that the group is stretching too far from their comfort zone. These two opening cuts sound potentially like a new beginning for PSB, a totally different direction; as it would turn out, this is really the only time they'd ever attempt such straightforward pop again. ("What Have I Done to Deserve This?" is a fair antecedent but is beholden to very different and much less mainstream traditions.) It was months before I even noticed that the rest of Release never really lives up to its opening numbers in all their pain and loveliness; but strangely, it never seemed to really matter much.

That isn't to say the rest of the album is lackluster; in fact, nearly all of it is upper-tier Pet Shop. The third single "London" takes a more traditional approach to the same sort of languid mood; it's beautiful, sumptuous song full of longing and grit, but it's also a character sketch, here of a pair of immigrants' journey to Britain for a better life -- therefore its vaguely leftist, unmistakably humane but appropriately complex messaging seems prescient in a way that the rest of the album, very unabashedly a product of 2002, does not. (Please note that this isn't a knock; music that captures its time is important, particularly if it does so in a way that continues to resonate. It is not a complaint that Benny Goodman records evoke the time in which they were recorded; rather, that they do so even for audiences who weren't there is a major artistic achievement.) Like "High and Dry" it toys with the then-ubiquitous innovation of Autotune (this was the first post-"Believe" PSB album), which would quickly be shunned by just about every stripe of music fan, but they use it well in both songs. Oddly, of all Release's songs "London" is most evocative of the grand melodies of the Very period, a well to which they had not returned since that watershed album.

A personal favorite track of mine is the instantly dated but simple and charming "E-Mail," a very Neil Tennant analysis of the effect of modern communication on romance that is -- even now -- surprisingly eloquent, and fully aware of its own out-of-touch ironies. It's probably the most on-the-nose song about the early years of web courting with the exception of Aaron Carter's long-forgotten "My Internet Girl," but again, as is typical of PSB, it explores day-to-day life and its attendant insecurities (and those that accompany long-distance adoration) with a cunning wit and sensitivity -- "some things can be written down that we're too shy to say" -- that only Stephin Merritt among contemporary pop composers can remotely match. Chris Lowe is clever to pair it all with a grinding, slick porno beat that plays up the cheerful corniness of the enterprise. And I would be lying if I said that the fact I started my first two relationships through message boards and email doesn't give me some sentimental attachment to the song (I would also be lying if I said I did not include it on at least one mix CD for a girl; yikes) -- and I think its wistfulness is captured well by its use as the coda for the "I Get Along" video, which consists of a bunch of models carousing around having a nice time weeks after 9/11, a yearning tombstone for a dead decade. Laid against the shifting culture, the florid album closer "You Choose," which romantically elucidates on what some find a very non-romantic concept, that falling in love is a choice, seems almost defiantly quaint, but Pet Shop Boys' reminder of the unchanging utility and importance of love itself is, like so much of this album, a comfort in a dark time.

The scattered remarks that the record thoroughly avoids beats seemed to be based on a cursory glance at the PR materials and on the fact that "I Get Along" is such a monster of a song that it overshadows much of what's around it; in fact, Lowe gets a couple of major synth-heavy showcases here. "The Samurai in Autumn" is the kind of ominous banger that might well have been saved for a b-side or a Disco volume in the old days. (In fact, there was enough fan backlash against the slow tempos of Release that Disco 3 arrived very soon afterward. For my part, I've always liked the outliers in PSB's output, starting way back with "Later Tonight" and "It Couldn't Happen Here," but any band that ends up with this kind of hallowed cult status is to get some flack for straying from norms, and I'm grateful that Tennant and Lowe -- unlike, say, Depeche Mode, who I also love -- have never really let this talk them out of experimentation.) It's surprisingly stark and urgent in the vein of "Euroboy" but carries through the ambiguously dour but resilient moods of the rest of the disc while also recalling the melodic seriousness of Behavior. And "Here" is the kind of hook-driven dancefloor cut that fans tend to wait around for, instantly recognizable as Pet Shop without being stereotypical. Tennant shoots for showtune energy, Lowe gives it a memorably nocturnal vibe subsumed in the kind of strangely lively emotion dance music is best at capturing, and it's a snapshot of eccentric clubbing in 2002 just like Nightlife and Bilingual were for their respective eras. And once again, Neil brings it home with the perfect sentiment: "Call it what you want, you've got a home here."

There are less graceful moments, and admittedly more than usual of them among the better PSB albums. "Birthday Boy" is probably the only dud, primarily because six and a half minutes is too long for its dunderheaded and facile metaphor, pedestrian vocal and arrangement, and amausingly overdriven key changes. Its lyric is so awash in bland suggestion as to feel like one of Paul Simon's English class interludes, and it suffers from a shitty guitar or imitation-guitar solo that I refuse to believe comes from Marr. Somewhat stronger is "Love Is a Catastrophe," which sadly can't live up to its wonderful title -- it is a traditional Neil Tennant whinge with a touch of "Dreaming of the Queen" and "It Couldn't Happen Here" but without the aural appeal of those songs. Next to "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk" from Nightlife, it's lyrically the most Magnetic Fields-like of all PSB songs, but presumably Merritt et al. wouldn't let it out with this level of ridiculous melodrama, and he also would never sing it with the same passion as Neil, which changes its tone entirely.

That brings us to the most attention-grabbing of all Release's songs, and the one that essentially cursed it to a status as a bit of a novelty album. It's the one time in history that Pet Shop Boys managed to get the attention of Dr. Dre, enough to issue a mild diss in response. In retrospect, it feels like the Eminem controversy would have seemed very much yesterday's news by 2002, akin to Peter Gabriel putting out a hit piece on Jerry Springer that same year, but my memory is that "The Night I Fell in Love" got PSB considerable mainstream music news coverage in the U.S. for the first time since, roughly, Introspective (1988). And in fairness, Eminem's homophobia and the music community and press' response to same had been the subject of a firestorm from 1999 to 2001, and presumably the dust hadn't quite settled; and of course, Eminem is even now -- for whatever reason -- still a big star. The key moment of the circus, which had PTA members wringing hands and Larry King and Chris Matthews (who thought Eminem was "a bunch of guys" due to his passing glance at the video for "The Real Slim Shady") weighing in at absurd length on cable news, came at the 2001 Grammy awards when, amid widely reported protests from GLAAD, a blustering speech was given about how this was a free speech battle just like the PMRC vs. backmasking and "Darling Nikki" and all that, just like Ray Charles mixing sacred and profane, just like people getting arrested for selling 2 Live Crew CDs -- none of which had jackshit to do with the gay community's objections to Eminem -- followed immediately by a performance of "Stan" in which Eminem was joined by (noted PSB fan) Elton John. The entire charade was oddly performative: the suggestion was that yes, Eminem's rhetoric was harmful, but then again, so what? He's so smart! He's a journalist for poor white communities! He spits at blank words a minute! He uses puns! Plus free speech means no one should ever have accountability for anything they say! Etc.

In Tennant and Lowe's response to all this, Neil puts on his actorly voice and portrays, as revealed in the song's punchline, an underage boy who sleeps with Eminem in a one-night stand. For those who remember how inescapable Eminem was back then, there's no way to know how this snapshot of the cultural moment, which includes an amusing direct reference to "Stan" itself, would play now to someone unaware of the context. My suspicion is that while it's a strong topical piece taken in isolation, it brings the album down and fits badly with it both thematically and musically -- though Lowe blesses it with another perversely sensual soundscape calling some of the filthy remixes of "We All Feel Better in the Dark" to mind, it's maybe the first time in the band's history that songcraft has intentionally taken a back seat to ideology, with everything predicated on an audience paying attention to the words and focusing on the target of their satire. (This would come up later in the group's history on the anti-Blair number "I'm with Stupid" and the threadbare Trump-era Agenda EP.) Despite these issues, though, it is a rather impeccable and in some ways brilliant piece of vindictive comedy, and what makes it so incisive and playful in comparison to something like Ben Folds' toothless, vaguely racist rap-metal attack "Rockin' the Suburbs" is how it spins the defenses by Eminem, the RIAA and the rapper's fans and critical supporters right back against them, specifically the fact that none of the above ever had a half-decent response to the homophobia question much as Eminem mentor Dr. Dre never had an answer for the misogyny question. When Tennant's wide-eyed character wonders aloud, now that he's fucked Slim Shady himself up the ass in a night of hedonistic splendor, why so many people think he hates gay people, all the nameless-here-forever-more star does is shrug. The line of thought ends there, unresolved, and somehow there's nothing truer or more damning, like the adults in Sesame Street telling Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died "just because."

More than anything, however, "The Night I Fell in Love" works because of Tennant's vocal performance, which is, without hyperbole, utterly magnificent. He modulates perfectly to capture the male groupie completely under the thumb of his idol, appropriates hip hop language without even as much condescension and wink as one can arguably read from Eminem himself, and in the moments when he repeats the "secret lovers" line and sounds like he's on the verge of a quiet orgasm when he claims that the world's most celebrated white rapper "was passionate," he absolutely writhes in the rightness of the moment in a way that's infectiously nasty. The inevitable question is, who has lasted longer, Eminem or Pet Shop Boys? In this regard, the duo shoot themselves in the foot by dedicating so much energy to a hatefuck of what amounts to a fad; sure, Eminem is still something of a hit-maker and has a legacy now, but who still really thinks about the moment when his lyrics were the subject of all this breathless analysis, except when they're reminded of it by something like this? It limits the record's utility now. One is reminded of how much energy some of us spent railing against dreadful multiplatinum bands like Creed, little knowing that their earnest machismo would be a speck in the rear-view within well under a decade.

But Pet Shop Boys have been flourishing for thirty-seven years now, and while the larger culture has failed to acknowledge them, it has also moved with them, and they with it. Release marks a point both when their instincts paid off as they so frequently have and when they hedged just a bit, to comment more than usual on the changing culture. In its worst moments it's a mirror held up to a long-gone moment; in its best it suggests a durability and wisdom that can be hard to explain to outsiders of the group's fanbase but that, to the initiated, can be life-saving.

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Beatles: In the Beginning (1961-62)

(Polydor 1970)

(First of all, I'm using this particular release of this material as a platform to review it because it's the most readily available and generous, and was issued by the original label for whom these tracks were recorded. More on this below. The disc also encompasses some non-Beatle material that was once thought otherwise, whereas Purple Chick's nearly definitive unauthorized examination of this period, I Hope We Passed the Audition -- reviewed on our studio bootlegs page -- keeps things strictly to songs on which the band actually played, and is probably now the best way to acquire and hear these songs.)

For all his reputation today as a bit player in history, Tony Sheridan was a tough-as-nails British heartthrob, a dyed-in-the-wool rock & roller who made waves and thrilled local audiences mimicking Elvis on various stages in Hamburg at a time when the thirst for raw, hard American-derived rock music in that city was nearly insatiable, which had of course led to Liverpool bands like the Beatles, Rory Storm & the Hurricanes and Derry & the Seniors being recruited and sent overseas to play the nighclub district. Sheridan's reputation as an able singer and guitarist and the chemistry he shared with the Beatles when they occasionally played together got him a recording contract well ahead of most of his peers, when in 1961 he was signed to Polydor by German orchestra leader, record producer and easy listening master Bert Kaempfert. Kaempfert also signed the Beatles, whose reputation among musicians and crowds had grown sterling by this point in their second Hamburg trip (and third Hamburg residency, at the Top Ten Club after ill-fated stints at the Indra and the Kaiserkeller), and thus got them their very first recording contract, though initially they would serve only as backing musicians for Sheridan with the promise of some brief indulgence for their own material.

The main sessions took place on June 22nd and 23rd, 1961 at a German high school built in the seventeenth century whose auditorium was known and well-used by Kaempfert for its high-quality acoustics. The Beatles -- at this point recently whittled to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best, though newly departed bassist Stuart Sutcliffe tagged along to observe -- appeared bright and early, having not gone to bed after the previous night's show spread on into the wee hours, mostly high on uppers. Recording for Kaempfert was a huge deal; he was not just a German star but an international celebrity after the widespread success of his Beautiful Music classic "Wonderland by Night," a #1 hit in America, which must have put stars in the eyes of all involved parties but particularly the four Beatles who so yearned for a tangible, mass-produced piece of their music on disc.

Paul had recently and grudgingly switched to playing bass in place of Stu, but proves adept and even fairly masterful at this early session. John and George were already in their long-established positions; John acquits himself fairly well, George only shines occasionally and probably had some hand in keeping the lone Beatles vocal (John's Gene Vincent-inspired cover of the '20s standard "Ain't She Sweet") recorded here unreleased for the time being due to his atrocious solo. But as would happen quite often, the true weak link was Pete Best, whose drumming was rapidly deemed unacceptable by Kaempfert; the producer took the rather extreme step of removing his bass drum and toms, so that all of his drumming on these songs is comprised mostly of rather frantic and repetitive work on the snare, though it does permit us to avoid the cursed rumbling common to most of the recorded evidence of Best's work with the group. Kaempfert's other major contribution was an overall slickness and cleanliness of sound that simultaneously makes these recordings -- multitrack and in true stereo -- sound much more "advanced" than the Beatles' Decca tape of six months later or even their early EMI output, which had a rawness that the Beatles would have distinctly preferred. But Kaempfert wasn't out to imitate American rock & roll, a genre that wasn't really in his wheelhouse, and objectively these recordings sound very good.

Where rawness does come through is in the performances. This music is instructive because it does give us more than a decent idea of why the Beatles were turning heads to such an extent in Germany, as even on this mostly lackluster material their enthusiasm is infectious and they play hard, fast and loud in a sonically advanced throwback to the first wave of U.S. rock & roll four to six years earlier. That said, the sessions' officially sanctioned single, an awkwardly rollicking rearrangement of the Scottish folk song "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" (nearly as old as the building in which the Beatles were recording), certainly is an oddity, harking back less to rock & roll's appropriation of black gospel and blues and more to the L.A. label Rendezvous Records' cash-in instrumental ensemble B. Bumble and the Stingers, whose lovably insipid "Flight of the Bumble Bee" rewrite "Bumble Boogie" was a top 40 hit in America this same month -- it's the same sort of bizarro conflation of classical or traditional music harnessed for an air of misguided legitimacy, and it seems more audacious than transcedent.

Sheridan and the Beatles had toyed with the song on stage for a while, and Kaempfert undoubtedly latched on because it's a lovely melody, but there's no real sense that Sheridan feels anything for it besides an excuse to practice both his uncanny Elvis ballad imitation (in the slow introduction, accompanied by the Beatles in a strange, wordless doo-wop burlesque) and his arms-to-the-wind, loose rock & roll vamping. He does contribute a truly excellent guitar solo, often erroneously attributed to George Harrison. Indeed, Paul's infectious yelling is the most distinctive way in which this stands out as a Beatles record, since George doesn't play the solo, John's rhythm guitar isn't terribly prominent, and the drumming is not by a canonical Beatle. In Mark Lewisohn's book, he places "My Bonnie" at the upper-tier of early British rock & roll singles pre-October 1962, on a level with Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac" and Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over," but those are masterful, revelatory records that still sound fresh and exciting today and never betray their distance from ground zero of the movement they try to recapture, while there's no reason to regard "My Bonnie" for anything besides its historical importance, of which more later.

The original b-side of "My Bonnie" upon its release as a 45 by Polydor in October was "The Saints," another adaptation of a weirdly traditional number (the spiritual "When the Saints Go Marching In"), establishing something of a pattern for the Kaempfert sessions; it's probably the most forgettable of the numbers they laid down here, and its (inexplicable) selection as the only other song Kaempfert initially chose to release was likely a source of disappointment to the band. The eventual LP release that encompassed both songs didn't incorporate any of the other material the Beatles played on during these two sessions either (it did have their Sheridan-led version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," taped later), and it wasn't until 1963, by which time it didn't matter one way or the other to them, that any other songs from June '61 made their way out. But now we have them all.

Sheridan led the Beatles on three other numbers in front of Kaempfert at the first block of recordings -- his own composition "Why," a credible ballad on which he's backed strictly by Paul and Pete; the mournful Hank Snow country weeper "Nobody's Child," coincidentally a favorite of future Beatles drummer Richard Starkey, and probably the best number they all recorded in June, Jimmy Reed's searing blues "Take Out Some Insurance" (sometimes mislabeled as "If You Love Me, Baby") on which Sheridan contributes a positively grinding, X-rated, desperate performance peaking with an uncensored Vincent-esque "god damn". Sheridan and the Beatles' version of "Insurance" is the Hamburg rock & roll experience as it's vividly recalled by those who were there in a nutshell -- all of the sleaze, the sweat, the grime, and none of the sweetness. It's impressive that Kaempfert left it unadorned, but not surprising that he didn't release it.

For the Beatles, the most exciting moment came when Kaempfert gave them the floor to record a couple of tunes without Sheridan. One was an instrumental, the fun and trifling "Cry for a Shadow" (the allusion in its title making its influences rather obvious, though it isn't miles away from surf music either) which boasts some fine guitar from both of its composers, John Lennon and George Harrison, and some still solid-as-a-rock bass playing from Paul McCartney -- but the material is unmistakably thin, and the song seems to go on forever despite not even reaching two and a half minutes. It's also probably the cut most harmed by Kaempfert's sparkling production, which makes it sound less like a ragged club band mach-ing shau and more like an arid demonstration disc for someone's hi-fi. This is particularly apparent during the bridge, when the careful separation of elements wrought by Kaempfert's harnessing of advanced technology doesn't allow the band to hang together, their chemistry absent. But it's still an enjoyable song whose status as the first professionally recorded Beatles composition is not insignificant, and Paul's enthusiastic off-mic screaming gives it a welcome touch of rock & roll abandon it might otherwise lack.

Unfortunately, the Beatles rather botched their other shot at center stage for Kaempfert. Given the chance to sing one of their own, John -- who, by all accounts, made the final decision of which song to play -- bizarrely went for "Ain't She Sweet," which he would have known from Gene Vincent's typically sinister crooning version from 1956. It was never a big live staple for the Beatles and wouldn't have been a song you would expect them to be sentimentally attached to in any major way; Lewisohn speculates it's a song that John learned from his mother before she died. Even in the arrangement Lennon would have preferred, which was more like Vincent's lazy ballad rendition, it was a wrongheaded waste of what might well have remained their only shot in a professional recording environment; with Kaempfert dictating a radical rearrangement into what amounted to a rushed, frenetic "march" (as John later put it), the song must have retained basically no appeal to any of them, more painfully shoehorned into a rock & roll format than even "My Bonnie" and only slightly redeemed by John's fairly spirited if obviously wary vocal, and certainly, as Kaempfert would have realized, to any potential audience... although when released by Atco in America at the height of Beatlemania, the song hit the top twenty, almost certainly because anything a Beatle sang would have at that point.

The matter might have rested there, the Beatles destined to remain heroes in Hamburg and Liverpool for a while longer before fading into obscurity; this same year, 1961, John and Paul considered discontinuing the group, believing they had gone as far as they could and bored with the few worlds they'd managed to conquer. But it was not to be, and it was thanks explicitly to the existence of "My Bonnie," credited upon release to the unholy record-label concoction "Tony Sheridan & the Beat Brothers." A member of the Beatles' locally rabid fan base named Raymond Jones entered Brian Epstein's Liverpool NEMS store in October asking for "My Bonnie," the debut record by the biggest group in town; the restless, curious Epstein set out to investigate, and ended up an incongruous presence at one of the Beatles' Cavern Club shows, and eventually signed them to a management contract -- spurred into the same sort of questioning and revelation that Hamburg associates like Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchher had reported upon hearing and meeting them -- and set about trying to land them a record deal. Epstein would work himself to the bone for the Beatles for the rest of his life, and his belief in them helped make them what they ultimately were. As such, the unfortunate details of the Kaempfert sessions ended up leading directly to the pop explosion that would change their lives and eventually ours.

Kaempfert was relatively relaxed about releasing the Beatles from their Polydor record deal, though he did ask Brian for one additional recording session in May 1962. This non-event resulted in a recording even less noteworthy than any of the songs finished a year earlier; Sheridan couldn't make the session so the Beatles just recorded the backing track for "Sweet Georgia Brown," arranged by Paul, over which Sheridan would later overdub vocals. The group, accompanied here by pianist Roy Brown, was now still reeling from Sutcliffe's death one month earlier, and were in the midst of a residency at Hamburg's Star-Club, during part of which they were opening for none other than Gene Vincent. Nerves had bombed their recording test at Decca in January and they were a few weeks out from their first EMI date and meeting with George Martin. Pete would be fired and replaced by Ringo Starr near the end of the summer. But the historical context is more interesting than the music, which is totally nondescript (more in spirit with Kaempfert's aesthetic of "rocking it up" with the classic songbooks, they supposedly laid down an instrumental track for "Swanee River," but no recording seems to survive), and its main claim to fame is that there are two versions, for one of which Sheridan rerecorded part of his vocal in 1964 to add some sardonic commentary about Beatle haircuts. The Animals' "Story of Bo Diddley" it ain't.

In the wake of the Beatles' jetting off for a very different life, Sheridan continued to be a popular attraction in the rest of Europe and especially Germany, though a decisive move toward blues in the mid-'60s left him without much of an audience and he joined up with a troupe of musicians to play for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, where he was nearly killed, and lived out sporadically still playing music -- he never lost his touch as a singer or guitarist up to the end of his life in 2013 -- and for the most part cheerfully accepting his place in a larger history, though these recordings and other performances suggest he deserved more than mere footnote status. It's heartening to know that to a certain extent, his Beatles connection, whever bitterness it might have understandably engendered, continued to allow him to connect with fans and play the music he loved until shortly before his death.

In addition to the few tracks from these sessions that were actually issued in Germany at the time, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of cash-in releases of this product dating from just after Beatlemania broke all the way up through the CD era, all traveling under numerous titles -- the coolest being The Savage Young Beatles, though this only came about because the gray-market label releasing it was named Savage, who later briefly signed Pete Best as a solo artist -- with a host of minor variations in song selection and mixing. "My Bonnie" and "Ain't She Sweet" even enjoyed some airplay, and cluttered up an already confusing discography in America (with official releases from Capitol, Vee Jay and Swan all competing), though MGM's attempt at turning "Why" into a hit left them only with a future collector's fetish object. Some of the longform releases of the Kaempfert sessions were technically legal, some weren't, and none were authorized by the Beatles. This is a bridge too far for my completist tendencies, but there's a good rundown that reaches up to 2006 here.

This attractive Polydor release of the material -- with an evocative cover, and an insightful if misplaced quote on the back cover from George Harrison about how strong the Beatles became in Hamburg -- appeared in stores just days before Let It Be, adding to its air of lost-world poignance, and is augmented by some other tracks of Sheridan's, which may at the time have been genuinely thought to feature the Beatles; Sheridan is the only reason to listen to any of those, with decent performances of the great Chris Montez single "Let's Dance" (Montez was top of the bill for one of the Beatles' first national tours), a perfunctory "What'd I Say," plus the Leiber-Stoller classic "Ruby Baby" and Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," all being songs the Beatles were known to play in Hamburg save "Let's Dance," adding to the confusion. For the CD release, Polydor cleaned up their act a bit and tried to be as consumer-friendly as possible when dealing with material that most people going out buying Beatles CDs were very unlikely to want; they removed the inaccurate "circa 1960" designation from the cover and correctly labeled which songs actually involved the Beatles, while retaining the haphazard sequencing of the vinyl (which headlined the legit "pure Beatles" cuts "Ain't She Sweet" and "Cry for a Shadow"). For a number of years, this was the only item that appeared when you searched "Beatles" on iTunes or the streaming services, but the special deal the band cut with those platforms has thoroughly erased it from ready visibility. The CD, boasting the only Beatles music that Apple still does not actually own (they eventually bought up and suppressed the Decca and Star Club tapes but had to license the three most noteworthy Kaempfert songs from Polydor for Anthology 1), hung in for years and finally appears now to be out of print, though in Europe the music has lapsed out of copyright at this stage.

Really, there's something a bit sad about the whole thing now. Once upon a time, shitty budget line releases of these songs were a dime a dozen, cluttering up the Beatles section of every record store in the country and probably the world, in the same plucky spirit of commercialism as the hardcore porn rag that offered mail-in picture discs of Decca audition extracts with nude women on them. The Beatles continue to be a rite of passage for pop music fans and students from a young age but they'll no longer go through the stymied feeling of initially thinking you've found some previously unheard major item for your consumption (wow, the Beatles' first tapes!?!?) only to discover "My Bonnie" or "Why" again, or something that isn't the Beatles at all, or something that's just generic studio musicians playing Beatles hits. Sure, this stuff isn't great and while it has some fun moments and is essential onetime listening for hardcore fans, there's a reason we used to groan when we would see someone attempting to sell it to us again. But raise a glass tonight for Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers -- and in the spirit of the Reeperbahn, light a cigarette, start a fight, fuck a stripper, wake up in a toilet. Rock & roll, motherfuckers.