Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Beatles: Strong Before Our Birth (1957-62)

(bootleg [Purple Chick])


Before we start in on the specific contents of this collection, an introduction to this field of study in general seems necessary. In the analog era, and even the early digital era, collecting Beatles bootlegs was a hell of a complicated business, requiring the perusal of countless "imports" and behind-the-desk counterfeits that were esoteric and often extremely pricey. No doubt this generated a decent number of alluring fetish objects, but it also created a condition in which the most rabid fans among us would be falling over ourselves to gain access to this or that seemingly insignificant scrap (a monitor mix, say) that would then prove dispiriting. In the mid-2000s, an anonymous archivist known as Purple Chick -- also responsible for a complete collection of Buddy Holly's recordings and one of the best constructions of the Beach Boys' Smile -- began putting together, via download and absolutely free, "deluxe editions" of all of the Beatles' albums and periphery, including alternate mixes and unreleased material, gathered comprehensively in a single place with consistent reproduction quality. That means that today, assuming you can track these collections down (and it isn't insurmountably hard), you have the opportunity for a full historical view of the Beatles' recorded history, including virtually every scrap that's known to exist and a good deal that they did not sanction or approve for release. In this blog, where our joyous obsession renders it necessary to listen to and write about even the most out-of-the-way Beatles material, we'll be approaching the Beatles' unreleased work by following the Purple Chick ("PC" hereafter) collection, which encompasses not only the Beatles' studio work but also all known live recordings, BBC performances and audition tapes -- everything except the various home recordings, which were issued in reasonably complete form by another entity.

And then there's this, the first set in the "deluxe editions" series, which doesn't correspond to a specific released recording but gathers every piece of taped evidence that can be located of the Beatles prior (roughly) to the release of their first EMI single, all the way back to the days when they were the Quarry Men, with the three significant exceptions of their Decca audition, their German recordings with Tony Sheridan (both items reviewed separately and addressed briefly via PC's I Hope We Passed the Audition) and their pre-Ringo BBC recordings (still unreleased but booted and documented here in our Complete BBC Sessions review). It should probably go without saying that this is not a particularly strong collection for recreational listening; nearly without exception, everything included on Strong Before Our Birth (named for the same line in the school song of Quarry Bank School that gave the group their name at this stage) that was really suitable for public consumption -- and quite a bit that probably wasn't -- has been issued at some point for its historical interest. And that, of course, is the key reason you'll want to hear it; even being a Beatles fan isn't enough. You have to be positively mad about the band to understand the appeal of this music, to be gripped and haunted by it, but if you're One of Us, you will get it... and even you probably won't want to digest it all in one go.

The best possible liner notes for this two-hour glob of often interminable music are all contained within Mark Lewisohn's book Tune In; he not only talks about every recording collected here in detail but he provides the context and character to make this not just a clinically interesting experience but a piece of legitimate narrative. I can't compare to that, but I'll do my best.

We open with a few scraps of a tape whose existence and survival are both something of a miracle. It captures John Lennon as a sixteen year-old, singing at the top of his lungs at the Woolton Garden Fete of July 6, 1957; this is the day that John met Paul McCartney. That someone (one Bob Molyneux) happened to be recording that day is almost difficult to believe, but when you hear the tape it's unmistakable; the quality is terribly muddy, the Elvis cover ("Baby Let's Play House") nearly unrecognizable behind the noise, but on the marginally more audible version of Lonnie Donegan's skiffle number "Puttin' on the Style," that is John Lennon -- no doubts, ifs ands or buts -- and it's chilling and invigorating to hear him singing out with that same distinctive earthiness and volume years before the world would come to know this same voice so intimately. As musicians, the Quarry Men (as of the recording date: John plus Rod Davis, Pete Shotton and Eric Griffiths) from what we can tell are unapologetic amateurs, though they do pound out an agreeable beat, but John sounds like he was beamed in from the future, already overflowing with confidence and swagger and, though we can't hear the words he's singing, the suggestion of a sly wit, though perhaps that's filling in the blanks -- it's little wonder that Paul was so intrigued. The tape of the Quarry Men Garden Fete performance was sold at auction to EMI in 1994 but never used for any project, not even the Anthology documentary, which is quite surprising; all we've been permitted to hear are a few snippets, all of which find their way to this disc (note: PC releases were never physically issued but were designed, with ideal length, to be burned to CDs), intruded upon by an irksome but inevitable radio voiceover.

The set's next offerings are the two sides of their first proper recording, a homemade record created in P.F. Phillips' custom booth in Liverpool. These are "That'll Be the Day" and "In Spite of All the Danger"; both are addressed in my review of Anthology 1, which is also the source utilized by PC to make this compilation.

The bulk of the two-disc collection is occupied, to a fault, by the remarkable but often stultifying home tapes that were left spinning for seemingly hours in 1960, one at an unknown location and one at Paul's house on Forthlin Road, during the period when they were traveling under the name "Beatals." There are two such tapes, recorded on a borrowed reel-to-reel, and while it's impossible to determine their dates of origin with any precision, the first dates from spring, second from a few months later, possibly July. One extract from the first tape (a severely edited "Cayenne") and two from the second ("Hallelujah, I Love Her So," also heavily edited, and "You'll Be Mine"; all three edits are included on the first disc here for completeness) were gathered on Anthology 1, but Strong offers both tapes as complete as they've ever been presented on various bootlegs over the years, and with all the songs at their proper length. (It was routine for bootleggers to edit the already sprawling instrumentals from the first tape to run even longer, for incomprehensible reasons.)

As nearly everyone who's heard the first tape has pointed out, it's a rather miserable slog, occupied mostly by aimless jamming, and none too competent jamming at that; it's hard to believe the same band, albeit with Colin Hanton and John Lowe joining them, recorded the acetate disc of the basically respectable Buddy Holly cover and the band original "Danger" two years before this. It helps to consider where the Beatals stood at this point; at the time of recording, Stu Sutcliffe -- gifted painter and famously dreadful bass player -- had just joined at John's urging, and the tape may document an early practice session with the band trying to find its footing with a new member in tow. (They did not, at this particular moment, have a drummer, and it's also possible that George was absent for much of both tapes.) If the commonly given date of April 1960 is correct, then the tape was made about a month before the Beatals embarked on their first national tour, backing Larry Parnes stable boy Johnny Gentle, and given the reception they encountered on that jaunt, the quality of the tape isn't terribly shocking... though it should be kept in mind that they apparently were quite capable of pulling their shit together and working harder, and they were still performing semi-regularly at the Casbah Coffee Club during this time. But if this was just an embarrassing trial by fire for Stu, one wonders why Paul was so interested in recording it. And the music is very difficult to listen to both because the recording quality is so abysmal and because the jams (variously labeled "Instrumental #1," "Instrumental #2," "Turn the Mixers Off" and "That's an Important Number" both named after offhand comments captured on the tape, and "Cayenne" which was actually registered for copyright under Paul's name) stretch on into what feels like infinity, cursed by Stu's painful playing, the band's general awkwardness, and their apparent fascination with listening to themselves fail.

"Cayenne" at least has sort of a shape and the lead guitar (probably by Paul) is lightly impressive, while the songs on which the boys attempt vocals at least provide a break in the monotony. "I Don't Need No Cigarette, Boy" is a jam with some incessant shouted vocals, while the gloomy "Well Darling" is some attempt at an actual song, and frankly wouldn't have sounded that incongruous with some of the lesser material from the Get Back era, but that's not really a compliment. It's hard to believe the plodding "I Don't Know" was planned or written in any sense, but it was apparently registered to Lennon-McCartney at some point and may have a proper written lyric if the non-randomness of some of the lines is a fair indication.

Thankfully, when the band reconvenes later in the year, things seem better organized; it's a matter of debate who's actually on this recording, which seems to have been made between the return from the Gentle tour on May 28, 1960 and the game-changing departure for Hamburg, with new drummer Pete Best, in mid-August. They're still without a drummer but there are in fact actual scraps of inspiration here and there. The Paul-led version of Ray Charles' "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" (by way of Eddie Cochran) is a cacophonous mess in complete form because of a horrendous guitar solo, but Paul's vocal has a certain easy charm. The instrumental covers "Movin' and Groovin'," "Wildcat" and "Ramrod" are passable, and a seven-minute jam growing out of the latter could easily be discarded from the planet but is a marked improvement on those from earlier in the year. For longtime fans, the most fascinating moments of the second tape are the performances of songs the Beatles would one day properly record; Paul vamping on "I'll Follow the Sun" is modestly lovely, with an incomplete bridge that may in fact be stronger than the one on Beatles for Sale. John's lead vocal on "Matchbox" is a fleeting pleasure. And two versions of "One After 909" make a more convincing show of "rock & roll" than anything else on these tapes. "Hello Little Girl," which the Beatles would never capture to John's own satisfaction, sounds fractured and ghostly here.

If the first tape is a ramshackle, thundering artifact, the second is sometimes ethereal and graceful in its mystery, and once in a while the performances actually do hint at something deeper and stronger in the band's future. It's difficult to have full perspective when so many details about the tapes can't really be filled in, but the mere existence of otherwise ephemeral Lennon-McCartney numbers "You Must Write Every Day" and "Some Days" renders it essential, at least in archival terms, and while the Beatles are maybe not the best vessels for "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" or "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," there is just something about John Lennon softly crooning out the standard "I Will Always Be in Love with You," a haunting enough performance that the Anthology documentary uses an extract during a sequence devoted to these tapes.

Following the conclusion of the homemade tapes, Strong Before Our Birth makes an abrupt chronological jump -- by necessity, because Decca and Kaempfert belong elsewhere -- to the exciting first weeks of Ringo Starr's tenure within the band. This is directly addressed with a remarkable interview dating from October 17, 1962, in which Ringo is queried about his recent entrance into the Beatles (he officially joined on August 18th) while the full band, full of hope and curiosity, describe their comings and goings in the very early days of their EMI contract, on the eve of everything exploding. (One particularly telling moment is when Paul insists that John is "the leader" of the Beatles; another is when Ringo all but groans when asked if he's "on the record," meaning "Love Me Do," issued twelve days earlier -- he was on it, at least the A-side, but it hadn't been a simple task to get there, with session drummer Andy White sitting in on the last of three attempts at finishing the record and surviving to the b-side and LP.) This offers solid context for the rest of the material on Strong Before Our Birth, all of which was recorded at the Cavern Club, the Beatles' proper professional home in Liverpool since March 1961, and the place in which they were discovered by Brian Epstein that same year. The Beatles were filmed there for a television show, playing "Some Other Guy"; it's surely one of the most bracing pieces of footage of the group, young and shorn and full of nerves and fire. Both takes of "Some Other Guy" -- a pounding Leiber-Stoller rocker, originally recorded by Richie Barrett for Atlantic Records and perfectly suited to the Beatles' style; it was in fact one of their signature numbers for some time, and these two performances easily explain why -- it's hard to understand the group's failure to revisit the tune for one of their early albums, unless it was simply worn out for them.

Needless to say, the Beatles are a fully accomplished band poised to begin their slow takeover of pop culture and the world in general by the time the Cavern material is laid down in late '62; it's quite surprising that none of the versions of "Some Other Guy" (despite inclusion on the Anthology documentary) or any of the taped rehearsals here made it to any official release, as they are all far more listenable and vibrant than anything else the Beatles recorded before their Parlophone releases began storming up the charts. (An explosive live version of "Kansas City" unfortunately cuts off after a minute, or else it would be an especially strong candidate for release.) That rehearsal tape is its own intriguing monster, with two takes each of "One After 909" (both quite strong) and the instrumental "Catswalk" (written by Paul) and one fascinating early version of "I Saw Her Standing There" with John playing harmonica and a slower, bluesier tempo than on the canonical track. If the 1960 home tapes are exclusively the domain of hardcore fans, the Cavern material merits attention from a much wider scope of Beatles fans; it isn't spectacular (the performances of "Some Other Guy" are, but the recording quality does them in a bit), but it merits the overall recommendation here almost by itself, though the Forthlin Road music is of course so historically vital that it should probably be heard once if you care about this group. One thing for sure: the transformation from that band to the one on stage at the Cavern was not as abrupt as it sounds here, and luckily the PC collections I Hope We Passed the Audition and (tangentially) Star Club 1962 are there to fill in the gap.


[First in a series of posts for
The Essentials covering the Beatles' complete recorded output. You can follow along for additional posts about once a week.]

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