Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- A Hard Day's Night (1963-64)

(bootleg [3CD])

RECOMMENDED (rating reflects the outtake material, not the original album, which is an A+)

Here's where things get interesting; hopefully you can excuse the geeking-out tone of this post and many of those to follow, which are totally separate from my extremely level-headed and not at all fannish descriptions of more canonical Beatles recordings! A Hard Day's Night, the album, contained A- and b-sides of both contemporary singles, so the supplemental material under consideration here is instead the magnificent Long Tall Sally EP (as well as the silly German-language novelty single versions of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You"). Needless to say, this collection captures at the Beatles at their almost unquestionable firing-on-all-cylinders peak, at least in terms of their life as a fully functioning rock & roll band. So even at its most marginal, the material here is nearly invariably a joy to listen to, even if you're not an absolute nutter.

The MFSL stereo master of the album isn't as strong as the subsequent 2009 remastered version, disregarding the CD's slight tape waver on the opening cut; but the mono transfer here is far stronger than the compact disc I grew up with. (It never made much sense that this and Beatles for Sale were initially, in 1987, issued on CD is mono only, as both are four-track recordings that aren't compromised and awkward in the manner of the first two LPs; of course, all the album should've been put out in their original stereo and mono mixes in the first place, but the past is the past, innit.) If you have the 2009 CD versions of these early albums, none of the PC discs are -- in terms of their presentation of the original music -- particularly essential, though the sonic quality of the stereo Please Please Me and some of the singles does provide a huge jolt. Still, it certainly is convenient to have both mixes in one place, and you wonder how in the world EMI (now Universal) never ran with the idea themselves.

Thanks to a lot of quirks in the Beatles' extremely heavy 1964 release schedule, there are a good number of alternate mixes of some of the songs from this period, several of them quite striking for one reason or another: the Capitol mono version of "And I Love Her" allows us to hear Paul's voice single-tracked, which enhances the underlying emotion of that lovely song that may have been the victim of mild overbaking on the regular mix; similar vocal differences mark the "When I Get Home" from the mono Something New. The American mono of "Any Time at All" is weird, with more guitar in the bridge, and the "I'll Be Back" from Beatles '65 is even weirder, marred by what seems to be a tape speed glitch; but the crown jewel here is the mono U.S. mix of "I'll Cry Instead," with an entire extra verse -- not an edited repeat to stretch the time out, as is sometimes reported, but an extension of the released performance, which makes one of the album's best tracks even better, heftier. The theatrical version of Richard Lester's film A Hard Day's Night mostly used the released mono mixes, but a significant exception is "Tell Me Why," which appears to have an entirely different vocal from the extract that made it to the print and is presented here. (We also get "Train Music," the amusing bit of generic rawk on the radio the band listens to early in the movie.) The EP tracks are a roller coaster ride; the vocals and cowbell in "I Call Your Name" are different on all four mixes (U.S. mono and stereo, UK mono and stereo) for who knows what convoluted reason; and "Slow Down" sounds extremely half-assed in stereo compared to its ferocious mono mix, while "Matchbox" is exactly the opposite.

Then there are the questionable little pieces of trivia, like a foreign single version of "And I Love Her" that repeats a few riffs and various mixes from VHS and DVD releases down through the years, sometimes interspersed with pesky voiceover; PC can't be faulted for not being thorough, even if they're not exactly perfect at gathering absolutely everything. They also include the Anthology mixdowns of outtakes that appear more logically on the third disc, which is sort of appealing since this album's sessions yielded no major discarded songs, so the radically different alternate takes are a welcome thing to have tacked on for casual listening.

For the non-casual types, though, there's disc three, a comprehensive overview of pretty much every fragment from Beatles sessions in the first half of '64 that's ever leaked out. Many of these really are just fragments, mostly pieced together from funny bits of talk and portions of breakdowns offered on the Anthology documentary; but a few are complete performances, and are often intriguing. There are four takes of "Can't Buy Me Love," only one incomplete (and one the complete master), proving itself the rare example of a song the Beatles overworked a bit, as the early takes -- despite dreadful guitar solos -- are fresher, looser, bluesier than the final single, which is the weakest of their singles from the time by some distance (but still terrific, of course). I used to think "And I Love Her" (represented here by the Anthology 1 outtake, take 2, with drums and electric guitar) was another example of this but I've grown to really deeply love the master in recent years, but this is still one of the Beatles' most fascinating alternate versions of a classic despite the flubs. "You Can't Do That" is somewhere between; more on both of those in the Anthology 1 review.

The most substantial outtakes that have slipped out are for the songs "A Hard Day's Night" and "I'll Be Back," the former offered in both monitor mixes and in much clearer form; in this case, their commitment to tightening the song pays off substantially, and it's quite engrossing to hear their process, as the song transforms from an informal runthrough of sorts to one of the most immaculate yet tough-minded pieces of pop ever recorded. "I'll Be Back," while an unheralded masterpiece itself, doesn't have the same earth-shaking vitality about it, calling forward instead to the folk-rock predictions of Beatles for Sale... but nothing from the "Hard Day's Night" session quite matches the stunning moment when the band abruptly hits on the idea of changing "I'll Be Back" from 3/4 to 4/4, and as if by magic the song becomes the song.

From there we mostly deal with extreme minutiae -- who really cares about the slight differences between the Anthology DVD and VHS mixes? -- and stuff that was eventually released (the sublime demo of "You Know What to Do" and the demo of "No Reply" on which they can't stop laughing about the line "your face"), though one somewhat entertaining sideline is the studio performances the band lip-synced to on Around the Beatles, sort of a last hurrah for their era as mere rock & rollers, with blasts from the past that sound surprisingly antiquated in this context, not least because of how mechanically they're performed: "Twist and Shout," "Roll Over Beethoven," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "Long Tall Sally," "Boys" and a bizarre medley of several early singles. Of course, on stage, the Beatles would keep playing most of these songs for two more years, but the disconnect between their stage act and their studio work is somehow even clearer when the sound is this clean. The cover of the Isley Brothers' "Shout" is somewhat pleasing, and offered here in its less awkward and unedited mono mix; more about it, sonic problems notwithstanding, when we cover Anthology 1.

Much of the Beatles' story -- many of the parts of it that have passed into legend, that is -- is about fragmentation. A Hard Day's Night, despite but also because of how centered it is on John Lennon's singing and songwriting (given that he was, in the beginning, the undisputed band leader), is the pinnacle, the capturing of the Beatles' real moment, when everything seemed possible. They were too restless for it to continue unabated. But across the songs examined and dissected here, it really feels like they'd mastered every dimension of what they could be in their initial incarnation, and had fulfilled every goal they'd had from their beginnings in skiffle and their early mastery in Hamburg. And on "Shout" there's an opportunity that exists nowhere else in their recorded legacy: at some point, each of the four of them is singing lead, with the others right behind.

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