Wednesday, October 3, 2018
The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Magical Mystery Year (1967-68)
Purple Chick's four-disc collection under the title Magical Mystery Year doesn't correspond exactly to any official Beatles release, but rather as a sort of catch-all documenting the period after Sgt. Pepper and before the formation of Apple Records in 1968. This is fitting because, as Mark Lewisohn and Ian MacDonald have demonstrated, this was really the Beatles' most aimless period of studio work. The songs they recorded in this time ended up being issued as a double-EP (and in a TV special) and on three singles, with the leftovers mostly finding their home as afterthought inclusions on a film soundtrack. In other words, it's a grab bag and it's actually surprising how well it seems to hang together, as Capitol found when their version of a compression of the material in LP format, under the Magical Mystery Tour title, ended up being adopted by the band as a canon product. The post-psychedelic, pure New Orleans piano rocker "Lady Madonna" seems slightly ill fitting apart from its old-timey aspirations, but it aligns more closely with the likes of "Your Mother Should Know" than did "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" (covered by PC as part of Sgt. Pepper).
The Magical Mystery Tour EP (and the two contemporaneous singles) may be the most interesting Beatles project in terms of mix variations, which could be another symptom of how disorganized they were in this period. Stereo and mono mixes often display even more glaring deviations than usual, as do U.S. vs. UK mixes and even film vs. vinyl mixes. PC replicates the mono EP and the mono singles from the time on one disc, and the true stereo versions of all the same songs on another (stereo mixes of many of these cuts were elusive for decades until the catalog was standardized in the '80s, "I Am the Walrus" took even longer in complete form, and a proper stereo "Only a Northern Song" never did surface). One of the many ways in which we can be grateful for bootleggers and for PC in particular is that they're the only way for us now to hear the film mixes (or video mixes, as painstakingly transferred into stereo by Andrew Sandoval) of the songs from the Magical Mystery Tour special. In the particular cases of "Your Mother Should Know," "Blue Jay Way," "I Am the Walrus," and the title track, this uncovers some seriously intriguing variations; "Magical Mystery Tour," the song, has an entirely different spoken introduction -- by John rather than Paul -- that's been totally sidelined on modern releases of the film, including the supposedly definitive DVD and Blu-ray from 2012. These should really be preserved somewhere and it's great to be able to hear them, and compare and contrast with the records.
For those who've come to know the stereo CDs extremely well over the years, some big surprises are in store; and even more than usual, it should be recognized that the mono versions of the Beatles' 1967 (and early 1968) songs really are their proper, canonical mixes. Like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Paperback Writer," "Baby You're a Rich Man" is simply incomplete without the finishing touches and flanging effects added on the mono 7" single. And "I Am the Walrus" opens up a gigantic can of worms with the variety of mixing and editing choices that change the character of the song a little; the American 45, for instance, has an entire extra instrumental beat before the "yellow matter custard" verse, and the length of the introduction seems to change each time the track is reproduced. (PC also provides the first complete stereo version of the track from the Anthology DVD, though to these ears the Love mix is an even better reconstruction.) The glaring variations extend to the lone 1968 single presented here. The change in "Lady Madonna" is subtle, it's just crunchier and hotter and more appealing in mono; but the last song in George's Indian trilogy, "The Inner Light," has an entirely different (and lovely) intro. (Since this was one of the songs that was once impossible to find in stereo, the version most of us know simply didn't exist in almost any sense until the 1980s, at which point it wholly subsumed all memory of the mono mix.) The aborted A-side of the same single, "Across the Universe," is here in its discarded original mix that was eventually issued officially as part of the Mono Masters set. ("Across the Universe" is a rather complicated beast in the Beatles' catalog, calling up memories of the three extremely similar versions of "Love Me Do" that were recorded on three different days weeks and months apart. There are three distinctive versions of the song officially released by the band, but all three are actually built from the same performance. More on this in the Past Masters review.)
Finally there are the four Yellow Submarine stragglers, which were considered for an EP release along with "Across the Universe" but were never issued anywhere properly in mono apart from the film print. The "mono" versions of the album, only issued in some countries, were in fact just fold-downs. But dedicated mono mixes, of course, were made and would finally find official release on disc in 2009 -- but PC goes one better here, issuing them on this set unedited ("Hey Bulldog" seems to be taken directly from the film because it includes the dialogue and barking effects from that sequence, originally cut from the American print), which is important because it allows for the unearthing of one of the grandest of all Beatles outtakes, the full eight-minute version of "It's All Too Much," the purest piece of psychedelic rock the Beatles ever laid down on tape, which grows magically expansive and unhinged beyond the canonical mix's fade, and preserves additional verses and vocals even beforehand. Even on its regular studio version, the song features some of the best guitar playing in the Beatles' (or George's) catalog, so to get even more of it is a dream.
PC follows all this with two discs of outtake material, though some of it is redundant (with itself and alongside Anthology 2) and just as much will be of interest, as usual, only to the true froot loops among us. It kicks off with an accidental anachronism -- the session extract called "Free Now" that Paul and Super Furry Animals used for Liverpool Sound Collage in 2000; it's since turned out that this actually comes from the Sgt. Pepper sessions (specifically take 9 of the title track), but this wasn't known when the PC compilation was made. Chronologically, next comes the material relevant to "All You Need Is Love," which is quite interesting: a BBC news story offering a fly-on-the-wall account of the anticipatory session prepping the track for live transmission and rush release. (There's also an alternate mono mix of the track with a longer fade.)
Relevant to Magical Mystery Tour itself, there are many interesting minor variants (acetates and such) to the title song, usually with several overdubs missing. Take 8 of "Your Mother Should Know" is quite stark absent of later overdubs, with pure piano and drums, which adds to its feeling of ominous dread while taking a little of the sheen off Paul's sarcasm. Anthology 2 listeners will remember the rawer rock band take of "I Am the Walrus" sans effects and overdubs; there's an even dryer mix here, while PC kindly offers the excerpt from the King Lear BBC performance interpolated on the master, which probably will annoy some people but which I find interesting to finally hear unobscured. Talking of Anthology 2, there are many repeats from that disc here, but one thing that's wholly new to the average listener is the alternative version of "Flying" with weird slide whistles and an even weirder music hall ending, which is actually part of a Mellotron demo tape. There's an extremely long "Flying" as well, this one with rambling flute-like Mellotron noodling from John and Ringo.
Among the strays that persist after that: "Hello Goodbye" without vocals is a marked improvement over the original song; "Christmas Time Is Here Again" -- issued on a fan club flexidisc in late 1967 and eventually let out in edited form to the general public nearly thirty years later -- sucks. Both are excellent examples of the post-Pepper malaise in the Beatles' camp. Much more interesting are a few transitional songs operating between the band's psychedelic period and the beginning of their stripped-back renaissance in Rishikesh. The instrumental version of "The Inner Light" was later officially released on a George Harrison CD, and is also probably a better song without the singing; certainly it seems the most purely beautiful of George's three Beatles tracks that used primary Indian instrumentation. The equally gorgeous "Across the Universe" is on offer in two performances -- the definitive second take, issued on Anthology 2, and take 7, the basis for all other released versions, here in its original speed without the overdubs that have marred it just about everywhere else (Let It Be Naked added echo).
We're treated to a complete vocal overdub session for "Lady Madonna," capturing the full process as well as some now-iconic (among bootleg collectors) excess, the famous "Ringo vs. Marmite" exchange whereby, on the first backing vocal track, George munches on chips and discusses "Marmite-flavored ones," an idea which Ringo decries because he dislikes the product. Because subsequent overdubs use playback of this same tape, we hear that same conversation about half a dozen times, along with a bit of goofing off from Paul melodramatically jumping in with the first line of the song in full-on nightclub mode before bursting into laughter. This is a great example of something that separates extremely hardcore Beatles fanatics from the more healthily obsessed; you can know the catalog back to front but it takes a special kind of weirdo to know Ringo's Marmite secret, yet there have been inside jokes about it in the outer reaches of the community for decades now. These sessions also give a window into the full contents of the "Madonna" tape, including a charming piano false start and further saxophone content closing out the performance.
Beatles fandom is often a source of amusement as much as transcendence, and I have a certain love for strange little objects like the Marmite discussion. I also get a huge kick out of the existence of things that only a very select number of people who've really put in the work of being real nerds will ever understand. An example right here on this set is something called the "Rumi Tape," or (on some boots) "Rumitape." The Rumitape is a cassette of Beatles interviews recorded by Japanese journalists (one of whom was Rumiko Hoshika, hence the name) during rehearsals for "The Fool on the Hill," which the tape then happened to capture and which have made the rounds down detrimental generations upon generations of dubs over the years since, gathered up and sometimes (in the pre-internet age) purchased by hapless hardcore fans yearning to hear a few new seconds of the actual Beatles performing. It's the same phenomenon as the endless monitor mixes of "A Day in the Life" and "For No One," but somehow funnier because it has a name, a name that means nothing else anywhere else, and that only ever refers in the actual world we live in to a scant number of hardly revelatory performances of a relatively unhearalded Beatles song. That's this band for you, they make nutcases out of all of us. Well, some of us.