Monday, February 25, 2019
!!! A+ RECORDING !!! [originally hr]
I adore this record. When it came out I had no idea who the Swedish punk band Love Is All were and listened based on reviews, and it ingratiated itself with me immediately. It's one of those pieces of art that screams out in pure joy at the unpredictability of its own inscrutable emotional state. It's an entire album about the importance of keeping one's heart open -- and the full recognition that doing so will frequently and inevitably result in pain. And although it's witty and clever, it's never cerebral -- giving in to complete physical exuberance at the same time as it probes and thrills in its sensitive, cathartic, honest and invariably kind-hearted lyrics. Like I said, my defenses fall completely down for this one: I love this record and all of these songs so very, very much.
All these years later, of course, I do know who Love Is All are: an unusual ensemble with saxophone, keys and a lead vocalist whose punk squeaked under pressure like Poly Styrene's but just as often soared into delicate back-and-forth with her gang of fellow enthusiasts. I also know that they had already released two excellent, improbably consistent albums two and four years before this one, yet this is one that shot straight into my heart and has remained there. A bloghype in the mid-2000s that perversely experienced diminishing returns after signing to a bigger label (Polyvinyl), they're one of the scattered bands that, even as I've worked harder to vary and expand my field of study when exploring new music, I have sought out all sorts of information about and obsessed over like I did with various alt-rock behemoths when I was a teenager. Information has been thin on the ground ever since the wheels began to come off the indie rock joyride, but I've championed them whenever possible, but unfortunately my celebration of them seems to have come just as the twilight of their short career hit. No matter; such disappointments are just the sort of poignant blow that would inspire a well-turned lyric from Josephine Olausson herself -- the sensation of being the only one carrying a torch for something that then all but disappears into the ether, but also the sensation, however phony, that it's something that exists just for you.
Love Is All's third and (probably) final album comes out bursting with as much energy and passion as its two predecessors (both also with numbers in the title, as if desperate to map out the heart with something so dull and dependable as mathematics), but now more than ever before there is the hint of needs not being met, of yearning. It's all bashful smiles, weird crushes, consciously unproductive sulking -- only now you're an adult. This description makes it sound like some silly pop-punk journey into the shallow desperation of late adolescence and early twenties; at the time, a handy comparison was Best Coast's much more lyrically one-dimensional Crazy for You. Not that there's anything automatically wrong with self-indulgence, but this ain't it: Olausson's lyrics court us as participants, not as mere recipients of her venting. She lays herself bare as an act of empathy, expecting and even knowing that she is sharing experiences we know as well as she does; that she and the band do so with such irrepressible warmth and match it with bashed-out, furious, hook-filled mayhem allows for emotional dimensions to their sound that are unusual for indie rock and ridiculously rare for punk. The transcendent wisdom and humanity on display here, especially in regard to human relationships and private anxieties, is a revelation because it makes explicit the two-way conversation inherent to the best rock & roll, from Big Star's "What's Going Ahn" to the Supremes' "Back in Your Arms Again": that the context in which your problems are small and irrelevant does not matter to us, that these frailties are not just universal but are the meaning of everything. It calls to mind a lyric by another master, Tracey Thorn: "Is this as grown-up as we ever get? Maybe this is as good as it gets. Years may go by, but I think the heart remains a child."
But enough about all that; what hits you first is the pure empowering rush of it all, the record's simple, balls-out beauty and charm, and the pop bliss tempered brilliantly by Olausson's flagrantly overextended singing. The relentless bass and mega power pop riffage that kick off "Bigger Bolder," joined quickly by a tasty guitar and later by cacophonous saxophone and feedback, serve to introduce us to a big, inexhaustible love, not necessarily that of our heroine for any one person but the one residing inside of her ready to be matched, received and given to. As the Box Tops once sang, it's too big to hide and it can't be denied; and as Olausson sings, exploding with pleasure, "there's no sense trying to make this smart, I simply hate every minute that we're apart." The irony is, of course, that that line is itself as smart as pop music gets, as smart as you'd really want it to get. The rest of the songs are either about the residual consequences of this unguarded moment or are just the musings of someone who longs for what "Bigger, Bolder" serves to capture. Over on the second half is "Again, Again," which is almost the opening track's twin, coming out swinging in much the same way, despite being much slower; the words also are much less eager and frenzied -- "the phone rings now and then, again again, it's never you" -- but the common ground is in the sheer conviction of it all, and ultimately in the frantic tones of Olausson's vocal as the song climaxes with her perfectly rendered dejection. She stays up until late and embraces this brokenness as willingly as she does the unfathomable possibilities of "Bigger, Bolder," and the rest of the band -- guitarist Nicholaus Sparding, bassist Johan Lindwall, drummer Markus Görsch, saxophonist James Ausfahrt -- file in to render her dreams and demons in three dimensions.
The put-upon protagonist Olausson conveys her struggles with Charlie Brown-level mishaps all through the record: panic attacks on "Repetition," a sloppy house that overwhelms her on "Dust," all manner of physical ailments and injuries on the magnificent "Early Warnings," and maybe most throttling of all, running into an ex at a party on "Less Than Thrilled." In all cases, with consistent sympathy and perspicacity, the songs and their arrangements tell Olausson's stories remarkably well through nonverbal means; all of these mini-narratives take their shape thanks to the songs and performances, like "Don't Worry Baby" or the Diodes' version of "Red Rubber Ball." Sparding's towering guitar line on the urgent, bass-driven "Repetition" and the sax and wildass punk riffing of "Early Warnings," just for instance, push these songs out right at you and encourage a mutual understanding of how your participation in these tantrums, brooding sessions and dance parties validates them at the same time it validates you. (Listen to the sheer effortless synchronicity the band shares on "Less Than Thrilled," or the parade-like marching chorus on "Dust," a song that should've put Fang Island and Japandroids out of business, that eventually coalesces around an irresistible keyboard line and the flummoxed homeowner's rallying cry: "I want and I need to be rid of these things!")
Nevertheless, these boisterous anthems would mean less without the multiple dimensions brought to them by the lyrics; the post-post-breakup narrative "Less Than Thrilled" is perhaps the quintessential Olausson lyric, with its humility and resentment, each doubting the other, that register as perfectly human. This is also one of the cases in which the band is intentionally subdued and modest in order to give additional space to the intricacies in the vocals, including the band's background ooohs. "False Pretense" takes a different approach to spaciousness by dramatically staggering its towering drums and sporadic bass in a sonic demand to be pumped up; it's a perfect groove, with Olausson splendidly, fully, almost obnoxiously in herself as she aims torpedoes at a pompous enemy, "a twisted crook with a twisted quick look." Just as relentless an earworm is "Early Warnings," and yet again, it's Olausson who douses it in idiosyncratic character, rendering it the ultimate bad day anthem (smashes her head on a bookshelf, slips on a bar of soap, has trouble with her tights, chokes on her toothbrush, and more and more) that provides ample space for us all to enjoy our revenge when she comes back firing on all cylinders at the bridge, naming off every catastrophe she can think of like Michael Stipe in "Imitation of Life" but on a much more charmingly micro scale: "nosebleeds, head bumps, broken noses, bruises and cotton strings!" The story doesn't resolve itself in half-hour television convenience, but it does in its sheer explosive restlessness confront all these frustrations on its own terms, and walks away triumphant; the rest of the band rolls in to help Olausson save the day, more than anything through their defiant, almost unadorned ba-ba-badadadada chanting.
Elsewhere, there are various touches that show Love Is All's increasing eclecticism, a cycle I'm sorry we never got to see taken further. "The Birds Were Singing with All Their Might" experiments with the sonic possibilities of trying to expand the band's modest instrumental arrangement to encompass the towering mood of shoegaze; it ends up sounding like the title is fully accurate and Olausson couldn't be more thrilled about the situation. "Kungen," Olausson's engrossing anecdote about running into royalty while on a city bus ride ("it was such an unusual sight") is met with full-on '60s psychedelia, the whole band singing their lungs out and suddenly evocative of Spanky & Our Gang or the Free Design, flying like kites out over the city. A similar pop fantasy lights up "Never Now," which employs flutes and guitar together to back up a heavy groove and Olausson's most resigned vocal -- the refrain may or may not be "hurry up and wait," a cliché that sounds like a boldly resigned truth under these circumstances, so wistful you could cry -- with an infinite soundscape that repeatedly returns to earth with rock & roll catharsis. Later, they sample Pachelbel and explore sensuality (the whispered "I waited forever") on "Take Your Time," which lilts gently into oblivion at the record's conclusion.
Best of all is "A Side in a Bed," slighty hip hop and synthpop-infected through its keyboards and programmed drums and deliberately showing off, until its stunning climax, restraint enough to a set a stage upon which we can catch every nuance of Olausson's vocal (plus its sweet, wordless answer at the conclusion) and solemn but improbably mature lyric about all of the domestic realities and symbols of long-term, homespun love a single person may long for: dirty dishes for two, hands to be held, a seat at a table, a lap to rest one's head on, and most of all, to be somebody's favorite. Like "Again, Again," it's a song that embraces the reality of loneliness while objecting to it with every fiber of its being. Unafraid of the human impulse toward being wanted and needed, it's one of the most unabashedly romantic celebrations of the mundane and traditional since Gram Parsons' "Blue Eyes" ("chores to keep me busy," "a pretty girl who loves me with the same last name as mine"), and it stings because -- not necessarily for everyone, but for the people to whom and for whom Olausson is speaking -- it's so insanely right and true and correct.
I feel guilty whenever these album reviews devolve into personal reminiscence; I doubt that's what any of you come here for, but let me very briefly say this: as someone who has had moments when I lived, worked, existed alone and felt I was making far too much of my distaste for it. It is enormously validating to hear a pop song that celebrates the comfort of just being loved, one that understands why you miss it if you don't currently have it. We're so trained, often correctly, to locate strength in ourselves to go on when things are bad, or to just suck up certain feelings and try to exist apart from them. So to hear someone who's clearly a wonderful artist just throw back the currents and say it all -- that you want to do the laundry and clean the sheets with somebody else again, that you want a "song" with someone, that you want to wake up next to someone -- without the fear of sounding needy or crazy or uncomfortably sincere, it means a hell of a lot to me. It feels validating in a way that almost nothing I heard when I was actually in a bad, lonely place did. Even as much as I am willing to gush about this entire record, I feel so grateful for this song specifically.
Since 2010, life has presumably gone on for Love Is All, but not really in public. Original sax player Fredrik Eriksson died in late 2010. They haven't tweeted since I followed them around the same time. They post updates on Facebook occasionally, but never about any forthcoming activity. They played one-off shows in Sweden in 2012 and 2017 (!) and one in France in 2015, but haven't toured in eight years. When I started to worry about the complete silence around 2013, I bought a shirt from Polyvinyl as a show of solidarity; it was too small for me but I wore it at Walt Disney World once, and everyone thought it was a Beatles thing. James Ausfahrt lives in New York now and puts music on Bandcamp with some regularity; he writes great songs that seem to yearn for a larger stage that's now denied them. In 2012, he sent a cryptic tweet that sheepishly asked if anyone was looking for a saxophone player; not a good sign. Olausson has written occasional record reviews for Sonic Magazine, which obviously does nothing but enhance my feeling of intense identification with her work; they are in Swedish, but even roughly translated by Google, they sound like her lyrics -- regarding the Radio Dept.'s Running Out of Love: "It sounds cozy, warm, groovy and sometimes sleepy. It is fluffy dance music that smoothes and blinks." On Ariel Pink's Dedicated to Bobby Jameson: "Each small note is placed in perfect order." On Cat Power's You Are Free: "Chan Marshall is a strange creature. Her shyness and stage fear are widely known. As she stands in front of the audience, the long bang that obscures the view appears to be her best friend and patron. It often feels like she would want to sink through the floor."
This is hardly a new sentiment for this blog. But why is it always these bands that slip through the cracks? You know the ones I mean, but if you don't: let's say, the Only Ones. The Go-Betweens. St. Etienne. All of these have larger audiences than Love Is All ever did, all are cult bands with reasonably sized legacies, but you know perfectly well that none of them are part of any publication's aggregate poll. What they all share is a certain modesty of spirit that conceals an almost impossible potential for beauty and connection; because they are never out to further a narrative or prove any far-reaching ideological point, they exist like a William Wyler or Frank Borzage film to just offer comforting expression and the bearing of witness, on their part as well as on the listener's. I miss Love Is All. There will never be enough bands like this. And to me, the most terrifying thing is that if the marketplace can't sustain a band this good, can it ever sustain any band like this for long? I don't wish to think about the answer. But I hope more than anything that something -- word of mouth, random archival writeups like this, the simple supernatural force of enthusiasm -- keeps this record alive, kick-starts it, lets people find it. Not only do the album and the band deserve that, so do the audiences that never happened to hear them.
Sunday, February 17, 2019
(EMI 1979 / expanded version: bootleg [Purple Chick])
A curious but valuable EMI concoction issued near the end of the '70s when Beatles interest was waning in the UK, The Songs Lennon & McCartney Gave Away actually served a worthwhile purpose for fans, finally gathering up the many songs that the two composers contributed to other artists at the height of Beatlemania, when their stated intent was to eventually retire and become Brill Building-style writers full time. Almost thirty years later, Purple Chick expanded the conceit to include some songs George wrote (hence the title change on the bootleg to The Songs the Beatles Gave Away) plus some dubious items and outtakes, and in a couple of cases, hit versions that the original compilers weren't able to include.
It's all very much a mixed bag. Whereas Brian Wilson's moonlighting as a writer and producer for other artists produced some of his loveliest work, John and Paul did not typically hoard good compositions and keep them out of the Beatles' roster; there's no real reason to suspect they would. Still, for a time almost anything to which the Beatles had the slightest connection would make the charts, and several songs here are legitimate hits.
It's unclear why Ringo's "I'm the Greatest," which John wrote, is included; the others wrote songs for Ringo's solo career lots of times but only that one shows up. After that, the record sticks pretty strictly to the concept; and a great many of the remaining nineteen songs on the original LP are dreadful. You have never heard of "One and One Is Two" by the Strangers, and there are good reasons; however, there seems to be very little separating that song from the several included cuts by fellow Brian Epstein stable talents Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (they were in The T.A.M.I. Show), several of which were major hits and are probably familiar to many listeners through oldies radio or a parent or grandparent. But Kramer's songs and a great many of the others here all share a very sanitized, overly affable British Invasion style -- piggybacking on the Beatles' cute confidence and none of their actual muscle, substance or sensuality -- that flattens the songs into an exhausting sameness. So much so that you're kind of relieved when something actively terrible like Peter and Gordon's "Nobody I Know" shows up.
The bulk of the songs appear to be McCartney compositions; and they all share a nightclub-singer sensibility that you can sense in a lot of Paul's early material that got nixed before the Beatles began properly recording, covers aside. All three Lennon-McCartney songs that were played at the Decca audition find a home here. The Applejacks (who also unfortunately offered the only full-band take on Ray Davies' brilliant, unissued "I Go to Sleep") are comically boisterous on "Like Dreamers Do," but Cilla Black uncovers a surprising depth in her elaborate recording of "Love of the Loved," which really plays up the strengths in that song's slightly mysterious, eccentric chords and melody. Both the Fourmost and Gerry and the Pacemakers (only on the PC version) vomit all over John's "Hello Little Girl" with insufferable shorthand Moptop-isms, making you long for the peace and reflection in John Lennon's vocal from the Decca tape.
Speaking overall, with the exception of Black's "Love of the Loved," her reasonably sweet trifle "Step Inside Love," and Jackie Lomax's "Sour Milk Sea," these performances generally suffer greatly whenever there is a Beatles performance of the song in question somewhere. The Fourmost's "I'm in Love" fares slightly better than the Dakotas' hideous version of "Bad to Me," captured so beautifully on a demo by John in 1963 -- once again, he taps into vulnerabilities that the proteges can't begin to understand. P.J. Proby's "That Means a Lot" sounds like a bad joke, as if someone used the Stax studio to record a song-poem. Mary Hopkin's "Goodbye" is totally overwhelmed by a florid arrangement, in contrast to Paul's tremendously touching demo. Even the Badfinger classic "Come and Get It" sounds fey compared to Paul's Abbey Road demo. Worst of all may be the Kramer dumbing down of "I'll Be on My Way," best heard in the Beatles' full-band BBC performance.
And yet the songs here that the Beatles never performed don't come off well because, well, they obviously weren't good enough to get trotted out in the studio and that's what they're doing here. The record never gets much more respectable than the eerie Carlos Mendes number "Penina," well sung and harmonically interesting, or the throwback instrumentals "Thingumybob" and "Catcall," clearly homages to Jim McCartney's past as a big band jazz musician. And while Peter and Gordon were a soul-crushingly dreadful act on the whole, it would take a real unreachable bastard not to at least mildly enjoy the immortally schlocky #1 hit "World Without Love," seemingly a proto-incel anthem with laughably melodramatic lyrics and vocals, the one that made John lose his shit laughing because of Paul's ridiculous line "please lock me away." But it's catchy and whiny and basically became a titan of a song because it's so hard to avoid singing along to it.
I'm still most intrigued, however, by the moments when these records are downright perplexing. John and Paul wrote "Tip of My Tongue" as teenagers, years before they were even making much money as viable local musiciains; and not only is it very much the work of adolescent boys, the version here by Tommy Quickly is so slapdash and incompetent it comes across as some sort of put-on, but at least it's a hilarious one. It's very punk rock.
Things get weirder in the PC expansion: "Badge" by Cream is here because George wrote it with Eric Clapton, which seems like mission creep. Steve Miller's "My Dark Hour" doesn't seem to have been written by any Beatle but has some sort of sentimental importance because of its proximity with Apple's fall from grace; Paul helped out with the album while feeling low. But a lot of the trouble here is justified, oddly, by Jackie Lomax's "Sour Milk Sea," which actually features three of the four Beatles plus Eric Clapton and Nicky Hopkins on a credible George rock & roll number superior to at least one of his songs that made it to the White Album. This is about as close as we get to a "non-canon" Beatles song... and it sounds terrific, with Lomax's voice evocatively wrapping around George's eccentric notes and the entire band bashing out with rootsy abandon.
PC closes out with a few "alternate versions"; in at least two cases, these were the better-known performances of these songs in the U.S. Taken all together, the record is an essential curio in the Beatles' library, one that functions as a deep-dive into an under-investigated part of their career that at one time was considered extremely important, especially by John and Paul. With a couple of exceptions, though, you won't listen to these more than once or twice; the Beatles weren't Tin Pan Alley and most of these songs do a fine job of taking away the luster of having Beatles associations. Then again, maybe Gerry and the Pacemaker's artificially bouncy hyperactivity will win you over; it just seems to me that these mostly are leftovers, and reveal little except that the Beatles brought a lot more to their work than just charisma and talent as composers. You have to believe in it all and, except for Lomax and maybe Black, none of these people seem to.
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
The breakthrough album and sophomore release of London's electro-indie heroes Hot Chip takes on the Sex Pistols-like theory of the studio album reconfigured as greatest hits package. Apart from a couple of meandering ballads toward the back end, it contains almost nothing but modern classics of its genre. It's an assured, loving quantum leap forward from Coming on Strong, and while Made in the Dark and One Life Stand were destined to refine its rough-and-ready beatmaking and daydream romance respectively, The Warning remains their most defiant and frankly delightful statement of purpose. The superficial difference it takes on compared to their earlier recordings is obviously its slickness and surplus of energetic hook-ridden pop songs, but the more telling element it carries forward is its eccentric, slightly unsettled quality: the ghost in the machine fully drowns out the antiseptic tones of keyboards and manufactured beats.
At the outset, however, "Careful" makes clear that there is no shyness here about electronic sound; it opens in a bath of the stuff before bursting into several minutes of fresh, strange chaos. The Warning is destined to end just as weirdly, with the so-called hidden track "Won't Wash," a music-box creation with unnerving tones, chords and anti-rhythms. And along the way, there are detours that wouldn't sound out of place on the two adjacent records in their keen taste for jokes and musical grotesquerie. "The Warning" itself lives up to its paranoid, tight groove with a series of gently sung threats and hip hop-derived braggadocio; "Tchaparian" is a rhythmically tricky stage for some of secondary vocalist Joe Goddard's most well-placed singing; and then, of course, there's the robotic vocoder noise on "So Glad to See You." None of these ideas would've felt beyond the pale on Coming on Strong or the early EPs even if they're more polished here, despite the fact that one of them gives the record its title.
Hot Chip seem to realize, though, that their deepest gifts lie elsewhere, and that emotion, fun and intricacy needn't all be mutually exclusive. "Look After Me" is a quintessential Hot Chip ballad in pure terms of its composition, sensitive and fucked, but it almost thoroughly tosses obvious electronics out the window in favor of woodblocks and a gentle guitar performance, which is one way to grab attention. "Colours" has more to prove, melding its lilting, twitching sweetness and open-hearted melody (and hook) with classic Big Beat. Hot Chip's best songs from this day forward would all be variations on this melding of sensibilities; for now, they still find time for pure unadulterated bangers in the form of two instant classics. "Over and Over" is a monster of a modern-rock slam groove fused with hip hop, wickedly witty kitchen-sink imagery ("monkey with a miniature cymbal," for all you Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders fans) and eventually a spelling bee. "(Just Like We) Breakdown," a Dead or Alive-like circular celebration of body and spirit that rather bizarrely was never a single, is as irresistible as alternative rock gets, and is more unabashed about its pursuit of pleasure than is typically permitted for anything branded "indie."
That probably includes "Boy from School," but there is little point in deriding Hot Chip's signature track (competing perhaps with "One Pure Thought") and one of the loveliest dance songs of the century for not being entirely at peace with its own mad syncopation. The song tells a story of alienation and the parading small devastations of growing up, but it tells it musically and structurally, as its relentless, driving beat gives way to an entire final section built on the repeated, haunting statement "I got lost / you said this was the way back" before eventually fading into the ether. In five minutes this travels to the moon and back with considerable drama like the greatest disco 12" mixes, but does so with an obvious personal stamp and sense of sullen mystery that make it hard to define, completely fascinating and unexpectedly touching.
"No Fit State" isn't quite as good -- you can only ask for so many masterpieces on a single record -- but it's thrillingly close, and subscribes to the same outmoded idea of an epic build, a climax and a denouement; like "Boy from School," it asserts the dominance of its killer hook from the very first seconds it bursts into the room and rattles everybody, here even more beholden to disco thanks to its liberal use of the synthesizer as orchestra. There is no thought to minimalism or reduction; Hot Chip have arrived at their maximalist phase, and they rise right up to it -- especially at the finale, which brings in every facet of their modest genius with its wall of exchanged vocals between Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, with Goddard's hypnotic repetition of the title phrase and Taylor's regretful assertion of its meaning. The song leaves you so breathless by the end that the entrance of the hidden track almost feels like a violation. So much about The Warning is pure pleasure, but it's only fitting -- given its evocation of dark-night secrets throughout and the open intimidation against the listener's life and well-being on the title track -- that it chooses not to make the conveying of such pleasure its defining gesture.
Sunday, February 3, 2019
One of the major focal points of curiosity among the Beatles' semi-officially released output from the '60s was their series of fan-club Christmas flexidiscs, released each year from 1963 to 1969 followed by this full-length compilation of all seven in 1970. None of these slapdash recordings were ever issued to the general public until fragments slipped out decades later on the "Free as a Bird" single (1995) and the Beatles Rock Band video game (2009). Like clockwork by mail to the faithful, however, came the annual record, initially just a spoken-word message but gradually growing ever more elaborate with each passing December. Years hence, this became -- with the band's promo films, their BBC recordings, their various missing movies and documentaries, and The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl -- one of the constantly-dangling (and hotly demanded) carrots for future official release into the CD, digital and streaming eras. Neither elusive session material unintended for outside ears nor part of any actual canon, these products occupied a certain limbo and always seemed on the cusp of making their way out.
Eventually they did, although really in no less esoteric a form than their original format (see our boxed set page). A case can be made that From Then to You (renamed The Beatles' Christmas Album in the U.S.) should have been on the market years ago, as its historical interest -- actual Beatles recordings, made in conjunction with George Martin and produced at Abbey Road! -- is obvious. At the same time, however, these were clearly meant as mostly private, privileged communiques with hardcore fans of the time, never launched out into the world freely even with the kind of revenue they were sure to generate, and even fifty years down the line there's a certain implicit trust inherent to that fan-artist relationship: this was for them, meaning those who cared enough to send in their little card and small postage fee and such, not for just anyone. So it's perfectly understandable -- respectable, even -- that they've never been prepared for digital release or for anything beyond a "step beyond" finder's quest for the few who care enough to track them down.
However, they're all out there if you want to hear them, and inevitably the 1970 compilation is part of Purple Chick's deluxe series. The archival appeal of the set is obvious; everyone who's deeply interested in the Beatles' outtakes and session material, and more broadly in deep dives into their history, will surely want to hear it at least once. Whether these flexis were actually any good is another question, and really a very personal one. I know fans to whom they mean a great deal, and some who make a point of trotting the whole sequence out for a listen every winter. For me -- and again, this is quite subjective -- they are probably the least rewarding major "chapter" in the Beatles' bootleg-oriented chronicle; I get more out of shoddy audience recordings of live shows and hours of Get Back sessions and even bad home tapes with Stu on bass. I'm glad I have them, but I'll be honest: until I sat down to write this, I was never able to make it through all of them in their entirety.
Actually, it's a little more complicated than that. For me, the first three Christmas messages -- 1963, '64, '65 -- are quite charming and fascinating. At this stage, the Beatles were unguarded, slightly mischievous youngsters who wanted (no doubt at Brian Epstein's prodding) to show faithfulness to their base but were also just a tad annoyed (in John Lennon's case, probably more than a tad) at the intrusion, and it's a sobering privilege to hear direct evidence of the day-to-day grind of being in the band at the height of their popularity. The next two flexis, from 1966 and 1967, are the most famous and fan-beloved because they're actually quite elaborately constructed comedy pieces, influenced by the Goons and embodying some actual music; I'm hit and miss with them, and I miss the spontaneous, accidental humor and acerbic impatience of the prior discs. Finally, the two closing volumes are, for me, almost insufferable; and I am someone willing to listen to half an hour of barely distinguishable monitor mixes of "A Day in the Life," so that is not said lightly.
It's often noted that the history of the Beatles' Christmas flexis is a handy mirror of the history of the Beatles' music; as the production on their commercially released recordings became more considered and elaborate, the same went for the sound (and artwork, for that matter) of their annual fan club offering. And as the band fragmented and split apart, the records reflected both constant restlessness and an agonizing, if implicit, disharmony.
Still, there are few more persuasive capturings of the breathlessness of late 1963 in the Beatles' universe than that first Christmas disc, recorded about a month before With the Beatles was released, with press agent Tony Barrow presiding as he would over the following two fan club records. There's goofy singing, John dripping with sarcasm, and signs of the times with talk about "Please Please Me" having been the hit that changed everything. Paul sounds gracious despite his pleas to the fans to cut it out with the jelly babies, and it's telling that he mentions he likes stage shows but his favorite aspect of the Beatles' career is the recording process. At this stage, Ringo is still taking note of how new he is to the band -- just barely over a year at this point -- and your heart kind of goes out to him over what must have been a whirlwind. George is prickly but funny ("thank you Ringo, we'll phone you") and shouts out the fan club secretaries before everyone closes out with a naughty chorus of "Ricky the Red-Nosed Ringo." The whole thing is over and done in five minutes.
The second message is a little more playful, but also bears the marks of in-jokes as a basic underlying form of communication, something that had undoubtedly grown important among the four Beatles as the world began to follow them everywhere. "Jingle Bells" gets droned out with kazoo and harmonica, Paul thanks you for buying the records over the past year, John, coughing into the microphone, says they'd be in the Army if they weren't Beatles (you learn in Lewisohn's book Tune In that conscription -- compulsory military service in the UK -- was a huge hazard to the Beatles' early existence, timing-wise) and announces "those were the days" in regard to "Love Me Do" and might mean it. He thanks you for buying his book and means it too, despite the Paul Harvey voice, the semi-buried penis jokes and the fact he really clearly doesn't want to be doing this, or maybe wants us to think he doesn't. John is simultaneously the most guarded and least phony of the four; George is polite -- he 'spects a lot of you saw A Hard Day's Night more than once -- and Ringo sounds exhausted (the band's "been to Australia and America and New Zealand and Australia"). All the while, even under these decorum-imposed conditions, their chemistry is remarkable.
Thanks to a run of outtakes PC includes here as supplemental material, we know that the 1965 message -- finally laid down on November 8th of that year -- was a hassle and a half to get right, probably because of the huge influx of weed into the Beatles' orbit. As it finally stands, it's probably the best and most agreeably frenetic of the whole lot, and the most diabolically self-deprecating, kicking off with a ridiculously atonal a cappella "Yesterday" and following up with John's brilliant acknowledgement of fan mail in the form of "chewed-up pieces of chewing gum and playing cards made out of knickers." This one also has some semi-music, like John's "Happy Christmas to Ya Lis'nas" plus the "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" poem, and some truly edgy joking around about song copyrights and war in the Middle East ("look at all those bodies floating in the river Jordan" to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne"). Eventually it all descends into echoy chaos (but not before someone curiously invokes the phrase "old brown shoe").
It gets really weird after that. '66 brings us "Pantomine (Everywhere It's Christmas)," the first of these to be actually full-on written by the Beatles and produced by George Martin, recorded in the midst of the "Strawberry Fields Forever" sessions and it shows: creativity runs like a stream, enough so that even though it isn't wholly successful in an objective sense, it's odd that Apple has never elected to release it more widely in some capacity. The band proves adept at fake swing, and the cornucopia of styles they touch on afterward really shows how limitness the world must have seemed to them at the time, freed from the puppet strings of touring. The basic format of the record is a very disjointed storybook, rife with the usual stoned and frantic humor, that calls ahead pretty clearly to the impulses and tone of Magical Mystery Tour (the film, as well as the book that joined the record); as with that project, a comparison with George Dunning's Yellow Submarine -- a clever narrative strung together from Beatle threads without their own participation -- reveals that these weren't the world's greatest storytellers, so thank heavens they never tried to go all the way with a true concept record. That said, portions of this are undeniably hilarious, and full of strangely endearing turns of phrase ("two elderly Scotsmen munch on a rare cheese"), the best of the quick episodes being one that involves the repetition of the words "matches" and "candles" so that Podgy and Jasper (?!) won't forget to buy either product at the shop. "Who'll remember the buns, Podgy?" might be the most unlikely laugh line this side of Firesign Theatre. At one point, John accidentally references A Clockwork Orange five years early by demanding to know if someone is enjoying their wine. Taken together, "Pantomine" is chaotic and awkward and extremely elaborate, but still benign and jokey enough to fit somewhat well with the earlier messages -- though you do kind of wonder what the younger fans who got it in the mail really thought of it.
Conventional wisdom is that the sort-of-psychedelic 1967 offering, centered around the half-assed ballad "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)," is the best of the lot and somehow release-worthy; but while it's amusing, it's a great deal less defensible on artistic grounds than "Pantomime." To begin with, while the Beatles themselves appear to be fond enough of the endlessly reprised song to release it officially in severely edited form as a b-side in 1995, it's a dreadful tune. A lot had changed in the Beatles' organization between these two Christmases -- more than in any other calendar year save 1962-63, probably -- and the strain can be heard here. With the loss of Epstein the prior August, one wonders how the increasingly anarchic unit was even persuaded to sit down and put this together. There are funny moments but none of them are coherent or really relate to one another, and really consist of "funny voices" being parroted. (Paul saying "cross section of British youth" in serious BBC mode is really amusing to me for some reason.) Given the way people talk about this record you'd think it reflected, beyond its garish and slightly pretentious cover art, the peak "studio year" of the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper and all that, but really it more closely resembles its actual origins -- the disorganized, tepid recordings that were the order of the day in the months after Pepper, with lethargy and lack of focus setting in. The Beatles release it most obviously resembles, in fact, is "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," both for its repetition and for its illogical, haphazard approach to humor.
Nonetheless, the '67 disc has joy in spades compared to the last two Beatles Christmas flexidiscs, which are a mess. These are basically sound collages, recorded separately by the band members, thus robbing them of a huge proportion of the actual appeal of this entire concept -- the chance to hear the group goofing off while working together. '68 does have a lot of music, though, from a Paul McCartney Christmas busk in the manner of "I Will" and "Rocky Raccoon" to the actual Tiny Tim inexplicably covering "Nowhere Man." There are heaps of sounds and bits from the then-brand new White Album (in fact, the best moment is probably a sped-up sample of "Helter Skelter" that then gets a bit of apocalyptic tape-delay treatment), and you can certainly sense that the chaotic, grab bag sensibility of the White Album is still in place here, but without the creative inspiration at the core of it, and pretty much free of charm. That goes especially for John Lennon's vignette "Jock and Yono," a ruthlessly unfunny and uncomfortably defensive depiction of his new-ish relationship that tries to apply In His Own Write-style wordplay to the situation ("they overcame overwhelming oddities, including some of their beast friends") and truly sounds dire and out of place in this context.
Lennon and Ono's improvisational and stupid segment of the final flexi is worse yet, with Ono (and again, I must reiterate here that I'm a great fan of her art and music and detest the flack she's gotten) cooing and giggling at Lennon's every answer to a fake "favorite food" interview (corn flakes, in case you're wondering); either they're high or they're just way too into each other to be letting outsiders hear this much of their shared personal life. The sensation of being a third wheel is strong here. You can almost feel the annoyance of fans radiating off this thing; there is a lot of Yoko here, and her and John's portions dominate this disc, which was prepared after the Beatles had already essentially broken up. Ringo comes off best, retaining an affable approachability even though his main goal seems to be to promote his new film, The Magic Christian.
By the end of 1970, of course, the Beatles were no more, a dissolution reflected inevitably in the progressing and regressing content of the flexidiscs. Instead, fans were treated to this quite generous compilation which subsequently became a valuable collector's item (an attractive one even, at least the American version) and is still the only release of this material that makes much sense. It also quickly became a favorite source of bootlegs; counterfeit versions are everywhere, then on vinyl and now digitally. PC's disc throws in some bonuses, most of which exhibit the same manic and tiresome qualities of the main attraction, though one huge highlight is Paul quite ruthlessly mocking Cliff Richard. Apart from that, the biggest boon here is a twelve-minute outtake of pothead Beatles trying and failing to record the 1965 message; it starts out funny, kind of sounding like a podcast episode rife with inside jokes you don't get yet because you haven't listened to the earlier installments, and when the Beatles aren't overly conscious of the microphone they exhibit a welcome dark humor here, anticipating the butcher cover with a series of severely tasteless jokes about eating babies. (If this ever leaks out on a larger scale, it probably won't be great for the public image, and Pizzagate-style conspiracy theorists will have a field day.) However, the recording gets aimless quickly and starts to become tiresome and mindnumbing like the tete-a-tete torture episode of The Prisoner. The most telling moment is when Ringo says something about "Silent Night" being copyrighted, then there's a tape jump and suddenly the four of them are singing a song in unison about the importance of singing public domain songs, before John kind of blows up and starts talking about how unfunny the whole thing is, and how he can't make it come off. Tony Barrow begs him to reconsider, saying he can make it stupid but also good. Stupid but also good is a nice descriptor for what we wish the Beatles' Christmas records were like; instead, they're a hodgepodge -- essential for the archival collector but not at all a goldmine.