Friday, August 2, 2019
The Beatles: Complete Home Recordings (1963-69)
!! CAUTION !!
A hodgepodge for completists only despite the presence of a few errant moments of sublime beauty, this collection -- which technically has two additional discs, made redundant by the bootleg Strong Before Our Birth and the 2018 official release of the Esher demos -- tidies up one of the main categories of Beatles music or semi-music missing from the Purple Chick compilations, namely their various private home tapes and amateur recordings spreading from the beginning to the end of their career. If you've been exposed to the lovely John Lennon demos of "I'm in Love" and "Bad to Me" via Youtube or on Apple's Bootleg Recordings 1963 release, or to Paul's stunning version of "Goodbye" that remains the greatest unreleased recording in the catalog as of 2019 (it's an obvious candidate for release and was up for inclusion on Anthology 3 but got vetoed for not being Beatley enough), you may expect to be treated to a bunch of gorgeous if muddy-sounding stripped down takes on classic Beatles and ancillary material. Unfortunately, this really is a scraping-the-barrel situation; not many of the Beatles' home demos that would actually interest most of us have escaped into the public sphere, and many of the scraps that did emerge were of such abysmal quality as recordings, as music, even as history that they constitute some of the least worthwhile Beatles bootleg material in existence.
Kicking off in 1963, we quickly find "Bad to Me" and "I'm in Love" to be by far the highlights of the early Beatlemania-era recordings on offer. Those are accompanied by a tape made by John of his wife Cynthia and infant son Julian interacting; it's inconsequential and creepy, and much better than what follows: an interminable gathering of inexplicable goof-offs from the lads and one Gerry Marsden from the summer of '63, which has them bouncing off the walls foolishly, reading Bible passages ironically and singing gospel tunes -- and all in a barely audible condition such that you can't actually make out the content of what's being said, only the procession of hammy "funny voices" delivering it. Then, prepare to be riveted with several minutes of Marsden and Paul McCartney wandering around asking strangers for directions; it's truly fucking fascinating, geez I hope they found the "parallel road." (John, stripping away all celebrity mystique once and for all and turning into your nervous dad on the road: "we should've been there at 4:00 and it's twenty to five!") There's a little more clarity in a recording of Paul reading nursery rhymes to an unknown child, plus a long sequence -- interrupted by random fragments of recorded-over stuff -- of the gang hanging out, listening to what sounds like Herb Alpert or similar mondo-lounge music and chit-chatting. Probably a fun time, and nothing we ever needed to hear.
Back to music, sort of, with Paul wailing over a radio blaring "Over the Rainbow" and "Tammy." Some fragments and instrumentals follow on from there; there's a Mediterranean-style single guitar instrumental, a generic Chuck Berry ("Havana Moon") burlesque, a weird amateurish Greek thing, a bad attempt at jazz with Ringo in tow, and something uncopyrighted the compilers have called "Rockin' and Rollin'" that seems to consist of Beatles jamming to celebrate someone's acquisition of a new tape recorder that will allow them to play around with overdubs at home. It's dreadful but kind of fun; they're certainly better at this kind of haphazard chaos than they were in 1960, and the really stupid lead vocals are enjoyably unguarded. Plus somebody's got a horn!? The only other songs from this mess that can be identified are a very hard to recognize demo of "Michelle," a poor take on the Academy Awards antique "Three Coins in the Fountain," and from August, some interesting rudimentary demos of "Don't Bother Me," terribly recorded and unfinished (only the bridge is close to done) and eventually overtaken by guitar noodling, but still intriguing and well worth hearing. For the record, all this is sourced from tapes that were auctioned off on seemingly shady pretenses by a chauffer named Alf Bicknell. We should thank Bicknell for bringing our heroes back down to earth; it was once hard to imagine anything tangentially related to the Beatles being so dull.
'64 fares little better. The tail end of the Bicknell tapes does offer some sweetly minimal Lennon runthroughs of "If I Fell," on which he audibly strains his voice while trying to figure out the vocal melody and tosses in an unconscious precursor to "Imagine" plus a fragment of "I Should Have Known Better." A Paul acetate demo of the tremendously bad "One and One Is Two," ultimately recorded by the Strangers, prompted Lennon's remark "Billy J. [Kramer] is finished when he gets this song," though indeed it turns out the tune was below even Kramer's standards. "Talking Guitar Blues" is out-of-tune skiffle via Ernest Tubb. Otherwise from this year we just have some radio appearances -- amusing as ever, with George gagging on Ringo's line and John emphatically promoting a Top Gear episode with "we gotta keep telling them, you know what they're like!" plus George reading out in German on Radio Luxenbourg -- and Paul goofing on Bach. The offerings for the next year are even more scant; 1965 provides only a lovely but cut-short fragment of "We Can Work It Out," 45 seconds of Paul's work in progress before Lennon added his input, which also goes for the minute-long instrumental demo of "Michelle," a song whose earlier genesis is already heard on the prior disc of this compilation.
It all gets a little more interesting in 1966; some fans will be worn out by the sheer quantity of John Lennon homemade wackiness on this disc, but in contrast to much of the Bicknell pap this is truly significant material in a historical sense. First of all we get to hear the switch from "He Said, He Said" to "She Said, She Said" and the attendant progression of a quizzical folk-rock number becoming something much harder and more ambiguous, with adventurous chord changes and considerable enthusiasm, plus some juicy tossed-off lines like "you're making me feel like my trousers are torn." Next up is a long collection of recordings of John playing with his brand new Mellotron, and he behaves about the same as all of us when we get a new toy, which means the whole thing is pretty insufferable but also suggestive, in that it makes you want to play around with one of the old machines yourself. And where better than an off-the-wall Beatles bootleg to make a strange discovery about a completely different band? We learn here that the Kinks' "Phenomenal Cat" ('68) opens with a straight recording of one of the factory-included Mellotron samples! Most enigmatically, John at one point pulls out and plays with a tidbit of the "Think for Yourself" vocal recording that was later used in Yellow Submarine and famously slipped out on boots in the 1970s, almost surely via Lennon, who clearly had a copy in his possession for some reason as early as 1966. The question is why, but we should know better than to harp on that.
The remainder of the second disc is comprised of lots and lots of "Strawberry Fields Forever," preserving what seems to be the complete collection of demos John made of the song; and while it's a taxing experience in terms of time and quantity, the song itself never gets old, perhaps the definitive example of a durable Beatles composition that's undiluted by any sort of repetition or -- on the master recording -- studio trickery. The evolution is stunning, John's performances are beautiful (there's even electric guitar on some of the demos) and it's privileged moment to witness this moment of inspiration occurring. Heartbreaking at the outset in its sheer intimacy and articulate anxiety, it gets dreamier later when he employs the Mellotron. He also experiments with everything he's learned so far about backwards talk, tape loops and overdubbing. (An intrepid bootlegger attempted to mix one of these to stereo, but the results are just odd.)
Disc three, and 1967, open with further documentary audio of John Lennon playing and writing at home, and this of course remains the best variety of material you can find amid the junk-shop pilings. His early "Good Morning, Good Morning" is modest and likable, driven by piano and what apparently is a Mellotron percussion sample. "Across the Universe" is very skeletal at this stage, just the "j'ai guru dev" bit but with no lyrics, again on piano and Mellotron. "You Know My Name," which he can't seem to get the hang of, apparently sprang from the ashes of an unfinished piece called "She's Walking Past My Door," which sounds similar to some of his solo work but is in such early stages that it's hard to tell what he was up to. "You Know My Name" is just a dirgelike chant, and it seems he never intended it very seriously, which isn't surprising given what it turned into. Paul's only demo this round is for "Step Inside Love," recorded at his Cavendish house, which is elaborate enough to be double-tracked and seems quite lovely despite the slightness of the composition -- but the terrible recording quality, likely several generations removed from a tape or acetate, does it in.
The next strange detour is music that actually was officially released in a fashion; the Beatles composed and performed the soundtrack to Magical Mystery Tour themselves. Obviously it consisted largely of their own new songs plus a few external tidbits by the Bonzo Dog Band and Arthur Wilkinson & His Orchestra, but the group or some configuration of the group also crafted some incidental music that seems to have been made at someone's house, probably John's (in addition to "Shirley's Wild Accordion," produced by John Lennon at EMI). This is mostly electronic meandering that reinforces the inescapable truth that the Beatles were not George Martin, nor Ken Thorne for that matter. But the most prolonged of these tidbits, "Jessie's Dream" (from the famous and atypically inspired "spaghetti sequence"), is somewhat interesting, credited to the whole band like "Flying" and similar in its reliance on oddball vocal exercises and the Mellotron -- though it's most appealing largely because of the genuinely funny and weird Lennon dialogue from the film that's laid over it. Speaking of weird, from this period there is a radio skit labeled "All Together on the Wireless Machine," but its origins are dubious and in most hardcore circles is no longer presumed to be Beatles-related at all.
The 1968 portions of this collection overlap a bit with the Christmas and Kinfauns tapes reviewed elsewhere. Only about a third of what remains will interest most fans. For the devoted few, there is a lengthy freeform home tape (which may not even be from 1968 but it is in the neighborhood) from John, again playing around with the Mellotron and this time with Ringo occasionally in tow, but it's a little more amusing than the drudgery of some of the earlier recorded samples of his and the others' dicking around. Collected under several different titles but really comprised of one long session of toying with the synthesizer's samples and improvising vocals (spoken or sung) on top of them, the highlights here include Ringo's narration about "the Edgehill Country Club" and John's impromptu emceeing of a "Cuban music" recording: "we've got a swinging little trio... bass, maracas and bass." More historically significant but even less listenable is the famous and oft-booted "India tape," some hippie-dippie stuff periodically interrupted by Wolfman Jack narrating the proceedings years later, with the Beatles (sans Ringo) gathered round along with Mia Farrow, Mike Love, Donovan and others singing public domain faves like "Jingle Bells," "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" and, perversely making its second appearance in the Beatles' recorded legacy, "When the Saints Go Marching In." They also jam out "Blowin' in the Wind" and, after scaling down a bit, a stupid rock & roll Brian Wilson pastiche called "Spiritual Regeneration" (its fusion of Beach Boy harmonies and phony relevance reminds one of nothing so much as that band's embarrassing "Student Demonstration Time," had it been written in time for Beach Boys' Party!) then -- once John's safely out of earshot -- they sing Happy Birthday to Mike Love. I have no real basis for this but I strongly suspect that Love's memory of "cowriting" "Back in the U.S.S.R." is drawn from a vague recollection of "Spiritual Regeneration," which is like a very dumb version of "U.S.S.R."... but may draw some attention from new fans since it's something akin to a lost Beatles original (plus Donovan and the Lovester). Speaking of false memories, Geoff Emerick's claim that "Blackbird" was recorded (later in 1968) outside of EMI Studios with actual real bird sounds is newly amusing in light of this take that's absolutely awash in the sounds of wild fowl.
But as for the stuff you actually want to hear from '68, meaning the legitimate demos: "Hey Bulldog" is faint and tentative (it sounds like a child is crying in the background, but I have no clue who that would be) and embodies only the "you can talk to me" portion, here "she can talk to me." There's a sequence dedicated to "Cry Baby Cry" in the process of being composed, with John picking out the melody on piano and trying several approaches with it; oddly enough, one quickly abandoned version is arranged on an electric guitar with the words screamed out, which is potentially interesting, but he doesn't get more than a few seconds through it each time and quickly gives up. "Julia" is a heavy presence (different from the Esher demo), but already polished despite the early absence of lyrics, and its chords apparently fascinated John as he used them on three different songs he started writing in this period, the others being "Look at Me" and (his half of) "I've Got a Feeling." "Look at Me" is quite raw here, with John's vocal more obviously pained than on the double-tracked master from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970). Inevitably, "I've Got a Feeling" consists only of the "everybody had a hard year" bit, which sounds almost mournful in this context despite light accompaniment from Yoko Ono -- though at one point I swear he says "everybody got a soft drink." Lastly from John's department, there is "A Case of the Blues," the rare Lennon song that never quite got finished despite a lot of potential; the lyrics are rudimentary but the performance is solid and engaging, a nice bit of stripped-back rock & roll.
John dominates the remainder of this compilation, save the diverting George-Bob Dylan collaborations "Nowhere to Go" and "I'd Have You Anytime," but there's one extremely important exception. If Complete Home Recordings were the only context in which you could hear Paul's beautiful "Goodbye," an acoustic demo for Apple artist Mary Hopkin, that would be plenty of reason to seek it out. Thankfully, it's so famous and popular that its unreleased status is nearly beside the point; it's as ubiquitous on the web as if it had been a hit single, and it easily would've been given the opportunity. Hopkin's stilted, gaudy version may as well not even exist. "Goodbye" is prime White Album-era Paul McCartney, lilting, deceptively simple, gorgeously sung -- he may not have a more moving, controlled vocal on record -- and all but undeniably touching. Totally absent of the winking ironies and self-conscious cleverness of so many of his Beatles songs from this era, this is a pure expression of love that sounds absolutely unforced; in some ways it feels as sincere and unguarded as John's "Julia." Perhaps "I Will" is close to its peer as a love song from Paul at a turning point of his life, but somehow this one feels deeper and more substantive. That it was a private tape of a song intended for a woman to sing has unintended positive effects as well; surely the fact that it wasn't meant for mass consumption contributes to the track's feeling of spotaneity, which only emphasizes what a masterful composer, singer and guitarist he was as a young man, giving ammunition to the theory that Paul's worst enemy was his eagerness to please everyone. Secondarily, even though it's matter of practicality that the "lover" in the song is a man, there's something moving about hearing Paul McCartney belt out what amounts, in letter if not spirit, to a same-sex love song. Of course that soldiarity is unintentional, even if Paul may agree with the resulting sentiment, but then again this is the band that covered the Shirelles' lusty "Boys" without changing most of the words.
Nothing else on the entire compilation stands up to "Goodbye" (or "Bad to Me," which I'm disregarding as a point in its favor since it's since been released), much less anything that follows in the run through 1969, which is exclusively Lennon-related material, very little of which is noteworthy. It's interesting to hear demos of "Don't Let Me Down" (only the "nobody ever loved me" section at first, then a recording built around "I'm in love for the first time..."), "Cold Turkey" (on which John Lennon sounds totally broken, like a starving, braying animal), "Because" (haunting but very incomplete, and showing off Ono's heavy involvement in its creation since it comes from one of the Bed-Ins), "I Want You" (very raw and limited, almost scarily intense) and especially "Oh Yoko" (just busking but kind of fun, already a lovely song, and capping with an out-of-nowhere reference to A Hard Day's Night, the film: "why don't we do the show right here??"). But these are very short extracts; the bulk of the 1969 material comes from the Lennons' publicity-heavy trips to Amsterdam and Montreal and doesn't have a lot to do with the Beatles, though as audio verité I suppose it has some purpose. I quite appreciate the performance-art aspects of John and Yoko's public persona in the late '60s but the emotional limitations of that corner of the Beatles' legacy certainly becomes apparent when laid against material like "Goodbye," and although Lennon would craft some stunning music in his shatteringly brief solo career, the demo of "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" just points up all the shortcomings and indulgences that would hinder him in the absence of the other band members; it's a lame version of a lame song, delivering a lack of judgment in such a brilliant figure that's worthy of some variety of existential despair. There are bright, funny moments too, but rarely are they musical; someone pesters John to play a bit of his "new song," and in response he coughs and hacks his way through the one-line chorus of "Don't Let Me Down" before admitting he "can't remember" the rest of it, a wonderful moment of anti-humor. And hey, he also busks through the already-released "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and works out the basics of "Give Peace a Chance." However, far more of these tapes are occupied by weird nonsense like Akiva Nof belting out "Jerusalem" as if it's the ashram all over again, John and Yoko leading a horrendous singalong called "Radio Peace," more unlistenable Kenny Everett bullshit, and an eight-minute ball of nothing called "Message to Japan," which is nothing but John playing Beatles songs on his acoustic guitar (no singing) while Yoko stumbles through a speech in Japanese.
This bootleg is the kind of item that, when you first hear about it after entering the world of underground Beatles minutiae, sounds like it must be a holy grail of sorts, and actually hearing it is always a quick trip down to earth -- that excludes "Goodbye," sparklingly clear (tape drag notwithstanding) and a buried treasure that might be the only non-canon Beatles track that actually brings back that inscrutable feeling of hearing their classics for the first time and then somehow loving it more every time one listens to it again. But it's obviously the exception; nothing else here even comes close in its quality of presentation, and only the low-quality (and available elsewhere) "Bad to Me" is nearly as inspired. In some ways the whole shebang is an object lesson for those of us who've been crowing for years that everything should be released; in the absence of the restraint and curation that comes with official Apple product, should we be careful what we wish for? If we're being honest, though, even consumer-conscious (?) bootleggers who want only to organize the backdoor catalog for the masses are limited by what's made it "out there." We're thankfully no longer in an age when we all risk being ripped off by our fandom, at least by anyone besides the Beatles themselves. If we really were to hear the "complete" home recordings of the Beatles in the '60s, I suspect we'd find a lot of things that would, to put it technically, blow our fucking minds. In essence, it's good that this is out there, but for anyone who's enough of a completist to download and archive it, just don't get your hopes up. But as we've already said, if you haven't heard "Goodbye," get thee to Youtube or your torrent service of choice immediately, and let's all hold our hands and hope that it finally gets out into the marketplace in 2019.