Saturday, December 14, 2019

Pet Shop Boys: Release (2002)



Release is the result of an exceptionally productive series of recording sessions initiated a year after the completion of Pet Shop Boys' uneven, image-shaking Nightlife, and like that record it makes much of the idea of reinvention. The hype at the time concentrated on the deceptive portrayal of this as Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's move toward warmth, toward an organic guitar-based sound, away from arch ironies, wacky hairdos, computer animation. (Those who've paid close attention will be familiar with this as a nearly constant career path for the duo's LP discography, from Please and Actually onward; almost always they follow a brash ground-up, visually audacious reimagining of themselves with a pulling back of the curtain to show off who they really are.) Not "back to basics" so much as a first encounter with basics. This is largely a coy bit of marketing; in fact, the album was recorded in the usual synth and programming-heavy fashion, with many of the supposedly organic sounds actually just being the result of major progression and innovation in electronic music. But Johnny Marr does audibly contribute to several tracks, there is certainly more here that resembles traditional, if soft, rock music than usual, and there's no doubt that Tennat and Lowe's songwriting approach -- modest, emotional and drenched with melancholy -- stands in extreme contrast to the impression-making four-on-the-floor anthems on Nightlife and the fervent, ambitious optimism of Very and Bilingual. The main distinction is how slow and contemplative everything is, and the final effect is a plainspoken record that can feel like a most welcome salve.

As ever, the title has two divergent suggestions: firstly, another in the run of absurdly minimalist, matter-of-fact labels that brought us Very and Please and Actually and Alternative and a song called "Single"; of course it's a release, nothing more and nothing less. (Maybe significant, by the way, that Revolver was once UK slang for a 12" record.) But also, as ambiguously echoed by the carnivorous plant on the cover -- which seems in some strange way to be wailing out in a kind of surrender -- "release" is catharsis, an escape from tension and despair, a sigh of relief, and for all the anxieties that constantly permeate Tennat's writing, it is this sensation that seems to permeate so much of this record, which stands as a unique installment in PSB's long career, with a communicative compassion. It felt very reassuring to hear Tennant's voice again after what seemed far too long in 2002, especially on a song as generous and welcoming as "Home and Dry," and the weathered mode of this music has made returning to it quite valuable in the years since.

The landscape that Release entered was wildly different from the one that greeted Nightlife in 1999, when the parameters of clubbing and end-of-history abandon were still more or less in place. It can be hard now to remember what a bizarre time the early 2000s were in the aftermath of 9/11, and the atmosphere of fear and dread that overtook social life and culture on an international level. Nightlife had been the first PSB album from which AIDS felt almost completely absent (with, to be sure, some residue from the attendant anxieties in "In Denial" but an audacious return to freedom on "New York City Boy"), and now Release is the first transmission from a world undergoing incomprehensible levels of upheaval, even though most of it was recorded by the moment everything changed. There was a sensation in those days of being unmoored and uncertain, and sadly it's one that hasn't entirely left since then; however, the jingoism, violence and puritanism of the three years just after 9/11 is hard to deny as some sort of nadir, when all voices of reason seemed entirely drowned out. And even though Neil isn't necessarily singing about any of that, in the one-two punch that opens this record, joined later by the wistful, unapologetic immigration narrative "London," the resignation and welcome he expresses feel deeply vital, especially when he immediately turns it around into a raw examination of his own insecurities.

First single and album opener "Home and Dry" was accompanied by the most controversial Pet Shop Boys video to date, a boldly minimalist, amateurishly shot paean to the communion and dietary scrounging of rats in the London Underground. Anger and consternation greeted the clip in Britain and its rather intense nonconformity, this being an age when videos mattered a hell of a lot more than they do now, was widely blamed for the single and album's relatively lackluster chart performance -- though the song was still a sizable hit in England and on American dancefloors, not surprisingly since it's one of the group's most beautiful and well-produced songs ever. Despite some sparing and stylistically appropriate use of Autotune, the warts-and-all ideology of Wolfgang Tillmans' video is matched by the way that Tennant embraces the fact of being weathered by the years; but he's as assured as ever, and he and Lowe have written a celebration of love and security that sounds exactly like what it's about: expounding on the massive universe ("there's a plane at JFK") from the comfort of clean bedsheets, matching its enraptured breathlessness with genuinely bracing intimacy. It's kind of an embrace, an assertion that despite all that's happened, everyone still belongs here.

"Home and Dry" closes out with Lowe repeatedly speaking the words "we're going home" in his usual determined, steely monotone. It sounds like he's trying to dispel the fears of the entire world, but he's also referencing the Beatles; Paul McCartney ends "Two of Us," one of the most beloved of his love songs for Linda Eastman, with the same spoken words before John Lennon whistles out into the fade. Part of the point may be just to make plain that Tennant and Lowe intend to carry themselves forward as an infallible team through a third decade, even as the ground shakes under them; but it's also a statement of the kind of pop mood they're aspiring to evoke here. (The Beatles fan in the group is almost certainly Tennant, as Lowe's relative distaste for rock music is well-known and a running joke; there is also a direct lyrical nod to "A Day in the Life" in 1996's "Metamorphosis.") The Beatles allusions in the tremendous song that follows "Home and Dry," "I Get Along," are more abstract but no less striking -- it's a melodic nod to Britpop and by extension to its grandfathers, with a particular resemblance to George Harrison's melodic sensibility (Harrison died the month work on Release was completed) and a bridge whose delivery (listen to the way Tennant sings the word "diverted") shoots for the pleasing rawness of Rubber Soul... but perhaps more significant is the act of naked self-examination the song initiates. It's not the first or the last time the band would issue a song that sounded achingly personal, but one of the few in which Tennant sounds actually vulnerable, given that his tendency to hide behind layers of cleverness and characterization have been a hallmark of the band's work since the beginning. Whether it's as direct a breakup song as it seems to be or not, "I Get Along" is the most devastatingly direct bit of exposure he's permitted since the b-side "Your Funny Uncle," about the loss of a loved one to AIDS. And Lowe dutifully takes the very unusual step, also common to "Uncle," of removing all evidence that this is a dance group.

The song is lengthy and pointed, tellingly detailed in its chronicle of a fraying affair, though Tennant typically deferred questions by claiming it was about politics. But even if it is, it isn't, you know? The lyrics are perfect, the melody astonishing, and the group proves adept at concocting a midtempo rock ballad that's as effective and moving as "Kings Cross" or "Only the Wind," and the mixture of actual hurt and tearful resilience in the words and vocal ("I've been trying not to cry when I'm in the public eye... stuck here with the shame and taking my share of the blame while making solemn plans that don't include you") absolve any sense that the group is stretching too far from their comfort zone. These two opening cuts sound potentially like a new beginning for PSB, a totally different direction; as it would turn out, this is really the only time they'd ever attempt such straightforward pop again. ("What Have I Done to Deserve This?" is a fair antecedent but is beholden to very different and much less mainstream traditions.) It was months before I even noticed that the rest of Release never really lives up to its opening numbers in all their pain and loveliness; but strangely, it never seemed to really matter much.

That isn't to say the rest of the album is lackluster; in fact, nearly all of it is upper-tier Pet Shop. The third single "London" takes a more traditional approach to the same sort of languid mood; it's beautiful, sumptuous song full of longing and grit, but it's also a character sketch, here of a pair of immigrants' journey to Britain for a better life -- therefore its vaguely leftist, unmistakably humane but appropriately complex messaging seems prescient in a way that the rest of the album, very unabashedly a product of 2002, does not. (Please note that this isn't a knock; music that captures its time is important, particularly if it does so in a way that continues to resonate. It is not a complaint that Benny Goodman records evoke the time in which they were recorded; rather, that they do so even for audiences who weren't there is a major artistic achievement.) Like "High and Dry" it toys with the then-ubiquitous innovation of Autotune (this was the first post-"Believe" PSB album), which would quickly be shunned by just about every stripe of music fan, but they use it well in both songs. Oddly, of all Release's songs "London" is most evocative of the grand melodies of the Very period, a well to which they had not returned since that watershed album.

A personal favorite track of mine is the instantly dated but simple and charming "E-Mail," a very Neil Tennant analysis of the effect of modern communication on romance that is -- even now -- surprisingly eloquent, and fully aware of its own out-of-touch ironies. It's probably the most on-the-nose song about the early years of web courting with the exception of Aaron Carter's long-forgotten "My Internet Girl," but again, as is typical of PSB, it explores day-to-day life and its attendant insecurities (and those that accompany long-distance adoration) with a cunning wit and sensitivity -- "some things can be written down that we're too shy to say" -- that only Stephin Merritt among contemporary pop composers can remotely match. Chris Lowe is clever to pair it all with a grinding, slick porno beat that plays up the cheerful corniness of the enterprise. And I would be lying if I said that the fact I started my first two relationships through message boards and email doesn't give me some sentimental attachment to the song (I would also be lying if I said I did not include it on at least one mix CD for a girl; yikes) -- and I think its wistfulness is captured well by its use as the coda for the "I Get Along" video, which consists of a bunch of models carousing around having a nice time weeks after 9/11, a yearning tombstone for a dead decade. Laid against the shifting culture, the florid album closer "You Choose," which romantically elucidates on what some find a very non-romantic concept, that falling in love is a choice, seems almost defiantly quaint, but Pet Shop Boys' reminder of the unchanging utility and importance of love itself is, like so much of this album, a comfort in a dark time.

The scattered remarks that the record thoroughly avoids beats seemed to be based on a cursory glance at the PR materials and on the fact that "I Get Along" is such a monster of a song that it overshadows much of what's around it; in fact, Lowe gets a couple of major synth-heavy showcases here. "The Samurai in Autumn" is the kind of ominous banger that might well have been saved for a b-side or a Disco volume in the old days. (In fact, there was enough fan backlash against the slow tempos of Release that Disco 3 arrived very soon afterward. For my part, I've always liked the outliers in PSB's output, starting way back with "Later Tonight" and "It Couldn't Happen Here," but any band that ends up with this kind of hallowed cult status is to get some flack for straying from norms, and I'm grateful that Tennant and Lowe -- unlike, say, Depeche Mode, who I also love -- have never really let this talk them out of experimentation.) It's surprisingly stark and urgent in the vein of "Euroboy" but carries through the ambiguously dour but resilient moods of the rest of the disc while also recalling the melodic seriousness of Behavior. And "Here" is the kind of hook-driven dancefloor cut that fans tend to wait around for, instantly recognizable as Pet Shop without being stereotypical. Tennant shoots for showtune energy, Lowe gives it a memorably nocturnal vibe subsumed in the kind of strangely lively emotion dance music is best at capturing, and it's a snapshot of eccentric clubbing in 2002 just like Nightlife and Bilingual were for their respective eras. And once again, Neil brings it home with the perfect sentiment: "Call it what you want, you've got a home here."

There are less graceful moments, and admittedly more than usual of them among the better PSB albums. "Birthday Boy" is probably the only dud, primarily because six and a half minutes is too long for its dunderheaded and facile metaphor, pedestrian vocal and arrangement, and amausingly overdriven key changes. Its lyric is so awash in bland suggestion as to feel like one of Paul Simon's English class interludes, and it suffers from a shitty guitar or imitation-guitar solo that I refuse to believe comes from Marr. Somewhat stronger is "Love Is a Catastrophe," which sadly can't live up to its wonderful title -- it is a traditional Neil Tennant whinge with a touch of "Dreaming of the Queen" and "It Couldn't Happen Here" but without the aural appeal of those songs. Next to "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk" from Nightlife, it's lyrically the most Magnetic Fields-like of all PSB songs, but presumably Merritt et al. wouldn't let it out with this level of ridiculous melodrama, and he also would never sing it with the same passion as Neil, which changes its tone entirely.

That brings us to the most attention-grabbing of all Release's songs, and the one that essentially cursed it to a status as a bit of a novelty album. It's the one time in history that Pet Shop Boys managed to get the attention of Dr. Dre, enough to issue a mild diss in response. In retrospect, it feels like the Eminem controversy would have seemed very much yesterday's news by 2002, akin to Peter Gabriel putting out a hit piece on Jerry Springer that same year, but my memory is that "The Night I Fell in Love" got PSB considerable mainstream music news coverage in the U.S. for the first time since, roughly, Introspective (1988). And in fairness, Eminem's homophobia and the music community and press' response to same had been the subject of a firestorm from 1999 to 2001, and presumably the dust hadn't quite settled; and of course, Eminem is even now -- for whatever reason -- still a big star. The key moment of the circus, which had PTA members wringing hands and Larry King and Chris Matthews (who thought Eminem was "a bunch of guys" due to his passing glance at the video for "The Real Slim Shady") weighing in at absurd length on cable news, came at the 2001 Grammy awards when, amid widely reported protests from GLAAD, a blustering speech was given about how this was a free speech battle just like the PMRC vs. backmasking and "Darling Nikki" and all that, just like Ray Charles mixing sacred and profane, just like people getting arrested for selling 2 Live Crew CDs -- none of which had jackshit to do with the gay community's objections to Eminem -- followed immediately by a performance of "Stan" in which Eminem was joined by (noted PSB fan) Elton John. The entire charade was oddly performative: the suggestion was that yes, Eminem's rhetoric was harmful, but then again, so what? He's so smart! He's a journalist for poor white communities! He spits at blank words a minute! He uses puns! Plus free speech means no one should ever have accountability for anything they say! Etc.

In Tennant and Lowe's response to all this, Neil puts on his actorly voice and portrays, as revealed in the song's punchline, an underage boy who sleeps with Eminem in a one-night stand. For those who remember how inescapable Eminem was back then, there's no way to know how this snapshot of the cultural moment, which includes an amusing direct reference to "Stan" itself, would play now to someone unaware of the context. My suspicion is that while it's a strong topical piece taken in isolation, it brings the album down and fits badly with it both thematically and musically -- though Lowe blesses it with another perversely sensual soundscape calling some of the filthy remixes of "We All Feel Better in the Dark" to mind, it's maybe the first time in the band's history that songcraft has intentionally taken a back seat to ideology, with everything predicated on an audience paying attention to the words and focusing on the target of their satire. (This would come up later in the group's history on the anti-Blair number "I'm with Stupid" and the threadbare Trump-era Agenda EP.) Despite these issues, though, it is a rather impeccable and in some ways brilliant piece of vindictive comedy, and what makes it so incisive and playful in comparison to something like Ben Folds' toothless, vaguely racist rap-metal attack "Rockin' the Suburbs" is how it spins the defenses by Eminem, the RIAA and the rapper's fans and critical supporters right back against them, specifically the fact that none of the above ever had a half-decent response to the homophobia question much as Eminem mentor Dr. Dre never had an answer for the misogyny question. When Tennant's wide-eyed character wonders aloud, now that he's fucked Slim Shady himself up the ass in a night of hedonistic splendor, why so many people think he hates gay people, all the nameless-here-forever-more star does is shrug. The line of thought ends there, unresolved, and somehow there's nothing truer or more damning, like the adults in Sesame Street telling Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died "just because."

More than anything, however, "The Night I Fell in Love" works because of Tennant's vocal performance, which is, without hyperbole, utterly magnificent. He modulates perfectly to capture the male groupie completely under the thumb of his idol, appropriates hip hop language without even as much condescension and wink as one can arguably read from Eminem himself, and in the moments when he repeats the "secret lovers" line and sounds like he's on the verge of a quiet orgasm when he claims that the world's most celebrated white rapper "was passionate," he absolutely writhes in the rightness of the moment in a way that's infectiously nasty. The inevitable question is, who has lasted longer, Eminem or Pet Shop Boys? In this regard, the duo shoot themselves in the foot by dedicating so much energy to a hatefuck of what amounts to a fad; sure, Eminem is still something of a hit-maker and has a legacy now, but who still really thinks about the moment when his lyrics were the subject of all this breathless analysis, except when they're reminded of it by something like this? It limits the record's utility now. One is reminded of how much energy some of us spent railing against dreadful multiplatinum bands like Creed, little knowing that their earnest machismo would be a speck in the rear-view within well under a decade.

But Pet Shop Boys have been flourishing for thirty-seven years now, and while the larger culture has failed to acknowledge them, it has also moved with them, and they with it. Release marks a point both when their instincts paid off as they so frequently have and when they hedged just a bit, to comment more than usual on the changing culture. In its worst moments it's a mirror held up to a long-gone moment; in its best it suggests a durability and wisdom that can be hard to explain to outsiders of the group's fanbase but that, to the initiated, can be life-saving.

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Beatles: In the Beginning (1961-62)

(Polydor 1970)

(First of all, I'm using this particular release of this material as a platform to review it because it's the most readily available and generous, and was issued by the original label for whom these tracks were recorded. More on this below. The disc also encompasses some non-Beatle material that was once thought otherwise, whereas Purple Chick's nearly definitive unauthorized examination of this period, I Hope We Passed the Audition -- reviewed on our studio bootlegs page -- keeps things strictly to songs on which the band actually played, and is probably now the best way to acquire and hear these songs.)

For all his reputation today as a bit player in history, Tony Sheridan was a tough-as-nails British heartthrob, a dyed-in-the-wool rock & roller who made waves and thrilled local audiences mimicking Elvis on various stages in Hamburg at a time when the thirst for raw, hard American-derived rock music in that city was nearly insatiable, which had of course led to Liverpool bands like the Beatles, Rory Storm & the Hurricanes and Derry & the Seniors being recruited and sent overseas to play the nighclub district. Sheridan's reputation as an able singer and guitarist and the chemistry he shared with the Beatles when they occasionally played together got him a recording contract well ahead of most of his peers, when in 1961 he was signed to Polydor by German orchestra leader, record producer and easy listening master Bert Kaempfert. Kaempfert also signed the Beatles, whose reputation among musicians and crowds had grown sterling by this point in their second Hamburg trip (and third Hamburg residency, at the Top Ten Club after ill-fated stints at the Indra and the Kaiserkeller), and thus got them their very first recording contract, though initially they would serve only as backing musicians for Sheridan with the promise of some brief indulgence for their own material.

The main sessions took place on June 22nd and 23rd, 1961 at a German high school built in the seventeenth century whose auditorium was known and well-used by Kaempfert for its high-quality acoustics. The Beatles -- at this point recently whittled to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best, though newly departed bassist Stuart Sutcliffe tagged along to observe -- appeared bright and early, having not gone to bed after the previous night's show spread on into the wee hours, mostly high on uppers. Recording for Kaempfert was a huge deal; he was not just a German star but an international celebrity after the widespread success of his Beautiful Music classic "Wonderland by Night," a #1 hit in America, which must have put stars in the eyes of all involved parties but particularly the four Beatles who so yearned for a tangible, mass-produced piece of their music on disc.

Paul had recently and grudgingly switched to playing bass in place of Stu, but proves adept and even fairly masterful at this early session. John and George were already in their long-established positions; John acquits himself fairly well, George only shines occasionally and probably had some hand in keeping the lone Beatles vocal (John's Gene Vincent-inspired cover of the '20s standard "Ain't She Sweet") recorded here unreleased for the time being due to his atrocious solo. But as would happen quite often, the true weak link was Pete Best, whose drumming was rapidly deemed unacceptable by Kaempfert; the producer took the rather extreme step of removing his bass drum and toms, so that all of his drumming on these songs is comprised mostly of rather frantic and repetitive work on the snare, though it does permit us to avoid the cursed rumbling common to most of the recorded evidence of Best's work with the group. Kaempfert's other major contribution was an overall slickness and cleanliness of sound that simultaneously makes these recordings -- multitrack and in true stereo -- sound much more "advanced" than the Beatles' Decca tape of six months later or even their early EMI output, which had a rawness that the Beatles would have distinctly preferred. But Kaempfert wasn't out to imitate American rock & roll, a genre that wasn't really in his wheelhouse, and objectively these recordings sound very good.

Where rawness does come through is in the performances. This music is instructive because it does give us more than a decent idea of why the Beatles were turning heads to such an extent in Germany, as even on this mostly lackluster material their enthusiasm is infectious and they play hard, fast and loud in a sonically advanced throwback to the first wave of U.S. rock & roll four to six years earlier. That said, the sessions' officially sanctioned single, an awkwardly rollicking rearrangement of the Scottish folk song "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" (nearly as old as the building in which the Beatles were recording), certainly is an oddity, harking back less to rock & roll's appropriation of black gospel and blues and more to the L.A. label Rendezvous Records' cash-in instrumental ensemble B. Bumble and the Stingers, whose lovably insipid "Flight of the Bumble Bee" rewrite "Bumble Boogie" was a top 40 hit in America this same month -- it's the same sort of bizarro conflation of classical or traditional music harnessed for an air of misguided legitimacy, and it seems more audacious than transcedent.

Sheridan and the Beatles had toyed with the song on stage for a while, and Kaempfert undoubtedly latched on because it's a lovely melody, but there's no real sense that Sheridan feels anything for it besides an excuse to practice both his uncanny Elvis ballad imitation (in the slow introduction, accompanied by the Beatles in a strange, wordless doo-wop burlesque) and his arms-to-the-wind, loose rock & roll vamping. He does contribute a truly excellent guitar solo, often erroneously attributed to George Harrison. Indeed, Paul's infectious yelling is the most distinctive way in which this stands out as a Beatles record, since George doesn't play the solo, John's rhythm guitar isn't terribly prominent, and the drumming is not by a canonical Beatle. In Mark Lewisohn's book, he places "My Bonnie" at the upper-tier of early British rock & roll singles pre-October 1962, on a level with Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac" and Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over," but those are masterful, revelatory records that still sound fresh and exciting today and never betray their distance from ground zero of the movement they try to recapture, while there's no reason to regard "My Bonnie" for anything besides its historical importance, of which more later.

The original b-side of "My Bonnie" upon its release as a 45 by Polydor in October was "The Saints," another adaptation of a weirdly traditional number (the spiritual "When the Saints Go Marching In"), establishing something of a pattern for the Kaempfert sessions; it's probably the most forgettable of the numbers they laid down here, and its (inexplicable) selection as the only other song Kaempfert initially chose to release was likely a source of disappointment to the band. The eventual LP release that encompassed both songs didn't incorporate any of the other material the Beatles played on during these two sessions either (it did have their Sheridan-led version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," taped later), and it wasn't until 1963, by which time it didn't matter one way or the other to them, that any other songs from June '61 made their way out. But now we have them all.

Sheridan led the Beatles on three other numbers in front of Kaempfert at the first block of recordings -- his own composition "Why," a credible ballad on which he's backed strictly by Paul and Pete; the mournful Hank Snow country weeper "Nobody's Child," coincidentally a favorite of future Beatles drummer Richard Starkey, and probably the best number they all recorded in June, Jimmy Reed's searing blues "Take Out Some Insurance" (sometimes mislabeled as "If You Love Me, Baby") on which Sheridan contributes a positively grinding, X-rated, desperate performance peaking with an uncensored Vincent-esque "god damn". Sheridan and the Beatles' version of "Insurance" is the Hamburg rock & roll experience as it's vividly recalled by those who were there in a nutshell -- all of the sleaze, the sweat, the grime, and none of the sweetness. It's impressive that Kaempfert left it unadorned, but not surprising that he didn't release it.

For the Beatles, the most exciting moment came when Kaempfert gave them the floor to record a couple of tunes without Sheridan. One was an instrumental, the fun and trifling "Cry for a Shadow" (the allusion in its title making its influences rather obvious, though it isn't miles away from surf music either) which boasts some fine guitar from both of its composers, John Lennon and George Harrison, and some still solid-as-a-rock bass playing from Paul McCartney -- but the material is unmistakably thin, and the song seems to go on forever despite not even reaching two and a half minutes. It's also probably the cut most harmed by Kaempfert's sparkling production, which makes it sound less like a ragged club band mach-ing shau and more like an arid demonstration disc for someone's hi-fi. This is particularly apparent during the bridge, when the careful separation of elements wrought by Kaempfert's harnessing of advanced technology doesn't allow the band to hang together, their chemistry absent. But it's still an enjoyable song whose status as the first professionally recorded Beatles composition is not insignificant, and Paul's enthusiastic off-mic screaming gives it a welcome touch of rock & roll abandon it might otherwise lack.

Unfortunately, the Beatles rather botched their other shot at center stage for Kaempfert. Given the chance to sing one of their own, John -- who, by all accounts, made the final decision of which song to play -- bizarrely went for "Ain't She Sweet," which he would have known from Gene Vincent's typically sinister crooning version from 1956. It was never a big live staple for the Beatles and wouldn't have been a song you would expect them to be sentimentally attached to in any major way; Lewisohn speculates it's a song that John learned from his mother before she died. Even in the arrangement Lennon would have preferred, which was more like Vincent's lazy ballad rendition, it was a wrongheaded waste of what might well have remained their only shot in a professional recording environment; with Kaempfert dictating a radical rearrangement into what amounted to a rushed, frenetic "march" (as John later put it), the song must have retained basically no appeal to any of them, more painfully shoehorned into a rock & roll format than even "My Bonnie" and only slightly redeemed by John's fairly spirited if obviously wary vocal, and certainly, as Kaempfert would have realized, to any potential audience... although when released by Atco in America at the height of Beatlemania, the song hit the top twenty, almost certainly because anything a Beatle sang would have at that point.

The matter might have rested there, the Beatles destined to remain heroes in Hamburg and Liverpool for a while longer before fading into obscurity; this same year, 1961, John and Paul considered discontinuing the group, believing they had gone as far as they could and bored with the few worlds they'd managed to conquer. But it was not to be, and it was thanks explicitly to the existence of "My Bonnie," credited upon release to the unholy record-label concoction "Tony Sheridan & the Beat Brothers." A member of the Beatles' locally rabid fan base named Raymond Jones entered Brian Epstein's Liverpool NEMS store in October asking for "My Bonnie," the debut record by the biggest group in town; the restless, curious Epstein set out to investigate, and ended up an incongruous presence at one of the Beatles' Cavern Club shows, and eventually signed them to a management contract -- spurred into the same sort of questioning and revelation that Hamburg associates like Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchher had reported upon hearing and meeting them -- and set about trying to land them a record deal. Epstein would work himself to the bone for the Beatles for the rest of his life, and his belief in them helped make them what they ultimately were. As such, the unfortunate details of the Kaempfert sessions ended up leading directly to the pop explosion that would change their lives and eventually ours.

Kaempfert was relatively relaxed about releasing the Beatles from their Polydor record deal, though he did ask Brian for one additional recording session in May 1962. This non-event resulted in a recording even less noteworthy than any of the songs finished a year earlier; Sheridan couldn't make the session so the Beatles just recorded the backing track for "Sweet Georgia Brown," arranged by Paul, over which Sheridan would later overdub vocals. The group, accompanied here by pianist Roy Brown, was now still reeling from Sutcliffe's death one month earlier, and were in the midst of a residency at Hamburg's Star-Club, during part of which they were opening for none other than Gene Vincent. Nerves had bombed their recording test at Decca in January and they were a few weeks out from their first EMI date and meeting with George Martin. Pete would be fired and replaced by Ringo Starr near the end of the summer. But the historical context is more interesting than the music, which is totally nondescript (more in spirit with Kaempfert's aesthetic of "rocking it up" with the classic songbooks, they supposedly laid down an instrumental track for "Swanee River," but no recording seems to survive), and its main claim to fame is that there are two versions, for one of which Sheridan rerecorded part of his vocal in 1964 to add some sardonic commentary about Beatle haircuts. The Animals' "Story of Bo Diddley" it ain't.

In the wake of the Beatles' jetting off for a very different life, Sheridan continued to be a popular attraction in the rest of Europe and especially Germany, though a decisive move toward blues in the mid-'60s left him without much of an audience and he joined up with a troupe of musicians to play for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, where he was nearly killed, and lived out sporadically still playing music -- he never lost his touch as a singer or guitarist up to the end of his life in 2013 -- and for the most part cheerfully accepting his place in a larger history, though these recordings and other performances suggest he deserved more than mere footnote status. It's heartening to know that to a certain extent, his Beatles connection, whever bitterness it might have understandably engendered, continued to allow him to connect with fans and play the music he loved until shortly before his death.

In addition to the few tracks from these sessions that were actually issued in Germany at the time, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of cash-in releases of this product dating from just after Beatlemania broke all the way up through the CD era, all traveling under numerous titles -- the coolest being The Savage Young Beatles, though this only came about because the gray-market label releasing it was named Savage, who later briefly signed Pete Best as a solo artist -- with a host of minor variations in song selection and mixing. "My Bonnie" and "Ain't She Sweet" even enjoyed some airplay, and cluttered up an already confusing discography in America (with official releases from Capitol, Vee Jay and Swan all competing), though MGM's attempt at turning "Why" into a hit left them only with a future collector's fetish object. Some of the longform releases of the Kaempfert sessions were technically legal, some weren't, and none were authorized by the Beatles. This is a bridge too far for my completist tendencies, but there's a good rundown that reaches up to 2006 here.

This attractive Polydor release of the material -- with an evocative cover, and an insightful if misplaced quote on the back cover from George Harrison about how strong the Beatles became in Hamburg -- appeared in stores just days before Let It Be, adding to its air of lost-world poignance, and is augmented by some other tracks of Sheridan's, which may at the time have been genuinely thought to feature the Beatles; Sheridan is the only reason to listen to any of those, with decent performances of the great Chris Montez single "Let's Dance" (Montez was top of the bill for one of the Beatles' first national tours), a perfunctory "What'd I Say," plus the Leiber-Stoller classic "Ruby Baby" and Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," all being songs the Beatles were known to play in Hamburg save "Let's Dance," adding to the confusion. For the CD release, Polydor cleaned up their act a bit and tried to be as consumer-friendly as possible when dealing with material that most people going out buying Beatles CDs were very unlikely to want; they removed the inaccurate "circa 1960" designation from the cover and correctly labeled which songs actually involved the Beatles, while retaining the haphazard sequencing of the vinyl (which headlined the legit "pure Beatles" cuts "Ain't She Sweet" and "Cry for a Shadow"). For a number of years, this was the only item that appeared when you searched "Beatles" on iTunes or the streaming services, but the special deal the band cut with those platforms has thoroughly erased it from ready visibility. The CD, boasting the only Beatles music that Apple still does not actually own (they eventually bought up and suppressed the Decca and Star Club tapes but had to license the three most noteworthy Kaempfert songs from Polydor for Anthology 1), hung in for years and finally appears now to be out of print, though in Europe the music has lapsed out of copyright at this stage.

Really, there's something a bit sad about the whole thing now. Once upon a time, shitty budget line releases of these songs were a dime a dozen, cluttering up the Beatles section of every record store in the country and probably the world, in the same plucky spirit of commercialism as the hardcore porn rag that offered mail-in picture discs of Decca audition extracts with nude women on them. The Beatles continue to be a rite of passage for pop music fans and students from a young age but they'll no longer go through the stymied feeling of initially thinking you've found some previously unheard major item for your consumption (wow, the Beatles' first tapes!?!?) only to discover "My Bonnie" or "Why" again, or something that isn't the Beatles at all, or something that's just generic studio musicians playing Beatles hits. Sure, this stuff isn't great and while it has some fun moments and is essential onetime listening for hardcore fans, there's a reason we used to groan when we would see someone attempting to sell it to us again. But raise a glass tonight for Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers -- and in the spirit of the Reeperbahn, light a cigarette, start a fight, fuck a stripper, wake up in a toilet. Rock & roll, motherfuckers.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

What y'all talkin' 'bout "all on the same team"? - October 2019 music diary

Decade songs list and November finale delayed but coming soon. 2019 year-end stuff when I can.

Tegan and Sara: Hey, I'm Just Like You (Warner Bros.) [r]
A bout of introspection that's also culminated in an NYT bestseller has sent these 39 year-old vets and lifestyle icons back to the earliest demos they recorded as clearly precociously gifted high schoolers. Think of the Everly Brothers' Roots, with more hooks and, no shit, more attention to the alienation that would've come from being a pair of queer adolescents in the mid to late-1990s; hitting the middle of life can focus the mind in unexpected ways, and this is an act of empathy directed both toward themselves and out into the world. The Nirvana-derived song structures and the arrangements' sympathy to them are charming and require no apology. But I must tell you, I miss the rethought launch into full-fledged dance music from their last two records, which were what finally hooked me on them in the first place. Musically this is much like the earlier work I always filed away as solid but somewhat pedestrian.
- Highlights: "Don't Believe the Things They Tell You (They Lie)"

The New Pornographers: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (Concord) [r]
After about four attempts I started to find my way into parts of this. It needs to be said that it would be nothing without Neko Case except another arch, annoying Carl Newman solo album. His lyrics have become more eccentric, more willfully obtuse and cerebral (the central motif on "Colossus of Rhodes" is "we've had break-ins before / we've had break-ins before," delivered with unwarranted gusto; another song peaks with a loving sing-song collective around "fuck you!"; and I mistook one chorus for a repetition of "chef salad" and was almost surprised when I was wrong), as though Colin Newman (no relation) circa 1988 tried to write songs for a reimagined ABBA. Like Whiteout Conditions, the record continues the trend formerly limited to his solo albums of cluttering up the songs too much until there's no way to hold them all in your head enough to find them pleasurable. That said, eventually there are some catchy, dramatic evidences of past glories, Case and Kathryn Calder, still Newman's good soldiers, redeem several songs by being willing to go all big and silly, and the occasional rollicking ballad is a bit of a relief from the too-muchness of it all. It's probably better than the last one. I still miss Bejar (who cowrote one cut, though you can't really tell), but I don't know if he'd really help much.
- Highlights: "Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile"; "Colossus of Rhodes"; "Higher Beams"

Girl Band: The Talkies (Rough Trade) [c]
A particular kind of blast-from-the-past irony informs this Dublin quartet, who start being irritating with their name alone -- all of them are men, and isn't that clever! What will they think of next! It's the old-fashioned late '90s sheen of smug, superior disaffection. I wasn't into it then and it still sucks now. Give me pop, give me emo, give me a hundred things I don't like but hate less than this end-of-history, above-it-all bullshit that takes every single incorrect lesson from Marquee Moon and Pink Flag and even the Fall. I know these are not fresh criticisms, but this isn't fresh music either.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Ghosteen (s/r) [hr]
A missive from the other side of the mortal line that defined Skeleton Tree; these songs were initiated and completed well after the 2015 death of Cave's son Arthur, whose loss haunted but did not initially trigger the earlier record. The band's 58 year-old keyboardist, Conway Savage, died as these latest sessions got underway. All this upheaval resulted in Cave writing more impulsively than has long been his well-structured procedure, and it's created some of the warmest but also most harrowing music released by any major artist in recent years. It lacks the morbid playfulness of something like David Bowie's Blackstar, but its existentalist wisdom and overwhelming sense of shimmering, pensive beauty give us something else entirely; but like Blackstar, it is an album that cannot be heard in fits and starts -- it demands full attention for the breadth of its considerable running time. But the rewards are bountiful, wrapped up in a mournful, hypnotic opera with unspeakable richness and power.
- Highlight: "Ghosteen Speaks"

DIIV: Deceiver (Captured Tracks) [hr]
Led by troubled pseudo rock-star Zachary Cole Smith, this band is old enough to have been catapulted into the bloghype lo-fi indie pop scene of the early 2010s but young enough to have failed to reap even the perfunctory benefits enjoyed by the likes of Drums, Beach Fossils, Real Estate, Best Coast and Surfer Blood. They seem to have attained an unexpected cult following thanks in part to their melodramatic, mockumentary-like failure to deliver album number two in a prompt manner, and now have -- post-rehab, evidently -- rebranded as a timeless shoegaze unit, feeding themselves an elder-statesman mythos they never exactly earned. Nevertheless, the music is remarkbly good: derivative (Kevin Shields, and who was more derivative in the first place, smiles ghostily upon everything but especially "Between Tides"), breezy, glorious and ceaselessly engaging. You don't have to want to love the shit out of it or even respect it, but like some back-from-the-dead angst-ridden Billy Corgan rampage, if you love American indie rock as a sound above all else, there's very little possibility this will fail to sound extremely lovely to you, and not just in the going-through-the-motions fashion of a nostalgia trip. It's delightful.
- Highlights: "For the Guilty"; "Like Before You Were Born"

Danny Brown: uknowhatimsayin? (Warp) [r]
Brown is still the most singular and multifaceted rapper working today, and arguably just as artistically ambitious as Kendrick Lamar without the frequently audible juggling of audience expectations. His distorted, unfocused and obsessive follow-up to Atrocity Exhibition, dispensing with the conceptual rigours of his last two albums, finds him in an atypically relaxed but still tirelessly creative frame of mind. Hearing him next to a Run the Jewels guest spot on "3 Tearz" makes for a rude shock; no disrespect meant to Mike and El-P, working class heroes for sure, but they sound like antiques when laid up against Brown's constantly mobile intensity as a performer, not to mention his taste in sounds, stories, ideas and outré production ("Combat"). A track like "Savage Nomad" with its cascading of warring beats over verses that are intentionally undercut by Brown's own sense of presentation and irony twists down horrific pathways few other pop musicians could muster up. And as usual, there's no nailing him down as either a manic sleaze merchant or the catchy, wise model of good sense on the title cut; he is so dedicated to avoiding coherence that it's hard to know how to file this record away.
- Highlights: "Combat"; "uknowhatimsayin?"; "Savage Nomad"

Wilco: Ode to Joy (dBpm) [hr]
Their best in more than a decade, and their first truly exceptional release since The Whole Love, a fine record which it significantly betters; you're never sure how fair you're being when you watch a band of this caliber release material that's lackluster by their standards, but all it takes is a bona fide hero move like this to reassert why this now stands as a legendary group. They've never sounded more attuned to one another, Nels Cline as locked into the moment as John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche, Jeff Tweedy operating the usual levers but never showing off or raising his voice, and everyone so committed to capturing this specific mood you could hear a pin drop. So what is the mood? It's gentle and felt, even pretty, but also hardened. It's unapologetically old, and unapologetically current. Some songs are classic Wilco with classic Wilco choruses ("Before Us," "Hold Me Anyway" and "White Wooden Cross"). Some stab and hurt like the corrosive, loving, tough "One and a Half Stars," and others plod and drone but find whole new avenues and dimensions in their doldrums ("Quiet Amplifier"). Tweedy's dour but optimistic, at times preoccupied or hypnotized. Cline, Tweedy and Pat Sansone's guitars shimmer ("Love Is Everywhere"), but the titular joy here is designed to reveal itself gradually, and eventually what sounded like appealing muck for all its clear-eyed intensity becomes a series of cathartic peaks tied to memories the songs themselves willed into existence. It is a performance akin to Tonight's the Night or New Adventures in Hi-Fi or the White Album. That said, if you don't get "Everyone Hides" immediately -- out-of-the-way hotel room music, a complete creation, lovingly sung -- I don't know what you want from rock & roll.
- Highlights: "White Wooden Cross"; "Everyone Hides"; "Quiet Amplifier"

Angel Olsen: All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar)
She still doesn't do much for me, though repeat listens made it seem less bad and at least admirable in its competence.

Big Thief: Two Hands (4AD) [r]
Their second album this year is much more status quo than U.F.O.F. and feels like a relatively straight-ahead folk-leaning rock album and even sort of a relic of a different stage in indie history. "Regrets" is the only song that could've fit on the last record, though you do get why it wasn't quite on the right scale; still, its gentle, home-fried feeling is pleasing and has the weight of history over it. The other songs are at best when they're basically showcases for Adrianne Lenker's vocals, which are given much more freedom to let loose here; I'm glad U.F.O.F. was so unerring in its precision, because it played more to the band's strengths. However, the poetic and unhinged "Not" is really masterful, "Those Girls" cops a good riff from Radiohead who copped it (unknowingly?) from Yo La Tengo, and "Forgotten Eyes" bursts out with explosive yearning that explores a band dynamic that almost seemed beside the point on the previous record. There's no way this can stand up to one of the most urgent and delicate folk-rock records of the decade but, hey, electric guitars are fun too.
- Highlights: "Not"; "Forgotten Eyes"; "Those Girls"

Fantasia: Sketchbook (Rock Soul) [r]
Don't give a fuck -- she still rules, is one of the classiest singers we've got, and her records are consistently likable. The verbose confidence, wise and tough radio balladry and the occasional tearjerker moment is all expertly crafted and charming. The T-Pain cameo is dreadful, wrecking a solid quiet-storm homage, but you won't catch me with much worse to say here than that.
- Highlights: "Fighting"; "Looking for You"; "History"

Kim Gordon: No Home Record (Matador) [r]
Maybe it's because I was never more than a casual admirer of Sonic Youth, but both Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's initial solo contributions sound substantially more energized and vital to me than The Eternal. Gordon's record scores big as avant garde in its first half, wears out its welcome a bit when it goes for vibes, but in general is exciting and formidable.

Richard Dawson: 2020 (Weird World) [c]
Newcastle art freak folk. This absolutely sucks.

clipping.: There Existed an Addiction to Blood (Sub Pop) [hr]
If the thousand yard stare in Daveed Diggs' steely, unflinching vocal delivery doesn't do it for you, fine, but for me, whether he's distorted beyond recognition or screaming in your ear, he's still one hell of a compelling performer, especially in tandem with the head-spinning inventiveness of the avant garde, drugged-out textures surrounding him. This is clipping.'s most harrowing, apocalyptic and versatile work to date. It doesn't shoot for the same coherent narrative thread as Splendor & Misery despite its cinematic aspirations, though it does feel at times like the disembodied soundtrack to a giallo picture. The dream interludes suggest Jenny Hval with an even more macabre sense of humor, but what makes clipping. consistently unnverving is that they're so intense you never quite know if they're just having fun or not. And "Run for Your Life" (with a great verse from La Chat) boasts an aural trick I can't say I've ever heard before. But sure, it's all novelty and not real hip hop, fine, whatever.
- Highlights: "Nothing Is Safe"; "Blood of the Fang"; "Run for Your Life"

Vagabon (Nonesuch) [r]
Her major label debut is the most alternative of alterna-R&B I've heard in a while, though it leans less on indie-friendly atmospheres than did her respectable Infinite Worlds. With a couple of exceptions and one unexpectedly relentless beat, this is packed with performances more calmly beautiful than particularly distinctive, although I like Laetitia Tamko's voice a lot -- it's unique and hard to pin down but also almost cosmically reassuring.
- Highlights: "Every Woman"; "Full Moon in Gemini"; "Water Me Down"

Floating Points: Crush (Ninja Tune) [r]
Lovely textures and beats but not much that's really unusual here unless you're super fond of headphones, where the stereophonic mysteries deepen and can be quite engaging. It's pretty much the same deal as last time, which isn't so bad!

JPEGMafia: All My Heroes Are Cornballs (EQT) [hr]
Third album from Baltimore experimental wizard Barrington Hendricks, who proves everything by having nothing to prove, is sort of like if Odelay was as imaginative and breathless as I thought it was when I was 15. It's a flood of jokes and non sequiturs and self-challenges that slides in nicely with recent avant-rap manifestos from Injury Reserve and clipping. but is, honestly, quite a bit humbler and wittier, with a distinctively personal flavor so much alt-rap carefully skirts. The best comparison I know of is the underrated London O'Connor; I hope some of JPEG's thot army gives him a listen.
- Highlights: "BBW"; "Papi I Missed You"; "Free the Frail"

- Rapsody: Eve (Jamla) [my queen is Marlanna Evans from Snow Hill; "Ibtihaj"/"Whoopi"/"Cleo"]
- Brockhampton: Ginger (RCA) [my advice: stop thinking and enjoy]
- Missy Elliott: Iconology (Atlantic EP) [Slum Village memories but more please]
- Joan Shelley: Like River Loves the Sea (No Quarter) [Louisville folkie goes sweet and slow]
- Tinariwen: Amadjar (Epitaph) ["Madjam Mahilkamen"/"Mhadjar Yassouf Idjan"]
- Chrissie Hynde: Valve Bone Woe (BMG) [cheap tactics that work on me; "Caroline, No"/"No Return"]
- Pharmakon: Devour (Sacred Bones) [honestly, respect to one of the realest ones out there]
- Sampa the Great: The Return (Ninja Tune) [Sydney-based Zamibian rapper's material slaps like crazy but the LP goes on twice as long as it should and, really, I don't think you get to mock the "introspecive interlude" trend and then run full-bore into it; "Diamond in the Ruff"/"Heaven"/"Final Form"]

- Sirom: A Universe That Roasts Blossoms for a Horse (tak:til)

* Bill Orcutt: Odds Against Tomorrow
Chromatics: Closer to Grey
The Menzingers: Hello Exile
Kelsey Waldon: White Noise/White Lines
Penguin Cafe: Handfuls of Night
Lightning Dust: Spectre
Julien Chang: Jules
Garcia Peoples: One Step Behind
Battles: Juice B Crypts
Homeboy Sandman: Dusty

Frankie Cosmos: Close It Quietly
Tanya Tucker: While I'm Livin' [NYIM]
Modern Nature: How to Live [NYIM]
HTRK: Venus in Leo [NYIM]
MUNA: Saves the World [NYIM]
Bat for Lashes: Lost Girls
Velvet Negroni: Neon Brown
Vivian Girls: Memory
North Mississippi Allstars: Up and Rolling
Feet: What's Inside Is More Than Just Ham
Empath: Active Listening - Night on Earth [NYIM]
Carla Dal Forno: Look Up Sharp
Kacy & Clayton: Carrying On [NYIM]
Common Holly: When I Say to You Black Lightning [NYIM]
Bodega: Shiny New Model
White Reaper: You Deserve Love
Jacques Green: Dawn Chorus
The Muffs: No Holiday [NYIM]
Refused: War Music
Caroline Polachek: Pang
Jimmy Eat World: Surviving
Foals: Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Pt. 2
Mark Lanegan Band: Somebody's Knocking

MUNA "Number One Fan" [Saves the World]

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um (Columbia 1959) [hr]

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Beatles: Thirty Days (1969)

(bootleg [16CD])

RECOMMENDED [with reservations]

Certain aspects of the Beatles' story after Brian Epstein's untimely death reveal, after the fact, how much he had really been at the heart of their quality control and decisionmaking. It's true that their actual records didn't really suffer, thanks in part to George Martin's continued presence in the studio, but the entire Apple fiasco, for instance, demonstrates a lot of heart and a lot of good ideas but very little self-control. The same for the Magical Mystery Tour project, the completely all-in then thoroughly disgusted attitude toward India, and the loss of control and harmony within their personal relationships. Some would argue that even the White Album reflected a kind of artistic self-indulgence that would've been unthinkable under Epstein's regime. (I disagree for two reasons: one, I don't think that record's supposed indulgence, if that's even what it is, hurts it; two, Epstein was somewhat apprehensive even about the comparatively lean but still outré Sgt. Pepper.) And it's doubtful that the haphazard way in which Yellow Submarine was handled -- with the Beatles totally disinterested and offering up some of their weakest scraps of material, then belatedly regretful after the film turned out to be rather great -- would have met with the late manager's approval.

But none of the Beatles' "cock-ups," to use a phrase Paul enjoyed, have the outlandish severity of the so-called Get Back sessions from January 1969; again, they had ample good intentions: running with the White Album's emphasis on pure songcraft and occasionally raw-sounding guitar music over production stunts and drug-addled concepts to craft new material stripping the sonic adornments completely in favor of a return to "good old rock & roll," simultaneously filming the project to present the process itself and climax with a one-off return to live performance. But these plans hit a wall of asleep-at-the-wheel cluelessness in terms of practicality. There were several ways to make this idea work: for one thing, they might have dismantled the jumble of ideas by quickly recording a nasty, classic, slightly heavy rock LP and then later returning to the idea of filming themselves at work and perhaps separately considering the live concert. Maybe use two of these notions, or even just one, and leave the others for later.

But much more importantly, the cogent, logical route would probably have been to take some sort of a break before this undertaking, which meant in theory to be a quick-and-dirty rush job but turned out to be massive and bulky in execution. The White Album -- with its thirty songs a nearly thorough cleaning out of the backlog, certainly for John and Paul if not George -- had only just been completed in October, released in late November, and here were the Beatles up at (by their standards) the crack of dawn the week of January 1st at Twickenham Film Studios, forced to undergo the normally private rehearsal procedure with an entire film crew present (led by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who'd made excellent promo films for "Hey Jude" and "Revolution" that the band and Paul in particular had loved), the original plan for videotape and a smaller crew having been curtailed. Except "forced" is the wrong word -- the Beatles, perhaps less in their position as a band than in their status as heads of Apple, tyrannically demanding new product from themselves, chose to do it all this way: the tight schedule came from the looming threat of Ringo departing to make The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers, and the hated setting and nature of the sessions as well as its timing on the heels of an ambitious and wildly successful double-album (and, for what it's worth, a soundtrack record with four more new songs, out this same month) was a concoction they arbitrarily brought on. The primary engineer of the plight was Paul McCartney, who'd taken on a leadership role during this period as much because of a vacuum created by three relatively apathetic bandmates as his own theoretical bossiness, but it put him in a ready position to be resented all the same.

It was a recipe for disaster, and in many ways it turned out to be just that: the Twickenham days were long and uncomfortable. George Martin was only sporadically present, with Glyn Johns unofficially taking the helm as "balance engineer"; although none of the recordings made at the film studio were intended for official release apart from the actual movie print itself, this still underscores how many jarring changes were happening at once -- the Beatles had always been a very insular unit, and if the virtually constant presence of Yoko Ono during the White Album sessions (John's fault for not upholding the band's boundaries, not hers) hadn't been enough of a burden for their continued professional relationship, the deliberately prying eyes of Lindsay-Hogg's cameras and all the attendant chilliness of working on a soundstage nearly broke them. When Ringo departed during the White Album sessions, it had been a wake-up call and a hiccup; you could view it as a growing pain, and it ended with an open-armed act of love on the part of the Beatles toward their drummer. When George left during Get Back due mostly to continued arguments with Paul and the problems of communicating with John (one bandmate talking too much, one not nearly enough), it not only was viewed with immediate cynicism and derision by at least one bandmate, but his tentative reentrance into the fold -- with a contentious staff meeting at Ringo's house and then his sudden reappearance with the conciliatory move to the new Apple Studios to make the actual record -- was shown little fanfare as all, just sheer apathetic business as usual.

And did we mention that Apple Studios, while a better environment in most superficial ways, was a botch job by the great "Magic" Alex Mardas, a purported expert who scarcely knew what he was doing judging by the end results? The film crew's tapes still ran all the time and caught everything, but for the proper studio takes, rental equipment had to be carted in from EMI, and even that was a crudely rigged hassle, and with the room not soundproofed, climate control proved impossible -- this record was doomed to be recorded in all the freeze of a London January. All in all, the only unqualified pleasure the band experienced was the presence of Billy Preston, an old acquaintance they'd made when they opened for Little Richard way back in 1962, during the last weeks of the sessions. Preston's calming amiability and brilliantly loose, soulful keyboard playing vastly enhanced both the mood and the music. (Along with making his own fine records later on for Apple, he came with a rich history of lighting up other people's records, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke in particular; Cooke gets so excited about Preston's work during his version of "Little Red Rooster" that he calls out the then-teenager by name.) And the only moment of classic, starry-eyed Beatles triumph is the compromise gesture -- all talk of the Roundhouse and the African temple as venues for their comeback gig long since sullied, chiefly by George -- of the spontaneous-looking (but actually carefully planned) concert on the roof of the Apple building, which admittedly turned out to be a stroke of actual magic, a final proof of the Beatles' stunning vitality as a live band, and a tantalizing hint at what could have been possible if they had gone on the road again.

Even the material, by the Beatles' standards, was a bit wanting, without enough strong songs to round out one of an LP of the length of one of their classics. The eventual released album had to be filled out with an extension of George's trifling "I Me Mine" and the long-gestating and previously released (in a different form) "Across the Universe," and lest we forget, "Get Back" itself was already over a year old by most folks' standards by then. John, apparently hooked on heroin during the sessions, is back to his Revolver-Pepper phase of slumming it -- but again, so quickly after his many tour de force contributions to the White Album, who could blame him? -- and only provides us with the sickly-lean "Dig a Pony," various weak jams like "Dig It," a complementary back half to Paul's "I've Got a Feeling," and to be fair, one of the greatest songs any of the Beatles ever wrote and subject of some of their strongest, most felt performances, "Don't Let Me Down"... which, in a crushing bit of cruel irony, didn't make it to the final album, though it did find outlet as the b-side to "Get Back" shortly after the sessions wrapped. It's telling that one of the best songs added to the canon was "One After 909," one of the first things John and Paul wrote (possibly as early as the year they met), attempted then discarded at EMI in 1963, and actually the outgrowth of a whole lot of nostalgic noodling with oldies by themselves and others, the sole initially released evidence of the longing, often inept trips down memory lane that occupied the days at Twickenham and Apple.

George's songs, the other being a bouncy blues jam called "For You Blue," are scarcely better; he ran through "All Things Must Pass," another gorgeous song with his typical chronically asshole-ish lyrics, and "Isn't It a Pity" at some length but both were set aside for his proper solo debut the next year. So ultimately, as in so many other ways, this is the Paul McCartney Show -- and he does step up to the plate, with a set of songs (heavily influenced, it seems, by American soul music of the period) marking a sincerity he'd largely shirked for several years, forgoing the verbose sardonics of his White Album material with the sole intersections between these conflicting styles being the first single "Get Back," the phoned-in absurdity "Teddy Boy" and the saved-for-later "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window." Otherwise these are some of the loveliest songs in Paul's catalog, marked by the emotions of a man newly in love and one who is finally processing the death of his mother after constantly moving without a breath for more than ten years: "Two of Us," "Let It Be," "The Long and Winding Road" all poignant stops on the road to his possible masterpiece in this vein, "Maybe I'm Amazed," plus the exceptionally credible hard rocker "I've Got a Feeling." These recordings also mark what may be Paul's peak as a controlled, confident, emotive vocalist -- as much as it may have irked the others that he had his eyes on the prize, so to speak, his consciousness of delivering powerfully resonant music is obvious everywhere, and you end up feeling some sympathy for his inability to get the others to keep up, even as we realize that other, more ominous factors (mostly business, but also personal) were driving that problem.

But the Beatles recorded so much during their grueling sessions in January '69 that you actually can construct an impressive collection of material from one angle or another. Phil Spector and Glyn Johns tried their hand at it officially -- the former's attempt is song-oriented and pleasurable but compromised (string arrangements colliding with extracts of judiciously "unedited" conversation) and fails to come off as a complete construction; the latter's is more satisfying but also more interested in the vibe of a (concocted) atmosphere of a relaxed, casual Beatles rock & roll session than in presenting the group's songs at their best. Let It Be Naked would eventually attempt to tackle the whole creation as if it were a normal Beatles album, only to use inferior mixes and over-familiar takes while placing all too much unavoidable emphasis on the relative paucity of good material. (You sort of need the ancillary evidence of original concept, as Johns provided and Spector ineptly pawed at, to make this work.)

Nearly everything you'd need to offer up your own interpretation of the Get Back project is in this legendary CD bootleg, offered up from equally legendary unauthorized label Vigotone in the 1990s, which at the time was the biggest collection of Get Back material that had ever appeared in the marketplace; constructed from stolen mono Nagra reels and full of the attendant slate calls, beeps and unwelcome noises, concentrating heavily on music rather than dialogue, it's a massive boxed set (sixteen discs, seventeen if you count its obligatory inclusion of the first unissued Get Back album master) that nevertheless isn't as overwhelming as the later complete 83-disc dump of the Get Back tapes, most often circulating under the name A/B Road (and fuck me if I'm not going to try to tackle it early next year because I love you all and hate myself). There are a few significant, fan-beloved performances missing -- some wonderful variants of "Two of Us" and (believe it or not, since there are so many versions of it here) "Get Back" and the legendary jam "Watching Rainbows," for example -- but nothing you can't easily dig up elsewhere, and more than enough to give you a representative cross-section of what the Beatles achieved, or didn't achieve, during this floundering month, and more than enough to chip away until you find the perfect playlist for your own personal Get Back.

The only problem is, well, actually listening to it. Even compressing 100-odd hours down to sixteen, there's still a lot of repetition here; from a certain angle, it's a privileged experience to hear the Beatles' normally carefully secluded methodology of bearing down and bearing down and bearing down further on each song until it's absolutely perfect and tight and magically precise, a crucial element of their studio work that couldn't ever have been easy to achieve, even when they were experimenting heavily with multitrack tape and varispeeding during the Geoff Emerick era. It's a pity that we only have this verité experience on what amounts to some of the Beatles' most lackluster material. And if you're in the mood to listen to the Beatles, let's be honest, it's very rarely even Let It Be slash Get Back itself, despite its occasional shining moments of uncollected, off-the-cuff beauty, that you're going to reach for, much less hours and hours of recording sessions from same. One exception is if you're particularly fond of early rock & roll, as I am, in which case you can get a considerable kick out of the Beatles' reverence for that material and out of hearing them attempt to align with its principles -- but even then, the joy is more theoretical than anything since the band were in such relative interpersonal duress by this period. (Yes, I realize the sessions weren't as painful as is often stated, and you can hear plenty of instances of them working well together here, especially later on in the month, but the mood is unmistakably dour compared to other studio outtakes in the vaults; I'd liken it more than anything to the vibe of their 1966 live shows -- a slog with the scattered bright spot -- except these tapes are obviously better-recorded and have a greater variety of material.) As was noted by critics at the time, what's so painful about the Let It Be project is that it's such a great idea -- The Beatles Get Back! -- and except for the glorious moment on the roof on January 30th, it just doesn't live up to the promise of that idea, and with just a few tweaks and compromises it could have been so much better.

But again, saddled with this amount of music of such varying quality, there's a reason Glyn Johns was so excited to shape it all and a reason Peter Jackson is currently having a presumptive blast doing the same: you can sort of give this whole morass whatever message you want by being carefully selective. Yet who apart from the true unstoppable Beatles obsessive -- the sort who's willing to listen to horrible quality monitor mixes for hours on end -- has time for that shit? Nobody, and that's where I come in. I will walk you through some of the highlights of these highlights, and some of the lowlights of the highlights too, going disc by disc. Some of this information may prove redundant next year when Apple reaches these sessions in its vault-scraping campaign, but I doubt much of it, and I assume Thirty Days is always going to be one of the more popular Beatles boots for the shape it attempts to give all this stuff, so I hope you will find the following handy. Presumably I will go into more detail on the individual session dates when I spend next January inebriated and listening to / logging A/B Road.

Just as a reminder, these aren't super formal notes, just some thoughts and an attempt to help give some shape to all this.

DISC ONE: Jan. 3rd (with a bit of Jan. 6th)
- Nothing here from the first day of sessions, which as I remember (I did listen to the first few discs of A/B Road at one point) is mostly uneventful anyway.
- "Adagio for Strings" is Paul solo on piano, probably waiting for others to show up.
- We get a very early "Let It Be," mostly just piano and humming with some unfinished lyrics; we now know that Paul had toyed around with the song a bit during the White Album sessions.
- A shambolic cover of Bo Diddley's "Cracking Up" that briefly comes together sets the stage for the rock & roll covers to come. This is followed with several more of the legendary oldies that peppered the sessions: everyone does Elvis impressions on "All Shook Up" which segues right into "Your True Love." There is then a "Blue Suede Shoes" much more barren and impromptu-sounding than the performance that made it to Anthology 3, plus a very very slow "Three Cool Cats," an interesting arrangement that they picked back up again late in the month. Finally for now, a cool jam on "Lucille" reminds us of how fascinating it is that the Beatles had by now met and even played with nearly all of their idols and influences.
- The oft-bootlegged Paul-sung version of "I'm So Tired" sounds mostly like a joke, and ends with him imitating the record's coda, popularly interpreted as a "Paul Is Dead" clue. The White Album is fresh on everyone's mind, with John making fun of the "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" lyrics: "Charlie has a number in the [unintelligible] and lordy lordy does he have a bag of [bones?]"... "Desmond has a sparrow in his pocketbook," etc.
- Sloppy but interesting cover of "Third Man Theme"; George does rather well on it.
- The skeletal, more upbeat early "Don't Let Me Down" is jarring without Billy Preston.
- "I've Got a Feeling" is already pretty well-formed, including John's half ("everybody got a hard-on"); this is a nice low-key runthrough.
- There's a bit of a music-hall vibe to this first-week take on "One After 909," which for now seems pretty spontaneous, probably well in advance of it actually being considered for the record. One of the most intriguing (and for historians, helpful) elements of the Get Back sessions is John and Paul's habit of trotting out ancient compositions of theirs from their old '50s - early '60s notebooks and their very earliest days as collaborators and working musicians. "Because I Know You Love Me So" is a delightful example; John doesn't remember "If Tomorrow Ever Comes" quite as well, though he does join Paul after a bit, and both of them barely recall "Won't You Please Say Goodbye."
- Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me" is tackled as a dirge. The Beatles seem deliberately aimless at this juncture, with so many off-the-cuff jams like this; George takes the lead on "Short Fat Fanny" and on a barren but fun version of Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike," which segues into the "Hitch Hike"-influenced Beatles cut "You Can't Do That," the solo of which George is able to recall almost immaculately. On the onetime Cavern staple "Hippy Hippy Shake," Paul is super in control and everyone else... tries.
- Southern folk song "Midnight Special" predates Creedence's version by a few months. The 1916 standard "What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?" is largely unknown to American rock & roll fans but had been a major hit in the UK in 1959 when recorded by Emile Ford.
- There's a heavily electric "All Things Must Pass" with what sounds like harmonium accompaniment.
- A very early, piano-heavy rendition of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," with Paul's sardonic vocal making more of the murderous subject matter but boasting less irony than the master.
- Two jams close us out, one rather Booker T.-like and one labeled "You Wear Your Women Out."

DISC TWO: Jan 6th-7th
- It wasn't called for often in their career, but the Beatles were quite capable of solid jamming, as heard on the "My Imagination," "Woman Where You Been So Long" and "Oh Julie, Julia" riffs here. They're not revelatory, but they're certainly not the sludge that's sometimes reputed.
- Another oldies roll call. Chuck Berry's "I'm Talking About You" is just vocals and a wah wah pedal, which overwhelms many of the remaining songs. "Sure to Fall" is a mess but "Money" actually goes kind of hard. Later, a weird country version of "Rock and Roll Music" leads into another run of decade-old classics.
- The durability of "Don't Let Me Down" is remarkable, here and all over the collection. It already swings on this goround. The incessant beeping from the tape leaders or whatnot is very annoying, though.
- A soulful, rollicking variant on "Two of Us," another song that proved itself highly malleable to the Beatles' experiments.
- We get a nice, tough, surprisingly complete "Across the Universe" that's very different from any released take.
- Very skeletal version of future George Harrison solo cut "Hear Me Lord."
- Speaking of which, the attempt to adopt "All Things Must Pass" continues; this variant has weirdly prominent drums but a pleasing three-part harmony on the chorus.
- Early, barren-sounding "Long and Winding Road" with Paul alone on piano.
- Also very early: "Golden Slumbers" and "Carry That Weight" are already fused together at this stage.
- The rhythm of "Get Back" is slowly coming into focus.
- Interesting early, introspective version of "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window" (you'll know the arrangement from Anthology 3.

DISC THREE: Jan 8th-9th
- A piano improv opens the disc accompanied by a host of "good mornings" and such.
- There's a music-hall variant on "Stand by Me" with a highly annoying operatic Paul vocal. Other covers: Carl Perkins' "Tennessee," a nice take on Jerry Lee Lewis' "Fools Like Me," and "You Win Again" slowed down to a crawl. "Suzy Parker" is bare but fun. Cliff Richard's pre-British Invasion staple "Move It!" probably improves on the single and segues into "Good Rockin' Tonight." Lennon takes on cockney grandma mode for "House of the Rising Sun," which is nonetheless sort of fun.
- After a false start, "Two of Us" sounds kind of like "Get Back" ultimately would here, then is later heard in a rollicking rock & roll version with close harmonies well worked out but still destined to be improved.
- A very hard, screamy version of "Don't Let Me Down" -- "a sincere farewell from Rocky and the Rubbers."
- Slightly acoustic treatment on the riff from "I've Got a Feeling" plus a "good morning" scream from Paul. Another take also starts quiet but John ruins it with "weird voice."
- They're still fucking around with "Mean Mr. Mustard"; it's clearly just a novelty at this point (and forever, really).
- "All Things Must Pass" is still full band with drums, the harmony continuing to increase in sophistication.
- Still working the Anthology 3 arrangement of "Bathroom Window," here with interesting guitar work that isn't audible on that outtake.
- There's a version of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" (opening up with some silly whistling) on which, improbably, John sosunds msore enthused than Paul.
- The time signature is evidently still a work in progress on "I Me Mine"; the guitar is a little more mystical at this stage.
- This disc climaxes with the infamous "no Pakistanis" version of "Get Back," a pointed response to Enoch Powell's rhetoric that was quickly discarded, probably because it risked being misunderstood. We also get the baffling "Get Off White Power," a rant-and-rave jam that seems cut from the same cloth. The political mood continues with "Commonwealth Song"; with all this anti-Powell sentiment, it's funny that their buddy Clapton would turn out to be such a fucking racist cunt.
- Odd to hear "Across the Universe" sung by John in his "everyday" voice, kind of droning and "guide vocal"-style; this take also incorporates some experimental guitar and Paul harmonies. This song had been in the can for some time (recorded nearly a year earlier at Abbey Road) so it's interesting that they were still working on it.
- Rockabilly lives: "For You Blue" into "Honey Hush" into "For You Blue." Sure would've liked to see what would have made it to a setlist on that late '60s Beatles tour that never happened.

DISC FOUR: Jan. 9th-15th
- The last disc that focuses on the Twickenham rehearsals, taking us to the point of George Harrison's temporary departure.
- "Rambling Woman" is just solo vamping with some aint vocals.
- A lovely, very basic cover of Dylan's then-new "I Threw It All Away," though it's a bit hard to hear the vocals. This is followed by a stunning version of the long-unissued Dylan obscurity "Mama You Been on My Mind," one of the best buried treasures in this set.
- Paul sings alone on "That'll Be the Day," a fun contrast to the John-led 1958 Quarrymen version. Also covered: "High Heel Sneakers"; a cabaret version of "Don't Be Cruel" with another of John's weird voices; "Take This Hammer" trad./arr.; and "Hello Dolly," surprisingly straightforward.
- One of the best of the oldies jams from these sessions appears here, the raucous Paul-led "Jenny Jenny"-"Slippin' and Sliding" medley. At one point John makes the same (gibberish?) sounds that precede "Bathroom Window" on Abbey Road; still no clue what he's saying but it may involve Mal Evans' name.
- This "Let It Be" has a nice vocal; Paul fills in a few spaces with scatting and a reference to Record Mirror!
- A super high energy proto-punk "Get Back" (really wish they'd stuck to this arrangement, though the rooftop version is good too), then another solid fast version of "Two of Us."
- "I'm Talking About You" disappoints; it's mostly footsteps.
- John flips out on his bit of "I've Got a Feeling" then starts laughing; "everybody had a socks up," etc. He then uses a super abrasive vocal style on "Don't Let Me Down," kind of a Howlin' Wolf version of the track. The latest iteration of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is essentially just Lennon making fun of the song.
- There's a very weird original called "On Sunny Island," evidently made up on the spot. The sense of things falling apart coalesces in a series of particularly aimless improvisations (interspersed with "The Peanut Vendor" and "Brazil") and some conversation during "It's Only Make Believe." Paul and Ringo fool around together on the piano at one point.
- "Back Seat of My Car," future Ram cut, is a Paul solo piano demo that goes on for ages. He also improvs, based on a Brahms melody, on something called "This Song of Love," during which he thanks Michael Lindsay-Hogg by name.
- "Madman" is an actual unreleased Lennon song.
- "Mean Mr. Mustard" here contains the lyrics "such a dirty bastard."
- Closes out with an unstructured rehearsal of "Oh! Darling," not great but slightly interesting.

DISC FIVE: Jan. 22nd-23rd
- We move into the Apple studio. This is procession of jams that are quite fun, with John in great voice, plus the reading of the famous "drugs, divorce and a slipping image" tidbit.
- Billy Preston first appears and "Don't Let Me Down" and "I've Got a Feeling" while "Dig a Pony"... stagnates.

DISC SIX: Jan. 22nd-24th
- Some interesting minor variations on familiar stuff here, but mostly just the Beatles working through and still developing the songs.
- A good four-minute jam at the halfway mark.
- Some lackluster rarities like "Child of Nature" too, although John and Paul do pull out their otherwise forgotten 1950s composition "Fancy Me Chances."
- The rapport between John and Paul, and the intuitive nature of their relationship, couldn't be clearer.

DISC SEVEN: Jan. 24th-25th
- "There You Are Eddie" is a lost Paul song. It's not awful but the rest of the band isn't really falling in line behind him.
- We get a skiffle medley, continuing with the delving into the band's roots. They also dredge up "I Lost My Little Girl," the first song Paul ever wrote but sung here by John -- surprisingly soulful!
- There's a slow blues version of "Bad Boy" and an excellent jam around "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Around and Around." A spontaneous "Almost Grown" sounds very cool, too.
- "Dig It" sucks so, so much.
- "Get Back" exclamation: "Yeah! Or should I say... no." A long jam on the song later culminates in Paul repeating "get back. Get a job. Go home."
- With Billy Preston in tow, a "Stand by Me" cover is very pretty and fun with a superb John vocal that leads everyone into Arthur Alexander's "Where Have You Been."
- "Two of Us" has gotten slower and sweeter, hence the segue into "Bye Bye Love."
- "I loved that piano the moment that I saw you" - George during "For You Blue."

DISC EIGHT: Jan. 25th-26th
- This CD is repetitive even by the standards of Beatles bootlegs; with the collection already heavily compressed down from a much longer one, one has to wonder why it's arranged in this manner that really precludes listenability.
- Paul says "back to the drudgery" after a Chuck Berry cover and John sounds angry! "It's you that's bloody making it like this!"
- Lots of scatting during these versions of "Let It Be." Also: "in my darkest hour he is sitting on the lavatory."
- A very very early "Isn't It a Pity," which sounds like a tape playback.
- Ringo's on piano, it seems, for a kind of adorable version of "Octopus's Garden."
- They goof around more on some Jerry Lee Lewis numbers.
- This disc contains every second of the interminable "Dig It" with Paul's stepdaughter-to-be Heather crying and wailing all through it. It's so many worlds worse than any Yoko jam or any of the Velvet Underground's shapeless experiments. It's as bad as the endless instrumental noodling the Beatles were recording at home in 1960.
- We find out here that the released "Rip It Up" jam starts out very meandering, though it's more complete than what came out in 1996. It also ends immediately after "Shake, Rattle and Roll," with "Blue Suede Shoes" gathered up from a bit later.

DISC NINE: Jan. 26th-27th (plus one track from the 30th)
- Incredible playing by Billy Preston on "Miss Ann."
- Yet another weird variant on "Let It Be," with Paul singing something like "Oh still my little girl / let it be."
- Compensating for the "Dig It" catastrophe, there's a Yoko Ono-fronted improvisation here.
- John is apparently trying to learn the bass in real time on one of the "Long and Winding Road" takes.
- Speaking of which, why did the compilers put so many versions of that song here and then randomly cut into the master take?

DISC TEN: Jan. 27th
- Another day, another "Let It Be" filled with a bunch of scatting.
- Early attempts at "Old Brown Shoe," which does not seem to be finished yet.
- The six-minute untitled improvisation sounds like "Helter Skelter."
- Treading water here; heaps of "Get Back" versions and too much that's similar to what we've already heard in this collection.

DISC ELEVEN: Jan 27th-28th
- Paul sings "Get Back" in phony German. Very novel! Very hilarious! Paul, you're amazing sweetie. (Okay the spoken adlibs are kind of funny.)
- The band as a whole is more focused by now; the songs are hitting their final form and the jams have more of a shape -- but are, consequently, less fun to to listen to. The alternate versions are harder to tell apart as the band gets closer to trying to lay their new compositions down once and for all.
- They experiment with going extra hard on "I've Got a Feeling"; Paul later tries a softer blues vocal, which is especially odd on the bridge. Bonus: "On your what?" "On my toes!" "That's very nice for you."
- "Moving Along the River Rhine" is a quite credible number that turns into a blues version of "The Long and Winding Road."
- John tries singing lead on the verses of "I've Got a Feeling"; it's unexpected and rather cool, and he adds some interesting melodic changes.
- John, in sing-song voice after "Dig a Pony": "Iiii think the other one was much betterrrrr / let's do Get baaaack"
- Draggy old man version of "Love Me Do," kind of a Gene Vincent cabaret burlesque thing.
- Paul does the Gorillaz "Feel Good Inc." laugh at the end of one of the "Get Back" takes.
- "Get back and put on your high heeled weater."
- Apparently the single version of "Don't Let Me Down" mixes out or alters some of the vocals; we can hear them on this isc.
- "Don't Let Me Down"; John: "You'd better not after all that."

DISC TWELVE: Jan. 28th-29th
- Did "One After 909" start off as a goof in these sessions like the other very old Lennon-McCartney songs? It sounds like it.
- Billy Preston co-lead vocal on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"; very swampy and groovy.
- An experiment with bluesier guitar on "Old Brown Shoe" approaches "For You Blue" territory.
- John sings backup on "Something" here.
- It's only a skeleton of arrangement, as it was earlier in the month, but the Beatles' backing vocals on "All Things Must Pass" do sound nice. (John and Paul don't seem to be taking the song seriously, though.)
- John during "I Want You": "Allen Klein's here. Look out!"
- There are now some experiments with making "I've Got a Feeling" quieter. Also a listless (intentionally?) version of "Don't Let Me Down."
- The sessions from the 29th are very (too?) chill and it doesn't sound like Billy is around, though he would be later on in the day.

- The first "Long and Winding Road" here offers one of Paul's loveliest vocals.
- Future All Things Must Pass track "Let It Down" shows up here in what sounds like a relatively simple arrangement. All Beatles may not be present?
- A much more elaborate, organ-oriented jam on "I Want You," with an amazing vocal by Billy Preston.
- It sounds like John briefly takes the lead on "Something."
- They're still trying to develop "Dig It" into something but it just isn't. John namedrops every song from the Get Back sessions (including "Across the Universe" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"!) in this jam.
- We get, of all things, a drone-rock version of "Three Cool Cats."
- During an attempted Chuck Berry cover, John lets loose a "fuck you" then criticizes Paul for "wasting time"!
- One more shambolic oldies medley, this one with "Cannonball" and "Not Fade Away," which leads into nice run of Buddy Holly stuff. "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues," later released with a lot of editing and reverb, is the obvious highlight, but John sings "Maybe Baby" beautifully underneath the confused guitar.
- Another rare 1950s Lennon-McCartney original in the wild: "Thinking of Linking."

- One last live triumph for a band that was so often denied the chance to demonstrate their real power on stage once they became famous. Their performance on a cold midday in London atop the Apple building on Saville Row, with Billy Preston in tow, was ingeniously calculated to keep them insulated from anything that could prevent a tour de force climactic moment for the film being shot. Paul even hoped they might get arrested for noise ordinance violations and be able to end the film with that.
- For all the disharmony that existed in the Beatles' unit by now, it simply can't be denied that they sound glorious here, and every fan should hear this in complete form despite the repetition of some songs. (Since the primary object of concern was the documentary, they ran through multiple takes in many cases.) Rooftop versions of "Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down" have circulated wildly through official channels, and of course "Dig a Pony," "I've Got a Feeling" and "One After 909" made it in this fleetingly sympatico, raw form to the canonical Let It Be album. But everything here is a pleasure. It's an electric moment. What else can you possibly say? The Beatles debuting new material in the most disruptive but oddly private way possible. It's magic, and as so often with this band, iconic and endlessly imitated for good reason. And of course it's the best part of the accompanying film.

- This final day of sessions has a "last day of school" feeling about it except when they're really focused (and they did lay down some masters on this day). They're generally more relaxed, therefore better, during the jam sessions. There's even a bluesy "Run for Your Life" interpolation!
- Many of these performances are also thoroughly haunting. You hear it every time he sings "The Long and Winding Road." (Takes 15 and 16 are particularly good.)
- Classic Paul quote: "couple of cock-ups in that one."
- "Try a Little Tenderness" gets invoked during a "Lady Madonna" burlesque.

- Paul singing "I Want You": not great!
- [After some microphone troubles:] "What the fuck's going on? It doesn't matter about popping... popping's in now!"
- John is very impatient to get cracking on "Maggie Mae," of all things. Apparently it's something he really wanted on the album, which means Let It Be Naked would likely have made him very unhappy.
- Some minimal backing vocals on "Let It Be," and we're back to the "Brother Malcolm" lyrics on some takes.
- Choice quotes: "What the shit and hell's going on here?"; "Don't kid us, Glyn, give it to us straight." This is as close as we get to BBC-style interplay at this late date in the Beatles' career, so enjoy it.
- John makes clear his desperation to be relieved of bass duties.
- There is a spontaneous nicely sung version of "Oh! Darling" that, alas, falls apart at the bridge.
- Everyone moves on and the story ends. They would limp along as a band for a few more months and even complete another album, but you get a feeling of real finality here. And you also feel that, blasphemous as it may be, perhaps it really was time.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Kanye West: Late Registration (2005)

(Def Jam)


Feels pretty weird to miss 2005 in any way at all -- it was a time when we were all stuck in newly validated dystopian Bush-land and steeped in the most useless of our many useless wars, the year of Katrina, and for me personally, I was working in food services and in a relationship that was enjoying a very brief respite from crumbling around me. Life now is a lot better. But as my thirties have battered me physically and got me clamoring to live in every moment, I do find myself occasionally reaching out to remember something I do associate with my early twenties: the feeling of promise and full-color giddiness, letting my mind wander because I didn't have quite so much to fuss over and worry about, and as laughable as it sounds, nothing brings back the midpoint of the last decade quite like an album I didn't even own at the time, Late Registration.

I didn't need to own it, of course, to know its major songs -- and at the time I didn't particularly like any of them, but they wafted around me, were totally inescapable, defined the grit and the inevitability of life going on with what I now see as a perspicacious expressive power. If you know the bangers, you know what a sharp and fertile period this was for Kanye West, superstar anew, victory lapping just a year after the debut, even indulging a little with the star-studded cameos and the big-budget videos and such, and beginning to dominate the dialogue of hip hop in a way no other so-called "alternative" rapper had. His singles in this early period were unstoppable: clever, radiant, oddly vulnerable, but confident and fully engaged. But yes, when I hear them I just hear that time, and I'm wrestling with how much of a compliment that is -- but I think it's a high one. Because hearing this today it's really striking, and I would say that's in large part because it's so hard to imagine this version of West ever gracing us with his presence again.

West's eagerness to please on his first three albums is remarkable considering his reputation ever since; even though his considerable ego already pays a role in his persona, as of '05 his dominant energy is still an affable confidence that emphasizes his position as a regular dude who loves his mom, loves his work and has some issues. Lord, what a relief to remember that at some point the guy resembled a human being, a flawed public figure who wore his heart on his sleeve in a way that seemed raw but not troubling -- before unfathomable riches and unchecked, titanic self-loathing swallowed him, which was already happening even on some of his good records, before he went full Slow Train Coming this year. And his quality control at this stage was almost unimpeachable, fused with the adventurousness of hiring an unorthodox collaborator like Jon Brion, whose indie rock bona fides are a stronger showcase of West's musically ominvorous impulses than the iconic Adam Levine cameo. That said, Levine's chorus on the splendidly shambolic "Heard 'Em Say" is as much a haunted evocation of its summer as Mary Wells' "My Guy" or Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby" were of theirs.

It seems like there's a contradiction here; West in this era was more appealing, more "one of us," because he seemed less self-aware, but also more conscious of expressing complete thoughts. The essence is that maybe, or even probably, West's "self," the inner life he was exploring, was just more interesting then. Hardly unique to him. He had a personality. His thoughts on politics and race, spread all over this record, were somewhat coherent. (Remember that this was the year in which he called out Pres. Bush on live television.) He put as much energy into making this a cohesive album as he now does in the discs he produces for other artists, while conversely tossing off new music under his own name with only a modicum of careful attention. Back then his flaws seemed to magnify his appeal instead of pointing to his towering distance from everyday existence.

I'm sorry. So far I haven't talked enough about Late Registration in this supposed review of it. But it's a record that writes its own story; supplementing it with anything seems kind of useless. The four opening singles are glorious, peaking with the exquisitely constructed and still shocking "Gold Digger," all brilliant and offensive laugh lines and empathetic narratives bringing not just Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" (interpreted by Jamie Foxx) but Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" into a still-new millennium. West is a rapper and at this stage a good one, but he is also a master of the pop record; the hooks and indulgences alike have the force of a lightning strike, and nothing packs the mental dance floor like the "get down, girl" head-shake on "Gold Digger."

Following the hits (the others are "Drive Slow" and "Touch the Sky," in which Lupe Fiasco figures, still so promising and clear-eyed), the record leaves both instantaneous pleasure and the body-driven chaos of The College Dropout behind to launch into vibe territory. "My Way Home" is built from a sample of Gil Scott-Heron's shattering "Home Is Where the Hatred Is," and West (producing solo) is so taken with the source that he lets it play out nearly unchecked for the second half of the very brief song, not the last time the great poet would be given center stage on a West record. That's the Common cameo, but "Crack Music" reframes the concept of "I Used to Love H.E.R." as a drug rather than a sex metaphor, and it might have become a street anthem if it weren't so thorny and profane. "Roses" (with a complex lyric about grief and health care) "Addiction" and "Bring Me Down" (with an outstanding vocal by Brandy) burrow further into a surprisingly potent darkness, some of the most emotionally complex hip hop of the period.

What brings us back to earth is the all-star murderer's row of "Diamonds of Sierra Leone" and "We Major," collaborations with Jay-Z and Nas (both in 2005 still bigger stars than Kanye, so it seemed more significant then), both of which have aged poorly and attained a degree of bloat that threatens to derail the record. This is especially true of "We Major," an unfocused half-decent rant that does not deserve seven and a half minutes of our attention, but even the pretentious classic "Diamonds," revolving around a predictable Shirley Bassey sample and one of Jay's last verses that qualifies as truly arresting, feels hopelessly out of place. Already, rock star arrogance is worn dreadfully by Kanye, who never learned to speak the language of the hard-living sexually virile blues man, always too much of an angsty dork. (This is the reason all of his best anthems are either self-critical or play as fantasies even from the mind of a celebrity.)

Everything comes back around with "Hey Mama," a brilliant and gorgeous dedication to Donda West that is now very difficult to listen to but retains its immediate pleasure as a sincere, charming and beautifully constructed hip hop ballad. The indulgences of "Celebration" and "Gone" (while the latter is a slightly odd finale) feel more satisfying because "Hey Mama" precedes them, puts them in context, tells us a great deal about who this man is. In the end, it's not only that this often delightful record reels us in because of its music; it's because West's messaging is so honest, and so not the ravings of someone whose world is incomparable to our own. In its modesty, the record almost effortlessly achieves transcendence that would be out of reach to anyone who let it all get to him the way Kanye West has. According to him this is the Devil's music. I wonder when the last time he listened to Late Registration was. I wonder if he's jealous of it.