Crapple's
Beatles
Album Guide

By Pope Penguin

A little back story here: a couple of years ago, I was working for The Fab Four, writing for their unofficial fan website.  I was asked to do a rundown of the Beatles' studio albums back then, and did so...practically with my eyes closed, since I'd been listening to most of these albums for so many years.  But shortly thereafter, when I was considering putting it up on this website, I looked back at what I'd written and realized that it was a complete fluff job.  It had been so long since I'd really--I mean really--listened to the Beatles, that I had forgotten how to be objective about them.  They were my honorary #1 band, but practically every album (bar "Let It Be") garnered nothing but praise from me.

In essence, it was time for a re-evaluation.

A few days ago, I decided the only way I could be objective about the Beatles' music was to sit down and listen to every album again, in chronological order, from start to finish, whilst jotting down notes.  Thus, the following reviews tend to be a bit lengthy...but hey, it's the bloody Beatles!

While all of The Beatles’ records could be deemed classics--all largely solid works which are worth your while in some capacity or another--I submit the following unabashedly subjective ranking of The Beatles’ 12 original UK studio albums, from “Please Please Me” to “Let It Be.”  “Yellow Submarine,” in all its incarnations, has been passed over, since it’s the one actually legitimate “soundtrack” offering, and an awkward one at that, with only four previously unreleased songs and one side full of orchestral music.  (I say this knowing full well that at one point in my youth it was my favorite Beatles album…go figure).  The same goes for any of the various and sundry Beatles compilations, including the "red" and "blue" albums.  "Live At The BBC," the two "Past Masters" volumes and the three "Anthology" volumes may be added at a later date.  I’ve also tried to provide a little historical information about each album along the way (though there is no doubt that the readers of this article already possess this knowledge anyway).

It’s important to remember that while The Beatles were--and probably continue to be--the best pop rock band in the world, ever, (or at least my all-time favorite, if nothing else), they certainly weren’t infallible.  I have tried my best to be absolutely objective below and I warn you that you may see some commentary that is a little atypical when it comes to criticism of "the greatest rock band in history."  If this guide offends you in any way, kindly remember that this is only one lowly, jaded rock critic’s opinion.


CORE PERSONNEL:
JOHN LENNON - guitar, vocals, piano
PAUL MCCARTNEY - bass, vocals, piano, guitar
GEORGE HARRISON - guitar, vocals
RINGO STARR (nee RICHARD STARKEY) - drums, percussion, vocals

HIGHLIGHT:  "Revolver"
LOWLIGHT:  "Let It Be"
UNDERDOG:  "With The Beatles"
POPE'S PICK:  "The Beatles" (AKA: The White Album)
FOR BEGINNERS:  "Rubber Soul"

ALBUM AVERAGE:  7.62 (for 13 titles)


ALBUMS:

Please Please Me  •  With The Beatles  •  A Hard Day's Night  •  Beatles For Sale  •  Help!  •  Rubber Soul  •  Revolver  •  Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band  •  Magical Mystery Tour  •  The Beatles (AKA: "the white album")  •  Abbey Road  • Let It Be  •  Let It Be...Naked



“PLEASE PLEASE ME” (1963)

After a failed audition with Decca Records at the beginning of 1962, The Beatles went out on the road to work on their chops and essentially became a touring band.  After attracting the attention of Brian Epstein, who became their manager, he coordinated an audition session with Parlophone Records.  Producer George Martin--who had mainly produced novelty records up until that point--took an active interest in the band, and the rest is pretty much history.  “Please Please Me” is one incredible rock debut, most of which was recorded in one day-long marathon session (not to mention the boys all had severe colds).  Aside from launching a rock ‘n’ roll/soul/ballad hybrid album unlike any heard before, the band also pulled off the unthinkable by including a virtually unprecedented total of eight wholly original compositions out of the fourteen total tracks.  The album as a whole comes off as the work of some gleeful, giggling schoolboys, replete with ragged, live instrumentation and a couple of slightly dopey cover versions.

The four on the floor of "I Saw Her Standing There" remains one of the best opening salvos in the history of rock.  This is followed up by the fine "Misery" (even if it hardly conjures up an atmosphere in keeping with its title).  The strident piano notes in the bridge are of particular note.  The aforementioned hackneyed covers commense with "Chains," a minor hit for girl group The Cookies.  Despite featuring an admirable early George Harrison vocal, it's hardly memorable.  The same goes for "Boys" (a tune which The Beatles' strangely retained the original female gender viewpoint while delivering), which is a nice enough showcase for Ringo's voice and also features some nice backing vocals and a good, straight ahead rock backbeat.  "Ask Me Why" sounds like it could have come off of their Decca audition tape from a year earlier and isn't a particularly strong tune, but does feature a fine Lennon vocal and nice (though ragged) backing harmonies, as well as some stellar chord changes.  It is quite easy to see why the title track closes side one, as it's easily the strongest single the boys had penned to date (and one of my personal favorites).

Conversely, it's not as easy to see why the annoyingly lackluster white skiffle blues number "Love Me Do" opens side two.  It still baffles me that this was their first #1 single.  "P.S. I Love You" is an archaic sounding McCartney tune, again sounding like something off their Decca tape (which should give the listener an idea of why Decca turned the band down).  The tune does have one nice, subtle moment, though, when John, Paul and George all trade off punctuating vocals in the final verse.  "Baby It's You" is decent but more noteworthy for Ringo's audibly squeaky foot pedal.  The backing vocals on this one are absolutely ragged but Lennon throws in a nice ad lib in the outro.  Luckily, the album ends on a good note...two, actually.  First up is one of Lennon's earliest attempts at introspection, the exquisite but all too brief "There's A Place."  Then there's the throat searing brilliance of "Twist And Shout."  While the instrumental backing wasn't anything earthshattering, the raw Lennon vocal was total brilliance, Lennon stripping off his shirt, gargling with milk and attempting just one take at the end of the day before his voice completely gave out.  A really heavy track for 1963 and one of the greatest rock vocals of all time.

"Please Please Me" is more legendary than compelling, but it does make for a nice listen.



“WITH THE BEATLES” (1963)

From the abrasive, raucous, opening strains of “It Won't Be Long,” The Beatles were already showing major signs of metamorphosis.  The Beatles’ second effort ups the ante a bit from their debut, in terms of focus, polish and variety.  In addition, it's the first Beatles album where they began working with four tracks, as opposed to two, which allowed them greater sonic freedom in the studio.

"With The Beatles" doesn't hesitate at all, as it opens with Lennon's stark, unaccompanied voice...which leads into the four on the floor rock of "It Won't Be Long," which is a distant--and superior--cousin of "She Loves You."  From this we jump right into the Lennon soul ballad "All I've Got To Do," such a convincing soul pastiche you'd think Arthur Alexander himself penned it.  Paul jumps in and takes us off to la-la-land with one of the boys' hookiest early tunes and a definite predecessor to the "A Hard Day's Night" LP, "All My Loving," which personifies the Beatles' ability to write songs that sound like instant hits.  Harrison comes in out of left field with the dark, sinister, snide (and my personal favorite) track "Don't Bother Me," with its cynical tone and thumping African bongo.  It's been said that Lennon was inspired to put harmonica in Beatles songs by Bruce Chanel's hit "Hey, Baby," and no song typifies this better than "Little Child."  Unfortunately, it's a completely and utterly disposable little song.  The real odd man out here is "'Til There Was You," a cover from the musical "The Music Man."  However, the mellow acoustic arrangement points the way towards ballads like "And I Love Her."  Side two culminates with the nice enough but rather disposable cover of "Please Mr. Postman."  Sure, it's neat to hear the Beatles' covering a tune like this, but it strikes me as supremely odd that this song was chosen, since the original was such a massive hit (and well worthy of it).

"Roll Over Beethoven" surely outdoes the original Berry version by lighting a match underneath it, and features a nice double tracked George vocal, but the performance was even better live (check out the incredible version on "Anthology 1," recorded live in Stockholm).  Paul's cheesy "Hold Me Tight" sounds woefully out of place here, and it's little wonder, since it was rejected from the "Please Please Me" sessions and re-recorded here.  On the other hand, "You Really Got A Hold On Me" might be one of the very best cover songs the Beatles ever recorded, suiting Lennon's jagged, soulful voice to a tee (and featuring some impressive falsetto scoops as well).  "I Wanna Be Your Man" (first a hit for the Rolling Stones) is a fun tune and a nice vehicle for Ringo, although after two repetitions of the main verse you can't wait for the next song to come on.  Unfortunately, it's the cheesy cover "Devil In Her Heart."  It features a nice George vocal, but the song is simply so lame that it doesn't matter ("I'll take my chances/for romance is/so important to me").  John's "Not A Second Time," however, is a groundbreaking song in the Beatles' oeuvre.  The main melody is slightly monotonous, but the plodding piano lines and dark edge make it one of my favorites.  Side two ends with a nice cover of Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)," which serves the same purpose as "Twist And Shout" did on "Please Please Me," but to far lesser effect, as it never catches full fire.

All in all, it strikes me as supremely odd that the Beatles come off as sounding like some ultra-slick bar band on this album, instead of England's biggest hitmakers.  Still, the overall sound and performances are more cohesive than "Please Please Me," and it's a step in the right direction.



“A HARD DAY’S NIGHT” (1964)

The black and white film that became a rock and roll phenomenon also spawned an equally impressive LP.  Easily the best of the Beatles' early LPs, the only Beatles album penned exclusively by Lennon/McCartney sprawls.  While side one contains all of the songs used in the film and side two comprises songs that didn’t make the cut, this stands as their most solid and coherent quasi-soundtrack effort.

It is astounding how much can change in just a few months' time.  The first, classic chord of "A Hard Day's Night" (completely ingrained in our collective consciousness) drives that point home like no other moment on a Beatles' record up to that point.  Not only does the title track feature new instrumentation--a 12 string Rickenbacker, prominent acoustic rhythm guitar and a *cowbell*--but it's also easily the strongest pure pop song Lennon and McCartney had penned up to that point.  In addition, the song is a true tag team effort from Lennon and McCartney--with Lennon singing the verse and McCartney taking the bridge--and features a bizarre middle eight: the sound of a 12 string guitar being coupled with a strident piano.  Its follow-up, "I Should Have Known Better," is more reminiscent of past glories but is still pleasant, if a little innocuous, redeemed by its stellar bridge.  "If I Fell" is truly an enigma: a Lennon penned ballad with a labyrinthine chord sequence and melody.  "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You" is a nice vehicle for George, if not up to par with the rest of the songs on the album thus far.  Make what you will of McCartney, "And I Love Her" is simply one of the man's very best ballads, the potentially saccharine mood being saved by the perfect arrangement (which came close to being ruined, as evidenced on "Anthology").  Another song that sounded like an instant hit.  "Tell Me Why" is just a great, pure Lennon rocker, loaded with hooks, though the poor falsetto in the bridge is seemingly an ill attempt at revisiting the past.

Side two kicks off with another real oddity, Lennon's "Any Time At All," a suprisingly sweet tune which musically seems to forecast Lennon's work on "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver."  "I'll Cry Instead" is pure Carl Perkins pastiche and a little oddly sequenced next to Paul's "Things We Said Today," Paul's first truly gloomy song.  The stuttery acoustic guitar hook of "Today" remains one of its greatest features.  Then we have possibly the only true clunker on the LP: "When I Get Home," which, in this reviewer's opinion, is one of the most downright annoying tunes the Beatles ever committed to wax, its "whoa ooh oh I" refrain akin to nails on a chalkboard (why this song was chosen over the fantastic "Long Tall Sally" EP track "I Call Your Name" is still a mystery to me).  Thankfully, the mood is elevated quite a bit by the inclusion of Lennon's superb, angular "You Can't Do That."  We close with "I'll Be Back" (making this the first Beatles album thus far with an odd number of tracks) which, with its haunting, wistful melody and somber acoustic mood, manages to perfectly forecast the sound of the next LP, "Beatles For Sale."

A mixture of great rockers and ballads, featuring the Beatles’ first extensive foray into acoustic guitars, “A Hard Day’s Night” is startlingly cohesive and relentless.  A great pure pop rock 'n roll album that ranks among the Beatles' very best work.



“BEATLES FOR SALE” (1964)

After years of relentless touring, The Beatles emerged a bit worse for the wear with their second effort of 1964, “Beatles For Sale.”  While the playing and production is a bit ragged (not to mention six of the fourteen songs are cover songs, signalling a dry spell for the band), there are occasional signs that the band is moving forward more rapidly, particularly in Lennon’s work.

If "I'll Be Back" forecasted any one single song on "Beatles For Sale," it'd have to be its opener, "No Reply."  One of the most glum songs Lennon had written up to that point.  "Reply" coalesces perfectly into "I'm A Loser," which features a more light hearted treatment but even gloomier lyrics, being the first Lennon tune wholly influenced by the music of Bob Dylan, right down to the sloppy harmonica solo.  This also segues brilliantly into "Baby's In Black," which might be the twangiest, most countrified song the boys had done yet.  If it's a pastiche, it's a pretty convincing one.  It's also noteworthy, as it's the first Beatles song (and maybe one of the earliest pop songs) to implicitly reference death.  The onslaught continues with "Rock And Roll Music," one of many Beatles covers that tears the original apart (and, like "Twist And Shout" and "Long Tall Sally," captured in one take), despite Lennon flubbing some lyrics near the end.  Paul comes in out of left field with his ballad "I'll Follow The Sun," a song left over from the Hamburg days.  It would have sounded woefully out of place in the style of, say, "P.S. I Love You," but the tasteful, delicate arrangement here saves the song.  Lennon announces "Mr. Moonlight"--a hit for Dr. Feelgood And The Interns--with a bloodcurdling scream but then promptly turns into a flu-ridden Ethel Merman.  It seems the song is supposed to be a pastiche, but instead comes off as supremely dopey (the nasal, out of tune backing vocals, bongos and roller rink organ doing nothing to elevate the mood).  It's easy to see why it is the most hated Beatles song ever (next to maybe "Revolution 9").  Thankfully, Paul elevates the mood with "Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey," which features a great instrumental performance and show-stopping vocal.

Side two opens with the peerless pop of "Eight Days A Week" (the first pop song ever to feature a fade-IN), which is unfortunately a step backwards, as it wouldn't have sounded out of place on the "A Hard Day's Night" LP (or maybe even 'With The Beatles").  The next song, a cover of Buddy Holly's "Words Of Love," is a rarity in that it's one of the Beatles' few truly medicore, disposable covers.  It's nice enough, with some fine Paul and John low register harmonies (when not going out of tune with each other), but the result is so close to Holly's original that it's ultimately pointless.  As if the album couldn't get any more "Hee Haw"-ish, Ringo enters with his Buck Owens cover "Honey Don't."  It again is wholly unremarkable and also features one of Ringo's less enthralling vocals (his voice even audibly cracks in several places).  Luckily, the album ends with some of its strongest tunes.  "Every Little Thing" is a marvel: a strong Lennon/McCartney original featuring a lovely joint vocal, thudding pianos and timpani.  "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" is another glum, Dylanesque, twangy Lennon tune but works quite well and remains a hidden gem: a great pastiche while retaining a distinctly Beatlesque feel.  "What You're Doing" opens with some interesting drumming and segues into a remarkable little McCartney tune.  The album closes with a fairly earnest reading of Carl Perkins' "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby," with George handling the lead vocals.

The Beatles' metamorphosis slowed a bit on this album.  The originals here hint at greatness, while many of the covers are tepid and even downright terrible.  The high points are very high, but the lows are just as low.



“HELP!” (1965)

As 1965 rolled around, it was time for the Beatles to make yet another film.  This time, the treatment was a mock period piece with a loose “plot” about a quest to find Ringo's stolen ring--in color no less.  While the film lacked the classic subtlety and autobiographical nature of “A Hard Day’s Night,” the music was still pretty fine.  Again divided between one side of songs used in the film and one of non-film songs, “Help!” is a solid effort comprising many fine tracks, despite its occasional faux-country twang.  Lennon in particular is in fine form...a precursor to his stellar work on "Rubber Soul."

The title track explodes into the speakers, much like "A Hard Day's Night."  These days, it's difficult to separate the song from the film, but "Help!" is of note as being Lennon's most introspective song up to that point--although, musically, it doesn't sound that far removed from "Beatles For Sale."  "The Night Before" is a nice follow up by McCartney, the first Beatles song to feature an electric piano.  Paul, as a composer, had been fairly absent from the Beatles' early albums, but certainly seemed to be coming into his own here.  "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" is Lennon at his absolute most Dylanesque and is another fine introspective number.  It was also the first Beatles song to feature an outside musician (John Scott on flute).  George's first composition since "Don't Bother Me," "I Need You" is a nice tune which also features a fine tone pedal guitar part.  Songs like this push towards the moodier, reflective "Rubber Soul" period.  "Another Girl" is a glum (and somewhat chauvanistic) Paul song with downright amateurish twangy guitar parts.  It's enjoyable but sounds more like b-side material.  "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" has one of those absolutely timeless melodies, right from the opening bars.  It features a fine, stinging Lennon lead vocal and a rather interesting prominent bongo part.  The guitar solo continues the twangy motif of the album (why the Beatles seemed so enamored with country music in this period still mystifies me).  "Ticket To Ride" was dubbed "heavy metal" by Lennon, years after its release.  It may have been an overstatement, though the song does feature a very heavy drum part and grunting guitars.  It's also one of the band's strongest, most memorable early singles and is a fine way to close side one.

Continuing the country obsession, side two opens with an innocuous cover of Buck Owens' "Act Naturally," which is better than "Honey Don't," although Ringo's relentlessly flat vocal is mildly annoying.  It is followed by a song that points more towards "Rubber Soul" than any other song here: John's fabulous "It's Only Love," with its folky feel and rubbery chorus-laden electric guitars.  However, like many of John's best pop creations from 1965, it is far too short.  A bit of honky tonk electric piano opens up George's fine "You Like Me Too Much."  The tune features a really interesting chord structure as well as many jazz chords thrown in for good measure, though the lyrics are downright dopey ("you like me too much and I like you/I really do/and it's nice when you believe me").  Upward-strummed guitars open "Tell Me What You See," which features fine Paul and John harmonies but slightly dumb lyrics and a monotonous melody.  The bridge, however, is interesting, with its drum breakdown and electric piano chords.  Paul's "I've Just Seen A Face" is the only outright skiffle number the band ever recorded, and it's a fine one.  This is followed by the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) "Yesterday," which has been called everything from a timeless classic to a cloying piece of garbage.  (I, myself, am somewhere in the middle, leaning ever so slightly towards the latter.)  One thing that can be said for the song is that it points the way towards "Revolver," with its bold use of a string quartet and only one Beatle (although it sounds completely out of place on side two, lodged between a lot of twangy country and folk).  Lennon brings us back down to earth to end the side with a fine reading of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," though the lead guitar drops out a few times and the band goes out of sync occasionally.  Ringo is in particulalry fine form behind the skins, though.

Better than the previous two albums, "Help!" still has a couple of relative clunkers here and there, but thankfully only features two covers, one of which is pretty good.  Most of all, "Help!" is the essential bridge between the early pop years and the mature mellow rock of "Rubber Soul," and provides a pretty good listen throughout.



“RUBBER SOUL” (1965)

George Harrison called "Rubber Soul" and its follow-up "Revolver" essentially two volumes of the same album.  While aesthetically the sounds contained on each respective album are pretty disparate, a similar sort of creative ethos of experimentation and self-discovery is prevalent on both.  Though The Beatles had already begun moving on from the bubble gum pop of the early days, “Soul” was the Beatles’ first mood album.  Dylanesque and Byrdsian folk rock dominate, containing what is possibly Lennon's best songwriting as a Beatle.

The opener, "Drive My Car," wouldn't have sounded too out of place on "Help!," with its meowing lead guitar and twangy riffs.  One new sound here is the thumping piano, which hadn't been used in quite this way in a Beatles song before.  "Norwegian Wood," however, is pretty far removed from "Help!"  While seemingly a cousin of "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," the mood is much more somber and mature.  And what is that buzzing instrument?  A sitar, brought in at the suggestion of George Harrison (lending creedence to the theory that George was actually the "avant garde" one, not John OR Paul).  "You Won't See Me" is much like "Drive My Car," with some new gimmicks thrown in.  The song possesses an absolutely throbbing piano line and very nice drum fills throughout.  One oddity conerning this song is that the tempo drops steadily throughout (which perhaps can be explained by that fact that this song was recorded on the day of the deadline, in the wee hours).  Lennon's "Nowhere Man," with its chiming Rickenbackers, dour melody and lyrics is the most introspective number he'd written since the last album's title track.  "Think For Yourself" is quintessential George Harrison, with its bizarre chord structure and dismal outlook.  There is also a strange stinging fuzz bass part.  "The Word" is a Motown-ish number which points toward the love anthems of the next two years.  It features fine harmonies and an ear splitting organ part.  This segues into another of Paul's instant "classics," "Michelle," which is a French pastiche that Paul had been toying around with for years.

Side two opens with the third Ringo sung rockabilly number in as many albums, "What Goes On."  It's another tune that had been sitting around for years and seems woefully out of place here, with its totally dopey lyrics and unchallenging chord structure.  Lennon's "Girl," however--a distant cousin of "Norwegian Wood"--sounds gorgeously archaic...its effortless melody and instrumentation sound as if they were flown in from another time and place.  "I'm Looking Through You" is another song with a bit of a "Help!" groove to it, and features organ licks straight out of "Cool Jerk."  "In My Life" was the sweetest song Lennon had written up to that point, and possibly ever.  (I love the guy, but it almost sounds too warm to have been written by him.)  If anyone doubts George Martin was the real "Fifth Beatle," they need only listen to the middle eight of this tune...an incredible "baroque" solo played by Sir George, recorded at half speed and played back to sound fast.  "Wait," though a "Help!" outtake, fits in frighteningly well here.  The lyrics are fairly dopey--particularly Paul's middle eight--but the melody and harmonies are quite haunting.  Harrison's twangy 12 string "If I Needed Someone" forecasts bands like The Byrds.  Its message is typically cynical.  The melody's rhythm is fairly monotonous though (and in my ears, contrary to public opinion, "Think For Yourself" is the stronger of the two Harrison penned tunes here).  The bizarre closer, "Run For Your Life," is based partially on the lyrics of an Elvis Presely tune, "Baby Let's Play House."  Even though it sounds like a "Help!" outtake (and was the first song recorded for "Rubber Soul") and has a comically mysogynistic tone, I enjoy it.  In my ears, it's a brilliant joke that not only works but sounds good.

Amazing that this album--which would forever be viewed as the first Beatles album intended for sitting and listening to, rather than dancing to--was very much a rush job, with two songs ("Girl" and "You Won't See Me") being written and recorded right up to the deadline.  "Rubber Soul" is, pound for pound, a great piece of work and the first truly timeless Beatles' album...a mature masterwork.



"REVOLVER" (1966)

“Revolver” is The Beatles’ first shockingly diverse collection of songs, taking the fresh ideas and maturity of “Rubber Soul” and injecting some hallucinogens and studio trickery into the mix.  Not surprisingly, "Revolver" also coincided with the Beatles' decision to forego touring once and for all (since their shows had became inaudible and tuneless 25 minute blasts to thousands of screaming teens) and become solely a studio band.  By this time, the Beatles had begun using psychedelic drugs, and this album can be seen as the fruits of their journey after the door had been unlocked.  It also marks many firsts in the Beatles' career: it is the first of their LPs to feature extensive use of session players on a handful of tracks (brass on "For No One" and "Got To Get You Into My Life," strings on "Eleanor Rigby") as well as backwards guitars ("I'm Only Sleeping," "Tomorrow Never Knows") and bizarre, otherworldly sounds (tape loops and synthesizers in "Tomorrow Never Knows").  While “Soul” was arguably the apex of Lennon’s songwriting as a Beatle, “Revolver” is most likely McCartney’s crowning Beatle achievement.

From the opening five seconds of "Revolver" we're in strange territory.  A warbly tape loop plays in the background as George counts the album in in a low, gruff, gangster voice.  For the first time, he is given the honor of opening a Beatles album: and it's a fine one.  "Taxman" is a rocker in the vein of "Rubber Soul" but with more intensity and a more polished sheen.  There is also a striking, stinging guitar solo playing an Indian raga riff, instigated by George but actually played by Paul!  If anyone still thought this was the same band, "Eleanor Rigby," whose only instrumentation is a string quartet, would most definitely convince them otherwise.  The seeming cousin of "Yesterday," the song--in this reviewer's opinion--is much stronger; a dark, sad ode to modern life.  An instant classic.  In fact, this couldn't be any further from, say, "Love Me Do."  Lennon's "I'm Only Sleeping" sounds like a relative of "Girl," but with a more dreamy, floating feel.  And we're treated to the first ever backwards tapes on a Beatles album: cackling backwards guitars, which add perfectly to the mood.  If "Eleanor Rigby" shook up 1966 listeners, the next tune tune, George's "Love You To," must have sounded like an earthquake.  Featuring no instruments except sitar and tabla and deep philosophical lyrics, "Love You To" is one of George's masterpieces and most significant works...irrefutable proof that "Revolver" is a quantum leap from "Rubber Soul."  "Here, There And Everywhere" is a fairly typical Macca ballad, but with far more specificity, colorful lyrics and lovely three part harmonies.  There is also great attention to subtlety, such as the descending harmony line in the last verse which comes out of nowhere.  "Yellow Submarine" might be kiddie fare but was far and away Ringo's best vehicle up to that point.  The multitude of sound effects really makes this song and must have been fairly revolutionary in 1966.  It was also the most overtly cheeky song they'd recorded up to that point.  This goes straight into the acid rock of "She Said She Said," inspired by a conversation between Lennon and Peter Fonda.  Ringo's drums are completely breathtaking here.

Side two kicks off with the up tempo Macca ballad "Good Day Sunshine," a precursor to "Penny Lane" if I've ever heard one.  The lyrics aren't particularly revolutionary here, but the song is done with such aplomb and conviction that it doesn't matter too much.  Even this song contains a bit of innovation in the coda, with its multi-tracked harmony vocals.  This goes into Lennon's incredible "And Your Bird Can Sing," which may have been declared a "throwaway" by Lennon and critics alike, but, to my ears, sounds like an absolute classic.  The twin lead guitar interplay by John and George is stellar and McCartney's bass is on fire.  The onslaught continues with Paul's most perfect, concise ballad yet, "For No One."  It also features a perfect french horn solo in the middle, courtesy of yet another outside musician, Alan Civil.  "Doctor Robert" sounds like a "Rubber Soul" outtake, but the bizarre lyrics--about a New York pill doctor--signal the fact that it couldn't have been released anywhere else.  It is rather medicore and the only downer here so far, but tolerable.  The swagger of "Good Day Sunshine" is continued with George's "I Want To Tell You," but George's tune features more substantial, introspective lyrics.  The only weak point is the rather rhythmically repetitive melody.  Paul throws in a lovely, soulful, raga-ish high harmony in the coda.  "Got To Get You Into My Life"--allegedly an ode to marijuana--is Paul doing big brassy Motown and Stax to the letter and it is a great song.  One cannot describe "Tomorrow Never Knows" in mere words, as it is so far removed from anything the band--or anyone else--had done up to that point.  There is so much going on in this one song that it is difficult to catalogue it all: honking tape loops, flurrying backwards guitars, mellow organ tones, explosive, thunderous drums.  In fact, Lennon could have been singing in Swahili for all I care.  "Tomorrow Never Knows" is an incredible piece of work and closes and equally incredible album.

“Sgt. Pepper” may have gotten the glory, but this is where the real revolution started (no pun intended).  Additionally, "Revolver" has aged far better than its more famous follow-up, emerging as an album recorded and released largely out of time, while "Pepper" has emerged as the defining album of its era.  Startling, innovative, fresh, rocking, gorgeous, crisply produced and compelling from start to finish, it is probably the Beatles' best single LP.  Quite a long way from "Love Me Do."



“SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND” (1967)

"Pepper" is one of the first albums I ever heard in my life, and thus I have certain emotional ties to the music.  I've heard it so many times in my life that, truthfully, it's difficult to be objective about it.  Any layman on the street could probably tell you that it stands as one of the benchmarks in pop/rock history.  It’s been said that you can’t judge art out of its time, and perhaps no Beatles album begs that rubric more than the legendary “Sgt. Pepper” LP.  Some have accused “Pepper” of being the most overrated album of all time (a recent UK poll of musicians even bizarrely dubbed it the “worst album of all time”), but it should be remembered for what it was…a marvelous, quintessentially British concept album...the perfect encapsulation of the Summer of Love…polished, colorful psychedelia.

The story goes that after hearing the Beach Boys' mature, complex "Pet Sounds" LP, Paul hit upon the idea of an album to rival it.  Paul spearheaded the project from the beginning, his idea behind “Pepper” being that masquerading as another band might free the band up to more unrestrained creativity.  While the "concept" never really reached full potential--and, allegedly, John was opposed to the concept from the beginning--the music is still fine.  Moreover, it couldn't be any further removed from the music the band was making just a mere two years earlier.

Straight off, you can tell this album is an entirely different creature, as the first sounds you hear are an audience chattering away and an orchestra tuning up.  Huh?  The title cut is a fairly straight forward slow rock song with brass and sound effects (though still like nothing they'd done before).  "With A Little Help From My Friends" has a definite "Pet Sounds" swagger to it.  The song has a small melodic range but Ringo works wonders with it.  It's a nice song and probably Ringo's best vehicle.  The call and response interplay of the vocalists is also very nice.  "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" shows how differently Paul and John viewed the concept of the album, and shows John going quite "fruity," as George Harrison might put it.  Lennon may have claimed that any of the "Pepper" songs could have been on any other album, but I strongly disagree.  The imagery here--particularly in John's songs--is unlike anything before or after (except maybe "I Am The Walrus").  (Not to mention there is also a multitude of new sounds on this album.)  "Getting Better" sounds like a "Revolver" outtake at first, and is the most straight forward song so far.  Paul sounds a bit cockier here than before, though, especially in the subject matter.  The last verse is frighteningly nonchalant, with a cavalier reference to domestic abuse.  "Fixing A Hole" features a lovely melody and treatment and Paul's strangest lyrics yet.  LSD had definitely taken effect.  The next song, "She's Leaving Home," opens with...a harp!(?)  The song, one of Paul's biggest "slice of life" dramas, is almost too sicnkeningly quaint.  It's definitely one of Paul's most "dramatic" songs.  Again, it could not have appeared anywhere but here.  The edits in the song, however, are glaringly audible.  Interestingly, the strings were not arranged by George Martin, but are still quite nice, particularly in the last verse and chorus.  "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" is the song in which John is in full-on "reporter" mode, having taken the lyrics straight off an old circus poster.  It perfectly encapsulates a circus atmosphere and contains some mesmerizing tape loops (which sound much better in mono, I might add!).

"Within You Without You" takes the ideas of "Love You To" to the absolute extreme.  Lyrically, it is the most profound song on the entire album and proof positive that George had much more on his mind in 1967 than music.  It also could not have appeared in any other spot on the album.  (On a side note, the second half of this song is much faster in tempo, which has always bothered me.)  Again, another testament that George was the true avant garde one.  Paul's "When I'm 64," the first song recorded for the album (in late 1966!) again sounds slightly more like the cheeky music hall "Revolver" material.  "Lovely Rita" has some truly goofy lyrics (his dramatic pronunciation of the word "book" makes me think of the grandfather from "A Hard Day's Night") but is still a great song and again features sterling contributions from the "Fifth Beatle" George Martin.  It also contains a bevy of interesting little sounds (including a wax paper comb being blown on) and an absolutely mindboggling bass line.  The coda is also quite interesting.  "Good Morning Good Morning" is a rollicking number with nice dirty brass, ala "Got To Get You Into My Life."  It has an incredibly heavy drum sound and features the absolute best rhythm section on the entire album as well as a host of bizarre meter changes and a flurry of animal noises that sound like they were flown straight in from "Pet Sounds."  The reprise of "Sgt. Pepper" is much breezier than the album opener but is in a lower key.  It perfectly sets the mood for what, in essence, is the album's "encore."  "A Day In The Life" used to scare me when I was a child.  It is a slightly dark tune and is very somber, with one of the best melodies John Lennon ever wrote.  In many ways, it is absolutely the ultimate Beatles song.  It’s fairly clear that Lennon may have stolen the show in the end with this song, one of the most enduring, anthemic, awe-inspiring pieces of music in rock history, which brings the album to a fitting close.  Not only is “Life” one of The Beatles’ most amazing pieces of work, but it also displays the often serendipitous beauty of the Lennon/McCartney collaboration, with Paul offering up the song’s distinctive bridge section.

As fine and entertaining as this music is, the cynical side of me wonders if this album, in some ways, marked the beginning of their decline.  This album marks many first for the band and, indeed, for the entire rock era.  It was, according to most accounts, the first rock concept album, the first with printed lyrics, the first with a gatefold jacket and the first with no silence between the songs.  Perhaps most importantly, it was the first Beatles album that featured a bombastic production style: most of the songs feature orchestras and/or bizarre sound effects and the entire affair feels more heavy handed than any of the previous Beatles LPs.  Some tracks even feature audience noises, tying in with the "Sgt. Pepper" concept.

While more gimmicky than its predecessor, “Pepper” is an undeniable rock classic and a shining example of what studio trickery and colorful production can achieve, if the material within is imaginative enough.  In terms of commercial impact and influence, nothing has matched it before or since.  One can only wonder what “Pepper” might have been like had “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” been included (which were both intended for “Pepper”), which some people deem the greatest two-sided single in pop rock history.



“MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR” (1967)

Hot on the heels of "Sgt. Pepper," the band, at McCartney's suggestion, began working on a concept for a film.  The film was to document a bus tour around Great Britain and chronicle any strange happenings that occurred along the way.  Unfortunately, nothing much happened, and the band turned the footage into a random 50 minute mini-film that was televised in black and white on the BBC to a less than enthralled audience.  While the majority of the film revolved around completely random dialogue and surreal, acid-soaked imagery, the saving grace of the film was the musical performance segments.  The Beatles decided to release a soundtrack to the film on a double EP set.  However, in America, where the EP format had never really taken off, the soundtrack songs were put on one side of a full LP, while the other side was filled with the band's non-album singles and b-sides from that year.  (This was perhaps the first thing Capitol did right, in regards to the Beatles catalogue.)  While the film itself was panned mercilessly by critics and became the Beatles’ first commercial disappointment (ironically following the death of Brian Epstein), the album itself was a virtual treasure trove of psychedelia and creativity, with imports of the US conglomerate LP selling very well in the UK (it became the standard issue in the UK in 1977).

The album kicks off with the title track from the film, a rocking number.  Out of context, it seems a little strange, but it's still a pretty fun little song, with nice harmonies, sound effects and great brass.  In a way, it summarizes the entire psychedelic experience of 1967.  The coda, led by a meandering piano part, is one of the best parts of the song and leads very nicely into the next track, Paul's fine ballad "The Fool On The Hill."  It continues Paul's mid-'60s trend of thoughtful, interesting lyrics and perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being isolated from the world.  In some ways, it's the cousin of John's "Nowhere Man" from two years earlier.  The only irritating part is the recorder solo in the bridge sections, which comes off as slightly twee.  "Flying" is next, a piece of incidental music from the film.  It has an interesting little groove to it, but isn't earth shattering.  It is of note, however, as being the first Beatles song credited to all four Beatles.  The voices at the end remind one of the Fred Tomlinson Singers, coming in for a cameo on Monty Python's Flying Circus...or it could just be my warped imagination.  The end of the song dissolves into tape loops and flurrying mellotron notes.  Next is Harrison's "Blue Jay Way," one of the most (perhaps unfairly) maligned Beatles tracks.  It was written one night in Los Angeles while Harrison awaited some visitors.  It recreates the feeling of waiting for a friend during a foggy evening in L.A. very well, from the grunting organ, to the scurrying tape loops, to the grunting cellos, to the chorus-soaked backing vocals.  Paul's "Your Mother Should Know" is next, another in a long line of mid-'60s McCartney penned songs that show Paul's affection for the 12/8 swagger of the "Pet Sounds."  It's one of those songs that polarizes listeners...you either love it or hate it.  There certainly isn't much to the lyrics, but the music is fine enough, and certainly manages to sound like "a hit before your mother was born."  Side one wraps up with John's downright epic "I Am The Walrus," in his words a piece of "inspired nonsense."  It's gobbledygook...but what a sound!  Grunting electric piano, slurping strings, harried backing vocals, and of course, Lennon's lead, put through a distortion device.  The stream-of-consciousness lyrics are almost Dylanesque, as they just flow over you.  And then the ending, with random extracts from a BBC broadcast of "King Lear," which somehow seems to make sense in this context.

Side two doesn't hesitate, launching right into Paul's #1 single "Hello, Goodbye."  Sure, the lyrics are dopey...but have you ever heard such a jubilant nonsensical song?  Something about the total commitment of the band on this one makes it work.  It's a rollicking little song and features the so-called "Maori finale."  Paul gets outdone by the next tune, though: John's "Strawberry Fields Forever."  This is another one of those songs that's up there with "A Day In The Life" as the most ultimate Beatles recordings.  It features a calvacade of different sounds in its four brief minutes: brass, backwards cymbals, mellotrons, intense percussion, a tack piano and a swordmandel.  This, too, features somehwat stream-of-consciousness lyrics, but they all come together to make a much more coherent package than  something like "I Am The Walrus."  The lyrics--together with the treatment of the song--perfectly encapsulate a daydreamy quality, and a desire for blissful escape.  It's also one of the greatest feats of production in pop history, being sewn together from two complete different takes, in different keys and tempos.  "Penny Lane," which was the a-side of "Strawberry Fields," is next.  Nowhere is the "Pet Sounds" influence stronger than in this song.  Again, another song that polarizes listeners.  Some find it twee, but I find it the perfect counterpart to John's more sedate, dreamy "Strawberry Fields Forever."  Indeed, the two songs were to be part of an album about John and Paul's childhood (which later morphed into the "Sgt. Pepper" LP).  It's a nice, jaunty little song, with another multitude of sounds.  In fact, the watchword of this era of the band seems to be "sound."  Everything from 1967 is about as colorful as the band ever got.  The b-side of "All You Need Is Love" is up next: John's "Baby You're A Rich Man."  The lyrics seem to be dripping with sarcasm--"how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?"-- but don't seem to make any strict literal sense, like many songs of this period. The most striking component of this song is a wild Clavioline part that permeates the song.  Side two closes with yet another John anthem, "All You Need Is Love," most of which was recorded live for a historic "Our World" international broadcast earlier that year.  It features a lovely orchestral part which, at the end of the song, quotes famous songs from "Greensleeves" to "In The Mood."  Unfortunately, it also features a downright embarrassing guitar solo from George, sounding like a rubber band being plucked and cutting off in a very awkward fashion.  In fact, the band itself is actually the least interesting part of the song.

Despite the hodge-podge nature of this "LP," it does have a certain coherence to it, as it presents the band at the absolute peak of its psychedelic period.  Of course it's largely overshadowed by its big brother, "Sgt. Pepper," and probably rightfully so, as song for song, it doesn't quite stack up as well as its predecessor.  On the other hand, it seems a little unfair to critique an "album" that wasn't really an "album" in the first place, and the high points here are so incredibly high that it's difficult to grade the LP down in good conscience.  If you like the Beatles' more colorful, adventurous, psychedelic period, this album is an absolutely essential addition to your collection.  Hell, it's worth it for the incredible one-two punch of "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" alone.



“THE BEATLES” (AKA: “THE WHITE ALBUM”) (1968)

By 1968, The Beatles had moved on from the wash of 1967 psychedelia and were starting to move back into more simplistic rock territory.  Moreover, the individual Beatles themselves had begun growing apart since the death of  manager Brian Epstein.  After retreating to India for a bit to clear their heads, the Beatles came up with over 30 demos, recorded in George’s Esher bungalow, Kinfauns.  George Martin suggested they whittle it down to 15 tracks and make one solid album, but the Beatles chose to forego this and record 32 songs (30 appear here), many of which are seen as largely solo efforts.  Many times, two or three different sessions would be going on in different studios at EMI.  This four-way creative pull led to a fair share of personal conflict (with Ringo even temporarily leaving the band at one point), but it also resulted in a thrillingly diverse set of songs.  Ironically, this album probably reveals John and Paul’s influence on each other more strongly than any other Beatles album, with Paul delivering his gutsiest pieces of Beatle rock and John offering his most gentle Beatle ballads.  Interestingly, like "Pepper," it features virtually no silence between songs, some tracks even being linked up by random pieces of noise, session ad-libs or tapes from the Abbey Road archives.

What we have here is--generally--a back-to-basics approach, far removed from the colorful sounds of the Summer of Love.  The Beatles must have sensed that the sounds of 1967 and psychedelia were rapidly becoming dated and thus decided to move on quickly.  The album kick starts with a very basic rock song, "Back In The USSR," reportedly a Beach Boys pastiche, replete with high falsetto vocals in the bridge.  One could argue the band had gone retrograde, but the song simply cooks.  Interestingly, Ringo Starr is completely absent from both this song and the next, which surely gives some insight into the state of affairs in the band.  "USSR" crossfades into a hypnotic guitar riff echoing India.  John's gorgeous "Dear Prudence" features prosaic lyrics and is one of the only songs I can think of where he doesn't refer to himself.  (In that sense, it's akin to some of his work on "Pepper" in spirit).  Lending creedence to the retrograde argument is "Glass Onion," with its slightly psychedelic lyrics, slurpy strings and name-checking of several songs from the previous year and a half.  This heads right into the good-timey fluff ska of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."  (Just what the devil was Paul thinking with the title?)  The song is most noteworthy for featuring a drunken John Lennon on piano...and boy, does he pound out those chords!  The twist ending was only called to my attention recently and adds more dimension to an already admittedly very strange little song.  Also from the "WTF?" file is "Wild Honey Pie," a brief, tossed off McCartney blues number with multiple acoustic guitars and a chorus of faux-black vocals from Paul.  This leads very nicely into a Spanish guitar run from the Abbey Road archives, which then leads into John's rollicking "The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill."  With its heavy, comic booky dramatization, in some respects, it sounds more like a McCartney number.  It would seem for the moment that the confessional Lennon of yesteryear had all but gone, and he was now calling up songs to order.  Harrison's fine "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" hardly sounds like it belongs on the same album.  It is such an accomplished rock tune that it almost doesn't belong on side one.  Once again George forges his own path.  Side one concludes with even more strangeness: the surrealistic imagery of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun," a welding together of three different tunes Lennon had been working on.  It all makes very little sense but of course *sounds* wonderful.

Side two opens with some baroque piano and leads into the music hall cheekiness of "Martha My Dear."  It's becoming more and more apparent just how *weird* this album is, with its astonishing diversity.  (It's only side two and we've already heard rock 'n roll, hypnotic rock, psychedlic rock, ska, blues, singalong, acid rock and a hybrid of three different styles in one song).  Finally, we have a confessional Lennon tune, "I'm So Tired," perhaps Lennon's unwitting response to his own "I'm Only Sleeping" from two years previous.  It is a true enigma...one of the only completely unpretentious songs on the entire four sides of the album.  It's only at the end that Lennon lapses into complete gibberish.  Further demonstrating how relentlessly jarring the album is, we head straight into Macca's gentle, pastoral "Blackbird," which features one of the most ingenious, creative guitar parts every recorded (in my opinion, anyway).  More baroque trappings enter with George's "Piggies," his scathing indictment on the police and class struggles.  It is the most overt social commentary on the album...a splendid bit of irony, given the posh sound of the song.  The animal trilogy continues with Paul's "Rocky Raccoon," a strange dramatist tale about Rocky, Dan and Nancy.  It can be classified as saloon music, right down to the honky tonk piano solo.  Ringo makes his first appearance (and first ever composition) with the white reggae of "Don't Pass Me By."  It also continues his long standing flirtation with country music with its inclusion of barrooom piano and fiddle playing.  For a first composition, it's decent fun.  The strange fiddle figure in the coda leads headlong into an even stranger tune, the risque "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?," another off the cuff McCartney number.  (Note: an alarming number of McCartney toss-offs are on this album).  Continuing the "WTF?" nature of the album, we head into Macca's gentle "I Will," sounding like it could have been written years earlier, during a session for, say, "I'll Follow The Sun."  The side concludes with John's haunting "Julia," which features only him and his guitar, using the same fingerpicking pattern as "Dear Prudence."  It is again one of the more confessional songs on the album, but also with a fair amount of colorful poetry, which leaves the song slightly muddled lyrically ("Sleeping sand, silent cloud"?).  If nothing else, it certainly is provocative.

If anyone needed proof that the "white album" was the Beatles' hardest rocking album, they need look no further than side three.  It opens in much the same way as side one...with another potboiler!  "Birthday" is a basic rock song--written after the guys had watched a documentary on Bill Haley--which means very very little but sounds fantastic.  John's "Yer Blues" is another confessional song in the style of "I'm So Tired."  If it sounds as if it was recorded in a closet, that's because it was!  After Ringo was welcomed back with open arms and a tremendous bouqet of flowers on his drum kit, the band decided to celebrate by setting up shop in the annex to the Abbey Road studio 2 control room.  (You can hear the bleed from Lennon's guide vocal far off in the background if you listen carefully, proof that the basic tracks were recorded as live as can be).  It also includes two (I'm assuming intentionally) pointless guitar solos, allegedly mocking the blues rock genre that had exploded in Britain.  Paul gives the relentless onslaught of side three a reprieve with the nice, bucolic "Mother Nature's Son."  (Oddly sequenced, if you ask me.)  The break doesn't last long, as we head into John's blistering "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey," whose lyrics are mainly wordplay.  At any rate, it's one of the album's highlights, proving John could sound pretty incredible even when he was barely trying.  The next tune, Lennon's glorious "Sexy Sadie," at first sounds like a one way letter to a girl in the vein of "Dear Prudence."  Beatle lore claims it's actually about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his flirtation with women, a rare instance of Lennon veiling a confessional song.  Next up is the hardest rocking moment on the album, bar none...and curiously, it's offered up by McCartney.  In fact, it's probably the hardest the Beatles ever rocked in their entire career...and all about a carnival ride in London!  Word has it that Paul, spurned by the Who, wanted to record the loudest rock cacophony in history and came up with this all out assault on the senses.  The mixing is somewhat restrained, however, putting a damper on the effect.  Then again it was probably pretty monumental for 1968.  George again comes out of nowhere with the gentle "Long Long Long."  The bizarre ending--organ notes which caused a bottle of wine on a speaker to vibrate--proved that the band simply couldn't resist skewing things, even if just a bit.

Side four opens on a strange note: a slow, ponderous remake of "Revolution," replete with tuba.  Compared to the b-side version (from the "Hey Jude" single), this is akin to trying to jog through molasses.  There is also a bizarre edit near the end of the song that artifically repeats a loud, clanging chord a total of three times.  This is followed by Paul's first "granny song" (as John deemed them) since side two, the admittedly charming "Honey Pie," which is very much in the vein of "Martha My Dear" (as well as "Your Mother Should Know" from "Magical Mystery Tour" and "When I'm Sixty Four," from "Sgt. Pepper").  Side four proves itself to be the most disjointed--or "diverse," depending on your view--as we leap to George's "Savoy Truffle."  For a song about cavities, it sure sounds sweet.  It also features a fantastic, dirty, overdriven brass section, hearkening "Good Morning, Good Morning" off of "Sgt. Pepper."  John's "Cry Baby Cry" is a brilliant Lewis Carroll-esque tune that almost sounds as if it could have been written the previous year.  If you thought the album was strange so far, nothing could have prepared you for John's "Revolution 9": a bizarre "sound collage" that runs on for 8 minutes.  It's fortunate that John and George appear on the track, fading in and out for the duration: in a bizarre, surreal way, they almost serve as your manic narrators.  One can almost picture them sitting on the set of a chat show, engaging in the most ludicrous conversation ("industrial output...financial imbalance...the Watusi...the Twist..." "El Dorado!") while absolute chaos surrounds them.  From this perspective, the piece actually becomes kind of comical.  One thing's for sure: no one had ever heard anything like it in 1968, and it absolutely polarized listeners, then and now.  After all that insanity, the album ends on a completely sugary note: Ringo's lullabye "Good Night"--written by John--which features a big, bombastic orchestra and an admittedly lovely, charming vocal from Starr.  And after four sides and almost 90 minutes of music, the journey is over.  Whew!

This album has a lot going for it.  First of all, absolutely nothing like it had been released in 1968, with four sides of music, roughly totalling 90 minutes.  The scope of the album is absolutely incredible: the genres tackled herein including hard rock, blues rock, music hall, chamber music, jazz, baroque, country, reggae, ska, acoustic balladry, folk, and even plain old pop.  Not to mention there's an experimental sound collage on side four!  As a double album, it can't really be matched.  The Beatles got it right by having most of the songs be incredibly stylized yet short and snappy.  The album moves in a sly, serpentine fashion and hardly ever misses a beat.  If you don't like a track, the next one will most likely arrives two minutes later.  On the downside, it's perhaps the first album in the Beatles' catalogue that finds the band starting to do what I call "showcasing": that is, recording for the sake of recording.  (In my humble opinion, the "showcasing" would come to an absolute head a year later with "Abbey Road.")  Perhaps it's due to the overwhelming tension within the band--we know Lennon, the one time leader of the band, now had other things on his mind--but some of the songs here really do feel as if they were written to fill time and space.

Having said all this...the "white album" is masterful in both its scope and execution, and reveals the band at a crossroads.  It is such an immense work that it absolutely begs to be taken as a complete whole...and yet it lacks the false, contrived "thematic unity" of its predecessor "Sgt. Pepper."  It is perhaps the last shining example of the band at the height of their powers before the band imploded and started becoming a parody of itself.  It is testament to the Beatles' greatness that they were able to weather the storm and offer up such an amazing, eclectic piece of work.  While the Beatles may have been surpassed at the time instrumentally by the likes of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, they proved they were still unsurpassed in the art of songwriting--even if it was, occasionally, for "songwriting's sake"--by churning out this simple, diverse, often dark set of rock and pop masterworks.  With this album, more than any other Beatles album, the Beatles acted as the Everymen, bringing it all into your living room: 30 tracks spread over two LPs, encompassing every possible style you could want to hear.  A magnum opus...and quite possibly the best pop rock album ever recorded (it certainly gets my vote).



“ABBEY ROAD” (1969)

Following the anarchic sessions for the “white album” and the debacle with the “Get Back”/”Let It Be” tapes (see "Let It Be" and "Let It Be...Naked"), McCartney rang up George Martin and asked him to come into the studio once again and help the Beatles produce an album the way he used to.  The result, “Abbey Road,” is often regarded as their finest, largely a McCartney effort with the aid of Martin.  While the party line story nowadays (as seen in "Anthology") is that the recording of "Abbey Road" was a "happy time," other accounts tend to negate this idea somewhat.  John Lennon was so jaded that he didn't even bother showing up for most of the sessions, leading Paul to accuse him of not caring about the other Beatles' songs anymore.  Quite hypocritically, when Paul opted out of a session to have an anniversary dinner with his new wife Linda, John marched over to his house, read him the riot act, took a painting off the wall that he'd given Paul years earlier and smashed his foot through it.  It's incredible that through all this the Beatles were able to set aside their differences to make one last album together, (although, by their own accounts, they didn't consciously know it would be their final session).

Right off the bat, this has a different feel than its predecessor.  You can tell this album is going to be more produced.  The band has a really great, tight, funky groove on the opener, John's "Come Together," the rhythm section being of particular note.  This is probably John's craziest bit of surrealism yet and in that sense it's almost like a distant cousin of "I Am The Walrus."  Ringo does something different on every go around of the chorus, which is very clever.  There are some lovely guitar swells after the last chorus.  In fact, there are a lot of little things going on in this song that one can take for granted after years of radio saturation.  George's "Something" is a highly accomplished song, sounding like a standard right out of the gate.  It also features some great ensemble playing, a neat organ part and lovely, understated orchestration.  There also seems to be a mandolin in the bridge.  The bass line in this song is mindboggling.  There's so much going on musically in this song that it's almost hard to pay attention to the lyrics.  Up next is one of the most oft-maligned Beatles tunes, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."  In some ways, it's a zany, slice of life drama in the vein of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"...except much sicker, relaying the story of a serial killer who gets his comeuppance.  Some interesting Moog synthesizers crop up in this song.  Sitting here...I'm thinking this song gets a lot of unfair criticism.  It's fun, and if you really pay attention to the lyrics, it's actually pretty twisted.  It's also about as British as you can possibly get.  There's a really neat synth line that pans back and forth in the last verse.  "Oh! Darling" is basically a very good '50s slow rock pastiche.  But something about it feels extremely forced.  This kind of thing worked on songs like "Birthday" and "Yer Blues" on the last album, but here it feels artificial, somehow...perhaps it's because of the slicker production overall on this album.  It also sounds frighteningly like a Wings song (lending creedence to one critics' theory that Paul's solo career began with this album).  One thing's for sure though: it features a showstopping vocal that'd make Little Richard blush.  "Octopus' Garden" is another Ringo composition, and it's not bad.  It's pretty hokey, but the letter perfect instrumentation and arrangement saves it (something "Don't Pass Me By" certainly could have used).  There are some nice underwater sound effects in the bridge, the likes of which hadn't cropped up in several albums' time.  "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" has a real bluesy, jam feel to it...not to mention it's extremely minimalist.  The intensity and sincerity of the band (including Billy Preston on an amazing organ part), led by Lennon's stirring vocals, absolutely makes the song.  This is the most daring moment on the album so far with its minimalism and its conceit of passing through several slightly different sections in seven minutes.  Not surprisingly, this was the first song recorded after the "Get Back" debacle, and its raw sound can be attributed to the fact that it was recorded almost completely live in the studio (albeit in sections).  Lennon lets out a primal scream after the last verse which sends shivers up the spine (and audibly peaks the microphone).  The mesmerizing coda is almost like electronica: repetitive and hypnotizing.  This is surely the track that polarized listeners in 1969, much as "Revolution 9" had on the previous album.

Side two opens with a lovely acoustic guitar run from George on his "Here Comes The Sun."   Though I personally think George was writing great songs since "Rubber Soul" (even earlier, actually), his songs on "Abbey Road" sound like instant standards.  Simply put, it's a perfect pop song, with a good feel to it and uplifting lyrics.  The Moog crops up again in several places, and it's almost too cutesy for its own good.  "Because" opens with a line slightly echoing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" (and contrary to popular opinion, it is NOT EVEN CLOSE to being "Moonlight Sonata" played backwards).  It features fine three part harmonies unlike any heard before on a Beatles record.  A far cry from the pretty ragged three part harmonies of 1964's "This Boy."  Listening to this song, it becomes apparent that this album is a marvel in that it breezes through many different styles in a relatively short amount of time.  In that sense, it is like a much more produced version of the "white album."  Paul's "You Never Give Me Your Money" opens with a stirring piano line, again sounding like a standard (it seems Paul and George's songs on this album have that quality to them).  The second section is quite an enigma, with its honky tonk piano part and vocal relegated all the way to the right channel.  Interestingly, the lead vocal pans across the stereo channel.  This song is a bit like a pop symphony, going through a number of different styles.  It almost mirrors the overall conceit of the record.  The segue between this and the next song, featuring cricket noises and clanging bells, is one of the most brilliant moments on the album.  Subsequently, "Sun King" has a dreamy, "nightime on the bayou" feel to it.  Like "Because," it too features stunning three part harmonies.  One problem is that this very much sounds like a Lennon tune filtered through McCartney.  The song sounds lovely, but doesn't mean much (the mock Italian at the end bearing this out).  It's almost as if Lennon isn't interested in what he's doing on this record...just phoning it in.  "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam," originally written for the "white album," also have this feel.  Perhaps that's why these songs were all strung together.  The last tune in this first medley, Paul's "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window," caps off the medley in a nice way.  It's one of the most coherent songs on side two...although, again, it sounds like a McCartney solo effort.  It makes me question one biographer's assertion that the Beatles "never played and sang as well as a group" as they did on this album.  "Golden Slumbers" is just about the most anthemic, "standard" sounding moment on the album.  It's based on an old song lyric that McCartney found and then set to his own music.  "Carry That Weight" has a great singalong chorus.  In fact, it's basically just a chorus, designed to bridge the sections.  Theories float around that this final medley reflects the breakup of the band...though by most accounts the band did not go into the studio thinking it was their final album.  However, the lyrics of these songs certainly seem to point that way.  "The End" commences with some fine guitar lines which lead into Ringo's only drum solo on a Beatles record.  It's simple and understated and fits the song well.  This is followed up by a string of guitar solos from Paul, George and John, alternating three times each.  After that, the final section features a nice piano vamp (which comes in slightly sharper than the preceeding section...which drives a person with perfect pitch like myself absolutely nuts!).  This is where the song gets heavy handed, with its famous "and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make" line.  After this we're treated with 15 seconds of silence, and probably the first ever "hidden track" on any album, ever: McCartney's 23 second acoustic ditty "Her Majesty," an off-the-cuff number, much like many of his songs for the "white album."

But all this description is just idle words: no matter how you feel about "Abbey Road," it is definitely a towering work and hard to describe, much like its predecessor.  However, despite the "perfect" tag it is usually afforded, there are a few problems with this record.  As I said earlier, it is very much a "showcasing" record.  Given the sound and conceit of the "white album," the band's decision to go back to a more production heavy sound is a strange turn.  It's understandable, given how horribly the "Get Back" sessions turned out, but still seems contrived and forced.  Certain songs, like McCartney's "Oh! Darling," leave you scratching your head, wondering why the Beatles were bothering with silly style pastiches this late in their career.  Where they plum out of ideas?  The lengthy side two medley, while definitely innovative and very listenable, has a distinct air of unfinished business to it.  If the band had decided to come up with something thematically (or even musically!) unified for the medley, it would have been infinitely more interesting.  (One wonders if McCartney and Martin were inspired by the aborted Beach Boys' "SMiLE" album, which was to have been the first full-fledged "pop symphony.")  Worst of all, while John Lennon is represented fairly well percentage-wise, his absence is felt pretty heavily throughout the album.  Lennon only offers us three new finished compositions on this record.  He does appear twice in the medleys, but both songs are toss-offs that were written for the "white album" and rejected.  His pair of songs on side one are great, but one's gobbledygook and the other features seven words in total.  With "Abbey Road," it was clear that Lennon was ready to move on.

"Abbey Road" happens to be the Beatles' biggest selling album, and If you enjoy diversity syphoned through slick production and prefer Paul McCartney's work, you will probably enjoy this record a great deal.  Me?  I just can't get behind it.  Oh it's a pretty fine album, but compared to the sprawling DIY intensity of the "white album" or the united blitzkrieg of "Revolver," this album is a bit of a let down.  If you look carefully, it's clear that the end was near, and while they felt free to let the cracks show on the "white album" and let the songs simply be what they would, on "Abbey Road," they pull off a deliberate patch-job that feels and sounds...well...phony.



“LET IT BE” (1970)

In January of 1969, after the relative chaos of the "white album," McCartney’s idea was to “get back” to basics.  His idea was to film a set of rehearsals at Twickenham Studios to be used in a documentary on the band, to be titled "Get Back."  The rehearsals would then culminate in a grand performance in a luxurious venue, perhaps in Greece.  This idea was greeted with mixed reactions from the other three Beatles (with the concept eventually being reneged on anyway), Lennon in particular wanting to just give up and call it a day.  After some miserable rehearsal sessions at Twickenham (as seen in the "Let It Be" film), the live performance idea was nicked and the band began half-heartedly working on new recordings for an album.  At one point, George enlisted the help of session player Billy Preston to contribute organ parts to some of the tracks.  After a couple of weeks of recording, the band put on an impromptu show on the rooftop of Apple Studios (their last live performance ever) and then abandoned the project altogether.  As they slowly eased into the sessions that would become "Abbey Road," they gave the tapes of the "Get Back" sessions to engineer Glyn Johns to see if he could make an album out of the mess.  Two different LP mixes were prepared by engineer Johns (George Martin had little to do with the proceedings), both being rejected outright by the group.  After the release of “Abbey Road,” with the group on an indefinite hiatus, John and George recruited famed producer Phil Spector to shape up the year-old tapes for a legitimate release to tie in with the upcoming film documentary, now to be titled "Let It Be."  The results were, predictably, quite mixed.  For the first time on a Beatles record, it feels as if there's no connective tissue in between the songs.  Even the compilation "Magical Mystery Tour" felt more unified. Essentially, "Let It Be" is a very well-produced (read: salvaged) collection of half-hearted rehearsals from Apple Studios and live performances from the famed Apple rooftop session of January 30th.  What it became—much like its accompanying film—is a snapshot of the Beatles’ personal and professional disillusionment.

Side one opens with a very bizarre John ad-lib: "'I Dig A Pigmy' by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids."  33 years later it still makes no sense, but it's a fun non-sequitur and is a good way to open this "live" album.  "Two Of Us" is, quite simply, a lovely song, a folky, acoustic ballad with fine harmonies from John and Paul.  It's reportedly about Paul and Linda, but the lyrics are far more appropriate when seen as being about John and Paul.  The Beatles had never really recorded a song quite like this before.  In a sense it almost does have some finality to it.  Up next is a false start into a gritty, dirty version of John's "Dig A Pony," from the rooftop concert.  The lyrics seem to be nothing but random stream-of-consciousness gobbledygook (again showing how disenchanted he'd become with the band), but the performance is great.  George's guitar solo is of particular note, but Ringo couldn't sound more bored behind the skins.  Songs like this seem to forecast the gritty rock of the '70s perfectly.  John's "Across The Universe" had already been released on a World Wildlife Fund charity album a year earlier.  This version sounds much slower and features an orchestra and choir.  It is definitely one of John's loveliest Beatles songs, but it's downright bizarre to hear it slathered with choirs and strings.  Plus the song sounds a bit out of place, having been recorded two years prior, following the Beatles' first visit to India.  George's "I Me Mine"--the last Beatles song ever recorded, featuring only Paul, George and Ringo--has an eerie, bluesy feel to it.  The bridge sections feature some great rock instrumentation from the band, although the orchestral overdubs are interesting but seem a little obtrusive...especially for an album that purports to be "live."  The John-led ad lib number "Dig It" is another burst of complete nonsense.  It's mildly amusing but fairly unnecessary.  Paul's "Let It Be" is another truly lovely song, definitely one of the strongest to have come out of the sessions.  For some inexplicable reason, there is a ridiculous amount of tape echo added to Ringo's drums, though.  The orchestra kicks in hard, almost drowning Paul out.  The guitar solo in the middle is much more raucous than the single version and is quite thrilling and triumphant to hear.  Interestingly, this version features almost no backing vocals.  The side closes with an impromptu acoustic busk of the traditional "Maggie Mae," about a Lime Street prostitute.  Again, cheeky, but hardly essential.

Side two opens with the strident guitar chords of "I've Got A Feeling," again from the rooftop concert.  A very good case could be made that McCartney wrote the strongest songs during these sessions, "Two Of Us," "Let It Be" and "I've Got A Feeling" having all been the highlights thus far.  Everything in this song is completely raw, especially the guitars.  John comes in in the middle of the song and sings a completely different melody part, making the entire song reminiscent of the "collaboration" of such songs as "A Day In The Life" and "We Can Work It Out."  And for the finale, John's vocal shoots to one channel while Paul's shoots to the other: a great effect.  "One After 909"--the final rooftop performance on "Let It Be"--dates all the way back to the early '60s.  It was attempted during the "Please Please Me" sessions (as heard on "Anthology 1") and was one of Lennon/McCartney's earliest compositions.  Having said that...it's fairly unremarkable.  It's a nice enough, brisk rock 'n roll tune, but shows just how far the Beatles had regressed during these sessions.  It's saved by a very nice performance...though again, the mikes on Ringo's drums are abysmal and all you can hear are cymbals.  It ends with a funny ad lib of "Danny Boy."  Spector's treatment of Paul's "The Long And Winding Road" sparked one of the most infamous spats in rock history.  First of all, he opted for the first take ever recorded.  Second, the original version was sparse and unadorned, as heard on "Anthology 3," but Spector slathered an orchestra and choir on it, making Paul's voice and piano sound as if they're peeking out of a groundhog hole.  Speaking frankly--and at the risk of getting flamed beyond all recognition--the song itself is somewhat unremarkable...especially if you really try and follow the lyrics.  Plus its plodding nature gets fairly monotonous.  A nearly inaudible Lennon ad-lib ("Queen says no to pot smoking FBI members") opens up George's "For You Blue."  Again, it isn't the strongest material we're working with here, as it's a clunky, standard 12-bar blues with pretty generic lyrics.  The highlights are George's spoken interjections in the middle.  It features John on a very bizarre sounding electric slide guitar and Paul on a prepared piano that sounds like a child's toy.   Some hilarious session chatter opens up "Get Back," most notably Lennon's "Sweet Loretta Fart, she thought she was a cleaner...but she was a frying pan."  This is yet another fairly generic country rocker, but again saved by the conviction of the performance.  It features John on an uncharacteristically great solo guitar part that runs throughout the song.  This mix is much drier than the single mix.  The end dovetails into a bit of chatter from the end of the rooftop concert: John's "hope we passed the audition."  And on that note the Beatles' legacy on LP finally came to a close.

There are many who, despite this album's flaws, still hold it in high regard, citing the inclusion of such hit songs as "Get Back," "Let It Be" and "The Long And Winding Road" as irrefutable proof that it's a "classic."  The sad truth is that most of the best songs on this album were released in superior forms in other places and at least half of the album is just idle filler.  For possibly the first time on a Beatles record, there's no cohesion to the songs, no unified sense of purpose, and not much passion.  The inclusion of so much "live in the studio" material only shows how badly the band had deteriorated through the years.  Lennon is even more absent here than he was on "Abbey Road," offering up a jam, a toss-off and one song that had already been in the can for a year.  Granted we now have the benefit of hindsight and historical documentation when assessing the album, but even at the time of its release, it was rightly regarded by one critic as a "cheapskate epitaph": a sad end to the greatest band of the '60s.  It also must be noted that the much vilified Phil Spector did the best he could to come up with a cohesive package and actually made the album more listenable in spots.  Both of the "Get Back" LPs, while sporting minimalistic charm, simply were not fit for commercial release.

While “Let It Be” does contain some fine moments--Paul and John’s collaborative rocker “I’ve Got A Feeling” being a highlight--it is widely regarded as patchy and uneven, and on the whole shows plainly and clearly that the Beatles weren’t deriving a great deal of enjoyment out of being in each others’ company.  By the time this LP was released, McCartney had announced to the world that he had quit the Beatles...ironically, something that John had wanted to do for a year, but had been silenced by Paul.  Still, for all its flaws, I can't really give it less than a solid "average" grade.



“LET IT BE...NAKED” (2003)

Fast forward to the 21st century.  The story goes that, sometime in the early '00s, Paul McCartney had a chance meeting with "Let It Be" film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg on an airplane flight.  The two began talking about the lack of availability of the film and started discussing plans for a proposed DVD re-release.  While on the subject, McCartney came up with the idea of releasing a revised version of the soundtrack to the film.  The original LP had long been a source of irritation for him (McCartney even citing Spector's production as an "intolerable interference with his work" in his legal dissolution of the Beatles in 1970) and a proper remix would give him a chance to put his version of the story out there once and for all.  Thus, "Let It Be...Naked" (coined after a Ringo-ism) was born.

When the story broke in early 2003, fans began speculating as to what versions of the songs would be included.  What was clear was that Spector's orchestration (always hated by McCartney) would be removed from a couple of tracks.  Some assumed the original minimal takes from the "Get Back" LPs would finally see the light of day.  What happened, though, was quite different than what anyone had imagined.  Many to this day are still ignorant about the exact details of this "remix" album, believing its claims to be "as nature intended" wholesale.

The most noticeable thing at first is how the entire running order for the album has been changed.  The disc starts off with "Get Back," which is identical to the takes used on both the single and album.  Like the single, it features no chatter at the beginning...and like the LP, there is no coda (the coda having been recorded later in the original session).  "Dig A Pony" is identical to the "Let It Be" LP version, even retaining Phil Spector's removal of the "all I want is..." lines at the beginning and end of the song.  The only thing missing from the LP is the intro and outro chatter from the rooftop.  It quickly becomes clear that this is strictly a "songs only" collection.  "For You Blue" is also identical to the LP take, but George's acoustic guitar has been mixed back in.  This track is one of the highlights (maybe the only highlight) of the disc, as the mix is brighter and the guitar gives a new depth to the song.  However, this tracks also is the first to reneg on the conceit of the album: it features the same overdubbed vocal as the LP version, meaning the "live" and "naked" claims simply ring untrue.  After this is the much ballyhooed, unadorned version of "The Long And Winding Road."  This is the first commercial release of the version from the film, which, admittedly, is much stronger than the weak first take Spector chose.  The lack of orchestra and choir is almost disturbing, though.  In the words of one critic, it makes the song sound as if it was recorded in a hotel lobby.  "Two Of Us" is completely as-is, but is missing the intro chatter and has an early fade.  The next song, "I've Got A Feeling," is where the "naked" claim really goes out the window.  Whereas  Phil Spector had opted for the first rooftop version (superior in every way, in my opinion), this version melds a bit of that version with the bulk of the second verson.  Aside from some chaotic McCartney screams, the overall effect is much more lackluster than the original LP verson.  "One After 909" is another that hasn't changed, save for the missing intro and outro chatter.  One of te most controversial aspects of this reissue was the fact that John's off the cuff "Dig It" and "Maggie Mae" were excised, in favor of the (admittedly superior) b-side to "Get Back," the classic "Don't Let Me Down."  It's a great song, but this version taken from the rooftop concert, fails to catch fire like the original version.  Moreover, this is another composite of the two different rooftop versions.  "I Me Mine" is like the skeletal version on "Anthology 3," but Phil Spector's artificial lengthening of the song has been duplicated (albeit ever so slightly differently).  And of course, no brass, orchestra or choir, which, in this case, is a bit of a disappointment.  John's "Across The Universe" is fairly striking in its new incarnation.  The song consists solely of John and his acoustic guitar, heavily echoed (especially near the ending).  Paul's "Let It Be" now closes the disc.  It is fairly identical to the version we all know, except a few pieces of another take have been flown in.  For instance, the infamous wrong piano chord in the final verse has now been fixed, and the guitar solo is completely different.  There is no choir or orchestra, though, curiously, overdubbed backing vocals remain.

As you can see, this was quite a convoluted release and got a lot of people talking.  Was this just another McCartney vanity project?  Well, yes and no.  Sure, it's a more skeletal, slightly more coherent version of the album we already have, the mastering is generally really nice (except for the guitars, which sound absolutely neutered) and the album on the whole is stronger (owing much to the addition of "Don't Let Me Down" and omission of "Dig It" and "Maggie Mae").  But again, most of these songs *still* appear in superior versions elsewhere, and others just weren't worth saving to begin with.  Add to that the fact that the sonic tinkering here left us with an album that wasn't anywhere close to being "naked" and you're left with a really perplexing release.

While "Let It Be...Naked" improves on some aspects of the original release, it falls short in other aspects.  The only drastically improved track, for my money, is "For You Blue," but (a) it's a weak song to begin with and (b) I already had that mix on a bootleg.  What becomes painfully clear in the end is just how impossible it is to salvage a bad album...no matter how much modern "jiggerypokery" (as John Lennon once put it) is applied to it.  McCartney & Co. should have heeded the title and just let it be.


© 2003, 2004 Crapple Records, Inc.  All rights reserved.  No part of this article may reproduced without the expressed written consent of Crapple Records, Inc.

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