Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Stoner's Guide to The Beatles

"I think everybody's mind should be bent once in a while," said Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s. Dylan was the King of Folk on August 28, 1964 when he bent the minds of the Fab Four in their suite at the Delmonico Hotel in New York. Dylan, let's remember, was coming from the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early-1960s which was inspired by the reefer smokers of the Beat movement.


Possibly, The Beatles toked up when they cut their teeth in Hamburg between 1960-62, but if they did, it didn't affect them until Dylan sparked that fateful phattie. Most of the Beatlemania era is pretty "straight." Beatles' lyrics were about girls and love (like everyone in the top 30), and the arrangements were straightforward rock 'n' roll with a few ballads.

That said, a few songs from the Beatlemania era rock under the influence. I Feel Fine kicks off with shrieking feedback that'll blow your mind (and which helped pave the way for the distorted guitar of Jimi Hendrix), and Ticket To Ride, whose chiming guitars betray an Indian twang. In both songs, the guitars mesmerize the listener through your speakers or headphones. It's no secret that the band at this time was smoking pot "for breakfast," recalled John Lennon, and it's effect may have seeped into Ticket To Ride.

On a general note, the American Capitol mixes drenched in echo sound better to stoners than the dry EMI mixes. Echo sounds great when you're stoned. Listen to Roll Over Beethoven on The Beatles' Second Album where the reverb will blow your mind, then compare that to the the dry mix on With the Beatles where George's guitar sounds like an elastic band.

Instead,it took a full year for the creative and psychological effects of grass to affect visibly appear in their music. By the release of Rubber Soul in December 1965, John, George and Ringo (and to a lesser extent Paul) had tripped on LSD, which who colour Revolver the following summer.

The first clue is the album cover: stretched, distorted faces. The moptops are daytripping.
Most of the songs are still about girls, but the lyrics of Norwegian Wood, Girl and In My Life shimmer with symbolism and imagery. Nowhere Man doesn't even talk about love but alienation and identity. These weren't dance songs, but head songs. Music to make you think.

Sonically, too, the band was exploring. George's sitar in Norwegian Wood adds a new texture to the Beatles sound. The funky bass line in Drive My Car is a stone groove. I'm Looking Through You sweeps the listener away with its stabbing accordion notes and driving acoustic guitar.

And this is just the start.


The dazzling original cover by photographer Robert Freeman.
Revolver is dipped in LSD. You first hear it in the Indian-like twang of Paul's searing guitar solo in Taxman; then in the sluggish, backwards guitar and sped-up John vocal of I'm Only Sleeping; George's Indian showcase of Love You To; the hard, trebly guitars of She Said, She Said and And Your Bird Can Sing; Paul's recounting his pot experience (always a step behind the others in substances) in Got To Get You Into My Life; and of course the stunning album closer, Tomorrow Never Knows which details an acid trip with lyrics lifted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and LSD guru Timothy Leary.

Never before was there this much distorted and manipulated music on a Beatles record. Add to this the single that was recorded during these spring 1966 sessions, Paperback Writer and Rain, which featured heavy guitars, deep echo, backwards vocals and sluggish drums.

Start listening, though, with take one of Tomorrow Never Knows found on Anthology 2. It's stripped down and distorts John's voice so much he sounds like he's singing from another galaxy. This is one of the overtly druggiest songs in the entire Beatles cannon. Start here and float downstream...


An obvious choice. Pepper is the signature psychedelic album by The Beatles and from that era (which included the debuts of Hendrix and Pink Floyd, and Cream's Disraeli Gears).

The elaborate soundscapes are meant to take listeners on a journey with each song evoking a different feeling. John's songs are particularly trippy, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite. No surprise, since he was dropping almost every day, as he revealed later.

However, Paul sets the album's tone with the title song featuring the hardest guitars heard on a Beatles album up to that point.

Other highlights include George's Within You Without You which features an extended duel between Western orchestral instruments and classical Indian ones that sounds hypnotic.

The most impressive song, of course, is the closer, A Day In The Life, which features a haunting Lennon vocal, sharp tempo changes, two orchestral rushes and a 42-second multi-tracked piano chord that sweep the listener through a harrowing five-minute sonic journey. The song remains the towering achievement in The Beatles career.

Really a soundtrack of the TV special mixed with the two singles from 1967. The MMT tracks are mediocre by the Beatles' lofty standards, but Fool on the Hill is a beautiful yet delicate ballad and I Am The Walrus is a brilliant yet chaotic acid trip, exploding with absurd imagery wrapped in a Dadaist soundscape.

Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane represent a peak in songwriting and sound construction. They aren't so much songs but music collages that evoke vivid images and the whole gamut of emotion from melancholy to joy.


Photographed by Richard Avedon, 1968
There's a casual feel to this 95-minute sprawl that contrasts with the albums of 1966 and 1967 that took listeners on a trip. You need need to play The White Album from start to end. You can stop and start The White Album and jump around songs. The album was mostly written on acoustic guitars and overall offers a laid-back feel. One song doesn't melt into another as found on Pepper. For stoners, the rock songs should be heard in mono where they offer more punch than the stereo mixes. Also, the electric guitar shines on this album after being largely absent from the Pepper era. Highlights: Dear Prudence, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, side 3 and Revolution 1.


The last recorded album is the band's most modern-sounding and polished. Again, the electric guitar rules, and Paul's bass playing has never been as fluid. You hear this excellent marriage of Lennon's biting vocal and Paul's swampy bass on Come Together, a powerful rocker. A wall of guitars drive I Want You (She's So Heavy) and a three-way duel propels The End.

However, the Zen-like arrangement and beautiful harmonies of Because are heavenly. One of the best stoner songs by anybody. All of side 2 starting with Here Comes The Sun must be listened to in order as the momentum rises with each song fragment and sweeps away the listener.


This patchwork album offers a few gems for stoners. Across The Universe evokes the heavens in its lyrics and symphonic backing. Let It Be sounds sacred under the influence. I Me Mine features a biting guitar. The Beatles sound like a cool bar band in the Apple rooftop songs I've Got A Feeling and Get Back.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

One Hot Summer Night in 1965

Reportedly Barbara Bach was there. Linda Eastman too. Like many other teenage girls at the time, they probably dreamed of marrying a Beatle, although I doubt very much either of them truly believed it could possibly happen. I wonder which of the four they fancied at that young age.

Meryl Streep (right, in cap) had a ticket as well, as can be seen in this news report from outside the stadium. She doesn't say much, her friends do most of the talking. But it's fascinating to watch a now-famous actress as a typical teenage Beatle fan.

Much has been written about that night, especially during the past week or so as we reflect on its 50th anniversary. Heck, there's even an entire book about that single concert. And having read so many words about this show, it's difficult to ignore its importance. Not only for the Beatles, but for concerts and music in general. This show opened the world to arena and stadium concerts. It was the first of its size and stature, but certainly not the last.

Some backstory: In 1965, Sid Bernstein was a New York promoter who offered Shea Stadium to The Beatles. Epstein turned him down, not believing that even his Beatles could fill a venue as mammoth as this. Bernstein, in a moment of inspiration and at incredible risk to his own finance, offered to pay ten dollars for every unsold seat. Luckily, his gamble paid off handsomely. So, on that hot August night, 55,600 people, mostly teenage girls, screamed their way through a 14-song performance that barely lasted 32 minutes.

The documentary film of that evening captures the excitement and atmosphere. The nerves of the boys as they run across the pitch to the stage is palpable. It can be seen in the way they hold themselves, the way they break into short runs, the way in which they kick off their opening number. John had gone a bit mad by the end of the show, playing the organ with his elbows, throwing back his head and laughing uncontrollably in sheer joy.

When they were down and out, unknown and broke, they had a catchphrase, stolen from a TV commercial from the time. In response to John's "Where are we going, lads?" the others would chorus, "To the toppermost of the poppermost, Johnny!"

For Beatlemania, Shea was probably the toppermost. In 1970, Lennon fondly recalled, "At Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain."

I used to work with one of Sid Bernstein's sons. He told me that in his home, under his bed, there were boxes of unsold tickets from the Shea Stadium show. Of course I tried to get him to send me a couple for my collection, but we were both overseas and I never managed to get any. Those tickets, however, were probably from a year later. Following Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" comment, there were 10,000 unsold seats for their Shea Stadium concert in 1966.

Beatlemania had peaked. The band who toured in 1966 had crossed the mountain and were now heading into the valley of psychedelia. World domination would continue from Abbey Road studios.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Cos I'm The Staxman

While the musical roots of the Beatles could be found in girl groups and early rock 'n' roll, The Rolling Stones grew out out of a love of the blues. So it was no surprise that in 1964 and 1965, the Stones recorded on three occasions at Chess Studios in Chicago. Home to artists such as Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, these visits not only resulted in a musical tribute to the studio, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, but some of their finest recorded work thus far.

In an interview with Mick Jagger during the mid 70s, Roy Carr, author of The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record, asked about these sessions. "In many ways, would you say the sessions you cut at the Chess Studios in Chicago produced some of the best seminal Stones material?" Jagger answered, "Yeah, it was very easy to work there and at the same time get a good sound. Also you have to appreciate, it was the first studio we felt really at ease in. Everything was good about Chess, especially the engineer Ron Malo. It was unbelievable just how far behind British studios were in those days, they were more interested in Vera Lynn. I never understood how the Beatles got such a good sound on their records because they recorded at EMI which actually is a good studio, but the way they used to record was so old-fashioned."

I can understand why they sounded so good.

The producer, George Martin, and his engineers Norman "Hurricane" Smith and Geoff Emerick.

Although Abbey Road studios and George Martin are synonymous with The Beatles, the lads were not averse to recording elsewhere. By the late 60s, once their touring days were over, their forays into the studio were much more spontaneous, which meant the studio at Abbey Road, long given priority to The Beatles, was not always immediately available. As a result, Olympic, De Lane Lea and Trident studios all played host to Beatles sessions. Even as early as 1964, while on tour, the boys recorded tracks for Can't Buy Me Love at EMI studios in Paris.

Martin too was no longer locked into EMI. In mid-1965, George Martin set up his own company, AIR (Associated Independent Recording), and became an independent producer. No longer directly salaried by EMI studios, he was able to work with other artists and to receive better remuneration for his work. More importantly, he could now produce The Beatles no matter where they recorded. 

So why would they have considered using studios in the U.S.?

Help! was the last of their early albums to be recorded in a traditional manner. A collection of undemanding songs and instrumentation which, significantly, included their last cover version (Dizzy Miss Lizzy). But as the band became more adept in the studio, more involved in the recording process, more capable songwriters who experimented and were always searching for new soundscapes, they also developed a better understanding of the studio’s limitations. And, as a result, they grew increasingly frustrated with the sonic qualities they were achieving. They would listen to American soul records and marvel at the depth of the bass and the great guitar sounds. 

Abbey Road was still using 4 tracks, while Stax and other American studios were fitted with 8 track recorders; something Abbey Road would not begin using until 1968. The consoles in Stax allowed for direct injection, a method of plugging an instrument directly into the mixing board, recording the audio signal rather than placing a microphone next to the speaker on a guitar amp and recording the sound. This was one reason studios like Stax were able to achieve such a great bass sound.

And so they started making plans. Within weeks of concluding  the Rubber Soul sessions, they considered working with Motown Records. Written by Motown's press agent, Al Abrams, this article appeared in several newspapers around the world in December 1965. "The top songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, which has written and produced the Six Million Selling Records for THE SUPREMES, recently received a transatlantic phone call from George Martin, the recording director for the Beatles. Martin, who operates out the London Offices EMI Records (parent company America's Capitol Records), asked Holland-Dozier-Holland if they would, upon personal request the Beatles, write the next two songs for the Beatles' recording session Holland-Dozier-Holland 'could find the time.' The songwriting trio eagerly responded to the Beatles' request."

There was also a proposal for the lads to record their next album (Revolver) at Motown's studios. But for unknown reasons, neither the songwriting nor recording sessions occurred. And yet within a few months, it was rumoured they would record at Stax, the Memphis home of R&B and Southern Soul.

A recently discovered letter from George Harrison shows just how close they were to recording in Memphis. The day after completing I'm Only Sleeping during the Revolver sessions at Abbey Road, 7th May, 1966, Harrison wrote to Paul Drew, an American DJ, telling him, “Did you hear that we nearly recorded in Memphis with Jim Stuart [sic]? We would all like it a lot, but too many people get insane with money ideas at the mention of the word ‘Beatles,’ and so it fell through!” Jim Stewart was Stax label and studio co-owner.

The rumour they considered recording in the U.S. is not new. It was reported in the American press in 1966 and has been mentioned many times since. This letter, however, is the first firm evidence from within the Beatles camp that Stax sessions almost happened.

Alongside Stewart, Steve Cropper's name has also emerged as potentially involved in the project. And he certainly had great credentials for the job. Best known as the guitarist in Booker T. and the MGs, and a producer and writer at Stax, he would later co-write (Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay with Otis Redding, whose version he also produced. In 1970, with Booker T. and the MGs, he would release an album of Abbey Road covers. Entitled 'McLemore Avenue', the Stax studio address, the cover is also a visual tribute to The Beatles.

According to Rob Bowman, in Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, while The Beatles were on tour, Lennon told Cropper he loved Booker T. and the MGs, and listened to their albums over and over. He also said he wanted to write an instrumental for the MGs to record. Presuming this conversation occurred during August of the 1965 U.S. tour, is it any coincidence the Beatles recorded 12 Bar Original, a pastiche of Green Onions, in early November, 1965?

Cropper doesn't recall money being the reason for the sessions' cancellation. In fact he remains unconvinced they ever really planned on going to Stax. Cropper reports a local DJ asked Lennon about the possibility of The Beatles recording in Memphis. Lennon apparently replied, ‘Yeah, we talked about that, but I don’t think we took it seriously.” Cropper says, “So, they acknowledged they’d thought about it. Brian Epstein came over and spent a week in Memphis, but then called afterwards and said they couldn’t come to Memphis because of security.”

Perhaps that's what Epstein told them. Perhaps he was just trying to be polite, not wanting to accuse the studio of being money grabbers. There are, however, others who collaborate Harrison's account. Deanie Parker, the Stax publicist who now operates a museum at the studio, told Mojo magazine, "I was seeing dollar signs. I talked to Jim Stewart and said, "If The Beatles do come, will you give me permission to take the carpet up, cut it into squares and sell it?""

Keith Badman, in his book Off The Record, quotes McCartney from 1966, who also supports Harrison's account. "We were going to record Revolver in America, but they wanted a fantastic amount of money to use the facilities there. We thought we'd forget it because they were obviously trying to take us for a ride because we were The Beatles."

The Beatles were so very close to recording at Stax. Epstein rang Stax to discuss the idea and then flew to Memphis in March to make arrangements. Robert Gordon's Respect Yourself, a history of Stax Records, reports in detail how Epstein was hosted during this visit by Estelle Axton, Jim Stewart's sister and the other founder and owner of Stax. She suggested hotels for The Beatles, however Elvis Presley offered to let them stay at Graceland instead. She discussed security and traffic issues, which would not be a problem as her brother had some responsibility within the Memphis Police Department. A helicopter would ferry them to the studio each day. Jim Stewart would produce, Steve Cropper would arrange and Tom Dowd, from Atlantic Records, would supervise the sessions. Epstein booked the studio for two weeks from 9 April.

But the Beatles were the most famous faces on the planet. Word about the sessions soon leaked, culminating in a March 31 headline 'Beatles to Record Here,' in the Memphis newspaper. The media reported the rumour from outside Stax on the evening news. American fans started arriving at the studio in droves, and songwriters appeared offering their work for consideration. At this point the Beatles cancelled, blaming lack of security.

It's important to remember that within a few months they would retire from touring. Beatlemania had worn them down. They were tired of being drowned out by screaming girls at their concerts, being prisoners in hotel rooms. They would see out their commitments for the 1966 tour, playing the shows on cruise control and with little passion, and then retreat to the studio and focus on the music. With the details leaked to the press and the public I can imagine the very thought of recording in Memphis with screaming fans outside the studio, along with living out of someone else's home in a strange city, could have been the final straw.

One is also left to wonder how much of this planning regarding studio personnel was undertaken by Stax and not by the Beatles. Had they really approved studio appointed producers, arrangers and supervision? Were they really ready to cut George Martin from their sessions? If it had happened, I suspect Martin would have flown with them and supervised the sessions, working closely with the American team. Remember, the Beatles were a tight unit, closed to outsiders and trusting only their inner circle. Suddenly having so many external, non-Beatle people involved in the recording process would not have helped.

In hindsight, Revolver wasn't the best choice for Stax anyway. Their very first sessions for the album, recorded right when they would have arrived in Memphis had the trip gone ahead, were Got To Get You Into My Life and Tomorrow Never Knows. These two tracks couldn't have been more diverse. One, an homage to soul music with driving basslines and big brassy counterpoints, the other an experimental foray into Eastern mysticism and sound collage. And, as we now know, the latter was the direction in which they ultimately headed. Stax was a studio for loose, relaxed soul recording; not for experimental tape loops and placing microphones in condoms so they could record vocals through water.

As it was they came close to achieving the sonic punch and pop they had desired for so long. And there are three main reasons for that. Geoff Emerick, their instruments and fewer live shows.

Firstly, Norman Smith left. He had done a fine job engineering the first six albums, despite the studio limitations and regulations. And yet he chose to leave after the Rubber Soul sessions. He wanted to move into production, but also felt he had little to contribute as the band moved away from their early sounds and recording techniques. “Rubber Soul wasn't really my bag at all so I decided that I'd better get off the Beatles train” he would later say. His place was taken by Geoff Emerick who was promoted from tape operator. A young man who was unschooled in the ways of traditional recording, he was prepared to experiment and was rebellious enough to risk termination by ignoring many of EMI’s rules. Emerick put jumpers inside drums to dampen the sound, placed microphones closer than the regulation 18 inches so they would distort and overload. Suddenly the horns and the drums had presence. In order to capture the booming bass sound McCartney had envied for so long from American studios, he reverse wired a speaker to create a large microphone to place in front of the bass amp. All this was done to emulate the sounds the Beatles had heard on American records.

Secondly, they used different instruments. McCartney switched bass. Most famous for his iconic Hofner violin bass, which he returned to during the Get Back sessions and beyond, he had used a Rickenbacker bass during the Rubber Soul sessions. The heavier, solid body had more depth, richer in tone, more balls than the warm, acoustic feel of the hollow body Hofner. This was the bass he brought into the Revolver sessions. The others, too, brought new guitars and newer, more powerful amplifiers. And with Emerick’s use of technology to better record them, the whole album had a depth and sheen which in hindsight was noticeably lacking from earlier records.

Thirdly, they weren't just rushing into the studio on days off between shows. They could spend time, building songs, craft pieces of music as art. In particular, McCartney's bass playing showed a fluidity and thoughtfulness that was missing in the earlier sessions.

So how would Revolver have sounded had they continued with their plans?

Got to Get You Into My Life is, indeed, the best indication we have of how sessions at Stax may have shaped Revolver. John certainly claimed that "We were influenced by our Tamla Motown bit on this (track). You see, we're influenced by whatever's going on." McCartney's view on Stax and Revolver was very straightforward. "I think there were only two tracks on the LP that would have sounded better if we'd cut them in America. Taxman and Got To Get You Into My Life because they need that raw quality that you just can't get in this country for some reason. But Eleanor Rigby would have been worse, because the string players in America aren't so good." Yeah, Paul? How about even trying to find Indian musicians in Memphis to play Love You To?

I suspect the sessions may have been split. Two weeks at Stax to record some basic tracks and to get the big, fat bass sound they longed for, then the rest back at Abbey Road overdubbing and recording the more psychedelic tracks, tracks, like Tomorrow Never Knows. It's possible a couple of other songs, like Dr. Robert or Good Day Sunshine, may have developed differently in another environment; more soul, less psychedelia. It's also possible new songs could have been written to suit the studio and producer. McCartney certainly hinted as much later in 1966. "We may still record in America. What we might do though is write some numbers especially, take them over, do them and see how it works." Here McCartney confirms that even after the booking was cancelled, they still considered making an album in the U.S.  Epstein even called Cropper to suggest he work with the Beatles at Atlantic Records. Cropper said, "'Yes, I guess I could do that, even though it’s not Stax,' so he said he’d get back to me. After about a month, he called and said, ‘Steve, we’re still talking about this, but they’ve been working on this album (Revolver) which is nearly finished so it’ll be the next project.'”

The next project, of course, was Sgt. Pepper. But it was too late; the moment had passed. LSD had taken hold of their songwriting. With their minds now expanded, psychedelia was the new influence. Sgt. Pepper didn't need Stax. It needed Abbey Road studios. It needed five months, not just two weeks. And it needed George Martin.

Unless the Beatles had gone to Memphis with the specific intention of recording a "soul" album, as McCartney alluded, it's unlikely Revolver would have been very much different, apart from richer, fuller bass and brighter horns. In hindsight, the sessions for With The Beatles is probably when they should have gone to Stax. It's chock full of Chuck Berry and Motown tunes, and could've used some serious bass. It's certainly the album that most suited Memphis, Steve Cropper, and the house horns. But it was too early in their career. Martin couldn't work outside EMI. They weren't yet known in the USA, and had not built up enough studio credentials to have any real say in their output.

Revolver was simply too late. By 1966 The Beatles had evolved through soul music, and rock would never be the same again.

And so Revolver is not as different from a Stax version as I think many people would have us believe. Sure, the horns and the bass may have been richer, and the whole album may have shimmered in a different way, but it's the album the Beatles had written. And it was recorded in the manner in which they directed the studio team. It's almost accidentally psychedelic, without the self-consciousness of Sgt. Pepper.

Revolver is finally receiving the praise it surely deserves as the unheralded masterpiece which has  become the firm favourite of many fans and critics.

Steve Cropper's view? "A few weeks later, (after his final conversation with Epstein) the Revolver album came out, and I’m thinking: ‘Well, they didn’t need ME on this. I’d have probably screwed up that whole record.'”

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Was Help! the pivotal Beatles album or the end of Beatlemania?

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Help! album, The Rowboat Syndicate debates the historic relevance of The Beatles' fifth LP. The Doc, based in Canada, and The Guv, from Australia, argue the importance of Help! in this dialogue:

The Doc:

I was at a party and was debating with a friend whether Help! was the transitional album for the Beatles.

The Guv:

Interesting indeed. Yesterday afternoon I was thinking about Help! and decided it was a transitional album. In fact, I used that word, transition.

The Doc:

No. It was Rubber Soul. That was the pivot.

The Guv:

Let's think about terms. You called Rubber Soul "the pivot" and I agree. And maybe Help! is right on the cusp--or the beginning of the transition--but the songwriting, instruments and recordings show the transition happening.

The Doc:

No, it's about assigning importance to that album. If I were to sum up Help! (the UK version throughout this discussion, not the cash-grab Capitol soundtrack), it's the last Beatlemania album. Sure, it shows signs of maturity, namely the lyrical sophistication of John's title song and Paul's Yesterday, which was the first to feature non-rock instruments. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away is also strong lyrically, hinting (though not outright) at introspection by Lennon.

The Guv:

There are certainly tracks on there that are Beatlemania. The Night Before, Another Girl, You're Going To Lose That Girl could all have been on A Hard Day’s Night. Heck, Dizzy Miss Lizzy should have been on Please Please Me or With The Beatles. But You've Got To Hide Your Love Away and I've Just Seen A Face are examples of songwriters in transition. Thinking about the words first. These are songs that could have been on later albums. These are signs of a band in transition.

The Doc:

That's another point: after the all-Lennon & McCartney showcase of A Hard Day’s Night, the band regresses with Beatles For Sale and Help! by adding covers as filler. Mind you, Act Naturally and Dizzy Miss Lizzy feature top-notch performances.

The Guv:

Beatles for Sale had six covers, and I still think that had to do with them being on tour and not having much time. They were delving into their Hamburg repertoire. The recording of A Hard Day’s Night was rapid, but they weren't tired yet. They could still pour energy into what they were doing. Some of A Hard Day’s Night was written on the road. Beatlemania hadn't yet taken its toll.

The Doc:

True. Also, I think the Beatles needed to absorb the music from the summer of 1965 released by other bands to push forward. Specifically, Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone and Highway 61 Revisited LP showed the world that you can rock to poetry. Also, the Byrds fused Dylan's lyrics with Beatles backing with their cover of Mr. Tambourine Man (released in June 1965). The Help! soundtrack was already in the can.

The Guv:

A few minutes ago you said the term "transition" was about assigning importance to the album, and I must confess it is probably one of my least played discs. It’s certainly patchy.

The Doc:

Actually, I play side A with some regularity and single out Help!, Ticket To Ride, Another Girl and You've Got To Hide Your Love Away. Side B is definitely patchy: You Like Me Too Much, Tell Me What You See, It's Only Love...I will say this about Help! the movie (not the LP): it introduced Indian music to George. That is key to the Beatles' sound and gave George an identity within the band.

The Guv:

I think You've Got To Hide Your Love Away is the one transitional aspect we agree on. And yes, Lennon was consciously channeling Dylan in his delivery. I even read recently where one commentator suggests the two flutes in the solo are a softened version of Dylan's harmonica

The Doc:
If you think that amounts to a transition, then you can argue that the lyrics of I'm A Loser indicate a transition in Beatles For Sale.

The Guv:

No transition is drastic and immediate, otherwise it's a revolution. The transition was gradual, but Help! was the bridge. It's where a number of elements - instruments, overdubs, songwriting, recording, all came together. McCartney started overdubbing bass, allowing for him to work up more melodic lines. They had new instruments and effects too. George brought in a new Stratocaster, volume pedals which you can hear on the record.

The Doc:

I would describe Rubber Soul in those very terms. With every advance on Help! (and there were advances) there were still only boy-girls songs and cover versions.

The Guv:

Let's talk about the production and mixes. There were two mixes made at the time: the mono and the stereo, which was very wide. When it came to releasing the 1987 CDs, this is one album George Martin actually remixed. The ‘87 stereo mix is narrower. Reverb was added, especially on Dizzy Miss Lizzy, so the album doesn't sound as dry. The 2009 remasters used the ‘87 stereo mix, although the ‘65 stereo mix can be found as a bonus on the 2009 mono CD.

The Doc:

I love the remix with reverb. Man, it opens it the audio picture. Just love it. It really opens up That's definitely one virtue with Help! You gotta hear the DVD in 5.1. The sonic picture is detailed and exciting. Also, check out to the bass and drums of Ticket To Ride in mono.

The Guv:

Indeed. Ticket To Ride kicks in mono. Yet, overall the album sounds thin. Rubber Soul was where they started working towards a thicker bass, but even compared to their early albums Help! doesn't punch, especially at the lower end.

The Doc:

True, a little thin, but the English didn't "get" bass like the Americans, especially the soul musicians there. You don't "feel" the bass on Beatles' records until Revolver, thanks to Geoff Emerick.

The Guv:

Studios in the UK, and in particular Abbey Road, were stuck in the 1950s. And there were technical reasons why they couldn't get the bass. The bands wanted it, the studios and technicians couldn't deliver with their equipment and regulations.

The Doc:

True. George Martin, Geoff Emerick and The Beatles have noted this many times.

The Guv:

So how do you think the album has aged?

The Doc:

How has it aged? Overall, it's a Beatlemania album chock full of their trademark harmonies, catchy hooks and boy-girl lyrics. But some songs are timeless: Help, You’ve Got To Your Love Away, Yesterday and Ticket To Ride.

The Guv:
There are other, unused tracks from the sessions: That Means A Lot and If You've Got Troubles. All intended for the soundtrack, but  they realised these cuts weren't up to scratch. If You’ve Got Troubles was supposed to be Ringo's vehicle, but they switched to Act Naturally at the last moment.

The Doc:

Thank God. If You’ve Got Troubles goes nowhere. And let's remember I'm Down and Bad Boy. I'm Down is an overlooked B-side. Paul's vocal kills.

The Guv:

I'm Down was the insane closer at Shea. It worked well live, and featured a great vocal from Paul doing Little Richard. Bad Boy was recorded at the same session as Dizzy Miss Lizzy. Bad Boy was mixed and shipped to the US the following day for inclusion on Beatles VI. Did Capitol need a filler track for their weird album mashing, so the Beatles recorded two and chose one? In this case, Dizzy Miss Lizzy is simply a leftover. I also have a soft spot for Yes It Is. George is playing with his pedals here and it's a solid song. I read they were trying to revisit This Boy.

The Doc:

Amazing harmonies. Why the hell wasn't that on the B-side of the LP? That should have replaced Tell Me What You See.

The Guv:

Yes It Is would have worked alongside Tell Me What You See and It's Only Love. I'd have kept Tell Me What You See. I'd have lost You Like Me Too Much.

The Doc:

What about George's royalties? Or give George the b-side of Ticket To Ride?

The Guv:
So where do you rate this album among the Beatles canon?

The Doc:

In the middle. To compare, I think A Hard Day’s Night plays better all the way through, because the songwriting is more consistent.

The Guv:

It's one of those albums I should play more. I even play Let It Be and Magical Mystery Tour more often. Yes, A Hard Day’s Night is more consistent. I still think Help! was the start of their transition to a studio band, but Rubber Soul was the pivot, the transition in full flight, and probably gave the first real clues as to what they would become.

The Doc's Help! on iPod:
Dissatisfied with how George Martin sequenced the songs on side B (side A is fine), I re-order it on my iPod to create a better song flow and have replaced the weaker songs with the superior B-sides from singles: 

1. Dizzy Miss Lizzy
2. Act Naturally
3. It's Only Love
4. I've Just Seen A Face
5. Yes It Is
6. I'm Down
7. Yesterday

Monday, 3 August 2015

Vale: Cilla Black

To many Beatles' fans, Cilla Black was often caught in our peripheral vision. A fellow Liverpudlian who floated on the edge of the Beatles' story.

Cilla was, as has been noted many times, a cloak-girl at the Cavern Club. Occasionally she would jump on stage and sing with local bands. With The Beatles, of course, but more commonly with Gerry and the Pacemakers and Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes. It was only her father's reluctance to sign the contracts that prevented her from going to Hamburg with Kingsize Taylor and his band in 1962. Around this time she started dating Bobby Willis, an up and coming songwriter. For a short time Willis managed her, booking some gigs.

In September 1963, with the Beatles well on their way to world domination, Brian Epstein became her manager. Lennon had introduced them, and encouraged Epstein to sign her. When Epstein's stable of artists became too large for him to personally manage on his own, he kept only two artists for himself: The Beatles and Cilla. The others he passed on to assistants within NEMS.

Her first single, Love of the Loved, was a Lennon-McCartney original and was produced by George Martin at Abbey Road. Although she saw herself as a rocker, it was with orchestral ballads that Black went on to have a couple of number one hits in the 60s, including the theme to the movie, Alfie. In all, she recorded seven albums with Martin at the helm.

By 1967, music was changing. Black's musical style had fallen from popularity. Epstein saw her future career was limited and was smart enough to engineer her future in television, tragically only days prior to his death. Although resistant at first, she soon warmed to the idea and became a mainstay on British screens.

Willis, who was now her husband, had given up his career so Black could focus on hers. He took control of her management once more and, driven by her determination to succeed and her work ethic, she continued to rise in popularity. For four decades she was the queen of British television.

In 1968, Cilla recorded another Lennon-McCartney original, Step Inside Love, as the theme to her own television show.

Her relationship with the Beatles continued into the 70s and 80s. She attended John and Yoko's film premiere at Cannes (for Erection) along with George and Ringo, both of whom also wrote songs intended for her.

In 2014 a mini-series entitled Cilla, a bio-picture of her early musical career, aired to public and critical acclaim. Not only did it document her rise to fame and her relationship with Willis and Epstein, it also captured 60s Liverpool in all its grittiness. The Beatles appear throughout as part of the tale. Cilla considered the show to be an accurate portrayal.

Last night, in Spain, she passed away.

Overnight Ringo tweeted, "I just heard the news Cilla black has left us she was a good friend we will all miss her peace to Cilla peace and love to the family R&B xxx." [sic] McCartney also made a statement. "Such a shock to hear about Cilla’s passing. She was a lovely girl who infected everyone with her great spirit. From first meeting her as a cloakroom girl at the Cavern in Liverpool, to seeing her many times since, she always had a fun loving dignity that made her a great pleasure to be around. She had a fine distinctive voice and was always a bit of a laugh. It was a privilege to know and love her."

Although largely unknown outside the U.K., her involvement in the story of Beatles was deeper than many would have realised.

She was 72.