The star rating system takes into account that these are "Acquisitions Of The Year". Therefore * represents 50-60%, ** is 60-70%, *** is 70-80%, **** is 80-90% and ***** is 90-99.9% (we're talking Pet Sounds or Forever Changes here). The retail price, actual price paid, packaging etc. are not relevant to the rating
The Supreme Florence Ballard (49.41)* R 1961-1968, P 2001
Florence Glenda Ballard, born 30th June 1943, the eighth of thirteen children, did pretty well for someone from the Brewster Housing Project in Detroit, as did some of the Primettes, the group she founded from the neighborhood in 1957. They became the Supremes and conquered the world.
Unfortunately, the pressures of fame and fortune affected "Blondie" adversely. She developed alcohol, diet pill and drug dependencies, had weight problems and became increasingly unreliable. Berry Gordy's decision that Diana Ross should be the Supremes' lead singer didn't help, as it didn't suit Flo's temperament to be sidelined in such a way. She didn't, for example, turn up for the recording session for My World Is Empty Without You and session singer Marlene Barrow had to deputize, and she had a number of rows about her role within the group with Berry Gordy and Diana Ross.
On 29th June 1967, while the Supremes performed at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas NV, Flo was ousted from Motown for her "unprofessional behaviour." The official line was that the strain of constant touring had led her to retire.
She signed as a solo artist to ABC, but due to the terms of the annulment of her contract was not allowed to mention her former status as a Supreme, a problem the present compilers seem not to have had. Work began on an album to be called You Don't Have To in March 1968, and the sessions produced a single, It Doesn't Matter How I Say It (It's What I Say That Matters), with a version of Goin' Out of My Head on the flipside.
It Doesn't Matter How I Say It was arranged by Richard Tee and had more of a Motown type of sound than most of the album tracks, where the producer George Kerr struggled to find the right setting for her voice and style. Unsympathetic arrangements of standard material such as the flipside plus The Impossible Dream and It's Not Unusual were not entirely conquered by Florence's testing vocals, and there was some lack of direction. Yesterday and Walk On By were presumably designed to explore Florence's vocal range, while the likeable Like You Babe instead mimicked the stylings of Stax Records. Just as Mary Wells couldn't recreate the Motown magic elsewhere, and just as the Crystals couldn't find a hit without Phil Spector, so Florence Ballard struggled away from the Hitsville production line she had rebelled against.
These problems were clearly addressed as the follow-up single, Love Ain't Love, was much stronger. Produced in August 1968 by Robert Bateman, who Flo knew from his work at Motown in the Supremes days, written by Van McCoy and arranged by Bert DeCoteaux, it had a far more confident and forward looking northern soul kind of sound that should have put her career back on track. Forever Faithful, the flipside, from the same sessions but written and arranged by Bob Bateman, whilst being another strong sound and performance also emulated the Motown style, and could have been an A-side in its own right.
Unfortunately, it also failed to chart except in Detroit, and ABC canned the album and dropped her from the label just nine months after signing her. Other record labels were allegedly reluctant to sign her for fear of falling out with Berry Gordy. She made some TV and public appearances before taking maternity leave (she was pregnant with twins, and had a third child in 1972), but her career never recovered.
By 1975 she had come off welfare, reconciled with her husband, bought a car and found a new home at 17701 Shaftsbury St. in Detroit. Plans were afoot to resume her singing career, but events took a tragic turn.
Flo was always extremely popular with the fans, and when she died prematurely on 22nd February 1976 at Mount Carmel Mercy Hospital of a coronary thrombosis, there was a widespread shock, and there are ripples of the outpourings of love from her fans still clearly evident from a cursory search of the internet today.
Finally, 33 years after they were recorded, most of the tracks she recorded for the album were released on this compilation, which also includes the ABC singles and four of the tracks from the early days of the Supremes on which she does sing lead. As a result, the valuable contribution she made to the Detroit music scene in its early days has been re-appraised and recognized.
Apart from the ABC singles, the four Motown tracks are of the greatest interest. Buttered Popcorn is a lively dance craze number which began life in 1961 as the B-side of Who's Lovin' You, but was switched after DJs favoured it in airplay. It was also on their debut album, Meet The Supremes. Ain't That Good News comes from the 1965 album We Remember Sam Cooke and is a real showcase for her vocal strengths. Both these tracks are in full stereo. Hey Baby probably comes from the same sessions as Buttered Popcorn. The song, by Berry Gordy, is fairly throwaway but is enlivened by a gutsy vocal and that great early Motown sound. It was previously unreleased as was the sweet, devotional Heavenly Father, from August 1961.
Berry Gordy may well have been correct in his commercial decision to make Diana Ross the group's focus and primary lead singer, but it is sad that Flo and Mary were not given a little more scope on the albums, especially Flo as she was the group's founder, original lead singer and energizer. Let us hope there are more examples of Flo's lead vocals in the Motown vaults to be discovered in the future.
I have found a couple of other released tracks on which she sang lead with the Supremes and there may be others. Let Me Go The Right Way was a 1962 A-side later included on Meet The Supremes, now to be found on The Motown Box. You Bring Back Memories was on the B-side of My Heart Can't Take No More in 1963, and is available on the CD Early Classics. Her version of Silent Night was on 1965's Merry Christmas and is on the Spectrum compilation Merry Christmas From Motown. She is also featured to dramatic effect in the closing moments of Long Gone Lover (on the album Where Did Our Love Go)
(review filed 19 March 2005)
Music From Big Pink (74.03)*** P 1968, P 2000
Largely influential on the currently voguish Americana and alt. country scene, this first album grew out of the music the Band were creating with Bob Dylan at the house Big Pink, near Woodstock NY in 1967, and includes several new Bob Dylan songs - I Shall Be Released, This Wheel's On Fire and Tears Of Rage, the latter two co-written with the members of the Band who sing them. Probably the best known song was the single The Weight, which also appeared in the film Easy Rider (but was not licensed for the soundtrack album). There is one cover, Long Black Veil, which was influential on Robbie Robertson's writing style, and which he learned from Lefty Frizell's version.
If you need to own one Band album, this is the one to go for. It was hugely influential, an album unlike any other, and caused huge ripples across the music fraternity, changing the way people like Eric Clapton experienced and created music.
Beautifully re-mastered this new edition has copious notes and is almost doubled in length with bonus tracks, mostly appearing for the first time. It is fascinating to hear alternative arrangements of some of the songs, such as Lonesome Suzie which turns up with a big band horn arrangement. Musically, it sounds great, but was discarded, rightly, for being inappropriate for the song. A couple of covers recorded for fun, never intended for release on the album, are included - the Stanley Brothers' bluegrass If I Lose, and a less successful stab at the Jazz Allum and Big Bill Broonzy blues standard, Key To The Highway.
Some of the songs were included on The Basement Tapes, the Bob Dylan and the Band album of demos and home-recordings made at Big Pink. Orange Juice Blues and Yazoo Street Scandal are alternative versions, but of especial interest are Katie's Been Gone and Dylan's song Long Distance Operator. These are presented here as full stereo studio recordings, but are clearly the same takes that appeared on The Basement Tapes, demonstrating that the eight tracks by the Band on that album had not been recorded at Big Pink at all but had been muddied up to sound as if they had. Long Distance Operator now spawns an extra verse, but unfortunately there is a mistake in the editing so that the first line of the last verse is missing. Clearly these and other Band tracks from that album and any others from the same period need to be rounded up and given a proper release in restored sound quality
(review updated 7 December 2003/20 October 2004)
Rescued - The Best Of Fontella Bass (46.57)*** R 1964-1968, P 1997
Although Fontella Bass has a new lease of popularity thanks to the likes of the Cinematic Orchestra, she is best known for her 1965 hit, Rescue Me, her first solo single for Chess Records subsidiary label Checker. It takes pride of place in this 16 track compilation, which collects the best of her output for Chess, but there is far more to her than that.
Rescued includes one previously unreleased 1968 track (Joy Of Love), one released only in France (Free At Last) and several singles not previously included on album, and there are indications that Checker were slightly caught out by the runaway success of Rescue Me and weren't sure quite what to do with her, as some of the subsequent singles sound like blatant attempts to capitalize on her hit by sounding as much like it as possible. Some of her best material, conversely, was buried on B-sides, for example The Soul Of The Man (the B-side of Rescue Me) and Don't Jump, a duet with Bobby McClure which became a big favourite despite being consigned to the other side of flop single You're Gonna Miss Me.
The biggest omission is the only A-side not to be included, Safe And Sound, an obvious attempt at using a formula to recreate the success of Rescue Me. It can be found on Ace's compilation Where The Girls Are Vol. 3.
Her only album for the label was The New Look, rushed together to cash in on Rescue Me and was largely made up contemporary covers, quickly learned from the records. However, Lester Bowie, best known for his work with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, who played trumpet on the album sessions, went on to marry Fontella, and they worked productively together when they quit the US for Paris around 1968-1969. Two selections from that LP are included here: Since I Fell For You and Oh No Not My Baby.
Fontella Bass grew up singing and playing piano, as her mother Martha was a major gospel star and all her family were deeply into gospel music. Fontella started out professionally as a piano player in Little Milton Campbell Junior's band in 1961 and became their female vocalist one night by chance when Milton failed to show up and their musical director Oliver Sain got her on stage in his place. She and Bobby McClure later sang in the Oliver Sain Revue, which brought them to the attention of Leonard Chess. Her first couple of singles for the label where duets with Bobby McClure, including the hit single Don't Mess Up A Good Thing.
Perhaps Chess/Checker didn't know quite what they had but is all here in these grooves to be enjoyed today
(review filed 9 December 2004)
Surfin' Safari/Surfin' USA (55.38)** P 1961-1963, P 2001
Throughout 2001 Capitol Records went through the Beach Boys catalogue re-issuing them all in re-mastered sound using the best-available masters, with extensive liner notes and usually two albums plus bonus tracks on each release. In the early years, Capitol managed to squeeze a large number of albums out of the group and there is a steep learning curve as the group became more proficient and mature, and Brian Wilson's songwriting, arranging and production skills evolved.
Surfin' Safari (1962) was the band's first album, rushed out in the wake of the success of the title track as a hit single and its hot-rod B-side, 409, replete with the sound effects of a 348 Chevy as they couldn't afford a 409. Surf, hot-rods and girls are the preoccupations of most of the songs, mainly original compositions, though there is a stab at Summertime Blues, and the Gamblers' Moon Dawg, considered to be the first surf record. It includes some of the demo recordings that got the band signed in the first place, and their first single, Surfin', from 1961, which had first been released on the tiny X Records label and then on Candix. The version here is the Candix version speeded up, despite the "production notes" in the liner. Most of the lead vocals are by Mike Love, though Brian sings Cuckoo Clock and Dennis Wilson, the Ringo Starr of the group, debuts as lead singer on Little Miss America. Ten Little Indians was also released as a single from the album, against Brian Wilson's wishes (his choice was Chug-A-Lug). At this stage the Beach Boys were strong vocally and harmonically but their instrumental skills were rudimentary. Although some of the tracks have previously appeared in 3-track stereo (vocals left and right, instruments at centre), they are all in mono here, although Land Ahoy!, an outtake included as a bonus track, is stereo.
Surfin' USA (1963) was similarly built around the hit title track which really put the Beach Boys on the map, a surf lyric re-write of Chuck Berry's Sweet Little Sixteen that defined their vocal sound. Again the B-side was a hot-rod song, Shut Down, on which Brian collaborated for the first time with DJ and drag racing enthusiast Roger Christian. Apart from being in stereo, this album is mostly more of the same, though Brian takes three lead vocals, including Lonely Sea, a ballad that prefigures the wistful melancholia of his later productions, and the instrumental Surf Jam marks Carl Wilson's first released composition
(review filed 22 January 2004)
Surfer Girl/Shut Down Vol. 2 (60.56)** P 1963-1964, P 2001
According to the liner notes the double-sided single Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe was recorded on 12 June 1963 and the other 10 tracks that make up the album Surfer Girl were entirely recorded at Western Studios in Hollywood on 16 July 1963; quite a feat. Some of the tracks are quite throwaway, but others such as Catch A Wave and The Surfer Moon, which features a string arrangement, seem to be the result of a lot of care and craft to achieve a tight sound, and indicate considerable musical growth and maturity on the part of Brian Wilson and the group.
In the Track-By-Track notes for Our Car Club it states that as Chuck Britz did not engineer the track, as per normal, it "was probably cut at Gold Star with Larry Levine at the dials", calling into question the accuracy of both studio and date information as given.
Surfer Girl had been Brian's first ballad composition back in 1961, inspired by When You Wish Upon A Star. Perhaps he waited until he and the band could do it justice before committing it to record. If so, he timed it just right as it is a classic early Beach Boys performance. In My Room, wasted as a B-side, is an equally evocative song featuring a lead vocal from Brian, Mike Love now featuring mainly on the more up-tempo material. They both share lead on the embarrassing South Bay Surfer, a rewrite of Swanee River, and an all-time low point, and Dennis' obligatory lead is on Surfers Rule. The album closer is an instrumental called Boogie Woodie that features some intense boogie woogie piano from Brian on an arrangement of The Flight Of The Bumblebee.
Shut Down Volume 2 (1964) is ostensibly a collection of hot-rod and car related songs, some re-cycled, some new, intended as a rebuke to Capitol Records for including their song Shut Down as the title track on an ill-chosen hot-rod compilation without their acquiescence. In practice the subject matter was far wider than that.
The album kick starts with some Chuck Berry guitar licks which lead into Fun, Fun, Fun, their current hit single and one of their classics, although the best song on the record was Don't Worry Baby. Brian Wilson had written this for the Ronettes as a follow-up to Be My Baby but the idea had not been taken up by a controlling Phil Spector. It isn't known whether the Ronettes got as far as recording the song at the time (Ronnie Spector recorded it many years later), but Brian was spending a lot of time at Gold Star with Phil Spector picking up production tips, and played piano on a few sessions, so it is possible. If it was I would love to hear it. The Beach Boys version was later the B-side of I Get Around.
Brian Wilson first put what he had learned from Spector into practice on the flip of Fun, Fun, Fun. Why Do Fools Fall In Love? was a brilliant revival of the Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers hit, given a comprehensive and complex Spector-sound makeover using the famous session musicians at Gold Star, and fully realised by Brian Wilson, who may have still had Ronnie Bennett much on his mind, as Frankie Lymon was her vocal hero and the model of her own style in the Ronettes.
The liner information is incorrect here as the included version is actually the mono B-side version (which begins with an acappella vocal edit cheekily tacked on by Capitol Records, albeit 10 seconds longer than on the single), and not the stereo album version as claimed. One other track is mono for some reason, the lamentable Denny's Drums, on which Dennis Wilson fails to do anything interesting on the drums or to keep time. The album low point, however, is "Cassius" Love Vs. "Sonny" Wilson, a piece of "comic" filler that hastened the invention of the Skip button.
Carl Wilson contributes an instrumental, Shut Down, Part II, which has no connection with the earlier recording, and Dennis sings This Car Of Mine. More interesting is The Warmth Of The Sun, a break-up ballad written hours after the Kennedy assassination, so capturing a double sense of loss, and a version of Louie Louie, which is unique in that the lyric is decipherable.
The slightly longer single mono mix of Fun, Fun, Fun is included as a bonus track, though one wonders why they didn't just create a full-length stereo mix from the master, which would have made it redundant.
All in all, there is a great sense of fun and freedom captured in these grooves, with something considerably more substantial beginning to peep through
(review filed 22 January 2004, revised 20 October 2004)
Pet Sounds (76.50)***** P 1966, P 2001
Surely one of the great albums of all time, Brian Wilson used his troubled genius to unsurpassed effect, pouring heart and soul into this collection of 13 masterpieces. In the Beach Boys he had at his disposal an incredibly skilled vocal group whose voices could blend and mix in the empathetic way that only comes from a family group who have grown up singing, and who were also perfectly capable of recreating the core of the album's sound in live performance.
Brian Wilson had worked hard for the group for several years, composing many of the songs, singing lead, arranging the harmony vocals, playing bass guitar and piano and honing his production skills, which were greatly inspired by the work of Phil Spector. He used the same pool of musicians and occasionally the same studio in Hollywood, and like Spector he was an innovator and pioneer who could brilliantly combine unusual pairs or multiples of instruments to create a unique single sound.
It all came together on this album, by which time he had retired from the touring group to concentrate on his composing and record-making. The beautiful melodies and the "pet sounds" he created were matched by some exquisite lyrics that were written in collaboration with Tony Asher and other writers. Brian Wilson had been inspired by hearing Rubber Soul and was fuelled by an ambition to match it in which he was wholly successful. In turn, Pet Sounds inspired the Beatles to go on to create Sgt Pepper. It was this spirit of competitive creativity that led to his unfortunate burn out during the creation of Smile, his response to Sgt Pepper.
Although not exactly a concept album, everything was recorded specifically for the album apart from the traditional song Sloop John B, which had already been released as a single and was included on the insistence of the record company. It does not sound too out of place. The first single from the album was the heartfelt God Only Knows (What I'd Do Without You). This got to number 2 in the UK, but suffered in America from lack of radio exposure by nervous radio stations, who began playing the flipside instead. This resulted in Wouldn't It Be Nice, surely an A-side in its own right anyway, reaching the US Top Ten. The title song Pet Sounds is an instrumental that was originally called Run James Run, inspired by James Bond, and when heard with this in mind takes on a whole new meaning for the listener. The closing track, Caroline No, ends with more pet sounds: Brian's puppies Banana and Louie barking as the song fades. This had also come out on a single before the release of Pet Sounds, but under the name Brian Wilson, and without the beagle and weimaraner or other sound effects.
Of course, the original album already resides on everyone's CD shelf in mono. Brian Wilson was deaf in one ear and so preferred to work monaurally, again like Phil Spector. He also felt that he could present the sound to the listener in exactly the way he wished, without interference from any stereophonically knob-twiddling listener.
However, a stereo edition was produced and engineered by Mark Linett in 1997 for the Pet Sounds box set, created under the close supervision of Brian Wilson himself, and this edition follows the original album with this scrupulously remixed true stereo version. Not only are these versions often slightly longer, the additional clarity afforded by the sound separation adds a whole new dimension to hearing them, and takes away absolutely nothing. Technological improvements since 1997 have meant that the new stereo mix of Wouldn't It Be Nice on this edition is less different from the original mono mix than on the box set
(updated review filed 18 January 2004)
Friends/ 20/20 (66.58)** R 1966-1969, P 2001
Where do you go after you have made Pet Sounds? Where do you go after you have made Forever Changes, or Sgt Pepper, or Blonde On Blonde, or In Utero, or OK Computer? It's the culmination of your life's work, but the hungry machine demands another one of equal or greater stature a year later, and worse, you demand it of yourself too. It would seem to be an unanswerable question. Derailment seems inevitable, either through drugs, disintegration, a motorcycle crash, a suicide or a change of direction to subvert comparison. Brian Wilson tried to feed the machine, tried to surmount his own greatest achievement, tried also to surpass Sgt Pepper, with a project called Smile, burning himself out with a huge nervous breakdown and allegedly destroying the tapes in a fire. He dropped out of the group although he continued to produce and contribute to the albums, of which Friends (1968) was the third and 20/20 (1969) the fourth after Pet Sounds.
Friends was named after a waltz-time single that had come out earlier in the year, inspired by transcendental meditation. Like the single, it was a lightweight and under-produced album, though musically sophisticated, and did not chart in America, although it reached the UK Top Twenty. It was also very short, clocking in at under 26 minutes with songs fading out just as they are getting going, as Brian seemed to have abandoned the Wall Of Sound approach and adopted a perverse less-is-more ethos. However, there is a charm and tranquility to the record and is regarded by him as his favourite album. It was recorded at his Bel Air mansion using the Beach Boys and an array of outside musicians.
Brian's retreat within the group meant that other talents had to emerge and both Dennis and Carl Wilson sang lead vocals and composed for the album, although without his finely-honed musical sensibility. Brian's love of sounds is demonstrated on the instrumental Diamond Head, named after the landmark in Hawaii, probably the biggest production number on the album and featuring Al Vescozo's Hawaiian guitar; and his song about inconsequence and indolence, the bossa-nova based Busy Doin' Nothin', has one of his cleverest lyrics, as evocative as Sheryl Crow's All I Wanna Do. However, with a marketplace full of Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane, Friends just wasn't made for those times.
By 20/20, a last "contractual obligation" to Capitol, Brian had also handed over the producer's chair to other band members, producing only his own songs, including the retro-sounding single Do It Again and a cover of Leadbelly's Cottonfields that Al Jardine suggested they do, as they had Sloop John B before (dissatisfied with Brian's version he later produced the version that came out as a single in 1970). Bruce Johnston had taken Brian's place in the live band and also produced two tracks, a version of Bluebirds Over The Mountain and a cloying instrumental Pet Sounds pastiche called The Nearest Faraway Place. Carl Wilson produced I Can Hear Music, one of the singles from the album, returning to the earlier Spector-influenced Beach Boys sound on a Ronettes cover (albeit the Ronettes original produced not by Spector but by Jeff Barry). Dennis Wilson wrote, sang and produced two songs (one was allegedly written by or with Charles Manson) and produced another which Mike Love sang, the all out rocker All I Want To Do. Oddly, Mike Love, who had tried to suppress Pet Sounds on the grounds that it was too avant-garde, is strangely sidelined on this backwards-looking album. The album is filled out with some leftovers: Time To Get Alone was the Beach Boys own version of a song Brian had originally written and produced for a band called Redwood, who later became Three Dog Night. I Went To Sleep had originally been planned to be the closing track on Friends, and the closing two tracks, Our Prayer and the extraordinary and rather wonderful Cabinessence, were recordings from October-December 1966 that were salvaged from the Smile sessions, a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been, and by far the two most interesting pieces on the album.
The bonus tracks include the swansong Capitol single Breakaway and its B-side, another Friends outtake and some incomplete fragments of standard tunes
(review filed 23 January 2004)
Love Me Do (CDS)(6.52)*** P 1962, P 1993
Love Me Do was the first single by the Beatles, released in Britain on 5 October 1962 on the Parlophone label. It was also included on the Beatles' debut album, Please Please Me (and the truncated American versions on Vee-Jay and later on Capitol) along with its B-side, PS I Love You. The album is stuffed full of vintage and classic early Beatles and represents better value for money than this single. For new listeners looking to start a Beatle collection, the Please Please Me LP is the place to start. Nevertheless, this obviously of interest as an artifact as it represents their first proper single (some material recorded in Germany when they acted as a backing group for Tony Sheridan had been released), and includes both versions of Love Me Do released at the time.
The song is one of the Beatles' earliest compositions, having been written in 1958 by Paul in Liverpool, with a few minor suggestions from John. A million miles from later complex pieces like A Day In The Life, it was nevertheless a fresh and uncompromising sounding debut that stood out against the bland fare on offer on British radio at the time. Distinguished by a harmonica solo from John Lennon (at the suggestion of George Martin, and influenced by Bruce Channel's recent hit Hey Baby), the single received one of its earliest plays on the BBC Light Entertainment's forces radio request show Two-Way Family Favourites, introduced by Jean Metcalfe. The harmonies sounded distinctive and the sound jumped out of the vibrating radio loudspeaker, and made a big impact on young listeners such as myself.
It was unusual then on a pop single to hear the bass guitar so prominently as it punctuated the drums and percussion. When it entered the British charts the following week, helped by some not entirely ethical multiple orders placed by record store owner and Beatle manager Brian Epstein, for many listeners it clearly registered a sea change. It can be seen as the birth on record of the Liverpool Sound and was quickly followed by a wave of other bands such as Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Big Three, the Fourmost, the Merseybeats and Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, quickly signed by record companies seeking to capitalize on a new phenomenon, and had an influence far beyond its chart placing.
It was released in Canada by Capitol on 4 February 1963, but not in America until 27th April 1964, when the tiny Tollie label put it out. By this time Beatlemania was in full swing, following several other hit single releases, and it reached number one, displacing Mary Wells' My Guy from the top position.
The Beatles originally recorded this song when Pete Best was with the band at their EMI audition on 6th June 1962. Ringo played drums on the 4th September session, which was essentially a rehearsal session. George Martin delegated Ron Richards to bring in Andy White for the sessions proper for the single on 11th September and relegated Ringo to tambourine. Ringo never forgave him for this.
Due to an error the original red label Parlophone pressing of the single featured the earlier version with Ringo on drums (as heard on the Capitol album Rarities and on the Past Masters 1 CD, and included here as track 3), but was replaced on subsequent black label pressings and worldwide single releases, and also on the album Please Please Me, with the 11th September Andy White version. Ringo, of course, featured on all nine subsequent BBC radio versions, one of which for Pop Go The Beatles is on the Live At The BBC 2CD.
This CD re-issue of the original single features the 11th September 1962 version backed with P.S. I Love You. This was recorded the same day, with Andy White on drums and Ringo this time on maracas. Written by Paul in 1961, the song was dedicated to his then girlfriend Dot Rhone. Both these tracks were recorded and mixed in mono, as they are presented here. The original stereo LP version of Please Please Me in the UK used the mono mixes of these two tracks.
The picture sleeve was newly created for this re-release as the single originally had the standard Parlophone plain green paper sleeve.
The 4th September version has had to be mastered from a collector's vinyl copy as the demo session tapes are not in the EMI archives (a less pristine archive copy had to be used for the earlier Rarities album).
(review filed 15 December 2006)
The Capitol Albums (Vol. 1) (54.38/55.06/51.22/54.49)*** P 1963-1964, P 2004
At first glance it would seem strange that there would be a British market for these American permutations, in whose compilation the Beatles had no hand, and which stretched the original British albums into far greater number by mixing up the tracks with assorted A-sides, B-sides and EP tracks. However, although all the British Beatles albums were released in both mono and stereo versions, the CD versions of the earlier albums (up to and including Beatles For Sale) have been monaural. This was apparently at the recommendation of George Martin, who thought the crude stereo of those early records was below standard for the modern listener. Since then, certain songs have appeared in stereo mixes by George Martin on collections such as The Beatles 1962-1966, The Beatles 1967-1970 and One, but many are available on an official release here for the first time, together with their mono counterparts.
Meet The Beatles! comprises 9 titles from With The Beatles plus the single I Want To Hold Your Hand and its B-sides (This Boy in the UK; I Saw Her Standing There, taken from the album Please please Me, in the US).
The Beatles' Second Album consists of a further 5 titles from With The Beatles plus the B-sides Thank You Girl and You Can't Do That; the single She Loves You/I'll Get You; and 2 tracks from the EP Long Tall Sally.
Something New takes 8 tracks from A Hard Day's Night and adds the other 2 tracks from Long Tall Sally and a German language version of I Want To Hold Your Hand.
Beatles '65 derives mostly from Beatles For Sale (8 of its 14 tracks) plus the single I Feel Fine/She's A Woman; and I'll Be Back, from A Hard Day's Night.
These have all been remastered from the masters used to prepare the original American vinyl albums. These are generally the same as the British masters except that they had been "re-equalised" for the American market, and this generally translates as the addition of echo and reverb. While it is fascinating to hear the effect of this, most markedly on the second disc, The Beatles' Second Album, and some of the singles, my British ears usually prefer the original versions.
George Martin was right about the deficiencies of the stereo mixes, which were created in the studio with voices and instruments separated into left and right channels simply as an aid to making the final mix for the mono master rather than with a view to commercial release, and he had forgotten that stereo copies of the early vinyl albums ever made the shops. The mass market at that time was for monaural record players and radiograms. The stereo mixes sound quite inadequate to modern ears when heard binaurally through headphones, as each ear can hear only one channel; at their worst, on the earliest recordings, merely disembodied voices versus beat group. The stereo comes into its own when heard through speakers despite its deficiencies, however, with the sound from each speaker filling both ears, and where the wider sound field provides additional clarity and detail to the power and vibrancy of the performances.
There are some interesting variants to the British counterparts which in some case amount to more than mere re-equalisation. Money (That's What I Want) is an alternative version; the stereo mix of Thank You Girl features additional harmonica; Paul's voice is uniquely not double-tracked on the mono version of And I Love Her; and the mono version of Anytime At All does not have the overdubbed piano found elsewhere.
Finally, as stereo mixes of the singles were not available at the time of the albums' original compilation, vile fake stereo mixes (or "duophonic" versions) were concocted, and these have been allowed to stand here. The tracks to avoid are the "stereo" versions of I Want To Hold Your Hand, This Boy, You Can't Do That, She Loves You, I'll Get You, She's a Woman and I Feel Fine. Modern technology applied to best quality studio master-tapes could greatly improve the quality of all the tracks on this set, especially those presented duophonically, but if they ever are given the treatment and made available, these facsimiles will still serve as a fascinating authentically historical documentation of what was actually heard at the time.
(review filed 27 March 2006; revised 14 December 2006)
The Capitol Albums (Vol. 2) (52.23/55.59/59.05/58.59)*** P 1962-1965, P 2006
Volume 2 of the Beatles' US Capitol albums picks up where Volume 1 left off in the rather skewed version of Beatle history as presented to the American public, where the original British albums were divided into far greater number by mixing up the tracks with assorted A-sides, B-sides and EP tracks. The first of this second bunch of four creates a further anomaly by falling chronologically before the earliest album on Volume 1. The soundtrack album A Hard Day's Night is also missing, as it appeared in America on the United Artists label, though most of the songs from the British album find their place on other Capitol albums, such as Something New.
The concept of these box sets is to exactly replicate the original vinyl albums, using the original album masters, in their mono and stereo incarnations, and as on the first box set this has been achieved (after the first pressing, which had some errors on the mono versions). This means that shortcomings from the original albums have necessarily not been corrected. Most noticeably because stereo mixes of certain tracks were not available at the time of release, universally deplored fake stereo mixes (or "duophonic" versions) were concocted, and these have been retained on these sets, although on Volume 2 this only applies to three tracks.
Given the reason for this series of box sets, and the complexities of the various stereo and mono variations, it is odd that full discographical notes have not been given in the lavish but insubstantial booklets.
Taking the albums one by one, The Early Beatles consists of 11 of the 14 tracks from Please Please Me and marked the Capitol debut of tracks that had originally been released in America on Vee-Jay. Some of these tracks also appeared as singles and both sides of their 1962 debut UK single, Love Me Do/PS I Love You, appear only in "duophonic" stereo. The mono half of this CD has fold-downs of the stereo versions, as on the Capitol vinyl album, but these two tracks seem to be the standard mono mixes.
Beatles VI combines six tracks left over from Beatles For Sale with three tracks previewed from the forthcoming British Help! album. Bad Boy, recorded at the same session as Dizzy Miss Lizzy, was not included on Help! but turned up the following year on A Collection Of Beatles Oldies. Yes It Is was the B-side of Ticket To Ride, and although the mono mix sounds fine, the stereo version here is the third "duophonic" atrocity, sounding especially painful on headphones. Check out Past Masters Volume 1 for a true stereo option.
The mono versions of the Beatles For Sale tracks have been mixed down from the stereo ones, as I believe they were (but cannot corroborate from this side of the pond) on their original US release. The Help! items and Bad Boy are the original supplied George Martin mono mixes (on the first pressing of this CD mono fold-downs were inadvertently used).
The stereo mixes on all pressings of this disc are those prepared by George Martin for the original vinyl releases in 1965. The Apple CD of Help! was released in stereo using new mixes prepared by George Martin in 1987 (claims that the Yellow Submarine Songtrack was the first time Beatles material had been remixed are therefore seen to be incorrect), so all the tracks here are new to CD, though the the three from Help! sound much the same.
The Help! CD here is the soundtrack version released only in the US, and includes seven Beatles soundtrack recordings augmented by incidental music from the film. There is little information about these except that the score was by Ken Thorne. It incorporated some Beatle tunes and added some Indian instrumentation, as appropriate to the film plot. This was supplied by vichitra veena player Shiv Dayal Batish (who died in Santa Cruz on 29 July 2006). "The studio session lasted a whole day," he recalled, and featured friends playing tabla, sitar and flute. Indeed, it marked the start of George Harrison's fascination with the sitar.
The stereo mixes are again those prepared by George Martin in 1965, and the Beatles mono tracks are folded-down from stereo as on the 1965 American album. This is unfortunate as Help! was the earliest Beatle album to be mastered in stereo on CD, and so the mono mixes are new to CD, and would otherwise include the single version of Help! with its different vocal track.
The instrumental non-Beatle tracks are apparently in separate stereo and mono mixes. Ticket To Ride, although in a different mix to that on One, does not sound anything like bad enough to be duophonic, as has been suggested, and since, unlike Yes It Is, it was included on the UK stereo album Help! there is no reason why a true stereo mix should not have been prepared.
Rubber Soul shares its title with its British counterpart, but offers a slightly different track selection. I've Just Seen A Face and It's Only Love had appeared on the British Help! album (though not in the film), and by substituting these in place of four of the more upbeat tracks from the British version, they created an album with a more acoustic feel, which found favour with American audiences.
The stereo and mono mixes on this disc (after the first pressing which was again mastered in error from a mono fold-down tape) are those prepared by George Martin for the original vinyl releases in 1965. The 1987 Apple CD of Rubber Soul was released in stereo using superior new mixes prepared by George Martin, so all the tracks here are also new to CD. However, the stereo mixes are quirky and are of more historical interest than as a real alternative to those already available.
This historical concept means that some tracks from British albums have still never had a release on an American Capitol CD (some were on the vinyl LP Rarities). These include Misery and There's A Place from their first British album; and Hard Day's Night, I Should Have Known Better and Can't Buy Me Love from A Hard Day's Night. The Apple CD versions of these two albums (Please Please Me and A Hard Day's Night) are both the original monophonic mixes, so true stereo mixes of Love Me Do, PS I Love You (if they can be created), Misery, There's A Place, You Can't Do That ("duophonic" on Something New) and I Should Have Known Better are unavailable on any official Beatle CD album or compilation, as far as I know.
Purchasers of both boxed sets and the One compilation are still thwarted in their attempts to recreate their own stereo versions of these original Beatles albums. Would it have been too much to extend the concept to include the missing tracks and mixes as bonus tracks? Or is the concept itself perhaps misconceived, with a better idea being to present the albums in the best possible stereo and mono mixes, and adding all missing contemporary tracks? Perhaps Apple in the UK should pick up the baton, as they have long been rumoured to be doing. After all, there still seems to be a market for these mop-top guys.
(review filed 31 August 2006)
Love (78.50)**** R 1963-1969, P 2006
Just as I have no quarrel with a Mona Lisa sporting a moustache (provided the original still hangs in the Louvre), I am quite happy to hear Beatles music in a new and stimulating context. At first, it is odd hearing these recordings, imprinted on my mind over decades of listening, sounding the same only different, but the Anthology series and Live At The BBC set have already reminded us that the Beatles actually have a repertoire of songs in some recorded performances, and that they shouldn't be frozen in aspic. The strangeness diminishes with every subsequent play, though, leaving only pleasure at every new twist.
I loved hearing these songs mashed up in such glorious sound quality and like everyone else, can't wait to hear the entire back catalogue restored and remixed in DVD-A. If anything, George and Giles Martin have been too reverential in their approach, limiting most of their radical ideas to the intros and outros. Here Comes The Sun, for example, begins with a fabulous and appropriate Indian intro, and ends with an equally inspired transitional section from The Inner Light, but lapses in between into the familiar, gorgeous arrangement we know of old.
More successful for me was the merging of Drive My Car, The Word and What You're Doing, a mash-up which continued throughout the whole new piece. I also particularly liked the composite of Strawberry Fields Forever which begins with the earliest demo and includes a history of the different stages of the song's development, culminating in the indulgent kitchen-sink production at the end. More of that, please.
The transitional piece labeled Cry Baby Cry was an eye-opener to me as the piece turns out to be the "Can you take me back..." section which I had always thought to be the introduction to Revolution No. 9 when I heard it on the White Album. I think a minor trick may have been missed on Revolution, which follows, as the standard B-side version has been remixed rather than the video mix they subsequently made for Top Of The Pops which had added "shoobie doobies" and hasn't seen commercial release. Revolution and Back In The USSR have both been edited for reasons of space on the CD, but can be heard in full on the DVD-A included on the 2 Disc Edition. All You Need Is Love closes the selection and is the most pampered of Beatles tracks as it has already benefited from sound upgrades on both the Yellow Submarine Songtrack and on One.
Thumbs up from me.
(review filed 12 December 2007)
The Beatles (Stereo Box Set)(525.00)**** P 1962-1970, P 2009
I have been getting to know these new remasters over the last couple of weeks and reading the countless and widely divergent reviews and comments by professional critics and online purchasers alike. Although the familiar content of the music is far too embedded to warrant further comment, listening to their eight-year development over this short period it was particularly striking how great George Martin's contributions were. No-one doubts his role as producer, particularly the embellishments he was able to bring to their music through the judicious use of sound effects and technical know-how, and his ability to square the circle when asked the impossible, such as when John Lennon asked him to combine two very different versions of Strawberry Fields Forever into a coherent single piece of music. It is also known that he has added keyboard embellishment to some of their work, but I think his playing, which includes the piano on tracks such as You've Really Got A Hold On Me, Money, Rock And Roll Music, Long Tall Sally and Slowdown, has been considerably underestimated. His arrangements for tracks such as Eleanor Rigby are also quite exemplary.
The sound quality of these remasters is also testament to the skills of the engineers Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick, Ken Scott, Phil McDonald and Glyn Johns on equipment that was quite primitive by today's standards, particularly on the twin-track machines that were in use on the early albums and singles.
These new CDs do always sound better than the previous editions, though sometimes the differences are quite subtle. They should not be compared to the American Capitol label releases as these were often remixed with superficially exciting added reverb. The purpose of these remasters is to get the best possible results from the existing master by repairing physical damage and bad edits, adding low-end frequencies, removing amplifier hum, clicks, pops and sibilance; but not compromising the musical performance in any way. It does not involve any remixing. The remastering was done using 192 kHz/24-bit technology, paving the way for DVD-A/SACD/HDCD releases, but the current box set is in standard resolution CD format. It has been done with a lot of scrupulous attention to detail and is undoubtedly a labour of love for all concerned.
For most of the tracks, this is the first time they have been remastered since the first CD releases in 1987, the exception being the number one singles that made up the compilation album One. There have also been remixes - these occur on the Anthology series, the Yellow Submarine Songtrack, the Love project and the DVD re-issue of the film HELP! with 5.1 audio. The remixes have all been released additionally to the standard catalogue, whereas it looks as if these stereo remasters will supercede the previous editions. This is interesting as the CDs of the first four albums were previously in mono, whereas the CDs in the new mono box set are not available individually.
Please Please Me was their first album, originally released in March 1963. Mostly recorded in one day in February 1963 on a twin-track machine, it did include their two singles to date, Love Me Do/PS I Love You and Please Please Me/Ask Me Why, both recorded in 1962 (though Love Me Do is a different take to the one on the original single). Love Me Do/PS I Love You has never appeared in any form other than mono in the UK, and this is again the case here.
The rest of the album, and all of With The Beatles, is not actually true stereo either. George Martin simply separated the recording onto two tracks using customized existing EMI equipment, so that he could better balance the final, mono product. Nothing sent to the left channel is heard in the right, apart from minor incidental sound leakage, whereas for anything to be heard centrally it would have to be sent to both left and right channels. That's why in 1987, when the albums appeared on CD, he requested of EMI that the first four be issued only in mono. By then he had even forgotten that the twin-track "stereo" versions had ever been released commercially on vinyl Parlophone LPs. Stereo was an insignificant, specialist market in those days.
The twin-track channel separation creates a hole in the middle of the sound stage, which is especially unnatural sounding when listened to binaurally on headphones, as each ear only hears one channel. With loudspeakers, both ears hear both channels and the effect is less marked, especially if the speakers are placed close to each other, or one on top of the other. The twin-channel sound does provide the greater clarity afforded by each speaker relaying different information and is an enhancement in my view.
The albums A Hard Day's Night and Beatles For Sale were recorded on a new four-track desk, which the Beatles had first used to record the single I Want To Hold Your Hand, and so are true stereo, although mixed in a way that modern ears, used to drums and vocals in the centre and other instruments and percussion to the left and right, can find unconventional. The remasters are presented here exactly in the same format as heard on the Parlophone stereo albums. A Hard Day's Night remains the only Beatles album to feature exclusively Lennon-McCartney compositions, as George Harrison unusually takes the lead vocal on a Lennon-McCartney song, I'm Happy Just To Dance With You. He also did not get one of his own songs onto Beatles For Sale, instead covering Carl Perkins' Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby.
The stereo mixes of HELP! and Rubber Soul were judged by George Martin to be unsuitable when he reviewed them for CD release, consequently they were both remixed by him for the 1987 releases on CD, so claims that the Yellow Submarine Songtrack was the first time the Beatles had been remixed now seem incorrect. It is the 1987 remixes that have been remastered for the 2009 releases, as George Martin wished. However, it was deemed important to keep the original 1965 mixes also in catalogue and so they have been added to the mono CDs of those two albums in the mono box set. Most of the 1965 mixes are also available on the US box set The Capitol Albums (Vol. 2).
Rubber Soul and Revolver are presented here in their UK tracklist versions, the last of the Beatles albums to differ from their US counterparts. Revolver was followed in the UK by a compilation entitled A Collection Of Oldies... But Goldies. It contained mainly singles, adding Michelle from Rubber Soul and Bad Boy, previously unreleased in the UK, from the 1965 US album Beatles VI. It was never released on CD and is not included in the box set, though every track on it is represented on the discs.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was put together on a four-track tape machine over nine months (700 hours of recording) at Abbey Road (one track at Regent Sound). Although stereo was gaining in prominence by this time, several of the stereo mixes were made without the Beatles presence, and after the mono mixing had been completed, so it is the mono album that was considered standard at the time. There are notable differences between the two, ranging from speed variations to alternative overdubbing, editing and playing times. The album was completed in April 1967, by which time they had already begun working on tracks that would appear in the TV film Magical Mystery Tour and in the animated feature film Yellow Submarine, including All You Need Is Love.
Magical Mystery Tour was released as an EP package with a lavish booklet and two three-track singles, but in the US, where EPs were less popular, it was expanded into an album by adding various singles. It was this expanded album that was added to the Beatles UK CD canon in 1987, and this piece of revisionist history has been repeated in this box set. That the extra tracks include Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane, Hello Goodbye, Baby You're A Rich Man and All You Need Is Love, and that all the new material for Yellow Submarine (apart from Hey Bulldog) was completed the same year, shows what an extraordinary creative roll they were on in 1967, especially if you appreciate psychedelic music. I Am The Walrus incorporates a radio feed that was fed live into a mono mix during its final two minutes, therefore the stereo version has always turned into mono at that point, and it still does here. Whereas some of the vinyl album's extra tracks contained fake "duophonic" stereo mixes as true ones did not yet exist, these were replaced by the true stereo mixes prepared later in 1968 and in 1971 on the 1987 CD and on these remasters. There is no fake stereo to be found on this box set.
The Beatles double album (generally known as the White Album) marked the transition from four-track in May 1968 to eight-track from the end of August. The Beatles began the White Album, including the remarkable John and Yoko avant-garde piece of musique concrète Revolution 9, on four-track, but had been discovering the joys of eight-track while producing other Apple artists at Trident Studios. They began briefly recording there themselves until they discovered an eight-track desk had newly arrived at another part of the Abbey Road EMI studios, which they immediately requisitioned for their own use. The first Abbey Road recording with the new desk was While My Guitar Gently Weeps in September 1968. Some of the mixing of the completed tracks for mono and stereo masters was done side by side at the same sessions, but again with notable differences between the two versions of the album. Whatever the virtues of the mono mix, however, hearing something like Helter Skelter screeching through two stereo speakers is an experience I wouldn't want to miss.
The next album to be released was Yellow Submarine, held back from the release of the film for several months to avoid clashing with the White Album. The Beatles had side one of the album, while the George Martin Orchestra had George Martin's orchestral score for the film on the second side. Previously-released singles Yellow Submarine and All You Need Is Love book-ended side one. Yellow Submarine had also been on Revolver, and All You Need Is Love was also from the US Magical Mystery Tour album in a slightly different mix. The four new tracks were George's Only A Northern Song, a Sgt. Pepper outtake; Paul's All Together Now, recorded during the Magical Mystery Tour sessions but always intended for Yellow Submarine; as was John's Hey Bulldog, recorded more recently in February 1968. The fourth number was George's magnificent six-minute exultation It's All Too Much, which also dates from the Magical Mystery Tour sessions, but at studios in Kingsway. Another song written for the film, Baby You're A Rich Man, was somewhat perversely missed off the album because it had already appeared as the B-side of All You Need Is Love (included).
The UK mono album of Yellow Submarine was simply a reduction of the stereo mix. This was unusual for Parlophone, but common practice for Capitol, which causes me to wonder if this was an American put-together album that got released in the UK, rather than the other way around. Also unusual, and showing the Beatles' relative disinterest in the project, is that no stereo mix had been made for Only A Northern Song and so a fake stereo version appeared on the album (and on the 1987 CD). This was used as the source for the 1969 mono album, rather than the original mono master. A stereo remix was finally prepared and appeared on the Yellow Submarine Songtrack in 1999. The version here is mono, but as the true mono mix has been used on the mono box set I would hope that that has also been used here.
Abbey Road and Let It Be were both released in the UK and the US as stereo-compatible-mono albums in 1969 and 1970 and so are not included in the mono box set (although mono mixes were prepared, and mono albums released in some countries where stereo had yet to take hold). Abbey Road and Let It Be both benefit more than I would have expected from the new remastering. Let It Be of course pre-dates Abbey Road in recording date terms, and was conceived as a basic warts-and-all no overdubs live-in-the-studio project, but the mix prepared by Glyn Johns was never released and the tapes were controversially remixed, overdubbed and released posthumously (to the life of the Beatles) by Phil Spector, who ignored the basic premise of the project by adding orchestras and choirs. Abbey Road is a masterpiece and a far more fitting swansong for the band, beautifully recorded and sequenced, and has never sounded better.
Finally, in this marathon box, comes the 2CD Past Masters, combining the two CDs of that name released in 1988, collecting all the various singles, EPs, B-sides and stray tracks not to be found on their regular albums, a most diverse collection of tracks, from their earliest EMI recording to be released, the red-label single version of Love Me Do with Ringo on drums, to the frankly bizarre whimsy of You Know My Name (Look Up The Number), originally destined for Yellow Submarine. There had been much speculation before release as to what might turn up here, and there are variants from the masters selected for the 1988 editions. Love Me Do is unsurprisingly mono, but From Me To You and Thank You Girl make their CD debut in their UK stereo mixes, with some interesting variations from the familiar mono ones. Stereo mixes were prepared for She Loves You and I'll Get You but these have long been lost, and so are still mono. The rest of CD1 is all stereo, including Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand [I Want to Hold Your Hand] and Sie Liebt Dich [She Loves You], previously mono.
Past Masters CD2 includes the original single versions of Get Back and Let It Be, both as prepared by Glyn Johns (along with b-side Don't Let Me Down) and not re-touched by Phil Spector. The pre-Phil Spector version of Across The Universe which Spike Milligan blagged for issue on the World Wildlife Fund charity compilation No One's Gonna Change Our World is also included. You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) seems to have been never mixed into stereo and is still in mono. The four mono tracks on Past Masters are therefore duplicates from Mono Masters in the mono box set.
The stereo box set also includes enhanced video sections on each CD and a 40-minute DVD which collects all these mini-documentaries.
Whilst these remasters are a vital part of the EMI Beatles catalogue and do full justice to the original masters, I look forward to future higher-resolution remixes, especially of the earlier catalogue, which I do not doubt will follow at some stage.
(review filed 25 September 2009)
The Beatles (Mono Box Set)(577.00)**** P 1962-1970, P 2009
These mono remasters are possibly more exciting and noteworthy than their stereo younger brothers. Although the new stereo albums have hugely benefited from a scrub with the sonic toothbrush, they were at least in catalogue before, apart from the first four albums and a few odds and ends, whereas the Beatles British album output from HELP! onwards has never been released in mono on CD before.
These days, the most humble portable radio/CD player comes equipped with stereo speakers, and iPods and MP3 players all support stereo playback. A few world music and reggae albums may be released in mono these days, but by and large stereo has become the standard, with mono relegated to legacy releases, the audio equivalent of black and white. In the re-issue field, however, mono remains surprisingly resilient. Motown, for example, were early exponents of multi-track recording and released albums in stereo from the early sixties, yet compilations continue to favour the mono mixes of much of this material, and there are many advocates who stoutly prefer the punchier single-source mono sound, designed to be heard over the radio, invariably mono in those days.
The purpose of these remasters is to get the best possible results from the existing master by repairing physical damage and bad edits, adding low-end frequencies, removing amplifier hum, clicks, pops and sibilance; but not compromising the musical performance in any way. It does not involve any remixing. The remastering was done using 192 kHz/24-bit technology, paving the way for DVD-A/SACD/HDCD releases, but the current box set is in standard resolution CD format.
The market for this expensive box set was severely underestimated, with a limited run of 10,000 copies having sold out purely on pre-orders, and a second run having been exhausted within a month or so. At present, the mono albums are only available in this lavish package, with beautiful replica sleeves and artwork, but given its popularity, when the limited run is exhausted, I would be surprised if they were not subsequently made available separately in standard jewel-case editions, as I believe they should. A strong special case could be made for the first two albums, recorded on two-track equipment and only released in split-channel binaural audio on the stereo CDs.
It was thought that the mono mixes would appeal only to the fanatical moptopophiles, and so unlike the stereo masters, there has been no limiting applied to these mono tracks, and even the length of the gaps between the tracks is the same as on the vinyl albums. They should not be compared to the American Capitol label releases as these were often remixed with superficially exciting added reverb. Furthermore, several of the American mono albums were simply fold-downs of the stereo albums, rather than the original mono as prepared by George Martin and the band themselves (the stereo mixes were usually created later and in a much shorter time, without any of the Beatles being involved).
Whereas the stereo box set includes some mono tracks, where no stereo mix is available, the mono box set is exclusively mono. The only exception to this is the inclusion of the original 1965 stereo mixes of HELP! and Rubber Soul. These have added to the mono albums as a way of making these historical artifacts available, as later mixes have been used elsewhere.
The difference between the mono and stereo formats of later albums such as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beatles (The White Album) are notable, ranging from speed variations to alternative overdubbing, editing and playing times. Stereo was becoming more established by this time, but the mixing was still done quite separately, so there are marked anomalies between the two, with the mono mixes favoured by many aficionados.
Yellow Submarine is not included in this box set because the mono release was simply a fold-down reduction of the stereo mix. By the time of Abbey Road and Let It Be, stereo cartridges had been introduced that could support mono record players, so the record companies no longer needed to release separate mono albums, a huge cost-saving that put an end to hours of fun comparing versions. Consequently, these two albums are also not included in the mono box. However, they were both released in mono in some overseas markets, and in the UK in open-reel tape format. I have read that these were also fold-downs, but I am not sure about this as Lewisohn's The Complete Beatles Chronicle reports the preparation of mono mixes at the Abbey Road studios. If they do exist, this would have been the perfect vehicle for their release.
Finally, in this marathon box, comes the 2CD Mono Masters, collecting all the various singles, EPs, B-sides and stray tracks not to be found on their regular albums, a most diverse collection of tracks, from their earliest EMI recording to be released, the red-label single version of Love Me Do with Ringo on drums, to the jocular backroom surrealism of You Know My Name (Look Up The Number), originally destined for Yellow Submarine.
Although largely based on the previously-released Past Masters, this is a new compilation. The Ballad Of John And Yoko, Old Brown Shoe and Let It Be were on stereo singles, never released in mono, and so dropped from Mono Masters. In their place come five tracks that were prepared for an EP of the new Beatles tracks from the film Yellow Submarine, but the EP never saw the light of the day. It would have been on two discs (as with Magical Mystery Tour) comprising Only A Northern Song, Hey Bulldog, Across The Universe, All Together Now and It's All Too Much. These are true mono mixes that were prepared by the Beatles after the release of the Yellow Submarine album and have never been released before, even on vinyl. Across The Universe (Wildlife Version) was exclusive to the World Wildlife Fund charity compilation No One's Gonna Change Our World, also released only in stereo, on the Regal Starline label.
Their inclusion despite being previously unreleased adds strength to the argument for releasing mono versions of Abbey Road and Let It Be. Several of these singles and EP tracks, including Lady Madonna, Revolution, Hey Jude, Get Back and Don't Let Me Down were in stereo on Past Masters and have only previously appeared digitally on CD singles or an EP box set. Get Back and Don't Let Me Down differ slightly from both the stereo single versions and the Spector remixes.
Whether we prefer the mono or stereo versions is really academic. Both are part of our heritage and should be permanently available.
(review filed 15 October 2009)
Shapes Of Things - 60s Groups And Sessions (72.33)* R 1964-1969, P 2003
Best known for his pioneering work with the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck was one of the iconic faces of the swinging sixties, as exemplified in the film Blow Up, where the band perform a thinly disguised version of Train Kept-A Rollin'. He was exploring with feedback on homemade amps as early as 1960, and was a student of blues, rock and roll and country artists like Buddy Guy, Earl Hooker, Johnny Burnette and James Burton; and he played live with a variety of bands in the early sixties. Yet his recordings have not been poured over and anthologized as fellow guitar gods Clapton and Page have been, a circumstance which Shapes Of Things - 60s Groups And Sessions attempts to put right. This seems to be one of the first to contextualize his earlier and later sixties work with his two years in the Yardbirds.
As one would expect, sonically adventurous key singles like Heart Full Of Soul (his debut single with the Yardbirds), Still I'm Sad/Evil Hearted You and the majestic Shapes Of Things are included, as is his solo pop single Hi Ho Silver Lining, a rare vocal outing which introduced him to a new vast audience via Top Of The Pops and the like. Beck's Bolero, recorded while he was in the Yardbirds, is also featured. A slightly different mix of this instrumental was on the B-side of Hi Ho Silver Lining. It has Beck in July 1966 grouped with present and future luminaries Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins, John Paul Jones and Keith Moon.
The Jeff Beck Group, the band he formed in 1968, is represented by Rock My Plimsoul (a rewrite of Rock Me Baby featuring Rod Stewart), from the Truth album (not the single version as stated). They are also featured as support on Donovan's excellent single Barabajagal/Bed With Me (Trudi) and the three out-there tracks they made for Girls Together Outrageously, a collection of self-styled groupies including Miss Pamela Des Barres, who were indulged in an album by Frank Zappa for his Bizarre label. Although their best talents probably lay elsewhere, the tracks have a light-hearted quality and are quite fun.
There are some surprising omissions. We can probably be grateful for the absence of Love Is Blue, his version of the song that Vicky Leandros had taken to fourth place in the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest, which marked the end of his career as a solo performer, but the lack of his previous Top Thirty hit single Tallyman, written by Graham Gouldman (who had supplied several of the Yardbirds' hits) is surprising, and speaking of the Yardbirds, why no hit singles Over Under Sideways Down or the wonderful and psychedelic Happenings Ten Years Time Ago, which opened up a new direction for the band, together with its flip-side, on which he sings, Psycho Daisies?
It would have been nice also to hear The Yardbirds' The Nazz Are Blue, his first lead vocal, on which he sounds far more confident than on Hi Ho Silver Lining, and which inspired the name of Todd Rundgren's band, Nazz, rather than the earlier and paler instrumental demo, Jeff's Blues, which is included instead.
His pre-Yardbird work is represented by both sides of three singles by Screaming Lord Sutch (an early outing of Jeff's fuzzbox guitar), the Manchester duo The Fitz and Startz, a band called the Nightshift, and on a couple of duets where he jammed with Jimmy Page and Nicky Hopkins over Christmas 1964. His regular band prior to the Yardbirds, the Tridents, are not featured although it seems they were left largely unrecorded. He also did some session work after leaving the Yardbirds to develop his own career, and this is represented by a fascinating B-side by John's Children (shortly before Marc Bolan joined the band) and both sides of a Paul Jones single.
There is a problem, though, in that four of the 26 tracks included may well have nothing to do with Jeff Beck, as is recognised in the liner notes. Jeff Beck left the Nightshift in 1962, and although he was known to guest with them as late as 1964, there is nothing more than unsubstantiated rumour to suggest he played on their 1965 single, That's My Story. This was the first Tim Rice song to be recorded, after Beck had joined the Yardbirds, and was written that same year. Whoever the guitarist was, he had a choppier style, more like Mick Green or Mickey Jupp in approach. Beck certainly did play on the Paul Jones B-side, The Dog Presides, but there is no guitar present on the A-side, needlessly included.
Most tenuous is the inclusion of the Smoke's version of the Dave Mason song Utterly Simple, to represent Jeff Beck as a producer. Apparently some Beck fans believe he co-produced the track with Dave Mason, but the notes stress that two members of the band have clearly stated that he was not involved. It seems strange that these four tracks have been chosen in preference to records he was known to have played on, such as singles by Chris Andrews and Sandie Shaw, or those singles mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, this collection neatly takes Jeff Beck's sixties work out of the shadows and shines a spotlight into some of its darker corners.
(review filed 11 March 2008)
Truth (70.37)** R 1967-1968, P 2005
The first version of the Jeff Beck Group existed in a transitional period in time, before bands like The Faces and Led Zeppelin came into being, and after Jeff Beck's ejection from the Yardbirds. It's all in the timing because it also followed the folding of bands like the Shotgun Express and the Birds, from which he recruited Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, then both still relatively unknown. Mick Waller on drums had known Rod Stewart from earlier Steampacket days and came to the band from the Brian Auger Trinity.
Truth was the first album by the group although it was released under the name Jeff Beck, who was simultaneously "enjoying" a solo career, masterminded by producer Mickie Most, and having hits with songs such as Hi Ho Silver Lining, Tallyman and Love Is Blue (shudder).
The truer heart of Jeff Beck was to be found on the B-sides and on this debut album, which was mostly left to Ken Scott, the engineer, to handle, whilst Mickie Most no doubt dreamt of one day discovering elfin girls in black leather cat suits with bass guitars.
After eighteen months of grafting on the road the band were pretty hot. It is a classic album, though the shortage of material does show, with versions of Ol' Man River and a throwaway filler in Greensleeves. This was inspired by Chet Atkins' version, though Mick Waller had previously recorded a rocked-up version of it for Joe Meek with the Flee-Rekkers back in 1960 as Green Jeans. Carrying on that tradition, several of the tracks are thinly disguised rewrites of well-known blues songs. Let Me Love You is essentially Buddy Guy's Let Me Love You Baby; Rock My Plimsoul is clearly BB King's Rock Me Baby (although BB himself nicked it from Lil' Son Jackson) and Blues De Luxe owes more than a little to BB's Gambling Blues.
There's also a reworking of Shapes Of Things, a Yardbirds hit that Jeff played on; a cover of Tim Rose's arrangement of Morning Dew; a version of Muddy Waters' You Shook Me with John Paul Jones (soon to be of Led Zeppelin) guesting on Hammond; and a rip-roaring rendition of Willie Dixon's I Ain't Superstitious, as recorded by the great Howlin' Wolf.
The album set a sort of blueprint for a genre that came to be known as heavy rock, made possible by developments in the technology of electrical musical instruments, amplification and recording equipment, of which Jeff and his sidemen were early adopters and experimenters. In the Yardbirds, of course, he had been a pioneer of feedback. The sound was developed on the second album, Beck-Ola, but with less light and shade than is found on Truth.
Rounding out the album is the instrumental Beck's Bolero, an earlier recording from July 1966. It had previously appeared on the B-side of Hi Ho Silver Lining and has the unique line-up supporting Jeff of Jimmy Page (12-string electric guitar), Nicky Hopkins (keyboards), John Paul Jones (bass) and Keith Moon (drums)! The tune is credited to Jimmy Page, though Maurice Ravel may have had a hand in it. On the album it is shorn of the backwards guitar part at the end but is newly mixed into rudimentary stereo.
This edition of the CD comes with 16 pages of booklet notes including an informative essay by Charles Shaar Murray, and a number of bonus tracks (all stereo except where stated): I've Been Drinking had been the B-side of Love Is Blue, and so was unlikely to have been heard by legions of Jeff Beck fans who would have avoided the single like the plague, and was an adaptation of Dinah Washington's Drinking Again. There are the first takes of All Shook Up and Blues De Luxe, the latter without the fake live effects that were overdubbed to the eventual master; the excellent 1967 single Tallyman (in mono) and its B-side, an earlier recording of Rock My Plimsoul, both from a time when Aynsley Dunbar was the drummer; and Hi Ho Silver Lining, first recorded by the Attack, and its B-side, the original mono, backward guitar mix of Bolero.
Finally, it includes the dreaded Love Is Blue (in mono). Where to begin with this blot in Jeff Beck's discography? It began life as L'Amour Est Bleu by the Paul Mauriat Orchestra, and with words added became Luxembourg's 1967 entry in the Eurovision Song Contest as sung by Vicky Leandros. It came fourth but was popular enough to be recorded by the likes of Andy Williams and Claudine Longet. It falls way outside Jeff Beck's comfort zone and suggests that Mickie Most must have had a very persuasive tongue.
(review filed 20 April 2009)
Them Belfast Gypsies (56.18)*** P 1966-1967, P 2003
When Van Morrison called a halt to Ireland's premier R&B beat group in September 1966, after three and a half brief but explosive and highly charged years and seemingly dozens of personnel changes, Them had split into various separate factions. Two of the band, Alan Henderson and Ray Elliott, hired some more musicians and relocated to America to carry on as Them with a new vocalist. Van Morrison himself also went to America and went solo, first for Bert Berns' Bang label and then, of course, radically changing direction with the hit albums Astral Weeks and Moondance, the first of dozens of successful albums.
Jackie and Pat McAuley had between them been in various Them line-ups between June 1964 and July 1965, but had left the band before its demise, having in the meantime moved to London. They had formed a new band comprising Jackie McAuley (vocal, harmonica, keyboards), Ken Mcleod (guitar), Mark Scott (bass) and Pat McAuley (drums), but had yet to acquire a proper name in February 1966 (being known simply as the Other Them) when maverick American producer Kim Fowley met up with them in the Gioconda coffee bar in Denmark Street, a favoured Tin Pan Alley watering hole.
I suspect Kim Fowley's recollection of events may have an apocryphal element, but according to this album's sleeve notes, Kim said, "I went in and had a ham and cheese sandwich and saw these guys sitting at a table near by. 'Are you in a group?', I asked, as so many people who used the café were, and they replied, 'Yeah, we were in Them.' 'Oh really?' I said, 'Let's go and make an album', and that was that." He gave them the name Belfast Gypsies because of their romany-style image and had them dress in Sunset Strip clothes, but deliberately took their sound back to the primitive Mystic Eyes and Gloria-era R&B styling of classic-period Them, and recorded them in a small Denmark Street studio also used by bands like the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things. It had a great earthy sound, courtesy of unsung hero Bill Farley, the sound engineer there.
The first single wasn't bashful about its heritage, being a raucous re-write of Gloria entitled Gloria's Dream, but Kim Fowley also brought an American influence, shaped by garage punk songs such as Louie Louie and bands like Count Five and the Seeds, with whom Fowley had been distantly involved. The B-side of the single, Secret Police, was a song of his that he taught Jackie McCauley to sing, hence the nasal Californian style of vocal he employed on it.
In America, where the band was on Loma Records, the B-side was a version of Derroll Adams' Portland Town. There are folk versions of the song by the Kingston Trio, Marianne Faithfull, Joan Baez, Rambling Jack Elliott and others, but the Belfast Gypsies gave it the full Them treatment, with the prominent organ sound familiar from hits such as Here Comes The Night. Kim Fowley also produced the second US single, People, Let's Freak Out, a thumping Bo Diddley-esque number, and possibly some of the other tracks on this album (originally only released in Scandinavia by the Sonet label in 1967 months after the band had split), but not those recorded in a Copenhagen studio while the band was on tour later in 1966 (billed as Them), though it is not specified which are which.
The album, Them Belfast Gypsies, rather mischievously had the word "Them" writ large across the top of the sleeve, and "Belfast Gypsies" in smaller letters at the bottom, so that many buyers and indeed critics assumed it was a record by Them called Belfast Gypsies.
Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness), a Donovan cover in turn nicked from Memphis Minnie, follows the Them blueprint and promotes the gypsy concept, and The Last Will And Testament is a steal from Saint James Infirmary performed as a pastiche of Them's glorious I'm Gonna Dress In Black. I would guess that these, the Alvin Roy standard Midnight Train and John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom were all initiated by Kim Fowley, even if recorded later, while It's All Over Now Baby Blue was probably a riposte to the US incarnation of Them, who had also covered the song in the wake of the version Van Morrison had recorded with Them on their second album, Them Again, after the McAuleys had left. The oddest track is Aria Of The Fallen Angels, adapted from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 In D Major, and inspired by the Swingle Sisters' version of it entitled Aria.
This Rev-Ola CD edition of the Belfast Gypsies' sole album adds half a dozen mono bonus tracks, comprising the single mixes of Gloria's Dream/Secret Police and a French EP on Disques Vogue issued as by Them, comprising Portland Town/It's All Over Now, Baby Blue/Midnight Train/The Gorilla. Of these, only The Gorilla is not also on the original album, and probably features none of the Belfast Gypsies at all but rather members of the Shotgun Express, some of whose names appear on the composer credits. As the album is also monaural, the differences on the bonus tracks all lie in the mastering. Some sound frankly identical to these ears, but Secret Police gains a few seconds, Portland Town is some 20 seconds longer, and Midnight Train allegedly fixes a varispeed mastering error on the album version, though both clock in at 3:28.
It's dumb, it's primitive, it's great. Play loud.
(review filed 12 November 2007)
Sweet Ride - The Best Of Belly (71.22)*** R 1992-1995, P 2002
One of the best indie bands of the nineties, formed by Tanya Donelly after she left the Breeders. The tracks here have been taken from their two albums and an assortment of CD singles, with some rarities and previously unreleased items
(indexed 11 May 2003, revised 11 January 2004)
The Best Of Chuck Berry (55.36/50.19)**** P 1955-1972, P 1996
Classic Chess-period back-catalogue, mostly singles, but a few album tracks where these have become well-known through other versions, from his first single, Maybelline, to an extended live version of Reelin' And Rockin' in 1972, showing his sly, witty lyrics which flow with the beat so skillfully and rhythmically, and his exemplary guitar playing and singing. It is hard to over-estimate the influence Chuck Berry had, particularly in the nineteen-sixties, on other musicians and songwriters, including for starters the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan
(indexed 10 August 2003)
The EP Collection (61.13)** P 1955-1965, P 1991
Pye International used the EP format wisely in the 1960s to promote their array of mouth-watering music licensed from American labels, including Chess, whose previous UK outlet had been the legendary London label. This 24-track collection rounds up the following British-compiled Chuck Berry EPs, on Pye International except where stated: Rhythm And Blues With Chuck Berry (1956, London), Reelin' And Rockin' (1959, London), Chuck Berry (1963), This Is Chuck Berry (1963), Chuck And Bo Vol. 2 (split between Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley)(1963), Chuck Berry Hits (1964), Blue Mood (1964), Come On (1965), The Promised Land (1965), I Got A Booking (1966) and You Came A Long Way From St Louis (1966).
The collection includes 16 A-sides, but it is the 8 lesser-known album tracks (5 of which were also B-sides) that give the more rounded view of Chuck Berry's music. Four of the tracks are in stereo mixes, although the balance on Things I Used To Do is rather unusual with the right channel reserved exclusively for one guitar.
Unfortunately, the compiler has chosen selections rather than providing complete EPs in most of these cases, making for a rather frustrating buy for the collector. Rhythm And Blues With Chuck Berry also included debut B-sides Wee Wee Hours and Together We Will Always Be. This Is Chuck Berry included Broken Arrow, while I Got A Booking also included I Want To Be Your Driver, St Louis Blues and Dear Dad. Apart from the missing title track, The Promised Land included Brenda Lee, and Blue Mood here lacks Driftin' Blues, Lonely All The Time and Fraulein. You Came A Long Way From St Louis included the title track and His Daughter Caroline. Perhaps compiler Colin Miles should have drawn from fewer EPs and presented them in full. Otherwise, a fine well-mastered collection
(review filed 24 July 2004)
Blues (39.50)*** R 1955-1965, P 2003
The British label Ace had a similarly themed compilation out over a decade ago, entitled On The Blues Side, but theirs had a rather more generous 21 tracks, and a playing time of over 55 minutes. That compares favourably with the 40 minutes on offer here, and so remains the better buy, especially as it has more comprehensive liner notes.
If there are specific titles that you are after, though, Blues does have a couple not to be found on On The Blues Side. These are his version of Ella Mae Morse's House Of Blue Lights (unreleased until Chuck Berry's Golden Decade Vol. 3), How You've Changed (from One Dozen Berries, and covered at the time by the Animals), St Louis Blues (from Chuck Berry In London), Route 66 (from New Jukebox Hits, and the arrangement that was used as the basis for subsequent covers by such as the Stones and Dr Feelgood) and, most interestingly, his little known train song All Aboard. This out and out gem appeared previously on Chuck Berry On Stage, when it was drenched in fake audience effects, and appears here in its unadulterated studio form for the first time.
(review filed 2 October 2006)
Greatest Hits (72.25)*** P 1993-2002, P 2002
Tracks chosen by her fans, apparently, but a fairly predictable trawl through her A-sides, though often in their album versions where these are longer, and occasionally in alternative mixes. It plays well, and shows how creative, listenable and danceable her music has always been
(indexed 12 July 2003, revised 11 January 2004)
Eat To The Beat (CD/DVD)(43.13)*** P 1979, P 2007
For all their CBGB punk and new wave credentials and their embracing of all contemporary New York culture, be it art or disco, on record Blondie were a surprisingly commercial enterprise, thanks in part to the production of Mike Chapman, and their love of sixties pop (Ellie Greenwich is a guest singer on the album).
Eat To The Beat was their fourth album and yielded four hit singles: Dreaming, Union City Blue (in the UK), The Hardest Part (in the US) and Atomic. Another three (Sound-A-Sleep, Living In The Real World, Die Young Stay Pretty) were B-sides. Atomic reached number one in the UK, and Dreaming was number two. Eat To The Beat was also a number one album (Top Twenty in the US), and additionally featured great songs like Accidents Will Happen and the title track, so that it almost plays like a Greatest Hits album.
The upbeat, inspired playing of the band and the warmth and character of Deborah Harry's voice keep these songs as fresh today as when they were baked.
Innovatively, Blondie also prepared videos for each of the twelve songs and released the album in various video formats including VHS and Betamax. Long deleted, it is now a joy to find them included in superior DVD format on the accompanying disc in this package. How would anyone not want these?
(review filed 24 July 2008)
Gary US Bonds
The Very Best Of Gary US Bonds (45.03)* R 1960-1966, P 1998
The most striking quality of this comprehensive collection of hit A-sides is the incredible atmosphere generated by Gary US Bonds' powerful vocals and the blasting sounds of the Church Street Five, the crack Legrand house band featuring Gene "Daddy G" Barge (Earl Swanson on the earlier cuts), who accompany him throughout, captured live in the studio.
Producer Frank Guida had a jazz and R&B record store called Frankie's Birdland in Church Street, Norfolk VA, and opened a studio up the road at the intersection of Princess Anne Road and Colonial Drive, where all the Gary US Bonds' records were made. "It was my deliberate intent to do Quarter To Three as if you were going by Daddy Grace's House of Prayer Church at Princess Anne Road and Church Street and hearing all the excitement," Guida is quoted as saying in the liner notes, and of course he was rewarded with a number one hit for his troubles behind the desk.
New Orleans marked the start of it all in 1960, reaching number 6, using ahead of its time production techniques - double-tracked vocals, rhythmic suspension, overmodulated sound - a year before Phil Spector formed Philles Records. Jack Good and George Martin were among early admirers of Guida's sound. School Is Out and other top ten records captured the same frenetic spontaneity and are all included here, along with two originally unreleased recordings (Shine On Lover's Moon and I Wanta Holler) and one B-side (Havin' So Much Fun), nine being stereo mixes
(review filed 18 November 2004)
Gary US Bonds
Take Me Back To New Orleans (61.53)* P 1961-1968, P 1994
More one for the collector, this collects 6 later A-sides, 9 B-sides, 3 tracks from Gary US Bonds first album, and 5 previously unreleased works, and provides "a chance to experience the other side of Gary Anderson's unique vocal talent - the soulful ballads, R&B belters and some delightful doo wop", as the notes proclaim. There is much to enjoy, such as the Christmas novelty Call Me For Christmas and the singles What A Dream (an exuberant love song with a reference to the Mona Lisa), My Sweet Ruby Rose, and Oh Yeah! Oh Yeah! from 1964, credited to Gary US Bonds and the Stompers and meeting the British invasion head on with a Kinks-like guitar figure and "Mersey" sound.
However it is the unreleased numbers that fascinate the most - a totally reworked version of Johnny Cash's I Walk The Line, an update of the Hoagy Carmichael standard The Nearness Of You and a duet with his wife, Laurie Cedeno Anderson, formerly of the Love Notes.
(review filed 18 November 2004)
Low (38.48)*** P 1977, P 1999
The first of a trio of albums that David Bowie co-produced with Tony Visconti at Conny Plank's Hansa Studios by the Wall in Berlin, Low (originally titled New Music - Night And Day) represented probably the most radical change of colour that the chameleon that was Bowie had so far affected. Their relatively poor sales at the time of release were instrumental in Bowie and RCA parting company (though all three reached the UK album top five), but have served only to enhance Bowie's standing over the decades.
Bowie has described the album as one that was extremely important to him and which had an influence on English music thereafter through its ambience and drum sounds. All three albums (Low, "Heroes" and Lodger) featured the involvement of Brian Eno, whose presence is clearly audible throughout, though on Low he is working to Bowie's brief rather than in true collaboration and has only one shared composer credit on the album, Warszawa.
Work on the album began in France at the Chateau d'Hérouville in June 1976, where Bowie was working with Iggy Pop in preparation for his album, and both albums feature the two of them with Ricky Gardiner and Carlos Alomar on guitars. Low therefore also belongs to a second trilogy, alongside The Idiot and Lust For Life, its sequel.
Bowie and Iggy relocated in 1976 to Berlin, to live and work and to kick their cocaine habits - a bizarre strategy which against all odds seemed to work. The resultant Low is an album of two distinct sides, an aspect that the CD format slightly unravels. The first side consists of half a dozen bursts of song featuring the augmented full band from his previous tour, albeit treated by Eno, sandwiched between two instrumentals, and including the two singles Sound And Vision (with the vocal doo-doo-doos of Mary Hopkin Visconti) and Be My Wife. Bowie had evidently been soaking up the German music scene and there are echoes of Faust, Neu!, Can and others.
If the lyrics on side one were minimal, having more or less discarded narrative, on the second side they were banished altogether for a startling eerie and wordless, largely instrumental handful of atmospheric longer textural tone poems, of which Warszawa is the centre-piece. They possibly comprise Bowie's strongest album side. Though sounding initially dark and sinister because of the (then) unfamiliarity of the sounds, they are intended to be glowing and spiritual, a positive source of regeneration and optimism, that grew out of his impressions of the Eastern bloc, though it was to be another duo-decade before the Wall was to go. Weeping Wall, despite its title, was originally intended for the soundtrack of the film The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the album cover is a still from that film, depicting Bowie as Newton, in profile (Low profile).
The composer Philip Glass used two of the pieces from side 2, Subterraneans and Warszawa, along with the unreleased composition Some Are from the same sessions, to create in 1993 his "Low" Symphony - From The Music Of David Bowie And Brian Eno
(review filed 14 April 2005)
Godfather Of Soul (55.49)** R 1956-1979, P 2003
One of the most common differences between budget re-issues and costlier compilations is the level of documentation explaining just what one is about to hear. If the buyer is knowledgeable enough to know just what he is getting then he has a head start on getting a bargain. On this CD are some general notes about James Brown and a track listing giving basic composer credits and some unreliable years of publication, so I am unsure, for example, whether Bewildered is the 1970 re-make from Sex Machine as implied, or the 1961 single which turned up on the Papa's Got A Brand New Bag album in 1966.
The CD actually comprises a fairly random-seeming selection of King and Federal sides recorded between 1956 (the great Please, Please, Please) and 1979. Eleven of the 18 songs were A-sides, though some of these are the album versions, the remainder being album tracks, and eleven are mono (including several which were recorded and mixed in stereo, such as Hey America, a Christmas single from 1970). As it includes essential James Brown records such as Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, Think and It's A Man's Man's Man's World and shows a range of style from doo-wop to funk and disco, this would make a good sampler for someone new to James Brown, but would become less essential as their collection grew
(review filed 21 December 2003)
The Soul Brothers (51.30)*** P 1960-1964, P 2002
This CD combines two LPs released by the Ember label in the UK in 1964, one by James Brown and one by Eddie Floyd.
The Amazing James Brown was released in America on King in 1961. It was his fourth LP and showed him making the transition from doo-wop to soul and rhythm'n'blues. Like most of his earlier albums it comprised some recent singles, some new tracks and a few old B-sides, in this case all recorded between September 1960 and September 1961 with the amazing James Brown Band and the Famous Flames. It was his first studio LP to be released in the UK when it came out in 1964 under the title Tell Me What You're Gonna Do. James Brown songs such as I Don't Mind and Just You And Me Darling are mixed with proven winners like Bullmoose Jackson's I Love You Yes I Do, Clyde McPhatter's The Bells (with Billy Ward and the Dominoes), Roy Brown's Love Don't Love Nobody and Johnny Moore and the Three Blazer's So Long.
The Eddie Floyd LP is a collection of 1964 singles for Lu-Pine and Safice, recorded in between his leaving the Falcons and joining Stax Records, and is less essential, though Robert Ward guests on guitar
(review filed 21 December 2003)
Messing With The Blues (55.01/55.20)*** R 1957-1975, P 1990
During his lengthy career, James Brown has often paid tribute to his own musical inspirations, jump blues shouters like Wynonie Harris, Bullmoose Jackson and Roy Brown, doo-wop and rhythm and blues groups like Billy Ward and the Dominoes, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and the Five Royales, blues performers like Memphis Slim; and above all, Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five. He also recorded a tribute album to Little Willie John immediately following his death in prison.
These and other items of homage are collected together on these two CDs and are presented in the chronological order in which James Brown would have first experienced the songs. Sandwiched between two chunks of Like It Is, Like It Was, which has James Brown rapping about the blues, the set starts with Erskine Hawkins' 1942 hit Don't Cry Baby, and ends with his own answer record to the Five Royales' Wonder Where Your Love Has Gone from 1959.
Two versions of the much covered Little Willie Littlefield classic Kansas City (originally called KC Lovin'), one from 1967 and one from 1975, clearly show the evolution of the James Brown sound.
Although entirely comprising back catalogue, it would be a mistake for any James Brown aficionado to imagine there could be nothing of interest for them as all but eight of the thirty tracks are previously unissued in the form found here. Two are in true stereo for the first time - 1961's I Love You Yes I Do and Ivory Joe Hunter's Waiting In Vain from the following year (only four of the songs on the 2CD are mono). Some are alternative takes, some are full version debuts of songs previously released in edited form or, in the case of Honky Tonk, chopped into two for both sides of a single, by the "James Brown Soul Train".
Eight tracks with a big band arranged and conducted by Sammy Lowe were recorded in a single New York day in 1964, all included here, including three Louis Jordan covers. Some of these came out on an album called Showtime, on which a fake over-excited audience had been overdubbed, and are presented for the first time in their pristine studio form.
The notes by compiler Cliff White and Harry Weinger are detailed and clear, with recording dates and line-ups and a history of each song
(review filed 12 January 2005)
Live At The Apollo (Vol. 2) (42.10/50.51)* R 1967, P 2001
James Brown has made four albums at Harlem's Apollo, the first in 1963 introducing the James Brown Show to a whole new audience and staying in the top selling lists for well over a year. By the time of this second album, selected mainly from the second of two shows during a record-breaking 10-day run in June 1967, he had played there a further 200 times and claimed to know the stage so well he would recognize it blindfold from the sound of the fans in the balcony.
The concerts caught the James Brown Band at an important transitional phase. The previous month Pee Wee Ellis had taken as over musical director and with Maceo Parker recently restored to the line-up on tenor sax the music had taken a new, more funky direction (at a time when funk didn't exist), as demonstrated on the first groundbreaking piece they had recorded together that same month, Cold Sweat. James Brown did not waste the opportunity to bring his audience up to date with his sound, performing new titles such as Cold Sweat and Let Yourself Go, the current single.
However, less than two minutes into the latter song the Band go into an extended locked groove jam called There Was A Time, with both Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks whacking out the tempo on twin drum kits, plus bongos by Ronald Selicoe, and this soon developed a life of its own when an edit of the performance appeared as the B-side of the next single, I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me). It did better in the R&B charts than the A-side, reaching number 3, and boosted sales of this legendary live album. The liner notes claim that this track "may well be the single most riveting Brown performance on record."
However, James Brown was off to Las Vegas the following month and also had an eye for the mainstream, so as well there are violin-filled renditions of standards like That's Life and I Wanna Be Around, which owes as much to Tony Bennett as it does to Dinah Washington.
This two CD set reconstructs the original set-list as far as is possible, restoring material edited from the original 1968 double-album because of running-time constraints, including in their entirety Sweet Soul Music from Bobby Byrd's set and the James Brown Band's revival of Duke Ellington's Caravan, and edits removed from longer pieces such as It's A Man's Man's Man's World, There Was A Time, I Feel All Right and Cold Sweat, with its Maceo Parker sax solos, all taken from the four-track remote recording master tape
(review filed 15 January 2005)
Title TK (38.01)*** P 2001
The Breeders were founded in 1989 by Tanya Donelly (from Throwing Muses) and Kim Deal (from the Pixies) as a side project, since both of these fine singers and writers were getting insufficient exposure in the bands they were in. Casual listeners who remember Kim's ecstatic vocals on the hit single Gigantic, may not realise, without having heard the albums, that this was almost the only lead vocal she ever had with the Pixies. The Breeders quickly took off, though Tanya soon left to form Belly, and was replaced by Kim's sister Kelley. They had made two successful albums by 1993, but then all went quiet, apart from side projects.
Finally, in 2001, after a year in the studios with Steve Albini, and helped by a pair of musicians borrowed from the band Fear, Kim and Kelley were back with this collection, showing they had lost none of their dark imagination and flare on this pared down and beautifully economical set. They also got to play in an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer
(review filed 26 August 2003, last modified 1 January 2005)
No Promises (34.45)* P 2006
I'm not sure if it is possible to be too languid, but if it is then Carla Bruni must surely be the prime candidate of the genre. On this, her follow-up to the charming album Quelqu'un M'a Dit, she adopts a languorousness that goes above and beyond the call of duty, sounding at times as if she has barely woken up. Quelqu'un M'a Dit was sung convincingly in French (although she is Italian), but on this album, her singing debut in English, there is an awkwardness as if the words she is enunciating were previously unfamiliar, and I often found myself wishing, despite the otherwise adept production, that they had gone for another take.
However, the project is a worthwhile one, and one that has been well executed in respect of the arrangements and melodies. Carla Bruni has created settings for a number of English-language poems: Dorothy Parker, WB Yeats, Walter De La Mare, Emily Dickinson, WH Auden and Christina Rosetti are all represented. The poems and a few lines about each are included in the booklet. Is it significant that there is no British or American equivalent that springs to mind? One wonders if our record companies would have been readily sold on such a concept.
(review filed 11 February 2010)
Jeff Buckley and Gary Lucas
Songs To No One 1991-1992 (60.48)** R 1991-2002, P 2002
In 1991 the chief draw to these tapes would have been the acclaimed former Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas. Now, of course, the presence of a 25-year old Jeff Buckley who was yet to make his recording debut is of overriding interest and the reason for these shelved demos, radio broadcasts, club performances and studio sessions recorded between August 1991 and April 1992 seeing the light of day. One of the major voices of his generation, he was sadly only to live another five years and to produce only one finished album in his lifetime.
No shoddy cash-in, this collection was commissioned and assembled under the watchful eyes of Mary Guibert, Jeff Buckley's mother, and Michael Dorf, from the Knitting Factory, where some of these live recordings originated. Its eleven tracks, beginning with a shattering performance of Edith Piaf's Hymne A L'Amour, document a critical moment in the formative period of Buckley's career, and include early versions of Mojo Pin and Grace, pivotal songs that Jeff Buckley wrote in collaboration with Gary Lucas while they were in the band Gods And Monsters, and which appeared on the album Grace with Gary Lucas guesting on guitar. The pair had met in April 1991 at the time of a tribute concert held at St Ann's Church in Brooklyn for Tim Buckley, Jeff's father, when both had wanted to perform the song Sefronia.
The twelve months that followed were transforming for Jeff Buckley's singing and musical direction and some of the key moments are documented here, including moments from the night at the Knitting Factory on 22 March 1992, broadcast live on the Music Faucet Show on WFMU, ten days after he had announced his decision to leave the band for a solo career, where, at the end of a tension-filled performance, he stayed on stage to perform an unaccompanied and poignant rendition of A Satisfied Mind.
This track has been embellished for this release for some reason, with additional guitar performed by Bill Frisell. This is a questionable practice but the end result does not sound unnatural or overstated. One other track has been doctored; She Is Free, which was a duet rehearsal recording made at Gary Lucas's home in January 1992, now more extravagantly features the band Sex Mob simulating the sort of direction Jeff Buckley was to develop within his music in the following year. Both Mary Guibert and the producer Hal Willner assure us that these overdubs improve the original recordings and that Jeff Buckley would have approved, though I feel slightly uneasy listening to something by him that he never heard.
Listening to the raw talent on show in these recordings, the subsequent success of Jeff Buckley, live and on record, was clearly inevitable
(review filed 13 June 2005)
Grace (51.48/66.15)**** R 1993-1994, P 2004
As I already owned Grace on CD, I bought this nicely packaged Legacy Edition 3-disc set (a bonus DVD disc is included) for the second disc. This contains some choice previously unreleased material along with 5 contemporary bonus tracks from EPs, soundtracks and the like, which alone justified the price of admission.
It kicks off to a great start with Forget Her, which was bumped off Grace in favour of the newly-recorded So Real, and would have made a great single. It is surprising, despite the personal reasons hinted at in the liner notes, that it has taken a decade for this to surface legitimately, as it surpasses even the posthumous single Everybody Here Wants You.
Dream Brother here appears both in an early version with different lyrics and a remix, named after Jeff Buckley's favorite incense, which he prepared for the promo Grace tour CD. The next handful of tracks, all cover versions, recorded at Bearsville during the Grace sessions but on a smaller informal performance stage, were spontaneously captured on 2-track DAT as Jeff played tribute to some of his musical icons - Hank Williams, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Bukka White and Nina Simone.
So Real was recorded when Michael Tighe joined the band on additional guitar, and a studio version of Big Star's Kanga-Roo, a popular extended live encore, was completed at the same time in a glorious 14-minute all-singing all-dancing version.
The film First Love, First Rites featured Jeff Buckley performing deep soul-style, with Shudder To Think, on the soundtrack, replete with Stax-style horns. The song, I Want Someone Badly was written by Nathan Larson from the band, and shows Jeff in an unfamiliar musical setting to fine effect.
The Road Version of Eternal Life had previously appeared on a CD single of Everybody Here Wants You, re-arranged from the album version to take advantage of Michael Tighe's guitar, and a good chance to hear the band rock out as they did onstage. This is also shown on the live version of Kick Out The Jams that follows, the only one I have found so far on CD, although often performed, notably at Glastonbury in 1995. This one was recorded for his record label's radio show in New York in 1994.
Finally, Strawberry Street, not mentioned in the outer-sleeve track listing, but documented in the booklet: this is one of Jeff's earliest original compositions, revisited in some experimental jams he made with Andrew Goodsight and John McNally at the Knitting Factory in May 1993 in the run-up to the Grace sessions.
All of these tracks deserve to be heard, and I need hardly say are essential to any Jeff Buckley fan.
I had no complaints with my existing CD of Grace, and in fact was slightly trepidatious of the re-mastered version in case it sounded too different. However, it blasts with renewed sheen and vigour through the speakers in its magnificently de-compressed form. Anyone want to buy an old copy of Grace?
(review filed 26 October 2004)
Live At Sin-é (79.33/77.42)** R 1993, P 2003
The first official release by Jeff Buckley was the EP Live At Sin-é, which came out in November 1993, and consisted of four songs recorded in the midst of the Greenwich Village scene in which he had been nurturing his formidable talents, just Jeff and his guitar in front of an intimate regular audience. Two of the songs were originals - Mojo Pin, the result of an earlier collaboration with Gary Lucas, and Eternal Life. Both of these songs were to turn up on his debut album, Grace, recorded that autumn. The other two were Edith Piaf's Je N'en Connais Pas Le Fin and Van Morrison's The Way Young Lovers Do. They were selected from recordings made at Sin-é on 17 August 1993 and probably would have been all we ever heard of these events had it not been for Jeff's tragic death just one album into his career.
Jeff's posthumous releases have been sensitively curated by his mother, Mary Guibert, first with the sketches and outtakes of what would have been his follow-up album My Sweetheart The Drunk, and then with selections of live recordings on CD and DVD, and an expanded edition of Grace, and so far they have served to enhance his reputation and status.
For this release, the Sin-é tapes of that nights plus an earlier night on 19 July have been edited into an assemblage that resembles one whole concert, complete with the between-song interplay with the audience. It makes a fascinating document of an assured performer, at the outset of a major career, enjoying performing, enjoying a relaxed relationship with a responsive audience. Although the banter is comical and spontaneous, the actual performances are intense, emotional and fully focused, and at times one forgets that Jeff is alone on the stage with only his electric guitar due to the range of sounds in his musical palette. The material is eclectic, with much of the material from Grace set against wide-ranging external material that he himself was exploring, ranging from three Bob Dylan songs, Billie Holiday, Led Zeppelin, Ray Charles and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the latter apparently as a result of a shouted request, and in whose music Jeff had a deep musical and spiritual interest. These were special nights, and it is a privilege to re-live the experience from this release, which also includes a bonus video disc, thankfully a DVD rather than CD-ROM, of an interview with Jeff and extracts from a return to Sin-é on New Year's Eve 1996, just months before his death on 29 May 1997
(review filed 20 October 2004)
Blue Afternoon (39.55)**** P 1970, P 1989
Following the release of the classic album Happy Sad in 1969, Tim Buckley signed to Straight Records and recorded two albums of extraordinary quality the following year, Blue Afternoon, released in February 1970, and Starsailor, which came out in January 1971. 1970 also saw the release of a third album, the experimental Lorca, which contained five pieces recorded in November 1969 for Elektra, his former label. Blue Afternoon was the most accessible of the three though none was a commercial success.
Happy Sad had seen Tim Buckley throw off the shackles of the folk-rock tag and move for awhile into an area of free-form jazz-blues and avant garde exploration. One track in particular, Dream Letter, presages the thematic content and introspection of much of Blue Afternoon. This was his first self-produced album and used the same musicians as on Happy Sad, including Lee Underwood, who had played on all his records, on second guitar and piano, but adding drummer Jimmy Madison.
The whole album is led by Buckley's incredible performances in which his voice becomes an instrument, at one with his own twelve-string guitar accompaniment. The use of exclusively real instruments, subtly amplified to create a spacey feel, adds to the overall mood of languorous melancholy that pervades the record.
Surprisingly, given its overall homogeneity, the album consisted of a number of previously unfinished songs, leftovers from his first three, and, as with Happy Sad, were written by Tim Buckley alone. At the time of release he claimed to have written the songs for Marlene Dietrich, an aspiration he must have acknowledged to be doomed to failure, but which may have been an inspiration in their conception.
The album opens with Happy Time, which was simultaneously released as a single with the very beautiful and soulful I Must Have Been Blind on the B-side, reaches a peak with the magisterial Blue Melody and closes with an extended jazzy workout called The Train, perhaps most closely deriving from his work on Lorca, and demonstrating the state of constant flux in which he conducted his artistry. The Train led the way logically towards Starsailor, his next album, which largely abandoned set songs in favour of more extemporised pieces.
I hate to be elitist about this, since this important album, like Starsailor, has not been available on CD since its limited 1989 edition via Rhino, due to the collapse of Herb Cohen and Frank Zappa's Straight/Bizarre labels, and badly needs to be re-mastered and re-released. CD copies are now hard to find and command high prices. He was a major artist, in the true sense of the word, and should be heard.
(review filed 20 January 2006)
Starsailor (36.04)**** P 1970, P 1989
Although it sometimes seems that there are more albums re-issued on CDs than ever could have been available on vinyl in the first place, there are a few notable albums for which no CD version is available. The recent overhaul of the Neil Young catalogue righted a few wrongs, but key albums by Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Terry Riley and Toru Takemitsu remain undigitised. I particularly mourn the absence of Annette Peacock's I'm The One and Tim Buckley's albums Blue Afternoon and Starsailor.
However, Starsailor (and Blue Afternoon) had come out in America on Rhino in 1989 but had quickly disappeared in some kind of legal wrangle involving Frank Zappa's Straight/Bizarre labels, for which the album had originally been recorded in 1970.
At its centre lies the starkly brilliant Song To The Siren, best known in its wonderful incarnation by This Mortal Coil, whose watery evocation of the tragic tidal pull of the sirens chillingly prefigures the premature death by drowning of his son Jeff Buckley in Memphis's Mississippi River. Elsewhere Tim's inspired vocal heights are matched by his own 12-sring accompaniment; the extraordinary, sympathetically fractured guitar and elemental keyboards of Lee Underwood; the deathless imploding bass of John Balkin; the Miles-inspired wind instruments of Buzz and Bunk Gardner and Maury Baker's traps and tympani. At times light and celebratory, and at other times harrowing and deeply primal these are songs that find unique territory to stake out and claim. If the previous album, Lorca, sounds as if it is out on the edge looking for a foothold, on this album, that foothold has been found, and the ideas fully realised
(review filed 31 October 2003, revised 25 July 2004)
Just Another Diamond Day (40.00)*** P 1970, P 2000
In the last couple of years Vashti has performed her first live set in over three decades at the Royal Festival Hall; duetted with Devendra Banhart on his Rejoicing In The Hands album; recorded with Piano Magic; sung on a Simon Raymonde collaboration, and with Animal Collective on their Prospect Hummer EP; and recorded a new album for Fat Cat, with guest appearances from the likes of Joanna Newsom and hopefully the arranger Robert Kirby. She has been cited as an influence by a whole new generation of young performers of avant folk and has a higher profile than she has had since her initial emergence on a single produced by Andrew Oldham and in TV appearances for Ready Steady Go! in 1965. Reviews of the single, Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind, a Jagger/Richard song which the two Stones had initially placed with Dick and Deedee the year before, variously described her as "the new Marianne Faithfull" and the "female Bob Dylan."
The reason for all this renewed activity was the re-issue in 2000 (2004 in the US) to great acclaim of her only album, Just Another Diamond Day, which had originally crept into the shops in 1970, without fanfare or promotion. "Nobody seemed to give it a second thought when it was released", says Vashti on her website, "In fact it was not really released, it just edged its way out, blushed and shuffled off into oblivion. I abandoned it, and music, forever as I went on to travel more with horses and wagons, with children and more dogs and chickens."
However, in the intervening years it has become regarded as a cult classic, with vinyl copies passing hands among collectors for ever increasing sums. When Vashti learned of this from the internet, she began the long process of collecting and collating the old masters, doing the legal stuff and finally getting the album made available on the Spinney label, together with some additional earlier bonus tracks.
The circumstances of the creating of the album are extraordinary and integral to its unique quality. After a trying couple of years recording for Columbia and Immediate to little effect, she simplified her style to just her and her Martin guitar. Donovan suggested she visited an artists' colony he was setting up on the isle of Skye and advanced her £100, and she, boyfriend Robert and dog Blue duly set off from Sidcup in July 1968 on a two-year adventure of magic, hardship and odd-jobbing, in an old green wagon towed by a horse called Bess (punctuated by a brief tour performing in the pubs of Belgium, and the odd train trip to London with songs for subs from new producer Joe Boyd). All the way, the songs she was writing were of what she was experiencing on her pilgrimage. "The songs were the dreaming in verges of grimy roads," she writes, and it is these songs, borne of the lifestyle of blood, sweat and rose hips that she found herself adopting, that make up the unique document that is this album. When Vashti reached Skye, the artistic renaissance had not taken seed and Donovan was in the process of leaving, so she continued to the Outer Hebrides with a virtually complete portfolio of music.
She eventually travelled back down to London, in a Morris Minor called the Kettle since it regularly boiled over, to record the album at Sound Techniques in November 1969, with Christopher Sykes and John James on keyboards. Joe Boyd had invited Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band to add fiddle, mandolin and Irish harp on three tracks, and from Fairport Convention, Dave Swarbrick to add fiddle and mandolin and Simon Nicol to add banjo on three others. Robert Kirby, well known for his work with Nick Drake, arranged string quartet and recorders on a further three.
Although very much of its period, the record has a beauty that stems from its unashamed purity and freshness, and is all the better for telling a true and unrepeatable story. Following its re-release The Observer Music Monthly listed it at 53 in their Top 100 British Albums list
(review filed 24 August 2005)
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (55.05/61.20)**** R 1968, P 2003
Since the extensive remastering project of the Byrds' entire Columbia catalogue that begun to appear in the shops in 1996, Sweetheart Of The Radio is the only Byrds CD to have been subsequently revised and expanded into this 2CD Legacy Edition. This says something of the importance and stature that this album has gradually acquired over the four decades since its release, to the point that it could be argued to be their most important release. Ironically, when released in 1968 it was widely reviled and nearly brought about the destruction of what was left of the band. Half of them had left during the recordings of the previous album, Notorious Byrd Brothers, leaving only Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman from the original line-up.
Even the magnificent single You Ain't Going Nowhere (with a safer B-side, Artificial Energy, drawn from Notorious Byrd Brothers) faltered at no. 74 in the US charts and did hardly any better in the UK, just nudging the Top Fifty; this despite being one of their famous interpretations of a new Dylan song, culled, like the album closer Nothing Was Delivered, from the unreleased Basement Tapes. Its follow up, Pretty Boy Floyd/I Am A Pilgrim, sunk without trace.
The new members were drummer Kevin Kelley and singer-guitarist Gram Parsons, fresh from the International Submarine Band, and it was his love of country music, widely regarded at the time to be the exclusive provenance of Southern rednecks, that had led to the startling new direction of the band - a fusion of rock music, country, bluegrass, Southern soul (filtered through William Bell and Otis Redding) and folk - at a time when country rock had not previously existed.
Furthermore, the new band had relocated from Los Angeles to Nashville and added a collection of top session men including honky tonk pianist Earl Ball and steel guitarist Jaydee Maness (Lloyd Green plays steel on One Hundred Years From Now, one of six tracks recorded later in Los Angeles), and they were unusually given license to play freely throughout, adding whatever they wished as the band played live in the studio. The country audience thought the band was a parody, and jeered at them on a Grand Ole Opry radio appearance to promote the new album, whilst previous Byrds fans could not connect with the new material, and the album stiffed.
Gram Parsons was still under contract to the Lee Hazlewood-owned label with whom he had recorded with the International Submarine Band and this led to all but three of his vocals being removed or buried, and replaced by those of Roger McGuinn (with Chris Hillman's help on One Hundred Years From Now). As he points out in the liner notes, he was embarrassed by the lyric on The Christian Life, and his version sounds sardonic and insincere, which can't have helped at the time, but by the time the album was released Gram Parsons had left the band anyway, so at least the new vocals gave a more accurate representation of the band that was to tour the record. Three Gram Parsons masters that were replaced are included as bonus tracks on disc one of the Legacy Edition (rehearsal takes were included on the 1997 special collector's edition), making it possible to program the record the way it had been originally intended. Four outtake masters are also included, including Pretty Polly, Lazy Days, later to be revived by Gram Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the previously unreleased All I Have Are Memories featuring a vocal by Kevin Kelley (an instrumental version was included in the 1997 edition).
The bonus disc includes fourteen previously unreleased working demos, outtakes and rehearsal versions (there are four others on the 1997 disc that are not found here) including a radically different arrangement of Pretty Polly, and these make an insightful addition into the workings of making the album, and all the rehearsals, though flawed, have unique elements within them that are fascinating to hear. Although all the rehearsal takes are numbered, what other take was used as the final master is not disclosed, nor how many of each song were made, though apparently sixty attempts were made at You're Still On My Mind in Los Angeles before Take One was used on the record.
The clincher over the single disc version, apart from the improved, phenomenal sound quality throughout, is the inclusion on the second disc of six tracks by proto-country rock band the International Submarine Band, showing how much Gram Parsons brought to the Byrds. Three tracks from the album Safe At Home include an embryonic version of Luxury Liner. This was released as a single in 1967 with Blue Eyes on the flip, and was later famously taken up by Emmylou Harris and Albert Lee; whilst the other three, making their CD debut, comprise both sides of their second single, and, showing where it all began, Truck Drivin' Man, the B-side of their first single in 1966. Whereas I would recommend this over the single disc version, collectors will doubtless need both, whilst the single disc will suffice perfectly for those less given to scrutiny.
(review filed 13 June 2007)
There Is A Season (64.49/66.18/78.43/71.22)**** R 1964-1990, P 2006
A lot has happened to the Byrds' body of work since 1990's Byrds Boxset, a collection which has long been unavailable and which There Is A Season sets out to replace. Starting in 1996, as befits a band of such stature, the entire Byrds Columbia/CBS catalogue has been digitally remastered and each album re-issued complete and expanded with a feast of bonus tracks - singles, outtakes, alternate takes and mixes, live performances - and a new album, Live At The Fillmore - February 1969, was dusted off from the archives and released in 2000.
These extra tracks and the copious booklet notes gave a fresh extra insight into the history of the band, which had probably more changes of line-up and musical direction than any other major band, and gave the compilers of this 4CD spin-off vast scope to draw from in telling the musical story of the band. This it does from its pre-Columbia inception in 1964 to its disbandment nearly a decade later, and, as a coda, one of four pieces the band reformed to record for the 1990 box set. As a fulsome introduction to the band it would be hard to better in value for the clarity of the recordings and the illustrative overview it provides. If a particular year or album should particularly chime, rest assured there is plenty more left to discover to warrant a separate purchase covering that section of the band's life.
Disc 1 includes the earliest known recordings by the fledgling band in 1964, from when they were known as the Jet Set and the Beefeaters onwards, and 18 of their ground-breaking 1965 folk-rock tracks, their most prolific and arguably most successful year. Disc 2 covers their psychedelic explosion in 1966 and the subsequent come-down in 1967, the last contemporary recordings of the original classic line-up.
Disc 3 launches the re-invented band featuring Gram Parsons on the seminal Sweethearts Of The Rodeo album in 1968, including some with Gram's lead vocals that weren't used after he left the band; and the following period up to 1970 with master guitarist Clarence White. These include Dr Byrds And Mr Hyde, Ballad Of Easy Rider and (Untitled). Disc 4 continues the same period with a dozen live 1970 New York performances, then fragments with various recordings from the Byrdmaniax/Farther Along era (1971), all with the same line-up of McGuinn, White, Skip Battin and Gene Parsons. Two live recordings from January 1973 (with John Guerin on drums) for the film Banjomen; a reunion of the original line-up a month later featuring two Gene Clark songs; and finally, a 1990 reunion recording by McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman complete the 99-track smorgasbord.
If you should already own the expanded re-issues there is far less to tempt you to part with your money. The first disc does include a rare Jet Set recording, both sides of the Beefeaters' Elektra single and some of the readily available so-called Pre-Flyte sessions. The rest are from the 1996 re-issues (Turn! Turn! Turn! turns up in mono again, peculiarly, as it was monaural on the expanded album). The second disc includes the authentic mono mixes of Why? (single version), Lady Friend and Old John Robertson, and a mono Swedish radio session version of He Was A Friend Of Mine.
On disc three Candy is the remixed soundtrack version, but Lay Lady Lay is again not the official version as released as a single. Contrary to the booklet information, Kathleen's Song is the standard Byrdmaniax version. Disc four fares better with 4 1970 live recordings previously unreleased and 2 only from the 1990 box set. It also has their instrumental contribution to a 1971 Earl Scruggs album; the two Banjomen soundtrack live recordings; and the 1990 box set recording. Fittingly, since their career kick-started with Mr Tambourine Man, this final track is Dylan's Paths Of Victory.
Perhaps the juiciest carrot is the fifth disc: a truly evocative DVD with 10 1960s TV appearances showing the band miming to their hit singles as go-go dancers in cages gyrate the way only sixties dancers could.
(review filed 2 April 2007)