The Beatles: Past and today

By Tom Von Malder | Nov 19, 2019
Photo by: Apple/Universal Records The iconic cover of The Beatles' "Abbey Road" album. The new 50th anniversary edition is outstanding.

Owls Head — The Beatles: Abbey Road Anniversary Deluxe Edition (1969, Apple/Universal, 3 CDs, 2:13:28, + Blu-ray audio). As with the wonderful expanded edition of The Beatles’ “White Album,” much of the enjoyment of this new box set comes through the inclusion of two sessions discs that allow one to hear the band in the process of creating its last, and some would argue, greatest album. These 23 tracks are often intimate, with some studio chatter heard.

Count me among those who feel “Abbey Road” was The Beatles’ greatest accomplishment as an album, even better than “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and more consistent than the sprawling “White Album.” (“Revolver” also should be in contention.) The 50-year-old album itself comes with a new 2019 mix by mix engineer Sam Okell and producer Giles Martin, son of original album producer George Martin. In addition to the new stereo mix, the pair also mixed the album in Dolby ATMOS and 5.1 Surround Sound. The album’s music is sunny, warm and optimistic; yet even as they sang “Come Together,” the band was falling apart. Guitarist George Harrison actually quit the band one stormy afternoon, and when he came back it was to record a few tracks while guitarist/vocalist John Lennon was not present. Lennon had become ill after he and Yoko Ono were involved in a car crash in Scotland, delaying their return to London.

In addition to “Come Together,” the album proper includes two of Harrison’s best songs, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” Lennon’s contribution includes the beautiful ballad, “Because.” The music goes from the playful, “Octopus’s Garden,” to the heavy, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” And the final song, other than the brief ditty, “Her Majesty,” is appropriately “The End,” with John, George and Paul McCartney exchanging guitar solos. The album’s last eight tracks, from “You Never Give Me Your Money” through “The End,” actually are of one piece, which originally was referred to as “The Long One.” At various times, McCartney, Lennon and Harrison each play Moog synthesizer. Harrison owned one of only a few Moog synthesizers then in existence. Ringo Starr, who sings the countrified “Octopus’s Garden,” plays anvil on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” a song that actually is about murder, and plays his only drum solo on a Beatles record during “The End.”

The bonus tracks include a trial edit and mix of “The Long One” and alternate takes of “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” with just Lennon on guitar and McCartney on drums, and Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe,” neither of which made the final album. There are McCartney’s demo recordings of “Goodbye,” written for Mary Hopkins, who charted at No. 2 with it, and “Come and Get It,” which helped launch Badfinger’s career. McCartney himself did not play the song again until his 2011 tour. A recording of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” at Trident Studios in London is interrupted by complaints of too much noise by neighbors. Lennon agrees to turn the volume down, after one “Last chance to be loud.” There are instrumental versions of “Because,” just the strings on “Something” and strings and brass only on “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight.” On take 20 of “Mean Mr. Mustard,” Lennon throws in a playful alternate line: “His sister Bernice works in the furnace.”

In addition to the glorious music, the super deluxe edition comes with a 100-page, 12x12 hardcover book, filled with vintage photos, including many previously unseen ones by Linda McCartney, and a wonderful “The Route to Abbey Road” essay by Kevin Howlett, who also does highly informative track by track commentary. Howlett also writes about the iconic cover – the four lads walking through a crosswalk on Abbey Road, with McCartney’s feet bare – and the album’s release. Paul McCartney writes a foreword and Giles Martin contributes an introduction, while David Hepworth adds a final essay. As The Beatles sing here, “And in the end/The love you take/is equal to/The love you make.” Grade: A++

Mike McGear: *McGear (1974, Esoteric/Cherry Red, 2 CDs, 1:40:11, + DVD, 100 min.). McGear, aka Peter McCartney, changed his professional name so that any success he had would be based on his own efforts and not those of his famous older brother Paul, one of The Beatles. However, for this, McGear’s most successful album, his big brother was heavily involved, producing the album, writing two of the songs solo and co-writing seven other songs, six with McGear. The original 10-track album is expanded on disc one by two bonus tracks from singles, both again co-written by the brothers, with Linda McCartney contributing to one of them. Oh yes, McCartney also had members of his band Wings perform on most of the tracks.

The original album, remastered here and with a reproduction of its British gatefold sleeve that never was released in the United States, is bolstered by a second CD of 19 “out-takes &odd ditties,” including other single efforts by McGear. The clamshell mini-box set also comes with a DVD containing two new interviews with McGear (96 min.) and the promotional video for “Leave It.” The set also includes a 32-page, photo-filled booklet that has a very informative essay by Mark Powell as well as track-by-track notes for the bonus CD, plus two posters, one of which contains the lyrics.

The album’s two highlights come at the beginning and end: a fine cover of Bryan Ferry’s “Sea Breezes” (it appeared originally on the first Roxy Music album and was Paul McCartney’s choice to cover) and the brothers’ co-written “The Man Who Found God on the Moon,” which takes a bit of “A Day in the Life” approach, has several music shifts, features some singing by McGear’s children and a wonderful main melody. (That melody under the title line has stuck with me for 45 years.)

The two solo Paul McCartney compositions are “What Do We Really Know,” which opens with some backwards guitar, has wife Linda on harmonies and adds a quirky coda; and “Leave It,” which features a nice wailing sax by Brian Jones of The Undertakers. The co-written “Have You Got Problems” starts mid-tempo, then has an up-shift that is very Wings like. Paddy Maloney of The Chieftains plays Uilleann pipes on “The Casket,” which is a Paul adding music to a poem by Roger McGough, who was a member of the comic rock trio Scaffold along with McGear and John Gorman. “Rainbow Lady” is melodic, “Simply Love You” is a simple love song and “Givin’ Grease a Ride” is hard rock, with McGear revving his car’s engine for sounds on the track. The bonus single cuts are “Sweet Baby” and the bouncy nonsense of “Dance the Do.”

The bonus tracks on disc two include a version of “Sea Breezes” without the orchestra and recorded with Paul on piano and Wings backing him; a longer (6:42) version of “Leave It” that includes a second fade out; a rough first mix of “Dance the Do” with Paul on Moog synthesizer and Jimmy McCulloch on guitar; a rare Paul bass solo on the “What Do With Really Know” monitor mix; McGear’s single cover of a Jamaican song and its B-side; and three unreleased tracks: “Girls on the Avenue” by Pete Wingfield; 1973’s “Blowin’ in the Bay”; and 1973’s “Let’s Turn  the Radio on.” There also is his 1980 single, “All the Whales in the Ocean,” which was made to promote awareness of the plight of Blue Sperm whales.

In the two DVD interviews, McGear is very relaxed and even playful. In one, he tells of his school days pranks, which led to the song “Norton,” and tells some George Harrison and John Lennon stories from that time period. The longer interview discusses the album and its recording. The “Leave It” video (3:38) is very dated. Grade: box set A-

Ringo Starr: What’s My Name (Ume CD, 34:50). For his 20th solo album, the former Beatles drummer gets a lot of help from his friends, with his co-writers usually also appearing on the track. The album opens with what is arguably its worse misstep, the quirky rocker “Gotta Get Up to Get Down,” co-written by Joe Walsh, who adds guitar and vocal. Edgar Winters adds clavinet, synthesizers and vocal to the track. Much better is the bouncy “It’s Not Love That You Want,” co-written by Dave Stewart, who plays guitar as well. Fellow ex-Beatle Paul McCartney plays bass and sings background on a cover of former bandmate John Lennon’s “Grow Old with Me” ballad, which features strings. There is a cover of Motown’s “Money,” which The Beatles recorded in 1963, with Toto’s Steve Lukather on guitar. Lukather also plays guitar and piano on “Magic,” which he co-wrote.

Ringo’s ever-present positivity comes through on “Better Days’ by Sam Hollander and his own “Life is Good,” a slice of pop-rock co-written with Gary Burr. The album’s best two track come late: “Thank God for Music,” co-written with Hollander, and the message song, “Send Love Spread Peace,” co-written with Gary Nicholson.” The closing title track was written by Colin Hay, formerly of Men at Work. Hay plays guitar and sings backup on the track, which has a bit of a rockabilly approach. Overall, Ringo is still doing just fine. Grade: B

Ramones: It’s Alive,40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (1979, Sire/Rhino, 2 LPs, 53:55, + 4 CDs, 3:38:40). The classic live album – one of the best live albums of all time – gets a remaster for its 40th anniversary, plus the release is expanded to include three other previously unreleased live concerts from the same British tour. The release, which comes in a 12x12 hardcover book, is limited to 8,000 copies.

Originally recorded at the Rainbow Theatre in London on Dec. 31, 1977, the New Year’s show was released as a double album in 1979. The 28-song lineup, which lasts less than 54 minutes, has 18 songs that clock in at less than 2 minutes. The material came from the quartet’s first three albums. The album’s name was a play on a 1974 horror film. Of note, it was the last album to feature all four original band members: bassist Dee Dee Ramone, lead singer Joey Ramone, guitarist Johnny Ramone and drummer Tommy Ramone. Tommy tired of touring and left the band in early 1978. Tommy also was the last of the four to die in 2014.

This is one of those live albums in which nearly ever track is a standout. There are “Blitzkrieg Pop,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” from “Ramones” (1976); “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” “California Sun” (their fun cover of The Rivieras’ 1964 ode) and “Pinhead” from “Leave Home” (1977); and “Cretin Hop,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” and “Rockaway Beach” from “Rocket to Russia” (1977).

The previous released New Year’s Eve concert is the only one of the four concerts here to include “Judy Is a Punk.” Two of the shows include “Havana Affair,” while the other two substitute “I Can’t Give You Anything.” The other three shows, all professionally recorded, were Dec. 28, 1977 at Top Rank in Birmingham; Dec. 29, 1977 at Victoria Hall in Stock-On-Trent; and Dec. 30, 1977 at Friars in Aylesbury.

The set comes with a 16-page 12x12 booklet containing new liner notes by record producer and musician Steve Albini and Ed Stasium, who produced and engineered the album and remastered all the music here. Grade: A

Roger C. Reale & Rue Morgue: The Collection (1978-79, Rave On CD, 65:12). This disc debuts 24 remastered tracks on CD, with the first 12 making up the band’s 1978 debut, “Radioactive” (original release was on indie label Big Sound), and the second 12 making up “Reptiles in Motion.” The latter was recorded in 1979, but was never released.

For the first album, the band included Reale on lead vocal and bass, G.E. Smith (Daryl Hall & John Oates, Bob Dylan, Saturday Night Live Band) on guitar, Hilly Michaels (Mick Ronson Band, Sparks, Ian Hunter) on drums and guitarist Jimmy McAllister (Mick Ronson Band, Sparks) on one track. Reale also was the primary songwriter. Highlights include the rocking “High Society,” finding love at a crosswalk in “Stop and Go,” a cover of “Rescue Me” done new wave style, “Reach For the Sky,” the gentler “Please Believe Me” (think Elvis Costello) and “I Can’t Control Myself” with its slightly Halloween approach.

For the unreleased second album, Reale was joined by Guitarist Mick Ronson (David Bowie), McAllister and Michaels. Among the songs, “She’s Older Now” gives a slight nod to The Beatles, “Radioactive” is a rocker, “No Secrets” recalls the Ramones and “Make It Be Over” is melodic.

The tri-fold packaging includes new interview bits with those involved. Reale says, “Big Sound initially patterned itself after Stiff Records. Punk and new wave stuff was getting through and Big Sound wanted to be part of that.”

Big Sound A&R man Jon Tiven recalls, “Roger is the closest thing we had to an artist that I thought would be appealing to Ramones fans, Richard Hell (Television) fans, somebody who had that kind of adrenaline rush.” Grade: B

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