Classic Music Reviews: Past Masters, Volume Two by The Beatles

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Past Masters Volume Two feels like a record with a huge hole in it, as it omits all the singles that appeared on the U. S. version of Magical Mystery Tour.

To have nothing from the historically significant year of 1967 is almost criminal, for those three singles were signature pieces of the time: “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane,” “I Am the Walrus”/”Hello Goodbye,” and “All You Need Is Love”/”Baby You’re a Rich Man.” It feels wrong to jump from “Rain” all the way to “Lady Madonna.” I covered all those songs in my review of the American LP Magical Mystery Tour, so feel free to pop over there if you feel the need to maintain a sense of musical progression. We’ll suck it up and forge ahead with what we’ve got:

“Day Tripper”: Another iconic riff that every budding guitarist and bassist learns as part of their fretboard competency development program, even today. If you needed any more proof that The Beatles were a tight rock band, this is it. I hate the way the 2009 remaster “corrected” the missing lead guitar note in the riff before the final verse. The Beatles made a career out of interesting flaws!

“We Can Work It Out”: Certainly the stronger song of the pair, this is one that gets better with age. The simple but elegant arrangement features John pumping the harmonium in support of Paul’s lead vocal and a disciplined performance from Ringo as he moves from 4/4 to waltz time on the bridge without a hitch. The complete absence of electric guitar validates the notion that subtraction is often better than addition when it comes to the art of arrangement. McCartney’s exceptionally strong lead vocal and the melancholy harmonization on the bridge make this song one of the tracks in The Beatles’ catalog closest to perfection.

“Paperback Writer”: The Beatles excelled at attention-grabbing openers, and “Paperback Writer” is one of their strongest. The a capella harmonies build from two-part to three-part harmonies with the kind of free movement frequently heard in drone songs, a genre into which “Paperback Writer” comfortably fits, as it remains firmly planted on the tonic G except for a brief shift to C in the choruses. This allows the notes of the harmonies to drift from the expected patterns, creating some unusual chord combinations spiced with sustained fourths and sevenths that ramp up the tension. What really seals the deal for me is the amped-up bass: “The first time the bass sound had been heard in all its excitement,” claimed Geoff Emerick in the Mark Lewinsohn book, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. The childlike “Frère Jacques” harmonies add both richness and excitement to the soundscape. This song brings up some very fond memories of a New Year’s Eve bash with the family where three generations of drunken Irish tried for over an hour to duplicate the opening harmonic passage. What was amazing is that everyone in that room seemed to know every note of every layer of harmony, leading to frequently intense but loving criticism, like, “For fuck’s sake, Mary, you’ve fucked up John’s part again!”

“Rain”: Two dronish songs on the same single would have spelled death for any other band, but The Beatles had a deserved reputation as magicians who could make anything work. Famous for Ringo’s masterful drum work and backwards guitars, this is another song that has aged exceptionally well and always sounds fresh and exciting when it comes up in my iPod rotation. Paul’s fabulous bass runs confirm the liberation of that instrument, and John’s vocal contains so many memorable bits of phrasing that I could probably write a post solely on his vowel palette. I never tire of listening to this song.

“Lady Madonna”: Fast forward to 1968! Harrumph! My dad told me that he had no idea that this was The Beatles for two weeks after he first heard it on the radio. He actually went to Tower Records and sung the tune for the guy behind the counter to see if he knew who the band was. The guy probably concluded that my father was either a time traveler or a fucking moron. His confusion had to do with Paul using his “Elvis voice,” which is somewhat understandable, but when I asked him how in the fuck he could have missed the other clues (the line “See how they run” and the undistorted harmonies from John and George), he defensively replied, “Hey—everyone was trying to sound like The Beatles back then.” A fun and rollicking number with plenty of good humor, “Lady Madonna” was the last thing they recorded before that disastrous journey to India.

“The Inner Light”: I hate it when anyone gets preachy and sanctimonious, regardless of religion. Ripping off Lao-Tzu certainly helped George avoid the plagiarism lawsuits that hounded him after “My Sweet Lord,” since the author had been dead for oh, 2500 years. Despite the fascinating sounds of the shehnai (the thing that sounds like an oboe) and the bansuri (flute), I find George’s positioning of himself as dispenser of wisdom quite offensive.

“Hey Jude”: I can add little to the vast amount of ink that has already been used to describe the virtues of the song except to say it’s a perfect song, perfectly executed. The relatively spare arrangement of the verses makes each part seem special, whether it’s the introduction of the acoustic guitar in the second verse, or Ringo’s fills or the delayed appearance of the bass in the first bridge. The spot harmonies are simply marvelous, supporting one of Paul’s best vocals ever. Magnificent!

“Revolution”: Thank God that George Harrison thought the original version that appears on The White Album with its silly shoo-be-doo-bee background vocals was too fucking slow for a single, forcing Mr. Lennon to agree to amp it up. The opening guitar screams revolution, and the big single thump from Ringo adds to the urgency of the moment. The deliberately sloppy double-tracked vocal bursts add to the excitement; it’s like the song is built on an active volcano spewing out bits of lava. What a single!

“Get Back”: Although I like the song, it doesn’t have the staying power or the excitement of their best singles and has fewer memorable moments. Listening to this song in the context of their chronology, this sounds like the moment where The Beatles decided to stop pushing the limits and settle for so-so. Okay, so they played it on the rooftop in their last “public” appearance. Big deal.

“Don’t Let Me Down”: I despise Lennon’s endless streams of odes to Yoko; this was one of the first of many very boring self-confessional pieces dedicated to the love of his life. Yawn.

“The Ballad of John and Yoko”: By this time Lennon viewed John-and-Yoko as the center of the universe and felt an intense need to bore the listening public with tales of their avant-garde lifestyle. The best thing about this single is that it’s just John and Paul in what was becoming an increasingly rare example of collaboration.

“Old Brown Shoe”: Sometimes George would write out-of-the-blue songs that had nothing to do with trying to teach us about the meaning of life, and some of these are delightful. I’ve always liked this song for its chord progression and the bass part, which George claims was his. It’s certainly a lot more fun than listening to John rave on about Yoko.

“Across the Universe”: This is The World Wildlife Version, full of bird noises. For some reason, they decided to speed up the original recording for this release. The version on Let It Be . . . Naked is way better.

“Let It Be”: This song is at or near the top of several fan lists of favorite Beatles songs. It’s one of my least favorite Beatle songs. The celestial tinge of the song simply doesn’t work for me, and Paul’s vision of his mother Mary coming to him in a dream is an experience I wish he’d cherished in private. The music is boring and eminently predictable.

“You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”: A joke without a punch line. ‘Nuff said.

6 responses

  1. […] a look at the hits that made them famous, a fair point indeed. So, as I did for Past Masters 1 and 2, I shall do the same for The Kinks and consider this first collection of their greatest […]

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  2. […] Past Masters Volume 2 […]

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  3. […] song: anyone can join in, no matter how vocally challenged they may be. I mentioned in my review of Past Masters, Volume Two how my Irish half of the family would get together on New Year’s Eve and devote the evening […]

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  4. What is great about BOJ&Y is not the tune, though I have always liked it, but the fact that it went to #1 in the UK and #8 in the states despite being banned by some stations.

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    1. Good point. I was stunned to learn that because he used the word “Christ” as an intensive that stations banned the song. Christ, everybody uses that term, Christians and non-Christians alike!

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  5. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    Across The Universe is great especially because of its lyrics. Spector arrangement ruins this song. Lennon himself said that the lyrics for Across The Universe were so deep and full of poetry that they did not need melody. He even said that maybe he should have the lyrics alone without any music.

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