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The Beatles – Past Masters, Volume One – Classic Music Review

Past+Masters+Vol+1+PastMasters_1 copy

Looking at the Beatles from a singles perspective is not a trip down memory lane for me, as I was born more than a decade after the curtain came down. The value in reviewing the singles is the opportunity to see the Beatles’ musical history unfold from another perspective. There are several Beatle single collections, and the Past Masters pair, though it has serious flaws in the second volume, seemed as a good a source as any.

Past Masters Volume One pretty much covers the era leading up to and culminating in Beatlemania. Here goes:

“Love Me Do”: Worthwhile only because it was the first. The song itself is a bore, with moronic lyrics and generally dull music. This kind of stuff was never going to get them to the toppermost of the poppermost. “Please Please Me” (not included in this collection but covered in my review of the album) would do the trick.

“From Me to You”: This was the follow-up single to “Please Please Me.” At that moment in time, they could have followed up “Please Please Me” with a cover of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” and it would have been a hit. “From Me to You” lacks the natural flow of its chart-topping predecessor; the rhythm is positively clunky and the falsetto “oohs” at the end of the bridges sound contrived.

“Thank You Girl”: I’ve always loved this bouncy little tune. The John & Paul harmonies are marvelous, and I love the way the 2009 remaster notches up the bass. It’s a fun song to sing, whichever part you choose.

“She Loves You”: This song is as exciting today as it must have been when it exploded over the airwaves in 1963. Ringo’s opening drum roll is a perfect lead-in, and his drum work is exceptional throughout. The harmony is so strong that when singing along, I find myself oscillating between John’s main melodic line and Paul’s harmony; both are musical delights. I love the unusual Em-Cm chord change in the primary chorus, echoed with an interposed A in the post-chorus. And shit, do they let their voices rip on the coda! Though George Martin thought the closing sixth was corny, I think it’s perfection. They know they’ve got it, baby!

“I’ll Get You”: This is a solid early-period tune that is often overlooked. The combination of John singing in a lower register with the background harmonica makes for an unusually appealing combination. I love the bridge, despite the occasional lyrical fumbling. Ringo must have been hot that day, for he drives this song forward by raising the intensity of his attack in all the right places.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand”: While it’s never grabbed me quite as much as “She Loves You,” that’s like comparing different vintages of Romanée-Conti. The crescendos on the bridge capture all the excitement of Beatlemania in a few seconds, and Ringo has another great outing with his fills at the end of each verse and his support of the crescendos. I’m not exactly sure what George had in mind with his rather weak contribution on lead guitar; fortunately John Lennon is one of the greatest rhythm guitarists who ever lived and more than made up for it.

“This Boy”: Meh. I never cared for this one much. It’s too reminiscent of the dramatic early 60’s girl band songs they covered on Please Please Me. The harmonies are nice, but pale in comparison with a seriously overlooked number you’ll find further down this list.

“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” and “Sie Liebt Dich”: Meh. Nowhere near as exciting as the English originals. More marketing strategy than music.

“Long Tall Sally”: Now, let’s get something straight, people! I love Little Richard. I think Little Richard did more to expand the limits of early rock than anyone on the scene at the time. He took risks, he pushed the envelope and he sang like nobody before or since. That said, I have to take McCartney’s version of “Long Tall Sally” over the original. He imbues it with all the passion of a young kid who just made the greatest discovery ever: no-holds-barred, balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll. Respectfully channeling the soul of Little Richard, this is McCartney realizing his early dreams in spasms of joy. I would have loved to have seen the gig in Litherland described in the intro to Bob Spitz’s The Beatles: The Biography:

The hall was packed with teenagers, many of whom had gathered at card tables along both sidewalls to await the next act. The majority were attired in what was respectfully called “fancy dress” for what remained of the holiday festivities. The well-scrubbed boys, whose dark suits were also their school uniforms, looked stiff and self-conscious, while girls, sheathed in tight calf-length skirts and white shirts, paraded gaily to and from the upstairs bathroom, applying last-minute touches to their makeup. Those who danced drifted casually across the big, open dance floor, keeping an eye on the stage as the band shuffled into place behind the curtain. Promptly, amps crackled in resistance: John and George plugged into a shared Truvoice that saw them through infancy, while Paul switched on his trusty seafoam green Ampigo. The audience stirred and half turned while Bob Wooler crooned into an open mike, “And now, everybody, the band you’ve been waiting for. Direct from Hamburg—-“

But before he got their name out, Paul McCartney jumped the gun, and in a raw, shrill burst as the curtain swung open, hollered, “I’m gonna tell Aunt Mary/’bout Uncle John/he said he had the mis’ry/but hegotalotoffun . . . “

Oh, baby! The aimless shuffle stopped dead in its tracks. The reaction of the audience was so unexpected that Wooler had failed, in the first few seconds, to take note of it. Part of the reason was the shocking explosion that shook the hall. A whomp of bass drum accompanied each quarter note with terrific force. The first one struck after Paul screamed, “Tell,” so that the charge ricocheted wildly off the walls. There was a second on Mary, and then another, then a terrible volley that had the familiar bam-bam-bam of a Messerschmitt wreaking hell on a local target: an assault innocent of madness. The pounding came in rhythmic waves and once it started, it did not stop. There was nowhere to take cover on the open floor. All heads snapped forward and stared wild-eyed at the deafening ambush. The music crashing around them was discernibly a species of rock ‘n’ roll but played unlike they had ever heard it before. Oh ba-by, yeahhhhhh/now ba-by, woooooo . . . It was convulsive, ugly, frightening and visceral in the way it touched off the crowd.

“I Call Your Name”: One of the sexier numbers in the Beatles catalog, John strikes again with a great vocal and those fabulous syncopated attacks on the rhythm guitar. I only have two regrets: I wish that they would have passed on the opportunity to give George a solo, and I wish that Mama Cass hadn’t turned this rocker into a soft pop creampuff. I’ll also note my intense irritation with the digital remixes that give too much prominence to the cowbell in the center channel before moving on to . . .

“Slow Down”: Because Lennon was not technically the lead singer, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for having been one of the greatest pure rock singers in history. This version of the Larry Williams original knocks me on my ass every time I hear it, especially when he ramps it up in the last verse. When he sings “The best little woman I ever had,” I don’t need to jack off to have an orgasm.

“Matchbox”: One of my favorite Ringo vocals, the band supports him with solid, straightforward work in this Carl Perkins classic.

“I Feel Fine”: Famous for its opening feedback, it should be equally famous for Lennon’s guitar riff, which helped make a song with a simple I-IV-V structure much more musically interesting. Whenever I hear this song, I see images of girls in sleeveless dresses and bouffant hair-dos dancing in discotheques. McCartney said the drum part was taken from Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” and yep, he’s right! Nice for him to admit it!

“She’s a Woman”: The best part of this song is McCartney’s bass part, a precursor of the more complex bass parts that would define his style. The song is musically dull, however, and doesn’t have the memorable riff that carried “I Feel Fine” over the finish line. Still, I’ll take the original over Jeff Beck’s cover with its kitschy talking guitar any day.

“Bad Boy”: A definite miss. The twin of “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” John should have quit with the Larry Williams numbers while he was ahead.

“Yes It Is”: A seriously neglected harmonic masterpiece that wound up as the B-side for “Ticket to Ride.” Dave Rybaczewski wrote a marvelous piece describing the creation and recording of this gem, conclusively demonstrating its innate superiority over the more popular “This Boy.” You can read his essay at Beatlesebooks.com, but I can’t resist quoting him on the excellence of the harmonies: “The similarities with ‘This Boy’ in the verses amount to the three-part harmony throughout and the doo-wop chord pattern used. However, the harmonies are much more unpredictable, weaving up and down around John’s lead, while the doo-wop chord pattern is only used in the first four measures and is then complimented with much more extraordinary progressions.”

“I’m Down”: A let-it-all-hang-out number that was the highlight of the Shea Stadium extravaganza, McCartney’s a capella opening burst still makes my legs quiver. Often overlooked is the low-register blue-note harmonies that support that lead vocal, a brilliant variation that gives the song depth.