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

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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.

Classic Music Review: Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles

Originally written December 2012, revised April 2016.

Magical Mystery Tour was John Lennon’s favorite Beatles album, “because it was so weird.” Produced during the heady days of liberation following Sgt. Pepper, when The Beatles were on top of the world (creatively, financially and psychedelically), they continued to expand and experiment with unusual instruments, sound effects and lyrical possibilities.

This is a review of the initial American release, not the British EP. The American release features songs from the television film on Side 1 and their 1967 hit singles on Side 2 (although “I Am the Walrus” qualified as a hit single, it was in the movie, so it wound up on Side One). Essentially, the singles more than compensate for the miserable “Blue Jay Way,” the rather pedestrian “Flying,” and Paul’s “Your Mother Should Know,” or “The Son of When I’m Sixty Four.”

Side One is anything but a total loss, however. The title track is a dazzling piece of showmanship, delivered with spark, enthusiasm and The Beatles’ full vocal palette. The brief drop in tempo preceding the last verse was a brilliant move and the transition to the regular rhythm reaffirms Ringo’s status as the one who held it all together with a dead-eye focus on keeping that beat intact.

“The Fool on the Hill” is a lovely melody that takes flight in the register to support the lofty imagery in the lyrics. The shift to minor key for the chorus was a brilliant twist, as it emphasizes the loneliness of the spiritual quest. The lyrics are weak in spots, but Paul makes up for it with a lead vocal that is both energetic and empathetic.

Any band could have produced “Flying,” a lazy three-and-a-half chord (if you count the seventh) instrumental augmented by weird sounds. “Crashing bore” pretty much sums it up. It’s followed by the weirdest song on the album, “Blue Jay Way,” a funereal disaster about a trivial everyday occurrence: the guests are late. Why that topic deserves such an ornate musical background is a mystery indeed. George’s vocal is seriously off-key, Ringo’s drums approach a level of irritation beyond tolerance and the background vocals are simply horrid. I think “Only a Northern Song” might have worked better here . . . shit, anything would have worked better here, with the possible exception of a guest appearance by Donovan.

McCartney’s been-there-done-that-so-I’ll-do-it-again contribution is “Your Mother Should Know.” You can only do nostalgia once, if at all. “When I’m Sixty-Four” was well-orchestrated. This one’s “okay.” “Honey Pie” on the White Album is a wince-inducing embarrassment. Fortunately, it’s the last weak contribution on the record as we now move into three great singles the Beatles released in the year of The Summer of Love. Each of these songs deserves full commentary.

“I Am the Walrus” is a song that never, ever bores me, for I always hear new things whenever I listen to it. What really makes this song go is a combination of John’s perfect what-the-hell vocal and the surrealistic lyrics that are somehow comprehensible on an intuitive level, despite the fact that John intended them to be deliberately confusing. What I hear is a mind dump, the self-talk we spontaneously generate through the course of a crappy day as we mutter scarcely audible profanities and commentary about the idiots who surround us:

Sitting on a cornflake
Waiting for the van to come
Corporation T-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man you’ve been a naughty boy
You let your face grow long

Fundamentally, the song is a great rock-and-roll piece once you strip it of its sound effects, as done on the Anthology and in the live versions performed by Oasis. Without that fundamental foundation, the sound effects would ring hollow; with that foundation, the effects add depth and meaning and excite the curiosity.

I never appreciated “Hello Goodbye” until I saw McCartney open with it on the “Back in the U. S. A.” tour. Simple lyrics, simple structure, simple melody, but the damn song just works! It makes you feel good in the same way “Good Day Sunshine” makes you feel good, but with a little more oomph. The Beatles’ harmonies sound playful and spontaneous here, although we know they were anything but. When you can make the difficult sound incredibly easy, you know you’re a professional.

I have to pause a bit before I write about “Strawberry Fields Forever,” because it is my favorite song of all-time, a universe of music in just a little over four minutes. Everyone knows about George Martin’s famous edit that combined two disparate halves, a tremendous achievement indeed. But there’s so much more: Ringo’s drumming is superbly haunting; the opening phrase on the mellotron expresses infinite sadness; the strange harmony on the final “let me take you down” emphasizing the feeling of descent; the exquisite orchestration throughout. John’s vocal is an absolute triumph; the shift between detachment, false confidence and vulnerability in his voice is, to borrow a phrase from the time, mind-blowing. And the words! The final verse is a sublime expression of human insecurity and shaky identity in a cold and confusing world:

Always—no, sometimes—think it’s me
But, you know, I know when it’s a dream
I think I know—I mean, ah, yes, but it’s all wrong
That is, I think I disagree.

And to think that the flip side of “Strawberry Fields Forever” was “Penny Lane” is another mind-blower. What a fucking single! And two great music videos to boot! If you want to know how far The Beatles advanced in just a few short years, just go to one of those look-up-the-chord sites and compare the chord structure of “Penny Lane” to that of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” This is another McCartney gem that flows so naturally as it takes you through the typical day in the neighborhood, expressing the silliness and the sadness that colors everyday life.

“Baby You’re a Rich Man” was likely buried in the emotional love-your-brother tide initiated by its A-side partner but it’s a fun song full of weird but appropriate sounds and Ringo pounding the drums with the joy of a child. It’s what this babe likes to call a “hoot.”

At this point, “All You Need Is Love” should be anti-climactic, but even with all those tough acts to follow, it delivers the goods. The verses do cross the line into nonsense lyrics from time to time, but perhaps the verses are full of nonsense that doesn’t matter because what really matters is love . . . and that’s all you need. While as an anthem for world peace and universal brother-sister-trans-hood the message is completely naïve, I hear the line “all you need as love” more as a balancing factor in a world full of bad news.

“All You Need Is Love” is the perfect ending to this weird and wonderful album, the creative peak of a band who touched the hearts and minds of millions all over the world. Much to the sorrow of nonpartisan admirers of the band, it’s pretty much downhill from Magical Mystery Tour, as the Beatles make a spiritual journey to India, divide into warring factions and enter a lengthy period of willful self-destruction.

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