THE BEATLES Help! (Parlophone)
THE BEATLES Magical Mystery Tour (Parlophone)
Shamed into action by the realisation that I didnt have all the Beatles albums on original, these are the first fruits of my resolution to fill the gaps on my record shelves. Since the music on these three is almost too well known to talk about, Ill keep my observations mercifully brief, for once.
I was mightily impressed by "A Hard Days Night", an album that Ive previously had little time for, and which is of course both the soundtrack from their first film and the first Beatles album to consist entirely of self-penned material. Were they ever more darkly ominous and resigned than "Ill Be Back" and "Things We Said Today", more romantic than "If I Fell" and "And I Love Her", or as rip-it-up energetic as on the title track and "Cant Buy Me Love"? I think not.
In recent years "Help!" (the soundtrack of their second film, and their first proper stereo release as well) has taken something of a critical lambasting, many commentators suggesting that it betrays the strains of Beatlemania. Some of the 14 tracks may appear to be slightly below the impossibly high standard theyd set themselves, but theres nothing hackneyed or cliched about the title track, "Youve Got To Hide Your Love Away", "Ticket To Ride" and "Yesterday". Where else would you find so many self-penned standards snuggled up together outside a Beatles album? And note the burgeoning lyrical maturity - probably caused by friendly competition with one Robert Zimmerman - that would take further giant steps with the release of "Rubber Soul" a mere four months later.
"Magical Mystery Tour" is the album of the double e.p. of the soundtrack of their third film (see a pattern emerging here yet?!) , which, as with the CD follows the American form in tagging on the remainder of their 1967 A and B-sides on the end, which makes for a pretty formidable package, even if some of the material contained herein (e.g. "Flying", "Blue Jay Way") hasnt made it to national treasure status. What the vinyl version also offers, which I think is missing from the CD reissue, is a "24-page full color picture book", containing loads of stills from the film and a cartoon representation of the storyline. (And no, it still doesnt make anything that even remotely approximates sense). And here youll find "I Am The Walrus", "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Penny Lane" and "All You Need Is Love" in the same place, which makes it as close to indispensable as any album could hope to get.
Gushing praise over though, because something close to sacrilege has taken place with EMIs current Beatles pressings. Ive heard this music on just about every format from "3¾ i.p.s. mono tape record" to (hawk, spit) CD, and I have to say that what you can buy in the (more enlightened) shops these days just dont stack up. The clues in the proud boast on the back covers: "This album has been direct metal mastered from a digitally re-mastered original tape to give the best possible sound quality" - i.e. two of the most discredited techniques in the music industry have been combined to make these albums sound about as unlistenably crude as we think we can get away with. Note that EMIs second series of Centenary vinyl reissues proudly claimed to have been "analogue cut from analogue tapes", which, although not perfect at least give a meaningful standard of comparison for what can be done by The Man, and they were a world away from these wretched artefacts in terms of sonic excellence - specific failings here being a treble quality that doctors could use for ear syringing purposes and a habit of toppling over into raucous distortion at the slightest provocation. Strangely, its the earlier recordings that escape the worse excesses, whilst some of "Magical Mystery Tour" sounds particularly unpleasant. (And is it me or does the left-hand channel of "I Am The Walrus" vanish almost entirely towards the end of the song? Beatles stereo was never exactly orthodox, but this is ridiculous!) What makes these examples even more shameful is that their American record company, Capitol, produced a limited-edition run of albums spun from decent analogue masters - I managed to pick up this series version of "Abbey Road" - and although beset by their own problems, chief among them being a nasty thin pressing, they at least managed to capture a degree of the essential being-there-ness that those of us who still fiddle around with cleaning brushes, tracking weight adjustments, turntable tables, vertical tracking angles and bias adjustments this close to the millennium tend to go all misty eyed about. So, to summarise, terrific music shabbily packaged: its a disgrace, and EMI, or possibly somebody else, should do something about it.
THE BEATLES Please Please Me (Parlophone)
THE BEATLES With The Beatles (Parlophone)
THE BEATLES Beatles For Sale (Parlophone)
THE BEATLES Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone)
THE BEATLES Yellow Submarine (Apple)
THE BEATLES Let It Be (Apple)
With the deadline looming I've only got time for a brief tear through my latest (and final) round of Beatle vinyl acquisitions, but here's a few quick observations.
"Please Please Me": was there any debut album as exhilarating released between this and "The Clash"? Fourteen tracks of mad, Hamburg-stoked pill-popping mayhem (well, thirteen if you discount the first flowerings of McCartney's syrupy tendencies on "A Taste Of Honey"). Still underrated are Ringo's throat-stripping holler through "Boys" and the surprisingly mature "There's A Place", which preempts Brian Wilson's first stab at teen angst ("In My Room") by at least six months, but topping the lot is Lennon's stomping vocal on "Twist And Shout".
"With The Beatles": for me the Beatles' one duff album. Some claim that, in containing no singles, it was the first proper album of the rock era, but in my opinion, with the honourable exceptions of "All My Loving" and "I Wanna Be Your Man" (Ringo again!) the original material here is filler fodder, and of the covers only "Please Mister Postman" and "Money" really stand out.
"Beatles For Sale" is much better, probably my favourite of their moptopped albums. (And is it the first occurrence of the gatefold sleeve in rock?) Mixing the standard arrangement of eight originals and six covers with the kind of consistency admirers claim for Frank Sinatra's 'misery' albums, this is home to non-hits like "No Reply" and "Eight Days A Week" that have, nevertheless, seeped into the nation's consciousness, as well as classic rock 'n' roll and R&B tunes from Beatle heroes Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins. All this and "I'll Follow The Sun" as the icing on the cake...magical.
Now for a confession. I don't like "Sgt. Pepper". Never have, probably never will. A marvel of production and packaging it may well be, but to my tainted ears it sounds like a stack of half-written songs propped up by gimmickry, smoke and mirrors. (Would "Fixing A Hole" or "Within You Without You" have made it onto any other Beatles album? I think not.) What saves it towards the end of the second side is the wonderful closing triumvirate of "Good Morning, Good Morning", the reprise of the title track and "A Day In The Life", surely the most completely realised song ever recorded by anyone. Special praise also must be reserved for Ringo's drumming - listen to him invent techno on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)", and once I'd read his work on "A Day In The Life" described as 'sinister' I just couldn't get the word out of my head every time I heard the song - it's jazz, Jim, but not as we know it.
Many view "Yellow Submarine" as an inadequate stopgap release - after all, when originally released in February 1969 the world had been starved of a new Beatles long player for, ooh, two months - an impression reinforced by the second side filled George Martin's orchestral film score and the reprint of Tony Palmer's Observer review of "The Beatles" that displaced discussion of the music in the sleevenotes. But here is the only place you'll find three of the Beatles greatest lost gems: George Harrison's caustic "Pepper" hangover "Only A Northern Song" and his bullseye Hendrix tribute "It's All Too Much", along with Lennon's equally acerbic "Hey Bulldog", all of which more than justify purchase.
"Let It Be" still strikes me as the most underrated Beatles' album, even at this late revisionist stage. It's almost like some poisoned concept album rebuff to the excesses of "Sgt. Pepper". Imagine the pitch: the greatest recording organisation in the world ditches all the trickery and experimentation that made them the most powerful musical voice in late 20th century culture in favour of playing live in a studio in front of a team of film cameramen, without realising that it would precipitate their own destruction. (Is it any coincidence that "Let It Be" remains the only Beatles film yet to be released on video?) Nearly thirty years later there's a terrible sadness at the heart of "Let It Be" that doesn't quite disguise the fact that it contains at least four certified Beatles classics ("Across The Universe", the title track, the wondrous "Long And Winding Road", beSpectored though it may be, and the truncated closing romp through "Get Back") and a handful of interesting curios ("Two Of Us" and "Dig It", which really should've gone longer than the thirty seconds or so captured here). And yes, I think we can safely say that they passed the audition.
Time for another of my moans about the sound quality of EMI's current Beatles reissues. All the above have been "direct metal mastered from a digitally remastered tape" - doh! - which means that, as with the last batch of Beatles vinyl I reviewed, the early albums sound just about passable but the later works become more painful to listen to to a degree roughly proportional to their production complexity. It's a shame and a sin, especially when so much of EMI's contemporary vinyl output ("OK Computer", for example) is a joy to listen to.
THE BEATLES Live At The BBC (Apple)
How can anyone be so presumptuous as to attempt to review this album? Well, here goes! Whatever your preferences, you've got to admit that the release of this album was the musical event of 1994: 69 tracks, all of them previously unreleased recordings, unearthed from the BBC vaults and originally broadcast on programmes such as "Saturday Club" and "Pop Go The Beatles", interspersed with enlightening contemporary interview snippets. To put the bulk into some kind of perspective, each side of this double album is as long as any of the band's pre-"Pepper" albums. The sleeve artwork is good enough to make you forgive Derek Taylor's ridiculous "Trains were still steam...Television was still black and white" sleeve notes, and every track is documented with the sort of train-spotter tenacity that made Mark Lewisohn's "The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions" book such an invaluable reference volume. The release of this album also prompted WH Smiths to reverse their three year old embargo on selling vinyl, although sadly only at their Oxford Street branch.
There's some music here too, by the way. And it's wonderful. Although I've never really enjoyed their first few albums, believing them to be more important as historical than musical documents, the "Please Please Me" and "With The Beatles" tracks included here are stunning, "Baby It's You" and "A Taste Of Honey" especially, displaying the energy, urgency and professionalism that everybody claimed The Beatles had but seemed to get sweetened out in the Abbey Road studios. This collection follows their progress up to early 1965 and "Ticket To Ride", via versions of tracks from the "A Hard Day's Night" and "Beatles For Sale" albums and the model rock 'n' roll EP "Long Tall Sally". The balance consists of cover versions of songs by Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Goffin & King, Bacharach & David, Buddy Holly, Phil Spector, Little Richard - ditch all those dodgy rock 'n' roll compilations you've been using at parties since the dawn of time, because this is the finest example the genre can ever hope to produce. Listen to the driving beat throughout their version of "Memphis, Tennessee", or even Paul McCartney's syrupy but gorgeous cover of "The Honeymoon Song", and marvel at their sheer musical ability.
Any disadvantages? Well, the interview snippets may get a tad annoying after a few thousand plays, and putting 35 minutes of music on one side of vinyl should be a criminal offence. A discreet note on the back cover suggests that "some tracks, included for their historic significance, do not represent the usual fidelity of studio recordings", but in truth, the odd track blatantly taped off the radio on some teenager's open reel recorder aside, there's nothing to complain about, especially compared to the aural vandalism perpetrated by whoever digitally remastered the band's current back-catalogue vinyl issues. And there's no "Twist And Shout", for some reason. But, minor carps aside, "Live At The BBC" is a stunning package to cherish and hand on to your grandchildren (along with all the other Beatles albums, of course). 1995 looks set to become something of a bonanza year for Beatles fans, with the much publicised "The Long And Winding Road" television series and (hopefully) more dips through the archives (how about an official release of the 11 LP "The Get Back Journals" bootleg?), but "Live At The BBC" successfully documents the sound of real cultural revolution.
THE BEATLES Past Masters Volumes One & Two (Parlophone)
"Past Masters" is EMI's invaluable mopping-up project that collates every official Beatles release that never made it on to any of their thirteen regular albums. It has long been easily available on CD, but makes only sporadic, fleeting visits to the vinyl catalogue. The music on here - like almost all Beatles product, but especially in the shade of the recent "1" compilation - is practically too well known to discuss, spanning their development from a Ringo'd up version of "Love Me Do" (on "Please Please Me" session drummer Andy White replaces Starr, who is left forlornly shaking a tambourine) to "Let It Be" b-side "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)", a Lennon comedy collage three years in the making, which features lone Stone Brian Jones on saxophone. Along the way you can map their gestation from bright-eyed moptopery through chemically enhanced experimentation to bored svengalis almost to the inch. There are German language retakes of early singles (all together now, "Sie liebt dich, yeah, yeah, yeah"!), an entire EP of exclusive material and a charity album contribution, not to mention, along the way, a mere ten British number ones. A legacy that exposes such gems as McCartney's throat-searing "I'm Down" and Harrison's back-porch blues hoe-down "Old Brown Shoe" as mere b-sides demonstrates just what made them the greatest pop group in the history of recorded time and space, something that, for all their respective commercial and critical triumphs, no band, be they Westlife or Radiohead, will ever be able to topple.
THE BEATLES Let It Be Naked (Apple/EMI)
I've long had a soft spot for "Let It Be", that saddest and most maligned - frequently by its own creators - of all Beatles albums. "Let It Be Naked" is, if speculation is to be believed, the culmination of Paul McCartney's attempts to redress 33 years of misrepresentation, taking "Let It Be" back home to its original overdub-free concept and shearing his songs of their unauthorised Spectorisation.
"Get Back" now opens, rather than closes, proceedings, and sounds very similar to the existing version, albeit devoid of the rooftop commentary and ambient sounds. (All the dialogue which previously prefaced and linked the songs has been removed: "Let It Be Naked" contains music and nothing but.) "Dig A Pony" is presented in, at a pinch, a slightly more intimate, looser version than the one we know. "For You Blue" and "Two Of Us" are practically identical to the originals, save for a sensation that the words don't fall exactly where the ear expects them on the later verses of the former. Still, the easy familiarity at least allows the listener to turn off the analytical faculties for a few minutes and revel in the freshly-scrubbed analogue glow of these recordings, which outpace the nasty digitally remastered vinyl issues of the band's catalogue by a country mile.
"The Long And Winding Road" suffered, according to legend, the greatest injustices under Phil Spector's fader fingers, but without his pillowy orchestrations what remains sounds like a demo, the bare bones of a song only later made warm and fleshy by the producer's ear for carefully sculpted overload. The "Let It Be" version moves me; this, with its rinky-dink musical box keyboard solo, doesn't take me anywhere. "I've Got A Feeling", "One After 909" and "Don't Let Me Down" appear different, yet comfortingly the same, maybe a little rougher, the harmonies hoarser, especially Lennon's Dylanesque lurch throughout the latter. "I Me Mine" emerges as a slightly spindly, wavery thing without the support of Phil's string and brass charts, and presumably this "Across The Universe" is the one from the "Nothing's Gonna Change Our World" charidee album without the animals and Apple scruffs. I say 'presumably' because nowhere amidst "Let It Be Naked"'s packaging - which includes a big booklet packed with prose from the even more lavish special edition of the original album - is the exact origin of these recordings revealed, an omission that will have dedicated Beatlemaniacs tearing at their wigs in frustration. The de facto title track is not improved, its thin keyboard hardly adequately substituting for an angelic chorus, and now has a middle eight that sounds like it's being played by robots.
A bonus 7" single entitled "Fly On The Wall" offers 20 minutes or so of Beatle chatter and infuriating song fragments best suited to fans suffering from attention deficit disorder. Still, it's fascinating to hear, however briefly, "John's Piano Piece" just itching to become "Imagine", or the early "Jealous Guy" that is "Child Of Nature".
So why get so steamed up about "Let It Be Naked"? After all, the Fully Loaded Edition of The Velvet Underground's "Loaded" and Iggy's own remix of "Raw Power", to cite two other recent revisions of contentious moments in rock history, hardly elicited similar ripples of response. But this is Beatle music being tampered with (or 'corrected', depending on how you look at it), and the untouchable perfection of their catalogue has been ruthlessly reinforced by the protective behaviour of the corporate keepers of the flame, in the time between "20 Greatest Hits" and "Live At The BBC", at least. The film negatives that constitute the cover art are perhaps unwittingly revealing of the content within: "Let It Be Naked" is like an x-ray of an album. And whatever next, "Mull Of Kintyre" without bagpipes?
THE BEATLES Love (EMI/Apple)
Heres four words for you: The Beatles Movie Medley. Emboldened, or perhaps stung, by the success of Starsounds Stars On 45, in which anonymous Dutch session musicians impersonated The Beatles to a disco beat, Capitol Records in America lashed together excerpts from several of the bands film-related songs to promote the contemporaneous compilation Reel Music. The bands British label, Parlophone, initially refused to release the medley here, branding it tacky, but reconsidered in the face of mounting demand for import copies. It eventually reaches the UK top 10 in June 1982, just in time for the tail end of the medley fad.
So, Love, then. Emboldened, or perhaps stung, by the success of illicit mashup The Grey Album, in which Gorillaz producer and half of Gnarls Barkley Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, welds together vocals from Jay-Zs The Black Album and music from The Beatles eponymous white double, George Martin and son Giles get the green light to create a ninety minute soundtrack for a Cirque du Soleil show using any sound contained on the bands master tapes. Its released just in time for Christmas 2006, by when whatever brief buzz of recognition the best mashups generated had long since faded.
Of course, Loves sustained 78 minute patchwork is several orders of magnitude more sophisticated than The Beatles Movie Medley, and the way it modulates and folds familiar material is at times fascinating. The melding of The End with the reversed closing chord of A Day In The Life makes a thrilling introduction to Get Back, for example, and the morphing together of Drive My Car / The Word / What Youre Doing sounds almost natural. Listening again to the Drive My Car guitar solo also had me questioning whether The Byrds Eight Miles High really marks the birth of raga rock. Similarly, Blackbird dovetails easily into Yesterday, although I wonder how much that has to do with these two being among the sparsest selections used. Cruelly truncated though Hey Jude is here, the moment where all the instrumentation drops out, leaving just massed vocals and percussion, is terrific. Closing proceedings with All You Need Is Love is a particularly astute move what is it if not the granddaddy of all Beatles mashups, what with She Loves You filtering into its fade? and its difficult to suppress a lump in the throat at the few seconds of the foursome engaging in studio goonery at its close.
But, all this Beatles brilliance has been available for our perusal for decades: all Love does is recontextualise it, or ride the faders up or down at appropriate moments. What youre really buying with this album is the Martins master craftspeopleship; its their aesthetic decisions that represent the albums only new artistic endeavours. (One of the many What ifs the project raises is what mightve happened had an organisation less slavishly devoted to protecting its legacy been in charge of handing out the commission: on the strength of his showreel Danger Mouse mightve made something more interesting out of it.) Frequently their involvement seems limited to ladling even more elements into the psychedelic soup that frequently constituted a Beatles songs fadeout an adage about cooks and broth might be appropriate here. Its hardly a coincidence that the majority of Loves ingredients date from the bands post-touring years, when studio experimentation and innovation seeped from their records grooves, or that Let It Be, itself recently revised, contributes only Get Back. Some commentators have also held up Love as evidence that the bands entire back catalogue should be afforded the remastering treatment, which seems like spectacularly bad science to me the reason you can hear sounds on Love that arent apparent on the bands regular releases is that theyve been put there!
The cover sticker promises 26 tracks re-worked by George & Giles Martin why, were they faulty before? which almost gets me hankering for the old days when exploitation of the Beatles legacy was so beyond the pale that you couldnt even buy the red and blue compilations on CD. Maybe it mightve been more acceptable (to me, at least) had Love existed solely as the soundtrack to the Cirque du Soleil production, and not been released as this slightly tacky, mildly controversial artefact not that I could imagine for a second the troubled former greatest recording organisation in the world passing up another opportunity to milk its most prodigious cash cow dry once again. Love isnt a better Beatles album, its merely different, and, to my ears, irrelevant. But lets give it a sporting chance and see if anybody remembers it in a quarter of a century.
The New York Times: The Fab Four: A Compilation Of Historic Newspaper Pages (Retrographics Publishing)
This cumbersomely-titled publication is a compendium of Beatles-based articles from The New York Times, spanning from reports of their 1964 “Ed Sullivan Show” appearances to a 2009 piece (the timeframe tantalisingly halting the month before the release of the band’s remastered back catalogue) headlined ”Generation Gap Narrows And Beatles Are a Bridge”. Along the way there are some surprises, not least a half-hearted appraisal of the “Magical Mystery Tour” soundtrack and Nick Cohn’s review of “Abbey Road” that, long medley apart, writes it off as an “unmitigated disaster”, an almost heretical demolition of an album that rateyourmusic.com currently rates as the greatest ever made, one position ahead of “Revolver”.
What elevates this undertaking way above scrapbook status is that not just the articles themselves but the whole containing pages are reproduced in their original form. Whilst the cause of many a dull evening slogging through the obituaries columns, it also provides endless fascinating moments of cultural context. Entertainment listings proffer such delights as Gerry Mulligan at the Village Gate in 1964, Bob Dylan at the Forest Hills Festival a year later, The Byrds and Tim Buckley at Fillmore East (1968) and Harry Chapin’s boxing documentary “The Legendary Champions”. Huge adverts for electronics stores fill prime page real estate with discussion of such tempting features as “49 Solid-State Devices” that “Provide 12-Watts of Music Power” and a “Pickering V15/ACE-3 Elliptical Diamond Stylus Stereo Cartridge with integrated Dustomatic Brush”. A manufacturer of reel-to-reel tape decks boasts that their “heads are guaranteed for 25 years. If they need to be replaced before guarantee ends, bring in machine to Audio Exchange and we will replace them free of charge”, which has me wondering how the staff of Audio Exchange circa 2004 are meant to deal with irate owners of malfunctioning, tragically obsolete analogue tape machinery. Speaking of which, there are adverts for “Complete Selection Popular & Classical Pre-Recorded TAPES 4-Track Stereo Reel Tapes at 30% off Cat.” and “THE WORLD’S LARGEST STORE SPECIALIZING IN LONG PLAYING RECORDS EXCLUSIVELY” that had me practically salivating.
Enough. There’s some stuff about Beatles here, and it’s well worth reading, the calm at the centre of the cultural zeitgeist, with opinions that can sometimes surprise. But it’s what surrounds it that resonates most, and gets me dewy-eyed with nostalgia for times and places I’ve never experienced.
IAN MACDONAD Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties (Vintage)
Described in the back cover blurb by Stuart Maconie as “The most sustainedly brilliant piece of pop criticism and scholarship for years” and by Noel Gallagher as “Fucking amazing book, man”, these divergently expressed opinions are perhaps an unconscious reflection of the high/low culture divide that the book itself attempts to bridge. As the subtitle slyly suggests, there are two subjects here, The Beatles’ records and the Sixties. The latter is addressed in the 37-page introductory essay “Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade”, which locates the band in the social, cultural and political upheaval of the Sixties, and also by a 78-page chronology of a decade that, in MacDonald’s calendar, ends on the last day of 1970 with McCartney instigating High Court proceedings to dissolve the band’s partnership. Alongside Beatle activity, the chronology also records UK pop trends, current affairs and developments in cinema, jazz, classical music, fiction, poetry, stage, non-fiction, science fiction, fashion, media and visual arts.
The meat and potatoes of the book, though, is what lies between, analyses of every song The Beatles released during their career. Although superficially similar to Mark Lewisohn’s exemplary work of studio archive scholarship “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions”, MacDonald’s essays on each song are more concerned with musical and cultural significance than the minutiae of who played what and when. Lewisohn’s work carries the stamp of officialdom, therefore exercising polite caution where MacDonald does not. Compare and contrast, for example, Lewisohn’s description of “Piggies” – “a splendidly acerbic social comment George Harrison song” with MacDonald’s assessment of it as “an embarrassing blot on his discography”. MacDonald adopts an almost schoolmasterly tone at times; he’s acutely aware of when the band aren’t performing to the limit of their capabilities and wastes no time in taking them to task for it. He’s often even more scathing about the competition, though, saying that, circa Summer 1968, “an acid-inflated Pete Townshend all but ceased to write songs focused enough to produce hits”, thereby consigning the likes of “Pinball Wizard” to obscurity. Conversely, he’s also generous with praise where he sees fit, sometimes in surprising places, declaring “She Said She Said” to be “the outstanding track on “Revolver”” , “Rain” to be “generally agreed to be The Beatles’ finest B-side” and suggesting of “Magical Mystery Tour” that “the film marked an advance in content over the disarmingly boyish “A Hard Day’s Night””. Hmmm.
The Sixties Chronology section is genuinely fascinating, both for those of us who weren’t there and, presumably, for those of us who were and have no reliable memories of the experience. Annoyingly, though, it’s printed in landscape form, making it an absolute pain to read. The Glossary is also worth working through completely, perhaps even before tackling the rest of the book for readers with little or no musical background, as it’s crammed with useful definitions, although I’d take issue with his description of white noise as “a random and dense accumulation of high frequency signals”, ‘cos it certainly wasn’t that when I was at university. Overall, though, “Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties” is both a challenging thinkpiece and a fearless exploration of arguably the single most important discography in popular music; I enjoyed it a great deal.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Film history is littered with projects that have tried and failed to bend Beatles songs into some kind of narrative shape. “All This And World War II”, in which covers of Lennon and McCartney compositions by a seventiestastic roster that included Leo Sayer and The Bee Gees accompanied newsreel footage of the titular conflict, made more money as a soundtrack than a film. The Bee Gees struck again in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, one of a succession of cinematic flops that effectively torpedoed producer Robert Stigwood’s organisation. And now there’s “Across The Universe”, in which 34 Beatles songs and a selection of people who really should know better but clearly don’t (Bono, Eddie Izzard, T-Bone Burnett, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Joe Cocker) conspire to make $15 million disappear completely.
So much annoys about “Across The Universe” that it’s difficult to know where to begin. How about the transgressive blandification of those34 Beatles songs, for a start? Sung by the cast of mostly unknowns, they’re fragmented and folded in on themselves in an attempt to further the stodgy narrative, so, for example, a gospel reimagining of “Let It Be” soundtracks Detroit in flames in 1968, and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” becomes an indictment of the army’s mechanised, impersonal draft process. The songs are mostly declawed in a way that reduces them to aural wallpaper, although one, Joe Cocker’s quite good really “Come Together” is currently being heard across the country by audiences awaiting Richard Thompson’s arrival on stage, bizarrely. The finest musical moment is “A Day In The Life” recast as a bluesy guitar instrumental, except it turns out to have been Jeff Beck’s contribution to George Martin’s “In My Life” project of many years previously. Character names and plot points are blatantly plucked from the band’s back catalogue. One, named Prudence, is doubly unfortunate: not only does she enter a scene through a bathroom window but, locked in a closet, she’s tempted out by the cast inviting her to come out to play. Dana Fuchs at least brings some relief from the soft-pedalling psychedelia, channelling her previous experience playing Janis Joplin in the off-Broadway show “Love, Janis” into her role as (sigh) Sadie, and Eddie Izzard’s mock-non-ironic detachment enlivens his cameo appearance as (growl) Mr Kite. The action, such as it is, concludes with a rooftop performance atop the offices of Strawberry Records.
Extending the pain, as is often the case with the least watchable of films there’s a whole second DVD of what are, for some reason, called “Special Features”, as well as a director’s commentary that, over 128 minutes, completely fails to address the most pressing question raised by this film, namely, “T-Bone Burnett, were you a bit strapped for cash that week or something?”
I love films and I love the music of The Beatles. That’s two reasons right there to spurn this shocking waste of celluloid as I would a pack of rabid plague dogs.
George Harrison And Friends