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November 9, 2010 • Music Diary, Reviews

Music Diary Retrospective: A Magical Mystery Tour of the Beatles Catalog

It is hard to believe (well, for me anyway), but we are fast approaching the 30th anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon, after just recently passing the 70th anniversary of his birth. We are also 40 years since the break-up of the Beatles, so in honor of all of these anniversaries going on I decided to take a walk through the Beatles official release catalog. The entire set was released just over a year ago fully remastered, and it is those versions I will revisit. This means that my brother’s copy of Meet the Beatles will be left unaddressed.

It has been interesting listening to these recordings again. As a kid I had all of the records around because my brother owned them all. I had gotten the ’62-66′ and ’67-70′ double records, and had also grabbed the original CD releases of Let It Be and Abby Road. But aside from that most of the original recordings were left to reside only in my memory until last year. So upon listening to these new versions I was brought back 35 years or more to listening to those full versions on vinyl growing up.

I will use my more-or-less standard ‘quickie review’ format, with a couple of twists: whereas I normally call out a ‘fave’ song, here I will choose a ‘dark horse’ or track less traveled. Similar to choosing my favorite song from the Police record “Ghost in the Machine” as ‘Darkness’ rather than ‘Every Little Thing She Does’, I will look for songs we haven’t all heard a million times on the radio to highlight … and in some cases that is not trivial! Also, since none of this is remotely new material, I am going to instead to discuss each record’s place in the catalog and in music in general.

After looking at the Beatles catalog, I’ll also delve a bit into each of their solo recordings and give a ‘Top 10’ songs for each of them!

So with that, let’s get right into it starting with their very first record and proceed chronologically.

The Beatles – Please Please Me

The Beatles – Please Please Me

Summary: The Beatles were just starting out at this point, and as was typical at the time released singles. Those exploded and they had to rush into the studio and put together a full LP. The results are amazing – in a single day they came up with songs that are tight and full of energy, half original compositions and half covers, which at the time is heavy on originals!

The songs are full of obvious influences of pop and early rock artists, but they actually blend well since each member brings their own focus to particular areas. Most of the originals are truly co-written at this point, but there are still times that you see a pure John or pure Paul song. George didn’t start adding his own songs until later.

Choice Track (and why): Ask Me Why gorgeous harmonies, nice composition, and an interesting sense of introspection missing from many of the early records. I also like the beat that could easily have been a backing track for a Stan Getz hit of the same era.

How Does It Hold Up Today: – Youthful enthusiasm meets raw talent. There are loads of innocent sounding love songs, and the music is definitely of its era, but it also shows even in retrospect why the group is so beloved: the originals have generally aged much better than the covers, which again speaks to the burgeoning songwriting skills of Lennon & McCartney.

Here is a video of ‘Please Please Me’ live … you can tell they can’t even hear themselves!:

The Beatles – With The Beatles

The Beatles – With The Beatles

Summary: Released less than 9 months after ‘Please Please Me’, ‘With The Beatles’ does a bit of everything – there are still plenty of covers, but also a broader scope to the music and depth of songwriting really shows a stark contrast: the strength here is when the Beatles play the songs they wrote. Once again there is an abundance of great songs – All My Loving, It Won’t Be Long, and I Wanna Be Your Man remain commercial and critical favorites for good reason.

Choice Track (and why): – Don’t Bother Me – the first contribution by George Harrison leaves an indelible mark. The song is in a minor key, with a different feel to the arrangement and Harrison’s voice feeling ahead of its time.

How Does It Hold Up Today: Similar to Please Please Me, about half the songs here – mostly covers – sound dated, while most of the originals remains fresh and vibrant. This is all part of what is easily called ‘the early Beatles’ and lumped in with their first record, but there is a direction of motion here, with the creativity and skills continuing to expand.

Here is a video of the Beatles (obviously) lip-syncing a live performance of ‘If Won’t Be Long’:

The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night

The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night

Summary: The album was also the soundtrack to their movie called ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. From the opening 12-string chord you know you are in brand new territory. Gone is the pure early 60’s innocence – there are plenty of love songs here, but they are inflected with self-reflection and a more mature outlook.

Certainly there is still the joyous celebration in songs like I’m Happy Just to Dance With You, but it is bookended with If I Fell, which has such delicate harmonies and an intimate look inside of a wary new lover. These songs aren’t all gems, but of the 13 Lennon & McCartney songs there are only a few weaker tracks – and no turkeys. I mean, if songs like Tell Me Why, which would have fit nicely on With the Beatles, are the low-point … you can appreciate the excellence on display here.

Choice Track (and why): I’ll Be Back – starting with a guitar figure that is at once melancholy and hopeful, I’ll Be Back is a song about a seemingly doomed lover who refuses to give up on what he sees as the love of his life. But it is the incredible composition and harmonies that really make this my favorite song.

How Does It Hold Up Today: If ‘With the Beatles’ hinted at the speed and maturity the Beatles’ songwriting creativity and talent were growing, A Hard Day’s Night feels like a baseball bat to the forehead! There is a clear signal that the group was enjoying spending more time in studio, and as a result the songs start sounding deeper and more complex due to better sound production, diverse instrumentation, and a sense of style that is all their own.

Here is a video of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ live at Shea Stadium:

The Beatles – Beatles For Sale

The Beatles – Beatles For Sale

Summary: Once again we get another album release in just 6 months – this is the Beatles’ fourth record release in less than two years! The down-side? Beatles for Sale is back to also featuring a bunch of cover songs. And by this time cover songs are clearly ‘filler’ – there isn’t a one that stands up to the originals.

But OH those originals – they are what make this another essential release. Great songs that really step away from the typical love song formula such as No Reply, I’m a Loser, I’ll Follow the Sun, and so on. A lot of the lyrics are bleak sounding and personal and reflect the group listening to folk singers like Bob Dylan and taking their own look inside of themselves, especially as the toils of constant recording, touring and fan-chasing took their toll.

Choice Track (and why): Every Little Thing – the main thing I love about this song is it shows Lennon & McCartney looking beyond the quartet format – they have piano, overdubbed guitars, use of a strummed trill going into the chorus as an orchestral effect enhanced by the tom-tom played as timpani. The 12-string guitar ties it back into the folk-rock era as well.

How Does It Hold Up Today: Beatles for Sale is without a doubt their most uneven game of the early years, yet also one of my favorites. The bleak outlooks translate into an era where it seems every other song on the radio is ’emo’ in one way or another. The songs are inventive, and their use of harmonic structures and instrumentation have a dramatic effect that still feels fresh.

Here is a video featuring ‘Every Little Thing’:

The Beatles – Help!

The Beatles – Help!

Summary: 1965 saw the release of the Beatles second film … and another full album within a year of their last! Help! was a very fun film, not as good as the first – well, it was pretty nonsensical! But the songs on the recording are stellar. There are two Harrison compositions, two covers, and ten fantastic Lennon & McCartney songs.

Aside from the title song, we get Ticket to Ride, Yesterday, I’ve Just Seen a Face, and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away. Each of those would be reason enough to buy a record – but combining those all with the other songs, each of which is solid in its own right – and you have yet another classic.

The transition of Beatles into mature masters is evident in the transitions from ‘standard’ to ‘revolutionary’ songs – we have The Night Before, which could have been from either of the last two records and would have been decent but not a standout, and then we get You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.

Choice Track (and why): I Need You – I love the volume pedal effect Harrison uses here, on what is really just a solid folksy love song it improves the arrangement and foreshadows his experimentation with new sounds and instrumentation. To be honest, this is the first time I had to dig deeper to find a ‘fave’ that wasn’t already played on the radio a billion times.

How Does It Hold Up Today: I have subjected my kids to all of this catalog recently, and Help! is really the first one where they remarked ‘wow, I know almost ALL of these songs’! The quality of writing had reached a point that these were largely no longer songs of their era, but timeless classics.

Here is a video of ‘Ticket to Ride’, once again live from Shea Stadium:

The Beatles – Rubber Soul

The Beatles – Rubber Soul

Summary: Less than six months after Help! we get another record, but while on the surface it is similar in many ways, looking deeper shows that Rubber Soul is the transition between ‘early Beatles’ and their greatest period of creativity and output. Of the fourteen songs here, twelve are Lennon & McCartney and Harrison adds the other two – and even the least of the songs here are at a level far above what any other rock or pop group was doing at the time.

Again the song list reads like a greatest hits collection – Drive My Car, Norwegian Wood, You Won’t See Me, Nowhere Man, In My Life, Michelle, and so on are all classics. Even the ‘lesser’ songs truly belong – there is no filler. John & Paul are more distinct here, with Paul bringing as much positive energy as John does negative. The distorted guitar on Think For Yourself adds an edge to an already acerbic lyric. This is a joy to listen to after all of these years.

Choice Track (and why): If I Needed Someone – while it is definitely hard to find a ‘hidden classic’ on this mega-record, Harrison’s If I Needed Someone has always been a favorite. I love the dense guitar harmonic space with the lilting vocal harmonies, held down by a strong bass foundation … this is still one of my favorite Beatles songs and a really hidden gem for me.

How Does It Hold Up Today: this remains of of the greatest records in all of pop & rock history with good reason. Everyone involved brought everything they could think of to the record. The songs are more complex than anything else done in pop music, and the melding of different musical styles and instrumentation helps expand the palette greatly.

Here is a video featuring ‘If I Needed Someone’ live from Japan:

The Beatles – Revolver

The Beatles – Revolver

Summary: Released in August of 1966, Revolver was spaced further from the last album than anything before it – and the group definitely put that time to good use, creating what I consider to be the greatest record they ever put together.

I don’t consider most pop or rock music to be terribly deep – it can be great to listen to, but seldom rewards repeated listens. At this point the Beatles were producing music that was surprising upon first listen and so rich in content that it still has new things to offer listeners.

Harrison scores big on the opening song Taxman, followed by Eleanor Rigby, and we also get such an array of classics as Here, There and Everywhere, Yellow Submarine, She Said, She Said, Good Day Sunshine, And Your Bird Can Sing, I Want To Tell You, and Got To Get You Into My Life. I’m Only Sleeping is less well known but another of my favorites. Harrison adds the sitar centric Love You To, and then we get the trippy Tomorrow Never Knows to close out this absolute masterpiece of pop music.

Choice Track (and why): – Tomorrow Never Knows – a simple but catchy melody sung over a simple shifting modal harmonic chord change, this song is all about the ‘other stuff’, the backwards guitars, the bird sounds, the other tape-induced horns, the compressed can-vocal effect, and on and on. I usually use the word ‘immersion’ to refer to video games, but this is one of those songs that immediately transports me into a great world of sound each time I listen.

How Does It Hold Up Today: – it is easy to look at this as just a great collection of songs, but at the same time the level of experimentation and raw creativity was stunning. Experimentation into Musique Concrete were ongoing, the use of the studio as an instrument had really just started with some work by Quincy Jones in 1964. What the Beatles were doing, in effect, was saying that they could not only do experimental music, but simultaneously make phenomenal music. And despite being experimental … it has aged extremely well.

Here is a video featuring ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’:

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Summary: Is Sgt. Pepper the greatest rock album of all time … or the most over-rated? How about simultaneously both and neither? There can be no reasonable argument that Sgt Pepper is one of the most historically important recordings ever done in popular music, with a scope and breadth that took the experimentation of Revolver and made it an assumed way of business. The level of technical experimentation and studio manipulation as integral musical language, integration of psychedelia at a higher musical level than anyone else at the time, mysticism, strings, synthesizers, and loads of others instruments in a fully seamless way was novel and unique and has really never again been matched.

Yet what ultimately matters is the music. Sgt Pepper is largely structured as a ‘concept album’, yet in that regard doesn’t compare favorably to ‘Sell Out’ by The Who, released only a few months later depicting a radio stating with fake jingles and so on interspersing the songs. Sgt Pepper has some thematic ties that thread throughout, but with a number of random songs interspersed. Yet comparing the maturity of Sgt Pepper to the sonically rough and raw ‘Sell Out’ show just how far above the rest of the world The Beatles were at the time.

In terms of songs, the title track is a great vignette, and we get perhaps Ringo’s best vocal performance with With A Little Help From My Friends, a couple of nice Lennon contributions in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Mr. Kite … but the bulk of songs are from Paul McCartney, which means they are pop-centric and whimsical. George Martin’s contribution in the studio cannot be overstated. And, just in case anyone is counting, A Day in the Life is STILL one of the great songs of the past 50 years.

Choice Track (and why): She’s Leaving Home – using a strummed harp much like an acoustic guitar, Paul’s ballad tells a tale much like the singer-songwriters of the early-mid 1970’s such as Cat’s Cradle and so on. Using the full string orchestra and group harmonies veers dangerously close to being smarmy and cheesy, yet for all of the sentimentality and whimsy it all pulls together into a touching and thought-provoking look at the rapidly unraveling family structure. Much as Frank Zappa spoke about a few months earlier in ‘Plastic People’ from Absolutely Free, McCartney here is commenting on the dissolution of the 50’s era structures, which were being falsely maintained through external pretense and internal despair. For a silly song it is surprisingly deep …

How Does It Hold Up Today: Sgt Pepper is one of those things that is viewed very differently by people of different eras. For many of folks like myself who were alive and cognizant during at least some part of the ‘Beatles era’, there is a blind assumption and acceptance that this is the greatest rock album ever. Yet younger kids ask ‘why’? – and we really don’t have a proper answer.

Why do I say that? Because there are really only three or four truly classic songs here, and a sound quality that is commonplace now, studio tricks that are easily accessible on an iPhone now, and frankly the whole ‘concept album’ thing is lost on a generation that has no interest in how artists and labels choose to lay out songs, instead shuffling and sampling at will. But most people still rank A Day in the Life as one of the top songs of the 60’s, and in my estimation that song alone is enough to make this one of the great albums in popular music.

Here is a video of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ taken from the Yellow Submarine movie:

The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour

The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour

Summary: 1967 Saw not only the triumphant release of their first release as a ‘studio-only’ group, it also saw the death of their manager by drug overdose. In the wake of that, the group wandered more or less without direction through the completion of the film and album Magical Mystery Tour. The film in particular … well, it was garbage. I have only watched it once through from start to finish, with a more recent partial view to remind me of that fact.

Yet the music here is arguably better than anything on Sgt Pepper (with the exception of A Day in the Life ,of course). We have the title song, All You Need is Love, Penny Lane, I am the Walrus, Hello Goodbye, and Strawberry Fields Forever, all of which are absolutely brilliant songs ranking among the top songs of the era. There are four throw-aways – Flying, Your Mother Should Know, Blue Jay Way, and Baby You’re a Rich Man. But two of those are still pretty decent songs, and in the light of the rest of the record are very forgivable – it is certainly better than the covers on some of their early records!

Choice Track (and why): The Fool on the Hill – OK, this is my sixth favorite song on the record, and very popular in its time. I like the feel of the song, the sense of self-reflection that hearkens back to the dual sense of silliness and depth shown earlier.

How Does It Hold Up Today: I have always regarded Magical Mystery Tour as a sort of collection album – some singles from the year tossed together with some filler. And in that regard it works pretty well – there is a good amount of truly excellent stuff here that shows the extent to which the well of creativity ran with the group even as they lost their manager and were showing more and more that they were happier as individuals than as part of a collective whole.

Here is a video featuring ‘The Fool on the Hill’:

The Beatles – The White Album

The Beatles – The White Album

Summary: I look at the White Album as a sure sign that the group was really operating without a steadying hand to restrain them, but at the same time functioned at an extremely high level. We have plenty of self-indulgence here, each member giving in to their own excesses and egos and no one to reign them in. Yet we also have some amazingly brilliant songs.

The music backed away from the heavy studio work with strings and horns and so on, and returns to the small-group guitar-centric rock we hadn’t heard in more than three years! Starting with one of Paul’s over-the-top proto-rocker favorites Back in the USSR – which makes little sense to kids now, by the way – and moving to an introspective Lennon song Dear Prudence, and a couple more songs by each before landing on one of the very best songs of the record” a Harrison song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.

There are 30 songs here lasting just over an hour and a half, making for some compelling listening. There is silliness such as Bungalow Bill and Piggies and, of course, Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey. But then there are classics like Blackbird, Birthday, Helter Skelter, and on and on. And overall we feel like we are getting a peek into the sprawling creative genius of a group that has fully matured and developed and no longer worries specifically about setting out to generate a bunch of hit singles.

Choice Track from CD #1 (and why): – Julia – OK, I’m cheating by doing one song per album … too bad! A gorgeous Lennon ballad with wonderfully overlapping intimate vocals, shifting harmony, and a poignant lyric.
Choice Track from CD #2 (and why): – Revolution 9 – OK, so maybe this isn’t very good as a song, nor does it hold up with the best in the musique concrete genre, but it is a wonderful experiment that touches on both fully studio-generated sound and also some of the work that started back even before Revolver. It is fun to listen to – especially with headphones.

How Does It Hold Up Today: I look at The White Album as a work that shows the potential good and bad of the ‘iTunes era’. There is no doubt that there would be loads of very popular songs. But who would ever hear ‘Rocky Raccoon’ based on a thirty-second sample?

And despite being a wildly scatter-shot collection of songs that range from great classics to nonsensical indulgence, the entire record is essential Beatles listening. Yet today most of it gets lost as only the few hits ever get any play. Again, my kids got subjected to everything, and this was their least familiar territory – yet the one they found most interesting.

Here is a video featurette called ‘The White Album Sessions’, with some nice studio chatter and out-takes:

The Beatles – Yellow Submarine

The Beatles – Yellow Submarine

Summary: Another album linked to a movie, but as the group had little to do with either the film or the record, this one is probably the only of their ‘main’ albums that I could easily recommend NOT buying.

You get Yellow Submarine … again. You get a couple of Harrison songs, a couple of non-essential Lennon & McCartney throw-aways that sound like they were from the White Albul cutting room floor, and the other half is George Martin soundtrack. The only new song worth having is All You Need Is Love – and honestly you’d be better off getting he compilation ‘1967-1970’ to grab that!

Choice Track (and why): It’s All Too Much – starting with a shrieking feedback guitar and then having the theme stated by an organ, this song hits a nice groove immediately. The song sounds a bit dated and ‘of its time’, more so than the group’s other works of the era, but it is a fun and catchy song that has been a lost fave of mine for years and isn’t available elsewhere.

How Does It Hold Up Today: If Yellow Submarine was a novelty when released, and an interesting throwback when the animated movie got renewed interest due to US television releases in the 1970’s, it is truly something for Beatles enthusiasts at this point. The songs are largely extraneous, and while the soundtrack work of George Martin highlights his skills, that isn’t really what people are looking for in a Beatles album, it is?

Here is a video featuring ‘Yellow Submarine’ from the movie:

The Beatles – Abbey Road

The Beatles – Abbey Road

Summary: When I tried to choose a ‘hidden fave’ from Abbey Road I had to confront something I already knew: the album is simply a classic end to end. As for ‘filler’, perhaps the little 30-second ‘Her Majesty’, but the way it threads in makes it a nice sweet little extra after an extremely satisfying ride.

Harrison does something interesting here – he has the two sweetest and most singable songs here with Something and Here Comes the Sun, and Ringo contributes a classic in Octopus’ Garden. Lennon & McCartney are completely distinct to the point that I am still surprised that they give joint songwriting credit to these songs. As with Sgt Pepper the stronger hand here is Paul’s, but everywhere you hear John his contribution is legendary.

Choice Track (and why): I Want You (She’s so Heavy) – Why did I choose this? I love the bluesy and wry lyric, the way the vocal is nearly subjugated to the guitar line, with Lennon singing to the guitar similar to a style that George Benson would immortalize in the mid 70’s. The song is open and flowing and has an almost jam feel and shows very clearly how much the group had matured musically through the years.

How Does It Hold Up Today: If you were to map the airplay of Beatles songs on commercial radio, I would bet that Abbey Road makes up 25% of everything you hear. Stations will still play the whole side two suite, the hits are still extremely popular, and none of it has aged at all.

Here is a video featuring ‘Sun King’ with some nice Abbey Road pictures:

The Beatles – Let It Be

The Beatles – Let It Be

Summary: Pretty much everyone knows by now the story of how Abbey Road was recorded after Let It Be but was released almost nine months before. But in spite of that Let It Be *feels* like their swan song … it is an uneven album featuring some of their best stuff and some songs that really deserved to be left on the cutting room floor.

It is interesting that in spite of Phil Spector’s post-production work getting ravaged that my two favorite songs feature his ‘wall of sound’: Across the Universe and The Long and Winding Road, showing how the fully developed talents of Lennon and McCartney separately take on the ballad circa 1970.

Choice Track (and why): I’ve got a feeling – feeling like playing out the last bits of hopefulness as the optimistic 60’s turned into the cynical 70’s, McCartney’s rocker had a great contribution from Lennon as well as some of the tightest rocking material on the record.

How Does It Hold Up Today: In spite of a desire to get back to basics, which should have made the music timeless, many of the songs here have aged poorly. I Me Mine, One After 909, the nibbles Dig It and Maggie Mae and others have suffered the ravages of time poorly. Yet the classics – Let it Be, Across the Universe, Get Back and The Long and Winding Road – remain as strong and popular today as in 1970, and were a fitting end to an era.

Here is a video of the famous ‘rooftop session’ playing ‘Get Back’:

The Beatles – Singles Collections

The Beatles – 1962 – 1966

The Beatles – 1967 – 1970

Summary: OK, I talked about only featuring the ‘main albums’, and yet I immediately include compilations? Well, the Beatles started in an era where getting hit singles was the goal, and although they continued into the album-oriented late 60’s, they were still releasing singles that didn’t appear on their records right up until 1969! As such it is hard to come up with a definitive look at the group – but these collections help!

For me, 62-66 and 67-70 were my link to the group for many, many years. They collected the essential album tracks and some non-album singles, and gave a great look into the progression during those years. In that regard they always presented a great way for listeners to easily grab a fairly comprehensive overview to the group in two records (OK, two DOUBLE records, but still!). The natural problem was that there were still too many omissions (Rain) and too many tracks from the main albums.

Choice Track (1962 – 1966 ): I Feel Fine – the early use of feedback on the bass, combines with the loose harmonic feel has always made this one of my favorites. My brother had this on the ‘Beatles 65’ record, but it isn’t on any of the official remastered CD recordings. Nor is Paperback Writer, another classic of the era.

Choice Track (1967 – 1970 ): Hey Jude – it is really hard to believe this wasn’t on an album. Nor was Lady Madonna … or Revolution for that matter. But Hey Jude, with the long ‘na, na na, nanana na’ ending is just a wonderful song that should be in any Beatles fan’s collection.

The Beatles – Past Masters

The Beatles – Past Masters

Summary: When the original Beatles remastering and reissue on CD happened more than a decade ago, everything was realigned to match up the original UK releases. This means that several songs that were hit singles elsewhere but also appeared on the US albums were suddenly unavailable. Past Masters brings together all of these and more, providing a great 2 CD overview of the band including most big hit singles and album tracks not on the UK releases. There is a ton of great stuff here, though especially using headphones the stereo mixes tend to suffer from spatial displacement – it is unfortunate they didn’t just remaster the mono recordings.

Choice Track (and why): Rain – one of the great ‘B-sides’ in history, this infectious song remains a classic and was also innovative in its day for the use of backwards tap for the ‘nair’ ending.

How Does It Hold Up Today: If I had to choose now, I would choose to get Past Masters over the so-called Red & Blue albums, as there is a more comprehensive collection with fewer repeats from the main albums. But as usual none of these provides a comprehensive look at all non-album songs! Frustratingly Apple Records has made it so you need to grab all of the main albums, these collections, and still troll through hits collections and other things to get the whole public output of the group – and that doesn’t even include the non-released gems!

The Beatles – The Solo Years

OK, well as we know, the group broke up in May of 1970, and by that time each member had either released solo material or was working on a release. Each had hit songs in at least the 70’s, with some having popular releases in the 80’s, 90’s and even into the new millennium!

As I said at the top I wanted to quickly delve into each of the Beatles’ solo careers and choose some of my favorite songs from their catalog! I will put them more or less in order or preference and actually select my favorite song from each and offer some insight as to why it is my favorite.

John Lennon – Thoughts on His Solo Career
The tragedy of John Lennon’s death is made even sadder when you realize that his best record was released just a few months before he was shot. Not necessarily his best songs, but for once a record with more than a couple of great songs amongst way too much unlistenable chaff.

Sadly that is how I look at Lennon’s career – best represented by a single CD collection. There are amazing highs and lows, all of the self-indulgence and self-importance evident in the Beatles latter years exploded to the n-th degree. Yet as the collections I indicate show, he remained one of the most amazing songwriters of all time throughout his solo years.

The interesting thing to me is my new-found love for ‘Double Fantasy’. In 1980 I was fully engaged in avant-garde jazz and gave the record scant time. But upon reflection it was his strongest and most consistent work of his career. It is such a tragedy to have lost him … and at only forty years old.

John Lennon – My Choice Recording The John Lennon Collection – sadly this 19-song collection is out of print, replaced now by Power to the People, which is only 15 songs and loses Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), and instead gets Gimme Some Truth. Either one hits the high notes and is worth having – and Power to the People gets the remastered versions. It is interesting that the album version of ‘Collection’ and the new CD are 15 songs long, as I originally had 15 songs selected and needed to trim for my ‘top 10’.

John Lennon – My ‘Top 10’ Solo Songs
1 – Jealous Guy – I simply love the airy melody, the simple production, and the intimate vocal. The song builds into the chorus that is joyous and apologetic and touching all at once. Lennon has some great songs but this has always been my favorite.
2 – Instant Kharma
3 – #9 Dream
4 – Imagine
5 – Working Class Hero
6 – Mind Games
7 – Woman
8 – Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)
9 – Watching the Wheels
10 – Cold Turkey

Here is a great (and rare) live version of Instant Kharma:

Paul McCartney – Thoughts on His Solo Career
As others have said, Paul took a very interesting course in his solo career, charting with some very nice pop songs such as Maybe I’m Amazed and Another Day while George was holding the Concert for Bangladesh and John was getting very political. Okay, I’m being kind – he got blasted for it in the press. But that had always been his way, and he produced some amazing songs along the way! His other goal was to get back into a working band, which he did with his Wings.

The problem I have with McCartney is not his choice of how to approach his career, but rather then wildly uneven recordings he made. As he demonstrated throughout the Beatles recorded career, he could easily toss off well-crafted catchy pop songs – but there is a difference between what you can do and what you SHOULD do! As a result there are too many mediocre records in his catalog … but at the same time there are so many truly excellent songs that I had a really hard time trimming my choices to 10 … harder than any of the other Beatles. Perhaps the most surprising is my choice for top song …

Paul McCartney – My Choice Recording – Another tough call since I can’t find something that is at once comprehensive and affordable. I would choose either Wingspan or his Greatest Hits Volume #1 and Volume #2. I got the double ‘Greatest Hits’ 2-CD sets several years ago, and Volume #1 has all of the classic McCartney songs I love scattered across two CD’s, and in moving it all to my iTunes collection I only grabbed a few from Volume #2 to round out the set.

Since those collections are not widely available, if I had to recommend a single commercial release it would be Band on the Run, which had some great songs including the title track, Jet, Bluebird, 1985, and Helen Wheels. Sadly, the new ‘remaster’ once again uses the UK release which means it skips Helen Wheels – which is why I linked to the deluxe version.

Paul McCartney – My ‘Top 10’ Solo Songs
1 – Rockestra Theme – from the terrible recording ‘Back to the Egg’ (which is nonetheless a sentimental fave that I digitized from vinyl), this hard-rocking instrumental theme included a litany of Brit-rock luminaries. It was supposedly part of a larger vision McCartney had, but ended up being used widely to unite young and old rockers as part of a tribute to raise money and awareness for war-ravaged Cambidia.
2 – Band on the Run
3 – Jet
4 – Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
5 – Maybe I’m Amazed
6 – Live and Let Die
7 – Bluebird
8 – Listen to What the Man Said
9 – Say Say Say
10 – Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five

From the 1979 Concert for Kampuchea, here is the Rockestra Theme Live:

George Harrison – Thoughts on His Solo Career
George Harrison essentially had two solo careers – his immediately post-Beatles work, and his collaboration with ELO’s Jeff Lynne starting in the late 80’s. The first one produced the masterful All things Must Pass and the Concert for Bangladesh, while the latter led to Cloud Nine and Harrison joining the Traveling Wilburys.

While he had some really good songs and continued to be vital and vibrant until the end of his life, there is absolutely nothing to compare to the double-whammy of All things Must Pass and the Concert for Bangladesh. All later rock benefits owe their origins to the Bangladesh concert recording, while the excellence of All Things spills out like it had been pent up for years during the Beatles years, which it pretty much had.

Sadly, after those recordings, his output tended to reflect the Beatles years – he was reliable for two solid songs per album. Of course, since most of his records have 10 songs …

George Harrison – My Choice Recording Let it Roll: The Songs of George Harrison. I like this collection because it is weighted heavily towards the first two records, and also has a load of stuff from the excellent Cloud Nine, while dropping in the main songs from the rest of of his recordings as well. If you don’t already have any of his work, this works as a comprehensive collection of essential Harrison – and the new remasters sound better than ever!

George Harrison – My ‘Top 10’ Solo Songs
1 – What Is Life – This could easily have been a great Beatles song, yet is better as a solo Harrison recording because he has an entirely different production style that works perfectly here. Whether or not this is his best, this has always been my favorite Harrison song – I love the core harmony and simple melody and the building feeling throughout.
2 – Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)
3 – All Things Must Pass
4 – My Sweet Lord
5 – When We Was Fab
6 – Got My Mind Set on You
7 – Crackerbox Palace
8 – Handle with Care (Traveling Wilburys)
9 – End of the Line (Traveling Wilburys)
10 – Blow Away

Here is an awesome version of My Sweet Lord from the Bangladesh concert:

Ringo Starr – Thoughts on His Solo Career
I suppose my thoughts on Ringo’s career are reflected in the fact that I couldn’t manage to amass a list of 10 songs I liked, despite buying the collection I list below in a moment of weakness because I wanted to own the song ‘Photograph’.

Ringo’s solo career was perhaps destined to be limited by a quick reality check: his voice has a limited tenor range, he was never much of a songwriter, and his instrumental acumen wasn’t enough to allow him to branch away from popular music.

That said, his 1973 album Ringo (another one my brother played until the grooves were practically worn out in the 70’s) was a huge commercial success and spawned top-10 hits including two #1 songs! The album Ringo featured collaborations with old friends Lennon, McCartney and Harrison and a cast of other pop luminaries.

From there he ended up with seven top-10 songs in a row before basically crashing into obscurity. Since then he has had some minor success leading bands and continues to love touring and singing classic hits for adoring fans, but largely isn’t churning out anything new that is worth checking out.

As an aside, for my kids Ringo will always be the voice narrating Thomas the Tank engine, something he did during the first two years of the stop-animated series.

Ringo Starr – My Choice Recording Photograph: The Very Best of Ringo Starr. This has all of his top 10 hits and a broad range of songs that span the majority of his career across record labels and styles. For a single CD price it is a reasonable value to look across his entire solo career.

Ringo Starr – My ‘Top 10’ Solo Songs
1 – Photograph
2 – No No Song
3 – It Don’t Come Easy
4 – You’re Sixteen
5 – Oh My My
6 – Back Off Boogaloo
7 – …
8 – …
9 – …
10 – Um … being the narrator of the early Thomas the Tank Engine episodes?

Here is Ringo performing Photograph live from Montreaux Jazz Festival 1992:

The Beatles – Some Final Thoughts

I had no intention of trying to document the history of the Beatles – that has been done in such depth and so many times that I wouldn’t even want to read such an account anymore. Much more interesting to me was to step through the amazing collection of music they bestowed upon the world. Music that I had heard in its entirety decades ago on original LPs, but which felt fresh once again after an absence of so many years.

I think what surprised me was the fact that the Beatles released their first five recordings in only two and a half years, and seldom went more than nine months without a major new release. This isn’t the case we see now of interim re-packagings and remixes and other things record companies do to keep an artist in the mind of the audience. These were full-on commercial released filled with at least several classics.

I have spent so many decades completely separated from popular music that it is amazing to me to listen to this music and hear how it impacts new songs being released by artists today. It also amazes me how great all of the music and vocals sound – in spite of most being produced in fairly short studio sessions.

I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ through the Beatles’ group and solo recordings, and hope you did as well. I would love to hear your own memories and favorites and other thoughts on the group and their music, so add your thoughts in the comments!

7 Responses to " Music Diary Retrospective: A Magical Mystery Tour of the Beatles Catalog "

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