Monday, November 30, 2009

Pop Matters' playlist versus my own.

My first playlist that I did on the blog back in, what, April or something, was a hidden treasures playlist. Listing the Beatles' hidden treasure tracks is a slightly ridiculous exercise, given the culture's massive Beatles overexposure in general. But that's why it interests me so much. Besides, for whatever reason, I have personally witnessed several people come to the Beatles (rather like one would come to Jesus) because they heard a kickass song no one had bothered to play for them before, so they ARE out there. My own playlist, though, was rendered even more ridiculous by the fact that I limited myself to songs I'd already written about, so that I could link to them in a shamelessly self-promoting kind of way. So I'll be the first to admit it's incomplete.

That won't stop me from having strong opinions about other people's lists, though. The other day (as usual I'm like a week late) Pop Matters posted a 20-song countdown of the best of Beatley buried treasures. And I have some remarks to make. Sure, all of these songs are terrifically awesome. But are they all really BURIED?

1. "Tomorrow Never Knows." Maybe. I would argue, though, that with the high profile of Revolver these days, "Tomorrow Never Knows" is getting more than its due. Also consider the song's prominence in what is probably the best known remixed track from Love, as well as the fact that George Martin brings it up in like every single interview he does, and I think this is less buried than one might think.

2. "Rain." Again, maybe just me, but I think the kids are pretty well aware of "Rain." It's another one George Martin likes to talk about, and Ringo brings it up quite a bit too. If my husband is any indicator, high school kids like to teach themselves the bass part. All that said, "Rain" should be listened to as often as possible, so if there's any internet surfer who still didn't know it, I guess it's good they'd find it here.

3. "Hey Bulldog." Okay, this one I'm with you on, Pop Matters. It was on my original list because I'm still shocked and appalled that people sometimes haven't heard or don't remember it.

4. "She's Leaving Home." Yeah, okay. This song has its passionate devotees, but I can maybe buy that it's not out in the mainstream as much. Still, though, considering its iconic status as one of the first albums you were supposed to listen to all the way through, can ANY song from Sgt. Pepper ever be described as truly buried? Discuss.

5. "No Reply." Yes. This song deserves more love than it gets. I think its structural oddities might still put it ahead of its time, maybe even more so than much later songs.

6. "You Never Give Me Your Money." I will give you this one only because I can agree that the glories of this song might get lost in the sweep of the Abbey Road medley, all components of which are inferior to this song.

7. "She Said She Said." No one appreciates this one as much as I do, I swear, so I'll come along with you on this, though also gently nudge you back to the first two songs on the list to point out that, due to this song's similarities, some of those same points apply.

8. "Here, There, and Everywhere." See, I don't know. I think this one is pretty firmly on people's radars. Perhaps it's because of the number of times it's been covered. Or because, despite its sophistication, it's still a McCartney ballad, so you can be sure that if you, say, play it at your wedding (which, YES, I did, SHUT UP) even your grandparents will probably nod knowingly at each other at that opening strum.

9. "Happiness Is a Warm Gun." Probably. Sure. People love the White Album, but they're going to remember several songs off the tops of their heads before this. Plus, it's obviously one of the bigger weirdos in the catalog.

10. "Taxman." But, no. You guys, people freaking love "Taxman." Have you ever turned on a classic rock station on April 15th? The people are very familiar. Buried this one is not.

11. "Tell Me Why." This is a song that's hidden-- hidden because any fun rocking song would be inevitably hidden by all the masterworks on A Hard Day's Night. An underrated song, and an excellent pick.

12. "I'm So Tired." Hmm. Not sure. The heroin-influenced Lennon songs tend to get a lot of attention from biographers and bitter high schoolers, and, you know, not that the average listener has read the biographies, but I still say this one might have a higher profile.

13. "I'm a Loser." Mostly with you, Pop Matters, except that, again, this is one that no Lennon biographer overlooks-- what with the self-loathing and the Dylan influence and whatnot. But since I still think no one actually listens to this song as much as they should, I'll go ahead and nod along with you here.

14. "Old Brown Shoe." Oh my God, I know. Isn't it criminal how much people ignore "Old Brown Shoe"? This made my list, and for good reason.

15. "And Your Bird Can Sing." Again, RIGHT-O. This one made my list, too. I suspect that Beatles Rock Band might have the power to change this, though. Let's hope so.

16. "I'm Only Sleeping." I wavered here, but then I couldn't think of why. So, okay. Yes. Sure.

17. "It's All Too Much." Here I agree 100%. I'm told that it's kind of cool to like this song now, in the same way that it's cool to like "Hey Bulldog," so I'll take that as a good sign.

18. "Girl." Do you think so? Is this one underrated? Hmm. Maybe you're right. I think it might be more of a hidden Rubber Soul track than a hidden Beatles track, if you take the point, but I'll go with you here, though I feel like a lot of people seem to know and adore this song.

19. "You Won't See Me." Ah, yes, another hidden nugget of genius on Rubber Soul. I am totally in agreement that this is less beloved than it deserves.

20. "Yer Blues." I don't know-- if you're the kind of Beatles fan who likes this kind of song, you've probably already found it, and if you haven't found it yet, you don't want to find it. Does that make sense? I think it's notorious (if not actually famous) just for its polarizing qualities. Rather like "Helter Skelter."

This is obviously all just my opinion, but seriously, whither the early songs, Pop Matters? That's where there are really some juicy hidden songs, even if you arbitrarily decide to not count the covers. Whither "Any Time at All," "It Won't Be Long," "I'll Be Back," or "There's a Place"? I mean, it seems like no one even listens to Please Please Me anymore. (And what's with these kids on my lawn, anyhow?....)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Two playlists for a sad anniversary.

Well, it's been eight years now since we lost George Harrison to cancer. On this day in 2001, I remember being in my still-fairly-new Boston apartment, pacing around the bedroom and trying to get some writing done (I was in a grad program for creative writing) and just being completely blocked, so I turned on the radio to procrastinate a little and suddenly it was all George all the time. There was not much hope of getting any writing done once I heard the news.

Remember George however you wish today. I'm offering two playlists to help you out. Here's a playlist of what I feel to be some of the happiest performances of a not-always-totally-happy guy: George at his youngest, cutest, and liveliest. Most alive, if you'd like.

But I thought I should also do a playlist of some of my favorite George guitar moments. If it hadn't been for George, all these Lennon-McCartney songs would have been vastly inferior to what they turned out to be. If these seem obvious, it's because they largely ARE-- but still, they're fun to listen to.

3. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) **(okay, not strictly a guitar moment. sue me.)

And finally, because I cannot help myself (and because I secretly have sometimes questionable taste), the video for the first song by George I ever remember liking. You could not stop my eight-year-old self from dancing around to this one. Yeah, it's a cover, but who even remembers the original anymore? George's version rules. Enjoy!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rock Band is Getting even Better.

I see at WogBlog that Harmonix, which had long promised a complete Sgt. Pepper download for Beatle Rock Band in November, has announced solid dates: Xbox and Wii users can download the album on November 17th, while PX users have to wait until the 19th.

Harmonix has already put up Abbey Road for sale to the Rock Banders of the world, and wisely so-- how could anyone who had already laid out the cash for the game resist it? They're pricing the albums at about the same cost as a CD, which sounds pretty okay until you realize that you're only really buying, like, half the album's songs, since a bunch of the album's tracks already came with the game. But it's NOT a CD-- it's a new product, really, for which Harmonix designed lovely dreamscapes and scored all the instruments, so in the end I've decided it's a fine deal to just buy these things. Abbey Road was a good one to start with, too, because it turns out that playing the entire B-side medley as one complete track (which the game allows you to do) is THE MOST FUN THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. Like, seriously. It rules so hard. It makes me want to cry.

Have you guys checked out Beatles Rock Band yet? It's kind of taken over my life. I'm doing productive things like reading books/cooking nourishing meals/blogging much less frequently than I'd like, because when I come home from work I just want to sit down and try to get 5 stars on "Dig a Pony," which is the ONE song in the Story Mode that I can't seem to master the guitar part on. (I don't even know why. I've managed "Back in the U.S.S.R.," which is much harder, but "Dig a Pony" keeps messing with my mind.) Or else I just want to kick ass on the guitar solo of "The End" one more time (which is the BEST guitar solo in the game, because you get to pretend you're three different Beatles at once).

If you haven't checked the game out yet, I need to urge you to do so. Whether or not you enjoy the previous Rock Band iterations (I do), the new game is such an affectionate homage to Beatles-geekdom that Beatles geeks everywhere owe themselves a look, no matter how much it sets them back. You might have already read about the crazy attention to detail in the sets-- well, it's ALL TRUE. If you're like me, you've seen a lot of photos taken when the Beatles played the Cavern, Shea Stadium, the Apple rooftop, and so on, and the designers of the game have literally captured even random people in the audience that you'll recognize. (My favorite is the guy with the glasses who checks his watch at the Cavern. Just like he does in that one photo. Awesome.) And in the "dreamscapes," which is the way they animate later songs that weren't performed live, they clearly reference pre-existing video interpretations of songs ("Yellow Submarine," "I Am the Walrus," and so on) while still doing new fun things with the visuals. The attention to detail is SO awesome that I tend to forgive the forays into revisionist, idealized Beatles history-- such as the fact that Eric Clapton does not play the guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," Ringo drums on "Back in the U.S.S.R.," and Yoko is nowhere to be seen at the rooftop concert.

My little secret is that, since Harmonix is based near me in Cambridge, MA, I actually got to be a playtester on Beatles Rock Band. I played three separate times, and I got to sing AND drum my way through every single song in the game (except for the new albums they're putting out for sale this fall) months before it was out. I had to sign paperwork giving the MTV/Viacom people permission to, like, draw and quarter me if I told anyone anything about this at the time, so I had to hush up here on the blog. But the point is, I tried to offer this kind of constructive criticism to the playtest people ("Why not put Yoko and Maureen right there on the rooftop? What about how in "Dig a Pony," there's a guy holding up a legal pad to John so he can read his lyrics? You guys should put that in!!"), who politely pretended to take notes and then politely bade me adieu at the end of the night, no doubt shaking their heads at the crazy playtester girl.

Anyway, I've been thinking about Sgt. Pepper and how hard it might be adapt for Rock Band. How on earth would you play the orchestral crescendo on "A Day in the Life," which itself is only the very first potential difficulty that pops into my head? I'm looking forward to seeing how they manage it, though. Because I know where my ass will be on November 17th. My couch. As I play the entire Sgt. Pepper album. And that is way cooler than what the rest of the world will be doing on a random Tuesday.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Playlist: My One-Disc White Album.

Although I'm a fan of the One-Disc White Album game (the game wherein you pretend that George Martin gets his way and that the Beatles release a wicked solid single-disc album instead of the slightly all-over-the-place double-disc album that DID get released in November of 1968, and then decide which songs should be on it and which shouldn't be), I've never been able to satisfactorily come up with a One-Disc White Album myself.

There are a lot of issues, you know, in rewriting a Beatles album. It's not necessarily going to work if it's just your favorite songs. You have to achieve a John-Paul parity, or else you'd have been in trouble with at least one of them. And you need at least two cuts from George if you're going to be fair too. Ideally, Ringo will get a vocal. I'm basically holding myself to the standard Beatles 14-track album size, though I'm allowing myself to go as high as 15 if I end up including some of the really short tracks that pepper this album. This should work as a playlist, so I'm filing it away as one. Oh, and I'm going to futz with the order to better accomodate the new direction a one-disc White Album would have.


1. Back in the U.S.S.R.

2. Dear Prudence

3. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

4. I Will

5. Sexy Sadie

6. Martha My Dear

7. Blackbird


1. Julia

2. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

3. Long, Long, Long

4. Don't Pass Me By

5. I'm So Tired

6. Helter Skelter

7. Happiness Is a Warm Gun

8. Why Don't We Do It in the Road?

Do you see how problematic this is?

What my version gets right is parity-- John and Paul get 6 songs each, George gets 2 songs, and we leave in Ringo's contribution out of kindness, which we can do because we've selected two songs that are only about a minute and a half long each. I think there's also a good variety of moods here, with John and Paul and George each getting a straight-up ballad-- well, Paul gets two, but that's Paul. But there's lots of rocking stuff here too.

In fact, the songs that I wanted to include but had to leave out were mostly left out to make room for the various moods I wanted this to include. I want "Savoy Truffle" to be in here somewhere, but "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" seems somehow indispensable, and then I want George's second song to be very different-- so it's "Long, Long, Long." (Besides, I love that song more than is probably healthy.) I have similar problems with "Yer Blues" and "Birthday." And then I find myself leaving out "Revolution 1" just because, you know, at least there's the "Revolution" single... And then, of course, I just want to put in some songs because I heart them, like "Bungalow Bill" and "Cry Baby Cry." You'll note that I also left out songs that might be considered big ones (ahem, "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da") but which I have always considered inferior. One can't help but bring one's own prejudices into this thing.

So maybe this whole game is flawed. But still, have I done anything right here? Is this what you guys think about while you're supposed to be working? Or am I just mildly mentally ill?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Remastered CDs not geeky enough for you?

Well, you're in luck, because the whole catalog is going to be released again, this time on vinyl.

MOJO had the story on its website yesterday. And, you know, I like records a lot. But even I might be too exhausted at this point to lay out more money. I swear, though, if they package Let It Be with a reprint of the original photobook, I might yet relent....

Monday, November 2, 2009

10 observations on the mono box set.

Perhaps you've been asking yourself, "Should I buy the recently released digital remastered Beatles box set in mono?" Well, I'm of the opinion that most people probably should, although you personally might not really need to. It kind of depends on how much of a geek you are. But, wait a minute, you're here reading a Beatles blog, aren't you? So, likely yes. But just in case, I've compiled a very unscientific list of some things I find interesting about the mono recordings-- if any of these features are important to you, by all means spend your money. And yes, I'm like two months late to the party. Sorry. It's given me a lot of time to listen, though.

If you're wondering why anyone's considering buying anything in mono at all, it's because the mono releases tended to be the Beatle-sanctioned releases. In the early '60s, stereo was expensive and nichey and more common among older audiophiles, whereas teenagers would just have been blasting their music from radios and cheapie turntables. Although I'm pretty sure all the Beatles albums had stereo counterparts, the stereo mixes were overseen by engineers and interns and stuff after the band members had knocked off to go, I don't know, bang groupies or whatever. When stereo became a bigger deal in the decades to follow, cobbled stereo versions of Beatles music ended up being the dominant versions available. Hearing the songs in original mono, the thinking goes, is to hear them as the Beatles heard them, as they conceived of them sounding. There is an element of greater purity to these tracks, we are told, since they have not been defiled by technologies that our lads simply didn't contemplate. It's kind of like when people get snooty about playing Bach on a harpsichord versus a piano, the former seemingly more pure than the latter. But the difference is more subtle in the Beatles' mono releases than is the difference in timbre between a harpsichord and a piano. That's why I'm not sure everyone really needs to buy them, no matter how tempting. In fact, some of the time I think it's the digital remastering of the tracks more than the mono thing that makes them sound so good, and so clean. And since I haven't listened to the new stereo releases yet (for financial reasons, I am getting them as a Christmas gift), I can't compare just now.

Anyway, that's a long introduction to my long list. Here we go. By the way, please share your own observations in the comments! Or disagree vehemently with mine.

1. The most agreed-upon bit of info that I've read elsewhere is that you're largely struck by how much clearer the bass and percussion are. This is true, pretty much across the board. In case you've somehow remained ignorant of Paul's and Ringo's awesomeness, prepare to be ignorant no more.

2. Rubber Soul is Ringo's masterpiece. You guys. Seriously. On the mono tracks, you can hear every ingenious fill, every instance of freaking epic tambourine-ing, every time the band threatens to lost itself a little bit and Ringo heroically pulls them back. I don't think he was ever better. (Corollary: "You Won't See Me" is now firmly in the running for my favorite song on Rubber Soul, thanks entirely to the wizard at the drums. My post on this one back in May acknowledged Ringo's awesomeness, but trust me that it's heightened hugely in mono.)

3. The Beatles' messy singing is sometimes messier than previously known. This is truer on the early tracks that were recorded in more of a hurry, the band needing run off on their next tour or wherever, but the remastering tends to expose the adorable lack of polish on John and Paul's shared vocals. They don't cut off together, and more frequently than you might have noticed, they're not always in tune with each other. We already knew this. But it's even cuter in mono. (Corollary: "If I Fell" is a major exception. That singing is as flawless as can be, such that even the remastering reveals no issues. In mono, that song is just as smooooooth as you can imagine. Sigh!)

4. There are some Beatles covers that are less beloved by others, but I think virtually all of them are improved in mono. I don't know why it's the covers more so, and I've been trying to put my finger on it without real success. Considering that some of my picks for Most Improved have vocals by George, though, maybe it has something to do with the way the vocal sounds more stagey in mono, more of-a-piece with the band (more on this a few items down)-- which makes George's sometimes-weaker vocal that much more energized. Anyway, I'm feeling more love for "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" and "Devil in Her Heart" than I have in ages, to say nothing of "Words of Love," which I had no idea was so fun to listen to.

5. Another song that's dramatically improved for me in mono is "She's Leaving Home," which for some reason was sped up about a semitone (I think?) on the mono version from what's on the old stereo version. Not only does this make the pace a tad brisker and save the song from the grossest levels of self-indulgence, it makes Paul's already-high vocal on this song that much higher-- which for some reason sounds kind of artificial to me. In a good way. Now when I hear it, I hear Paul singing alone, on a darkened stage, a single spotlight upon him as he relates his sad tale. It's THEATRE now, is what I mean, and although this is one of those songs I've never quite understood the intense love for, I think in mono I finally really get it.

6. Are you one of those fans who hates George's little Indian forays? I'm talking about the straight-up Indian stuff here: "Love You To," "Within You Without You," and "The Inner Light." Well, you might hate them less in mono. I never hated them in the first place, but they are somehow easier to listen to in the mono set: the drones buzz less and sound more like active musical participants in what's going (albeit while droning), and you find yourself appreciating the disciplined technique, the perfectly meandering melodic parts the other instruments play. Also, it sounds like George is chant-singing inside your brain, which is kind of neat.

7. Speaking of a Beatle singing inside your brain, this is a weird effect that is sometimes cool, and is sometimes less cool. When you listen to mono recordings with headphones, the music feels like it's coming from the center of your skull, which can be odd and somehow unintimate. (At least it's not an oompa band in your brain, though.) There are some songs that I have always loved because it feels like John is whispering very sweet, very dirty nothings into my ear, but in mono he's moved further away into the more unsexy venue of my brain. (I was just listening to "All I've Got to Do" today, which is a really striking example of this phenomenon.) Worse, his voice obviously isn't so separated as in stereo-- there's more of a wash-of-band feel to the sound, so sometimes it sounds like John is singing on stage to an audience of fans rather than just to me. Which makes me sad.

8. However, sometimes John singing inside your brain is the best effect you could possibly wish for. "I Am the Walrus" is one of the greatest mono tracks for me, at least partially because there's something about John's vocal that's much more terrifying here. Maybe it's because in mono his voice doesn't separate from the instrumental texture, so it seems that much more inhuman. Also great is that prominent percussion we talked about. There's more drive to this song than I've heard before, which somehow makes you hear how tightly held together the whole song is even as it sounds like it's devolving into anarchy. But no. John and the band have you completely in their depraved, depraved power. (Shiver.)

9. If I may make a gigantic generalization: the most impressive mono songs are the songs in which the most stuff is going on. I think this might be more a feature of the digital remastering than the mono, but still and all I'm finding it to be true. However, interestingly, the clarity of all that's going on leaves the songs a little more vulnerable to criticism of intent. That is my pretentious way of noting that, say, "It's All Too Much" proves to be a little too much indeed-- you can hear all the psychedelic instrumentation clearly, but somehow that makes you more unsure of what it's all for. (And that's a song I really like.) Whereas in "Strawberry Fields Forever," say, you're struck for perhaps the first time by the discipline of the arrangement, the structural integrity beneath that deep lazy futzed-with John vocal and all the rest. (Corollary: I had this revelation just tonight. That part in "Strawberry Fields"? In the third verse? Where the strings are playing triplets? I just realized that that is, like, the most important part of the whole song. More on this from me later, maybe. I might just have to mull it over.)

10. But here's an exception that proves the rule. It's possible-- possible, I tell you-- that A Hard Day's Night is actually the best album the Beatles ever released. I swear. There is more energy in that album that most bands ever muster in their entire careers. Listen to it in mono and then come back and talk to me about this, so we can stare starry-eyed at each other and know exactly what we're thinking.

What do you guys think?