Friday 18 December 2015

Rubber Soul 50 years later

The Doc and the Gov recently held a long-distance listening party to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this album. Here is their track by track discussion:

Drive My Car

Doc: It's the first Beatles song where the bass leads the song and remains its focus. George suggested the bass line from Otis Redding's Respect.

Guv: And the cowbell with the short piano fills all suggest Motown. Plus Drive my Car is, supposedly, black innuendo for sex. A great choice for an album opener, especially when the title puns "soul" music. During the recording of I'm Down, as we know, Paul called out 'Plastic Soul', which was a term he'd heard soul musicians use to describe Mick Jagger.

Doc: This is the fattest bass line that Paul laid down to date. I think the big take-away here is musical: The Beatles were starting to push studio limitations sonically. British pop records sounded thin in those days.

Guv: And this is where Paul started becoming melodic in his basslines.

Norwegian Wood

Doc: Another instrument leads this song, something truly exotic, the sitar. The perfect choice. Otherwise, it would have been acoustic guitars.

Guv: To teenage ears of 1965 it must truly have sounded otherworldly. It carries the song, give's it an identity. There are layers of texture. A light touch on bass after the thumping Drive My Car.  Deft footwork from Ringo, with the kick drum buried deep. This is a really nice mix.

Doc: Lyrically, it's actually a nasty anecdote about a guy spending the night with a girl, not scoring with her, but sleeping in the bathtub instead, then taking revenge in the morning by torching her flat. Musically and lyrically it packs a lot of ideas in 120 seconds. One of the album's best songs.

You Won't See Me

Guv: Two songs in a row lyrically about being rejected.

Doc: Paul was quarreling with Jane Asher at the time and his angst came out in this song and I'm Looking Through You. The tempo was inspired by the Four Tops' It's The Same Old Song, with the driving beat. Great song.

Guv: Both Paul and John deliver these songs in laconic, weary voices. They seem to drag behind a little. Both underplayed, particularly after Drive my Car. But where John was bitter and vengeful, Paul is just tired and saddened.  Paul's weariness is countered with the lightening 'Ooh La La' backing vocals, softening it.

Doc: Not praised enough, if you ask me. Sure, it's a boy-girl lyric, but Paul's anger gives it bite than anything he wrote before that.

Guv: Two songs about a quarrel with Jane Asher, both visual metaphors. I'm Looking Through You, and You Won't See Me.  Hmmm

Nowhere Man

Doc: The first non love, boy-girl lyric by the Beatles. Not a step forward, lyrically, but a running leap.The lyrical sophistication and the intricate three-part harmonies make this a special song.

Guv: Although we'd had three part harmony before, This Boy for example. Nowhere Man is the first indication they had something special. Almost a precursor to Because on Abbey Rd. And, famously, John singing about himself in the third person. A different take on himself, as compared to Help! Nice little guitar parts and solo from George, ending on a a harmonic which just rings through.

Doc: Clever arrangement by opening acapella. Catches your ear every time. A lesson in song structure here. Dylan covered this song in concert a few times, saying he always loved the lyric. Nowhere Man was a #1 single in both our countries and hit #3 in American Billboard in early 1966. That's important, because it signaled to the world that the Beatles were moving away from boy-girl teenybopper music to songs that were more mature and complex.

Guv: It was an EP here, but it was at a time when EPs were on their way out. It seems it might have been a single in the US because the Americans omitted it from Rubber Soul and held it over for Yesterday and Today.

Think For Yourself

Doc: Back to back non-love songs.

Guv: George's first foray into something deep. There are suggestions it's about Pete Best. Wikipedia certainly comments it was shortly after the Pete Best lawsuit.

Doc: Maybe it was about Pete Best, but I'm not convinced. The lyrics are a leap for George. I mean, he recorded I Need You before this.

Guv: Nor me. I suspect it's a general warning. At this time I think the Beatles were so famous they were being approached by charlatans and con-men from all directions, and so many untruths were being written about them in the media. Mostly I think it's a general anti-establishment/government warning to the youth. There are several songs on this album that indicate the future of hippy-ism. Two basslines, the fuzz and the regular. It's thick, full and rich, and works.

The Word

Guv: John starting to think about universal love as a concept, something he revisited with All You Need is Love.

Doc: Not the most memorable melody, but a solid lyric and performance. For me, the musical highlight is George Martin's harmonium solo near the end. That burst awakens the tune.

Guv: Interestingly, this is the first song they wrote while smoking pot.

Doc: That would explain the hippy vibe of the tune.


Doc: This would've been a number one single. Unusual for a ballad to close side 1. Every album till then closed with a rocker.

Guv: I just read about the origins of this song in Lewisohn's book. John received some money for his birthday, so they took off to Paris for a holiday. George, in particular, was not impressed as they had to cancels gigs. Paul wrote this psuedo-French thing, mocking some of the people he'd met there on the left bank. Years later John suggested he rewrite it,because it had a pretty melody. It's delicate, recalls French chanson, without falling into a cliche or parody.

Doc: Beautiful. I have no complaints about it. Again, the bass gets the spotlight here.

Guv: Yes, light touch, great accents. Paul's playing is imaginative, and not just playing root notes or traditional lines. The guitar solo in the middle is bittersweet. Sad, yet loving.

What Goes On

Guv: Interesting. Recorded in nine hours, with some speculation it was mostly McCartney on overdubs - including backing vocals and drums.

Doc: To be honest, I replaced this with We Can Work It Out on my iPod. It was the b-side to the US Nowhere Man single and in my opinion should've stayed there. It's the token Ringo song.

Guv: Throwaway song, An album filler for Ringo. And his first co-writing credit, with a country feel. Listening to it on headphones, the guitar playing, while jagged, is a little sloppy.  Not much effort went into this one.

Doc: Sorry, Ringo.


Doc: Another love song, but the songwriting elevates it.

Guv: And it's another introspective song from John. Reading between the lines, John is already wanting to leave Cynthia, and sees himself as the victim.

Doc: I like the Greek guitar flourish at the end. Another exotic accent on an album that already features an Indian sitar, French lyrics and a Memphis bass line.

Guv: Along with the hidden jokes of the 'tit tit tit' backing vocals and the audio of toking. They were like schoolboys trying to get away with a prank. I can almost imagine them giggling, wondering when schoolmaster Martin would catch them out.

Doc: Naughty Beatles.

I'm Looking Through You

Guv: A wonder, beautiful song from Paul. Fantastic lyrics, melody and instrumentation. Some optimism, but honest and pained.

Doc: An overlooked Paul song. The rhythm propels it. Biting vocal by Paul. Both the early version and the final version are powerful yet vastly different. Definitely a deep cut.

Guv: Ringo has some unusual involvement here. He plays some percussion on his legs, and a matchbox, but also played the two note strikes in the chorus on a Hammond Organ.

Doc: Lastly, I consider the US mix with the extra notes in the intro, the true and complete version. The UK mix always sounds incomplete to my ears.

Guv: I guess it's what you grew up with. I found the US one to be interesting, but a bit of a novelty.

In My Life

Doc: What else is there to say about this song that hasn't been said? It's one of the finest songs by The Beatles or anybody.

Guv: It would have been a fine song with that melody regardless of the lyrics, but the final words truly lift it into something special and resonant.

Doc: As a test, sequence this song in the middle of any previous Beatles album. This song is light years ahead of anything they recorded before (like Nowhere Man).

Guv: There's nothing on there I would change. And it started out about memories of Liverpool, which ultimately led the way to Sgt Pepper. Lennon says McCartney contributed to the bridge. McCartney says the melody is entirely his, having taken John's lyrics to work with.

Doc: Me being me, I would remix it and reduce the wide panning, but more about that later.


Doc: Going from In My Life to Wait is a slight let-down, like eating steak to a Big Mac. Definitely album filler and an anachronism, since it was written during Help!

Guv: An apt simile, and definitely filler. Recorded during Help!, with overdubs added so it was sonically similar to the other Rubber Soul tracks. It's not a terrible song, it's just that in comparison to the other songs on the album, it's lacklustre.

If I Needed Someone

Guv: Another fine and worthy contribution from George, He even played this during his 1992 Japan concerts.

Doc: Definitely it cops The Byrds' Bells Of Rhymney, which itself is an English folk tune about miners, but it works for me.

Guv: Harrison sent a tape of it to McGuinn prior to release. But yes, he riffs off the Byrds, who based their entire career on George.

Run For Your Life

Doc: Another nasty-to-girls lyric by John, like You Can't Do That. But this is filler.

Guv: This song has had some bad press over the past few years. A couple of radio stations have banned it due to it's suggestions of domestic violence. John based this on an Elvis song, Baby Let's Play House. It simply doesn't come up to par. And it's a weak ending for such a strong album

Doc: I'd rather listen to take 5 of this song off Mythology. If you think the released version smells of domestic violence, take 5's vocal is pathological.

Watch out for Part Two of this conversation, coming soon!

Monday 9 November 2015

13 Beatles Deep Cuts

The Urban Dictionary defines a deep cut as as: "A song by an artist that only true fans of said artist will enjoy/know. True gems that are found later in an album, a b-side. Rarely if ever played on the radio."

The Beatles are perhaps the most widely played band of all time. Yet, there exists a handful of songs, buried on albums and B-sides that are hardly ever played on the radio nor appear on compilations--but should be. We at Rowboat Syndicate unearth these gems here: 

IT WON'T BE LONG (With The Beatles)
John's charging vocals set against a breakneck tempo launch the album that heralded Beatlemania. The "yeah yeah" backing vocals of Paul and George echo She Loves You which, along with moptops and collarless jackets, were hallmarks of Beatlemania. Indeed, With The Beatles was recorded in the summer of 1963 while She Loves You was riding atop the British charts. It Won't Be Long is the perfect album opener, bursting with infectious energy, a galloping backbeat and exuberant harmonies. This is the sound of a hot, confident band on the rise--and knows it.

John was white-hot during the first flush of international Beatlemania, being the lead writer of 10 of the 13 songs on the album, A Hard Day's Night, but Paul made up for his lack of quantity with quality. Buried on side two of the original UK LP, and relegated to the B-side of the UK single of AHDN, Things We Said Today is an uptempo ballad marked by a strong guitar riff which grounds the song. Paul's vocal is cool yet assured, while the arrangement (vaguely Latin) runs against the typical love song and amounts to sounding like nothing else in the early Beatles period or this era for that matter.

I'M A LOSER (Beatles For Sale)
 Much has been said about the lyrics of this song, marking a maturity in Lennon's songwriting (as inspired by Bob Dylan), and deservedly so. It's the best song on Beatles For Sale, the band's weakest album, but I'm A Loser foreshadows the introspection found in the following summer's Help! single. While Rock and Roll Music and Eight Days A Week have appeared on compilations, the album's best song, I'm A Loser remains solely on Beatles for Sale.

(Rubber Soul)
The Beatles could have released half the songs off this album as singles, including these two anti-love songs. Paul wrote them during a difficult patch with then-girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. They're both upbeat, rythmic numbers, the former inspired by the Temptations, which only underlies the anguish of the lyrics. "When I call you up, your line's engaged / I have had enough, so act your age," sings Paul in You Won't See Me while in I'm Looking Through You, Paul declares that, "Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight." Solid vocals, catchy melodies and lyrics with bite make these two album tracks highlights on an album bursting with masterpieces.

Revolver boasts such depth of songwriting, arrangment and performance that several of its songs qualify as deep cuts. How to choose? These two Lennon tracks, which close side A and B respectively on the original long-player, showcase a new direction in Lennon's songwriting. The songs reflect on mortality and mysticism. Also, they were directly shaped by acid trips.

She Said She Said is a direct lift from Peter Fonda recounting a near-death experience he has as a boy when he shot himself. He imparted this George to guide him through a rough LSD trip, while The Beatles were visiting Los Angeles in the summer of 1965. Lennon overheard Fonda's morbid anecdote and was repulsed by it. In other words, Peter Fonda is the "she" in She Said She Said. However, there's a melancholy in the song's "middle-eight" that anticipates the childhood retrospection of Strawberry Fields Forever: "When I was a boy / Everything was right." It's a mystery why Paul didn't play on this track, apart from having an arguing (over what?) and storming out of Abbey Road, but the remaining three Beatles play marvellously on this track. I personally consider Ringo's drumming on this song his best among all the Beatles recordings.

Tomorrow Never Knows is, of course, the album closer that paved the way to Sgt. Pepper. It's a song built on one chord and coloured with sound effects galore. The Beatles were infiltrating pop music with the avant-garde. The song stunned many at the time, but has never aged.

It astounds me that neither song has been included on various greatest hits compilations over the years, namely 1962-66. You will find them only on Revolver, arguably the band's greatest album.

RAIN (B-side, Past Masters 2)
To my ears, Rain and Paperback Writer are a double-sided single that rivals their previous and forthcoming UK singles, but Rain has never received the attention paid to its more popular flipside. Rain sounded too experimental for the pop charts of 1966, particularly its brilliant backwards coda. Paul's deep bass, Ringo's stuttered drumming and John's distorted vocals blend into a multicolour pastiche that shimmers whenever you listen to it. Rain is an amazing audio experience and remains as fresh as the day it was released in mid-1966. Until the CD age, Rain was available only on the Paperback Writer single. Again, why the hell wasn't it included on 1962-66 or the Hey Jude compilation of 1970? 

(The Beatles)
Let's face it: The White Album is one long deep cut. By decreee, none of its 30 tracks was released as a single in the U.S. or U.K. (though Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was paired with While My Guitar Gently Weeps in a few smaller markets). The quality of album's songs varies wildly, but a handful stand above the others.  

Dear Prudence is a ballad, like Hey Jude, that builds in tempo and dynamics until it climaxes into a burst of sound and emotion. Both Prudence and Blackbird feature the debut of fingerpicking guitar-playing that Donovan taught the Beatles in India in early-1968. Blackbird is Paul's ode to the black Civil Rights Movement. Remember, this was the year Martin Luther King was assassinated and American cities were rioting. Featuring just Paul on acoustic, Blackbird is simple, direct and transcendent.

By contrast, Happiness Is A Warm Gun is one of The Beatles' most complex songs, featuring another abstract Lennon lyric ("lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime"), three distinct sections and several changes in tempo and instrumentation, all remarkably done in 160 seconds. The other Beatles nominated this the best song on the White Album and I wouldn't argue with that.

George began to blossom as a songwriter during this period. While My Guitar Gently Weeps gets all the attention, but this hymn-like ballad that closes the boistrous third side is moving. He could be singing about a lover, but really George is talking to God. He's finding spiritual peace and opening doors to higher levels of consciousness without being preachy (as he was in his solo career). This added layer gives Long Long Long a powerful, yet understated depth.

BECAUSE (Abbey Road)

Though Paul dominates Abbey Road, John contributes some key moments. Because is one of them. It's really a reworking of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, but the song's spare, hypnotic arrangement and intricate three-way harmonies by John, Paul and George elevate it into a masterpiece. The spare lyrics, directly influenced by Yoko Ono, read like Zen philosophy and perfectly suit the spare arrangement: "Love is old, love is new / Love is old, love is you."

Friday 23 October 2015

book review: Photograph by Ringo

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Photograph is the unofficial sequel to Postcards from the Boys, 2004's disappointing collection of postcards Ringo sent to friends, fellow Beatles included, over the years. Both books were published in lavish, signed limited editions by England's Genesis Publications, which specializes in issuing expensive, signed limited editions. The posh Photograph came out two years ago with a print run of 2,500. For those who can't afford to mortgage their home, Photograph has just been released as a $70 (in Canada) large mass-produced coffee-table book.

The results this time are far more satisfying. Photograph is Ringo sharing his photo album with his fans, showing snapshots of his life from him as a baby to today. It's charming and personal, and the closest we'll ever get to an autobiography from Mr. Starkey. 

The Beatles, of course, appear in most photos, though they don't appear until p.82 of this 302-page tome. That's good. The first section allows the reader to get to know Ringo, illustrating his difficult childhood against the backdrop of grim, postwar Liverpool, and establishing who he is before he became famous.

Ringo is a happy lad in those shots but his brief captions relate a rough upbringing. “Admiral Grove was uglier than it looks in this photo,” he describes the stark rowhouses he called home with his beloved mum, Elsie, and his stepfather, Harry. There are as many pictures of hospitals and nurses as there are of classmates, given how Ringo was hospitalized for long periods as a boy. A few photos show him playing hookey from the hospital by spending his birthday in London with an uncle.
Suddenly, Ringo enters his teenage years and plays drums. We see several pictures of him in clubs in various bands, but Rory Storm and the Hurricanes dominate. His captions tell us that Rory was Merseyside's top band before The Beatles rose. Ringo poses with as many girls as drums, and he comes off as a carefree lad, like any teenage boy playing in a rock band. And boy does he look young.

In these pages, Ringo is the most candid he's ever been in print or in front of a camera, but only in short captions that accompany his pictures and, frankly, he doesn't offer details or wild stories in these pages. (This is Ringo, after all, not John or George.) Ringo keeps it simple and to the point, much like his drumming. Why did he leave Rory Storm and join The Beatles? “I just loved the band,” he answers, “that's why I moved.”

The Beatles photos are private shots, capturing him and his bandmates, for example, sequestered in the Georges V Hotel in Paris in January 1964. There's Paul mugging in a beret and George washing his hands in an ornate bathroom. Ringo writes, “I never had a bathroom in Liverpool.” In New York as they took American by storm the following month, we see Brian Epstein and George Martin sporting ridiculous Beatle wigs, John wearing strange glasses and a hat, and Paul vamping in shades and unbuttoned shirt like a young Elvis (above). This is a world of hotel rooms and limousines. There's nobody else around except The Beatles and their inner circle.

Fans appear intermittently, like a carload of excited teens somewhere between Washington and Miami. There are shots of police cars escorting them, and even a toll booth, which blew Ringo's mind. He found Murray the K “great,” but unsurprisingly thought Phil Spector “really weird.”
Most of the Beatles photos are in black-and-white though a few, like Miami in February 1964, are in glorious colour. They're snapshots of friends, vacation pictures we all take, like the one of Ringo, his first wife Maureen, John and Cynthia proudly holding some fish they caught on a trip.

Ringo's companions were, of course, The Beatles, but you won't find revealing moments here that'll deepen your understanding of his old band. There are a few shots of John and Paul singing during the sessions for A Hard Day's Night, but disppointingly Ringo's text offers no insight into these moments. 
One highlight are the pictures taken from a little-known stopover in India during the Asian leg of their 1966 summer tour. Ringo snaps colour shots of his bandmates walking down the streets of Delhi using a fish-eye lens (above). The result is trippy and captures the mood of the era. It's the first time I've ever seen the Beatles in India in 1966. Another psychedelic effect is the prism lens Ringo uses during the Hey Bulldog session of February 1968.

After that, The Beatles are rarely seen. Instead, we glimpse Ringo with actor friends and on various film sets, such as Who drummer, Keith Moon, and singer Harry Nilson.

The Rowboat verdict: Photograph is fun viewing for Beatles fans and, while you learn more about Ringo, you won't gain any insight into The Beatles.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Did George Martin really sign The Beatles?

In his 1979 book, All You Need Is Ears, George Martin recounts how in April 1962 he received a phone call from an EMI music publisher named Sid Colman*."There's a chap who's come in with a group he runs," said Colman. "They haven't got a recording contract and I wonder if you'd like to see him."

"Certainly," replied Martin, the A&R man who recorded acts for the Parlophone label at EMI, "I'm willing to listen to anything."

This was true. By 1962, Martin was best known for making novelty and comedy records with folks like Peter Sellers, but he hadn't scored a "pop" hit on his Parlophone label.

On February 13, 1962, Martin met with a gentleman named Brian Epstein who hyped a Liverpool band he was managing, The Beatles. He played Martin their audition tape, which was recorded for Decca Records which turned them down. In fact, every label, including EMI, had turned down The Beatles. The relentless Epstein was transferring the tape to disc at HMV Records on Oxford Street five days earlier when the engineer there, Jim Foy, liked what he heard and rang Colman, whom he used to work with at EMI.

HMV's flagship store at 363 Oxford Street in London in the sixties. Copyright HMV.

Martin considered the audition tape mediocre (and to be fair, it was), but he was intrigued by a "certain roughness" in the sound he hadn't encountered before and found "something tangible" that made him want to hear more. So, Martin booked The Beatles for a recording test for June 6 at EMI's studios on Abbey Road. "It was love at first sight," wrote Martin.

But is this true? Did Martin sign The Beatles after their June 6 audition?

No, according to Beatles scholar, Mark Lewisohn. In Tune In, his mammoth 1,700-page history of the group that runs through the end of 1962. Lewisohn, as Beatles fans know, is the pre-eminient Beatles scholar, the group's historian whose books over the years demonstrate a depth of knowledge and research untouched by anybody else. (And I'm writing this as a professional researcher and journalist myself.) In other words, Lewisohn knows his stuff.

According to Lewisohn (who lists his sources), The Beatles were signed to a recording contract, because Sid Colman wanted the publishing rights to the Lennon & McCartney originals, Love of the Loved, Hello Little Girl and especially Like Dreamers Do, which he had heard on the Decca audition tape, and envisioned a hit single to be paired with another original composition. But since Coleman ran an EMI publishing company, Ardmore and Beechwood, EMI had to sign The Beatles to a recording contract for Colman to secure those copyrights.

Right after he met with Epstein, Colman spoke to his right-hand man, a tireless song plugger, Mr. Kim Bennett, who also heard great promise in Like Dreamers Do. Colman, and especially the persistent Bennett, lobbied EMI's A&R men (the men who signed acts to recording contracts) to grab this Liverpool band with the weird name, but nobody cared.

The Beatles, Brian Epstein (2nd left), George Martin (4th) and EMI record executives: managing director Len Wood, behind Ringo, and chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood, centre. At lunch in the EMI Manchester Square boardroom on November 18, 1963.
Then, Bennett suggested to Colman, "Why don't you go across to Len Wood and say that if EMI give us a record, we'll pay for its cost. Because it's a group, it'll be a straightforward musical production. No orchestra. We'll have got two copyrights for the next 50 years, plus maybe a royalty on the record."

Len Wood was EMI's managing director and the boss of EMI's A&R men. Colman pitched his idea, but Wood sympathetically turned him down. Oh, well. Colman and Bennett went on with other work...

Meanwhile, Martin met Epstein on February 13, but Martin didn't like the audition tape and saw no promise in his Liverpool group. Nothing came of that meeting. Zero.

Soon after, George Martin asked his boss for a raise and, astoundingly, a royalty of the records he was producing. Nobody got that at EMI, said his boss, Len Wood. The two men didn't get along. Wood, an ex-soldier, played everything by the book and refused this upstart both requests. Martin threatened to walk and Wood didn't care. No love lost.
Photo by Albert Marrion on December 17, 1961. The Beatles, with Pete Best, were still in leathers. Brian Epstein arranged this photo session and he would have been handing these publicity stills in early 1962 when he met EMI and other record companies. The suits would soon replace the leathers.

Martin needed the money, because he was having a secret affair with his secretary, Judy Lockhart Smith, yet he was already married with two young children. Sure, people had affairs in 1962, but they were socially unacceptable. To make matters worse, Len Wood was a churchgoer. When Wood somehow caught wind of Martin's affair, he had Martin by the balls. But he couldn't fire Martin, because EMI chairman, Sir Joseph Lockwood, liked Martin and, besides, Martin was damn good at his job.

Back to Sid Colman. He pitched Wood The Beatles idea again and this time Wood said yes. Bennett recalls, "After a short, stunned silence, I said, 'Oh? Who's gonna do it, then?' [And he said,] 'George Martin.' The Beatles record," Bennett explains, "was going to be made as a gesture to Sid, to give Sid Colman a sop. Len was going to bow to our wishes at last."

And stick it to George Martin, who had no idea what was going on until Wood ordered him to sign The Beatles. Both Ron Richards, Martin's assistant, and Norman "Hurricane" Smith, a balance engineer at Abeey Road studios (who would engineer The Beatles' records through Rubber Soul) corroborate this story. "L.G. Wood didn't approve of people having affairs," he says. "L.G. virtually ordered George to record The Beatles."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It's doubtful that The Beatles or Epstein ever knew about the roles Kim Bennett and Sid Coleman played in getting the band signed to EMI. To the best of my knowledge, George Martin hasn't responded to this version of the signing, but it's true that he was charmed by The Beatles when they met on June 6, 1962 at Abbey Road and, of course, he recorded virtually all their music.

And brilliantly so.

* I'm going with the Lewisohn spelling despite seeing variations of this spelling, such as Syd Coleman, in other books.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

The 10 best Beatles basslines

Nobody wanted to play bass in The Beatles. John, Paul and George wanted to play lead or rhythm guitar. Bass wasn't sexy. You couldn't "pull the birds" plucking a bass. So, in the early days in Hamburg, Stuart Sutcliffe (below with George) was stuck with the instrument after his bandmates urged the gifted painter to spend his winnings from an art competition to purchase a Hofner 333.
 After all, somebody needed to provide the band with a bottom end as they rocked the stages of the Kaiserkeller and the Top 10. After Stuart left The Beatles in July 1961, he passed his Hofner to a reluctant Paul who eventually bought his own bass.

 Today, we identify Paul with his violin-shaped Hofner and adore his exceptional playing on so many songs. (But let's not forget George subbing for Paul in a few exceptions, such as She Said, She Said.) Here, in our humble opinion, are the ten finest bass lines in The Beatles' canon:

Click each song title to hear the isolated bass track of that song.

Though John and Paul wrote the lead-off song to Rubber Soul, George suggested that the band play the lead and bass guitars almost in unison, directly influenced by Donald "Duck" Dunn's stellar bass performance on Respect by Otis Redding which was charting in mid-1965. After the lead guitar opens the song, George lays down an unmistakably funky bass line that lets the other instruments and Paul's vocal fall into a solid groove.

Revolver showcases Paul's bass like no other album before or after. There are four reasons why the bass sound is so rich on The Beatles' seventh album: Motown's influence (its legendary session bassist James Jamerson), Stax Records (Donald "Duck" Dunn), Paul's new Rickenbacker 4001S bass, and Geoff Emerick. Emerick became The Beatles' recording engineer at Abbey Road, the guy in the white lab coat who placed the mics around the instruments and twiddled the knobs on the recording console. "I was getting frustrated listening to American records like the Motown stuff," recalls Emerick, "because the bass was a lot stronger than we were putting on our records." Emerick remedied this deficiency by basically turning a studio speaker into a giant microphone to capture Paul's monster bass lines (the technicals are detailed in Emerick's memoirs, Here, There and Everywhere). Listen to the mono version of Revolver and the Paperback Writer/Rain single. The songs rival James Brown in sheer heaviness in the bottom end. Paul deserves full credit for the infectious bass line that grips Taxman. It's perhaps the most recognizable bass line in the Beatles' catalogue and was good enough for Beck to copy in The New Pollution 30 years later. Paul's bass dominates Paperback Writer and Rain so thoroughly that the needle nearly jumps off the grooves of the vinyl on your turntable. Both the released and alternate versions (right channel of take 2) of And Your Bird Can Sing showcase Paul's melodic bass lines.

It's hard choosing one song off Sgt. Pepper that demonstrates Paul's bass-playing prowess. The recording process on this album was a little different, in that Paul laid down his bass part last, after the rest of the instruments and vocals were recorded. This perspective afforded him the opportunity to shape his basslines which were invariably melodic yet meaty. Lovely Rita and A Day In The Life also feature outstanding work by Paul.

The track that benefits the most from the 1999 remixes of The Yellow Submarine Songbook CD is Hey Bulldog. The old extremely panned stereo mix spreads the rhythm section paper thin, but the bold new remix concentrates the drums and bass, propelling those intruments to the front of the stereo picture. Ringo's drums and Paul's bass leap out the speakers like never before. Paul's fills between John's verses are full of swagger and attitude.

Credit Paul for taking John's original up-tempo Chuck Berry rocker, slowing it down considerably and adding a swampy bass lick. Like Rubber Soul, Abbey Road opens on the bass and carries the song all the way through. In the long fade out, Paul's fluttery notes over Billy Preston's organ solo is outstanding.

This bassline divides listeners: it's either too busy, threatening to distract from George's vocal, or it sweeps you in a melodic tour-de-force. I'm of the latter, and love the interplay during the guitar solo between George's guitar and Paul's bass.

To be fair, this experimental heavy rock song showcases all of the Beatles' guitars and not just Paul's bass. Like so many Beatles songs, the bass in I Want You (She's So Heavy) not only provides the bottom end, but acts as a lead guitar as well. There's as much melody in the bass as in John's rhythm guitar or George's lead.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Where In The World?

For many years, The Beatles: An illustrated Record was the discography most readily available to Beatle fans. First published in 1975, it is a chronological overview of all Beatle and solo releases until that date. While still enjoyable, and accurate for the most part, it is basic. As such, it's fine as an introduction to their UK releases. But that's also its major failing. Here at the Rowboat Syndicate, we grew up with several releases peculiar to our own countries, Canada and Australia. Some of the entries related to albums that were simply unavailable to us, while omitting several which were familiar.

These days, there are several discographies available to the Beatle fan who is more than just a casual listener. Here are a few:

Across The Universe:

Azing Moltmaker, a Dutch collector, regularly publishes books on The Beatles. He's written a series on the making of each album, and has commenced another on the making of each single. While I haven't read any of these, I do possess copies of Across The Universe Vol. 1 & 2.

Subtitled 'Beatles sleeves from around the world' the books contain exactly that. Unfortunately, there's little in the way of structure. The sleeves are neither ordered by year or country, and are only labeled by country of issue. There's no real information on release dates, variation notes, tracklistings or oddities.

I flick through these books randomly from time to time, enjoying the pictures that are there. The author has included some unusual pieces, such as promotional postcards, but again the selection and inclusion of these items seem random. These books are not particularly cheap, either. And with postage from Europe, it all makes for a truly expensive experience.

Moltmaker also publishes a four volume set covering EPs and singles from around the world. These appear to be more valuable to the serious fan than the ones above, but I have yet to see a volume dedicated only to album sleeves.

Beatles Worldwide:

This is more like it. A two volume set, with part one covering albums and part two covering EPs and singles. The listings are organised according to country of issue, then sorted by release date. Alternates, reissues and oddities are included, along with brief notes as required.

Christoph Maus has done an excellent job in compiling these books. (And, although I haven't seen them, a similar series for The Rolling Stones) It's well organised, appears complete, and has good, clear photos of covers and labels This is the set I return to time and time again just to read for pleasure.
Considering the size and detail included, the price is quite reasonable. But once again the postage from Europe is a killer.

Recommended for those of us who love reading about the different international releases, artwork and their variations.

The Beatles Covered:

Joachim Noske has written the masterwork on Beatles' releases. It's a heavy tome, 12" square and 800 pages long, and it appears to be thorough beyond belief. Limited to only 500, this book is unfortunately out of print. I recently emailed the author, but he has no plans for a reissue. It wasn't cheap to start with, but used copies trade for insane prices on the internet.

This is one book I would love to own.

This is one book I am unlikely to ever own.


I don't own too many vinyl bootlegs, but I'm fascinated by them. I have, however, managed to pick up a few bootleg CDs over the years, and I listen to them reasonably often.

John C. Winn is the author of an excellent series of books on the Beatles recording sessions. (Way Beyond Conpare, That Magic Feeling and Lifting Latches) He's also written Beatlegmania, a discography of bootleg releases. Chronologically listed, the four volumes display the artwork, give detailed tracklistings and notes where appropriate. Alternative covers and reissues are included, and although bootleggers are secretive by nature, Winn makes every effort to navigate the murky waters of their labels, sources and pressings. Comprising mostly vinyl, Volume 4 delves into the first of the bootleg CD releases. I'm still waiting information on future volumes in the series.

They're a light, casual read, and definitely recommended for those who love releases from the dark side of the music industry.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Unlucky Pete?

The Pete Best story has been told and retold and rehashed again and again. There has been so much speculation about what actually occurred, about who said what, and, most importantly, about the reasons he was fired from The Beatles.

I can only imagine the pain he must have felt as he was pushed out on the eve of their success, sitting at home and watching his former bandmates rise to unprecedented levels of fame and fortune. It must have been soul-destroying, especially as it was never really made clear to him exactly why he was fired. Best certainly felt betrayed, not only by John, Paul and George, but also by Ringo who replaced him. According to Best, he and Ringo had been reasonably friendly and so he was surprised Ringo accepted the job. In 1965 he attempted suicide, the pain having become too much.

There have been some reports that Epstein originally offered the job to Johnny Hutchinson, drummer for The Big Three. Hutch, as he was known, had sat in for the boys at a 1960 audition for Larry Parnes (see right) as their regular drummer was running late, but had had little to do with them since then.

Many years later Hutchinson declared, "Brian asked me to join the Beatles and I said, 'I wouldn't join the Beatles for a gold clock. There's only one group as far as I'm concerned and that's the Big Three. The Beatles can't make a better sound than that, and Pete Best is a very good friend of mine. I couldn't do the dirty on him."

I find this comment suspicious. I can accept he felt a loyalty to his own group, and I can understand how someone would have the integrity to not "do the dirty" on a friend, but considering Best was told Ringo would be his replacement while he was being fired, Hutch must already turned it down at this stage. This meant, of course, that he knew about it in advance. Yet, he chose not to inform his friend that the others were plotting behind his back.  Not only that, but he sat in with The Beatles for three dates between Best's sacking and Ringo's arrival. His loyalty to Pete Best wasn't so obvious then. Apparently Hutch despised The Beatles, and Lennon in particular, and only sat in on their Larry Parnes' audition with the greatest reluctance. Ringo, on the other hand, had played with The Beatles on numerous occasions during the preceding few years when Pete was absent. They got on well, had personalities that clicked, and Ringo had a drumming style The Beatles desired. They'd admired him for years, even when they used to see him play as far back as drummer for the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group. I don't think there's much doubt John, Paul and George knew they wanted Ringo well before Pete was fired.

Pete Best is frequently referred to as being unlucky. This week I saw a headline on the story, 'I Could Have Been A Contender.' There's no doubt in many eyes he was unlucky, fired on the cusp of greatness. But remember, being unlucky results from unfavourable chance, not plans and schemes. And the thought he was somehow unlucky is based on the presumption that he would have lasted the distance with The Beatles anyway.

Pete Best's autobiography, Beatle!, goes to great lengths to explain exactly how much everyone loved him as a drummer, how powerful and solid he was. It states and restates just how tight he was with the other three, both musically and as friends. How much time he spent socialising with the other Beatles. There are detailed descriptions of pranks, fights and hijinks where Pete was central to the action, particularly in Hamburg, which is in complete contrast to his reputation as moody and aloof.

And while I can understand and sympathise with Pete, I found the rationalisation and justification a little bit heavy. The drummer doth protest too much, methinks.

Spencer Leigh, a Merseyside journalist and broadcaster who has gotten to know Pete Best quite well, has written The Sacking of Pete Best. The book covers a number of theories, including his drumming, his personality, his mother's pushiness, the others' envy over his popularity with the girls and a bunch of others. Of course, the book is unable to draw any firm conclusions. Fifty-three year old memories cannot be trusted, but more importantly Paul is the only one central to the action who is still alive, and he's not talking.

In 1965 Playboy published an interview with The Beatles, in which Lennon stated, "Ringo used to fill in sometimes if our drummer was ill with his periodic illness." Ringo then said, "He took little pills to make him ill." Considering the number of pills John, Paul and George were taking in Hamburg simply to stay awake, the irony here is deafening. From all accounts, Pete was the one who stayed away from the pills. And, for the most part, Ringo wasn't around at that stage. It took until 1969, but Best eventually won a defamation lawsuit. Or is there more here to the story causing this animosity to which we are not privy?

Personally, I suspect his lacklustre drumming and his personality were the main two reasons Best was fired. Both musically and personally, he didn't lock in with the others.

It's well documented that Ivan Vaughan introduced John to Paul at the Woolton Village Fete in July 1956, although there are stories now emerging they had at least previously been aware of each other. John's best friend, Pete Shotten, soon felt as though he was being pushed aside as Paul and John became close friends. The music brought them together, but their senses of humour, their personalities clicked. Paul then introduced George to John, and although for a long time John looked down on the much younger George, they too shared similar senses of humour. Pete Best, on the other hand, was brought in on the eve of a trip to Hamburg, almost in a marriage of convenience. Drummers were far and few between in those days, especially those who owned drum kits. The contracts declared The Beatles had to be a five piece, including a drummer. They were hesitant to approach Best, both because he was was a beginner and because they'd previously fallen out over money with his dominant mother, who ran the Casbah Club. But they rang Pete because they had no choice. The audition consisted of simply playing a drum roll for Allan Williams, their manager.

But in Hamburg Pete Best was quiet, removed, and didn't share their jokes as they increasingly became in-jokes. Despite his assertions he was never asked to comb his hair forward like the others, it's significant that he didn't do so anyway. Other observers present in Hamburg at the time suggest Best simply didn't socialise with the others. He usually went off on his own, missed a number of shows, at a time when the others were becoming closer, more like a gang than a band. Don't underestimate the importance of this, as this closeness, the four becoming a single unit, would help keep them sane as they lived in the eye of the Beatlemania hurricane for the next few years. Pete simply wasn't one of the gang.

In mid-1962 John, Paul and George were already showing dissatisfaction with his playing. I can imagine that as they pranced on stage, egging each other on, they'd look back to see Pete drumming, head down over his kit, moody and not making eye contact. Mach Shau was the command from the German venue owners. Perform and 'make a show', but Pete was hardly vibrant or inspiring.

There are reports that he was a loud player, a hard hitter, solid enough and suitable for live shows, playing rock and roll covers in small clubs like the Cavern. But I've heard his drumming on the Decca auditions, and the early Parlophone recordings of Love Me Do and Besame Mucho, and while it's satisfactory, it is, for the most part, flat and uninspired, and lacks the swing Ringo brought to the band. There are times when he drags, and he seems limited in his patterns. Move forward a few years, as the band progressed, and I have serious doubts as to whether Pete would have had the finesse and creativity to have drummed on She Said, She Said, Rain or A Day In The Life. One more question worth considering. Would The Beatles as a band have developed so quickly, so brilliantly, with Pete on drums?

George Martin thought Best had serious timing issues, and told Epstein he would be using a studio drummer for recording sessions. And this comment from George Martin about his playing was simply the final straw. He was already a marked man. It was simply at this point the other made the final decision to fire Pete Best.

As a band, the Beatles were driven to succeed. They worked hard at their craft, did whatever it took to become better musicians, to become a better band, to become rich and famous. Don't be fooled by the stories of John reluctantly wearing a suit and tie at Epstein's insistence. In a 1975 interview published in Hit Parader, John responds to that legend.
"Outside of Liverpool, when we went down South in our leather outfits, the dance hall promoters didn't really like us--they thought we looked like a gang of thugs. So it got to be like Epstein said, 'Look, if you wear a suit...' and everybody wanted a good suit, you know. A nice, sharp, black suit, man... We liked the leather and the jeans but we wanted a good suit, even to wear offstage. 'Yeah, man, I'll have a suit!' So if you wore a suit, you'll get this much money... Alright I'll wear a suit. I'll wear a fucking balloon if somebody's going to pay me. I'm not in love with the leather THAT much. Wear a suit, you'll get more money."
These were guys who were prepared to do what was needed. They finally had a recording contract, and the man in charge, George Martin, had just told them their drummer was not up to scratch. You're young, you're ambitious, you've been dissatisfied with the drummer for a while anyway. You don't want to risk losing that contract. You fire Pete Best.

Everyone involved conceded the sacking of Pete Best was not handled well, and I doubt anyone else would deny that. In the band's defence, they were little more than teenagers and I suspect many of us have made poor decisions and dealt badly with events at that age.

Lennon agreed. "We were cowards when we sacked him. We made Brian do it." Harrison too. "We weren't very good at telling Pete he had to go." McCartney showed some guilt, saying, "I do feel sorry for him, because of what he could have been on to."

Mark Lewisohn, author of Tune In Vol. 1, points out that back in 1958 a similar decision was made about Eric Griffin's future in the Quarrymen. "When it came down to it, neither John (whose group it was) nor Paul (implicit in the decision) nor George (who'd set the ball rolling) had the desire to sack Eric to his face. This, they decided, was the job of the manager." Their manager at this stage was the teenage Nigel Walley.

Says Walley, "OK, Eric didn't fit into the situation. He had no personality whatsoever. You couldn't crack a smile out of him. He couldn't help it, that's the way he was. He'd play, but never smile, whereas the others had the vim and vigor."

Walley broke the news to Griffin. "He was very upset - he said he was part of the group so why would they get rid of him. It was a sad day for him and for me: he thought I'd instigated it and never forgave me. They'd just sent the messenger boy out, and that was it. John and Paul never got in touch with him themselves."

Sound familiar?

The main difference between these sackings was timing. With Best they'd just scored a contract with Parlophone after years of struggling together. And that's why I think we consider him as unlucky: it happened on the eve of fame. But an underperforming football player dropped from a team prior to the playoffs is not unlucky. He simply hasn't played well enough to hold his place, and has made way for someone who is more likely to help the team win a championship.

Pete was always going to go. Ringo was always the better fit. Or, as George Harrison put it, "Historically, it may look like we did something nasty to Pete. It may have been we could have done it better, but the thing was--as history also shows--Ringo was the member of the band. It's just that he didn't enter the film until that particular scene."

Wednesday 26 August 2015

The Stoner's Guide to The Beatles

"I think everybody's mind should be bent once in a while," said Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s. Dylan was the King of Folk on August 28, 1964 when he bent the minds of the Fab Four in their suite at the Delmonico Hotel in New York. Dylan, let's remember, was coming from the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early-1960s which was inspired by the reefer smokers of the Beat movement.


Possibly, The Beatles toked up when they cut their teeth in Hamburg between 1960-62, but if they did, it didn't affect them until Dylan sparked that fateful phattie. Most of the Beatlemania era is pretty "straight." Beatles' lyrics were about girls and love (like everyone in the top 30), and the arrangements were straightforward rock 'n' roll with a few ballads.

That said, a few songs from the Beatlemania era rock under the influence. I Feel Fine kicks off with shrieking feedback that'll blow your mind (and which helped pave the way for the distorted guitar of Jimi Hendrix), and Ticket To Ride, whose chiming guitars betray an Indian twang. In both songs, the guitars mesmerize the listener through your speakers or headphones. It's no secret that the band at this time was smoking pot "for breakfast," recalled John Lennon, and it's effect may have seeped into Ticket To Ride.

On a general note, the American Capitol mixes drenched in echo sound better to stoners than the dry EMI mixes. Echo sounds great when you're stoned. Listen to Roll Over Beethoven on The Beatles' Second Album where the reverb will blow your mind, then compare that to the the dry mix on With the Beatles where George's guitar sounds like an elastic band.

Instead,it took a full year for the creative and psychological effects of grass to affect visibly appear in their music. By the release of Rubber Soul in December 1965, John, George and Ringo (and to a lesser extent Paul) had tripped on LSD, which who colour Revolver the following summer.

The first clue is the album cover: stretched, distorted faces. The moptops are daytripping.
Most of the songs are still about girls, but the lyrics of Norwegian Wood, Girl and In My Life shimmer with symbolism and imagery. Nowhere Man doesn't even talk about love but alienation and identity. These weren't dance songs, but head songs. Music to make you think.

Sonically, too, the band was exploring. George's sitar in Norwegian Wood adds a new texture to the Beatles sound. The funky bass line in Drive My Car is a stone groove. I'm Looking Through You sweeps the listener away with its stabbing accordion notes and driving acoustic guitar.

And this is just the start.


The dazzling original cover by photographer Robert Freeman.
Revolver is dipped in LSD. You first hear it in the Indian-like twang of Paul's searing guitar solo in Taxman; then in the sluggish, backwards guitar and sped-up John vocal of I'm Only Sleeping; George's Indian showcase of Love You To; the hard, trebly guitars of She Said, She Said and And Your Bird Can Sing; Paul's recounting his pot experience (always a step behind the others in substances) in Got To Get You Into My Life; and of course the stunning album closer, Tomorrow Never Knows which details an acid trip with lyrics lifted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and LSD guru Timothy Leary.

Never before was there this much distorted and manipulated music on a Beatles record. Add to this the single that was recorded during these spring 1966 sessions, Paperback Writer and Rain, which featured heavy guitars, deep echo, backwards vocals and sluggish drums.

Start listening, though, with take one of Tomorrow Never Knows found on Anthology 2. It's stripped down and distorts John's voice so much he sounds like he's singing from another galaxy. This is one of the overtly druggiest songs in the entire Beatles cannon. Start here and float downstream...


An obvious choice. Pepper is the signature psychedelic album by The Beatles and from that era (which included the debuts of Hendrix and Pink Floyd, and Cream's Disraeli Gears).

The elaborate soundscapes are meant to take listeners on a journey with each song evoking a different feeling. John's songs are particularly trippy, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite. No surprise, since he was dropping almost every day, as he revealed later.

However, Paul sets the album's tone with the title song featuring the hardest guitars heard on a Beatles album up to that point.

Other highlights include George's Within You Without You which features an extended duel between Western orchestral instruments and classical Indian ones that sounds hypnotic.

The most impressive song, of course, is the closer, A Day In The Life, which features a haunting Lennon vocal, sharp tempo changes, two orchestral rushes and a 42-second multi-tracked piano chord that sweep the listener through a harrowing five-minute sonic journey. The song remains the towering achievement in The Beatles career.

Really a soundtrack of the TV special mixed with the two singles from 1967. The MMT tracks are mediocre by the Beatles' lofty standards, but Fool on the Hill is a beautiful yet delicate ballad and I Am The Walrus is a brilliant yet chaotic acid trip, exploding with absurd imagery wrapped in a Dadaist soundscape.

Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane represent a peak in songwriting and sound construction. They aren't so much songs but music collages that evoke vivid images and the whole gamut of emotion from melancholy to joy.


Photographed by Richard Avedon, 1968
There's a casual feel to this 95-minute sprawl that contrasts with the albums of 1966 and 1967 that took listeners on a trip. You need need to play The White Album from start to end. You can stop and start The White Album and jump around songs. The album was mostly written on acoustic guitars and overall offers a laid-back feel. One song doesn't melt into another as found on Pepper. For stoners, the rock songs should be heard in mono where they offer more punch than the stereo mixes. Also, the electric guitar shines on this album after being largely absent from the Pepper era. Highlights: Dear Prudence, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, side 3 and Revolution 1.


The last recorded album is the band's most modern-sounding and polished. Again, the electric guitar rules, and Paul's bass playing has never been as fluid. You hear this excellent marriage of Lennon's biting vocal and Paul's swampy bass on Come Together, a powerful rocker. A wall of guitars drive I Want You (She's So Heavy) and a three-way duel propels The End.

However, the Zen-like arrangement and beautiful harmonies of Because are heavenly. One of the best stoner songs by anybody. All of side 2 starting with Here Comes The Sun must be listened to in order as the momentum rises with each song fragment and sweeps away the listener.


This patchwork album offers a few gems for stoners. Across The Universe evokes the heavens in its lyrics and symphonic backing. Let It Be sounds sacred under the influence. I Me Mine features a biting guitar. The Beatles sound like a cool bar band in the Apple rooftop songs I've Got A Feeling and Get Back.