Wednesday 27 May 2015

Can It Be The Beatles?

Klaatu were a Canadian band, a trio of musicians who recorded together in studio downtime. John Woloschuk, Dee Long and Terry Draper wore their influences obviously. And yes, The Beatles were one of their major influences. They released a couple of singles between 1973 and 1976 which didn't really do much. They also chose anonymity; not including their names, photos or details on these releases.

In 1976, they released their debut album, 3:47 E.S.T (simply retitled Klaatu in the U.S.) which received a number of positive reviews but didn't sell particularly well. All that changed when Steve Smith, a music journalist in Rhode Island, suggested the album was far too Beatlish not to have participation from some or all of the fab four, and so he announced it as a reunion. Sales in Rhode Island exploded and Capitol had to ship 20,000 extra copies to meet demand.

Capitol chose not to refute this, instead making cryptic and vague statements, probably figuring the bonus sales were a surprise benefit. The band, who were in London recording their second album, (which continued the Sci-Fi themes on some of their earlier tracks) heard about the rumours but did not regard them seriously. Nor did anyone in the U.K. Even the New Musical Express published an article in response to the theory, under the headline "Deaf Idiot Journalist Starts Beatle Rumour."

On the back of this unexpected popularity, Capitol released Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft as a single in 1977 and it did reasonably well. A cover version by The Carpenters performed even better. Things were looking good for the band.

But not all publicity is good publicity. A program director at a radio station did a quick search of copyright registrations and easily determined Klaatu had no Beatle involvement. This then turned into a backlash against the band as the public seemed convinced Klaatu were a deliberate hoax. Sales of subsequent albums slipped until Capitol dropped them from their roster after forcing them to record vocals for tracks recorded by session musicians.

Even now most believe the band was behind "the hoax". And there are some who are still convinced Klaatu is actually a Beatles reunion. Much like the "Paul is Dead" rumours, there are a number of 'clues' to be found in the music, the lyrics, the artwork and in real life. And a number of clues in Beatles music. There are far too many to mention here, and they can be found all over the internet. But here are some of the more obvious Beatles connections.

The cover for Ringo's Goodnight Vienna album has Ringo dressed as the character Klaatu in a scene from the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. In 1976 stories started circulating that McCartney had left the stage at one show with the farewell, "I will see you when the Earth stands still". He'd released the album Venus and Mars - a title with a sci-fi connection. Lennon, in the liner notes for Walls and Bridges, included the message "On the 23rd August 1974 at 9 o'clock I saw a U.F.O. - J.L." Out the Blue mentioned UFOs. Discarded artwork for the album cover included drawings of spaceships.

It's fun, but it's all a bit silly, really, simply proving that if you look hard enough for evidence you will end up manufacturing it.

In truth, 3:47 E.S.T. is an excellent, largely forgotten album. Their next two albums are also worthy of repeated plays. Hope is a full length orchestral space opera while Sir Army Suit has a number of strong tracks. Sir Bodsworth Rugglesby III, on the first album, sounds like the children's singalong that McCartney spends so much time trying to create. The vocals on Sub Rosa Subway and A Routine Day could be McCartney's. And Hope not only sounds like Harrison, but the lyrics are philosophical enough to be his. All in all these albums sound far more British than North American.

And yet to my ears none of it actually sounds enough like The Beatles to be The Beatles.

Dee Long tells of later meeting McCartney.  
"I actually spent an hour or so chatting with Paul McCartney about Klaatu. He was asked by the host of a TV talk show about Klaatu and responded that he had never heard of the band. When he mentioned this to George Martin, George said "one of the chaps from the band works at Air Studios". I received a message from him the next day saying he was going to "do me", British for "beat the crap out of me". He showed up in studio 5 later and we had a great conversation about the whole story. Very nice!"
I don't believe McCartney had never heard of Klaatu for a moment. 

McCartney was always the most media savvy of The Beatles. He was also the one who was most in touch with publicity and public perception. MPL, his production company, was a well oiled machine. If there were rumours of a Beatles reunion, his office would have kept him aware of them and delivered him the press clippings.

Klaatu Beatala Nikto.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Cover Art Down Under

Australia generally replicated The Beatles' UK album releases during the 60s, although there were a couple of oddities along the way. Two albums in particular had quite different covers from the UK canon.

With The Beatles, the second album, had uniquely Australian artwork. Printer union rules would not permit negatives to be imported for printing purposes, although the negative from a photograph of an original sleeve could be used. Attempts to replicate the qualities of the UK sleeve failed, and so original artwork needed to be created. And it certainly was original; four heads floating on a black background, with a bright pink, curling font. I've read that Lennon in particular hated the cover and made it known at the time he toured Australia. This is the sleeve I grew up with, and the only With The Beatles I owned until the 1987 CD release.

Beatles For Sale also had a very different sleeve to the UK version. The Australian release had individual photos of the four lads at their Sydney concert set on a bright yellow background, apparently with little artistic thought. In fact Ringo's photo only showed the back of his head. A generally amateurish effort all round. I suspect this alternate imagery may have been due to the same union rules as per With The Beatles. The grainy quality of the UK version may not have photographed well enough, or perhaps after the local record executives felt some local content following the 1964 Australian tour would boost sales. Either way this is far less attractive than the Australian release of With The Beatles which, at least, holds an early 60s charm. But as a teenage I remember being stunned by the beautiful image on the UK version when I first saw a photo of it.

Magical Mystery Tour was not released as an album in the UK or Australia, instead being issued only in EP format. It was Capitol Records in the US who had the common sense to combine these tracks into a single album. Here in Australia the World Record Club made this disc available to its members through mail order catalogues under the title Magical Mystery Tour and Other Splendid Hits.  And, just to be different, they used an alternate sleeve design, a shot taken from within the booklet of the UK EP. My friend's dad owned this, and taped a copy for me in the mid 70s. But within a year or so I had actually joined the record club just to buy this album, as it was not until 1979 that EMI Australia produced a local version. Even then it was only with the CD release in 1987 that this record became commonly available here.

During the sixties, EMI Australia compiled and released two greatest hits albums, Greatest Hits Volume 1 and Volume 2. The artwork for both these records borrowed heavily from the US albums Beatles VI and Beatles '65. By the time these albums were released in 1966 and 1967, The Beatles on the cover art in no way resembled The Beatles who had already released Revolver and Sgt. Pepper respectively.

Considering these two albums were released so late in the decade, it's strange they included nothing past 1965. Nothing from Revolver, no single only tracks like Rain. Surprisingly they even included a few album tracks like Anna and Til There Was You that weren't hits, or even B-sides of singles.

These collections sold very well, and remained in print until the CD releases in 1987 were well established. As an interesting aside, the UK release A Collection of Beatles Oldies, which probably would have made these issues superfluous to anyone who had all their albums anyway, wasn't released in Australia until 1968, two years after its UK release.

Both were released in mono and stereo, and included some tracks which appeared in stereo for the first time anywhere in the world.

There's one other Australian cover variant that requires mentioning. A minor misprint that would barely be noticed by most, it played an important part in late 60s pop-culture. The first Australian edition of Abbey Road had a printing problem, resulting in an odd reddish hue. If you look carefully between Ringo and John, there appears to be a large red bloodstain on the road surface. Corrected in time for the second pressing, this misprint played into the hands of the whole "Paul is dead" theory which was just gaining traction around the time of this album's release.

Post 1970 there were a couple of local releases, such as The Essential Beatles, but apart from a few minor variations, Australian versions aligned with the UK canon.

For further details on Australian releases, may I recommend I Am the Platypus, a great website and resource, and the excellent book, An Overview of Australian Beatles Records.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Will The Real Sergeant Pepper Please Stand Up?

John Lennon was the walrus, or at least that's what he sang. But in Glass Onion he told us he had another clue for us, and that the walrus was Paul. Or was Paul really dead, making William Campbell the walrus?

In 1966 (some say 1964), according to the supposed clues in the music and album covers, Paul McCartney died in a car accident and was replaced by a lookalike and soundalike named William Campbell. (Or was it William Shepherd, or even William Shears?) Heck, there was even a photo of the real William Campbell on the poster included in The White Album. And because it wasn't the real Paul, the other Beatles called him Faul, shortened for fake-Paul. George Harrison even slipped and said it in public. But then Paul McCartney was never really Paul, was he? He was James McCartney, and simply used his middle name. He was also Paul Ramon, Apollo C. Vermouth, Percy 'Thrills' Thrillington, Bernard Webb, and later The Fireman.

In 1967 John was well on his way to fusing himself to Yoko at the hip, thus becoming Johnandyoko. He was born as John Winston Lennon, which later was changed to John Ono Lennon, before he dubbed himself Dr. Winston O'Boogie. John proudly possessed more pseudonyms than the others, including John O'Cean, Reverend Thumbs Ghurkin, Captain Kundalini, Dwarf McDougal and Dr Dream. Just check through his and Yoko's discographies.

It would be another couple of years before George jumped on stage with Delaney and Bonnie under the moniker L'Angelo Misterioso. But for now George was just George. Or was he the Mystic Maestro, the Hare Krishna so famous he never even had to cut his hair. And then there was Arthur Wax, Bette Y El Mysterioso, Carl Harrison, George Harrysong, George O'Hara, and Hari Georgeson. Finally he was Nelson Wilbury and Spike Wilbury.

Ringo Starr was in disguise all along, having been born as Richard Starkey, and was so famous he really never needed to use his surname after 1964. There was only one Ringo, and he was a Beatle. Unless you read old cowboy comics. For a time he was Ognir Rrats and even Ritchie Snare. Now, of course, there's a whole generation of kids who think he's a tank engine named Thomas. 

But back in the summer of love he was Billy Shears. Paul introduced him as such at the end of the opening track on Sgt. Pepper, and Ringo later confirmed it in 1973 on his self-titled album. Not only was the cover a homage to Sgt Pepper, but in I Am The Greatest he declared that he was indeed Billy Shears, and had been for so many years.

Last week I was examining the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album and for the first time wondered who Sergeant Pepper actually was.

I mean the band is supposedly The Beatles but not The Beatles. An alter-ego permitting musical freedom, without rules, expectations and responsibilities. This was exactly how Paul originally envisaged the concept. Not The Beatles, but Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The leader of the band is supposedly Sergeant Pepper. But who exactly is he? 

I know.

It's Ringo.

He's the only one who has three chevrons on his uniform sleeve, the insignia designating a sergeant. None of the others appear to have any rank at all, although Paul is wearing his Ontario Police patch, the one that for many years people presumed meant Officially Pronounced Dead.

 So Ringo is Billy Shears is Sergeant Pepper.

Or is he? And are we really sure who they all were anyway?

Wednesday 6 May 2015

An Illustrated Record

Roy Carr and Tony Tyler's The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, was the first Beatles book I ever owned. I bought a copy when I was about thirteen years old and devoured it. I carried it everywhere, read it a zillion times and knew entire passages word for word.

It's an album by album overview of their releases, both as a group and as solo artists, up until 1975, the date of publication. As a young lad who had everything Beatles I could lay my hands on, this book described treasures I could only imagine. Wonderwall by George Harrison, Two Virgins by John and Yoko, Beaucoups of Blues by Ringo. These were albums that weren't commonly available to me. Heck, even Some Time in New York City was considered obscure where I grew up.

So as I read it, over and over, I wondered what some of these tracks sounded like. I tried to imagine them. What did We're All Water sound like? How about Microbes? Or even singles, like Paul McCartney's Give Ireland Back to the Irish?

It's still excellent as an introduction to the work of The Beatles. Even now I enjoy dipping into it from time to time. Most of it stands up, although there are a few odd comments in there. The review of The White Album concludes with "They were no longer invulnerable." A sentence that leaves me scratching my head and wondering whether it was intended for the review of Magical Mystery Tour movie.

My copy of this book is falling apart. The covers are missing and pages are loose. It has been like that for thirty years or more, and apparently this is not uncommon with this edition. I shall have to rectify this and obtain another copy.

A few years ago I managed to find a copy of the 1978 revised update. Basically it's the same, although to make room for the newer releases some of the previous text seems to have been discarded. Plus several of the newer reviews are even more bizarre than Yoko's warblings.

"Altogether, it is a “morning” album—the ideal accompaniment to hard labour or (God save us) housework—and irritatingly unilayered if played when evening shadows have fallen, when glow-moths glimmer—and when the mood of the nocturnalist is one of purple despair mingled with deep introspection and a desultory randiness.
Or something like that."

Ummm, yeah. That, by the way, is the conclusion to the authors' review of Wings At the Speed of Sound.

I much prefer the first edition.