In 2009, EMI issued remastered versions of The Beatles’ entire back catalog along with the original artwork, booklets containing tons of notes, and video documentaries. The company didn’t send out advance copies of the albums, though; instead, they asked writers to come to New York City and listen to the recordings — as well as to the engineers who worked on the recordings — at Electric Lady Studios. Off I went, having been given the extraordinary task of reviewing music that had been reviewed a million times since the band’s heyday. And while it was difficult to bring fresh ears to such familiar songs, that’s what I tried to do. Prior to this, I liked The Beatles (as almost everyone does), but hardly considered them my favorite group. As it turned out, most of my assessments were similar to those of other, more Beatles-knowledgeable critics, although I’m nicer than others to Help! and Magical Mystery Tour, and not quite as nice to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Looking back at these reviews, I’ll admit that some of my judgments may have been revisionist contrarianism, but in general, there’s nothing really outrageous about any of these reviews. I was surprised to find the experience so enjoyable, and I’ve listened to The Beatles more since then than I had in the previous 30 years. (Incidentally, each album is given a numerical grade — just like school. That wasn’t my idea.)
The Long and Winding Repertoire
By Mark Kemp, Paste, September 2009
From California to Canterbury, England, the 1960s were a period of great musical innovation. Artists as varied as Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, and, later, Soft Machine and Funkadelic were turning simple surf music, girl-group rock ’n’ roll, folk, country, Philly soul, and jazz into swirling symphonic opuses, psychedelic mayhem, and other blends of avant-garde weirdness.
Perhaps the one thing all of those artists had in common was that they — like the rest of the world — had been swept up in Beatlemania.
In 1963, when John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr rushed out their debut album Please Please Me on the heels of their #2 U.K. single of the same name, there was no “world music” genre, no psychedelia, no avant-pop or electronica. Bohemians listened to folk or jazz, not rock ’n’ roll. And radio wasn’t arty — it was all sweet love songs and hip-shaking, head-bobbing dance tunes made and marketed for teenagers. Within four years, though, popular music would change forever, with The Beatles leading the charge. From 1963 to 1967, the band recorded nine collections of music that evolved from the bouncy, innocent “Love Me Do” to the symphonic sprawl of the songs on Magical Mystery Tour.
On Sept. 9, Capitol will reissue the band’s nine albums, four soundtracks, and Past Masters compilation of non-album songs — perfectly timed to coincide with the much-hyped release of The Beatles: Rock Band video game. Earlier this summer, the label’s publicity team brought the project’s chief engineers and documentarians to Electric Lady Studios in New York for a series of listening sessions. At these events, the remastered recordings sounded markedly cleaner and beefier — the bass line of “Taxman” had more punch, “Yesterday” felt warmer, and you could practically hear every violin, cello, and brass instrument in the orchestration of “I Am the Walrus.”
The albums, in stereo, are available separately and as part of a box set featuring tons of bonus material: photos, album art, recording notes, and mini documentaries. A second box compiles mono versions of the first 10 albums plus the Past Masters collection. It’s the first time the entire Beatles catalog has been remastered since 1987, just after the birth of the CD.
Please Please Me (1963) — 92
“Basically, this album is just what we do live in a club,” says John Lennon in the mini doc that comes with the reissue of The Beatles’ debut. Of course, that’s exactly what Please Please Me sounds like. From Paul McCartney’s “One, two, three, fah!” count-off that kickstarts “I Saw Her Standing There” to Lennon’s throat-ripping wails on “Twist and Shout,” the album packs all the excitement and electricity of an early-’60s Cavern Club performance. You can imagine crowd chatter and tinkling cocktail glasses during the ballad “Anna (Go To Him)” and sweaty dancing to the gritty rocker “Boys.”
It’s difficult to put into words just how new and exotic these songs sounded in early 1963, coming from four working-class kids in Liverpool, England. Before The Beatles arrived, this kind of country- and R&B-based music came from scratchy-throated Black guys in the American South — like Alabama-born Arthur Alexander, who wrote “Anna” — or pompadoured white dudes with Southern drawls.
The Beatles took those styles and injected them with chirpy harmonies inspired by Northeastern American girl groups like The Shirelles, who originally recorded “Boys,” creating a sound the pop world had never heard. What’s more, The Beatles wrote some of their own songs, which was nearly unheard of in early-’60s pop. Those originals — spirited rocker “I Saw Her Standing There” and the harmonica-fueled “Love Me Do” — sounded as good as cuts from the American rockabilly cats and bluesmen Lennon and McCartney were mimicking.
With the Beatles (1963) — 87
Issued in the U.S. in radically different form in 1964 as Meet the Beatles!, this album is almost as strong as the band’s debut. Smart, passionately delivered cover choices — Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and Motown hits such as “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Money” — blend effortlessly with originals like the raw, rocking “I Wanna Be Your Man” and the sweet pop tune “All My Loving.”
Nevertheless, With the Beatles revealed a weakness that would follow the band throughout its career: Paul McCartney’s taste for schmaltzy Tin Pan Alley pop. His acoustic-based cover of “Till There Was You,” from Broadway play The Music Man, remains one of the most egregious songs in The Beatles’ catalog.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964) — 100
By 1964, The Beatles were the biggest band in the world. The soundtrack to their movie A Hard Day’s Night is not only the group’s first set to feature all original material, it’s the first of several flawless albums in their catalog. Lennon, in particular, delivers songs with a depth and confessional quality that the band had not yet displayed, and from his bittersweet acoustic ballad “If I Fell” to the Dylan-inspired “I Should Have Known Better,” he surfaces here as the Beatles’ soul and major creative force.
McCartney steps up, too, on the peppy “Can’t Buy Me Love” and Latin-tinged ballad “And I Love Her,” in which he hones his Tin Pan Alley obsession into a perfect pop love song. On “Tell Me Why,” the band equals the song’s main inspiration, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ hit “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave.”
Beatles for Sale (1964) — 79
The Beatles plateaued momentarily on their second disc of 1964. Beatles for Sale is more subdued and less focused than their first three efforts, but the caliber of songwriting on the few originals remains high. Lennon continues his confessional-folk bent on the self-deprecating “I’m a Loser” and country-tinged “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” and McCartney follows suit with a pair of bittersweet love songs, “I’ll Follow The Sun” and the Lennon-sung “Every Little Thing.”
The band returns to covers with a vengeance, tossing out overly faithful renditions of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music,” Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t” (sung by Ringo Starr) and “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby” (sung by George Harrison), and a note-for-note take on Buddy Holly’s ethereal “Words Of Love.”
Help! (1965) — 100
The group’s second movie, Help!, wasn’t nearly as good as A Hard Day’s Night, but its 1965 soundtrack is equally great, from the driving title track and chiming “Ticket to Ride” to Ringo’s twangy cover of American honky-tonk singer Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally.” Harrison surfaces here as a formidable songwriter, taking center stage on “I Need You” and “You Like Me Too Much.”
But the album’s masterpiece is McCartney’s brooding, deceptively simple chamber-pop ballad “Yesterday.” After decades of oversaturation by classic-rock radio and cheesy lounge singers, it’s tempting to dismiss this track as just another schmaltzy McCartney love song. But it’s compositionally complex, one of the earliest major pop songs to draw directly from the nuances of classical music, juxtaposing acoustic guitar with a string quartet, shifting from minor to major chords. It set the stage for one of the most groundbreaking and innovative periods in The Beatles’ career, not to mention pop music in general.
Rubber Soul (1965) — 97
The band’s musical innovation began in earnest with the late-1965 release of Rubber Soul. Though, in hindsight, the album wears its influences on its sleeve, at the time it was an unprecedented synthesis of elements from folk-rock and beyond. Lennon’s Dylan affectation flowers on tracks like “Run for Your Life” and “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” the latter setting his oblique lyrical snapshot of a one-night stand into a mix of acoustic guitars and fuzzy Indian sitar. (Harrison had become obsessed with the instrument after The Byrds’ David Crosby turned him on to Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar.) The Beatles also adopted more of a Byrds-style jangle (which The Byrds had likely picked up and perfected after hearing “Ticket to Ride”) in “Nowhere Man” and “If I Needed Someone.”
Revolver (1966) — 100
With Revolver, The Beatles completed their transformation from the mop tops of three years earlier into bold, groundbreaking experimental rockers. By this time, producer George Martin had a heavier hand in the music, writing more string arrangements and helping the group create new sonic textures with tape loops, drones, processed vocals, and backward instrumental tracks.
The stark alienation in McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” is wrapped in a double string quartet. The whirling, dreamlike images in Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping” are mirrored by a backward guitar part. Harrison’s “Love You To” is pure Indian raga — sitar and tablas punctuated by the occasional luminous guitar riff jolting through the song’s paranoid, drug-fueled lyrics like a blinding ray of sun into a dark forest. And yet, Revolver is a pop album — McCartney’s “Good Day Sunshine” is all sweetness and light, albeit very different from the earlier, cuddlier “She Loves You.”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) — 89
The Beatles and Martin hit their creative peak together on 1967’s blast of avant-rock genius, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. As a pioneering work of studio wizardry, this loose concept album is amazing, and Martin deserves most of the credit for creating its dense layers using multiple four-track machines.
Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is a sound collage of looped circus organs and electronic noises. Harrison’s “Within You Without You” is a feast of Martin-arranged sitars, tablas, and droning harmonium. And Lennon/McCartney’s “A Day in the Life” is one of pop’s greatest examples of two songs blended brilliantly into one single composition.
But for all its sonic richness, Sgt. Pepper’s remains one of rock’s most overrated albums — its songwriting isn’t nearly as consistent as Revolver‘s, and its storyline is abandoned after the first two tracks, which are artificially reprised near the end. McCartney lapses into his old Tin Pan Alley-inspired shtick on “When I’m Sixty-Four” and Lennon’s few contributions — including “Kite” and the throwaway “Good Morning Good Morning” — are not among his best.
Magical Mystery Tour (1967) — 94
Compiled for a U.K.-only TV special, Magical Mystery Tour is a sort of Sgt. Pepper’s Part 2, but it breathes easier and includes stronger songs: McCartney’s “The Fool on the Hill,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “Hello Goodbye,” and “Penny Lane”; Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus”; and the duo’s collaboration on “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” not to mention Harrison’s wonderfully wobbly “Blue Jay Way.” With much better material and no forced concept to weigh down the proceedings, Martin’s production work shines, particularly on the Lennon tracks. It wasn’t really recorded as an album proper, but it sure works well that way.
The Beatles [White Album] (1968) — 100
After Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles began to splinter, but the group’s self-titled double-length LP of 1968 — popularly known as “the White Album” — benefits from each member’s wildly different ideas. It’s a dizzying collision of McCartney’s cutesy pop (the ska-influenced “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”), country-folk (“Rocky Raccoon”), Brian Wilson-inspired rock ’n’ roll (“Back in the U.S.S.R.”), and proto heavy-metal (“Helter Skelter”); Lennon’s self-referential navel gazing (“Glass Onion”), confessional writing (“Julia”), political proselytizing (“Revolution 1”), raw blues-rock (“Yer Blues”), and avant-garde excursions (“Revolution 9”); and two of Harrison’s finest moments (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with Eric Clapton wailing on lead guitar, and the surrealistic soul of “Savoy Truffle”).
The White Album has been called three solo works in one (plus a Ringo song), but that’s not true: Each track is anchored by the unmistakable collaboration of The Beatles as a solid musical unit.
Yellow Submarine (1969) — 49
This soundtrack to the 1968 animated film of the same name is the only nonessential Beatles album. It’s basically a cartoon soundtrack, no better and no worse than Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or 101 Dalmatians, all of which are strong sets of music, but not essential for rock or pop collections. What isn’t film-score orchestration are mostly throwaway children’s fare (“All Together Now,” “All You Need Is Love”), a pair of experimental Harrison songs (the meandering bore “Only a Northern Song” and the marginally more interesting “It’s All Too Much”), and Lennon’s “Hey Bulldog,” which bites but never really breaks the skin.
Abbey Road (1969) — 100
Abbey Road is among The Beatles’ finest works, even if it foreshadows the cigarette-lighter-waving arena rock that technically skilled but critically maligned artists from Journey to Meatloaf would belabor throughout the ’70s and ’80s. McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers” medley — while much stronger than the watered-down music of those aforementioned later bands — is a blend of power ballad, theatrical rock, and glammy proto-new wave, and Harrison’s lovely “Something” opened the doors to countless sensitive singer/songwriters in the James Taylor vein.
Still, the album is brilliant. From Lennon’s slinky “Come Together” to McCartney’s passionate ’50s-style rocker “Oh! Darling”; from the Buddy Holly-like rumble of Lennon’s “Polythene Pam,” with its spine-tingling segue into McCartney’s “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” Abbey Road would’ve been the perfect swan song for a monumental musical career.
Let It Be (1970) — 78
But it wasn’t. The Beatles recorded Let It Be in early 1969, but shelved it until the following year. While not a bad record, it suffers from fatigue and ill-conceived remixes by wall-of-sound production legend Phil Spector. Even the strongest tracks — McCartney’s piano-based title song and the string-drenched “The Long and Winding Road” — signal a kind of stylistic fragmentation that plagues popular music to this day.
Around this time, R&B singers began pulling away from their rock ’n’ roll roots, and rock became the dominion of predominantly white, Beatles- and Dylan-influenced artists experimenting with folk, hard-rock, prog-rock, and psychedelia. While some of the music on Let It Be is clearly indebted to R&B, so many other white bands had arrived on the scene by this time that a new genre was born: Album Oriented Rock (minus the roll).
It was the sound played by rock stations on the newly popular FM-radio band, which — because it was less commercially viable than AM — allowed for more separation of pop styles. In the end, The Beatles — by retooling the American pop and R&B of the early ’60s, and allowing for experimentation with musical traditions from all over the world — ironically and inadvertently brought on a powerful new kind of musical segregation.
Past Masters (1988) — 92
This double-disc collection of singles, B-sides, EP tracks, and other non-album material combines a pair of compilations initially released as two separate volumes. It remains the most comprehensive Beatles singles anthology, including the massive hits “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Paperback Writer,” and “Hey Jude” (none of which appeared on official albums), as well as top-notch B-sides ranging from the early “Thank You Girl” (the flip-side of “From Me to You”) to the psychedelic-era “Rain” (flip-side of “Paperback Writer”) and “The Inner Light” (Harrison’s Taoist-themed raga that was the flip-side of “Lady Madonna”).
Two other curiosities here are the band’s German versions of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (“Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand”) and “She Loves You” (“Sie Liebt Dich”). It’s an essential set for completists and casual fans alike.