Since it’s stuffed at the very bottom of the Beatles box (well, just above the DVD in early editions…but I’ve moved my DVD to the video shelves), I’ll conclude my series of Beatles posts with Past Masters set. First, following up on a comment I made in an earlier post: I suggested it might have been better to have scrapped Yellow Submarine entirely and folded the four “new” tracks on that album into an expanded Past Masters second disc. And in fact, when I was listening to the Past Masters set earlier this evening, the jump from 1966 (“Rain”) to 1968 (“Lady Madonna”) was rather jarring: all the stray ’67 tracks were collected on Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine. The other jarring thing about this compilation is that in its first half, the differences in sonic approach – from mono, to radical stereo that puts vocals in one channel and instruments in the other (along with an astonishing amount of cross-channel vocal reverb), to stereo imaging approximately the contemporary standard – prove to be rather jarring. I think these tracks would have sounded better appended as either bonus tracks (with silent separation from the album proper) or on bonus discs along with the albums as such.
In fact, as a summary statement on the whole remasters series, I would say this: It’s great that we now have definitive versions of the original mixes, mono and stereo (or not necessarily original in the case of the stereo Help! and Rubber Soul…), and that’s of tremendous importance archivally…but can we please move on and remix the entire catalog? It would be an artful compromise: preserving as far as possible without distortion the sonic character of 196x recording technology while presenting the songs’ various components deployed about the stereo image in what has come to be a more naturalistic fashion (insofar as any such artificial construction can be “natural,” I would say that the placement of bass in dead center is one…since the longer waves of lower frequencies mean that in most spaces, there simply isn’t room for them to be localized: when we think we’re hearing localized bass sounds, we’re hearing the higher frequency components of the bass instrument: the attack on bass drum and bass guitar, certain higher overtones and distortion, etc.). Also, a minor aside: has anyone else ever noticed that some of the later Beatles guitar tones, particularly rhythm parts, are astonishingly similar, timbre-wise, to the electric piano they often also added to the mix (frequently courtesy Billy Preston)? It’s a sort of clean, ever-so-slightly-overdriven sound, but something about its overtones make it sound very electric-piano-like. I think “Dig a Pony” on Let it Be is a good example…and the similarity holds up even when all the instruments are distorted (such as in “Revolution”).
Anyway, some things I noticed on the Past Masters set: Is it too late to stake my claim in stating that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is an utterly brilliant song? Try to strip away the extent to which, probably having heard it literally thousands of times over the years, its every texture is nearly a constituent element of your very persona – and hear that, in its combination of starkly basic instrumentation and cleverly unexpected yet utterly right chordal construction, it’s really rather stunningly contemporary in sound. The opening just charges in its syncopation, a burst of energy that is not dissipated but merely tamped down in the more regular accents of the verse. The somewhat unusual chord in the fourth measure of each phrase (a B major, in the key of G major: you might expect a B minor here) has the effect of introducing a sense of wonder to the proceedings, a sense that blossoms into full-blown ecstasy in the falsetto harmonies of its second occurrence. The chorus cycles through a typical circle-of-fifths progression, but at twice the speed of the verse harmonic changes – a sort of churning effect. The bridge seems a bit tentative – in some ways it’s not entirely clear how to parse the phrasing, which bars are rising or falling in the phrase’s cadence – and indeed, the whole thing is asymmetrical and yields to a reprise of the intro, this time stating for sure the narrator’s impassioned state. After the last verse, we have what at first seems to be a stock three-times-through repeat of the song’s chorus – but then, brilliantly paying off the introduction of that unusual B-major chord, the band shines a light on it at the end of the second phrase…and then, one more repeat of half the chorus phrase, with a breathless quarter-note triplet lead-out to the final chord.
So yeah: lots of essential single material here on the Past Masters set. Some less essential stuff, too: no one but completists really needs to hear the German versions of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” (both seemingly tossed off in a few stray moments), and I find myself always confusing “Thank You Girl” and “I’ll Get You” except when I’m actually listening to them. On the other hand, although “I Call Your Name” is not in the top ranks of Beatles songs, there’s something interesting about what it tries to do with that chord sequence (plus, John Lennon discovers early ska…but doesn’t quite convey its flavor to the rest of the band). Elsewhere on the first disc, Paul very nearly achieves the seemingly impossible: he almost owns a song from Little Richard (“Long Tall Sally”). To be a bit safer, he writes his own Little Richard song with “I’m Down” – which really deserved a better fate than b-side – the band both rocks it up and has a grand old time doing so. (Note: are those bongos, or someone banging on the back of an acoustic guitar? Either way, they’re strangely arrhythmic…). So, yeah: Paul can sing. And so can John: there may be no better demonstration of the fabulous texture of the man’s voice than “Bad Boy”: there’s something indescribably complex in there, a roughness, a sweetness, a wink, a knowingness, and both exhilaration and exhaustion – all that’s below the surface here, which is just plain having a good time.
The second disc begins with one of the band’s best tracks, “Day Tripper.” Obvious: killer riff. Slightly less so: that bridge, with its slow, scalar build – utterly fantastic (even though the last guitar note is a bit of a muff). But damn: in headphones particularly, the stereo version bathes the vocals in a penumbra of reverb that rather dissipates their impact. Sounds better through speakers – and even though the stereo allows us to hear the nice rhythm guitar part (yes, there is a rhythm guitar part), the mono presents the vocals to best effect. And hey: has there been a better single, ever, than “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain”? I’m willing to accept nominations from the floor – but both tracks are drop-dead fantastic, brilliantly recorded, fantastically played (even despite the handful of vocal fluffs in “Paperback Writer”) – and the second appearance of the guitar riff in “Paperback Writer” has one of the best filthy guitar sounds ever… As I said, it’s a bit jarring to move from “Rain” to the very different musical approach of “Lady Madonna” – the distance the band had traveled in less than two years is pretty astonishing – but get beyond that, and you have one of Paul’s more fun tunes (with a wry bit of wordplay that’s positively Lennonesque, in the second occurrence of “see how they run” after the line about stockings needing mending).
Too bad George hadn’t done “Old Brown Shoe” during the Let it Be sessions: it’s similar in flavor to “For You Blue” in some ways, but a better song. And what the hell was anyone thinking by omitting the fabulous and powerful “Don’t Let Me Down” from that album? It’s better than any Lennon song on that album, and quite possibly would have been the best song period on that record. A powerhouse, impassioned vocal from John: again, what I most appreciate about his singing is the emotional complexity the tone and timbre of his voice conveys. He’s in love (we knew that) but he’s also worried and insecure, a bit frustrated (at the worry, at himself), but angry and defiant at the same time…yet vulnerable… Paul may, in some ways, have been a more versatile vocalist (ever notice how he really has like three or four different voices he uses?), but he rarely got as raw vocally as John. Even when Paul’s stripping his larynx bare (the outchorus on “Don’t Let Me Down”…or the huge coda to “Hey Jude”) it always feels a bit performative and modulated.
Finally: one beneficiary of the hypothetical remixing project would, one hopes, be “Revolution.” No stereo version of that track has ever fully captured the incredibly fractalized distortion of the guitars on that track: the mono version presents their brute power, but the parts themselves get slightly lost. I’m hoping that that’s the next refurbishing of the catalog – I suppose they’d wait a while, to let the impact of the box sets sink in…and to figure out what the hell’s going on with the preferred consumer sound medium: more than one commentator has referred to the Beatles remasters as the last great compact disc release. We’ll see.