Tuesday, 20 November 2018
Released March 1970
Producers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong went into full-blown psychedelic soul for this album, having dabbled in it considerably on the previous two albums, 1969's "Cloud Nine" and "Puzzle People". The traditional "Motown Sound" was abandoned and we had rock guitars, electronic keyboards, sound effects, multi-tracked vocals and a huge thumping, funky drum sound. the producers and The Temptations virtually invented "psychedelic soul" as they merged funky rhythms, soulful vocals, rock psychedelia with vast-emerging black consciousness and environmental issues. This was really something quite ground-breaking. The front cover sees the band members pictured in the windows of a gaudy hippy "shack" with a peace sign and "flower power" graffiti on it, along with myriad rainbow colours. They look a bit bemused by it, to be honest. Whitfield was far more "on message" than the individual group members were. Paul Williams was ill, and Eddie Kendrick was falling out with Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin. Listening to the album, though, you would never know it. They simply obeyed Whitfield's commands and laid it down.
The title track was a superb, energised and catchy opener, while "You Make Your Own Heaven And Hell Right Here On Earth" (covered also by Whitfield's The Undisputed Truth) introduced us to that intoxicating funky beat and cynical, portentous lyrics. "Hum Along and Dance" (later covered by Rare Earth and The Jackson 5) had a rich, deep throbbing bass line matched by the vocals in places and a huge pounding rhythm. This was soul the like of which had not been known before, with the possible exception of Sly & The Family Stone. The vocals are only occasional, it is basically an instrumental groove that segues into the bass line of the trippy "Take A Stroll Through Your Mind". It vocally delves into their earlier hit "My Girl" for a line or two before heading into eight minutes of typical early seventies stream of consciousness stuff. This is as druggy as any Motown act ever got. The bass line is wonderful throughout the track and one hell of a buzzy guitar joins the fray half way through, along with some gorgeous, crystal clear cymbal work. Remember, this is a group previously known for three minute soul/love songs coming out with adventurous material like this. Good Lord above, the times were a-changing.
"It's Summer" was the only traditional, Motown-style love song with those typical Temptations harmonies to the fore. However lovely it is, however, it sits somewhat incongruously with the rest of the album's "conscious" offerings. Next up they cover Edwin Starr's iconic anti-war song, "War". Although Starr's version is the definitive one, this one cuts the mustard - "good God, y'all...".
"You Need Love Like I Do (Don't You)" is a love song, but one hell of a funked-up one. It is full of buzzy guitars, thumping drums, great vocal harmonies and rumbling bass. Classic turn of the decade Temptations. "Friendship Train" is a captivating call and response musical call to arms to end the album. It was successfully covered by Gladys Knight & The Pips on their "Nitty Gritty" album but this is the "go to" version. Racism, political corruption, the Vietnam war - get on that friendship train and forget those things, man. "Shake a hand, make a friend...this train stands for justice, this train stands for freedom..". I couldn't have put it better myself, both in 1970 and right now. Say it loud, brother. This was a superb track, from a superb album. This album should be mentioned in the same breath as "What's Going On". It rarely does, but it should.
Released March 1963
This was it, then, The Beatles' very first album, and, while very much of its time, there is still some superb stuff on it. Take "I Saw Her Standing There". What and opening to a career, with its rocking McCartney vocal and solid bass line. Then there is the wonderful title track, with McCartney and Lennon in perfect harmony and that iconic harmonica riff. There are six cover versions alongside the Lennon-McCartney originals but that was pretty par for the course in 1963.
"Misery" is a lively, rock'n'roll upbeat ballad, while "Anna (Go To Him)" has John Lennon on lead for the first time on album, expressing his soon to be familiar relationship problems. "Chains" has George Harrison on lead vocals on Goffin/King's country-ish rocker. For something from 1963, the sound quality on this is impressive. Even on this first album, there was a "Ringo song" and he takes vocal duties on the quirky rock'n'roll of "Boys". It still has a naive appeal to it. "Ask Me Why" is a melodic, lovelorn song from the already melancholic Lennon. It has a catchy but sad refrain. He was setting his stall out early on this type of song.
"Love Me Do" was, of course, the group's big breakthrough hit single. I have actually never been a big fan of it, to be honest, finding it lyrically banal, but I have to give credit to the harmonica intro. McCartney's "PS I Love You" is very much early sixties fare, similar to the sort of stuff Elvis was putting out at the same time. Their cover of The Shirelles' "Baby It's You" is very fetching with a convincing Buddy Holly-esque vocal from Lennon. "Do You Want To Know A Secret" is sung by Harrison and was a hit for Billy J. Kramer & Dakotas. It has a sublime, deep, warm bass line.
"A Taste Of Honey", I have to say, sounds extremely dated now. It has an atmosphere to it though. The harmonica introduces the energetic, enthusiastic "There's A Place". As appealing as it is, it all sounds so very long ago now. The album ends with Lennon's throaty, suffering from a heavy cold, vocal on the infectious "Twist And Shout" when The Beatles make The Top Notes/The Isley Brothers' song their own.
As with all the early Beatles albums, the 2009 stereo remasters are great but you simply can't beat the speaker-shaking thump of the mono version. Just check out that bass on "I Saw Her Standing There" in mono.
Released November 1963
Five cover versions in its fourteen tracks, this is an album of covers and short love songs, but its cultural effect was greater than the sum of its parts. For me, like "Beatles For Sale" it seems very much a Lennon album. He dominates the whole thing, let's be honest.
The first two songs are classic Lennon early sixties rockers - "It Won't Be Long" is excellent and "All I've Got To Do" not far behind. The sound is superb on both of them, either in stereo or mono. It is a McCartney song, however, that really gives you that typically Beatles sound, the irresistible, evocative "All My Loving". One of my first memories is having a "Beatles" toy guitar with their faces on, aged five-six around the turn of 1963-64 (pictured above). "Don't Bother Me" is one of those melancholic Harrison songs that sounds like a Lennon song, both lyrically and vocally. "Little Child" is rousing and harmonica-driven, with Lennon and McCartney sharing vocals. It has a huge bass sound on it too. Very typical early Beatles energetic, lively rock 'n' roll. "Till There Was You" is a cover of a country love song, sung by McCartney. Lennon takes vocals on The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman". They cope with this early Motown song pretty well. It is one of their more convincing, solid covers.
I still believe the guitar at the beginning of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" is messed up, although the rest of it rocks, big time, with a resonant bass line and a surprisingly good rock vocal from Harrison. "Hold Me Tight" is a McCartney sung Buddy Holly-esque number. Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got A Hold On Me" is given a harmonious vocal treatment from Lennon and McCartney. The song suits them. Lennon is particularly impressive. Neither is Robinson, of course, but it sounds ok. Ringo Starr takes vocals for the first time on "I Wanna Be Your Man", famously also covered by the Rolling Stones. As one who always preferred The Stones to The Beatles, I have to give credit to the lively punch of this one, after all it was The Beatles' song, anyway.
The country number, "Devil In Her Heart" is very much of its time. It sounds pretty dated now, but still has an entrancing, innocent appeal to it. "Not A Second Time" has a huge bass thud to it, a great sound quality and a similarly impressive Lennon vocal. The cover of Barrett Strong's "Money" also has Lennon raspingly rocking it up. It is not up to the original, but again, it is more than acceptable. Starr comes into his own on here.
The 2009 stereo remaster is one of the best stereo remasters of the early recordings, but the mono's delicious power simply cannot be beaten.
Released July 1964
The Beatles started to leave behind their rock 'n' roll and Motown covers for this soundtrack album to their first appealingly madcap romp of a film. Side one are all songs from the film and the second side were songs written for the film but not used. The emphasis is on pop pretty much all the way. It is an innocent, gently appealing album.
The first two are corkers - the now iconic title track named after a throwaway comment from Ringo Starr and the rousing rock of John Lennon's vocal on "I Should Have Known Better". I am sure there is a missed note on the harmonica at the beginning though. In fact, looking it up, apparently the stereo version does indeed have a brief "drop out". It doesn't occur at all on the mono.
"If I Fell" is an enchanting low key love ballad, while "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You" is very mid-sixties "easy listening" but it has a superb, rich, bassy sound and a captivating rhythm. George Harrison is on vocals on this one. "And I Love Her" is beautiful. One of Paul McCartney's best early love songs Just where did Ringo get those tom-toms? Don't ask :). "Tell Me Why" sees that soon to be familiar Lennon cyncism about lying within love beginning to make itself known, as it would much more on "Beatles For Sale" later in 1964. It suffers a bit from a murky, muffled mix, particularly on the stereo version. The mono version is probably the best way to listen this track, although it still has limitations. "Can't Buy Me Love", of course, is now a world-famous classic. No need for any further comment from me, is there? Apart from to praise the bass line.
"Any Time At All" has a jangling guitar sound soon to be adopted by The Byrds. Songs like this are admittedly just pretty innocent love ditties, but the influence of their full-on guitar attack, at the time, was huge. "I'll Cry Instead" is an upbeat country-ish rocker from Lennon with yet another throbbing, melodic bass line. McCartney's "Things We Said Today" has always been, for me, the best song on the album. It is catchy but also melancholic and broody, despite its lively refrain. After each chorus bit, however, the music gets downbeat again, most atmospherically. "When I Get Home" is a very typical rock-ish Lennon number from the time, similar to his "Beatles For Sale" material. "You Can't Do That" sees Lennon in a similar musical groove and some mildly threatening lyrical content, as he gets a bit jealous of his girl's potential wandering. It is one of the album's most muscular rockers. "I'll Be Back" is a harmonious but once again slightly sad love song.
This is a pleasant, inoffensive album, but beneath the tuneful geniality there are several notes of mournful sadness. These would come to be expressed increasingly over the next few albums, particularly by Lennon.
Although this album was mixed in stereo and remastered thus in 2009, this is one of those where I definitely prefer the mono (which is actually the case for all the early ones). The bassy thump of the mono version is awesome.
Released December 1967
After the world-conquering glory of "Sgt. Pepper", The Beatles "went weird" in the eyes of many (including The Queen, rumoured to have said they were "turning awfully funny") and released a perplexing, much-heralded and frankly odd and pretentious mini-film and accompanying EP of six tracks that was released as an album in the USA containing other single releases. This was eventually released as a UK album and has been available as such for many years now. So, it sort of is an album, but it isn't.
The tracks from the EP are variable in quality. The the title track is rousing and goofily appealing, with some excellent drums and Paul McCartney's "The Fool On The Hill" is one of the group's most hauntingly beautiful songs. "Flying" is a thoroughly unremarkable instrumental, while George Harrison's Lennon-esque, psychedelic "Blue Jay Way" has never really worked for me, hanging as it does on the coattails of Revolver's much better material. Having said that it is far more credible from a "rock band" than the pretty awful piece of jaunty McCartney whimsy of "Your Mother Should Know". Yes it is all very nostalgically sensitive (especially considering it was written by one still comparatively young), but I would always rather hear The Beatles doing "weird" than this, any day. Did I say "weird"? It must be time for some classic Lennon and it duly arrives in the yellow matter custard eggman magnificence of "I Am The Walrus". I remember my mother, who although in her forties at the time, loved and knew her pop music, being completely nonplussed by this upon its release. Its effect, together with the film, was massive at the time. This bonkers song has been analysed and re-analysed endlessly over the years, so I won't start, but its cultural effect and the consequent public perception of The Beatles changed dramatically with this one song. They now became bearded oddballs - why, even that loveable Ringo has gone a bit funny.
As for the other tracks, there is some great stuff. I remember being on a bus in late 1967 going to the pictures with my parents on a dark November night and some teenagers were playing "Hello Goodbye" at the back on their tinny transistor radio. That was the first time I had heard it. Every time I hear it I can't help but recall that night. It is so evocative. As, of course, is Lennon's masterpiece of hippy psychedelia, "Strawberry Fields Forever". "Penny Lane" is an excellent McCartney song, wonderfully nostalgic for the post war years in which he grew up.
"Baby You're A Rich Man" is an often-forgotten John Lennon song with Eastern influences, a great bass line, infectious drums and some cynical lyrics about money from the increasingly wealthy Lennon. It was the 'b' side to the hippy anthem, but strangely melancholic "All You Need Is Love". Lennon seemed to be almost mocking their past as he sang brief snatches of "Yesterday" and "She Loves You" in the fade out.
The sound on the 2009 stereo remaster is superb, but the original mono recording included in "The Beatles In Mono" box set packs one hell of a punch. I enjoy listening to both.
All albums reviewed are highlighted in orange. Click on an album title to read the review.
Meet The Supremes (1962)
Where Did our Love Go (1964)
I Hear A Symphony (1966)
The Supremes A Go-Go (1966)
Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations (1968)
Love Child (1968)
Let The Sunshine In (1969)
Together (with The Temptations) (1969)
Cream Of The Crop (1969)
All albums reviewed are highlighted in orange. Click on an album title to read the review.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (1976)
You're Gonna Get It! (1978)
Damn The Torpedoes (1979)
Hard Promises (1981)
Long After Dark (1982)
Southern Accents (1985)
Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) (1987)
Into The Great Wide Open (1991)
Songs From "She's The One" (1996)
The Last DJ (2002)
Hypnotic Eye (2014)
Anthology: Through The Years