In my childhood in the 1960s, I bought almost all of the vinyl albums by the Beatles and a smattering of single “45s”. In the 1970s and early 1980s, I bought selected releases by the group on cassette for my Sony Walkman. Then, later in the 1980s, I purchased all the major works on CD and soon, various collections, such as “1”, which is all the songs that went to the top of the charts (dubbed by one publication as “same songs, different order.”) Now comes the newly-fangled re-release of the CDs improved to “pristine” condition by the engineers across the Pond, and though I’ve just repurchased two titles so far, the investment is well worth it (as we anxiously await the delayed iTunes availability for yet another medium for the songs).
The two albums I’ve purchased are “The Beatles” – famously dubbed “The White Album” and “Abbey Road.” I chose these two because my old CDs are damaged and needed replacement. The old CDs did have a lifelessness to them and now I’m glad to report that the quality is much improved, giving a fresh, crisp sound to the glorious production that was originally envisioned by The Lads and their genius producer, George Martin.
When the White Album appeared in 1968, the title of the review in Life magazine was “The Wisdom of Their Years” which I always remember as being an insightful and poetic description of the work. It truly signified that even in terms of the leap made from the early recordings to “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”, and the subsequent gigantic stride taken for all of music in “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”, the “White Album” showed the enormous step taken in the musical/lyrical/ and production maturity of the group. Even the less serious songs had a more grown-up feel to them and for the first time, the Beatles were having a conversation with their listeners and not just singing to them or even at them, as most recording artists were doing in the 1960s and had done before. These were songs and stories about life itself, about ideas, about impressions on the road that we are all traveling together. Some ideas were harsh, as in the introductory verses of Happiness is a Warm Gun, some reflected deep, scarring loss, as in Julia, and others were playful, such as Obla-di-Obla-da. In George Harrison’s work, as he reached a new peak in his composing abilities, we find in Long Long Long the very yearning and redemption of the soul. And he wanted to share with us his revelation.
The re-release of “The White Album” also showcases the newly found tightness in musicianship of the group and George Martin’s string scores and his horn arrangements have never sounded better. Even the experimental and much-maligned Revolution #9 becomes more of a “day in the life” with sounds that could never be heard before in prior releases, with a clarity that amazes the dazzled listener as he walks through the ideas in the mind of John Lennon.
I’ve always told people that in the 1960s, many considered the Beatles as truly a group, that although John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote most of the songs, the strength of both the personalities and musicianship of George Harrison and Ringo Starr made the group a true ensemble and an equal partnership of all four members. I think that George Harrison forgot this, as he once dubbed himself one of the “lesser Beatles.” But I want to note here, that on listening to “The White Album” with fresh ears, it is often the subtle additions by Paul McCartney that send a song over the top and into the rarefied space of Beatles sublimity. Here is Paul giving a strong and solid backing vocal on Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps and here is Paul banging out an outrageous bass line in Helter Skelter and here is Paul breaking the Cold War barrier in Back in the USSR. I find it ironic that today one could consider McCartney as the most underrated Beatle. On this album, as well as the fantastic “Abbey Road”, there is no question that he is the glue that is keeping the edifice from crumbling under the weight of the world’s highest expectations.
In closing, I’d like to note that “side one” – that is the first songs through Happiness… – is the most perfect album side in rock history. So, as John says to the crowd on the roof of Abbey Road Studios, after playing for the city of London the last live show of the Beatles: “I’d like to thank you on behalf of the group and I hope we passed the audition.” The re-releases pass with flying colors.
(Bernie Langs writes music and novellas. Check out his cover songs and his own compositions at http://blangs.typepad.com)