Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Some People Just Can't Let It Be

A friend (and regular reader of Pajama Guy) just sent me an email about how much he enjoys Let It Be...Naked, the rawer version of  the original Beatles' album.  It was released a decade ago and supposedly comes closer to their original intentions.  Here's my reply (and just by chance I'd been listening to a lot of Beatles outtakes and the like on YouTube recently, so I'd been thinking about this album):

I remember when Let It Be...Naked came out a few years ago. I wasn't too excited--not compared to, say, the release of the Anthology series, or their BBC stuff. First, it was only an updated version of what might be their weakest album (though weakest for the Beatles is still better than most--in fact, there was a time "Two Of Us" was my favorite song of theirs, and I actually performed it with a friend at my high school talent show, though I never understood how two people could be "standing solo"), not to mention by this point, much of their studio work was now widely available one way or another.

It's ironic that it took several years after their breakup for Capitol to release a greatest hits album, and then only because, as I understand it, too many bootleg greatest hits collections were out there. Since then, the company has realized the Beatles catalogue is the wonder of the music industry, and has been systematically strip-mining it without ever really destroying the band's reputation or commercial potential.

Much more exciting to me was alternate takes of earlier songs that were finally available, not to mention even a few original songs they never officially released--including one great one. The later years of the Beatles always had the most bootlegs available, because that was when they spent so much time noodling around in the studio (and perhaps people realized how valuable anything they did was), but that music was generally sloppier and less interesting.
The idea behind the original Let It Be (or Get Back) album was to strip down the sound and get back to basics. Not a bad idea, but really, their earliest stuff had a rawer feel because that's what they honestly sounded like, whereas the idea of a simpler new album by then was a bit self-conscious. (Actually, many cuts from the recently released White Album were "raw" in that they were kept fairly simple, though they weren't always straightforward rock.) The trouble, from the start, was the songs weren't quite as good as usual. It didn't help that the Beatles weren't organized and were breaking apart and didn't feel like making the album (or the concurrent movie), but that was less important than the songs themselves.
I enjoy the album--if nothing else, it's fun to hear somewhat novel versions of old numbers--but it's not a huge leap above the original. Ironically, the songs that had the most stripped from them--the big hit ballads like "The Long And Winding Road" and "Let It Be"--aren't really that much better, or maybe are worse. I wouldn't want Phil Spector to "improve" most Beatles tunes, but a little grandiose production on a few cuts isn't that bad a thing.

By the way, I never feel guilty about listening to music for free on YouTube. Well, not too guilty. First, YouTube has licensing agreements with most big record companies, so this is how they make money now. (No one buys CDs any more.) Plus I've bought the Beatles' music in so many formats for so many years, I don't see why I can't listen to them at my convenience now while I'm on the computer.


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

When Genesis released a boxed set in the 1990s that included many early demos, keyboardist Tony Banks commented that they hadn't included everything, because he felt that some of the obscure Beatles archives had been so bad that they had potentially tarnished the Beatles' overall image. He didn't mention any specific tracks by name.

I have a copy of the White Album demos, and a few of them are really good -- I love the album version of "I'm So Tired", and the demo version is different but still amazing. But overall, I'd much rather listen to the actual White Album.

Maybe the reason I liked Let It Be ... Naked so much is that I really do feel that "Across the Universe" and "The Long and Winding Road" were ruined by Spector's production. I don't really feel that way about the song "Let it Be", however.

It's still amazing to me that the Beatles, after the lackluster Get Back / LIB album, were able to write and record the brilliant Abbey Road.

3:57 AM, March 05, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Lots of artists, like Bob Dylan, have complained about bootlegs. There's a reason, after all, you put out what you put out and don't release other things. But generally fans don't get to bootlegs before they've loved the official stuff, so I don't think they generally hurt the reputation of artists.

Abbey Road is a bit of a comeback (and for the songs, not just the polished production or any general theme), but the Beatles in that decade simply were able to capture magic on a regular basis. Even at their worst they came up with great tunes and were greater as a whole than the sum of their parts. Abbey Road, as you may know, isn't a big favorite of mine, but I can still tell they knew it would be their last hurrah so decided to put it all together one last time.

9:08 AM, March 05, 2013  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Indeed, I know you prefer their earlier and more bluesy stuff. What's amazing to me is how effortlessly the Beatles on Abbey Road entered the 1970s. "Something" is the only Beatles song that completely sounds like mellow 1970s rock. Paul sings with a harder rock voice on "Golden Slumbers" than he ever did before (as far as I can recall). "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" foreshadows Lennon's later experiments with heavy-metal depressing drug-withdrawal music.

There's even a drum solo, which is very nice -- largely because it's short. (I remember sitting through the endless drum solo when I saw The Song Remains the Same in a theater. Maybe the folks who were stoned enjoyed it?)

And of course, the medley on side two borders on progressive rock, especially in the way that "You Never Give Me Your Money" reprises with a different arrangement near the end.

It's fascinating to wonder what would have happened to them if they had stayed together. The Stones had several comeback albums after 1970 that sold well, but only one of them was a true artistic innovation. Could the Beatles have continued to innovate and yet stayed together? And if not, would their memory have been tarnished, especially in the late 1970s when record companies pressured radio stations to play the new stuff instead of the old stuff?

2:31 PM, March 05, 2013  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Regarding bootlegs: I think that most artists don't really mind them, since as you say, they know that anyone who buys bootlegs has probably bought all their official albums. (Of course, pirated copies of official albums are a different story.)

I first bought bootlegs in the early 1980s when they were on LPs (very low quality plastic!). There was a catalog of 800 Beatles bootlegs, appropriately entitled "You Can't Do That". I knew someone who had gotten Bruce Springsteen to autograph some of his bootlegs. By the 1990s there were bootleg CDs (usually printed in Japan), and ten years ago bootlegs became high-quality sound files you could trade on the internet. Oddly, at that point the quality of them improved, because once someone got their hands on a first-generation copy, they digitized it and distributed it, and all the collectors replaced their low-quality copies with that one.

Today, the reputable bootleg websites respect requests from artists (or their management) not to upload/download their stuff. The forbidden artists list at Dime-a-Dozen (EzTorrent) is relatively short, if you consider just how many artists there are.

2:43 PM, March 05, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Some artists, like Springsteen and the Grateful Dead, encouraged fans to record their concerts and trade tapes with other fans.

Saying the Beatles entered the 70s with Abbey Road may be true, but isn't the biggest compliment. If they had continued, they would have continued doing good work--in fact, if you just take the best of their solo work (and imagine the Beatles working together to record the songs), you can put together a fair amount of darn good albums--yet I'm sure their reputation would have suffered a bit. No band can stay at the top forever.

As for Paul rocking hard, may I suggest (in addition to early rock and roll covers) "I'm Down" and "She's A Woman." For that matter, on the White Album alone you've got "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" and "Helter Skelter."

5:46 PM, March 05, 2013  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Good point about "I'm Down". Yes actually covered that in the mid-70s and it was awful: unlike McCartney, Jon Anderson isn't able to sing with a harsh rock voice.

I guess the Beatles would have had to become friends again before they could have stayed together. A few bands have continued to make albums even after they hate each other (cf. Pink Floyd c. 1980) but it usually doesn't work.

8:40 PM, March 05, 2013  
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