Reviews of two attempts to revisit and re-interpret The Beatles’ music. The Yellow Submarine Songtrack is from Mojo, November 1999; the Love album is from The Word, January 2007.
(For an assessment of the Let It Be… Naked album, go here.)
Yellow Submarine Songtrack
Not the semi-instrumental soundtrack LP known to our forefathers, but a freshly re-mixed collection of the actual numbers heard in the movie.
If there is any corner of The Beatles' repertoire that we could reasonably call obscure – bearing in mind that even lesser-known B-sides such as Yes It Is or Old Brown Shoe tended to be on the back of million-selling singles – then it's the tracks consigned to their 1969 soundtrack to Yellow Submarine. The record was born with all sorts of difficulties: its entire side two was occupied by George Martin’s orchestral score, rather than by spanking new Lennon and McCartney songs; the group themselves were uninterested in the project; and the songs were frankly leftovers, tossed apathetically in the movie's general direction, not released until they were out of date and rendered obsolete by The Beatles' incredibly rapid progression.
Only a Fab fundamentalist, then, would object to any tinkering with the original.
While it would be a shame to lose sight of the old version – George Martin's instrumental suite was actually pretty spiffing – this new collection is clearly better, both in terms of its tracklisting and its sonic quality. On top of the songs specifically given to Yellow Submarine, such as Hey Bulldog, All Together Now and Only A Northern Song, we now get a batch of Beatle songs released elsewhere but used in the film, including Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Nowhere Man and Think For Yourself. It makes for an oddly random line-up, drawn as it is from disparate sources that range from Rubber Soul to Sgt Pepper, but a Beatle lucky dip is never less than serendipitous.
Of course a Luddite might dissent from the policy of re-mixing the music. Initially done to match the visual enhancement of the movie, the process has had Beatle blessing and loving Abbey Road attention, but still seems sacreligious. It's curious to hear Hey Bulldog, for example: the old sound was a kind of aural soup, the result of each layer getting summarised on 4-track. Your modern boffins can now separate the soup's ingredients, so to speak, and throw in added clarity – so Hey Bulldog is suddenly the sound of an actual group, with a drummer there, a singer here, and a guitarist somewhere else. It's almost de-mystifying to hear The Beatles reproduced in this way, and yet your deeper impression is of just how well they played and sang.
Not every revelation is welcome: the galumphing title track is a tiresome curtain raiser and Ringo's vocal is not a performance that begs for higher fidelity. But the Yellow Submarine tracks, throwaways or not, are individual marvels: they lift the film from its twee meanderings in Madison Avenue psychedelia, and don't disgrace themselves here in the illustrious company of Eleanor Rigby and Sgt. Pepper's overture. Best of all is George's oft-forgotten epic. It's all Too Much, the classic Summer of Love meeting between acid abandon and Eastern surrender of the self – though not of the royalties, obviously.
THE BEATLES: Love
Does anyone remember Stars On 45? They stank up the charts in 1981 with a soundalike Beatles medley, its soaring tunes all pinned to the floor by a cloddish disco beat. The science of fooling with Fabbery has come a long way since then, whether it be the official re-mix Let It Be… Naked or the highly unofficial mash-up of the White Album and Jay-Z by Danger Mouse. But if anyone has the moral authority to do this it’s George Martin, the band’s producer and sonic architect; now with his son Giles he has fused about 130 Beatle songs into 26 tracks, at the service of a Las Vegas show by the avant-circus troupe Cirque Du Soleil.
The results are reined in by the Martins’ policy of using only Beatle master tapes, with almost no additions – no chance, then, of a Revolution 9 dance mix – and by the dictates of the circus soundtrack. The show seems to have nothing of the early Beatles, no Hamburg rockers, and really only I Want To Hold Your Hand, with overdubbed screaming, to represent the mop-top times. It’s preponderantly the era between Revolver and Abbey Road that is re-worked here, sometimes from alternate takes. Love therefore captures The Beatles’ psychedelic zenith and bearded dotage, overlooking their zesty ascent from the Cavern.
Where Love works best is at its most daring: Ringo’s drumbeat for Tomorrow Never Knows galvanises Within You Without You. The fairground plod of Mr Kite is dramatically interrupted by that scything riff from I Want You (She’s So Heavy). And While My Guitar Gently Weeps receives a fine new string setting of the sort that Martin always excelled in. In fact his arrangement for Goodnight (which closed the White Album) recurs a few times on Love, most bravely as the backdrop for Ringo’s frail vocal from Octopus’s Garden. If some of the medley tracks are a bit too Stars On 45, then the subtler touches will absorb a Beatle-geek for months: I’ve just noticed the ghost of Nowhere Man inBlue Jay Way and there’s plenty more to discover.
Perhaps the weight of history hung heavily on the Martins’ shoulders; maybe the soundtrack requirements were too confining. Whatever, Love could have been 100 times more adventurous. You listen to four minutes of Here Comes The Sun and think “Very nice. But I already own it. Where’s the surprise?” A touch of tabla at the start and a sitar at the fade don’t really make for a revolution in the head. There are bound be fresh attempts in the future: commercial logic and the creative challenge conspire to make those Beatle tapes irresistible. A little less reverence next time?
See a complete index of Paul Du Noyer's Beatle articles here.