Monday, September 7, 2009

I'm Sick and Tired of Getting Ripped Off by the Beatles!

I don’t care too much for money,
Money can’t buy me love – Lennon/McCartney

What a crock. By the time “Can’t Buy Me Love” was released in early 1964, The Beatles were well on their way to fame and fortune. Their film “A Hard Days Night” would be released later that year to universal acclaim as the Fab Four laid claim to pop culture dominance in a way that has never been equaled since. At their commercial peak, there was no way a civilized person could escape Beatlemania except by possibly checking themselves into an asylum. There were magazines, lunchboxes, toys and incredibly great music. The music created by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr is as loved and appreciated now just as it was in the sixties. One can make the argument it is the strength of the songs and band, which has made the Beatles continually popular long after almost all their contemporaries have faded away, burned out or went to the great gig in the sky.

However, the Beatles and their managers were masters of self-promotion, possessing an uncanny ability to convince their legions of fans that every new Beatles product is amazing, indispensable and further evidence of their greatness. On September 8th, 2009, the Beatles will release remastered versions of their albums and September 9th, the hotly anticipated “Beatles Rock Band,” a video game which allows players to grab a facsimile instrument of their choice achieve a semblance of “inner Fab-ness.” Before the game has even hit store shelves, it has already received a plethora of accolades from the music press, which has universally proclaimed “Beatles Rock Band” will confirm the Fab Four’s status as the greatest band ever. Sorry. My needle’s stuck somewhere in the middle of “The Long and Winding Road.” It’s stuck on an instrumental bridge which just keeps repeating itself, over and over.

My version of the song is from the often-bootlegged “Get Back” sessions, the majority of songs were re-imagined by uber-producer and now convicted killer Phil Spector. The “Get Back” sessions were once some of the most sought after unreleased Beatle material. I purchased by copy fifteen years ago and was anxious to hear the original versions songs on what is widely considered the weakest of Beatles albums. To say that I was disappointed in the material contained in the “Get Back” record would be an understatement. Without the discipline of their longtime producer and mentor, Sir George Martin, the Beatles were revealed to be just another band who managed to get the best of breaks throughout their career. However, being a big Beatle fan, I relished having this sacred material, and have the album (with apple-green vinyl) on display at my house. The Beatles were still the greatest ever, and it never for once occurred to me to stop my pursuit of more Beatle product. After fifteen years of seeing continual yet sub-par merchandise, I’ve decided I’m done. I don’t care if anyone wants to pretend they are John Lennon with a plastic Les Paul guitar, make up various excuses as to why it is worth shelling out a week’s pay for music people already have or listen to baby-boomers attempt once again to make their geriatric generation relevant. I have the majority of Beatle-related crap issued since their breakup in 1970 and understand what tomorrow does not know: the Beatles love money more than they love you – Yeah, yeah yeah.

The Beatles and their management have orchestrated their posthumous releases in a fashion that has no comparisons in terms of marketing. Their only interest has been financial, to keep as many original fans buying crap but still holding enough in the vaults to keep the mystique alive. The 1970’s saw the Beatles splinter apart. The initial solo releases were excellent but by 1975, the well had run dry. The albums still sold well, but can anyone honestly state the last time they played McCartney’s “Band on the Run,” Lennon’s “Walls and Bridges,” Harrison’s “Dark Horse” or Ringo’s “Goodnight Vienna?” All of these albums were still big sellers but as I look through them, where did they go? Sadly, none of these releases are worth remembering except for those who ran to their local store in anticipation of hearing some resemblance to the band’s glory days. Even though there are a handful of decent songs, most copies are gathering dust on fan’s shelves, evidence of devotion, completion and a desire to get back to a time where all you needed was love. The Beatles were in danger on becoming irrelevant in an era where disco and punk rock were beginning to dominate radio waves. However, the band’s unreleased recordings were among the most sought after by rock and roll fans. Their live recordings and studio outtakes jump-started the bootleg industry. Beatle fanatics flocked to record stores which carried the material, forking over money for super-secret access to their heroes. As their seventies output entered a commercial and critical nadir, the Beatles chose to capitalize on the burgeoning bootleg industry. The 1977 release of “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” hit number one in Britain and number two in the United States. Upon listening to the material, originally recorded in 1964 and 1965, shows a heavily remixed concerts which brought back to many fans the feeling of Beatlemania. Interestingly, this best-selling record has yet to see a CD release. The following year saw the release of “Rarities,” an album that culled a few of the best bootleg tracks along with a lot of trivial material. Care to hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sang in German? Sure, I bet you do. Care to put it on your Ipod? Anyone, anyone?

Despite the fluff, “Beatles Rarities” succeeded in grabbing the attention of music fans. This was largely due to the opening track, the original version of “Across the Universe,” a song which was butchered by Phil Spector on the “Let It Be” album. This song was (and is) worth the price of the whole LP. Also included was “Rain,” the b-side to “Paperback Writer.” “Rain” had a cult following due to the band making a promotional video for the song. The Beatles were very savvy and were the first rock group to promote a 45 as two great songs, not just a designated hit as the a-side and a throwaway song on the flip. To buy a Beatles single from 1966-1969 meant getting two new Beatles songs, the majority of which would not end up on a full-length album release. The songs which did not end up on the “1964-1966” or “1967-1970” double albums were widely circulated among fans. Although the George Harrison B-side to “Lady Madonna,” “The Inner Light” was included, the Beatles chose to make their fans wanting the rest of the b-side material. There is no concise argument that can be made as to why the Beatles did not do this in 1978. None. I challenge the Nowhere Man to think for himself. Ironically, Neil Innes and Eric Idle released the Rutles film and album in 1978, appropriately titled “All You Need is Cash.”

In 1987, the Beatles entered the newest sonic medium of the eighties, the compact disc. The surviving Three-tles (Lennon was assassinated in 1980) stuck to their marketing mantra and gave themselves yet another financial ticket to ride. To ensure Beatle fans across the world would purchase the newly remastered catalog, all forms of album releases would be deleted from their catalog in favor of the British releases. This is why you can’t find your parents’ or grandparents’ copy of “Meet the Beatles!” on CD. Switching to the British catalog of album releases changed up song orders on all Beatle albums until 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” after which all album tracks were uniform. Most of the American releases contained the Beatles’ hit singles but the British versions tended to be stand-alone releases, with few singles contained therein. Fans who wanted songs such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” I Feel Fine” or “Day Tripper” were forced to buy two new compilations, “Past Masters Volumes One and Two” to complete their Beatle catalog. American fans who grew up listening to “Beatles 65”, “Something New” or “Yesterday and Today” were just plain out of luck…for now.

As the eighties drew to a close, a new type of music was emerging, grunge. Seattle bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were quick to drop names of the many rock acts which had influenced them such as Husker Du, The Vaselines, The Who and Neil Young. Rarely, if ever, were the lads from Liverpool mentioned. The Beatles were once again finding themselves floating outside the river of mainstream tastes. It was once again time to consult the massive vault of unreleased but still widely bootlegged Beatle songs to propel the band back into the spotlight – and sell a few more million records. The Beatles performed live on BBC radio fifty-two times in their career. These live recordings represented some of the hottest bootleg material available, as there were several songs recorded for the “Beeb” which never saw release. Out of the hundreds of tracks available, sixty-nine were selected for this double disc compilation. Fans once again flew en masse to record stores in December 1994 to pick up this glossy, expensive and sadly overrated album. At arguable grunge and alternative music’s peak, the Beatles garnered themselves yet another top ten album. Although there are several gems included in the set, including a blistering version of “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” much of the collection was from the band’s early years where without the expertise of Sir George Martin production skills, the Fabs sounded like a bar-band version of their polished selves. My copy of “Live at the BBC” has remained largely unplayed in the last fifteen years. Upon retrieving it from my collection to research of this piece, it actually still smelled new.

The following year saw the Beatles reunite through studio magic (although there are unsubstantiated rumors the Maharishi was involved) to utilize a previously unreleased (but familiar to collectors) John Lennon recording, “Free as a Bird” and re-imagine it with performances from the surviving three band members. Producer, former ELO member, Traveling Wilbury and wannabe Beatle Jeff Lynne produced this track, which sounded like a mash-up before mash-ups were invented. Lennon’s vocals do not match the rest of the production, which sounded like a bizarre Beatle-compilation, with vocals from everyone but Ringo (some things never change). The song sounded like producer Lynne forgot everything he had copied from George Martin over the past two decades. At times it sounded like a Traveling Wilbury song, a McCartney song or a Harrison song but one would be hard pressed (even after a trip to Dr. Robert) to consider it a Beatles song. Fans still could not resist the appeal of any new Beatles material as “Free as a Bird” still charted in the top ten.

The Beatles once again were the apple of the music fan’s eye as the “Beatles Anthology” documentary aired during November of 1995. Designed to accompany “Free as a Bird” and three upcoming “Anthology” CD’s, the documentary succeeded in re-establishing the Fab Four as the top music act of the rock and roll era. However, much of the new interview footage (especially Paul McCartney’s) did not reveal much about the band the average fan did not already know. Many of the band’s live performances and promotional films (precursors to music videos) were chopped up or worse yet, overdubbed from the original recordings. The performances of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” were among the last live appearances the band ever made, both of which were butchered worse than the baby dolls for the “Yesterday and Today” album cover. The Beatles had several live concerts professionally filmed over their careers including their landmark Shea Stadium concert and two Tokyo concerts which were some of their last gigs as a touring act. For some bizarro reason, little of this footage was used in its entirety. The Beatles’ promotional films are both original and fantastic, yet few of these were used for the documentary in their original forms. The live performance of “Revolution” remains one of my all-time favorite Beatle clips, yet the majority of the performance shown in the documentary overdubs the studio vocals over the live ones. Fans were left alone, the elusive Beatle bird had flown again.

1999 saw the release of the “Yellow Submarine Songtrack,” a quasi-replacement CD for the animated 1968 film. The Beatles had little involvement with the initial film, providing only a handful of new material to accompany it and a cute, cheeky cameo at the film’s end. The 1999 CD, along with the movie’s video release, and a buttload of “Yellow Submarine” merchandise, attempted to cement the film as an essential part of Beatle canon. By and large, it succeeded. I bought the new soundtrack, along with the “Yellow Submarine” toys. They were pretty darn cool but even a big Beatle fan like yours truly couldn’t quick fork over the money for the “Yellow Submarine” lunchbox. If enough unnecessary and irrelevant merchandise is for sale, even the hardcore fans tend to rebel (see KISS). The CD was the first time since 1987 Beatles songs had been remastered and they never sounded better, if better just means louder. As recording technology advanced, newer CD’s began to sound substantially louder than ones recorded ten years earlier. Most music fans love to make mix-CD’s but if the sound radically goes up and down between songs the experience of a mix becomes bothersome, if not annoying if the volume has to be adjusted constantly. The “Yellow Submarine Songtrack” put the Beatles right back at the sonic front. There was no obvious tinkering with Martin’s original mixes and the amplification made one appreciate the band’s talent even more than ever other release. Fans waited for the eventual remastering of the rest of the group’s material. They would have to wait another ten years.

In 2000, “The Beatles:1” showcasing 27 of the group’s biggest hits remastered in the fashion of “Yellow Submarine.” It seems obvious these songs were part of the same project as no other Beatle remasters were issued until September 9th of 2009. In 2006, “Love,” a remix project by Sir George Martin and his son Giles was released to accompany the Cirque De Soleil performance act celebrating the music of the Beatles. The Martins’ remix of “Come Together” was astounding, the rest of the material interesting yet fun curiosities. DJ’s had been mashing the Beatles with other artists for a decade at this point, one of the best being a mash-up of the “Revolver” album called “Revolved” and a mash album of the Beatles and Beastie Boys. Unlike artists such as Prince, Dave Matthews or Metallica, the Beatles never chose to take any legal action against those who used their music without copyright authority. In fact, it seems after forty years of Beatles bootlegs, the Fabs encourage the proliferation of their material as much as possible. The refuse to license their music to Steve Job’s iTunes empire, yet one can easily find many Beatle fanatics who have every BBC Radio session track, rare live performances, outtakes and videos. Before there was any idea of file-sharing, the Beatles understood more than any other rock act except for Bruce Springsteen, that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Some astute readers may have noticed that Elvis Presley has been left out of this essay. The simple reason the “King of Rock and Roll” is not experiencing the same popular resurgences as the Beatles is the majority of Presley’s recorded material has been released. They are contained in gigantic box sets released by RCA Records. Elvis’ complete recordings, outtakes and live have been available for a decade. Bear in mind Elvis was largely a studio singer after he returned from the army and he never wrote his own material, making fifteen takes of any song kinda redundant. Elvis was the singer, other people (Leiber and Stoller in the early years) wrote his material. Session musicians performed it. Session musicians, by their occupation, are paid to play a song as presented to them. There is no “working it out” in the studio. Elvis Presley’s Complete 50’s, 60’s and 70’s box sets are well worth looking into and purchasing. To do the same with the Beatles would require a truckload of CD’s or a massive hard drive. Many of the Beatles’ songs changed drastically during recordings whereas Presley’s did not. His Sun recordings and the 50’s box set show an artist involved with his material. After that, hidden gems are hard to find. From their onset of superstardom, the Beatles kept a close lid on their mystique, knowing as long as your name is mentioned in the media, general interest is rises and so will sales of the music.

September 9th will see the release of “Beatles Rock Band” and the long anticipated remastering of their British albums. The hype has been massive and by all inspection the game looks great. It even has new unreleased “Beatle-chatter” from Abbey Road Studio. Why should any Beatlemanic forgo this new – yet not so new release? I have several reasons for my apathy and angst towards the Fab Four’s new invasion into my wallet. In my life, I have purchase four copies of the “White Album:” the original, numbered press and a reissue on vinyl, the cassette and the CD. I’ve forked over my cash for “Sgt. Pepper,”, “ Magical Mystery Tour,” and “Abbey Road” three times: vinyl, cassette and CD. “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” twice: cassette and CD. I think I’ve paid to what amounts to a lifetime subscription for these recordings. Yet the Beatles 2009 remasters will be issued in two separate sets: one stereo, one mono, adding two more to the ever-expanding Beatle empire. Add “Beatles Rock Band” to the equation, which in addition to the 45 songs included in the game, promises to offer complete album downloads after its release. If I buy all the new “White Albums” in addition to the ones I already own, my “White Album” purchases would amount to seven. I really think this is all too much. Beatles, I’m not a rich man. Won’t you please, please help me understand why you need so much of my cash?

There is no doubt the release of the video game and the CD’s will generate interest in the Beatles, especially for those who are younger and have not heard the music in the same way previous generations have. They can take their ticket to ride to an era which may never be equaled in terms of ability, evolution and success. Enjoy it, please. Buy the game and search for your own Yoko Ono. For me and many other Beatles fans, we’re just waiting for the next revelation. No artist in history, be it poets, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers or musicians, have given so much yet held so much back within them. “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Let It Be” have yet to be released on DVD. The “Get Back” album, along with the complete rooftop performance, the last live concert the Beatles performed, has not been released in its entirety. The original Beatles U.S. records are still longed for by those who grew up with the band, yet this longing to recapture a significant portion of their youth has gone unfulfilled. The complete Shea Stadium and Tokyo concerts are still in the vaults, waiting for new fans to see the live phenomenon of the Beatles. The great promo films still sit there, too, marking a band aware of their impact of a T.V. audience and a means of making a song much more than just a song. The kiddie animated cartoon is still guarded by top Liverpool men, wanting to tell you why the psychedelic songs don’t fit the black suits and bowl haircuts. The Beatles leave us their loving, but scatter our desires of understanding them across their universe. They may have given us the love they made, but they continue to want us to spend our money so bad. As the 21st Century unfolds, Beatlemania, no matter how phony, will never bite the dust.

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