Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Phil Spector and Let It Be

Let's leave aside, for the duration of this post, the sorry end to the Phil Spector story, and the even sorrier end of the actress Lana Clarkson, who was unfortunate enough to run across the self-styled greatest record producer of all time.

Until that incident, Spector was probably most notorious for his role in the making (or unmaking, in Paul McCartney's eyes) of the Beatles' Let It Be album. Before he became involved, engineer Glyn Johns had prepared three different running orders and mixes for what was then proposed to be the Get Back album. The Beatles unanimously rejected all three.

Meanwhile, work on the Get Back film continued through the final months of 1969 and into 1970. It was Allen Klein, ironically enough, who encouraged Messrs. McCartney, Harrison and Starkey to regroup one last time in January 1970, to tart up 'Let It Be' as a potential single (and soon enough, album/film title as well), and to record 'I Me Mine', which was heard in the film but hadn't been properly recorded during the tortuous January 1969 sessions.

And it was Klein who suggested that Phil Spector, who had just produced John Lennon's 'Instant Karma' single in magnificent style, should be asked to go back through the January 1969 tapes, and assemble a suitable soundtrack album for the movie. Despite what you've read elsewhere, all four Beatles authorised that decision.

Spector set to work, mixing here, snipping tape there, and ultimately recruiting both Ringo Starr and an orchestra to work on several tracks - including McCartney's song, 'The Long And Winding Road'. Why wasn't Paul there at the session? Because both he and John were so sick of the project that they had agreed to let George and Ringo supervise what Spector was doing. So it's true that Paul McCartney didn't know what Phil Spector was planning to do to 'The Long And Winding Road' (i.e. add an orchestra and choir); but only because he had chosen not to get involved.

When Spector's work was done, he rapidly assembled his mix of the Let It Be album, cut four acetate copies of the LP, and sent one apiece to each of the Beatles for their approval. The four musicians liaised with each other, and approved Spector's work. Only two weeks later, when the presses were already rolling, did Paul suddenly wake up and think, "Hang on a minute, I want to make some changes". But by then it was too late.

During the research for my book, I came across the original letter that Spector sent to the four Beatles. Rather than the authoritarian rant I was expecting, his note turned out to be extremely friendly. "If there is anything you'd like done to the album, let me know and I'll be glad to help", he wrote. "Naturally little things are easy to change, big things might be a problem. If you wish, please call me about anything regarding the album tonight." That's definitely the voice of compromise, rather than a control freak.

The schedule was tight because the film was imminent - and at that point we enter another saga, about the scheduling of Let It Be and the McCartney solo album, which aroused an argument that in turn provoked Paul to send out his famous 'interview' to the press suggesting that he was leaving the Beatles. But that's another issue. My point here is that far from acting like a tyrant, and refusing to communicate with Paul McCartney, Phil Spector did everything he could to ensure that all four Beatles approved of his work.

Spector made one more suggestion: the album shouldn't be titled Let It Be, but The Long And Winding Road, which is a clear indication that he realised the significance of McCartney's song. But by then the film was virtually complete, and everything was geared towards the project being titled Let It Be, so Spector's advice was ignored.

For what it's worth, I've always thought that Spector's version of Let It Be was artistically superior to the Glyn Johns mixes, and the Let It Be . . . Naked album issued a few years back. What it wasn't, of course, was a spontaneous, off-the-cuff representation of those January 1969 sessions - which is what Glyn Johns had delivered, and the Beatles didn't like. In later years, three of the Beatles went on record as saying that they preferred Spector's work, too. No prizes for guessing the identity of The Beatle Who Didn't Agree.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Imagine? No, Better Not

In the interests of widening my cultural horizons and engaging with modern pop culture, I've just been browsing through the multiple spin-off albums from the US TV series Glee (on Spotify). They were exactly what I'd expected from a bunch of enthusiastic stage-school kids: enthusiastic stage-school renditions of pop and AOR radio fodder, mostly from the 70s and 80s, sung with pizzazz and permanent smiles. My mum would probably like them, and you wouldn't leave if you heard them in a restaurant, as long as they weren't too loud.

All that pizzazz is dutifully channelled into a cover of the Beatles' 'Hello Goodbye'. Elsewhere the kids tackle a song of (arguably) more import: 'Imagine'. And imagine my surprise: the entire first verse, the one which asks people to envisage the non-existence of heaven, is (ironically enough) non-existent. As in 'omitted', or - not to beat about that cliched old bush - 'censored'. So remember, everybody: heaven exists, and so does hell. Don't even consider imagining anything else. And smile!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Gimme Some Truth

What would John Lennon have thought of the marketing campaign that is about to commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday? Like the other Beatles, he was scathing about almost all of the compilation albums that were issued by EMI and Apple, from A Collection Of Beatle Oldies in 1966 to Beatles Ballads in 1979. At the time of his death, he had issued only one collection of his solo hits, Shaved Fish in 1975, though his enthusiasm for the project was lukewarm. And all the Beatles prided themselves on their efforts to avoid exploiting their fans by squeezing hit singles out of existing albums (at least in Britain; elsewhere, they enjoyed much less control over what was issued in their name).

Since then, the music business has changed beyond recognition. I can't think of a single artist who has managed to avoid the numbing routine of greatest hits albums, more often than not accompanied by a rarity or two to entice loyal fans into purchasing music that they already own. The ethics of these releases are grasping and blatant. I noticed a prime example earlier today: the mono editions of all Bob Dylan's early albums are being released on CD for the first time, as an expensive boxed set, but the set doesn't include mono versions of singles released during the same period. There is, however, a compilation CD scheduled of the best of his mono recordings, which - surprise, surprise - includes one of those singles, and will therefore be bought by many of those who are also shelling out for the box. Marketing ploys like this are now so common, and so cynical, that they usually pass without comment.

And Lennon? For years, his catalogue was a mix of lousy CD reissues and pointless hits collections, until Yoko Ono and her engineers finally acknowledged the digital age and remastered his work, usually with relevant (if hardly mind-blowing) bonus tracks. There was the rarity-stuffed, though bizarrely sequenced, Anthology box set in the late 90s; and a couple of rather random collections of acoustic out-takes and political songs since then.

All of which pales alongside the commercial onslaught that is about to hit us: two box sets, yet another hits collection, and an extended two-disc revamp of his final official album. They line up like this:
SIGNATURE BOX: one album of out-takes (all of which look to be familiar from The Lost Lennon Tapes radio series and bootlegs, though I am happy to be corrected); another of non-LP singles (six tracks in all, without their Ono-inspired B-sides); and all of Lennon's original LPs from Plastic Ono Band in 1970 to the posthumous Milk & Honey set. Plus a book, new essays, forgive me for yawning. But no Live In New York City, no Menlove Avenue, no Acoustic, none of the bonus tracks from the existing CDs, none of the pre-1970 collaborations with Yoko Ono, and strangely no Live Peace In Toronto 1969, either (though the live half of Some Time In New York City is included). Who decided that Live Peace was no longer part of the Lennon catalogue, while Milk & Honey (half of which was recorded by Yoko after John's death) was? I think you know the answer. The cost of owning what you already own, plus one 'new' CD, is $189 or £137 - for a set that demonstrates everything I despise about the business of marketing 'classic rock'.
GIMME SOME TRUTH: a four-CD set of previously released John Lennon recordings, 'themed' (or thrown into the air and then sequenced randomly).
POWER TO THE PEOPLE: hooray - a hits album! Again!
DOUBLE FANTASY STRIPPED DOWN: the original album, plus new mixes prepared by the long-estranged team of Yoko Ono and Jack Douglas, demonstrating what the album might have sounded like if Lennon's artistic decisions from 1980 had been ignored.

We don't have to buy any of this product, which is no more manipulative or greedy than similar archive releases by other major artists from the 60s and 70s. (By contrast with some copyright-owners, Yoko Ono has been comparatively restrained, to be fair.) Realistically, nobody but a committed completist or a novice would be remotely interested in Gimme Some Truth or Power To The People. No doubt some people will buy the Signature Box as a 'tribute' to John, not realising that it's actually a tribute to the consumerist culture that Lennon did his best to undermine in the early 70s. And I confess that I will probably pick up a copy of the 'new' Double Fantasy, in the hope that I enjoy it more than I did Let It Be . . . Naked.

But I come back to where I started. What would John Lennon think of all this?

Paperback photo

In around four weeks, the UK paperback edition of You Never Give Me Your Money will be in the shops - price £9.99, ideal Christmas present for all the family, etc. etc.

The photograph on the front cover (top right, at the top of this blog) comes from the peerless collection of Sean O'Mahony, publisher of The Beatles Book monthly magazine between 1963 and 1969, and then from 1976 to 2001. (He was also the founder and publisher for more than 20 years of Record Collector, the magazine I edited for much of that period.)

The picture - which appeared on the back of the UK hardback, but wasn't featured in the US edition - doesn't fit the timeframe of the book, which is why I didn't think to suggest it as the cover shot for the hardback. But (in comic style) it summarises the theme of the book, and the central rift between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, so well that in retrospect we perhaps should have used it on all the different editions.

As l9yal readers of The Beatles Book will alreadly have recognised, the photo was taken on the streets of Notting Hill in West London, during the filming of A Hard Day's Night in spring 1964. Whether John and Paul were asked to adopt this pose by the photographer (Leslie Bryce) or O'Mahony, or whether it was their idea, we will never know. But neither man could ever have imagined that just five years later, the picture would symbolise the sorry state of the Lennon/McCartney relationship, and the fistfights would be for real.