Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Beatles - Past Masters (1988, 2009)

When the Beatles' original British catalog was issued globally in 1987 on compact disc, a recording format created primarily for long play, the question of what to do with the 33 tracks that had not been originally included on a U.K. Beatles album (or on Magical Mystery Tour, an American compilation added to the CD issues at the last minute) had to be answered.  (Most of these 33 songs were released only as singles in the U.K.; the Beatles, like most British groups of their time, kept singles and albums as separate from each other as possible in their home country.)  Beatles producer George Martin had been adamantly opposed to including these 33 recordings as bonus tracks on corresponding albums ("I Feel Fine" and "She's A Woman" on Beatles For Sale, for example) because it would have destroyed the history of the group's U.K. releases. So EMI solved the problem by releasing these tracks as two separate CDs - each called Past Masters, presented as volumes one and two - in 1988, re-issuing them as a double CD compilation in 2009.
This compilation was strictly meant to gather together all of the Beatles' non-album tracks in one place, but it's actually more than that.  While Past Masters contains many of the Beatles' greatest hits, it is not a greatest-hits album - many of the songs here are B-sides and extended-play tracks, in fact.  It is, though, a strong sampler of their music that, with the exception of the sprawling 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 compilations, shows how the Beatles evolved and improved over the course of their recording career better than any other collection.  It begins with the alternate recording of "Love Me Do" featuring Ringo Starr on drums - more primitive and rough than the commonly available version featuring the late Andy White on drums - and continues with the their successive singles, each one - "From Me To You," "She Loves You," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and so on - displaying more assured playing and singing and more adventurous chord changes.  By the time you get to "We Can Work It Out," a hopeful song with an impatient organ riff, and "Paperback Writer," a hurried rocker about the pulp-fiction trade, the arrangements are far removed from how the Beatles played as a Liverpool pub band.  "Hey Jude," the majestic 1968 single that topped the Billboard singles chart in America for nine weeks, reaches a pinnacle of artistic ambition that subsequent singles like "Get Back" and "The Ballad Of John and Yoko" (the latter a humorous account of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's honeymoon) keep up with less complicated but still compelling music.
The other tracks on Past Masters are interesting not only for their obscurity but for their own sense of artistic daring as well; two German-language recordings of their own songs for the West German market provide the best argument for the Beatles as "world music," while the covers from the 1964  Long Tall Sally EP (which is presented here in its entirety, with the songs in the same sequence) show how they could make a Little Richard or Carl Perkins song their own.  (Also noteworthy is the only Lennon-McCartney original from that EP, the ska-based "I Call Your Name.")  Paul McCartney's lead vocal on "Long Tall Sally" is one of  finest rock and roll vocals ever, and his similar delivery on the B-side "I'm Down," a Little Richard pastiche, demonstrates his commitment to rock and roll as a form of release.
Speaking of B-sides, the Beatles' B-sides, most of which were already known in America as album tracks, are appreciated here anew as songs that stand on their own, and not just the raw rock of "Revolution" but also the inventiveness of "Rain" and the Indian-flavored "The Inner Light" and the Motown-style harmonies of "This Boy."  The latter song was only released as an album track in the United States but as a B-side elsewhere; that it was only a B-side outside the U.S. and was such a perfect song shows how much the Beatles were devoted to making every track they recorded as good as their A-sides.  (Past Masters ends with their comedy B-side to "Let It Be," "You Know My Name [Look Up the Number]," a slice of oddball British humor that had been overlooked for years.)  The other tracks - a cover of Larry Williams' "Bad Boy" recorded for an American album, an alternate mix of "Across The Universe" for an environmental charity album issued in Britain - buttress the case for Beatles as prime innovators.  Past Masters, with hits and oddities living side by side and obscurities getting their due in a proper, chronological context, conveniently amasses these 33 songs for completists all right, but it also shows how the Beatles were always innovating.  Even when they weren't making a grand statement with an LP, they were still changing popular music one song at a time.
(This is my last Sunday record review for awhile; I need another break.)

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