Beatles albums – Rated

This was written as a response to an email from my son Rob a few years ago. He had been discovering the Beatles’ music, partly on his own, and partly due to the release at that time of Beatles RockBand, an interactive videogame he and his friends were obsessed with. His question was posed innocently, without any sense of how seriously I take things like this. Although, growing up in our house, he should have known better!

On Oct 16, 2009, at 5:11 AM, Robert Frenay wrote:

Out of curiosity, since I know all of them pretty well now – which is your favorite Beatles album?

Rob

Do you have any idea how hard that is for me to answer? If you don’t remember, or if you never heard me tell it, my intro to the Beatles was this.

They landed in America on my 11th birthday, February 7, 1964. They were coming to play live on the Ed Sullivan Show and their landing at the airport in NYC was covered on the evening news. It was a really big deal. AM radio had been playing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” non-stop on the radio for weeks and every kid I knew was way primed to actually see them live on TV. 

I got Meet The Beatles for my birthday that day and played it non-stop while waiting for Sunday night to come. I’ve talked with so many musicians who are roughly my age, and have similar stories about how seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan changed the course of their lives, and I definitely share that. After I saw them on TV, I was hooked. After two weeks of constant pestering, my Mom borrowed a guitar from a family friend and I started guitar lessons. By the following fall, at age 12, I was already good enough on guitar to appear at a school assembly singing “Eight Days A Week” live in front of the entire school body, wearing a Beatle wig, no less. The die was cast. I was always the kid with the guitar. If you look at my high school yearbook from ’71 – 7 years later – nearly everyone who signed my yearbook mentioned my guitar and music. Much like you, with film, and Nick, with his trumpet, I found my calling very early on, and it all started with the Beatles.  And because the albums were coming out as I was growing up, from age 11 to 17, each one hit me at a different stage in my young life, and as I was changing, they were, too. So, it’s very difficult for me to be really objective about the records. But with a 40+ year distance from when I first heard and loved them, I’ll try.

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Please Please Me – This was actually the second album I heard. First Meet The Beatles, then this, although it was called Introducing The Beatles on Vee Jay Records. This was essentially their live act at the time, recorded all in one day, with Lennon’s throat-tearing rendition of Twist & Shout saved for last. These songs were all huge to me at the time and I didn’t really differentiate between the originals and the covers. Now I look back and see that only eight of the songs were their own, but still love the album. It still sounds fresh, years later, and utterly charming. (rating 8)

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With The Beatles – Most of this was on Meet The Beatles, with the rest of it being saved for The Beatles Second Album in the US. Meet The Beatles, also had the US single of I Want To Hold Your Hand b/w I Saw Her Standing There, and b-side This Boy added to it, and I like that better than this. Again, only 8 songs of their own, but a bit more time in the studio than the last one, so the sound is a little more fleshed out. That said, of the two, Please Please Me, still gets the nod over this. (rating 7)

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A Hard Day’s Night – Soundtrack to the legendary film and their first all-original album. This, more than any other, is the definitive Beatles album of my youth. While the film perfectly crystallizes their early appeal, the album is their best from the period (1962 – 1965) when they were still a touring band. In the US, we only got 8 of these songs, mixed with some George Martin soundtrack songs that were instrumental versions of some of the same songs. This is just great from beginning to end, the quintessential early-Beatle record. (rating 9)

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Beatles For Sale –  This was their third album of 1964. Think about that. What band, in 2009, could do that? They were on the road non-stop, and this was squeezed in between commitments, thus the only Beatles LP with more covers, than originals, 8 to 6.  The recording is more mature and textured, with acoustic guitars and pianos now being featured as much as their usual electric sound, but still, it seems a bit rushed in retrospect.  The highlights are John’s I’m A Loser and No Reply (with their greatest-ever bridge!), and Paul’s I’ll Follow The Sun, which he reportedly wrote years earlier, when he was 15. The covers are all good, but only six originals brings this one down. I DO think that McCartney’s vocal on Kansas City, is maybe the greatest rock & roll vocal ever! Really. (rating 6)

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Help! –  A substandard film and a substandard album. Just not as many really great songs on this. Of course, the version I grew up with, had five soundtrack instrumentals mixed in, so it was a very different album. The addition of McCartney’s most famous song, Yesterday, is certainly notable, but, maybe because the movie seems pretty lame to me now (see my review at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/paul-mccartney-we-believe-in-yesterday/), these songs just don’t hold up as well as the songs on A Hard Day’s Night. (rating 7)

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Rubber Soul – This is at the top of a lot of people’s lists as favorite Beatles album. There’s something so perfect about it. It’s more acoustic in nature, and the writing is more mature and thoughtful, but the production has yet to go in the experimental direction they would pursue on Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and the rest. Lennon is still the strongest songwriter here, as he is on most of the early records, with some of his greatest songs; Norwegian Wood, In My Life, Nowhere Man and Girl.  I love 12 of the 14 songs (excepting What Goes On & The Word) and still perform nearly all of these songs. A near-perfect record. (rating 9.5)

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Revolver – This is also often rated as their greatest album, and certainly a case can be made for that. It’s definitely Harrison’s strongest record yet, with three songs, and the lead track with Taxman. McCartney has called Here, There & Everywhere, his favorite Beatles song, and with Got To Get You Into My Life, Eleanor Rigby, For No One & Good Day Sunshine, this could be the first record where you could honestly say that he outshines Lennon. A lot is made of the experimental nature of Tomorrow Never Knows, but I never liked it. Not really big on She Said, She Said, either. This is much more of a McCartney record for me, with some of my very favorite songs of his. (rating 9)

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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – For decades afterwards, people would refer to great records as “the Sgt. Pepper of the 70’s”….or 80’s, or whatever. It was the loftiest praise possible, because it was largely considered to be the greatest album by rock’s greatest band. It was the benchmark everything else was measured against. It blew me away when I was a kid. I was 14 when Uncle Bob brought this home from college in the summer of ’67. It was – believe it or not – the first album to have the lyrics printed on the jacket and I can still remember sitting with the album in my hands at Grandma’s house, reading the lyrics as I listened to the songs for the first time. The orchestration, the sounds, the arrangement, even the topics of the songs, were just light years beyond anything else at the time that it was truly groundbreaking. In MOJO Magazine’s issue that surveyed for the 100 greatest Beatles songs among other musicians and experts, A Day In The Life was #1. But 40 years on, this album hasn’t aged as well with me. I think, other than A Day In The Life, John’s contributions aren’t so strong, Paul’s songs on Revolver were better, although I do love She’s Leaving Home, and the best song might be the Ringo track. Pepper was an amazing step in the band’s growth and evolution, but I don’t think it’s their greatest record anymore. (rating 9)

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Magical Mystery Tour –  This isn’t really a fair comparison, because when this came out in England, in the wake of disastrous reviews of the film, it wasn’t even an album; it was a fold out package of two 7-inch singles (EP’s, actually) with just the 6 songs from the movie on it. In the US, they added three singles (and their b-sides) to fill out the second side and make it an album. That said, the album takes on the nature of a mini-greatest hits album. For a band that had stopped including their singles on their albums after Help!, this one had four big hits!  So, bad film, really good album. (rating 8.5)

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The White Album – It’s always said that if you made this a single album, it would’ve been their greatest record, but I don’t really buy that. Certainly there is more waste on this than any other two Beatles albums combined, but that’s not the real problem. They were so fractured as a band during these sessions, that most tracks were treated like solo recordings – with the song’s writer calling all the shots on how to produce and finish the track – and the fighting grew so intense that long-time engineer Geoff Emerick quit, rather than endure any more of the bickering. Stylistically, it’s all over the place, with no real sense of concept or cohesion. That said, of course there are many highlights, especially the acoustic ballads, I Will, Blackbird, Julia & Mother Nature’s Son. Lennon seems content to contribute mostly novelty songs and ragged blues numbers (excepting Cry Baby Cry, Sexy Sadie & Dear Prudence, all of which I love), while McCartney is left to try to give some commercial voice to the proceedings with Martha, Ob-La-Di, Birthday & Back In The USSR. How odd is it that  the two most enduring highlights of an album with 30 songs, are George’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Ringo’s lovely Goodnight? I loved it at the time, but this one really hasn’t worn as well with me over the years. (rating 8)

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Yellow Submarine – With only four new Beatles’ songs and and an entire side of orchestral soundtrack music, this is easily the weakest album in their catalog. Hey Bulldog is a great Lennon track, maybe his last great Beatles rocker, but the rest are forgettable. I always liked the George Martin tracks, especially Pepperland, and I love the film, but a better bet for an audio version of that film is the 1999 Songtrack that was released along with the DVD version of the film. That album wisely features all of the songs featured in the film, like Nowhere Man, Eleanor Rigby, Sgt. Pepper and Lucy In The Sky, and makes for a better listen, even though it does feel like somewhat of a retread. (rating 5)

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Let It Be – The concept was a good one. The Beatles hadn’t toured in years, they were barely speaking anymore and clearly needed direction. McCartney’s idea to “Get Back” to being a band like they were in the early days was good on paper, but failed miserably in execution. Choosing to rehearse and record in a large, cold film studio (Twickenham) with camera’s rolling and Yoko constantly at John’s side, the project was more or less doomed from the start. It was only when they retreated to their own studio and brought in session piano player Billy Preston, they were able to salvage anything out of the whole experience. McCartney’s songs, Let It Be, Get Back, Two Of Us, and the gorgeous Long & Winding Road are clearly the heart of the album with Lennon’s only contributions being the disjointed – and incomprehensible – I Dig A Pony, and Across The Universe which was a leftover track from two years before. By the time they’d played the last note of the legendary rooftop concert (that is the hands-down highlight of an ultimately depressing film), no one wanted anything to do with the tracks.  So….they were handed over to Phil Spector, one-time producer/auteur whose only shot at producing the Beatles was trying to polish up tracks they had abandoned. The results were not good, with Spector smearing orchestras, choirs and odd percussion around at will, and only succeeding in smoothing over all of the raw edges that McCartney had wanted, as their way back to being a viable band again. The best way to experience these tracks is with Let It Be…Naked, the 2003 remix of the original. All signs of Phil Spector have been removed and Lennon’s plaintive Don’t Let Me Down has been added. The sound is astoundingly better and it seems like much more of a serious record. Let It Be (rating 6)  Let It Be…Naked (rating 7.5)

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Abbey Road –  By this time, they knew they were done, but wanted to go out on a high note after the sour taste left in everyone’s mouth by the whole Let It Be/Get Back fiasco. Longtime producer George Martin, who had washed his hands of the band after the Get Back project, agreed to produce on the condition that they do it the old way, at Abbey Road studio, with him producing and arranging. By all accounts, they were all on their best behavior throughout, and the results are strikingly different from the previous three albums. Abbey Road was a landmark album when it came out. We didn’t know it was the end at that time, but what a way to go out!  Remember that albums, unlike CD’s, were two sided, and the second side of Abbey Road was long considered the greatest side of music every recorded. Assembled by McCartney after Lennon had more or less signed off of the album, side 2 features only 3 “finished” songs (the first three), then combines 8 unfinished songs into one long medley to close out the side, and their career, ultimately, with The End. It’s a magnum opus, and a perfect ending. Too bad, then, that Let It Be actually came out after Abbey Road, and was thought for years to be the last word. I still love side 2, but have soured somewhat on side 1. I think George has the two greatest songs on the album with Something & Here Comes The Sun, but I’ve gradually grown less fond of Maxwell, Oh Darling and – especially – I Want You/She’s So Heavy. So, great side 2, great career ending, but not my favorite album anymore. (rating 8.5)

Final ratings

Rubber Soul 9.5

A Hard Day’s Night 9

Revolver 9

Sgt. Pepper 9

Abbey Road 8.5

Magical Mystery Tour 8.5

White Album   8

Please Please Me   8

Let It Be…Naked 7.5

Help! 7

With The Beatles 7

Beatles For Sale 6

Yellow Submarine 5

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The other thing to consider is the Past Masters collection(s), that gather all of the singles that didn’t end up on albums. For years, they treated albums and singles as separate entities. When you see that some of their greatest songs, She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, I Feel Fine, Paperback Writer/Rain, Lady Madonna & Hey Jude, aren’t on any album, it really blows your mind. Most bands go an entire career without songs that good, and The Beatles did them all, on top of all those classic albums. An embarrassment of riches? You bet! 

I’m really psyched to see your interest in all of this. While I’ve always felt that they were the greatest band, I know I’m biased because they were of my time. I never really expect later generations to feel the same way, but am thrilled that their albums keep finding new life. I think the RockBand thing helps, but is only part of it. There’s something so universal about their music that seems to keep resonating over each successive decade. Pretty amazing, really. 

Beach Boys – Today

Against my own better judgement, but acknowledging that these guys aren’t gonna be around forever, I plunked down good money this week ($80+) and went to the Turning Stone Casino in Oneida, NY to see the “Mike & Bruce” Beach Boys.

I’m well-known among my Beach Boys’ friends as a Mike Love detractor, if not full-on hater. It’s hard to forget, much less forgive his Hall of Fame speech, and his comment to the press in ’88 about “who has the #1 song in the country,” (comparing Kokomo to Brian’s then-newly-issued first solo album). And I’ve always held him personally responsible (post-Endless Summer) for his ham-fisted direction of the band as essentially an oldies act, spewing the same surf/sun/car mantra year after year while eschewing the more creative side of the band that had flowered in the early-70s.

Other than the 50th anniversary tour in 2012, I had not seen a Mike-led Beach Boys show since the 70’s. And I had no intention of doing so (I HAVE, however, seen Brian & his band 5 times since 2000, with tickets now in hand for my sixth, July 2 in Boston). But again, I’m painfully aware that there will be a day when we won’t be able to see ANY of these guys anymore, and that made me look at things in a different way. I also must admit that, being the big indie pop fan that I am (I’m a founding member of the power pop band, The Flashcubes), I was psyched to see Jeff Foskett and John Cowsill, not to mention Randell Kirsch, all of whom I own CDs by, sharing the stage.

There’s a Gin Blossoms’ song that says, “If you don’t expect too much of me, you might not be let down.” And maybe that’s why I liked this show so much. I went with very few expectations. I had seen plenty of YouTube videos of Mike & Bruce, and was generally underwhelmed with their presentation and execution. But then, of course, that was before Jeff Foskett entered the picture. The band I saw two nights ago, was top-notch in every way. One hit after another, performed flawlessly, with every harmony in place.

Mike kept the stage patter to a minimum (only one geriatric-toned quip about needing a nap), and let the music do the talking. The vocals were spread around, with Jeff nailing Darlin,’ Don’t Worry Baby and every Brian-falsetto part; John soaring on Help Me Rhonda; new member Brian Eichenberger (replacing Kirsch) doing a beautiful version of Then I Kissed Her; and Bruce Johnston sounding positively ageless on Disney Girls, Wendy and Do You Wanna Dance. Mike, of course handled the rest. And he was in very good voice throughout.

Instrumentally, this band doesn’t have the range of Brian’s band (who features real horns, woodwinds, strings, vibes, harmonica and creative percussion), but keyboardist Tim Bonhomme did a great job of approximating most of the sounds on all the Beach Boys’ great singles. And John Cowsill alone is worth the price of admission: a sensational drummer who drives the band with fire and power you just don’t expect to see in a band led by two septuagenarians.

The set was, of course, nothing but the early hits. In fact, the only two songs that were NOT pre-1965, and did not in some way evoke Mike’s surf/sun/car oldies-ethos (Kokomo, Rock & Roll Music, Goin’ To The Beach & Getcha Back ALL most certainly do) were Darlin’ (a real highlight) & Mike’s George Harrison tribute, Pisces Brothers (which I could’ve done without). I have seen online that recent sets have included Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring and Wild Honey (I would LOVE to have heard either or both), but I think those only appear at two-set theater shows, not the one long 35-song set that I saw.

But at this point in time, it would be hard to argue with Mike’s choice of repertoire. His is not the hipster crowd that finds and falls in love with Brian’s music (let’s call us Brian’s True Believers), generation after generation. This is John & Jane Walmart from Anytown, USA, and they come for the hits. And the Beach Boys have more than anyone.

So I really enjoyed the show, and found a new measured respect for Mike & Bruce. And when, during the penultimate romp through Barbara Ann, they came out front and danced in lockstep across the the stage like two old vaudevillians, I smiled. Like Statler & Waldorf – those two wisecracking Muppet curmudgeons – they seemed genuinely likable.

They are “keeping the summer alive” as the song said, and on a cold, dreary Tuesday night in upstate NY, a sold-out Casino crowd of 800 people left, warmed and fulfilled.

Hello friends!

I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. After going back to school in my 50’s, and earning a degree in magazine journalism (with honors!) from Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University,  I have craved a place to share my stories and long-term musings on music, film and life. As I progress with this, I’ll add new pieces, and feature older ones that have never had a home online. I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you, and hearing what you think.

Gary Frenay   Syracuse, NY (April 2015)