Friday, 5 June 2009

News, Views and Music Issue 34 (Top Five): Top Outtakes and Rarities Sets

And now, it’s time for a top five. Rarity sets are becoming a bit of a rarity these days, but back about 10-20 years ago they were all the rage. This week we look at the five best out-takes/ unreleased rarities albums featuring AAA groups. And not a bastardised rejigged Beatles Anthology record in sight…

5) Jefferson Airplane “Early Flight” (1973). Highlight: High Flyin’ Bird (the Grace Slick version,) which was a live favourite but somehow never made it to any of the classic early Airplane records.

Back in 1973, we thought we’d seen the last of the Jefferson Airplane – temporarily as it turned out, thanks to their transmogrification into the Jefferson Starship. So when RCA stuck out this low-key out-takes set, we thought it might be a final goodbye – and in truth it probably would have been a finer farewell than most of the Starship records to follow. This nine-song set rounds up both sides of a flop single (Grace’s venomous Nixon-bashing ‘Mexico’ – Go Gracey! -and one of Paul Kantner’s finest sci-fi songs ‘Have You Seen The Saucers?’), a lengthy bluesy studio jam (‘Up Or Down’) and six out-takes from the first two Airplane albums, ‘Takes Off!’ and ‘Surrealistic Pillow’. And very fine they are too – Skip Spence’s song ‘JPP McStep Blues’ is easily his best song (his eccentric work with Moby Grape included), ‘Runnin’ Round This World’ is one of the key Airplane songs from their earliest days (but banned when radio networks took a dislike to the line ‘the nights I’ve spent with you have been fantastic trips’) and best of all is ‘High Flyin’ Bird’, with Slick’s and Marty Balin’s vocals soaring into the sky…The only downside is how short this whole album is (33 minutes – and the worst two tracks fill up around 12 minutes’ worth of the playing time).

4) Beach Boys “Endless Harmony” (1998). Highlight: it’s a close flight between the glorious Brian Wilson-sung demo of ‘Break Away’ (one of the finest Beach Boys singles, whatever the poor sales tell you), Brian’s understated demo for ‘Sail Plane Song’, the all-out harmony fest that’s ‘Soulful Old Man Sunshine’ and Dennis Wilson’s gorgeous piano paean to his wife ‘Barbara’.

There had already been an impressive haul of 40-odd unreleased songs, out-takes and alternate mixes on the 5 CD Beach Boys box-set – and a further 50-odd rarities on the later 2CD out-takes set ‘Hawthorne California’, but it’s this middle single CD set that contains the best unreleased Beach Boys tracks. The CD was the companion to a so-so documentary about the band but thankfully refuses to go down the Anthology route (no re-jigged alternate takes spliced together as the band certainly never intended and no spoken word sections) although it would have been nice to go down the Monkees route (lots of volumes with lengthy running times of all unknown songs, instead of several not-that-different-really remixes and far too many dodgy live tracks). For all it’s faults, though, many of the unreleased tracks here are superior to most of the songs the Beach Boys did release in their lifetime and it’s a joy especially to hear the Wilson brothers playing their own instruments on particular demoes rather than the often over-polished mid-70s material. As you can tell by the list above, there’s an awful lot of gems to savour – although there are, too, quite a few tracks that should have remained in the vaults (with the completely false song ‘Brian Is Back’ the worst of all – what was Mike Love thinking? This is his cousin he’s talking about for crying out loud! And how on earth did he persuade Carl Wilson to sing lead on it?!)  

3) The Who “Odds and Sods” (1974).Highlight: On original LP version – “Glow Girl”, a breakthrough Townshend composition that did in two-and-a-half minutes what it took Tommy 75 minutes to say and the stunning ‘Who’s Next’ out-take ‘Pure and Easy’, one of the classiest Who songs of all. On CD version – add the Quadrophenia out-take ‘We Close Tonight’, a classic song about jazz record collectors showing off their wares to impress girls they’re too scared to speak to!

This project was designed to mark time between Who Records ‘Quadrophenia’ and ‘Who By Numbers’, to cover both Townshend’s second nervous breakdown and the amount of time the band were spending getting the ‘Tommy’ film as right as they could (well, as right as they could with Oliver Reed trying to sing all the way through it). This set was compiled by John Entwistle from old tapes spanning back to the band’s very first recordings (the hilariously posy ‘I’m The Face’ when the band were The High Numbers; it’s actually a lot better than people think if not as distinguished as The Who’s later recordings) up to an abandoned killing time EP that should have come out in 1973 (with the hilarious ‘I’m A Farmer’ and ‘Postcard’ and stage favourites ‘Naked Eye’ and ‘Water’). The fact that Townshend had songs as strong as all of these unreleased is a testament to his creativity – but then The Who released less records in the sixties than most bands (one LP a year and three singles, as opposed to five albums a year and six singles as The Beach Boys did). The CD issue is better still, doubling the album’s length with only a marginal dip in quality – and as a bonus, you get Townshend’s hilarious sleeve notes, rubbishing the group, rubbishing his songwriting, rubbishing his fanbase for collecting such rubbish – and still he comes over as proud and justly arrogant. As only Pete Townshend can.

2) The Hollies “Rarities” (1988). Highlights: Allan Clarke’s moving ‘Sanctuary’, the storming single-that-never-was ‘Carrie’ and Graham Nash’s farewell quartet from 1968: ‘Relax’, ‘Tomorrow When It Comes’, ‘Like Everytime Before’ and ‘Wings’. What an album that could have been!  

The Hollies, on the other-hand, worked their socks off during the 1960s, so how they had this many classic tracks from the 60s and 70s left over I’ll never know. Consistency was never really a Hollies trademark in the same way as it was for the Beatles and others (nearly every album has something dodgy, up until ‘Butterfly’ at least) – on the otherhand, this out-takes set is about the most consistently excellent Hollies album there is. The harmonies are tight, the songwriting top notch and the much derided rhythm section of first Eric Haydock and then Bernie Calvert with Bobby Elliott sound magnificent. And Allan Clarke’s vocals shine on this album like never before (except for one track where the under-rated Mickael Rickfors shines instead). This nicely lengthy album (17 tracks, 50 odd minutes) was a wonderful surprise when it came out and only five of the songs here had ever been heard before and only two in the UK or US – a French-language version of ‘Look Through Any Window, a Germany-only B-side ‘Like Everytime Before’, a UK-only B-side ‘Open Up Your Eyes’, the non-album film soundtrack song ‘After The Fox’ (one of the best Peter Sellers films – see it if you can just to see how the music fits the plot) and the glorious ballad ‘Wings’, donated to the Spike Milligan Animal Charity LP ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My World’ where it overshadowed everything else on the record (the Fabs’ ‘Across The Universe’ included). The only downside – why on earth is the CD programmed the way it is? Most out-takes sets are chronological, but this one is reverse-chronological, starting in 1988 and ending up in 1965, with all the earlier Nash-era material on the second side and all the post-Nash later material on the first.

1) The Monkees “Missing Links Two” (1990). Highlights: the original TV version of ‘Valleri’ (see above), the psychedelic early version of ‘Words’, Davy’s second-best song ‘Changes’, a very moody and melodramatic alternate version of ‘Mr Webster’ and the traditional carol ‘Riu Chiu’, with the best Monkees harmonies on record (if you thought the TV version was impressive – and it was – it’s got nothing on this alternate studio take!)


The list of plus points in Rhino’s series of Monkees out-takes CDs just goes on and on. Before they finished with volume three in the mid-1990s (with a good five volumes’ worth left in the vaults should they wish to release them), the record company had found no less than four hours of unreleased Monkees – and they’re practically all wonderful and certainly all unreleased or very very different to the finished recordings. We talked above how ridiculous the Monkees’ work load was – and they probably recorded just as much unreleased material as they did released. Although the first volume was a bit of a drag (too many overworked Davy Jones ballads and not enough out-takes featuring songs we know and love), the other two are excellent – this second volume wins only by a short nose. The highlights of these sets are nearly always the alternate versions – tracks recorded for the first six or so Monkees albums featured in their original versions (mainly intended for the first two LPs but left off because competition between songwriters was so tight). None of them are particularly better than their later recordings but they’re all just as good and the differences between them just go on and on. We also get some of the most important Monkees recordings of all – the ones featured in the TV series soundtrack and never seen again – which were almost as integral to the band’s relationship with their audience as the ‘Clarksville’ and two ‘Believer’ songs they plugged every other week. Finally, whoever came up with the great series name deserves a medal or at least a raise – it doesn’t just have Monkee-like connotations, it was the name of Micky Dolenz’s first ever band prior to his Monkee recordings and is such a clever Monkees-ish pun. Oh boy, when will those be coming out? Please tell me there’s a missing links four in the works… 

Well, that’s all for now. We’ll see you next week when, hopefully, we’ll be back online again!

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