Monday, 25 December 2017
Hello dear faithful readers and welcome to another summary of what was another turbulent year. We didn’t know what was going to happen next did we? Brexit, Mueller, ‘Who Built The Moon?’, it’s strange to thing that a year ago we didn’t really know what any of these weird phrases meant or what a role they would come to play in our lives, well Oasis fans anyway. It’s been a hazy crazy year without much structure or order and it’s been reflected in this year’s releases, which are a complete range of some of the best things any of the AAA crew have ever made in their entire lives – and some of the worst. In musical terms I guess it’s a return to the mid-1970s when everyone is desperate for something new to come along,l but no two can people can agree on what they want that something to be. Will 2018 be the year of punk? Was it dead by 1980?!? These are questions that may never be answered. Anyway back in ‘our’ timezone there has been a definite shift away from documentaries in this year’s issue and back to songs, mainly because there flipping weren’t any, so to reflect this we’ve altered our ratings slightly to cover the fact that we’re up 25% on music releases this year, 100% down on TV and radio programmes and 75% up on autobiographies. This will, I think, be seen as the year of the Oasis comeback, when the two Gallagher brothers split their fanbase like never before and of Neil Young, who released two ‘new’ albums this year and had a third released in the very dying days of 2016 (although, as usual, one of these ‘new’ albums should have come out forty odd years ago!) We’ve also seen a lot of surprises, such as the first Ray Davies release in over a decade and the first Roger Waters studio album in a quarter century, while at the other end of the spectrum this is David Crosby’s third album in five years and Cat Stevens’ second in two – a near-record release schedule even compared to their younger selves.
As for Alan’s Album Archives, it’s been a year of highs and lows. We’re edging ever nearer to the end of our ten-year-run of reviews with the 522nd and last review ready to be written later on tonight, though in ‘your’ timestream it should have come out last week (sob! I never thought we’d get here!) Admittedly there are new releases by Belle and Sebastian, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney announced for next year already and I would be most surprised if Neil Young hasn’t released another three by this time next year. Although this is the end, for now, we very much hope to keep this site updated and will continue to bring you new music as it continues to be released across the new year. Otherwise, though, the AAA is moving into a new stage of its existence with a series of regular ‘essays’ featuring a more long-term look at each of our thirty acts and coming soon a regular series looking at five key concerts and three key cover songs by each of our bands. That should take us halfway through the year – and then, if the stars are in alignment, Trump hasn’t blown us up yet and I haven’t turned fully monkeynuts, we might even have the first of our AAA books out. The bad news: I’m rather behind schedule thanks to another of those rollercoaster rides of a year that feels like a Grateful Dead live show from the late 1970s (ranging from sublime to ridiculous in seconds). The good news: I’m still just about ahead enough to keep to the schedule and actually have some nice things lined up for a change, so next year looks like being a good one. I’ll let you know in our review of the year 2018 if that turned out to be the case or not!
As ever with these end of year celebrations I’d like to pay tribute to several people who make this possible: my brilliant former flat mate and forever friend Stuart Gilbey, who was particularly excited at a Steps reunion this year, though he did scare me by suddenly posting Spice Girls links. Foxy Jeepster who provides daily hugs. My faithful friend Paul Jackson, whose encouragement has really kept this website on course during the past few difficult years. The magnificent Dave Emlen whose ‘Kinda Kinks’ website remains the single best place for Kinky news on the internet. My new friend Kenny Brown who is always so kind with re-posting links and even wrote a fantastic ‘guest post’ for our website earlier in the year (you can find the link at the bottom of the page!) My very wonderful friends BarnacleBum and SlackTV who have always been there with support and some truly mind-blowingly wonderful front covers. And my dearest Vicki, whose kept me laughing for six months now with tales of rejected girl power star Spoonie Spice, bootleg collector Hans and pie-throwing, none of which will mean anything to anyone else reading this message but which means the world to me! Thankyou all for being wonderful. And thankyou too dear reader, whoever you are wherever you are, for reading Alan’s Album Archives across 2017 whether this is your first post or whether you’ve been with us for decades now. You are very much appreciated – it would have been lonely without you!
1) Liam Gallagher “As You Were”
(Reviewed in full at https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/liam-gallagher-as-you-were-2017.html )
When we were poised for the first release b y both Beady Eye and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, I promised myself I wouldn’t ‘take sides’. After all, both Gallagher brothers are incredibly talented and both had as good a chance at either of making a name for themselves in their post-Oasis career. But as time goes on I become more and more unapologetic for supporting Liam. I loved Beady Eye –their debut is a mini-masterpiece – and worried that without Gem or Andy around Liam might struggle to fill a full album on his own, especially as no one in the Oasis fanbase seemed to be all that fussed about his music. That all changed spectacularly with the success of ‘As You Were Here’ which became the first AAA number one record since The Monkees reunion last year and led to some glowing reviews, including ours. Liam was the best writer of the final Oasis years by far and he’s continued to grow, even with his record label insisting he writes with some ‘heavy’ friends to get a ‘hit’. I was worried that we would be in for a generic Oasis by numbers LP, much like their last ‘Dig Out Your Soul’, but no: Liam is such a character his presence permeates everything and he sounds as if he’s enjoying growing old disgracefully. The sound has really moved on, including such gems as the psychedelic ‘Chinatown’ (see our lost of ‘songs of the year’ below), while he pours his heart out like never before on the guilt-ridden ‘For What It’s Worth’ and sounds oddly content with his lot in life on ‘I’ve All You Need’, the first Oasis-related song to be inspired by Yoko rather than John. The B-sides may well be the best thing in the set too, with a playful wink missing from the more serious pieces on the ‘main’ album. He also sings like a bird – thankfully not a High Flying one – and while his band sounded pretty darn awful live they sound great on record. This album ‘dances’ in a way even Beady Eye never quite managed and recalls early Oasis,lbut with a wiser, more sombre tone more in keeping with their later years. Liam hasn’t lost his humour either – super deluxe editions of the album come in black and white with special crayons so you can colour in those famous Gallagher eyebrows on the sleeve! (Be warned though, ‘The Who By Numbers’ did a similar trick and un-scribbled-on copies are now worth a mint!) It's not goodbye, so dry your eyes. Download: ‘Chinatown’ to hear Liam at his ‘new’ best and ‘I’ll Get By’ to hear him at his ‘old’ best!
2) Neil Young "The Visitor"
(Reviewed in full at https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/neil-young-and-promise-of-real-visitor.html)
I’ve been more critical of Neil’s new releases since the AAA started as even his biggest fans wouldn’t call the past decade a stellar moment in his career. ‘Please Neil’ we keep arguing, ‘stop releasing a record every year and rush-recording it whether you have the material or not!’ The last two records have seen a big improvement though, with the rage of ‘The Monsanto Years’ and the playfulness of ‘Peace Trail’ combining for a playful political album. This one doesn’t name names but it reeks of Trump: the smugness, the stupidity, the hypocrisy, why it practically comes in the colour of orange with silly hair (we threatened our website mascot if he didn’t behave we were going to buy him a ‘Trumpy Bear’ to keep an eye on him. He’s been very good since then. It won’t last…) Neil is well aware that he’s not strictly an American, starting the album by distancing himself from the carnage of 2017 (‘I’m Canadian by the way’ he begins the album with a jeer) and he is appalled that the country emigrants used to flock to for a better life now wants to kick them out. Neil is at his wicked best at times on this album, rebutting Trump’s claim to ‘make America great again’ by saying that ‘it’s already great!’, mocking Trump with his own words on a blues jam that intones ‘lock ‘em up!’ and taking off to goodness knows where for the Cowboy movie ‘Carnival’, in which Neil speaks of love as a highwire trapeze act and giggles like a hyena on psychedelics across the song. Best of all are two mournful ballads, ‘Change Of Heart’ which may well be Neil’s hippiest song, claiming that people can care about other people if they see enough sadness in the world and that it’s never too late to u-turn and the closing ‘Forever’ which takes a rambling look at a nation ready to pack in case things get worse, but not quite sure where to move to. The rest of the record is much more uneven, but being such a lengthy CD is less off-putting than on other latter-day Young albums that ramble even more than we at the AAA do. This is an album of cycles and ups and downs, where things are fragile and can easily go wrong but can always be put right again, recalling the Nixon-baiting ‘On The Beach’ from 1974 with its mixture of weary depression and teeth-bared attacks. It’s been a rotten year for politics, then – but a great one for political musicians like Neil. With more time for people to get writing will 2018 see a run of more anti-Trump albums like these? On this evidence let’s hope so! Download: ‘Change Of Heart’ ‘Forever’
3) Cat Stevens “The Laughing Apple”
(Reviewed in full at https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/cat-stevens-laughing-apple-2017.html )
In the ten years since making his comeback and our site reviewing his records Cat’s career has gone up and down like a yo-yo. First awful, then superb, then mind-numbingly awful, now Cat has gone back to being close to his comeback peak again. ‘The Laughing Apple’ is a fascinating album, full of re-recordings of unfinished or forgotten songs with a few new ones thrown in. It’s fascinating how closely the nineteen year old Cat of ‘New Masters’ sounds like his now seventy-year-old counterpart, how pre-occupied both are with ‘older’ issues and yet how childlike the imagery still is. Cat’s voice is deeper and he now sounds old and feeble enough to cope with what his teenage self was writing in between the parties, but he’s really bought back into the mood of his younger days when he didn’t yet know it but he was already close to dying from the t.b. that first killed odd and then completely re-shaped his career. Some of Cat’s best early material went unheard until a box set in the 1990s – and now it’s been completed in the most beautiful manner, especially a tale of ‘wanting to see my grandchildren grow old’ turned from a neurotic edgy rant into a peaceful song of celebration now Cat actually has (or seen his grandchildren born, anyway). You can also hear sequels to several of his best songs, including ‘See What Love Did To Me’ which is like all his younger love songs told in reverse from a position of age and wisdom and ‘You Can Do What You Want To Do’, which is only a few syntaxes away from ‘If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out’ (and nearly as good!) Best of all, though, might be the new material – ‘Mighty Peace’ is a particularly gorgeous song that Cat could have written in any era since 1970 but just happens to have written for us in ours, as the world goes to hell around us, and it’s beautiful. Even with nine original albums and four ‘comeback’ CDs now the former Yusuf Islam (who has started crediting himself as ‘Cat Stevens’ again for the first time since 1979), this may well be Cat’s prettiest album of all. Shame it’s also one of his shortest though, at just twenty-nine minutes. Download: ‘Mighty Peace’ ‘Grandsons’
4) Roger Waters “Is This The Life We Really Want?”
Not quite worth the twenty-five-year wait, this follow up to perhaps Roger’s greatest work ‘Amused To Death’ is still a largely wonderful album. It is, of course, gloomy as hell what with the world ignoring all the warnings Roger has been giving us for decades now but is none the worse for that. ‘I told you but you wouldn’t listen would you?’ is Roger’s message as ‘Is This The Life We Really Want’ takes aim at mass-media manipulation, killings of protestors and refugees fleeing death in the short-term only to meet it head-on in the long-term and of course pig-headed politicians (‘Picture a president with no fucking brains!!!’ is the killer chorus of ‘Picture That’). Opener ‘Déjà vu’ is particularly gorgeous (see below) – we’ve all been here before and we never learn do we. ‘If I had been God’ sighs Roger, listing all the ways he would make life better if only he could, still grieving for all the people he could not save. Typical Roger he tells us that he would have done a ‘better job’ and it’s hard not argue – especially with so many lovely returns to old snatches of music from ‘Dark Side’ and ‘The Wall’. But while Roger’s targets often hit home superbly this album isn’t as memorable as predecessors as it lacks their magisterial beauty and melody, while there are many songs here that are more ‘lists’ than ‘lyrics’, a frequent problem with Roger’s work. Still, this album is as fans have been hoping and answers the question ‘gee I wonder what Roger’s response to the madness of the world in the 21st century might be?’ with the answer ‘stone cold bloody furious!’ Download: ‘Déjà vu’ ‘When We Were Young’
5) Grateful Dead “Dave’s Picks Volume Twenty-Three”
The Grateful Dead re-release calendar has been a bit humdrum for most of the year. Seemingly stuck in the late 1970s when the band were, by and large, a pale shadow of their former selves it seems that the anniversary bonanza of a couple of years ago was a thing of the past (just as well, too, given that I still haven’t got to the end of the epic eighty disc set ‘Thirty Trips Around The Sun’ quite yet! This show is, though, one I’ve been waiting for – regularly voted the last great concert the Dead ever played, this show from Oregon on January 22nd 1978 isn’t just one of the last great shows they played but one of the very very best. Though the band starts off tentative that occasional Dead synchronicity really kicks in a few songs in and the band are sparking off each other like its 1968 not ten years later! The highlights are many: a raucous and angry ‘Jack Straw’ that might well be the best the Dead ever played – it sounds as if the band have been listening to punk all night every night before the gig and is all the better for it. A reggae ‘Jimmy Row’ that isn’t so much a lazy stroll as a fight with the fishes. There’s a fascinating jazzified ‘The Other One’ that somehow leaves its period trappings to become as psychedelic and out-there as the Dead were in their youth, with the cymbals from their two drummers flying in a quite breathtaking dance of syncopated percussion. And then coming out of the end, catching the band by surprise, is one of the greatest fieriest ‘St Stephen’s of them all, slower than usual yet louder and more defiant, this coming-of-age tale for a generation played with more certainty and faith than I think I have ever heard. All four songs have long been amongst my Dead picks and its great just having them on the same setlist – but having perfect-for-the-period recordings of them all is a treat, while past the opening dodgy cowboy songs even the bad tracks sound great tonight. Hats off, too, to whichever Deadhead was in the audience that week as his glorious copy of the show (fed into the mixing board, but still) sounds better and clearer than any of the Dead’s official live LPs! Stunning – and trust the Dead to release another two hundred and fifty odd shows before finally getting round to one of the few masterpieces still left in their vaults. I have a feeling this is going to be one of my Dead regulars… Download: ‘Jack Straw’ ‘The Other One’ ‘St Stephen’
6) Ray Davies “Americana”
Eleven years after his last record and five years after the book with which it shares its name, Ray Davies was back with a resume of what he’s been up to since the last record. Nearly dying, all over again, by the sound of it on a CD that like Neil’s finds Ray as a perennial ‘outsider’ in the USA. This time, though, he sounds even less proud of his homeland and is desperate to fit in with local culture and not be a Brit on an album that recounts how magical a place America always seemed to be in his youth and his dreams of getting there versus the reality. The result is an uneven record which isn’t helped by his insistence on singing in Americana styles such as country or gospel which really don’t suit his mock-accent and interrupted by readings from his book that quickly get irritating after repeated playings. However the best of this patchy record is very moving indeed: the ‘goodbye’ to friend and neighbour Alex Chilton (of ‘Big Star’) on ‘Poetry’, the typically perfect observational song ‘I’ve Heard That Beat Before’ about the sound of crockery going on upstairs in time to the song that is writing itself in his head as Ray knowingly nods at what’s going on and ‘Wings Of Fantasy’ in which Ray wishes he could fly away from life’s problems for the millionth time, but it still all sounds so new and fresh. Best of all is the gorgeous other-worldly ‘Long Drive Home To Tarzana’ which ties up so many career threads: Ray spent so much of his past singing about ‘home’ and where he came from and here he sings on his most Americanised song about his awe of finding himself in his ‘new home town’ – and what a long crazy career path took him here. Not everything works and the record would have had a lot more impact had it come out with the book as planned, but there’s enough here to love still once you’ve skipped past the set’s ‘kinks’. Download: ‘Long Drive Home To Tarzana’ ‘I’ve Heard That Beat Poetry’
1) Noel Gallagher “Who Built The Moon?”
(Reviewed in full at https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/noel-gallaghers-high-flying-birds-who.html)
Apparently more critics have waxed lyrical about Noel’s album than Liam’s. ‘It’s cutting edge!’ people say. ‘It’s so modern!’ they gasp, as if that’s a good thing, not an evil to avoid. ‘You wouldn’t understand it – it’s moved on from Oasis’ they giggle, as if that too were something to be proud of. Most modern music is crap, being formless with a heavy beat and not much melody or space to write proper lyrics rather than going ‘woooooah’ and filling in the holes, or leaving pieces as similar-sounding instrumentals the way the senior eyebrowed Gallagher does here. Sadly even talented songwriters aren’t immune and most of this album is horrible. Noel doesn’t sing, he shouts. His guitar doesn’t solo, it drones, on and on and on. There’s barely any dynamics on an album that’s either too quiet to hear or so blooming noisy it blows your ears off. And those were the songs I actually liked! As for the title, Noel moaned last time around with ‘Chasing Yesterdays’ that the title was pretentious and he regretted choosing it the minuet he sent it to the record company, but it was too late to change it. Well, he’s sure going to hate himself for this one in the morning: like the record it tries so hard to say everything that it sort of ends up saying nothing. Like his brother the best stuff all ended up as extras on the ‘deluxe’ edition when Noel does with a moving vocal, a guitar and a radio broadcast in Ireland what he failed to do with twenty-nine musicians (including twelve backing singers) and a whole shop full of keyboards on the ‘new age’ setting on the full LP. Just to rub home that he still has it occasionally, though, there is one killer song on the album – which we’ll be returning to later…
2) David Crosby “Sky Trails”
(Reviewed in full at https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/david-crosby-sky-trails-2017.html )
We’ve had three albums from Croz in five years now – a record for a man who took eighteen years to follow-up his first solo work – and there’s a work of genius across them all. Heard separately, though, all three are lacking and this one seems particularly low on ideas. The electric ‘band’ album to go with last year’s acoustic ‘Lighthouse’, there are some lovely ideas in here but not enough of them and Croz spends much of the album sounding like Steely Dan (the record did, more by coincidence than planning, come out the week after Walter Becker died). The resulting ‘polish’ isn’t really to my tastes and means Croz is too often studying what he is singing rather than coming from his heart, something which is a particular shame because when this record has something to say it says it well. ‘Here It’s Almost Sunset’ is a lovely and very Crosby song about waking up in a hotel room, desperate for spiritual light, while ‘Sky Trails’ itself is beautiful, a haunting ethereal acoustic track in a minor key that sounds like Art Garfunkel at his most inspired. I’m convinced that it’s a song of guilt over the war of words there was between Crosby and Nash last year, asking himself ‘why was I so careless with your heart?’ For a record that mentions ‘hearts’ so much, though, it’s a shame this record doesn’t sound like it has more of a one. There is, clearly, a lot of great stuff still running through David’s creative veins and much of the past three records have been a joy – he just needs a better set of people to bounce off than Snarky Puppy and a better inspiration than Steely Dan.
3) Paul McCartney “Skype Emojis”
OK, so the AAA run of albums wasn’t actually that bad this year (though Neil Young’s unreleased ‘Hitch-hiker’ from 1975 nearly made this list because it repeated 7/10ths of what fans already owned and were hi-jacked for later albums – until I remembered how good the remaining 3/10ths was). And we don’t have a section for ‘AAA emojis of the year’. Yet (my guess is they would include drunken dog mascots, an emoji of me frantically scribbling and lots of pies being thrown at the Spice Girls). So here it goes: why has a former Beatle who could, literally, do anything in the musical world with no one prepared to stop him spent this year writing five second emojis to go with ugly looking skype icons? In case you missed them they came out in February for Valentine’s Day but don’t go rushing to send them now because if you do all you’re going to get in return is a big slap! If you want to find them look for the ‘heart bar graph’ that’s next to the ‘smiley face’ and scroll down to ‘Love Mojis’. Here you get such unlikely sound effects and scribbles as two balloons rubbing against each other to the sound of ‘de doo be doo’, two bears hugging to the sound of ‘oo-wee-oo-ooh!’, two snakes intertwining each other to a funky beat, a stripping tortoise, a banana peeling itself and a big fat cupid wolf-whistling as he fires off lots of arrows. The best one is clearly the octopus who holds out flowers, wine and chocolates…and a pair of handcuffs before he blushes and hides them away. So that’s what goes on in an octopuses’ garden is it?!? Fun as they are and much as he wants to please his soon-to-be-teenage daughter Beatrice, just why is McCartney wasting his time and talent on something quite so trivial?
1) The Hollies “Head Out Of Dreams: August 1973-May 1988”
EMI are still financially struggling, selling Abbey Road off to any band with a guitar and releasing a whole host of sets by their big three acts to make as much money as possible to get them out of trouble (that’s what random 1980s arm deals will get you karma-wise). But whereas the Beatles and Pink Floyd sets are increasingly expensive and mickey-taking collector behemoths that cost hundreds and thousands, The Hollies are quietly getting the treatment their back catalogue has long deserved and EMI are appealing to collectors like me (and maybe you) who have this stuff already but have been desperate to see it done properly and with love and care for a change. This set follows the ‘Clarke Hicks Nash Years’ and ‘Changin’ Times 1969-1973’ sets to deliver a third superb compilation that rounds up (almost) everything else, taking the story near enough to the present day for most fans not to notice. With a lot of this material unavailable for twenty years (since the excellent ‘Four Hollies Originals’ and ‘More Hollies Originals’ sets came out), it’s great to have this classy material back out in the shops again and with the equivalent of six albums and multiple singles for the price of a single disc set, its an impressive bargain if you don’t already have it or much of it. Song by song this might not be quite up to the standard of the first two sets (which you ought to buy first) but it’s a very wonderful runner-up, with some stunning career highs even towards the end of the band’s regular career as The Hollies try more throws of the dice and try different styles including prog, disco, orchestral ballads and retro punk (all sounding so much better than you might ever expect). One thing that would have made this the album of the year, though, never mind re-issue, would have been an additional seventh disc mopping up absolutely everything The Hollies recorded in their years with singer Allan Clarke, with rarer songs like the ‘Purple Rain’ B-sides ‘Naomi’ and ‘Two Shadows’ still shockingly unavailable on CD in the modern age and this welcome chance to mop up all the outtakes from that era in one place remains unused. A shame, too, that copyright issues mean the only Hollies album never released on EMI (Graham Nash reunion album ‘What Goes Around…’) is missing. Even so this is a superb set, sensibly put together with all the tracks in the order they were recorded which gives you a new way of hearing the singles mixed in with the album tracks and the odd outtake thrown in so we can hear the development of ‘The Hollies Style’ across fifteen varied years. We’ve long said on this site that even if The Hollies weren’t quite the best band of the 1960s then they may well have been the most consistent. You could make a similar claim for their 1970s recordings too which are at worst courageously bonkers and at best downright brilliant, as creative at the end of their original run as any other survivor from the Merseybeat era, solo Beatles included. This is a stunning band well treated at long last and this set deserves to be in every fan’s stocking this year. Tracks to download: ‘Second-Hand Hangups’ ‘Love Is The Thing’ ‘Say It Ain’t So Jo’ ‘Soldier’s Song’
2) Godley and Crème “Body Of Work: 1978-1988”
Equally rare nowadays and last seen a similar twenty years ago are the five albums by the 10cc spin-off duo that have been put together in one place for the first time ever. Marvellously put together, with an arty cover that is a ‘body’ made up of album sleeves (a concept that is so very 10cc), this set mops together everything the duo officially released in their ten years together adding in standalone singles, B sides and a remix album too. Admittedly this set is far more of a rollercoaster ride than the Hollies one, going from the highs of the daring pioneering ‘Freeze Frame’ to the lows of most of ‘Ismism’ and ‘Birds Of Prey’, which haven’t dated terribly well, while there’s never ever been an album like ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ where the world gets blown up to the sound of mass harmonicas. This set is expensive too, perhaps needlessly so given that it sticks most of the main albums together on two discs and crams the rest with uninteresting extras like alternate mixes and American radio edits (it also seems wrong somehow to hear the mocking song about music being hard work ‘We’re All Living In A Factory’ in protest at how much music and entertainment costs on a set that, erm, costs quite a bit). Also does ‘A History Mix’ really deserve a re-release too when its already different mixes (make that unlistenable mixes) and it’s the most common Godley-Crème record around? There’s also no appearance of the duo’s debut ‘Consequences’, made for a different record label, which to be fair is one of those cases where we should be thankful for small mercies, although it’s a shame that famously over-exaggerated concept album is impossible to find complete. It’s sad too that 10cc and their off-spring still haven’t had a proper dig through their vaults in all these years because they’re a band who kept everything – of all the AAA acts these clever, quirky, small sudden spurts of energy are perhaps the recording session tapes I want to hear most of all and there isn’t even one song or mix here the enterprising fan won’t have heard already However unlike some bands whose albums all feel succinct and distinct there’s a feeling that all these works deserve to be heard together somehow, instead of the two-fer-one CDs of the dim and distant past or the half-hearted re-issue series that always petered out a couple of records in till now and it’s great to have this stuff back out at all. It’s also fab to have so many of the A and B sides out on CD for the first time in many cases – many of them are unlistenable but there are some gems there including the hilarious ‘Rhino Rhino’ (two tons of hay!) and the uncharacteristically sexually graphic sexual ‘Babies’, which is good fun if you don’t take it too seriously. The result is a well-crafted nicely made set that looks really good on the shelf at last that’s maybe 90% of the way to being perfect, which this year is more than good enough for second spot in our list. Download: ‘I Pity Inanimate Objects’ ‘My Body The Car’ ‘Don’t Set Fire To The One I Love’
3) The Beach Boys “1967: Sunshine Tomorrow”
The ‘fifty year copyright ruling’ fuss seems to have died down now since the official-but-buried releases of rare material by The Beatles, Janis Joplin and others from 1962 and 1963 to combat the bootleggers (who would have been perfectly in their rights to release unreleased tapes ‘officially’ for the first time). No one seems to have told The Beach Boys, though, who continue their policy with another not-in-the-shops release they’re trying to pretend doesn’t exist. Though not as fascinating as the complete ‘Beach Boys Party’ or the thrilling 1964 tape series ‘Keep An Eye On Summer’ , this is another top notch release that deserves a much wider audience. Two discs cover the making of ‘Smiley Smile’ and ‘Wild Honey’ (the front cover even reprises the stain glass period feel of the latter) and while they aren’t many fans’ very favourite albums they are under-rated sets both with lots of good stuff on them as Brian falls apart and returns to bed for the first time (but not, yet, the worst time). The other sets in this archive ‘series’ buried by Capitol have revealed just how amazing Brian Wilson was in his natural habitat, losing his nerves and paranoia to command hardened session music veterans just so and on this set its younger brother Carl who takes up that mantle, getting the band to get it together through just one more take or taking them to task for a mistake no one else can hear. ‘Wild Honey’, already nicely raw and funky, sounds particularly wonderful here stripped back to be even more basic as The Beach Boys play their own instruments again for the first time in three years and re-learn how to do it, whilst ‘Smiley Smile’ is more tentative, fragile and bitty, about to break down any second as everyone is too ‘high’ to get organised. Highlights include Carl wrapping his lungs around Wild Honey’s title track, ‘Whistle In’ slowly painfully coming together over a particularly stoned day in the (home) studio and an unreleased instrumental titled ‘Redwood’ that’s pretty good in a typically period slow smoky way. There’s also a few songs from the famous abandoned live album ‘Lei’d In Hawaii’ recorded at soundcheck, but sadly the band still aren’t brave (or stupid) enough to release Mike Love’s hilarious diatribe of a voiceover on ‘Heroes and Villains’ just yet (‘it stayed on the world’s top 250 for about fifteen minutes!’) Not the best in this series but another strong release that far from hurting the band’s reputation by releasing unheard material they didn’t want out reveals what a great band The Beach Boys were, even when they were messing around. Download: ‘Redwood’ ‘Whistle In’ ‘Wild Honey’
4) Pentangle “The Albums”
Pentangle are a sensible no-frills kind of a band and this is a sensible no-frills kind of an box set. No extras, no new packaging, no unreleased rarities, no monster booklets with pages of annotations and only the same bonus tracks you could get on each of these albums individually and have done for fifteen years now. What you do get, though, if you’re a new fan at least, is a bumper way of getting hold of everything (barring reunion albums at least) with every single one of these now quite rare albums together in a very handsome box with that famous distinctive ‘silhouette’ Pentangle on the top. Yes, everything - even ‘Solomon’s Seal’ for the first time, the only album Pentangle made for Warner Brothers rather than their original label Transatlantic and which famously went ‘missing’ for decades as the master-tapes couldn’t be found (till they were discovered propped under John Renbourn’s harmonium in his house!) If you’ve loved and admired Pentangle for years then there’s nothing here worth your while – but if you only know the hits (make that ‘hit’ in this case, with ‘Light Flight’ the only song most non-fans know), you have only the ‘Basket Of Light’ album or you’re a Fairport Convention fan who wants to hear what a ‘proper’ folk-rock act sound like, then you’ve just hit the jackpot and you will be playing this set long past Christmas, new year and into several decades in the future (Pentangle were always a band who by-passed past, present and future after all…) Download: ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’ ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ ‘A Woman Like You’
5) The Monkees “More Of The Monkees: Deluxe Edition”
Poor ‘More Of The Monkees’. The unwanted second LP that the band didn’t even know was being released until they sent their roadie to the shops to buy it, the record has become seen as the weakest runt in the litter, with less pop brilliance and freshness than the debut and less originality than all the more hands-on albums that followed. It is, though uneven, an often glorious album with some first class songs (‘I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone’ ‘She’ and ‘Sometime In The Morning’ for three, not to mention ‘I’m A Believer’) and there have already been some fabulous outtakes and alternate versions from the session released down the years on different albums. It’s wonderful to have them all rounded up at last along with a handful of previously unheard songs (though as usual on Rhino these days, perhaps not quite enough to justify the mammoth price, with this box set padded out with alternate (title) mixes that aren’t that alternate). The first versions of ‘Word’ and ‘Valleri’ (recorded for albums four and five respectively) are top drawer stuff, there are backing tracks for ‘I’m A Believer’ and three other songs (which are always fabulous with The Monkees using the best session musos in the business) and a ten song concert from Arizona shortly before release, which predates the ‘Live ‘67’ one by a few weeks. To be honest this isn’t quite as amazing as Rhino are making out in their publicity for it this Christmas (they play the same songs for starters and have nearly got their patter down to a tee too) but it’s always good to hear new Monkees and as always the packaging is superb. If expensive. Not quite up to Rhino reissues of ‘Headquarters’ ‘The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees’ ‘Head’ ‘Instant Replay’ or ‘The Monkees Present’, but there’s life in this deluxe series yet. Now what’s left? Missing Links Four perhaps or a deluxe version of ‘Changes’ maybe?!? Download: ‘Hold On Girl’ (‘Latin’ version) ‘Sometime In The Morning’ ‘I’m A Believer’ (Backing Track)
1) The Moody Blues “Days Of Future Passed: 25th Anniversary Edition”
I often feel as if The Moody Blues are becoming the whipping boys of the past ten years’ worth of annual reviews. I stress the band themselves are fantastic, or at least they were until as late as 1999: pioneers who knew when to stop, experimentalists who never forgot how to write melodies and overdub wizards who still kept knew how to play together as a band, I have a big soft spot in my heart for The Moody Blues. But their treatment of fans in the past twenty years has been pretty awful: multiple mind-numbingly awful live releases, endless expensive trinkets and a re-issue series that seems more interested in raiding wallets than archives (the £20 CDs of ten years ago literally made fans fork out for some BBC sessions that came out in a separate set a year later and a few extra seconds of fade-out lost to segues between songs on the original recordings). This set, though, is surely the worst: happy fiftieth birthday Moody Blues fans it says, now piss off! For the price of a small house (well, a nice kennel anyway) you can hear yet another new mix of the album as well as two you paid for last time around ten years ago. That’s it. No bonus DVD making of, no extra songs suddenly re-discovered in the vault, not even a free postcard. The album itself still sounds rough, even if the mix is better than last time, simply because that’s as good as Decca were up to recording the pioneering blend of ‘rock and roll plus orchestra’ at the time. It’s never going to sound perfect, so why do they keep trying – and we do we keep being conned into buying these things? If this series continues to the end of the seven album run as I fear it will, I’ll eat my mellotron in frustration!
2) Paul McCartney “Flowers In The Dirt”
Usually I like the McCartney ‘deluxe’ re-issues. They’re way too expensive and don’t always dig out all of the delights we know exist from bootlegs, but they’re made with care and feature some of the best packaging in the business (‘Ram’, especially, is a rare record that now looks as gorgeous as it sounds with its hand-made ribbons, handmade replicas and bits of string). But this is a series that often feels as if it’s in danger of laughing at its audience and so it proves. There are some amazing things in the vaults from this album’s sessions that could and should have been here – including a whole abandoned album (1987’s ‘Return To Pepperland’ from where the song ‘Rough Ride’ came), endless variations of the album songs that only appeared on singles and haven’t been heard since 1989 and a whole CD’s worth of demos featuring Paul at work with Elvis Costello. But guess what? The latter is here only if you pay an extra amount of money on top of this set to buy a ‘download’ when there’s a perfectly good CD sized hole that could have gone in the actual book and the former isn’t here at all. What you do get is good (this is a top run of McCartney B-sides including first and maybe even best Elvis co-write ‘Back On My Feet’ – the perfect optimist meets pessimist song – the gorgeous ‘Flying To My Home’, the funky ‘The First Stone’ and the only dance song I’ve ever liked ‘Ou’est Le Soleil?’, classics all). But this set could so easily have been the re-issue of the year had Paul put all those classic demos out as he should have done (which appear on two McCartney and two Costello albums, plus multiple unheard songs) and thrown in the best of his unheard 1987 songs like ‘Lindiana’ and an early go at ‘This One’ in there too. This box set currently costs £300 and it’s not as if Paul needs the money. Why should fans have to pay a top-up to hear everything? There is a DVD too, but this only includes the concert film ‘Put It There’ (one I picked up in Poundland a few years ago for reference) and three music videos that aren’t very good and are all out on ‘The McCartney DVD Collection’ anyway. Surely a ten minute making of isn’t so much to ask, especially given the amount of people who were contacted for the admittedly typically excellent booklet? You do get a photo booklet Linda took showing the behind the scenes of the ‘This One’ video shoot too, but that’s hardly compensation somehow.
3) George Harrison “The Complete Collection 1968-2002”
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this set, but somehow it could have been so much more – and for less money too. We’ve already had everything of George’s that could have been re-released out on CD and now, a couple of years later, here’s a vinyl equivalent on vinyl for the hipsters out there. This is the first time we’ve had absolutely everything out again in one go, Apple and Warner Brothers releases both (that negotiation must have been a nightmare!) and it includes such rarities you don’t see very often as ‘Wonderwall Music’ (fabulous!), ‘Electronic Sounds’ and ‘Live In Japan’ (both awful!) But that’s it: no booklet, no album featuring rarities or single-only songs or even the bonus tracks found on the CDs gathered together (so this really isn’t complete as the title suggests – its missing top ten hit ‘Bangla Desh’ for starters). For this amount of money you’d expect a lifesize replica of George thrown in. or perhaps a record player of your own – technically you can buy that too with a very snazzy new player featuring an image of George, but that won’t cost you the mere hundreds for this set but a few thousands instead. These Beatles (and their estates) really do live in the material world sometimes don’t they?
1) Liam Gallagher “Chinatown” (‘As You Were’)
I love this silly Liam Gallagher song, so perfect for where he’s been before and yet going somewhere distinctly new, and I’ve been singing it in my head for most of the past three months. Liam is, to my ears at least, singing about the confusion of the modern world that pits race against race and which is out to put up barriers between us when we should be getting together, man. Oasis were the last rock band who truly united people – give or take the odd Spice Girls fan anyway – and made being nice to your neighbour because he was ‘one of us’ a good thing to do. Here Liam takes a walk round Chinatown, on the fringes of the city he walks round and pondering his own career on the fringes of the music world now. What once seemed an awful place to be stuck, overshadowed and ignored, is now an opportunity for renewal – it doesn’t matter how big his audience is, he still has one and it spurs Liam on to be content with his lot in life, making his peace with God over the fate that was mapped out for him and urging his audience that their day will come, that ‘we’ve both been waiting’ and a fan-warming line that ‘I still believe in the sun!’ A tricky acoustic guitar part that’s retro hits a full on synthesised production of modern genius for a track that manages to be all things at once. Fabulous – more like this please Liam!
2) Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello “The Lovers That Never Were” (‘Flowers In The Dirt’)
Paul said that Elvis was his first collaborator to remind him of Lennon. It wasn’t just the glasses but the realism Elvis gave his work, the pain and hurt that made each note sound a struggle that combined with his own perfect gift for melody. That was never heard better in their brief collaboration than the waltz ‘The Lovers That Never Were’ which has a tune so natural it sounds as if it’s been around for centuries and yet still sounds as if it’s a struggle to sing. The lyrics too are remarkable, a couple locked in a battle when they should have been locked in love. The world is hurting, with perfect couples that never quite get it together that makes the narrator despair – at least until he sees ‘the sun shine in somebody’s eyes’ and realises that the magic of love still exists. Macca rather mangled the delivery of this fascinating song when he revived it for his 1993 album ‘Off The Ground’, having by now moved on a long way from his work with Elvis, but the original demo heard on the ‘Flowers’ re-issue is a real thing of beauty, Paul singing uncomfortably low and Elvis singing uncomfortably high, both men straining for something that can never quite be. How great to have this bootlegger’s favourite out at last, but the song should have been done like this at the time.
3) Cat Stevens “Mighty Peace” (‘The Laughing Apple’)
On an album of re-makes of old songs that got forgotten or were left unfinished the new songs are almost always the worst things on there. But as far as I know ‘Mighty Peace’ is a brand new song that just happens to sound as if it could have been written forty-five years before, uniting the shuffling head-down beat of ‘Tea For The Tillerman’, the children playing sound effects of ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, the synth feel of ‘Buddha And The Chocolate Box’ and the despairing over modern-day living that’s infused much of Cat’s 21st century comeback albums. This song too worries over what might happen to future generations, but it also feels content that people themselves are as potentially good as they always were, especially the kids Cat sees playing with his grandchildren. Instead of heavy war he sees a ‘mighty peace’ and wishes that he too was a child, ‘playing games and running wild, with nothing more to do than to make the sun light and watch the moon take over from the day into the night’. Together with a vocal that’s just the right side of old and fragile, Cat celebrates his seventieth birthday in the best way possible.
4) Noel Gallagher “Black and White Sunshine” (‘Who Built The Moon?’)
You may have, err, gathered that I didn’t like Noel’s new album much. But I love love love this track which unites the ‘new’ Oasis sound with the ‘odd’ one head on. Noel wakes up with ‘the weight of the world dragging me down’. He’s got nothing to do, nowhere to go and wants to stay in bed hiding away from the rest of the world wallowing in his misery. But as he sits there his thoughts turn to what he used to be doing – has he just been watching the Oasis documentary ‘Supersonic?’ – and he remembers how good it felt it was to be at the top of the world for a few glorious moments. He long to be there again and doesn’t see why he can’t be. ‘You got the guts, I got the brains!’ he spits, perhaps to his brother, perhaps to his fans, urging us to put the past twenty years behind us and make life worth living again. It’s infectious, especially on such a depressed album and for the only time in twelve tracks Noel sounds as if he ‘understands’ modern music, using all the noise and unfocussed adrenalin into a song that’s a glorious burst of enthusiasm that will have you singing along in no time.
5) Roger Waters “Déjà vu” (‘Is This The Life We Really Want?’)
Roger spent most of ‘Amused To Death’ wondering why God had forsaken us. Twenty-five years after seeing how bad the future might get he imagines himself as God – what changes would he make? Well we wouldn’t age for starters, or feel pain and he certainly wouldn’t have forsaken his ‘son’ to be killed by Romans. And he certainly wouldn’t let refugees die, unwanted and unloved, alone, in a war they didn’t want in the first place. He then wonders how he would feel as a drone, with ‘electronic eyes’, doomed to blow up a fixed point ‘with an element of surprise’ and wonders how he might feel, ‘afraid to find someone home’ before he crashes into a huge ball of fire. Roger, surely, would have done a much better job and he excels himself here with a final gloomy lyric that sums up our modern living perfectly: ‘The temple’s in ruins, the banker’s getting fat, the buffalo’s gone and the mountain top’s flat, the fish in the stream are all Aphrodite, you lean to the left but you vote to the righty’. And then he mourns for his dad, a conscientious objector who died in WW2, one last time on a most moving verse, ‘counting the cost of love that got lost’.
1) Grateful Dead “What A Long Strange Trip”
Only two AAA reviews in the whole of this year and both were pretty awful to be honest. The Grateful Dead’s long rambling documentary for Amazon video needs a good editor – and yes I do hear the pot and kettle debating various shades of black right now. But seriously: it makes ‘The Beatles Anthology’ look compact as band members struggle to remember details before being prompted, we see the same pictures up on screen for what seems like hours and there’s such precious new footage to be seen at all. If I wasn’t a fan I’d have given up in the first ten minutes and four hours of this stuff is at least two too many. But there are moments that are glorious: the band members’ memories of meeting each other is told with a real grin, there are poignant memories from those who don’t talk that often such as Bob’s collaborator John Barlow and year-long member Tom Constanten and just enough fascinating in-concert material to get by. Do I really understand this fascinating band any better? No, not really. Does it come clean about the Grateful Dead’s skeletons in the closet? Definitely not (here Jerry is a pure hero, which is better than him being a villain, but some balance would be nice). But does it while away a few hours before the next Dead archive release comes out? Yes, it does that job nicely.
2) David Gilmour “Live At Pompeii”
How odd – I got to know the soundtrack to this show first and its pretty good in a ‘we’ve heard this all before and record I’m plugging is mostly diabolical but I’m going to play it all anyway’ kind of a way. After all, David is back in Pompeii in the ruins of the Roman town destroyed by a volcano and this time he’s brought an audience with him for the first concert in front of people in nearly two thousand years. He also pays some truly sublime tributes to Rick, the keyboard player who died shortly after Gilmour’s last tour and whose moving tribute ‘A Boat Lies Waiting’ is spine-tinglingly perfect. But oh no: those backing singers who warble their way through ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’; despite this being a most moving song about mortality it somehow feels like death couldn’t come quick enough. Most of our old friends also sound decidedly unwell, as Gilmour is the most bored I think I’ve ever seen him. Things improve for a better-than-average ‘Comfortably Numb’ that goes on for hours, but this set is surprisingly down on ‘wow’ moments considering that Gilmour is back at the scene of what is, for this fan at least, their greatest triumph back in 1972.
1) “Lindisfarne: Meet Me On The Corner” (John Van Der Kiste, Fonthill Media)
The world needs another book on Lindisfarne – we’ve only ever had one before and though Dave Ian Hill’s ‘Fog On The Tyne’ is a classic there’s always room for more. John has already written some excellent books on The Beatles before this one but excels himself here on a book that’s fascinating, looking at the ups and downs of life in Lindisfarne in a new way that sheds much new light on Alan Hull and friends, especially the reunion years which tend to get short shrift from just about everybody. John is a great writer who knows his stuff and this is a band with a lot of stories worth telling. What’s more the AAA even gets a reference in a page note – our second in this year! Fame at last eh?!
2) “The Kinks: An Oddly English Phenomena” (Carey Fleiner, Rowman and Littlefield)
Here’s our first from back in January, as the AAA’s Kinks TV listings gets a name-check in a university professor’s look at how Ray Davies may well be the most English writer ever. Cups of tea, jokey self-deprecating humour, uneasiness over the class system, red hunting jackets, even cross-dressing – it’s all here in a book I often got lost in and which seemed oddly critical of actual Kinks fans (surely the book’s biggest audience?) but which is nevertheless a gripping read. The book is especially strong when dealing with where The Kinks came from and how their upbringing on or mostly under the poverty line in Muswell Hill shaped their outlook.
3) Kevin Godley “Space Cake”
What links all the disparate 10cc albums? Ambition. Lots of it. Kevin Godley has been quiet in the past twenty-nine years since he had a falling out with Lol Crème, with only a couple of not-that-great recordings with other bandmate Graham Gouldmann and a series of music videos for other people since then (including Beatles reunion single ‘Real Love’). This set, though, is nicely ambitious and just as playful as ever – an interactive memoir no less, that enables you to not only read about Kevin’s very fascinating life but to actually see and hear it too: a photograph he refers to can be seen alongside the text and a music video he comments on suddenly turns up too. It’s billed on the cover as ‘the book of the song of the film of the app…’ and is a multi-media dream. The book is as funny as you’d expect but perhaps less detailed than you’d imagine from all those carefully constructed recordings. Does this get to the heart of the real Kevin Godley? Not quite, but 10cc fans will still learn much here from the first autobiography by any of the band (Eric Stewart had one too this year, apparently, but I never did track it down). Find ‘Spacecake’ on iTunes – not something I say very often, given how much iTunes sucks, but there’s no other way of reading it I’m afraid.
4) Mike Nesmith “Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff”
There’s a theme developing from this year’s books: I’m confused by most of them. Admittedly that’s not that unusual what with my brain spoonie-fog, but this is, well, particularly odd…a stream of conscious ramble about anything past, present or future from a man who is aware that time is running out and he can’t monkey it away anymore. Mike has one of my favourite social media accounts by any of the AAA family, with his facebook posts always long, detailed, intelligent and thoughtful. His responses to major world events (bombings, elections, deaths in the family and music world) are always passionate and heartfelt though better yet are his general ruminations on nothing days, getting deep into subjects that no other artist would touch. These posts deserved to be ain a book, though I’m not quite sure this one is it somehow – seen together, out of context without explanation they feel a bit too much somehow, leaping from one subject to another while some of my favourite thoughts are missing. Old woolhat is, though, always worth reading in any format and this autobiographical riff is almost as good as the one on the end of ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, echoing off itself until it reaches a pitch of ear-catching perfection.
5) Art Garfunkel “Luminous Notes From An Underground Man”
Surely Arty’s going to bring some sense to proceedings, right? Wrong! ‘Luminous Notes’ is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in any year, jumping from subject to subject quicker in the time it takes to play the drum thwack from ‘The Boer’. Arty is another of the AAA’s deep thinkers and he’s one of the most well-read men out there, adding a poetic touch to his words that sometimes works spectacularly well and at others just leaves me confused. What exactly do some of the passages mean? Not a clue – and the context doesn’t help given that Arty jumps around chronology like Tigger in a time-machine, going from loves of his life to career breakthroughs and collapses to things happening in his daily life. Many fans have scoured this book for references to his relationship with Paul Simon and the one time the book lets it heart outshine its head is on the pained anguish of their break-up after betrayal and hatred. No, not the one in 1970 or even their last meeting a few years ago that seems to have broken them up for good but the time when they were fifteen and were trying to find a sequel to their hit single ‘Hey Schoolgirl’ back when they were Tom and Jerry. Paul cut a deal on the side without telling Arty and he’s never quite got over it since, with Paul a shadowy figure who brings so much love – but tests Arty’s patience to the limit along the way. A fascinating and infuriating read, in equal parts.
1) April Fool’s Day: All Hail President Bingo! https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/april-fools-day-2017-all-hail-president.html
Still after more to read while you digest your Christmas dinner? We don’t blame you – have some figgy pudding too while you’re at it! The review of the year also gives is one last chance to plug our favourite articles. As usual it’s our annual April Fool’s day column we want you to read most and it was political this year, full of post-shots at Trump who back in April was still a ‘new’ president some deluded people still thought was doing a good job. We thought that after Trump any old ninny could do the job better including our own Max and Bingo – and we still think that now. In this article we get Bingo’s drunken address to the nation, work out which positions in the cabinet we would give to the AAA musicians, discuss what TV programmes might be on in the future and follow our time-traveller Nelson as he goes back in time to cheer up Janis Joplin on the eve of her Monterey performance. We look forward to Bingo collaborating with the Mueller investigation over how Putin got him drunk on Vodka and made him hand over America’s nuclear code for a couple of bones, by the way.
2) Essay: Why The Beatles Changed The World For The Better https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/the-beatles-essay-ways-fab-four-changed.html
I dunno, this article just ‘felt’ right this year. As you may have noticed in our rather messed up timeline of posts lately (curse you again Neil Young!) we brought you a couple of our new-look patent-pending essays before going back to finish off the AAA albums out for Christmas. This is my favourite fro, the fifteen I’ve written so far. Like all the others its meant to look in the AAA in a wider scope, to compensate for the fact that some of the AAA books are a little ‘bitty’, full of detail and analysing each song individually. How, I wondered, could I possibly sum up everything The Beatles did in their seven years together by changing the world? The answer was looking at the ways they did this, all for the better, and how they were an ‘excuse’ for the world to go ‘good’ as the first band people from the working class North could point to and say ‘they look like me, maybe I can do what they do too!’
3) The Skids “Joy” by Kenny Brown https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/guest-post-skids-joy-1981.html
I’m also rather thrilled to have had our first guest post this year from our very talented and loyal reader Kenny. I confess I don’t know The Skids that well – they’re from the late 1970s/early 1980s period I confess to having a bit of a blindspot over (I can bore you for hours about music up to around 1977 – that’s a kind promise not the threat it sounds, by the way – and I grew up with music from 1988 onwards, even if I’ve blocked most of it out for reasons of sanity). But I’ve been enjoying this band and album since reading this excellent review – which I guess is exactly what I’ve wished people to do after reading mine. So well done Kenny – and if any other reader wants to drop us a guest post for anybody then contact me either at the bottom of this article or on my twitter feed at @alansarchives You too could be in this column this time next year – and that is a threat and not a promise!
That’s it for another year then. Our last full year, I hope, though there’s still six months of extra articles to go, plus whatever AAA albums come out in 2018 and no doubt endless publicity for our hoped-for books. Thankyou for being a part of it, have a very happy holidays and we look forward to seeing you next year! 8>)
The Alan's Album Archives Guide Would Make A Great Xmas Present Hint Hint! Buy It Here
Dear reader, Christmas has come and Donald Trump's getting fat and, well, we weren't expecting the AAA to still be going this long. Having carefully eked out all the Christmas articles we could think of to last the nine yuletides we expected to be running, we find to our horror that running an extra year before the publication of our books means that we are left with a hole to fill. Thankyou, then, Beatles for finally re-releasing (albeit only on 7" vinyl and at a stupidly scroogey price) all of the Fanclub Flexi Discs we asked for back in an article in 2010. Seeing as its Christmas and many of you may have bought the new set and this time of year is full of repeats anyway, we thought you might not mind a repeat of our article from seven Christmas Days ago (it was the 'Christmas Carol' episode if, like me, you measure all your Christmasses by what Dr Who story was on that year!)
The Beatles “Christmas Fan-Club Flexi-Discs” (1963-69)
The Beatles and Christmas – they seem to go awfully well together don’t they? As well as turkey and cranberry sauce, Mistletoe and Wine (but not the godawful Cliff Richard song) and Spice Girls and dodgy merchandise in fact. Even last year it was like old times, thanks to the Beatles remastered sets being the ‘in’ present for the musical community and various tie-in programmes by schedulers looking to keep people inside listening to their radios and watching TVs rather than outside calling on Aunty Bertha. But this year – nope, there’s nothing, even with it being John Lennon’s double anniversary and by the look of the schedulers it will be a Kinky Kristmas with a touch of Rolling Stones instead, for possibly the first time since 1964 and ‘You Really Got Me’. But we at the AAA can’t possibly let a Christmas go by without at least some mention of the fab four, so for this week’s Christmas special we are looking at the Beatles’ Christmas Flexi-discs, given out for free to members of the Beatles fan club between 1963 and 1969. Now, we understand that many of you won’t have heard these discs - barring a ‘remix’ of the ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again’ song found as a B-side on the ‘Real Love’ single of 1994 – so we’ve gone for a bit more description than is usual in our reviews and hope that, one day, when they’ve milked everything else, Apple will put these recordings out for sale too.
We’re also going to put these discs back in context, letting you know what else the band were recording and releasing at the time (despite their ‘snowy’ sound, these recordings were nearly all made in September!) Some of our regular non-Beatles readers might think we’ve gone a bit doo-lally reviewing what are in the main bits of speech rather than music (in fact, its arguably the snippets of music that work less well on these recordings), but we at the AAA think these recordings are an integral part of the Beatles franchise, a kind of in-joke between band and fans that did much to cement their special relationship throughout the 1960s and a useful treasure trove for the sociological and musical influences of the band in each period. After all, can you imagine The Spice Girls sending out a disc of chat to their fans for free, or using them to make comments about the Vietnam war or spoofing leading figures and programmes of the day?...Also, as every Beatles fan knows, you can chart their career trajectory superbly by following their records in order (the only group you really can), from the Merseybeat to the psychedelic eras and back again to the Rooftop gig. But the Christmas fanclub discs let you do the same with just sound, tracing the fab four from edgy but shy musicians to the four most famous people in the world, changing their priorities and conversations as a result. And where else can you hear George Martin putting his background as a comedy producer to good use on a Beatles record? (Well, ‘You Know My Name (Look Up My Number) since you asked, but these records came first).
(#1 single that xmas = I Want To Hold Your Hand, #1 album = With The Beatles)
“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Steven, as the slow ray roundabout, deep and crisp and crispy, brightly shone the boot last night on the mosty cruel, Henry Hall and David Lloyd, Betty Grable too” “This is John speaking, with his voice” “I’d love to reply [to my birthday cards sent by] everyone, but I just haven’t enough pens” “Stop shouting those animals!” “Thankyou to everyone, especially the ones that paid the subscription” “Mickey the red-nosed Ringo has a very shiny nose, when everybody picked it...”
The first Christmas disc is much more ‘normal’ than the other six and find the Beatles right at the eye of storm that in 14 months and a ‘really gear year’ has seen them go from releasing their first single to having two #1s on the trot (#3 if you use the NME chart which counts Please Please Me), appearing at the Royal Variety Show and becoming a household name in the UK. In fact, all the other discs try so hard to say something new to avoid repeating this one – after all, pop stars didn’t last longer than a year in those days and recording this in September 1963 the band probably never expected to have to come up with another one. As on the music in this period, it’s Lennon who very much takes the lead here, speaking first and dominating a rather scatterbrained version of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ with typically Lennonish wit. Paul and George aren’t far behind (in fact George thrives on these earlier, more scripted recordings where each Beatle gets a turn and he doesn’t have to compete with Lennon’s wit or McCartney’s confidence), although Ringo is rather subdued and clearly still feeling his way as a ‘new’ member of the band (he even starts his speech with that sentence and its clear the others aren’t keeping as quite during his segment as he does on theirs! This will all change by 1966, although Paul’s interruption may be an attempt to make him feel part of the band rather than to take the mickey out of him), a status he held pretty much until his ‘breakthrough’ in the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ film.
Along with all their other important non-musical recordings of 1963 (press interviews, the London Palladium, the Morecambe and Wise show and especially the Royal Variety performance) the Beatles come across as an aural Marx Brothers, with a great deal of cheeky banter unheard of from the stars of the 1950s (even Elvis called everybody ‘sir’) – especially the whistling of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ after mentioning the latter, a very daring act for the day. The fab four also make no attempt to hide the fact that they’re all reading a script –although they don’t yet have the confidence to draw attention to that fact like the far more road-weary Beatles of 1964 (listen out for John talking about his birthday, McCartney’s laugh and Lennon’s reply that he’s ‘trying to forget it’ – Lennon hadn’t yet had his birthday when this was recorded!) There’s also a mention of the key Beatles theme of 1963 – jelly babies, famously thrown at the band onstage during most of the year. Listen out for the way the band, or Paul at least, tries to cover up the fact that they don’t want to be hit by them anymore with a joke about how the Beatles still like ‘chocolate dreams and peppermint creams and dolly mixtures...’
Perhaps the most significant part of the whole record is Paul discussing what the Beatles like doing best. His answer of ‘recording’ would probably not have been echoed by any other groups of the day (especially ones who had become famous enough to appear on such prestigious bills as they had) and yet for Paul to answer ‘recording’ at the time of their second LP when the band hard to work so hard and under such pressure they must have been sick of the four walls of Abbey Road Studio no 2 shows that, already, the group were treating everything else as a distraction away from their ‘proper’ work of making records (the Beatles had that day been recording songs for With The Beatles, most likely ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ ‘Little Child’ and ‘All I Wanna Do’).
Above all, despite the awkwardness of the setting and the fact that the script has clearly been written in a hurry and ‘modified’ by the four, the 1963 fanclub discs is one of the more successful ones of the seven, with the band charismatic and genuinely funny. Above all, this disc is very successful at setting out the character types that will be explored more fully in 1964’s feature film ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – in fact, so closely, that I suspect that scriptwriter Alun Owen was given this record to study (John as the witty one, Paul as wanting to please, George as quiet and Ringo as a loner). There’ll be lots more of this on the 1964 record...
(#1 single that xmas = ‘I Feel Fine’, #1 album = Beatles For Sale)
“Thanks all of you who bought my book, thankyou folks for buying it it was very handy, and there’ll be another one out soon it says here, I hope you’ll buy that too, it will be the usually rubbish but it won’t cost much, you see, that’s the little bargain we’re going to strike up” “Did you write this yourself?” “No, it’s somebody’s bad hand-wroter” “We had a quiet time making it – actually, we didn’t, we had a great time making it” “We start shooting [Help!] in February, this time its a gonna be in colour” “Yeah – green!” “So much travelling, but you’ve stayed loyal – haven’t you?” “Those airport receptions really knocked us out great man, fab”
The big Beatles theme of 1964 was experimentation – not to the psychedelic years, perhaps, but enough to make the sound effects of footsteps at the start of this record and the counterpointed and quite unlistenable kazoo/piano medley seem entirely normal in context. It somehow fits the Beatles of late 1964 who in their day jobs are already overloading the Abbey Road mixing desk to get a distorted sound on ‘Hold Me Tight’ and adding feedback to the start of that year’s Christmas single ‘I Feel Fine’. The Beatles are also more confident than in 1963, as befits a group who have become the best-selling UK artists for a second year running and have conquered America, knowing that they can get away with pretty much anything in this part of their careers and have it turn into gold (such as revealing that these Christmas links are scripted!) That’s why somebody drops something loudly behind Ringo’s part without going for a re-take and John and George both go badly off script (Harrison because he mis-reads the script and Lennon because he’s mercilessly spoofing the banality of his part). Lennon even gets an in-joke in about ‘Beatle Peedles’ (the German slang for ‘penis’ as adopted by the Beatles in Hamburg when people laughed at their name) which somehow got through the censor! (Paul stays in German mode until the end of the piece!)
The band are still enjoying themselves taping these ‘little messages’, perhaps because they’ve had such a busy and frenetic year that it seems like one hell of a lot longer since the 1963 tape was recorded (Paul may be joking, but listen to the way he quotes ‘Love Me Do’ as being ‘many years ago now, or so it seems’... Lennon, too, seems to blanch when reading from his script about ‘In His Own Write’ that he ‘writes them in my spare time’; actually the book dates from pre-1963 give or take two stories and Lennon didn’t have time to write any more which is why the follow-up ‘A Spaniard In The Works’ is a much tougher and less fluent book all round), which is surprising given how jaded and tired both the compositions and cover of that year’s Xmas LP ‘Beatles For Sale’ appears to be. Which is surprising because the band must have been exhausted by the time of this recording – as Ringo neatly puts it, ‘we’ve been to Australia and New Zealand – And Australia, and New Zealand!’ (interestingly, threre’s no mention of that years’ biggest successes – in the USA – anywhere on this record).
Back when this message was taped, however (in September-October time, remember), the key Beatles project of the year was undoubtedly ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. We know now, of course, that the world was ready for such a pioneering, character-driven ‘musical dialogue’ in 1964, but the band and the film company all had their doubts and the relief the band felt at its success is easy to hear. Note how George and Ringo can’t seem to talk about anything else, with the excitement about being ‘movie stars’ still in their voice (a fact forgotten to modern reviewers of the Beatles is that, although the band were always confident of making successful and popular records if left enough to their own devices, they weren’t confident at all about Brian Epstein’s extra-curricular ideas, which weren’t part of the original Beatle gameplan).
Overall, the 1964 fanclub record is a bit more knowing and cynical than the first - which is befitting to a band who were already that far through their career – but it does a successful job of acknowledging the trust fans still have in the band and sounding like their 1963 selves without repeating anything (just like their records in 1964 in fact!)
(#1 single that xmas = Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, #1 album = Rubber Soul)
“Now it looks as though we’re here to stay, we believe in Christmas day” “Last year we were here, round the same old mike, in the same old studio” “Same old guitar, same old faces” “Stay tuned in – its a five-way cycle” “Down in Vietnam, (river) look at all those (shining) bodies floating in the river Jordan” “It’s been a big year for us...one of our biggest years since we can remember...and we can remember a lot of years” “And don’t forget the old and the new, some folks blue some votes green, don’t take any notice of them, it’s an all-white policy in this group!” “This is Johnny Rhythm just saying goonight to yese all and god bless yese” “Oy Basher – have you turned it off?!”
By Christmas 1965 the biggest event in the Beatles’ collective lives was drugs. Ever since Bob Dylan turned the Beatles onto marijuana in a hotel room (he’d misheard the line ‘I Can’t Hide’ in ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ as ‘I get high’ and assumed the Beatles were users – the four of them were too proud to admit they weren’t, although it was poor Ringo who was badgered into trying the drug first, a point that often gets overlooked in Lennon biogs) their music had changed, although the biggest evidence is in their speech. What was verging on the free-form Goon-like pun on words in 1963 and 1964 has now become a barrage of often unintelligible chatter, with the recording having less thought than ever before for the listeners at home. Which is not to say this fanclub is disc is bad – they were originally given away free after all, even if ironically they’re some of the most expensive records around today – it just takes you a bit longer to work out what’s going on. A bit like the band’s 1965 records, in fact.
What’s most interesting about this record is that, for the only time on these discs, the band are spoofing one of their own records. That record is ‘Yesterday’, undeniably their most famous song of that year (even if it was never anything more than an album track on side two of ‘Help!’ in Britain) which on paper looks like an obvious choice – except that McCartney for one was always deeply uncomfortable about being the only Beatle on it and all but kept it out of the band’ setlists in case it angered the others (Lennon, for one, always had a hangup about the song, spoofing it endlessly on the session tapes for his solo albums, one of which can be heard on the Lennon Anthology). Intriguingly, too, its George not Paul taking the lead on this song (Paul is there, but he’s singing an uncharacteristic falsetto part which is harder to hear) and this recording is, in fact, the only band performance of the song The Beatles ever gave. Is this Paul’s suggestion, getting the band to join in on their most recognisable song of the year, or a suggestion from up high given the disrespectful nod they felt it deserved?
The second point to make is how less seriously the band are taking their duties on this record – and it is clearly a ‘duty’ by now rather than a bit of fun done for fans on the side. John and George start the talking but quickly run out of things to say and veer into Lennon doing a Scottish parody of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Paul and Ringo then have a go, before telling us how things are the same as on the last fanclub record and even end up veering into the Four Tops’ ‘The Same Old Song’. The band sound less like a ‘group’ here too, albeit not one at each other’s throats just yet. Lennon, speaking in one of his ‘moody/sarky’ voices best heard on the 1969 records, suggests the band sing ‘We’ll gather lilacs in an old brown shoe’, simply because it’s one of the daftest and unlikeliest things the band might do, but Ringo is taking things seriously, adding ‘yes – that’s out of copyright’! That might be because there’s less of a ‘script’ this year – if there is a script, the Beatles stop reading from it as early as the second sentence – but its noticeable that the interruptions they keep giving each other cause less giggling then before. Interestingly, Ringo dominates the record like never before (or after come to that) – perhaps he was having a particularly forceful day that day, was getting bored behind his drum kit given the amount of time the Beatles records took to make at that time or perhaps its because of his higher profile on ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’
Thirdly and most remarkably, this record is The Beatles’ biggest political statement to date. Much is made in the American press about how The Beatles had the audacity to come to 1960s America and talk about the JFK/Eisenhower policies they felt were wrong (particularly the Vietnam War and Civil Rights) at a time when most American groups’ hands were tied. Both are mentioned on this record, which must have come as a shock to the mainly British fans in the fanclub in 1965, with Paul of all Beatles interrupting Lennon’s Scottish sketch to ad lib ‘down in Vietnam’ and ‘look at all the bodies floating in the river’. The fanclub message then veers back to normality, with the band thanking their fans in the forces – which sounds like a directive from on high given how much the Beatles hated and campaigned against war – but listen to Lennon’s diatribe against the army and South America in general on the fade. Referring back to his earlier ad lib about how its ‘raining in Munich’, he adds that the record is dedicated to ‘the people in BAORC, a lot of us here want to wish a lot of you there...’ and the weather’s perfectly alright, thankyou’, as if he can’t bring himself to say what he’ supposed to say. His angry sarcastic response too, after spoofing the new year idea of something borrowed, something blue, that ‘its an all-white policy in this group’ is also clearly directed at the attempts by the army to disrupt the Civil Rights movement (under orders from Eisenhower, of course). This is one of the most direct attacks on politics by any Beatle on any social system and its all the more surprising given that its on a fanclub record to mainly British citizens who weren’t meant to play the record more than once (or perhaps that’s why Lennon thought he could get away with it...)
Note – George Martin took pains to record every single moment of the Beatles’ recording session for the George Harrison track ‘Think For Yourself’ (released on the ‘Rubber Soul’ album that Christmas) in case the band said anything usable for that year’s record. They never did, but the banter of the band messing around is just as good as any of these records and let’s hope Apple see their way to releasing it sometime soon as well (the only extract that did get used is a rehearsal for the chorus part of the song’s line ‘and you’ve got time to rectify all things that you should’, used in the ‘yellow Submarine film when the Sgt peppers band is being ‘defrosted’).
(#1 xmas single = Strawberry Fileds Forever/Penny Lane, #1 album = A Collection of Beatles Oldies But Goldies)
“Everywhere it’s Christmas, everywhere is song, London Paris Rome and New York, Tokyo Hong Kong” “Everywhere it’s Christmas, at the end of every year” “Meanwhile, high in the Swiss Alps, two elderly Scotsmen munch on a rare cheese” “At the same time as this in the Captain’s mess aboard the HMS Tremendous, a toast is being proposed” “There are no more matches left Podgy” “Then buy some, Jasper old friend, make a list and afterwards we’ll go to the shops and buy matches and candles and buns”
The odd record out, in more ways than one. For starters, this is a collection of psychedelic sketches, taking in elements from old films, music hall songs and quiz games, quite unlike anything else The Beatles ever did (though there are some similarities with Magical Mystery Tour and the 1967 flexi-disc). Secondly, there isn’t a single Beatles reference in the whole record – and very few musical ones comes to that. There’s also not a single reference to anything happening in the outside world –quite unlike 1965 that spends more time talking about Vietnam than Christmas festivities, perhaps showing how insular The Beatles had become in the post-touring world, even with all the mentions of other countries. It’s perhaps worth mentioning too that The Beatles had been apart as a group during the last few months of 1966 – John filming ‘How I Won The War’, Paul making the soundtrack for the ‘Family Way’ film, George was in India learning how to play the sitar and Ringo was, well, not up to much to be honest. This fanclub disc would have been one of the first things the band did on their return (at the same time as recording Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane and When I’m 64) and, unlike 1965, it sounds fun again – incomprehensible fun at times, but fun at least. The Beatles are also working together as a group (as opposed to talking over each other) for the only time on these records. In retrospect it’s amazing that there even was a fanclub disc in 1966 – the Beatles had given up touring, making films and making television appearances and yet they still couldn’t find it within their hearts to stop their traditional gesture of goodwill to their public, a fact that says a lot about The Beatles in their middle years.
This 1966 record is, in many ways, a preview of Sgt Peppers. The Beatles hadn’t come up with the Victorian band concept yet and were still very much working towards their initial concept of the album as a group of childhood memories (an idea scuppered when George Martin took the decision to release ‘Fields’ and ‘Lane’ as a single). This fanclub disc is effectively the two ideas combined, with some forgotten music hall songs linked by snatches half-remembered from black and white films and a sense of time past. Listen out too for the way each of the sketches (as opposed to chats for the first time) blend into each other (even though there often isn’t a link between them that we can see) and the fact that, not once on this disc, are The Beatles performing as themselves. However, the biggest influence on this record is Paul McCartney’s beloved tape machine, a magnificent invention which allowed the Beatles in turn to fool around making music and speech at home without the danger of taking up studio time (McCartney even did a spoof radio show called ‘Unforgettable’ around this same period, made up of tape loops and old records played at the wrong speed, a gift given only to the other Beatles and Mal Evans and sadly now lost in the mists of time, although his final audio verite masterpiece – Carnival of Light – still exists in the vaults and beats ‘Revolution 9’ for weirdness two years early according to the few who’ve heard it ).
Up first on the fanclub record is a rather odd song, ‘everywhere its Christmas’, which is reminiscent of the next year’s ‘Your Mother Should Know’ but lacking the usual Beatles sincerity (surely the main reason why this song didn’t enter fan consciousness in the same way that 1967’s theme song ‘Christmastime Is Here Again’ did). As expected from the late 1966 vintage, Paul takes the lead on this song – unlike previous efforts Lennon’s wit makes cameo appearances rather than dominating proceedings, just as on The Beatles releases from this era on. Next up is a Beatle choir with Ringo taking a rather wobbly lead (conducted by a ‘bearded man in glasses’, not that we ever meet him). A segue from Paul’s surprisingly good yodelling leads into Lennon talking to himself in a series of Goonish voices at a medieval party that seems to end badly (Lennon cried ‘is there a doctor here?’, although we never hear why). George then turns things on its head by visiting the Navy Lark (or the nearby HMS Tremendous at any rate) where – in the best gag of any of these records – the navy drink a toast to the Queen before being interrupted by a ghostly, mocking voice (memories of dead navy veterans, perhaps, or just Lennon making a funny noise?)
The best remembered segment of the record is the tale of Podgy the Bear and Jasper, a dialogue reminiscent of Eccles and Bluebottle from the Goon Show. Paul is the narrator and John and George do a good job at the funny voices (very good in fact, you wish they’d done more on these records) and the script is...well...what on earth can I say about the script? It beats Magical Mystery Tour for surrealism a full year early and sounds like a cross between In His Own Write and Sesame Street (who had a similar gag about a kid remembering ‘20’ by counting what he sees as he goes to the shops – only for him to walk proudly into the shop and ask for ‘20’ without remembering what it was he wanted)
Even this segment makes a bit more sense than McCartney’s butler to Lennon’s count though (John will re-create this voice for the 1967-recorded-but-unreleased-till-1969 B-side ‘You Know My Name (Look Up My Number)’ Paul’s made-up-on-the-spot tune isn’t one of his best and you can’t tell whether Lennon and McCartney are spoofing the old days or not (a song title like ‘Please don’t bring your banjo back, I don’t know where it’s been’ and the strangely acidic comment ‘they were all melody weren’t they?’ sound like a spoof, but the reminiscences about the old days sound genuine). All that’s left is for Beatle roadie Mal Evans to add that ‘everywhere it’s Christmas’ on his greatest starring role on a Beatles record (bar the cameo as a diver in the ‘Help!’ film, playing the anvil on ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, activating the alarm clock on ‘A Day In The Life’ and his appearances on the next two xmas record anyway! ) and that sodding tune again. Well, at least it’s better than ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’!
(#1 single that xmas = Hello Goodbye, #1 album/EP set = Magical Mystery Tour)
“An audition will be held at 10am on Wednesday the first in the fluffy rehearsal room, bring your own” “Get one of those for your trousers, get one of those for your hair” “Sitting with me in the studio tonight is a cross-section of British youth” “In the recent heavy fighting near Blackpool, Mrs G Evans of Solihull was gradually injured” “You’ve just won a trip to Denver and five others – and you’ve also been elected as independent candidate for Paddington!” “Theatre hour is brought to you tonight from the arms of someone new” “O-U-T spells out” “When Christmas time is over and your bonnie clegg a strew, I’ll be bristling to you listener, all the best from mae tae you”
The 1967 flexi-disc is, like Magical Mystery Tour, a sort of cross between what’s immediately gone before and what went by in the good ole days. Like Tour it’s half hip psychedelia and half nostalgia, with a proper song this time around (if still not one of the greatest – if only Lennon had written Happy Xmas (War Is Over) at this point these discs might be better remembered than they are!) Which, again like Tour, means that the kids are put off by the references to times past and the adults are put off by the sheer amateurishness of it all that the kids find so delightful. That’s why one minute we get a spot-on spoof of the sort of teatime television entertainment only those who’ve grown up in the music hall could love and the next we’ve got a (fairly) straight rendition of a made-up-on-the-spot song ‘Plenty Of Jam Jars’ that sounds so like the real thing it’s just not funny.
First of all, the song. ‘Christmastime Is Here Again’ sounds like a McCartney song to me, despite being credited to all four Beatles. It shares some distant DNA with the more trivial Macca songs of the period, like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ or ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, which prove once again that what rock and roll gained the advertising jingle industry lost. But ‘Xmas’ makes more sense in context – its repetitive and simple tune and confusing lyrics (‘O-U-T spells out?!’) will never be your favourite Beatles song by any means but so many Christmas songs out there sound like that one and I bet they took longer to write than McCartney did this one. What’s interesting too is the way the song splits up the action – The Beatles Anthology made a lot of questionable choices but putting this song ‘back together’, as it were, was one of their better ideas as it stands up rather better all in one go than heard in bits (how typical, then, that one of that project’s better ideas was relegated to a B-side and wasn’t on Anthology proper). The song also offers each Beatle in turn a go in the spotlight – something the band hadn’t really down since 1964 and yet happens a lot in this period (the four way credit on ‘Flying’, for instance), with McCartney sounding most at home on this simple pop song (because it’s his?!)
As is fitting for the close cousin of ‘Tour’, the sketches are as zany and as psychedelic as in 1966, but somehow there’s an earthyness in them too which wasn’t really around in late 1966/early 1967 (after all, ‘Tour’ was about a travelling holiday mainly franchised by OAPs!) This time around the sketches aren’t as funny or surreal and attack real life a lot more, albeit with the same old Goonish logical humour. The first sketch finds the Beatles meeting a gatekeeper – played, once more, by Mal Evans – and claiming they ‘have permission, oh wise one’. Is this a dig at the establishment of places like Abbey Road where – before the Beatles turned up – the whole staff wore scientist’s lab coats? Lennon’s segue into a rehearsal hall re-uses the marching feet sound effect last heard on the 1964 xmas disc (and by using it in such a new context it really shows off how much has changed in three years) is one of the funniest on the disc and its a shame more room couldn’t be found for Lennon’s bored stage director (not unlike the director in ‘Hard Day’s Night’) The sketch then has the director assuming that the actor – Paul, asking for an amp to plug into – is in fact giving his lines, a typically Lennonish joke that plays with fantasy and reality. In fact Lennon’s on sparkling form throughout for the first time in a couple of years and indeed he’s – temporarily as it turns out – in a good place having met Yoko and given up many of the drugs that caused him to go lethargic in 1967 (alas he’s given up for stronger, harsher drugs which make him, well, stronger and harsher in this period and into 1968) This recording is almost the first evidence of this ‘new’ Lennon – beloved b-side ‘I Am The Walrus’ beating this record into the studio by a number of days.
The best evidence of goonish humour, though, comes from Paul, who prefixes his and John’s sketch of ‘a cross section of British youth’ (actually one person and a ‘sir’ at that – clearly television fails to represent it’s youth of the sixties just as it continues to today) with a string arrangement straight out of Peter Sellers’ ‘Songs for Swingin’ Sellers’ album (which George Martin produced). George is up next with a request for a made up song by ‘the Revellers’ (amazing, really, that that name hasn’t been taken up a Beatles tribute band yet!) which is delivered by the band in such a dreary way it’s like the worst Christmas party you’ve ever had, with lots of drunken and off-key relatives gathered round the piano (although arguably McCartney’s Christmases in his youth were all like this – see the James Paul McCartney TV special for more evidence of the Macca clan in festive mode)
The best sketch is saved till near-last, with George a hapless contestant on a quiz show delivered by John in one of his silliest voices. George gets a round of applause just for knowing his age and eventually wins ‘a trip to Denver and five others’ – daft enough as it is – before finding he’s been elected as ‘candidate for Paddington’. The merging of politics and television was a key theme of the 1960s, from the Kennedy vs Nixon television debates to the assassination of JFK and Nixon’s own election later in the decade but even as early as 1967 the Beatles (who, after all, weren’t trained in writing this sort of thing) have already seen through the facade (and seen first hand Wilson’s hilarious attempts to win the Beatles onto his side during his UK election campaign of 1966) and decided that the ultimate result of all that glitz and glamour isn’t right for the job and given it away in a quiz show based on pot luck.
Ringo then gets a late sketch on his own, based around Armchair Theatre – a big show in it’s day - which is too short to make much impact. In fact, it’s cribbed from the plot of ‘Help!’ and even uses that film’s musical cue of edgy, tensed strings. It’s left to George Martin to wrap things up - strangely, making his first vocal appearance on a finished Beatles recording – but wait, Lennon’s not finished, delivering an atmospheric, cod-Scottish ending which is far more successful than his previous attempt. Lennon even brings the Beatles story full circle, ending his song with the words ‘from mae tae you’ (the title of the Beatles’ fourth single for those who don’t know) to the tune of Auld Lang Syne (nostalgia for the band’s early days is a big theme of the year, what with the life from third single ‘She Loves You’ during the fade of ‘All You Need Is Love’).
(#1 single that xmas = none, #1 album = The White Album)
“Once upon a time there were two balloons called Jock and Yono, they were strictly in love, bound to happen man” “They battled on against overwhelming oddities including some of their beast friends” “Well if you ask me I think it’s insane!” “Private line? I’ve been on this line for two years!” “God bless you, Tiny Tim”
The 1968 record is hard going and all but sums up the state of the group after the seemingly endless and band-breaking sessions for The Beatles’ White Album – John only has eyes for Yoko and barely mentions Christmas, Paul is trying to come up with a bouncy song but his heart clearly isn’t in it, George is hardly there and covering up his absence with guest star Tiny Tim (just as he ropes in Eric Clapton and Billy Preston to help out on the band’s records) and Ringo is left talking to himself. The only reason these four very different extracts go together at all is thanks to some clever editing from Radio One DJ Kenny Everett (who, incidentally, celebrated his 24th birthday the very day this sixth fanclub disc came out). The links include some very late-60s local radio links, snatches of classical music and speeded up versions of then-new songs from the White Album – which sounds deeply odd, to be frank, not because they’ve been speeded up but because this is the one time the Beatles recycled some of their material (although to be fair it’s probably Kenny’s idea).
The biggest shock of all to those of you who are listening to these discs in order is that the Beatles, still just about working together on the 1967 fanclub record, have splintered into four very distinct and separate groups and no amount of fast-editing can disguise that fact. The only exception to that is Paul and Ringo who, presumably, are meant to be hard at work on the pair’s songs ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’ rather than messing about with tape recorders (listen out for the handclaps at the end of Paul’s song – a key part of many ‘White Album’ McCartney songs). Unusually it’s Ringo who introduces the disc – the first time its neither John nor Paul, although a point that not many fans pick up on is that Ringo mentions himself by name, twice – the first time any of The Beatles have done this since the 1964 record, assuming that by now the whole world knows what each Beatle sounds like. Chances are Ringo is either being funny or filling in time while looking for something to say, although I’m tempted to speculate that at this stage (late 1968) Ringo has only just rejoined the group following his temporary sabbatical, looking at Octopuses’ underwater pebble gardens while away on holiday no less.
Paul doesn’t bother introducing himself, perhaps because the made-up-on-the-spot song he gives us this time around (usually given the fan-name ‘Happy New Year’ is just so Macca in it’s every poor, a kind of acoustic bastardisation of Mother Nature’s Son, Blackbird and Paul’s song for Mary Hopkin ‘Goodbye’. The lyrics are as trite as ever for these Christmas recordings, but the tune is quite special and is strong evidence for the idea that Paul had the potential to come up with a million seller every single time he sat down with his piano or guitar. Interestingly, this is the only song out of the four or five heard on these records that digs past the festive season to have Paul wishing his fans a happy everything ahead in 1969: ‘happy Easter, happy Autumn, happy Michelmas’. You have to say, though, that the usually bouncy Paul doesn’t sound all that happy singing this song – presumably because the Beatles, deep in the midst of sessions for the White Album, really aren’t that happy a group to be in any longer. Even more than the others, it’s Paul whose missing the banter and bonhomie of the earlier records and, without the other Beatles present (barring Ringo, briefly), he doesn’t even try to chat to us but writes us a song instead. Fans know about the Beatles split well and how badly the White Album sessions broke up the band, but it’s this simple recording that brings that fact home more than any of the actual tracks from that album.
Lennon, meanwhile, isn’t even giving a thought as to what the other Beatles are doing. Typically Lennon, his contribution to the 1968 festive period isn’t even about the fans but about himself. Unlike many fans, I find his piece of self-mockery ‘The Ballad of Jock and Yono’ quite funny, with the piece full of that characteristic Lennon wordplay and devilish puns – at least until it turns sour at the end when Lennon admits that the mud-slinging against the pair stuck to them ‘slightly’ and that the couple were in love despite ‘overwhelming oddities’ including ‘some of our beast friends’, a line delivered with so much withering sarcasm it virtually points at the other three Beatles. The shock of hearing the Beatles bonhomie and joy to be alive of 1963 and 64 replaced by a piece that features one of the band attacking the other three is massive, even for those who know of the bitter fall-outs in the band around 1968 and 69. However, taken on it’s own merits, the piece is a prime example of the famous Lennon wit and actually a better idea for a song than ‘The Ballad Of John and Yoko’ (although that’s an overlooked song too that would be better liked had it been an album track not a single), so it’s a shame Kenny Everett chose to break the composition up into several parts. Lennon can’t have been amused, either, by Kenny’s loud yell of ‘cut!’ at the end of the most wearing part of the dialogue or the distortion effects used on his voice to make it sound more ‘interesting’!
The biggest shock of all, though, is that George barely speaks to us, choosing instead to introduce first Mal Evans, making his third appearance on a Christmas disc (which must have come as a shock to fans who didn’t know who he was – he’s not introduced that well by George who clearly doesn’t know what to call the roadie, manager, friend, ‘fifth Beatle’ and all round nice guy Mal – interestingly his fellow ‘fifth Beatle’ Neil Aspinall doesn’t even get a mention, despite being with the Beatles for an even longer period of time) and, umm, Tiny Tim. Everyone on this site who lived through the sixties will know who Tiny Tim is, the gentle giant with the falsetto voice who looked like a quintessential hippie but mainly sang songs from the pre-war era. He was huge at the time – not quite Beatle type huge, perhaps, but pretty darn big all the same and yet his back catalogue has been all but forgotten in the CD age and the few people under 40 who remember him at all probably only know him through some Beatle cover versions. His version of ‘Nowhere Man’, a song chosen especially for the event from Tim’s back repertoire but not recorded by Tim until later, is quite a fitting one for a Christmas Beatles record – ‘Nowhere Man’ is a song for the eccentrics of the world, after all, though what Lennon thought of having one of his most autobiographical and revealing songs done in this fashion is anybody’s guess. What’s most interesting, though, is that George has all but washed his hands of the Beatles by this time, barely appearing on this record at all barring two lengthy introductions and a repeat of the ‘ain’t been round since last year’ gag from 1967, although his joke at the end (‘God bless you, Tiny Tim’, a reference to the character from Charles Dicken’s perennial festive favourite ‘A Christmas Carol’) may well be the best on the record this year. George’s sarcasm on the line ‘to the fans...who’ve made out life worth living’ is very Beatles though, dry and hurtful and a hilarious in-joke spoof of more normal and straight-laced Christmas conventions that will make fans titter into the new year and confuse the hell out of everybody else.
Unusually it’s Ringo whose doing the most to keep the spirit of the Beatles recordings alive. Even though he’d left the group barely months before this recording, it’s Ringo whose brining the zany humour to the table we’ve come to expect from these recordings. Most revealingly of all, he achieves this banter by speaking not to the other three Beatles but to himself, via the wonders of home taping. So far on these discs we’ve seen Ringo on a good day (1965) and a bad (1964), where he’s both the hero of the hour and the outcast who can’t get a word in edgeways – Ringo’s contribution for 1968 finds exaggerated versions of ‘both’ Ringos, with the downbeat, despondent ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ era meeting the current chirpy 1968 Ringo-as-played-by-Ringo-in-such-films-as-The-Magic-Christian-film head on. Like the 1966 and 67 records, this sketch is confusing to say the least, with Ringo’s lines both ways having nothing to do with what the other Ringo replies. Having said that, though, there is a kind of internal Beatles/Goon Show logic that makes this section easily the highlight of this year’s record (the best line ‘this is a private line’ ‘private line? I’ve been on this line for two years!’ It’s also Ringo who makes the only mention of the other Beatles, even if he does introduce Paul, confusingly, as ‘one of the most versatile performer’s we’ve ever had’, whose ‘come all the way from Stokely Carmichael’ while Macca vamps on the piano behind him.
Overall, then, the 1968 Christmas record is an unhappy record, just as The White Album is in the main an unhappy record, although Lennon’s sarcasm aside there’s nothing you can really put your finger on; just an overwhelming sense of malaise and tiredness.
(single still vaguely in the charts this xmas = Something/Come Together, album = Abbey Road, which is still at the bottom end of the top 10)
“It is Christmas and my special thoughts, of course, turn towards eating” “I’d like some cornflakes prepared by Persian hands and I’d like it blessed by a Hare Krishna mantra” “Good evening to you one and all, I hope you will enjoy the coming sports day of your life, it’s momma’s little boy” “I’m overwhelmed by it’s sanctuary” “The Elizabethan high wall is something I’ve always loved, you see, lady” “Everybody will just be flying around, you know” “A strange magic, you know, just slowing down the forces of our thinking” “It’s warm and nice and comfy”
This is the last ever official Beatles release during their lifetime. This is enormously important so I’ll say it again. This is the last time, ever, that the four Beatles were on the same bit of plastic with a new release in their lifetime – the last time the world at larghe heard a Beatles project without knowing it was going to be their last (‘Let It Be’ will limp out the following Easter when the fate of the world’s favourite band has already been decided and we’ll discount all the reissues, outtakes, BBC recordings and reunion recordings for now), even if they aren’t actually together in the same place at the same time. What’s heartbreaking, if you hear these recordings in order, is that it sounds like the last recording. The split was in evidence in 1968 but it’s the gaping elephant in the room on this record. The four of them aren’t even trying to sound together anymore, whether by ‘guesting’ on each other’s improvised sessions or by using fancy trick editing. Not that it’s bad by any means – like last album ‘Abbey Road’ its a final encore by a band who knew when to stop but haven’t quite got it in their hearts to tell their public yet . Lennon even ends his last fanclub record with a version of ‘Good King Wenceslas’, the very first part of the very first Beatles record, the perfect full circle. Aaah.
Otherwise, however, it’s much the same as last year, only this time Kenny Everett has got his hands on the ‘Abbey Road’ master-tapes (released in September, around the time these recordings would have been made) and this time Ringo’s giving us a song as well as Paul. John’s still nattering about his time with Yoko to Yoko – albeit in the garden of their new home in Tittenhurst this time – although here, barely weeks after the couple finally marry, the couple have rarely been happier and Lennon’s contribution takes up a longer percentage of this record than any since 1963. George is all but absent from this record again though and, unusually, Paul isn’t on this record much either, suggesting perhaps that the Beatle who finally came out and said the Beatles were over in April 1970 is already long gone by this time. And yet, like ‘Abbey Road’, there’s a kind of warm glow that comes from the four Beatles knowing that this will, more than likely, be the last Christmas record they will ever do. Just as ‘Abbey Road’ is brighter and happier than either ‘The White Album’ or ‘Let It Be’ because the four of them are consciously trying to end on a high rather than watch their magnificent career unravel before them, so here are they on their best behaviour (even if that ‘best behaviour’ involves Lennon play-acting a spoilt brat, Paul talking in funny voices and Ringo making up the strangest Christmas song you are ever likely to hear).
The record starts at it’s highpoint: Lennon, by his own admission not very comfortable around children until his son Sean born in 1975 and he has the time to do things properly, is looking after first son Julian (here aged six) and a school-friend while Paul, behind them, joins in. In fact, Paul does all the work, the young children being too shy to speak into the tape recorder and Lennon’s reply (‘and the same to you!’) is one of the silliest on any of these records. Alas this extract is only brief and it’s not long before Lennon is out wandering around his new mansion with Yoko in two, having a typical JohnandYoko rambling conversation, taking in everything from what they wish for this Christmas (‘cornflakes served by Persian hands’ for Lennon – I hope Santa was taking note that year!) and what they hope for in the forthcoming decade of the 1970s (alas Yoko’s idea that everyone will ‘just be flying around’ never happened, whether it was meant physically or spiritually!) Alas the Lennon’s 1970s weren’t peaceful or ***as it turned out, what with Nixon, America, Green cards, primal therapy and the Lost Weekend and all. Lennon’s on good form, though, with his half-genuine, half-sarcastic responses to comments about his property (‘I’ve always loved the Elizabethan high wall!’) tempered by his obvious delight in having married Yoko at last (the pair wanted to get married as early as 1968 but they had to wait for Yoko’s divorce from her second husband to come through) which is delightful even if you are one of those Yoko-bashers who give Beatles fans a bad name (his one-off shy comment of ‘lady’ and his later ‘Mrs Lennon’ are about as close as the pair came to showing their love on film tape during the Beatles days). Yoko’s spontaneous ‘agh!’ of exasperation as Lennon sings ‘Wenceslas’ over the top of her dialogue is priceless too, though, and shows not everything was happy in the land of JohnandnYoko, even as early as 1969. (rambling as she is on this section, Lennon had just asked her a question and could have waited for a reply!)
There’s so much Lennon on this record we even get a coda, with John and Yoko playing around with their new mellotron (also heard on Lennon’s ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ song that year) and creating a festive sequence for us. Yoko gamely tries to live up to Lennon’s nickname for her (‘mother’), but Lennon’s spoof spoilt brat is just a tad too annoying and, quite frankly, frightening for most fans to find this section as funny as it should be. Lennon’s just too convincing as he asks for toy upon toy (some fans have seen this as Lennon making up for his underprivileged childhood but if so it should be Ringo coming out with this long list – Lennon’s background was quite posh) and the record ends with Lennon still rambling ‘lots and lots and lots and lots...’ (we never do find out what Lennon is after, although its worth pointing out his flippant reference to a toy ‘man on the moon’, which sounds like an odd toy to ask for now, was very much in the news at the time some five months after the moon landings). If nothing else, at least this section is more entertaining than JohnandYoko’s ‘Unfinished Music’ series – you can even hear the genesis of the 25-minute ‘John and Yoko’ from the ‘Wedding Album’ in this piece, although thankfully the calling of ‘John’ and ‘Yoko’ is a lot shorter this time around!
Paul and Ringo are a bit more normal this year. Paul’s latest Christmas tune for us is frustratingly short which is a shame because it’s his prettiest yet, again half-Mary Hopkin and half Bob Dylan, with Paul singing in that lovely falsetto voice he’ll make his own once he starts making songs with his new wife Linda (the pair married the week before the Ono-Lennons) on a song that, given different words, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Ram’. Paul’s also the only Beatle whose remembered what these recordings are actually for - connecting with fans – and sounds the most genuine in wishing everyone a happy new year (although, alas, Paul himself will have one of the worst years of his life in 1970, what with the fallout from The Beatles and all – see ‘news and views’ no 73).
As for Ringo, his third ever released composition is very much what you’d expect a made-up-on-the-spot song to sound like, although the very Goonish way Ringo finishes the song in order to make the song rhyme is, again, the most characteristically Beatleish moment of any on the Christmas disc this year. Listen out, too, for Ringo’s witty ‘Magic Christian’ plug (the deeply odd film Ringo stars in with Peter Sellers and with a Badfinger soundtrack, released in early 1970) which involves him saying ‘happy Christmas’ over and over before gradually turning it into ‘Magic Christian’ (with some help from Kenny Everett’s tape doodling). The fact that Ringo’s innocent note to the radio DJ (‘it’s just a plug for the film, Ken, try to leave it on’) is left attached is very Beatles and somehow a very fitting end to the collection of Christmas discs, even if it is an advert for a project featuring only one Beatle! Not the best of these discs, then, by any means, there’s still plenty of magic within the grooves of the 1969 flexi-disc record which is marred only by the absence of George.
Overall, then, these seven discs take us from the Beatles’ cradle to the grave with some of the best examples around of the famous Beatles wit that could floor a politician or pressman at 10 paces and yet are still funny and sympathetic enough to leave fans giggling for hours. Although The Beatles’ reputation is pretty much secure as far as music goes (though it would have been nice to have seen the new Beatles downloads outselling the likes of ‘Chipmunk’ and X Factor rejects), their social status as a watershed for the times has been under question every year since the band broke up. More than any other non-musical document, these fan-club documents show off what a witty, knowing and above all intelligent group of people The Beatles were and whether its by turning the usual conventions on their heads by faking scripts, making up sketches or using ground-breaking linking pieces to break up the dialogue, there’s always a lot of work going on in every work despite the occasional throwaway moment. We know that Lennon, in particular, used to talk like this all the time and it’s lovely to have an extra record of the Beatles at play to go with the stylised-but-still-largely-truthful scripts for ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’ So let’s hope that, someday soon, all fans will have access to this great material and we hope that, in the meantime, this article has done it’s best to reunite The Beatles with Christmas, where – more than any other time of the year – they rightfully belong.
A now complete collection of Beatles articles from this site for you to peruse into the new year: