Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: 'The U.S. Albums' by The Beatles


No band’s discography has spent as much time under the geek microscope as The Beatles’, and when Capitol/UMe announced that it would finally release all of the Fabs’ major American releases on CD for the first time, the questions and concerns started flying freely across the vast online wasteland. Would they be faithful to the original Capitol (and in one case, United Artists) albums, complete with unique mixes, duophonic disasters, and all that awful reverb A&R guy Dave Dexter, Jr., applied to numerous tracks? How closely would the packaging replicate the originals? And so on and so on.

I did my best to address some of these issues a couple of weeks ago in my review of a twenty-five track sampler Capitol/UMe sent out in advance of the proper box set’s release. Because of the particular tracks the label selected to represent the big box, I actually couldn’t address much. Well, now I do have a copy of The U.S. Albums, and all is clear.

So, yes, the advance word is true that all duophonic mixes have been replaced with proper stereo ones culled from the 2009 Parlophone remasters. Dexter’s unnecessary reverb has been wiped from the story. Those seeking to recreate their memories of huddling around stereo hi-fis and spinning Yesterday… and Today for the first time in June 1966 will find the experience quite different this time. And so on and so on.

The U.S. Albums has now been available for over a week. There have been numerous reviews posted elsewhere and unbelievably in-depth discussions on message boards. Let’s assume my fellow purists have gotten most of the belly aching out of their (our) systems and focus on what’s here, because despite its divergences from total purity, The U.S. Albums is a pretty beautiful box set.

First, let’s look at that 1966 hodgepodge Yesterday… and Today. Yes, those reverb-saturated duophonic mixes of “And Your Bird Can Sing”, “Doctor Robert”, and “I’m Only Sleeping” have been replaced by the proper stereo remasters from 2009. The accompanying booklet is very up front about this and the decision to give listeners the best listening experience possible (you may recall that when the first Capitol Albums box set was released in 2004, the majority of reviewers, who’d probably never heard these albums on vinyl, complained cluelessly about the poor sound of the duophonic and echoed-up tracks). However, the mono versions of these tracks are the unique American mixes. This should have been a given for “I’m Only Sleeping”, which differs very noticeably from its UK counterpart (the backwards guitar snippets used in the verses are totally different), but Capitol/UMe might have gotten away with slipping on the 2009 mono mixes of those other tracks, which feature much subtler differences (in the U.S., “And Your Bird Can Sing” had slightly louder hand claps during the guitar solo and “Doctor Robert” had slightly louder vocals and a slightly more complete ending). It is impressive that no cheating was done with these tracks. The U.S. stereo mixes of “We Can Work It Out” and “Day Tripper” are also subtly different from the UK ones and are also preserved on The U.S. Albums. Other immediately noticeable unique mixes—such as the extended edit of “I’ll Cry Instead”, the stereo “Thank You Girl” with its extra harmonica, and the stereo “I’m Looking Through You” with its false start—are intact too.

So is the packaging, which completely blows away the Capitol Albums box sets with their tacky looking sliding boxes that inevitably made the CDs spill out on the floor and their mini-LP sleeves of thin cardboard that did not completely replicate the original covers. The U.S. Albums boasts slavishly faithful (yes, Help! is a gatefold; yes the inner sleeves are crowded with ads for other Capitol releases), sturdy cardboard sleeves. Yesterday… and Today is packaged in its butcher sleeve with the replacement “steamer trunk” cover included as a sticker that can be pasted over it just as Capitol did back in ’66. Each CD also includes a plastic sleeve to protect the discs from getting scuffed on the paper inner sleeves and a good quality plastic resealable plastic bag not likely to tear as quickly as, say, the flimsy ones in Led Zeppelin’s 2008 Definitive Collection box.

So to reiterate what I said in my review of the sampler, The U.S. Albums will disappoint those who want utter authenticity. Those who want as close a reproduction of those old American albums as they’re going to get with supreme sound and packaging, those who don’t mind hearing “I Feel Fine” pop up on Beatles ’65 without so much reverb that its magnetic guitar riff is nearly indecipherable, will be most pleased.

Get The U.S. Albums on Amazon.com here:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Today in ‘Who FAQ’ News: My Work Here Is Done


It’s been a while since I’ve slipped any updates about my upcoming book, The Who FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Fifty Years of Maximum R&B, into your furry paws. That doesn’t mean work hasn’t been going down behind the scenes. Well all that has now ended, at least as far as I’m concerned. Yesterday I finished creating the massive index, and once Back Beat’s layout staff shoves it into the book, I’m guessing it will be ready to go to print (I’m not precisely certain what the publishing process is, but let’s pretend it’s that).
In other Who FAQ news, it also has a cover now. Don’t be fooled by how sleepy everyone looks in the photo. The book is actually as exciting as Roger Daltrey’s chest, which is also displayed on the cover.

The index is my favorite part of The Who FAQ because its breadth shows just how extensively The Who’s influence has swept through popular culture. My first version included 1,636 terms. When it hit me that I’d actually have to search for each and every one of those terms throughout the book and enter the page numbers manually, I got skittish about the incredible tedium of the task and whittled down that number a bit. So the index in the published version will have fewer than 1,636 terms, but all of those details are still in the book. Here are a few from the original index that probably don’t appear in too many other books on The Who:

Afghan Whigs, Judd Apatow, Louis Armstrong, Tony Blair, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, John Cleese, The Decemberists, Fahrenheit 451, Ricky Gervais, “If I Only Had a Heart”, The Italian Job, Judas Priest, “The Kids in the Hall”, Stanley Kubrick, Lady Godiva (Peter and Gordon album), Lil Wayne and DJ Cinema, “Louie”, “The Mighty Boosh”, Olivia Newton-John, Barack Obama, One Direction, “Pretty Boy Floyd”, Vincent Price, Henry Purcell, Saturday Night Fever, Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Spitting Image”, Star Wars, The Story of Simon Simopath (Nirvana album), Quentin Tarantino, Tales from the Crypt, 3rd Bass, Francois Truffaut, Mao Tse-tung, “Twin Peaks”, “Video Killed the Radio Star”, Laurent Voulzy, Andrew Lloyd Webber, “The Who Vs. Porky Pig”, “WKRP in Cincinnati”, “The Young Ones”

How do these various items relate to the Best Rock & Roll Band in the World? Find out when The Who FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Fifty Years of Maximum R&B hits the streets on May 13th!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: 'Frankenstein Created Woman' Blu-Ray


Frankenstein Created Woman is by far the best of Hammer’s Frankenstein sequels. What could have just been an update of Bride of Frankenstein in the same way The Curse of Frankenstein dragged James Whale’s Frankenstein into the fifties is a totally individual film. Hans (Robert Morris), a young assistant of Dr. Frankenstein (Peter Cushing—who else?), is beheaded for a crime he didn’t commit. The good doctor resurrects him by transferring Hans’s soul into the body of his girlfriend, Christina (Susan Denberg), who’d drowned herself after witnessing Hans’s execution. A badly scarred brunette in life, Christina somehow springs back to life as a blonde with perfect skin—as well as Hans’s yen for revenge against the trio of snotty rich kids who committed the crime for which he was killed. 

Frankenstein Created Woman is unique in the Hammer cannon for the sympathy with which it treats its monsters—and this time, Dr. Frankenstein is a genuine monster, having been brought back to life just as Hans/Christina is. All the hallmarks fans expect from the studio—bowls of blood, disdain for the aristocracy, sumptuous sets and costumes, a sexy leading lady, Cushing’s cheekbones—are all in attendance too. 

While numerous Hammer films have already made it to blu-ray in the studio’s home country, these horror classics haven’t made much of an appearance in the U.S. so far. That seems to be changing now that Millennium Entertainment has begun distributing Hammer in America, starting with Dracula: Prince of Darkness last fall. I’d read some unflattering things about that blu-ray (which is apparently identical to Studio Canal’s release in the U.K.), so my expectations weren’t high for Frankenstein Created Woman. The Dracula disc apparently suffered from excessive application of noise reduction. Frankenstein Created Woman has a nice grain noticeable from the opening frames. It looks sufficiently vibrant even though this is one of the darkest Hammer films. The handful of daytime, exterior scenes look very good and there is barely a blemish to be seen. There is inconsistency in the image with a few shots looking muted and one really weird four-second stretch when Christina chops her second victim that looks completely unrestored. Such passages aside, this is a presentable looking picture.

Several of the extras are exceptional too. The obvious stand out is Hammer Glamour, a 44-minute documentary on the women of Hammer films. There is a lot of ground to cover in that running time, and a lot of the actresses only receive a passing mention (including this disc’s star, Susan Denberg). The substantial involvement of six actresses obliterates that shortcoming, Vera Day and Jenny Hanley appearing in solo interviews and Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswicke, and Madeline Smith sharing a sofa to reminisce with good humor and candor about Hammer’s exploitative tendencies and script shortcomings, making Hammer Glamour rise above celebratory puff piece. Almost as good is the feature commentary with Robert Morris, Derek Fowlds (who plays Johann in the film), and horror historian Jonathan Rigby. The jocular discussion touches on the film’s absurd censorship issues (the kid who played Hans was not allowed to scream upon seeing his dad decapitated!), Cushing’s career, the dubbing of Alan MacNaughtan and Susan Denberg, as well as all the other Denberg tidbits we hoped to learn in Hammer Glamour. I was startled to hear that the actress, whose career ended abruptly due to drug and mental problems, is likely still alive. 

Nifty to own but not a ton of fun to watch are a couple of unrestored episodes of the “World of Horror” series, which recycled long stretches of select Hammer films with sparse, not terribly insightful narration by Oliver Reed. There’s also a cool stills gallery that pays sufficient homage to Denberg’s iconic bandagekini and an envelope of postcard-size poster and lobby card reproductions. 

Get Frankenstein Created Woman at Amazon.com here:

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ten Mysterious and Imaginative Edgar Allan Poe Adaptations


According to imdb, Edgar Allan Poe’s works have been adapted 287 times as of this writing. With eight of those not even seeing release yet, the penner of weird and gloomy tales hasn’t fallen off the radar of film and TV creators one iota. That’s a lot of stuff to sift through, and I won’t pretend I’ve seen all of those adaptations. I have seen enough to put together a short list of unmissable realizations of Poe stories, the faithful and the far out, the straight and the surreal, the subtle, the hilarious, the animated, and the bloody. Here are ten great Edgar Allan Poe adaptations you might want to cram in today in honor of his 205th birthday.


1. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928- dir. Jean Epstein)

Edgar Allan Poe is unquestionably among the most popular writer’s in history, which accounts for why he’s been adapted so many times. However, his work usually doesn’t lend itself to faithful adaptation. He’s often a lot more interested in piling on the words to fashion a mood than he is in telling a story. Perhaps this too is a reason for his popularity among filmmakers. An oft-adapted story such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” is so lacking in plot that it allows an interpreter to take it in any number of interesting directions. French filmmaker Jean Epstein did that in his silent adaptation from 1928, using spare surreal imagery to convey the dread Poe labors to conjure in his story. With assistance from co-writer Luis Buñuel, then making “Un Chien Andalou” with Salvador Dali, Epstein welds together an assortment of fantastical, unforgettable images. The odd ones—disorienting pov shots, nightmarish sets, screwing frogs—pack as much power as the ones that are now regarded as spooky movie clichés—mysteriously extinguishing candles, billowing curtains, reanimated corpses. Even as the story takes its liberties with the source material, the presentation conveys the atmosphere of a Poe story uncannily, which is really the most important thing.

2. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932- dir. Robert Florey)

After reworking Dracula and Frankenstein into films that don’t rely too heavily on Stoker or Shelley in 1931, Universal treated Poe with a similar lack of respect with its adaptation of “Murders in the Rue Morgue” the following year. The film works mainly as a vehicle for Karl Freund’s expressionistic cinematography, Bela Lugosi’s sinister mugging and line readings, and Robert Florey’s totally wacko plot developments, such as Lugosi’s plot to prove the theory of evolution by shooting up women with gorilla blood. That twist surely would have tickled Poe, whose macabre sense of humor is lost on all those readers who just think of him as a purveyor of opium-spiked horror. Despite the fact that it didn’t quake box offices, Murders in the Rue Morgue set off a mini cycle of Poe movies for Universal. Ironically, this unfaithful adaptation was the closest thing to a faithful adaptation the studio produced…

3. The Black Cat (1934- dir. Edgar G. Ulmer)

…and for proof of that, check out The Black Cat. The story is actually one of Poe’s clearest, and more faithful adaptations would come in later years (and later on this list too), but Universal was always pretty revision happy, and writer Peter Ruric and director Edgar G. Ulmer get downright slap-happy with “The Black Cat”. So long to the simple plot of marital mania and revenge. Hello to a psycho chess match between Satanic war criminal Boris Karloff and sadistic “hero” Bela Lugosi. Karloff’s ailurophobia allows the film to very, very, very tangentially relate to Poe, but his story has no bearing on Ulmer’s masterpiece otherwise. Karloff and Lugosi have never been better matched, both relishing every line of peculiar dialogue, and with its art deco style and insane brew of Satanism, torture, and head games, The Black Cat may be the best film on this list even if its pretty spurious as an adaptation.

4. “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1953- dir. Ted Parmelee)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: 'The Doors: R-Evolution'


D-Evolution might have been a more appropriate title for the new Doors clips compilation since R-Evolution starts with far and away its best clip. To give the band’s first single a bit of extra promotional pizzazz, Elektra’s Jac Holzman commissioned a promo film for “Break on Through” that’s like watching The Doors’ album cover come to life, the guys lip-synching in moody chiaroscuro. Shot on actual film, this is also the clip that looks best on the blu-ray, many of the others being TV appearances from so-so video sources. The Doors go-for-it in the “Break on Through” promo too, Morrison lunging at the mic as if he was actually singing, but they more often look bored during performances on corn-ball shows like “Shebang”, “Murray the K”, and “Malibu U”, in which the musicians mime on a beach-bound fire engine surrounded by vacantly grinning California girls while Morrison appears in disembodied shots filmed at a later date. The attempt to pass off Robbie Krieger’s brother as Jim in wide shots of the band is not convincing.

The crude band-made promo film for “The Unknown Soldier”, in which the musicians execute Morrison with their sitars and tablas as some sort of anti-war statement, and the ones made during the eighties, don’t even have the corny retro charm of the “Malibu U” clip. More interesting are the classic clip of The Doors doing “Touch Me” with full-orchestra on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”, the opportunities to see them do the odder numbers “The Crystal Ship” (“American Bandstand”) and “Moonlight Drive” (“The Jonathan Winters Show”), and a mini-documentary of the “Wild Child” recording session.

Although the main feature is hit-or-miss on its own, an optional picture-in-picture commentary track with narration from Holzman, Krieger, John Densmore, and engineer Bruce Botnick makes it much more interesting viewing. Krieger and Densmore express good-natured embarrassment over the corny sixties TV performances (though are far too unaware of how bad the seventies American Prayer experiment is). I actually couldn’t get the video for the picture-in-picture commentary to work, but I’ll give Eagle Vision Entertainment the benefit of the doubt and assume the problem was with my blu-ray player. It is pretty crappy. Yet that wasn’t a problem, since the entire commentary has been close-captioned, which is a preferable way of experiencing it since I didn’t have to hear voices blathering over the music. The commentary is also available as a stand-alone bonus “documentary” feature for totally separate viewing. A more bizarre bonus feature is a twenty-minute training film from Ford Motors in which original Doors incidental music plays over examples of troublesome customers. Less bizarre are a clip of the band going through the motions of “Break on Through” at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 and some outtakes from the “Malibu U” show.

Get The Doors: R-Evolution at Amazon.com here:

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Cult Club: 'Wake in Fright' (1971)


In this feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll. 

Wake in Fright is a horror movie without the things that define a horror movie. There are no ghosts, though it is terribly haunting. There are no serial killers, unless you count the drunken hunters who wantonly slaughter kangaroos in perhaps the most disturbing scene I’ve ever had the displeasure to watch. There are no monsters, unless a town can be a monster. That town is Bundanyabba, or “The Yabba” as the locals call it. They are the demons who do the monster’s bidding. They stupefy its victims with beer. They drain its victims’ resources with sub-moronic gambling events. Then they go in for the kill with a methodical but swift dehumanization process.



The victim is John Grant (Gary Bond). He is a teacher forced to do his work in the Australian outback due to a system he describes as “slavery.” The government has placed him far from anything this posh city boy would consider civilization and required him to put down a deposit of $1,000 that will only be returned to him after he has completed his service. On his way back to Sydney to see his girlfriend over the Christmas holiday, he stops in The Yabba for a night. There visits a bar where he meets a local sheriff (Chips Raffery) who insists John join him in a beer, chugged according to local custom. Then another. And another. Well crocked, John wanders into a hellish gambling hall where men place bets on coin tosses, laying their antes on the floor and picking them up according to the honor system. This is the only honor to be found in The Yabba. Grant, thinking he’s smarter than The Yabba’s yobbos, gets in on the betting, quits while he’s $600 ahead, returns to his shoddy hotel room, and then starts thinking. Just another $400 and he’s made back his deposit. He can return to his old way of life in Sydney. The immorality of The Yabba is in his system. He returns to the game, loses everything, and is stranded.



From here, Wake in Fright moves from dire situation to dire situation. John takes up with a small band of local drunks and hunters led by the affable Tim Hynes (Al Thomas). The man who leads John is the one educated man in the group, the Mephistophelean Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence). John finds himself sucked into a world of nonstop drunken oblivion, of fighting, gunplay, slaughter, and suicide. The centerpiece of this harrowing down slope is an interminable scene in which the revelers take him on a kangaroo hunt. They go out at night when they can take advantage of the spotlight atop their truck. The light mesmerizes the kangaroos in the dark, keeping them still, making them easy targets. The slaughter is not accomplished with stuffed animals. These are real kangaroos actually being killed, and it is not the clean killing of clear-headed hunters. The film crew supposedly went out with actual, licensed outback hunters, but the men got drunker and drunker as the night went on. They shot sloppily. Animals were left gored and suffering. The film crew was sickened by the experience, ultimately faking a power outage to put out the lamp illuminating the hunt. Hollow cries of offense notwithstanding, director Ted Kotcheff held back nothing when choosing footage to include in his film. The culmination is a shot of a heap of kangaroos halved at the torso. If I could scrub one image in a film from my memory, I’d choose this one.

 The presence of horror mainstay Donald Pleasence seems to underline the horrific nature of Wake in Fright, particularly in a surreal dream sequence that casts him as a sort of string-pulling devil.

Wake in Fright is not a movie to be enjoyed. It is not something to rate as good or bad, even though it is regularly rated as one of the best films to come out of Australia, critic Rex Reed and rocker Nick Cave being among these voices (my vote, incidentally goes to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock). The Australian consensus is that Wake in Fright is a film best forgotten (and it had been unseeable for decades, neither issued on VHS or DVD and too brutal to ever show on TV). It’s not hard to see why. The outback dwellers are portrayed as beasts that suck the souls of outsiders, perpetually wasted, absent of humanity, idiotic when uneducated, downright evil when educated. Crocodile Dundee these men are not. Even the victim is unlikable. John Grant is a sneering snob. We’re meant to believe he deserves his comeuppance. Maybe he would if it wasn’t so harsh and horrible to watch. That the filmmakers are not Australians—Kotcheff is a Canadian who’d achieve greater fame for making the faux brutal First Blood, screenwriter Evan Jones is Jamaican, Gary Bond and cinematographer Brian West are English—makes this portrayal of another culture questionable. Yet it is based on the novel of Australian Kenneth Cooke. The hunt is real. Supposedly, when an outraged audience member during a showing in Australia stood up and shouted, “That’s not us!” at the screen, Australian actor Jack Thompson (Dick in the film) replied, “Sit down, mate. It is us.”



Is Wake in Fright a product of bigotry? Is it an immoral document of extreme animal cruelty? Is Doc’s implied seduction of John a homophobic implication that sex between men is yet another immoral happening in The Yabba? Is the film a work of art above such matters? I don’t know. All I know is how the movie made me feel. Just as The Yabba did to John Grant, it sucked me in. It riveted me. It disgusted me. Few films have affected me as Wake in Fright has, and above anything else, I want a film to affect me. Too many wander in and out. Too few make me feel something, whether it’s something I want to feel or something I don’t. When that happens, I must at least give it credit for that. Wake in Fright scooped out a little patch of my brain and took up residence in the hole. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: The Beatles’ 'U.S. Albums' Sampler


The twenty-five track U.S. Albums sampler features two tracks from each of the dozen musical discs included in box set and one from the narrative Beatles Story. Since this isn’t quite enough material to adequately assess a 275-track box set, I won’t pretend that this is a review of all thirteen CDs or their packaging (which is reportedly authentic right down to the mini-inner sleeves contained in the mini-LP covers). Making that ruse particularly difficult are the particular tracks on the 25-track sampler. The Beatles’ U.S. albums on Capitol differed from their U.K. ones on Parlophone in several ways. I’ll be detailing and assessing these differences all year long in Psychobabble’s new series Turn Left at Greenland, so I won’t get too specific here, but broadly, the track-lists were reordered and spread over nearly twice as many records as were released on Parlophone, and more relevant to this review, many of the stereo mixes in the U.S. differed from the U.K. ones. Songs only available to Capitol in mono were transformed into “fake stereo” mixes (meaning all the highs were equalized to one channel while the lows were pushed to the other channel in a poor simulation of stereo separation) and doused in echo. Super Deluxe Edition.com has been releasing some early reports on The U.S. Albums stating that these excessively echoed and fake stereo mixes would be replaced with the proper Parlophone ones from the 2009 stereo remasters. This is hard for me to confirm definitively since only one of the tracks that Capitol originally put out in fake stereo—“I Want to Hold Your Hand” from Meet the Beatles—is included on the sampler. I can confirm that this particular track is, indeed, in proper stereo and not fake stereo. This leads me to assume that Super Deluxe Editions.com’s reports are correct: the stereo tracks have, for the most part, just been ported over from the 2009 remasters. To my ears they do sound exactly the same. I cannot make a similar assessment regarding the mono tracks, because I don’t have 2009’s mono box, but since “She Loves You” is in mono on the stereo Past Masters and the U.S. Albums sampler, I can say that this one track sounds like the same remaster on both discs.

So the question is, what are you expecting from The U.S. Albums: the best sound available or authenticity? Folks who want the best sounding albums will probably do well to just stick with their 2009 Parlophone remasters (even as I personally feel that a couple of the Capitol track lists are stronger than their Parlophone counterparts). My guess is that the majority of people who’ll want the Capitol albums will want them because, like me, they are the albums they grew up with. They’ll want them to replace their scratchy old LPs, to recreate the experience of listening to them with clearer sound. They’ll want them to authentically recreate the experience of hearing The Beatles for the first time. Replacing those crappy, echoy fake stereo mixes with better quality ones messes with that authenticity.

Reportedly, differences in mixes that extend beyond fake stereo and excessive echo matters will be preserved on The U.S. Albums. I assume this means things like Paul’s false start on “I’m Looking Through You” from Capitol’s Rubber Soul and the different placement of George’s backwards guitar leads on “I’m Only Sleeping” from Yesterday… and Today. I can’t confirm this since neither of these tracks is on the sampler. One thing that is clear from the sampler is that the sound is an improvement over the two previous box sets of U.S. Beatles albums: The Capitol Albums Vol. 1 (2004) and The Capitol Albums Vol. 2 (2006). There is greater presence and depth on the sampler than on those sets. Paul’s bass is a sonic boom on the mono mix of “I Need You”.

So my apologies that this review isn’t as complete as I would have liked it to be. I’m sure there are other reviews by reviewers who actually got their hands on the whole set out there that provide more definitive assessments. You can get your hands on it from Amazon.com and make up your own mind. I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section below. 

Update: For all you many, many folks who have questions I was not able to answer, Paul Sinclair now has the set and he's fielding reader questions in this post on Super Deluxe Edition.com.
 

These are the 25 tracks included on the sampler:

Friday, January 10, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 1: ‘Introducing… The Beatles’ and ‘The Early Beatles’


In this new monthly feature on Psychobabble, I’ll be looking at how The Beatles were presented on long-playing vinyl in the United States.

“…Fah!”

A mistake. That’s how Americans first heard the biggest band in pop history on LP when Introducing… The Beatles was released on this day in 1964. Blame the engineer at the Universal Recording Corporation of Chicago. It has become something of a cliché to include the four-count at the beginning of a recording of a particularly blazing Rock & Roll number (just ask Bruce Springsteen). This was not the case in 1963 when that engineer heard a new song called “I Saw Her Standing There”. He assumed the mistake was its inclusion on the tape, and in an attempt to fix it for this strange English band’s American debut album, he sloppily snipped off Paul McCartney’s shouts of “One, two, three…” just short of that climactic “…fah!

That a mistake begins The Beatles long-playing introduction to America is appropriate considering how messy their presentation would be throughout their first three years in this country. It also isnt the only difference between The Beatles’ U.S. and U.K. debuts. In Britain, EMI’s Parlophone imprint released Please Please Me as a fourteen-track album. Because such a generous number of tracks would have necessitated paying more publishing royalties than stingy American record companies wanted to, U.S. LPs usually only had eleven or twelve tracks. For extra value, British record companies tended to leave singles off LPs to save consumers from feeling ripped off when buying both an artist’s latest releases at 45 and 33 rpms. In this way, Introducing… The Beatles was more similar to a British release. The Beatles’ second U.K. single was the first to be released in America. After EMI tasked entertainment lawyer Paul Marshall with dumping The Beatles on an American label, he managed to hook them up with Vee-Jay Records, which put out “Please Please Me” b/w “Ask Me Why” on February 22, 1963. These were the two songs initially clipped from Introducing… The Beatles.

The Beatles first appeared in the U.S. in a drearier image than they enjoyed in the U.K. On Please Please Me, they look impish peaking over the railing of EMI headquarters. On Introducing… The Beatles, they are posed stiffly in garish pink dress shirts against an ugly grey backdrop.
 
The album was supposed to follow that single by just a few months, but it was delayed after Vee-Jay’s president Ewart Abner stepped down after using company cash to pay off his own gambling debts. So Introducing… The Beatles was not introduced until the following January 10. This was just ten days before EMI finally took advantage of the cash cow in its stable and its Capitol Records released Meet The Beatles, 27 days before the boys had their first U.S. number one single with “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, and just one month before Beatlemania exploded with the boys’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. EMI used its ownership of the “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You” to legally block Vee-Jay from distributing further copies of Introducing… The Beatles. The impoverished label would not see their one opportunity to earn taken from them so easily and simply replaced those two forbidden tracks with “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why”. So much for British-style value. Thus Introducing… The Beatles could be sold again... at least until October 15, 1964. That’s when Vee-Jay’s right to distribute its small cache of Beatles songs expired according to a settlement between that label and Capitol.

With that, Introducing… The Beatles sank from history despite being the very first Beatles album released in America, a milestone of no small historic value. It has never been reissued in the United States in either its “Love Me Do”/“P.S. I Love You” or “Please Please Me”/“Ask Me Why” incarnations, leaving kids who grew up on the album stuck with fast forwarding through the first three seconds of “I Saw Her Standing There” and skipping the appropriate two tracks on their Please Please Me CDs to approximate reliving the experience of listening to their first Beatles album.

The withdrawal of Introducing… The Beatles had other consequences in America. When Capitol finally took advantage of the void it left on March 22, 1965, by reissuing Vee-Jay’s previous stash as The Early Beatles (complete with incongruously recent cover photo torn from the back cover of Parlophone’s Beatles for Sale), it was missing three tracks. In the case of “I Saw Her Standing There” this was not a big deal since Capitol had already used it on Meet The Beatles. More consequently, two Lennon/McCartney originals—the neat, girl-groupish “Misery” and the phenomenal, introspective “There’s a Place”—had been removed and would not be released on a Capitol LP until the Rarities compilation in 1980 (though Capitol did release both tracks in Canada as single B-sides, “There’s a Place” finding a place on the flip of “Twist and Shout” released in conjunction with The Early Beatles and “Misery” coming out on the back end of “Roll Over Beethoven”). This was a major blunder considering that a couple of the lesser covers, such as “Chains” and “Baby It's You”, would have made much more sensible omissions.

Unlike Introducing… The Beatles, The Early Beatles also monkeyed with the running order of Please Please Me. “Love Me Do”, which Vee Jay’s subsidiary Tollie sent to number one in the states in May 1964, was moved to the top position even though this lightweight folk-blues ditty made for an infinitely less forceful opener than the wild “I Saw Her Standing There” (incidentally, since “Love Me Do” and its flip side were never mixed in stereo, mono mixes appear on the stereo The Early Beatles, thankfully avoiding the duophonic or "fake stereo" treatment that would muck up many other stereo Capitol albums, as we shall hear in future episodes of this series). The even more out-of-control “Twist and Shout”, plumped out with a bit of extra echo (as was P.S. I Love You), was shipped from the climactic position on Please Please Me to the number two spot on The Early Beatles, somewhat lessening the impact of this delirious track.

From there, the running order basically followed that of Please Please Me, but those initial changes and the different number of tracks further altered the listening experience. As we shall see in subsequent episodes of “Turn Left at Greenland!—The Beatles in America”, Capitol’s records often differed from Parlophone’s by concluding on a melancholic note instead of a delirious one. Doing so ended many Capitol records with an unsettled ellipsis rather than a fully satisfying and very final exclamation point. The sensation created anticipation for the next release that was never far behind instead of implying the show had peaked and ended. On The Early Beatles this happens at the end of both side A. Had it totally mirrored Please Please Me from “Anna (Go to Him)” on, “A Taste of Honey” would have finished the album. Capitol made one more alteration by sending “Do You Want to Know a Secret” past that track to the end. This was a fairly smart move since having a Lennon/McCartney original complete the album is more satisfying than ending it with one of The Beatles’ least Rock & Roll covers. Still the emotional effect would have been similar since “Honey” and “Secret” are both slightly moody ballads.

With The Beatles’ rapid progression being fully evident on their previous American LP, Beatles ’65, The Early Beatles did not sound of its time when released in early 1965 and was largely treated as a closet-cleaning platter by Capitol. There was little promotion and it did not sell in as high quantities as the other Capitol LPs, only achieving its one-millionth sale in 1973 and going gold the following year. By that point, it had been the only way Americans could obtain such popular tracks as “Twist and Shout”, “P.S. I Love You”, and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” for the ten years since Introducing… The Beatles had been withdrawn. As such, it remained an important catalogue item until it was replaced by the more fulfilling Please Please Me on compact disc in 1987. Nostalgic Americans have gotten opportunities to return The Early Beatles to their collections with its CD release on the Capitol Albums Vol. 2 box set in 2006 and will be able to do so again this coming January 21st when it is rereleased on its own and as part of the U.S. Albums set. Because it differs so little from its UK equivalent and offers nothing outside the Please Please Me track list, The Early Beatles is really only valuable as nostalgia. Capitol made a much more interesting Bizarro-World Beatles album with its very first release on January 20, 1964. We’ll meet that record in next month’s installment of “Turn Left at Greenland!—The Beatles in America”…

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Doc on Who Managers Last Minute Sundance Entry

Just a week before the kick-off of Sundance 2014, director James D. Cooper has slipped his documentary Lambert & Stamp into the film festival. While there's plenty of information out there about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp-- the management team every bit as self-contradictory, self destructive, and flamboyant as their clients, The Who-- there isn't much to glean about Lambert & Stamp. There are two imdb pages for men named James D. Cooper, one of whom is credited as prop guy on a short called "Dolls for Strangers, the other being credited with zilch, so it's probably safe to assume this is his first film. However, we do have this official synopsis from indiewire.com:

LAMBERT & STAMP / U.S.A. (Director: James D. Cooper) — In this crazy, chaotic gospel of chance, aspiring filmmakers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert set out to search for a subject for their underground movie, leading them to discover, mentor, and manage the iconic band known as The Who and create rock 'n' roll history.

Following its screening at Sundance's U.S. fest, Lambert & Stamp will play at the Sundance London festival, which takes place from April 25 through the 27th.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: 'The Jimi Hendrix Experience'


Listen to Jimi Hendrix play and you’ll hear him express an unparalleled rainbow of feelings through his electric guitar: rage and violence and tripped-out mysticism and sadness and confusion and turmoil and extreme horniness and beauty. These same feelings infused his existence despite the sort of benevolent space cadet persona he usually projected in interviews and on stage. In 1983, author Jerry Hopkins got behind the alluring images of an outer-space virtuoso to reveal the real man in his essential biography The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix did spend a lot of time in the cosmos because of the ridiculous amount of chemicals he regularly ingested, but there is an earthier tale here too. James Marshall Hendrix’s impoverished upbringing was as unglamorous as you can imagine. He spent his young adult years drugging and stealing cars and stumbled his way into the army where his greatest dream was to ascend to a low-pressure job as a file clerk. 

The idea that Jimi Hendrix could have suffered such a humble outcome seems absurd considering how uncontainable his talent was. Hopkins is more interested in the life than the talent, though interviewee Mike Bloomfield does give a succinct yet on-the-money assessment of Hendrix’s inimitable technique. The nice thing about The Jimi Hendrix Experience is that while it is the story of a man serially exploited by businessmen, Hopkins refuses to play the same game. Though Hendrix’s life rippled with sensational circumstances, this book is not sensationalistic, which is saying a lot for one that spends so much time discussing the size of its subject’s dick. While Hopkins relays some of the glib theories swirling around—such as Eric Burdon’s assumption that Hendrix deliberately killed himself or others’ assumptions that manager Mike Jeffrey was controlling him with drugs—the author always makes sure the reader exercises his or her critical thinking skills and never indulges in such theorizing himself. He is also dedicated to exposing the many charlatans who took advantage of Hendrix’s tendency to sign any paper that was laid before him without reading it first.  Just know that despite the title of this book, there is only one member of the Experience that concerns the author; there’s very little information about Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding outside of their interactions with the leader of their band.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience was originally published in 1983 and updated in 1996. It has been out of print for some time, but Arcade Publishing is now reprinting the book. Hopkins has not made any updates since ’96.

Get The Jimi Hendrix Experience at Amazon.com here:

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Psychobabble’s Twenty Greatest Albums of 1969


Rock and pop hit an unimaginable peak from 1966 to 1968. It was an era of experimentation and imagination that generated such monuments as Revolver, Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde, The Who Sell Out, Are You Experienced, Astral Weeks, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, and Beggars Banquet. Like all golden ages, it wasn’t supposed to last, and when artists started feeling as though they’d worked themselves into a psychedelic corner, they decided to “return to their roots.” Beggars Banquet, Astral Weeks, and numerous other 1968 releases signaled this change in the weather, and by 1969, any band still relying on their sitars and tape loops were in danger of sounding out-of-date even as “out-of-date” became the new ethos. Acoustic folk and country, electric blues and fifties-style Rock & Roll were back in full swing with a vengeance as massive new artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, and Led Zeppelin got their paws dirty in these rootsy rhythms. As we shall see, experimentation was not gone completely by any means, but its spirit did seem a bit broken. Consequently, 1969 wasn’t quite as exciting a year as the three preceding it, with one foot in the rainbow spectrum of the sixties and one in the earthier tones to come in the seventies. Nevertheless, spectacular albums were still plentiful. Here are twenty of them.

20. Hard ‘n’ Heavy (with Marshmallow) by Paul Revere and the Raiders

Progressiveness and trend following were never major missions of Paul Revere and the Raiders, so their 1969 offering is still comfortingly loaded with mid-sixties signatures. Although they’ve wisely stripped off their stupid American Revolution costumes, the guys are still monkeying around like bubble gummers on the record sleeve (the decision to pose with a tank was a particularly tasteless and witless idea considering what was happening in Southeast Asia), and pushing their garage rock and light psychedelia inside of it. They’ve rarely been more indebted to the Stones than they are on the terribly titled Hard ‘n’ Heavy (with Marshmallow). The naugahyde-rough “Time After Time” is brewed in the broth of 1965’s “Satisfaction”. The sumptuous “Cinderella Sunshine” pulls out everything in the Stones-’66 trick bag: fat-bottomed fuzz bass, churchy organs, marimbas. It sounds like an Aftermath outtake, as does the “Lady Jane”-esque “Trishalana”. Of course, Mark Lindsay is not Mick Jagger, so all the hard rock sounds like it’s been sieved through a mesh of cotton candy. There are other candy and crud morsels to savor throughout Hard ‘n’ Heavy; the hard: “Money Can’t Buy Me”, “Without You”, “Ride on My Shoulder”; the marshmallowy: “Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon”, “Call on Me”. The album is not immune to flashes of limpness (“Out on the Road”, “Hard and Heavy 5 String Banjo”, “Where You Goin’ Girl”) and the idea to give it a sort of linking concept with corny comedy improvs was not good. The bits before “Time After Time” and “Without You” are particularly interminable and unfortunate since they delay the starts of two of the album’s nastiest tracks.

19. Stand! By Sly and the Family Stone

Having rolled out back-to-back potential hits on the concise and combustible Life, Sly and the Family Stone began to metamorphose on Stand! They were torn between remaining a sixties-style hit machine and transforming into a seventies-style jam band on their fourth album. The results are uneven since a couple of the jams don’t really go anywhere. “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” is a plodding thing that doesn’t earn its incendiary title, saying nothing more insightful than that phrase, or in turn, “Don’t call me whitey, nigger,” which undercuts the song’s message since calling a white person “whitey” doesn’t cut nearly as deeply as the alternative. “Sex Machine” is a muddy instrumental that hints at what would come on There’s a Riot Going On (sans that album’s disturbing lyricism, of course), but at nearly fourteen minutes it’s a waste of vinyl. This amazing band gets an infinitely better vehicle for showing off their skills on the transcendent “I Want to Take You Higher”. The rest of Stand! continues to map out how great the Family’s shorter 45-ready songs are. The inspirational title track, the brick-hard funk “Sing a Simple Song”, the heartbeat pulse “Everyday People”, the horn-fed “You Can Make It If You Try”, and the sly, jazzy, and paranoid “Somebody’s Watching You” are some of their best tracks. Had those two jams been clipped to make room for more of this kind of material, Stand! would stand a lot higher on this list.

18. Barabajagal by Donovan

In an era defined by wild diversity, Donovan tended to make exceptionally cohesive albums from the man with a guitar folkiness of his first two albums to the Swinging London raga-folk of Sunshine Superman to the jazziness of Mellow Yellow to the spare children’s ditties of A Gift from a Flower to a Garden. With 1968’s The Hurdy Gurdy Man, he started to jumble up those sounds a bit. 1969’s Barabajagal plays even more like a showcase for everything the artist had learned than a cohesive album, particularly because the tracks he recorded with The Jeff Beck Group are so unlike the rest of the record. This means Barabajagal is kind of a jarring listen, but most of the individual tracks are great. The title track is an ecstatic slab of sleazy soul with Beck’s band jamming with white-hot intensity and Leslie Duncan and Madeline Bell’s larynx-destroying back ups pushing the whole crazed thing off the cliff. Elsewhere, we’re in more familiar Donovan territory. There’s a bit of acid rock (“Superlungs, My Supergirl”, featuring a more subdued Jeff Beck Group), a bit of fey folk (“Where is She?”), a bit of calypso (“The Love Song”), a couple more ditties for the kiddies (“I Love My Shirt”; “Happiness Runs”), some anti-war protest (“To Susan on the West Coast Waiting”), music hall (“Pamela Jo”), and one sublime Beatlesque anthem (“Atlantis”). Donovan would be back on more cohesive ground with his next album, the very good Open Road, but Barabajagal would be his last great one.

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