By Bob Stanley (THE TIMES, 18/11/06):
IT’S A QUARTER of a century since a group of Dutch session men rerecorded a bunch of Beatles songs, stuck a basic disco beat behind them, and christened themselves Stars on 45. The subtle Rotterdam accent aside, it was clean, dumb fun — songs like No Reply and I’ll Be Back were rarely heard on the radio in 1981 (nor are they now) and, coming at the end of a period of extended mourning for John Lennon, it reminded everyone that the Beatles had actually been a whole lot of fun and had recorded dozens of better songs than Imagine. Stars on 45 was a bit of a giggle that somehow ended up at No 1 in America and fell one stop short in Britain.
When it was announced earlier this year that a Beatles album was to be released containing 78 minutes of “new music”, I wasn’t expecting a digitally updated version of Stars on 45 (sadly without the Dutch accents). Love — released on Monday this week, an official album to add to the Beatles canon — is no more or less than that.
As someone who queued outside Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus at midnight on a Sunday in 1995 to buy Anthology 1 — if only to own a copy of the Quarrymen’s scratchy half-baked skiffle track — I’ll fall for just about any Beatles-related release. Yet since the Anthology sets there has been more and more tinkering with a catalogue that was, at least while all four Beatles were still alive, sacrosanct. Through the Seventies and Eighties, fans would get hot under the collar on hearing the rare take of Penny Lane, identical to the hit version only with an extra brass motif at the end (this may sound like a joke — from personal experience I can assure you it isn’t).
Bootleggers eventually outed rare stuff that people really wanted to hear and by the Nineties the Beatles’ label, Apple, had caught up, releasing the three-part Anthology series. Subtle revisionism was now at play, link- ing different takes of unreleased songs to make a whole. It was mildly disquieting.
Next came Paul McCartney’s remixed Let It Be: Naked which erased all trace of Phil Spector’s presence on that ill-fated 1969 album — a presence that was entirely down to Lennon. This was followed by the spat over whether the group’s writing credits should read Lennon/McCartney (yes, it’s alphabetical) or McCartney/Lennon (no, it’s egomania). The most perfect catalogue in pop history was starting to look ever so slightly tawdry.
Fans are famously precious about their heroes, but Love really questions exactly what constitutes the Beatles. Only two of the group survive, and McCartney’s insight into the record doesn’t suggest he thought long and hard about this tinkering: “This album puts the Beatles back together again, because suddenly there’s John and George with me and Ringo.” Well, I wasn’t expecting Freddie Garrity to make a guest appearance.
Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, has been famously unwilling over the years to revisit the darker corners of his back catalogue. With some coercion, though, he was convinced to revive the dormant Smile project of 1966, a record he had abandoned in a whirlpool of drugs, Beatle envy and mental illness. Wilson rerecorded the fragments of Smile and it was released to unanimous acclaim last year. Yet place the sparkling 21st-century version up against the original and it withers. The piano that opens Child is Father to the Man is maybe the most fragile and beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard. Played by Wilson, presumably very soon after he composed it, the tape hiss and intangible aura give it the feel of a field recording. It has an atmosphere that simply can’t be re-created. Without wishing to sound like a snob, I recommend scoring a bootleg of the original, unfinished Smile to keep its mystery caged.
There is a difference between snobbery and a yearning for authenticity. Take the Drifters: the great R&B group have changed line-ups so often that the number of former Drifters has now topped 50. In 1964 they were due to record a new single. No matter that the lead singer Rudy Lewis was found dead at home the morning of the session; time was money. Without missing a beat, they recorded it with Johnny Moore stepping up as lead singer. The record was the classic Under the Boardwalk. Lewis’s ghost was instantly exorcised.
What really rankles, though, and why the Drifters analogy doesn’t hold true, is how the Love album feels like the latest instalment in a corporate takeover of the Beatles. Love, like Anthology and the other recent spin-offs, features an official Beatles logo — they never had the need for one during their lifetime — and artwork that looks like Oxford Street tourist shop tat.
Sir George Martin — who admits to severe hearing problems — has apparently overseen Love, rejigging the Beatles catalogue for a travelling circus. When the pop artist Danger Mouse used elements of the Beatles’ White Album and Jay Z’s Black Album to create his own Grey Album in 2004, writs flew faster than Concorde. Somehow an exception has been made for Sir George’s son, Giles, who is presumably more au fait with
2006 studio trickery than his 80-year-old father, and receives a credit on Love.
If no one stands up soon and says that we’re all quite happy with the Beatles records the way they originally sounded, we can expect a remastered Abbey Road — with vocodered vocals courtesy of Julian Lennon — sometime in 2008.