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(This is our longest-yet entry in our Beatles tribute, so grab a snack and be prepared to sit a while. Are you ready to go? SPLENDID!)
Past Masters – Released Mar. 7, 1988
Following the release of The Beatles’ British studio albums on compact disc in 1987, this compilation offered up the remaining Beatles songs that had been issued (in Britain only) either as singles or as extended-play (EP) discs. Originally released as Volumes 1 and 2, the two discs were reissued as a single collection when the group’s catalog of studio albums was remastered in 2009.
Love Me Do: This was The Beatles’ first stab at recording, and it obviously wasn’t taking any chances: Unadventurous lyrics (the word “love” shows up a few dozen times for lack of better synonyms), and middle-of-the-road singing and playing. A pleasant enough tune, but hardly indicative of the heights to be hit shortly afterwards.
From Me to You: Closer to the unassuming Love Me Do than to the legend-making Please Please Me, but at least it’s a little more lyrically adventurous. As in P.S. I Love You, it again delivers a monologue to the presumably swooning female listener, though the inventory of body parts that need attention (heart, arms, lips) comes close to being cliches.
Thank You Girl: A rare cheery message of thanks from John to his erstwhile listener-lover. Actually, the best version of this song, on the early American Beatles’ Second Album, gooses the song along with great harmonica blasts. Next to that one, any other version doesn’t stand a chance.
She Loves You: Considered unusual for its time for (a) using the device of having the singer “address” the listener (as a heartbroken lover who wants to reconcile with his girl), and (b) all those “yeah, yeah, yeah’s.” With its winning lyrics and pounding rock beat, it’s Beatlemania at its most infectious.
I’ll Get You: The cheery melody and delivery help to overshadow the lyrics, which are just this side of a stalker’s lament (though such sentiments were mostly unheard of in the 1960’s). Still winning for its blooper in the middle, where John sings “I’m gonna change your mind” and Paul sings “I’m gonna make your mind” (whoops!).
I Want to Hold Your Hand: This is the one that put Beatlemania across to an Anglophobic America. Somewhere, surely there were a few listeners who believed that a girl’s hand was the least of The Beatles’ concerns, but the song’s sunny sense of innocence still delivers.
This Boy: Introspective Beatles songs came at a premium at this point in their early career, so females were no doubt swooning at the unerring sensitivity of John Lennon here. The jangly guitar and early use of three-part harmony can’t have hurt, either.
Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand: Things certainly come full circle in Beatleland. The Beatles cut their performing teeth among the drunken sailors and whores in Germany, make it big all over the world, and then choose their most lyrically innocent tune (the one that “sold” them in America) to translate to Teutonic tongue. Some of those Star Club patrons must still be laughing in their beer. Come give me your hand, you hairy stinking Fraulein!
Sie Liebt Dich: The previous song and this version of She Loves You were The Beatles’ sop to their German fans. Ja, ja, ja, we got it already.
Long Tall Sally: Rock-‘n’-roll adrenaline mainlined. The later “live” versions are almost an insult to this untoppable studio version. Pity poor Uncle John.
I Call Your Name: This is not one of The Beatles’ more undersold performances, yet the simplistic, reportage-type lyrics contrast nicely with the pounding guitars that emphasize the theme of an anguished lover who can’t sleep at night. Proof that even early-Beatles work had more to it than met the eye.
Slow Down: Yeah, sure she’s moving way too fast. You mean as opposed to that feverish guitar work? Nice little rocker, though it’s hard to believe any woman could move too fast for The Beatles.
Matchbox: Another great cry-in-your-beer song for Ringo. It’s so unclearly enunciated, though, that for years I thought he was singing “Matchbox holdin’ my clothes,” as though the matchbox was holding his clothes up like suspenders. Oops!
I Feel Fine: After that razor-sharp guitar feedback that starts the song (according to John, the first ever recorded), John could probably have sung the phone book and had the audience in his hand. Flawless delivery really does make us believe the singer feels fine, but maybe it’s because for once, the feeling’s contagious.
She’s a Woman: Paul’s lyrics exalting his woman’s near-sainthood nearly turn this into the rock equivalent of his later, more lachrymose drippings. But the rock-barroom atmosphere saves all.
Bad Boy: Based on John Lennon’s confessions about his school years, this is less a “cover” (of a song by New Orleans R&B singer Larry Williams) than it is autobiography. That in no small way explains John’s gusto in his capturing of a swaggering schoolboy. Now, junior, behave yourself!
Yes It Is: Beautifully bittersweet song about a simple color evoking a complete memory of a lost love, helped in no small part by some exquisite three-part harmony. The Anthology 2 version offers an even more interesting contrast, with an acoustically-inclined John in his most Dylaneque mode this side of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”
I’m Down: “Plastic soul,” mutters Paul McCartney at the end of an early take on this song (captured on Anthology 2). Obviously he got over himself enough to blast the kinks out brilliantly. Little Richard revisited, and revisited pretty darn well, too.
Day Tripper: One of John and Paul’s coy stabs at double-entendre a la Drive My Car. Say, is that “big teaser” that John and Paul are singing, or is it “p***k-teaser”? And are they slurring something that sounds like “one-night stands”? Amazing what passes for risque — these days, this could probably be played on Disney Radio with no problem. The song’s superb guitar-playing, on the other hand, speaks for itself.
We Can Work It Out: A superb example of later John-and-Paul co-writing. Paul’s more combative stance with his erstwhile lover contrasts nicely with John’s more pacific middle bridge of “Life is very short…” (The “unplugged” version of this song, available on Beatles bootlegs, was a real missed bet for Anthology 2 — much more stripped-down, yet just as effective musically.)
Paperback Writer: Great story, great sound. The song’s “narrator” tells how he wants to write paperback books for a living, but based on the guitars and background harmony, he’d be far better off being a rock star. The non-assuming lyrics belie the song’s sound, which blew a few minds at the time of its release and still hold up superbly.
Rain: John Lennon’s lyrics are pseudo-profound in the manner of The Word. (Occasionally, The Beatles were naive enough to believe their given roles as mass entertainment’s messengers.) A far weightier message is delivered in the musicianship, with weirdly jangling guitars, Paul’s great bass, and another oddly perfect use of John’s backward vocals at song’s end.
Lady Madonna: Paul in an Elvis-meets-the-blues mode. A great song about a woman barely getting by (who almost sounds like a lady-of-the-evening from Paul’s description of her). The song’s potential bathos is thwarted by The Fabs doing a mock-horn section in mid-song.
The Inner Light: Of all the Indian-pastiche songs that George foisted upon us, this one is probably the most painful. It might be okay as background muzak at an Indian restaurant, but as a three-minute pop song with preachy lyrics and whiny background, it just grates. Sadly, it’s pretty much a template for George’s later, even more self-indulgent moments on his solo albums.
Hey Jude: A real “beanfest,” as one British music writer put it — a Paul McCartney ego-trip all the way (complete with scat-singing), but a truly worthy one. It’s huge and sprawling and never fails to move one emotionally; when Paul later appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and was asked to sing it at rehearsal, he had to be prompted to remember the lyrics and then proceeded to move all nearby listeners to tears. When you see The Beatles’ original video of the song, you’d never guess it was being performed by a group that was starting to splinter.
Revolution: From that firecracker opening to its feedback closing, one of The Beatles’ all-time best rockers. Much has been made of the Revolution 1 version of the song (on The White Album) where John ambiguously sings, “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out…in.” No ambiguity here — he takes no prisoners. A fiery gem.
Get Back: (previously reviewed as part of the album Let It Be; this “singles” version isn’t significantly different)
Don’t Let Me Down: Another of John’s great “minimalistic” numbers (along the lines of I Want You [She’s So Heavy]). When all John wanted to do was string some rhymes together, the results could be grating (Dig a Pony), but when he put his no-frills sense towards the emotions of anguished love, Beatles greatness occurred. This is one of those instances (although, IMHO, the definitive version can be found on Let It Be…Naked).
The Ballad of John and Yoko: One of John Lennon’s biggest slabs of self-pity, documenting his and Yoko’s travails upon their wedding and much-publicized “Bed-In” honeymoon. John’s comparing himself to a crucified Jesus is, in context, far more tasteless than his innocently-meant “We’re probably bigger than Jesus” remark a few years earlier. The song’s most interesting aspect, other than its sense of irony in the final lyric, is its cut-down production; only John and Paul were available to perform at the time of recording, so Paul doubled on drums.
Old Brown Shoe: Probably one of the few Beatles songs where the Anthology version plays better than the original. This “singles” version plays like a rush job, with George at his most frog-in-the-throat hoarse, giving short shrift to (and in some cases just burying) some thoughtful lyrics. The unadorned version on Anthology 3, by comparison, is downright whimsical.
Across the Universe: This is the originally recorded version of the song, intended as a contribution to a charity LP for the World Wildlife Fund, titled No One’s Gonna Change Our World. This rendition of the song differs from the Let It Be album version in that it begins and ends with the sound of a bird’s fluttering wings (nice) and the harmonies of two groupies (not so nice) who happened to be hanging around Abbey Road Studios when the song was being recorded. For me, at least, their high notes (as requested from them by Paul McCartney) detract from the song’s spartan beauty; I much prefer the subtle choir added to the song by Phil Spector in the album version.
Let It Be: This song, too, differs from the version on the Let It Be album; it is the version that was released as a single. George Harrison did two separate guitar solos for the song’s middle; originally they were intended to be overdubbed together (as though two guitarists were each playing a separate riff), but in the end, one solo went on the single and the other solo ended up on the album. For what it’s worth, I prefer Harrison’s rendition on this single version, as it’s not so heavy-handed.
You Know My Name (Look Up the Number): A “novelty” song a la Yellow Submarine (but with far less point), this is a rambling attempt at comedy that comes off like one of The Beatles’ annual Fan Club recordings that went on too long for its own good. (The song’s title is also nearly all of its lyrics.) Hardly a masterpiece, though we can all be grateful that it wasn’t replaced (on the Let It Be single) with the Fabs’ alternative choice, What’s the New Mary Jane, which eventually surfaced (like a bad case of influenza) on Anthology 3.
What do you think of Past Masters or any of the songs therein? Share your thoughts with us in the “Comments” section below.
This blog entry is being posted on the 56th (!) anniversary of The Beatles’ first, pop-history-making appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Here is a compact and charming summation of that broadcast on its 30th anniversary, reported by Anthony Mason for “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” in 1994.
Tomorrow: We announce the winners (if any!) of our Abbey Road Contest.