Past Masters, Vol. 1 & 2 Reviewed
by Ken Richardson
THE BEATLES: Past Masters, Vol. 1.
George Martin, prod. Parlophone CDP 90043.
THE BEATLES: Past Masters, Vol. 2.
George Martin, prod. Parlophone CDP 90044.
Okay, here we go:
"Thank You Girl": Stuck on The Beatles' Second Album, this song comes and goes without much effect. Here, with layers of reverb stripped away, it swings, led by the confidence of Ringo's drums and the joyful rawness of John and Paul's vocal hook, "and all I gotta do."
"This Boy": The CD revives the bass, only hinted at on Meet the Beatles!
"Long Tall Sally": Talk about "Rock and Roll Music," this is it, friends. Paul wouldn't stupefy us again until "Helter Skelter," and the guitar/bass/drum interplay on the breaks is impressive on CD.
"I Call Your Name": John's vocal, buried on the Second Album, is upfront and resonant, emphasizing the sure flow of the melody.
"I Feel Fine": A startling transformation, right up there with "Baby You're a Rich Man" on the CD of Magical Mystery Tour. The dense echo of Beatles '65 is gone, leaving a well-balanced stereo recording that boasts a full bass, dead-center vocals, and the finest clarity for that intelligent guitar. Owners of A Collection of Beatles Oldies will be familiar with a measure of these benefits, but the CD version is still a discovery.
"She's a Woman": Again, we have a complete makeover from Beatles '65. This time, the improved bass and the subtle, warm focus given to Paul's vocal make the song more personal, like a casual shuffle.
"The Inner Light": Said Paul about George's song: "Forget the Indian music and listen to the melody. Don't you think it's a beautiful melody? It's really lovely." He was right -- though I wouldn't sell the Indian music quite so short. In fact, with all the acclaim today for African-influenced rock and other world musics, George need make no apologies for being 20 years ahead of everyone else. On CD, "Love You To," "Within You Without You"," and "The Inner Light" are a fascinating trilogy.
"From Me to You": The vocals are punched up -- to the point of being shrill. The problem is shared, in varying degrees, by several of the other mono tracks, especially "I'll Get You." (By the way, followers of the mono vs. stereo debate should be aware that stereo versions do exist of "From Me to You" and "Thank You Girl," both of which are mono here.)
"She Loves You": Dropouts dog the cymbal, probably because of the deteriorating master. Also, halfway through the last verse, the entire soundstage does a flip.
"I Want to Hold Your Hand": The abrupt shift from the bright mono of "I'll Get You" to the scattered stereo of this track is disconcerting. The guitar apostrophes gain prominence, but the vocals are somewhat harsh compared with their counterparts on both Meet the Beatles! and A Collection of Beatles Oldies, and the entire song seems lacking in power.
"Get Back"/"Don't Let Me Down," "The Ballad of John and Yoko"/"Old Brown Shoe": On these singles, the vocals are punched down. The songs are further dulled by a treble-trouncing bass which is better balanced on Hey Jude (The Beatles Again) as well as on the original 45s.
"Love Me Do": This is the version with Ringo on drums, and in ever way it's inferior to the Please Please Me version with Andy White on drums and Ringo on tambourine: The playing is sloppy, the vocals are weak, and you can't even hear Ringo.
"Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand"/"Sie Liebt Dich": The first has the Beatles singing German lyrics over the backing track to "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and it sounds as lousy as the quick cut-and-paste job it obviously was; master quality is poor, too. The second is a total remake of "She Loves You," played by-the-numbers and badly produced.
"Matchbox": A recital by Ringo. "Honey Don't" is a raver by comparison.
"Across the Universe": It may be sacrilege to admit such a thing, but I'll gladly take Phil Spector's Let It Be version over this one, which ended up on a World Wildlife Fund charity album called No One's Gonna Change Our World. The bird calls, the nagging wah-wah guitar, and the sweet harmonies are things I can live without -- so thought Spector, too, who replaced them with a choir and orchestra and slowed the result down from its original chirpy speed. I have no doubt that "The Long and Winding Road," onto which Spector piled a far more oppressive choir and orchestra, would sound better in Paul's original spare-piano version. But in the case of "Across the Universe," Spector took an insufferably cute song and made it into something more like...Lennon.
"From Me to You" (mono) includes the harmonica intro; the stereo version on A Collection of Beatles Oldies does not.
"Thank You Girl" (mono) lacks the harmonica outro and two harmonica lines mid-song; The Beatles' Second Album does not, whether mono or stereo, as Capitol apparently made its mono "Thank You Girl" from the stereo master.
"I Call Your Name" (stereo) has the cowbell starting after John first sings the title line; mono Second Album not only has the cowbell starting at the song's beginning but also has the less complicated guitar opening.
"Paperback Writer" (stereo) has the guitar riff in the left channel; stereo Hey Jude (The Beatles Again) is reversed, with the guitar riff in the right channel, and also has louder backing vocals.
The plain black-and-white design for Past Masters may not represent the summit of art direction, but each CD booklet does contain several well-reproduced photographs -- including a full shot from the session shown on the Revolver LP, whose original back-cover photo was inexplicably slashed and reshuffled for the Revolver CD. And each booklet offers decent notes, mentioning dates, takes, and more.
With the release of Past Masters, EMI has granted our wish of having the Beatles' 27 remaining-to-be-digitized tracks in a new, chronological collection, augmented by six alternate takes of previously transferred material. The sound is mostly excellent, and the playing times -- 18 cuts at 42:30 and 15 cuts at 51:03 -- are respectable. But I wish that EMI, many months ago, had thought things out a little better still, like so: Move "Day Tripper," "We Can Work It Out," "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" over to the first disc (where they belong) and, deferring mainly to the chronological order of the recording dates, follow them with "Strawberry Field Forever,' "Penny Lane," "Only a Northern Song," "All You Need Is Love," and "Baby, You're a Rich Man." Then begin the second disc with "All Together Now," "Hey Bulldog," and "It's All Too Much"; "Magical Mystery Tour," "You Mother Should Know," "I Am the Walrus," "The Fool on the Hill," "Flying," and "Blue Jay Way" (the Magical Mystery Tour EP in its original sequential order); and "Hello Goodbye." The results: The present gap between 1966's "Rain" and 1968's "Lady Madonna" would be filled, the dubious Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine CDs would not have been necessary, and the two Past Masters would have provided us with 27 tracks at 70:13 and 21 tracks at 75:02. Yeah, well, you can't always get exactly what you want. Let's be thankful we got what we needed.