Album Spotlight: The Beatles—Past Masters

When the Beatles’ album catalog was released in 1987 for the first time on CD, EMI realized that there were a number of songs that had never been included on albums which would become otherwise unavailable.1 So they put together two CDs of these uncollected numbers and entitled them Past Masters Volume 1 and 2. On September 9, 2009, when the remastered albums were rereleased, EMI compiled these remastered albums into a single double CD, Past Masters.

Because of the reasons for its compilation, Past Masters is an unusual album. The inclusion of the A-sides of singles give it many hits, but the B-sides offer lesser heard gems. There’s an EP from 1964, alternate recordings of songs, and a couple of peculiar remakes. However, the record succeeds in enabling the digital release of almost every Beatles song.2

Love Me Do: The original single take, recorded on September 4th, 1962, at the group’s first official recording session. You can hear the nervousness in Paul’s lead vocal, which had vanished a week later when this was re-recorded. Ringo plays drums, and the result, while pleasant and competent, didn’t satisfy their producer, George Martin. He called session drummer Andy White in for the re-recording, giving Ringo a tambourine, which is the biggest difference between the two takes. To be fair, White’s version, on the Please Please Me album, is slightly better. Perhaps in the spirit of improving his relations with Ringo, Martin approved this take as the single. However, at the end of 1962, to unify the catalog, White’s version replaced Ringo’s. This take was lost until 1979, when collectors provided a pristine single to clean up and dub for the upcoming U.S. Rarities release. (The original tape had long since been erased.)

From Me To You: The group’s third single, on which they played it a bit safe after the groundbreaking Please Please Me. However, John and Paul did some experimenting with new chords, such as the one which opens the middle eight. My favorite, though, is the minor chord on “I’ll send it along” which then resolves into a major one on the next line. The guys must’ve taken note of the response which the oohs on Twist and Shout had received, since they include a healthy dose of them here, as well as John’s harmonica.

Thank You Girl: The B-side of From Me To You, by John. When he later said he wrote songs for the meat market, I think this may have been one he was thinking of. A pleasant singalong pop number, with nice harmonies and harmonica. Ringo’s drumming, especially over the ending line, is fantastic.

She Loves You: A return to form, taking the rock of Please Please Me to a new level. Either John or Paul had the clever idea of making this a commentary by the singer to a friend with romantic woes. Those oohs return, strategically placed for maximum effect. Ringo’s drumming propels the song, and John and Paul’s harmonies are the icing on the cake. Apparently Paul wanted to have the line “She loves you” answered by backing vocals singing “Yeah, yeah, yeah”. John persuaded him that this was garbage.

I’ll Get You: She Loves You’s B-side. Another meat market filler by John. (To be fair, this and Thank You Girl are perfectly marvelous filler compared to the dreck which was being shoved onto B-sides by other groups.) I love the line “I’ll get you in the end.” Heh. You can hear the boys flub the words when they sing “When I’m gonna change your mind.” A fan actually wrote EMI, asking them to fix the mistake; she was politely told that this was impossible. Lots of harmonica on this one. It would be for almost the last time.

I Want To Hold Your Hand: The first Beatles song recorded in four-track (previously they’d all been done with two). George had not been featured much on their previous singles, but this rocker gave him a chance to shine, on fills if not a solo yet. The song which broke them in the U.S., and deservedly so. The jump of Paul’s vocal an octave on the word “hand” is truly orgasmic, as it is on the middle eight’s final “hide”. Everything builds up to those releases. A perfect example of how to write a pop hit in 1963.

This Boy: I Want To Hold Your Hand’s B-side, and its opposite in almost every way. A slow ballad, it showcased John, Paul and George singing three-part harmony beautifully. You can hear the pain in John’s voice on the middle eights. With this song, the Beatles began taking their B-sides more seriously.

Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand: Odeon, EMI’s branch in Germany, insisted that the Beatles’ records would sell better there if they were in German. So after much arm-twisting, Brian Epstein and George Martin persuaded the boys to rerecord their two biggest hits. When the session date came, they tried to skip out, but Martin stormed into their hotel room and shouted at them. Sheepishly they accompanied him to the Pathe Marconi Studios in Paris (they were on tour at the time) to make the records. This one used the backing tracks for I Want To Hold Your Hand, and John and Paul just overdubbed the vocals and some handclaps. The translation is by Camillo Felgen (as Jean Nicolas) and Heinz Hellmer. It’s a perfectly serviceable version. I don’t know German, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the translation; but common sense tells me that they must have taken liberties to fit the melody and allow for rhymes.

Sie Liebt Dich: See above. This translation was by Felgen (again as Nicholas) and Lee Montague. Because the master tape for She Loves You had already been lost (!!!), the band rerecorded the backing track. (You can hear the difference in George’s guitar riffs at the end.) Again, perfectly fine, but ultimately unnecessary as Beatles records sold quite well in Germany anyway. From years of listening, I can sing both of these songs phonetically, although I’m sure I’m mangling the pronuncation.

Long Tall Sally: The lead-off track of a four song EP (Extended Play) released in the UK only in mid-1964. (An EP was basically a four song single costing a bit more. All of these songs turned up in the US, some of them even before the UK release.) A cover of Little Richard’s original, done in one take and as phenomenal for Paul as Twist and Shout was for John. His vocals surpass even Richard’s in their power and energy. George finally gets his chance at a guitar solo, and he nails it. Everyone hits the mark perfectly, including George Martin on piano.

I Call Your Name: The only Lennon/McCartney song on the Long Tall Sally EP, this was an attempt by John at ska (the middle eight). It’s only moderately successful. Originally given to Billy J. Kramer, Lennon’s stablemate at NEMS (Epstein’s managing company). The guitar solo is fine but unexceptional. Ringo plays cowbell.

Slow Down: A Larry Williams cover and the third EP number. Quite good, although it doesn’t set the place on fire like Long Tall Sally did. John flubs his overdubbed vocals in the second verse. George Martin plays piano.

Matchbox: Ringo showcases on the final EP track with a Carl Perkins cover (Perkins was actually visiting the studio when they were recording it). A nice bit of rockabilly, with a good solo from George. A lot of echo on this; perhaps they were trying to replicate the Sun studios.

I Feel Fine: John wrote this around the guitar riff from Bobby Parker’s Watch Your Step, and it is a killer riff. John and George play the dual guitar lead marvelously, and Paul and Ringo follow in time. The opening feedback came about when John leaned his guitar against an amplifier between takes and the A string began humming. Naturally, the band seized on that for an ear-catching opener. The barking dogs at the end were the group having a laugh. One of their hardest rocking songs.

She’s A Woman: Paul’s B-side to I Feel Fine is a great rocker in its own right. Instead of a guitar riff, it’s based around an arrangement of chunky chords, with piano overdubbed by Paul. Ringo shakes a chocalho, a cylindrical metal shaker filled with peas or lead shot. I love the rhyme of “presents” and “peasant”.  Paul admitted later that he and John had added the line “Turn me on when I get lonely” just to stir up controversy.

Bad Boy: A Larry Williams cover, recorded in one night for the American album Beatles VI. It later found its way onto the 1966 British compilation A Collection Of Beatles Oldies. John’s vocal and George’s guitar licks are awesome. I think John identified with the bad little kid in the song since by all accounts he was one. Paul plays electric piano and John organ, both overdubbed.

Yes It Is: The B-side of Ticket to Ride. A close-harmony number in the tradition of This Boy. I don’t think it’s quite as good, but it’s still beautiful. George uses his tone-pedal to make the whining noises. It’s an interesting choice of subject by John, about begging his new girlfriend not to wear red because that’s the color his old girl wore. You’re not the boss of me, John.

I’m Down: The B-side of Help!, in the tradition of Little Richard. Paul shrieks the lyrics with John and George backing. John plays an excellent electric organ solo; in concert, especially at Shea Stadium, he would go nuts on the keyboard, playing with his elbows and swiping up and down. The song immediately recorded after this was Yesterday, after only a brief dinner break. Wow.

Day Tripper: Another rocker inspired by Watch Your Step. Allegedly the boys sing “She’s a prick teaser/She took me half the way there now”; if that actually happened, I suspect it was during rehearsals only. I love the way the bass line doubles the guitar riff. Great fills by Ringo. The 2009 remaster eliminated a dropout of the guitar on the final verse; I sort of wish they hadn’t. It gave the song more character.

We Can Work It Out: The flip of Day Tripper. The single was a double A-side due to the strength of both songs, although John and Paul preferred this number. Paul pleads for his girl to “see it my way”; notable that he shows no interest in reciprocating. John’s middle section of “Life is very short” is a perfect addition. John plays the harmonium as well.

Paperback Writer: Paul said that the inspiration for this number was his writing letters to managers plugging their group back in their early days. It’s a fantastic rocker, completing the trio with I Feel Fine and Day Tripper. Maybe Paul wanted to write one as good as those; if so, he succeeded. The harmonies on the bridges are exquisite, drenched in echo. If you’re able, listen to the mono version for even more reverb. As a writer, I identify with this song. They deliberately recorded the bass loudly, and Tony Clark, an engineer who cut the master lacquer for the single, had to struggle to keep people’s styluses from jumping due to it. The backing harmonies on the final two verses are Frere Jacques.

Rain: The B-side of Paperback Writer; the combination makes for my favorite Beatles single. John’s meditative contemplation on the external world having no effect on his inner peace. This is the song I play for idiots who claim that Ringo can’t drum; he outdid himself on this number. George’s guitar work and Paul’s bass lines aren’t far behind. The backwards vocal at the end was originally an accident, when the tape for John to take home got turned around and he listened to it while stoned. Both the instrumental and vocal tracks were slowed down, giving it that spacey feel.

Lady Madonna: A return to rock and roll after a year of psychedelic recordings. Paul pounds the piano and sings like Fats Domino (who covered the song). Much speculation arose over the lyrics, which many said were about different patrons of Lady Madonna’s favors each day. Saturday isn’t mentioned; perhaps she’s Jewish and that was her rest day.3 When the group recorded the backing vocals, they were eating Marmite-flavored crisps (potato chips). The crunching was removed from the final mix; what a pity.

The Inner Light: The B-side of Lady Madonna. When working on the soundtrack for Wonderwall Music in Bombay, George had some extra studio time left and recorded some ragas with Indian musicians for possible future use on a Beatles single. This was the only one chosen. It’s gorgeous, and one of my favorite Indian songs by Harrison. Paul gave it a backhanded compliment at the time by saying, “Forget the Indian music and listen to the melody. Don’t you think it’s a beautiful melody?” That must’ve irked George. His first time out on a single, but not his last.

Hey Jude: Where does one begin with this most epic of Beatles singles? Written for Julian to cheer him up after his father left his mother.4 “Hey, Jules” turned into Hey Jude. When Paul first played it for John, he dismissed the line “The movement you need is on your shoulder”, saying “It’s just a placeholder, I’ll fix it later.” John said, “You won’t, you know. That’s the best line in the song. I know what it means.” He was right.5 A thirty-six-piece orchestra was hired to play on the coda; when asked to double with singing and handclapping, one walked out, saying, “I’m not going to clap my hands and sing on Paul McCartney’s bloody song.” His loss, as they were paid extra. Recorded at Trident Studios because EMI hadn’t yet installed its eight-track machine and the Beatles didn’t even know they’d acquired one. John later said he thought Hey Jude was about him and Yoko, but that when he mentioned it to Paul, Paul said, “No, it’s me.” Paul had just broken up with Jane Asher. At any rate, it’s a universal song about getting through pain, optimistic that things will get better.

Revolution: John wanted to release Revolution 1 from the White Album as a single, but the others objected, saying it wasn’t commerical and too slow. So they recorded this rocking version which, while great enough for an A-side, ended up as the flip of Hey Jude. John never got over that slight, but time has proven the strength of this song, which despite its title advocates for peace. The distorted guitars, which made a lot of buyers think their singles were defective, were achieved by putting the signal through the recording console, overloading the channel for a dirty sound. Nicky Hopkins guests on electric piano, doing a marvelous job. The story goes that the Rolling Stones were having a listening party for their upcoming Beggar’s Banquet when Paul came in with the acetate of the Beatles’ latest single. Mick gave Paul an icy stare when Hey Jude and Revolution stole the Stones’ thunder.

Get Back: Developed from a song improvised by Paul entitled No Pakistanis, a satire about British immigration and resistance to it. Originally it mentioned Enoch Powell, a Conservative MP who gave a famous speech against immigration in Parliament.6 One of the finest songs from the Get Back sessions, with “There’s no place like home” as the lyrical theme. Billy Preston was actually billed with the band on the single for his electric piano work. See my review of Let It Be for more about the recording sessions. The final Beatles single to be released in mono.

Don’t Let Me Down: The B-side of Get Back. I’ve never cared that much for this take; it seems to drag, for me. The version on Let It BeNaked is much better, which is the only good thing I’ll say for that album. John’s lyrics are quite obviously about his relationship with Yoko. You can hear the pain in his voice. Again, Billy Preston plays electric piano and was credited on the label.

The Ballad of John and Yoko: Not the Beatles, but John and Paul doing a quick recording while George and Ringo were unavailable. John plays guitars, and Paul drums, bass, maracas and piano. Written in a hurry, inspired by John and Yoko’s very strange wedding and honeymoon, during which their “Bed-In” for peace occurred. A wonderful moment happened between takes when John said to the drumming Paul, “Go a bit faster, Ringo!” Paul, of course, replied, “OK, George!”

Old Brown Shoe: George’s second B-side, with a great guitar line doubled on the bass.  Like Hello, Goodbye, a song of opposites (a “short-haired girl who sometimes wears it twice as long”.) Quite a good song, although I wouldn’t have given it the A-side. George plays Hammond organ as well.

Across The Universe: The original recording, done in February 1968 just before the band went to India with the Maharishi. This version, included on the album No One’s Gonna Change Our World for the World Wildlife Fund, is sped up considerably from the original recording and includes George on tamboura and two teenage Beatles fans, Lizzie Bravo and Gayleen Pease, singing backing vocals on the chorus.7 They were pulled into the studio when it was decided that the song needed female voices. Well, it really didn’t; and the busyness of Paul and George’s “Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah” backing vocals didn’t work, either. But really, the song just sounds way too fast. John wasn’t happy with it until Phil Spector redid it for the Let It Be album. See my review of that record for more information.

Let It Be: The first single from the upcoming album. Paul wrote this after his mother appeared to him in a dream; it’s quite gospel-tinged. The single differs significantly from Phil Spector’s remixed album version even though it’s from the same basic take. Linda McCartney, of all people, helps on backing vocals. See my Let It Be review for more information.

You Know My Name (Look Up The Number): The B-side of Let It Be. There’s a long, winding story behind this recording; it began right after the Sgt. Pepper sessions in 1967 and was always intended as a rather silly experiment. The lyrics consist of the song title repeated in a number of weird voices, with different musical backgrounds. The Rolling Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones plays the not-very-good saxophone solo. Mal Evans helped out at times on percussion as well. John did some editing down of the over six minute recording in 1969, intending the result as the A-side of a new single with What’s The New Mary Jane as the B-side. This single was to have been credited to the Plastic Ono Band. Because the Beatles were involved with both recordings, this plan fell through, but John managed to get this song released. It makes a lot of fans’ lists as Top Five Worst Beatles Song, right up there with Revolution 9. It’s not my favorite, but it’s fun. (I prefer the almost-complete take on Anthology 3. More on that another time.)

Some mention should be made of Mono Masters, the version of this disc which was included in The Beatles In Mono box. Naturally, it includes all the mono versions of the songs listed above; this means that a few songs, namely Love Me Do, She Loves You, I’ll Get You and You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) are duplicated. Similarly, The Ballad of John and Yoko, Old Brown Shoe and Let It Be are not included as they were never mixed for mono. As a bonus, the never-before-released mono mixes of Only A Northern Song8, All Together Now, Hey Bulldog, It’s All Too Much and Across The Universe (original version) were included here. They were meant for an EP release which never happened. If you have a chance, I encourage you to listen to the mono mixes of the Beatles, especially the rockers. They sound a lot more powerful in mono; in addition, some of the mixes sound significantly different. (For instance, From Me To You has an additional harmonica part, and Thank You Girl is missing some of its harmonica.)

Past Masters may not be the best greatest-hits compilation, due to its purpose, but it contains a lot of classic Beatles songs. It’s absolutely indispensible for any fan.

 

TIMELINE FOR UPCOMING REVIEWS

October 28th: Anthology 1

November 18th: Anthology 2

December 9th: Anthology 3

Sometime in December or January: The White Album (50th Anniversary Edition)

Also planning to review the Red/Blue albums, Live at the Hollywood Bowl, and the Rutles’ first album, sometime in 2019. I’ll give notice.