Friday, June 2, 2017

It Was 50 Years Ago Today.


On June 2, 1967, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

From the moment Sgt. Pepper came out, it was hailed a watershed moment in rock history, with the London Times famously declaring it "a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization."

It has long since become the default answer to The Greatest Album Of All Time, much the way Citizen Kane is the default Greatest Film Of All Time. Pretty much every major critical rock poll from the World Critic Lists of 1978 & 1987 on down has ranked it on top, with the epicenter of rock criticism Rolling Stone declaring the greatest album of the last 20 years in 1987 & then as the greatest album of all-time in their much-celebrated list of the 500 greatest albums in 2003.

& yet, in recent years, its stature has fallen greatly. Just as it was once automatic to put it on top of any album list, it has now become fashionable to let it tumble 20 or 50 spots, or to leave it off completely. In the last 20 years, The Beatles' own Revolver has often kicked it off its throne, but other candidates have ranged from The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds to Nirvana's Nevermind to Radiohead's OK Computer.

So which one is it? Is Sgt. Pepper a major cultural landmark or an overrated psychedelic relic?

The answer is as simple as it is complex--it is both.



Part 1: Sgt. Pepper Is Genius.

Sgt. Pepper began in the heady late days of 1966, some six months after The Beatles released Revolver. For the first time in The Beatles' short recording history, there was no new album of material ready for the Christmas season. Their UK label filled the gap with A Collection Of Beatles Oldies--a compilation of hits that itself was never really much of a hit itself, probably because fans already owned most of the material.

Come February 1967, three songs were completed, two of which ranked as their finest work to date: John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" & Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane." The third song, McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four" was fine, but not even close to the standards of the other two. Faced with pressure from their label, producer George Martin was tasked to release a single of new material. In what he later called the biggest regret of his professional career, he chose the two best songs, "Strawberry Fields Forever" & "Penny Lane," & released them as a single. While the long-term has proven it to be literally the greatest single of all-time, the short-term upshot was that The Beatles were back to square one for their new album (this still being the era when singles & LPs were largely treated as separate entities).

With their finest work taken from them, they could have gone into a frustrated stupor; instead, as the story is told, they turned around & began work on the song that many believe to be their masterpiece: "A Day In The Life."

Months of studio time followed. As The Beatles locked themselves into the studio world, the outside world raged on, wondering at their silence. Having retired from touring the previous year, there was little evidence that they were a band, let alone the greatest one in the world.

But when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club's Band came out on June 2, 1967 (& May 26, 1967, in the UK), The Beatles got the last laugh.

They were reborn as a new band--Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band--& now the album was the concert. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was the opening theme; "With A Little Help From My Friends" was the call to community (sung by "Billy Shears"); "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" was a trip-within-a-trip; "Getting Better" was their version of The Great Society; "Fixing A Hole" was their retreat into solitary contemplation; "She's Leaving Home" was the generation gap; "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" was the psychedelic carnival fairground; "Within You Without You" was the philosophy lesson; "When I'm Sixty-Four" was the invocation of the elderly; "Lovely Rita" was the celebration of the proletariat; "Good Morning Good Morning" was the agricultural frontier; "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" was the close of the show; & "A Day In The Life" was the epic finale as state-of-the-art Lennon/McCartney rock & roll. Theirs was a complete world that included all & excluded no one.

Sgt. Pepper was NOT the first concept album, but it was the first to be universally recognized as one, given its obvious structure (Sgt. Pepper & his band) & all-for-one spirit. For the first time, a rock album was treated as a single work, played in entirety on radio & studied over headphones, as one would listen to a symphony.

Part of the shock of its quality came from the fact that, for the first time, The Beatles were given control over their US releases such that they could release the same version of an album on both sides of the Atlantic. Prior to this, the American Beatles albums truncated & mixed up The Beatles' music in a cheap ploy to get more albums out of them. Just look at their previous album, Revolver, which was missing three whole songs--"I'm Only Sleeping," "And Your Bird Can Sing," & "Doctor Robert"--all of which were Lennon's, which meant that the album had a completely different (& less effective) shape. Furthermore, with no singles culled from Sgt. Pepper (whereas Revolver contained the tracks of the double-sided single "Yellow Submarine" & "Eleanor Rigby"), it felt more like a single work, with all tracks contributing to a single make-believe concert.

& all of this was reinforced by the packaging. For the first time, full lyrics were printed in an album, encouraging closer readings of the music. The LP pressings also contained little Sgt. Pepper novelty cut-outs that reinforced the carnival feel. & then of course there was the cover, designed by pop artist Peter Blake, which remains the finest album cover in history.

Blake asked The Beatles to makes lists of who they most would want to attend a Beatles show & then took their answers & made the now-famous crowd behind them. Most striking are the wax models of the Beatlemania-era Beatles, looking down at THE BEATLES written out in the flowers below the Sgt. Pepper bass drum. It is with them that the show goes from a concert to a funeral, as The Beatles are reborn as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Sgt. Pepper didn't so much change rock history as much as it broke it in half, perfectly capturing a peace-&-love era right at the moment of its formation, & closing it off into a utopian bubble. Almost all of the albums that tried to respond to on its own terms failed miserably--check out The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request (better yet, don't)--& only further reinforced how special The Beatles really were. The Beatles themselves never fully recovered from it either. Their next project, Magical Mystery Tour, was their first grand failure, while The Beatles (A.K.A. "The White Album") began the long splintering of the group that would continue through the ill-fated "Get Back" project (later released as Let It Be) & the swan-song Abbey Road. Glimmers of unity remained, but they were usually isolated exceptions to the rule.

Not that you can blame The Beatles. With Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles elevated rock music to the level of Art, which was to be enjoyed, ingested, studied, & even revered.

It showed that something as seemingly ephemeral & disposable as rock music could create something that was meant to last.

Or did it?


Part 2: Sgt. Pepper Sucks.

As the definitive Beatles wall-to-wall masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band began falling out of favor around 1987, when The Beatles' catalog was first released on CD. The living ex-Beatles insisted on issuing the albums in their UK formats only, which meant that American audiences were hearing the way they were supposed to sound for the first time. It quickly became apparent that a little album called Revolver could give Sgt. Pepper a run for its money.

That can (& will & is) debated elsewhere, but I've always defaulted to the mystic Beatles' chronologer Ian MacDonald whose must-read analysis of The Beatles (& their music & the '60s) Revolution In The Head posited that song-for-song, Revolver is their finest album, but where Sgt. Pepper beats it is in spirit.

This has always made sense to me. When you listen to Sgt. Pepper as an isolated entity, it works, it comes around, it feels united--as evidenced by when the title song's reprise collapses into "A Day In The Life." But this is as a stand-alone piece. Time has shown the '60s dream-land of Sgt. Pepper itself collapsed into the '70s wasteland of punk & the postpunk music that would follow. In capturing the '60s spirit, it has become a spirit in a different sense of the word: A ghost that is dead-on-arrival in the modern age.

When you try to dissect it, it falls apart. The only songs about Sgt. Pepper & his band are evidenced in the title track, "With A Little Help From My Friends," the reprise, & "A Day In The Life." Otherwise, the songs simply don't hold together. Also, the album suffers from a lot of Paul McCartney. The Side 1 stretch of "Getting Better" to "Fixing A Hole" to "She's Leaving Home" has always bored me, even when I know I'm intellectually supposed to love it. George Harrison's sole contribution, "Within You Without You," also bores me, even though recent criticism has elevated its quality substantially. (I would have preferred Harrison's first song recorded in the sessions, the cynical "Only A Northern Song," which was shelved & finally released on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack in 1969.) What makes the album for me, then, is the Lennon parts: The free vibe of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," the haunting atmosphere of "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!," the anything-goes merriment of "Good Morning Good Morning." The rest of the album I could take or leave.

& that includes "A Day In The Life." I've always found that song boring too--too long, too pretentious, too filled with things I don't care about. It works as a capper, but I'd never want to listen to it by itself. I'd much rather hear the allusion to it in David Bowie's "Young Americans."

& I get it. I was born over a decade after Sgt. Pepper came out, so I wasn't there. But what good is art if it can't be universally understood & appreciated? Furthermore, there's psychedelic music I love, such as The Beach Boys' SMiLE outtakes, The Rolling Stones' 1966-era work, & the early Pink Floyd singles, all of which hold up with the greatest rock ever recorded. I just feel that Sgt. Pepper itself is a brilliant, but ultimately hollow, shell.

Which brings us back to my two favorite psychedelic songs, the vibrant & timeless "Strawberry Fields Forever" & "Penny Lane." If The Beatles had only included those over say, "Fixing A Hole" & "Lovely Rita," then I could see a strong argument for The Greatest Album Ever Made.

But then again, what do I know?

I think that The Beach Boys should've waited & put "Good Vibrations" on Pet Sounds.



Part 3: Sgt. Pepper Remade.

So where does that leave us? Well, appropriately everywhere & nowhere. I would like to close with my own take on Sgt. Pepper, which I like to call "Sgt. Better," which I think of as the album that should've been had The Beatles not been so strict about albums & singles:

Side 1

1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
2. With A Little Help From My Friends
3. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
4. Getting Better
5. Only A Northern Song
6. She's Leaving Home
7. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!

Side 2

1. Strawberry Fields Forever
2. Penny Lane
3. When I'm Sixty-Four
4. Good Morning Good Morning
5. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
6. A Day In The Life

With all due respect to The Beatles' official Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, THIS is the masterpiece I'd want to hear.

After all, if Sgt. Pepper's is ultimately a make-believe show, then it's only keeping with its original spirit to make your own make-believe show out of it.

So to quote Sgt. Pepper's band themselves, we hope you will enjoy the show.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Beatles: The Complete Discography.


The Beatles are the greatest band in the world, in no small part because of both their quality & economy.

They were a working band in their classic line-up for about a decade, during which they officially released a mere 217 songs across 13 studio albums (& two albums worth of orphan tracks).

That is not very much. Check out Elvis Presley--the only real challenge to The Beatles' superior influence--who released several hundred songs across 72 albums during his lifetime. (No seriously, check him out--I reviewed his complete discography here.)

On one level, it's almost a silly exercise to review The Beatles' albums because they are so great; they pretty much could all get five stars with a straight face. It's a bit like reviewing Shakespeare's plays--sure, some are better than others, but even at its worst, it's still Shakespeare.

To rate these albums, I used the standard Rolling Stone/AllMusic five-star system:


***** = Classic
**** = Great
*** = Good
** = Fair
* = Poor


I went by the classic UK discography because this is how they issued the music & how it has always appeared on CD. While some get misty-eyed over the US releases (& I get it, I hold a soft place in my heart for both Meet The Beatles! & the US version of Rubber Soul), they ultimately jumble a story that is most remarkable not just for its excellence, but its clarity. Besides, to truly understand The Beatles, we should be looking at their music the way that they did.

I included a few classic collections, either because they were officially issued along with The Beatles catalog or have remained in print into the modern era, or both. I also did the Past Masters albums that rounded up the songs for the CD edition, & the 1 collection which has brought the group into the modern age. Officially-licensed but long out-of-print collections like Rock 'n' Roll Music & Love Songs were left off because they came after The Beatles ceased to be a group & add little to nothing to the greater story. Finally, I left off the BBC & Anthology sets, which I consider to be their own beasts.

So without further ado, here is the complete Beatles catalog, rated & reviewed. I hope you will enjoy the show:



Please Please Me [Parlophone, 1963] *****




Modern rock begins here. Fourteen songs--a then-shocking 8 of which were written by the group themselves--most of which were recorded in a single 12-hour session, The Beatles hit the ground running, easily outclassing everything else of their time & most things that had come before them, too. From the opening count-off of "I Saw Her Standing There" through to the hard-rock closer "Twist & Shout," this was a 30-minute masterpiece, upon which much of their Beatlemania legend would be built. The title track & "Love Me Do" were the hits (as well as "Twist & Shout" & "Do You Want To Know A Secret," both of which hit #2 on the US charts), but carefully-chosen covers like "A Taste Of Honey" & "Anna (Go To Him)" alongside original rockers like "Misery" & "There's A Place" were proof that there was already-budding ambition & sophistication. Although not released in the US until the CD age, it was a smash in the UK, remaining at #1 on the album charts for an astonishing 30 straight weeks, until it was displaced by...



With The Beatles [Parlophone, 1963] *****




The rare sophomore album to build upon the foundation of its predecessor, deepening the sound while growing in style. With no singles culled from it (although the classic "All My Loving" could have been--& was in the US), this was their first album of all-new material (not to mention their first iconic album cover). It used the template of Please Please Me--8 originals & 6 covers, a rocking original opener ("It Won't Be Long"), a barnstorming cover closer ("Money (That's What I Want")"), with lots of state-of-the-art music between. The originals became the backbone of the classic US edition, Meet The Beatles!, which put them on the international map, as upbeat tunes like "Little Child" & "I Wanna Be Your Man" kept the party going while "All I've Got To Do" & "Not A Second Time" hinted at the greater growth to come. Meanwhile, the covers paid homage to their R&B roots, from Chuck Berry ("Roll Over Beethoven") to Motown ("Please Mister Postman," "You've Really Got A Hold On Me"). It all sits together even more cohesively than its predecessor, which is perhaps why it spent the next 21 weeks at the top of the UK album charts.



A Hard Day's Night [Parlophone, 1964] *****





The vintage Beatles' masterpiece. This is the finest straight-up rock album The Beatles would ever release, & not coincidentally was also their first album of all original material (& the only album to be comprised solely of Lennon-McCartney songs). Side 1 was the movie music, & it was flawless--the rocking title track, the reeling "I Should Have Known Better," the irresistible "Can't Buy Me Love," plus their first great ballad, "And I Love Her," & the finest (three-part) harmonies to date in "If I Fell." Even "I'm Happy To Dance With You" was as infectious musically as "Tell Me Why" was sonically. Side 2 found the group digging deeper into their musical ambition, from the storming "Any Time At All," the wistful "Things We Said Today" & the stirring "I'll Be Back." In short, Side 1 proved they had mastered the genre of rock, while Side 2 found them pioneering where to go next, leading the way on a mixture of raw talent & pure charisma.



Beatles For Sale [Parlophone, 1964] *****





Beatlemania takes its toll. After conquering the worlds of music, television, & film, the group pulls back a bit in their fourth album. After the all-original breakthrough of A Hard Day's Night, Beatles For Sale feels like a bit of a retreat, returning to the 8 originals/6 covers template of their first two albums. But from the first doomed lines of "No Reply," The Beatles strike a more world-weary tone, with more acoustic guitars that speak of the contemporary influence of Dylan & predict the sound of Rubber Soul to come. It plays like the Beatlemania folk album, with standouts like the cynical "I'm A Loser" & the hopeful "I'll Follow The Sun." & yet, spliced in between is some of the hardest rock the group ever cut--their atomic take on "Rock & Roll Music" is the finest Chuck Berry cover ever cut, while McCartney matches (if not surpasses) his idol Little Richard's version of "Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey." & in the middle, they predict the folk-rock sound of The Byrds in "Every Little Thing" & master the balance between pop & rock with "Eight Days A Week." The latter was held back as a single in favor of the non-album "I Feel Fine," but it made easily #1 for two weeks in the US. In the UK, it just had to be content as the centerpiece of a masterful album.




Help! [Parlophone, 1965] ****1/2




The first not universally-acknowledged masterpiece in The Beatles catalog. (That said, it would be virtually any other group's finest album.) If Beatles For Sale found the weariness of the world affecting its sound, Help! found it affecting its vision. Like the film it provides the soundtrack to, Help! was a lesser effort that proved the group was quickly outgrowing its mop-top Beatlemania personas. It was also proof of a new influence on the group: Marijuana. Turned on to the drug by Dylan, The Beatles were partaking in its wonders regularly by the time this music was waxed. Classics still abound--the title track took the world-weary perspective of their recent work & married it to driving rock, while "Ticket To Ride" was a lovely piece of lop-sided pop that was their first major foray away from their previous more straightforward pop sound. Other cuts like "It's Only Love" & "I've Just Seen A Face" so clearly indicated the acoustic-based direction they would take next, they effortlessly blended into the American version of Rubber Soul later in the year. & in yet another #1 US hit single that was never released as one in the UK, "Yesterday" would go onto become the most covered song in recorded sound. Other songs like "You Like Me Too Much" & "Tell Me What You See" found The Beatles treading water, keeping the album from being a masterpiece. But their next one would more than make up for that.




Rubber Soul [Parlophone, 1965] *****





The Beatles' first universal masterpiece. When released towards the end of 1965, Rubber Soul was better than any other album The Beatles had released--& with the possible exception of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, was the finest rock album up to that point, period. By this time, The Beatles had absorbed the lessons of Dylan (both lyrically & medicinally) & their other contemporaries to look into themselves for inspiration, & the results were stunning. "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" found them working in new sounds with Harrison's use of a sitar, while "Nowhere Man" was Lennon's first masterpiece of social criticism. Meanwhile, McCartney honed his pop songcraft with "Michelle," which made it the third straight album to have a potential single that would reach #1 elsewhere (this time in a cover by The Overlanders in the UK). Flashes of humor like "Drive My Car" sat comfortably next to testimonials like "Girl," anthems like "The Word," & philosophical exercises like "If I Needed Someone." But it was Lennon's "In My Life," that took in the scope of the world--including love & loss, memory & regret, sadness & hope--& cemented The Beatles as the leaders of the young music. "A whole album of good stuff," Brian Wilson marveled upon hearing this LP. Then he went & made Pet Sounds.



Revolver [Parlophone, 1966] *****




Their finest album--& as some like to tell it, rock's finest album, period. Revolver caught the group just as they each began to branch out into their own interests, but weren't so disparate that they couldn't come together as a great band. & so, Lennon discovered LSD ("She Said She Said," "Tomorrow Never Knows"), McCartney discovered classical music ("Eleanor Rigby," "For No One"), Harrison discovered Indian mysticism ("Love You To"), & Starr sang a children's song that went to #1 ("Yellow Submarine"). In other places, they supported each other with a sense of cohesion & purpose even further than their previous music--Harrison's caustic opener "Taxman," Lennon's deeply-felt "I'm Only Sleeping," McCartney's blue-eyed soul "Got To Get You Into My Life." But it was the epic closer, "Tomorrow Never Knows," that in using tape loops & early sampling, worked not just as the high-water mark for psychedelic music, but a prophecy of the next 50 years to come.



A Collection Of Beatles Oldies [Parlophone, 1966] ***




The first collection. By the end of 1966, Revolver was six months old & The Beatles were nowhere near finishing a new album of material. So their label concocted this, the awkwardly-titled, hideously-covered A Collection Of Beatles Oldies for the UK Christmas market, which collected many of their hit singles (many of which had never appeared on LP) & one song that had previously only appeared in the US-only Beatles VI (the fine but unremarkable R&B cover "Bad Boy"). While one cannot fault any of the material here, the whole album feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. What could have been the definitive chronicle of The Beatles' first era was compromised by the exclusion of their earliest hits ("Love Me Do" & "Please Please Me," presumably because they had both already appeared on the Please Please Me LP) in favor of recent material like "Paperback Writer," "Eleanor Rigby," & "Yellow Submarine," all of which were less than six months old. Meanwhile, other album cuts that were never singles--"Michelle" & "Yesterday"--were included, further confusing the scope. In the end, only three of the 16 songs--"From Me To You," "She Loves You," & "I Want To Hold Your Hand"--came before 1964, while the running order at once scattershot & random whereas a strict chronological order would have worked better. It remained in print for decades, but was retired by the CD age to make way for the more logical (& successful) 1.



Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band [Parlophone, 1967] *****




The Citizen Kane of rock & roll--which is to say, if it isn't actually the greatest album of all-time, it's the default standard. Beatles writer/historian/philosopher Ian MacDonald put it best when he said that song-for-song, Revolver is their finest, but Sgt. Pepper beats it in spirit. In this way, the album works a bit like an illusion, seeming to hold together better than it actually does when held under harder scrutiny. This is because of its simple yet effective "concept" of The Beatles reborn as a new band--Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band--& the album is a document of their concert. The fact that The Beatles had quit touring within a year of this project added extra heft to its execution, as did the prevalence of psychedelic drugs during its making & release. Here was real band that retreated to the studio to become a fantasy band giving the concert. Pretty heady, clever stuff. & the key points all hold together marvelously--the opening "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club" song, the segue into "With A Little Help From My Friends," which in tun gives way to "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"; the carnival centerpiece of "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!," which was the most evocative music they would ever record; the closing reprise of the "Sgt. Pepper" song collapsing into the finale to end all finales, "A Day In The Life" (which many hold as The Beatles' finest song, period. If songs like "Fixing A Hole" & "Lovely Rita" didn't exactly live up that promise, they didn't have to; there was enough quality in the over execution & programming to more than make up for it. Besides, Sgt. Pepper was a moment that was bigger than the mere album itself--it was a (counter-) cultural watershed that put The Beatles--& in turn, rock music--at the center of Western Civilization. Haters will hate (& they have for the last 25 years, as Sgt. Pepper's cultural stock has fallen somewhat in the rock canon), but this was the moment at which Pop became Art.



Magical Mystery Tour [Parlophone, 1967] ****




The soundtrack to their first misstep. It would have been hard for anyone to not disappoint after Sgt. Pepper, & Magical Mystery Tour proved that The Beatles were mere mortals after all. After conquering the world of rock, they felt their way into film, self-producing a television movie loosely based around a cross between Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters & the mystic tours of days of yore, or something like that. The resulting film was nearly unwatchable (although it did help to predict the road-trip genre), but the music, while far from their peak, was still quite good. Released as a double-EP in the UK, the album version in the US (where EPs were dying a commercial format) improved things by including both sides of their three classic 1967 singles, & by the CD age had become the "official" version. The six Magical Mystery Tour songs range from exciting rockers like the title track to lovely filler like the instrumental "Flying" to the tedious "Blue Jay Way," the first real clunker in The Beatles' catalog. The only masterpiece is Lennon's "I Am The Walrus," a fascinating slice of dark psychedelic rock that shows where the music could have kept going had Lennon & co. hadn't have been scared straight (in part, perhaps because of the fallout of this project). "Walrus" was first issued as the B-side of "Hello, Goodbye," so the remainder of the album trots out the singles that surround Sgt. Pepper. Of most note is the inclusion of "Strawberry Fields Forever" & "Penny Lane," which were cut during the Sgt. Pepper sessions but released as a single beforehand. That single was the greatest release of The Beatles' career & would have made Sgt. Pepper the masterpiece that to many modern listeners yields diminishing returns. But Sgt. Pepper's loss is Magical Mystery Tour's gain, as those songs--evocative studies of childhood through modern psychedelics--anchor the second side & help redeem the first. By the time "All You Need Is Love" closes out the proceedings, one can see how Magical Mystery Tour actually has become the rare classic rock album to improve its standing among modern listeners, looking for something deeper (& perhaps darker) than the standard mid-'60s psychedelic fare. In this regard, Magical Mystery Tour delivers.



The Beatles [A.K.A. "The White Album"] [Apple, 1968] *****





The sprawling masterpiece. When The Beatles--soon nicknamed "The White Album" for its blank of a cover--was first released in 1968, it was hard to know what to make of it. It was a double-record set that sprawled the gamut of popular music from rock ("Back In The USSR") to blues ("Yer Blues") to country ("Don't Pass Me By") to folk ("Mother Nature's Son") to music concrete ("Revolution 9") to flirtatious with acid rock ("Glass Onion"), heavy metal ("Helter Skelter"), & even ska-based reggae ("Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"). Producer George Martin is famous for saying that he wished they had released one completely excellent instead of two middling ones, but then it wouldn't be "The White Album," then would it? The genius of the album(s) is in its sprawl, as well as the way it hangs together, even in places where it shouldn't. The way the childhood sing-along "The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill" collapses so naturally into the stunning "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," or how "Helter Skelter" crashes into the elegant "Long, Long, Long" all speak to the slight-of-hand magic of great programming. For all of its variant peaks & valleys, "The White Album" is often described as a preview of The Beatles' solo careers, & while it has that--the blunt savageness of Lennon, the whimsical pop of McCartney, & the mystic virtuosity of Harrison--some of its finest moments come from a united front, a pop group still working all for one & one for all. Nowhere is this more apparent on Lennon's "Happiness Is A Warm Gun," a folksong-turned-rocker-turned-'50s pastiche. It almost serves like a mini-"White Album" unto itself, different pieces hung together by the sheer mastery of the music & talent of the musicians. Hindsight has shown it to be a rich playground of ideas, melody, & performance--as well as the beginning of the end as The Beatles as a working rock band.



Yellow Submarine [Apple, 1969] **





A rip-off. Despite the quality of the film, its accompanying soundtrack was a cheat, with only Side 1 consisting of Beatles music, while Side 2 had instrumental film music from The George Martin Orchestra. Thus, it's not really a Beatles album at all--more like half of one. For the 6 Beatles songs that are on it, two of the songs ("Yellow Submarine" & "All You Need Is Love") had previously appeared elsewhere, leaving only four new songs to get on this LP: The charming children's song "All Together Now," the caustic Pepper-era outtake "Only A Northern Song," the driving "Hey Bulldog" & the near-unlistenable "It's All Too Much." Of the quartet, only "Hey Bulldog" is a stunner, it's heavy riffs & slicing guitars combining to deliver a delicious hook. Held back some six months from release as not to interfere with "The White Album," Yellow Submarine plays like the psychedelic leftover swap-sale that it is, & remains the only album in their catalog that cannot be considered essential.



Abbey Road [Apple, 1969] *****




The official swan-song. After the "Get Back" sessions collapsed into a pile of tapes that nobody wanted to touch, The Beatles regrouped for one last masterpiece in their beloved Abbey Road studio. With George Martin back at the helm, the group sounded better than they ever had before--in terms of sheer sound, Abbey Road is their masterpiece. It didn't hurt that they were still able to deliver a handful of classics despite deepening conflict amongst the band members: Lennon's anthemic "Come Together," Harrison's beautiful "Something" (the second-most covered song in recorded sound, after McCartney's "Yesterday") & surprisingly optimistic "Here Comes The Sun," & of course, McCartney's suite of songs on the second side. Even Starr delivered "Octopus's Garden," the finest song he would ever pen while a Beatle. The power of these songs coupled with the sweeping second side helped to overshadow the filler that cropped up elsewhere. The second side suite is truly what makes the album, with the medley of the gorgeous "Golden Slumbers," the storming "Carry That Weight," & the bittersweet "The End," before the surprise finale of "Her Majesty." No band has ever recorded a finer farewell, & Abbey Road found The Beatles going out on top. Even if they would still technically exist as a group for another six months after this release, for all intents & purposes, this was their finale.



Let It Be [Apple, 1970] ****




The encore. When Paul McCartney announced The Beatles no longer existed in April 1970, at least one album's worth of songs were sitting around from the aborted "Get Back" sessions of early 1969. Originally intended to be a return to live performing that was to be filmed from rehearsals through final concert, it soon devolved into a movie about a band breaking up. Aside from the "Get Back" single in 1969 & the "Let It Be" single in 1970, no music from the sessions were released, & as a film was being cobbled together, an accompanying album was needed. After George Martin had long since thrown his hands up at the project, the box of tapes were given to Phil Spector (over McCartney's loud objections). Spector went to work sweetening up the the tapes in a style that has been criticized for ruining the back-to-basics simplicity of the mission, but in reality was just as much to mask the many mistakes made in the recordings. But in the end, The Beatles are The Beatles, & Let It Be proved that, even when squabbling & splintering, they still made wonderful music. The album versions of the title track, "Get Back," & "Across The Universe" were the classics, while "The Long & Winding Road" proved that The Beatles could still do schmaltz & wind up with a #1 hit (in the US, anyway). More interesting however, are rockers like McCartney's acoustic reverie "Two Of Us," Lennon's storming "Dig A Pony," & the split "I've Got A Feeling," perhaps the last 50/50 effort of the Lennon/McCartney catalog. There were also goofs & jokes like Lennon's free-associative "Dig It" or the snippet of the Liverpudlian whore "Maggie Mae" (the last cover The Beatles released), which were included to try to capture the freewheeling nature of the sessions. More on point was their version of their oft-tried but never completed "One After 909," an early Lennon/McCartney song that gets remade into a hurricane of rockabilly. It is in this music that the band truly returns to their roots & reclaim the music. Also included is Harrison's "I Me Mine," which, perhaps appropriately, given its one-for-me outlook, was the last Beatles song ever cut. For the next decade, fans would hold out hopes for a reunion, but Let It Be was the last new music they ever officially released as a band.



1962-1966 [A.K.A. "The Red Album"] [Apple, 1973] *****




The Canon, Part 1. Three years after The Beatles disbanded & no hits collection in sight, bootleggers emerged with the Alpha Omega collection, which collected 60 Beatles hits (& a few solo numbers), arranged them alphabetically (mostly), & spread them over four LPs. The Beatles responded with 1962-1966 & its sister companion, 1967-1970, affectionately known as "The Red Album" & "The Blue Album" in response, markedly advertising them as the only authorized Beatles collection. They were also the first time that every UK A-side was compiled in a single place. "The Red Album" contained 26 songs over five years, from their very first single, "Love Me Do," through "Eleanor Rigby" & "Yellow Submarine," from Revolver. Overall, the album does its work very well. You can't argue with the song selection here, it's just too bad that they didn't fit more in. With a running time of a little over an hour, it could fit on a single CD, but modern packages keep it at two discs to match its parent LP set. Also, the breakdown of the albums can feel a bit off. For instance, no album is represented by more than three or four songs until Rubber Soul features a whopping six. This is all the more bizarre since the following Revolver (generally considered its superior) only has two songs, although this might speak more to how the albums have shaped up to modern listeners as opposed to people in 1973. The brilliance of the album is though that you would never notice this until you sit & break it all down (you're welcome) because they move at a perfect clip through time. & because "The Red Album" covered the earlier time period (i.e., the Beatlemania singles), it was seen as the more important set, & by the early '90s, had become something of a minor classic in the lists of essential music albums.



1967-1970 [A.K.A. "The Blue Album"] [Apple, 1973] *****




The Canon, Part 2. The companion piece to "The Red Album," featuring 28 songs over four years. One would think that with this album covering the smaller set of time with songs that overall ran greater lengths it would have less music than its twin, but not so. Perhaps this is nod given to The Beatles late "great period" that had the "serious" music, & it's true that the first disc of the set ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" through "Revolution") is a pretty flawless document of music, & the best single disc of the set. But songs like "The Fool On The Hill" & "Old Brown Shoe" come off as needless filler, especially compared to the economy of "The Red Album." But that said, "The Blue Album" strikes a better balance (mostly), with four songs apiece from Sgt. Pepper & Abbey Road, & three apiece from "The White Album" & Let It Be. & once again, the pacing masks any inconsistencies, as the album moves at a clip that still feels like it hits all the essentials. & therein is perhaps the most telling part of The Beatles--whereas most bands can fit all of their essential music into one LP's worth of song or less, this & "The Red Album" prove The Beatles need at least 50.



Past Masters Volume One [Apple, 1988] *****




The collection-completer, volume one. When The Beatles catalog was finally issued on CD in the late '80s, the group had a dilemma: Of their 217 official songs, 32 of them were never issued on a regular UK studio album. This meant they could go one of two ways: They could add bonus tracks to the albums where need be, or they could collect all of the orphan songs onto a two-disc set. Past Masters was their way of doing the latter. In hindsight, it was the right decision, as their albums were masterpieces that would have been bogged down by extra music, diluting their original punch. Plus, although these were orphan songs, they in no way corresponded with mere leftovers. In fact, some of their biggest hits, including "She Loves You," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," & "Hey Jude" were never issued on a studio album. Past Masters Volume One covers the earlier period from 1962 through 1965, getting all of their non-LP A-sides ("From Me To You," "She Loves You," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "I Feel Fine"), their wonderful UK flips ("Thank You Girl," "I'll Get You," "This Boy," "She's A Woman"), & all four tracks of the non-album Long Tall Sally EP. The only real losers in the set are the tedious German remakes of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" & "She Loves You," included for completists only. But as an 18-song collection, it is nearly good enough to feel like a greatest hits, leaving you wanting more with the excellent & innovative Help! B-sides "Yes It Is" & "I'm Down." Luckily, there was more to be found.



Past Masters, Volume Two [Apple, 1988] *****





The collection-completer, volume two. The sister companion to Past Masters Volume One, this album collected the remaining 15 songs never issued on an original UK studio LP. Again, you get many big A-sides (the double A-sided "Day Tripper" & "We Can Work It Out," "Paperback Writer," "Lady Madonna," "Hey Jude," "Get Back") & their fine slips ("Rain," "The Inner Light," "Revolution," "Don't Let Me Down"), as well as some miscellany such as the "wildlife" version of "Across The Universe" that was originally issued on a benefit LP No One's Gonna Change Our World. It's also the only place to get their final UK B-side, the long, winding, & bizarre "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)," a four-&-a-half minute goof that the group worked on literally for years. The fact that, if you play their catalog, followed by the Past Masters albums, this is the final song you hear, reminds you that it wasn't necessarily their musicianship that got them signed by George Martin on that fateful day in 1962--it was their humor.



1 [Apple, 2000] *****




The summary. Just when you thought The Beatles had finished leading the way for the last 30 years, they issued this, a one-disc collection purporting to be all of their UK & US #1 singles. Whether you were a lifetime fan buying the music again (in newly remastered sound) or hearing it for the first time, it clicked, & became the best-selling album of the first decade of the new millennium. Other artists like Elvis Presley & Michael Jackson began following suit to issue their albums of only #1 hits, followed by many lesser ones just trying to make their own definitive 80-minute playlist. As it turns out, according to this album, of the 26 Beatles songs originally issued as UK A-sides, all but two of them hit #1 in the UK &/or US with the exception of two--"Please Please Me," which actually did hit #1 on both the New Music Express & Melody Maker charts (but only hit #2 on the Record Retailer chart that evolved into the official UK one) & "Strawberry Fields Forever," which was issued as a double A-side with "Penny Lane," which did hit #1.

This is because for a stretch of time in the 1960s, it was possible for two different sides of a single to reach different chart rankings in the US. In the UK, however, this was not the case. Hence, when double A-sides like "Day Tripper"/"We Can Work It Out" & "Yellow Submarine"/"Eleanor Rigby" hit #1 in the UK, they are counted as four #1s, as opposed to two. Thus, the "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" single stalled at #2 in the UK, while the songs hit #8 & #1, respectively, in the US, resulting in only one #1 song. OK, fine.

But then the set plays favorites with the "Come Together"/"Something" double A-side, which DID NOT hit #1 in the UK (fun fact: The last Beatles UK #1 was "The Ballad Of John & Yoko"), but did hit #1 & #4, respectively, in the US. Going by the rest of the album, then, "Something" should not be included on this album. But it is, presumably because George Harrison should be represented & it's the second-most covered song in the history of recorded sound.

All of which is to say that I consider this album purporting to be 27 #1 songs in fact 26 #1 songs & "Something," if we're being technical. Of the three songs that were never issued as singles in the UK but hit #1 in the US, two are essential ("Yesterday" & "Eight Days A Week") & one is pure sentimental dreck ("The Long & Winding Road"). It is likely my bitterness for the latter that makes me wish they'd cut it from this album in favor of "Strawberry Fields Forever," which is otherwise unavailable unless you get the Magical Mystery Tour album.

In fact, as a purist/Beatles nerd, I personally have my own version of 1 that I have compiled, which includes all 26 Beatles A-sides plus the most covered song in the history of recorded sound:

1. Love Me Do
2. Please Please Me
3. From Me To You
4. She Loves You
5. I Want To Hold Your Hand
6. Can't Buy Me Love
7. A Hard Day's Night
8. I Feel Fine
9. Ticket To Ride
10. Help!
11. Yesterday
12. Day Tripper
13. We Can Work It Out
14. Paperback Writer
15. Yellow Submarine
16. Eleanor Rigby
17. Strawberry Fields Forever
18. Penny Lane
19. All You Need Is Love
20. Hello Goodbye
21. Lady Madonna
22. Hey Jude
23. Get Back
24. The Ballad Of John & Yoko
25. Come Together
26. Something
27. Let It Be

Yes, you miss the lovely #1 US A-side "Eight Days A Week," but literally nothing else essential. Plus, The Beatles always hated "Eight Days A Week." That's why "I Feel Fine" was issued as a single in the first place.

That & the opening feedback sound.

But that's a whole other story.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Beatles: The Purple Album.


One of the ways in which The Beatles were revolutionary was that they defied greatest hits collections.

Most bands at the very least bank on them, & at most live off of them. Even artists as influential, established, album-centered, & varied as The Byrds, Sly & The Family Stone, Al Green, & Simon & Garfunkel have released essential greatest hits albums, which have become staples of their catalog.

Not so with The Beatles. While they were together, they authorized only one greatest hits collection, the UK-only A Collection Of Beatles Oldies, which was released for the 1966 Christmas season once it became apparent that no proper studio album would be ready.

A Collection Of Beatles Oldies was something of a missed opportunity. What could have been a definitive summation of their vintage years was instead bogged down by recent material that already had been released on LP, such  as the (only) six-month-old "Yellow Submarine" & "Eleanor Rigby," plus non-single cuts like "Michelle" and "Yesterday." Meanwhile, vintage bona fide hits like "Love Me Do" & "Please Please Me" were omitted altogether (probably because they had been released on the Please Please Me LP), along with fine B-sides like "Thank You Girl," "I'll Get You," & "This Boy," none of which had ever appeared on a proper Beatles album. A Collection Of Beatles Oldies tried to split the difference between the old & the new, but in trying to appease both sides, satisfied neither.

With the wealth of Beatles' hits, you can't blame them for not even trying again for the remainder of their career. The only exception was the Hey Jude LP, released in February 1970, which contained more recent hit single-only sides like "Get Back," "Lady Madonna," "The Ballad Of John & Yoko," & the title track, along with, oddly enough, the 1964 chestnuts "Can't Buy Me Love" & "I Should Have Known Better," for some reason. It too felt like a bit of missed opportunity.

& then...nothing. The Beatles broke up a few months after Hey Jude hit the album racks & all four Beatles went their separate ways.

But the temptation was just too great. Then, in 1972, the Alpha Omega bootleg came out, an unauthorized four-LP set that contained eight sides of Beatles hits (plus a few solo ones), arranged largely alphabetically. TV exposure made it increasingly popular, so something had to be done.

Beatles manager Allen Klein is credited with putting together 1962-1966 & 1967-1970, a pair of double-LP sets that tell The Beatles story over 54 tracks. They have since come to be known as "The Red Album" & "The Blue Album," named for the borders around their matching looking-down-the-stairs shots at opposite ends of The Beatles' career. ("The Red Album" cover photo was the cover of their first LP, Please Please Me, while "The Blue Album" cover photo had been planned for the appropriately-titled "Get Back" LP that was eventually released in a different form as Let It Be.) It was actually sequenced by then-Klein employee Allan Steckler, who had previously programmed the Hey Jude LP as well as The Rolling Stones' classic Hot Rocks compilation.

Initially touted as "the only authorized collection of The Beatles," both sets were released on April 2, 1973, & were major hits on both sides of the Atlantic. The albums remain the only place where you could get get all of The Beatles' original (UK) A-sides, as well as countless songs that were never released as singles, but are just as recognizable as ones that had. Plus, they had at least one song off of each studio album, giving a balanced collection of The Beatles' discography.

The set's successes & setbacks are tied to two ends of the same issue: Time. In terms of time as a linear historical element, the albums do their job beautifully, continuing at a pace that is at once succinct & yet hits all of the key points. Yet in the digital age, another kind of time has become a drawback for the set: The length of a CD. Like most rock & roll artists, as time continued linearly, The Beatles' songs increased in length. The 26 songs that comprise "The Red Album" clock in at under 65 minutes, while the 28 songs that comprise "The Blue Album" come to nearly 100 minutes. Given the modern 80-minute disc as a template, "The Red Album" easily fits on a single disc while "The Blue Album" does not.

In order to keep the aesthetics of the set (& the cashflow of a 2-disc priced collection), both "The Red Album" & "The Blue Album" were released on double-disc sets in both the initial 1993 CD release as well as the 2010 remaster. Although loads of bonus tracks could have been added at either point, they never were, thus further cementing the two sets as the (Apple?) core of The Beatles' canon. & with these releases as the only extensive greatest-hits releases authorized by the band themselves, it's unlikely this will ever change. They are, then, more than just a hits collection, but a self-portrait in the form of an archetypal boxed set.

With only 217 songs officially released while they were together, "The Red Album" & "The Blue Album" comprise nearly a quarter of them, such that there are two kinds of Beatles songs: Ones that were on these albums & ones that wasn't. I know that songs like "Twist & Shout" & "Do You Want To Know A Secret" were major US hits; "Rain," "Tomorrow Never Knows" & "Helter Skelter" were massively influential; & album cuts from the opening song of their first UK album, "I Saw Her Standing There," all the way through to the medley that closes the last album they would ever cut, "The Abbey Road Medley," are all key parts of The Beatles' story, but they are not stone-cold essentials because they are all absent from this collection.

& yet, there are drawbacks to the LPs. Although "The Red Album" covered a slightly longer period of time (with songs that generally shorter than their later counterparts), it contained slightly less tracks, 26 songs to 28 song on "The Blue Album." The former is all the more bizarre when you consider that Revolver--which many consider to be their finest album (if not the finest album EVER)--is represented by a mere pair of tracks, both sides of its "Yellow Submarine" & "Eleanor Rigby" single. Considering that Rubber Soul gets six cuts, one would think they could have thrown on at least two more from Revolver to make each LP set an equal 28 songs.

On the other hand, to my ears "The Blue Album" always contained two songs that were not deserving of this Beatles Canon: "The Fool On The Hill" & "Old Brown Shoe." Both are great songs in their own ways, but not classics in their own right. (I looked the other way on a third arguably dubious choice, "Octopus's Garden," because it's obvious a ploy to get a Ringo composition in there, but it also fills out Abbey Road's representation to four songs.) If you take out "Fool" & "Shoe," you get an equal 26 songs for both albums.

But in my Beatles analysis, I went a slightly different way. I realized that when you shaved off two of the Rubber Soul cuts from "The Red Album" (I opted for the fine-but-least-essential "Drive My Car" & "Girl) & "The Fool On The Hill" & "Old Brown Shoe" from "The Blue Album," you are left with 50 songs. Furthermore, if you move all of the material through Sgt. Pepper onto the first collection, you get a neat 30 songs for "The Red Album" & 20 songs for "The Blue Album," making each fit on a single disc.

Finally, I did some nitpicking around with the running order, such as placing "All My Loving" between "She Loves You" & "I Want To Hold Your Hand," since it was released between those two songs, whereas the original running order of "The Red Album" places "I Want To Hold Your Hand" first. I also moved around the order of "Help!" & "Yesterday" to match with these chronologies. For "The Blue Album," I put "I Am The Walrus" after "Hello, Goodbye," since "Walrus" was the B-side & "Here Comes The Sun" after the other Abbey Road cuts to match the running order of the original LP. All are relatively minor switches, but for me tell the more accurate story. & these songs are nothing if not an epic in rock & roll storytelling--collectively, they quite literally tell the story of modern rock itself.

I therefore present "The Purple Album," which is simply my tinkering of "The Red Album" & "The Blue Album" reconfigured into a two-disc set (or two playlists if you will):


Disc 1: 1962-1967

1. Love Me Do
2. Please Please Me
3. From Me To You
4. She Loves You
5. All My Loving
6. I Want To Hold Your Hand
7. Can't Buy Me Love
8. A Hard Day's Night
9. And I Love Her
10. Eight Days A Week
11. I Feel Fine
12. Ticket To Ride
13. Help!
14. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away
15. Yesterday
16. Day Tripper
17. We Can Work It Out
18. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Had Flown)
19. Nowhere Man
20. Michelle
21. In My Life
22. Paperback Writer
23. Eleanor Rigby
24. Yellow Submarine
25. Strawberry Fields Forever
26. Penny Lane
27. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
28. With A Little Help From My Friends
29. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
30. A Day In The Life


Disc 2: 1967-1970

1. All You Need Is Love
2. Hello, Goodbye
3. I Am The Walrus
4. Magical Mystery Tour
5. Lady Madonna
6. Hey Jude
7. Revolution
8. Back In The USSR
9. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
10. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
11. Get Back
12. Don't Let Me Down
13. The Ballad Of John & Yoko
14. Come Together
15. Something
16. Octopus's Garden
17. Here Comes The Sun
18. Across The Universe
20. The Long & Winding Road


The result is the 50 songs that comprise the official Beatles Canon.

You get every UK A-side & every UK & US #1 hit, plus four cuts apiece from Help!, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, & three cuts apiece from A Hard Day's Night, "The White Album," & Let It Be. Only Revolver gets underrepresented with two songs, but that's just a flaw in the initial program.

It's hard to go much lower than 50 songs when it comes to The Beatles, because then you have to start choosing between hit singles & key album tracks.

& once your down to one disc's worth, that's why 1 was invented.

Even though I will always hold a strike against it for omitting "Strawberry Fields Forever"--but that's a whole other story.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Top 10 Greatest Bob Dylan Covers Of All-Time.


As Bob Dylan turns 76 this month, I thought it was as good a time as any to look back at the finest covers his music has inspired.

It was a daunting task. Dylan is the greatest rock songwriter of all-time, & his songs have become a kind of cultural currency that transcend rock music itself, or any other genre for that matter. As this list shows, Dylan's work has been remade not just in rock, but in pop, folk, jazz, & country, by women & men, black & white, Americans & foreigners, legendary & obscure, & in music that was major hits or hidden deep within the grooves of an LP.

Dylan himself has always been a shapeshifter, altering his sound, style, & voice on little more than whim. It only makes sense that his music has become a template for such a wide range of performers.

Of the many that didn't make it, there are three in particular I'd like to name--Jim James & Calexico's lovely mariachi remake of "Goin' To Acapulco," Guns N' Roses' absurd hard rock take on "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," & Nico's bittersweet version of "I'll Keep It With Mine"--all of which nearly made the list, & perhaps on a different day, or in a different mood, would have.

I only put out a few simple rules to govern this list: Only one song per artist, only one version of a song per list. There's so much good music to choose from, I didn't want to let this get overcrowded by an artist or a song. Other than that, anything was game.

Here's the list:


10. Elvis Presley: "Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time," 1966.


Bob Dylan once told Rolling Stone that Elvis Presley's cover of "Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time" was "the one recording I treasure the most." Dylan was a huge fan of Elvis early on & Elvis was certainly aware of Dylan, but rarely ever covered him because The Colonel largely forced him to record songs from the Hill & Range songwriting stable (which the owned stock in). One of the few times Elvis strayed was to record this as a bonus track for the Spinout soundtrack, resulting in a rare gem of his otherwise lackluster pre-comeback years. Just as Dylan's gift was his words, Elvis's gift was his feeling, & when the material was worth feeling, as it is here, Elvis gave it his all & made you believe every single word. The only bad thing that can be said about this performance is that it remains a tantalizing hint at would could have been had Elvis recorded more songs like this one.


9: PJ Harvey: "Highway 61 Revisited," 1993.


For her 1993 album Rid Of Me, PJ Harvey took her band & legendary producer Steve Albini & went on an errand into the wilderness of Minnesota in the dead of winter & recorded most of the album live in the studio in a matter of days. The only song Harvey didn't write on it was the title track to Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album, proving that the titular stretch of road could crop up pretty much anywhere. Harvey didn't so much cover the song as she tore it apart & made it new again, breaking off words & sounds & reassembling them with a range of dynamics that was at once raw, surprising, & beautiful. This is the moment at which Dylan, the great modernist songwriter of our time, goes postmodern.


8. Jeff Buckley: "Mama, You've Been On My Mind," 1993 [Released 2004].


When Bob Dylan's The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3 came out in 1991, it was a virtual treasure trove of music, song & demos that had circulated like secrets & rumors for years finally gathered in a single place for a set that proved Dylan's discarded music could rival his officially-released songs of virtually any era. It was around this time that a young Jeff Buckley began covering this song in his legendary early sets around New York City in The Sin-e & The Knitting Factory. Dylan himself played it live as an upbeat country stomp in the Rolling Thunder Review tours of the 1970s, but Buckley wisely goes by Dylan's original 1964 version (an outtake from Another Side Of Bob Dylan), a slow & stately rumination on how love can linger even once its source has gone. Buckley turns it from a measured dirge into an etherial psalm, which sounds all the more haunting now that it is Buckley who has long since gone.


7. Them: "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," 1966.


Dylan's first kiss-off to the folk scene was covered the following year by Them, Van Morrison's original band, a bunch of Irish kids who snuck into American radios with the British Invasion. They (or rather, Them) recast the song as easy, chiming pop, which serves as the perfect counterpart to Morrison's rough-hewed vocals. It is easy to hear how the song was more than just a cover for Them, but as a template for Morrison, given works like Astral Weeks, which would follow just a few short years later. Plus, it provided Beck with a hot hook for "Jack-Ass" on his classic 1993 album Odelay.


6. Nina Simone: "Just Like A Woman," 1971.


I spent quite some time deliberating between Nina Simone's version of "Just Like A Woman" & the one by Richie Havens, but decided to go with this one. First of all, I think the song is all the more fascinating from a female's perspective, which casts the lyrics & melody into a new light. But while Havens' cover strikes no false notes, it ultimately is just that--a cover--whereas Nina Simone never really covered songs in a traditional sense. She was a true stylist, one who remade everything into her image. This remains true for all of her signature work, including this Dylan cover, which sounds at once passionate yet understated. In the end, she doesn't so much sing the song as she does report it as one more undeniable truth.


5. The Fairport Convention: "Percy's Song," 1969.


In the late '60s, Rolling Stone asked Phil Spector what artist he would most like to produce. He answered Dylan because, in his opinion, Dylan had been recorded but never produced. Around the time Spector was saying this, British folk-rock pioneers The Fairport Convention were working out their own version of Dylan-as-a-production-project & the results are staggering. Here, they take Dylan's unreleased 1963 sketch of demo, which was just that--a sketch--& fill it out with the most majestic oil paints imaginable. Built around Sandy Denny's stunning vocal, the voices & instruments build up & wind down, such that the one thing that made Dylan's version a bit of a chore--its verse-stacked-on-verse simplicity--made it the perfect setting for dynamics & drama. Harmonies that rival The Beach Boys' finest work are filled out by a sound that predicts The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's supergroup country opus Will The Circle Be Unbroken, all to tell the tale of a mis-charged youth facing a cold, cruel world. Only by the time The Fairport Convention are done with it, the song sounds like a beacon of warm hope.


4. Manfred Mann: "Mighty Quinn," 1968.


Purists will probably balk at this choice (let alone at #4), but at the end of the day, pop is pop. With so many serious singers who can seriously sing on this list--Elvis Presley, Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone--Manfred Mann tells the other side of the story, one in which the meaning of the words are sacrificed in favor of the tune, where dancing is held higher than introspection. Appropriately, they chose a Basement Tapes song, where Dylan's lyrical surreal absurdity was a peak, thanks to a casual way to life with friends & a whole lot of booze. Although (or perhaps because) it was perhaps the best-known of the Basement Tapes compositions, it was left off the official 1975 Basement Tapes LP, although it resurfaced over the years on various collections in various versions. & with lines like "it ain't my cup of meat," it's a very weird song. But listening to Manfred Mann sing it, you'd hardly notice--it's only once you slow it down & listening to the words streaming by that you realize how strong it really is. When Dylan heard The Beatles & decided to plug in & get a band in 1965, it was in a gesture to achieve pop greatness. By the time "The Mighty Quinn" was released in the first days of 1968, Dylan's pop idea had already come full-circle.


3. Johnny & June Carter Cash: "It Ain't Me Babe," 1964.


On some of the earliest known recordings of Bob Dylan in 1958, he complains about Johnny Cash being boring as compared to rhythm & blues singers like Little Richard. The following decade, Dylan changed his tune, as evidenced by a film of Dylan & Cash singing a version of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway" backstage in 1965 & even recording a duet for Dylan's 1969 Nashville Skyline album. Around that same time, Dylan made one of his precious few TV appearances on The Johnny Cash Show. One imagines that whatever qualms Dylan had about Cash had more to do with the staid whitebread tastes of his community than Cash himself. Johnny Cash is a rare American music icon, an instantly-recognizable, genre-defying pioneer of popular music. It was only a matter of time before Cash started singing some of Dylan's songs, & the first & best was his cover of "It Ain't Me Babe," sung with future wife June Carter. Cash is able to use the song to strike a deft balance between the deadly serious & the seriously comical, delivering the withering verses like an assassin, before landing on the "Babe" of the refrain with an absurd glee that does nothing to derail the performance. Perhaps it's the budding romance with June, perhaps it's the use of the then-hip lingo "Babe," but the song injects an energy into Cash just as he was beginning to get bogged down by the mid-'60s Nashville sound. It was also a major hit, easily making the Country Top 5, a year before Dylan picked up an electric guitar.


2. The Byrds: "Mr. Tambourine Man," 1965.


The Byrds covered Dylan so many times that you could make a Top 10 list of just Byrd covers (& Columbia Records once essentially did just that with The Byrds Play Dylan compilation). & while The Byrds' versions of "Chimes Of Freedom," "My Back Pages," & "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" are all tempting for various reasons, it has to be "Mr. Tambourine Man." Few songs are as influential in rock history--The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" all but launched an entire genre, folk-rock, marrying Dylan's lyrics to The Beatles sound, fleshed out with their own shimmering guitars. (The legend is that, when called "folk-rock," Dylan once quipped, "When did I ever jingle-jangle?") In the end, The Byrds didn't cover the song as much as they stripped it for parts: When held up against Dylan's sprawling original, The Byrds scrap everything except for a single verse & a few go-rounds of the refrain, but it's all wrapped up in such a delectable package that you'd never notice unless you were a investigative Dylan reporter (you're welcome). With Gene Clark's straightforward vocal, Roger McGuinn's shining electric twelve-string, & David Crosby's inventive harmonies, it not only established Dylan in rock in the months before Dylan plugged in, but it established The Byrds as one of the most influential groups of all-time. & as for the Dylan covers of the folk-rock genre--Simon & Garfunkel's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," The Turtles' "It Ain't Me Babe," Peter, Paul, & Mary's "Too Much Of Nothing," to name but a few--The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" stands head & shoulders above the rest.


1. Jimi Hendrix: "All Along The Watchtower," 1968.



A list like this can have no suspense. There is only one Number 1. & this is it: Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower." Dylan released his original version on John Wesley Harding in the waning days of 1967, his first album since his motorcycle crash. For all of those waiting for The Next Big Thing, they were shocked by a quiet little country record filled with mysterious songs that played like parables with no refrains. Gone were the Nashville studio musicians of Blonde On Blonde or the-soon-to-be-renamed The Band; in their place was Gordon Lightfoot's rhythm section & Dylan leading the group with acoustic guitar & harmonica. One of the first people to buy a copy was Jimi Hendrix, who devoured "All Along The Watchtower" & recast it from a sepia-tone little demo on John Wesley Harding to a shocking exercise in Day-Glo Technicolor. From the clattering opening riff through the wild flames of burning guitar throughout--at some moments crackling with heat, other moments scraping down into charred remains--Hendrix simply owned the song, tossing off the verses in his offhanded talk/sing style that made the words feel even more like his own. Dylan's original only hinted at Bible; Hendrix made the song into a maelstrom of biblical proportions. He also enshrined it as a rock standard ever since. Countless bands from international arena tours on down through some kids in the garage up the street from you right now play the song, so deceptively simple in structure, but limitless in meaning.

& among the many to follow Hendrix's lead was Dylan himself. After he heard Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower," Dylan realized that this was the way the song was always meant to sound & to this day, hasn't performed it with an acoustic guitar since.

Because, as the man said, Don't Look Back.