Twelve Songs

Another blog asked me to write a piece – it is below. The general idea is that you pick ten songs, not necessarily the best ten songs in the world, but songs that have an autobiographical significance. There are too many to pick so I painstakingly got it down to twelve – I could write hundreds of these.

1. ‘I’m still waiting’ – Diana Ross

When I was growing up in Ireland, my parents anytime we drove in the car would play either Garth Brooks or Diana Ross. Literally. Every. Time. So this could easily have been ‘Friends in Low Places’ by the Garth, but then Diana Ross was/is pretty much better in every way to that goatee wearing, Dr. Pepper shilling, Nickelback-inspiring, salad dodger (sorry, still bitter about the Dublin concert debacle, I’d got my mum tickets!).

From endless repeat listens through those journeys, I to this day know all the words to every Diana Ross song (a unique skill I grant you). How do I know I know every word? I was on a date a little over a year ago, and ‘I’m Still Waiting’ came on the pub’s jukebox and like a Manchurian Candidate I started unconsciously singing along out loud. The look of horror on the girl’s face meant, not surprisingly, the date didn’t go well.

But I disagree with that girl’s assessment because whether it’s death metal or bubblegum pop you like, talent is talent no matter what form it takes. And few pop singers have as much talent as Diana Ross, whether in the Supremes or solo, and ‘I’m Still Waiting’ is my favourite song by her.

It’s an extremely sad song about falling for your childhood sweetheart, and then them leaving causing an emptiness that can never be filled by any other. Ross sings it with tender soul, and with the right level of emotion. I honestly can’t say there are many songs about heartbreak better than this, and I can’t quite think of another song like it; it is unique.

n.b. as much as I like this song, this is not my favourite Diana Ross moment. That has to be the opening ceremony of the World Cup 1994. She was supposed to kick a ball in the net as she sang her song, causing the net to collapse into pieces. Instead, she completely misses the goal (despite it being 2 metres away), but the net still collapses anyway, then she runs away as the whole crowd boo. Smooth, Diana.

2. ‘Good Dancers’ – Sleepy Jackson

The Sleepy Jackson are, well, inconsistent. They could create songs of such absolute beauty, like ‘Sun Kids’, it felt like a religious experience and then do silly faux-country songs about going into town wearing a skirt (to be fair, I still love the song, but others like ‘Lung’ were absolute drivel). But when the guys were on their game, there was nothing better.

‘Good Dancers’ is their most well-known song, if you can call a song known by about seven people well-known, and it is beautiful. Frontman and song writer Luke Steele, who would later find bigger success with the excellent Empire of the Sun, was clearly hugely influenced by the Beatles. This song is almost a homage with chords reminiscent of Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ and harmonies like the Beatles’ ‘Because’. The song even ends by intertwining a sitar and guitar played backwards; two big Beatles’ signature sounds. But the song, despite its obvious influence, manages to sound fresh.

Sleepy Jackson wore their influences on their sleeve but had the talent and skill to modernise the old sound and make it something different the result is a song so pretty, so uplifting I contemplate it for my first dance at my wedding.

3. ‘Idiot Wind’ – Bob Dylan

(no youtube video to embed, crazy youtube)

Why is Dolly Parton’s version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ better than Whitney Houston’s? Because despite the more limited vocal range, there is genuine emotion in Dolly’s voice when she’s singing the song. She’s lived every word, every emotion, every heartbreak in that song. Houston’s version is like the snowy landscape in the video, beautiful but cold.

And this is why Bob Dylan’s ‘Idiot Wind’ is such a phenomenal song. At the time, he was going through a difficult divorce and streamlined every angst he had into his writing. What was created is lightning in a bottle, something no one can replicate; a document of a man breaking down.

It’s one of the best vocals of all time, not because of his singing ability, but because of the raw undiluted emotion, he means every word and every word is affecting him as he sings it. His voice rides the line between on the edge of full-blown anger or full-blown sobs. Every word is meticulously calculated but at the same time sounds as if it’s just coming out spontaneously as Dylan lambasts his critics, his woman, himself.

The album was called ‘Blood on the Tracks’, but Bob didn’t just leave his blood. He left blood, sweat, tears, dirt, vomit, self-loathing, outward-loathing, jealously, love, angst, shyness, heartbreak, shock, denial, anger, guilt, depression and acceptance – and no song shows that more than ‘Idiot Wind.’

4. ‘Invalid Litter Dept.’ – At the Drive-in

American punk in the 90s was shit. Bands like Green Day, the Offspring, Rancid and Sum 41 presented their interpretation of rebellion as all dressing the same and lacking any social conscience (or intelligence) in their music. They verged more on the pop of the pop-punk category they all boxed themselves into, catering to teenagers just getting out of the boy-band phase of their youth who thought the height of rebellion was wearing a hoodie, getting a lip piercing and dying their hair red. These bands of course made millions.

But the rage, hatred and pure noise of 70s and 80s punk was lost. Thank god At the Drive-In existed. They were the real successors to bands like the Stooges and an absolute force of nature. They were the craziest, most out of control and incoherent group of oddballs to ever form a band, with added afros, but strangely it worked.

Their live shows were a wall of sound mixed with parkour; like balls of energy they jumped and danced on every part of the stage lost completely in the moment with a refreshing disregard for keeping melody or playing their songs correctly and a constant added threat it would all fall to pieces any second. But in every way it was spectacular. This Jools Holland clip shows what I mean and Robbie Williams’ face of utter bewilderment at the end is just fantastic.

These guys had passion about their music, what they were saying and how they expressed it. ‘Invalid Litter Dept.’ is the perfect example of this and one of the best rock songs of the past 30 years. It was a song about the Juárez murders, a series of rapes and murders in Cd. Juárez of young women who worked in factories in northern Mexico. An absolutely horrendous lose of life that never truly saw justice.

Lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s vocals mix anger and sarcasm that bring forth the desperation of these horrifying crimes. It’s a hugely emotive and powerful song that showed the band’s skill in creating an image of very real events. For me, punk was about the individual expression and an angry intelligence to articulate society’s flaws. The Clash had that, PiL had that, and At the Drive-In too.

Omar and Cedric from the band would later form Mars Volta and release ‘Deloused in the Comatorium’. If you haven’t heard it, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Other than Kid A, it’s one of the best experimental rock albums in decades.

5. ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ – The Avalanches

If I was to pick my favourite album of this century, it would probably be ‘Since I Left You’ by the Avalanches. It didn’t start that way but its an album that grows with every listen. The mixture of absolutely beautiful and thrilling musical moments require exploration and reassessed multiple times. Every song melts into each other under a vague concept of the sights and sounds of a cruise. The fact the album stands alone without a follow-up remains the most frustrating thing in music today (their mix tapes on youtube are absolutely phenomenal however).

Their use of retro sounds and samples mixed into contemporary beats strived more for the beautiful than the crazy, but ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ is the exception. An absolute clusterfuck of samples from old tv shows, movies and radio plays that explode together in the most trippy and bizarre narrative since John Lennon decided to be a walrus.

In the hands of lesser artists (or indeed anyone else), this would just be a mess but the Avalanches managed to take all the random samples and turn it into an exploration through the mind of a fictional psychopath called Dexter. And not only that, amazingly, make it a song you can sing along too and even dance to.

Music can be surprising, the Avalanches were just mind-boggling.

6. ‘Oh Baby Baby’ – Smokey Robinson

I can’t comprehend why Smokey isn’t spoken of in the same way the Beatles, Elvis or Chuck Berry are. His greatest 30 songs are better than anyone else’s best 30 songs (pretty much most of the Beatles first three albums are admitted by Lennon and McCartney as just attempts at writing Smokey songs.)

He has one of the most affecting and beautiful voices in the history of the music industry and he could can fill any listener with pure warmth and a happy feeling. ‘Oh Baby, Baby’ fully showcases the brilliance of that voice.

A beautiful chilled background of soul and RnB mixed in with one of the most beautiful, soothing and soulful vocals that has ever graced this earth. If I ever had to describe love, it’s that voice, this song. Smokey was never going to reinvent the musical wheel and ‘Oh Baby Baby’ certainly doesn’t do that, but it is the most perfect wheel ever made.

7. ‘Miles Away’ – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

When the ‘New Rock Revolution’ as it was called happened in the early 00s, I was out going to gigs all the time, with a new band popping up every 5 minutes. It was a great time for music, but memory fades and only a few stand-out to me these days. Seeing Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the Barfly in London around 2002 is one of them.

Alongside about 15 other people in a cramp little room, one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to took place. The band were a complete unknown to me at the time, but Yeah Yeah Yeahs soared in front of my eyes. Brian Chase smashed the drums like they’d slept with his girlfriend, Nick Zinner created waves of sound with his guitar an orchestra couldn’t reach and Karen O was immediately and completely a fully-formed rock goddess.

In my life, I’ve seen hundreds of bands live without having heard their records before, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs stand out as the best of the bunch. Instantly loveable tunes, instant charisma, and the perfect front woman – a lovechild of Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop – Karen O.

‘Miles Away’ is from their awesome first EP and perfectly captures that early, dirty raw sound they had. I’ll be the first to admit their albums were disappointing and never quite got to the level set by the EP, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs initial explosion on the scene was unforgettable.

8. ‘Bus Driver’ – Flight of the Conchords

Talent comes in all forms, different artists have mastered pop, rock n roll or rap. Flight of the Conchords mastered the comedy song. And while laughter is their main intention with these songs, they are able to go beyond that to create coherent narratives and affecting characters you care about.

‘Bus Driver’ is a beautiful example of story-telling that would have even Paul McCartney impressed. The song about an aging bus tour guide showing tourists around a small town in New Zealand manages not only to be full of laughs, but also capture the man’s entire life of unrequited love, missed opportunities and remorse that is both touching and heartfelt.

It’s an immense skill to bring this level of depth to a character that would, in other hands, be a complete stereotype. The fact that I care and feel bad about this completely fictional bus driver in the space of a few minutes of a song highlights why the Conchords deserve not just immense comedic recognition but musical recognition too.

9. ‘In the Fade’ – Queens of the Stone Age

Queens of the Stone Age are the best band of this century in my opinion and ‘Rated R’ and ‘Songs for the Deaf’ are two of the greatest albums ever made; if you haven’t heard them I couldn’t recommend them more.

‘In the Fade’ is from ‘Rated R’ and shows QOTSA at their most philosophical. Bringing in many-time guest vocalist Mark Lanegan always added something to these slower songs. His deep weathered voice wraps around perfectly with the repeated ‘live till you die’ theme. The guitar work creates perfect layered riffs the band is known for, alongside strong harmonies surprisingly more reminiscent of the Beach Boys rather than any contemporaries. All these elements added together and seamlessly combined to create something really special.

Josh Homme is to me one of the most important music maker of my generation and this is the perfect example of why.

10. ‘Hey’ – Pixies

The Pixies to me feel separate from everyone else. There is just nothing like them, they may have inspired aspects of grunge but nothing in the grunge scene was like the Pixies. ‘Hey’ is from their ‘Doolittle’ album, and perfectly encapsulates what the Pixies are. Frank Black yelps out incomprehensible nonsense that some how makes complete sense, Kim Deal’s effortlessly cool baselines intertwined with a golden guitar riff by Joey Santiago to create a sound entirely their own. No one sounds like the Pixies and no one ever will.

They inspired everyone from Kurt Cobain to Thom Yorke to form a band and while every band in the world tries (and usually fails) to be cool, the Pixies did it effortlessly and ‘Hey’ is a Fonz of a record.

Here is David Bowie articulating their greatness much better than I could.

11. ‘Good Fortune’ – PJ Harvey

Underrated is a weird word to describe PJ Harvey, but appears somewhat apt. She may have had a 25 year career, with brilliant album after brilliant album, and created great collaborations with Josh Homme, Thom Yorke and Bjork, but yet the Daily Mail and its readers still ask who the hell she is when she beat Adele to the prestigious Mercury Music Prize a few years ago (incidentally, she is still the only artist to win the award twice.)

‘Good Fortune’ is a highlight from her album ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea,’ an album I’d judge as the best British album of the 21st century so far. The song is stream-lining her inner Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith as Polly-Jean sings happily about being in love – a real rush of pure optimism celebrating love and its positivity in a great joyous way. Music doesn’t have to be depressing or cynical to be meaningful and this song shows that perfectly.

12. ‘Hard to Explain’ – The Strokes

I still remember the first time I heard this on the radio. It was a very dark time for music in the UK, with Garage and Nu-metal (my two least favourite music genres) dominating the charts. Every one I knew either had some decks and wanted to be a DJ or thought nu-metal was as important as grunge. Fred Durst, someone who should’ve been thrown out on his ass from the music industry after continuing to sing ‘I did it for the nookie” at Woodstock ’99 as his fans gang-raped a girl in the moshpit, was the biggest rock star on the planet and being romantically linked to Britney Spears and making millions. Daniel Bedingfield was considered talented. There was no hope.

In those days, I was broke so there was no buying CDs, and no Spotify or youtube to find and listen to alternate stuff. I was trapped listening to what the radio had to offer, and unfortunately it didn’t have much, but by godsend I found escape in nighttime shows like Steve Lamack and John Peel, which were the only real places to find rock or punk on the radio.

It was here that I heard ‘Hard to Explain’, and it was the breathe of fresh air I and the rest of the music industry needed. This wasn’t a brit-pop attempt, a grunge attempt, a rap-metal hybrid attempt; this was pure rock n roll. It sounded old, new and timeless. The sound of a voice almost bored with it all, but one singing about normal love, normal drinking, normal nightlife. The Strokes weren’t trying to give grand gestures, to define love, hate or heartbreak in a single song. They were trying to tell you about a funny story that happened to their pal Johnny last night, about taking shots with a hot girl in a club last thursday, or that time the cop didn’t find the weed in their back pocket when searched.

If I did another list of songs, it would have probably had the White Stripes, the Libertines, Interpol, The Vines, The Hives on there, or Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, Eighties Matchbox B-line Disaster, Franz Ferdinand, Har Mar Superstar, Peaches, the Kills. All these bands appeared, and probably most got signed, because the Strokes blazed a trail. If my music taste had a ground zero, it was that moment in my room in 2001 listening to The Strokes’ ‘Hard to Explain’ for the first time on the radio.

For that, Julian, Nick, Nikolai, Albert Jnr and Fab I thank you.

The Beatles – Abbey Road album review

Abbey-Road-Album-Cover-

After the bad vibes of the sessions recording what would eventually become ‘Let It Be‘, it seemed that an another Beatles album may never happen, but remarkably just three weeks after those torrid sessions Paul phoned producer George Martin to arrange the beginning of  new recordings. The first session for ‘Abbey Road‘ began in February 1969, but the bulk was done months later over that summer (mainly to allow Ringo to film ‘The Magic Christian’).

The sessions were far more productive and lacked the tension the ‘Get Back/ Let It Be‘ recordings did, possibly due to McCartney and Lennon having a great time creating the single ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko‘ in April which helped ease tensions between them. Yoko would say that recording was important for John as he was facing continual criticism from the press for his famous peace bed-in stunt, “Paul knew that people were being nasty to John, and he just wanted to make it well for him. Paul has a very brotherly side to him.”

Abbey Road‘ would be the last album the Beatles ever recorded, but there is still some debate over whether they knew it at the time or not. George Marin would say later, “Nobody knew for sure that it was going to be the last album – but everybody felt it was. The Beatles had gone through so much and for such a long time. They’d been incarcerated with each other for nearly a decade, and I was surprised that they had lasted as long as they did.” And this appears to be the consensus of feeling at the time.

Martin, Ringo, George and Paul all said they were very happy with the album and the band showed unity not seen for some years. Harrison said of the recordings, “we did actually perform like musicians again.” And Lennon seemed far more focused and engaged this time round, compared to ‘Let It Be‘, contributing much more material.

However, Lennon was more dismissive of the album afterwards calling it junk etc. This may have just been his post-Beatles bitterness coming through as he spoke very positively of it in interviews during the recordings, and may have been influenced on reflection by tensions between Yoko and the rest of the band due to her insistence of having input to the songs, including after needing to be bed-ridden after a car crash demanding a bed be brought into the studio so she could oversee the recording sessions. Paul was even quoted as saying, “We just had to work around her – and walk around her. It was the madness of the times: you just had to put up with it. What could you do? You couldn’t say, ‘Get that bed out of here.’ She was John’s girl.”

But despite this the album went without a hitch and the Beatles managed to record some of their best material giving the band a proper last hurrah.

It was released in September in the UK, debuting at number 1, where it remained for 11 weeks before being displaced for one week by the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, then returning there for a further six weeks before being replaced by Led Zeppelin II. What a period for music that was!

Abbey Road sold four million copies in its first two months of release, and remains to this day their best-selling album.

Side One

After the near end of the Beatles’ in the tumultuous recording of ‘Let It Be’, the opening track ‘Come Together’ sounds like a rallying call for unity within the band. Lennon originally wrote it as a campaign song for pro-drugs activist Timothy Leary’s aborted political run for governor of California, but the song works a lot better as a Beatles’ opening tune that has plenty of funk and cool Lennon vocals that make this an absolute classic.

Lennon said he wrote it based on an old Chuck Berry song ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ and included the lyric from that song “”Here come old flat-top”, causing Chuck Berry’s estate to sue, despite the songs not sounding too similar even though the inspiration is obvious. To settle the claim, Lennon would agree to cover other Chuck Berry songs leading to the ill-advised covers album ‘Rock n Roll’ during his solo career.

yoko john abbey road

Something’ is a song many see as Harrison’s best, but personally it’s one I won’t put in my top five of Harrison’s Beatles work as I much prefer his Revolver to White Album era stuff. Even Harrison wasn’t initially sure about the song holding on to it for months without showing it to anyone because he couldn’t believe it could be as simple to write a good song as this one. But it was seen by many as the moment Harrison came out of the shadows of the Lennon/McCartney song writing duo to be a force in his own right. I’d argue this happened much earlier however.

Lennon would later say it was the best song on the album, McCartney would say it was Harrison’s best ever song and Sinatra once said it was his favourite Beatles song of all, even covering it (although James Brown cover trumps all others). It was allegedly written for Patti Boyd, Harrison’s then wife, who would later marry Eric Clapton and have ‘Layla’ and ‘Wonderful Tonight’ written about her by him. Quite the muse really. Incidentally, something I didn’t realise until reading up on the song, Patti Boyd would divorce Harrison after his repeated affairs, with the final straw being catching him in bed with Ringo’s wife! Which is the first time I’d realised that had happened, bad bad George. Something Lennon called “virtual incest” later.

Despite it rather light-hearted tone ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer was a major point of conflict during the recording process. Despite being a song Ringo said was their worst and Lennon absolutely hated, Paul quite liked it and spent as much as three days, or three weeks according to George, to record it. A considerable length given their first album took a day in total and it fed into Lennon’s accusations that Paul cared and put more effort into his own songs than anyone else’s, and was attempting to be the leader of the band.

The song itself is not one I enjoy; sounding like a reprise of the light-hearted songs about absurd characters heard on the White Album like ‘Bungalow Bill’ and ‘ob la di, ob la da’ without ever coming near to the heights of those songs. The violent imagery of the song also strikes a bum note and seems out of step with the usual good-nature of Beatles’ songs making Maxwell the most unlikeable of the Beatles’ character creations.

‘Oh! Darling’ has that great slow jam feel to it that reminds me of the brilliant ‘Yer Blues’ from the White Album. It’s great to hear a song that is a straight out love song, something of a rarity in the Lennon/McCartney outputs at this stage. The song is aided massively by a fantastic throat shredding vocal by McCartney given it a real heart and soul in what is probably one of his strongest vocals with the Beatles, although I can’t quite get over the idea this was a song tailor-made for Lennon to sing, but still an absolute highlight of the album.

john lennon abbey road

‘Octopus’s Garden’ was written weirdly in the two week period during the White Album sessions when Ringo had actually left the band. It was the second composition solely by Ringo after ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ on the White Album, and is the natural successive to the Yellow Submarine in many ways, with its underwater theme, whimsical Ringo vocals and colourful imagery. I’ve always been a big fan of Beatles’ songs sung by Ringo and this is a highlight, with surprisingly deep lyrics about escapism and getting away from the wicked world, which is probably how Ringo felt when he left the increasingly toxic atmosphere in the studio at the time. Some dismiss this as the Beatles’ baby music, but there is nothing wrong with a bit of fun and a good palette cleanse in-between the heavier, more challenging songs they produced.

‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ is a big heavy rock number Lennon wrote about his love for Yoko. Although Lennon talks about his relationship with Yoko as this beautiful love, this song has a lot of dark tones to it as Lennon repeats “I want you” almost as if obsessed or unable to think of anything else while the music bleeds a deep ominous heavy rock sound with big dirty guitar lines and an epic vocal from Lennon. It’s a simple song but an effective one that showed the Beatles could hit that heavier metal sound and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Led Zeppelins of the world.

Side Two

The Beatles’ corporate venture Apple Corps was at the time haemorrhaging money and all members were embroiled in constant accounting meetings. The constant need for this was straining the patience of all members, Harrison, so tired of signing document after document, decided to sack it off for the day and went to Eric Clapton’s house instead. The relief and freedom he felt that day was put into the song ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ The song is Harrison at his most optimistic and happy, the way I like him, and the song is one of his finest. A real upbeat, sunny day song that stands shoulder to shoulder with McCartney’s ‘Good Day Sunshine‘, with a really great acoustic guitar piece by Harrison and superb drumming from Ringo.  abbey road 2

While John is normally more associated with edgier Beatles’ material, down the years he wrote many beautiful songs, alongside his crazier ones. Because’ is the perfect example and possibly one of the band’s most beautiful moments. He based it on Beethoven sonata 5 played backwards after requesting Yoko play it for him on the piano. The three way harmonies are some of the best the band ever did, a real gorgeous gospel choir, uplifting heavenly feel to them that flow perfectly through the simplistic lyrics. Easily one of my favourites on the album, alongside being one of George’s and Paul’s favourites too.

The medley of songs that dominate the second half of the album is the Beatles last hooray. A crescendo of music that is an absolutely fantastic piece of work highlighting the quality they could still produce. Lennon in his usual post-beatle “optimism” said it was junk and just a load of half-finished songs cobbled together. But this is actually why I think it is so brilliant and a wondrous achievement, the Beatles were able to take a group of eight completely unrelated songs and yet mould them together to one coherent and seamless whole.

Ringo would later say, “Out of the ashes of all that madness [the recording of Let It Be], that last section is for me one of the finest pieces we put together.” And I’d tend to agree it is the finest bit of their last two albums.

You Never Give Me Your Moneystarts the sequence and is about the money troubles they were having with the Apple Corps at the time, but it’s hard to realise given how sweetly Paul sings it and the tenderness of the piano playing. This melts into the more upbeat vocals by Lennon, which mirrors money worries of the everyday man, but the happiness in escapism. It’s almost like Lennon/ McCartney are reprising ‘A Day in the Life‘ but reversing roles with Lennon this time giving the day-to-day account and Paul being more dreamy.

abbey road 3

Sun King‘ returns to the heavenly harmonies of ‘Because‘ and again delivers gorgeous Beach Boys’ esque sounds. The beautiful laid-back guitar strings make this one of the most relaxing and soothing songs they ever did. Mean Mr. Mustard follows and is Lennon writing about a story he’d read about a miserly man who was bizarrely hiding his money in his rectum! Why John would want to write about this I have no idea but there you go.

Polythene Pam’ is either a thoughtful tribute to one of the Beatles earliest mega-fans Polythene Pat or an account about a weird sex threesome Lennon had with a beat poet and a girl wrapped in polythene. Or both. Either way, the fast guitar work and Lennon singing slightly distorted make it sound like a mix between the Kinks and Slade, which shows how easily the Beatles could jump in and out of various genres and sounds so seamlessly. This blends into ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window which is pretty self-explanatory referring to groups of girls who would hold vigils outside the Beatles’ houses at the time. One girl got a ladder and came into Paul’s house through the first-floor bathroom window and stole some photos. Instead of being mad, Paul wrote this rather lovely tribute to those fans and their dedication.

Golden Slumbersis kind of a cover with the lyrics coming from a 400 year old song. McCartney had seen the words but didn’t know the melody as he couldn’t read sheet music, so made his own. The song is a real highlight of the medley, an epic song with a huge orchestra backing and an even bigger throat-destroying vocal by McCartney, which is still one of his best. This switches into Carry That Weight’ which describes the financial difficulties the Beatles were going through, and more specifically the heavy burden and stress McCartney was feeling about it but also about trying to lead the Beatles after Brian Epstein died. It has a quite lovely trio of singing of Ringo, Harrison and McCartney and it feels almost criminal that they broke up when you listen to how seamlessly they compliment each other.

abbey road

The End finishes the medley brilliantly with a Ringo drumming solo, the only one he would ever do, and guitar sparring from Lennon, Harrison and McCartney before falling into a real sleepy sombre number which is McCartney trying his hardest to put a fitting end to the Beatles with one final hooray. It ends with the line, “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make” An absolute fitting send off to a band that gave so much joy to millions.

Her Majesty is more a hidden track, a nice little whimsical closing number with McCartney with tongue firmly in cheek singing of his love for the Queen of England. Originally supposed to be part of the medley, Paul decided to cut it but engineer John Kurlander who was so used to never throwing recordings away sliced it to the end of the recording tape. McCartney liked the edit and kept it on. It’s a nice soft way to end the album so the listener can catch its breathe after the epic wave of musical styles heard in the medley.

beatles-abbey-road

Final thoughts

As the last recorded album, this really should have been released last too. It is much better overall than ‘Let It Be‘ and from beginning to end is an absolute joy to listen to as the Beatles really rallied to make something special despite the tension that had built-up. The only sadness is that there is not more, that these talented four guys didn’t go on to produce more music as a band after this, but then the albums they created in this time are truly remarkable. An absolute show of the pure talent John, Paul, George and Ringo had, and what they leave as a musical legacy has never been matched.

Ten out of ten and a huge celebratory sandwich 

subwaybeatles

The Beatles – Let It Be album review

Let it Be album cover

This was the last Beatles album released, but was actually recorded before Abbey Road, hence it’s review before that album. I also prefer to see Abbey Road as the last Beatles’ album anyway because it is a much better send off. Anyway, I digress. The reason ‘Let It Be’ took longer to be released was due mainly to a turbulent sound-mixing and production process.

Paul McCartney wanted to get back to doing more rock n roll like the old days, rather than the studio experimentation seen in the Sgt Pepper’s era. So he organised a documentary film crew to follow the recording process of the album in early 1969, which at the time was going to be called ‘Get Back‘, with the intention of performing a concert again, their first since August 1966.

This decision was probably a bad idea. After recording mainly separately for the White Album, the Beatles were forced to work very much business hours and more collectively as a band to accommodate the filming crew. The process, if you listen to the Beatles’ account, was terrible with arguments and tension in every aspect. Lennon, whose addiction to heroin at the time was becoming more problematic, said he didn’t care at all about the process so was less than productive, and was getting increasingly bitter at Paul for his attempt to lead the band. Harrison also was very unhappy and even left the band for two weeks, because allegedly Yoko Ono took some of his biscuits (yeah, really), causing a huge argument and even possible fisticuffs with Lennon. He would later come back and they would finish recording, but as part of the agreement for his return the concert was scrapped. McCartney was becoming also increasingly overwhelmed by handling dealings on the corporate side after the death of manager Brian Epstein, and all members seemed to be looking more at their future solo work. The presence of Yoko Ono at all recordings, and her apparent push to be involved in the actual production and workings of the songs further created friction.

Oddly, interviews with the documentary film crew painted a very different light on everything as they all said how fun the atmosphere was with all the Beatles making jokes and spirits in general were very good.

After completing the majority of the album and to avoid a proper concert, the decision instead was made to perform songs on the roof of Saville Row studio, which would ultimately become one of the most iconic moments of their careers.

Rooftop beatles

The sound-mixing of the album would not be handled by the Beatles at all. Music engineer Glyn Jones twice attempted to create the album in 1969, but both times it was rejected by the band and it seemed the album was dead. That is until Lennon, who quietly left the band in late-1969, gave the tapes to Phil Spector without informing the other members of the band, who added all sorts of production including heavy use of orchestra bits and choirs. This was the version that was released. Incidentally, Paul would effectively give an interview revealing that he’d left the band in 1970 (and also launch his solo career), which would further anger John as he’d agreed to keep his own leaving secret from the media.

Ringo and Lennon both spoke well of ‘Let It Be‘, but Harrison and McCartney, in particular, did not. Paul was so angered by the over-production put on by Spector that he would release a stripped-down version called ‘Let It Be…Naked‘ years later. But despite the occasional reunion between some of them, the Beatles as a band were finished and all pursued solo careers from here on.

The album was released in summer 1970 and reached the top spot in both the UK and American charts.

The Album – Side One 

Get Back album cover

Two of Us‘ opens the album, and is McCartney’s ode to getting lost. It’s written about traveling with Linda McCartney, but can easily be seen as about the Beatles themselves as John and Paul sing together ‘we’re on are way home’ implying its about the Beatles’ journey coming to an end. It’s got a light-hearted Willy Nelson ‘On the Road Again‘ type feel to it that I find quite charming, but feels, weirdly for an album opener, a lot more like a McCartney solo song than a Beatles effort.

Dig a Pony‘ is an admitted ‘nonsense song’ from Lennon. He was pretty dismissive of it saying later, “you just take words and you stick them together, and you see if they have any meaning. Some of them do and some of them don’t.” Despite the dismissive nature of Lennon’s comments, I actually really like it, and the strong Lennon vocals really add to the chilled bluesy sound of it.

Lennon was never shy of suggesting the Rolling Stones copied the Beatles and this song continues this, with the line “I roll a stoney, well you can imitate anyone you know.” There also seems to be a vague nod to Dylan as well with the ‘I feel the wind blow’ and the ‘all I want is you’ chorus is clearly directed at Yoko Ono so there is visibly a bit more method to the ‘nonsense’ than Lennon alluded to later.

This is Lennon one real contribution to the album that came from the ‘Get Back/Let it Be’ sessions (‘Across the Universe‘ and ‘One After 909‘ were recorded much earlier and ‘Dig It‘ was basically improvised), which really shows his admitted lack of commitment at the time. It is a shame that ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, one of the single releases and a far superior song, was not added to the track-listing as it would have improved the quality on display greatly and shown what Lennon could do at this time despite his apparent indifference.

Across the Universe was recorded a year earlier for the World Wildlife Federation charity album. Lennon wrote it after he couldn’t sleep one night, and went to his kitchen at about 4am and the lyrics flowed out of him freely as if he was possessed by the universe, like some cosmic ballad as Spock would say.

The original recording has animal noises to go with the motif of the charity album and girls picked from the crowd outside Abbey Road giving backing vocals. Lennon was not impressed and would later complain that Paul would unconsciously sabotage his good songs by not putting the same effort into the recordings of Lennon’s work as went into his own. He said later, “He’ll deny it, ’cause he’s got a bland face and he’ll say the sabotage doesn’t exist. But this is the kind of thing I’m talking about, where I was always seeing what was going on… I began to think, well maybe I’m paranoid. But it’s not paranoid; it’s absolute truth.”

Something really makes me laugh about John calling Paul’s face bland but this angle was spoken about often in the most bitter post-Beatle interviews Lennon would make and something he seemed certain of believing.

The version on the album, Lennon would say Phil Spector did a great job with the production (they were friends at the time), although all other members of the group and the production team greatly criticised the recording. Despite his accusations towards Paul, the version McCartney did on the ‘Let it Be…Naked‘ album is greatly stripped down and the best version of the song released.

Personally, I absolutely love this song and think it is one of Lennon’s greatest triumphs. Lyrics like “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe” are worthy of the greatest poets of any age. Harrison had really explored spirituality in his writing earlier, but Lennon nailed it here. To me this is his greatest lyrical triumph and a song of infinite beauty and warmth.

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Following on, ‘I Me Mine’ has the unfortunate, maybe even depressing, privilege of being the last Beatles’ song ever to be recorded (Free As a Bird and Real Love recorded for the Anthology set in the 1990s I guess count, but obviously lack Lennon, although this did too as he’d left by the time it was recorded).

The song is Harrison bemoaning the ego and self-involvement of people. He sings, “All through the day, I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.” What he would think of today’s selfie-obsessed youth, one can only imagine. He would write later in his book, also named ‘I Me Mine’, the song was a good example of how he felt about being in the Beatles’ towards the end with McCartney and Lennon greeting the song with indifference, but making him rehearse for hours and days on their songs. Funnily enough the book, which predominantly was about Harrison’s song-writing, would hurt Lennon who said he was barely mentioned. In particular, John spoke of the writing process for ‘Taxman’, Harrison’s first major contribution to a Beatles’ album, which Lennon greatly helped with and Harrison didn’t mention at all.

Dig It is only the second song to have a song-writing credit to all members of the band after ‘Flying’ from the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ album. It was an improvised jam that originally was over 7 minutes long but was cut down to under a minute. Lennon screams ‘like a Rolling Stone’ a couple of times before name-dropping people of importance of the time like BB King, Doris Day and Manchester United manager Sir Matt Bubsy.

It’s pretty much the most half-assed song they have ever done and almost completely forgettable, accept maybe for Lennon sounding, intentionally or unintentionally is not known, like he is doing a Mike Jagger impression throughout. If it was intentional, then it could be another dig at the Rolling Stones implying their songs are just half-assed versions of the Beatles, but that would probably be reading too much into it all.

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Let It Be’ is quite easily one of the Beatles’ most loved and well-known songs. Written during the White Album sessions when conflict within the band was particularly bad. Paul claims he had a dream in which his deceased Mum came to him giving him kind words to not take it all too seriously, hence the lyric, “When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me.” This would later take on religious connotations to some listeners due to the ‘Mother Mary’ lyric, which Paul was perfectly fine with, but appears coincidental.

Lennon would later (like a broken record post-Beatles) be dismissive about the song saying it could have been a Wings song and just Paul’s attempt at writing a ‘Bridge over troubled water’. But this is inaccurate as ‘Let it Be’ was recorded about six months before the Simon/Garfunkel song.

It’s a song I’ve liked, but never loved. To me, it always felt like the final song of the Beatles, a goodbye, which may explain my apprehension to it; it depresses me to listen to the sound of the Beatles breaking up. It’s similarities to other ballads ‘Long and Winding Road’ and ‘Hey Jude’ also hurt it as I prefer them and it feels like an emptier version of McCartney best ballad in my opinion ‘Yesterday’. But still it lasts, and more prefer this to those according to numerous national polls so it all goes down to preference.

Maggie Mae‘ is surprising in that it is the first cover they had done since ‘Act Naturally’ on the Help! Album. Other than that, the jokey non-serious way it’s recorded seem more symbolic of the lack of cohesion and focus on the album. The traditional Liverpool folk song is sung by Lennon with a strong-Liverpudlian accent and is pretty much instantly forgotten after hearing it. For a band that is famed for writing the greatest albums of all time, it feels strange listening to a song that is so obviously filler. It basically shows how badly the sessions and the band were going at the time.

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Side two

I’ve Got a Feeling‘ really shows the bad production in many ways. Paul’s voice seems constantly going closer and further from the mic making the volume go up and down, and it never sounds crisp at all to the point it’s almost like a live recording. The song is sort of a shouty Paul song, more familiar in his Wings days, and the Lennon vocal sounds very lazy on this. It just seems all very disjointed all around. The cross-over of the two vocals sounds in particular awkwardly done- which makes sense as this is a combination of a half-written Lennon song and a half-written McCartney song. While combining songs worked for ‘A Day in the Life‘ and ‘Baby You’re a Rich Man‘, it doesn’t really work here. It’s kind of a shame, because I could see potential in Lennon’s half if it was conceived as a stand-alone track.

One After 909‘ sounds so much like a Chuck Berry song that it doesn’t even feel like a Beatles song at all. It really has that Americana feel about it which really isn’t what four lads from working class Liverpool should be doing. If it was back to their roots then this feels like ‘Kansas City’ from their fourth album. But then the aged sound makes total sense as the song is actually one of the oldest, Lennon wrote it when he was 15-16 and still obviously finding his musical voice at that time. Paul wanted the album to revisit their rock n roll days and this more than any other really does, and remains a favourite of Paul’s despite its more throwaway nature.

The Long and Winding Road is by far the most controversial song on the album, and a defining moment in the break-up of the Beatles. Written in Scotland by McCartney, he describes it as a mournful song about the “unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.” Although not clearly stated, it appears to be McCartney mourning the end of the Beatles.

The reason this song became such a contentious song is Phil Spector. In the production, he added a huge orchestra back track, drowned out piano parts with a harp and added a female choir, whilst keeping the Beatles vocals and instruments low in the mix. When Paul heard the tape of it, he was infuriated enough to send an angry letter demanding parts be taken out, but they weren’t, and Spector’s version appeared on the album. Paul’s anger at the song being completed behind his back disenfranchised him enough that the break-up with the Beatles seemed inevitable, and the production of this song was actually given as one of the reasons by McCartney in a lawsuit seeking for dissolution of the Beatles’ contractual partnership.

The song itself, even with the over-the-top production, is one I like. Some Beatles fans call it ‘The Long and Boring Song’ but I think it is one of McCartney best forlorn ballads. It is an emotional song, but the emotion doesn’t come from Spector’s orchestra but from Paul’s lost and broken vocals.

These types of ballads have never been my favourite songs, but there is no doubting their mass appeal. I think the need of every artist from Guns N Roses (November Rain), Green Day (Wake Me Up When September Ends) to Christiana Aguilera (You Are Beautiful) and the Rolling Stones (Wild Horses) to have that big sad, mournful ballad can easily be traced back to the enduring popularity of ‘Let It Be’ or ‘The Long and Winding Road.’

Harrison’s ‘For You Blue‘ is not exactly a standout, but one of the most enjoyable moments from the album for me. It’s a joyous, bluesy little love song with fun bouncy guitar work from Lennon that is quite reminiscent of early White Stripes work in a way. Despite Harrison’s admitted misery during the recording sessions of the album, this is the happiest sounding song on the record, and you get a feeling Lennon and Harrison are enjoying themselves performing this.

The Beatles, while very political in their own lives, never really overtly presented those politics in their music (they would obviously, with Lennon in particular, do more so in their solo work). ‘Get Back’ originally was going to counter this with McCartney writing a song that satirised Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, about the danger of immigration to Britain.

The original version included the lyrics, “Pretty Ado Lamb, was a pakistani, living in another world. Want it thrown around, don’t dig no pakistanis, taking all the people jobs.” It added a completely different meaning to the chorus “Get back to where you once belonged.” This was construed by many as racist, but it doesn’t seem to be the intention as I really don’t think McCartney was anti-immigration. I think he is echoing in the “don’t dig no Pakistanis, taking all the peoples jobs” the words a new immigrant would hear yelled about them on the streets at the time, and his intention was to highlight there is racism on the streets and the need to address it to a wider audience.

Paul would later say, “There were a couple of verses to Get Back which were actually not racist at all – they were anti-racist. There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever. So in one of the verses of Get Back, which we were making up on the set of Let It Be, one of the outtakes has something about ‘too many Pakistanis living in a council flat’ – that’s the line. Which to me was actually talking out against overcrowding for Pakistanis… If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles.”

The song eventually morphed into something more vague about characters moving to a different place instead, which I’m glad at because the original lyrics were too confusing and easy to mistake as not satirical. The final version is another classic song on the album and the perfect big ending to the record, although one that would infuriate Lennon, who claimed it was a subtle dig at Yoko as apparently Paul would look at her every time he sang the “Get back to where you once belonged” lyric. McCartney denies it though. And Lennon had no other bad words to say about it, and seemed delighted in other interviews with his guitar work on the song which is some of his best guitar work on any Beatles record.

Final Thoughts

The somewhat shambles of the recording and the music production debacle with Phil Spector quite predictably created an uneven album at best, but also one with something that seems out of sorts with the Beatles – filler. Songs like ‘Dig it‘ and ‘Maggie Mae‘ sound like a band that don’t care given the talent they had.

But then you can’t dismiss an album that contains ‘Long and Winging Road‘, ‘Let It Be‘, ‘Get Back‘ and ‘Across the Universe’ which are songs bands with 20 year careers can only dream of writing.

While some of Spector’s production decisions are dubious, it doesn’t really hurt the experience to me, like others have said. While, ‘Let It Be…Naked‘ is the better version, I think the difference is not really that large. And without Lennon getting him to do work on the album, it’s possible the album may not have gotten a release at all, as other attempts had failed, which would have been a great shame.

I’d said in a previous review that ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was my least favourite Beatles’ record (I don’t count Yellow Submarine as a full release), but revisiting this has made me change my mind (it might have been rose-tinted glasses of my youth). This is their weakest and least enjoyable record to listen to, but then again it is a Beatles release so there is still plenty of great things here.

Seven out of ten and a lego parody

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The Beatles – Yellow Submarine album review

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The ‘Yellow Submarine’ album is a curious entry in the Beatles official catalogue. It came about because the Beatles were contractually obliged to write four original songs for the animated film of the same name. The band were busy recording the White album at the time and not much bothered about doing it, so decided to keep the recording of the four songs completely separate to the other sessions. Thus, what was produced was slightly half-assed in nature but some bits of charm still shine through.

The film was released in July 1968, but the soundtrack was not released until January 1969, so not to clash with the white album’s release. The Beatles did not give much attention to the film, but warmed to it once they saw the excellent finished product.

The soundtrack is probably the least important official release of the Beatles career, containing two old songs, four new songs and the rest is instrumental music for the film that the Beatles did no work on.

I’ve always been a big fan of Ringo songs on Beatles’ albums so it’s really nice to see that a film was based around one of them. He deserved some recognition because, other than his drumming which is greatly underrated, his songs always added something to an album. His voice always has a friendly warmth to it and ‘Yellow Submarine’ is really his defining number. I said before in a previous review that only the Beatles could pull a song like this off – a Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix version (despite how much I love those guys) would probably sound terrible. This is definitely a Beatles’ song through and through with its quirky nature and laddish drunken sing-along mentality, making it as charming now as it was 50 years ago.

Other than the title track, the other previously released song is ‘All You Need is Love’, which is the perfect song to accompany the joyous animation of the film. If you wanted one song to distil the Beatles’ message of peace and define the ideals of the swinging sixties it would be this song. Filled with nothing but goodness, it’s the feel-good songs of all feel-good songs.

Of the new songs, they maybe don’t fit the theme as well; and are slightly inconsistent. Harrison’s ‘Only A Northern Song’ is a trippy but ultimately jokey and slightly incoherent number. It’s about Harrison feeling slightly aggrieved about not getting enough credit for his writing and royalties for the output the Beatles’ were producing. The song is a bit lazy, but then in many ways that is the point. Harrison is basically saying ‘why bother?’ when the credit for his work isn’t being given. Everyone likes a good moan once in awhile I suppose.

Jumping back to the more upbeat, All Together Now’ is a classic sing-along back and forth around the guitar style song in which everyone is drunk and singing loudly. So it makes perfect sense that it would become a popular chant around football terraces during games in England at the time. It’s throwaway for sure but still has a fun, rousing quality to it and from experience can easily get stuck in the head for days afterwards (and is absolutely the perfect song to dance like an idiot to).

But by far the highlight of the new material is ‘Hey Bulldog’, a number with a really dirty baseline played expertly by McCartney that is one of the Beatles’ heaviest sounding songs. The lyrics complement the number wonderfully with Lennon given it a full loud vocal before it deteriotes into barking and wailing and screaming. 

It’s a fun weird song that has the slight ham radio comedy skit feel about it at the end, and more the better for it- a sort of far more coherent version of their mid-60s Christmas records condensed into one pure rock song.

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The last of the original Beatles’ songs is ‘It’s All Too Much’ which is another Harrison-penned song. It seems to be his attempt to write a rock n roll song about LSD. The result is almost a dance song with a strong drum beat and distorted guitar strings intertwining to feel like a skyward gazing 90s psychedelic dance record. I think it’s better than ‘Only a Northern Song’ (Harrison was always better when upbeat and slightly spiritualised) and this has a slight rousing gospel feel to it somehow, which always makes me happily bounce my head along to as it plays.

The rest of the album is filled up with instrumental music for the film, which had little involvment from the Beatles themselves. Instead we have producer George Martin arranging a musical score of a 42 piece orchestra. It’s nice that George Martin, a crucial element in the Beatles success, gets his moment in the spotlight but it is mostly just soundtrack music.

The two stand-outs are ‘Pepperland’ and ‘March of the Meanies’. ‘Pepperland’ has some pretty lovely violin and pianos moments throughout, really using a large orchestra feel to its full power. It has that sound of a big opening credit song to a 1950s big budget musical. ‘March of the Meanies’ on the other hand has this brilliant urgent threat feel to it, a real ‘enter bad-guy’ song for a film that works really well. It really isn’t that far removed from the dark side music in Star Wars.

Yellow Submarine, the Beatles

The ‘Sea of Time’, ‘Sea of Holes’ and ‘Sea of Monsters’ are mostly disposable pieces with incidental music interwoven to react to what is happening in the movie. It’s an easy listen but rarely gives anything too memorable that you’d hum an hour later.

The album closes with more dread music in ‘Pepperland Laid Waste’ which is equally disposable, and then ends with a reworked orchestral version of the ‘Yellow Submarine’, which is actually very pretty piece that is removed enough from the original to be worth your time (but lacks the Ringo charm a bit).

Final Thoughts

This is the least essential album in any Beatles’ collection, but worth a listen on Youtube. Only ‘All Together Now’ and ‘Hey Bulldog’ are likely to get heavy rotation on an iPod, because both are brilliant, but I also liked the trippy good-natured ‘It’s All Too Much.’

Finally giving Sir George Martin the spotlight is a fantastic tribute to his importance as a part of the Beatles, but I think his album of reworked Beatles songs featuring Jim Carrey singing ‘I am the Walrus’, Goldie Hawn singing a jazzy sexy ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and Robin Williams doing ‘Come Together’ is far more an essential purchase.

Six and a half out of ten and one billion parodies

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As Bad as a Mile by Philip Larkin

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Larkin establishes the scene of the poem straight away, ‘Watching the shied core, Striking the basket,’ so the reader understands he has thrown the core of an eaten apple towards a garbage bin, but missed. What’s interesting immediately is the line gap in this opening scene and the word ‘watching’. This throw would have taken half a second, but he’s watching it as if it is in slow motion. As if he is anticipating intently and waiting for the result; this throwing attempt means something to him.

The second line ‘Striking the basket’ is followed immediately by ‘skidding across the floor’ with no line break this time. This is meant to be read faster as if time is sped up to normal speed again having witnessed the apple miss we are back to reality.

He then muses about the result, at first I thought this should read ‘Less of luck and more of’, but then I realise this isn’t an expected occurrence. The ‘less and less of luck’ suggests in this moment the idea of luck is draining from his thoughts and the ‘more and more’ suggests his psyche is filling up with something else.

The line drop, the only one in the poem, is entirely intentional. It’s his moment of thought and reflection before he comes to the realisation ‘of failure’. The pause adds the emphasis on the ‘failure’ making it all the more dramatic. It practically leaps off the page as the most memorable word of the poem.

Technically, this pause is also the moment in the poem when the reader takes their first breathe, and what do you do after inhaling breathe? You exhale, or almost sigh out the words ‘of failure’ as I did upon reading the poem out loud. When you take a deep breathe, you also tend to slouch upon exhaling, which I don’t think is entirely unintentional on Larkin’s part. You are reenacting his very physical reaction just by reading the poem. He goes for the bin, he misses, he curses and then comes to the realisation he was doomed to fail from the start with a sigh and a slouch into his chair.

But it doesn’t end there. Larkin doesn’t just shrug it off, as established before, this throw meant something to him. And the failure begins to ‘spread up his arm’ taking over his whole body, but not just his whole body but the past too. ‘Earlier and earlier’ is the intentionally repetition used again to signify the change in mood as the failure doesn’t encompass just his present but spreads to his past. ‘The upraised hand calm, the apple unbitten in the palm,’ Larkin is now suggesting he was doomed to fail, even before eating the apple, his fate was always to miss the basket. He is a failure.

And that is where the poem ends, and I like that ending. I like the idea that something so small and insignificant can have great meaning to people. That’s how I can be, that’s how anyone can be. It’s a universal idea, and explores and illuminates greatly the mind of the poet.

But then I wonder further. Why an apple? Why not a pear, or a banana peel, or a crumpled up piece of paper? Is it possible the choice of the apple has meaning?

There are two famous uses of an apple in history and literature that I can think of.

The first is Isaac Newton; an apple falls on his head and he discovers gravity and changes science. I can imagine Newton sitting there looking at the ripe, full apple as his mind is a wonder with tremendous revelation. Larkin is contrasting this; he’s throwing away a used apple. He’s paralleling Newton’s ripe success, with his perceived failures.

The second use of the apple is of the forbidden fruit that Eve eats. In Western Europe this fruit is always depicted as an apple. Maybe Larkin isn’t lambasting himself for missing a basket, but this is a metaphor for a woman.

The apple is the love he shared with a woman; it was once ripe and delicious like a fruit but as time has passed it has been eaten away and decayed. He is depressed at the failure of the relationship that once held such optimism, and now it has drained away. But, to Larkin at least, he sees himself as a failure in love anyway. This was expected even when the forbidden fruit was ripe with possibility. He knew he would mess it up somehow; and he did.

Final thoughts

Larkin is easily a favourite poet of mine. I can only ever think his failure described his is perceived failure, because this is an effortlessly brilliant poem that, while simple, depicts everything you need to know within it’s sparse language.

The Beatles – The Beatles (White) album review

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How do you follow-up one the greatest album ever recorded? Many would wither under the pressure, but the Beatles instead released two albums worth of some of their best material they ever created.

The Beatles ninth (official) studio album was self-titled ‘The Beatles’, but is widely recognised as the ‘White Album’ due to it’s iconic plain album cover, a direct contrast to the vivid explosion of colours seen on the ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ cover.

It was recorded between May and October in 1968 at the now-famous Abbey Road Studios (mostly), an absolute age in comparison to the day their first album took. Free from promotion and a hectic touring schedule that categorised their Beatlemania days, the Beatles were able to take their time and experiment as much as they like for the album. This meant songs like ‘Not Guilty’, which didn’t even appear on the album, had 102 takes. This constant take-after-take would cause tension, with Ringo even leaving the band for two weeks during this period because he felt underappreciated. It also meant that many of the songs did not have all the Beatles recording on them as all members became more individual in their song-writing with recordings of songs often happening at the same time in different studios. Lennon stated later the break-up of the Beatles can be heard on the album, and a good third of the songs were recorded without all 4 members working on them.

Despite this, the record sold very well placing number one in the US and UK charts, and selling 3.3m copies in four days in America. It is one of the most famous double albums by a band and carries some of the Beatles most famous and loved songs.

Background – in-between Sgt Pepper and the White Album

A lot happened after the Beatles recorded ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, so for context on this album, I’ve included below a bit of background. It was a significant time for the Beatles, one in which they enjoyed their highest critical praise of all, but also a time that really lay the foundations for their eventual break-up.

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Just before recording ‘Sgt Pepper’s’, but something that would have an effect on everything that followed, Lennon would meet artist Yoko Ono, and begin conversing with letters. Accounts vary on how they met. The most commonly stated is that John went to see her art exhibition in London in November 1966, and became interested in her art and outlook on life. Alternatively, McCartney has said in the past Yoko had written to him asking for some hand-written lyrics and he’d referred her to Lennon who obliged with lyrics for ‘The Word’.

Either way, Lennon and Yoko’s friendship would blossom through letters and the occasional meet-up to the point he considered bringing her to India in early 1968, when the Beatles went.

In August 1967, two months after “Sgt Pepper’s” was released, long-term manager and mentor for the Beatles Brian Epstein died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. He’d navigated them through Beatlemania, the crazy tours and the insane workload. If anyone can be considered the “Fifth Beatle” it is Brian. Lennon would be so close to Brian that they would holiday together, and there was even gossip of a gay affair, but John would later remark “it was almost a love affair, but not quite. It was never consummated. But it was a pretty intense relationship.” The lack of direction after Epstein’s death led to Paul taking more of a leadership in the band. A move that caused tension in the band and can be seen as a move that ultimately led to the break-up.

The weekend Epstein died, the Beatles were at a seminar in Wales by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi about Transcendental Meditation. Inspired by this, the Beatles looked to learn more and eventually planned a trip to India in February 1968, alongside their wives and girlfriends, and other musicians and actors. John wife at the time Cynthia Lennon would later write, “it was as though, with Brian gone, the four needed someone new to give them direction and the Maharishi was in the right place at the right time.”

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The Beatles famous and infamous month-long trip to India is one of the most iconic images of the swinging sixties. The band stayed in a place called “Valley of the Saints”, the International Academy of Meditation, a large compound near the River Ganges in Rishikesh. They would meditate twice a day and take classes with the Maharishi. The time would be a particularly fruitful one for music, with the Beatles writing pretty much most of the White Album at the compound, and songs that would later appear on ‘Abbey Road’ and various solo efforts, most notably probably ‘Jealous Guy’ by Lennon.

It would end on a sour note however. McCartney would leave early to establish the Apple Corporation and Ringo had journeyed off too due to hating the food and bugs. Both Harrison and Lennon remained longer but would leave too after a month there after they were told by a friend called Magic Alex, a man often said to have a dubious relationship with the truth, that the Maharishi was having sexual relations with girls at the compound, a direct contradiction to the higher power he was selling.

Lennon, already agitated by the Maharishi desire for publicity and apparent want for royalties on the next Beatles’ album, confronted him saying they were leaving, when the Maharishi asked why, Lennon quipped “If you’re so mystical, you figure it out.” The apparent murderous look he gave after that convinced Lennon he had made the right decision in going.

Harrison would later wonder if Lennon’s willingness to leave was more due to an eagerness to reunite with Yoko, but either way the mood of the trip was effectively soured and little to no contact was reached again between the Beatles and the Maharishi until much later. Harrison and McCartney would years later say the accusations against the Maharishi were completely false and McCartney would even visit him in 2007 shortly before his death in 2008.

Upon returning to England Lennon would continue his correspondence with Yoko and, when Cynthia had gone on holiday to Greece at John’s insistence during the recording of the White Album, he would begin an affair with Yoko in May 1968 after inviting her to their home to record experimental music that would later turn into a release called ‘The Two Virgins’ (most famous for having a naked John and Yoko as the cover art). According to Cynthia, she returned home from Greece to find Yoko in her dressing gown sitting in their house casually drinking tea with John acting as if everything was completely normal.

Cynthia and John would later divorce in November that year, with Cynthia purposely going for a small settlement than what she was entitled to avoid lengthy court battles for the sake of the kids.

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The Album

Side One

The album contains 30 songs, by far the largest the Beatles would compile, this can mainly be attributed to the high productivity seen in India. ‘The Beatles’ starts with a playful take on the Chuck Berry song ‘Back in the U.S.A.’ called ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ and is one of my favourite openers to a Beatles album. The harmonies and Beach Boys-ish lyrics are almost a homage, and a head-tilt to that band who they held a friendly rivalry with, but the talk of Russian rather than California girls brings a touch of satire.

The song wasn’t allowed in the U.S.S.R. but bootleg copies were smuggled in and very popular. The drums on the record are not played by Ringo, due to a tense atmosphere Ringo left the band for two weeks, and spent the time on Peter Sellers’ yacht. McCartney played the drums for the song, but Ringo would thankfully return to the recording after his break.

‘Dear Prudence’ is a song from the Beatles’ India retreat. Actress Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence had become obsessive about meditation at the compound, to the point she wouldn’t come out of her room for 3 weeks. Harrison and Lennon were asked to coax her out. Lennon wrote this song about it, the lyrics are basically the words they used. There is something really uplifting about it, “The sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you” is just lovely. A real example of how the Beatles can put a smile on my face with their unbridled optimism.

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The Beatles had come so far they were able to start self-referencing their previous work and ‘Glass Onion’ does exactly that. This is a big tongue and cheek song by Lennon, jokingly referring to previous songs like saying the “Walrus was Paul” and the fool on the hill still being there. I really love stuff like this, bands speaking directly to their fans through songs, and it’s a great little number in tribute to their old work probably with the intention for their fans to get a kick out of reflecting back, and having a slight joke at the expense of those who read too much into their lyrics.

McCartney would often hear someone say a phrase and then write entire songs around it, like ‘Eight Days a Week’ or ‘A Hard Days Night’. ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ is another such case with it being a term often used by McCartney’s friend Nigerian conga player Jimmy Scott-Emuakpor. It is a nice upbeat number, and I like the jolliness it brings but it remains certainly derisive as an online poll voted it the worst song of all time in 2004. I would never go that far in my assessment, it is throwaway in nature but fairly harmless all-round.

It was recorded however in less than jolly circumstances. The tense atmosphere of studio and Paul’s insistence on retrying the song again and again meant Lennon was throwing anger fits during the whole process, apparently madly bashing the piano at loud volumes throughout.

Next up is ‘Wild Honey Pie’, one of the only real filler-tracks on the album,  which lasts only a short time and seems only really there as a palate-cleanser in-between two relative novelty-style songs.

The first, and only time, someone other than a Beatle sang lead vocals on a Beatles’ song is on ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’. And that person is Yoko Ono, who sings a line alone on this – instantly ruining the album. Only joking. There are a lot of opinion on Yoko, I personally think the Beatles break-up was on the cards from way back to Rubber Soul era, or at least the potential of John leaving, and Brian Epstein dying was in my opinion the largest factor. She may have just been a further annoyance during proceedings that heightened tensions during recording however.

As for the song, it’s a nice singalong around the piano down the pub kind of song. It is actually a fairly mocking piece about a rich American who came to the Indian getaway to find inner-enlightenment, in-between tiger-hunting trips. A contradiction so silly that the song needed to reflect that with its humorous lyrics.

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‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is a lot of people’s favourite song on the album and with good reason as it is one of Harrison’s true masterpieces. A song everyone seems to refer to when arguing Harrison was equal to Lennon and McCartney as a song writer. And it lives up to that high praise even after all these years, gauging one of Harrison best riff work, vocal performances, and lyrics (and includes an uncredited Eric Clapton guitar solo). Inspired by eastern philosophy that everything that happens is meant to be, not mere coincidence, Harrison opened a book and used the first words he read “gently weeps” as the basis to form a song. The lyrics are some of the most beautiful, and open to interpretation, that Harrison ever did. I believe it is a comment on western commercialism or the Beatles themselves being “Controlled” and “Bought and sold”, but there is a deeper love that must be realised and a greater spirituality to be found in life. Harrison was deeply into spirituality and his song-work reflected his studies immensely at this time.

It’s funny that despite this stretch for greater spirituality and inner peace that the song would be immediately followed by a song about human’s most base desires. ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ comes from an article title in a gun magazine but is pretty much entirely about sexual urges. Lennon said other than recording he was spending the rest of the time in bed with Yoko and the warm gun is clearly a euphemism. The song is pretty much about 5 mini songs in one with a constant change of riff, tone, tempo showing Lennon at the near height of his creative abilities. His vocal is one of his best spilling out bizarre and sometimes opaque sexual undertones with heavy riffs streaming throughout in a clear highlight of the album.

Side two

Paul had progressed a lot since the early days to become a very accomplished musician, not just with the bass, and ‘Martha My Dear’ shows this with an absolutely lovely, and difficult to play, piano number. I’ve always liked Paul’s easy listening family-friendly material (many do not), and it is certainly a great rest stop after the more distorted previous songs. While easy to assume it is about a woman, the song is actually an ode to his dog Martha, who Paul had great affection for.

During the India retreat, Lennon was unable to sleep due to change of diet, possible drug withdrawal and his marriage troubles. His wife Cynthia had thought the trip to India would be like a second honeymoon but after a few days John had asked to sleep alone and barely spoke to her the whole trip, while heading down to the post office everyday unbeknownst to his wife to receive and send letter to Yoko Ono. He wrote ‘I’m So Tired’ at this time of insomnia. Reflective of ‘I’m only sleeping’ on ‘Revolver’, it is one of my favourite songs on the album, and I’ve found it almost impossible to get it out of my head the past few weeks.

I love the way the verses are sung slowly, highlighting his physical tiredness, but the chorus is sung fast in a back and forth way that seems to reflect his mind racing. It’s exactly the type of feeling most people get when unable to sleep. The lyrics are quite obviously about thinking of Yoko Ono, although rather humourously he finds time to call Sir Walter Raleigh, a man famous for popularising smoking in Britain, a ‘stupid get’ probably because he wanted to quit.

It is no coincidence that most of the songs Lennon spoke favourably about after the Beatles split (not that many really) he could later relate to Yoko in some way. Unsurprisingly for a song about Yoko, he said this was “one of my favourites” and I tend to agree. Funnily enough that he mentions smoking in a song about Yoko. They split a few years later in 1973 and for 18 months John would date and live with publicist May Pang. After the 18 months, Yoko would convince John to come around to her place because she had developed a new way to quit smoking. John would return after this visit and immediately break-it off from May, and go back to Yoko, as if “in a trance”. John would later dismiss the period as a ‘lost weekend’, although privately he would remark it was one of his happiest times.

Following on, is the song ‘Blackbird’, a beautiful acoustic number from Paul that feels like a vision of hope for the future. Sung very gently, I’d categorise this as one of Paul’s morning songs, something that immediately has that feeling of daybreak like ‘Here comes the sun’. The ‘Blackbird’ of the title is actually about civil rights in America, with the blackbird being symbolic of their struggle and ‘waiting for that moment to be free.’ It is a beautiful way to symbolise that wonderful moment of freedom and change in American history.

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Harrison’s ‘Piggies’ continues his anti-establishment style songs like ‘Taxman’ from ‘Revolver’. It’s a dainty little song about corporate greed with the aforementioned piggies obviously talking about the rich with a beautiful use of harpsichord (another new addition to the ever expanding use of different musical instruments the Beatles tried) and a great little singalong at the end.

McCartney’s ‘Rocky Raccoon’ follows the story of a man seeking revenge after being cheated on. A kind of cowboy story with Paul even putting on a pretty terrible southern american accent at the beginning. It feels like a sequel of Bungalow Bill, but not nearly as fun, which kind of makes it feel too similar and a bit unnecessary in its inclusion.

‘Don’t Pass Me By’ is the first solely Ringo-penned song, and it doesn’t feel too out of place. I’m a big fan of Ringo songs on Beatles albums, so it’s nice to hear one with his own words. It really feels like you could have a hoedown to this, and refreshingly brings back a more retro Beatles sound in its pure love song style.

After the traditional love song comes the complete opposite, ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?’ is pretty much about having sex on a road, no real symbolism or metaphor here, but then one could hint it is a reflection of the newly found sexual freedoms people were experiencing in the swinging sixties. However, it’s source is actually a song written by Paul after watching two monkeys do it in India! It’s an odd one this, that seems to be Paul striving to be edgier more Lennon-ish, but it just never really worked for me. The blatantness of the lyrics kind of lessen the impact, rather than heighten it. To me, just a really poor imitation of ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’.

In contrast, ‘I Will’ plays to McCartney’s strengths and pretty much shows how no one does simple love songs as good as him. A very easy acoustic guitar song that has Paul sweetly vowing his love to his beau. I wish it was slightly longer though, the loveliness is short-lived and could have easily had another verse to it .

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Lennon would write ‘Julia’ in India, an ode to his mother who died in a car crash in 1958. But the lyric ‘Ocean Child calls me’ is a reference to Yoko, as it is the literal translation of her name. The song is one of Lennon’s moments of real heartfelt brilliance tapping into his inner-emotions. His words sound mournful but loving, with an intimate sounding melody. One of Lennon’s most personal songs that show his rather tragic and difficult childhood, but also his future through the encoded words to Yoko. John it probably not best known for his love songs, but when you reflect back at songs like ‘This Boy’ or ‘It Won’t Be Long’ or ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret’, he wrote some of the Beatles’ best, and ‘Julia’ shows what a talented love-writer he was.

Side three

Some Beatles songs are wildly famous and known by everyone and their mother, grandmother, uncle and aunt; then there are some that really aren’t as well-known as you’d think they should be. ‘Birthday’ is a fantastic song, a real sing-along tune with a great happy vibe to it, that should be played at everyone’s birthday party. But it isn’t, and it really should. I much prefer this to the traditional ‘Happy Birthday’ song. I think a campaign needs to be started to make this the standard birthday song.

Despite the peaceful nature of the getaway in India, Lennon would say later he was writing some of the most depressing songs of his career. ‘Yer Blues’ reflects the suicidal thoughts he was having, the line ‘Girl, I’m lonely, want to die’ were his genuine feelings at the time. Despite this, the song has a real big blues sound with John giving a loud strong vocal full of heart that really gives it a huge punch. The song was a rare moment of togetherness during recording with all four members moving to a smaller recording room than usual for it playing the song in cramp conditions face-to-face. This probably helps give it that live blues bar sound that really elevates it.

Despite listening to the teachings of the Maharishi, very few songs written by the Beatles are actually about these teachings; ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ is one. McCartney based it on a lecture by the Maharishi about being one with nature, it’s another very light-hearted acoustic number by Paul that, while pretty, feels like another rendition of ‘I Will’ that could probably have been left off the album. Another song that feels like more a stop-gap between better things than a song in itself.

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When recording the album, Lennon began taking heavier drugs, allegedly starting to take heroin, something none of the other Beatles were into. This would cause Lennon to be erratic and quick to anger in the studio, many think the ‘monkey’ in this song is the monkey on Lennon’s back, in other words the heroin. The lyrics of repeated ‘come on…’ sounds almost like a drug pusher trying to convince a client. Lennon would however say it was about him and Yoko, in the ‘glow of love’ as everyone around them seemed stressed and angry. So Yoko was the monkey!?

This song, and pretty much most of the second half of the album, show the Beatles could rock as hard as all their contemporaries at the time. This has great hard guitar playing circulating around Lennon screaming.

Following on, Lennon, when disenfranchised after his experience in India, wrote a song called Maharishi, but later changed it to ‘Sexy Sadie’ so they didn’t get sued. All the other lyrics like ‘However big you think you are, Sexy Sadie oooh you’ll get yours yet’, showing Lennon anger and cynicism at the Maharishi’s apparent mysticism. It’s a real fuck you of a song, sung so beautifully with a gorgeous piano melody it is almost hard to hear real malice in Lennon’s voice.

‘Helter Skelter’ is a blistering all out rock song, an iconic and unfortunately infamous song that McCartney will still break-out often at his live shows. After hearing The Who’s Pete Townsend bragging about their band being so loud, McCartney saw it as a challenge and went about trying to create the loudest racket he could possibly make. In pretty much everyway he succeeded, with the “I’ve got blisters on me fingers” coming from Ringo after playing the drums so hard.

Helter Skelter would become infamous due to Charles Manson associating it with his killings that included actress Sharon Tate. He had become obsessed with the White album believing it was speaking to him directly about a future violent uprising of minorities. He is in short a madman that should be forgotten, his rantings and interpretation of the music sound like a man stretching logic to do evil that he would probably have done anyway, but seems destined to be mentioned alongside the album due to his despicable and horrifying actions. The song appears quite simple, about going to the fairground and chasing girls, fairly innocuous really and all Beatles members have said that there was absolutely no intention to project any malice into the listener.

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‘Long, Long, Long’ may by no means be one of his most famous pieces, but it is one of my favourite Harrison songs. A song about the joy of finding god, it’s a glorious uplifting number with beautiful sleepy vocals from Harrison. It shows there are still such a thing as an under-rated gem even on an album as widely-listened to as this.

Side four

Despite the 60s being a time of a large atmosphere of political and social change with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, the Beatles had kept relatively quiet on these issues. Lennon wanted this to change.

Revolution 1’ is the first song recorded for the ‘White Album’ and shows the increased emphasis on political movements that would influence Lennon for the rest of his career, especially in his solo work. He would comment that he was awake again after years of taking a back step and this caused further conflict within the band. His push for this to be a single were however vetoed by Harrison and McCartney, but as a beginning to Lennon more politically focused work, it stands out as one of his best. It may have many interpretations, but the lyrics suggest to me a destructive, violent revolution is not something Lennon wants but more a peaceful individualised change of outlook towards peace and enlightenment.

‘Honey Pie’ in complete contrast harkens back to an idealistic age, a kind of take on ‘As Time Goes By’. It’s very much a throwback piano song to a light story-telling of music halls in the 1920s. Although, not a favourite of mine it further expands the Beatles’ width in terms of song-writing styles.

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Continuing the food-based titles, ‘Savoy Truffle’ is an ode to desserts (the Beatles must have been in need of lunch). Harrison wrote the light-hearted song for his friend Eric Clapton, who had a real sweet-tooth. The song has a joyousness to it but feels pretty throwaway to me, Harrison’s least engaging song on the album.

Similarly, ‘Cry Baby Cry’ is Lennon’s least engaging song on the album. A homage to the lullabies of Lennon’s childhood, but one he would dismiss as rubbish later on. Although, never the most memorable songs on the album, it does have its charm if only Lennon putting a decent vocal on it with such ease which makes it easy to listen to if not exceptional.

As a huge fan of the Simpsons, I find it almost impossible not to hear their parody of this song when I listen ‘Revolution 9’. They just nailed it (still makes me chuckle 20 years on). Anyway, I’ve really never been a fan of this song, technically it’s a marvel of production for 60s standards, but to me its lacking. It sounds like deleted parts of the far superior Lennon masterpiece ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.’ An attempt by Lennon to bring avant-garde to the mainstream, maybe to impress Yoko. None of the other Beatles wanted it on the album, but Lennon was persistent. Revolution 1 is the sound of Lennon, this is the sound of Lennon and Yoko; I know what I prefer.

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‘Good Night’ closes the album and sounds almost like a big crooner number- something Sinatra or Bing Cosby would sing on a Christmas album. It has that big voice quality matched by big orchestral accompaniment. I think it’s a beautiful way to end such a varied album with yet another form of musical style the Beatles were able to slip into with ease.

Final Thoughts

The album was not best received at the time by critics, with the New York Times calling it “boring beyond belief” but it has aged well and grown in stature since with many now calling it their best.

I would not say it is their best personally; it is not superior to the three albums that preceded it (Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper’s), but it does possess some of Beatles’ best work. ‘Julia’, ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, ‘While my Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘I’m So Tired’ and ‘Birthday’ stand as some of my favourites they ever did. There is some dead weight in there, or songs too similar to other songs that should really have been cut, but overall it shows the vast variety of styles the Beatles could create.

I’d kind of wish the track listing felt slightly less manically random, but in terms of double albums, something everyone from Michael Jackson to the Rolling Stones, OutKast and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers have tried, this stands tall as the best of the lot.

Nine out of ten and a nice sit down on a carpet

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