As I write, most of world remains in various stages of COVID-19 lockdown, and the entertainment industry – much like everything else – is still in limbo. And this includes a slew of confirmed and potential Beatles releases, most of which are aligned with the pivotal 50th anniversary of the band’s split and the birth of four solo careers. So, among slightly more important questions about the future direction of mankind, where does this leave those of us hankering for a fresh Fab Four fix?
I find the whole approach to reissues and catalogue management by Apple and the four individual camps to be a bizarre mixture of the brilliant and the bewildering, an on-going lesson in how not to give your fanbase what it wants – highlighted by the occasional bullseye which demonstrates the art of the possible. I’ll assess the successes and failures of each case in more detail in future posts, but for now let’s just survey the wreckage of 2020 and see if anything is likely to be salvaged.
The first victims of the release schedule shutdown were ones planned for Record Store Day on 18 April, including the vinyl edition of Ravi Shankar and George Harrison’s project Chants of India, the half-speed mastered McCartney and the “Ultimate mix” of John’s ‘Instant Karma!’ single. I have to be honest, none of these hold any interest for me. I know lots of fans love their vinyl, and I totally get that, but it’s just not that important for me. And in terms of these records, I have Chants on CD somewhere and never listen to it; I already own five versions of McCartney (one cassette, one LP, three CDs) and am not hungering for another, half-speed or not, and am perfectly happy with the mix of ‘Instant Karma!’ I’ve lived with until this point. But what richer fruit may have dropped from the tree this year (and still might)?
The recent announcement of a new book coming later this year about John’s Plastic Ono Band album seems to indicate a 50th anniversary deluxe reissue is on the cards, like we had for Imagine in 2018. Again, I can’t get too excited about that. Multi-disc box sets breaking down a single album into demos, early takes, remixes and the like are worthwhile, no question, but have generally limited appeal to me. They’re the sort of thing I might dig out to listen to every ten years or so, out of curiosity, but otherwise leave on the shelf (the Beatles’ Anthology set is about about my limit for that kind of thing, and I don’t even listen to much of that material very often). And as we’ve had two remastered versions of this album in the past 20 years, I’m not sure what the new one will have to offer – particularly as there are no more than three instruments and vocals on any of the tracks. Are we really likely to hear it in a new way? Imagine was a more layered album, and I couldn’t really detect much of a difference in the ‘Ultimate Mix’ of that.
I appreciate there’s not much stuff to mine from John’s solo catalogue, and that this is a widely acknowledged ‘classic’ album which people will want to further analyse and pour over, so I’ve no problem with this coming out. But, bearing in mind a clutch of demos and outtakes from these sessions have already been released on The John Lennon Anthology and Acoustic collections, I’ll pass on this one.
On a similar tack, the Harrison estate has strongly hinted of a expansive anniversary release of George’s most famous and acclaimed album, All Things Must Pass, with archivists apparently unearthing “hours of unreleased material and unheard songs” from those sessions. If so, that could be a more interesting affair. But, again, we have had two remastered re-releases of this in the past two decades, the first overseen by George himself and not exactly crammed with bonus goodies. Are Olivia and Dhani now considering putting stuff out he didn’t deem worthy when he was alive?
I’m not necessarily against that. Artists sometimes have strange views on material they didn’t release when it was recorded, often hoarding great stuff, and – being a big Bob Dylan fan – George may have looked at the ongoing success of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and changed his mind had he lived. And it would be great to have pristine quality versions of the guitar demos he recorded for the album which found their way out on the Beware of Abkco bootleg in the 1990s (though of the unreleased songs on that, I’d say ‘Window, Window’ is the only real keeper). However, as with Plastic Ono Band, outtakes of songs we already know don’t do much for me. I know some fans really want to hear a stripped back, de-Spectorised version of the album, without the grandiose ‘Wall of Sound’ production which adorns many tracks. But, to me, that’s one of the things which makes the album what it is. Harrison archive releases have become rarer than hen’s teeth, though, so I guess we’ll take whatever we can get.
One possible anniversary release (or set of releases) which no-one’s talking about but which I’d love to see would be a long-overdue package of Ringo’s debut solo albums, Sentimental Journey and Beaucoups of Blues. These were last issued 25 years ago, and are badly in need of remastering. There’s also scope for bonus material – we know there were at least a couple of tracks (like ‘Stormy Weather’) which didn’t make the cut on the former, while rumours abound there is a whole album’s worth of leftovers for the latter. A two-disc package for each, with the obligatory booklet, surely isn’t too much to ask?
Okay, these aren’t the best albums ever made, and EMI may consider there isn’t much commercial mileage in a ‘Ringo-does-big-band-and-country’ episode from 50 years ago. But both albums have undergone a bit of a critical re-evaluation in recent times (with Beaucoups rated particularly highly by some people), and – as part of that batch of early Beatle solo efforts – are historically important. Journey made the UK top ten, lest we forget, and sold more than half a million copies in the US in its first two weeks of release. I think that, with a bit of care and the right promotion, ardent Fabs fans (who might not bother with his modern-day releases) would snap them up. Alas, therein lies the rub – Ringo himself seems to have zero interest in rehabilitating his back catalogue, or even making it available in good quality for today’s listeners. A real pity.
What had been all but confirmed for the summer, unofficially at least, was the remastered edition of Flaming Pie, the latest release from the utterly random, stop-start McCartney Archive Collection. While I would have much preferred MPL to finish the Wings story by putting out London Town and Back to the Egg instead of jumping ahead 20 years (such things are clearly far too obvious and logical for Paul and his ‘people’), this was nonetheless a very tantalising prospect. What I value most about the Archive series, along with the remastering of the original albums and b-sides, is the prospect of getting our hands on some unreleased McCartney songs, and there are at least a few that we know of from those mid-90s sessions.
Expensive boxes full of glossy photos and alternate mixes I can take or leave (and invariably leave), but unheard material always gets my juices flowing. And the last Macca reissue, Red Rose Speedway, provided plenty of that in the standard two-disc edition. However, it may well be that this year’s events have put paid to a re-heated Flaming Pie, at least for a while. Cruelly ironic, bearing in mind the Archive series releases already come around about as often as Halley’s Comet.
Of course, the main course in this year’s Beatles banquet was always going to the new Get Back film, and its attendant music/book/DVD spin-offs. Stitched together by Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson from hours of unused footage from the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in January 1969, this is apparently going to set the record straight that this period was nowhere near as miserable and discordant for the band as history portrays (or indeed, as the individual members have all described it). And I suspect a fresh, more positive depiction of these events was the only way of lifting the veto over the release of the original Let It Be film held by Olivia Harrison and/or Yoko Ono. Whatever the politics, I’m not complaining. Although I have a copy of Let It Be, I seem to have been waiting all my life for a cleaned-up, official release which also delves into the kind of unseen footage we had glimpses of in The Beatles Anthology and elsewhere. The prospect of two hours or so of ‘new’ film showing the Fabs rehearsing, recording, joking, chatting and generally being themselves, unscripted, is just mouth-watering.
Last we heard, the film was still scheduled for release in September, though it’s hard to say if that date will remain in place. A tie-in book is also planned, and I would assume – in line with Apple’s other 50th anniversary deluxe sets in recent years – a revamped version of the Let It Be album, with all the usual bells and whistles. Quite how that will be handled will be fascinating to see, bearing in mind the album’s chequered history and the long-standing Macca antipathy to Phil Spector’s production work on it. I must say I’m somewhat dubious they will come up with much in the way of buried gold from those sessions, beyond what we’ve already heard on Anthology 3 and Let It Be…Naked. My memories of the Sweet Apple Trax bootlegs from the 1980s don’t extend much beyond sluggish jams, half-hearted run-throughs, endless rehearsals and unfinished snippets of tunes which emerged further down the line (or were never heard of again). But we’ll see.
For once, though, the music probably isn’t the main focus, but the film itself. And we’re promised the divisive Let It Be film will also see the light of day in official form, most likely on a DVD (who knows, perhaps with extras) which I’m guessing had been pencilled in for the Christmas market. All that must be up in the air now, though, and your guess is as good as mine as to how all the major corporate entertainment schedules will be reordered as the world comes out of lockdown. And whether some people will be in a position to spend much money on it all. On the other hand, what better way to emerge back into the light and re-establish some kind of normality than with some fresh Beatles product? It would be a perfect pick-me-up. In the meantime, let’s just stay safe and make sure we’re around to enjoy whatever – eventually – comes our way.