The Beatles: on Record
Saturday, September 5, 2009 by Ian Jones
Prefab Sprout have just released an album written and recorded 17 years ago.
It’s called Let’s Change The World With Music, and was originally knocked on the head by thick-eared suits at Sony after just one listen to Paddy McAloon’s meticulously performed demo tape, thereafter consigned both to a cardboard box in the songwriter’s back room and wistful whispers within fanzines, message boards and forums.
Now McAloon’s efforts have finally made it into the real world. They have lost the mystique of being that most alluring of sonic creations, the Unreleased Recording.
But they have gained the exposure for which they were conceived, and like light falling on long-hidden mementos tucked away for expediency, their merit ought only to climb still further. They are songs of sad beauty and uplifting wisdom, marching under a banner of a pointedly nostalgic aspiration – one that seems to gain in stature by virtue of being from another age.
There’s a vaguely naïve, 1960s ring to it. Let’s not change the world with ideas, McAloon vows, not with less bureaucracy or more intervention, or deregulation or more regulation, but with…songs. With notes and tunes and harmony and… well, with sound itself.
It’s a calculated doff of the hat to a tradition fostered by another group; one that, along with almost every other precedent in popular music, established, fed and watered the mystique of the Unreleased Recording from the off.
What the Beatles didn’t release on disc, what remained in the Abbey Road archives in the shape of alternative takes, studio chatter and wholesale abandoned songs, used to be a puzzle trail winding all the way back to February 1965 with tracks like If You’ve Got Trouble and That Means A Lot, and then even earlier to versions of their very first single, Love Me Do, with and without Ringo on drums.
The Anthology series of albums and TV programmes in the mid-1990s ventured some way along that trail, partly satiating the world’s desire for ‘new’ Beatles material while tantalising fans with the implication there was far more hiding in the vaults.
At the time we overlooked the pointless instrumental versions and the crap bits because, hey, it was The Beatles. Audio glimpses of the Fabs at work in Abbey Road, even mere seconds in length, were seized on as vindication of the belief in the spell of the Unreleased Recording. An alternative take of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer? Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!
The spell remained unbroken. Yet since then, Apple, still the most hapless music business in the world, has done its best to not capitalise on any periodic returns of Beatlemania. It has seemingly gone out of its way to not release digitally remastered version of the group’s albums, nor sort out a deal with iTunes, nor get the film of Let It Be released on DVD, nor really do anything to acknowledge the arrival of the 21st century.
Maddeningly, the only ‘new’ Beatles endeavour since the Anthology project was the bizarre Love album: a look-at-how-clever-we-are hodge-podge medley of one chorus stuck to the verse of another.
Until now. The Beatles: on Record aired on BBC2 the same week as the launch of the Beatles Rock Band computer game, plus the release of those long pined-for reissues (supposedly done and dusted four years ago!). It has been a rare burst of coordination from McCartney’s people, Starr’s people, the thousands of others representing Mrs John Lennon and Mrs George Harrison, plus George Martin and son.
Given the wait, it was a joy to see this particular publicity bauble do everything right. Its greatest triumph was having the sense to avoid what wasn’t needed. An hour-long documentary about the music of the Beatles should not leave any director struggling for content. Rather it should invite consideration of just what, as well as who, needs to be included.
Attention had been paid to such concerns. We had no contributions from anybody bar the group themselves and George Martin; no extraneous establishing footage, not even any extraneous sound or music; and best of all no narration. That meant no shots of girls screaming as the Beatles arrived at the Shea Stadium followed by a wallpaper voice saying “girls screamed as the Beatles arrived at the Shea Stadium”. Just sound and pictures of and by five people who changed the world with music. Perfection.
In the same way they were the first group to treat the studio as a playground-cum-laboratory, the Beatles were the first group to not bother about all their man-hours behind the microphone being a means to an end. This casual attitude continues to lend every single piece of their rare off-mike gossip and pre-song banter a weight of significance out of all proportion to its superficial, contemporary concerns.
The Beatles: on Record aired dozens of such enchanting moments. There are thousands more yet to be heard. Yet even if they were all suddenly launched into the public domain, the infectious cult of the Unreleased Recording would implore you to believe there are further gems down the back of a Studio 2 filing cabinet or in plastic bags in cupboards from St John’s Wood to the Mull of Kintyre.
And what’s wrong with that? The Beatles were, are and always will be the greatest band in history because of this ability to storm the commanding heights of your emotions time after time after time. They will make you go on believing there is more to be heard of their body of work long after their last member has passed away.
Wanting to believe in the power of music you know exists: it’s why Paddy McAloon’s voice from 17 years ago sounds all the more enchanting. And it’s why hearing the opening bars of an early, incomplete version of Yesterday makes you fall in love with the song all over again.