Oct 16, 2009 Bootlegs
It wasn’t until high school (over 15 years ago) that I started really listening to the Beatles. Of course, I had heard various songs of theirs prior, but high school is when I really began delving into their catalog. Like so many things, my interest in the Beatles was precipitated by a woman. After all, many great events in a man’s life occur during the pursuit of a woman. I didn’t end up with her, however. But that’s okay. If recent pictures I’ve seen are any indication, I definitely ended up for the better.
What I did get was something more valuable, something even more consuming than a woman. What I got were the seeds for a lifelong exploration of Beatles music. The first two CD’s I purchased were The White Album and Please Please Me, two extremely diverse listening experiences. Nevertheless, I equally loved them both, and reveled in the joy and exuberance of their first album while I would marvel at the introspection and experimentation of music created just five years later. And if memory serves correctly, it only took a couple months of working at the local fast food joint to obtain the rest of the catalog.
So I listened repeatedly to arguably the greatest catalog of music ever issued by a single band (save for Yellow Submarine). I listened so much I absorbed every melody, harmony, and lyric. I’m pretty sure I didn’t listen to anything but the Beatles for quite a while. Why would or should I? Nothing else compared. This was the Beatles, man.
The problem was, although their catalog is relatively extensive, it didn’t satiate my need for Beatles music. But I owned everything they ever released. So where was I to go?
At that time a radio show (note: FM radio, not internet radio, Pandora, or podcast) played every Sunday called “Breakfast with the Beatles.” Essentially, it was two hours (or so) of only Beatles and related (solo) music. But the most important part of the program was near the end. That’s when I would hear alternate mixes and studio outtakes. I remember distinctly hearing on my boom box (yes, boom box) the Abbey Road medley without the “1,2,3,4,5,6,7 all good children go to heaven” lyric. I also remember hearing edit pieces of “Thank You Girl.” Wow. Where did this come from? And are you serious? There’s Beatles music I haven’t heard?
And thus, the journey really began. After searching for a while, I located a local music store called “Now Hear This.” This store soon became my haven. They sold bootlegs.
Bootlegs. I’m not talking about illegal copies of released music, I’m talking about unreleased music. There are primarily two types of audio bootlegs: studio recordings and live recordings. Although I enjoy the occasional live recording, I am fascinated with studio recordings. And, lucky for me and every other Beatles fan out there, there is no shortage of Beatles bootlegs. Although expensive (thirty-five bucks a pop), every bootleg I bought there was well worth it. My first purchase was, of course, a Beatles bootleg called Unsurpassed Masters vol. 3. It was released by a “company” called Yellow Dog. The importance of this volume is it contains multiple takes of Strawberry Fields Forever.
Okay, now here’s where my OCD comes in. During the previous months when I dove headlong into the Beatles music, I also read any credible book on the band and watched any available documentary. Therefore, I knew the released version of Strawberry Fields Forever consists of two separate takes that George Martin had spliced together. Listen to the song again, and at almost exactly the 1:00 minute mark you’ll hear a distinct change in Lennon’s voice. This is because both takes were performed in different keys. Furthermore, one take was faster than the other. In order to merge the two takes, one take was sped up and the other slowed. The result is a warping of sorts to Lennon’s voice that is nearly imperceptible during casual listening, but very noticeable when you listen for it.
Anyway, the bootleg contained both of the original takes, which are strikingly different from one another. The other track I still enjoy is the first take of Strawberry Fields Forever. To me, the music of this take best complements the mood of the lyrics; the slide guitar and simple arrangement captures the longing and loneliness of the narrator reminiscing on childhood. I know this take was later released in the Anthology series, but here’s the funny thing: the version on the Anthology is not the true unedited take. For some reason, in the official release of take one, they removed the background vocals during the verses. Why? I don’t know. The background vocals are beautiful and lush, a perfect commingling of the Beatles’ three primary singers.
Over time (after all, thirty-five bucks a disc was quite expensive) I acquired all the Unsurpassed series. Some of the highlights of the series: Hearing John Lennon ask “What kind of solo was that?” to Harrison after One After 909 in 1963 (a song they apparently shelved until the Let It Be sessions some six or so years later); the multitude of mess-ups during I Saw Her Standing There and the studio banter between Lennon and McCartney between takes of the songs; the astoundingly jaw-dropping a cappella version of Because; the demo versions of Something and While My Guitar Gently Weeps (both versions are solo Harrison with just a guitar, and both versions feature extra verses not present in the released versions – “I watch from the wings of the play you are staging / While my guitar gently weeps”).
What I love about studio bootlegs is gaining insight into the creation of a song. The music of the Beatles is so good it appears effortless and sometimes simplistic. Listening to the studio outtakes gave me an appreciation for the effort and work they invested in their music. You get to basically hear how their mind’s worked, how they pushed one another towards greatness, and how experimental and innovative they truly were.
Bootlegs, as least these kinds of bootlegs, are for serious fans; fans, like myself, who’ve listened to and learned every studio recording, but are left still wanting more. The released versions are only a fraction of a band’s history. To even attempt to understand a band and their music you must explore the roots of what grew to the released versions of songs. Unfortunately, studio outtakes aren’t available for every band. But for the Beatles, there’s a plethora from which to choose. I would recommend the Unsurpassed Masters and the Purple Chick recordings to anyone interested in Beatles music. It will only increase your respect and enjoyment of the Beatles. And, it may… just maybe… satisfy any OCD tendencies you may have.
In the future I will post more comprehensive opinions and reviews of bootlegs I enjoy. Don’t worry, I won’t review Beatles exclusively. But I figured the Beatles are always the best place to start when concerning music.