IT'S TEN YEARS SINCE THE
BEATLES HAD THEIR VIRTUAL REUNION SESSIONS---SESSIONS THAT YIELDED TWO NEW
SONGS BASED ON JOHN LENNON DEMOS, A BIT OF JAMMING, AND THE 'ANTHOLOGY'
DOCUMENTARY. AT ONE POINT IN THE SESSIONS, RINGO STARR SPECULATED THAT THE 'THREETLES,'
AS THEY WERE DUBBED BY THE PRESS, MIGHT DO A COMPLETE ALBUM---ALSO
INCORPORATING MORE LENNON DEMOS. THIS DID NOT HAPPEN. BUT WHAT MIGHT THAT
ALBUM HAVE SOUNDED LIKE? WHAT IF THE BEATLES HAD BECOME. . .
The big “of all sad words of tongue and pen”* question about The Beatles is what a reunion album might have sounded like. This is unanswerable beyond the conjecture that it would have been very good, even if it did not “reheat the souffle,” to use John Lennon’s oft-quoted explanation as to why there was no reunion in the ‘70s.
But I suspect such a reheated souffle would have fooled many a palate. I don’t think you could put those four men and George Martin together in a studio, provided they were in the mood to work, and come up with anything less than brilliant and original music.
Now, there is a another reunion question that is possibly a bit easier to muse over, in a parlor game sort of way, and that is: what if the reunited Threetles had worked beyond “Free As a Bird,” “Real Love,” and the partially completed third Lennon demo, “Miss You?” What if they had grabbed George Martin, who regretted not producing “FAAB,” and finished a full album? A virtual Beatles reunion album.
It’s not far-fetched. Remember that during the “Anthology” sessions, Ringo speculated that just such a thing was possible. But sparks flew, or at least flared a little, between Paul and George---and George more or less pulled the plug after the first two reunion songs were met with controversy and asinine charges of cashing in on the group’s legacy.
Still, two “new” songs after 25 years was more than most fans ever expected, and it was a grand gesture of reconciliation---not to mention fulfillment of Lennon’s late ‘70s plan (mentioned in legal documents) that The Beatles would one day regroup and make new music for an autobiographical film.
But what if they had gone further? Certainly this would have necessitated more home demo tapes of Lennon songs supplied by Yoko Ono---and there were definitely others to choose from (including, as the Lennon Anthology discs showed, sonically superior demos of “Real Love” to work with, and even possibly “FAAB.”)
One such unreleased demo, which Ono recently gave to the forthcoming Lennon Broaday bio-show, is “India.” With very clear vocal and resonant acoustic guitar, this is a fine performance that would have been credible as a final take, even had it been done in a studio instead of at home (apparently in the late ‘70s.) The song is a winner, a lyrical mid-tempo ballad written at the time of the “white” album, with roots of later Lennon songs like “Watching the Wheels” hiding in the chord changes. It seems likely that it might have figured into the mix for a full virtual reunion album. “Dear John,” reportedly the last song Lennon ever recorded, could have been fleshed out with a few verses---in effect a sung letter from the other three. Then there is the jaunty "Don't Be Afraid (Mr. Hyde's Gone)," a jazzy piano romp of excellent sound quality and finished lyric that appears on the "Lennon Anthology." Had the "Threetles" put their George Formby sensibilities to this one, I think it would have won over critics on the basis of whimsicality alone.
Then there is the strong demo of Lennon’s poignant anthem, “Grow Old With Me,” which Ono also gave to the Threetles, to no avail. They passed on it, with Harrison reportedly the determining factor. The demo, as with a version of “Real Love,” had already been released (on “Milk and Honey”), and one report cited George being uncomfortable with the irony of the title, given Lennon’s horrible fate.
Yet there is a Beatles version of “Grow Old With Me”---that is, if you buy Lennon or McCartney or Harrison solo songs like “Julia,” “Blackbird,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (acoustic) produced by Martin as “Beatles songs.” For Ono later gave the same “Grow Old. . .” take to Martin, asking him to compose orchestration for it, and the redoubtable producer---despite increasing hearing loss---wrote a gentle and downright gorgeous backing for the song, which was released on the Lennon Anthology. (The only glitch was a drum machine “snare” beat that could not be removed.)
Had the Threetles completed, say, four or five such Lennon demos, they would have been largely left to compose the rest of the album themselves. In fact, McCartney spoke excitedly at one point of “writing with George,” which prompted George to later comment, in an on-line interview, that it was strange for Paul to have waited 25 years to make the suggestion. Perhaps the prospects of a Lennon-Harrison team were not exactly rosy. Paul would have definitely had to “check his ego at the door”---yet he did this quite well during the “FAAB/Real Love” sessions, deferring to Harrison’s condition that Jeff Lynne produce, and that the songs be treated more simply. (He had originally envisioned “FAAB” as having a big “Gershwin production.”)
Factor in the history of Paul, George, and Ringo often working largely---sometimes entirely---alone on Harrison’s Beatles songs (“Here Comes the Sun,” “I Me Mine”), and there was genuine precedent of Threetles workability. It does not seem far-fetched that they might have resumed this relationship, especially with Ringo’s affable spirit on hand, and Martin in the control room. (Note: rumors of a Harrison-McCartney song from those sessions, “All For Love,” were never confirmed.) And one cannot discount the potential songwriting team of Harrison-Starkey, which turned out two of the finest post-Beatles Beatles-sounding records: “It Don’t Come Easy,” and “Photograph.”
So a virtual reunion album was really ultimately a question of desire, in the end, and in the end, Harrison did have the love it took.
But this does not mean you can’t speculate on what the album might have sounded like. It seems possible, for instance, that unfinished Lennon demos could have also been incorporated into McCartney or Harrison works---a chorus of “That’s the Way the World Is” might have functioned as a Paul middle-eight, to give a random example. Or perhaps Martin would have suggested a short suite of song fragments using John demos and contributions by the other three---who knows?
All that aside, the point here is to fashion a sort of virtual virtual Beatles reunion album, from existing material. Yes, yes, cue Rod Serling. . .
Guidelines: several criteria and a healthy dose of sacrilege. Rule number oneafter909: employ as many Beatles as possible on the tracks chosen. Rule number twoofus: when more than one Beatle is not possible, choose a mostly solo song that would have fit well in a “white album”-like format; where the spirit and quality were worthy of a Beatles record. Rule number threetle: when resorting to songs that feature other musicians and drummers, select those that. . .have spirit and quality and personality worthy of a Beatles record. Rule number fabfour: select songs done as close as possible to the reunion sessions. Rule number fifthbeatle: mess around a little. . .
The faux album’s obvious handicap is insufficient Lennon contributions, what with only “FAAB” and “Real Love.” Yet when you consider that the “Let it Be” album really had just two Lennon songs (“Dig a Pony," “One After 909”; "Across the Universe" being a leftover from a year earlier), and "Abbey Road" three new Lennon tunes (the other three being trifling leftovers consigned to the medley), it can be argued that this is not a crippling drawback. Add the Martin produced “Grow Old With Me,” and the situation improves. (If only the Threetles had finished that aborted third song! Are you reading, Paul and Ringo?) And you can “mess around” a bit, by foreshadowing the John songs with bits of their demos, in order to boost his overall presence.
So the resultant credits
would shake out more or less equally among the three major songwriters:
Lennon, McCartney, Harrison (and Ringo upping his usual token album
appearance.) Would it have worked out that way? Who knows? But it is a
necessary premise because of limited Lennon material available. Here is a
version of the album, track by track.
1. “Help Me to Help Myself.” This might be macabre, but seeing as it is a virtual reunion album, I’ve selected part of this very sad and beautiful Lennon demo as a kind of overture, “Help Me to Help Myself.” Allegedly written as part of a musical that was never completed, the lyrics are: “Well, I tried so hard to stay alive/ But the angel of destruction keeps on hounding me all around/ But I know in my heart/ That we never really parted, oh no. . .They say the Lord helps themselves who help themselves/ So I’m asking this question in the hope that you’ll be kind/ ‘Cause I know deep inside/ I was never satisfied, oh no. . .Lord, help me, help me now/ Please help me Lord, yeah yeah yeah/ Help me to help myself. . .Help me to help myself. . .” It seems reunion-appropriate, and also has poetic (unintentional) Beatles references, from “Help!” to “yeah yeah yeah.”
2. “Interlude.” This is part of “messing around.” I would fade “Help Me to Help Myself” down, and cross-fade in the Ravel-esque “Sunrise” orchestral segment written by Martin for the “white” album (used in “Yellow Submarine”) and finally released on “Anthology III.” Functioning as a bridge leading to the opening track of the album:
3. “When We Was Fab.” Yes, many fans don’t care for the track’s heavy Jeff Lynne production sound, but I think it’s a wonderful tongue-in-cheek bit of autobiography by George, complete with send-ups of Beatles psychedelia: cellos, swooping vocals, and sitar. Pythonesque (or were the Pythons Beatle-esque?), touching, upbeat, and it has great Ringo drumming.
4. “King of Broken Hearts.” Of all the solo Beatles tracks since “Ringo” and “Tug of War,” this Ringo-Mark Hudson tune (produced by Hudson) comes close to sounding like a Beatles record---especially with one of the more exquisite guitar parts George Harrison ever played. It captures the sweet melancholy of Ringo (think: “This Boy” sequence in “A Hard Day’s Night”), and even features a jaunty bit of interplay between the drums and Harrison’s solo.
5. “Hope of Deliverance.” Again, in the “mess around” spirit, this tune is “illegally” grabbed from “Off The Ground,” which predated the Threetles reunion, but it’s a fine song with a fine message---a rare strong McCartney entry in recent years. And it sounds a lot like Paul trying to write a George song, right down to Robbie McIntosh’s guitar solo---and succeeding.
6. “Real Love.” John’s piano demo, preferably tightened up to eliminate some of the piano noodling in the middle---OR---his guitar demo released on the “Imagine: John Lennon” soundtrack album, also tightened up and shortened (maybe faded during the whistling “solo.”) A foreshadowing of the Beatles version coming later. A deceptively---delightfully---simple song, with a message of hope and the salvation to be found in love. In this context, the “all I really was really doing was waiting for you” fits all members of this reunion, however virtual.
7. “Little Willow.” Arguably elegant enough for the “white” album---and there’s not much argument, really---this is one of the most artful, unaffected, and tender songs McCartney has written since The Beatles. Penned as a comfort to Ringo’s daughter, Lee, on the passing of her mother (shades of “Hey, Jude”), it is just a gem---lyrically, musically, and in terms of the singing. One suspects that this and several songs from Paul’s “Flaming Pie” album might have been intended for a Beatles reunion album (“The Songs We Were Singing” is Beatles biography, and “Beautiful Night” dates from at least the early ‘70s.)
8. “Devil’s Radio.” The most raucous track on the album, “Devil’s Radio” is George’s raging (and deservedly so) diatribe at vacuous and rapacious media who transform tragedy into entertainment and profit. It is not subtle! Adding to the arsenal is Ringo’s drumming and old Beatle album guest star Eric Clapton on guitar solo.
9. "Flaming Pie." Every Beatles album needs some throwaway nonsense, like "Wild Honey Pie" or "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?" This is an amusing, raucous, if not terribly spontaneous McCartney goof, with nifty piano bit. Paulie plays almost all the instruments, but then, he did that on a number of Beatles tracks. And there is Beatles history here, as John once remarked that the name, "Beatles," came to him in a vision of a man on a flaming pie.
9. “Real Love.” Beatles version. What can one say? This sounds like that band. The vocals blend magnificently, convincingly, and George’s baroque guitar echoes and intense solo are obvious labors of love intended to reach out to Lennon’s spirit. Ringo’s drums are sadly under-represented in Lynne’s production wash, but it’s a minor complaint. Another nitpick: one is left to wonder if the song would have had more grace had it been left at its original demo speed.
1. “Free As A Bird.” Piano demo. (There is also a guitar demo with somewhat different melody and lyrics, judging from published sheet music, but it has yet to leak out.) There is something achingly pure and heartbreaking about this demo, from John’s spare piano accompaniment to the plaintive singing. And the song expresses something so central to the man’s life and thinking in his final days: home is the “next best thing to being” free and unfettered. The utterance of a settled soul, happy with life, it foreshadows the Beatles version.
2. “The World Tonight.” Quirky autobiographical snapshot verses, solid arrangement, this “Flaming Pie” track is probably McCartney at his best during the Threetles period (which is not the highest compliment.) The next best thing to Ringo on drums is Paul, for Beatles purposes, and the guitar arpreggios and solos are reminiscent of things George and Beatle. Like the next tune, it remarks on aging (“I go back so far/ I’m in front of me.”) And this mock-album needs to rock a little.
3. “Wreck of the Hesperus.” In keeping with the rocking mode, this “Cloud Nine” gallop (with Ringo doing classic “backwards” fills) finds George musing on still having some pluck despite being no spring chicken. The words snap with sarcasm; a line like “feel more like Big Bill Broonzy” just about makes this one requisite. (This makes six tracks so far produced by Jeff Lynne, giving the mock-album some consistent atmosphere.)
4. “La De Da.” Take a Ringo-istic(!) sentiment, Ringo on drums, Paul on backing vocals (and a cast of thousands), a very Beatle-esque Mark Hudson production (imagine what he might have done with “FAAB”), and you have an upbeat bit of Ringo whimsy that actually commanded a little airplay when it was released on “Vertical Man” in 1998. Any song with the lyric, “Just like Doris Day said, che sera” is A-okay.
5. “Calico Skies”---Like “Little Willow,” another surprisingly excellent piece of Paul’s “Flaming Pie,” and one of his best pure songs since The Beatles. George Martin’s production smartly casts Paul alone with acoustic guitar and knee-slaps, relying totally on the strength of this fine work. McCartney called it a “simple love song that became a ‘60s protest song.” To be sure, the sentiment, “may we never be called to handle/ all the weapons of war we despise” is well in keeping with The Beatles’ spirit.
6. “Grow Old With Me.” Lennon’s haunting paen to love, specifically his marriage to Ono, one of the loveliest things he ever wrote. With a subtle George Martin orchestral score that brings as much feeling to the proceedings as John did to the vocal. What a great thing Ono did to give it to Martin, after the Threetles passed it up. A kind of second part of a Lennon-McCartney couplet, album wise, with each track dealing with love commitment over a lifetime (“I will love you for the rest of my life,” McCartney sings on “Calico Skies.”) And both produced by Martin.
7. “Rising Sun.” Although not recorded for another few years after the Threetles, this might have been written near the sessions. It is certainly one of the most potent and heartfelt efforts of Harrison’s career, with an arching and impassioned vocal over lyrics simultaneously playful and profound. “Universe at play inside your DNA/ You’re a billion years old today” rather neatly encapsulates, um, the Big Everything, doesn’t it? The melody and musical structure are surprising and fresh, and the Beatle-esque cello parts are Beatle-esque because they were written (or sung into a tape) by Beatle George.
8. “Beautiful Night/ Free As A Bird.” Now here is a good opportunity to “mess around.” Album-ending medley, anyone? Yes, it’s sacrilegious, and perhaps it doesn’t work at all (in which case, just separate the tracks), but it makes for an interesting ending and a way of having John and Paul “collaborate.” Take “Night,” which features Ringo drumming and Martin producing, but only up to the false ending (before the “beautiful night, beautiful night” rave-up outro that ends with Ringo cracking up.) Splice “Free As a Bird” in, a beat later. So “Night” ends with McCartney singing “It’s a beautiful night” and a piano chord, followed immediately by the thundering snare crashes that herald “Bird.” Got it? Then stop “Bird” at its false ending, and splice on the rave-up outro of “Night.” (Save the psychedelic “Bird” outro for later.) Voila! Lennon-McCartney.
“Night” is not a great song, unfortunately, and it should have been. It has a top-notch and classic Beatles melody going for it, not surprising since McCartney wrote it so long ago. The lyrics start colorfully, promisingly, with the references to “the lonely lorelei” and “castles in the sky,” but soon turn to featherweight stuff about “make it a beautiful night.” Okay, not such a bad idea, but not very compelling. (Always wished he’d changed the words to “Beautiful life,” and expressed something grander.) But this is album-closing fare, as it was on “Pie,” and so is “Free As A Bird,” which with all its peculiarity, does have touches of the old Beatles magic to it. Harrison’s guitar break is a gloriously heartfelt hair-raiser, his singing is from the heart, and McCartney finished Lennon’s line, “whatever happened to the life that we once knew” with a great rejoinder: “can we really live without each other?/ How did we lose the touch/ It seemed to mean so much. . .” What says more about a Beatles break-up and reunion than that?
“FAAB” could be the subject of an entire essay, or more, so suffice to say that it succeeds at least in being a cooperative effort by John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The great flaw in the song is that Lynne did not allow Ringo to drum freely, but insisted on having him slam the snare to a click track. So the trademark Beatles “heartbeat” is absent, if the heart is not.
9. “I’m Yours.” Nothing could follow the climax afforded by “FAAB,” except possibly an anti-climax, and here is Ringo in a totally sincere and irresistably sappy love song and lullaby he co-wrote with Mark Hudson. With a Brahmsian Martin orchestral production.
10. “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”---Yes, in the spirit of “Her Majesty,” wait a few seconds after Ringo, and let the Threetles jam, as they did in “Anthology.” It’s only a minute or so long, it’s funny, it’s unassuming, and it says this was all just a not-too-serious laugh. Splice on “FAAB---psychedelic ending,” the close of “Bird,” with the ukelele and Lennon’s “turned out all right” comment.
Is this a Beatles reunion album? No. Is it a virtual virtual Beatles reunion album? No. It’s more in the realm of a “realistic simulation”---like restoring much of a lost movie using still photos and captions. Does it give the flavor of what a virtual virtual Beatles album might have been? You virtually decide.
*”For of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.”---John Greenleaf Whitter.