19 December, 2013

Meet the Bottom of the Barrel

When Paul McCartney was asked around the time of The Beatles Anthology albums if there was anything left in the vaults that might eventually be released, he said that if they ever did, they would have to call it Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel.

Well, we’re there. In fairness, Bootleg Recordings 1963 is not a desperate attempt to find some product to release. It’s an open secret that these recordings are being quietly released in order to extend their copyright. Briefly, current copyright laws have recordings reverting to public domain after 50 years but if they have been officially released, the owners can squeeze another 20 years out of them.

Sony has already begun doing it with its Bob Dylan archives, even going so far as to title the first volume, The Copyright Extension Collection. However, whereas Sony released the Dylan tracks in ridiculously limited (as few as 100) physical editions, The Beatles are doing it with a Wikileaks style file dump. Fifty-nine tracks were released on iTunes yesterday with almost no promotion.

The first quarter of the collection is outtakes from the recording of the Please Please Me album and singles from 1963. Since these records were made live in the studio, these takes are extremely similar to the released versions. Some of them even sound a little better without the added reverb. The tracks are mixed for stereo, the same as the album versions, with vocals and rhythm guitar on the right, and drums, bass, lead guitar and vocal reverb on the left. The sound quality is just as good as the remastered albums. Apart from some studio talk and missing harmonica, if you told people these were the album versions, all but the most expert fan would probably believe you.

Speaking of studio banter, there’s not much of it, so if you were hoping to hear The Beatles working, you’ll be disappointed. It’s easy these days to think The Beatles were always all-conquering but in 1963, they were simply rising stars, barely out of their teens. They were rising quickly for sure, but this was before they had the run of EMI studios to do whatever they wanted, so what we hear is The Beatles on their best behaviour.

When On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2 came out last month (a mere 19 years after Volume 1), some people asked why they don’t just release all the BBC sessions. Well, be careful what you wish for, because most of the remainder of this collection does just that – for 1963 at least. Forty two tracks from sixteen different sessions across six different programs.

The sound quality of these recordings is variable with songs from Saturday Club being particularly poor. It might have been possible to use some studio magic to clean these up but listening pleasure is not really the point of this release. Sometimes the quality varies wildly across the same program. It might even come down to which particular shelf the BBC had the tape on. It’s all perfectly listenable though and the recordings from the Pop Go The Beatles sessions are quite good. It does, of course, add to the authenticity of recordings that were meant to be heard on AM radio.

The sequencing of the BBC tracks is slightly odd. Rather than playing all the songs from a particular program, they chop and change for no apparent reason. The sessions from Pop Go The Beatles are all over the place, yet these are followed by all the songs from the Side by Side program together. I don’t think the collection would be any more or less repetitive (and it is repetitive - you won’t want another Taste of Honey for some time) if they just played the programs in order. Then again, this being iTunes, you can just make yourself a playlist if you like.

The two concluding tracks are demo versions of Bad to Me and I’m in Love, which were eventually recorded and released by Billy J Kramer with The Dakotas and The Fourmost respectively. Bad to Me is played by John and Paul on acoustic guitars; I’m in Love is John solo on piano.

The most notable tracks include Takes 1 and 2 of One After 909 (a song that was shelved until the Let It Be album), I Saw Her Standing There with just a whispered count-in, a slightly swinging version of Love Me Do from Saturday Club and A Shot of Rhythm and Blues from Pop Go The Beatles.

So, should you buy it?
Well, everything about the way this ‘album’ was released suggests neither Universal (and gee it feels weird to talk about The Beatles’ recordings being owned by Universal and not EMI) nor the Beatles want you to. It’s not even a fans-only release. If it were, it would at least have a digital booklet with notes and explanations. This is just marking territory. They had to release them in order to stop anyone else releasing them.

Musically, it’s nothing more than a collection of historic curios, which is fine if you’re into that kind of thing, and there are millions of Beatles fans who are. (Hello!) However, if you’re one of them, you’d better get in quick. Now that it has been released, legal honour is satisfied and they can pull it at any time, which is possibly why it has only been released digitally and not physically.

The other consideration is the price. When I downloaded it yesterday morning, it cost me $15.49, which is beyond reasonable, it was an absolute bargain. (I must thank my twitter friend Greg for the link, without which I would have missed the cheap price. I owe you several beers some time, mate!) Four hours later, it had disappeared from the store and old links no longer worked, leading people around the world to suspect that it had already been withdrawn from sale. Then today, it was back in the iTunes store, for $69.99! (Check your local guides) No way is it worth that much; certainly not without four CDs, comprehensive sleeve notes and an elegant box. It’s just another reason to suspect they really don’t want anyone to buy this.

If the law doesn’t change, we can presumably expect one of these collections every year and they will only get bigger as The Beatles’ career exploded. However, next year we will be expecting it which means that availability may be even briefer, so keep your eyes peeled next December.

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