thu 26/04/2018

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Beatles | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Beatles

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Beatles

‘Happy Christmas Beatle People!’: finally, a legal reissue of The Fabs’ seasonal fan club records

1963, and The Beatles wish their fans the best on the sleeve of their seasonal flexi disc

The official reissue of The Beatles’ Christmas records is a major event. Since Live at the BBC was issued in 1994, archive Beatles’ releases have fallen into two categories. There have been releases devoted to or drawing from archive disinterments: Live at the BBC and its 2013 follow-up, the Anthology series, the unreleased studio sessions included in the recent Sgt Pepper’s package and so on.

Then, there have been reconfigurations of existing releases: 2003’s Let it be…Naked, the egregious Love compilation, the satisfying Magical Mystery Tour box, a box set of mono albums and this year’s pointless new stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band amongst them.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS BEATLE PEOPLE!For Christmas 2017, in the spirit of the latter, Beatle people can choose between a new vinyl picture disc and black-wax vinyl versions of the six-months-old stereo Sgt. Pepper’s. What people who bought the box set which initially included this aural rewrite of history will think about this stand-alone release will become a matter of record. There is a third new release though: one without precedent in Beatle world.

Although they have been endlessly bootlegged, the long overdue and first legal reappearance of the seven Beatles’ Christmas fan club flexi-discs is hugely welcome. Each was originally sent to fan club members only and unavailable in shops. Each included exclusive chat and music. And each opens a window into the Beatles’ mindset as the relevant years ended. They were – and are – very important records.

Happy Christmas Beatle People! is a seven-inch only box set collecting hard-vinyl reissues of each disc: the first was sent to fans in 1963; the last in 1969. Each comes in a reproduction of the record’s original sleeve. The box also contains a floppy booklet with a very short introductory essay, a paragraph on each record and repros of the newsletter accompanying each disc (1968 and 1969 did not have newsletters).

The seven records are pressed on transparent coloured vinyl: the colour of each just-about matches an element of the sleeve. While the original thick plastic flexis were made by the North London pressing plant Lyntone, Happy Christmas Beatle People! has been manufactured by Optimal Media in Germany. It is released by Apple through Universal, who hold the rights to release the Beatles’ catalogue

The Beatles Christmas Time Is Here Again 1967 CoverThese extraordinary artefacts chart discrete phases in the band’s life. First, a winning, garrulous and bewitching cheekiness and spontaneity. Then, with 1966’s and 1967’s discs, unparalleled new levels of creativity (pictured left, the sleeve of the 1967 Christmas record with its Sgt, Pepper's-esque collage image). The last two discs, from 1968 and 1969, plot fragmentation and were cobbled together by DJ Kenny Everett from tapes he was given. Unwittingly, the reissue charts a further phase of The Beatles: their afterlife.

The final record – 1969’s – is hard to listen to. And not just due to the lack of humour and as a result of The Beatles’ relative uninvolvement in the finished product. The Beatles' Seventh Christmas Record is an audio verité document of a band that barely existed. John and Yoko dominate by interviewing each under the solipsistic assumption that the world is as interested in them as they are in each other. George speaks for less than ten seconds of the 07.39 running time. Ringo’s appearance is used as a cringe-making plug for his film The Magic Christian. His and son Zak’s sleeve art do not cancel out the bad taste this leaves. Still, at least it was compiled and sent to fans. The Beatles Sixth Christmas Record, from 1968, is not as painful as its successor but is still no fun.

The Beatles Third Christmas Record 1965 coverListening to 1963, 1964, 1965 (pictured right, the sleeve of the 1965 Christmas record), 1966 and 1967 over-and-over again, and then again, is the best plan. The first three are filled with joy. There is a warm intra-band bond, wordplay, veering off the script, messing with their own music and that of others. Fans must have been thrilled to receive these delightful records.

The 1966 and 1967 discs are each at one with The Beatles of the period. Christmas Time (Is Here Again): The Beatles’ Fifth Christmas Record was recorded at Abbey Road with George Martin on 28 November 1967 and includes repeated sections of the specially composed song “Christmas Time (is Here Again).” The disc overall, in its au courant John and Julian Lennon and Ringo sleeve, is a funny, ingenious counterpart to The Who’s concurrent Sell Out album (issued 15 December 1967): fake radio snippets and all. Pirate radio and the BBC are in the mix, as is the bonkers song “Plenty of Jam Jars” credited to spoof band The Ravellers – the Lonely Hearts Club Band wasn’t The Beatles’ only alter-ego in 1967.

But the 1966 disc is the most significant. Pantomime - Everywhere It's Christmas: The Beatles' Fourth Christmas Record was recorded on 25 November 1966 at the in-house studio of their music publisher Dick James. It was produced by George Martin. The day before, they entered the studio at Abbey Road for the first time since 17 June (when they completed the sessions for what would be Revolver). Their new Christmas record was recorded 24 hours after taping take one of “Strawberry Fields Forever”.

Pantomime Everywhere It's Christmas The Beatles' Fourth Christmas Record 1966 coverPantomime - Everywhere It's Christmas (pictured left, with its Paul McCartney-drawn sleeve) represents the first time any members of the public heard The Beatles on the road to Sgt. Pepper’s. “Strawberry Fields Forever” was issued in February 1967, and the album came out in June 1967. The only fresh Beatles’ release in shops for Christmas 1966 was the A Collection of Beatles Oldies compilation album. Its new stereo remixes of “Day Tripper”, “Paperback Writer” and “We Can Work it Out” were worth hearing and the inclusion of the previously US-only “Bad Boy” showed forethought in compiling the album, but it was an inessential space-in-the-schedule filler. However, even though it was heard by a limited audience, the 1966 Christmas disc was essential.

On Pantomime - Everywhere It's Christmas, The Beatles did, indeed, create an audio pantomime. There was no overarching narrative. Instead, there were special songs (“Everywhere it's Christmas”, “Orowanya” and “Please Don’t Bring my Banjo Back”) and strange, surreal, sound-effect suffused short stories, none of which related to each other. John and Paul assumed the characters of Podgy the Bear and Jasper, two creations searching for matches and candles. The words “matches” and “candles” are repeated like a locked groove.

Elsewhere, extracts of mangled orchestral music are heard as a sound bed along with nods to The Goons’ song “I’m Walking Backwards to Christmas”. Amongst other locations, the action takes place in Corsica and The Alps, as well as the made-up Felpin Mansions and on HMS Tremendous. Pantomime - Everywhere It's Christmas: The Beatles' Fourth Christmas Record is beguiling, hilarious and an unambiguously turned-on testament to The Beatles’ genius. It is also a very broad hint of what was to come with Sgt. Pepper’s.

Another Beatles Christmas Record 1964 coverWhile Happy Christmas Beatle People! is indispensible, there are some ambiguities and niggles. It is promoted as a limited edition but no actual figure has been given. The absence of proper liner notes is mystifying. (pictured right, the sleeve of the 1964 Christmas record)

The credits for remastering gnomically declare “The best possible sound sources were used to master these records. They were selected from various sources, including analogue tapes and direct transfers of the original discs.” The sources and the process of remastering should have been detailed. Surprisingly, no one is credited with either the archive work or the mastering. Whether the omissions are high-handedness or sloppiness, they are inexcusable even though the sound throughout is more dynamic and has a greater clarity than the original discs. Note though that the 1966 disc is mastered at a lower level than the others.

Most curious of all is the absence of the full, uncut 06.37 “Christmas Time (is Here Again)” which remains in the Abbey Road archive. Perhaps this is being held back for some future Beatles’ Christmas release?

However, caveats notwithstanding and despite its rather high price tag of just under £70 – £45 seems about right – the appearance of Happy Christmas Beatle People! plugs a major gap in the narrative of the 20th-century’s chief pop-cultural force.

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