So, Mr Sir George Martin had the bright idea of bowing out of record producing with an anthology of big name stars mangling Beatles songs. If someone is going to mangle Beatles songs, Mr Sir George has more right than most. He was, as we all know, the Fifth Beatle. Admittedly, by the time you've included Pete Best, Stu Sutcliff, Neil Aspinall, the guy who played the drums when Ringo was sick and, er, Yoko Ono you've got more fifth Beatles than actual Beatles. I digress.
Some of the recordings are quite good, and some of them are dire, but the whole project seems to me to be conceptually flawed. Many of the middle-late Beatles songs are the result of studio improvisation and ad hoc collaboration. Somewhere in the middle of "Strawberry Fields Forever" is a beautiful John Lennon melody, almost a ballad. Having recorded that melody, the Beatles proceeded to add sounds to it and process it in various ways, until they had something they liked the sound of. That is the record which was released. George Martin compares the process to Picasso, endlessly paining and repainting the same canvass, until he felt that the work was "complete". How many masterpieces were obliterated during the process? The relatively unadulterated "Strawberry Fields" on Beatles Anthology 2 has advantages over the released version; in particular, the fact that you can hear the words. So if someone decides to produce a "cover" of "Strawberry Fields", where is the text? What script are you following? Are you obliged to chant "Cranberry Sauce, Cranberry Sauce" at the end? Are the organ notes at the beginning part of the True and Platonic Form of John's Sacred Text, given that they didn't form part of the Anthology version and were arguably written by Paul McCartney? I guess that a real "cover version" of a Beatles song would require some other artist to take the bare bones of the melody and improvise around them until they had produced a completely new and maybe unrecognisable record; in which case, all the Beatles fans including myself would yell "heresy" and not buy the record.
No one I think on In My Life attempts to cover "Strawberry Fields", but we do get someone called Jeff Beck who I am evidently supposed to have heard of doing an instrumental version of "Day in the Life" on an electric guitar. And as long as he is doing the lilting nasal tuny bit, it works nicely. It had never occurred to me before how much a guitar sounds like John Lennon's voice, or vice versa. But either Beck or Martin himself takes the view that the record is the text, and thus feels obligated to include either a synthesiser or an actual orchestra doing a version of the orchestral crescendo from the middle of the song, not to mention the piano chord at the end. It doesn't work; it sounds stupid; like one of those Butlins Gaiety Theatre bands playing last years hits on trumpet and electric organ. Would it have been better to just take the "i-read-the-news-today-oboy" melody and leave the rest of the song un-covered? Or would that have been sound-byte recording, like ripping a few lines of Ode to Joy out of the ninth and using it to deter passing tigers?
Mr Phil Collins, who I had heard of, does a version of the tail end of Abbey Road (the most poignant piece of music in the world, for my money). It is so close, musically, to the original as to be completely redundant. But, interestingly enough, material from the beginning of the medley migrates into this version even though, if Abbey Road were an inviolable text in the way that Sgt Pepper apparently is, it does not belong here. Perhaps the reasoning is that each component of the medley is a song in its own right; and their arrangement on side two of the album, however brilliant, is contingent.
Songs which are primarily known for their tunes-and-words rather than their production are naturally more amenable to re-interpretation. The world and his mother-in-law has sung "Yesterday". I don't think very many of them have felt obliged to use a string quartet. Here, we have someone called Celine Dion (who I had not heard of) singing "Here There and Everywhere" arguably rather better than Paul McCartney. I think this is probably the only piece on the CD which stands up as a song on its own rather than a tribute to, comment on or parody of a Beatles record. John Williams (who I have heard of) pretends that "Here Comes the Sun" is a classical guitar piece, and this works nicely, provided you ignore the futile orchestral introduction and don't balk at the fact that George Harrison's name isn't mentioned on the sleeve, not once. Mr Martin's little musical joke of arranging "Because" as a quote mini-concerto unquote produces something which is surprisingly listenable to.
It's the more heavily produced songs which falter. Getting Jim Carey to do "I am the Walrus" must have seemed like a staggeringly good idea at the time, but it doesn't work. The point of the song, in so far as it has one, is the way in which it detaches words from meaning; it's gibberish which appears not to be; Lennon's quasi-Zen obsession with the dissolution of language. There is really no point in getting in a professional lunatic to sing the thing as if it meant something. "Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower" chants Ace Ventura, before ad libbing "come down from there!" in his trademark silly voice. This imposes too much logic on Lennon's word salad: by the time you have got to the tower, you should have forgotten the pilchard. The original record winds up with some random lines from Shakespeare which happened to be on the radio at the time. This one ends up with Carey maniacally improvising lines from Shakespeare. Why, lord, why?
Far and away the worst thing on the CD is Billy Connolly reciting, no, really, the lyrics of "Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite" with random vocal bits doing part of the tune in the background. The point of "Mr Kite", if it has one, was the eccentricity of finding an old circus poster lying around and turning it verbatim into a song. Is there a point to simply reading it out, albeit in a silly Scottish accent? Once again, a lot of the dotty studio experiments which ended up on the original record are lovingly reproduced here. What exactly is going on when the main tune can be left out, but the sound of Henry the Horse Dancing the Waltz is left in?
The two joke pieces on the album work rather well. Goldie Horn purrs "A Hard Days Night" in the style of a night-club temptress, which is certainly worth hearing, although only once. The record finishes with a clever spoof on Lennon's "In My Life" from which the album takes its title--a song which has always seemed to me to be one of the Master's weaker outings. George Martin himself plays the tune at half speed, while someone doing a passable impersonation of Sean Connery recites the words as if they were lines from Keats, rather than below-par Lennon. As a post-modern homage to Peter Sellers famous Shakespearean "Hard Days Night" it is positively inspired.
The critic Harold Bloom, or possibly someone else, talks about the anxiety of influence: writers simultaneously try to imitate great writers of the past, and try to be original. Every song on this album is trying desperately hard not to be the original Beatles recording, to think of ways of being different. Yet, at the same time, the sheer bigness of the Beatles reputation prevents anyone from doing anything really interesting. I couldn't listen to the record without mentally translating it back to the Original. I can't help thinking that that's what the singers were doing, too.
Not without merit, in an exasperating kind of a way.