YouTube Treasure – James Taylor 1970

James Taylor made a couple of little-noticed records before signing with the David Geffen-era Warner Brothers label, where he released his breakthrough album, “Sweet Baby James.”

Prior to that, however, Taylor was in England, one of the first artists signed to the Beatles’ Apple Records. He wrote “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina in My Mind” and “Rainy Day Man” during that time, which by all accounts was a pretty pain-filled interval of his life.

Which leads to today’s YouTube treasure, a recording of “With A Little Help From My Friends” performed on TV around that time. It’s a perfectly Taylor-esque transformation, full of lilt and easy cadences – a wonderful cover.

James looks somewhat uncomfortable on the stage, in a rumpled sweater, staring at his feet. Maybe it’s nervousness, but given the time and place, his itchinesses is quite likely chemically induced. Listen at the end of the song, at the familiar chorus – “I get by with a little help from my friends/gonna try with a little help from my friends,” where he adds an ominous little coda – “I just might die with a little help from my friends.”

Eerie.

Re-Meet The Beatles

It was 40 years ago today, the Beatles taught the world to play.  With the June 3 anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” there are Fab Four projects in abundance, though none will have the seismic effect on the music world of their 1967 masterpiece.

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?” asked Paul McCartney on that record.  Now he’s reached that ripe old age, and Sir Paul isn’t waiting around for an answer.  Instead, he’s pulling out all the stops to assert his relevance.  Ringo Starr, the only other living Beatle, has an art show, greatest hits package, and two live DVDs in the pipeline – in addition to a rumored new studio album.

John Lennon’s memory is being invoked anew by Amnesty International, and George Harrison’s work with the Traveling Wilburys has been re-mastered and given the box set treatment.

McCartney’s “Memory Almost Full” is an album’s worth of new material that moves from his Beatles tenure (“Ever Present Past,” “Vintage Clothes”) to his looming mortality (“The End of the End”) with breeziness reminiscent of “Band on the Run”-era Wings.

But more attention is being paid to the record’s marketing effort than its musical content.  Starbucks enjoyed success selling exclusive CDs from Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Sheryl Crow in their national chain of coffee shops.  Last year, they wooed Paul away from longtime label EMI to their Hear Music imprint.

Beginning last Tuesday, every Starbucks latte came with a venti helping of McCartney.  “Memory Almost Full” played 24/7, and the baristas were restless.  Word began to leak out about sabotaged store CD players and disgruntled customers unhappy at being force-fed Macca with their milk foam.

More embarrassing was a “report from the trenches” published on the Lefsetz.com blog.  An anonymous Starbucks manager noted that McCartney, a vegetarian and avid PETA supporter, would likely object to a sign posted in many east coast stores, urging customers to grab the album “while enjoying a new Classic Sausage Egg and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich.”

Of course, when a video of McCartney begging fans to buy the record showed up on Amazon.com, it seemed he’d countenance most anything in the name of commerce.

All the brouhaha is a shame, really, because “Memory Almost Full” is actually quite good, when stacked against his recent solo work.

It’s no “Venus and Mars,” though.

With “Instant Karma: The Campaign To Save Darfur,” at least John Lennon’s dignity is still intact.  Amnesty International gathered a blue chip collection of classic and hip new artists to cover Lennon solo material made available with the help of widow Yoko Ono.  Proceeds from the CD go to support the human rights organization’s continuing work, and specifically draw attention to the dire situation in the Sudan.

Highlights include Aerosmith’s “Give Peace a Chance,” re-worked with help from the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, country stars Big & Rich doing a surprising cover of “Nobody Told Me” and Regina Spektor’s eerie take on “Real Love.”

Green Day’s rocked-up version of “Working Class Hero,” and the Black Eyed Peas’ transformation of “Power to the People” into a hip-hop anthem are also nice touches

Overall, however, the project loses its way.  Two songs, “Imagine” and “Gimme Some Truth” are performed twice on the two-disc set.  Surely the Lennon catalog is deeper than that.  “How Do You Sleep?” and “Well Well Well” are two that might have made the cut.

The record’s producers may have also forgotten that it’s already been done before – in 1995, when the Humane Society raised money with a CD’s worth of Lennon covers.  Amusingly enough, the Flaming Lips contributed a song to both compilations.

What is probably the most potent supergroup in rock history began when George Harrison called on friends Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison to help him with a B-side, “Handle With Care.”  Bob Dylan joined because he had a studio they wanted to use, and Tom Petty came on board after Harrison and Lynne stopped by his house to retrieve George’s guitar.

“If we’d tried to plan it, it never would have happened,” Harrison says in “The True History of the Traveling Wilburys,” a film included in the 3-disc “Traveling Wilburys Collection” released Tuesday.  The set includes both Wilburys albums (the second recorded after Orbison’s death), along with four bonus tracks, and a DVD with the documentary and five music videos.

“It was magical,” said Harrison – an understatement when one views just how ego-free this band seemed to be.  They made up songs in the kitchen, and crowded around a single studio microphone to record “Dirty World” and other tracks.

“There was just a lot of music in the air, a lot of fun going around, a lot of parties,” says Tom Petty.  “We’d play ukuleles until dawn, with our children dropping like flies around us.”

“The Traveling Wilburys Collection” is the sound of close friends enjoying each other’s company, and one of pop music’s great moments.

That leaves Ringo, who’s made a career repackaging his past.  The most earth-shattering thing Starr’s done this year is claim in a recent interview, “Sgt. Pepper’s wasn’t our best album.”  Beyond that, it’s been more greatest hits collections and tours with the “All-Starr Orchestra,” a B-list band that’s been treading the summer sheds for over a decade.

Perhaps “Liverpool 8,” done with the help of ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart, will shake things up a bit.  The record is rumored to have a more modern sound.

But with the power of their past obviously still intact, why would any Beatle want to try for modern?

Boring Beatles News

unreleased.jpgVia Fox News comes word that the Beatles catalog will be available for download soon, and it won’t be exclusively iTunes. It’s hard to believe that Neil Aspinall represents a band that made 13 albums in something like 7 years. Because if they were managed then like they are today, it would be a miracle if one record every two years came out.

Hell, it would be a miracle if they released ANYTHING.

The great, majestic news emanating forth from corpse picker Aspinall? Digital versions of the 13 releases everybody on planet Earth has already heard are due, and nothing more. Apparently, he didn’t hear what Steve Jobs had to say the other day, or for that matter what was playing on Jobs’ iPhone at MacWorld.

Let me spell it out for Neil. Everyone who has an iPod has already ripped their Beatles collection to MP3, and isn’t interested in buying it again. C’mon, release something else – hell, there’s hours and hours of good available material.

But Aspinall isn’t even letting a DVD of “Let It Be” see the light of day. Good thing I’ve got a bootleg of the 1982 LaserDisc version in my home collection.

Idiots, prats.

Beatles, Apple Settle Legal Differences

apple-apple.jpgNo, Apple didn’t air a subliminal ad during the Super Bowl – the rumored iTunes/Beatles “big announcement” never happened. Today, however, there is some official Apple-Apple news, via FMQB. Apple Inc., as the Steve Jobs-led company is now officially known, settled their trademark litigation with Apple Corps., the home of the Beatles catalog.

In a statement, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, “We love the Beatles, and it has been painful being at odds with them over these trademarks. It feels great to resolve this in a positive manner, and in a way that should remove the potential of further disagreements in the future.”On behalf of Apple Corps shareholders, Neil Aspinall, manager of Apple Corps said, “It is great to put this dispute behind us and move on. The years ahead are going to be very exciting times for us. We wish Apple Inc. every success and look forward to many years of peaceful co-operation with them.”

No word on what this means to rumors of Beatles music being available via iTunes, but the new rumors point to Valentine’s Day as a possible launch date, to coincide with the “Love” album released towards the end of last year.

Beatles on iTunes a Super Bowl Surprise?

beatles.jpgRumors are flying that Apple (the computer company) and Apple (the music publishing company) have reached agreement for the long-awaited digital release of the Beatles catalog. The Fab Four are the official Holy Grail of those who think the CD is long past dead.

The buzz began with a January 17 story in the Toronto Sun speculating that a newly remastered UK catalog would be released later this year:

The second strong possibility is that the entire state-of-the art, 24-bit remastered UK catalogue will hit stores the first week of June, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of what many call the Fabs’ finest hour — the release of their ground-breaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

What was the first possibility, you ask? During the iPhone pseudo-launch earlier this month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs played a bit of “Lovely Rita” on the device, tantalizing fanboys who’d already wet their seats at the sight of the underwhelming phone/music player/internet toy.

Then there’s the aforementioned Sun story, which also reported that Apple plans a “special announcement” during the Super Bowl February 4. That, said the Sun, is likely to be the moment when the world learns that they’ll be able to buy “A Day in the Life” and everything else Beatles from the iTunes Music Store come February 14.

Given the Cupertino, California company’s proclivity for big deal Big Game ads, the scenario makes some sense.

Frankly, I’ve got a bit of Apple fatigue lately, and I ripped my Beatles collection to MP3 a long time ago. I’d love to see 24-bit remasters of the UK catalog, and I’d especially like a DVD of “Let It Be” with tons of extras, something that was promised two years ago, but never delivered.

Given that the Sun was the same paper that floated those rumors, I’m not holding my breath.

SpiralFrog – Big (But Not That Big) Developments

spiralfrog.jpgSpiralFrog, the free music service viewed (by some) as the last best hope for the struggling music business, yesterday announced a distribution deal with BMI. The song publisher will make their entire catalog available for ad-supported free download in WMA protected format. The catalog comprises nearly half of all recorded music, including the entire Beatles discography, a fact that induces much irrational exhuberence at Wired Magazine:

The irony of The Beatles refusing all online music stores but accepting (or being forced to accept) this free, ad-based service is a little much. I have a call and email in to SpiralFrog to confirm that The Beatles are included in this deal. I have to assume they are, but I just can’t believe it, so I need to make sure. More on this soon.

Not so fast. No word yet on whether Neil Aspinall got back to Wired, but rest assured that the Fab Four’s Luddite stance won’t be changed by this deal. There’s rumors afoot that the recent “Love” songscape could be made available to Apple (the computer company) iTunes, and reports of Steve Jobs using his reservoirs of charm on all interested parties to bring that to bear.

I don’t think Beatles product is going to be digitized until Apple (the music company) is damn good and ready. It will happen when the audio quality is there and not a day sooner – at least that’s what Aspinall said in court earlier this year.

Local Rhythms – “Love” Is All You Need

beatleslove.jpgLike many Beatles fans, I reacted cynically to news of the recently released  “Love.”  Why should I care what Cirque du Soleil, which commissioned the work for a show at the Las Vegas Mirage Hotel, did with my favorite Beatles songs?   

I also couldn’t see the point of once again repackaging familiar music.  Why not  put out the band’s full length 1966 Budokan performance on DVD, or release some of the long-rumored Beatles music that never made it to disc?   Heck, a CD version of “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” would be nice. 

Then I heard “Love” and everything changed. 

The record (also available in DVD-Audio) is an archaeologist’s excavation done by a punk with P. Diddy’s ethics; it’s as if he dug up the crown jewels and decided to pierce his tongue with the best diamond in the pile.   George Martin and his son Giles share production credits, but there’s little doubt in my mind that this is the youngster’s work.  Giles was born the year the Beatles broke up, and by all accounts didn’t listen to the band much in his youth. 

It shows – only an un-churched soul would have the temerity to combine the crashing guitar start of “Hard Day’s Night” together with Ringo’s only drum solo (“The End”) as an intro to “Get Back,” one of the few Fab Four tracks that Sir George didn’t  produce.   It’s like Danger Mouse’s notorious “Grey Album” sans Jay-Z. 

Completists will have a field day picking out the musical snippets tossed like garnish on a gourmet dish by Giles.  There’s the French horn of “Penny Lane” submerged in “Glass Onion,” or the hand drums from “Within You Without You” (part of its own mash-up with “Tomorrow Never Knows”)  woven together with the sitar of “The Inner Light.” 

“Love” isn’t all clever stunts, though.  Sir George starkly scores the earliest version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and the father-son duo lovingly trace “Strawberry Fields Forever” from rough demo origins, through early takes to finished master.

Tracks presented mostly intact – “Lady Madonna,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” – are noticeably cleaned up to reveal the band’s stellar musicianship, in particular Paul McCartney’s bass playing.   

“Love” is both a puzzle for longtime fans to solve, and a perfect way to expose the Beatles to a new generation.

So what’s on tap this weekend? 

Thursday:  Jason Cann, Brown’s Tavern –  A talented guitarist who’s holding down a regular First Saturday gig at Bistro Nouveau, as well as two nights weekly at this Ascutney nightspot.  Things are jumping on the mountain, even if the natural snow hasn’t arrived.  Cann’s songbook ranges from the Grateful Dead to Dan Loggins, and goes down as easy as a cold Long Trail.

Friday: ÓhAnleigh, Salt Hill Pub –  This northern Vermont trio plays traditional Irish music with youthful verve.  “Ain’t It Bloody Well Grand to Be Irish (And Living in the USA)” is one of my favorites, name-checking Boston and celebrating the Americanized Irish.  They’re already booked for March 17, 2007, but you can order a pint and enjoy them tonight.  Anytime’s good to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at the Pub.   

Saturday:  The Alchemystics, Seven Barrel Brewery – From Northampton, a band described as “a marriage between dub reggae and hip-hop” lands in West Lebanon. They have a nice, clean rhythmic sound, and based on their MySpace tracks don’t seem like bling and violence-obsessed rappers.  Frontman Phaze is leaving the band next month, so this is a final chance to see the original lineup.

Sunday:  Gandalf Murphy & The Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Middle Earth – Two shows (4 and 8 PM) by the gypsy rockers, with stellar support from Sloan Wainwright (Loudon’s younger sister) and the neo-folk Kennedys.  Sarah and Pete Kennedy deserve a set of their own, and Sloan’s no slouch.  You already know how great Gandalf’s gang is, so I’d suggest that this is one of the better entertainment bargains you’re going to see this year. 

Tuesday: Winterpills, Iron Horse – Northampton’s Beatles perform a benefit for Safe Passage, who help provide programs for child victims of domestic violence.  Winterpills  recently laid down several new tracks for an upcoming (February ’07) album.   They’ve also put together a fun little YouTube video blog.  Also on the bill are the Fawns, and June Millington (of Fanny and the Slammin’ Babes).

Wednesday: Ted Mortimer and Linda Boudreault, Canoe Club –  The husband and wife team has a pretty full calendar this month.  In addition to playing Hanover’s finest downtown restaurant, they’re also appearing at Sophie & Zeke’s in Claremont Friday (December 8), where their band (Dr. Burma) headlines an end of the year party December 29.  Ted has a just-so touch on the Gibson Jazz Guitar, and Linda sings like a dream.