Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Beatles

  • Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band [Capitol, 1967] A
  • Magical Mystery Tour [Capitol, 1967]
  • Hey Jude [Apple, 1970] A
  • Let It Be [Apple, 1970] A-
  • The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl [Capitol, 1977] A
  • Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, 1962 [Lingasong, 1977] B-
  • Rarities [Capitol, 1980] C+
  • Live at the BBC [Capitol, 1994] B+
  • Anthology [Apple, 1995] ***
  • Anthology 2 [Capitol/Apple, 1995] Dud
  • Anthology 3 [Capitol/Apple, 1996] Choice Cuts
  • The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 [Capitol, 2004]
  • Love [Apple/Capitol, 2006]

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band [Capitol, 1967]
A dozen good songs and true. Perhaps they're too precisely performed, but I'm not going to complain. A

Magical Mystery Tour [Capitol, 1967]
Because it begins with the lame theme to their worst movie and the sappy "Fool on the Hill," few realize that this serves up three worthy obscurities forthwith--bet Beck knows the sour-and-sweet instrumental "Flying" by heart. Then it collects the A and B sides of three fabulous singles. "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" may be the finest two-sided record in history. Goo goo ga joob, so may "Hello Goodbye"/"I Am the Walrus." "Baby You're a Rich Man"? OK, not in that league. Which is why it bows humbly before "All You Need Is Love." [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]

Hey Jude [Apple, 1970]
A commercial ripoff it is, pastiching together singles separated by over five years. And I could care less. Show me an album featuring songs as good as "Can't Buy Me Love" and "I Should Have Known Better" and "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" and "Don't Let Me Down" and I'll show you The Beatles--Yesterday and Today. A

Let It Be [Apple, 1970]
"I hope we passed the audition," says the leader as the record ends, and they do. Their assurance and wit would be the envy of veteran rock and rollers, and though this is a little lightweight, it makes up in charm what it lacks in dramatic brilliance. Even when the arrangements get tricky--"Let It Be" is a touch too ornate in this version--their spontaneity of impulse comes through. And while fave rave "One After 909" is pure teen simplicity, it sounds no fresher than "Two of Us," an adult song about couple bonding that I hope applies to their songwriting duo. The one mistake is "The Long and Winding Road," sunk in a slush of strings worthy of its shapeless philosophizing. But even the great are allowed to falter now and then. A-

The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl [Capitol, 1977]
A tribute not only to the Beatles (which figured) but to George Martin and Capitol (which didn't necessarily figure at all). The sound rings clearly and powerfully through the shrieking: the segues are brisk and the punch-ins imperceptible; and the songs capture our heroes at their highest. Furthermore, though the musicianship is raw, the arrangements are tighter (faster, actually) than on record; Ramones-haters should note that the thirteen tunes take less than twenty-nine minutes, including patter. A

Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, 1962 [Lingasong, 1977]
I don't know exactly how you rate documentary value, especially with a subject as interesting as this one, but I do know that nothing I had read prepared me for the abysmal sound quality of this record, especially how far down (and away) the voices are. Nor for the occasional listlessness of the performances themselves. B-

Rarities [Capitol, 1980]
The Brit version made sense, because lots of Beatle songs are unavailable on U.K. LP. In the U.S. the group's been cannibalized more efficiently--not counting the curious two-second Sgt. Pepper outgroove, only five of fourteen songs here are unknown to owners of their Capitol albums catalogue. Two early Lennon-McCartneys, the assured close-harmony "Misery" and the fragile quavery "There's a Place," are very much worth your acquaintance. "Sie Liebt Dich" is fun, "You Know My Name (Look Up My Number)" is a goof, and "The Inner Light" is a B side--George's B side. Except for "Across the Universe," which Phil Spector did not improve, not one of the nine alternate versions differs from the original by more than a whit. The U.K. Please Please Me includes "Misery" and "There's a Place." I regard it as a superior investment. C+

Live at the BBC [Capitol, 1994]
Only a grinch would deny the intrinsic entertainment value of this significant-by-definition package. For one thing, these are the first known radio tapes where the talk is more precious than the music--in addition to everything else, they were the funniest rock stars ever. A few of the covers--"A Shot of Rhythm and Blues," "Soldier of Love," "Lucille," and a "Baby It's You" that proves once and for all that John was the cute one--are among their greatest. But a number of the more obscure songs (Ann-Margret? the Jodimars?) never reached vinyl for the simple reason that they were too lame, and I bet most of the seven Chuck Berrys were vetoed for redundancy. What's more, these drop-in sessions give off none of the adrenaline rush of the screaming meemies at the Hollywood Bowl or the amphetamine intensity that breaks out of the dim Hamburg tapes--the audience is missing, and no one else is powerful enough to take its place. So in the end the chief historical beneficiary is George Martin, who may just have driven his lads to heights they were too relaxed to scale on their own. B+

Anthology [Apple, 1995]
after the hype has cleared, this--their inalienable right to juvenilia, historical context, and live ones where you can hear the words ("Money [That's What I Want]," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Shout," "Moonlight Bay") ***

Anthology 2 [Capitol/Apple, 1995] Dud

Anthology 3 [Capitol/Apple, 1996]
"I've Got a Feeling"; "What's the New Mary Jane" Choice Cuts

The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 [Capitol, 2004]
In any self-respecting Beatles discography, these four 1964 albums--two absolutely superb, one classic by definition, one damn close--do not exist. The canon is defined by their U.K. catalogue: many singles, a few EPs, and LPs systematically shortened and reshuffled by U.S. Capitol. Only benighted Yanks remember Meet the Beatles! rather than With the Beatles, Beatles '65 rather than Beatles for Sale. And OK--in those two cases the Brit versions rule. They're longer, and With is a fairer introduction than Meet, which hid Paul's goody-goody Music Man cover "Till There Was You" amid 11 Lennon-McCartney originals. But soon Yanks got The Beatles' Second Album, which proves in 28 minutes how indelible the Fab Four were from the start. Five magnificent rock and roll/r&b covers--George replicates Chuck Berry, John does justice to Smokey Robinson, and, on a track that was EP-only in Merrie Olde, music man Paulie smokes Little Richard--beef up the wildest and most joyful early-Beatles single, "She Loves You." Like the EP-only "I Call Your Name" and every other Lennon-McCartney selection, this landmark was never included on any canonical album in a '60s U.K. where it was considered bad form for LPs to reprise singles. For American non-teenyboppers, Second Album established the Beatles as a seismic musical force. The other prize here, Something New, showed us they could do no wrong. It's a glorious hodgepodge of singles (including Ringo's "Matchbox" b/w John's "Slow Down) and songs from A Hard Day's Night, but the crowning touch is its finale, a German-language dub of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Ten months after the Beatles invaded, it made that instant chestnut something new again. Kinda like this box. [Blender: 5]

Love [Apple/Capitol, 2006]
George Martin was a great producer precisely insofar as he was the Beatles' producer. His other great discovery was America, and nobody compares him to Christopher Columbus, so why mention him alongside Jerry Wexler or Timbaland? Praise Lennon-McCartney, then, that this Martin-produced soundscape for a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza is so LOVEly--the suite side of Abbey Road extended to 78 minutes. Only six titles, including a fan-enhanced live snatch of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," are pre-1966, with Rubber Soul reduced to 30 seconds of "The Word," and even in the late catalogue, Martin highlights the sweet, cute, and orchestral--no "Yer Blues," "You Never Give Me Your Money," or "Why Don't We Do It in the Road." Trivialities like "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "Octopus's Garden" are on full display, while "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" briefly signifies a chaos that inspires cries of "Help" and is quickly righted by "Blackbird/Yesterday." Nevertheless, the trickery is great fun from the choral, tweet-tweaked "Because" to a "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" more forthright than the original. And always another great melody waits in the wings, ready to take you higher. These melodies weren't all or even most of what the Beatles gave the world. But only rockist sentimentalists dismiss the Apollonian detachment of the world's greatest rock and roll band's late period. Played too often, this version of the world's greatest rock and roll band could give a person a tummyache. But as desserts go, it's got some spice. [Rolling Stone: 3.5]

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