Despite the fact that the Beatles broke up 36 years ago and two of
them are no longer with us, it probably goes without saying that
Capitol Records will never tire of selling us new product, or that
fans -- and who isn't, really? -- will never tire of buying it.
Little more than shiny new repackagings of familiar old sounds,
"The Beatles 1" best-of has sold almost 11 million copies since
2002, when it followed the "Anthology" collections of the mid-'90s
in generating more income than many Third World countries. Now comes
"Love," the much-hyped two-disc set -- one conventional CD and one
DVD with a 5.1 surround sound mix but no video -- arriving in record
stores today and spinning off the multimedia Cirque du Soleil
production, which has been generating $2.3 million in ticket sales
weekly since opening at the Mirage in Las Vegas last June.
As a critic positioned between the baby boom -- I was born the
year the Fabs arrived in America, too young to experience
Beatlemania but growing up with the music as a constant backdrop --
and its Generation Y offspring, who primarily know the likes of
"Yesterday" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" as elevator music,
I'm all in favor of any project that reclaims these sounds from the
dustbin of history and the rosy glow of nostalgia and attempts to
recontextualize them for a new era and fresh ears.
For my money, the best effort along these lines is "The Grey
Album," the 2004 mash-up of "The Beatles" (a k a "The White Album")
and Jay-Z's "The Black Album" engineered by DJ Danger Mouse, the New
York producer and sample artist who went on to considerable success
with Gorillaz and Gnarls Barkley. Available only as an Internet
bootleg and never sanctioned by Capitol or the Beatles, who did
their best to stamp it out, "The Grey Album" nevertheless offered a
brilliant way for old fans to hear Beatles music in a new way, and
for young listeners to discover the group on their own terms,
instead of those of their parents and VH1.
Venerated Beatles producer George Martin and his 37-year-old son
Giles, who wrote commercial jingles before producing Kula Shaker and
INXS, clearly had "The Grey Album" in mind while crafting "Love,"
and they've given it props in numerous interviews. But "Love" isn't
really a mash-up, despite their use of the term, since it doesn't
combine two different artists in fresh and unexpected ways. The 26
tracks are really just high-tech remixes -- albeit sonically
gorgeous ones -- that pepper snippets of some Beatles tunes on top
of longer parts of others, utilizing a total of 37 classics.
As such, "Love" isn't even as inventive as Paul McCartney's
overlooked electronic frolics with house DJ Youth ("strawberries
oceans ships forest" in 1993 and "Rushes" in 1998) and Welsh
psychedelic-popsters the Super Furry Animals ("Liverpool Sound
Collage," 2000). It's really just the sort of album designed to be
heard in faux-hipster chain coffeehouses and fashion boutiques,
putting the slightest electronic patina on what's essentially as
safe, sound and commercially friendly as Muzak. It's pleasant
listening, to be sure -- it's the Beatles, for goodness' sake, so
how could it not be? But it certainly isn't an artistic
accomplishment, much less any sort of brave new world.
Moments such as the rollicking drums on "Sgt. Pepper (Reprise)"
combining with the soulful groove of "Get Back"; the orchestral
swell of "A Day in the Life" augmenting the driving guitars of "A
Hard Day's Night," and the mergers of, "Hey Bulldog" with "Lady
Madonna" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" with "Within You, Without You"
provide an initial thrill, but that fades long before the tracks do.
Other mixes fail from the start. Putting the strings from "Good
Night" on top of Ringo Starr's vocals from "Octopus's Garden" only
makes that failed children's ditty more cloying, and the beautiful
opening of "Blackbird" is only tarnished by the prompt segue into
the beyond-tired and ubiquitous "Yesterday."
The only "new" additions to the billion-dollar catalog come via
George Martin's recently crafted string arrangement for "While My
Guitar Gently Weeps" and the restoration of John Lennon's original
acoustic opening for "Strawberry Fields Forever." Those will be
enough to send a few Beatlemaniac ultra-completists to the record
stores, while the general fans will buy this because they always do,
just as they lapped up "The Beatles 1" even though they already
owned all the songs.
As for a new generation downloading these grooves into their
iPods, I just don't see it. "Love" is a noble and exciting idea
professionally executed but lacking any real vision, daring or
commitment, and it's ultimately as ersatz, glitzy, superficial and
commercially oriented as the Vegas spectacles that spawned it.