The Condensed Beatles

March 5, 2010

One of my ongoing projects is to go through all my favorite musical artists, listen to all their albums, and make audio CD compilations of the very best stuff. One thing I like about audio CD's is that they have a small fixed size, so you're forced to exercise your judgment, whereas a big hard drive is like a vacuum cleaner bag that accumulates whatever trash it happens to suck up.

I don't imagine that anyone cares what songs I put on my multi-CD compilations of Camper Van Beethoven or Hawkwind, so I didn't write about those. But the Beatles are the most popular and influential band of all time, and because I'm not a huge fan, I decided to hold them to one CD. This is something that might be interesting for other people to read or write about: What if you had to edit the Beatles down to less than 80 minutes? So, after many hours of listening to the 2009 remasters of the Beatles' UK albums and singles, here's what I came up with.

(Note: even though I use words like "greatest", this is purely an expression of my own personal taste, with which nobody will agree. If you make your own one-CD Beatles page, send me the link. For audio editing, I used mhWaveEdit in Linux. If you're in Windows I recommend Audacity.)

From their first two albums, Please Please Me and With The Beatles, I took nothing. My disc is not a historical document -- it's a collection of songs that I will actually enjoy listening to, and there are a lot of Beatles songs, especially from the early years, that I've already heard to death. From their third album, A Hard Day's Night, I took only four seconds: the famous opening chord. Originally I was going to take "Things We Said Today", but after a few listens I got tired of it. Some Paul McCartney songs are like sweet barbecue sauce with no meat, and no fire.

From their fourth album, Beatles For Sale, I again used the editor to take only the first minute and fourteen seconds of "I'll Follow The Sun", because after that it just repeats and I was tight for space. And rather than having the chord from "A Hard Day's Night" as a separate track, I stuck it on the beginning of the wrong song. Yes, I have no respect for the intentions of the artists.

So, through 1963 and 1964, the track list is most of 1. I'll Follow The Sun plus the chord. In 1965, the Beatles released Help!, which had John Lennon's first great song, 2. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away, and two great McCartney songs, 3. I've Just Seen A Face and "Yesterday". The melody for "Yesterday" came to McCartney in a dream, and then he became obsessed with it and spent a year figuring out the title and lyrics. After its release, it was the most played song on American radio for eight straight years, and it is easily the most covered song of all time. I didn't put it on my disc because I don't need to hear it again. (For the same reason, I left "Stairway to Heaven" off my Led Zeppelin compilation.)

From Rubber Soul, which came later in 1965, I took two Lennon songs, 4. Norwegian Wood and 5. In My Life.

Now we come to 1966 and Revolver, where the Beatles were musically mature but not yet self-indulgent. I took three songs, McCartney's 6. Eleanor Rigby, Lennon's 7. I'm Only Sleeping, and George Harrison's 8. Love You To, the first and best showcase of the classical Indian stuff that Harrison learned from Ravi Shankar. I think it would be better without the vocals.

It was the Beatles' policy to keep their singles off the albums. The singles were eventually all compiled on the Past Masters discs, and I ended up taking only two. The first, from the Revolver sessions, released as a B-side to "Paperback Writer", is my new favorite John Lennon song: 9. Rain. I had no idea how good it was until I did this project.

In 1967, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the most influential album of all time, and frequently cited as the greatest album of all time by people who were listening to music when it came out. I wasn't quite born yet, so by the time I started listening to music, everything new on Sgt. Peppers was old. And when you factor out the influence, what's left is a bunch of average songs, and one classic: 10. A Day In The Life. (But I cut off the famous piano chord at the end.)

Most Beatles albums exist in both stereo and mono versions. In the UK in the mid-1960's, stereo was not taken seriously, so the Beatles put all their attention into the mono mixes, and then the stereo mixes were done quickly by other people. Presumably the 2009 remastering improved the stereo versions, but there are some people who like the mono remasters better, especially on the first two albums and Sgt. Pepper's. Since I took only one song from those three albums, I decided to go with stereo for everything.

From Magical Mystery Tour I took nothing. "I Am The Walrus", "Strawberry Fields", and "Penny Lane" are, eh, pretty good. Then in 1968 came The Beatles, the legendary White Album. Having never listened to it straight through, I was a bit disappointed. On a double album, Lennon manages only one good song, 11. Dear Prudence. Then I took Harrison's 12. While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and one of McCartney's greatest, 13. Blackbird. Next, my respect for Paul McCartney increased immensely when I found out that 14. Helter Skelter was his song. But I killed the part where the music comes back after the false ending, and replaced it with the amazing ending of 14b. Long, Long, Long, made by a wine bottle resonating on top of a speaker. Finishing off the White Album, I used the single version of 15. Revolution, which is much better than the album version.

From Yellow Submarine I took nothing. Next is my favorite Beatles album, Abbey Road. I took Lennon's 16. Come Together, Harrison's second greatest song, 17. Something, and used the editor again for Lennon's 18. I Want You (She's So Heavy). I hate the bluesy vocals in the first half, but I totally love the long jam at the end, so I just took the last 3:10. Then I switched the order of the next two songs, because 19. Because begins with almost the same riff that "She's So Heavy" ends with, so they fit perfectly back to back. Then, of course, is George Harrison's masterpiece, 20. Here Comes The Sun. Next I edited together two McCartney songs, 21. Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight, because they were recorded together and they're always played together on the radio (but I don't like "The End"). Finally I stuck in 22. Her Majesty because it's only 26 seconds long.

Let It Be was recorded in 1969, before Abbey Road, but released after it, and was famously ruined in post-production by Phil Spector. Then in 2002 McCartney and three engineers went back and remixed it, and released it as Let It Be... Naked. The Naked version of 23. The Long And Winding Road, without the orchestral overdubs, is clearly better, and after careful listening I also chose the Naked versions of McCartney's 24. Two of Us, and Lennon's 25. Don't Let Me Down and 26. Across The Universe. Also I used the Naked ordering of the songs. And for "Two of Us" I did more editing. It's a great 40 second song that's repeated four times plus some filler to push it over three minutes. So I just took the first 40 seconds.

Finally, the reason I put Let It Be after Abbey Road was so I could end the disc with my favorite Paul McCartney song, 27. Let It Be. After listening to the original album version, the single version, and the Naked version, I picked the original album version, which is weaker in some ways, but has by far the best guitar solo. Final time: just over 79 minutes.