One of the most popular posts on my website is this one, about the trend of creating fantasy albums by The Beatles. I’ve been gratified that the post was so popular, even if the site is less about music and more about my work as the author of the 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles series, including The Qaraq and The Qaraq and the Maya Factor, due out soon. Given the great response to the post-Beatles article, many people have asked me for more of the playlists. There’s a lot of them, so I’ve posted the first of two installments on 1001/Qaraqbooks News, my free email subscription service. There you’ll find more coming soon as well.
Here’s the article:
Two years ago I became obsessed with The Beatles’ solo albums. My theory: in any given post-Beatle year, if you take the best songs from each of their four solo albums, you could compile a record to rival Sgt. Pepper.
OK, class, let’s start with this great fantasy album from 1970:
Instant Karma (John)
My Sweet Lord (George)
Beaucoups of Blues (Ringo)
Man We Was Lonely (Paul)
What Is Life? (George)
Cold Turkey (John)
If Not for You (George/Dylan)
Not Guilty (George)
Working Class Hero (John)
Maybe I’m Amazed (Paul)
All Things Must Pass (George)
Give Peace a Chance (John)
Killer album, right?! Jazzed, I started collecting post-Beatle material from the past 40 years: the very few solo albums I had purchased (mostly from the 70s), used copies from libraries and Turn It Up! CD stores in Western Mass, and then massive downloads of songs I had never heard. I wondered if most boomers like me had stopped following the individual Beatle careers, and might delight in the wealth of musical treasures we had missed.
Then I discovered there was a whole cult of specialized followers, who spend their days dreaming up fantasy Beatle albums (as if The Beatles never disbanded), made of the best and/or most interesting songs culled from the solo records. There were many websites, and one particularly excellent book de-constructing all this: Still the Greatest, by Andrew Grant Jackson. Jackson compiles his own fantasy albums year by year, explains them on several levels, and annotates each song with cool bio and artistic information. I got the book, used it to give me a tour through the best music from the solo albums, but soon found myself pushing up against the suggested playlists, listening to lots of other songs, and forming my own albums.
My obsession ran its course over many months, ending with 25 new fantasy post-Beatles album playlists. Along the way, I engaged in a number of issues, some stemming from Jackson’s marvelous book, and some from my own queries:
1) In the 70s, you can start from The Beatles’ 14 song model for an LP as a guide. Though Beatles songs are mostly Lennon-McCartney, we know many of these songs are all John, all Paul, or some mix in between. So I thought of the 14 songs broken down by composition: 4-5 John songs, 4-5 Paul tunes, 2-4 George songs, and 1-2 Ringo hits. Starting with All Things Must Pass, George became a more prolific songwriter, or rather could release songs he hadn’t been able to under John and Paul, so his share of the 14 begins to rival them.
2) My greatest joy was interlacing the four artists’ songs to achieve maximum variety, moving from one compositional voice to another. I concerned myself especially with segues from the end of a John song into the start of a George song and so forth. I balanced how many ballads to include, how many pure rockers, how many ‘novelty’ items. A key decision was what iconic song should begin an album, what breath of fresh air should start Side 2, and if the last song of a side should be a powerhouse or an ethereal apotheosis, like Julia ending Side 2 of the White Album.
3) There were many conundrums about what to include in a particular year. Jackson includes great lost treasures from British singles or obscure, non-mainstream releases, but I kept away from those. I even excluded my favorite all-time Beatle solo album, George’s soundtrack from his Wonderwall film, mostly because it was made when The Beatles were still together. Now that itunes has re-released it along with all the others, I regret this choice. The other dilemma was if there was too much good material from any given year for a single album, should I imagine a double album, or save some songs for later? How many years later could I still release an older title? I figured anything was fair game: if The Beatles put an old rocker like One After 909 on their last album Let It Be, (which was supposed to have come out before Abbey Road), I shouldn’t have to worry. Why was I worrying anyway?
4) Over the 40+ year period there were several momentous changes that effected decisions about constructing my playlists. In the 1980s, the CD replaced the LP, allowing for more music and eliminating the two-side structure. I could expand a playlist from a 14 song model to 16+ songs, but if you can program a CD to play any order, did that mean the album concept was obsolete? Going back to the Romantic song cycle, the album assumed a certain flow of music, a juxtaposition of contrasts, and possibly a developing concept. With the advent of digital downloading in the 2000s, all was lost. I was not ready to give up the structural brilliance that Sgt. Pepper innovated, so I added more songs, but preserved the format in my playlists. Here’s one from 1990: how many songs do you know?
Got My Mind Set on You (George)
Out On the Streets (Ringo)
Zig Zag (George)
I’m Losing You (John)
This One (Paul)
When We Was Fab (George)
My Brave Face (Paul)
Devil’s Radio (George)
We Got Married (Paul)
Margarita (George/Traveling Wilburys)
Ooh Baby (George)
Ou Est Le Soleil (Paul)
Just Because (John)
5) You may think the album is Paul and George heavy, and you’re right. The most cataclysmic change in these years was John’s death in 1980. For a few years, I included post-humous material, but what do I do in the 90s and later? One consequence was that, after imagining an album a year in the 70s, including at least one double album, I only had an album every two years in the 80s, and every three years in the 90s. I always found a way to represent John on an album, but George’s wonderful output essentially replaced John’s offerings. After George died, I had the same dilemma, but a curious thing happened. Ringo, who hit bottom in the 80s and produced much less, bounced back in the new millennium to put out great albums, with lots of his own rock solid tunes. By 2005, Ringo’s songs outdid the combined post-humous catalogs of John and George, and I was back to creating a playlist every other year.
6) Through all the changes, the Most Consistent Beatle was Paul, releasing an album a year since Wings in the 70s, and supplementing this catalog with live albums, orchestral compositions, and a delicious side career in electronica. My biggest challenge was preserving his ratio of compositions from Beatle days, but I succumbed to making every other song from Paul. Given his range of styles, this was not so terrible. So later Beatle fantasy albums contain songs from The Firemen, Paul’s electronica band, or The Traveling Wilburys, George’s fun trip with Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan.
7) One final issue I’ll mention is creating concept albums. Most of my fantasy playlists are about a good flow of diverse, enjoyable tunes. But if a concept presented itself, I didn’t resist. For 2002, I fashioned a tribute album after George’s passing that included his So Sad, John’s Borrowed Time, and Ringo’s sweet eulogy, Never Without You. Harking back to an old Beatle motif, 2013’s Side 1 contained songs with Sun or Rain as lyric concepts, such as The Firemen’s Sun is Shining, George’s Stuck Inside a Cloud and Rising Sun, and Paul’s Too Much Rain, See Your Sunshine, and his rainy day ballad, My Valentine. I also concocted concepts around Peace and Love songs, reflective songs on Liverpool and The Beatles growth, and a spiritual album that doesn’t all depend on George.
I had a great time doing all this, but now, two years after my obsession burned out, The Beatles’ estates and itunes are running a campaign for the solo albums. Keep up, lads! I predict they’ll be a campaign within a decade re-packaging the solo albums as fantasy post-Beatle records. In the meantime, you can indulge in this ocean of treasure and come up with your own fantasy albums.