VARIOUS ARTISTS – Looking Through A Glass Onion: The Beatles’ Psychedelic Songbook 1966-72

The Beatles can arguably claim to being the most covered band in the history of recorded music.  Pretty much everything they released between 1962-1970 has been covered at some time, and by bands and artists from right across the musical spectrum. Dig deep enough into the internet, you’ll even find other people reinterpreting ‘Revolution 9’, surely the most marginal of Beatles recordings. Even while the band was still active – long before being considered of any real historical importance – their work was being reinterpreted by high profile artists in a disparate range of styles. Most notably, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Booker T. & The MG’s, Otis Redding and Elvis Presley put their own stamp on various Fab Four classics, but for every hit interpretation, several dozen others could be found languishing on cult albums and under-bought singles.

A three disc box set from Grapefruit Records, ‘Looking Through A Glass Onion’ rounds up lots of obscurities, some key album tracks and lots of deserved-to-be hits and is a varied and eccentric voyage through the busy world of Beatles covers recorded between 1966 and 1972.  Compiled in a similar manner to the label’s excellent ‘Come Join My Orchestra’ and ‘Crawling Up A Hill’ anthologies, there’s a definite slant towards the era’s psych and rock leaning acts and, as such, you’ll find many of the label’s favourite acts featured.  As befitting The Beatles’ broad appeal – it also casts its net even wider on occasion, making this likely to be the only time you’ll find recordings by 60s cult heroes like Affinity and The Spectrum rubbing shoulders with The Shadows and Vera Lynn.  Regardless of performer, pretty much every one of the songs will be familiar, of course, and this set brings together some interesting interpretations of old favourites.

The Shadows actually provide one of the most inventive and exciting cuts. Their recording of ‘Paperback Writer’ absolutely bristles with life. You might expect this 1970 album cut to play things straight, especially given that the song had such a driving guitar riff, but that would’ve been too easy.  Instead, the riff is transposed into a busy, almost Indian style melody as if it were a Harrison composition from ‘68 instead of a Lennon/McCartney belter from ‘65.  The opening riff jostles with Bert Jansch-ish folk melodies; the riff is handled as if it were designed for a sitar instead of a beat combo and the drums rattle with sheer abandon.  The energy in the piece never lets up.  A little more of Hank Marvin’s trademark twang comes through in the latter half, but this is as far removed from a “typical” Shads recording as possible.  An equal amount of invention is applied by Big Jim Sullivan to his instrumental variation of ‘She’s Leaving Home’, the once aching ballad now transformed into something that’s part psychedelic, part Indian raga.  Hearing flutes and a mellotron jostling for attention against a busy sitar melody says 1967 like very little else.

In terms of “making it his own”, John’s Children vocalist (and future Spooky Tooth man) Andy Ellison turns in an interesting variation on ‘Help!’ by clinging on to the original vocal melody but applying that to a brass filled arrangement in an unsettling 5/4 time-sig.  Between the brass and a full compliment of female backing vocals, this 1968 recording aims for “Vegas” but ends up being a bit more “Sunday Night At The London Palladium”.  It doesn’t entirely work, but he deserves full marks for effort. A version of the old Lennon domestic abuse ditty ‘You Can’t Do That’ recorded during the same session shows a similar sense of adventure by stripping away the original jangle and reworking it as a sultry soul tune, complete with odd interjections from the backing singers.  Thanks to some lovely strings and a genuine grandiosity applied to the brass, it’s by far the superior of the pair.  Ellison makes a third appearance elsewhere with Spooky Tooth, who mangle ‘I Am The Walrus’ by stripping it of its poptastic joie de vivre and playing it back as a bass heavy dirge with a pacing and mood clearly inspired by Joe Cocker’s definitive take on ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’.  It doesn’t work at all…but then, you can’t win ‘em all.  [Those looking to delve into the world of John’s Children and Andy Ellison’s solo recordings should seek out the wistful ‘It’s Been A Long Time’, a flop single from ‘67, given pride of place on the ‘Come Join My Orchestra’ box set.]

The Young Idea’s ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ is a faithful take on the Beatles arrangement, but a thinner sound makes it seem closer to sixties ephemera from any one of the lesser Merseybeat groups; Trucial States take ‘Birthday’ and apply a few more garage rock traits, resulting in a track that’s thin on bass and big on energy and a straight cover of ‘If I Needed Someone’ by The Hollies provides a wealth of taut 60s sounds, while a well known pair of Deep Purple recordings (‘We Can Work It Out’ and ‘Help’) along with a great version of ‘Hey Bulldog’ by The Gods (featuring future Uriah Heep members) shows how The Beatles’ influence was far reaching – inspiring to future heavy riff makers as well as the pop pin-ups of the day. Enjoyable in its simplicity, the stripped down, acoustic take of ‘Get Back’ by Linda Peters (later to become Linda Thompson) has a great live feel and while it lacks the pizzazz supplied by Billy Preston’s organ, Linda’s huge and natural voice is enough to carry a great performance.

Save for a swirly keyboard sound and a belated appearance of an oboe, Episode Six’s recording of ‘Here, There & Everywhere’ is played very safely. A recording that’s both loving and respectful, it’s a more than pleasant listen.  Design opt for something a bit more out there, filling their recording of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ with a plethora of close harmonies topped by a shrill lead. The confidence in the vocals is enough to see this through, but listening more closely, this track is also home to some fantastic bass work, bridging the divide between jazz and rock long before the prog rock behemoths made such things commonplace.  Compilation heavyweights (The) Orange Bicycle (arguably most famous for their 1970 cover of Elton John’s ‘Take Me To The Pilot’) tap straight into the early 70s rock pop sound on their medley of Abbey Road tracks and while, perhaps, a little more could’ve been done with the source material by such strong musicians, the recording has a great warmth.  Chances are it’ll have you reaching for side two of the original Beatles LP before too long…but, even so, ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ seguing into ‘Carry That Weight’ played with a reasonable amount of assurance should also be enough for curious listeners to check out other Orange Bicycle recordings.

Opting for maximum kitch (even more so than Design), Sounds Nice give the instrumental ‘Flying’ a bit more bounce thanks to some brilliant easy listening electric piano sounds, some brass, a few strings and an organ solo worthy of Alan Hawkshaw.  The then in vogue Stylophone is also prominently featured, very much making this a period piece.   Tomorrow (the short lived psych band featuring Keith West of ‘Teenage Opera’ fame and a young Steve Howe) wisely play ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ fairly straight, but the recording is worth hearing to experience Howe occasionally throwing in the occasional jangle that hints at future work on ‘The Yes Album’.  “Playing it straight” is a concept clearly lost upon The Wilson Malone Voiceband who take the flip side‘Penny Lane’ and warp it into something that falls between trad jazz, avant noise and flippant vocal melodies that would suit The Free Design.  It somehow manages to be brilliant despite some of the wonky horns being obtrusive and one of the lead voices being subjected to sounding like a forefather of Dooby Duck.  Lovers of the earlier Beatles material should head straight for The Score’s version of ‘Please Please Me’, beefed up as a lop sided R&B banger which sort of speaks for itself and The Majority’s ‘Hard Day’s Night’ which replaces the punchy mood with something a bit lax and hazy.  Big on harmonies and punchy basses, the end mood is a bit more The Marmalade and much less Merseybeat, but hearing another take on something you thought you knew inside and out will surely be welcome.

One of the greatest Beatles songs (one of the best songs by anyone ever), ‘Good Day Sunshine’ is presented twice. When left in the hands of The Tremeloes, the strident piano melody is present and correct and the group’s knack for harmonies makes this recording sound huge. For those good points, though, a couple of wobbly features place this more within the “good but not great” category: a few guitar twangs are particularly jarring, and given that McCartney had handed the world the finest rumpty-tumpty piano melody ever, it didn’t really need further embellishment with a thin saloon bar sound.  In some ways, The Eyes’ version is a little better, as they’ve thought a little further outside the box. It retains the clanging guitar intro, takes the piano and transposes it to organ and uses a heavy psych fuzz guitar to fill lots of gaps and, in doing so, makes something you’ve heard a million times seem surprisingly fresh.  You might not love it instantly – and you certainly won’t ever favour it over the original – but it’s a fine addition to this set.

Another drastic reinvention comes from Duffy Power, whose brittle voice/guitar recording of ‘Fixing A Hole’ manages to reinforce the mental health message of the lyric by placing it more within the musical sphere of Nick Drake and Tim Buckley.  A genuine must-hear, it’s an unexpected piece of unearthed treasure. Making up for Spooky Tooth’s misfire, psych/blues/folk band Affinity offer a fantastic take on ‘I Am The Walrus’ where the groove is harder than the original cut. Brian Auger style organ adds psychedelic blues swirls while Linda Hoyle attacks the nonsense lyric with a genuine confidence.  Yet another take on ‘Walrus’, fusion musician Lol Coxhill’s recording ranks among this collection’s oddest, stripping it of all actual music and instead relying on a sparsely used flute and clanking rhythm track, over which some pre-school children sing tunelessly while plinking on a piano.  Handily placed at the end of disc two, it’s easily avoided once the novelty has worn off (somewhere around the middle of the second listen).

Fans of previous 60s and 70s anthologies from Grapefruit Records will need no introduction to Kent based rock band Jason Crest, but interestingly, their ‘Come Together’ is unrecognisable as being the same band that perform heavy, distorted dirges with bad vocals (as per their track ‘Black Mass’ from the 2019 Cherry Red/Grapefruit Records box set ‘Try A Little Sunshine: The British Psychedelic Sounds of 1969’). More like a harder edged, post-Steve Winwood Spencer Davis Group, this sounds more like an assured R&B outfit than the twisted proto doom band they had designs on being.  Workmanlike it may be, but with a tight arrangement and a great organ dominating, it’s a worthy enough cover. This set also provides a notable recording from Freedom – a band featuring two ex-members of Procol Harum and whose two albums were denied a UK release.  Their ‘Cry Baby Cry’ is not as smooth or as refined as The Beatles own, but presents a solid late 60s rock/pop sound.  There are occasional inflections in the vocal that could lapse into Andy Fairweather Low at any second, but if anything makes this track work, it’s the extensive use of mellotron and a great drum part.  There isn’t necessarily much to make it truly stand out as part of this huge outpouring of Fabs love, but hearing such an under-appreciated track get some attention is a welcome thing indeed.

Understandably, with this anthology’s material dating from between 1967 and 1972, and a lot of contributions coming from rock and psych bands, The Beatles’ ‘67-’69 material is the most heavily represented.  A few of those songs feature too often (there’s at least one too many covers of ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Birthday’) but despite that, ‘Looking Through A Glass Onion’ is an interesting three hour journey through an already much-celebrated body of work.  The fact that a set such as this can still serve up a few largely unfamiliar oddities after so many years is perhaps the greatest tribute of all. Whilst it may seem like an uneven journey in places and a few tracks will certainly raise eyebrows, for anyone with even the slightest interest in Beatles covers, this box set promises a treat lurking around almost every corner.

Further reading:
Come Join My Orchestra: British Baroque Pop 1967-73
Crawling Up A Hill: The British Blues Boom 1966-71

August 2020

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