Wednesday, November 26, 2008



After having his will flouted more than a decade ago, when George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono all refused to let "Carnival of Light" surface on the multivolume Anthology, Paul McCartney is once again agitating to release this 14-minute relic of the Aquarian Age. According to a piece in the Guardian (itself piggybacking on a BBC interview), Macca described the track this way: "I said to the guys, this is a bit indulgent but would you mind giving me 10 minutes? I've been asked to do this thing. All I want you to do is just wander round all of the stuff and bang it, shout, play it. It doesn't need to make any sense. Hit a drum, wander to the piano, hit a few notes… and then we put a bit of echo on it. It's very free." The resulting bacchanalia was committed to tape on January 5, 1967. It was a gift of sorts from McCartney to the organizers of the Carnival of Light Rave, a mixed-media event staged at London's Roundhouse later the same month.

Very few people have ever heard the master tape of "Carnival," which is still in McCartney's possession. But Mark Lewisohn did, and his description in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions is none too encouraging:
[It was] the longest uninterrupted Beatles recording to date, and it was the combination of a basic track and numerous overdubs. Track one of the tape was full of distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds; track two had a distorted lead guitar; track three had the sounds of a church organ, various effects (the gargling with water was one) and voices; track four featured various indescribable sound effects with heaps of tape echo and manic tambourine.

But of all the frightening sounds it was the voices on track three which really set the scene. John and Paul screaming dementedly and bawling aloud random phrases like "Are you alright?" and "Barcelona!"

Paul terminated the proceedings after almost 14 minutes with one final shout up in the control room: "Can we hear it back now?" They did just that, a rough mono remix was made and Paul took away the tapes to hand over to the Carnival of Light organizers, doubtless pleased that the Beatles had produced for them such an avante garde recording.

Geoff Emerick recalls this most unusual session. "When they had finished, George Martin said to me, 'This is ridiculous, we've got to get out teeth into something a little more constructive.' Twenty years on, George had obviously driven the session entirely from his mind, for when reminded of the sounds on the tape and asked whether he could recall it, he replied, "'No, and it sounds like I don’t want to, either.'"

My guess is that we're talking about a period piece (to put it kindly), more interesting for its evocation of the stoned, aleatory moment than for any musical value. McCartney's motive is pretty clear: he's always been at pains to demonstrate his role as the sonically adventurous Beatle, the early fan of Stockhausen and Luciano Berio whose eerie fluency with more melodic material ended up typecasting him as the middle-class patsy of the group. Of course no intelligent Beatles fan has believed that scenario for many, many years. It was McCartney who recorded the tape loops for "Tomorrow Never Knows," just as he contributed the wistful Mellotron riff to "Strawberry Fields" and the swampy bass figures to "Come Together." Yet he still wants to earn his spurs as a musical egghead, even forty years after the fact. To my ear, the homemade textures on the Fireman's Electric Arguments--released just yesterday--are a much better testimony to McCartney's relentless ingenuity in the studio. The recording isn't perfect, but it brings to the ambient mood of the previous two Fireman outings an extra dose of melody and formal concision. Which is to say: Macca's traditional strengths.

If Ringo and the remaining Beatle wives can be persuaded, my advice would be to release "Carnival of Light" as a free, live-streaming bonus. Otherwise I foresee a great many angry consumers, most of whom will have anticipated a reprise of the Abbey Road medley and will get the cannabis-scented equivalent of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music instead. And what does this suggest about the remaining treasures in the EMI vaults? The cream of the crop appeared on the Anthology volumes. Endless snippets and alternate performances could certainly be culled from the morass of the Let It Be sessions. But at least one insider, Geoff Emerick, has declared that the cupboard is empty. Back in April, Emerick gave a talk over at Legacy Studios on Manhattan's West Side. Before he began his lecture (actually an interview with Howard Massey, his collaborator on Here, There, and Everywhere), the audience was warned against using recording devices of any kind. The crowd, composed largely of recording engineers, immediately produced a formidable array of cameras and cell phones and began, well, recording. I shot the grainy video below, in which the boy wonder of the Revolver sessions opined that there wasn't much top-drawer stuff left amidst the hundreds of reels at Abbey Road.

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