Helter Skelter > The Road To 'Sessions'
The Road To 'Sessions'
This is the story of a planned, but cancelled Beatles album named Sessions. It was to be a collection of unreleased Beatles' material issued on a single LP. Some of the mixes prepared for this project eventually found their way to The Beatles Anthology collections.
Originally posted to the rec.music.beatles.moderated newsgroup in May 1998. Collected here by permission of the author.
DON'T KEEP ME WAITING HERE: The battle to release Beatles studio outtakes
The story begins on 26 Jan 1976, when The Beatles nine-year contract with EMI Records finally expired, six years after the group itself expired. EMI immediately began to take stock of The Beatles back catalogue, seriously considering for the first time the hundreds of hours of unreleased recordings stored haphazardly in the Abbey Road Studios' tape vault.
One team focused on repackaging the official releases, with initially unimaginative results: the entire run of Beatles singles was re-issued in Mar 76 in the UK, with the addition of "Yesterday", never issued on a British single before. George Martin was involved with re-equalization and remastering (though not remixing from the original session tapes) for a 2-LP compilation, Rock And Roll Music, released in Jun 76. Martin's work was done to improve the primitive twin-track master mixes from 1963 in particular, though he may have tweaked some of the later songs as well.
Over the next two years, further uninspired Beatles projects were issued from EMI: the US album Magical Mystery Tour was finally issued in the UK in Nov 76; in the fall of 77, a box set of all Beatles singles (including "Yesterday" and "Back In The USSR") was released in the UK; in Nov 77, another double-album compilation, Love Songs, came out.
But what about some NEW, never-released Beatles material, the fans cried? Top priority in this arena was the preparation of tapes recorded by Capitol at the Hollywood Bowl concerts of 1964-1965. Again, Martin was called in to mix and edit the tapes; a rough mix of the 1964 concert (prepared in Capitol's Los Angeles studios back in 1964) had apparently been sent to Apple HQ in London in 1971 in acetate form. This inspired both rumors of an imminent release and dozens of bootlegs when a copy fell into the wrong hands. But nothing was done until 18 Jan 1977, when highlights from all three shows were mixed from 3-track tapes into stereo. The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl album was released in May 1977.
Live recordings of familiar Beatles songs were one thing, but rumors of dozens of unheard Beatles titles had kept the collecting community drooling since the break-up. The Beatles themselves were vague about what was left behind in the studio vaults. Titles such as "Junk", "The Void", "Not Guilty", and "What's The New Mary Jane" first surfaced in The Beatles Book Monthly magazine via articles and reports from insiders like Mal Evans.
An article in the New Musical Express of 23 Mar 74 was the first attempt to compile a list of Beatles EMI outtakes. Titles mentioned included "How Do You Do It", "Suzy Parker", "If You've Got Troubles", "Jazz Piano Song", "You'll Know What To Do", "Pink Litmus Paper Shirt", "Penina", "Not Unknown", "India", "Annie", "When I Come To Town", "Four Nights In Moscow", "Colliding Circles", and "Always And Only". Some of these are correct, some are misinterpretations apparently based on EMI session sheets (working titles and the like) and some are clearly made up. The 1975 book All Together Now mentioned all of these, plus the following: "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby", "Tell Me If You Can", "Peace Of Mind", and "I Should Like To Live Up A Tree".
As no official word from either EMI or The Beatles supported or denied any of this, most of these (non-existent) outtakes were assumed by fans to be awaiting future release. Further rumored titles were "Baby Jane, I'm Sorry", "Bad Penny Blues", "Echoes Of The Merseyside", "Home", "Just Dancing Around", "Maisy Jones", "Moonglow", "My Kind Of Girl", "Portrait Of My Love", "Proud As You Are", "Rubber Soul", "Swinging Days", and my personal favorite, "Zero Is Just Another Even Number". Looking at the above lists (totalling some 35 titles), it was no wonder fans daydreamed of three or four more albums of completely new material to add to The Beatles canon.
While all this was going on, EMI executives first dipped their toes into the uncharted waters of unreleased Beatles studio material. According to one employee, EMI "listened to all the material that had not been released". Considering what they came up with, this statement is laughable, unless we take it very literally. Apparently they only considered song titles which hadn't been released, ignoring four hundred hours or so of rehearsals, demos, alternate takes, arrangements, and mixes of familiar songs. So their initial skimpy research only came up with about ten titles considered worthy of attention. According to Mark Lewisohn, EMI "began doing in-house compilation cassettes" of this material - one of which found its way into private collectors' hands by late 1978. The tape was played in 1980 at a Beatles convention, and eventually released on a bootleg entitled File Under: Beatles.
The material was all apparently dubbed directly from the session tapes, with no attempts at remixing or editing, and was more of a rough assembly of potential songs for a Beatles outtake LP. The titles were as follows:
- Leave My Kitten Alone
a new discovery
- One After 909
probably considered only because they were startled to find a 1963 recording of a 1970 release
- If You've Got Troubles
the long rumored Ringo outtake, presumed to be from Rubber Soul
- Christmas Time (Is Here Again!)
the full 6:39 take 1 of music only
- That Means A Lot
also thought to be a Rubber Soul outtake
- Come And Get It
another new find; Paul's demo for Badfinger, though as late as 1985 EMI thought Ringo played on it too
- Rip It Up / Shake Rattle And Roll
one of many rumored oldies recorded in Jan 1969
- Not Fade Away / Bo Diddley
another oldies medley from Jan 69
- and an alternate take of Dig A Pony from 23 Jan 69
a strange choice, considering how close this take sounds to the released version
A further take of "Blue Suede Shoes" may be from this tape, and a soon-reported "Mailman Blues" (which turned out to be "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues"), both from Jan 69, together with the last three cuts above, may also explain the report in 1977 of an imminent 2-LP release. Entitled Look Back, it was said to consist entirely of oldies from the Jan 1969 sessions, and may mean that EMI was considering two separate releases at this time, one of Abbey Road material, one of Apple Get Back outtakes. While three new albums sounded tempting, reality soon set in as EMI took stock of the tapes it had. The Look Back project was dropped, and efforts to compile a single LP continued.
Initially, it was to be titled Rarities II,as a sequel to the much-less exciting Mar 1980 Capitol LP. It was at this point that "Mailman Blues" was mentioned as a title, along with something called "London Ball" which was a mistake on someone's part (no such Beatles song existed). By summer 1980, the project had apparently shrunk to an EP, highlighted by "Leave My Kitten Alone". Later reports diminished this further to a single, "Kitten" backed with "How Do You Do It" - a plan which fell by the wayside after John's murder in Dec 1980.
Another year passed without any action until EMI changed its game-plan. Now it decided to include alternate takes of previously released songs in the scope of its project. So engineer John Barrett was given the task of listening to all Beatles / Abbey Road session tapes, writing down what was on them all (amazing that nobody had thought to do this until now) and keeping an eye out for interesting takes. For example, on 19 Feb 1982, he notated the previously-blank tape box for the "Leave My Kitten Alone" session, pointing out "Track cuts off before end" (in other words, the tape ends abruptly before the song has finished) next to take 5. This take was again considered for single release at Christmas 1982 but nothing was done about it.
Besides the discovery of great alternate versions ("I'm Looking Through You", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and "Norwegian Wood" for example), Barrett's work led EMI to take its first baby steps towards letting the public actually hear this material. It was decided that Abbey Road's Studio 2, during a summer 1983 renovation, would be opened to tourists - the highlight being a visual history of The Beatles recording career, accompanied by a soundtrack featuring outtakes and alternate mixes. It was during the preparations for this show that copies of some complete EMI reels were made and eventually sold to bootleggers, ultimately resulting in albums like Ultra Rare Trax and Unsurpassed Masters.
Years of speculation were about to come to a close, and expectations were high in the months leading up to the show. In Feb 1983, EMI confusingly confirmed the existence of "parts of" longer versions of "Hey Jude", "Revolution" and "Helter Skelter". Even when they knew what they had, EMI weren't quite sure what they had. On 11 Jul 83, they further confirmed titles like "Kitten", "How Do You Do It", "If You've Got Trouble", and "That Means A Lot".
When the presentation, The Beatles Live At Abbey Road, opened on 18 Jul 83, it was a mixed bag. On the one hand, songs like "Kitten" and "How Do You Do It" were included, but in incomplete versions. There was no sign of "If You've Got Trouble" or "That Means A Lot", the long "Helter Skelter", or known titles like "Come And Get It", "Mary Jane" and "Not Guilty". Beautiful stripped-down versions of "Because" and "Strawberry Fields" were mixed in with less compelling things like early takes and false starts from "Don't Bother Me", "I Saw Her Standing There", "She's A Woman" and "A Hard Day's Night". Worst of all, songs like "Rain", "Hello Goodbye", and "Penny Lane" were presented in barely-noticeable remixed form; "Love Me Do" and "Twist And Shout" were simply the standard recordings. For EMI to have sorted through four hundred hours of tape and come up with this was slightly embarrassing. Nevertheless, audience tape recorders smuggled past Abbey Road security that summer provided the source for further bootlegs. The show closed on 11 Sep 83, and serious work began again on coming up with a new LP of outtakes.
Concurrent with this was independent production of a syndicated radio history of The Beatles, entitled Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: A History Of The Beatles Years 1962-1970. Though EMI was not involved with this, somehow tapes of Abbey Road session reels, copied during the assembly of the Live At Abbey Road project (presumably from the same unknown source who later sold them to bootleggers), turned up in the hands of radio producer Roger Scott. Scott was not so brazen as to arouse EMI's suspicion by broadcasting complete alternate takes; but anyone listening carefully could detect where longer, rough-mixed versions of Beatles songs were used in the radio special, usually half-disguised by narration.
Dialogue from the 11 Feb 63 session was used, for example, along with unmixed versions of "Do You Want To Know A Secret", "A Hard Day's Night", "I Feel Fine", "Ticket To Ride", "Help!", "Day Tripper", "We Can Work It Out", and "Paperback Writer". If this list sounds familiar, it should. These are the exact same songs for which more complete session tapes eventually turned up on bootlegs (culminating in Yellow Dog's Ultimate Collection box sets), leaving little doubt as to the origins of these high-quality studio outtakes. This evidence alone should disprove theories that Mark Lewisohn was responsible for leaking tapes; his high-level access didn't begin until 1986 and he was privy to much more interesting recordings than these, if he was of a mind to make a quick buck. (Lewisohn was involved with the radio show, as a 'consultant', meaning a fact- and date-checker mainly; he later said, "I did help out on that, funnily enough, but I never really got to hear it, so I can't comment on that. I can't imagine EMI would ever have given permission. It must have been done without permission.")
The show was broadcast in Nov 1984 in most markets, and provided the debuts of several other songs, mostly from acetates and demo tapes sold at auction. One notable recording was "Besame Mucho", from the Beatles first EMI session, previously unheard and unreported.
This was, in fact, one of the songs EMI was considering for its own Beatles project, which had the in-house code name Mary Jane, the joke working-title Boots, and the horrible penultimate title One-Two-Three-Four. Throughout the summer of 1984, once the line-up was set, engineer Geoff Emerick did his best to desecrate the material by chopping it up and assembling new versions which in some cases scarcely resembled the original takes. EMI prepared a press release which had the gall to claim that Emerick merely "remixed them and enhanced the overall sound quality by transferring the tapes". In fact, over half the songs were severely edited, others more subtly faded or spliced to bring them into line with Emerick's (and EMI's) idea of 1984 commercial standards. They might as well have been colorizing silent Charlie Chaplin outtake footage, recording digitally-mastered dialogue, and morphing his mouth to match the new lines for all the artistic good which resulted.
By August 1984 a near-final track listing was set:
- Christmas Time (Is Here Again!) / Come And Get It
- Leave My Kitten Alone
- Not Guilty
horribly disfigured by editing
- That Means A Lot
- I'm Looking Through You
- What's The New Mary Jane
another splice-and-dice job, with the unattainable goal of making this song enjoyable
- How Do You Do It
with the ending senselessly chopped up
- Besame Mucho
- One After 909
the only defensible edit - using an edit piece as The Beatles had intended
- If You've Got Trouble
edited to no good end
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps
a tease - played straight through, giving one hope, until rather than letting George naturally end the tune (as the Abbey Road Show had), the last guitar phrase is looped, repeated and faded)
- Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues
again edited to try to make sense out of a sloppy jam session
- Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da / Christmas Time (Is Here Again!)
another new discovery, wherein Emerick ruined this nice alternative arrangement by immediately crossfading it with the annoying singalong
Soon enough, the album title was finalized: Sessions would be released in Nov 84, with "Leave My Kitten Alone" and the "Ob-La-Di / Christmas" medley (dropped from the LP lineup) supporting it as a single. However, Paul unwittingly intervened by scheduling his Give My Regards To Broadstreet album for release the same month. So EMI bit their tongues, sat on their hands and watched the profitable Christmas season pass by rather than compete with Paul's release. In fact, so eager were they not to upset Paul, EMI didn't bother to tell him (or George and Ringo) about Sessions until it was almost out of the gate.
Sleeves for the LP and 45 were designed, sleeve notes written (in Aug 84 by Allan Kozinn, later replaced by Brian Southall's notes), label copy was prepared (on 14 Dec 84), catalogue numbers were assigned (Parlophone EJ 2402701 and Capitol ST-12373 for the LP, Parlophone R6088 for the single), release dates were finalized (28 Jan 85 for the single, 25 Feb 85 for the LP).
Then The Ex-Beatles found out about the project.
Everything came to a dead halt; EMI tried to put the best face on things. An article published 26 May 85 quoted EMI representatives as follows: "We're now discussing the matter with the remaining Beatles and representatives of John Lennon's estate with an aim to releasing an album sometime. The format that (EMI) suggested was not acceptable, but one obviously has to start somewhere. And then we move on from there. We move on to other formats now, other suggestions and discussions." This after nine years of hemming and hawing and FINALLY deciding on a format!!
It mattered little, since a copy of the Sessions master reel was traded around collectors and pressed onto bootlegs by early 1986. Together with the 'in-house cassette' of 1978, the pristine session reels stolen and copied in 1982 and 1983, and the audience tapes of the Abbey Road Show, the Sessions bootlegs meant fans now had a treasure trove of invaluable, entertaining, and historically important Beatles recordings miles beyond anything EMI could come up with officially.
Check out the author's sister article: A History of Beatles Bootlegs