My first exposure to the crazy world of the Beatles' Get Back sessions (what later became Let it Be) was through a vinyl boot called The Black Album, which featured a lot of the same material that is collected on this volume of the Complete Apple Trax CD series. For the uninitiated, these sessions had the Beatles sitting in the studio, just jamming, running through whatever they felt like (new songs, old songs, lots of covers, improvised songs, etc.), all the while being filmed for a potential documentary film (which became the Let it Be movie).
Most of this stuff was not recorded properly, but exists on audio tracks from the video footage of the sessions. It's been booted numerous times in loads of different shapes and sizes, to various degrees of quality. There are some CD sets that compile all available material from the sessions (pretty exhaustive to grind through, even for the Beatles diehard).
For me, the Complete Apple Trax discs are the best CD's to have from this weird period in Beatles history, because they present good flowing track listings of the most interesting moments, without bogging you down in 18 consecutive run-throughs of "Don't Let Me Down." The effect is to bring you into the studio, and lots of cool stuff is happening, not all of which you "get," but most of which you feel priviliged to hear. So while the series is not technically "complete" as such, it's still pretty damn representative, and moreover, well paced.
I think six volumes were released, of which I was able to find all but Vol. 4, a gap in my collection that still bugs me, nearly 10 years after these discs originally came out. The chances of finding any of them these days are pitifully slim, but they're highly recommendable if you ever do run across them.
The coolest thing about these sessions is that it shows a legendary band struggling hard to make even 5 minutes of decent music. The Beatles had decided they wanted to strip things down to their "rock'n'roll" roots no overdubs, just like in the old days. Clearly, they can't do it, having come so far along a very studio-oriented path in the meantime.
So they just try and try, clearly hating almost every moment, yet trying anyway. It was the most glaring fiasco in their career, and ultimately resulted in a pretty good album, but also it remains fascinating because it really shows the Beatles as they were much more informal than you're used to hearing, certainly. They're running through a lot of songs that would become classics, but at this stage everything sounds pretty rough. It's great music for anyone in a band to hear, so they can realize that even the Beatles sounded like utter crap sometimes.
The most shocking thing for me when I first heard this stuff, especially since I was a huge Beatle fan at the time, was hearing them ransack through things like "House of the Rising Sun," with no respect for the song or each other John is yowling really uglily, and Paul just starts doing the same after awhile. Their legendary chemistry is clearly pretty twisted at this point, but they still crack each other up a lot.
Vol. 1 contains lots of great moments, classic Beatles boot stuff like the is-it-racist-or-not "Commonwealth," "White Power" (a/k/a "Get Off"), the country send-up "Tennessee," the unedited version of "Dig It," and early run-throughs of stuff like "Teddy Boy" and "All Things Must Pass." Lots of Beatle in-jokes, too, like Lennon intoning "Why don't you put it on the toast?" at one point.
And not everything sounds roughshod, either a great "Two of Us" closes the disc, and an early version of "Let it Be" is nice simply for not bing the released version. It's cool to hear this stuff develop into what it became, although contrarily it's not that cool listening to what it became.
I think I've listened to the studio albums so much that it's only CDs like this that can get through to me in terms of the Beatles mystique anymore. At a certain point you have to start hanging out in the less-explored corners of their legacy to get anything new out of it.
Review by Bonnie Bronson