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Apple Records' Top Five Albums

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Launched in the late summer of 1968, the Beatles' Apple Records was the first major label created by a rock band and run as a collective — fatally so, as it turned out. As an artist-friendly home for the Beatles' friends, proteges and whimsies, Apple lasted only until 1973, sunk by runaway expenses, a chaotic A&R policy — basically, what a Beatle wants, a Beatle signs — and the founders' nasty breakup. By the time of the last Badfinger album, the grimly titled Ass, Apple Records was a ghost-town imprint for solo-Beatle product.

But in that short utopian time, Apple released more than 50 non-Beatle singles and over two dozen albums by artists as varied as power-pop icons Badfinger, Welsh folk-singer Mary Hopkin, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Let It Be session man Billy Preston, the New York agit-folk singer David Peel and classical composer John Tavener. On October 26, Apple Corps and EMI reissue fifteen of those albums — many with bonus tracks and all as digital downloads, the latter a first for Apple-related releases — including James Taylor's 1968 debut, James Taylor; all four Badfinger albums; Preston's two superstar-laden LPs; and both MJQ records, Under the Jasmine Tree and Space, on a single CD.

Here are the five to start with:<

Badfinger – Straight Up (first issued on 12/13/71 in the U.S.)

This is a toss-up: 1970's No Dice opens with the heavy-Beatles bullet "I Can't Take It," comes with the Top 10 single "No Matter What" (produced by Beatles' road manager Mal Evans) and has the original version of singer-guitarist Peter Ham's magnificently pained ballad, "Without You," a Number One cover for Harry Nilsson in 1971. But Straight Up is Badfinger's power-pop apex, despite its difficult birth: a version produced by the band with Geoff Emerick and rejected by Apple; a half-finished attempt with George Harrison as producer; a near-total overhaul with Todd Rundgren at the board. "Day After Day" (with Harrison and Ham on harmony slide guitars) and "Baby Blue" are knockout jangle and mod-choirboy pining; singer-bassist Tom Evans' closer, "It's Over," is a gnarly white soul with dirty-angel vocal glaze — the Big Star ideal, with a true British accent. Early-Nineties reissues of No Dice and Straight Up included some of the tracks from the rejected LP as bonus material; surely we can get them all this time.

James Taylor – James Taylor (first issued on 12/6/68 in the U.K.)

For his debut album, Taylor drew on material he wrote and previously recorded with his New York band the Flying Machine, including "Don't Talk Now," "Knocking Round the Zoo" and "Night Owl." But it was Taylor's solo demos, made after he moved to London in late 1967, that caught the attention of Paul McCartney, via producer Peter Asher. By the summer of 1968, Taylor was in the studio with Asher and getting help from the Beatles between White Album sessions: McCartney and George Harrison both played on Taylor's wistful "Carolina on My Mind." Harrison, in turn, borrowed the opening lines of Taylor's "Something in the Way She Moves" for a song he was writing — temporarily at first, as filler. Taylor's "Something . . ." is the lighter item, genial and warm, lacking the carefully detailed majesty of Harrison's "Something." But Taylor's Apple album is a prophetic example of the precise delicacy he and Asher would quickly master on Taylor's 1970 breakthrough,Sweet Baby James.

Jackie Lomax – Is This What You Want? (first issued on 3/21/69 in the U.K.)

A white-soul belter who spent the early and mid-Sixties with a Liverpool beat group, the Undertakers, Lomax was a special Apple project for Harrison. The latter donated his White Album-period song, the get-off-your-ass rocker "Sour Milk Sea," for Lomax's debut Apple single and produced and arranged all but one of the twelve tracks on this album with an all-star band that included McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman and Nicky Hopkins. You can hear Harrison's learning curve: The album often sounds like a student edition of Delaney and Bonnie's gospel-spiced R&B with some odd jarring touches (like the Moog solo in "Take My Word"). But "Sour Milk Sea" is dynamite, the title track bears a neat eerie resemblance to "I Am the Walrus" in the opening measures, and Lomax is a formidable voice, in the gruff, chesty British tradition of Chris Farlowe and Paul Rodgers. Is This What You Want? was not the classic Lomax deserved, but it has all of the charms and Beatle cachet of its time.

Billy Preston – That's the Way God Planned It (first issued on 8/22/69 in the U.K.)

Four months after he appeared on the Beatles' single "Get Back" – with a credit on the label, no less – pianist-organist Billy Preston had his own Apple album, produced by Harrison with the usual superstar assistance, this time including Cream's Ginger Baker and the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. Preston — who first met the Beatles in 1962 when he was in Little Richard's band, then reconnected with them when he hit London as a member of Ray Charles' orchestra — would have bigger hits in the Seventies but never make a better one than this album's rapturous title track, which stalled here at Number 62. The rest of the album is solid church-infused soul, with Preston covering both Bob Dylan and W.C. Handy. Between this record and his 1970 Apple album, Encouraging Words, Preston also issued a non-LP single with an instrumental B-side, "As I Get Older", co-written with Sylvester Stewart a/k/a Sly Stone and produced by Charles — the only time those two names appeared on an Apple label.

Doris Troy – Doris Troy (first issued on 9/4/70 in the U.K.)

The American R&B singer Doris Troy scored her first U.S. Top 10 hit in the summer of 1963 — "Just One Look" — while the Beatles were still struggling to get noticed in the States. The song quickly became a favorite of British beat groups; the Hollies put it in the British Top Ten with their early '64 cover. Troy was soon in London, dividing her time between solo recordings and session work, including Preston's That's the Way God Planned It, which inspired Harrison to sign her to the label. Like the Lomax record, Doris Troy is more remarkable for the friends at hand: "You Give Me Joy Joy" features a what-if band of Harrison, Starr and Stephen Stills, who also worked with Troy on a honky-tonk-bluster take of his Buffalo Springfield song "Special Care." Strong but shy of classic, the album did not sell. But Troy (who died in 2004) would soon have one of the biggest albums of all time on her resume: She was a backup singer on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

David Fricke

Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke has more than 10,000 albums in his New York apartment. His first record review for the magazine was Frank Zappa's 'Sheik Yerbouti' (RS 290).

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