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Live in Japan

It was during the heady days of punk and New Wave, as 1979 was dissolving into 1980, that Joe Strummer of the Clash spat out the line “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust” in “London Calling,” his band’s anthem to the new insurgence. That sentiment proved to be as comically unprophetic as Jimi Hendrix’s grand psychedelic pronouncement “You’ll never hear surf music again.” Fast-forward to 1992: Capitol releases a fifteen-CD box of the Beatles’ British EPs. Ringo Starr awakens from his not-so-golden slumbers and puts out a charming, unpretentious pop album, doing what he did best as a Beatle. And George Harrison issues a live double CD culled from his concert tour of the Far East; nearly half the songs date from Beatles days.

Not that all of these events provide cause for celebration. The Beatles’ Compact Disc EP Collection is just the sort of superfluous, pricey recycling project that makes Strummer’s exasperation understandable. This little black box contains a batch of EPs — shorthand for “extended play,” a format that, in the old days, usually meant four-song, seven-inch, 33-rpm vinyl discs — presented on individual CDs as they were originally configured for the British market in the Sixties, right down to the artwork and liner notes. Filling in a niche between albums and singles, EPs were popular overseas but never caught on with American consumers. Except for serving as yet another way to repackage the Beatles’ catalog, these EPs are today no more appropriate on these shores than they were twenty-odd years ago.

Bearing a retail price of around $100, the set is no bargain. Collectively, the music on these fifteen CDs — all but two of which run for eleven minutes or less — would fit onto two full-length discs (especially considering that six songs from Magical Mystery Tour are included in both mono and stereo). There are no revelations in the sleeve notes. And for the record, these EPs have never gone out of print in England; collectors would probably wish to own them in their original vinyl form anyway. The real question is when Capitol will turn loose all the true Beatles rarities: the Sessions LP, the live BBC tapes, the multitude of versions and outtakes that have been circulating in the Ultra Rare Trax and Unsurpassed Masters bootleg series.

More positively, hats off to Ringo, who has bounced back from his bout with the bottle on the modest, likable Time Takes Time. He gets by with a little help from his friends — among them musicians like Tom Petty and Brian Wilson (who provide cameos) and a phalanx of notable West Coast sessionmen. Some of the hottest producers in the business, past and present — Don Was, Jeff Lynne, Peter Asher and Phil Ramone — pitched in enthusiastically. The result is the drummer’s most consistent, wide-awake album since Ringo, from 1973.

“Weight of the World” opens the album in a bright sunburst of twelve-string guitar, defining Ringo’s melodic agenda and setting a thematic tone in these lines: “You either kiss the future or the past goodbye/We could fly so high.” Throughout, Ringo sings in that wonderfully plain-spoken style of his, and his drumming is artful simplicity itself. He conveys avuncular concern without being preachy, and while the album is not without bland spots and pat tunes, it stands as heartening proof that Mr. Starkey still has something to offer at fifty-two.

One could infer that George Harrison, the most reluctant Beatle, really wasn’t eager to undertake last year’s tour, his first since 1974. “I’d like to thank the band and Eric for making me come to Japan,” he says. Still, though the act of public performance might have gone down like bad medicine, it’s good that Clapton had the gumption to prod Harrison onstage, because this tour souvenir allows him to make his peace with the Fabs by having a go at some of the old songs. What’s more, he seems to relish the opportunity despite himself.

He still sounds angry at the government on “Taxman,” and he effectively salts “Piggies.” On the more meditative side, Harrison puts across “My Sweet Lord” with a believer’s conviction. But by and large this is a rocking, extroverted performance, and that is where Clapton and band, providing a solid foundation, helped firm up Harrison’s repertoire and resolve. From the sprung rhythms and tart slide licks of “Old Brown Shoe” to the crunching satire of “Devil’s Radio,” it is a pleasure to hear a pair of past masters bring out the best in each other.

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