‘Looking Through A Glass Onion’ reviewed

Huw Thomas examines a festoon of Fab Four covers from the acid-tinted age.

“The entire spectrum of psychedelia is given a fair hearing on Looking Through A Glass Onion… Some of the best interpretations on this set reflect the spirit of the originals. While many of tracks on this set serve as soundalikes, some invert the originals entirely…”

Everybody’s got one, everybody’s got one. A Beatles cover, I mean. It is well known that many of the best-loved Beatles songs were never singles. The band tended to leave their singles off their albums so as not to short-change fans. This policy created rich opportunities for pop hopefuls chasing a sure-fire hit. Each new Beatles release was trailed by a flurry of cover versions vying for chart success and as the original records became more progressive, the covers followed suit. Looking Through A Glass Onion – The Beatles Psychedelic Songbook 1966-72, a new 3CD set from Grapefruit, collects 68 such interpretations, many previously unreleased.

The set has been compiled by David Wells, and is adorned by kaleidoscopic collages by Andy Morten utilising, amongst other things, artwork by Yellow Submarine designer Heinz Edelmann, the Walrus and the Carpenter as rendered by Lewis Carroll’s illustrator John Tenniel and a typeface based on Joe Ephgrave’s calligraphy for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band drumskin. It’s an attractive evocation of the world these songs live in.

The entire spectrum of psychedelia is given a fair hearing on Looking Through A Glass Onion. Many tracks turn cartwheels ‘cross the floor with Hammond organ including Kippington Lodge’s spirited take on In My Life and Sounds Nice’s grand version of Flying. There are progressive turns from Deep Purple, Yes and Camel (not that one), whose Mystery Tour liberally adapts Magical Mystery Tour into a widescreen workout which touches just about every base a rock band could in 1969.

Big Jim Sullivan goes raga with credible instrumental arrangements of Within You Without You and, brilliantly, She’s Leaving Home. Rainbow Ffolly wave a daffy flag for the kookier side of the genre with an ace The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, though their squeaky Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds may be a confection too sickly for some. There’s even room for light entertainment with a track by Design, a six-part vocal harmony group who made appearances on The Morecambe and Wise Show, Sez Les, The Golden Shot and The Reg Varney Revue. The group deconstructs Strawberry Fields Forever and puts it back together again in a standout that retains the hypnotic appeal of the original recording.

Some of the best interpretations on this set reflect the spirit of the originals. Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers take Got to Get You into My Life a step nearer to the Stax records that inspired its composition; indeed, McCartney himself co-produced this version, having commandeered a session officially headed by David Paramor (son of Norrie). It’s a definitive cover, but such faithful renderings are a double-edged sword. In the case of bright productions like the Gods’ Hey Bulldog and Freedom’s Cry Baby Cry, it’s like hearing the songs for the first time again.

Less polished tributes like the Hi-Fis’ Yellow Submarine and the Spectrum’s Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da sound tepid in comparison to George Martin’s productions. It’s a similar story with the Hollies’ cover of If I Needed Someone, a relative flop for them in December 1965. George Harrison called it “rubbish” and “like session men who’ve just got together in a studio without ever seeing each other before”, a bruising but not unwarranted criticism; it does sound strikingly anonymous for this usually distinctive band. Beatles album tracks faithfully covered for single release made perfect sense at the time, but they’re not essential listening in age where you can listen to the originals for free any time you like.

While many of tracks on this set serve as soundalikes, some invert the originals entirely. Penny Arcade turn Two of Us into folksy power pop. Eleanor Rigby becomes a galloping epic in the hands of Welsh quartet Blonde on Blonde. The Shadows sound like 10cc on their adventurous rendition of Paperback Writer. Wound down by John’s Children frontman Andy Ellison, John Lennon’s threatening R&B groover You Can’t Do That becomes a chilled anthem replete with stoned orchestra. One and One is Two, perhaps the most obscure of the originals Lennon and McCartney “gave away”, is tackled by Philip Goodhand-Tait in a frantic version. It’s still not a great song, but it’s hard not to admire such a strange choice.

If you needed a fresh reminder of the power of Please Please Me, the Score’s 1966 version will do very nicely. It’s an explosive freakbeat update that’s as exciting as any 45 released by the Creation or the Action. Another standout track comes from Duffy Power, an overlooked British blues musician whose hesitant recording career often undersold his talent. Power sounds disembodied on Fixing a Hole, accompanying himself with fingerpicked guitar. It’s a hushed, gorgeous acid folk version and perhaps the most inspired track on this release.

The set closes with a recording from an entertainer already a household name when John, Paul, George and Ringo were born. Vera Lynn’s Goodnight sounds exactly as you’d imagine in your head and that’s no bad thing. Lynn, who has surely never appeared on an album with “psychedelic” in the title before, sings beautifully over an appealing shuffling arrangement. The track placement is fitting; the original version closed an album which saw the Beatles’ songwriting at a fragmented peak. Looking Through A Glass Onion is inevitably something of a mixed bag, but it’s a very rewarding collection worthy of the attention of any lover of music from this era.

❉ ‘Looking Through A Glass Onion – The Beatles Psychedelic Songbook 1966-72’ (CRSEG077T) is released October 16, 2020, from Grapefruit Records/Cherry Red, RRP £17.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.

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