From the New York band, with its fluid and illustrious membership, comes the latest in its series of reinventions of classic British rock albums. After Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the Easy Stars tackle the Beatles, and not only that, they cover in a roots style the peak (for many people) of the Beatles’ achievements, Sgt Pepper.
It’s impressive on an immediate level. The packaging is Sgt Pepper-era inspired, lovingly crafted in style and tone, although that familiar bass drum on the cover now seems to have acquired a marijuana leaf within its design. The music throughout features those background noises and crowd effects that were part of the feel of the Beatles’ album, and there is a remarkable attention to detail in referencing the past, although presumably without the need to use the primitive tapes and loops of the Abbey Road studio and its four-track machines of the 1960s.
The Beatles were noted for many things, but not, it has to be said, for their contribution to reggae. This is demonstrated rather than contradicted by the unfortunate existence of Ob La Di, Ob La Da on the White Album (a song covered by none other than the Heptones on the marvellously titled Mellow Dubmarine compilation). So let’s see what the Easy Stars have made of all this.
The format is faithful to the original. Too faithful perhaps. It is when the Easy Stars relax a little that it becomes more interesting, for instance in the latter part of Lovely Rita when some lively deejaying from the great U-Roy gets things moving. The rendition of When I’m Sixty-Four (featuring Sugar Minott) is one of the highlights of the album, not especially for the song itself but for the excellent extended dub which rattles along powerfully in a manner reminiscent of the Beat. There is a tension here: stick closely to the original and the whole thing is restricted, or let things loosen-up and the idea of reproducing the original album in a different style is undermined.
The sitars and eastern instrumentation of Within You Without You lend themselves well to the Easy Star treatment. There are elsewhere some nice changes of lyrics. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (with Frankie Paul) now features cellophane flowers of red, gold and green. On A Day in the Life, we find fingers running through dreads. In common with its predecessors, it’s not an album to take itself too seriously, despite the grand scale of the task it has set itself.
The tracks that were relatively low profile on the Beatles album tend to come out more strongly in the Easy Star treatment. The bass-driven Fixing a Hole (featuring Max Romeo) with its extended dub mix, and Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite (with Ranking Roger), are strong rockers, while the well-known MOR tracks like With a Little Help from My Friends or She’s Leaving Home still sound bland, despite the Easy Stars’ best efforts.
This raises an uncomfortable, almost forbidden, question: just how strong were the songs on the original anyway? Obviously the album had and still has an iconic status, for many reasons: the magical year of its release; the part it played in seismic cultural changes; the production of George Martin. But stripped of all these elements, we are obliged by the Easy Stars to listen to the individual tracks as songs in their own right. The strongest ones are not what might be expected.
The Easy Star people are on an interesting journey. Where next? If their mission in life is to disinter British albums from past decades, it would be fascinating to hear an Easy Star take on the Clash who had already absorbed reggae into their source material. If the remit runs more widely, nothing would be more intriguing than an Easy Star remake of Neil Young’s On the Beach or, to stick with the Canadian theme, maybe the Easy Stars play Leonard Cohen. The list is endless.
Back to the album in question, Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts’ Dub Band ends with a strong interpretation of A Day in the Life (featuring Michael Rose and Menny More). This might have seemed one of the most difficult songs on the album to tackle, but it’s a triumph of matching a thoughtful song to a gentle descending reggae rhythm, and is one of the strongest tracks on the album. On its own, it makes the whole thing worthwhile.
It is not quite the last track though. The album closes by offering a faithful reproduction of the brief garbled vocals in the final vinyl groove of the Beatles’ album as the needle slid toward the centre of the disc. This used to be thought to contain some mysterious hidden insight. But its message was really that the Beatles were enjoying themselves. Just like the Easy Star All Stars.
Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band: UK Release 13th April 2009