While the very concept of the “tribute” album has over the years become quite a scary one, a Beatles tribute can strike downright terror into the hearts of any who still value their sensibilities, let alone that hitherto-durable 214-song catalog.
Yes, as far back as William Shatner‘s 1968 stab at “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and even Ringo Starr have had their melodic legacies sliced, diced, half-baked, botched and certainly butchered by those both well-meaning and, well, just plain mean. Truth to tell, these days I find it increasingly hard to sit through that Bee Gees/Peter Frampton Sgt. Pepper’s movie even with tongue deep in cheek.
But then there is London’s own Jim Phelan, who, far from fearing Captain Kirk’s “Lucy” upon first encountering her, took matters firmly into his own brave hands by launching not only an actual record label (Exotica) but an entire series of Fab Four compilations under the regal Exotic Beatles banner.
Its 18-year (so far) mission? To, yes, boldly go where no audio tribute of any sort has dared before. As in Maurice Chevalier, Mae West, Professor Stanley Unwin and Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell casting their Mersey-coated throats alongside those of various hillbilly squirrels, metropolitan police choirs, Balsara’s Singing Sitars and even Shang Shang Typhoon with their utterly Phil Spector-silencing “Let It Be.”
And now, a dozen years and one hard-drive theft later comes Phelan’s latest and possibly even greatest collection yet: Exotic Beatles 4 — Plastic Soul.
It is, I most humbly proclaim, the greatest Beatle (-related) album since Something New and possibly even All You Need Is Cash.
After being introduced in their very own words, from their very own mouths, by none other than Tony Randall, Ed Sullivan and the Japanese Beatles themselves, we’re immediately sent “Back in the USSR” via one Irishman, one Hungarian and one exquisite collection of Russian throat singers, all together now as Baba Yaga with an a cappella blend perfectly suiting this number through its Brian Wilson-esque splendor. Why, I shall never hear the first 2:43 of that White Album in exactly the same way again. And, hopefully, neither shall you.
Follow that with more than an hour of additional Northern Songs out of Siberia (Bugotak‘s coldly Kraftwerk-ian “Kon Togethy”), Singapore (a 1964 “Can’t Buy Me Love” from folk star Shan Kuan Liu Yun, who obviously plugged in a year before Bob Dylan ever unpacked his Strat at Newport), Germany (candlemaker Klaus Beyer, who could certainly teach Giles Martin a thing or three about Beatles mash-ups!) and a whole invasion of further tracks from Russia (special note given to the bands 7B and Boney Nem, who treat “And I Love Her” to both techno and death-thrash makeovers which would cause at least one half of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team to cackle in solidarity).
Let me just add that Exotic Beatles 4 also contains two versions of “Hey Jude” — one a Xhosa-language Bantu bossa-nova rendition; the other rendered by a severely alt.-mariachi Mexican marching band. Both versions, needless to say, I now prefer far, far more than the original Apple recording.
Garnish with a speed metal “Eleanor Rigby,” a Dixieland “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Day Tripper” (as interpreted by barking dogs from New Zealand) and then a sub-waltz “Yellow Submarine” that flawlessly incorporates snatches of the “Blue Danube,” tied all together with intricately inserted spoken-link segues courtesy of not only J, P, G & R but even the afore-mentioned Dylan (reciting “Hello Goodbye”!) and Michael Mills (the Minister of Youth and Evangelism at the Family Alter Chapel in Battle Creek, Michigan, warning us of the evils of Beatles backward masking), and we have an album of wild, wicked wonder which so easily deserves a place right there between Magical Mystery Tour and Meet The Beatles.
Needless to say then, Phelan is much more than just another B-maniac with a great big pile of CDs strewn across the living room floor. This is obviously a man who not only collects the records but also absconds with, absorbs, then totally abstracts and recasts them in ways that make every ear within shot simply boggle.
Hear for yourselves immediately then, not only on Plastic Soul, but each of its three excellent companion volumes as well.
Or, to put it even more exotically, “The Beatles Are Dead! Long Live the Exotic Beatles!”
— Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.