* * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty : : ROUND ONE OF BEATLES SAGA ENDS

October 18, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

This periodic column will comment on classic pop albums available on compact disc and noteworthy budget CD releases .

Round One in the Beatles CD campaign comes to an end Tuesday with the release of "Abbey Road" and "Let It Be." But you can bet someone is already working on Round Two.

There's no way Capitol Records is not going to Capitolize further on what is by far the most remarkable sales story in the young history of compact discs.

Despite strong promotional CD pushes behind such other major pop or rock attractions as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones, nothing has approached the sales excitement generated by the Beatles.

And there are lots of future Beatles CD possibilities, including an album that would bring together various singles (from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to "The Ballad of John and Yoko") not found on the 13 packages issued so far. Also possible: "greatest hits" sets similar to the well-received "1962-66" and "1967-1970" double albums (61 and 99 minutes, respectively) or theme-oriented retrospectives along the lines of "Rock and Roll Music," the 72-minute double album.

Part of the fun of listening to the Beatles again is measuring your reaction to the music now against your memory of it. For me, the memory of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was more compelling than the actual music turned out to be when I listened to the CD, largely because many of the songs are undistinguished.

Yet "The White Album"--not one of my favorite Beatles albums--proved to be an especially touching work after all this time: an album filled with the sadness and isolation of four individuals who had drifted irrevocably apart.

Similarly, "Abbey Road"--which ranked far below "Rubber Soul" and other pre-"Pepper" albums on my list of Beatles favorites--emerges as a far more affecting and inspiring work than I had long believed. It stands as a final, heroic attempt to pull everything together again.

"Let It Be." Capitol (35 minutes)--Though recorded before "Abbey Road," it was released afterward (in 1970) and in controversial shape. Because the band members themselves were hopelessly divided, they turned the tapes over to Phil Spector, the legendary American record producer whose lavish, dramatic "wall of sound" style was the centerpiece of such classic '60s hits as the Ronettes' "Be My Baby."

While many Beatles cultists attacked Spector for putting too much embroidery on the music (especially strings), Spector is a master of musical emotion, and his version of Lennon's exquisite "Across the Universe" is far more evocative than the bare-bones version that appears on the "Rarities" album. Yet there is a sense of divided vision in the final product that leaves the album a step below the Beatles' best LPs. * * * 1/2.

"Abbey Road." Capitol (47 minutes)--This 1969 album, most Beatles historians agree, was a compromise between Lennon, who disliked thematic works ("those little pop operas," he once branded them) and McCartney, who was interested in pursuing the ambitious, interlocked song structure of "Sgt. Pepper."

The result was a series of straightforward tunes (highlighted by Lennon's rootsy "Come Together" and George Harrison's soothing "Something") on Side 1 of the album and a stylish McCartney tapestry on Side 2. The latter was climaxed by "Carry That Weight," an endearing, if unguardedly sentimental reflection on the tension that had shackled the Beatles since "Sgt. Pepper" and was now threatening to suffocate the band.

Despite the underlying tension, the album exudes a surprising sweetness in the embracing harmonies and the frequently sensitive guitar work. No longer buoyed by the idealism and promise of the group's early years, the Beatles at the point of "Abbey Road" were musicians forced to dig deep inside themselves for a strength that they most surely no longer knew was at their command. In these sessions, they also struggled gallantly for the sort of interaction that was no longer possible in their personal relationship. * * * *


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