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For Avid Fans
on 1 March 2009
This is the latest in EMI's series of 4-CD box sets devoted to the label's 1960's beat group's, and the set follows the same pattern as the "Gerry & The Pacemakers" box, in that it gives you the complete released recordings(+ unreleased material) in mono sound, a previously unreleased 1964 concert in remixed stereo, and a reasonable sampling of the group's stereo versions. The sound quality is excellent(unlike the Gerry & The Pacemakers set where the vocals on the mono mixes sounded shrill)
Stereo gained acceptance from UK consumers several years later than in North America, and so EMI/UK believes that UK consumers would prefer the mono versions. In this series of box sets, even for those artists where some or all of the multitracks exist, EMI have opted to present the already released recordings via original 1960's mixes, remixing only where it was neccessary in order to obtain previously unreleased material.
The group's live E.P. appears in the set via the original mono mix, but you also get a complete composite concert in remixed stereo, taken from the two 1964 California shows from which the E.P. was derived. Apparently, the group played the same 11 songs at both shows, so it was a matter of selecting the best performances and recordings of each song. Be cautioned that the group could be quite ragged live. Billy's live singing is erratic. He sings off-key on the hits, but sings well on album tracks. He is not helped by a recording fault which renders bassist Ray Jones inaudible on some songs. This, and the absence of George Martin's piano playing renders the group's instrumental sound thin. In fairness, the group may have had difficulty hearing themselves due to the screaming audience. Still, it's an interesting documentation of that era.
The Dakotas also had a side career releasing a few singles on their own, and you get these tracks too(some presented in both stereo & mono) and unreleased material. Despite what you would think, not all of these tracks are instrumental, and an unidentified member(probably Mike Maxfield) provides vocals on some.
As for the recordings with Billy, you get their lone album("Listen") in both its' mono & stereo versions, and all the hits, some of which were especially written by Lennon & McCartney(mostly by Lennon), including "I'll Keep You Satisfied", "Bad to Me","Do You Want to Know a Secret" & "From a Window". Amongst the rarities included are a rendition of Lennon/McCartney's "I'm in Love"(later a hit for "The Fourmost", which was previously released in 1991 on an American CD "The Definitive Collection"). Unlike most of the other box sets in this series, there's no sessionography, so it's not possible to say whether this set gives us every existing unreleased track, though the 132-track set claims 30 previously unreleased songs or mixes.(some of the previously unreleased tracks appear in both mono & stereo).
Much has been made of Billy's vocal limitations, though certainly George Martin's expert production concealed some of the shortcomings of Billy & bassist Ray Jones, and resulted in some memorable recordings. George Martin has made derogatory comments about Billy's singing abilities over the years, but in fairness, it should be noted that Billy was naturally a baritone, but either the Dakotas or George Martin were setting the keys uncomfortably high on many songs, to have Billy sing in a tenor range, where he sometimes had pitch problems. Still this resulted in hits.
Billy was able to have two hits("Trains & Boats & Planes" & "Little Children") without Lennon/McCartney songs, but like many Northern beat groups, Billy J.Kramer & the Dakotas had difficulty adapting to the times, and Billy also blames substance abuse problems for his commercial downfall. After becoming sober in the 1980's, he briefly recorded for both the EMI & RAK labels, and those singles are also included here, including the anti-nostalgia "You Can't Live on Memories", a rare co-write from Billy himself, who was previously not a songwriter. While still not a vocal powerhouse, he certainly didn't lose any vocal quality(at least not up to that point).
As for the decision to use only original mixes of the released recordings, it should be noted that EMI/Uk executives(for unknown reasons) disliked engineer Ron Furmanek's remixed stereo versions of 1960's EMI beat group recordings done for a series of 1991 EMI Records Group/North America CD's titled "The Definitive Collection", and so few of these mixes have ever been issued in the UK.
Billy was unable to achieve one satisfactory take of Lennon/McCartney's I'm in Love", but Furmanek was able to assemble a (quite acceptable) composite of two takes, whose release EMI/UK executives disapproved of. How curious that Furmanek's stereo composite version appears in this set, albeit summed down to mono with additional E.Q. & reverb.
Unlike two other sets in this series of 4-CD boxes, this set is entirely free from mastering gremlins, and sounds great. Whether you need this much Billy J.Kramer & The Dakotas depends on you. This is obviously for hardcore fans and completists. Others would likely be satisfied by one of the numerous hits compilations.
The packaging is attractive, but the booklet is the most minimal of any of the 4-CD boxes in this series. There's no sessionography, recording dates or info about where(and on what single or album each track was first release) Still, the previously unreleased studio material is consistently good.
Does this 4-CD render all previous Billy J.Kramer & The Dakotas CD's obsolete? No. You'll still need the American CD "The Definitive Collection" which has the only-ever stereo versions of "Do You Want to Know a Secret", "Bad to Me", I'm in Love" & "I'll Be on My Way".
I look forward to more EMI box sets by artists of this era. With some speculating on how much longer the label may exist, now is the time to release the remaining vault material that they've got.