Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas


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Billy J. Kramer's Listen is one of the more important non-Beatles Liverpool albums of its era, and also one of the better ones. Additionally, it's almost as much a tribute to George Martin's skill as a producer as it is to anything that Billy J. Kramer or the Dakotas brought to the sessions. It shows off the mixture of driving beat, heavy guitars, and emotionally expressive, American-style vocals that characterized the sound of the city, along with the lyrical balladry that the Beatles (especially McCartney, in Martin's hands) had added to the formula. Only a tiny handful of the tracks, such as "Sugar Babe," "Great Balls of Fire," and perhaps "Da Doo Ron Ron," really qualify as a classic, thumping Liverpool rockers, shouters with a heavy bass and raw vocals. The tendency for much of this album is, rather, to focus on Kramer's romantic, ballad style, to which he was marginally suited with his limited vocal abilities. "I Know" (credited to George Martin and Bob Wooler, and which tries hard to be a rewrite of "Do You Want to Know a Secret"), the standard "The Twelfth of Never," "Tell Me Girl," "Still Waters Run Deep," and "It's Up to You" were the direction that someone saw Kramer's voice taking him. Kramer's double-tracked vocals cover a multitude of natural flaws in that voice; only "Tell Me Girl" shows the fraying edges of his singing, and the band keeps such a solid beat that it comes off well. And then there are the rocking ballads, which show off the Merseybeat sound at its best as the Beatles had altered it as early as 1963: "Dance with Me," "I Call Your Name," "Beautiful Dreamer," and Leiber & Stoller's "Yes" (which was actually covered in a better version by Johnny Sandon & the Remo Four on Pye). "Beautiful Dreamer" shows Kramer and the band trying hard to sound like the Beatles on their first album and succeeding two-thirds of the way, except that Ringo would've had a punchier beat and George Harrison a more angular lead guitar part -- they get closer to that sound on their cover of Lennon and McCartney's "I Call Your Name." Here as on several other tracks, Martin's piano covers up holes that double-tracking Kramer's voice doesn't. [The EMI 100th Anniversary series reissue combines the mono and stereo versions of the album on one CD. The mono is much punchier and heavier, but as usual in Parlophone albums of this period, the stereo mixes reveal a wealth of details in terms of how the rhythm and lead guitar parts and the bass were put together, and 24-bit processing has left the instruments so clean that this set of tracks are worth hearing as well, even if it sounds like Kramer is singing from one side of the room and the band working on the other. Mike Maxfield's lead guitar parts on "Sugar Babe" are also worth isolating.]

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