Friday, 4 July 2008
The Beatles "With The Beatles" (1963) ('Core' Album #1, Revised Edition 2014)
Track Listing: It Won’t Be Long/ All I’ve Got To Do/ All My Loving/ Don’t Bother Me/ Little Child/ Til’ There Was You/ Please Mr Postman// Roll Over Beethoven/ Hold Me Tight/ You Really Got A Hold On Me/ I Wanna Be Your Man/ Devil In Her Heart/ Not A Second Time/ Money (That’s What I Want) (UK version – the US version has these tracks split between the records Meet The Beatles and The Beatles’ Second Album)
(First published July 2008; Revised edition first published August 2nd 2014)
'With The Beatles' was the first review that was ever written for Alan's Album Archives - way back in 2008 - and it was chosen as the first one for a reason. It isn't quite the first AAA album ever released (actually it's the 7th, following 'Please Please Me', an astonishing four Beach Boys albums and The Searchers' debut) but it is the point where most fans joined the party. While 'Please Please Me' eight months before rightly got a lot of kudos and respect and sold a lot of records, it was 'With The Beatles' that turned the fab four into a global brand that could stay the distance. It helps that 'With The Beatles' was accompanied by a flurry of publicity: The Beatles' first number one hit (we'll play safe for now and assume it was 'From Me To You' although there's a very good case for saying it was 'Please Please Me') and it's two similarly successful follow-ups ('She Loves You' and 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'); a much-discussed appearance at the Royal Variety Show in 1963 (which not have meant much to young music fans but was still most British mums and dads' introduction to new acts that were deemed to have made the 'big time') and the sheer rise of the Brian Epstein staple (out of the 19 different singles that made number one that year, eight of them were managed by Brian and he tried darn hard to sign the 9th act, The Searchers). While the world got caught up win Beatlemania in a big way in 1964, for the Beatles (and my) home country 1963 was the year of Beatlemania, when the band were everywhere. While a lot of fans bought 'Please Please Me' on the back of the first two singles, many many more bought this second LP. Possibly even more crucial than the first album, if this record had flopped then it might have been all over - for the band, for Merseybeat and the teenage revolution as a whole.
What record-buyers discovered when they got this record home wasn't just that the record was good but that - shock, horror - it actually built on the standards of the last one. It doesn't sound much but the fact that the band were able to record this album across two months instead of one day has made all the difference. While this fact is still remarkable (the band spent a similar amount of time making just 'Penny Lane' and 'Strawberry Fields' and that was without days put aside for touring in the middle!) it does give the band time to really hone their act, to take away the slight mistakes and slow down the adrenalin rush of 'Please Please Me' to the point where this album oozes a sort of 'relaxed cool' that was very much the in-sound of late 1963. In short, the Beatles were growing so fast that this album already sounds as if its been recorded by an entirely different band to its predecessor and more than the haircuts, more than the 'sound', more even than the songs, it's this ability to change with the times (and influence them a little) that will be the key element of The Beatles from here until the end in 1970. For most bands, that is that, you find a formula, you stick with it and consolidate your newfound and hard fought for fanbase with a follow-up album delivered on similar lines. Not so The Beatles. Had second album With The Beatles merely repeated all the features of the first album, the general fickle 60s audiences - ie everyone who liked the music but wasn’t a mad raving passionate fan - would have got bored, just as the Cliff and Elvis fans had before them. By adding in a subtle change of direction on this album, one that didn’t scare away the fans but did win over mums and dads and their first collection of forward-thinking music critics, the Beatles gave themselves the chance to build on their talent, something they did on each and every album that followed this one (bar the full circle farewell of Let It Be at any rate).
Let me just underline again how mind-boggling this album is. The Beatles weren’t particularly ahead of the game in late 1962 and they certainly weren’t the only group trying to make it with their own variation of American beat music, as so many confused critics seem to think nowadays. First single Love Me Do is sweet, but not up to the stuff being written and performed by other groups of the time, on both American soil (the Beach Boys for instance, who were on the eve of releasing their second album when this single came out in October 1962) or even up to the best of the songs being performed by the groups’ Merseybeat and London contemporaries, particularly the Searchers and the Hollies and forgotten groups like the Big Three. Wind on a year, though, to this second album’s release date and the Beatles are light years head of absolutely everyone, off-handedly setting templates and case studies that bands religiously follow even now. It was a brave move and one, frankly, that they didn't need to have taken: much as I adore the first couple of records by fellow Merseybeat acts like The Searchers and The Hollies, their ability to chop and change comes later, with their second albums simply the first ones writ large and slightly tighter; 'With The Beatles', though, is miles ahead of 'Please Please Me'. The Lennon-McCartney originals hardly bear comparison, having all of the exuberance of their earlier material but suddenly an awful lot more complexity and range to boot. Songs like 'Not A Second Time' and 'All I Gotta Do' especially are adding real complex emotions into a sound that till now has been all about excitement, adrenalin and yeah-yeah-yeahs. Even the cover versions are no longer pale hurried re-treads of old songs, they are now fully fledged 'Beatle covers', ones that seem to have moved on from the rather more teenage pin-up songs of the first album ('Chains' 'Boys' 'Twist and Shout' - admittedly not the emotional rollercoasters of 'Anna' or 'Baby It's You') to something deeper ('You Really Got A Hold On Me' 'Devil In Her Heart' and 'Money' - songs not about puppy love or slight fallings out anymore but obsession, jealousy and finance).
We're going to spending a bit of our time from now on looking at whether an albums has any particular 'themes'. A lot of albums don't, a lot have only very vague ones and many more will feature themes that no one in their right mind has ever suggested before and we seem to have come up with out of left-field. Here's a first one for you: betrayal. Whether inspired by John's increasingly difficult relationship with Cynthia (being on tour all the time meant it was the first time the pair had properly spent apart since the first Hamburg tour - at least she visited in the next two outings there) and John admitted years later that he would be shocked at how little he recognised his son Julian every time he got home (born in April 1963, a month after 'Please Please Me', this is the first album recorded after one of the Beatles became a 'family man'). Was Lennon doubting the turn his life had taken and whether he was right to do the noble thing by marrying his girlfriend when she got pregnant. 'All I Gotta Do' tries to be a warm-hearted love song, about how when the narrator's down all he has to do is look at her to feel happy - but it doesn't sound like that; instead a sleepy verse structure keeps dropping in as if he's cooling off and kicking his heels (this is also, against all the odds, how the song ends). 'Not A Second Time' takes the theme even further - Lennon's narrator has been let down so many times that he's just not going to stand for it anymore (even if the song structure suggests he's going to keep coming around every time). Paul's 'Hold Me Tight' is similarly accusatory, with the stabbing line 'You! You! You!' sticking in the head even though the hook's designed to be the playful 'It feels so right!' heard in the chorus (not quite an item with Jane Asher, though very like the songs he'll write for her later, is this a reflection by a now single Paul on Hamburg-era girlfriend Dot?) George's 'Don't Bother Me' takes up the theme too - he gave his all to her, but she left him and now he's never going to open up is heart again. Even some of the cover song choices hint at this wrestling with deeper emotions: 'You Really Got A Hold On me' is about being not in love but infatuated, which isn't quite the same thing; 'Devil In Her Heart' is a dialogue between a loved-up narrator and his more sarcastic friends who know what's really going; finally 'Money' might well be the least romantic song the Beatles ever recorded - in direct contrast to next year's 'Can't Buy Me Love' only cold hard cash is a reason for living - love is for suckers. By contrast 'I Wanna Be Your Man' is also about obsession rather than love, but sung from the obsessed point of view rather than the girl, as if hinting that jealousy and possession works both ways. Even with the breezy optimism of 'It Won't Be Long' (written as the band's next single) and bright 'Please Mr Postman' there's a feeling across this album that something's not quite right - that pretty fair maidens aren't all they're cracked up to be and that one day they'll let you down.
Fans only needed to look at that striking cover to know that something was different. While The Hollies are all toothy grins on their debut 'Stay With The Hollies' (released two months later), The Searchers are dressed in distinctly 1950s suits with 1950s neon lettering on 'Meet The Searchers' (released three months earlier) and The Beach Boys are still releasing variations on their cute-kids-with-surfboards routine, 'With The Beatles' looks all grown-up. One of the things that amazes me about The Beatles story is how a still relatively unknown and not yet quite all-conquering group got so many big name photographers to work for them - and ones who were after something more than just a typical 'band smiling' pose. Robert Freeman (a respected Sunday Time photo-journalist who'd been all over the world by 1963) took this famous shot of The Beatles in a dark room wearing polo-necks rather than the 'suits' every band wore in every photo-shoot in 1963 (even some hilarious ones of The Beatles posing at 'home' in The Beatles Book magazine show them 'just woken up' and making a cup of tea with their grey suits on!) It's a direct contrast to the colourful browns of the 'Please Please Me' look and seems to say 'we're older now, bohemian students rather than schoolboys' (especially with the fact that the band aren't smiling). Yes I know I waxed lyrical about the shot on the front of 'Please Please Me' (and I won't do this for all Beatles covers I promise!) but it's this one that becomes the first truly iconic image of The Beatles that everyone knew (as opposed to Astrid Kirchherr's Hamburg shots that not many people know just yet). What a brave move this was - after all, this is the first Beatles release ever timed to come out for the happy, smiling Christmas market (the band wasn't really big enough this time last year in 1962) and EMI could have cancelled this cover at any time and sent The Beatles back in for one of those inane shots-with-props that were still being used on the American editions of Beatle albums right into 1966 - but they let The Beatles get away with it.
The recording has a lot to do with it certainly: with more time to play with and a couple more tours under their belt (as a success this time) The Beatles are tighter than ever, with their confidences audibly boosted by the ridiculous success of the past year. All of their hunches have proved right so far (refusing to release 'How Do You Do It?', ignoring requests for a second take of 'Twist and Shout', speeding up 'Please Please Me' etc), making the band much more secure that what they're trying here will work (by contrast they don't sound all that sure on earlier songs like 'Chains' or even 'Love Me Do'). However, it's the songs that make all the difference and - 'I saw Her Standing There' 'Please Please Me' and 'She Loves You' apart- it's here where the Beatles begin to be seen as a monumental songwriting team, rather than just the singers in a group. Most casual fans think that Lennon and McCartney wrote most of their songs together – in Lennon’s famous quote sitting ‘eyeball to eyeball’ in the same room as each other. There are actually very very few 50-50 songs in the Lennon-McCartney canon – and most of those had already been used up on the band’s early singles and on their debut album. (The exceptions to this rule are the ‘two-songs-stuck-together’ approach of A Day In The Life, I’ve Got A Feeling and (not generally recognised) the All You Need Is Love b-side Baby You’re A Rich Man. Barring the improvised comedy You Know My Name (Look Up The Number), the group’s only truly genuine post-1964 50:50 collaboration is In My Life, which nearly everyone thinks is a solo Lennon song but is actually a poem of Lennon’s set to music by McCartney). It's true that the pair continue to offer odd lines and ideas to help improve the other’s work for some years yet, something that won't end until at least 'Sgt Peppers' (possibly even 'The White Album' in a few cases written in the communal huddle of India in 1968). Up till now John and Paul have been remarkably close: once Stuart Sutcliffe stayed behind in Hamburg in 1960 they've been largely in-separable, pulling together for the good of the group and the first album duly mops up the last of the small handful of originals Lennon and McCartney wrote together between 1960-62. With The Beatles, however, is the album where the two men begin to break away and the pair start competing and inspiring rather than co-writing together. Lennon’s songs dominate this album, as they do all pre-1966 Beatles releases, and are full of his characteristic touches making for a much more uneven, irregular emotional rollercoaster than 'Please Please Me'. Lennon's songs generally reflect their writer’s mood, stumbling around for a melody or a phrase to reflect what Lennon wants to put into words – as a result, his songs always sound terribly disjointed, as if lots of odds and ends have been cobbled together into one wondrous mood piece ('Happiness Is A Warm Gun' is the biggest example, but even as early as this album a song like 'Not A Second Time' breaks all melodic invention and gets by simply through emotional power). You can tell a Lennon song from more than that though – the burning emotion hovering behind every note, the vocals which leap from dispassionate disinterest to zealous frenzy and the tight, fiery rhythms that dominate his songs. As a result of his rule-breaking and experimentation, the sheet music of almost any Lennon song – even these comparatively simple early ones – are all over the place, as Johnny Rhythm adds in new styles, tempos and key changes as the mood takes him.
McCartney, on the other-hand, isn’t as interested in sudden inspiration as he is in planning and structuring his music to sound like a rounded whole. Even by this second album, McCartney’s compositions really stand out because they are so perfectly formed, with choruses running into verses and into middle eights so spectacularly well that its often hard to tell where one part ends and another begins. Each lyric also sounds as if it’s been tailor-made to fit the melody – not every Macca couplet of this era is a classic, but they go hand-in-glove with the demands of each song’s tune, scanning perfectly and full of clever half-rhymes and wordplay that Beatlemaniacs are still trying to tease out even now. Non-Beatles fans often think that Lennon wrote the rockers and that McCartney wrote the ballads but that’s laughably wrong – both men cover as much ground as they possibly can from the very beginning of their career and frequently step into each other’s so-called ‘shoes’ (Ringo's rocker 'I Wanna Be Your Man' is mainly Paul's work, while ballad 'All I Gotta Do' is very much Lennon's baby). The real difference lies in the fact that Lennon is spontaneous, ready to use any idea that catches his ear or tugs at his heart strings whether it fits or not, whereas McCartney is already the perfect craftsmen, taking his songs and his craft as far as he can, give or take the odd raw screaming vocal or two. This divide will get wider and more noticeable as the albums pile up, but it's largely here where it begins.
While his band-mates were busy winning every song-writing award going, George Harrison was also starting to come up with the goods for the first time. That in itself is quite something: in virtually every other 1960s band the writers who come up with the songs on album one tend to stay the writers all the way through a band's career (only The Kinks - with Dave Davies trying to keep up with his brother Ray - and The Who, 'tricked' into writing the second album equally through a publishing deal, are the exceptions to this rule). To submit your own songs to a songwriting team as strong and as applauded as Lennon-McCartney would be a tough task for anyone - but for the 'baby' of the group, still only 20, to submit his songs to such scrutiny suggests either that they really believed in him (err, not exactly - this is the first and almost last Harrison song where Lennon can be bothered turning up to the session) or that the band were desperate for material (probably somewhat closer to the truth). Throughout his career George’s songs can be roughly divided up into two camps. Even more than McCartney, George wrote several breathtakingly beautiful love songs in his time (first to Patti Boyd and later to Olivia Harrison) and these first ones are scattered across mid-period albums like Help! and Rubber Soul. On the other-hand, George also wrote the Beatles’ most sarcastic and grumpy songs, haranguing everything from taxmen, people stuck in the ‘material world’ and stuck up social classes. His first published song Don’t Bother Me featured on this album is a rare example of Harrison mixing both styles, bemoaning the fact that his beautiful dream love has walked away by lashing out at the world with a grumpy riposte. Personally I love this song, which really fits this album's theme of vulnerability and insecurity, but a lot of fans never have and George was dissuaded from writing again until his love for Patti seems to unblock something in his subconscious circa 1965. If that compositional cameo wasn’t enough George’s guitar-work dominates the album, adding such a distinctive style that anything remotely close to any note played by him on any of his range of guitars simply shouts ‘Beatles’ at you. The glue keeping a disparate band together – a role then-new member Ringo also undertakes later on as he gets to know his band-mates’ idiosyncrasies better – George is all over this album, cementing the classic Beatles sound whilst gamely tackling any new style he’s called on to play.
Ringo doesn’t get any of his songs onto a Beatles album till 1968, but it’s worth spending a paragraph addressing his drum technique. I’ve always been of the opinion that, given the handful of recordings available, Pete Best was a much better drummer for the Beatles’ early cavernous cavern sound and the hapless drummer who came so close and yet so far to finding stardom would have made a great job on the lean, mean 10 tracks-in-a-day recording of Please Please Me. But would Pete Best have been able to tailor his own style to the group as well as Ringo does here, with his characteristic ‘backward drum rolls’ giving each of these songs a natural pop/jazz hybrid swing? The sad fact is that we will never know, but it is worth stating that Ringo's work before this wasn't that promising either - and yet from 'With The Beatles' onwards he's at least on the right path even if he occasionally wanders off it. Like the others, Ringo has been through a real learning curve across 1963 - but unlike the others he isn't used to being in a band that played such a wide range of material. Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were a no-frills rock band, one that was all about fury and fists flying; The Beatles, though, is a much more eclectic, exotic mix of rock along with pop, Motown, soul, country, folk, blues, music hall ballads and whatever-the-hell 'Not A Second Time' is. Ringo really struggles on parts of 'Please Please Me', but he adopts his sound well here, varying the typical 'Ringo' sound heard on all the hit singles so far. Ringo is at his peak in 1966 – when the Beatles’ stylistic experiments were also at their peak – but the biggest leap in his abilities comes right here at the end of 1963, when he suddenly sees the light of what his colleagues are doing and starts honing his own style to fit theirs.
All of this adds into a fascinating album that's still just raw enough to add power and adrenalin but is still amongst the most polished record of the Merseybeat era. Not everything on this album works - 'Til' There was You' is a hopelessly misguided attempt to make The Beatles appeal to their parent's generation that is more often than not skipped nowadays by anybody under 60. 'Little Child' is the shortest Lennon-McCartney original and doesn't get a chance to say much until it disappears, being easily the least distinguished Beatles composition until that moment. There's also no single moment quite as riveting as 'Please Please Me's closing thriller 'Twist and Shout' (although 'Money' is as good as a sequel is ever going to get). However taken as a whole, with the context of what you could expect from an album in 1963 against what it delivers, 'With The Beatles' is still a towering achievement, expanding the band sound in dozens of new ways that will be taken up in 1964 and 1965 and beyond without sacrificing what the band have learnt during their past year of success. The Beatles will go on to make better records, deeper records and more sophisticated records - but 'With The Beatles' is in many ways one of the biggest successes they will ever have: it proved that there was more to the band than haircuts, pop songs and a simple straightforward sound and by going beyond that they expand their shelf-life more than any other band in music up to this point. From here on in they've charmed almost everybody - and with a few exceptions (mainly those born the generation after and in re-action to their success) everyone from npow on is 'With The Beatles'.
Opener It Won’t Be Long might not be the most sophisticated song that Lennon ever wrote (the polished production, however, is in stark contrast to what came out before it!), but it successfully captures everything the Beatles were in 1964 in just over two minutes. A breathtaking Lennon vocal, double-tracked for the first time (Lennon rarely sang without the effect again in his Beatles days), a Harrison guitar-line at its booming hypnotic best, some chaotic Ringo drum fills, a tight walking Macca bassline, lots of yeah yeahs in the backing vocals and an energy, excitement and enthusiasm that the band will never quite equal again. The template for most of the music that will be made right up to the big year of change in 1966, this track is a forgotten gem that most bands would have given their right drumstick to have written – and never hesitated about releasing as a single (typically, this song was in the running but was beaten by the even more exciting and slightly more adventurous I Want To Hold Your Hand). No wonder Neil Young started his singing career in Canada by tackling this song –there’s something about it that’s easy to love whatever its faults and short-comings.
All I’ve Got To Do is the other side of Lennon. Slow and weary, with the song’s narrator dragging out each syllable as if he is fighting for breath, this track is one of the most complex and original written by any so-called ‘pop’ author up to that time. Things get a bit more sprightly in the second verse chorus – and then positively exuberant in Lennon’s hollered chorus – but for those opening bars you can almost hear the music world scratching their heads in puzzlement. What on earth are the Beatles up to now?! I'm not surprised to learn that Lennon was trying to ape his idol Arthur Alexander on this song - this is a typically soulful, slow-burning song that almost matches 'Anna' (an Alexander song) from the last LP. This time though the song peaks not with a moment of 'go now but I still love you' tear but with a shout of joy that the narrator has pledged his love and his girl might ring him at any moment. The curious ending though, returning to the flat sleep introduction, suggests that nothing has changed and that this romance is only going on in his head. One of John's cleverly, most unfairly forgotten compositions.
All My Loving somehow manages to combine the traits of both above songs, being wonderfully wild and inviting and deeply original and complex at the same time. Macca’s first 100-carrot gold classic (though I Saw Her Standing There comes close, admittedly), this song single-handedly brought the Beatles their biggest audience yet. The lyrics might have been inspired by Paul leaving for a tour (Hamburg maybe?) but promising to write home - a natural subject and statement for a man who was by late 1963 getting more love letters through the post than perhaps any one else ever! The highlight though is a typical streamlined, no-fuss guitar solo from George and his sensitive harmony part - a rare chance to hear these two school-friends together without Lennon getting in the way! A natural for the opening slot of America’s Ed Sullivan show on February 9 1964, so many kids and their mums and dads saw the Beatles start with this song that reportedly this date still has one of the lowest crime rates in American history (as most potential offenders were glued to their TV set!) More than most Beatles songs, this composition will bring a tear to the eye of music fans of a certain age and its no surprise. 100% innocent, 100% fun, 100% what the Beatles represented in 1963. Other bands would have released this catchy song as a single instead of keeping it simply as an album track.
The aforementioned Don’t Bother Me adds a decidedly bossa nova-ish bent to this album’s pot pourri of styles and sounds far more like something The Hollies would do than the fab four. Characteristically, Harrison is the first of the Beatles to truly break their usual formula so completely (paving the way for his Eastern experiments later in the decade) and despite this song’s comparatively low status amongst fans then and now, he carries this experiment off with typical aplomb. George is meant to have written this song when he was ill in bed (George had a lot of minor ailments across 1963-64 and came very close to missing the first Ed Sullivan show three months after this album's release) and looking for something to do, which might explain this song's despondent sorry-for-itself tone. However, this song 'sounds' a bit more real than that, especially the yearning middle eight which is the song's highlight ('I know I'll never be the same...') which suggests that, along with John and Paul, George might have been thinking about one of his 'lost loves' from his past too.
By Little Child the enthusiasm is beginning to wane a little bit, both for audience and band. One of the shortest Beatles songs on record (in fact it is the shortest bar the is-the-tape-rolling-yet-oh-what-the-heck-lets-stick-it-on-the-album-to-fill-up-space-anyway songs like Maggie May, Wild Honey Pie and Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?), there’s hardly anything to this song at all, but that doesn’t stop Lennon doing his utmost to belt out the lyric as if it’s a matter of life or death and at least he gives us a quick return to the harmonica playing that made so many of the good early Beatles songs great. Compositionally, though, this is a mess: who exactly is he prepositioning to dance? A girl the narrator's age (making this a love song) who just happens to sport a rather unflattering nickname? Or the younger sister of a girl he fancies? or is Lennon, at 22, being a 'dirty old man'?
Til’ There Was You isn't one of my favourite Beatle moments either. Something of an oddity in the Beatles’ canon, this McCartney-led cover of a tired ballad from a tired 1950s musical The Music Man - and therefore exactly the sort of establishment song that the Beatles and their generation were about to snap in two – its appearance on this album must have really screwed up the heads of the band’s younger fans. But in the context of the Beatles’ career this is I suppose one of the more important songs, giving younger fans of the 60s the chance to show their parents what a charming, melodic band the Beatles could be behind all of the ‘noise’ and ‘shouting’. Surprisingly, though, given McCartney’s superlative vocals on similar slow songs and the band’s occasional later equally mainstream covers, Macca isn’t quite up to doing this cutely romantic little song justice and his vocal wanders off the notes alarmingly in places. The rest of the band, meanwhile, just sound bored. Which they probably were. Paul won't sound this insincere again until he starts banging on about metaphysics and silver hammers and you can almost hear the scowl Lennon is giving off-mike (although George seems quite at home on a more complex-than-normal acoustic guitar solo). To be honest any of Macca's other similar 'standard' songs from the band's repertoire (heard mainly on the BBC sessions: Besame Mucho' 'The Honeymoon Song') would have done the job better.
Please Mr Postman is only three years younger than the last track, but much more what fans have come to expect from the band. Stripping away all the Motown trappings of The Marvelettes’ original, the Beatles add a much more direct rhythm and a much more in-your-face production to make the song fit their style far better than on the mixed bag of covers on Please Please Me. Lennon’s piercing vocal gives this cover much of its spirit, making his obsessive plea to the local postman to get a move on sound like something of earth-shattering importance rather than just the delivery of a love-letter. (Just as well the Beatles weren’t just starting out now or Lennon would probably be singing a slow blues called ‘Please Mr Postman, call off your strike!’) Ringo's clattering drums are especially strong here, with the ending a Beatles tour de force, Lennon even interrupting himself in his own impatience ('deliver the letter, the sooner the bett- - - You gotta wait a minute!', a clever trick which isn't on the original). I'm not so sure about Macca's off-key 'ooh-ing near the end, though.
Roll Over Beethoven is a similarly energetic cover, the Beatles reinforcing Chuck Berry’s 1956 warning that the old music is dead and a new wave of music is at hand without a pause, despite the relative collapse of rock and roll as an accessible style in the mean-time. By the time the Beatles’ recording career started in 1962, Elvis had been drafted into the army and lost much of his bite by appearing in a series of progressively cheap and toothless films, Buddy Holly had died in a 1959 plane crash, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were persona non grata after runs in with the law for such misdemeanours as immorality charges over young girls, marrying 13-year-old cousins and deporting underage youngsters across state boundaries for ‘immoral purposes’ (Berry even went to prison for his offences), Carl Perkins suffered a nasty car crash that put him out of commission for a good few months, Cliff Richard and Little Richard both gave up rock and roll for gospel music and Christianity, Tommy Steele had modified the wild style of his early records to become a safe ‘all-round entertainer’ and the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan had simply run out of steam. The only main figure left from the old rock and roll guard of the 1950s was Bill Haley, who was deemed to be ‘too old’ to be a rock and roll singer in his mid-30s (how times change!) Fittingly, it’s the Beatles’ most committed musician (as opposed to writer) who takes the lead, with this early George Harrison cover a far better vehicle for his voice than arriosnthe rather odd girl group covers and hand-me-down Lennon originals he’d been doing up to this point. George sounds more comfortable here than he did singing doo-wop songs on 'Please Please Me' and this spirited song of intent, while softer than Chuck Berry's original, still packs a punch. Interestingly George is the first Beatle to be heard on the album making the most of extensive double-tracking, something that suits his voice really well although it's a technique more associated later with Lennon. The Beatles have been playing together for so long now that by this stage in their career they rattle off Berry’s witty and fairly complicated song pretty nonchalantly (although Chuck does chicken out of rhyming ‘Beethoven’ or ‘Tchaikovsky’!) sounding as if they’d been playing it for decades, not just two years off-and-on (and in its early days this song would have been sung by Lennon!)
More than any other Beatles composition, Hold Me Tight has undergone something of a renaissance in status recently. Seen as the weak link in the LP by more than one reviewer at the time, it cost the Beatles precious hours when they had to abandon an early version of it intended for Please Please Me and the Beatles had such little faith in the song that it seems likely they’d have abandoned it again for this second album had another strong original been at hand. Modern critics like Ian McDonald see it as a neglected jewel in the Beatles’ early crown, though, a bass-heavy experiment that makes up for in technique what it loses in translation. Personally, it all seems like a lot of fuss for what is a clever but for the Beatles pretty insincere and dispassionate ‘work song’. The Beatles’ recording also unusually fails to capture any of the swing and character of the song, even on the re-make; but having said that, it’s not blatant album filler in the same way that Little Child is and even if the Beatles are obviously still learning how to make their experiments sound good, at least they are experimenting - which by late 1963 standards is a small revolution in itself.
You Really Got A Hold On Me is Lennon in his element, wringing all the emotion he can out of this second Motown classic by Smokey Robinson so that you can’t keep your ears off him, despite the entertaining backing going on behind him and the song’s funeral tempo. Years later at the end of his solo career, when Yoko cheekily told her husband during a recording of the song Woman that he sounded like a ‘Beatle’, Lennon replies (after first losing his temper!) that ‘actually, my dear, the Beatles were always supposing they were Smokey Robinson’ and there’s more than a little truth in that. The band always excelled at subtle, slow-burning passion and this Robinson song is one of the best examples of that style, fitting the song into the ‘Beatles’ sound without sacrificing any of its trademarks and giving a fine reading of a promising song. Lennon is so into the song (and his new-found love of double-tracking) that at times he sounds drunk - though with passion rather than alcohol.
Ringo’s up next and his cameo I Wanna Be Your Man is - uniquely for this period - not a cover but a genuine Lennon-McCartney original, their first of six to be released by the drummer over the next 11 albums and seven years. Ringo’s wild vocals on this track are some of his best and you’d be tempted to think that this unsubtle, almost shouted song was specially written for him but no – John and Paul actually dashed it off as a song for other artists to record (it was even ‘finished off’ at a Rolling Stones session when they were the first to ask for a song and duly came out as the Londoners’ second single, whioch is wilder, rawer and yet slightly less crazed than the Beatles version). Why this song was revived for Ringo so soon after the Beatles’ main rivals’ slower and bluesier version appeared is unknown, especially given the authors’ ungenerous comments about it (Asked years later why they’d given this song to the Stones, Macca is meant to have grinned and said ‘well, we weren’t going to give them anything good now were we?’) Forget McCartney’s comment – this is the Beatles at their primitive best, doing everything in their power to sweep the listener off their feet and largely succeeding, with Ringo much better at this sort of 'manic rush' thing than all the off-key ballads and country-western plods he'll go on to do.
Devil In Her Heart is an unprecedented third George Harrison vocal (he’d have to wait until Revolver to match that amount again!), obviously dashed off in a hurry at the same session which had already seen the taping of Til There Was You, You Really Got A Hold On Me and Money. Despite its obvious weaknesses, though, this song still has charm in spades and both Lennon and McCartney’s nagging background vocals make for a great counterpoint to Harrison’s ‘naïve innocent’ narrator. Ringo's drumming is again to the fore on a sultry version of another Motown song, this time a more obscure track by a forgotten band called The Donays which came out not long before 'Love Me Do'.
Not A Second Time is one of the most obscure songs on this record – certainly out of the group-written material. But why this song is so badly forgotten is hard to fathom. One of the most complex songs Lennon ever wrote, the music perfectly matches the lyrics - with its stumbling hesitant chord structure reflecting the narrator’s painful outbursts that he won’t take a lover back because he doesn’t want to get hurt again. Lennon’s vocal is thrilling, stretching his octave-limit vocals to breaking point and ranging from a piercing high shout to a growling ‘yeah’, spitting out the song’s lyrics in such an angular, irregular way that he literally sounds as if he is trying to shake off this person from his past. There’s no smoke without fire, though, and its obvious to us that behind Lennon’s denials he very much wants to meet his old flame again. Lennon even sends us back through the musical ordeal of the verse a second time straight after finishing the first one – hinting that he might well subliminally be granting his old partner a second chance after all. All in all the highlight of the album, with Lennon running the gamut of emotions from tantrum teenager to wise old soul in the space of 150 seconds.
Album closer Money (That’s What I Want) is an obvious attempt to rekindle the magic of the much-talked about Please Please Me closer Twist and Shout, but none the worse for it. A truly scary piano lick, haunting through its obsession and cold dry symmetry, is matched by one of Lennon’s most naked vocals yet, reaching down into his soul to pour out some improvised words on the song’s tag. Barrett Strong’s original version of this song is nice, has a good sturdy beat and lots of atmosphere but it sounds nothing compared to this version which demolishes the whole tongue-in-cheek charm of the earlier recording for something much more ‘real’ and nasty. In many ways it’s odd that Lennon – the only upper class Beatle, thanks to his Aunt Mimi’s high social standing, always at pains to make people think he was lowly working class like many of his friends – is letting his soul shine through for almost the first time on a song about wealth. Unlike the sneer of Beatles favourite Taxman, Lennon sounds genuinely scared that all he wants in life will be worth nothing if he can’t get hold of money first and its a feeling that he never repeats on any of his other songs or cover choices (you can just imagine what Harrison would have thought of this song championing the ‘material world’ in later life!) A last glimpse of the Beatles’ noisy sweaty Hamburg and Cavern days before things get totally polished and cleaned, Money is 24 carat gold and easily the best 'group' performance on the album, controlled by a tight bass line from Paul and some neat piano work from George Martin on his first really significant part on a Beatles song.
So, the Beatles may have made bolder and better albums than this one, but With The Beatles may well be the most ‘important’ album they did, perhaps the most important on this list. If the band had got it wrong by playing safe and giving their fans straightforward re-treads of their earlier songs, their audience would have soon moved on to some other group and most of the bands that came in the Beatles’ wake would a) never have got a record contract and b) would have had a much smaller fanbase to play to. The Beatles were already streets ahead of the competition on Please Please Me – with this album make that light years ahead and this album lasted a long time as a benchmark for the impressionable musicians arriving in the band’s wake to sit up and take note. This is the sound of the Beatles growing before your very ears, trying out new styles out to see what would fit with just enough of the infectious roar that made so many people love them for in the first place. To be With The Beatles is to experience so many of the things we now take for granted in music, whizzing in front of you for the first time, opening up possibilities left, right and centre. What more can you ask from a record than that?