Tuesday, 19 June 2012
The Beatles "Beatles For Sale" (1964) (News, Views and Music 149)
The Beatles “Beatles For Sale” (1964)
No Reply/I’m A Loser/Baby’s In Black/Rock ‘n’ Roll Music/I’ll Follow The Sun/Mr Moonlight/Kansas City-Hey Hey Hey//Eight Days A Week/Words Of Love/Honey Don’t/Every Little Thing/I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party/What You’re Doing/Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby
It seems odd starting this review with the line that ‘Beatles For Sale’ is an under-rated album, but it is. Yes its by The Beatles, recently acknowledged as the best selling artists in the whole of Elizabeth II’s reign on the throne (by people with too much time on their hands – does she care? Do we?) and yes it stayed at #1 in the album charts for an impressive 11 weeks, making our list of AAA albums with most weeks on the chart a few issues back (and this is when there was a lot more competition around than today!) And yet of all the 14 songs on this album there’s only one (‘Eight Days A Week’) that the band’s casual fans will be able to name – and then only in America where this song was released as a single (it is solely an album track in Britain). Even critics don’t seem to like this album much, then and now, calling it the least essential album and pointing to the rather rushed circumstances behind its release that saw all of these songs recorded in seven hectic days, scattered in between touring commitments. I’d never claim that ‘Beatles For Sale’ is the jewel in the band’s crown and, yes, there are more mist-steps and mistakes on this album than average by the fab four’s high standards (‘Mr Moonlight’ ‘Words Of Love’ ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’). But equally there’s a lot of greatness brimming just below the surface on this album, with some of the more introspective songs setting the tone for what’s to come in the folk-rock year of 1965 and far in advance of what was ‘normal’ for a song in 1964.
One thing fans and critics have been quick to hit on is the album’s slightly unfinished air, with this album making the coveted Christmas market only by the skin of it’s teeth (November 27th 1964 – some songs were being recorded as late as October 26th which didn’t give much time for mixing/packaging/marketing!) In the words of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ the film, The Beatles had just spent the best part of the year in a car and a room, a train and a room, a stage and room and a room and a room (coming as close to working ‘eight days a week’ as its possible to get). In 2012 employers would have been prosecuted for working bands this hard, but back in 1964 everyone involved was convinced rock and roll was still a fad and they had to milk it for all it was worth as quickly as possible. While all the Beatles enjoyed fame to different degrees they didn’t really get a chance to enjoy it until mid 1965 (when they had their first serious break) and by late 1964 all tbhat excitement and energy had given away to tiredness and apathy. Add in all the dignitaries trying to get a piece of The Beatles in the second half of 1964 (one millionaires at an embassy in London actually cut off a piece of Ringo’s hair without so much as asking) and there isn’t so much a recipe for disaster in the making of this album as half-cooked in the oven. In truth it’s a wonder that ‘Beatles For Sale’ isn’t an even more uneven record than it is, recorded approximately two years into the band’s recording career – and the point where things often begin to go pear-shaped for even the most resilient of bands (just ask Lindisfarne, The Monkees and The Small Faces).
If you doubt how tough things were for The Beatles across 1964 then you only have to look at the rather battered and cynical faces staring out at you from the cover. The small-cut collage images on previous LP ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ are perfect for summing up that album’s bounce, energy and sheer verve – by contrast ‘Beatles For Sale’ sounds tired in places, as if all the joy has suddenly gone out of the music business all four Beatles had been craving through so many years. It’s actually quite a brave move for the band and for photographer Robert Freeman to let the image pass, complete with the washed out sunlight that makes the band look sick and pale (and really shows up the acne on George’s chin!) – the first real time a Beatles pic had been officially licensed featuring them looking anything but young, cool and fashionable (people forget today just how key the Beatles’ style was to their story, long before people started talking about their music in such detail). Clearly this album is where the Beatles’ love of honesty and reality kicks in, although that element of Lennon’s writing in particular doesn’t really get going till 1968. More interesting still is the Freeman collage inside the gatefold sleeve, an early pointer towards ‘Sgt Pepper’ with its mix of famous faces from around the world – even if the half-smiles of the band suggest that they don’t really ‘get’ what the picture is about just yet). Even the title of the album is touching on the cynical, with the Beatles’ artistic thoughts and carefully produced creations simply another ‘product’ to be fitted in around the Beatles Cartoon series, the ‘flip your wig’ game and the playing cards made out of knickers. To the best of my knowledge no one has revealed who came up with this album title and why – but you can bet it wasn’t EMI, who would surely have taken it the wrong way (in America where Capitol had more ability to change British albums they avoided this album title altogether, splitting the tracks between ‘Beatles ‘65’ and ‘Beatles VI’). So if The Beatles don’t seem to care anymore, should we care about this album now, here in 2012 some 48 years later, or simply move on to discuss ‘Help!’ and ‘Rubber Soul’?
Well, a bit like our review of The Monkees Present last week, when this album is good it’s amazing – and when its poor its atrocious. We’ve often said on this site that The Beatles aren’t necessarily the best group on our list but won their kudos through being so amazingly consistently good right across the board. Sadly that’s not true of this album, which can really be divided up into the eight recordings The Beatles lovingly crafted between August and early October 1964 – and the hurried session on October 26th that saw them record no less than seven songs in one marathon session (of which only the period A side ‘I Feel Fine’ is of any real importance in the band’s story). But that’s not to say we should dismiss it out of hand, because ‘Beatles For Sale’ does include perhaps the two most under-rated tracks of their career (certainly the first half of their career), with ‘I’m A Loser’ and ‘Every Little Thing’ central to the band’s development from 1964 into 1965 (you could make a case for the recording of ‘Eight Days Of A Week’ too, in which a comparatively lightweight song is given the full treatment and sounds tremendous).
The return to rock and roll covers on ‘Beatles For Sale’ is unfortunate, both because the all-original ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ from July that same year made going back to cover material passé and because the band are trying to revive what are now fast becoming distant memories of their Hamburg set list, after two years of playing a strict 25 minute set of hits and previously recorded live favourites. The fact that the band have gone for some of the more obvious covers around, back when everyone else was doing these songs too (The Beach Boys did ‘Rock and Roll Music’; The Hollies ‘Mr Moonlight’) rather than the more usual Beatles tactic of doing the B-sides of American hits shows what a hurried set this was. But the originals are nearly all excellent additions to the Lennon/McCartney catalogue (this fourth album being the last not to feature George Harrison as a regular composer just yet) and stretch the genres of country/folk/rock/pop hybrids already heard in part on album number three by some margin. Lennon, especially, is learning his trade fast here, rebelling against the craziness of fandom and the worship of the press who adored his every move, offering up glimpses to the scared, paranoid 24-year-old kid he really was whilst making this album. ‘Help!’ is generally reckoned by everyone from Lennon down to be the guitarist’s great stride forward with his songwriting, but I’d nominate ‘I’m A Loser’ for the award of ‘first Beatles song written from the heart’. McCartney too adds some grit to his writing career with ‘What You’re Doing’, the first of a run of stormy songs about the friction between him and girlfriend Jane Asher and turns in ‘Every Little Thing’, one of his most undeservedly overlooked songs.
There’s one thing about this album I don’t understand though. If you know the ‘Beatles At The BBC’ set (and the full 10 disc bootleg sets of session tapes around) you’ll know that The Beatles recorded a dazzling amount of material never released by them on an album. There are some real gems there like ‘I’ve Got A Woman’ ‘Ooh! My Soul!’ ‘I just Don’t Understand’ ‘Lend Me Your Comb’ ‘Clarabella’ and ‘Soldiers Of Love’ to name just a few, not to mention the retro but still passable Lennon/McCartney original ‘I’ll Be On My Way’. If The Beatles had to dip back into their past to resurrect some old covers from the days of Hamburg and the Cavern, then why not resurrect the songs they’ve already dusted off a year or so before (most of the Beatles radio sessions were in the second half of 1963). Why plump instead for ‘Honey Don’t ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’ and ‘Mr Moonlight’, only the first of which was played by The Beatles on radio (and then in a different arrangement with Lennon singing, not Ringo). Even odder is the fact that a band so short on time should devote a couple of hours to recording the rollicking classic ‘Leave My Kitten Alone’ with such energy and verve – and then dump it in favour of the cornball ‘Mr Moonlight’, making it possibly the most exciting Beatles outtake and one of the highlights of the undisputed Anthology sets. Substitute the six lesser songs on this album for ‘Kitten’ and a few other BBC songs and suddenly you see just how wonderful this album could have been... Still, as with pretty much all early Beatles albums, the cover songs are a bonus – its the originals that make the album.
One trend it’s possible to see on this album is the way that girls go from being saintly denizens of virtue and the be and end all of a teenager’s life to a slightly darker, more complex theme. McCartney’s much publicised relationship with Jane Asher (the Posh and Becks of their time, albeit with two people who were actually famous for more than just being famous) is getting stormy by late 1964, with the two of them wrapped up in their separate careers and neither wanting to budge over spending more time at home and less at work (although McCartney was living with his in-laws in London in this period and Jane’s dad Richard’s impressive book shelves on every subject under the sun – many of them stored in Paul’s bedroom and there for him to browse – really start to take effect by the following year). Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia isn’t stormy yet according to both his and her accounts, but clearly something’s troubling John in this period, with every single girl in his songs for this album out to deceive, betray, lie or mope her way out of a relationship. If ‘What You’re Doing’ is Paul’s sudden ‘breakthrough’ song in the sense that it’s the first time he’s writing as himself and not a character, then Lennon is picking up on the themes left hanging in the air from side two of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (and especially closer ‘I’ll Be Back’) and running further with them than ever. Of the eight original songs on this record only two, the false but gloriously arranged ‘Eight Days A Week’ and Paul’s song ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ (first written in 1961) have love as something good and positive in the narrator’s lives. Coming so soon after ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ (released just nine months before this album), this is a huge step, with The Beatles growing up before our ears.
There are three possible explanations for why The Beatles suddenly started growing as songwriters in this period, after what had already been a pretty exhilarating ride from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, and two of them relate to Bob Dylan. The folk boom, obvious by 1965 but already an influence by 1964, is clearly part of The Beatles’ wide range of influences by this time, with ‘Beatles For Sale’ full of strummed acoustic guitars and a range of characters who actually react to their surroundings and ‘grow’ during the song (whereas previously they were either in or out of love for the most part). Naturally enough, it was Dylan’s future collaborator George Harrison who first introduced his albums to the band, although he himself won’t start using the ‘Dylan’ style of song until 1969. There’s no Dylanish wordplay and precious little harmonica-puffing on ‘Beatles For Sale’ (after three straight albums where the harmonica is key to the Beatles sound), but the influence is there. The second Dylan influence came in a meeting in the Autumn of 1964 when the Bobmeister met the band in a hotel room and introduced them to marijuana (he’d mistakenly heard the middle eight of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and mis-heard it as ‘I get high’, a slang drug term that meant he’d thought they were seasoned drug takers already; The Beatles were too embarrassed to tell him otherwise). Long before the Beatles got into serious drugs, the use of marijuana clearly has an effect on their work, setting Lennon in particular off on a three-year journey of self-discovery when he began to write more and more about himself. Neither influence lasts for that long – the folk boom is dead by mid-1966 and the harsher ‘freakbeat’ feel of ‘Revolver’ and in another six months LSD has become the Beatles’ drug of choice, but this album is clearly a stepping stone on that journey we know so well.
The third, unusually, came from Ringo. While the drummer was as madly into rock as the rest of the band his other passion was for country music – and his ‘Nashville’ album ‘Beaucoups Of Blues’, recorded after the band split in 1970, is quite possibly his best (along with the famous ‘Ringo’ and not so famous ‘Stop And Smell The Roses’ and ‘Time Takes Time’). Prior to this stage in The Beatles career its been John, Paul and George’s record collections that have kept them going in hotel rooms and back home, but Ringo’s been a member for two years now and his influence is starting to take hold. An influence too is the fact that ‘Beatles For Sale’ is the first album started from scratch following the Beatles’ triumphant American tour and, sponges that they were, The Beatles clearly absorbed something from their travels across the deep South. The most obvious link with country music is on ‘I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party’, a Lennon original that’s close to the stereotype of 99% of country songs (the other 1% involving dead dogs of course), but it’s also there in the downbeat mood of ‘Baby’s In Black’, this ‘new’ version of ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ and the gospel-tinged arrangement of ‘Mr Moonlight’. Many a 1950s performer had turned to country to supplement their rock and roll songs (Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, etc) – but its unusual to hear a 1960s band go there (until 1969, anyway, when everyone – and their dead dogs – seem to be part of the act).
This cornucopia of influences mean that ‘Beatles For Sale’ has a sound pretty much unique to this album. By the time of next album ‘Help!’ the drugs have kicked in, folk-rock is king across the Western side of the globe and The Beatles have just had a bit of welcome time off (filming ‘Help!’ the movie in the Bahamas was also pretty easy work by Beatles standards!) In late 1964, though, this is a dark and moody album, still recognisably the beat-heavy catchy pop of the three albums before but now with an edge, a mystery and a complexity. The Beatles haven’t had the time to make this album the masterpiece it could have been but here and there are examples of just why so many people continued to worship the fab four, even in the wake of what’s generally regarded as their weakest album. The fact that they called this half-workmanlike, half inspired album ‘Beatles For Sale’ manages to be both hysterical, accurate and cynical all at the same time.
The Beatles were clearly searching for a new direction somewhere between this album and ‘Help!’ One of their big innovations that no other groups seemed to pick up on was the idea of a ‘complete’ story told in song, with a beginning middle and end. ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Drive My Car’ are the two best known examples of it but ‘No Reply’ is the best: an upbeat recording of a sad song about the narrator’s evidence that he’s been jilted, however much his girl protests her innocence. Leading on from the same uncomfortable A Major/AMinor key hybrid as ‘I’ll Be Back’ (the last track on predecessor ‘I’ll Be Back’), this song has an uncomfortable, funeralaic air unusual for songs in 1964. The band’s most dramatic song until ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, this song derives its tension from the dispassionate narrator telling the story on the verses and the anguished sudden bursts of emotion throughout (‘I Saw the light!’ ‘I nearly died!’) The song is also a good example of how far The Beatles were prepared to go in the quest for getting the right sound – the early takes, as heard on Anthology One, sounds like a sweet and simple song; this version sounds like Armageddon, without a single changed note of melody or lyric. The heavy use of echo and the almost hidden crashing piano chords (drowned out by the guitar staccato stabs) sound like George Martin’s idea – if so, then its one of his best ideas of the whole decade. The song is most memorable, though, for the crushing middle eight, when the crushed narrator’s anger rises and he goes for an extended crusade held largely on one note (a very Lennon trick, that), complete with doubled up drum beats from Ringo and handclaps. This passage (‘If I were you I’d realise that I...’) is one of the most exciting moments in the Beatles canon, full of depth drama and excitement and is the perfect counterpart to the rather tired and melancholy verses filled with sadness. Listen out too for the full ending: you expect it to resolve the way every other line in the song has, but no, we get a very strange chord indeed, leaving the song hanging in mid-air, unresolved. One of Lennon’s best early songs, full of tricks with time and having the emotion of the song dictate the way the melody rises and falls, it would have made for a fine single – indeed, the band recorded the song with that idea in mind before coming up with the fun but rather more inconsequential ‘I Feel Fine’.
‘I’m A Loser’ is better yet, a highly revealing song from Lennon that shows the Dylan influence with the band at its peak. More Byrds than the Byrds, this is perhaps the earliest folk-rock song original from the 1960s around and finds the band, for the first time, going for the emotion in the song and not caring about tidying up the final image. Lennon’s moody lyrics about ‘I’m not what I appear to be’ seem like a pre-cursor to ‘Help!’, a cry for help from the then-most idolised man on the planet that he didn’t feel himself to be worthy of his public image. On the face of it the narrator has everything and is the life and soul of the party – but a woman has tricked him and broken his heart. Like ‘Norwegian Wood’, too, there’s something of a murky shadow across this song, as if Lennon can’t reveal all the details (he was quite a womaniser in this period, something even wife Cynthia had worked out), but notably Lennon still ends this song a loser – he doesn’t set first to the furniture in revenge as he does in ‘Wood’, he simply offers his tale to his listeners to learn from (a very Dylan trait that the Beatles never really use again). Lennon famously spoke in his Rolling Stone interview of 1970 that ‘half of me thinks I’m God almighty and half of me thinks I’m a loser’ – this song is the two versions of self hitting each other head on and its interesting that Lennon should end this song as messed up as he began it. Note too how Lennon sings in the lowest vocal he ever used, starting pretty deep and then going deeper as the vocals seem to vanish off a cliff. Listen out too for the last use of harmonica on a Beatles song – what had once been so crucial to their act in 1963, with Lennon playing a distinctive blend of pop, rock and blues, is now just a prop to make the song sound even more Dylanish, sounding much scruffier than is usual for Lennon (reportedly he told Rolling Stone Brian Jones in this period on their first meeting ‘you guys play it properly whereas I just puff and blow’ – Lennon’s growing lack of confidence on the instrument therefore make it the perfect accompaniment for this edgy song. Certainly Lennon was fond of this song, another song from this album he pushed to become a single (before coming up with ‘I Feel Fine’ instead).Not really singles material, it still remains one of the undisputed highlights of ‘Beatles For Sale’. There’s a hint that this song is not entirely serious though – on live versions of this song (played during the band’s early 1965 tours) Lennon often changed his line ‘beneath this mask I am wearing a frown’ to ‘under this wig I am wearing a tie’. Unusually for The Beatles there’s no ‘middle eight’ in this song.
A third straight original in a row, ‘Baby’s In Black’ was the first song recorded for the album – and its origins may date back even further. Like ‘Yes It Is’ this song is about death, the great taboo subject in pop, but dressed up to sound like fun and may well have been inspired by the sad sight of the band’s friend and Hamburg photographer Astrid Kirchherr’s mournful face when she met the Beatles on their last trip to Germany with the sad news that ‘fifth Beatle’ (and her fiancé) Stuart Sutcliffe had died of a sudden brain haemorrhage (the pair nearly always dressed in black anyway). Half serious, half playful, this song about a girl ignoring the narrator because of some past love (while possibly dressed in mourning garb) makes for an uncomfortable ride, complete with some deliberately fake and countrified harmonies that sound much sourer than The Beatles’ usual pristine vocals (more like Lindisfarne’s in fact). Indeed, Ian McDonald’s excellent book ‘Revolution In The Head’ sees this song as being derived from a traditional sea shanty and both do have the same sing-songy heave-ho feel to the rhythm. The last true 50/50 Lennon/McCartney collaboration started from scratch working together (with a special case for ‘In My Life’), it sounds like the work of both men, with Mccartney’s natural gift for a melody joined by Lennon’s natural gift for not letting the tune interfere with the emotion in the song (the line ‘oh how long will it take’, for instance, is pure Macca complete with perfect resounding thirds harmonies while following line ‘till she sees the mistake she has made’ is pure Lennon, with far too many words that nonetheless drag the song forward to the next verse, making the listener feel they are having an ‘experience’). The poor rhyme of ‘him’ and ‘only a whim’ is a bad lapse in a song that otherwise makes for quite a brave stab at writing something different and which modulates through more unexpected keys than a locksmith with a special offer on. You might remember in our review for the ‘Smile’ box set a while back I quoted my old music teacher who claimed waltzes could never be played fast and therefore there weren’t any in rock and roll? Well this song and ‘I Me Mine’ are two Beatles examples you could make – while not as fast as ‘Cabinessence’ both are played with a real swing and drive and was announced in concert as a ‘waltz for all those of you over the age of five’(!) A surprise choice for live performance (this song had a pedigree longer than most, lasting right up until the last tour in 1966), there’s just something slightly too artificial about this song to make it a fully fledged classic.
‘Rock and Roll Music’ is a rare Chuck Berry cover from the Beatles, four of his biggest fans on the planet, and frankly I’d rather have heard them doing ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ or ‘Memphis Tennessee’ (two of the highlights from ‘Beatles At The BBC’. Still, this paean to rock and roll as a tonic to solve all ills manages to be both very Berry-like (in the short sharp lyric phrases and unfussy rhythm) and very Beatles like (Macca’s swinging bass line and Ringo’s thud-whack drums). Berry’s original is often tongue-in-cheek, raising music to the level of a religious writ with the hint of a chuckle in his voice throughout – there’s no such layering going on in the Beatles version, which is just out and out belief and worship[ in the glory of music. Lennon’s voice is delicious, all spirit and sawdust (or should that be guts and gravel?), adding depth and urgency that the rather timid original doesn’t possesses (the same as he did with the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist and Shout’ and Barrett Strong’s ‘Money’). For a song about rock and roll, though, its notable how un-rock at times this song is: there’s hardly any guitar, the lead instrument is a piano (with George Martin’s contribution here sounding more like jazz than rock) and the echo that drenches Lennon’s vocal, while sounding great, takes the rawness and power out of the song that a rock recording generally demands from its subjects. Unlike the other covers on this album, the Beatles knew this song well and had been playing it off and on since the late 50s and Lennon especially loved this song, which might explain why the band nailed it in one take. The power and energy in the song is impressive for a band who are watching the clock tick round through a heavy session (at which they’d already recorded ‘Kansas City’ ‘I Feel Fine’ ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ and ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’) and the result is one of the band’s better covers, although the lack of band harmonies in the song is a shame (especially when Lennon stumbles and comes in late on the last verse, with a voice clearly past it’s best, a mistake that would have been covered up normally). The Beach Boys loved this song too, scoring a top 10 hit with a rather anodyne cover in 1976.
‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ slows things down a notch for a gentle folky song that must have sounded pretty new and exciting back in late 1964. How shocked the fans, hailing this as a folk-rock classic, would have been had it been common knowledge than that Paul had written this song in 1960! Originally played on rock instruments and played at a faster lick and missing the middle eight, an early recording of this song in the Cavern Club does exist – although shamefully hasn’t been officially released yet. A simple song that’s very McCartney in the way it tried to make a sad song upbeat, this is a narrator promising future difficulties with a smile, telling his girl that he’ll be gone when the right time comes and that she’ll always remember him as ‘the one’. For an 18 year old wannabe its pretty impressive, with a natural melody line that seems to perfectly link from one section to another without any join being noticeable, it proves how natural McCartney’s gifts as a composer were (Lennon and Harrison had to work on this aspect more, being more natural wordsmiths). However, there really isn’t enough material here to make even this short a song last and it’s clear that this song was only being revived now, with Macca as a busy 22-year-old, because the band were so pushed for time. The gap between the opening/closing and the later, more rounded middle eight (‘And now the time has come and so my love I must go...’), with some pretty spiffing harmonies between John and Paul, shows just how far McCartney had come. George, too, struggles with his electric guitar solo, with the simple chords not leaving him much room for manoeuvre – louder than everything else on the record, however much the mix tries to bury it, this solo sounds horribly out of place.
‘Mr Moonlight’ is a real error of judgement, with the Beatles taking a silly song very seriously indeed. Lots of bands did this Dr Feelgood song (The Hollies recorded it for their first album ‘Stay With The Hollies’), with Lennon in particular expressing his love for it, and I’ve no idea why: the stop-start rhythm disrupts the flow of the song every time it gets going, the theme of the song about moonlight leading to romance is as unoriginal as it gets and there’s so little variety in the song. Lennon tries gamely with it, with another thrilling vocal as loud and raw as his take on ‘Rock and Roll Music’, but heard on such a daft and ponderous song the effect just sounds ridiculous, like a man shouting about his shopping list at the top of his voice. Even worse is the Hammond organ solo, played by McCartney, which just roots the song so badly to bad 1960s nightclubs that it’s even harder to take the rest of the song seriously. The Beatles Cartoon series loved this song, incidentally, using it lots of times – which tells you everything you need to know about how ‘cartoon-like’ this song is. Why this song made the album (with the Beatles actually wasting time on a re-make – the officially unissued first version is better, incidentally, rockier with no organ solo and much closer in sound to the other Beatles covers on this album) when ‘Leave My Kitten Alone’ didn’t I’ll never understand. One of the biggest mistakes of any Beatles album, right up there with ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’ ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ ‘Piggies’ and ‘Across The Universe’ as the five biggest (the five only?) mistakes The Beatles ever made.
Not that ‘Kansas City’ is much better. Most Beatles fans rave for this cover, but I can’t say I’ve ever been that excited by McCartney’s Little Richard impressions (so close to the real thing you may as well dig out the original and listen to Richard Pennimen himself). Originally a Leiber and Stoller song, it was Little Richard who wrote the ‘hey hey hey’ coda which fits the song like a glove. Macca huffs and puffs in his lowest ‘She’s A Woman’ type voice and is clearly having a ball in this recording, but the unusual walking beat is giving the band problems and, again, George’s guitar solo sounds uninspired and lazy while George Martin’s ineffective piano sounds jazzy and out of place. Only John and George’s yelled vocals, drenched with echo, really cut through the song, as Paul sets up a call and answer session near the end of the song. Personally, I prefer the less histrionic version released on Anthology (actually recorded after this album version), which might be less sure of itself but does feature less piano and less effect, although this is a lesser song all round than some of the McCartney sung BBC covers they could have used (‘Clarabella’ ‘Ooh! My Soul’, even ‘The Honeymoon Song’ etc).
‘Eight Days A Week’ is the third album track intended as a single and is the one that sounds like the most natural contender (it was a single in America and made #1, hence its rather awkward inclusion on the ‘1’ compilation of chart toppers). The band spent a hell of a lot of time working on what is, really, just a very simple pop song – albeit one dressed up and polished to sound effortlessly magical in every way. When Macca called a cab to go to Lennon’s house to work on a song, the realised the pair were empty-handed so Paul related what the cab driver had said to him on the way over (something along the lines of ‘coo I’ve been busy, I’ve been working 8 days a week!’) Despite being mainly a McCartney song, Lennon was given it to sing on the record (with Paul’s vocal mixed in with his partner’s to such an extent they sound like one singer) and does a good job (it would be interesting to hear Paul sing it solo though – so far this is one of his few Beatle songs he hasn’t revived in concert yet). The band struggled to perfect it though, playing about with a held note ‘ooh’ type opening (as heard on Anthology) and some harmonies in the middle that were dropped. The ‘finished’ version merely fades in, the first time that had really been done (in fact it’s still one of the only songs to ‘fade in’, circumstances meaning The Beach Boys’ ‘Barbara Ann’ is the only other AAA example that comes to mind). Ironically, the song was meant to fade out too but the extended riff wasn’t working so the band cut the ending separately in yet another session and edited it onto the final track. Gloriously sunny, poppy and hummable, this song and ‘I Feel Fine’ (recorded at the same session as the ‘coda’) are both the pinnacle of The Beatles’ days as pop artists, at their fun and simple best. The slightly awkward middle eight ‘8 days a week to show I love you...’) is the masterstroke, though, adding a glimpse of darkness to the song and making the sun sound all the brighter when it shines again on a sudden and unexpected modulation back to the major key. The Byrds were so inspired by this song that they changed their intended song about the true flight height of an aeroplane (6-7 miles) to ‘8 Miles High’ on the back of this record. The Stones, meanwhile, were so taken with the ‘hold me, love me’ chorus that they stole it wholesale for use in their very Beatles-ish B-side ‘I’m Free’, correctly guessing their Beatle friends would be too tickled by it to sue!
If the performance of ‘8 Days A Week’ transformed an average song to a strong one, then the opposite can be said for ‘Words Of Love’, one of Buddy Holly’s stronger songs which bizarrely given the band’s love for the man’s work (Macca later buying up Buddy’s back catalogue of songs) is rather thrown away by a bored and tired sounding band. Holly’s original is light of touch, with that familiar hiccup giving the song an upbeat and love-filled feel; by contrast John and Paul sound as if they’ve just had a row (perhaps they had). The band sound strangely unsure of the song, too, given that three of them (without Ringo) had played it for years in their early days (albeit with George, not Paul, doing the harmonies). The band’s only real invention in the arrangement is that Ringo slaps an empty suitcase instead of his drums, giving the song a ghostly, echoey feel, as the noise comes slightly offbeat (he may also be playing this on ‘Mr Moonlight’. It’s the vocals that sound the worst, with Lennon having to sing deeper and McCartney higher than normal to ‘fit’ them both into the record, with this cheerless recording the most curiously un-Beatles like on the whole album, possibly of all the first half of their career. George’s echo-laden Rickenbacker is very Byrds-like a year early, but even then it sounds limp and lifeless, without the gorgeous tone the band will perfect during their time on ‘Rubber Soul’. The sixth song recorded during the last day of sessions, the tiredness in the Beatles’ schedule is beginning to show.
‘Honey Don’t’ was the 7th and last (indeed the last track recorded for the album altogether) and it speaks volumes that its Ringo’s vocal contribution that was left till last. The first of two Carl Perkins songs on this album, it features one of Ringo’s better leads set against another Beatles backing track that’s distinctly lacking of, well, anything. Ringo’s calls to George to play his solos twice in this song (‘Rock on George one time for me’ ‘Rock on George for Ringo one time’) attempt to liven up the song, but when they come the solos are very bland indeed and sounding more Like John than George with their stop-start off balanced rhythms. The song itself is one of the weirder songs in Perkins’ repertoire, about a loved one who contradicts herself all the time and the truly oddball refrain ‘you’ve got that sand all over your feet’. This 1964 version isn’t a patch on the band’s 1963 version with Lennon on lead vocal (and available on Beatles At The BBC), which swaps the rather awkward countrabilly of this version for rip-roaring rock and roll. If only The Beatles had gone for that version – but as we said in our introduction Ringo loved country music even more than he did rock and roll; its just a shame the band couldn’t have found him a more suitable country song to sing.
The last two bland cover versions have all but ground ‘Beatles For Sale’ to a halt, but things improve greatly with the Lennon-Macca originals on the rest of this second side. ‘Every Little Thing’ is a McCartney song again sung by Lennon for reasons unknown that’s one of his greatest little known gems from the 60s, sparkling with timid warmth and sincerity. A rare actual love song for Jane Asher (see the stormy ‘What You’re Doing’ ‘We Can Work It Out’ ‘Tell Me What You See’ ‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘I’m Looking Through You’ in contrast to just this song plus ‘And I Love Her’), its about the changes being in love can bring and how loving someone else actually brings you to understand your own personality better. The lyrics might be a bit on the twee side, even by 1964 standards, but the wonderfully rounded, uncertain melody, which sounds awkward on the verses before suddenly blooming into full colour on the chorus, makes the whole sound terribly convincing, very like ‘And I Love Her’ in fact where the earnestness of the arrangement and performance make up for any lapse in the song. For once George’s guitar solo on this album is spot on, a hair-raising crescendo of chords that seem to life the song higher and higher, hinting at all the possibilities to come that the narrator is only glimpsing for the first time. There’s a curious mistake in the fade, though, which you can hear if you turn the recording up loud, with George going past the expected note to the next one (did he think he was playing the solo in the middle again, which goes onto another line, cut from the fade?) Like many a McCartney love song, ‘Every Little Thing’ somehow manages to sound personal and relatable to everyman, a universal song of surprise and delight that sounds like its been around for at least a century it sounds so rounded and obvious. Another song that really deserves to be added to his live catalogue, it’s surprising to hear him being so dismissive of this lovely piece down the years (perhaps the sad and sudden ending of his time with Miss Asher has coloured his views on the song since?)
‘I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party’ is an unusual, melancholic, shuffling country-western song from Lennon that makes more sense when you learn that it was originally written for Ringo to sing. Why the original plan didn’t happen is unknown – perhaps the vocals were too much of a strain for a drummer (truth is they sound like a strain for John and Paul in places); perhaps in the wake of ‘I’m A Loser’ John was beginning to realise just how much of himself he’d written into this sad song about being dumped and having to attend a party and seem happy. More self-pitying than ‘I’m A Loser’, the narrator promises to leave the party in his opening line but is still there by the end, pouring out his heart and promising he’ll go soon only to hang on to see if there’s a chance of his girl turning up uninvited. Lennon sings most of the song double-tracked, one voice deep and distraught, the other high-pitched and all but cracking with anger (till Paul harmonises on the middle eight). A simple song with just two verses and a middle eight repeated (and no chorus), it really comes alive in the middle when the drunken-sounding narrator surprises the party (and himself) with the admission ‘Though tonight she’s made me sad, I still love her’. The backing seems to come alive here, in a similar manner to the middle of ‘No Reply’, the emphasis on the rock beats overtaking the country-ish backing and the long held notes on ‘I Still Love Her’ make it sound as if the singer is bawling, not singing, his words. Another song that deserves to be much better known, ‘Party’ is just missing that little spark extra we’re used to hearing from the Beatles, ending on a rather uncomfortable, unresolved repeat of the riff the song came in with and the narrator still drunkenly stumbling round the party feeling sorry for himself.
‘What You’re Doing’ is a surprisingly angry song from the pen of McCartney and one he’s since admitted is about the ups and downs of his time with Jane Asher. Suitably, perhaps, it sounds very much like ‘Every Little Thing’ writ large, with a bum-chicka-bum-ba-dum riff far more in keeping to Macca’s future percussion playing than Ringo’s, that makes the whole song sound like a lead weight is tying it down every time it tries to fly. The song took the band another huge chunk of time to record at a time when they badly needed it, going through a whole re-make the final rushed day of the sessions (still officially unreleased, I like the first version best, with its folky harmonies from John and Paul throughout and its rather more Beatlesy drum kick). While sounding remarkably better on the new CD reissues of 2010 (being one of the top five Beatles songs with the biggest differences along with parts of ‘Help!’ and ‘Rubber Soul’), this song’s never been mixed to its true measure and is clearly an experiment: the song is so bass-heavy the sound strains at the bottom end of the speakers (adding to the oppressed sound, Paul’s bass in particular), the twin electric guitars drown out everything else in the mix and the harmonies are a little raw (unsurprisingly after so many hours in the studio). As an experiment its only partly successful, sounding weird rather than pioneering, but as a song its pretty special, an unusual blend of sophisticated pop and angry whinging. The melody line of each verse with its sighs upwards and weary falls sounds very like crying, while the tension between the stabbed piano notes and the electric chiming guitars in the middle is palpable. Only the lyrics really let this song down and even then the sheer idea that it’s the girl, not the man in the relationship that’s in control is mighty forward-looking for 1964. Another McCartney song ripe for reviving by him in the present day, Paul strangely enough credited this song partly to Lennon in his part-biog, part autobiog ‘Many Years From Now’ (perhaps because it sounds so musically similar to his partner’s song ‘You Can’t Do That’). The sheer range of notes (this song spans more than an octave, unusual for a pop song) makes it clear that this McCartney’s song through and through, even if the lyrics and tone are unusual for him.
The album then ends rather limply on ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’, George’s only vocal on the album and the weakest of the handful of covers he sang in The Beatles’ early days. An impenetrable Carl Perkins, this song misses Carl’s winning cheer and substitutes it for a rather ramshackle, echo-drenched performance so poor by Beatles standards that Lennon spends most of the song a beat out of synch on the rhythm guitar (just listen to the opening ba-dah and the triumphant way he plays the last chord going into the last verse as if to say ‘I’ve got it now’!) George, a lifelong Perkins fan, probably picked the song because in the peak Beatlemania days he identified with these cheeky lyrics about a narrator fending off lovers from every corner, but some of the lyrics to this song are truly odd, even more so than ‘Honey Don’t’ (‘They took some honey from a tree, dressed it up and they called it me’). The only real addition the Beatles add is a clever coda to the song which resolves itself to the next key, as if setting up a future bout in the ring fighting off beloveds. George and Carl both deserved better than to see this song rather chucked away at the end of a trying session – why George didn’t get another song the band knew better (say ‘Don’t Ever Change’ ‘I Forget To Remember To Forget’ or ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Baby’, both from ‘Beatles at the BBC’) is another fab four mystery and this cover fills up more space where ‘Leave My Kitten Alone’ should have been.
There are some real shockers on this album, to be sure, but for all its unloved status among critics and fans there were enough gems here to keep Beatles fans happy for another six months until ‘Help!’ came along and for that alone - with this album coming two years into the Beatles’ reign when so many groups fall apart -this album deserves praise. In his sleevenotes to this album Beatles press officer Derek Taylor says that even in the year 2000 ‘kids will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth that we do today’ (see last week’s top 10 on this very subject). This is crucial to the story of the 1960s, how a small movement called rock and roll which had looked dead just a few years before grew in size to encompass worldwide Beatlemania and then went on to become not just a passing craze but a phenomenon, talked about for decades to come (and centuries – you mark our words our ancestors reading this in 3000 AD will still have most of these AAA groups on their MP900s or whatever format they’re using by then). ‘Beatles For Sale’ isn’t the most obvious candidate for explaining why the whole Beatles phenomenon started (its too dark, too serious and lacking well known songs for the most part), but it does explain why the phenomenon has lasted as long as it has. Despite the fame, despite the successful formulas, despite the fact that they need never have recorded again as long as they lived to survive financially, The Beatles just kept on chopping and changing, developing their style as their fanbase grew up with them, and no other Beatles album puts you quite this close to the sea-change taking place before your ears until ‘Revolver’. Beatles For Sale, indeed - cheap at half the price. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫♫ (6/10).