1964 — Beatles For Sale (Parlophone) / Beatles '65 (Capitol Records)
I must confess my soft-spot for this material. Beatles '65 (which was issued in December 1964) was the second album I ever owned (in 1984 or 1985 or something). The slightly 'dark' side to the material, lyrically-speaking, was fascinating to me as a wee tyke.
Years later, I heard the original British LP on CD. Objectively speaking, I guess the UK version is the better record because it has 14 songs — three more than the standard 11 allotted Capitol-US albums — but I still think something about the track selection on the tighter Beatles '65 is better. I suppose it's mainly down to the inclusion of A- and B-sides "I Feel Fine" and "She's A Woman", both very strong tracks — given extra reverb, as most American-mixes of early Beatle singles were (and "I Feel Fine" actually sounds better with this Dave-Dextered reverb). The Capitol-US version also adds "I'll Be Back", which was originally on A Hard Day's Night (released the previous summer in the UK). This track, if you've overlooked it, is a humdinger, and is one of my favorite tracks of this era. It also really fits in well with the mournful tone of some of the lyrics from this period.
Which Beatles For Sale tracks are cut off of Beatles '65? There are six: "Kansas City / Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey" (Little Richard's version of Leiber/Stoller tune), "Eight Days a Week", "Words of Love" (Buddy Holly), "Every Little Thing", "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party", and "What You're Doing". Of these six, the one that probably fits best with the established Side 1 tracks is Lennon's "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party", because it's pretty downbeat.
The only thing I would seriously think of criticizing Beatles For Sale for is the track sequencing. It just doesn't make sense to start off with three mid-tempo downer lyrics and then jump into Chuck Berry's ebullient "Rock and Roll Music", and then go right back to depressing with "I'll Follow the Sun". That always kind of throws me. But maybe thinking of early Beatle albums (or, really, any Beatle album) in terms of lyrical unity is a pointless exercise. These are song-based records, and The Beatles were a song-based band. And these songs — originals and covers, on either album version — are superb.
One of the most striking things on display here is Lennon's voice. I mean, it was always superb up to 1970, but I don't think he ever sounded better than this (sometimes with Paul + George backing him, of course). Even one of the universally least-liked Beatle tracks, "Mr. Moonlight", is worth the price of admission just to hear Lennon's raucous howl off the top of the song.
There is a common myth, as I see it, that often surrounds Beatles For Sale / Beatles '65, and which I would like to take a moment to dispel, if I may. The myth can be summarized as follows:
"Only eight original songs (with six covers) means this is an artistic regression."
Yeah, no. If anyone thinks this record is an artistic regression, I suggest comparing the lyrics to "I Should Have Known Better" or "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You" (from the preceding record of 14 original songs) with this record's opening trio of Lennon/McCartney tunes. In particular, "I'm A Loser" is handily the best Beatle-original lyric to date.
I hate the idea that musicians necessarily have more integrity for doing all-original songs. (The Beatles' success is, of course, partly responsible for this misinterpretation because of the group's staggeringly prolific talent as songwriters — along with that other, even-more prolific evil-doer, Bob Dylan). This misconception on the part of late-1960s' aspiring musicians led to justification for some really horrid songs and lyrics in the 1970s and beyond.
Anyway, The Beatles were smart enough to realize that putting out 14 new songs with a half-dozen crappy ones of filler would not meet their standard. Now, why did they have "only" 10 new songs (8 for the LP, 2 for the single) ready to go in late 1964? Let's see... Oh yeah — they were massively over-worked. If you don't believe me, go back and look at The Beatles' work-schedule of concerts, BBC-sessions, press-conferences, movies (well, one), and recording sessions for 1962, 1963, and 1964. Only in 1965 would the work-rate start to slow down a little bit, and then, after the summer of 1966, they'd finally get a lot of free time. But it's this lack of time that accounts for the cover songs on Beatles For Sale, not any lack of inspiration or artistic regression. (This was their 4th album of mostly original material in 21 months.) And those cover songs are great.
A few thoughts on each of the Beatles For Sale songs:
1. No Reply — This song blows me out of the water. The melody and harmonies are enough to win me over thoroughly, but that bridge...??!! Whoa!! That is the most powerful moment, I think, in the entire Beatles' canon. I read somewhere that they tried recording two bridges (as was their norm), but they finally decided that the first was so powerful that it was best to just include it once. I'm glad for that. It's such a stunning moment, proving once again that young Lennon was second to none in the vocal department, but of course great harmonies from Paul (and probably George?).
2. I'm A Loser — Somewhat inspired by Dylan, perhaps, but it doesn't really come off anything like a Bob Dylan song. For one thing, Dylan was more inclined to write "I'm Great" than "I'm a Loser". But anyway, what a brilliant song. I could not possibly imagine how this song could be improved. The lyrics are perfect. And Paul's bass-runs on the choruses are thrilling. This song should be studied in Songwriting 101 college courses... by today's most successful songwriters, who mostly write total shit.
3. Baby's In Black — Who else was writing a Merseybeat waltz with lyrics about a girl who loves a dead guy (Stuart Sutcliffe?) in 1964? Again, the bridge (played twice) in this song is utter genius, with thrilling harmony vocals. The Beatles were fond of this track, and it featured in live shows right up to the end in August 1966.
I can hear, especially on "No Reply" and "Baby's in Black", that the bridges of the compositions are getting to be even better than the main structure of the song itself, which shows how their songwriting was growing by leaps and bounds.
4. Rock And Roll Music — A great Berry cover, but it's totally out of place at this moment on the record. (This sounds better the way I first heard it, which was on the Rock 'n' Roll Music Vol. 1 compilation album.) Anyway, John totally owns this song. Great, great vocal.
5. I'll Follow The Sun — A fabulous song, perfectly performed by Paul (with Ringo slapping his knee percussively). The performance quality and arrangement are really important, as the 1960 bootleg recording of Paul running through this song shows — it was originally conceived as a jaunty, bouncy number, and was much the worse for it.
6. Mr. Moonlight — I actually don't mind this one, and, as stated above, it's certainly redeemed at least in part by the tremendous Lennon vocal. It is kind of a cheesy number, though, and what were they thinking with that organ solo? Sounds a lot better at the Star Club, in full rocker-mode.
7. Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey — The Beatles may have been the "blackest" white guys in the world in 1964. Tremendous Paul McCartney Little Richard-esque vocal. The epitome of the sound of the shaggy-hair, screamin' Beatles.
8. Eight Days a Week — Not one of my favorites. A hack job for sure, though, as usual, a good one. The change from the bridge back into the verses is rather joyous, I must admit. (It hit #1 in the US charts, of course, as many of The Beatles' weaker songs could have done.)
9. Words of Love — Very nice. I like it a lot, but it's doesn't really add anything to the original. It's more like a faithful reproduction.
10. Honey Don't — I really like this, tossed off though it probably is. I enjoy Ringo's corny vocal more than John's earlier takes on it, if the first BBC album is anything to go by. Very enjoyable.
11. Every Little Thing — Good song. Does feel like a bit of failed "attempt at the next hit single", though, which is how Paul described it decades later.
12. I Don't Want To Spoil The Party — Great. One of the first mature John lyrics. Just great, great songwriting.
13. What You're Doing — Excellent track. They probably should have placed this closer to the top of the record.
14. Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby — Nice, joyous cover to end things. Good vocal by George, who seemed to enjoy performing this one.
Beatles For Sale / Beatles '65, by the way, has quite a rockabilly / country-flavor, with plenty of George Harrison's Scotty Moore-like guitar licks. I wonder if this might have been in part a result of The Beatles meeting Carl Perkins at the session (for an EP) in London, in spring 1964? Or maybe John's new songs like "I Feel Fine" and "I'm a Loser" just put them in mind of twangier, less rockin' tunes (then again, maybe not, since they did "Kansas City" and "Rock and Roll music" here). I dunno.
A final point: I'm now thinking of how this record's running order could be improved, and what the ideal tracks to include are. "Mr. Moonlight" is the easy one to cut, and maybe I would also drop "Rock and Roll Music" —
not because it's not great (it is), but its balls-out style doesn't fit the other folk-rock and rockabilly tracks, at least for me... though I suppose you could say the same of "Kansas City". But anyway, maybe something like this:
"I'm a Loser"
"What You're Doing"
"Baby's in Black"
"I'll Follow the Sun"
"She's A Woman"
"I Don't Want To Spoil the Party"
"I Feel Fine"
"Eight Days a Week"
"Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey"
"Words of Love"
"Every Little Thing"
"Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby"
But however you slice Beatles For Sale / Beatles '65, it's another fabulous set of recordings by those four scousers. They weren't bad, you know.