Monday 18 May 2009

The BEATLES: Beatles For Sale

A photo of the Beatles – George, John, Ringo, and Paul


(#38: 19 December 1964, 7 weeks; 27 February 1965, 1 week; 1 May 1965, 3 weeks) 


Track listing: No Reply/I’m A Loser/Baby’s In Black/Rock And Roll Music/I’ll Follow The Sun/Mr Moonlight/Medley: a) Kansas City; b) Hey, 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 


The fourth Beatles album has tended to remain under a critical cloud, having been variously described as hard to grasp, makeshift, and, in particular, weary. Most assessments of the record have focused upon the group’s assumed tiredness at the time they recorded it. It was forged in the immediate aftermath of a gruelling world tour (during which the famous Hollywood Bowl concert was recorded – see entry #183), and essentially recorded (and mostly written) on their days off (including a marathon eight hour session in mid-October 1964), and despite Tony Barrow’s previous assurances of a dozen-year stockpile of new songs, only eight new Lennon/McCartney songs appear on the album, the rest of the space being occupied by six covers of old rock rep reliables.


Certainly, as can be seen from the above statistics, the album did less well than its predecessors (but then, unlike its predecessors, it was faced with markedly stronger competition – see entries #39-41). And the autumnal cover shots of the group taken in Hyde Park, all black mufflers, polo necks and moods, do suggest four young men in need of a serious rest (in contrast, the monochrome gatefold snap of the group in full grinning blast onstage – with George resembling, of all people, Slade’s Dave Hill – already seems taken from an irretrievably antique archive).


None of this, however, explains how in the middle of the marathon 18 October recording session the Beatles were able to come up with their most adventurous and experimental songs to date – Lennon’s “I Feel Fine” and McCartney’s “She’s A Woman,” both kept back for the next single – nor how at the end of those eight hours Lennon was able to give such a convincing and passionate performance of “Rock And Roll Music.”


Nor, indeed, does it explain the more subtle reinventions going on throughout the album as a whole. That the autumn shades stealing into the closing scenes of side two of A Hard Day’s Night continue to darken the sky is unavoidable, especially given the opening Lennon triptych of bleak. “No Reply” veers disturbingly between polite bossa nova rustle, as Lennon explores his betrayed bafflement, and outright aggression – the violent block harmonies of “I SAW THE LIGHT” and “I NEARLY DIED” – the bipolarity unresolved by the energised, one-step-up-at-a-time drive of the middle eight. The final C minor – not even ruefully smiling, simply resigned to eternal dark – suggests that his cries will never be answered.


“I’m A Loser,” the first fully-formed “Dylan” song of Lennon’s, demonstrates how Lennon took Dylan’s model as a thing in himself. At this stage not particularly interested in politics, Lennon recognises Dylan’s diagonally slack swagger, his industrious indolence, likes the jump of his cut, the drooled mouth organ multiphonics, and switches down side streets like a Mini Moke on rainbow-coloured heat. The casualness is a necessary disguise for his pre-emptive self-deploration – the grinning, slightly too deep “crossed,” his sunny “I have left it too late” and “Pride comes before a fall,” both of which misleading rays are answered and comforted by Harrison’s shoulder cry guitar figures. In his own solo on this track, Harrison offers the first of the album’s several tributes to Carl Perkins, and the initial signpost towards the thing which would eventually be known as country rock.


“Baby’s In Black” derives its harmonic sense and air of newly-bereaved listlessness from the Everlys but its sea shanty setting and Mercer-esque deadpan rhyming/punning clunks which appear to make casual light of terminal grief (“And although it’s only a whim…she thinks of him,” “Baby’s in black…and I’m feeling blue”) are new and disturbing, as is Harrison’s solo, which resembles a sinking ship’s creaking deck.


Out of this airless trilogy, Lennon’s never more ecstatic roar through Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music” – a song that was effectively Lennon’s Bible – comes as the most euphoric of escapes. Singing and screaming with all the audible liberation of a recently freed deep sea hostage, Lennon tears through his self-imposed regrets, gets back to the seed which inspired him – and everyone comes with him. His “tango” gets an immediate cymballic reaction from Ringo, and even George Martin’s piano verges on the edge of besotted unreason. One of their best recordings – and by extension one of the greatest of British rock recordings - “Rock And Roll Music” still stands as the definitive defence case against the cynical prosecution of future misapprehensions of their magic.


The turn-on-a-dime nature of the album’s genesis is perhaps illustrated by the fact that the fourth of its eight originals, McCartney’s “I’ll Follow The Sun,” was one of the group’s earliest songs, dating back to 1960. Using the same ascending harmonic stepladder as “No Reply” but to strategically different ends (even if the song’s lyrics are necessarily as callow as any written by an eighteen-year-old), the browning (not yet quite Browning, even though its writer was living on Wimpole Street at the time) rays of sunshine steal through four years ahead of similar, slightly less self-conscious endeavours on the White Album, Starr gently tapping his suitcase in time with Paul’s optimistic melancholy.


All of this makes the immediate subsequent shrieking of “Mr Moonlight” that more shocking. Originally done by Piano Red (the original Dr Feelgood) in 1962, this is perhaps one of the most disturbing of all Beatles recordings. Lennon more or less screams the song throughout and the Mike Sammes Singers-in-aspic oppressive block of mass harmonies lends to the general aura of Lynchian grotesquerie. The odd percussion section – George whacking an African drum, Ringo banging his suitcase – is disorientating enough in itself (and, in itself, points the way to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich) but the macabre cherry comes with McCartney’s chintzy-verging-on-Hammer-horror Hammond organ interlude; as though the group are taking revenge on all those Minstrels, the casual besmirching of Presley by his arrangers.


As with many of the album’s tracks, the almost random fadeout suggests a reluctant weightlessness. Much more assured is the McCartney-led Little Richard tribute. Goaded by Lennon in the studio to “Really throw it!,” McCartney scars his throat to provide one of his most ravenous vocal leads; the band’s swing is comfortable yet propulsive, Starr’s wink of a link from Leiber and Stoller to Penniman is a conspiratorial carpet slipper and again demonstrates how, when the band relaxed themselves, they were able to rock and swing as precious few others of their peers could achieve. The Lennon-led backing vocals as the sequence reaches its climax is cheeky but in full concordance with the lead singer’s cocky cheer.


“Eight Days A Week” remains the album’s most celebrated song; its then unprecedented fade-in intro confirms that the group had not lost its sense of adventure (and its fire engine ice cream chimes foretell the Move; see “Flowers In The Rain”), and Lennon’s confident joy locks in beautifully with McCartney’s strolling-up-and-down-the-D-major-High-Street bass. Yet another derivé of girl group pop – most marked in its insistence upon foregrounding the handclaps – the song becomes the parade down which these ideals of sixties swing promote themselves; the “Hold me, love me” bridge (with the marvellous confirmatory consummation of that diminished G sharp under the second “love me”) confirm that Lennon’s previous pleas have now been pleased. As per Derek Taylor’s hopeful sleevenote – “Just play the child a few tracks…and he’ll probably understand what it was all about. The kids of AD 2000 (sic) will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth as we do today” – if you wanted to know why it should have been so good to be properly alive in 1964, “Eight Days A Week” would sum it up with perfect imperfection.


The group’s take on Holly’s “Words Of Love” is, after the foregoing storm, curiously shadowed (again, it’s how the Shadows might have done it, as they surely must have done in their early days), as though the group are singing it to and for themselves, slightly turned away from the listener, turning into each other. The performance’s casualness is underlined by the initially slight rhythmic stiffness; the singing is low, internalised. But suddenly, towards the fadeout, Harrison’s Gretsch Tennessean begins to open up in terms of chordality, again opening an unexpected door into a Byrdsian future.


Following this, Ringo gets his turn on the Carl Perkins/Cavern Club warhorse “Honey Don’t” and chirpily sends all the bleakness up. “Doggone!” he exclaims in pure Scouse. “Ah, rock on George, one time for me!” he grins to the guitarist. “I feel fine!” he self-refers. He even offers an Oliver Hardy “Mmmm-HMMMM!!” But then Starr – quite unexpectedly – leads the way into the Beatles not quite sounding like the Beatles. Structurally “Every Little Thing” seems to be an exercise in Bacharach pastiche with its displaced thirds and deliberate anywhere-but-the-centre bar line constructs – see also “It’s For You,” written by Lennon and McCartney as a single for Cilla Black that year - but Martin’s piano and especially Starr’s timpani open out the sonic picture to an extent not hitherto heard on Beatles records.


On top of this, however, and leading yet more credence to this being the Beatles’ definitive proto-folk rock/country rock record, we have interweaving guitar lines and harmonics which (as Lena says) prepare the way for early R.E.M. (Reckoning in particular) – Harrison here is virtually inventing Peter Buck. “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” brings back some of the album’s initial bitterness and acts as a sort of coda to the opening Lennon trilogy. Still exercising its country influences, a slightly blotto Lennon (“I’ve had a drink or two and I don’t care”) has had enough (“There is nothing for me here, so I think I’ll disappear”). Again the song offers a surprisingly aggressive bridge but here Lennon realises more quickly that it’s time to wander (leaving Harrison to work out his Perkins infatuation yet further). “I think I’ll take a walk and look for her,” he gloomily concludes – and this time there’s no indication that he’ll be back.


Slightly more surprisingly, “What You’re Doing” offers a bitter McCartney – as with other such songs of this period, it seems to have been directly inspired by the downside of his relationship with Jane Asher. His emotion overlaps the slightly clumsy schemata (“got me runnin’” rhyming with “there’s no fun in…”); the “me” of his central “It’s ME” stretches hoarsely over a dozen syllables. Martin’s saloon bar piano interlude rumbles like terminal thunder. Once more, Harrison predicates the Byrds in his guitar lines but the Spector drums/bass/piano pattern reimposes the notion of not quite reproducible in real time (“There is little or nothing on the album which cannot be reproduced on stage,” says Taylor, after he has spent a long paragraph detailing the opposite).


In light of all of this unusually angled intensity it is right that Harrison ’s cheery take on Perkins’ “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby” should have closed the record as a sparkling glass of liver salts cures incipient indigestion. “Well, they took some honey down from a tree,” sings George, “Dressed it up and called it me.” Light of foot and emotion, but not lacking a certain, confined confidence, the track’s easy swing and charm takes us down (or up) while also belying the postmodernist considerations of the album’s title; are we simply becoming a commodity, a brand? Not if we can help it, grin back the four smiling suits sitting afront a montage of silent movie stars – and that photograph too would prove a precedent of things yet to be made to happen. The critical cloud duly rolls on by.