My music reviews for the year 1963.
1. The Beatles: Please Please Me (10/10)
It’s tough to state the full impact of this album and I don’t know that I can convey it to anyone who doesn’t know the music scene of the early ’60s in Britain and the United States. Genres had their own charts and bands were supposed to fit into the bounds represented by these genres and charts. This is how bands were marketed and what audiences who followed particular charts expected. (These charts were often race-based in the United States.)
Regardless of what you think of the music, Please Please Me is notable for two major things:
- first, the majority of the songs were written by Lennon, McCartney or both
- and, second, the covers spanned a huge variety of genres.
But before we get to those points, there was the sheer energy of the album (recorded in a single day). Though it seems absolutely impossible to believe for those of us who have lived with music such as metal and punk our whole lives, this was the loudest most raucous studio album most white people – especially British people – had heard up until that point. This is epitomized by Lennon “singing himself hoarse” on the first take of the final song, their cover of “Twist and Shout,” something that was entirely out of character for a British rock singer at the time.
The Beatles wrote eight of the fourteen songs, including the four originals that had already been released on singles, and these originals ran the gamut of styles at the time, even though it may not sound so to us – just typical British Invasion rock and roll. The reason it sounds this way is because the Beatles invented typical British Invasion rock and roll. The diversity inherent in the genre is there solely because of this album. The Beatles wrote rock songs and they wrote R&B ballads and everything in between, which was a hell of a lot of diversity for those days. With this, as Rolling Stone has said, the Beatles established the idea of an independent rock band, one that could write their own music.
Of all the songs on the Beatles’ debut, “I Saw Her Standing There” is the only Lennon-McCartney original that still sees regular airplay outside of oldies radio stations – at weddings. I think the reason for this is that it’s the most insistent – the most rock – original on the album. Sure, in a world where we have palm-muting and screaming, it doesn’t sound rock. But this was early 1963. Listen to Surfin’ USA, which came out the same month. The dynamics on this song, the speed, the energy, all are significantly different than what was common for the day. And that count-in is about as exciting as rock music got in early 1963.
“Misery” is very similar to “P.S. I Love You” and an indication that the Beatles, though inventive, had not yet reached a point where they would tackle a different style with each song. But we should note the difference in the beginnings to the first two songs: one starts off rapidly while the other starts off slower than the song it introduces, an extremely odd juxtaposition for the time. There is an odd contrast between the – relatively – downbeat lyrics and the upbeat mood of the music. The song features Martin’s first performance on piano for the band, overdubbed after the fact.
“Ask Me Why,” the B-side to their second single, is one of their most complicated and interesting early songs, even though you may at first disagree. And it is also indicative of something the Beatles would do over the course of their career, that is release a musically interesting B-side to back up the catchy hit – of course they would occasionally reverse this too. The major thing that’s odd about “Ask Me Why” is how the music of the three verses is not entirely similar to each other, but changes – albeit so subtly that we don’t really notice – every time a verse is performed. This is an idea the Beatles would come back to in the future and one that would eventually find it’s way into post-rock influenced indie rock in the early 2000s.
“Please Please Me” was the Beatles’ second single. As such it is perhaps the best indicator of how fast the Beatles were growing. Released only a couple months after “Love Me Do,” it is on another planet from their debut in terms of writing, arrangement and performance. The lyrics, for example, take a different point of view than the average song of the era, almost as if you are overhearing a conversation. And the music is also way better: the chords are weirder, the hook is certainly more unique, the performance is more energetic – more energetic, even, than earlier versions of the song. They sound like they were recorded months apart if not more.
“Do You Want to Know a Secret?” is perhaps the least of the originals on the album, lacking much of the innovation seen elsewhere. But it is still a sign of their versatility, as it is stylistically different from the rest of the album not just because Harrison sings it but because of the acoustic guitar riff and the overdubbed drum-sticks! – the first of numerous Beatles percussion overdubs.
“There’s a Place” is one of the few Beatles songs to bear thematic resemblance to Brian Wilson’s early attempts at moving beyond “Cars, cars and girls.” Though the lyrics sound like they were written by Lennon, many of the records seem to indicate McCartney was more responsible for the finished product. This song was actually released over six months before “In My Room,” so it is likely that it had an influence on Wilson’s attempts in this vein. The backing vocal arrangement is probably their most complex to date.
But it is the covers that show a remarkable variety and reflect the wide-listening habits of the band. Though these covers are similar to the originals, it was not yet common to try to re-imagine covers. The Beatles’ subtle changes to these songs helped popularize the idea that covers should show off the artist, not the song.
- “Anna” was a very early soul song that few British people knew. (It had only been released in the States in September.) The Beatles dropped the string section – whether for budgetary reasons or artistic reasons we do not know – and changed the ending, so that it was complete, rather than a fade out.
- “Chains” is a Brill Building pop tune. The Beatles replaced the saxophone part with a harmonica part and sped up the tempo slightly. They also messed with the ending.
- “Boys,” obviously a girl group tune, was originally performed by the Shirelles. The Beatles’ version is sparser – no piano, no saxophone – with slightly different lyrics. This was Starr’s first vocal performance and began his tradition of singing the comedy numbers, which would continue, off and on, through Abbey Road.
- The Burt Bacharach song “Baby it’s You” was another, albeit stronger, Shirelles number. Given that it is a Bacharach tune, there are various convention-breaking ideas and the Beatles didn’t alter these too much. Lennon’s performance is little more frantic compared to the original’s “sexy” vocal.
- “A Taste of Honey” was a theme tune from a Broadway adaptation of a British play, which had eventually been given lyrics for a recording by a schmaltz singer. It is perhaps the biggest indication among the covers that the Beatles were not limited to traditional rock and roll music. In this case they edited the song down – excising the bridge – probably so they could perform it more slowly yet avoid the longer running time. Also, the meter changes from section to section.
- “Twist and Shout” – far and away the most lasting thing on the album – had been done by Phil Spector under another name and then, more famously, by the R&B band the Isley Brothers. The Beatles drastically changed the song for their version: they changed the key – as they had for a few of the other covers – they changed the rhythm, and they completely altered the ending. (The Isley Brothers end the song with a vamp, whereas the Beatles build the song to a climax.) It is the best thing they had done up to this point and there’s a reason it has become the standard version of the song.
So the covers were all over the place, and none of them were obvious rock and roll songs designed to sell to the Beatles’ obvious audience. The stylistic range that appears to our ears as negligible was shocking and ballsy for the time.
Not only was Please Please Me the birth of the self-contained rock band, but it was the birth of “rock” as opposed to “rock and roll.” By that I mean, prior to Please Please Me, rock and roll denoted a specific style of R&B, but the brand of rock and roll the Beatles put forth encompassed much more than just this one style of music. As I have noted, it incorporated soul, pop, Motown, musicals – seemingly everything that was considered popular music except for folk and country. Yet the Beatles were undoubtedly a rock and roll band, by the way they performed and the way they dressed. The result was that, beginning with the Beatles’ earliest albums, and following ever-expanding musical ideas from them, the Beach Boys, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, and other rock bands, rock – the short form of rock and roll – began to denote popular music in general, and not just rock and roll itself, because few of these bands played the actual style of rock and roll much at all. (Which is how you get into the “The Beatles / British Invasion killed rock and roll” argument.) So Please Please Me isn’t just the birth of the self-contained rock band, it’s the birth of rock as the supra genre of popular music.
1. Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (10/10)
3. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (10/10)
Dylan’s first album of “original songs” (note: much of the music and a few of the lyrics are stolen from others) is probably the best folk album released up until this point. There’s no real precedent for it.
In addition to refining the protest song to the point where Dylan was peerless – nobody else wrote with such sophistication about social issues in 1963 – Dylan also includes some of his stream-of-consciousness songs and also confessional songs about relationships. Both types of songs revolutionized lyric writing; the latter by making it okay – actually normal – to write about your own personal feelings and relationships in popular music, and the former by basically saying “anything goes” with lyrics in popular songs. Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics are to popular music lyrics as Nietzsche is to philosophy; after these songs, anything is possible.
Also, he’s a better performer than he’s given credit for.
4. With The Beatles (10/10)
5. Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (10/10)
6. Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven (9/10)
7. James Brown: ‘Live’ at The Apollo (9/10)
In 2011, I wrote the following:
Many people will tell you that this is the greatest live album of all time.
Well, it may be the greatest live album released up to this point but it is hard for someone listening in 2011, after decades of live albums and decades of ‘rawer’ bands, to really assess that. For me, Otis at the Whiskey is better but I understand that by that point, JB was inventing funk and had moved on and without this there probably woldn’t be that (which is why I’m rating this higher). I have never heard the Ray Charles album that inspired this, nor have I heard the Killer’s Live at the Star Club – and if Little Richard ever released a Live album, I’m sure I should include it here in this discussion – so I can’t reasonably say this is the greatest live album of its era.
It is a highly energetic performance for its time, it is pretty damn tight – again, for its time – and it grows on you.
It is definitely an important document. I just don’t know how important as yet.
Oh yeah, and it’s pretty good.
Well, I would add to it that it gives you a good sense of Brown’s stage show prior to his invention of funk. But it also is a really good example of how shows have changed over the years. Only a few years later, this kind of thing would be passe outside of R&B.
8. Tristan Keuris: String Quartet No.1 (8/10)
This is the first piece of Keuris’ music I’ve heard and it suffers a little from the fact that I have been immersing myself in Kagel’s works for the past couple weeks because Keuris is a more traditional composer and I often find I get a little hard on more traditional composers when I’m listening to more radical stuff at the same time. But that sells this quartet short and I don’t want to do that. This is an interesting and engaging piece of music. It’s not exactly going to change your view of the string quartet, but it’s still compelling and worth listening to. It’s one of those pieces that tries to bridge tradition and more avant garde ideas and I always like that. It certainly makes me want to look into Keuris more.
9. Ray Charles: Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul (8/10)
Not his best, but still pretty great. Read the review of Recipe for Soul.
10. Duke Ellington: The Great Paris Concert [Not released at the time] (7/10)
This is a solid performance of a solid selection of songs by Duke and his orchestra. But what can I say? I like my jazz radical, and as much as this is an enjoyable set, I’d frankly rather listen to 1963 Mingus or 1963 Trane.
I’m not trying to put it down. The whole thing is mostly stellar. Ellington is a little idiosyncratic – do I care where the soloists are from during the actual song? – but I guess that was part of his charm. If you like big band – especially big band that honours jazz traditions – this is for you.
11. Henryk Gorecki: “Three Pieces in Old Style” (7/10)
This is a very brief piece, and so it feels insignificant to me. I would say a major part of its fame comes from the apparent attempt to reconnect early minimalist ideas with the classical tradition (specifically the classical part of the classical tradition) but that’s just a guess. It’s so brief I doubt I will ever return to it much.
12. Glenn Gould: “So You Want to Write a Fugue?” (7/10)
This is a reasonably witty thing that feels like a bit of a joke. I enjoy that it was written to deliberately piss people off but it’s a little too clever for its own good.
13. The Beach Boys: Surfin’ USA (7/10)
Their debut is more fun and braver. Read the review of Surfin’ USA.
14. Roy Orbison: In Dreams (7/10)
Though I grew up with him, he’s now too polished for me. Read the review of In Dreams.
15. Gordon Jenkins: In a Tender Mood (4/10)
In a Tender Mood has a bit of a musical unity that the compilation that was paired with it was lacking; this music was all written to the same purpose. This is “jazzy” pop orchestration. The horns sound like Big Band jazz, albeit robbed of swing and there are no solos (because, you know, it’s not actually jazz). They sound like what would happen if someone who didn’t know jazz tried to write the idea of jazz. There are vocals too, of the kind that might have delighted my grandma, had she been a little more hip. (That is to say, they are nearly the furthest thing from hip.) They remind me of those country backing vocalists on early rock and roll records, who can’t sing with the music, because they don’t understand it. In this case, though, the music was written for their safe, simple, catchy, suburban couple-pleasing schmaltz…This is the kind of record you put on when your intolerant boss is coming over to dinner and its 1958.
1. Ray Charles: “Take These Chains from My Heart” (8/10)
This is a typical Charles’ country cover, with an impassioned lead vocal from Charles and horribly dated backing vocals. Still an important single in the incorporation of country into soul.
2. Ray Charles: “Busted” (7/10)
Charles’ cover of this country classic is a little more vibrant than a standard country version. But I’m not sure it’s that much of a huge improvement on the innumerable more traditional country versions.
3. Wanda Jackson: “But I Was Lying” / “Sympathy” (7/10)
The A-side is another in Jackson’s line of traditional country singles from this part of the decade. It’s pretty good, among her better ones, but not among her best. The b-side is rare for her, having an organ play the lead, and the style is much closer to girl group than anything else of hers I’ve heard (though the vocals are, as usual, from another place altogether). A really unique track for her, but the style has been done better by the people who actually played this style of music.
4. Wanda Jackson: “This Should Go On Forever” / “We Haven’t a Moment to Lose” (7/10)
The A-side combines traditional country themes with a rockabilly ballad backing, and it works pretty well, though by this point it was pretty dated. The B-side shows the reversal of her formula with the traditional country song back where it used to be. This one’s fine as it goes.