Music reviews for music that was released in 1964.
1. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (10/10)
2. The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night (10/10)
Like the first two Beatles albums, it’s tough for modern ears to grasp the revolution that was A Hard Day’s Night. It practically invented folk rock, though the Beatles weren’t exactly writing straight up folk songs and then using rock instrumentation and rhythms to perform them. But the Beatles did bring in a country instrument, and they wrote their first folk-influenced songs. More importantly, they gave folk-rock its sound, even if they didn’t cover any folk songs while doing so. The band that would become the Byrds, the Jet Set, were so influenced by this album that Jim “Roger” McGuinn, the band’s leader and lead guitarist, took up the 12-string guitar as a direct result of hearing this music and they started playing rock music instead of the folk music they had previously played. David Crosby, an early songwriter-guitarist-singer for the Byrds, is reported to have said that the film and album changed his life. The Byrds would go on to become the definitive folk-rock band in no small part due to the Beatles influence on them.
With this album, the Beatles set the new standard for rock acts. They had written every song in a number of styles and created – or at least helped to create – a brand new one. This was the first time rock and roll musicians had mixed an outside genre – a genre that didn’t belong to the roots of rock and roll in the first place, that is folk – with rock and roll music. That change in itself brought about something altogether new that would come to define “rock” music: the mixing of non-rock genres with rock music to create new rock music genres; the next major innovations in rock music would involve such mergings of disparate genres. And they had no real peers in this new genre at this point. Dylan had yet to go electric, and was still a folk artist; and the Byrds hadn’t recorded yet – they hadn’t even named themselves the Byrds yet – so it seems fairly safe to say that this is either the first album to feature folk rock or the proto-folk-rock album.
Lastly, A Hard Day’s Night is perhaps the great early statement of one of the great British songwriters; Lennon wrote the vast majority of the songs on this album and co-wrote another. Though Lennon had yet to reach his full maturity as a songwriter – his best songs were still to come, starting later this year – this was the most dominant role Lennon ever had in the band. One major reason why this was the birth of folk-rock is because Lennon was the Beatle most attuned to folk music in 1964. Had McCartney been producing more, it’s liable this album would have had a very, very different style.
“A Hard Day’s Night” has one of the most famous opening chords in history and its notable, of course, because it was played on that brand new 12-string. That same 12-string plays the solo, another rock music first. In one of their earliest uses of “the studio as instrument,” Martin played a piano out of time with the song that was then sped up to sound like a harpsichord, doubling Harrison’s 12-string solo. This is one of the earliest known instances of such a trick on a rock and roll recording – though such
things had been happening in the world of musique concrete for nearly two decades. The song also ends differently than any previous Beatles song, which had all previously ended with strident chords; “A Hard Day’s Night” ends with arpeggios. This one song is perhaps the biggest sign on the album – and really to date – that the Beatles were doing something nobody had ever done before. There was really nothing else like it in 1964 popular music or before. It was utterly revolutionary even though it is hard for us to tell at this remove, when every one of us has heard it a million times, and its imitators as much or more.
“I Should Have Known Better” is one of Lennon’s first attempts to write more like Dylan. Obviously based on that ambition alone it fails – as Lennon is still singing about girls even though he is singing about regret in general – but it was the first time that Lennon was really trying to stretch his style. It is notable for being the last Beatles song with a harmonica intro, which was a common early device to distinguish themselves from other British bands. It features the unique form of three verses then a bridge.
“If I Fell” is a little more interesting and unconventional: it is the first Beatles song with an intro that never gets repeated, and it also lacks a chorus. That’s right: no chorus ; the hook is in the verse. Surprisingly for a song without a chorus, it was released as a single just before Christmas of that year. It is, again, proof of Lennon’s growing lyrical maturity, wondering about the consequences of actions in this case.
“I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” was written for Harrison to sing, since Harrison didn’t get to contribute a song to the album. The composers have dismissed it but it has some wacky parts: it opens with part of the bridge rather than an intro or the verse, and it features an “African drum” played by Starr, an instrumental device that was becoming more and more common in their music. Despite these interesting touches, it is probably the weakest song on the album.
Though he received no credit, Harrison apparently came up with the riff for “And I Love Her,” a ballad McCartney included with the intention of preserving the show-tune-style number on each previous album – only this is much more subdued than those covers. This song along with “This Boy” show how the Beatles were starting to forsake covers for their originals in those styles that they had covered on previous albums. But though the Beatles were ostensibly trying to preserve their successful commercial formula, they were adding things to these styles that subverted or overturned the conventions: unusual key changes, unusual forms – two verses, a bridge and then three verses in this case – and wholly unexpected chords. (Maybe this is the song Dylan was thinking of when he called their chord changes “ridiculous”.)
“Tell Me Why” is comparatively far more raucous to McCartney’s ballad; it is basically a hard-for-the-time rock-and-roll version of a doo-wop song, without the doo-wop; further evidence that genre rules and conventions didn’t apply to the Beatles’ songs, and that they were willing to try anything. It contains evidence of Lennon’s increasingly misogynistic attitude towards women.
“Any Time at All” is the one song of the album that is built like a folk song, even if it doesn’t sound like it; perhaps the closest they got to authentic folk rock on the album. (Not that such a thing was possible, given that the genre didn’t exist.) The “middle 8,” written by McCartney, is claimed to have
been hugely influential on people like Bacharach, though I can find no definitive source to back up that claim. The song is the second one on the album to feature the piano-guitar matching trick in the solo, though it is less pronounced this time. But imagine that you were a musician listening to this in the summer of ’64: would you have been utterly amazed to learn that tapes were being manipulated to double instruments? Interesting to note that the ending chords almost sound like they could be an intro to another song.
“I’ll Cry Instead” is another lyrical change for the Beatles in that it is another of their songs from this period featuring lyrics about rejection instead of the usual fluff about finding teenage love and holding
hands. It is practically the first Beatles original to attempt traditional country, a genre that would be far more prominent on the next two albums. (Funnily enough, country would be rather prominent in the catalogues of a number of folk rock bands.) So even as they subtly embraced the influence of folk they were also expanding to other genres – in this case a genre that had been common for some early rock and rollers. Note the increasing bitterness in Lennon’s lyrics.
“Things We Said Today” is another McCartney ballad which again features different lyrics for a pop song at the time, as it is about looking back to the present from the future. It is, for McCartney, relatively free of the things he was normally writing about at the time (teenage romance, etc) and a clear sign that he too was growing lyrically. Musically, it is one of the few Beatles songs so clearly in a minor key, it is also in a mode – perhaps the indication of a jazz influence – and it features nontraditional chord changes.
“When I Get Home” is a somewhat unconventional rock song in that it jumps keys. It is fairly easy to imagine that, had the Beatles had a different, less forward-thinking producer, this kind of thing would have been nixed for being too weird or too radical. This kind of device is now commonplace in popular music but at the time is was practically unheard of and defied most rules about proper pop songwriting. The chorus begins the song and each verse which is a pretty unconventional structure.
The final song on the album, “I’ll Be Back,” also jumps keys, but this is a slightly flamenco sounding ballad, rather than a rock and roll song. Again: no chorus. No chorus. The Beatles attempted something really wacky with this one: trying to sing it in 6/8 time something just unheard of for 1964 popular music. But Lennon couldn’t do it – on the Anthology you can hear him complain about how hard it is. Even though they didn’t get the idea on record, it is proof that they were thinking bigger and bigger. In this one case the idea outstripped their talent.
A Hard Day’s Night is leaps and bounds beyond what the Beatles had done the year previous, and so, according to Rolling Stone and others, they had set a new standard for rock bands. Now rock bands were expected to progress from album to album; now rock music was being afforded some of the same artistic merit as “higher” forms of music such as jazz and “classical”. The Beatles weren’t the only people trying different things. In July 1964 – i.e. around the same time the Beatles released A Hard Day’s Night – the Beach Boys included bars of silence in a song. But Wilson was still writing songs about cars and girls and the band’s internal dynamics were further harmed by Wilson’s desire not to tour – something the Beatles did constantly. The Byrds didn’t exist. Bob Dylan was still a folk singer, albeit the most interesting one in the world. The Kinks were a month away from their first hit. The Rolling Stones were just beginning their first tour of the United States where they were as yet unknown. And they were still mostly a cover band at this point. The Velvet Underground were basically a folk combo practicing in their apartments. The Who were moonlighting as the High Numbers. Frank Zappa was experimenting in the studio he had just acquired ownership of but with no music to show for it yet. In short: nobody touched the Beatles in the summer of 1964.
3. Another Side of Bob Dylan (10/10)
Dylan was a protest song singer-songwriter. Sure, he was possibly the best ever (in English) and there was the odd deviation into other formats, but that’s what he was to most people when this record came out. It’s what he was known and respected for. Presumably one reason this album exists is because I was frustrated with the perception that singing protest songs was the only thing he did, or the best thing he did, or what have you.
And so instead we get 1 (sort of) protest song and 10 songs that are more personal or are more of Dylan’s experiments with storytelling. The former songs helped establish the modern idea of a confessional singer-songwriter which would absolutely take off throughout this decade and especially in the 1970s. But it’s the other songs which are the real meat. As he had already started to do with a few songs on earlier records, Dylan violates basically every pop song lyrical convention and instead introduces poetic techniques that had basically no precedent in English-langue songs.
This is not his best set of songs but it’s probably his best set to date, or at least his most varied. And, more than his previous albums, this set of songs set a new standard in songwriting which songwriters who took their craft seriously felt they had to take seriously (so seriously in some cases that they would imitate Dylan to the point of parody).
4. The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (10/10)
5. Bob Dylan: The Times They Are a Changin’ (10/10)
Along with his previous record, this is the point at which Dylan basically killed protest song writing, both for himself and everyone else. For himself, he seems to have gotten bored and wanted to explore new avenues (which he had already hinted at with a few of his original songs on earlier records), or maybe he just didn’t want to be viewed as such an important “voice” in the US. For everyone else: if you are a budding protest songwriter how do you compete with these lyrics? What are you supposed to do now?
Obligatory mention: Dylan has stolen many of his melodies from other songwriters. This was extremely common in the folk and blues traditions at the time and few (if any) people called him out for it. We shouldn’t judge this record by our standards today. (We should judge him now, when he continues to do it, on the other hand.)
7. Beatles For Sale (10/10)
For years this was my favourite pre-Rubber Soul Beatles album, despite its faults. (Maybe because of it.) I’m slowly realizing that the critical consensus is right, it’s their weakest record between their debut and Magical Mystery Tour. Here’s what I wrote for my book anyway:
For Sale is regarded by many critics as a mediocre follow up to A Hard Day’s Night and some even regard it as one of the weakest albums in their canon. This was the Beatles fourth album in twenty-one months and so it makes sense that they ran out of songs. Given the strength of most of the originals and given the increasingly odd ideas appearing on some of these songs, I quite like the album. I think it has been underrated; now let’s see if I can defend that as something objective, rather than just my personal preference.
“No Reply” begins the album and it must be said that it is probably Lennon’s strongest song to date. (There is some disagreement about whether McCartney contributed the middle portion – lyrics? music? – of the song.) Martin and the Beatles certainly didn’t feel that way, as they released “I Feel Fine” as the single instead. The song showcases the influence of Dylan on Lennon’s writing – as all Lennon’s contributions to the album do – as Lennon’s songs were getting more autobiographical and darker in tone and content. The whole album has a darker tone to it than any previous Beatles album because of Lennon’s efforts. “No Reply” marks the first time he tried to tell a proper story. It is a strong contender for the Beatles best song to date and, to my ears, it is the first Beatles song that doesn’t clearly sound like it belongs to the British Invasion. You might say it’s the first “modern” Beatles song.
However “No Reply” is not as starkly different from his past lyrical efforts as “I’m a Loser,” a confessional song and definitely the most downbeat thing the Beatles had yet recorded. It is slightly more country-ish, though it has been identified as an important proto-folk-rock piece. It features a
harmonica solo from Lennon, the last significant one on a Beatles album, which shows them moving away from their roots. The instrumental break combines half of a verse and half of a chorus, which is very unusual for other bands though such tricks were entirely common for the Beatles by this point.
“Baby’s in Black” completes the trilogy of depression opening the album; this time it was definitely co-written with McCartney, and it is in 6/8 time and so marks their first success with something outside conventional rock and roll and pop time signatures. It also features an utterly bizarre guitar solo – for the time – from Harrison that stretches conventional rock and roll guitar to the brink. Pollack says of it:
For a guy who made such a specialty of the well-practiced kind of solo that is the most understated delicate paraphrase of the tune, George really lets go here with a solo whose only obvious connection to the original refrain melody is to be found in the lilting cadence of its rhythmic pattern.
Otherwise, in place of the predominantly stepwise melodic arch performed by the singers, we get a guitar part that is not only full of long jumps, but is also peppered through with bent notes and free dissonances against the underlying chords; all in all, a worthy contrast with the surrounding sections.
Harrison isn’t always fully appreciated for his sometimes path-breaking playing at this time. Yes, he would be very shortly eclipsed by his contemporaries but at this point he was the best widely heard rock guitarist on the planet. (Clapton was still playing straight-up blues without the same level of exposure.) But we need to give him some credit. This solo in particular is just out there (in a good way).
“I’ll Follow the Sun” was an old McCartney song updated for the album. It is surprisingly downbeat for McCartney, despite paling in dourness to Lennon’s efforts on the album. It is one of the few examples of McCartney writing something so rueful. It is also one of the few songs from the album that has become a near-standard, along with “No Reply” and “Eight Days a Week”, which pales compared to the load of them on A Hard Day’s Night. Here the band pair folk instrumentation with chord changes that would never appear in a traditional folk song, and so we say this is a typical folk rock song, even if the “rock” part isn’t audible in the instrument choices.
“Eight Days a Week” has been dismissed by the band as being “lousy” despite the fact that it was released in the United States as a single and was a huge hit. It is hard to tell if it is in part a parody of their earlier inane love songs or whether they just tossed it off with the nonsense title just used for fun. It is notable for having an intro and coda musically unlike anything in the rest of the song – the first time the Beatles, or really any rock band, had done anything like that. And this device speaks to a growing sophistication in their compositions: the idea that a song could be more than just a “song” in the traditional sense, but could include other musical ideas that did not fit into the standard verse, chorus, bridge categorization; and that just because they included a musical idea it didn’t have to match with the others. Also, the intro fades in, which was extremely unusual for the time, as normally songs faded out. And it is perhaps the best early evidence of Lennon’s absurdist sense of humour, even if it isn’t very good evidence.
“Every Little Thing” is one of only two originals to not have a dark slant and so it stands out lyrically. It is notable in that, in addition to drums, Starr plays the timpani, a huge drum used for percussion in an orchestra – the only way you can hear a drum in an orchestra is to make it a big one – and it plays an important part in the hook of the song, actually. There is debate as to whether or not it was Harrison or Lennon on guitar – it could be Lennon because it is so simple – but, regardless, the solo bucks convention because it’s mostly chords; sort of an anti-guitar solo technique. This is one of the few songs in the canon where it sounds like the other guy wrote it: for much of the song Lennon’s voice is mixed more prominently – and he appears to sing by himself much of the time – but McCartney has taken credit for it and Lennon never contradicted that while he was alive. Also, the lyrics suggest McCartney.
“I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” is another dour Lennon song and, like most of his other contributions to the album, is one of his best songs to date. It features fantastic harmony singing with a heavy folk music influence. Like “No Reply,” it is more of a story song than anything he had yet written, and like many of the other songs he wrote at this time, it features the composer as the butt of some unfortunate circumstance, a position which was fairly unknown for such a young rock songwriter to take. The song again features folk instrumentation paired to a pop-rock structure and chords.
“What You’re Doing” begins with a drum intro – a first for the band – and features a bizarre guitar solo over the top of rumbling piano. I think the guitar solo is one of the highlights of Harrison’s early work: it breaks rock and roll convention of the time, like the less inventive one on “Every Little Thing,” by beginning with chords and ending with arpeggios, rather than just playing the melodic line, which was standard practice for everyone, including Harrison. “What You’re Doing” has also been sited as a huge influence on the Byrds, or at least an anticipation of the sound they would develop the next year.
The covers are the obvious weak point with the album. The band has admitted to just basically including covers they knew well and performed live many, many times previously because of their lack of original material due to exhaustion. There’s nothing particularly bad about most of them – with one notable exception – yet many critics see it as proof that the band was not at its best.
“Rock and Roll Music” is their second – and I would say better – Berry cover. I think it stands up as one of their better straight ahead rock and roll covers, featuring some of Lennon’s best vocal efforts. It also features his best piano playing to date. My thoughts seem to be confirmed a little by the fact that this version of Berry’s song has become more famous over the years than his original – which is pretty unfair. They do play it harder and faster than Berry does, which has helped it stick around.
“Mr. Moonlight” is another story: many people consider it to be the worst Beatles recording of all time. Now, I would disagree with that in that there are a few later experiments and a few things on the Anthology that might qualify in its stead. It is notable for its complete stylistic difference from everything else on the album, Lennon’s bravura opening reading of the title lyric, its non-rock percussion and McCartney’s first ever organ solo – which isn’t very good. It’s pretty campy and significantly more over the top than the original. I think this must be seen as a deliberate artistic decision, though I’m not sure I know the reason for that. It is important to remember that the Beatles – and other British artists of their day – were viewed as entertainers first, rather than artists or musicians or composers. The Beatles themselves did more than anyone to change that stereotype but before they did so – and even while they were doing so – they were expected to do a little bit of everything; one such thing was providing campy comedy moments – most evident on Live at the BBC, where you can hear that they actually developed little comedy routines – and this is one such explanation for why something as odd as “Mr. Moonlight” was allowed to be released on an LP, rather than as a b-side or as a throwaway on one of their numerous EPs of previously released material.
The medley of Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City” and Little Richard’s “Hey Hey Hey Hey!” is not of their own making but rather a thing Little Richard used to do in concert. It’s a decent performance but that’s it. The Beatles did switch some verses around and such, and they again take the song to louder territory, but on the whole there’s nothing too notable about it.
Despite Lennon’s Holly obsession in his earliest musical days, “Words of Love” was the only Buddy Holly cover the Beatles ever released. It was perhaps included because of how much it stands out from the original material but it is not particularly notable. They changed very little from the original save the lead vocal and the dominant 12-string guitar part, which gives it a folk-rock sound.
“Honey Don’t” showed a return to the spotlight for Starr, who didn’t get to sing lead on the previous album; like most of the songs he sang during this era, it is a good-natured country tune – somewhat out of character for Carl Perkins. There is no debate as to who plays the solos here, as Starr calls out to Harrison twice. (His Perkins impression is pretty good.)
“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” is the second Perkins song of the album. It is notable for its false ending, a device the Beatles had apparently been using in the song for years, though it was one of the earliest times this technique had been used by a rock band on record. It was given to Harrison to sing because he didn’t contribute a song to the album. Harrison does go a little wacky on the second solo.
The album is a mixed bag, there is no doubt. But the originals the Beatles were writing at this time were practically the best “pop / rock” songs being written by anyone in the world at this point. (Dylan had yet to go electric, which he would do the next year.) Their lyrics were getting more subtle and more complicated. They were getting increasingly adventurous musically as well, adding more and more offbeat percussion and stranger touches – different time signatures, strange guitar solos. (Perhaps their exhaustion helps explain why these touches were now much more obvious. With A Hard Day’s Night the emphasis was on making the innovations sound normal. Perhaps on Beatles For Sale they were just too tired to bother hiding the innovations in conventions.) The covers, though not all strong, were still energetic and as good as anyone was putting out at the time. For me it is an important turning point, another significant sign that this band was something very different than what had previously been the norm. Just listen to this album: it sounds far more modern than A Hard Day’s Night, whether they wrote all the material or not. And maybe that’s one of the things that draws me to it over its predecessor: A Hard Day’s Night is a better display of the Beatles’ prolific nature, it invented folk rock, and for some it is an astounding display of songwriting prowess. (Though I prefer the originals on For Sale.) But For Sale is, on the whole, better produced and better arranged, and more obviously path-breaking in its production, even if it does contain covers. And really there wasn’t much else out there in late 1964 like Beatles For Sale.
8. Herbie Hancock: Empyrean Isles (9/10)
9. Sam Cooke: Ain’t That Good News (9/10)
Basically a greatest hits collection. Read the review of Ain’t That Good News.
10. The Supremes: Where Did Our Love Go (8/10)
11. Bernard Herrmann: Marnie Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (7/10)
Marnie is considerably more traditional than Herrmann’s most famous works from the ’60s, but that doesn’t make it bad. The score is highly memorable (i.e. catchy) and features not just a compelling main theme but some other pieces that really get in your head.
There’s nothing innovative here. It’s just a pretty good score by one of the great American film score composers. Worth checking out if you’re into Herrmann, or Hitchcock, but certainly not among his very best.
11. The Rolling Stones (7/10)
In the context of the time, this covers record likely seemed totally original. Read the review of The Rolling Stones’ debut album.
12. Maurice Durufle: Méditation (7/10)
Another brief piece, one which we can assume was not intended for publication, since it was published after Durufle’s death. This is one of those brief musical paintings meant to conjure something. I’m not sure what, but it’s nice enough to listen to. I wouldn’t meditate to it, but I’m not sure that’s the idea.
14. John Coltrane: Coltrane’s Sound (7/10)
By the time this was released, Coltrane had already completely moved on from this music. If you are not evaluating it in 1960 terms, it would look pretty weak.
15. Johnny Cash: Bitter Tears (7/10)
16. The Beach Boys: All Summer Long (6/10)
Well it’s better than a couple of their previous records. Read the review of All Summer Long.