These reviews of Beatles albums come from my book, which you can find a link to in the sidebar to your right.
That book is now a podcast. I have included the relevant episodes in this page in case you would prefer to listen.
On this page you can find my reviews of all of The Beatles’ albums which are canon.
Beatles Albums of 1963:
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.
4. With The Beatles (10/10)
With the Beatles is both another album in the same mould as the debut and a step forward for the band in terms of craft and performance. It marks the debut of McCartney on keys, it features stronger originals than the first time around, and it features a wide and varied selection of covers yet again. And
it’s not as if the originals are more stylistically diverse from song to song, but rather they incorporate more stylistic influences – and unique tricks – than previously, helping to conventionalize the sound of the British Invasion that was so copied for a couple years. The album shows a further development in the personalities of the two main songwriters as there is a slight chauvinist bent to Lennon’s songs whereas McCartney’s are – relatively at this point – more upbeat. It may be a retread of the greatest
rock album ever released up until that point, but it’s a solid retread. (And besides, rock and roll bands weren’t yet expected to “progress” from one album to the next.)
“It Won’t Be Long” is in a bit of a circular form as the couplets in the lyrics almost – almost – follow a circular pattern. As Pollack explains it, “X Y X Z Y X Z Y X,” where X, Y and Z are the various lyric couplets. It is a method that defies classification along traditional pop-song lines. The music is particularly bouncy and raucous compared to many of their early songs. The song is further helped by a better sense of dynamics than most of their earliest recordings. The ending is totally out of place.
“All I’ve Got to Do” contains some relatively exotic rhythms despite the lack of anything other than standard-rock percussion. It sounds like it was meant to be an R&B ballad but it’s weird enough that such a classification doesn’t really work. The intro isn’t really complete – the song starts before the intro should finish – and the ending is just a hummed half of one of the verses, fading out. Again, it’s a song that defies easy categorization given the era.
“All My Loving” is one of the more notable progressions for the group. Its ending bears a striking resemblance to a section in “Kathy’s Waltz” from Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, an album that was, only a couple years earlier, regarded as somewhat avant-garde – among mainstream jazz anyway – for its time signatures. This is one of the earliest examples of rock and roll taking inspiration not just from jazz but from somewhat radical jazz. Such an approach would be common by mid 1966 but in late 1963 it was absolutely unheard of.
“Don’t Bother Me” is Harrison’s debut on record. Harrison’s first song is noteworthy because of its downbeat lyrical theme – the most negative Beatle lyric to date, and seemingly matched by the music – in contrast to much of the rest of the album. But the must isn’t quite as downbeat as it seems, as there are some modal and major chord touches that should be totally out of place for such a downbeat song.
“Little Child” breaks up conventional verse and bridge patterns: the verse is more of a chorus – at least in terms of lyrics – and the bridge is more of a verse, even though it sits in the bridge’s spot. The song also includes a break, one of the earliest the Beatles performed. The lyrics are nothing to remember.
This concludes the originals on the first side and Pollack notes that all songs are in the same key, borrowing a suite facet from baroque music, though we do not know if that was intentional and, if it was, whose idea it was. (Probably Martin’s.)
On side two there is “Hold Me Tight”, which has been dismissed by McCartney but it includes a repeating riff that is used throughout the song, a technique they would use more in the future but had not really used previously. The intro is very short and basically starts the song mid-song.
“I Wanna Be your Man” was written for the Rolling Stones – and they released it as a single, which peaked at #12 in Britain. The Beatles version is formulaic in comparison to much else on the album. The versions are radically different: the Beatles version is faster and arguably more playful whereas the Stones’ version is a lot rawer and lot more dangerous. This is the one place where the “Beatles vs. Stones” argument makes sense: the Stones’ version of this song is better – but then it should be better as Lennon and McCartney wrote it for them.
“Not a Second Time” is another kettle of fish all together, as it far more emblematic of the kind of risks the Beatles were taking in the songs they wrote for themselves. There is some conflation of the bridge / chorus: which is it? The solo is based on the melody of the chorus and not on that of the verse, as tradition would normally dictate. In the second verse, the piano is essentially playing the part of a bass instrument. In the outro Lennon’s double-tracked vocals are split apart to give the illusion of him singing over himself. And there are other subtle unconventional touches.
The covers are a little less obscure this time around but still display a wide variety of styles. “Till There Was You” is the now obligatory show tune – following “A Taste of Honey”; this time taken from The Music Man – which the Beatles had already been performing as a set closer for years. Their version is acoustic and Latinized and a far cry from the original. It features some pretty outstanding playing by Harrison. “Please Mr. Postman” was the first no.1 Motown hit single in its original incarnation by the Marvelettes. The Beatles version is as straight-up a cover as they had attempted to this point. It really sounds close to the original and as such is a bit of a let down. “Roll Over Beethoven” is equally true to the original and it’s the first straight-up rock and roll cover – on record – of the bands’ career, a fact
which somewhat dispels the early popular notion of them as just a rock and roll band. (Again, only true on record.) Harrison does his best Chuck Berry impersonation here – I mean the guitar playing, not the singing. “You Really Got a Hold on Me” is a stronger soul song than “Anna”; not an obscure minor release this time but a popular hit. Unlike the previous two covers on this album, the Beatles attempted a different version, omitting the saxophones – as was their wont with these R&B covers – and changing the ending – again, as was their wont. They also changed the key. “Devil in Her Heart” was the only obscure cover this time around, having failed to be a hit a year or two earlier. The Beatles changed the ending and key yet again. Their arrangement is also leaner than the original, featuring fewer
instruments. “Money” is the requisite album closer where the Beatles tried to repeat the success of “Twist and Shout,” though I don’t think they were quite successful on that level – that’s not to say their version isn’t a decent one. Compared to the original “Money,” they shortened some of the sections and improved the lead vocal.
The sound of With the Beatles is better than their first album; with more time and with their success to date the band was able to do more. The songs feature vocal overdubs, the keyboard debut of McCartney, and an expanded sonic pallet, not just featuring piano from McCartney and Martin; this album has the Beatles’ first use of non-traditional rock and roll instruments – I would say that by this point maracas were pretty common – in the bongos and the claves – short thick sticks beaten together. True, very minor stuff compared to feedback and such things, but in 1963 bongos and claves were things the purview of novelty pop acts, or Afro-Cuban jazz bands, not rock and roll bands. With the Beatles solidified the Beatles position as the greatest rock and roll band in the world, even if the US was barely aware of their existence. Nobody could compete with the quality of their records in terms of song-writing or arrangement.
Beatles Albums of 1964:
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.
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.
Beatles Albums in 1965:
Whereas For Sale was a bit of a mixed bag with very strong originals and covers that ranged from good to terrible – depending on your perspective – Help! is clearly a return to consistency. Boasting only two covers, it contains yet another strong set of songs including the Beatles’ first true standard. More than previous albums, Help! is also the first Beatles album to have notable tracks left off of it – as opposed to songs omitted because they were not considered up to snuff or because they were given to other artists – most notably the song “Wait,” which was saved for Rubber Soul – wrapped in new overdubs. Two other songs were written for the movie but never released. So the Beatles were again at the stage where they had too much material for the standard album. Help! is probably the stronger for it, being perhaps their definitive folk-rock statement at a time when folk rock was becoming the thing in the world of popular music.
“Help!” represents another leap forward in Lennon’s songwriting and it may be the first “it is hard to be famous” song ever released by a pop / rock band, though obviously that legacy is a mixed one. It was released ten days before the premier of their second film but it’s a far cry from the joviality of the first film’s title track. It’s an alternative approach to folk rock than what the Byrds had been doing since April. (By the way, Dylan had gone electric in March.) Essentially what the Beatles were doing was making rock songs of Dylan-inspired lyrics as opposed to electrified covers of Dylan and other folkies, which is what the Byrds were mostly doing. For me this puts them closer to Dylan; so this is probably the – second – closest the two got to sounding like each other, only Dylan would never be so exuberant musically.
“The Night Before” is a solid, up-tempo pop number – which contains elements of the blues – that features more of McCartney’s increasingly prominent lead guitar playing – this time paired with Harrison. The song is notable for its prominent pianet part played by Lennon; the pianet was an early electric piano. It is a good of example of how McCartney just tossed off strong melodies and how the Beatles were always thinking of neat little instrumental touches to make these songs sound more substantial than they might otherwise be.
“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is the most transparent attempt by Lennon to be Dylan – actually lapsing into some kind of parody / tribute during the verses. The song is notable for being far more folksy – the time signature for example – but unfortunately I think Lennon’s vocal is rather weak. Traditionally this song has been seen as the sign that the Beatles were mature songwriters but I think “No Reply,” “I’m a Loser” and “Help!” are all stronger songs. Personal preferences aside, it is an important landmark as it marks the first use of session musicians by the Beatles – the flutes – and the complete absorption of Dylan’s path-breaking songwriting into Lennon’s.
“I Need You” is another technical landmark, containing Harrison experimenting with an effects pedal – a volume pedal in this case – apparently for the first time. (“Yes it Is”, which also contains the effect, was likely recorded after “I Need You,” though it was released earlier.) As such it has been the subject of much interest as it is certainly one of the earliest recordings of anyone using an effect – other than distortion – on the guitar. Aside from that little effect, it is far from his greatest song, but still an improvement from his first contribution on With the Beatles and a signal that musically he was moving into areas few other pop / rock artists had been exploring. Lyrically it is, like his first contribution to the band, a distinct, downbeat position not shared by the other songwriters – Lennon may be depressed but it always seems like he can do something about it, unlike Harrison.
“Another Girl” is another in the line of up-beat “rockers” that McCartney wrote. It features yet another guitar solo by McCartney on top of Harrison’s and Lennon’s rhythm parts. This is one of McCartney’s lesser songs, but at least the arrangement is compelling – McCartney showing that he is quite the guitarist – and that helps you ignore the inanity of the lyrics.
“You’re Going to Lose That Girl” is a now rare collaboration between the two main songwriters. And it is rare because it is seemingly in a style similar to some of their earlier work, to the extent that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was written prior to the album sessions: but no, it was written around the same time as “Help!” The arrangement contains the odd trick: using the opening section to finish the verses and shortening the bridge, for two examples. Such straight-up collaborations between Lennon and McCartney were becoming very uncommon; though one songwriter might help the other with a line or two or a section most songs were now written individually with the other acting as editor later on.
“It’s Only Love” is a rather mild song given Lennon’s latest contributions – and which he later detested – but it features the trick of running Harrison’s electric guitar through the speaker of a Hammond organ which gives it its shimmering quality – which makes it sound a bit Indian. This trick was later employed by Clapton among many others – it’s a more or less signature psychedelic sound despite its origins in a folk-rock song – and it represents yet another example of the Beatles’ willingness to break recording rules, even for – perhaps especially for – songs that weren’t themselves breaking any compositional rules. With both the “tone” pedal effect and this effect – and the layering of guitar overdubs evident on this song in particular – the Beatles had positioned themselves at the forefront of rock guitar innovation, despite the fact that as players they weren’t on the same level as Beck or Clapton, both of whom were now gaining attention. (Clapton more so.)
“You Like Me Too Much” is Harrison’s second contribution to the album. It features multiple pianos in the beginning, as Martin and McCartney play two ends of a Steinway and Lennon plays an electric piano, giving the song a very strange and unique intro, with a deliberate “honky tonk” tinge. (And it’s fair to say that a “piano orchestra” was a really novel thing in 1965, given that guitar orchestras were just becoming a thing.) It is just another example of the subtle studio trickery that had become prominent now that the Beatles were using 4-track. (Even though, as I mentioned already, they were way behind the United States in terms of technology.) The song makes use of a ridiculous number of chords but they do not progress in the way one would expect – upwards – instead moving both up and down, as the song progresses. The lyrics are highly ambiguous.
“Tell Me What You See” shows McCartney writing in a more mature light than he had previously and musically it moves away from some rock and roll conventions, featuring a recurring instrumental break giving prominence to McCartney’s electric piano. There is also a bunch of percussion overdubs, probably the most they had used on one song since they started making use of this device. The heavy percussion gives the song a slight Latin feel; the first time really since With the Beatles that they had focused on that sound. I had alluded to the growing division between Lennon and McCartney in terms of focus, but a song like this shows McCartney maturing as well, even if he was, at the same time, still writing the odd throwback to their original sound.
McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is probably the second best song he had written up until this point and is notable for being bassless and as country as anything they had yet written. Also, like “Eight Days a Week,” it features an extended intro but this time the song behind the intro is arguably much stronger. Starr plays brushes instead of drumsticks, in addition to maracas. The tune does not fit in with the other Beatles songs of the period which is perhaps why it is so notable. Though it is rather simple – outside of the intro – it is compelling despite – because of? – this simplicity.
The obvious candidate for the best song he’d written is “Yesterday,” the first time a Beatle had written a song that was pretty much immediately adopted into the popular music songbook. It has since become one of the most covered songs of all time – and certainly the most covered song ever by a rock band – with more than 1600 versions. Like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” it features session musicians, this time a string quartet arranged by Martin. (Though apparently Martin did get input from McCartney; it is unknown whether or not John Scott arranged his own flutes on “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”.) It was only released as a single in the United States partly because the other Beatles didn’t think it representative of the band as a whole, which makes sense since none of them played on it. (This would become more and more common with McCartney’s songs as their career progressed.) We all know the song so it’s tough to say too much about it but one thing to note is that the string quartet never plays exactly the same each time through. So that’s something neat, and a testament to Martin’s skills. Otherwise, what can we say? There’s a reason it’s a standard.
“Act Naturally” is a cover Starr sang that was used in place of a Lennon and McCartney collaboration that many view as one of the worst songs they ever wrote, “If You’ve Got Trouble.” “Act Naturally” is the kind of jolly country track Starr was good at singing. It is the most country thing they had yet done – as opposed to written, as “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is almost as country – and certainly helped legitimize country music in a pop context in the eyes of their biggest fans, the Byrds. It was the last cover the Beatles recorded for an album – they recorded it after “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” – for the next four years. The Beatles added some slight changes, as they were wont to do, but nothing too drastic; the only really noticeable thing is the use of the break for the intro and coda.
“Dizzy Miss Lizzy” seems an attempt to close out the album like they did in the old days – on their first two albums – with a loud, raucous rock and roll song. It is one of their best of these covers but it still feels like it belongs to another era. Their version is significantly longer than the original – the breaks are doubled, a verse is repeated – and it is, of course, louder.
So Help! is a transitional Beatles album. The early era is evident in the covers and continued attempts at writing songs in more traditional modes – though the songs are better. But it also features all sorts of new touches which are arguably less obvious and less jarring and more sophisticated than For Sale. (Though personally I think I like the latter better even though the former is the stronger record.) Help! is certainly one of the definitive folk-rock albums even if it doesn’t remain strictly in the genre, unlike both of the Byrds’ releases from this year. Help! shows the growth of songwriting ability in all three main Beatles, in addition to their increasing skill with arranging and their increasing technical prowess. But, perhaps because of the covers, or perhaps because of a few originals that sound a little more traditional by our standards, it does still stand out as something made in the early ’60s; it does not yet sound “modern” in the sense of the sound of most classic rock.
Rubber Soul (10/10)
Rubber Soul is the last of the early Beatles albums for many reasons.
- For one thing, it is the last thing Norman Smith worked on with them before he was promoted to producer – a job which would see him produce the early Pink Floyd albums. So it is the last album before the Beatles were paired with their team of engineers extraordinaire.
- It is the last Beatles album to feature a conventional cover of the band until Let It Be four and a half years later.
- It is the first Beatles album – aside from the debut – recorded in a single session with a goal of releasing all the material together – a goal that wasn’t met, as an outtake of Help! made it onto the final record.
- It is the first album to feature more than just a little in the way of non-rock instrumentation – and in the past that had been only percussion.
- But, more importantly, it is the last Beatles album to feature only songs that could be labeled pop or rock in a traditional sense. (Even the Beatles’ attempts at folk and country still owed a lot to rock and roll or pop music.)
- And though it was hardly released at the midpoint of the decade, with its release the first half of the “musical” ’60s could be said to near a close.
Rubber Soul contains more ideas – especially more non-rock and roll ideas – than any other Beatles album up until that time. But it still has enough hallmarks of a traditional Beatles album to resemble previous efforts in terms of songwriting and arrangements.
“Drive My Car” is a goofy, joke song that is immaculately arranged and produced so you don’t realize the silliness if you are not paying attention. As such it is most definitely a step forward by McCartney and foreshadows his later, better and funnier satires. (These later satires are directed at other bands rather than everyday people, like the woman who believes she will be a movie star despite her lover who is only good for sex in this song.) It is a folk song in structure but, of course, sounds nothing like that. It is the first example I know about of Harrison playing bass on a Beatles song, and he seems to excel on it. (McCartney played yet another lead track, which is why it is noticeably more gritty and out of step with the tone of the rest of the song.) The backing vocals don’t really match the style of the song either.
“Norwegian Wood” was also explained as a joke song by at least one of the Beatles, but it’s had a far bigger impact on popular culture. Though the drones of Indian classical music had made their way into popular music on occasion before – particularly in the Kinks’ song “See My Friends,” released as a single in July – “Norwegian Wood” is thought to be the first documented use of a sitar on a pop / rock record – although Harrison had yet to master the instrument. The sitar, more than any other Indian instrument – and Indian music, more than any other source of music – would come to dominate the music of the psychedelic era, beginning with this recording. More often than not, when psychedelic pop and rock bands sought extra-rock influences, they would seek Indian music influences, not always using Indian instruments but approximating the sound of them. Though the Beatles had yet to put out music that resembled Indian music – raga rock as it has since been labelled – this song began it all. The song is also in very unusual time, which further breaks from folk rock tradition. The lyrics are regarded by McCartney as a bit of a laugh but they apparently described an actual affair Lennon had which he was trying to sing about but hide behind his wife’s back at the same time. It is one of the landmarks of the Beatles’ catalogue and one of the pop-rock highlights of the decade.
“You Won’t See Me” is about relationship trouble – the first time McCartney wrote about actual relationship trouble rather than theoretical relationship trouble, like with “Yesterday” – and so marks a point at which McCartney had joined Lennon in attempting to write confessional songs a la folk songs via the influence of Bob Dylan. (This despite the music of the song being a Motown tribute instead of Lennon’s more obviously folk-influenced work.) The Beatles’ personal assistant, Mal Evans, made his recording debut playing the organ note that drones through the end of the song, another subtle Indian influence – droning notes are not common in the Western tradition. It’s also notable for being the longest song the Beatles had yet recorded at 3:24. (This was nothing, however compared to what had been the Stones’ most recent effort in that department.)
Though its lyrics have dated rather badly – Lennon’s knowledge of existential philosophy being apparently very, very, very small in 1965 – “Nowhere Man” marks an important step in the Beatles’ – and pop music’s – development as it is the first time the Beatles – and really, anyone aside from Dylan – wrote about something that had absolutely nothing to do with love or the acquisition of commercial goods and services – by that I mean cars…mostly cars. It is certainly the first instance I know of that existential pseudo-philosophy featured in a pop song, whether Lennon was aware of the origin of his sentiments or not. The harmonies are good – the song opens a cappella, which was quite novel at the time – and the guitar line is memorable, although perhaps a little too influenced by the Byrds. So you can sort of forget the very clumsy attempt at meaning greater than “ooh baby I love you baby.”
Speaking of clumsy attempts at meaning: “Think for Yourself” was Harrison’s first attempt at writing a non-love song. The lyrics are not the greatest in the world but the song is notable – and interesting – for featuring two separate bass parts, both played by McCartney. The more noticeable one is the “fuzzy” one, which is the first time that a distortion effect had been applied to a bass guitar on a rock recording. (The effect would be made more famous with “Satisfaction”, though that was played on guitar, not a bass.) The chord progression is on another planet compared to most rock songs of the era and you can’t really figure out what key it’s in, though this was relatively common for Beatles songs of the day.
“The Word” is notable for being the first Beatles love song to be about love in general – in the hippie sense, which the word was about to take on – as opposed to in a personal sense. In that sense alone it is notable, despite what we might feel about hippie sentiments. It also features a very compressed piano – the sound has been, in essence, flattened. It is the second Beatles song to feature a harmonium, this time played, with a little more flair than Lennon exerted on it, by Martin. Apparently it is best listened to in stereo, where there are all sorts of neat tricks.
“Michelle” has quite silly lyrics – which has apparently endeared it to many, many people – but that was sort of the point. It is notable for being the first time any Beatles guitarist – and according to McCartney, any rock and roll guitarist – used proper finger-picking on a song by a rock and roll band. (This claim seems dubious to me, given the partial origins of rock and roll music in country.) This innovative arrangement makes it much more listenable than it would have been had it just been the transparently dumb lyrics. Though the key and melody are reminiscent of classic pop ballads, the chords are not. The guitar solo almost sounds low enough to have been played on a bass, but it was not.
“What Goes On,” though originally a song Lennon wrote on his own, marks the lyrical debut of Ringo Starr, who evidently wrote a few of the lyrics for the final version. It is the most traditional song on the album – and the most country – which befits the fact that Lennon wrote the majority of it years earlier before he had reached his current songwriting maturity. It also features the most traditional lead playing from Harrison on the album, as he goes all Carl Perkins on us – though even in that tribute there are interesting ideas. Really the interesting guitar playing is in the rhythm and bass. The song evolved into an unreleased jam session that later appeared on Anthology. This was the last country number the Beatles wrote for Starr, who would get a wider variety of stuff in the future – from novelty songs to an honest to goodness standard. When I say that Rubber Soul was the last of the early Beatles albums, it is because it contains songs like this one, clearly something that belongs on Help! or an even earlier record.
“Girl” is a fairly significant leap forward for Lennon as he fully embraces “Eastern” – in the very limited sense of Greek – music for the first time. There had been intimations of some Mediterranean ideas in earlier songs – “And I Love Her” for example – but this is the first time a Beatle had written a song that really sounded Eastern and broke with the English and Western traditions. (They had, of course, used embellishments that broke with the tradition, but these were always choices in the arrangement: the “Indian” touches on other songs on this album are provided by instruments, not by the song itself.) The vocals have a somewhat drugged-out sound that would become quite common – overdone really – in the ensuing psychedelic era.
“I’m Looking Through You” is the second confessional McCartney song on the album, further indicating McCartney’s new-found interest in writing more personal songs. The song is notable for its dynamics – perhaps more so than any other Beatles song to date – and less for being the keyboard debut of Starr. Incidentally, there doesn’t seem like there is a full drum kit present, which is yet another break with tradition. Harrison may or may not have appeared on the song, more evidence of McCartney’s growing perfectionist – and egotistical – streak.
“In My Life” is arguably the second standard written by the Beatles but, unlike “Yesterday,” there is debate over who was actually responsible for it. It is the edited version of a much longer poem Lennon wrote when encouraged by a critic to write songs about his childhood. The debate is about the music: McCartney claimed that he wrote the music by himself whereas Lennon has claimed he wrote it with a little bit of help from McCartney. (It was hardly uncommon for the two to disagree in retrospect regarding songwriting contributions.) It seems as though Martin should perhaps get a co-writing credit for the music as he may have completely originated the bridge which features a piano sped up to sound like a harpsichord – the second time Martin had used this trick but this time far more effectively, giving the bridge a baroque feel that could be seen as one of the earliest examples of “baroque pop.” For me it is the highlight of the song, though I know for most others it is the lyrics. There’s not much else to say: it’s a standard.
“Wait” is an outtake from Help!, which was improved with overdubs to ensure the Beatles had 35 minutes of music for Rubber Soul. (They were trying to have the record out for the Christmas shopping season and so used “Wait” in place of attempting to write a new song.) It sounds noticeably less progressive than the other songs – even though it is predated by a number of them, or parts of them, such as “What Goes On” and “Michelle” – in part because it embodies the “I’m away touring, don’t you forget me!” theme of “When I Get Home” from A Hard Day’s Night. Like other Beatles songs of its time – i.e. the Help! sessions – it features an early experiment with an effect pedal by Harrison.
“If I Needed Someone” tells us this is the second album in a row with two Harrison songs on it, and it is a further sign that he was beginning to compete with the other songwriters – at least just a little. “If I Needed Someone” is far easier to accept than “Think for Yourself,” not just because the Hollies used it as a single, to little success, but because it shows the Beatles doing the Byrds – rather effectively I might add. This is funny because Harrison himself had been the direct inspiration for their sound; so things had at this point come full circle. Like “Norwegian Wood,” it is in a mode – albeit not an odd one – rather than the more traditional diatonic scale of western music, and so is another indication of the Beatles’ movement away from pop / rock traditions. The use of modes was something that had become quite common in jazz since a Kind of Blue in 1959, but was relatively uncommon in rock music outside of the Beatles catalogue at this point. The lyrics are again a little ambiguous in meaning, which seems to be the thing for Harrison in 1965.
“Run for Your Life” is far and away the most mean-spirited song the Beatles had recorded to date, essentially threatening the life of a girlfriend. Obviously Lennon wrote it as it is just about impossible to imagine McCartney writing something like this. It is possible Lennon played the solo as it is repetitive. The song features many of the Beatles’ usual genre-defying flourishes, such as a blended verse-chorus and the use of blues and pop traditions interchangeably. And with this bit of politically incorrect spite ends possibly the greatest album in pop / rock to date, on one of the most bitter notes sounded in the supra-genre, which certainly is a bit of a shock, given the overall mood of the album and its reputation as a pop masterpiece. (When we think of pop we don’t necessarily think of spousal abuse.)
Rubber Soul shows the most popular and innovative rock band in the world at its very best – it was far and away their most consistent and impressive album and their most forward looking to date – but it was also the last time they made a thoroughly conventional album according to the production standards of the time. And based on those standards it has few if any peers. The Beach Boys by this point were still only putting out the odd song that broke with their traditions and Rubber Soul is often claimed to be the primary influence – or one of the primary influences – on Pet Sounds. The Byrds had indeed become folk rock incarnate but were still very much that – as their second album, basically a retread of their first, came out days after Rubber Soul. The Kinks had tossed out album after album in the past year and a bit but had yet to record anything close to a classic. (It would take most of another year for one to emerge.) The Rolling Stones were in a similar position, having yet to record a consistent album to go with their ever-improving singles. (They would do so in 1966.) The Who released their debut album the same day Rubber Soul came out, and as much as that is a pure distillation of the “Maximum R&B” power pop of the Who – at which the Beatles never could have excelled me thinks – that’s about all it was at this point. The Velvet Underground were still not much more than a bunch of guys recording drones in an apartment and Zappa hadn’t even begun recording his debut. The other major rock bands of the ’60s didn’t yet exist.
The only competition the Beatles had for “best pop / rock album of the ‘early’ ’60s” at this date was Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, released a few months earlier. I find it impossible to compare the two, as both are extremely strong – though Dylan’s songwriting is obviously better and the Beatles’ production and arrangements are, on the whole, better – but I guess what I will say is that if the proverbial gun is put to my head, the Beatles had the best pop album and Dylan the best “rock and roll” album made prior to 1966 – as much a banner year as any in popular music history, as we will soon find out. So even if Rubber Soul isn’t the greatest pop / rock album of the “first half” of the 1960s – i.e. the pre-psychedelic era of rock music – it is very much the second best, and I really think that distinction is a matter of taste. At this stage of my life, I like Highway 61 Revisited more – as I care more about songs than I used to, and I like grit a lot more than I used to – but I’m not sure that I can convince myself that it is greater – and certainly not more influential – than Rubber Soul. Until psychedelia debuted in March 1966 – and, frankly, well after that – the limitations of popular music were defined by Highway 61 Revisited and Rubber Soul.
Beatles Albums of 1966: Revolver (10/10)
It’s difficult to understate the importance of Revolver, despite the summer it emerged in, where it has stiff competition in terms of greatness. But Revolver is a decisive departure from earlier pop and rock music. First off, it sounds more like music today than anything the Beatles had recorded before – we’re used to sound effects, groups of session musicians on every track, and the huge variances in style from track to track, all of which originated on Revolver. Say what you will about Blonde on Blonde or Freak Out! – and I am a huge fan of both – but neither contains the stylistic differences Revolver contains, which have become part of the conventions of popular music. As a rock musician, you are now expected to tackle different styles of music. Dylan was a better songwriter and Zappa was more musically aware – and would soon eclipse the Beatles as the most innovative rock musician on the planet – but neither combined both songs and innovation to the same effect as the Beatles and, consequently – at least I would like to believe this is the reason – the Beatles were more popular.
“Tax Man” is the loudest thing the Beatles had yet recorded, featuring absolutely ferocious (for its time) lead guitar playing from McCartney. It is hilariously prescient as well, as soon the Rolling Stones would go into tax exile – and write their greatest music as a result. Harrison co-wrote the lyrics with Lennon, though of course the tradition of the time didn’t mention such things. This probably explains why they are so funny. I suspect that McCartney didn’t play bass on this but who knows. If he did then I don’t know what Harrison did. Unless Lennon didn’t play on it. But anyway, it’s not important really. The only important thing is that, when he wanted to, McCartney could blow in the studio.
“Eleanor Rigby” is the first Beatles song to be devoid of any conventional rock instrumentation – as even “Yesterday” had a guitar. Martin contributed a classic arrangement by doubling the conventional string quartet. (McCartney is sometimes attributed for helping with it, though, since he didn’t write music, it’s hard to know what he did beyond saying “I want it to sound like this” and then humming.) Starr apparently contributed some lines, which is funny because of all the songs that I would have thought he contributed to, this would be the last one – and “Yellow Submarine” is the first one that I would have thought of. It is also the most serious and penetrating song McCartney – with help – had yet written and it is certainly one of the earlier pop songs to deal with death and loneliness. It has rightfully become a standard.
“I’m Only Sleeping” is a marked contrast to “Eleanor Rigby.” It is one of the earliest uses of a backwards guitar fill in pop music history, and Harrison apparently spent five hours working it out – something that could be done more and more often given that they quit touring during the sessions for the album. The song is fairly obviously about a drug-induced stupor – attributed as sleepiness or laziness by some – which is at least hinted at by the sound of Lennon’s voice, a sound again achieved by the types of tape manipulation they used on “Rain.”
“Love You To” is another landmark as it is the first piece of Indian music – rather than rock music inspired by Indian music – recorded by a rock band. As such, it drastically breaks from musical traditions as much as the final and far more infamous track on the album. Raga rock was just an emerging style, but this goes beyond that, leaving out the rock element pretty much altogether. It’s impossible to really explain how far of a departure this was from rock music for a rock band. It might have been expected by a forward-thinking jazz ensemble – Indian music had been influencing jazz musicians for at least half a decade at this point – and it certainly would have been not very far out for a composer in the early part of the 20th century, but for a rock band in 1966 it was absolutely, utterly unheard of. The only other way I can convey that to you is to get you to listen to popular music pre-1966 and play “spot the Indian ‘classical’ music!” FYI, the virtuoso sitar performance was likely not from Harrison himself – though credited to him by many – but rather from an uncredited Indian session musician, as with the tamboura; the tabla was credited.
“Here, There and Everywhere” is apparently McCartney’s attempt to sound like the Beach Boys, which is funny because he recorded it before he heard Pet Sounds. The song has been covered a gazillion times. It is a far cry from the Indian music before it or the novelty shit after it. It is what I might call “tasteful” though it doesn’t do anything for me as it is not a genre I like. But it’s definitely astutely arranged pop. And, like so much other stuff on Revolver, it involved tape manipulation – again with the lead vocal.
“Yellow Submarine” is an incredibly popular novelty song – so popular they made a movie, so popular it became a camp song – that I personally detest. It makes sense Donovan helped write the words because it reminds me of some of his hippy nonsense. However, it should not go unnoticed, even though it is a novelty song; it is notable in the Beatles canon for a number of reasons. First off, it is the first time the Beatles employed obvious, easy to spot sound effects. The song features more people on it than any pop song previously featured, probably, and certainly any Beatles song, as the credits for the gang vocals and people creating noises is far longer than any of the Beatles’ album credits so far. It is, for all its silliness, a remarkable recording and sometimes I wish I didn’t hate it so I could at least try to appreciate the progressive nature of the it: for example, they once again employed the ever more common trick of varying the instrumentation backing the verse from one verse to another. This technique has found its way into post-rock-influenced indie rock.
“She Said She Said” has a confusing lyric in part because, as the story goes, Lennon took many of the lyrics from a conversation he had with some rather famous people while they all did drugs. But I guess that fits the mood of a number of songs about drugs – and really wasn’t that all psychedelia was about, anyway? Like many of Lennon’s and Harrison’s other songs it is in an unconventional mode and it is in two different time signatures. Apparently Starr’s drums are really great on this – I guess I should listen to it once again to see if I agree. The song is as close to what became standardized as “psychedelic rock” as anything on the album so far.
“Good Day Sunshine” is one of those McCartney songs that just oozes so much positivity it is almost suffocating – for those of us who prefer our songs a little dirtier. It was the first sign of McCartney’s growing nostalgia for old-timey music – though in this case it’s not very old timey – which would come to be a regular feature of his efforts even after the Beatles stopped making “psychedelic” music. Like many of those efforts, it is mostly his work, with Starr helping him out. Leonard Bernstein reportedly liked it.
“And Your Bird Can Sing” is somewhat in the same musical vein as “Tax Man,” though obviously its lyrics are a lot more vague. It features some excellent guitar playing from Harrison – originally on a 12-string but for the final version he went back to a 6 – which is apparently inspired by some baroque techniques – the ritornello, for example – common to concerto grossos of the 17th century.
“For No One” is a ballad McCartney wrote which is an early example of the badly named “baroque pop” style in which chamber instruments are used for pop songs. It is actually his attempt at writing a lieder, or 19th century “art song.” It is another example of McCartney increasingly turning into a one-man band for his ballads and throwbacks. It features perhaps the most famous French horn solo in pop music, by classical musician Alan Civil. It is a near standard, based on the multiplicity of cover versions. It is also one of the earliest uses of a clavichord on a pop song, I believe. Like pretty much everything else here, it was recorded at different speeds and then altered to be put together for the final version.
“Doctor Robert” is another rock song about drugs for which there is some controversy over whether Lennon wrote it by himself or with McCartney. Unlike “I’m Only Sleeping,” this one is very explicitly about buying drugs, certainly one of the earlier rock songs to be obviously about the participation in illegal activities – unless you include driving under age. The most notable musical trick about it is that it is the key of “For No One” but sonically misleads your ears into thinking the song is actually in the key of “I Want to Tell You.”
“I Want to Tell You” is an altogether different piece from the first two Harrison songs: it’s significantly more confessional then previous outings – though Harrison was generally somewhat more confessional than the other songwriters from the very beginning. Though it is certainly conventional sounding relative to his other recent efforts, it features inventive vocal arrangements, and the discordant piano feature is also striking. There are subtle Indian influences all over the place – check out the backing vocals, for example.
“Got to Get You into My Life” was McCartney’s attempt at writing a Stax song and I think it’s rather successful. It was a hit for another band the same year; just one of the numerous examples of the Beatles writing others’ hits. This is the first recorded instance of the Beatles’ engineers recording orchestra instruments non-traditionally, as the horns were extremely closely miked to get that gritty Stax sound. Though it sounds like it’s about a girl, apparently it’s about weed. It is a good example of McCartney’s rather incredible vocal abilities, otherwise less on display on this album.
There is nothing on the rest of Revolver to prepare the listener for the final track, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” except maybe “Love to You,” and that still somehow seems a stretch. Though the rest of the album broke all kinds of new ground musically and showcased the Beatles as on the whole becoming better songwriters – save “Yellow Submarine” – there was nothing to suggest something so forward looking that 40 years later it might remind one of the Chemical Brothers. Lennon’s vocal was run through the same speaker Harrison’s guitar had been on Help!, flange was used, the music sounds vaguely Indian – there is a drone – and is in a mode yet again – a now common device for the Beatles. And there are numerous tape effects. Lennon’s lyrics were inspired by Timothy Leary’s manual to The Tibetan Book of the Dead and LSD trips. Though Lennon was clearly the most indebted to Stockhausen in the end – Pollack actually claims an Elliott Carter influence on the ending – this song’s most Stockhausenian contributions actually came from McCartney, who had just heard him for the first time. The Beatles created the loops themselves and then Martin and Emerick assembled about half of them to create the song. When Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead – who had yet to go into the studio, but who would soon record the nearly as revolutionary Anthem of the Sun – heard the song he thought something along the lines of “finally someone is making music like we are thinking about it.” There was nothing else like it in popular music until Zappa released Absolutely Free in May of ’67, itself also influenced by musique concrete.
There are pretty much 14 separate genres on Revolver, as compared to say the four or so on Blonde on Blonde and the genre mashups of Freak Out! If you’re keeping track: R&B, “classical” / film-score-influenced pop, “psych folk,” Indian music, soft rock / pop, novelty / children’s, psychedelic rock, traditional pop, baroque-influenced hard rock, lieder, rock, Indian-influenced pop rock, southern Soul, avant rock. The Beatles used the latest recording techniques and improvised new ones. They did more in this one record than they – or anyone else, even Brian Wilson – ever had before and they set the new benchmark for what could be done.
Beatles Albums of 1967:
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (10/10)
There have been few albums written about more than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was, at the time, considered one of the most revolutionary pieces of music ever recorded – because of the recording techniques but also the sequencing, as the album ran straight through with no breaks on vinyl and it featured a reprise at the end, soon to become a popular device in ending albums – it has regularly been hailed as one of (if not the) greatest albums of all time (more on that in a moment) and, on the other hand, it has been attacked as the pillar of ’60s excess by DIY music critic revisionists who think that the Beatles ruined rock and roll. It was also the first Beatles album to be correctly reproduced on its US issue.
Initially conceived by McCartney as a response to Pet Sounds, it shows the complete embrace of the “recording studio as instrument” approach that had been making its way into the Beatles’ work, and it also shows McCartney’s growing dominance as a composer. On the non-musical side, the album also has one of the most interesting cover images for an album up until that point, containing cardboard cutouts of over 70 people – including the Beatles themselves, twice.
It is certainly not the Beatles’ best set of songs – Rubber Soul, Revolver and Abbey Road are all stronger – and it is hardly their most consistent album, nor is it their most impressive. Still, it is one of the most innovative albums ever made in any genre and it was the second or third most innovative rock album up until that time, behind only the Velvet Underground’s debut and Zappa’s Absolutely Free, which should stand as the most innovative rock album up until that point. (If Absolutely Free has been surpassed for that mantle, it was only eclipsed by its successor, We’re Only in it for the Money – which parodied Sgt. Pepper on its sleeve – the most innovative album of all time, if people are really going to be fair about it.) The Velvet Underground’s debut and Zappa’s Absolutely Free both had far less of an immediate impact on music and culture. The Velvet Underground’s influence took years to diffuse and Zappa was always way too weird to be anything more than a cult act.
So the Beatles, by being both innovate and retaining their commercial acumen, had the greater immediate influence and a more long-term influence than Zappa – and the Velvets, depending on which genre we are talking about. A big part of the Beatles’ genius was the ability to combine revolution with commercially viable music. So although Sgt. Pepper was not the most innovative rock album of the ’60s, it was the most innovative commercially successful rock album of the ’60s.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” starts off the album’s concept by introducing the band. The song begins with crowd noise, the first time this now very-overused device had been used, and the orchestra tuning up, again something that has become an overused device. It is one of the most raucous rock songs on the album, featuring prominent lead guitar from McCartney. It is also the most straightforward. It segues into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the only other song – save the reprise – that continues McCartney’s very loose and ultimately unsuccessful concept.
“With a Little Help from My Friends” is distinct for being the only standard Starr ever sang. Like a couple other Beatles songs it has been covered ad infinitum. It is in the form of a call and response song, but contains the usual Beatles tricks with the verse and chorus. It is the only other song to fit with the concept – Starr is introduced as Billy Shears at the end of the title track – as after this the sequencing abandons any of the supposed alter-ego performances that McCartney had in mind when he conceived the album as a variety show put on by Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is notable for continuing McCartney’s interest in writing serious lyrics, though these are a lot more jovial than the last few times out (“Penny Lane,” much of the material on Revolver).
Popularly assumed to be some kind of hint about LSD use, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” really was based on Lennon’s son’s drawing, believe it or not. Somebody has the picture. In addition to the song’s unusual instrumentation, including a tamboura and a Lowrey organ, the song features backing tracks with all sorts of noises including distorted vocals and early samples of other instruments. It is in two separate time signatures in the verse and chorus, something that was becoming a common Beatles device, but was hardly common in the pop music world. The verses are as psychedelic as you could find in spring 1967, but the choruses provide enough of a traditional note to have made the song a bit of a radio staple. There are various other innovations: note how the bass part is different on every section of the song.
“Getting Better” is also elaborately produced but much more straightforward musically than “Lucy in the Sky.” It features lyrics by both songwriters which is why they are so starkly different. Lennon’s lyrics appear to reveal that “Run for Your Life” was not entirely a fictional scenario. McCartney’s are much more upbeat, as was his wont. It features an extremely dense and changing backing track, despite the seemingly sparse arrangement, which could fool the ears into thinking there weren’t many overdubs at all.
“Fixing a Hole” stands out from the rest of the album as, aside from the backing vocals and the double tracked lead guitar, it was recorded pretty much live in the studio. This was a rarity for the Beatles at the time and it is clearly one of the most straightforward Beatles songs of the era. That’s not to say the song is a conventional pop song, as it incorporates a harpsichord and some other unconventional musical elements: it merges a fairly traditional – by 1967 standards – jazz tune with a march for a bridge. Some have claimed that “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” continue a story begun with “With a Little Help from My Friends” but frankly I don’t see it; the larger concept has fallen apart by this time and I think such attempts to make everything work as a concept is a fruitless struggle to impose a narrative where there is none.
“She’s Leaving Home” is in stark contrast to the rest of the album too, as it is another social comment song in the mode of “Eleanor Rigby” – in the sense that the Beatles did not play instruments on it – and features little in the way of studio trickery beyond the effects on Lennon’s voice. It features a fairly conventional arrangement that wasn’t composed by Martin as he wasn’t around. (Although he apparently did conduct the session.) Lyrically, it is one of the most complex songs the Beatles ever wrote as it is a story song that features a Greek chorus. Musically, the most prominent thing on the song is a harp, no doubt the most prominent harp part in popular music.
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is one of the most complex recordings for the album, featuring numerous recordings of organs and “mouth organs” – i.e. harmonicas. Lennon was apparently unhappy with the sound so, at one point, Emerick chopped up the recordings and threw them in the air to re-splice them, with the result of random noises – creating a carnivalesque sound, which was what Lennon was going for. This is one of the earliest applications of John Cage’s concept of indeterminacy in popular music – later to have much success with Brian Eno and, through him, David Bowie. The song is based around a ‘harmonica’ – or mouth organ – quintet in addition to the swirling organs, and as such is totally non-standard for a “rock song” if it can even be called that.
“Within You Without You” marks Harrison’s contribution to the album, his second piece of Indian music and a bit of a surprise after three of his songs on Revolver. Harrison actually had written another song which the Beatles recorded, “Only a Northern Song,” which has been regarded as one of their worst recordings ever – along with “Mr. Moonlight” – and apparently the Beatles felt similarly as it was scrapped and only later used for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. Originally a 30 minute composition for the harmonium – evidence of where some of their musical ideas were getting them – the finished product of “Within You Without You” is, like “Yesterday,” basically a solo work. It features Indian musicians arranged and conducted by Harrison – he was apparently able to write the music for them in their own script, which sort of blows my mind – and a complementary – and I think very fine – string arrangement by Martin. Even nearly a year after the release of Revolver the Beatles were the only major band to attempt this kind of world music; other bands were trying it here and there, but none of them had the reach of the Beatles.
“When I’m Sixty-Four” is another of McCartney’s increasingly common forays into old-timey British music, and though this one he wrote way before the others – apparently at the age of sixteen, so the myth goes – it is the first one to go this far, and an omen of things to come. The song sounds conventional, though hardly in the context of the album itself – but it contains a clarinet trio, an usual device for any genre of music – and the recording is sped up slightly to make McCartney sound younger – perhaps as he sounded at 16. It stands out like a sore thumb on this record and hints at what 1968 would be like in terms of musical diversity.
“Lovely Rita” is a far cry from its predecessor as it contains far more in the way of the obvious experimentation of the rest of the album, rather than the subtleties of, say, a clarinet trio. It features panting backing vocals – probably the first time in popular music, to our detriment, this is the philosophical ancestor of “I’m a Slave 4 U” – combs with paper, and a piano modified to vary in and out of tune – again showing the indirect influence of John Cage. It’s also the first thing to resemble “rock” music since “Fixing a Hole.”
“Good Morning” has an unconventional time signature – there are different rhythms throughout – and bizarre animals noises; i.e. it features both an unconventional rhythm and heavy amounts of samples. The idea with the animal noises was apparently to arrange them so that the next one could eat the previous one. This method is followed until the chicken, which transforms into the lead guitar of the reprise to the title track – the next song – and, as far as I know, this is the first time in history a sample was edited into an instrument. It sounds less radical to our ears because it is recognizable as a rock song but, along with “Mr. Kite” and the closing track, it is the most revolutionary use of the studio here.
The Beatles brought in the reprise from musical theatre or opera – or perhaps the art song “suite.” To my knowledge, it had not been used in rock music previously. It has since become a convention for anyone attempting to have some kind of “serious” album-length statement where they intend a “concept” or a narrative. The track differs from its sibling in that the key change helps move the album from “Good Morning Good Morning” to “A Day in the Life.” Though this is something the Beatles had been playing with here and there, this is the first time it appears to have a purpose greater than “wouldn’t it be neat if…?”
Just as with Revolver, the Beatles saved their most interesting and forward-thinking song for last. “A Day in the Life” is actually two songs or song fragments written separately by Lennon and McCartney and then stitched together, somewhat like what happened to the versions of “Strawberry Fields.” The Beatles would later repeat this practice on Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles. Lennon’s lyrics are from newspapers – just as he had gotten the lyrics to “Tomorrow Never Knows” from a book and for “Mr. Kite” from a poster – and McCartney’s are more in line with what he wrote in “Penny Lane,” only less nostalgic. The songs are in two separate keys, which was a problem. The spaces between the two pieces were originally filled by Mal Evans’ voice counting. McCartney eventually came up with the idea of using the orchestra to fill it in but nobody seemed to be able to figure out how to do it. Martin then wrote the lowest note for each instrument in the orchestra on the score and then he wrote highest, connecting the two with a squiggly line. The result was an atonal ascent which has become (in)famous. The song’s final chord was played by four people on three pianos and allowed to ring out for 40 seconds. Following that – depending on whether you have vinyl, tape or CD – is some noise akin to the nonsense at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” only significantly stranger. On the LP version, the needle locks in permanently so that you are left with this noise forever, if you don’t turn off your player and you never lose power. It is one of the most famous non-single “rock” songs of all time and is a landmark in popular music. Frankly I know of nothing else like it. Zappa may have broken with convention as much or more so than “A Day in the Life”, but “A Day in the Life” still feels like a legitimate song, despite all it’s innovation. Zappa’s most innovative moments are composed of song-fragments.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band set new standards for recording techniques and song construction and mixing. It did this more so than Zappa’s work of earlier that year and it had more influence than his subsequent innovations because Sgt. Pepper got more exposure – even though Zappa was more revolutionary. Pepper is also credited by some with killing Smile, which should be the nail in the coffin of that Beatles vs. Beach Boys argument, but whatever. Pepper basically started the summer of love and became the definitive psychedelic album – which is why it is so often attacked by people who claim it as overrated. Whereas some bands merely dabbled – the Byrds for example – the Beatles had thrown themselves right in to the genre and created the definitive work of the era and genre. It might not have dated as well as some of its contemporaries but it remains among the most significant milestones in popular music history and in all music of the second half of the 20th century. Due to its sheer reach – not just artistically but in terms of sales – we can almost – almost – date albums pre-Sgt. Pepper and post-, like we can with electric guitar playing and Hendrix. That’s not nothing; quibble all you want with the weakness of some of the songs themselves – taken outside the production – but you can’t debate the album’s influence. The musical worlds of psychedelic rock, art rock and prog rock – and all the genres and styles they’ve influenced – are somewhat unimaginable without this record.
“Magical Mystery Tour” EP (9/10)
This review is of the British double EP, not the US album.
Magical Mystery Tour has a bit of a confusing history – not as confusing as Let It Be – and must be explained. Like all Beatles albums prior to Sgt. Pepper, it was not released the same way in the United States. Unlike previous releases though, this time a full American album was released a week and a half before the Beatles released their “double” EP – i.e. two extended play records packaged together so that they could include six songs. The American album contained the singles from the past year.
The double EP concept allowed the Beatles to put their limited new soundtrack material out in an interesting and unique way – at least in Britain. Releasing an album wasn’t feasible, since they only had five new songs ready for release – seven if you include outtakes from Sgt. Pepper and these sessions, and eight if you include the infamous “Carnival of Light”. The soundtrack was for Magical Mystery Tour, a television film which was the first thing the Beatles ever did that wasn’t greeted with universal
praise. I have never seen it – though I have seen excerpts, such as the “Fool on the Hill” music video – but nearly everyone thinks it’s terrible. Another concept from McCartney, it further emphasized the growing divide between Lennon – who was taking inspiration from art outside of rock music – and himself – who appeared interested in eventually turning a Beatles album into a musical or an opera, or at least a song-cycle. As I have already noted, in this dichotomy are the origins of art rock and progressive rock, as distinct genres, rather than as the one genre they emerged as through Zappa.
The soundtrack has its moments but no question it is a let down from the previous albums. The US release is a lot stronger – which is doubtless why it has become the only US Beatles album to remain in the catalogue – because of the presence of the singles from earlier in the year.
The title track introduces the concept of the mini-album, that of a traveling show of the kind which was apparently moving around England when McCartney and Lennon were younger. They added some fantastical or supernatural elements to their description, however, as that would only be psychedelic of them. It was written and recorded well before the movie was made and the movie was made to fit the concept after the fact, which helps explain why the movie was a disaster. (Making a film from a couple of songs is kind of like making a film from a video game, only worse.) The song itself can be thought of as the overture and as such is brief and has a swift pace. Despite the changes in tempo, there is a sense of forward progress.
“Your Mother Should Know” is another in McCartney’s series of nostalgia trips highlighting his growing fascination with older pre-rock forms of music and his predilection for lyrics that romanticized the past of his childhood. It was apparently written for an old-fashioned dance number in the film. It was recorded in late summer, which shows the sporadic nature of the writing and recording for the project and the general lack of focus or drive after the celebration surrounding the previous album. Though we all might be tempted to write this off, we should note that it is far more interesting, from a compositional standpoint, than “When I’m Sixty-Four” – which is fitting given the latter’s origin in the ’50s: for example, the bridge sits in for a chorus, and the frequent Beatles trick of playing with the home key occurs here.
“The Fool on the Hill” is probably the highlight from the soundtrack – excepting “I Am the Walrus” of course. It is an attempt by McCartney to write a meaningful song in the vein of some of the social comment lyrics he had been writing more recently – “Eleanor Rigby,” “She’s Leaving Home”. It features an elaborate arrangement – mostly performed by the composer – that shows the leaps and bounds his musical imagination had taken in only a few short years. It is another, but far more sophisticated, attempt at writing an “art song” from the Romantic period. It was recorded in the early fall along with two other tracks.
“Flying” is a jam – though it was altered later – one of few the Beatles recorded which have survived and the only one to this point to be released. (The other surviving jams can be found on Anthology, though far from every take.) It went through a number of permutations before it was released: first it featured a Dixieland-style ending; later it turned into a 9 minute sound collage – created by Lennon and Starr – seemingly resembling “Revolution No. 9” from the next year. It features wordless vocals singing the melody. It is one of the weirdest songs the Beatles ever recorded in that it resembles so few others. It’s hard not to view it as filler even though it clearly marks a further move away from traditional rock music – in its conception if not in its final state. This song is perhaps more instructive of the Beatles’ states of mind musically during this period than it is for any other reason, as both a Dixieland-style ending and a “Magical Mystery Tour No. 9” would have been out there even for the
Beatles. But alas, this time their instinct for concision may have failed them.
“Blue Jay Way” is Harrison’s contribution and, lyrically, it is not one of his more notable efforts, merely detailing exactly what he was doing when he wrote it – waiting for a friend. It is heavily influenced by Indian concepts of tonality and that music – and its pace – is aptly fitted to the lyrics. We can say that the lyrics are notable for not having any additional meanings. Nobody knows who was responsible for that cello.
Two that didn’t make the cut, McCartney’s “All Together Now” and Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” would later appear on Yellow Submarine along with the outtake from Sgt. Pepper, “A Northern Song.”
Beatles Albums of 1968: The Beatles (10/10)
In an era with increasingly elaborate cover art – driven in part by the Beatles themselves, especially with Sgt. Pepper – the Beatles released a plain white album, with just their name on the front. This symbolic gesture came at a time when many – though hardly all – psychedelic bands were still very much releasing psychedelic – or psychedelia-influenced – music. Yes, the Byrds had released Sweetheart of the Rodeo in August, but almost everyone else was still very much committed to psychedelia as the genre.
- The Beach Boys were still releasing psychedelic pop records and would continue to do so.
- Cream was as psychedelic as ever.
- The Doors were still a long way from recording their roots albums.
- The Grateful Dead had just released a definitive psychedelic album.
- Hendrix had just released his magnum opus, which was still quite psychedelic.
- Pink Floyd had begun to move to something resembling prog rock, but were still recording psychedelic songs.
- The Small Faces, about to break up, had released their psychedelic record in the spring.
- Even the Stones, who were into psychedelia for all of five minutes, and who would soon issue their best, very anti-psychedelic, work – starting with Beggars’ Banquet, released a few weeks after The White Album – were still including “psychedelic” instruments – such as the tamboura – on some of their more traditional rock songs.
- Only the Kinks and the Who – of the major British groups – who had never taken up psychedelia in the first place, were not following the trend in autumn 1968.
So the cover was a shock – and a signal. At this point the Beatles were the biggest and most important band in the world and they were consciously spurning what they had just helped create and define. Can you imagine the impact? In a world where it was still possible to determine the biggest band in the world, in a world that existed prior to the internet, the most popular, and I think – to most people who had never listened to the Velvets and Frank Zappa, i.e. most people – the most innovative band in the world, releases an album cover that basically says “the style of music that has been dominating the charts for the last two years is over; move on.”
Now, obviously not everyone did move on; psychedelic music was still being made into the early ’70s. But a lot of musicians seem to have taken this as a signal; by the end of the decade none of the originators of psychedelic music would be making it any more, and those still producing it would be bands that got started in that era – like Spirit – when it seemed like it was the musical norm.
The recording process for The White Album was both the longest and most fractured of any Beatles album to date. The Beatles often could not work together because of personal and creative disagreements. Harrison’s solo debut was released a couple weeks before this album came out and Starr quit temporarily during the album, leaving McCartney to play drums on a few songs. George Martin went on a deliberate vacation in the middle of the record to protest their behaviour, leaving Chris Thomas to produce many early versions of songs and produce and play on pieces that made the final cut. Geoff Emerick, the most prominent of their engineers, quit during the sessions as a protest as well. By the end of the recordings, both Harrison and Lennon had also temporarily quit.
The result is the most fractured and least consistent album they had recorded since before Rubber Soul but I don’t know that this is a criticism. The White Album was like nothing else ever recorded up until that point. People had released double albums before: as discussed, Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa released the first ever rock double albums within a month or so of each other back in the early summer of 1966. But both albums were essentially just larger statements – following previous work, in the case of Bob Dylan – and really didn’t strive to “do everything.” Cream released Wheels of Fire earlier in 1968, before they broke up, which established a brief practice within the industry of putting out a new studio album pared with a record of live tracks. (Pink Floyd, for example, followed suit in 1969). Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland reached perhaps a little farther than these others, but still inhabited a musical landscape where everything made sense together, was still recognizably connected in one supragenre of psychedelic blues rock. The White Album was completely different: genre and style changed drastically throughout, usually from song to song, with each of the band’s now four songwriters writing seemingly in any style that came to mind.
Never before had a rock band attempted – whether consciously or not – to play in every conceivable style possible on a single album. And this became a new standard for double – and later triple-albums, making it possible to do everything, or to show everything you can do. The Clash attempted it with London Calling and then again, with less success, with Sandinista!. Husker Du did the same with Zen Arcade. Guns and Roses attempted it – sort of – with Use Your Illusion. The Smashing Pumpkins tried it with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. And those are just a couple of examples. There have been numerous attempts to do things within a more limited scope, but those albums have much more in common, I would say, with Blonde on Blonde than with the White Album – albums like Exile on Main St., Manasas, Being There, etc.
But it wasn’t just influential on double albums. By trying nearly everything within the scope of popular music – and some stuff outside of it – the Beatles showed that rock bands could do absolutely anything. They had already proven the value of the recording studio to pop / rock bands, but now they showed that there were literally no boundaries. After the White Album, nobody could really object to amateur musicians delving into one genre or the other; they could only object to the way they did it – or to the quality of the songs. And it’s this reason I think that for me places the White Album as the equal – or near equal – of their very best work. Its range and scope was unrivaled in its day and I think it’s rather hard to find another similarly ambitious album where even the “filler” is good or at least interesting / notable / provocative.
McCartney’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” which opens the album, reveals an increasingly prominent side of his writing: his ability to absolutely skewer other artists in parody – in this case a band he was a big fan of, the Beach Boys. Whether he intended it or not – and his reflections sound like he didn’t really – he shows both the absurdity of the patriotism of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” and, more so, the absurdity of all these songs about women on the road. It features some of McCartney’s finest guitar playing, which helps it work as a song on its own, even if you don’t know the targets. The song is also notable for containing, in addition to the samples, three bass parts, played by all three main Beatles. And I should also note that this is a far cry from anything that had opened a Beatles album in two years: straight-ahead, American rock and roll.
The lead-off track segues into “Dear Prudence” by way of its closing – and opening – airplane take-off. This is one of the more straightforward songs Lennon had come up with recently, merely written to keep Mia Farrow’s sister from going insane. Though straightforward, it is one of his strongest efforts on the album and seems to represent Lennon taking note of Harrison’s musical preoccupations – so says Pollack. It is the rare Lennon song that shows off McCartney’s talents as a one man band, as he is responsible for much of the final arrangement and sound of the song, such as the great use of dynamics.
“Glass Onion” is a song written about the Beatles cultists responsible for the “Paul is dead” rumour and also those who tried to read other secret meanings into Beatles’ songs – and Lennon’s in particular, since his songs often featured the oddest lyrics. It is yet another self-referential song; far and away the most self-referential the Beatles recorded. (“I Am the Walrus” mentions “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and apparently “Lady Madonna” mentions “I Am the Walrus”.) It can be seen as an outright attack on the fans who were trying to read too much into everything the Beatles did, such as those responsible for the “Paul is Dead” myth. Musically, it features an interesting string arrangement by Martin, and is in the style of an updated talking-blues – if that string arrangement and those sound-effects weren’t present.
“Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” is one of McCartney’s silly little love songs. But it is notable for being the first truly non rock song on the record, being heavily influenced by ska, reggae and the African “highligh” genre, all of which had made their way to Britain during the ’60s. (Lennon’s “I Call Your Name” had far subtler Jamaican musical influences years earlier.) It’s hardly authentic – the tempo was changed so that it was less ska in the final version – but it again shows the ridiculous stylistic diversity of a band when the very idea of a band recording music in a style of a foreign culture was pretty much unheard of only a couple years prior. It was a no. 1 hit for a one-hit wonder around Christmas time, because Lennon and Harrison would not let McCartney release it as a Beatles single.
“Wild Honey Pie” is the first “filler alert” moment of the album, as it is a song fragment of McCartney just fooling around – and it has nothing really to do with “Honey Pie,” another song on the album. It is also the first song on the album to clearly show the fractures in the band. (Nothing on the sleeve indicated Starr was not present for the first two songs.) As the album progresses there are more and more of these types of solo efforts and near-solo efforts. It’s hard to know what the album would have sounded like if a different, more complete song, a number of which did not make the cut and found their way on to Abbey Road or the later solo efforts, had been used in its stead. The way it is, it acts like a bridge between songs, something that has become absolutely standard in ambitious rock albums. These kinds of segues are now so normal we don’t even notice them as unusual things.
Though seemingly a children’s song, like a number of the songs on the White Album, “Bungalow Bill” is actually an attack on a person the Beatles met in India who killed a tiger. It features a chorus performed by the whole band and two significant others, and it features the one and only female lead vocal on a Beatles song when Yoko Ono sings the mother’s line. The gang vocal thing predates the trend that has dominated much of indie rock the past few years, but it was obviously preceded by “Yellow Submarine”. The impressive sounding flamenco guitar that opens the song is really a mellotron set on “Spanish guitar”; a setting I think most people didn’t know existed, which is surprising given the mellotron’s prominence duplicating strings, brass, winds and vocals throughout much of its use on record. It was played by Chris Thomas who was sitting in for Martin at the time.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was my favourite Beatles song for years probably for the simple fact that it features the greatest guitar playing of any Beatles song, provided by a famously uncredited Eric Clapton – who was soon to perform with Lennon in The Dirty Mac and his Plastic Ono Band. Clapton’s performance is certainly one of the most famous guest performances of all time. His lead guitar is probably the best guitar playing on a Beatles song and one of his finest performances of the ’60s. Lennon’s guitar part is barely audible, on the contrary. It is Harrison’s best song to date. For him, it was a writing exercise; he literally wrote about the first thing he saw: his guitar. At least that’s the official story.
Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is a suite of sorts, mixing together a number of song fragments in different rock and roll sub-genres, inspired by various different things including magazines and acid trips. It is one of the absolute highlights of the album, featuring all sorts of complicated time signatures, one of the rare whole-band performances, and one of the few examples of the Beatles ever playing in separate time at the same time – in the doo-wop section. It is, for me, one of the highlights of the latter stages of their career. And it’s an example of how, even when they weren’t doing crazy things with the studio, the Beatles were still innovative.
“Martha My Dear” is one of McCartney’s explorations of pre-rock and roll British music; this time the genre is music hall. But beneath this veneer is it a very complex composition featuring various non- traditional musical ideas, including odd section lengths and a slightly different bridge the second time around. It is another example of a near-solo effort by McCartney. It is a stark contrast to the – mostly – rock and roll that dominates the album to this point.
“I’m So Tired” features calm and mild verses and far louder, manic choruses, showing, about as well as anything they ever did, the Beatles’ sense of dynamics. It also has a lot of samples thrown in to make the whole recording very dense. I put it among what I think is an excellent set of songs from Lennon this time out. He was moving into new territory beyond the radical experiments he had made with his lyrics, and now began a more mature process of incorporating some of that radicalism into his more traditional style, as a result creating more accessible songs which still managed to be innovative and lyrically interesting.
“Blackbird” is another McCartney solo piece, this time inspired by Bach and black girls – in that order. “Blackbird” is one of McCartney’s most endearing solo acoustic numbers and has actually become a bit famous despite being buried deep within the album. It vaguely connects with the social unrest that was going on in the United States, if you believe McCartney’s version of the story, which I don’t really. I think it appeals so much because it is simpler – at least recording-wise – than virtually everything else on what could have been an absolutely impenetrable album, had some band other than the most popular band in the world released it. And unlike the other simpler songs on the album, the lyrics are not about dead mothers and the like.
“Piggies” is another one of the pseudo-children’s songs on the album, featuring lyrics about animals and accompanying animal noises. It is really about class – or the police, take your pick – so, like “Bungalow Bill”, one has to listen to the lyrics, though obviously that song was a real story and this song uses symbology instead. It is not one of Harrison’s best efforts but it has some musical ideas worth noting, as when the classical instruments – harpsichord, strings – accompanying the band play the blues in the bridge, which is pretty fucking out there if I do say so myself.
“Rocky Raccoon” is another McCartney parody, this time of folk and “country and western” music. It has become a bit of a classic – like “Blackbird” – and is one of McCartney’s best story songs; as a result its nature as parody is once again obscured, something he had a special gift for. McCartney kept changing the lyrics – you can hear it in the Anthology demo, for example – often stressing more and more absurd scenarios for his story as he ad-libbed. But the final lyrics are slightly more restrained which, like I said, sort of hides the parodic side of the thing. And really, the best parodies are those where the audience is not exactly sure if it’s a parody.
“Don’t Pass Me By” marks Starr’s debut as a solo composer and we can tell – he only knew three chords on the piano, or something like that. It is definitely the worst thing on the album though it features some inspired fiddle playing by that guest musician. It was written in 1963 or 1964 but never passed the mustard until the Beatles decided to record and release everything. (And actually they didn’t as White Album outtakes would make it on to Abbey Road, All Things Must Pass and McCartney.) Starr would do a much better job the next time around.
“Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” is another McCartney parody, this time of empty blues lyrics – inspired by watching monkeys have sex in India. It features his one man band antics again and some great singing. (To really hear some great singing, listen to the demo on Anthology which features even better singing overall to a much more slowly paced, and less engaging, arrangement of the song.) I think the arrangement raises it above the level of filler myself.
“I Will” is not a parody but an earnest song about commitment. It has an unusual feature in that the bass line is a vocalization by McCartney rather than a guitar part – again, showing off his rather incredible vocal abilities. It demonstrates McCartney still hasn’t outgrown his knack for ballads, which his previous tracks may have suggested up until this point. It’s interesting to me that “Blackbird” and “Rocky Raccoon” have become quite widely known – and played – and yet “I Will” has not. Perhaps it’s too serious.
“Julia” is one of Lennon’s most personal songs, about his mother who died when he was 17, and therefore a bit of a preview of Plastic Ono Band in substance if not in tone. In an interview he indicated Yoko Ono might have had a hand in writing it, which seems hard to understand given the personal nature of the song. It, along with “Blackbird,” is the simplest recording on the album: double tracked vocals and guitar. That’s it. So the first half of the album ends on a folky singer-songwriter bent – two in a row – completely at odds with much of the material on the album and with what the Beatles had been doing for the past couple years.
“Birthday” is another of the pseudo-children’s songs scattered throughout the album, although unlike the singalong “Bungalow Bill” or the baroque pop of “Piggies,” it is a rock and roll song. It is the only collaborative effort between the two main songwriters on the album and the only time they both sang lead together. (Lennon helped with the lyrics, or both the lyrics and the music, depending on whose memory we’re consulting.) It features some of McCartney’s best singing and though it is a traditional rock and roll song – with one of their most famous riffs – it features certain non-traditional elements, including an extended drum break, which was unusual for the Beatles, and the usual studio trickery: running instruments through speakers or amps they weren’t intended for, etc. It was intentionally written as a song that would get played again and again and again, which is what happened; how many times have you been subjected to this at a stadium or something? Funnily enough, it was buried in the middle of their longest album – perhaps because they were aware of how catchy it was.
A live-in-the-studio confessional song about suicide posing as a devastating parody of British blues, “Yer Blues” is another highlight. Lennon’s lyrics are apparently intended as seriously confessional – and mention a Bob Dylan song perhaps as a hint to that – but the over-the-top delivery parodies the dominance of blues music in England at the time. (Lennon may have been thinking particularly of Cream, and of Fleetwood Mac, of whom he was a fan.) The best parts of the parody are Harrison’s and Lennon’s guitar solos, which go absolutely nowhere but last about as long as any Beatles’ solos had to that point. They are hilarious. The song was recorded in a tiny little room next to the booth, which adds to its feel of claustrophobia.
“Mother Nature’s Son” is yet another solo effort from McCartney and is one of the earnest ones, rather than a parody, as it was inspired by a spiritual lecture he heard in India. It’s pleasant and features a subtle backing arrangement. But for me it isn’t a standout. This is the kind of thing that McCartney could toss off whenever he wanted. That’s impressive, for sure, but it gets a little tiresome.
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” is a complete reversal from the previous track: it is one of the most manic songs the Beatles ever recorded. It is almost spoken-sung and it features all four band members overdubbing percussion to the performance. The lyrics are supposedly about how weird it was for Lennon to be in love at a time when everyone was worried about Ono’s influence on him. It briefly changes time near the end, just to mess with us.
“Sexy Sadie” was written about the yogi that the Beatles spent time with in India after he hit on one of the female guests. Lennon changed her name because Harrison made a fuss. In contrast to the previous song, it is stately and slowly paced and prominently features a piano instead of guitar and percussion noise. As they had often done, they ran the piano through a speaker to give it a non-traditional sound. The over-the-top doo-wop vocals add to the change in atmosphere. Another highlight from Lennon.
And “Sexy Sadie” totally doesn’t prepare you for “Helter Skelter,” the loudest and most violent rock song the Beatles ever recorded. Shockingly written by McCartney of all people, it shows just how varied he could be, and demonstrates his command of more aspects of rock music than some of us – me – would be inclined to grant him. Originally, the song started off as a ridiculously long jam – nearly half an hour during one take – with McCartney’s complementary ridiculous lyrics. (No doubt these lyrics come from the general parodic mood he was in at the time.) However, McCartney was encouraged by the Who into making it louder, faster and far more over the top – Townshend apparently described “I Can See for Miles” as loud, raw and dirty. McCartney didn’t agree and sought to out do them which, I think we can agree, he did. (At least in 1968 – the Who then outdid them many times over in the volume, rawness and dirt departments later on, especially live.) The song features all sorts of noises and other tricks – false endings – in addition to the loud and fast guitar playing, which could pass for metal – just being invented at the time. Listen to this and tell me the Beatles were a “pop band.”
One of the dominant features of the White Album is the contrast from song to song: “Long Long Long” is the complete opposite to “Helter Skelter.” Nonetheless, mostly surrounded by rock songs, its placement in the album order is decidedly odd. It is one of Harrison’s finest love songs and it features a near-Spectoresque ‘Wall of Sound’ behind it, despite the relatively sparse instrumentation; it shows the skill of all those involved that they get such a huge sound out of relatively few instruments. This Spector-worship would rear its ugly head later on when Lennon and Harrison would in fact hire Spector – or allow him to be hired, but more on that later. Some regard this as Harrison’s’ finest Beatles song – rather than “Here Comes the Sun” or “Something” – and there are times when I am inclined to agree.
The original version of “Revolution” is a lot slower and lot less “lo fi” than the version Lennon – or likely McCartney – rearranged for the b-side of the single. At its base, it is a blues song, slightly rocked up, with traditional do-wop vocals; in contrast to its louder, faster brother. It further features a trombone-heavy brass arrangement, also totally absent form the b-side version. It was the only time the Beatles had released multiple versions of the same song – up until this point – outside of “Love Me Do” and it was evidence of their creative process – for good or ill. When Anthology came out we learned that they did this a lot more often than people thought, and that the final version sometimes went through many tempos and styles, and even completely different instrumentation, showing the range of the band more than ever before. It should be noted that this version of “Revolution” fades out because it ended with a ridiculously long jam – similar in length to one version of “Helter Skelter”, I guess they were in that mood – and that jam morphed into their most notorious piece of music, once they got it into the mixing booth.
“Honey Pie” is totally unrelated to “Wild Honey Pie,” as I have already noted. It is another of McCartney’s music hall numbers and it is notable for actually featuring the rest of the Beatles, unlike most of his other efforts in non-rock genres on the album. It features a surprisingly tasteful traditional – i.e. ’40s – jazz guitar solo from Lennon of all people. It also features a bravura vocal performance from McCartney, if you get around the idea that you are listening to music hall in 1968. Just think of it as a parody. If you listen to enough jazz-pop from the ’30s – and don’t we all? – then it becomes clever and funny.
“Savoy Truffle” is, lyrically, a rather silly song about chocolate addiction and losing your teeth, which features a low-end sax section distorted so that the abilities of the performers are lost in a fog of effects. It pales in comparison with Harrison’s efforts earlier in the album but it features some odd touches including one of those Beatles hallmarks: the changing bass line. The song contains the most self- referential moment – “Glass Onion” is the most self-referential song – in the Beatles catalogue as Harrison refers to “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” a song on the same release.
“Cry Baby Cry” is actually two songs, or rather a song and a song fragment, as McCartney’s “Can You Take Me Back” – for lack of a better name – is tacked on to the end as the coda. “Cry Baby Cry” is sort of a folk-pop song with demented pseudo-lullaby lyrics. “Can You Take Me Back” appears to be just McCartney harping on a phrase for a minute and is the very definition of filler. This makes sense as it was improvised by McCartney while they were trying to record “I Will.” But at least it is not crazily over-produced like “Wild Honey Pie” is.
Nothing in the Beatles catalogue, and probably nothing in popular music – save for Zappa’s suites – and especially not “Can You Take Me Back,” could have prepared listeners for “Revolution No. 9.” The longest “piece” in the Beatles songbook it is unlike anything else they released. (Though McCartney had created something allegedly similar back in January 1967 and Lennon made similar efforts with Yoko Ono on their albums released around this time.) The average popular music fan of 1968 – whether they listened to the Beatles regularly or not – was not prepared for this track. Originating as an extremely extended coda to one of the many versions of “Revolution,” Lennon, Ono and Harrison compiled tape loops of that jam, sounds, voices – including their own – and “classical” music performances and eventually assembled this monster.
What exactly is it? During the two decades since World War II, modern European composers had been experimenting with tape loops, first of conventional instruments, then of any sounds. Most notable among them – in terms of influence on the Beatles anyway – were Karlhein Stockhausen and Edgar Varese. This style of music, musique concrete, had already influenced the Beatles to a rather great effect on Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I Am the Walrus” and the never-released, nearly mythical early ’67 McCartney composition, “Carnival of Light.” But “No. 9” had little precedent and even today shocks listeners – mostly into skipping over it or dismissing it outright. All I can say is this: whether you’ve ever listened to it or not, and regardless of your definition of “music,” the band that recorded and released “Love Me Do” in the fall of 1962, recorded and released this merely six years later. Now I wouldn’t claim for a moment that this is anything on par with Varese, whom I know, or Stockhausen, whom I don’t, but the Beatles were the only pop / rock musicians in the world, aside from Frank Zappa and the Velvets, to be paying any attention whatsoever to the post-war avant-garde of “classical” music. And unlike Zappa and the Velvets, who had small and minuscule audiences respectively, the Beatles influenced everyone on the planet. The impact of this slice of the avant-garde on, say, 17-year-old kids expecting rock music, must have been immense were they willing to listen to it. After listening to “No. 9” there are no more musical boundaries in the world. This is like Nietzsche for rock musicians: anything is possible.
In typical fashion for the album, it finishes with a lullaby for Lennon’s son, “Good Night,” practically the most traditional sounding thing on the entire album, and completely out of character with everything else – especially the track that leads into it. The orchestration is terribly and deliberately cheesy, possibly in a deliberate semi-self-parody of the Beatles as performing characters during 1967. (And perhaps we can look at it as a sideways attack at McCartney in that sense.) It also alludes to the idea that maybe the Beatles – or likely McCartney – viewed this as yet another fake concert and this was their walk-off number.
Amazingly, the Beatles had actually recorded much more than the 30 songs listed here but, unlike modern bands – or George Harrison during his solo career – who would likely release all of them on some kind of triple album, they decided to keep it at 30. Some of these outtakes would find their way on to later Beatles albums but mostly they would emerge on solo albums in the ’70s and even in the ’80s in the case of one of Harrison’s outtakes.
To get a sense of how insane this monster was, let’s run through the genres as we meet them:
- rock and roll and surf
- folk rock
- psych folk
- singalong psychedelia
- art rock / prog rock via rock and roll
- music hall
- baroque folk
- baroque pop
- country rock
- blues rock
- rock and roll / singalong / novelty
- British blues
- folk pop
- hard rock
- psychedelic pop
- Brill building pop
- blues rock
- jazz pop
- psychedelic blues rock
- baroque folk pop with traditional folk tacked on to the end
- musique concrete
Now I know that seems relatively tame in comparison to genre-hopping of, say, Mr. Bungle, but remember the context: autumn 1968. Find something else of this time that compares in terms of scope. I know of absolutely nothing.
The Beatles invented the kitchen sink double album. After its release, numerous other bands would attempt to “do everything” in this manner. Nobody had ever tried this much before, but it would become in some ways the standard other bands – if not critics or fans – would measure themselves by. And that was true of much of their work. People have said it better:
[The album] reveals the popping seams of a band that had the pressure of an entire fissuring generational / political gap on its back. Maybe it’s because it shows The Beatles at the point where even their music couldn’t hide the underlying tensions between John, Paul, George, and Ringo, or maybe because it was (coincidentally?) released at the tail end of a year anyone could agree was the embittered honeymoon’s end for the Love Generation, the year when, to borrow from a famous Yeats poem, the center decidedly could not hold…for whatever reason, The Beatles is still one of the few albums by the Fab Four that resists reflexive canonisation, which, along with society’s continued fragmentation, keeps the album fresh and surprising. (Eric Henderson, Slate, August 2, 2004: http://www.slantmagazine.com/music/review/the-beatles-the-beatles- the-white-album/467)
The comment I made about “Love Me Do” versus “Revolution No. 9” is true of so very much of their work from 1965 on. Can anyone really conceive of how far they had come in only 6 years? They had gone from being a relatively unique rock and roll band – but still a rock and roll band – to making avant-garde “classical” music – among so many other genres – in only 6 years. It’s flabbergasting. Honestly.
Beatles Albums from 1969: Abbey Road (10/10)
Abbey Road was indeed an album where everyone put aside their differences and tried to make an album like they used to, even if Lennon wasn’t as involved – partly due to a car accident – for a great portion of the sessions. Though a couple recordings from around the time of the Get Back sessions were salvaged – and overdubbed – the vast majority of material was either new or developed from White Album outtakes (in new sessions). The album stands as possibly the best album the Beatles ever recorded and it is remarkable that they could go out on such a high note given the internal dissension. It found them combining various aspects of their long history to great effect: the studio and technological innovations, the suite concept of Sgt. Pepper, the filler of the White Album, all to a greater purpose than ever before. Though it is not as innovative as Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, or as all-encompassing as the White Album, I think it is stronger musically than any of those landmarks.
There are two things that strike the listener immediately upon listening to the album. First, the second side is drastically different from the first, being dominated by a Sgt. Pepper-type suite. But whereas with Sgt. Pepper the Beatles at first attempted and then abandoned a full-blown concept and built it around tirelessly worked-out songs and arrangements, this album features a suite mostly made up of song fragments of the kind that found their way onto the White Album – and at least two of them, “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” date from that project. This time the pieces are mixed together, with reprises of songs appearing again later on in the suite – like the work of Frank Zappa or early Soft Machine, only with way stronger songwriting – and then building to a climax. (Though Pepper did build to a climax, too, with “A Day in the Life”.)
The other interesting innovation is the presence of the Moog synthesizer – the first widely available synthesizer – on more than a few tracks. Harrison had used it exclusively on his Electronic Sound album earlier that year – an electronic music album, which was an odd thing coming from the one Beatle who apparently disliked avant-garde music – and introduced the rest of the band to it. But the Beatles weren’t even remotely the first band to make use of the instrument, as it had found its way into as diverse a collection of artists as Diana Ross and the Monkees. What the Beatles did was to incorporate it fully into their sound to the point where some people – me – have mistaken it for other instruments. Though Abbey Road is hardly the first use of the Moog, it is likely the most effective use of it during the ’60s.
It is also worth mentioning that Abbey Road was the first album where the Beatles were mentioned as helping produce and mix the album, even though they definitely had performed duties associated with music production in the past – creating tape loops and manipulating these, helping arrange session musician parts, and the like – and Lennon in particular had been involved in the mixing of some of his more experimental pieces, such as “I am the Walrus” and “Revolution No. 9”. This was the first and last official acknowledgement of that role even though the Beatles’ involvement in production set the standard for all future groups’ involvement in the production of their own records. It is hard to imagine any band today so involved who would not claim, and get, a co-producer credit, at the very least. (Wilson and Zappa more properly produced their records and had more of an influence on the artist-as-dictator producer types, but the Beatles, even when they weren’t credited – as with most of their recordings – were always involved in the production process at some level, from their earliest recordings to their last recordings.)
“Come Together” was a big hit and has since become one of the Beatles’ most popular songs despite the cryptic lyrics – which, legend has it, are either referring to each individual Beatle or merely to Lennon himself, but in reality stemmed from a campaign song Lennon was writing for Timothy Leary. The song features only verses ending in a refrain with no proper chorus at all – a device they had used since ’64 – and that brief refrain comes in for the first time a quarter of the way into the song. Only the electric piano / guitar interlude breaks from the pattern. And, famously, a part of Lennon’s vocal is smothered in reverb. Perhaps its relative simplicity is the reason for its popularity. That, or the universal appeal of any one of us being able to read whatever we want into the lyrics – something that had
become a trademark of many Lennon songs since the mid ’60s.
“Something” was Harrison’s first A-side – part of a “double A-side” with “Come Together” – his first hit, and his first and only standard. Frank Sinatra apparently loved it, claiming it was the best love song of the last 50 years. It is extremely straightforward for the late Beatles and there’s nothing really unusual about it. Again, perhaps it’s the simplicity – of the lyric’s message this time, not the music, as in the case of “Come Together”. It features one of Harrison’s trademark solos, illustrating his tastefulness. Being the Beatles nerd and snob that I am, I of course prefer the Anthology demo. Were I concerned about getting in that kind of argument, I would do so. (I think I actually can win that one, as the demo’s a lot more restrained and lacks the orchestral arrangement.) But this is about the Beatles’ importance to music. So instead, contrast this ballad to its partner, “Come Together.” This is the same band performing the absurdist political rant of a rock song and the plaintive ballad that Frank Sinatra adored. And they released the songs together on a single. I think that’s kind of crazy for fall 1969, even if the Beatles had already set the template for that kind of genre-hopping for the past few years.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is another humorous McCartney story-song lyrically in the manner of “Rocky Raccoon” but musically straight out of vaudeville, complete with sound effects. If it weren’t so immaculately produced it could get annoying: it features slightly different musical backing every verse, a technique that has since become associated with alternative rock bands experimenting with so-called post-rock, and even with some Top 40 in 2013 – though it’s nowhere near as obvious here as with those more recent recordings, or with some of the other Beatles efforts utilizing this trick. It’s reasonably funny and, as I said, immaculately produced. An example of the latter is how the Moog duplicates different instruments for different parts of the song. Though I don’t normally enjoy so much as appreciate – to an extent – most of McCartney’s efforts of this kind, I find this one a lot more forgivable, for whatever reason.
“Oh! Darling” is an unusually simple song for the time, but it features one of the best performances of the Beatles career in all aspects despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity. McCartney is in fine form vocally – and if you really want to hear how good a singer he is, you should listen to the demo version on Anthology as my mother once mistook that performance for that of a woman – but the ragged guitar also emphasizes its modern yet traditional sound: it sounds like soul even though it is blues set to a pop
structure, but it is far too raw to reflect traditional versions of any of those songs. The song also eschews the trend of the day of focusing on guitar licks in between the vocals, and instead focuses on ragged arpeggio. It is a perfect example of how great the Beatles could be even when they weren’t turning the recording industry on its ear.
“Octopus’s Garden” was Starr’s second contribution to the band, but it is leaps and bounds ahead of what he contributed the previous time out – even if we may still dislike it for being a kids song. He apparently had help from Harrison on the music, which is hardly surprising as this doesn’t sound like the guy who only knows three chords. It is very good for a kids song and immaculately produced – featuring faux-honky tonk piano, sound effects and Harrison’s fine playing, for some examples – just like the other silly song on the album. Again, even if we can’t admire the lyric, we can admire the arrangement and production, and the willingness to do anything. (In this case the “anything” could be labeled “naive rock” – much like “Don’t Pass Me By” could be labeled “naive country” save the fiddle part – except for the fact that is it immaculately produced and arranged by the rest of the band.)
Full disclosure: “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” currently holds sway as my favourite Beatles song. I love the ridiculously simple lyric meets the nearly avant garde jazz-lounge / metal fusion thing – in two times no less: the jazz parts are in 4/4 and the metal parts are in 6/8. It continues to blow my mind to this day. The song prominently features Lennon’s jazz-influenced soloing – the absolute acme of his career as a guitarist with the Beatles in my opinion – McCartney’s swooping bass – again, likely the pinnacle of his career as a bassist with the Beatles – a drawn out coda – 14 repetitions – with constantly building white noise and an ending where the tape is cut rather than ending the song properly – so ends the first side of the album. Lennon uses the same lyrical trick he utilized on “Don’t Let Me Down”: simple lyrics which change audiences from verse to refrain. Lennon and Preston both stand out on this, me thinks, though the whole thing is as solid as anything they ever made. It is the second longest recording in their canon and the longest “song.” The abrupt ending of side one – intentional in this case – was later repeated, as a happy accident, on side two (see below).
“Here Comes the Sun” is another stand-out by Harrison, again featuring the Moog. It hasn’t quite become the standard that “Something” has, but it’s nearly as famous and among their many radio staples. It features another “Leslie guitar” part – a guitar fed through a rotating speaker to give it a shimmery sound – and has become one of their most popular songs. It is famous for being written in Eric Clapton’s garden but that’s not why it should be famous. It marks perhaps the first completely upbeat song Harrison contributed to the band and completely changes the tune of things for the second side, given the rather raucous ending of the first side. There are actually a bunch of little tricks in the arrangement but that is something we have come to expect from the band and most of the ones featured here they had been trying out since their folk rock days.
“Because” is one of the major examples of the Beatles really showing off their harmony abilities – and arguably the greatest, or at least most intense, use of them, as this time there are nine voices instead of three, thanks to the wonders of multi-tracking. It features yet another Leslie guitar part and that wonder of wonders, the electric harpsichord. Apparently the song is actually Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata backwards but I don’t know enough about music to figure that out for you. (Pollack notes a similarity to Bach instead.) Like many – albeit not all – of his contributions to this particular album, it shows a completely different side to Lennon than a lot of his more avant garde works. It appears as if he was ready to contribute songs to the Beatles and leave his musique concrete noodling for his solo work of the time. It is drumless, a rather rare thing for a Beatles song not based around an acoustic guitar part.
“You Never Give Me Your Money” is like the polished version of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” – or, if you prefer, McCartney’s response to it – it is a mini-suite of unrelated musical fragments. This time the fragments are not exactly referencing traditional rock and roll, though, in the way that “Warm Gun” did. The song features some pretty innocuous lyrics but fairly significant genre-hopping, from silly ballad to faux-boogie woogie, and an absolutely bravura vocal performance from McCartney, who shows off multiple singing styles and voices. The rest of the band is also solid behind him, but he is the real star. It is like a preview of the suite to come – in form if not in content; and a section is actually featured in the “Carry That Weight” segment of the suite – and so, in a sense, is a bit of an overture.
“Sun King” is a song Lennon wrote in response to Peter Green’s “Albatross” – though that song was vocal-less. It also features the famous three-part harmonies but not to the overdubbed extent of “Because.” It has the very same first four words of “Here Comes the Sun” and was originally called “Here Comes the Sun King.” Perhaps that attests to where Lennon was in his commitment to the group. Certainly the nonsense foreign language vocals suggest he wasn’t all there. It shares many similarities to “Because” in terms of the arrangement and the harmony vocals and perhaps can be thought of somewhat of a “Because” reprise.
“Mean Mr. Mustard” is a continuation of “Sun King” as they performed the rhythm tracks together – though it doesn’t really sound like it on the finished the recording. It actually isn’t related to the next fragment, “Polythene Pam,” but a lyric was changed from the 1968 demo version of the song, so it would seem that way to the listener, who would have no idea that the two were unrelated. I have always felt the real beginning of the suite is here. I guess because this is the first of the songs in the suite that really feels like a fragment. It is at the same tempo as “Sun King,” but because of the beat it sounds significantly different, at least to my amateur ears. It segues right into “Polythene Pam,” even though it is a bit of a “jump cut” to use film parlance.
As with the previous two songs, “Polythene Pam” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” were recorded together, saving them from having to be edited together. This time you can tell from the finished recordings, as the instrumentation is the same for each song and you can actually hear someone joking (Lennon?) about the segue as they are changing styles. Here, the tempo appears to jump considerably. “Polythene Pam” is about a girl who apparently really did wear polythene when she went out at night and it’s the second of three “portraits” as it were. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is about a deranged Beatles fans breaking into McCartney’s home. Both song fragments are from previous sessions – White Album and Get Back respectively – but both show off their composers’ strong suits. Lennon’s is insistent with silly lyrics. McCartney’s is incredibly melodic and pseudo-poetic. “Bathroom Window” is significantly less of a fragment than the two previous tracks and, despite its length, feels like a complete tune to my ears.
“Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight” are also combined by having their rhythm tracks performed together. The first song is based partially on an old poem McCartney wrote. The second fragment is supposedly about the Beatles all putting in the effort to make a better album, so it is reminiscent of “All Together Now,” only without that song’s amateurish / good-timey feel. They both feature elaborate orchestration and very similar structures, with one exception: “Carry That Weight” features pieces of “You Never Give Me Your Money” mixed in. And “Golden Slumbers” has a fairly standout vocal performance from McCartney whereas “Carry That Weight” features the entire band singing together.
“Carry That Weight” segues into the greatest finale any band has ever created for themselves – at least in the studio. “The End” is basically the band doing a climactic performance on a good night, where everyone gets acknowledged, but accompanied by an orchestra. It is a bit of a medley too, just like “You Never Give Me Your Money,” only this one is more compact. First it features the first drum solo Starr ever performed. (It is incredibly famous, with numerous people including it in their own solos, even if it is nothing much in terms of technique.) There is a bit of a jam with nonsense lyrics. Then it infamously features McCartney, Harrison and Lennon all performing two bars each of a guitar solo and repeating that order two more times. Lennon is distinguishable as the last of the three by clearly being the least competent. To this day, this part sends chills up my spine. Finally there is the mushy part accompanied by a ton of orchestration, but we don’t need to worry about that – except that Pollack notes that many John Williams scores end the same way. So there’s that.
McCartney’s solo “Her Majesty” follows fourteen seconds after “The End” concludes. This is the introduction of the so-called “hidden track” by the Beatles, which has since become a regular practice. “Her Majesty” begins with the last chord of “Mean Mr. Mustard” – where it was originally spliced into the suite – and lasts about twenty seconds, the shortest Beatles song ever. It ends abruptly, just like “I Want You” on the first side, but where “I Want You” was written that way, the ending to “Her Majesty” is a result of being excised from the spot between “Mean Mr. Mustard and “Polythene Pam.” Its intended last note was left in the intro to the “Polythene Pam” – listen for it if you can – another of the many “happy accidents” that the Beatles used to their advantage.
The ending medley of their career is like an onslaught of brief little melodic fragments, most of which probably wouldn’t have merited much on their own, but work together to create a palpable sense of momentum up to one of the greatest moments in the band’s history. And even though I don’t particularly like solo performances on band albums, “Her Majesty” works as an honest surprise – at least the first time – and it created a huge trend in the industry.
In the fall of 1969, there was little like Abbey Road. The only other rock musicians who had attempted anything like this were Frank Zappa and the Soft Machine. Both band’s lacked the Beatles melodicism – not to mention their fan base – and though Zappa’s approach was definitely more radical, and while the Soft Machine’s might be more musically interesting, neither had the impact on music of this Beatles suite. Everyone heard this. It was like Sgt. Pepper reigned in, polished off, and with a lot more resemblance to “rock.” Not to mention better songs.
On the whole the album is the most consistent thing they had made in some time – that being relative, obviously, since many other bands would have loved to have had the consistency of the Beatles. There were no songs that were clearly included just to push boundaries, unlike on their last few finished records, yet the album still had its share of comparatively modest innovations with the heavy use of the Moog – rare, anyway, for a British band – and with the concluding suite. I know of few mainstream pop-rock albums that compare in terms of quality, and even after all these years it still sounds great, despite the relatively ancient technology that was used to record it.
After the Beatles finished recording Abbey Road, there was talk about releasing Get Back again, before Abbey Road, but everyone agreed on the vast superiority of Abbey Road and so Get Back was shelved yet again. It was hard, no doubt, for the Beatles to think about releasing something that showed them warts and all – no matter how bold or prescient it might seem now – compared with a polished, finished product that perhaps stood as their best effort ever. In that light, Get Back just didn’t cut the mustard.
And then immediately after that decision Lennon said he would be leaving the group. The band decided that they would make no formal announcement until they worked out the details – by this point the Beatles were their own industry and had all sorts of formal and informal business and legal connections: it took them until 1975 to sort it out. In November, McCartney openly discussed the possibility of the band ending in an interview.
So ended the Beatles. Sort of.
Beatles Albums of 1970: Let it Be (9/10)
After years of being the most pioneering studio band in the world – or one of the two – the Beatles originally decided they would go back to basics and record an album in the manner of Please Please Me; that is, live in the studio. To that end they actually re-posed for its cover shot approximately six years after the original. (It eventually became the cover of one of their best-of compilations, The Blue Album.)
The idea involved an accompanying film, which turned out would wreak havoc with the attempts at putting out the album. The Beatles hired then up-and-coming Glyn Johns as the engineer – he would go on to engineer and co-produce some major records in the ’70s – but implying when he was hired that he was also the producer. They never informed Martin or Johns what their roles would be – were they co-producing with each other or what? Martin assumed he was the producer, as he always was. And Johns assumed he was the producer, because he had been led to believe that. Additionally the Beatles tried to rehearse in a film studio specifically so the film crew could work around them. That didn’t work: Harrison quit at the very beginning of the sessions – for the second time in only a few months – because of the recording conditions.
The Beatles then attempted to record in the studios they had acquired with their new label, Apple. Harrison claimed that Clapton’s presence on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” had made the band behave like humans to each other. So, to this end he hired Billy Preston to play keyboards for the sessions – once he had returned to the band. (This served a dual purpose since the band was without a keyboard player most of the time, if they were going to play live.) The band played an enormous amount of material – though often failed to complete the performances – during these rehearsals and recording sessions, including numerous covers – as part of the “back to our roots” approach. Only a little of it has surfaced officially on Let It Be and its re-release, Naked, and on Anthology, although there are apparently numerous bootlegs of the sessions.
The seriousness of the back-to-basics approach can be seen in the infamous rooftop concert shut down by police, that instantly became iconic and has inspired numerous surprise performances by major acts throughout the ensuing years. That a band who had been screamed out of performing live a few years earlier would embrace performing live again, if only to try to save something as it was falling apart, shows either how committed they were – at the time – to the idea of a complete rejection of their pioneering studio trickery, or how desperate they were to capture the good old days. It was probably a mixture of both.
There was no such thing as a warts-and-all / back-to-basics album before the attempt at Get Back. Until the invention of multi-tracking in the 1950s, it was a technical impossibility, let alone something that anyone would ever think of. And until psychedelia emphasized the excesses of multi-tracking in 1966 and ’67, why would anyone want to forsake new technology that made you sound better? The concept was still novel in 1969. Even though the Byrds went “back” to basics by making country music in mid 1968, they did not give up studio technology, going so far as to overdub Gram Parsons out of the band after he quit. When the Rolling Stones abandoned psychedelia almost as quickly as they took it up, to re-embrace their first loves in late 1968 – and the Indian instruments on a song don’t indicate a full abandonment of psychedelia – they did not forsake multi-tracking. Even CCR, the inventors of roots rock, overdubbed keyboards and extra guitar parts regularly. And if the Flamin Groovies recorded live in the studio, nobody even knew they existed so who cares what they did.
The album, as I’ve outlined above, was ready to go; everything had been recorded. More than enough had been recorded. The problem was that the Beatles disagreed on how it should be mixed, or whether it was even releasable. McCartney wanted to release it whereas the others seemed somewhat embarrassed. They would continue to fight over it for over a year; with various versions of the album being prepared to the point where copies were almost pressed a few times. Incidentally, McCartney’s interest in releasing the warts-and-all, original version of Get Back should dispel any notions of he was always about glossy, easy pop.
So the Beatles – even though they failed in their attempt – insinuated the idea of a return to the roots as a remedy for studio excesses into the rock and roll consciousness. Zeppelin released the nearly overdub-free Presence halfway through their career. The Clash tried to do it with Cut the Crap. There have been numerous other attempts. It is now a critics’ cliché; it has basically become part of the lexicon, just like any band that is really ambitious has to attempt a White Album style kitchen sink thing – on one CD or two. If a band gets totally out of control in the studio, the reaction of everyone is that they should go back to basics – even if the result rarely is overdub free. And this comes from the Beatles attempt at making Get Back in the near-death throes of their existence. Perhaps the fact that it was a failure is even more prescient, given how few bands have been able to take the concept to its logical end in a world full of endless overdubbing and editing temptations.
After Get Back had been rejected at least three times, and the Beatles had all started making their own records, their manager sought to make a little money. Hiring Phil Spector to create an album out of those sessions – especially the rooftop performance – Allan Klein – sometimes credited as acting on behalf of Harrison and Lennon and sometimes not – essentially put together the antithesis of the original album. Now there’s all sorts of disagreement about who was in favour of it and who wasn’t but the end result was that Let It Be definitely wasn’t Get Back. Yes, a couple of the songs still retain their origins as live-in-the-studio songs sans overdubs but even the ones not obviously effected had studio chatter mixed in from other sessions – as with this version of “Get Back,” for example. It’s hard to know whose album this was but the end result was that McCartney quit the band a week after finding out about it and thereby gained, at least temporarily, the ire of a lot of fans – who were unaware of the number of times the others had quit, or hadn’t quite put together that Lennon’s burgeoning solo career was leading to this eventually. The only Beatle to actually play on the Spector sessions for the album – in addition to a complete remix of the material, Spector recorded an orchestra and choir – was Starr, who re-recorded his drums for a couple songs. So we know McCartney didn’t like it and he was by this point the dominant voice. We know some people claim Lennon liked it – and Lennon did admit in interviews to liking some of what Spector did – but it doesn’t fit with anything he was doing musically at the time: his albums with Ono, his first solo album, his singles. Harrison likely approved – whether or not he personally hired Spector for this Beatles album – because he immediately hired Spector to produce his next solo album, the first one to focus on songs. And Starr explicitly approved by being the only Beatle to actually participate in the new recording sessions. It says it’s a “new phase” Beatles album on the cover, whatever that means.
So what do we do with it? It’s a Beatles album, as it was released before the official breakup to the group, credited to the group and performed by the group. But it doesn’t represent the intentions of the dominant songwriter of the group’s late period, and may or may not have represented the intentions of the band’s other main songwriter – since he wasn’t participating at all at this point – and it doesn’t represent the intentions of the group’s normal producer either. It is a Beatles album curated by the two least significant Beatles, in one sense. It was only named after the last Beatles’ single likely because that was the easiest way to move records. “Dear Beatles fans. Here is the album to follow up that single you are listening to all the time.” It is a “back to basics” album that is full of overdubs and editing; an utter contradiction.
But I don’t think that invalidates it. Until the release of Anthology 3 in 1996 – and really until the release of Let It Be Naked in 2003 – this was the only official version of Get Back that we ever received. (There have been bootlegs.) And while it is as far from the Beatles’ intentions with that project as nearly anything could be, it still lets us hear at least some of what would have been absolutely innovative for spring 1969: the first ever “back to basics” rock album, which has inspired numerous attempts at shedding the studio-as-instrument approach since. And, despite the plethora of covers and jams recorded for the album, and despite the infighting, it’s not like the band or their lead songwriter took the time off.
“Two of Us” is a folk-rock song by McCartney that really does fit the original concept of the abandoned album, only having chatter overdubbed at the beginning to differentiate it from its initial “finished” version. This final version is slower and softer than earlier run-throughs, but still contains enough charm – I think – and enough of the now typical Beatles unconventionality to appeal: changes in metre, uneven phrasing, and the like; by now standard Beatles tropes. It sounds like little else they had recorded to date. (It actually sounds, to me, like it could have fit in on Help! but it’s more mature stylistically.)
“Dig a Pony” is an impassioned love song by Lennon with mostly nonsense words; he repeatedly dismissed it over the years. Again, it manages to preserve the original feel of the project, despite the remix – which omits two parts of the original version. It is the first of Let It Be tracks to be taken from the rooftop concert. Pollack notes:
The tune makes broad and spicy gestures of contour. The verse starts off with a balanced arch that covers a full octave but ends up with a second upward sweep of that arch left hanging in air, just begging for some release or relief from the refrain. The refrain obligingly picks up where the verse had left things and proceeds to blow the roof off in terms of range; the downbeat of the refrain momentarily establishes a new melodic highpoint just above where the verse tops out, but then, in the second phrase, the tune jumps up practically a full octave to top out in falsetto on the C# eight and a half steps above middle C.
It’s this kind of rawness that I think discouraged the Beatles from following through with their intentions. They meant to do it initially – or at least McCartney did – but when they sat back and listened, with years of studio perfectionism hanging over their shoulders, they heard mistakes by the ton. Now we may like those mistakes – I do – but we are are also listening in a world where Let it Be is a famous record, which was not the world of the decision not to release Get Back was made in.
This version of “Across the Universe” was slowed down for an orchestra and choir. The overproduction also includes more effects – in addition to the effects the Beatles added in 1968 – so you can’t hear most of the original band, or the fan backing vocals. This version has become a radio staple; it is the version everyone knows and presumably loves. Lennon apparently preferred this one. My attitude is that this song had no place on this record but on the other hand Spector didn’t exactly destroy it, like he destroyed some others (see below).
The shortest Harrison song that the Beatles ever used – “I Me Mine” was virtually doubled in length by Spector and also given the full orchestra treatment. It is about ego, apparently. It features some fairly good playing by the composer but it was created completely independently of the Get Back project – recorded a full year later – and with full intent to overdub. (There are many even prior to Spector’s, as both Harrison and McCartney added additional parts.) Though I am a fan of the music – not of the lyrics – I can’t help but think it doesn’t belong, despite being the last “official” Beatles song to be finished.
“Dig It” is one of the innumerable jams and song fragments recorded during the sessions. Why this song was picked over others – and why this version was picked over other, longer versions of “Dig It” itself – I don’t know. Some versions ran to seven minutes but usually broke down. The lyrics changed from version to version – with Lennon spouting off the band’s catalogue during one take. It was edited together from two distinct performances by Spector and nobody really knows why. It’s one of the reasons this album is looked at as a bit of a mess.
The album version of “Let It Be” features the other guitar solo more prominently – Harrison recorded two, an original one and an overdub when they were thinking of releasing it as a single – fewer backing vocals and new and louder orchestration to replace Martin’s original, subtle scoring. Most of us Beatles snobs prefer the single version just because. (Really, because it was mostly a band product and it has taste.) I think even with the hatchet job the song still stands up. It’s one of the highlights of the album.
“Maggie Mae” was the first “cover” to appear on a Beatles album in years. It was a joke they recorded as one of innumerable covers to “warm up.” Earlier versions of Get Back contained other covers that they attempted more seriously. It is strange that this one was included because it was pretty incomplete compared to many of the other covers they performed back in January of 1969. However, a version of “Maggie Mae” was included by the Beatles themselves in the planned releases of Get Back – though in a different part of the album sequence – so there must be some reason why it is here; some attempt to make a kind of statement about where the band was at. Or just for fun. Or for sequencing purposes. I can’t figure it out.
For me, “I’ve Got a Feeling” is one of the highlights of this album. It combines parts of two separate songs – one by McCartney, one by Lennon as was usual by this time – but it is the better for it. It’s actually the first time the two had combined song-fragments to create a new song like this since “Baby You’re a Rich Man” in the summer of 1967 – rather than combining whole songs with fragments and the like, as they had on The Beatles and Abbey Road. The recording is another rooftop performance and as such, holds at least somewhat with the original concept. It’s probably my favourite song on the album and proof, for me, that they were capable of still being a pretty decent live band after years in the studio.
“One After 909” was actually a song from their earliest days. They thought about including it on With the Beatles even though it had been written something like six years prior to those sessions. At this point they were doing their own oldies as well as those of others. It was their attempt to write a “train song” back in the ’50s when such things were popular. The recording is another one from the rooftop concert. It’s certainly way louder and rawer than what they attempted in 1963, or 1960 for that matter. But otherwise it does give you a good sense of the kind of problems occurring in the band that January. McCartney contributed the concept and most of the new material. Lennon barely contributed anything. Of the stuff he and Harrison – and even McCartney – did contribute, most of the band couldn’t agree on. So they played covers and even resorted to playing songs of their own that they didn’t even like. Given that, I am at least impressed by the performance, which is far rawer than the original version – which can be heard on Anthology along with many of the outtakes I am referring to.
“The Long and Winding Road” is the most controversial track on the album as it features the most glaring intervention from Spector along with that on “I Me Mine”: a huge orchestra and choir and effects. It was one of the main reasons why McCartney publicly quit when he found out about the release of this album. If you think it’s sappy you should listen to the Anthology version which is considerably less so. The version we all know is not the right version but there’s no way around that now. It’s even harder for us to go back and erase, as it were, our memories of this version to hear the original, to decide whether it is actually not a sappy ballad, but rather a good ballad. I don’t know that I’ve been able to do that. It was supposedly an attempt to write in the style of Ray Charles’ poppier ballads.
“For You Blue” is Harrison trying to write a traditional blues song – with not so bluesy lyrics – and it features Lennon’s debut on the lap-steel – a steel guitar played on the lap, funnily enough. It’s as straightforward for the Beatles as it gets. But it’s still relatively charming. Harrison re-recorded his vocal but the chatter was put in by Spector. At least it doesn’t feature an orchestra for no apparent reason like the other Harrison contribution. I think Lennon acquits himself fairly well on the lap steel, which is somewhat of a surprise.
The album version of “Get Back” features all sorts of dialogue not recorded at the time. Otherwise it is actually the same as the single released a year previously – just a remix. So there’s not much to choose from between the two versions, which begs the question, why did Spector include the single version of this song when he created a new version of “Let It Be”? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does.
Let It Be was the first thing the Beatles released in ages – except Yellow Submarine of course – that can really be criticized by the standards of the time, and can be considered inessential in terms of rock music history. Get Back would have stood up amongst their best work – I am convinced – as yet another path-breaking record featuring (mostly) strong songs. But Let It Be is not Get Back. And as such, it has to be viewed somewhat as the group’s nadir – though, I think, Magical Mystery Tour could also be viewed that way. But as a nadir, it still features a lot of great music and four songs that have become part of the canon of “radio staples”, if not standards out right. Pick your favourite band from the ’60s and compare Let It Be to the worst album of their career. Who wins? I think you’re lying if you say it isn’t the Beatles.
Reviews of Beatles Compilations:
Past Masters (1987)
In 1987, the Beatles singles and B-sides were compiled in the same place for the first time on two separate one disc volumes. It meant that if you went out and bought the CD versions of all the British albums and the American version of Magical Mystery Tour and these two new volumes, you could have everything the Beatles released during their brief time recording. This catalogue is something any self-respecting music aficionado has to own. And certainly if you want to hear how they changed without resorting to actually listening to the albums, this would be the place – of course it doesn’t include their Greatest Single of All Time, which is stuck on the American version of Magical Mystery Tour. Or you could stick with the old Red and Blue albums – released in 1973, my first proper introduction to the Beatles’ shocking career arc – which would also give you a really good sense of how drastically the Beatles changed and changed music but which don’t have the b-sides.
Before streaming, this might have been the fastest way to capture the Beatles’ career transformation, as it is shorter than the Red and Blue albums combined.
Live at the BBC (1994)
In 1994, many of their performances on radio and TV were released officially for the first time. This collection is a portrait of the band in the earliest stages, before Beatlemania and before they truly started breaking away from tradition. It is more for fans of early British Invasion rock and roll, and anyone who believes the Beatles were a “boy band” will not be converted after listening to it, as it contains all sorts of screaming girls and people having fun and not being “serious.”
A year later, the surviving Beatles began to release the six disc archival collection of their various demos, outtakes and the odd live performance not included in the BBC collection. It was accompanied by an eight episode TV documentary. The Anthology represented a new landmark in rock rarities collections – a landmark which paled in comparison to the depth of jazz collections – and it has become the gold standard to which all other rarities collections should be compared – despite missing a few songs, such as “Carnival of Light”. The first volume is probably the weakest, featuring more live material and hence more screaming girls – and resembling Live at the BBC – whereas the second features the most interesting stuff in the way of their artistic development. The final edition lets us really grasp what happened in 1969, so we can sort out the chronology of Get Back, Abbey Road and Let It Be.
But Anthology also featured two new Beatles songs, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” created using the wonders of contemporary technology. It is always a dangerous game for a band that hasn’t played together in decades to reunite, but this time it was surprisingly tasteful. The way they did it is a lesson to other bands: they didn’t write new songsand they didn’t desperately try to recreate their glory days by playing their hits. Instead they hit upon the idea of finishing off two of Lennon’s demos, resulting in at least theoretical whole-band recordings.
Maybe I’m biased – okay I’m very biased – but I really liked what they did. They both could have been worse in so many ways. They could have horribly remixed some old work, or recreated in new versions, or written new material. Instead they worked with existing yet under-known material which featured the dead member. “Free as a Bird” is the more ambitious and – I think – the less successful release, even though it is almost a true co-write. It’s certainly not the worst thing they put out. But I think many people are agreed that “Real Love” is the superior song. Though it is sped up, it is still Lennon’s song, just done by the rest of the band. Both songs are a fitting reminder of what the Beatles used to do at their peak, even if neither song is particularly notable for what it brought to music in the mid 1990s.