Tuesday, July 21, 2009
TIRED YET FOR SALE
BEATLES FOR SALE
Just one look at the cover of their fourth offering and it's obvious to anyone that these guys all have the "100 mile stare" going. Even the title seems uninspired. Pressure in the form of making a deadline (the lucrative Christmas sales season) saw the powers that be squeezing an album out of the overworked quartet. You can audibly detect fatigue in some of the final product. Points come off for retreating into recording covers to fill out the disc, with only two out of those six having any real potency.
To their credit, they still managed to break some new ground with their own material. Per George Martin:
"They were rather war-weary during Beatles for Sale. One must remember that they'd been battered like mad throughout '64, and much of '63. Success is a wonderful thing, but it is very, very tiring."
Before getting into the particulars, it's worth mentioning that many of the songs found here represent my very first encounter with Beatle music. My parents copy of "Beatles '65" fell into my hands when I was five. I had no concept of who they were, though very fond memories were created by spinning this record endlessly on the little beige, monophonic suitcase record player that my sister and I shared/fought over. I loved every note and feel very lucky to have had this come into my life at such an early age. I was hooked.
Only later on would I come to realize that this LP was merely the product of the very shrewd marketing group at Capitol Records. The other tunes that didn't make "Beatles '65" were pilfered to create another US release called "Beatles VI". Imagination was in short supply, though you can't fault their business sense.
Back in their home country, Beatles For Sale hit the shops in November 1964, preceded by the hit single, "I Feel Fine" (with "She's A Woman" on the flip side). Before anyone had thought to give it a name, these guys were playing an unmistakable brand of country-rock. Their Merseyside version of hillbilly inflected twang colored many of the tracks here, though their versatility kept them from complete immersion in this style. Makes perfect sense to me, as country and western music was quite prevalent in Liverpool prior to the earth shattering changes wrought by American rock and roll acts of the mid to late fifties. This was much closer to their tastes than the blues, which they never seemed to gravitate toward on record, save for later parodies of the form. ("Yer Blues, "For You Blue")
Based on the riff in Bobby Parker's "Watch Your Step", "I Feel Fine" kicked off with guitar feedback, excellent harmonies and sounded about three summers ahead of everything else on the radio at that time. Ringo's drum pattern is pretty sharp. Lively, inventive ride cymbal work, interspersed with rim shots is broken up with an offbeat on the toms. "She's A Woman" is a fantastic McCartney rock tune and he throws the lead vocal from the back of his throat, slightly off mic. These amazing leaps forward should have kicked two of the weaker covers off the LP. Revisionist viewpoint, granted, though it would have made the disc stronger. One very different aspect that comes into play with these selections is the morose nature of the subject matter. Women don't call back ("No Reply"), stand you up on dates ("I Don't Want to Spoil the Party") pine away for dead lovers ("Baby' In Black") or generally piss you off ("What You're Doing").
Kind of makes you feel bad about yourself, doesn't it? ("I'm a Loser")
"Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey" was part of their set from early days, ranking as one of the best covers that they ever committed to tape. Along with "Rock and Roll Music", they nailed it in one take. Things were still coming easy in the studio and sessions were productive, sometimes seeing several songs completed in one marathon working day. With all due respect to Chuck Berry, Lennon's version is at least equal to the original, which is amazing considering that he sang it at the end of an 8-9 hour recording blitz. George Martin's piano is positively inspired.
Someone should have set fire to the master tape of "Mr. Moonlight". "Leave My Kitten Alone" would have been a vastly superior substitute.
Now the music that they wrote for inclusion here is fantastic and I would put the bridge of "No Reply" in the dictionary next to excitement. Dynamic vocals were always their specialty and the driving kick supplied by the handclaps boost the track. Still get goosebumps when that part comes up. Heavy tape echo gives the both the harmonies and piano a spacey feel, too. Apparently, the guitar intro to "Baby's In Black" moved George Martin to ask if they actually wanted to do it that way. He was wise enough to step back from imposing his will with certain ideas that were presented. This is an excellent line from George's Gretsch that frames a somewhat bizarre (but great), waltz time country number. It held a place in their live set through to Candlestick Park.
The lovely aroma of left handed cigarettes had by now made its way into their routine, courtesy of Bob Dylan. Lennon began to turn his hand toward a similar type of writing style, though he kept his impressions from becoming obscene. Only a slight trace of the Dylanesque vocal mannerism is found in the clean harmonies of "I'm A Loser", complete with more tasteful, rockabilly guitar lines from Harrison. Lyrically, it was interesting to hear a huge pop star take a self depreciating turn. "Eight Days a Week" is another hit single that just happens to be thrown casually on side two. The innovative fade up to start really builds momentum and must have given first time listeners a surprise after carefully dropping the needle. Ringing guitars swell steadily in volume until the cymbal crash kicks off the verse in what would become another incredibly infectious number one song in the US. "I Don't Want To Spoil the Party" is pure country with an immaculate guitar solo. It was originally written for Ringo to sing and is a direct successor to "I'll Cry Instead". Another winner is the Lennon sung (but McCartney written) "Every Little Thing", which harks back to the structures built around 12 string found on Hard Day's Night and boasts one of the classiest, economic solos in the Beatles catalog.
Beatles For Sale contains some of their most ambitious and clumsy work. Carl Perkins' bank account was probably better off for the two tunes that landed in wax here ("Honey Don't", "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby") but their attempts are flat-footed, which was rare for the group. "I'll Follow the Sun" comes up a bit short and it's not hard to tell that it dates back to McCartney's early attempts at song writing. Certainly not trying to be harsh, as I feel quite a strong connection to some of these songs, but this is the only set in their discography that I would radically alter in content.
Again, this is subjective and the fact that they managed to complete sixteen tunes for issue while maintaining an extremely hectic work schedule is pretty impressive. Keep in mind, this is four full length albums in two years, not counting singles.
1965 would usher in radical changes on many fronts.
"No Reply" was lyrically based on a 1957 hit for a US group. Name both song and artist.