The Beatles: With The Beatles

With the BeatlesIf Please Please Me was a lightning bolt straight to the heart of the Brill Building, With the Beatles and especially its American counterpart was an atomic bomb. A flawed classic, this is really where the unmatched recorded legacy of the Beatles begins. Their first album was very good. Their second was considerably better. It may be fair to say that when it was released (November 22, 1963—the day President Kennedy was assassinated), With the Beatles was the single best example of a rock and roll LP. With the possible exception of the first Elvis Presley long-player, I can’t think of another album from this era that matches this one. For almost any other band, it would be a high-water mark. For the Beatles, it was just the beginning.

Please Please Me was not released in America until 1987 when it came out on CD, and With the Beatles was not released until January 1964 under a different title (Meet The Beatles) and with different songs. Early in their career, the Beatles had a policy of not including singles on albums because they believed it was ripping off the fans. In England, extended play singles (four or five songs) were also a popular commodity that was unknown in the States. Because of this, the Beatles’ most popular songs were not included on their albums. This flew in the face of the American system, so Capitol Records took songs from With the Beatles and replaced them with the popular singles. The songs that were removed were tucked away until there were enough to release a “new” album.

It was a ham-handed system that the Beatles hated because they put so much thought and effort into their LPs, but it did have the effect of giving a home to all those Beatles singles and EPs that might otherwise have not been released in America. So while With the Beatles begins with the thrilling “It Won’t Be Long,” Meet the Beatles begins with the classic “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

With the Beatles Meet the Beatles
It Won’t Be Long
All I’ve Got To Do
All My Loving
Don’t Bother Me
Little Child
Till There Was You
Please Mr. Postman*
Roll Over Beethoven*
Hold Me Tight
You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me*
I Wanna Be Your Man
Devil In Her Heart*

Not A Second Time
Money (That’s What I Want)*

I Want To Hold Your Hand
I Saw Her Standing There
This Boy
It Won’t Be Long
All I’ve Got To Do
All My Loving
Don’t Bother Me
Little Child
Till There Was You
Hold Me Tight
I Wanna Be Your Man
Not A Second Time
*Released in America on the LP The Beatles’ Second Album

In either incarnation, this album is excellent. In the final analysis, the American version is superior. Though it has two fewer songs, it replaces five cover songs of varying quality with three mind-blowingly brilliant originals. But for the purpose of this review, I’ll stick with the albums as the Beatles intended and as they are now available on CD.

The album cover was enough to let you know that this was different. Compare the stark black and white cover of With the Beatles, with it’s all lowercase type and disembodied, serious faces staring at the listener from behind those ridiculously long bangs, to any pop/rock album cover of the time and you can see the difference immediately. The music on the album may not have risen all the way to the highest levels of art, but there was no denying that Robert Freeman’s cover photo was both unique and artistic, similar in many ways to the photographs taken by Astrid Kirchherr during the Beatles’ time in Hamburg. It was also instantly iconic. Cover art was one of the other ways the Beatles revolutionized the music industry, taking the job out of the hands of hack photographers and putting it into the hands of artists. Not all the Beatles album covers would make this bold a statement, but a line had clearly been drawn.

“It Won’t Be Long,” which kicks off the album, is the prototype for power pop. The propulsive bass underpinning a simple but strong guitar line, Ringo’s steady drumming and economical fills, the call and response yeahs, the beautiful melody and backing vocals of the brief bridge…it’s all there. The entire school of power pop, from early Who and Badfinger to the Raspberries and Cheap Trick, learned their trade from this song. The breathless pace of John Lennon’s vocals adds a touch of desperation to the song that elevates it above the standard “can’t wait to get home to see you” lyrics. I don’t know whether there’s ever been a better rock and roll singer than John Lennon during the early days of the Beatles. Paul McCartney may have had the better voice in technical terms but Lennon’s vocals, especially during these first few years, is so rich with emotion they defy belief. “When I Get Home” sounds like John’s life is depending on it.

Just when he’s turned up the voltage and belted out a hard and fast rocker, Lennon follows with the mid-tempo ballad “All I’ve Got To Do,” one of the most under appreciated of all Beatle songs. From the lightly strummed guitar that opens the song and provides the introduction for John’s plaintive vocals to the soaring chorus, “All I’ve Got To Do” is one of the most sublime ballads the Beatles ever constructed. As both songwriting and performance it is simply miles beyond anything from their first album.

And yet, it’s just a taste. Paul McCartney steps to the microphone with one of his greatest songs, “All My Loving,” with the furiously strummed triplets by John Lennon and a melody that most pop/rock songwriters would sell their children to write. Indeed, there’s more pure melody in these two minutes and twelve seconds than in the entire collected works of some famous bands. Even the quick guitar solo has a tune of its own. Curiously, this is the third consecutive song that opens with a brief blast of vocals with no instrumentation (aside from the single strum of “All I’ve Got To Do”). If nothing else, it shows the Beatles knew where their strengths lay.

“Don’t Bother Me” is the first song written solely by George Harrison and it’s a winner. It’s certainly not up to the level of the three songs the precede it on the album, and Harrison’s vocals are still heavy on the Liverpool youth side, but the melody is strong, Ringo plays some great fills, Lennon shakes a wicked tambourine, Paul keeps steady time banging claves (wood blocks), and George contributes a tasty guitar solo. It’s not brilliant, but it’s very good.

McCartney assumes piano duties on “Little Child,” doing a neat approximation of boogie-woogie. The song itself is a basic, by-the-numbers rocker, but takes off during the instrumental bridge when the tempo speeds up and Lennon takes off on harmonica. This is one song where Lennon sounds unconvincing, like he knows the material is somewhat sub par. It’s the kind of song he would later dismiss as “phony,” but the double-tracked vocals and the catchiness of the chorus make it an enjoyable, brief, rave up.

It’s at this point on the record where the flaws really stand out. After five consecutive original songs, there are three cover songs. The first, “Till There Was You” is a “please-the-Mums-and-Dads” show tune from The Music Man, sung in his sweetest tenor by Paul. It’s a nice song, and Paul sings it well over an acoustic backing, but it also displays the appalling sentimentality that would dog McCartney through his entire career. “Please Mister Postman” is considerably better. The Marvelettes cover song features a great Lennon vocal, while Paul and George supply the breathy “Ooohs” throughout the verses. The Beatles brought their own sensibilities to the Motown and girl group songs that they covered. Always a melodically inclined band, they naturally responded to the hooks and melodies those songs provided. But as scruffy little rock-n-rollers they added rough edges that the Motown and Phil Spector productions often lacked.

The Beatles were less convincing covering blues rockers, and “Please Mister Postman” is followed by their take of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” There’s nothing wrong with the cover, but it lacks the fire and inspiration that the Rolling Stones brought to their Berry covers. The Beatles were never a bluesy band, and were more at home with Buddy Holly and Little Richard than they were with Chuck Berry. “Roll Over Beethoven” has some great fills from Ringo, and a solid George Harrison vocal, along with a great hand clap track, but it’s a completely by-the-numbers cover. There are worse ways to kill 2:50 but that doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways, too.

“Hold Me Tight” is a return to original material, and the increased inspiration becomes immediately apparent. It’s not a great song, but it’s got all the ingredients of a great song. The vocal from Paul is a little wobbly, but the persistent hand claps and the ebullient backing vocals make for an improvement over the three tracks the precede it, although it pales in comparison to what follows.

The Beatles return to Motown for their take on Smokey Robinson’s epic “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” and it’s one of their best cover songs. If anything, Lennon pulls off the astounding feat of surpassing Smokey’s original vocal, ably assisted by a prominent backing vocal from George. It is that grit that the Beatles bring that adds so much to this song. Lennon’s double-tracked vocals are simply staggering and the musical accompaniment, underpinned by producer George Martin’s piano, is perfect.

The band ethos of the Beatles—the idea that this was a group, not just a gathering of musicians—was cemented by the fact that every member would take his turn up front and “I Wanna Be Your Man” is Ringo’s turn. The song had been given to The Rolling Stones who turned it into an incendiary piece of garage rock with a Brian Jones slide guitar solo that scorched the landscape. In the hands of the Beatles, the song is a throwaway, but a good one. Ringo’s performance is hammy but fun, and the simple lyric sounds like it was written in about five minutes. Still, this one song provided the Stones with their first hit and directly inspired Bob Dylan’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” John Lennon provides the rhythm on organ while Ringo plays the hell out of the drums and George plays a stinging guitar solo. All filler songs should be this much fun.

One of the surprising things about the album is that George Harrison is as prominent a player as Paul McCartney. Macca sings lead on only three songs, and George does as well. “Devil In Her Heart” is a cover of a girl group song and an excellent one. It’s got George’s best vocal to this point and a solid percussion track from Ringo, and the backing vocals add great depth to the lead.

The original “Not A Second Time” is another gem. It’s also more evidence that as songwriters the Beatles were simply outpacing the competition. Only Smokey’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” is in a league with the originals the Beatles were turning out. It is “Not A Second Time” that inspired the London newspaper classical music reviewer to compare the Beatles to Schubert and discuss the “Aeolian cadences” in their work. I’m not quite sure I’d go that far and I don’t know what “Aeolian cadences” means but I do know that the inventive melodicism of the song is breathtaking. Once again, it’s George Martin’s piano that provides the musical heft to the song, including a solo that mimics the melody, a Beatle trademark. Lennon’s voice is superb, thrust even more to prominence by the absence of backing vocals from his bandmates.

The piano of “Not A Second Time” is the perfect introduction to the album closer. A cover of Barrett Strong’s Motown song, “Money (That’s What I Want)” begins with George Martin’s piano before the other instruments rumble in like a mudslide and Lennon snarls, “The best things in life are free…” On an album full of great vocal performances, “Money” is a standout, one of the best vocals of Lennon’s career, at least the equal of Please Please Me‘s “Twist and Shout.” His ending ravings where he’s ripping his throat out singing, “Yeah! I wanna be free!” while Paul and George chant “That’s…what I want…” is rock and roll nirvana.

There’s really no question that removing “Please Mister Postman,” “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” “Devil In Her Heart,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Money” and replacing them with “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “This Boy” makes Meet the Beatles a better album than With The Beatles. As great as “Hold” and “Money” are, they are dwarfed by the original singles the Beatles had released. With the Beatles is a flawed gem; Meet the Beatles is a masterpiece. I’d be willing to bet that if the original UK edition of the album been released in America Beatlemania might not have caught on in the States. This would be the last time an American version of the album was better than the UK version.

Grade: B+

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