The Beatles: Beatles For Sale

Beatles For SaleIn the Beatles discography this, their fourth album, presents some problems. On its own, Beatles For Sale is a fine album with several excellent songs on it. However, coming after the triumph of the Hard Day’s Night album, there’s no question that this sounds like the Beatles running a little low on petrol.

Exhausted by their schedule of touring and recording, unable to get a moment’s peace, being pushed for more, more, more by their manager Brian Epstein and a music industry that was ravenous for new Beatle music, it’s no surprise that Beatles For Sale fails to live up to the expectations set by its predecessor. The pace at which the Beatles were living was so fast they were grateful for so much as a single day off. If A Hard Day’s Night represents the peak of the cultural revolution of Beatlemania (and I think it does), then Beatles For Sale is the inevitable hangover from that particular party. After nearly a full year of seeing their hotel bed sheets cut into one-inch squares and sold, Beatle wigs, Beatle buttons, Beatle guitars, television appearances, concert tours, a movie…it’s no wonder the album was called For Sale, and the faces looking out from the cover were downbeat and gloomy.

Once again, For Sale did not exist as an LP in America. Capitol Records wanted their Mop Tops to look happy, so they again cannibalized the LP and various singles to create two new albums, and plastered their four smiling faces in various silly poses on the cover. For sale, indeed.

Beatles For Sale
No Reply*
I’m A Loser*
Baby’s In Black*
Rock And Roll Music*
I’ll Follow The Sun*
Mr. Moonlight*
Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey**
Eight Days A Week**
Words Of Love**
Honey Don’t*
Every Little Thing**
I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party**
What You’re Doing**
* Released in America on the LP Beatles ’65
** Released in America on the LP Beatles VI

The music on this slab of vinyl also tells a darker story. You can see it just in the titles of the originals: “I’m A Loser,” “No Reply,” “Baby’s In Black,” “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party.”

All of this is why some of the album sounds forced. By this time the Beatles had released one full album of all-original material, and had met Bob Dylan, one of only a few performers who was recording exclusively original songs. But due to the constant grind of Beatlemania, the Beatles were short of original songs. To fill the gap, they went back to cover versions of rock ‘n’ roll classics: Chuck Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music,” Little Richard’s “Kansas City,” Buddy Holly’s “Words Of Love,” Carl Perkins’s “Honey Don’t.”

The cover songs are uniformly good. The Beatles played this music with an enormous amount of spirit. Lennon’s take on “Rock and Roll Music” may not be as good as similar Chuck Berry covers by the Rolling Stones, but he buries George Harrison’s version of “Roll Over Beethoven” from With The Beatles. Ringo makes “Honey Don’t” his own, adding all the charm and insouciance at his command. Paul McCartney puts his all into “Kansas City.”

The problem with these songs are not the songs themselves or the performances. The problem is that the Beatles had already progressed well beyond this type of material. With some exceptions, the Beatles always sounded much more comfortable doing their own music than they did doing covers. By late 1964, these originals were sounding less like the covers than ever.

There’s simply no comparison between a rehash of a Carl Perkins song and the acoustic introspection of a song like “I’m A Loser.” The latter, with its strummed acoustic guitars and wailing harmonica clearly reflect the influence of Dylan while the lyrics are a vivid demonstration of the toll that Beatlemania was taking on Lennon. “I’m A Loser” carries the same theme as “Help!” would the following year.

“Baby’s In Black” swings, once again held together by acoustic guitar and little stabs of electric lead. But here the lyrics are a far cry from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “She Loves You.” The lyrics recount the singer’s frustration at being unable to woo his intended because her lover has died, but for a song whose tagline is “Baby’s in black and I’m feeling blue” the music is irrepressible. Rarely in the Beatles career has a lyric and music been so mismatched, although the combination works like a charm.

“No Reply,” which kicks off the album in grand fashion, also tells a tale of lying and cheating against a mostly acoustic backdrop. Taken together, these three songs are a triptych that clearly illustrate where the songwriting team of Lennon and McCartney were…and it wasn’t covers of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll classics.

Beatles For Sale is a schizophrenic album, capturing the Beatles at a fascinating time in their history as they were starting to shed the “happy little rockers” image and starting to explore more diverse instrumentation, more introspective lyrical themes, and different types of music. The covers are all very good, and remind the listener of how the Beatles began their career. The originals were, for the most part, remarkably different and served as a signpost to where the Beatles were going.

“Eight Days A Week” is probably the most “typical” Beatles song on the album, a glorious combination of harmonies, melodies, and jangling electric guitars. It is also the only original song on the album that could have easily fit on the Hard Day’s Night album. All of the other originals come from a completely different place, either lyrically or musically. “I’ll Follow the Sun” was written in the 1950s, pre-Hamburg, and is a surprisingly mature McCartney ballad,

All of this makes Beatles For Sale an ordinary album from an extraordinary group. The album has the feel of being filler material, though it’s far superior to the usual stuff that passes as filler. This is the only Beatles album that does not feel like an artistic statement but rather comes across as a holding pattern. There’s just enough of the old rockers to keep the kids happy, just enough of the new sound to intrigue the more astute listeners and whet their appetite for the next step.

Beatles For Sale is an important album for this reason: it is the last album released by the lovable Mop Tops. Tired and frustrated by the grind, they recorded several songs that they could have done in their sleep and several songs that were pointing the ways towards the gob-smacking masterpieces of Help! and Rubber Soul.

Grade: B+


The Listening Post: December 2010

A little late, and all those Christmas carols cut into my listening time.

  • Long Live The Duke & The KingThe Duke & The King. The thing that stands out the most about this album is that is sounds simply beautiful. It’s recorded, mixed, and mastered perfectly, giving the album the warm intimacy of a small live show. The plaintive lead vocals and gorgeous harmonies sound like they could be coming from right in front of you. Great production will only get you so far, and Long Live The Duke & The King has no shortage of quality songs. These songs are a study in contrasts. The music is pure summertime, all warmth. The lyrics, however, are often dark. “Shaky” tells a harrowing tale of drugs and post-traumatic stress and sets it to music that would sound great coming out of a convertible on a warm summer day. Another standout, “Hudson River” is marked by the plea “don’t you take your love away.” Simi Stone sings “No Easy Way Out” which swings with a sunshine-y groove while the lyrics are about despair and loss. The band is named after the con artists in Huckleberry Finn, and the sound matches that image: pastoral, lazy days, and sunshine mixed with danger, loneliness, and a sense of dread. Despite a stellar beginning, the end of the album collapses under the weight of its own pretenses. “You and I” has some of the silliest lyrics since Edie Brickell told us the definition of religion and philosophy, and features a leaden chorus that sits like a bag of rocks in the middle of the song. “Children Of The Sun” strives for some deep message, but never connects. Worst of all is the closing track “Don’t Take That” which appears to be about warning someone not to get on a plane. It’s nearly seven minutes of awful, and the biggest strength of the band (those great harmony vocals) fails miserably…the backing vocals are awkward, tuneless, and out of place. It’s a genuinely depressing end to the album and should have been left on the cutting room floor. With the exception of “Don’t Take That,” even the songs that are undermined by their lyrics still sound beautiful on a casual listening. But in the end it’s the impression that lyricist Simone Felice feels he has something important to say that holds the album back from being a stone cold soul-funk-folk classic.
    Grade: B
  • ****The Greenhornes. On the other hand, The Greenhornes are back with a vengeance. Jack White’s favorite rhythm section and guitarist Craig Fox are back with their first new album in eight years, and they’ve barely skipped a beat. The vibe of **** is a little heavier on old soul music than it is on garage rock, but it still works like a charm. Craig Fox is a fine guitarist and excellent singer, and bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler are Jack White’s favorites for a very good reason: they snap into a pocket like nobody since Duck Dunn and Al Jackson. The Greenhornes are completely enamored with 1960s era rock, but the suit fits. Unlike other 60s rock revivalists like The Grip Weeds, that 60s vibe seems completely natural coming from the Greenhornes. “Jacob’s Ladder” begins like Cream’s “White Room” before turning into the best Face To Face-era song the Kinks never did, and yet it doesn’t sound like they are imitating either Cream or The Kinks. The Greenhornes succeed as garage rock revivalists precisely because their influences are not worn on their sleeves; their influences are hardwired into their DNA. They sweat this stuff out, and in the process it ceases to be the work of 60s garage rock fanboys. It becomes something as real and vital as the best work of the bands that inspired them.
    Grade: A