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The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night

A Hard Day's Night

Having conquered the musical world with their singles, albums, tours, and cheeky grins, the Beatles turned their attention to the world of film. Their manager, Brian Epstein, had signed them to star in and provide the soundtrack for a new movie. The upstart Beatles, not willing to put their names and reputations behind anything they didn’t in some way control, chose Richard Lester as the director because they admired his short, surrealistic comedy films. The Beatles had seen the “rock and roll movies” that had been released and did not want to be associated with the kind of junk exploitation films that Elvis Presley was making.

Yet the Beatles were exploited when it came time to do the soundtrack. In America, the soundtrack album was released by United Artists and contained eight Beatles originals and a handful of instrumental tracks that were used as the soundtrack to the movie. Unfortunately, this meant that America was deprived of the best album of the early years of the Beatles.


U.S. EditionU.K. Edition
A Hard Day’s Night
Tell Me Why
I’ll Cry Instead
I Should Have Known Better (Instrumental)
I’m Happy Just To Dance With You
And I Love Her (Instrumental)
I Should Have Known Better
If I Fell
And I Love Her
Ringo’s Theme (This Boy) (Instrumental)
Can’t Buy Me Love
A Hard Day’s Night (Instrumental)
A Hard Day’s Night
I Should Have Known Better
If I Fell
I’m Happy Just To Dance With You
And I Love Her
Tell Me Why
Can’t Buy Me Love
Any Time At All*
I’ll Cry Instead
Things We Said Today*
When I Get Home*
You Can’t Do That**
I’ll Be Back***
*Released in America on the LP Something New
**Released in America on the LP The Beatles’ Second Album
***Released in America on the LP Beatles ’65

There’s no denying that even on the U.S. edition those original songs are top-notch, but the inclusion of what is, essentially, four doses of Grade Z Muzak is enough to kill any album. The U.K. edition of the album is nearly flawless, an all-original collection of thirteen sterling Lennon/McCartney songs. Ringo loses his turn at the spotlight, and George is given the lightweight but enjoyable “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You.” Otherwise, this album belongs to John and, to a lesser degree, Paul. It is the first Beatles masterpiece.

The single strange chord that starts the album kicks down the door in dramatic fashion and launches a song that nearly perfectly distills everything that was good about the early Beatles. It’s joyful, bouncy, full of exuberant harmonies, swapped lead vocals (Lennon on the verses, McCartney on the chorus), a crisp, exciting and very brief guitar solo, and Ringo hitting the percussion for all that he’s worth. There’s simply no way to listen to “A Hard Day’s Night” without feeling better. Even the ending, with the sudden introduction of a chiming guitar lick heard nowhere else in the song, shocks the listener. The Beatles had great songs before, but this was different, a huge evolutionary leap in songwriting and performing.

“I Should Have Known Better” once again features the harmonica that was so prevalent on the early Beatles singles like “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” and “From Me To You,” but here it was underpinned by a driving acoustic guitar with terse electric chords and lead lines weaving throughout, and Lennon’s masterful vocal riding the wave.

One of the things that makes Beatle albums so eminently listenable is that they contain a mix of slow, fast, and mid-tempo songs. “If I Fell” is one of the best of the early Beatles ballads, a song that is nearly breathtaking in it’s beauty. It’s also a sign of the rapid maturation of Lennon the songwriter. The man who just wanted to hold your hand a few months earlier now decries that naiveté, discovering that “love is more than just holding hands.” The vocal harmony of Lennon and McCartney is nothing less than astounding.

George Harrison gets his turn at the microphone on “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You.” It’s far and away Harrison’s best vocal performance to this point. He sounds confident and less like a Scouse teenager. The song, written by Lennon and McCartney, is a bit of a throwaway, but by this point even their throwaways were better than almost anything else being released. And whatever sins “Dance” has are more than forgiven by the Greek feel of McCartney’s gorgeous “And I Love Her,” a ballad for the ages.

“Tell Me Why” is another by-the-numbers rocker that is saved and raised to a level of greatness by Lennon’s lead vocal and the harmony vocals. A song that six months earlier probably would have been recorded very differently is now a textbook example of how to write a rocking pop song. The little guitar trills, the middle eight, the quick dash of falsetto vocal…all of these are elements the Beatles likely would not have used only a few months earlier, but their progress as songwriters was so swift that these songs almost sound as if they came from a different band than the one that recorded Please Please Me.

“Can’t Buy Me Love” steals from “She Loves You” the then-revolutionary trick of starting the song with the chorus and turns the trick into art. Has there ever been a song that reached out of the speakers and so hooked the listener with the opening line? Even “She Loves You” starts with Ringo’s brief drum roll, but “Can’t Buy Me Love” immediately immerses the listener in McCartney’s go-for-broke vocal. What often goes unnoticed is that it is the bass and drums that drive the song. True, there’s a hyperkinetic guitar solo and a steady acoustic-based rhythm, but the bass largely fills in for the lead guitar.

The second side of the LP has nothing as good as “A Hard Day’s Night,” “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her” or “Can’t Buy Me Love,” but it remains a classic album side nevertheless. Lennon solidifies his hold on the album as the lead vocal on five of the remaining six songs. This is a heavier slice of Beatle music than side one, containing no real ballads. This makes A Hard Day’s Night the hardest rocking album of the early period. In fact, while the Beatles would go on to record harder songs, this album may be the most consistently hard rocking of their career.

A Hard Day’s Night is Lennon’s triumph. It’s the album he had the largest impact on until the White Album in 1968. The whipping pace of side two, led by the one-two punch of “Any Time At All” and “I’ll Cry Instead,” the propulsive acoustic guitar workout “Things We Said Today” (one of McCartney’s best early tunes, featuring one of the best middle eights in Beatle history), and the closing triptych of “When I Get Home,” “You Can’t Do That” and “I’ll Be Back,” leaves the listener exhausted and breathless from the sheer exuberance of the Lads. While side two has no Beatles classics (from a popularity perspective, not a songwriting/performance perspective), it completes an album that surpassed With The Beatles to become the single best example of a rock and roll album to that point.

Grade: A+

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+