With the Beatles
Four eclipsed black and white photographs appear on Parlophone’s With the Beatles album cover. They bear somber expressions. The release date—November 22, 1963—coincided with the Dallas, Texas assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This same year Astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, and author Betty Freidan’s book The Feminine Mystique fostered dialogue among women facing societal limitations. Alongside these American touchstones, a cultural awakening was taking place world-wide, with anti-war slogans and love-ins on the horizon. But, for now, the baby boomer generation would gravitate to a long-awaited album which spoke directly to them; not their parents or aunts and uncles.
Most of the With the Beatles tracks would appear on the American counterpart Meet the Beatles released in January 1964, while those tracks left-over would appear on The Beatles Second Album. Being under pressure to record and not having the opportunity to get much writing done, the four Liverpuddlians had to divide the album into a blend of covers and originals. To that end, With the Beatles borrowed heavily from the Motown sound pioneered by producer Berry Gordy. Still, the covers they did choose were carefully selected for catchy hooks, riveting bass lines and universal themes.
Each Beatle here has a chance to perform and each of the covers mirror the personality of the singer. For example, when McCartney sings Meredith Wilson’s “Till There Way You” his voice is warm and sincere and he draws out the romance in the lines, “there was music and wonderful roses they tell me and sweet fragrant meadows of dawn and dew…” Also, when McCartney sings, “there were birds in the sky, but I never saw them winging” his thick accent rests on the word “saw” (sawrrrr), and we are reminded that the British Invasion is imminent.
The sweet “Please Mr. Postman” was originally recorded by the black all-girl group the Marvelettes, but Lennon’s rendition is riddled with masculine angst. “So many days have passed me by, see the tears standing in my eyes” he details. The sense that he is missing his long-distance lover is clear—his voice is double-tracked and emotion-filled. Harrison and McCartney provide antiphony and the combination is highly-charged.
It’s also amazing to hear how Harrison emulates Chuck Berry’s classic “Roll Over Beethoven” (released by Chicago’s Chess Records in 1956). Harrison masters Berry’s guitar riffs (those which once accompanied the hilarious “duck-walk”) and uses his crusty-edged voice to showcase difficult, double entendre passages: “My temperture’s rising and my jukebox is blowing a fuse, hey diddle diddle, come and play my fiddle…” Meanwhile, McCartney and Lennon provide completely infectious back-up. Still, another cover was Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me”. The original version was a smooth and soulful ballad, but Lennon twists and wrings out each syllable. “You treat me badly, I love you madly” he moans and his melismas demonstrate pure panic.
Two more covers bear mention: “The Devil in Her Heart” by Richard Draper carries elements of Latin rhythms and bongo. Another all-girl group “The Donay’s” made it famous in 1962. Surprisingly, Harrison takes the lead here and engages in a vocal debate with Lennon and McCartney who attempt to convince him to stay away from his dream-girl. They ensue in an upbeat call and response. Harrison plays a elaborate Hawaiian sounding solo and the whole song—a hybrid of vocal activity and blurred genre—is very exciting. Barrett Strong recorded “Money” on the Tamla label in 1959. Written by Barry Gordy, it’s a galloping 12-bar blues with an intense bass line. Though Strong certainly did the song justice, Lennon shrieks and wails the lyrics, and though he’s singing about a tangible object, the universal emotion conveyed could be associated with devastating tragedy.
Flip the album over and you will find a treasure-trove of originals. “I Wanna Be Your Man” was meant for the Rolling Stones, but Starr with his sour drone and insidious back-beat deeply personalizes it while “Don’t Bother Me” holds that same pale demeanor, but Harrison is the lead. His cavalier approach is surprisingly endearing—as he sings, “just go away, leave me alone, don’t bother me” he sounds so grim, you almost want to laugh.
Also, in this camp, “Not a Second Time” touches on despair with a grain of wisdom and Lennon illuminates that point. “It Won’t Be Long” and “Little Child” offer Lennon a chance to express romantic anticipation and perform throaty harmonica. In “All I’ve Got to Do” he drags out melodic vowels perfectly while exhibiting stellar song structure. McCartney sings “Hold Me Tight” and “All My Loving”—songs which pander to his “cute” Beatle image. When he sings, “close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you, remember I’ll always be true” it’s easy to feel taken in and completely spell-bound by the innocence and reassurances of the message. These originals are stand-outs with chord progressions that embellish the universality of the lyrics.
The charm on With the Beatles is the ever-mounting wealth of surprises as lead vocalists shift exposing strong personality traits, backing vocals escalate (replete with the occasional “wooh” borrowed from Little Richard), maracas, tambourines and hand-claps join the mix and lyrics switch flawlessly from confessional to irreverent and cynical. Though most of the content does deal with romance—the pitfalls and joys—the mood and tone make each track distinctive. With the Beatles foreshadows the prolific song-writing partnership of Lennon-McCartney and introduces us to those teddy-boys who smoked cigarettes, wore leather, and turned rebellious backs to screaming girls whose mania launched their unprecedented rise. To re-meet the Beatles, start here.