Music

The Records, Day Two: 1964-1965

From December 1964 to December 1965 -- re-meet the Beatles as they made the transition from the world's best bar band to the forerunners of folk-rock. Has any band ever had such an astoundingly productive 12-months?

Beatles for Sale | Help! | Help! 2 | Rubber Soul | Rubber Soul 2

Beatles for Sale (1964)

Steve Earle was once asked what his “desert island pick” would be. “We're assuming I have a way to play records on the island?” he began (of course he did). “For me it would be Beatles for Sale.”

Huh?

He meant to say Exile on Main Street, or Live at the Old Quarter, or Nebraska, obviously. Not the record most often found at the bottom of the list of best or even best-known Beatles albums. Not the one that even members of the band have publicly disparaged. You gotta be kidding, right? Yet, in another interview, Earle went after it again: “The one that really blew my mind, I think, was Rubber Soul, and I end up using Revolver as a map for sounds more, [but] my favorite is Beatles for Sale. That's the hillbilly Beatles record.”

Leaving aside the fact that this late 1964 release wasn’t available in North America until 1987 (so Earle is probably referring to Beatles VI and Beatles ‘65, the two records that combined the songs from the British-only LP), I think I know what he means. Because: Beatles for Sale is my favourite one, too. While the British pressing of Revolver is their greatest and most complete record, no doubt, and the North American pressing of Rubber Soul is a note-perfect folk-rock document, Beatles for Sale is the Beatles record I plain enjoy the most. From the reverb-heavy “No Reply” to the barroom roll of “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” this was the closest the Beatles ever got to putting out a live record, to recreating on vinyl the incendiary stage show they’d never again be able to perform. It is, finally, the closest they ever got (after, that is, having become mega-stars) to sounding human.

Sporting a cover photograph of a decidedly un-psyched Fab Four, chilly in an autumnal Hyde Park, and opening with a trio of Lennon’s darkest numbers to date (“No Reply” with its refrain of “I nearly died”; “I’m a Loser” with its, well, its title; and “Baby’s in Black” with its morbid love triangle narrative), this record was a serious shock to many carefree fans. (And this isn’t even mentioning the knowingly self-deprecating title.) And though things get decidedly less bleak for the remainder of the album, late on the second side we get one more peak into Lennon’s decidedly gloomy state of mind. “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” is all awkwardness and adolescence -– omigod she didn’t show up, I’d better leave before people realize! – but it relies on the universal theme of public humiliation which he would revisit countless times over the rest of his career. (All of which, regardless of their ostensible narratives, refer to the same basic anxiety: What if all of this fame, all of these adoring fans, all of this apparent respect and admiration, won’t be there when I need it most?) “No Reply”, “I’m a Loser”, “Baby’s in Black” and finally: “there’s nothing for me here, so I will disappear.”

To temper all of this bleakness, Lennon’s best moment on the record comes on a rollicking cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock’n’Roll Music”, a throwback to their Hamburg days and featuring his most unhinged vocal performance since “Twist and Shout”. The freedom he exudes when working with material not his own is always impressive –- without much melody to work with, Lennon tears into his part with a ferociousness unheard again till “Yer Blues” in 1968. And Ringo’s steady chaos on the backbeat remains astoundingly concussive 50 years on. This is the definitive sound of the pre-psychedelic Beatles –- who doesn’t wish Please Please Me and With the Beatles had more of this?

If these five songs were a declaration of where Lennon had found himself (mentally, physically, creatively) by late 1964, McCartney’s first number on the record suggested that he was headed in a decidedly different direction. “I’ll Follow the Sun” is beautiful, distinctly optimistic, and though it appears forgettable, it has a melody that’ll chase you around for days. His other key contributions on the record, both of them about his relationship with Jane Asher, are equally buoyant and affirmative. The infectious “Every Little Thing” suffers from too much repetition in the refrain (perhaps the reason it didn’t become a single?), but boasts one of McCartney’s loveliest melodies, while “What You’re Doing” rides a 12-string guitar line that clearly anticipates Roger McGuinn’s trademark sound by a few months.

But perhaps McCartney’s greatest contribution here is found on another trip back to Hamburg, and his take on the “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey” medley that Little Richard had made famous in 1958. As far as I can see, after the schmaltz of some of McCartney’s work on earlier Beatles records, this is a real statement about the “cute Beatle’s” rock ’n’ roll credentials. It is often reported that Lennon was envious of his sparring partner’s voice (which strikes not a few of his fans as totally mambo-gonzo insane, but nevertheless) and it is on this track that one begins to understand (if only the tiniest bit) where he was coming from. While Lennon shredded through his '50s-era rock cover, McCartney finds room amid all that cacophony to actually sing his. Pretty amazing, really.

I won’t dwell much on “Eight Days a Week”, the big hit number that opens Side Two. With the gloriously shimmering fade-in leading to an unfussy confection of a pop song, it still stands as one of the best intros I can name. But, much as it was adored by fans craving for more of that melodious twang that they had come to recognize as the Beatles sound, neither the band nor critics were buying this thing as a successful track. Lennon openly referred to it as “lousy”, and made some noise about it having been a tossed off attempt to write a song about the band called “Eight Arms to Hold You”. And yet: I adore it. It’s appealing, amusing, silly, and rides a fabulous rhythmic push from Ringo. You try writing a lousy song this good, and then we’ll talk.

Beatles for Sale is also often criticized for relying too much on covers, a point that’s hard to refute (since six of the 14 songs aren’t their own), but which is also sort of unhelpful since they absolutely nail them. Even Lennon’s cover of Roy Lee Johnson’s pretty lame number “Mr. Moonlight” -- which finds itself on many lists as the worst of all Beatles tracks -- is, to my ears, triumphant. What I like about this take on an otherwise sappy and dumb song is Lennon’s refusal to treat it like a sappy and dumb song. He screams out the opening lyric like he’s about to launch into “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”, and when the band picks up the gentle skip of the rhythm, he falls into it only grudgingly. Hate it if you like, but don’t skip it until you’ve reflected on the plain old weirdness of the thing -- this ain’t “A Taste of Honey” or “Till There Was You”, see?

And anyway, Beatles for Sale contains what is perhaps my favourite of all their covers in “Words of Love”. Something about their reworking of this gorgeous ballad -- with its country overtones, its Greenwich Village undertones, those handclaps, and its close (but not too close) harmony between John and Paul -- pushes it into the stratosphere for me. It’s dreamy and calm, but that guitar riff is all twang and jangle. (Though originally a Buddy Holly tune, their take is pure Everly Brothers to my ears: the most unsung of Beatles influences). Displaying (or celebrating) their influences even further, Side Two has a pair of tracks penned by their rockabilly hero Carl Perkins: Ringo gets a go on the fluff of “Honey Don’t”, laughing his way through the shuffle, while Harrison offers a playful lead vocal (and a fabulous Perkins tribute of a guitar solo) on “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” to close the record, throwing in a false ending for good measure.

Look. The Beatles had released three massive albums in the span of a breakneck 24 months. We’re talking relentless touring schedules, promotional gigs, film shoots, writing, practicing, recording and (let’s face it) partying, screwing and drinking for two years straight. They were exhausted, spent, and totally unprepared to head into the studio in October, 1964 to record an album to be released only six weeks hence (to meet the Christmas rush) on which expectations were sky high. They could be forgiven for knocking one off, for riding a few well-worn covers, for sleepwalking through the thing. And, that’s pretty well what they did, writing some of these tunes in the studio just hours before they recorded the final take.

But, I guess what I’m trying to say (and what Steve Earle was trying to say) is that even on this, the Beatles’ “worst” record -- devoid of studio wizardry, of careful consideration of harmony or lyric or tone -- they still managed to make a perfect “10” masterpiece and improve upon much of what they had done before. They were soon to become not just the biggest band in the world, but also the most deeply influential with the innovations of Rubber Soul and Revolver; but here, just for a brief moment, they were fallible, flighty, relaxed, raw, live, human. Maybe that’s hillbilly to you, Steve, but to me there’s just three words for what that sounds like: Rock. And. Roll.

Stuart Henderson

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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