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 (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.”
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.