Tuesday, 16 February 2010

With The Beatles (1)

Do you like The Beatles? Are you a MASSIVE PONCE? Well, then you’ll be wanting a needlessly obscure Beatles track for your All-Time Top Ten Beatles Tracks Of All Time, won’t you? It’s tricky because The Beatles don’t really have obscure tracks – in the last couple of months, I’ve heard ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ (which isn’t even in the Top Ten Tracks On Revolver) and ‘Hey Bulldog’ on the radio (which works slightly counter to my intentions for this blog, but I’m not prepared to dive across the room towards my stereo’s off-switch shouting ‘NOOOOOO’ in slow motion every time they play a Beatles song I haven’t got to yet). REM’s Peter Buck set new standards in poncey Beatles one-upmanship when Uncut asked him for his three favourite Beatles songs and he named a B-side (‘The Inner Light’), an out-take (‘That Means A Lot’) and a demo only available on bootlegs (‘Bad To Me’). Top poncing, Peter! However, may I humbly suggest:

All right, I wouldn’t REALLY put it in my top ten, because I like to think I’m not a ponce, but I do think ‘Soldier of Love’ is the highlight of Live At The BBC, an album which is often more historically interesting than musically outstanding. That the material there largely doesn’t compare with their best is understandable considering it was recorded on an even tighter timescale than Please Please Me (on one occasion, they laid down 17 session performances in a day) and on the BBC’s equipment, which tends to give a rather weedy sound. However, ‘Soldier of Love’ stands out for the force of its performance, which comes drenched in melodrama and features great interplay between Lennon on lead vocals and McCartney and Harrison backing him.

After a few plays, I was wondering why this had never been recorded for a proper Beatles album. Like ‘Anna (Go To Him)’ from Please Please Me, on which Lennon demonstrated that it’s harder to get ‘sure’ to rhyme with ‘more’ if you’re from Liverpool rather than Alabama, it was originally recorded by soul singer Arthur Alexander. However, Lennon seems to have had a better grasp on ‘Soldier of Love’ and with beefed-up production, it could’ve become known as one of their best covers. So why didn’t it?

I consulted Ian McDonald and he explained why. With his ever-keen technical ear for music, he points out in Revolution in the Head that Lennon clearly liked ‘Soldier of Love’ very much indeed, so much that he nicked various aspects of it for no less than three songs on With The Beatles – ‘It Won’t Be Long’, ‘All I’ve Got To Do’ and ‘Not A Second Time’. I must admit that I struggle to hear the resemblance between ‘Soldier of Love’ and the first of those, but ‘All I’ve Got To Do’ clearly carries over its shuffling rhythm whilst ‘Not A Second Time’ uses a very similar ‘pushed’ phrase at the start of each verse and its tone is generally alike. So obviously ‘Soldier of Love’ couldn’t go on the album, because it would’ve made the album more samey and exposed where Lennon had been cribbing from.

It’s interesting to look at With The Beatles in the light of the stuff on Live At The BBC. The initial sessions in the summer of 1963 coincided with the Beatles’ busiest spell recording for BBC Radio, since at this stage Brian Epstein was still saying yes to any opportunity to promote the group. Soon it became clear that he could afford to be more choosy – in fact, the group were in such huge demand that they were in danger of becoming overexposed – but for a spell they were recording BBC sessions constantly. This included fifteen editions of their own series, Pop Go The Beatles, for which they performed five or six songs per show. Flogging their recorded repertoire of sixteen songs over and over again wasn’t an option, so they delved deep into their repertoire and performed dozens of cover songs that hadn’t yet made it to record (most of which never would). The first day’s recording for With The Beatles, which took place in the middle of the Pop Go The Beatles sessions, shows them capitalising on this extensive warm-up by laying down four cover versions, all old numbers from their act which they’d lately exhumed for BBC sessions. At the second album session twelve days later, they added two more such covers.

I’ve always believed that one of the areas where With The Beatles scores over its predecessor is in the choice of cover material, and we probably have those BBC sessions to thank. By the summer of 1963, The Beatles’ live set was more restricted than in their club days. They were playing clipped sets and were obliged to wheel out the hits (although it’s surprising to note that singles tended to only stay in the set for a year or so – most bands with a hit like ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ would have ended up playing it every show for the rest of their careers, but it was dropped from the set after the 1964 American tour). Cover versions had once formed the core of the Beatles’ set and the addition of their own compositions might have seemed quite presumptuous. Now the situation was reversed – people went to Beatles concerts to hear Beatles songs, not stuff by other people. There was very little space for the group to road-test their old covers in front of their new audiences.

However, a pressured group still needed to pad out their album with some covers and Pop Goes The Beatles would have been hugely valuable, allowing them to refresh their memories of a large stack of songs and select the very best. That’s reflected on the album, which has only one puzzling duffer in the form of ‘Devil In Her Heart’ (quite why they thought this was needed isn’t clear, as Harrison already had two lead vocals). ‘Til There Was You’ became a very useful pace-changer, often wheeled out on TV to great effect, whilst ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ and ‘Money’ really are plausible candidates for a Beatles Top Ten. Moreso than ‘The Inner Light’, anyway.


  1. Top article Eddie. I may share my thoughts in detail later. But the first thing that occurs - which I'm sure you'd already thought of for the next article - is that WTB suffers a little because three of the best songs the Beatles recorded during the album sessions aren't on the album - She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand and This Boy - so most of the original compositions feel a bit like also-rans, songs intended as singles but which didn't quite make the grade. You get the same thing a bit with Beatles For Sale.

  2. Actually I hadn't thought of that - I've always accepted that The Beatles left great tracks off their albums, it was just their policy to not put singles on albums if they could help it. I've sometimes considered how much better Help! might be with Yes It Is and I'm Down on it, but never thought of putting the two mega-hits on WTB. So how could we resequence it to make room for them? She Loves You at the end of side one, I Want To Hold Your Hand to open side two? What would you drop to make room?

    What I do plan to discuss next time is that this is the first time Lennon and McCartney are writing with a view to filling up an album, and the first time they're writing songs that will never make it to the live act.

  3. Little Child and Devil In Her Heart would have to go - and no-one would miss them! And I'd probably lose one another George track too - Roll Over Beethoven sounds really weedy. They should have got John to sing it.

  4. Yeah, Little Child and Devil In Her Heart would be my first choices to go. Little Child is the most generic early-Beatles lyric and has acquired an unfortunate paedo vibe over the years.

    In the light of what I was saying about rock'n'roll covers and Please Please Me, it's a surprise that they brought back Roll Over Beethoven - it became their opening number for a while in mid-1963, and I can see how it worked there, but I'm not sure it fits brilliantly well on the record.