Saturday, 27 February 2010

With The Beatles (2)

A comment on the previous post on With The Beatles (from Jonny Morris again) suggests that it suffers because the group’s best original compositions at this point were being diverted into their singles. It’s not something that had ever occurred to me, which is surprising because I am... I wouldn’t say obsessed, but maybe... preoccupied with album sequencing, and I sometimes amuse myself by shuffling the line-ups of albums and switching tracks for others recorded during the same sessions. I’ll probably take you through my resequenced Help! when that album gets its turn. So, something to look forward to. For me, if not for you.

I suppose I’d never considered it with With The Beatles because I can’t quite imagine the singles that preceded and followed it – ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ – being album tracks. They’re both so important in The Beatles’ development that they deserve to stand alone. But in America, Capitol didn’t give the slightest toss about aesthetics and, when it finally deigned to release The Beatles’ records, it began a proud tradition of bastardising their albums: inserting A- and B-sides which most fans already owned and putting fewer tracks on the running order. Interestingly, for some reason – possibly financial – the five tracks they decided to pull from With The Beatles in order to construct the more cheesily-titled Meet The Beatles! were all cover versions, then three other tracks were added which were all Lennon/McCartney originals – meaning this was very nearly the group’s first all-original album.

The three tracks added were ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, its British B-side ‘This Boy’ and its American B-side ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. As it happens, I already have all The Beatles’ American albums lined up as playlists in iTunes – I’m not especially proud of it, I’m just saying – so I gave Meet The Beatles! a spin, to hear what an album with the benefit of three of the group’s best tracks of 1963 sounded like.

I found it hard to hear it as an album, partly because I’m so used to the proper version. (I almost put inverted commas around ‘proper’ there, but then I thought why should I? The other one IS the proper version.) I can’t hear ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ or ‘It Won’t Be Long’ as anything other than opening tracks, which means Meet The Beatles! has two opening tracks, neither of which is the actual opening track. It’s also because, like every Capitol Beatles album, it’s simply not as well sequenced as its British equivalent (Americans: I am willing to argue this at length). This is because George Martin actually thought about sequencing and did a blinding job of it, whereas Capitol really did seem to sling the tracks on there however they fell. Just look at the example in hand: it’s just the tracks taken from the British album, in the same order, with the extra ones bolted on the front.

But I really think the added tracks just don’t fit. You might have expected that of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, which wasn’t from the same sessions and certainly, after a month of listening to With The Beatles, it sounds like it belongs to an earlier stage. It’s a club track, designed for an audience to dance to. The Beatles had already moved on. Compare it to a more recent mostly-by-McCartney track, ‘All My Loving’, and the latter sounds more like a song written for record. With The Beatles was written in a quite different way to Please Please Me: before their debut they’d been cheekily cajoling Parlophone to release their own compositions, afterwards the label was cajoling them to come up with more, and – as noted earlier – their live set was starting to select itself. For the first time, they were writing songs that they’d never play live – the first step down a road that would lead to ‘Revolution #9’. Eventually.

Anyway, back to ‘All My Loving’. It uses a similar pause to that in the earlier ‘There’s A Place’, but whereas that was a pause for breath in a frantic number, this is cooler, more poised. Pauses are a much-underrated tool in pop music, and this is one of the best: it would’ve been easy to do the song by just strumming through those bits, but the pauses make the song. It’s a constructed pop record, the first example of McCartney’s breezy facility for knocking out such songs.

The glue that holds the ‘club’ Beatles to the group’s evolving sound on With The Beatles comes from the covers – which are absent from Meet The Beatles! (I’m getting really sick of the auto-correct function putting capital letters after that title) except the atypical ‘Til There Was You’. With them gone, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ doesn’t fit – and nor, for that matter, does ‘Hold Me Tight’ (recorded for Please Please Me but held over because they messed it up). Whilst McCartney’s songs become more polished, Lennon’s songs start to aim for a greater depth of feeling and more atmosphere – not necessarily the sort of thing you’d blast out onstage. ‘All I’ve Got To Do’ and ‘Not A Second Time’ are possibly the first Beatles songs you could call subtle. (I dunno, I might make a case for ‘P.S. I Love You’, which I think is awesome.)

But to return to the original point, how does ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ – recorded a month after the final With The Beatles session, and released a week later – fit on the album? I don’t think it does, because it’s a Beatles song in a category of its own. It’s got an odd mid-paced rhythm, a vocal line that totally depends on its harmonies (as Ian McDonald pointed out, you can’t sing it a capella AT ALL) and a bright, insistent tone. I don’t think it’s like anything else The Beatles ever recorded: put a comment below if you think I’m wrong. The Beatles were running through writing styles and techniques so fast that in this case, it only lasted one track. That can partly be accounted for by the fact that it was the last time Lennon and McCartney would write so closely together, taking it in turns to write lines, meshing their styles to the point where only a very keen musical ear could distinguish them. Their diverging writing partnership would hugely influence A Hard Day’s Night.

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