Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Beatles For Sale (1)

People never ask me why I spend so much time absorbing information and ephemera about The Beatles – they just let me get on with it. But it’s a shame they never ask because I do, as it happens, have an answer, which is that The Beatles are such a complex cultural phenomenon that I’m happy to have their story explained to me over and over again, from as many perspectives as I can find. It’s a story that involves several extraordinary and unlikely collisions, such as the considerable and perfectly complementary talents of Lennon and McCartney; the group finding one of the very few pop managers in Britain who wasn’t a shameless crook, and a record label run by a man willing to take them seriously as songwriters, who also happened to be a resourceful producer with peerlessly keen judgement; and, most of all, the collision of the group with their times.

Once The Beatles had exploded into the national consciousness, they demonstrated an ability to both respond to the expanding possibilities of pop music and expand those horizons themselves. This is now often taken for granted: when one looks at a list of 1960s UK number-one albums it seems clear that The Beatles maintained a very high level of commercial success for their entire career. Yet what is less well documented – and I would absolutely love to be pointed towards a source for information on this – is the degree of ‘churn’ in their audience. What proportion of the people who bought Please Please Me also, four summers later, bought Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Had they all grown up with the group, or had some of them drifted away and been replaced by new fans? The stereotypical early-Beatles fan was a teenage girl; the stereotypical late-Beatles fan was a twentysomething dopehead. Yet their audience was so massive, it must have contained a wide range at all times. What was the real make-up and how did it change?

When we look back at The Beatles’ story, it seems to be leading up to the inevitable peak of Sgt. Pepper. Yet it wasn’t just modesty that led Lennon, in 1963, to comment that ‘We’ll be lucky if we last three months’. Nobody had ever been this big or had such a free hand with their career, but by mid-1964 they were at the point where most artists who’ve enjoyed huge, dramatic success go into decline. In America they were still a novelty but the British audience could easily have tired of them (compare with their stablemates Gerry and the Pacemakers, who faded as the year wore on). There was no template for what The Beatles were doing and no clue where to go next. Before them, artists sometimes switched genres (such as Dean Martin’s country albums, released under the brilliant moniker of Dean ‘Tex’ Martin), but was there anyone who really developed over the course of a career? I’m not sure, I don’t know enough about 1950s music – but it does seem like most artists turned up, did their thing, and when people got bored of it they bought something else instead.

Elvis Presley evidently considered that the best way to keep his music career afloat was to make it a spin-off of his rubbish movies. With his interest in production, Buddy Holly might have bucked the trend but his death rendered his career a brief, thrilling zenith, like so many of his contemporaries. Today, it’s generally accepted that credible musicians try to develop, avoid repeating themselves and, where possible, innovate. That’s partly a model adopted from other creative disciplines and it’s partly a response to pop’s desire for novelty, but it’s also become the model because it’s what The Beatles did.

Which brings us to Beatles For Sale. Often downplayed as a relatively weak album churned out by a tired group, I think it’s actually one of their most important records. Heard from the perspective of the first three, this is the first time they throw their audience a curveball and the audience had to decide whether to stick with them or drop them for something else. I think it’s the first time since the start of their recording career that they add new influences to their sound; the mix of rock’n’roll, R’n’B, country, American pop and soul had been in place since their debut, but here we see the first (admittedly superficial) fruits of their obsession with Bob Dylan. We also see their first, tentative production experiments.

What this might have meant to their audience at that time isn’t clear, and almost certainly nobody guessed where they would take it next, since The Beatles themselves probably didn’t know: they were probably just trying to keep things interesting for themselves. I’m sure listeners some took it for a decline or simply an unwelcome departure, and decided this was as far as they went with The Beatles. Probably few but the most ardent fans would have counted this as their favourite Beatles album up to this point. But it would be interesting to know if it won them any new fans.

Beatles For Sale was the last ‘proper’ Beatles album I owned a copy of (discounting Anthologies, compilations etc, and also Yellow Submarine which I didn’t own until I bought the recent boxset, but was deeply familiar with on account of having been obsessed with the film when I was 17) and I wasn’t expecting much from it. Yet it’s ended up being one I return to surprisingly often, partly because I’ve heard it fewer times than the others, but partly because – unlike A Hard Day’s Night – it feels like the beginning of the Beatles I love. Track-for-track it’s a weaker record than its predecessor, but I love it for its shonky eclecticism, its sense of The Beatles drifting in uncharted waters, and the way that it restores a little bit of thrilling uncertainty to the group’s often-repeated story: listening to this, you can hear that it might all have gone wrong.


  1. I was going to put a comment saying 'ah-ha, but I reckon Buddy Holly would have blazed that trail if he'd lived', but you got there yourself in the next para :-)

    Loving the blog, btw. Just wish I could afford the box set already :-(

  2. If you do buy it, please use one of my sponsored links!

  3. My Mum & Dad are definitely counted as the early Beatles fans as their albums only go up as far as Beatles For Sale (Mum was about 18 years old). Though they do have a few later singles such as "Let It Be" and "Get Back".

  4. Not sure about BFS 'adding new influences', it sounds very more-of-the-same to me (apart from John's Dylan influence on 'I'm A Loser') - in fact, with so many of the tracks being either lacklustre covers or Lennon/McCartney songs that pre-date PPM, it feels like a step back. (I get the impression that after writing AHDN, and having given most of their remaining songs to other artists to record, the cupboard was beginning to look a little bit bare).

    On the other hand, 'What You're Doing' is so brilliant it could have been on AHDN, and I keep on forgetting that it isn't.

    The Beatles spend most of 1965 repeating 1964 (to lesser effect) and I think it's only with the recording of 'Yesterday' that they begin to realise that their future is in making records rather than touring or making films.