Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Beatles For Sale (2)

The album is not a dead format. I’m very confident about that. I find it strange that people talk about the album as an archaism, as if technology has cruelly shackled us to buying collections of songs rather than just the ones we really want, and it’s taken the digital download to free us. This seems very short-sighted, but then much discussion of popular culture is, driven by the need to make bold statements about the death of this and that. It’s hardly an original observation to note that the 1960s saw a move from a market dominated by single tracks – with B-sides thrown in because the technology happened to work that way – to albums.

Artists and listeners alike chose the album because it offered possibilities that single tracks didn’t. There’s no doubt that digital formats have already changed the way that music is made, sold and heard, and will continue to do so: yet the idea that anyone still clinging to the album is living in the past is for the polemicists. The digital world should free artists and listeners to choose the format we prefer. As long as there are people who appreciate the art of good sequencing – which can make something great out of a bunch of tracks which, on their own, are mostly just good – there will be an audience for tracks lumped together into albums.

One of the key players in defining this art was George Martin. The Beatles didn’t work out the running order for their albums: they left that to Martin and most of the time he did a great job. You can read an account of the thought processes behind the sequencing of Sgt. Pepper in his book Summer of Love: The Making of Sgt. Pepper, which is fascinating if you are me because, as I have said before, I am preoccupied with album sequencing.

Across The Beatles’ first three albums, Martin’s sequencing is pretty much faultless. However, Beatles For Sale seems to have been more of a challenge. It’s a peculiar collection of tracks, dragged in two different directions by The Beatles’ intensive touring. The original tracks are mostly the kind of low-key acoustic glumness often produced by bands who are a bit sick of being on the road. Meanwhile, the group hadn’t learned any new covers in ages because their short sets were stuffed with their own hits: the days of padding the sets were long behind them. Finding themselves in need of covers to pad out the album, they reached back into their repertoire and recorded stuff that went right back to their roots – including one each from their holy trinity of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly and a couple from the almost equally influential Carl Perkins. (The group knew the songs so well that rehearsals were unnecessary.) Also in contention was the breezy probably-should’ve-been-the-single ‘Eight Days A Week’.

As The Beatles never opened their albums with covers, the obvious thing to do was to put ‘Eight Days A Week’ in at the beginning and not care that it wasn’t representative of the rest of the album. However, Martin made the surprising decision to open with three songs which were not only some of the most downbeat the group had produced, but also ran contrary to the previous policy of explosive openers. Where the first three albums all kick off with urgent dancefloor-filling tracks, Beatles For Sale opens with a slow acoustic number, then a couple of mid-paced acoustic numbers. Perhaps the intent was to show off the group’s increasing maturity: the first three songs are all fine efforts. Yet the effect is undermined by the retro blast of ‘Rock And Roll Music’, which is a great rendition but feels like a backward step at this point – as does ‘Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey!’

Oddly, the only cover which offers something new is the much-maligned ‘Mr Moonlight’. Many have cited this as the worst song The Beatles released in the group’s lifetime. I strongly disagree: in my view all their Larry Williams covers are weaker, ‘Run For Your Life’ is rubbish and I think there’s more entertainment to be had from ‘Mr Moonlight’ than anonymous early efforts like ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ And ‘Mr Moonlight’ points towards the future because it’s funny. Much discussion centres around whether it was supposed to be: I’m surprised anyone would even query it. Of course it’s supposed to be funny. Lennon’s overplayed lounge-singer delivery is full of mock sincerity, whilst McCartney’s comedy Hammond organ solo is inspired as it grotesquely swamps the track. (On the early take on Anthology 1, the Hammond is absent and the solo is played by Harrison on a slide guitar which flails outlandishly: this is very clearly meant to be funny, rather than actually good. Compare below with a ‘straight’ live version from 1962.) Comedy songs would briefly be the group’s self-stated new direction when working on Rubber Soul.

As with A Hard Day’s Night the album is dominated by Lennon, who sings lead on half the covers plus his three originals, shares the limelight with McCartney on their co-written ‘Baby’s In Black’ and ‘Eight Days A Week’ but then sings lead on one of McCartney’s contributions too. This partly reflects a songwriting slump on McCartney’s part which runs from ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ to ‘Yesterday’ – although it should be pointed out that what qualifies as a ‘slump’ for him included ‘She’s A Woman’ and ‘Every Little Thing’. (The last of these was totally unfamiliar to me when I first heard it, even though I’d been a huge Beatles fan for over a decade. It is superb, which made me feel slightly sad afterwards in the knowledge that there were no more great Beatles songs for me to discover.) Despite this, in retrospect it’s clear that McCartney was becoming inspired by the possibilities of production and a new way of working in the studio. ‘Eight Days A Week’ is the closest the group ever came to another ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ (which may be why it was issued as a single in America), but surpasses it as a production: the glorious marching fade-in is inspired and its sound is warmer, more relaxed and more confident.

Yet the track which most clearly anticipates the sound of Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver is tucked away as the penultimate track of side two – which is traditionally where Martin would bury weak tracks. His opinion of ‘What You’re Doing’ may have been influenced by memories of the recording process, which was longer than usual and may have caused some friction in studio. However, the song developed significantly during recording and this would soon become their standard way of working: in that sense, this obscure song is one of their most important recordings. The subtly distorted guitar and the peculiar drum-pattern would both be put to use on future tracks, and are the clearest sign that the group was keeping a step ahead of the competition. Yet with the track buried where it is, it’s possible that nobody actually noticed.

However, Martin’s biggest sequencing mistake was the final track. The first two Beatles albums had closed with raucous soul covers; the third had closed with a subtle, haunting Lennon number. The fourth signs off with ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’, some undistinguished echoey country noodling with a half-decent Harrison vocal but little else to recommend it. This would be the first in a sequence of three Beatles albums with rubbish closing tracks – an inexplicable lapse from a man whose judgement on these things was usually so good.


  1. ‘Run For Your Life’ is rubbish??? I love it, personally.

  2. What do you think would be a better track order? You can pretend that EDAW was a single instead of IFF if you like. And of course there's Leave My Kitten Alone.

    Interesting, never thought of there being a McCartney 'lull'. There's a definite Lennon 'lull' after the White Album, because of all the drugs and Yoko he was taking.

  3. The McCartney lull starts around the time they move to London in late '63. When Lennon wasn't on the road he was living out in the sticks with his wife and child, whilst McCartney was living in central London at one of the most exciting times ever for living in central London. Accordingly, Lennon spent a lot more time working on his songwriting and also lobbied hard for his work to get prominence.

    You can see that across A Hard Day's Night (nine of the thirteen songs are mostly his work, with the George track a co-write), Beatles For Sale and Help! (four of the seven tracks for the movie, including the two singles). Four singles in a row were mostly Lennon's work. McCartney was still contributing (he wrote much of "Ticket To Ride"), but more within "working hours" than Lennon - during writing sessions and in the studio. On Beatles For Sale he revived a song he'd written four years ago. He gets his arse in gear at the latter end of the Help! sessions.

    I think Lennon's lull comes in 1967. Sgt. Pepper is very much McCartney's album and Lennon doesn't sharpen up again until "I Am The Walrus". There's kind of a lull after the White album, yeah... but I think that's his withdrawal of interest in the group more than anything.

    I'll think about an alternative tracklist for BFS.

  4. While I'm not disagreeing with the 'lull' theory, in 1964 McCartney wrote three songs for Peter & Gordon and one for Cilla Black; it might be the case that John (or the others) were vetoing songs Paul had written (as we know happened with 'World Without Love').