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.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Sounds of ’63

M’colleague Jonny Morris has been throwing me helpful suggestions regarding this blog since it started, one of which was to listen to other music from the same period to get an appreciation of context. This seemed an excellent idea, and I was particularly interested to hear what The Beatles’ commercial rivals were doing amidst their growing success. Never mind the stuff which is still considered credible today – what were people actually buying?

So I tracked down all the UK number one singles from 1963 on Spotify (except those by The Beatles, which aren’t on there) and stuck them in this playlist. There’s rather a lot of dull balladry, and it’s easy to see why The Beatles considered The Shadows the only British group worth being influenced by at this point. Again, it’s interesting to try to listen to this with a fresh ear because, if you take The Beatles out of the equation as I’ve been forced to do here, suddenly this doesn’t look much like the 1960s of the popular imagination – yet at the time it must have been an exciting new wave of which The Beatles were the biggest, but not the only, part.

The Beatles were joined in the charts by more Liverpool groups, including Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas with their Lennon/McCartney offcuts and Gerry and the Pacemakers with their debut song which The Beatles turned down for fear that everyone back home would think they were soppy wankers (evidently Gerry and co decided they were willing to live it down for the sake of a hit). However, as Jonathan Gould notes in his excellent book Can’t Buy Me Love, the Liverpool scene – which had been so exciting in the early 1960s, supporting hundreds of beat groups – didn’t produce a single other band who came close to The Beatles’ standard. By the end of the next year, the other Liverpool acts – along with almost everyone else on this playlist – would be surpassed.

The first genuine representatives of post-Beatles pop to score a number one were, ironically, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, and I know the word ‘ironically’ is over-used and for some reason often employed to mean ‘exactly as you would expect’ but I think it is appropriate here. Essex group The Tremeloes were signed by Decca in preference to The Beatles following the latter’s flop audition on New Year’s Day 1962, thereby demonstrating that the oft-quoted line that Decca’s Dick Rowe is supposed to have said to Brian Epstein – ‘Guitar music is on the way out’ – was either erroneous, or just an attempt by Rowe to get Epstein out of his office. (Additionally, anyone who has actually listened to the Decca session tapes will know that Rowe’s decision was based on pretty sound evidence.) Yet in the end, The Tremeloes had their first hit by shamelessly copying The Beatles, covering ‘Twist and Shout’ in the wake of The Beatles’ version and then following it up with another soul cover (and a very smart choice, too).

I couldn’t be bothered to wade further down the charts than number one, but I’d be very interested to hear any other records from ’63 that are particularly good/bad/interesting in a Beatles context. If you have any suggestions, do leave a comment.

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.