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.

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.