THE BEATLES: WITH THE BEATLES (1963)
1) It Won't Be Long; 2) All I've Got To Do; 3) All My Loving; 4) Don't Bother Me; 5) Little Child; 6) Till There Was You; 7) Please Mister Postman; 8) Roll Over Beethoven; 9) Hold Me Tight; 10) You Really Got A Hold On Me; 11) I Wanna Be Your Man; 12) Devil In Her Heart; 13) Not A Second Time; 14) Money (That's What I Want).
By the time With The Beatles came out in late 1963, the Beatles were already superheroes all over Europe, with the «super-» bit neatly provided by the success of ʽShe Loves Youʼ. But at this point, they did not yet need to «prove» anything — what they did was still seen simply as pop music, and there was no conscious, openly perceivable drive on their part to «push boundaries» or whatever. They were simply writing more songs the way they felt these songs, and that is what is so exciting about those early records, one hundred percent pure and free of any intellectual pretense: natural innocent genius, not at all burdened with reasoning and calculation. (Well, they were happy enough to have George Martin do the calculations for them).
Reviews of the album often (almost always, in fact) start with expressing admiration for the front sleeve. Ooh, black and white. Wow, standing in the shadows. Dark! Disturbing! What a far cry from the silly smiling faces on Please Please Me. Progressive and intelligent. Look at what Gerry and the Pacemakers, or Freddie and The Dreamers were putting on their album covers at the time. No comparison whatsoever.
Frankly, I am not all that sure that the album cover (although it does look cool) is really such a tremendous achievement. What is much more interesting is that With The Beatles manages to sound fairly «dark» without any actual help from the blackness of the album sleeve. Well, maybe not «dark» as such, if by «darkness» we mean Jim Morrison or Led Zeppelin. But I have always felt that there was a very significant line separating With The Beatles from Please Please Me, perhaps even one of the most significant lines in Beatle history (and Beatle history knew plenty of lines). It is the line that separates «lightweight» from «heavyweight»; and it is no coincidence that it was only With The Beatles that the first «serious» musical critics started suspecting there might be something of use for them in that air.
One thing that need not confuse us are the lyrics. At this point, neither John nor Paul (nor George, who makes his songwriting debut on here) showed any care for the words; the epitome of «wordy cleverness» to them was finding a line like "it won't be long 'til I belong to you", and the rest generally just rearranges all the love song clichés extracted from God knows where. (That's what you get for sticking to crude rock'n'roll values and ignoring The Songbook — at least the Tin Pan Alley people knew their English). But I do not think that, before Bob Dylan got the guys interested in the magic powers of language, either John or Paul invested a lot of time and work into the words, or had any high thoughts of those words. Later on, John would make it a personal hobby to look upon the Beatles' legacy with a critical laser-eye, and demolish the stupidity of the lyrics in particular (Paul's, preferably, but his own were not exempt from self-criticism either). But in 1963, none of them were teenagers any more, and they certainly understood how silly it all sounded to the average «grown-up» person, and they did not give a damn about it.
And neither should we. The lyrics just followed the conventions of the times, which certainly does not apply to the music. Take ʽIt Won't Be Longʼ, for instance. On the surface, it is just an upbeat tune about... well, find the quote in the previous paragraph. But, for some reason, I have never thought of that song as «happy». The main melody rather shows a clear Shadows influence, and Shadows mostly wrote «shadowy» music — that British variant of surf-rock with a spy movie atmosphere. Now there is no spy movie atmosphere in ʽIt Won't Be Longʼ, but its meat and bones are tough, and its colors disturbingly grayish.
And then there are the vocals. Any other vocalist would probably sing the lines "Since you left me, I'm so alone, now you're coming, you're coming on home" with all the proper «tenderness» and «sympathy» that they require. Not John, who never in his life stooped to simulating emotions on his songs. But instead of just being all out wooden about it, he sings it, well, probably in the same way he'd be greeting his wife Cynthia after a hard day's night: pretending to care, but in reality not giving much of a damn. As a result, both ʽIt Won't Be Longʼ and the immediate followup, ʽAll I've Got To Doʼ, have a surprisingly emotionally hollow sound — but it still works. (A good way to understand this would be to play ʽAll I've Got To Doʼ back-to-back with one of those Yoko-period Lennon ballads on which he really cared, like ʽJuliaʼ).
So genuine sugary sentimentality is left in the care of Paul, right? Not quite. It certainly rears its head on the record's only «sappy» number, a cover of ʽTill There Was Youʼ from The Music Man, but nowhere else. Even there, the sentimentality is tempered with class: Paul learned the tune from Peggy Lee, who already performed it in a poppier, more rhythmic, slightly Latinized arrangement when compared to the orchestral sludge of the original — and still the Beatles almost completely reinvented the music, coming up with a complex melody played on twin nylon-stringed acoustic guitars (and featuring one of George's first brilliant solos).
But a song like ʽAll My Lovingʼ is anything but sentimental; or, rather, sentimentality is merely one of its side effects rather than the main attraction. It started out as a country-western tune, actually (traces of that history can still be found in George's Nashville-style solo), but ended up becoming a fast pop-rocker; and any lesser band would have simply settled for placing the emphasis on the catchy vocal melody, but what really pushes ʽAll My Lovingʼ over the threshold is the rhythm guitar work from John: the rapidly strummed triplets that drive the verses are technically unnecessary, but, being there, they give the illusion that the song is played thrice as fast as it would be otherwise, and shift the focus away from Paul's vocalization, closer to what almost looks like a bit of subconscious paranoia.
Finally, in comes George with his first original offering, and while ʽDon't Bother Meʼ is simply a preliminary stage in his songwriting maturation, it is decidedly dark, not to mention how much the title really reflects George's persona: "please go away, leave me alone, don't bother me", I believe, should have eventually been etched on his tombstone. A big hooray to whoever had the idea to double-track the vocals: the trick magically transformed the stuttering, insecure delivery on ʽChainsʼ and ʽDo You Want To Know A Secretʼ into a thick, threatening rumble-grumble. One step further in that direction — no more teen pussy for George! (Or, rather, he'd have to start borrowing from the special Mick Jagger/Keith Richards brand).
Part of why With The Beatles has this «darker» aura around it lies in it being almost totally dominated by John, which was not the case on Please Please Me: he is the main composer and/or «spiritual presence» on more than half of the songs, whereas Paul bears primary responsibility for only three of the tracks — and the third one, which I still have not mentioned, is ʽHold Me Tightʼ which I have always perceived as one of his weakest ever tunes, if only because the vocal melody resolution (the "it's you — you, you, you-ooo-ooo" bit) comes across as exceedingly silly.
John, on the other hand, further extends his reputation by throwing in three excellent interpretations of Motown material, turning the Marvelettes' cutesy-flimsy ʽPlease Mister Postmanʼ into a rip-roaring personal tragedy, the Miracles' soulful ʽYou Really Got A Hold On Meʼ into the same tongue-in-cheek, slightly sarcastic stab as ʽIt Won't Be Longʼ, and delivering Barrett Strong's ʽMoneyʼ with enough evil glee to make us all believe that that is what he wants, indeed — not that hard to do once he has already established his lack of a proper tender heart on the previous tracks. Real nasty guy, that Lennon, without any attempts to hide it.
From a sheerly musical point of view, it would take too much time to list all the new tricks that the band introduces here (besides, it has all been written about a million times already), so I will just mention one obvious thing — the complexity and creativity of vocal harmonies on With The Beatles completely dwarfs Please Please Me. That this is going to be a seriously voice-oriented record is obvious from the very start: in the place of the energetic, but not particularly surprising "one two three four" of ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ we have the multi-flanked assault of "it won't be long yeah – YEAH – yeah – YEAH" which, to the best of my knowledge, comes from nowhere at all. There is no «beauty» as such in these harmonies that get ever more trickier as the album progresses (no comparison with the Beach Boys, who had a strictly Heaven-oriented approach), but there is a wonderful dynamics, the major goal of which is your undivided attention.
In effect, With The Beatles might be said to introduce the unspoken motto of «leave no spot unfilled». Not only is there supposed to be no filler, the idea is that there should be no «filler within non-filler», that is, the songs are not supposed to have any wasted moments. Gaps between verse lines? Fill them in with counterpoint backing vocals. Instrumental passages? Make them either reproduce the verse melody or construct an economic solo that makes perfect sense and is easily memorable, rather than merely respects the convention that there be an obligatory instrumental passage. And so on.
It does not always work. The curse of pop repetitiveness strikes hard on the overlong chorus to ʽHold Me Tightʼ, and even harder on ʽI Wanna Be Your Manʼ, a song that John and Paul originally wrote for The Rolling Stones, and, honestly, I think they should have left it at that: the Stones arranged and performed it as an eerie sexual menace, with a supertight, take-no-prisoners attitude, next to which The Beatles' comparatively «relaxed» performance and, especially, Ringo's near-comical vocals (as opposed to Jagger's evil gloating!) lose hands down. (It did give Ringo a more assured and natural live solo spot than ʽBoysʼ, though). Personally, I have never been a big fan of John's ʽLittle Childʼ, either, a somewhat sub-par R&B composition, only lifted out of mediocrity by an over-pumped tour-de-force on harmonica, which John must have been trying to literally «blow to bits» during the session — even Sonny Boy Williamson II could have appreciated that.
But none of this really matters, because the major goal of With The Beatles was to stabilize the band's position as accomplished artists, and that goal is clearly fulfilled. In addition, the record just might feature the best ever balance in Beatle history between covers and originals: the covers, although ranging from Motown to Chuck Berry to musicals, are all strong, inventively rearranged, and sit fairly well next to the originals. (On Beatles For Sale, the band would be falling back on covers for lack of free time to come up with more originals rather than out of free will, and that had its negative effect on the final results). Hence, a very special thumbs up here: With The Beatles often gets a little bit overlooked next to the «great big breakthrough» of A Hard Day's Night and its all-original cast, but in the story of the Beatles' evolution it may actually have played a much more important role.
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