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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Beatles: With The Beatles


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.


Check "With The Beatles" (CD) on Amazon

7 comments:

  1. Even Paul knows that "Hold me Tight" is sub-par. Given that they attempted it already for the first album, Lewisohn questioned him about that song, probably believing there might be some story about it. Paul didn't even remember the writing or recording of it, and said that some songs like that one were strictly "work" songs (which I like; I do admire musicians who are aware that they do a job and that some of their songs are filler, rather than the pompous asses that believe every fart out of them is "art"). That probably explains also why there's another song called "Hold me Tight" in Red Rose Speedway: Paul probably had forgotten he had used the title already.

    BTW, kudos in what I feel is the best review of WTB of all time, by anyone, EVER.

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  2. I have to admit, I rarely like The Beatles' lyrics. The only album on which I find them consistently good is Sgt. Pepper.

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  3. I actually love Hold Me Tight. There is something addictive about that chunky rhythm guitar intro and the excited harmonies. It's also one of the few Beatle songs about sex (making love to only you) and it's an EARLY Beatle song. I think my point about Hold Me Tight is, it was probably a super exciting stage song.

    I JUST wrote an article (a mostly silly one) comparing the Rolling Stones version of "I Wanna Be Your Man," and in my analysis, the Beatles came out on top, barely. I just think overall, there is something overpowering about the Beatles version, it reminds me of a jet engine, the way a lot of early Beatlemania songs do. The Stones version is cool, but not as super smooth and mod as the Beatle one. Read about it here..uh..fab readers...PS (I won't make a habit of continually plugging my site here.) ;)

    http://www.williesimpson.com/battle-of-the-bands-part-1-the-beatles-vs-the-rolling-stones-i-wanna-be-your-man

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    1. See, that is exactly why I dislike these bit-by-bit comparisons: they're fun, but they do not take into account the combined effect of the elements. I have always felt the Stones' version to be much more focused simply because they all seem to be targeted on the same thing. Jagger's vocals, Wyman's pumping bass, and Jones' shrill lead guitar are all about the "nastiness" of it equally. It's like a single, concentrated blast, communally designed to knock you off your feet. The Beatles' version, on the other hand, is more disjointed, there is no organic connection between Ringo's drumming and George's soloing, good as they are on their own. Everyone is just doing his own thing as best he can. (That certainly does not apply to the Beatles as such, only to particular songs).

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    2. Well, I agree on the bit-by-bit comparison thing, its mostly a joke. It's funny, I just played my GF the two versions back to back, (she had never heard the Stones one), and she said practically everything you said. I still disagree. I think I'm influenced by Clapton's description of the early Beatles in recent Scorsese "George Harrison" documentary. He was marveling at the site of watching them from backstage, laying it all over the insane crowds of girls. What I like about the Beatles "I Wanna Be Your Man" is the snappy tight knit power packed explosion of contained craziness. Maybe it's just because I moved into an apartment with a big digital projector, and seeing the video of them blast that song on a big screen in surround sound was pretty amazing. But back to my first sentence, it's silly because I actually dearly love the Stones version as well.

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  4. George said "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".
    Well, it is true that John sang more songs than Paul on this album, but they wrote the same number of songs. 3 tracks are mainly Paul’s compositions (I wanna be you man was mainly his song), 3 are mainly John’s, and one is 50/50 collaboration (Little Child)
    I Wanna be your Man was mostly Paul's song.
    John said to the Hit Parader in 1972: "Both of us wrote it, but mainly Paul. I helped him finish it."
    John said in 1980: "'I Wanna Be Your Man' was a kind of lick Paul had-- 'I wanna be your lover, baby. I wanna be your man.' I think we finished it off for the Stones. We were taken down to meet them at the club where they were playing in Richmond by Brian and some other guy. They wanted a song and we went to see what kind of stuff they did. Mick and Keith heard we had an unfinished song-- Paul just had this bit and we needed another verse or something. We sort of played it roughly to them and they said, 'Yeah, OK, that's our style.' But it was only really a lick, so Paul and I went off in the corner of the room and finished the song off while they were all still sitting there talking. We came back, and that's how Mick and Keith got inspired to write... because, 'Jesus, look at that. They just went in the corner and wrote it and came back!' You know, right in front of their eyes we did it. So we gave it to them. It was a throw-away. The only two versions of the song were Ringo and the Rolling Stones. It shows how much importance we put on them. We weren't going to give them anything great, right? I believe it was the Stones' first record."
    Paul said in 1984: "I wrote it for Ringo to do on one of the early albums. But we ended up giving it to the Stones. We met Mick and Keith in a taxi one day in Charing Cross Road and Mick said, 'Have you got any songs?' So we said, 'Well, we just happen to have one with us!' I think George had been instrumental in getting them their first record contract. We suggested them to Decca, 'cuz Decca had blown it by refusing us, so they had tried to save face by asking George, 'Know any other groups?' He said, 'Well, there is this group called the Stones.' So that's how they got their first contract. Anyway, John and I gave them maybe not their first record, but I think the first they got on the charts with."
    Little Child was a 50- 50 collaboration, sung in unison by Paul and John, not only John.
    JOHN 1972: "Both of us wrote it. This was a knock-off between Paul and me."
    JOHN 1980: "'Little Child' was another effort of Paul and I to write a song for somebody else. It was probably Ringo."
    PAUL 1997: "This one was co-written with John ...I nicked a bit of melody from one of Elton Hayes tunes , 'I'm so sad and lonely', that little bit came from a line:' Whistle, my love, and I will come to thee, I'll always find you ...' It's actually not the same tune, but in my mind it was a quote from Elton Hayes. I think it was from a Robin Hood film, it was all 'thee' and 'thou's. 'Little Child' was a work job. Certain songs were inspirational and you just followed that. Certain other songs were 'Right, come on, two hours, song for Ringo for the album.'

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    1. Also is good to mention that Paul contributed a good part of It won’t be long.
      PAUL 1998: I was doing literature at school, so I was interested in plays on words and onomatopoeia. John didn't do literature but he was quite well read, so he was interested in that kind of thing. Like the double meaning of 'please' in a line like 'Please, lend a little ear to my pleas' that we used in 'Please Please Me'. We'd spot the double meaning. I think everyone did, by the way, it was not just the genius of us! In 'It won't be long till I belong to you' it was that same trip. We both liked to try and get a bit of double meaning in, so that was the high spot of writing that particular song. John mainly sang it so I expect that it was his original idea but we both sat down and wrote it together. When I say 'original idea' I mean someone might have the first verse, which then is pretty much the maquette for the whole thing, but the second verse is always difficult because you've got to repeat the first verse but go somewhere new. And your inspiration's gone by that point, so you've got to dig deep to push a new inspiration out to make the second verse as good as the first verse. You don't want to just be rambling. We would often repeat the first verse. The last verse was no problem - 'Two hours is up! C'mon, just put "Repeat 1".' That's how a lot of our songs end, 'Repeat 1'. We'd number the verses, one, two, so we'd write a couple of verses, middle, the chorus, then pretty much repeat verse one. Which was good if it was hooky, it meant that you've heard those lyrics twice, so we'd rammed 'em home, and it saved us having to think of a third verse.

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