BEATLES: BEATLES FOR SALE (1964)
1) No Reply; 2) I'm A Loser; 3) Baby's In Black; 4) Rock And Roll Music; 5) I'll Follow The Sun; 6) Mr. Moonlight; 7) Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey; 8) Eight Days A Week; 9) Words Of Love; 10) Honey Don't; 11) Every Little Thing; 12) I Don't Want To Spoil The Party; 13) What You're Doing; 14) Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby.
Tradition dictates that Beatles For Sale should always be docked half a point, one star, or the + sign next to A Hard Day's Night, its luckier elder brother from the same year. It is one of the few Beatles albums that makes no giant steps forwards; it is objectively the only Beatles album that makes one small step backwards by re-introducing the six obligatory cover tunes, where the previous record had seemed to so effectively obliterate this custom; and the four lads are standing in a clearly «autumnal» mood on the front cover, all of them «babies in black», worn and torn by heavy touring, annoying socializing, and life-sucking demands from the music industry.
It is true enough that the boys were getting tired, particularly of having too many other people make the decisions for them, and it does seem to be true that they simply did not have the time to come up with enough original material to fill a complete LP. It is unquestionably true that, on the whole, the sound of Beatles For Sale is less «happy» than that of Hard Day's Night — the album does, after all, begin with three «downers», and John is no longer contributing teenage odes to joy à la ʽI Should Have Known Betterʼ.
And, speaking of the covers, I still share the opinion that ʽMr. Moonlightʼ is one of the unluckiest choices the band ever made. The Dr. Feelgood version, which they copied with very little imagination, had it registered as a soul ballad with an almost crooner-ish atmosphere, quite incompatible with John's usual singing voice; and where his frenzied screaming worked so well on ʽAnnaʼ because the song had a tragic heart, it feels silly and wasted on the bridge sections of this particular tune. The only clever touch was to replace the original rudimentary guitar solo with an eerie Hammond organ passage — but no Beatles song in which the instrumental, rather than vocal, part is the best one can really count as successful.
However, apart from that minor misstep, Beatles For Sale is anything but a «step backwards» in the story of the Beatles' development. Any detailed song-by-song analysis would immediately show just how many of these itty-bitty-beatly «trifles» make a first appearance here — whenever these guys were locked in the studio with George the Fifth at the helm, tired or not tired, they just weren't interested in repeating the same old formulae. «Beatle-quality» had to mean «creative», even if it meant being «creative» on an old piece of Carl Perkins boogie.
So, just a few things off the top of my head. Buddy Holly wrote ʽWords Of Loveʼ in 1957, and he must have been so proud to have come up with that melody that he did not bother giving it all the studio care it required. Play the original and the cover back to back, and the first thing you notice is how much «juicier» the main guitar line is sounding. Where Buddy is satisfied with just occasionally letting out that high-pitched piercing tone, George uses it on every note, getting a warm, jangly effect — tender and cordial, but without a trace of cheap sentimentality. With John out there behind him, partially doubling his work on a second, barely audible guitar, the effect is otherworldly, and even though the solo break, faithfully following Holly's original, is no more than two different phrases played over and over again, I would not mind a longer version.
Laying on echo effects was one of the band's favorite tricks ever since With The Beatles at least, but it was a cool touch when they threw them on 'Rock And Roll Music' and 'Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby', giving the old rock'n'roll chestnuts an «arena» feel instead of the «chamber» feel of the originals. In fact, the feel of 'Rock And Roll Music' has completely shifted: Chuck did this song just like he did all the rest — with a friendly smile, inviting all the young ladies and gentlemen out there to try out this brand new hot dance called rock and roll. This rendition demands that you scream your head off, instead of dancing your legs off: because of the echo effects, John's brawny delivery, and Paul's somber bass, it is far more aggressive than Chuck ever intended it to be. Ditto with Carl Perkins, when they start laying the echo on Harrison's vocals (but they couldn't do anything of the kind with ʽHoney Don'tʼ, so they just... gave it to Ringo. Who did a hilarious job with it, anyway).
Now, about the originals. First, we are all taught that it is here, and nowhere else, that John started to fall under the Dylan spell, and take a healthier attitude towards the lyrics — hence, ʽI'm A Loserʼ, a feeble first attempt to climb out of the mire of clichés. The famous "Although I laugh and I act like a clown / Beneath this mask I am fearing a frown" would hardly count as «significant lyrics» today, but for the Beatles in 1964, it was a milestone. It is debatable if we can take ʽI'm A Loserʼas the beginning of John's «no-bullshit-allowed» phase, where everything had to be either strictly tongue-in-cheek or strictly heart-on-the-sleeve, but, in any case, there is increased «character complexity» here, and that be good.
Second, McCartney is quickly learning how to put «genius» and «corn» in the same package, coming up with his first genuinely great «softie». Curiously, ʽI'll Follow The Sunʼ is usually said to have been written around 1960, which might explain the man's dragging it out of the storeroom for lack of time to write something new; but maybe it is a good thing that it was given four years of fermentation. Now it sounds a bit Searchers-style, what with the folksy melody and the harmonic layering and all, but more homely and sincere, due to the production and the clever alternation between group singing and Paul's solo lines. Just a year and a half separating this from the thematically similar ʽP.S. I Love Youʼ, but that song screamed NAÏVE all over the place, and this one spells WISENED — big reason why Paul still performs ʽI'll Follow The Sunʼ in concert, on occasion, but never the other one (not that anyone would mind, I suppose).
Third, shortly after discovering feedback on the single ʽI Feel Fineʼ, they discover the fade-in — on ʽEight Days A Weekʼ. Much of the band's experimentation was done «randomly», «just for fun», etc., but one big difference of the Beatles' approach to experimentation is that they rarely kept their experimental results if they weren't sure that they had come out somewhat meaningful and were appropriate for the song in question. So, before we go «A fade-in on ʽEight Days A Weekʼ? Big deal! Who the heck cares?», let us listen to the fade-in and, perhaps, understand that it works here as the equivalent of a crescendo, which the band had no special means of producing at that time (they'd need an orchestra at least). ʽEight Days A Weekʼ is another one of those ode-to-joy songs, cruder and simpler than ʽI Should Have Known Betterʼ, and never one of my favorites in that genre (for one thing, too repetitive — a solo break couldn't have hurt, and the "hold me, love me, hold me, love me" refrain also seems too roughly hewn), but the fade-in suits it perfectly — it is the first ten seconds of the song, from the first faraway notes to the breakout of "ooh I need your love babe..." that do it for me.
Fourth, the Beatles discover the value of... silence. While the more famous songs of Side B have always been ʽEight Days A Weekʼ and ʽEvery Little Thingʼ, I have always held a soft spot for ʽWhat You're Doingʼ, because of the important role with which they entrusted Ringo — hold the melody for the first few bars on his little old drummer's own, before introducing the looped electric riff (very similar in texture, by the way, to the one that would soon make the Byrds famous with ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ). Then, once the song is done, they repeat the same trick once again before fading out — as if saying, «hey, it was quite cool in the beginning, surely you want us to do it one more time? heavier on the bass this time, right?»... and it works.
So, in the end, it's just the little things that make Beatles For Sale as essential a Beatles album in your catalog as everything that surrounds it. It takes its cue from the second half of Hard Day's Night, not the first one, and overcomes it in terms of diversity, jangliness, and, in a way, «darkness». Artistically, it is still dominated by John, which is a good thing, because Paul as a «dominator» would only be acceptable once the band entered its wild-experimental-frenzy phase; but overall, it is still very much a group effort, and, ultimately, another success, if not necessarily another «triumph». Predictable thumbs up here.
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