Monday, May 21, 2012

Michael5000 vs The Beatles: "With The Beatles"

The Backstory, as I Understand It

So the Beatles, propelled by some potent cocktail combining the strength of their first album, their hard-earned proficiency in performance, market engineering, and the myriad of chaos factors we generally lump under “dumb luck,” experienced this sudden incredible onslaught of popularity after releasing Please Please Me.  Everyone and their dogs recognized the lucrative opportunity to strike while the iron was hot, and the boys were scheduled scraps of studio time amid an intense hurry-up-and-wait schedule of travel, schmoozing, and performance (as parodied not long after in the movie A Hard Day’s Night).  In less time than most bands might take recording a single song, the Fab Four cranked out a full album’s worth of immediately salable consumer product.

Under these conditions, you would expect the album to stink.  That is doesn’t is one of the greatest proofs I’ve seen yet in this project that the Beatles were unusually gifted musicians.  To be sure, it shows definite signs of rushing.  There are minor errors, missed notes, and studio noises in the mix; they don’t distract, but they are there if you are listening carefully and repeatedly.  Songs that want endings go through fade-outs instead.  Most obviously, the record has a preponderance of cover songs, especially on the back half.  The Beatles songs are serviceable, but still lacking much in the way of lyrical sophistication (although George Harrison seems to have been waking up to this problem).  Yet, the record works.  It sounds pretty good and, in a few spots, awfully good.  The lads could obviously perform under pressure.

Key Points:

→ After the five hyperfamiliar tracks on Please Please Me, there is a relative sophomore drought: only "All My Loving" and three cover songs that are very familiar, but moreso in their originals.

→ Some conventions are starting to break.  "It Won't Be Long" is perhaps a more aggressive blast of pleasant noise than anything on Please Please Me, and "Don't Bother Me" and "Not a Second Time" seem like real innovations in songwriting, though the production of the latter doesn't really do it justice.

→ Singing continues to be very strong -- these guys are a good vocal quartet.  Instrumental part playing seems strong across the board, although -- again -- the production, especially in the backstretch, is fairly sloppy.  These guys are genuinely good!

→ This album is probably less good, all things considered, than Please Please Me, and it is by no means an essential collection of songs that everyone should be listening to a half-century on.  But it shows development and potential, and in an assessment of the Beatles as musicians it shows versatility and grace under pressure.

The Songs:

“It Won’t Be Long”
Theme: Muddled, but essentially: Boy promises good behavior to Girl in implicit trade for future companionship.

The album starts with an exuberant guitar-propelled rocker that establishes a dance-party mood and seems to announce that a new, more aggressive rock sound has evolved in the months since Please Please Me. It’s a great opening track, and if it’s energy isn’t sustained through the rest of the album, it is at least a good omen for the future.

We are also immediately reminded that before the Beatles were anything like interesting lyricists, they were exceptional rock singers. For those of you following at home, I want you to listen to the various iterations of the chorus:
It won’t be long, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
It won’t be long, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
It won’t be long, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
‘til I belong to you.
What you’re listening for is how the singer (John Lennon, I think) phrases the word “long” in the second line (for instance at the five-second point). If he just hit that word at the pitch that it eventually settles into, the song would, I think, be ruined. Instead, there is some bending into the pitch that saves the day, adding some subliminal complexity that lends the chorus forward momentum and a sense of excitement. Without that touch, the song is lost: the chorus would be merely sing-song, and we would not be distracted from the banality of the words.

“All I’ve Got to Do”
Theme: Celebration of a successful and mutually supportive Girl-Boy relationship

After the fiery opening, “All I’ve Got to Do” quickly signals that the pace and energy of the opening number is not sustainable. It’s a perfectly serviceable up-tempo ballad, to be sure, and wins points lyrically for taking what initially seems like a eerily domineering sentiment – “when I want to kiss you, all I’ve got to do is call you on the phone and you’ll come running home” – and leveling the playing field: “and the same goes for you, whenever you want me at all.” There’s a BIG vocal sound to the repeated “you’ve just got to call on me” lines that I like a lot, even if it does come a bit out of nowhere. Ringo Starr’s technical drumming skills come off especially well on this track, I think. Against these strengths, we barely have a full song here; even a weak dum-de-dumming fadeout tacked on after its natural end point barely pads the thing out to two minutes.

“All My Loving”
Theme: Boy will save all his loving for Girl

The only hyperfamiliar track on With the Beatles. Unfortunately, this is the first of the hyperfamiliar Beatles tracks I have found to suffer significantly on closer listen, as the simple, pleasant melody is backed throughout with a grinding, unimaginative triplet pattern of guitar chords. You don’t notice it when you hear the song twice a year, but if you’re listening to it daily it starts to hit you like the sound of a dental drill. Also, at the halfway point – one minute into another two-minute song – there is an out-of-place bridge that apparently wandered in from a hokey country and western tune. It’s pleasantly surreal, but not especially good.

“Don’t Bother Me”
Theme: Boy wishes to wallow in his romantic disappointment.

This mid-tempo rocker is probably no one’s favorite, but it has an unusual, sinuous melody line and just a touch of a psychedelic edge to it. It begins to foray into slightly less obvious rhyming words than we’ve seen to date.

“Little Child”
Theme: Boy wants Girl to dance with him

Phrasing! Phrasing! This piece of fluff has little going for it either musically or lyrically, but it’s saved by the reading of the “I’m so sad and lonely” line. The only other strong points are an awesome rocker’s whoop at the 54-second point and some decidedly cool-sounding “oh yeahs” during the fadeout. Otherwise, take solace that your discomfort over the singer addressing his object of desire as “Little Child” is only going to last for one minute and forty-six seconds.

“Til There Was You”
Theme: Boy really likes Girl

Damn! Did you know that the Beatles covered the Great American Songbook standard “Til There Was You”? Eh, you probably did; you’re always up on this things. It’s a shuffling acoustic rendition sung with real sweetness and sophistication by Paul McCartney. It is a real oddity on this record and in the whole Beatles catalog. And I must say, I find it incredibly charming.

"Please Mister Postman"
Theme: Disappointed by a lack of communication from Girl (Boy), Boy (Girl) confronts a postal carrier despite knowing already that there is nothing that this public servant can do, indeed despite knowing that the very act of asking a postman to check again for a letter he forgot to deliver is in itself an act of self-debasement.

Damn! Did you know that the Beatles covered the American girl-group hit “Please Mister Postman”? They did! It is an exceptional reading of the song, and my favorite track on With the Beatles. Somehow, the lads manage to have it both ways, delivering the goofy, hook-laden party hit with all of its musical fun intact, while at the same time conveying the genuine note of pathos inherent in the song. I imagine that 99 out of 100 times this song is listened to, it’s listened to for the fun. But you can also listen to this recording and feel genuinely sad for the Boy (the Girl in the original, of course) who is so cut up by his sense of rejection that he is actually, despite himself, confronting the postman to beg him to check for an overlooked letter.

The mood is unfortunately broken for a moment when the singer (John Lennon again, if I’m not mistaken) puts perceptibly mocking quotation marks around the line “deliver the letter, the sooner the better” [2:12]. At this state in their lyrical development, the Beatles oughtn’t to have been attending to the motes in others’ eyes; “Please Mister Postman,” along with “Til There Was You,” are far and away the best-crafted songs on this album.

"Roll Over Beethoven"
Theme: We are very intrigued by American Rhythm and Blues!

I have always disliked this Chuck Berry rock standard. First, and most reasonably, as a true rhythm-and-blues piece, it conforms with brutal rigor to the same set of chords, changed at the same intervals, as the vast bulk of the blues catalog. If you have heard one blues song, you have to a surprising extent heard them all. Secondly, although Berry’s lyrics are actually pretty clever, the song also erects and enforces a division between popular and classical music which rubs my fur the wrong way for obvious reasons. That is the whole point, of course, but nevertheless. Thirdly, and moving from personal proclivity to wildly irrational pedantry – Berry’s mandate that Beethoven “tell Tchaikovsky the news” grates on me because it would be impossible to fulfill: Beethoven and Tchaikovsky did not share a common language. This “problem” in the lyrics is stuck in my head, and rankles, kind of like what happens to many of us with old Abba lyrics sometimes.

In their version, the Beatles sound like a very competent English band covering an American rhythm and blues song, except for a badly fumbled guitar introduction that is one of With the Beatles’s great mysteries. We know by now that the Beatles have a couple of very good guitar players. Why didn’t they roll another take on the intro to “Roll Over Beethoven”?

"Hold Me Tight"
Theme: Boy wants Girl to hold him tight.

When I was missing the last four tracks of the album, I thought With the Beatles ended here. It’s an upbeat and exuberant tune that would actually make a pretty good album closer. And frankly, since the following three songs smack of filler and the one after that never really made it out of demo, I think I was happier when the record did end here.

"You Really Got a Hold on Me"
Theme: Girl really has a hold on Boy

The Beatles attempt a slow groove with a Smokey Robinson cover. Although there are some some nice vocal moments, I'm afraid the lads sound faintly ridiculous as they try to smolder.

"I Wanna Be Your Man"
Theme: Boy wants to be Girl’s man

A bluntly repetitive and too-hearty number that highlights the Beatles’ obvious grounding (pointedly ignored in conventional rock history) in the contemporary folk music revival. The chorus – I Wanna Be Your Man/ I Wanna Be Your Man/ I Wanna Be Your Man/ I Wanna Be Your Man – is not a high point of Beatle songwriting. Songs with this problem earlier in the album were saved by phrasing, but this song isn't so much sung as belted out.  It was probably more fun to perform than it is to listen to.  The song’s main strength is a nice suite of rock-and-roll yelping at the 1:01 mark.

"Devil in Her Heart"
Theme: Boy disagrees with interlocutor regarding Girl’s moral character

Another cover, this call-and-response ballad highlights another of the Beatles’ obvious influences – the schmaltzy popular music of the immediate pre-rock era.  The line I’ll take my chances/ because romance is/ so important to me makes me flinch a little.

"Not a Second Time"
Theme: Boy, having been made to cry by girl, is unreceptive to rapprochement.

An interesting song, with twists in the harmonies, the melody, and the overall structure that point towards a band with the potential to innovate. Another song that feels like a natural album closer, but there’s still one more song to come.  Also, it's another song that feels rushed-to-market; the band, uncharacteristically, does not seem at all tight or decisive in this recording.

"Money (That's What I Want)"
Theme: Boy wants Money.

It is a little thrilling to hear the Beatles begin to sing about something other than the petty nuances of infatuation. Not only does this make them start to seem like rounded human beings, but it opens up whole new realms of rhyming word-pairs, even if they don’t really exploit this possibility quite yet. This is a heavy song, a solid rocker; it is certainly the strongest of the significantly blues-influenced Beatles compositions to date.

Next on Michael5000 vs. the Beatles: A Hard Day's Night.


Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

I like that "'Til There Was You," from "The Music Man," right?

Michael5000 said...

Is correct, Doctor.

Jenners said...

Having just seen the Cirque du Soleil LOVE show (which is basically a Beatles tribute) I fell in love with these guys all over again. But I tend not to care for their early stuff. It just doesn't do it for me.

pfly said...

I could be wrong, but would think Beethoven and Tchaikovsky both had at least broken French. Maybe Italian too. Of course, Beethoven died before Tchaikovsky was born, but hey!

Michael5000 said...

pfly, that would certainly be a load off my mind if it were true. I am pretty sure that Tchaikovsky spoke French, but I thought I remembered from a biography I read a few years back that Beethoven was solidly monolingual. I will have to look further into this question.

Eric said...

Excellent analysis my friend. Can't wait for you to get to the really good stuff.

margaret said...

Looking forward to the White Album review!

Dug said...

"Money (That's What I Want)" directly contradicts the central thesis of "Can't Buy Me Love" - make up your mind Beatles!