Monday, August 4, 2014

Michael5000 vs The Beatles: "Beatles for Sale"

Michael5000 vs The Beatles

Please Please Me (May 2011)
With the Beatles (May 2012)
A Hard Day's Night (October 2013)

Beatles For Sale

Pre-Project Assessment: "I have no idea what's on this album."

The Backstory, as I Understand It
It's sometimes said that you can see the fatigue of the
Beatles For Sale recording sessions right there on their
faces on this cover.

The Beatles' fourth record was recorded by four very hard-working young men in about three weeks, after a year and a half of relentless success.  Their management carved out studio space between lucrative live performances, and threw in a week off for songwriting.  This was nowhere near enough time to generate an album's worth of material, which is why Beatles For Sale is a blend of cover tunes and mediocrity.

Here are some quotes gleaned from the record's Wiki article:
  • "Despite citing it as 'the group's most uneven album', Allmusic felt that its best moments find them 'moving from Merseybeat to the sophisticated pop/rock they developed in mid-career.'"
  •  "Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph commented that 'if this is a low point, they still sound fantastic', adding that 'the Beatlemania pop songs are of a high standard, even if they are becoming slightly generic.'"
  •  "Beatles' producer George Martin recalled: 'They were rather war-weary during Beatles for Sale. One must remember that they'd been battered like mad throughout '64, and much of '63. Success is a wonderful thing, but it is very, very tiring.'"
Well, you can read between lines as well as I can, and can intuit a critical consensus from this kind of faint praise and prevarication.  To wit: this album blows, and everybody knows it. 

Incidentally, if Beatles for Sale doesn't sound like a familiar title to you, it may be because it was never released in the United States.  It was replaced by Beatles '65, which eliminated half the material and added a few additional songs.  I haven't listened to Beatles '65, but I am confident it is a superior musical product.

Key Point:

Beatles For Sale is a great leap backward from A Hard Day's Night.  Half covers, and with no standout originals, it is quite literally a full record of filler.  The title was meant to be sassy, but is in fact embarrassingly accurate.

→ I don't have much positive to say about this record.  That's not to say that it doesn't represent the work of competent musicians.  There's nothing on here that is flat-out bad, although some Beatles fans would take "Mr. Moonlight" out of the historical record if they could.  No, everything on Beatles For Sale is perfectly competent.  Almost none of it is, however, any more than simply competent.

The Songs:

“No Reply”
Theme: Boy, declining to take the hint, stalks girl.

The first few seconds of the record sound like they're going to be terrific.  And, John Lennon's lovely voice sounds great when he sings the words "that's a lie."  But the number quickly settles into a rigid march-time doggerel with forced rhymes and non-rhymes punctuated by fortissimo outbursts ("I saw the light!  I saw the light!") that exceed the capabilities of the recording equipment.

“I'm a Loser”
Theme: Boy is a loser, and he's lost someone who's near to him.

One of the stronger tracks on the album, this mid-tempo Country & Western lament is likeable if a bit silly.

“Baby's in Black”
Theme: Boy can not compete with Girl's other boyfriend, who might be dead.

The main thing about this song is that it is in waltz time.  It's fine.

“Rock and Roll Music”
Theme: Chuck Berry likes rock and roll music.

Having mined Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" two records ago, the lads now take on another of his hits.  Well, he probably laughed all the way to the bank.  This cover must have really knocked their socks off in Hamburg.

“I'll Follow the Sun”
Theme: Boy blows off Girl.

From a reasonably successful attempt at high-energy hard rock, the record moves to its second-best song, which is essentially what you'd have to call an "easy listening" track.  It's quite pretty, especially the odd little melody in the chorus.

Having acknowledged that this is a song I actually like, I'm going to undercut the positivity with a quick look at the lyrics:
One day you'll look to see I've gone
For tomorrow may rain, so I'll follow the sun
Some day you'll know I was the one
But tomorrow may rain, so I'll follow the sun

And now the time has come
And so my love I must go
And though I lose a friend
In the end you will know,

One day you'll find that I have gone
But tomorrow may rain, so I'll follow the sun 
This kind of thing is very typical of the Beatles albums I've listened to so far (and to be fair, of course, to much pop in general).  The words rhyme and gesture towards the singer's intention to ditch out of a relationship at the first sign of trouble, but they are so. damn. sloppy.  They leave me wondering, for instance, why the singer "was the one," and how he reconciles this special status with his imminent departure.  The word "though" suggests that his loss of a friend will be compensated by the hearer's eventual knowing, but what will she know?  And how will it help?  We don't know, because there is nothing in the text to tell us.  We are not expected to want to know, because we are expected to listen to the words being sung beautifully and have feelings.  But since the words mean so very, very little, it can be a little perplexing to hear Paul McCartney sing them in such a heartfelt manner.  What's he being heartfelt about, anyway?

It is worth mentioning, and explains a lot, that McCartney wrote the song when he was sixteen.

“Mr. Moonlight”
Theme: Whatever.

An obscure cover, indifferently performed.

"Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey"
Theme: To quote its strongest line, it's just-a one two three four five six seven eight nine.

Conventional histories of music will want to tell you that the popular music we listen to today grew out of American rockabilly, a blues-based dancehall sound that was popular for a few years back in the day.  Here we have the Beatles, who were famously interested in American music, taking a swipe at the form.  It tedious track, because rockabilly was a tedious genre; that's why you have not heard any for the last 45 years unless you spent some time looking for it.  "Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey" (two Carl Perkins songs, if memory serves) is most interesting, really, as an illustration of what the Beatles don't sound like, or at least would not sound like when they became a fully independent band of musicians and, along with their numerous generational peers, began fashioning the roots of the popular music we listen today, drawing on the rich wellsprings of British popular song.

"Eight Days a Week"
Theme: Boy makes unrealistic claims on Girl's time.

The sole hyperfamiliar track on this album, a song that you probably (like me) would say "oh yeah!  great song!" if someone asked you about it in the abstract.  In my case, this default liking lasted about ten seconds into an actual, intentional listening to the song, which the boys play at about 3/4 of the speed you expect.  Surprisingly tepid, this one's status as a Beatles standard probably owes its popularity to the difficulty of finding a strong track on Beatles For Sale when assembling compilations.

"Words of Love"
Theme: Boy seems genuinely fond of Girl as a fellow human being, for a change.  Also, chimey guitars!

This is far and away the best song on the album, and I usually repeat it a few times to bring the average up.  In my early listening, I figured it was the Beatles doing a great job of rewriting Buddy Holly's "Rollercoaster."  It turns out that they are simply covering Buddy Holly's "Words of Love."  It's an inspired choice.

"Honey Don't"
Theme: Whatever.

Another Country & Western track, this one sung by Ringo Starr, that is not especially bad but is certainly not good either.

"Every Little Thing"
Theme: Boy appreciates everything Girl does.

Paul McCartney: "'Every Little Thing', like most of the stuff I did, was my attempt at the next single ... but it became an album filler rather than the great almighty single. It didn't have quite what was required."  Truer words ne'er spoken.

"I Don't Want to Spoil the Party"
Theme: Boy doesn't want to bring his friends down with his lovelorn depression.

Of the various attempts and County & Western music on Beatles For Sale, this is the one that captures the energy and vitality that makes a good Country song good.  That, and a theme we haven't heard a million times before, makes this a standout track by this album's standards.

"What You're Doing"
Theme: Boy has some complaint or other about Girl.

With a little more germination in the studio, this probably could have been a pretty good straight pop-rock song, and even as it stands, it is affable and energetic. 

"Everybody's Trying to be my Baby"
Theme: It's obnoxious how all the babes chase after you when you are popular.

I initially thought that this was a startling example of the Beatles actually composing a song in the American style, but it turns out that it is another Carl Perkins cover.  After nearly two years of Beatlemania, the song must have really resonated with the lads.
Well they took some honey from a tree
Dressed it up and they called it me
Everybody's trying to be my baby, now

Well half past nine, half past four
Fifty women knocking on my door
Everybody's trying to be my baby

Next on Michael5000 vs. the Beatles: Help!  (aka "Nujv!")


mrs.5000 said...

I was a big Beatles fan. Between the age of about 10 and 17 I collected all their albums on vinyl--the British editions, where there was a difference. Even Yellow Submarine, which only has about four songs,I eventually acquired on cassette tape. But I never got this one. Had heard all the songs, didn't dislike them, just never really...oh, well. It would be nice if there was an untapped mother lode, but it's also nice to think one's adolescent self was not without critical faculties.

I look forward to the reviews of Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver!

DrSchnell said...

As a long-time huge Beatles fan, I periodically have pulled out my cassette tape of this one, one of the very few that I never bothered to get on CD. Sometimes, you come across those albums from your collection that you've forgotten about, and think, "Damn! Why haven't I listened to this more often!" This is not one of those albums. It's the one complete turd of an album in their catalog (there are other weak or spotty ones, but none so devoid of much of anything worth listening to more than once every decade or so.) It's also hard to believe that the same band would in the next two years years crank out Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver.....

DrSchnell said...

And, holy crap, "Mr. Moonlight" is wretched....