Tuesday, February 22, 2011

You Know the Name--The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 2: Disembaudio

11/22/1963

With The Beatles was recorded over three months in 1963. Slackers. Wankers. Slankers.

Just like the debut, it stretches fourteen songs long, with a near-even split of originals to covers: 8/6, to be precise. Although still nowhere effing near genius, With The Beatles is a striking step forward in that direction.

All in one calendar year!

"It Won't Be Long"--Genuine was their love for rhythm and blues and soul, but the Beatles were more impressive at covering the songs of those genres than at filtering the sound through their funnel. Country music was another matter, as With The Beatles features a few tracks clearly influenced by the sound of the American South that stand out for all the right reasons. (But what happens when they decide to redo a country favorite? Oh, just throw it to Ringo, see it won't stick, but put it on the album anyway. You know the one.)

Sprung primarily from the mind of John W. Lennon, "It Won't Be Long" is a comfortable intro song, a hot bowl of alphabet soup that contains not just words but wordplay ("It won't be long/Till I belong.") as well as some fail-safe "yeah"s, engaging scaling riffs and dramatic chords to take us out.

"All I've Got to Do"--White Liverpudlian attempts Motown. Culture shock the real story here, as apparently English youths just didn't chat up birds via the phone in those days.

"All My Loving"--A spirited slice of Macca. Razor-keen and good again melody over John's triplet tornado.

Paul receives an indecent amount of crap for being a virtuoso of the love song, an easy trade to ply, but among the most challenging to actually practice well. His one-time partner in crime was a vociferous poo-slinger. 'Course, he had credence over all the other critical spider monkeys 'cause he knew the guy and shared with him the matchless experience of being in the most popular, influential band in the history of rock. But even after all the vitriol of "I don't believe in Beatles" and "How do you sleep?", there were some records that Lennon in his well-earned recalcitrance just couldn't deny. This was one.

(Making this recollection from the night he died all the more gutting...assuming the story is true.)

"Don't Bother Me"--The real secret is, George Harrison can write great songs by his lonesome. His first composition to make a Beatles album is the second-best on the whole thing (trailing only the one sequenced before it), a lovesick ode penned while dude was shut up in a hotel room, just plain sick.

"So go away, leave me alone, don't bother me." This was the essence of Harrison within the band and so established, it proved the trio of songwriters as unique expressive entities fit for world domination.

Paul: flowery, fanciful, love is super.
John: excoriating, brazen, love is devastating.
George: "So go away, leave me alone, don't bother me."

The verses and Beach Blanket instrumental breakdown are fabulous sneers at well-wishers, and the middle eight is gently yet blatantly ominous. Really--don't bother the man. Internal rhyming means one thing: serious George is serious.

"Little Child"--Written for Ringo, and whew, it shows. Fun filler doesn't make anyone feel fuller, so toss it to Cap'n Big Schnozz over there, the guy whose job description includes the words "monotony" and "repetition" underlined in green magic marker.

Saving this track from bin status is the reality of John on harmonica and Paul at the piano. Excessively wonderful. Rock plus roll makes rollick.

"Till There Was You"--A remake of a track traced back to The Music Man, a play-turned-movie that I will never be arsed to watch. Acoustics and bongos and uber-romance, how could Paul say no.

"Please Please Mr. Postman"--The Carpenters did a really shit cover of "Ticket To Ride," but actually made this song sound...okay. Meanwhile, this is the second worst cover that the Beatles allowed to get onto tape. When I yearn for laughably dated treacle from the 1950s, I go to "Mr. Sandman," thanks much. Either way, it's a song about begging some guy for something.

"Roll Over Beethoven"--The initials of this track adequately describe the treatment Chuck Berry received despite his myriad of innovations to the nascent genre of rock.

There are few things I can safely say Americans do better than denizens of any other country. Singing the words "rockin' pneumonia" is one of those things.

"Roll Over Beethoven" belongs to a most peculiar species of song, those that can only be ruined by an incorrigibly untalented shit-fer-brains, or several of them in one place focused on a common goal of spoliation. Killer Kowalski riff, a good beat and you can fuck to it, and lyrics fit for movies wherein renegade youths drive real fast, crank the tunes too loud, and laugh at jokes only they get.

"Hold Me Tight"--Recorded during the session for Please Please Me, but, much like the scissors they give kids in grade school, didn't make the cut.

"You Really Got a Hold On Me"--John is sick of just ripping off Smokey and the Miracles, he wants to pay some downright homage! That's a good lad, always nice to ring home when you haven't in ages.

Pieces of three separate takes comprise this final version. George Martin should have insisted the fellas rip it out in one, or not at all. Chuck that chaff! The more studied you make your performance of a searingly sweet love ballad, the less authenticity shines through.

"I Wanna Be Your Man"--John and Paul ran into either the Rolling Stones or their manager on the street. Depends on who's telling the story. Anyway, everyone agrees that the Stones needed a hit single, being babies on the scene and all. Luckily, the original J and P Show had smashes to spare; they hit the studio, dredged up a song Paul had, tweaked it, and voila. The Stones' second single, "I Wanna Be Your Man," hits number twelve on the British charts.

It was no skin off any part of the body for John and Paul to provide their would-be rivals with a winner because neither thought much of it the song itself. They gave it to Ringo to sing, if that's any indication.

It's better than that though, a tidy chugger fit for warm nights and warmer bodies maneuvering those nights. George Martin's Hammond slips out of the chorus like the backdoor man of lurid legend.

(To those who like to impress via oddball trivia: this is the only song both the Beatles and Stones recorded.)

"Devil In Her Heart"--Ricky Dee got there first. The Beatles just switched the gender.

"Not a Second Time"--Shuffles out to...somewhere. Where the wind is gusty. Come back down, guys.

"Money"--Ending their first two albums with the two greatest covers they'd ever do? Another check in their column as One of the Greatest To Ever Do It. Barrett Strong's avaricious anthem is made wholly the property of four young men who soon enough would make the cash to burn alongside all that energy.

From the band that would proclaim "All You Need Is Love" when they found their own voice, this is fun stuff. Mind you, both those songs are illustrations of the same basic truth (which is why they succeed as individual tracks, despite the philosophical and moral contrast). Money is what you want, love is what you need. This is not to discount the very real necessity of financial solvency, or the hearts desire. But when it gets right down to it, the spirit won't further itself on a soul full of c-notes.

As if that isn't sufficiently head-spinning, "Money" subverts the conventional wisdom by being superior in stereo. The guitar three seconds in is just nasty as sucking down a mudshake, and the fuller sound is what you need, want and have.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

You Know the Name--The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 1: Cross the Room and Join the Rest of the Band, Why Not

March 22, 1963


Wherein some randy soused gits go half-n-half and spin popular music wholly on its head.


The Beatles' crazed salad days defined the hoary term "pay your dues." The band was on the road virtually all of 1963, with two-a-days not uncommon, playing every willing and able club in the UK and even Sweden for a spell. The original plan for their debut release was a live recording of a gig at their hometown hub The Cavern, but originality can be overrated. On a rare day off, the fellas recorded Please Please Me (entirely live) in less than ten hours, with no one song requiring more than four takes to nail to satisfaction.


As their first recorded offering, Please Please Me showcases not just the band's deep debt to their myriad of influences through faithful yet distinctive cover songs, but also the burgeoning songwriting skills of plucky Messrs. McCartney and Lennon. (It was exceedingly rare in the 1960s for artists to actually write the songs they asked the world to fall in love with, even if only for a little while. So, perhaps spark one indicating the eventual conflagration.) A far better promise presented to the public all told than titling the record Off The Beatle Track, as producer/mentor/otherwise clear-thinking person George Martin wanted. You wanna know how to prematurely extinguish a cultural phenomenon, there's your 101 through 103 right there.


Still my favorite Beatles album cover ever. Don't they just look like the happiest harbingers of roiling sea change ever? Aw.


"I Saw Her Standing There"--Count off, blast off, Gerry and the Pacemakers fuck off. The most spectacular evocation of sweaty palms, shaggy locks and shimmying skirts. An EKG reading of rock and roll suitable for framing.


Early Beat-alls were dependent on the "woo!", which I have heard told it is in fact all about. To my mind, you will find no better "woo"s in their discography. These are honest, fraught exclamations, not just line filler.


"Well she was just seventeen/You know what I mean." Ain't no wink nudge pedo, this is naught but a like-aged horndog appreciating burgeoning femininity. So just walk on, duck.


The most common, overarching complaint against the early albums in stereo is that they simply rob the songs of their punch. It is glaring here. The vocal panning is egregiously shite. Microbats will navigate these songs easily. Play "I Saw Her Standing There" in mono, and it clumps together like the tastiest fudge, while stereo segregates the sounds so drastically as to render focused listening pointless. Those claps in stereo sound like a group of grannies trying to get the feeling back in their hands.


"Misery"--Entirely too peppy for a song titled such, and really, it isn't that peppy at all. I'm not expecting Kafka-esque doomsaying, but this just sounds mildly in the dumps but trying to play it up so they can score some happy pills.


"Anna (Go to Him)"--The first two lines rhyme "girl" with "girl." Damn Art Alexander, lyrics are hard. I get it though. Love makes the world go 'round, nobody wants to be alone, the duality of existence, yes yes it's all quite devastating in its elaborate simplicity. The Beatles are just getting off on the release of expression, no one expected theories or philosophies. Luckily, the riff is a real pincer and the choral "aaahhh"s are cute in the way a really stoic bunny is.


"I love you so/But if he loves you mo'."


Mmm, yes. Next slide, please.


"Chains"--In the great debate over Carole King and Joni Mitchell that exists primarily in my own head, King wins. Barely. Both women are responsible for some of the most timeless earworms of the 20th century. Both recorded albums regarded in certain circles outside of my own head as touchstones for women of a certain generation and singer/songwriters in general. And personally, I think Joni has the stronger catalog. But Carole King was once upon a time the musical half of one of music's most legendary songwriting duos. With then-husband Gerry Goffin, she provided aspiring performers some instant hits that frequently exceeded their expected expiration date. Members of the British Invasion bands of the 60s took to these records (particularly those performed by black artists) and came to idolize the American couple responsible for the joy and inspiration.


Goffin and King had no more famous devotees than John and Paul. In a 1963 profile feature for the NME, they were singled out as the boys favorite songwriters, and McCartney specifically would state in interviews that they aspired to reach the bar set by the Brill Buildings finest. Joni Mitchell certainly has her acolytes...Plant and Page, Prince, just to pinpoint the most prominent. But Carole King was one half of the songwriting team that arguably the greatest most celebrated songwriting team in rock and roll lore wanted to be like when they grew up.


Gah, all this talk about winning, I sound like Billy Corgan! Art doesn't keep score. Besides, both Carole and Joni at different times had sex with James Taylor. Who released his debut album in 1968 on Apple Records. The label founded by the Beatles. See? No one wins.


"Boys"--Wow, I didn't actually talk about that last song at all. Well, no such worries here.


This Shirelles classic was actually tailor-made for drummers to sing, thereby shattering the conventional wisdom that no way can you keep a beat and a tune simultaneously. A harmless li'l trifle, and enough fun to fill a good-sized water gun, but it still sounds too slow to my ears. Definitely would have benefited from consumption of dodgy stimulants prior to pressing "record."


"Ask Me Why"--Attacked by the deadly woo chain! Ask me why I'm listening to this. I'm scoobied. This is like watching a toddler learn to walk. Historically fascinating!


"Please Please Me"--The first single, penned 100% by Lennon, with a spiritual assist from onetime tourmate Roy Orbison. Considered an all-time classic by a lot of fans who aren't me. It's fine. The guitar gives good push. The tri-vocals are super. And the "come on/come on" always puts me in mind of "I Like It Like That" by the Dave Clark Five, which is a better song.


Apparently this is the first pop song about oral sex. I'm pretty sure at least three music journalists have used this scandalous bit of history as the jump off point for overwritten essays on sexuality in popular music. Ooh, you raunchy ragamuffins. There is no way this is a better track than "From Me to You." But...I'm getting ahead of myself. (It looks remarkably life-like. Badum-pish.)


Notable difference in mono and stereo: listen for Lennon's vocal flub during the last verse. It's supposed to be "I know you never even try, girl" but he starts with "Why do you," realizes his error, and just trails off to the melody.


"Love Me Do"--This was the smash that broke the Beatles in America, hitting the top 5 in the charts in 1964 and inciting a mania of some sort.


Written (primarily) by Paul McCartney in his living room. While he was skipping school. Fuck off. Honestly. I wrote the shittiest poetry fathomable through glassy eyes whenever I played hooky, and this fuckin' guy crafts a timeless ode to the most timeless desire engrained in humanity. (Lennon did the middle eight, a drop into D that gives the song a brief, needed sonic gravity.)


Vocal harmonies are all over Please Please Me, I mean it's what the Beatles fucking did, but nothing else matches the synergy here. It's easy, even corny, I mean what does "love me do" even mean? In sentiment it's very hand-holdy and shy-smiley, the polar opposite of the song before it, which may as well be called "Blow Me Do," really. The harmonica throughout fits snug with the easy rider drums, especially at the end of the former's non-showy solo when it drops out and a simple beat crashes before the vocals come back in. I bet this was the first song Animal from the Muppets learned on his kit.


"PS I Love You"--The first draft of a love letter to Buddy Holly, as signed by one smitten baby-faced Macca. He would go on to craft more intimate and intricate missives of devotion to an even greater selection of paramours in the future, and all for the better.


"Baby Its You"--John couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt whenever the group played in front of black artists or fans in those early days, as their set was heavy on covers of songs originally performed by the marginalized minorities. He felt, in a way, fake. His gang of honkys could never hope to match the soul and passion, all borne of true suffering, agony and longing, that made the original compositions positively ache through the speakers. Lennon's shame and doubt is understandable, but in actuality, the stereotype of the awkward, soul-handicapped white singer is not always accurate. In the case of "Baby It's You," however, it's on the money like an ugly white guy's face.


"Do You Want to Know a Secret?"--John wrote this for George. The secret is, "I'm in love with you." Oh goddamnit. Guys, there's other emotions out there. Like anger towards Burt Convy, although really it was your fault for trusting him.


I confess to being rather taken by the enchanting scale here. Could have done more with it.


"A Taste of Honey"--Oh Beatles. Let's never again do this thing that has here been done.


"There's a Place"--A tutorial in spike sharpening, in just under two minutes.


"Twist and Shout"--Back to the racial discussion, 'cause that's never much the threat that one, eh? While "Baby It's You" was lackluster and bland, "Twist and Shout" absolutely throttles the senses and hurtles the listener right there to the Cavern Club, watching lads in suits set the groundwork for actual revolution. Yes Virginia, white musicians can sometimes do a song even better...I'm thinking the Diamonds' rendition of "Little Darlin'" and Rare Earth's version of "Get Ready," which I tell you, when sex in outer space happens, it better happen to that song.


You can actually hear Lennon's throat lining tear. It must have sucked for him, but it rocks for the rest of us. That's giving yourself to the music.


Of course, Ferris Bueller had to fuck it up again for whitey. Horns? Please please you.




You Know the Name--The Music of the Beatles, Introduction

"Do you ever write about anything but Sonic Youth?"

Yes. SY-based material makes up 'round 6% of my total scribbles. Admittedly, it's received 98% of all the attention.

"Would you ever do a full discography review for your second-favorite band?"

Oh yeah. I can tell you right now I'll absolutely do that.

"Cool. Look forward to it."

Yeah, cool.

*remembers who her second-favorite band is*

Ah, shit.

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The series title is unchallenging, yet undeniably true; no band has inspired more volumes detailing more inane minutiae than PaulJohnGeorgeRingo. Even people who avowedly loathe the Beatles know more about them than many bands whose music they enjoy, thanks to cultural osmosis. So, no ostentatious preamble. This is a song by song review of every Beatles album, in mono and stereo. For the sake of my sanity and yours, I will not separate each album into reviews of each version. Where the differences are that noticeable, I will make my remarks. Please Please Me is first up, shortly.