Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Beatles: With The Beatles (1963)

Near as I can figure, the objective of With the Beatles was to keep the party going. In 1963 there was absolutely no telling when the gravy train from a pop rock quartet was due to stop, so the best you could hope to do is repeat the same formula as last time and hope lightning struck twice. Luckily, the magic was far from gone. It certainly helps that they were indeed "The Goddamn Beatles," full of life and energy and charm. Their singles, like "She Loves You," required them to be commercial, upbeat and energetic. On the album, they could explore their own character a bit more through covers and downtempo tracks that didn't play to the idea of what "The Beatles" were on the radio.

The album begins almost in medias res with "It Won't Be Long," an album that is just a bit too raucous and disorderly to be a single, yet misses the mark of being the next "Twist & Shout" by a hair. It's good, a lot of fun to listen to, as is the later "Hold Me Tight" but I've never heard the band speak favorably about it. In the case of that one, it also gets the knock that the band is playing a bit wonky and Paul's vocals are off-key, but to my ears, that's just part of the beautiful imperfection of rock and roll. Maybe not worthy of a single, but still worth girls going gaga. I often get the sense that on early albums, the pressure of writing "Beatles Songs" was tiring for John and Paul, if they knew a song was just going to end up as album filler rather than a single. Yet since there was no roadmap to writing songs like "In My Life" and "Strawberry Fields Forever," not to mention no audience for them yet, the Beatles take only a few timid steps out into the broader world on this one. "All I've Got To Do" is a Motown-like tune based on a staggered rhythm, providing a bit of a breather and managing to emphasize the lyrics a bit more, while also playing to the base with its "You've just gotta call on me" refrain, which seems like an upgrade on "From Me To You." It's a great song.

There are three other truly excellent originals on this album, although two of them aren't what you think. One is "I Wanna Be Your Man," another pulse-pounding showstopper with Ringo on lead vocals after "Boys." It's hard for me to get how his songs ended up sounding like "Yellow Submarine" and "Octopus's Garden" all the time, when they started out giving him these throat-shredders. Maybe he got tired of them and decided John could do them better. Anyway, as simple and throwaway as this song is, it's one of those songs that just accomplishes exactly what it's meant to. The second is "Don't Bother Me," the first George Harrison-written tune on record. I think I'm probably the only person in the world who really likes that song, but I like it enough for everybody. It's terrifically dark and gloomy, uncommon in the early Beatles, with its demand for solitude. It's lyrically smart, a brooding breakup song, where the narrator doesn't want to talk to anyone at all because his girl has broken his heart so bad. It's an approach on a well-worn pop subject that freshens it up because it just sounds so bitter. "I'm sad, so fuck you." George also does an affable job leading the band through a pleasant version of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" that helps up the album's balls-out rock quotient.

The other excellent original of course is "All My Loving," which seems simple, but sounds so gorgeous. It's one of those real killers that shows why the early Beatles remain so great to listen to. You just don't get a vibe like that anymore. It's a bit of an inkblot, too, because the way Paul plays it, I can't tell if it's sad or happy, upbeat or slower. It has a life of its own depending on the day. "Not a Second Time" is not especially noteworthy, but worth a few listens, providing a breather along with "Devil in Her Heart" amidst the largely raucous second side.

As for the covers, they're mostly well chosen, with a few missteps that haven't aged perfectly and seem very stuck in their time, like "Devil in her Heart" and the already-aged "'Til There Was You," which signaled Paul's interest in the distant past and old persony things. That one is notable for students of the band, who want to understand the breadth of influences and interests that went into making up their sound, but isn't much good to a kid like me who just wants to rock out, even if I can normally stomach ballads just fine.

That leaves "Please Mr. Postman," "You Really Got A Hold On Me" and "Money (That's What I Want.)" All are faithfully done, like the professionals they are. "Please Mr. Postman" is exactly the kind of star-eyed pop number they needed to load onto their albums, especially because of its theme of making contact (see also: "All My Loving," "It Won't Be Long," "All I've Got To Do.") They were marketing devices, sure, the subtle indication that the Beatles were accessible and longing to hear from you, but they were also great songs. "You Really Got a Hold On Me" is the perfect slow jam for the album, and "Money (That's What I Want)" is one of the best pop/rock/soul songs ever written, and is almost impossible to fuck up, so the main thing is that it gives John a chance to scream his head off.

The Beatles were blooming at this point. It wasn't quite the case yet that their future was assured, so it was smart to record an album that just sounds like a more polished version of their previous. There were a few innovations but few seem like risks in hindsight. They were just getting started, rolling up their sleeves and seeing what they could pull off.

Buy this album: iTunes Canada // iTunes USA // //

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