WITH THE BEATLES (1963) – Quality time well spent with The Fab Four

What’s with all the Beatles album reviews? Click on the above image to find out about our ongoing tribute to The Fab Four’s first TV appearance in America!

With the Beatles – Released Nov. 22, 1963

On the same date that a tragedy was occurring in America, musical joy was being spread across Britain. The Beatles’ first album weighed heavily towards cover versions of hit songs, but this record showed them in all of their songwriting and performing glory. Happily, the musical ecstasy of which Britain was currently partaking would soon spread across the pond to ease the national wounds of JFK’s assassination.

It Won’t Be Long: In sentiment at least, it’s practically a sequel to All My Loving (which paradoxically comes two songs later), and it’s just as infectious. You’d have to be a total ogre not to savor the driving beat and down-to-earth optimism of this joyous song. Ends with the kind of “oooooo” wail that drove millions of girl fans straight into puberty.

All I’ve Got to Do: Another of those whisper-sweet-nothings-in-your-ear songs, and quite effective at that. As these kinds of narratives go, there’s a lot more give-and-take between the singer and his listener-lover, far more gratifying than the standard aren’t-I-a-great-guy lyrics. Perfect make-out music.

All My Loving: This is a quintessential early-Beatles song that you’d have to beat to death to make unlikable. Some of The Beatles’ early songs sound weaker when they’re done live, but this one’s infectious melody and quietly touching lyrics — a perfect sentiment for loved ones far away — never fail to deliver, no matter what version. A real rouser.

Don’t Bother Me: George Harrison’s first composition to make it to a record, and he’s done far worse. It’s obviously an aping of the Lennon/McCartney unrequited-love style, but it’s a damn fine imitation, helped in no small way by George’s own guitar licks. A welcome promise of good things to come.

Little Child: A perfect Beatles dance tune, though John’s condescending title reference to the girl in question is one step removed from the misogyny that would show its ugly light in later songs. But the rocking rhythm and harmonica blasts handily put aside such concerns, at least for the time being.

Till There Was You: Beatles covers were nothing new even on this album, but definitely none of the others were borrowed from a Broadway hit. Paul at his most romantic (love that flamenco guitar style!) grabs hold of a hit from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man and savors the flavor for all its worth. Even more delightful is the Anthology 1 version (performed at Britain’s Royal Command Performance), where Paul introduces the song as having been performed by “our favorite American group, Sophie Tucker.”

Please Mr. Postman: From this cover song to Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues (on Anthology 3, from the Let It Be sessions), postmen can’t catch a break on Beatles recordings. As with most of their early covers, the Fabs bring enough soulful fever to their version to make the original look like a pale skeleton.

Roll Over Beethoven: Just as Zeppo Marx occasionally got a nice solo number for indistinctly serving his fellow Marx Brothers for so long, so the Fabs threw this Chuck Berry bone to George since they gave him so little else to do in the early years. It’s not quite the “rocking little number” George would have you believe, but it would do until future Beatles producer Jeff Lynne did the ultimate version of the song for Electric Light Orchestra in 1973.

Hold Me Tight: Standard effective early-Beatles formula: Hypnotic backbeat, a few falsetto “you-oo-oo’s,” and Paul singing about “making love to only you,” and there goes another female!

You Really Got a Hold on Me: Another aces cover, this one of Beatles-acknowledged influence Smokey Robinson. This one more than adequately conveys the original’s sense of obsessive love, which John would later take to its ultimate end in I Want You (She’s So Heavy). Where did these white boys get such soul?

I Wanna Be Your Man: Whereas a potboiler like Hold Me Tight gets across all too well via Paul’s libidinous delivery, perhaps Ringo (the guy who sang about the virtues of Boys on The Beatles’ first album) wasn’t the best choice to deliver a rocker like I Wanna Be Your Man. Small wonder this one later went to The Rolling Stones to give it the requisite, er, power.

Devil in Her Heart: As Beatles cover versions go, adequate but nothing spectacular. The concept of George singing the lead while the other Fabs serve as a Greek chorus is nice, but it’s eventually ruined by George’s inadequate delivery (starting with the very first lyric, delivered unclearly). The BBC radio version, presented on the Baby It’s You taster CD for Live at the BBC, is even more woeful, with George completely screwing up the final refrain and practically throwing his arms up in resignation.

Not a Second Time: John had a bad lover, he blew her off, she’s back again, and by golly, he’s not going to take it anymore. Now that’s all settled.

Money (That’s What I Want): Compared to The Beatles’ sinister cover, the singer in the original version of this song was asking for a quarter for a cup of coffee. A most underrated Beatles cover that sounds downright possessed by the old maxim about love of money, root of all evil, and all that Bible-thumping stuff. An absolute stunner and a perfect closer to an amazing album.

What do you think of With the Beatles and/or particular songs from it? Let us know in the “Comments” section below. Tomorrow: A Hard Day’s Night.

PLEASE PLEASE ME (1963) – A fresh sound that rocked the world

Why in the world is the blog suddenly reviewing Beatles albums? Click on the above image for the full scoop!

Please Please Me – Released on March 22, 1963

Producer George Martin said, “I asked them what they had which we could record quickly, and the answer was their stage act.” And so, in just short of 13 hours (a quick jaunt compared to their later use of studio time), a piece of rock music history was recorded.

I Saw Her Standing There: Paul McCartney’s opening count-off for this song — “One-two-three-faw!!” — is like the countdown to a new era of music. Despite the song’s opening innuendo (“She was just seventeen, and you know what I mean”), the song encapsulates the thrill of Beatlemania as thoroughly as does I Want to Hold Your Hand: raucousness for anyone looking for it, but relatively safe for generationally-threatened adults. And make no mistake: After all these years, the song still rocks. It’s hard to believe that it took some convincing of George Martin that Lennon and McCartney were real songwriters.

Misery: As opposed to Anna (Go to Him), this is a good old-fashioned cry-in-your-beer song. This feeling is bolstered by the clinking piano and John Lennon’s often-slurred delivery, not to mention the occasional snotty lyric (“She’ll remember and she’ll miss her only one”). More in keeping with Lennon’s early chauvinistic oeuvre than the later heartfelt stuff.

Anna (Go to Him): One of The Beatles’ first recorded unrequited-love songs, and it still packs a punch. John Lennon’s straight-from-the-throat delivery (it probably didn’t hurt that he had a cold while recording this album, giving some nasality to his vocals), backed by the withering guitar line, gets the job done. Only one question: Why is the song subtitled “Go To Him,” yet John consistently sings “go with him”? Another of his subtle defiances, perhaps?

Chains: They might not the kind of chains you can see (as the song says), but there’s still a certain masochistic edge to this tune, at least as delivered by The Beatles. From the opening harmonica blast to the melancholy vocals, the Fabs definitely provide an appropriate sense of imprisonment, though the subtext nearly suggests that they’re enjoying it.

Boys: In his Playboy interview (published posthumously in 1981), John Lennon found fans’ concerns about his spending too much time with Yoko Ono ironic in light of the fact that he used to spend most of his time alone with three other guys. Even more ironic is the unexplored subtext of Ringo helpfully describing the male species as “a bundle of joy.” Why are The Beatles so insistent on “talking about boys” here, anyway?

Ask Me Why: A happy early love song, definitely flamenco-flavored with the jaunty guitars and the “ei-ei-ei’s” all over the place. Much Beatle-related swooning probably begin right here.

Please Please Me: Legend has it that immediately after recording this song, producer George Martin told The Beatles, “Gentlemen, you’ve just recorded your first number-one song.” Nearly forty years later, in one of the Fabs’ greatest oversights ever, they release a compilation of their chart-topping hits titled Beatles 1 but leave this highlight off the CD. This one has it all: goosing harmonica blasts, snaky Lennon innuendo (just what was he wanting that girl to do in order to please please him?), and glorious rocking delivery. An all-time great.

Love Me Do: As a single, this was The Beatles’ first stab at recording, and it obviously wasn’t taking any chances: Unadventurous lyrics (the word “love” shows up a few dozen times for lack of better synonyms), middle-of-the-road singing and playing, and a studio drummer in place of Ringo (at least in its initial release). A pleasant enough tune, but hardly indicative of the heights to be hit shortly afterwards.

P.S. I Love You: Paul McCartney was to indulge in far worse schmaltz than this early bit of thoughtful sentimentality, in the form of a letter to a faraway lover. Wouldn’t have been out of place 25 years earlier in a wartime movie (and that’s mostly a compliment).

Baby It’s You: With great back-up by the other Fabs (you have to love that “cheat, cheat” chanting), John Lennon clearly gets across the underlying message of this song: You’re a slut, but I gotta have ya. With a few “sha-la-la’s” thrown in to sooth the questioning minds of adults.

Do You Want to Know a Secret: A Lennon-McCartney version of a movie lothario whispering nothings into his sweetheart’s ear. In this case, the lothario is George (probably a sop thrown to him to make up for having no compositions on their debut album), but it probably still had the desired effect on female Beatlemaniacs.

A Taste of Honey: How to sell a Beatles cover version: Make sure it has plenty of poetic synonyms for a woman’s kiss, then get Paul to deliver it at his most soppy. Shameless, but it gets the job done.

There’s a Place: The melody delivers far better than the lyrics. An early Beatle attempt at introspection (implying that the singer’s mind is the one place untrampled by the world) of the kind done more successfully in The Beach Boys’ In My Room. The rocking delivery doesn’t exactly mesh with the thoughtfulness, but it’s a nice try.

Twist and Shout: The story goes that in recording this debut album, John Lennon had to save this number for last because he knew it would tear his throat up. One imagines him spending the following week in bed, recovering. A perfect little rocker that makes The Isley Brothers’ original version look like an insignificant footnote. (And we’ll forgive teen-comedy filmmaker John Hughes for hijacking the Beatles version two decades later for Matthew Broderick to lip-synch in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) Anthology 1‘s version is equally nifty, taken as it is from The Beatles’ 1963 Royal Command Performance, where John closed the show with his immortal wisecrack about how the wealthier patrons should keep the beat of the song.

What do you think of Please Please Me or any of its songs? Share your opinion in the “Comments” section below. Tomorrow: With the Beatles.

Announcing our Beatles album review marathon!

If you have a Beatles aficionado in your life, you know that person uses any excuse to celebrate any anniversary in The Beatles’ career. In this case, I have decided to pay tribute to the 56th anniversary (Feb. 9, 1964) of The Beatles’ world-shaking debut appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Thanks to Capitol Records’ vigorous promotional campaign, America was already well aware of this British pop group and their energetic music. Their appearance on the Sullivan show ensured that The Beatles were here to stay.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, each day leading up to the anniversary, I will review an individual Beatles album, song by song. When I say “album,” I am sticking strictly to the 13 albums that The Beatles recorded in studio in Britain as a group from 1962 to 1970, along with the two-CD collection Past Masters, which represents their songs that were initially released only as singles. I will give a short summary or history of each album (Lord knows you can find them all well-documented elsewhere on the Internet), followed by reviews of each individual song on the album.

So follow along for the next two weeks and see if you agree with my opinions on The Fab Four’s music. And if you don’t, feel free to leave your two cents’ worth in the “Comments” section at the end of each blog entry. First up tomorrow: The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me.

R.I.P., Terry Jones

I was briefly in the hospital this week (nothing major), so I was unable to address this topic in a timely manner. But I’d like to add mine to the chorus of voices mourning the death at age 77 of Terry Jones, who was one-sixth of a comedy conglomerate known as Monty Python.

Jones was an Oxford alumnus and a well-respected medieval historian, though you’d never know it from the over-the-top work he did on behalf of Python (although it was Jones’ knowledge of medieval times that served as an impetus for Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Although he (like the other Pythons) played a variety of roles, Jones’ most memorable characterizations were mostly milquetoasts who were clueless about the situations they were dragged into — the straight man in the immortal “Nudge, nudge” sketch with Eric Idle, the beach visitor who keeps getting caught undressing and cheerily resigns himself to doing a stripping routine.

In addition to Python, Jones’ oeuvre includes a TV show (“Ripping Yarns” with long-time friend and fellow Python Michael Palin), countless books, plays, and screenplays, and several movie-directing turns. Sadly, the last years of Jones’ life were riddled with dementia that robbed him of his ability to think and communicate — a huge loss for any person, but doubly so for such a prolific scholar and creative being.

Thank you, Mr. Jones, for all the outrageous laughs. Here is probably his most memorable movie routine, from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Happy birthday, Oliver Hardy (1892-1957)

The following blog entry was previously posted one year ago today.
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Today is the 128th natal anniversary of Oliver Hardy. Only instead of us singing “Happy Birthday” to him, we’ll better honor this day by letting him sing to us! Here is a compilation of Hardy’s wonderful singing scenes from Laurel & Hardy movies.

From Brats.

From Pardon Us. (The singing is wonderful — the blackface, not so much.)

From Beau Hunks. (I couldn’t find the song by itself, so here’s the complete movie. Ollie’s singing begins at the 0:30 mark.)

From Way Out West.

From Swiss Miss.

From The Flying Deuces.

And last but not least, from Them Thar Hills.