The Beatles: Beatles For Sale (Parlophone)
Released December 4, 1964
The dark star of the Fab Four’s canon, Beatles for Sale (1964) has never been fully embraced by either critics or fans. Neither a big bang exploding outward (the proper UK debut Please Please Me or the Yankee reshuffle Meet the Beatles, take your pick), nor the maturation of their early style (Rubber Soul), hallowed cultural watershed (Sgt. Pepper), or accomplished swansong (Abbey Road), it doesn’t represent an important marker in the Beatles’ storied career. It’s not even a transition album as early 1965's Help! would be. Its spotty reputation isn’t helped by what we know of their overworked lives at the time: that it was hurriedly recorded for the Christmas market over a period of approximately two weeks, though Derek Taylor’s hyperbolic-as-usual liner notes manfully protest to the contrary. And because the album was released roughly six months after the double triumph of A Hard Day’s Night the movie (which enchanted even the surliest of film critics) and the album (“all compositions by John Lennon and Paul McCartney”), reverting to the formula of their first two records, eight in-house copyrights augmented by six covers, it’s often regarded as a regression in their evolution. But far from the failure as it’s often portrayed, Beatles for Sale triumphantly represents the band’s last stand before they turned the corner – from the basic rock and roll that inspired them to the more elaborate pop music that would pave the way for the rest of the sixties and beyond. Don’t let the fagged-out visages on Robert Freeman's famous cover photograph fool you – this is potent stuff.
Of course, the word to describe the Beatles’ post-1964 music is “rock,” sans “roll” – a salient distinction that separates the music of the previous decade from the one that followed, embodied here on this record by borrowings from Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and, twice, Carl Perkins. True, Lennon fell back on teenage fave Larry Williams on Help! (as did Ringo on current fave Buck Owens), but that had less to do with anything other than deadline desperation. For the Beatles’ Christmas release album of 1965 – Rubber Soul – they wouldn’t have dared permitted themselves such an out; covering something like the Coasters’ “Searchin’” would have been unthinkable, if not downright anachronistic. Things were advancing quickly during that time period; indeed, by the next summer, the Kinks, the Stones, and Dylan (though not the Who) had all released albums containing entirely self-penned material. Unless you count the piss-take on the Liverpudlian folk song “Maggie May” on Let it Be, after Help! the Beatles would never again record a song that didn’t originate within the confines of the band. Arguably, how you feel about Beatles for Sale’s 8-6 scorecard is ultimately a matter of taste. But I contend that a passion for this record says a lot about one’s commitment to rock with the roll still stubbornly hanging on.
Much has been made of the “despondent” tone of the first three opening numbers, “No Reply,” “I’m a Loser,” and “Baby’s in Black”: that they reflect the world-weariness of the album cover, that they reflect the influence of Dylan, that the uninhibited “innocence” of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was officially over. This reading is too two-dimensional to suit me – war babies forced to grow up fast, life would have shuttled them through the Blakeian door regardless of the magnitude of their success, whether the Bard of Hibbing had turned them on to weed or not. But what’s telling about this sequence is the very un-folkie sense of humor, however dark, at work in these songs – the goofily self-effacing melodic descent in the verse of “I’m a Loser” (“Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown”), or the painfully ironic way Lennon obliquely deals with Stu Sutcliffe’s death, which had occurred only two years previous, on the gleefully mordant “Baby’s in Black” (the tipoff: rhyming “She thinks only of him” with the glib “and though it’s only a whim”). Even more revealing is the defiant bridge McCartney sneaks into the otherwise paranoid “No Reply,” which suggests all of the scenarios laid out in the verses are products of Lennon’s otherwise overactive imagination. Publisher Dick James once told Lennon that “No Reply” was the “first complete song” the latter had written, which doesn’t quite sum up its unique achievement: rather than neatly tying up the narrative lyrically (which would have been too pat), the band implies everything musically, which is to say everything is ambiguous unless you’re paying attention – the way Ringo kick-drums Lennon to the curb at the very end of the last verse sure sounds like the period on a Dear John note to me. And the harmonically rich, decisively final major 9th chord they go out on -- sublime.
The remaining Lennon-McCartney numbers are no less daring, articulating their mounting cynicism by taking full advantage of their expanding musical vocabulary. The sparkling tune of Paul's "I'll Follow the Sun" conceals a cruel, hardened heart: it's "Free Bird" without the compassion or the rationale, cold-blooded enough that though it was written far earlier than most of the material on their first two records, it would have been out of place had it been included on one of them. Paul's swooning "Every Little Thing" would have been smug coming from its author, which is why he wisely gave it to John, who rarely wrote such a pure declaration of devotion for himself, even if the inelegant harmonies in the second half of the chorus (on "she does for me-ee, yeah-ah) imply, consciously or not, an ugly possessive streak on the part of the narrator. Lennon's killer "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" is Lesley Gore for sullen grown-ups, with Paul's punchy bridge once again providing exultant uplift. And Paul's cranky "What You're Doin'," set into a motion by a remarkable sample-worthy drum pattern, inaugurates a petulant series of Jane Asher-inspired songs that would culminate on the masterful "You Won't See Me" and "I'm Looking Through You" on Rubber Soul. Only the second side opener, the jubilant ear-candy piñata "Eight Days a Week," bristles with the euphoria of the early days. Its increasingly jaded authors hated it.
That leaves the covers, all of them unassailable rock classics -- with the major exception of one, which I'll address in a second. If these are supposedly sub-par, which one would you sacrifice to the scrap pile? Lennon's manic reading of Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music" is spirited, redemptive where the original is sly: a classic. McCartney's Little Richard medley is raucous, intense: ditto. The uncommonly gorgeous duet on Buddy Holly's "Words of Love" gains much of its allure from the blend of two distinct singers, rather than the mere "novelty" of one man's overdub trickery. Ringo's charming "Honey Don't" may not be in that class, but it's a worthy side dish, and completely in character. The only misstep might be the other Perkins number, George's "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," which does its best to make that chunka-chunk rhythm exciting (the stop-time trick as employed on the last verse is a decent enough climax) but the song is really a missed opportunity. Thematically, the song is perfect ("Woke up last night/Half past four/Fifty women knocking on my door"), but had Lennon been at the helm, there really could have been some sting in the sentiment -- the bitter implication that maybe he'd rather a quiet moment to himself than fuck. But with George at the mic, there's a bit of wide-eyed post-adolescent braggadocio in play, as in: "I'm famous and I'm finally getting laid!" But that's a minor quibble. I even like the ghastly Sam Phillips-style echo plastered on the thing, if only because that request on the part of the Beatles must have gotten on George Martin's nerves.
That leaves the woefully understood "Mr. Moonlight," often cited as one of the worst Beatles tracks ever, as misguided a notion as championing such soggy ballads as "The Fool on the Hill" as "the best." In fact, I would argue this much-derided cover of a Dr. Feelgood and the Interns obscurity is one of the keys to this album's greatness. The 1961 original plays it straight, and despite some kitschy musical choices (the wobbly electric guitar solo suggests a Hawaiian ukulele influence) the song generates real excitement, even soul. After Lennon shreds his larynx for the introduction -- an amusing mislead for what follows -- the Beatles take an entirely different tack: camp. Ringo's endearingly gauche conga thud before the title phrase replaces the Interns' assertive snare, McCartney brings in the cheesiest Hammond B-3 line ever attempted by a respectable musician, and the harmonies eschew the earnest passion of the original in favor of a jovial dose of sarcasm. They're not demeaning the track, but celebrating its strangeness by ironically accentuating it. Critics have often complained that it was lunacy to use this track rather than the one outtake from these sessions, their rollicking reading of Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone" -- noted Beatle-ophile Mark Lewisohn avers Lennon's vocal on that one as "searing." But it's also conventional -- a straight blues, and the Beatles never did anything straight, which is why it stayed in the proverbial vault for decades. Their knowing humor, their self-mockery, their nose-thumbing at authority, and their lampooning of sacred cows are rare qualities for pop stars -- an undervalued asset that played a big part in what made them the greatest rock (and roll) band of all time. If you've ever struggled with "Mr. Moonlight," imagine the smirk John might have had when Paul stumbled his way through that chintzy one-note organ solo. In the last verse, you can almost hear him stifle a laugh.
Beatles for Sale doesn't normally appear on many "best-of" lists, mainly because their artistic peaks are so many that to do so might almost appear redundant -- in Tom Moon's astute 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, he lets the early '64 Hard Day's Night stand in for the band's first two years. By any rational measure, this is is mistake. Fine as that record is, Beatles for Sale is more balanced: deeper spiritually, yet still capable of the joyful abandon of their early work. That quality alone makes it absolutely essential.
April 18, 2014