Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, June 22, 2006

I have found this eloquent encomium to the Beatles by Woebot to be liberating and inspiring on a couple counts.

First, the liberation. It should be obvious, but I’m a middle-aging fart with middle-aging musical interests -- old, really. Realized today that I’m older than Elvis was when he died! I’m not one of those who thinks “things were better when” or “music today gives me the blahs” -- just that my dance card is pretty full & I’m most committed to music I’ve been committed to for quite a while now. I have my peeves, but they’re merely peevish, and I hear as much delightful new stuff on the radio as I ever consciously have. But I rarely fall in love with it. My loss.

I’ve felt guilty about this regarding the blog -- why should anybody care about the reminiscences of an old fart with no previous claim on anybody’s attention? But here’s Woebot, 8 years younger than me, waxing gooey on the Beatles -- even gooier than I feel about them, which is plenty goo.

And that’s inspiring. Enthusiasm.

As a teen-age rock-classical-jazz aesthete American cheapskate snob I understood that the American releases of the Beatles first seven (!) albums were substantially different than the British releases, in some cases unrecognizably.

Please Please Me
With the Beatles
A Hard Day’s Night
Beatles For Sale
Rubber Soul

The cheapskate part was that I didn’t spring for the British imports. In my teen-age 1970s I stumbled across a Vee-Jay Records release called “Introducing the Beatles,” which was “Please Please Me” track for track, so I got that one. And various compilations and American releases. But I didn’t know them all.

About seven years ago two friends of mine got married and hosted a week-end long party at an old military base converted into a state park on the Olympic Peninsula facing Puget Sound, with private rooms in the old barracks for all of the guests. The night before the wedding a jam session transpired with a legendary version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” led by a powerful, merry singer and radical activist of Irish American extraction who commanded everybody to rise for the song. Four middle-aging folkies took turns leading the group in a song, as well as a sweet-natured 13-year-old sax prodigy who later won a national high school award for jazz improvisation at Wynton Marsalis’s annual festival, and who this night kicked all us old farts’ asses with, “you guys should be able to follow this, it’s just a blues” -- by Charlie Parker.

Most of the party were friends of the groom who all knew each other (or, in the sax prodigy’s case, knew his parents), and the one musician that night whom I didn’t know all of a sudden sang a Beatles song I had never heard because of my high school cheap-skated pseudo-snobbery: the Lennon song “Not a Second Time,” from “With the Beatles.” Joe, who had led us on “Gloria,” waxed gooey -- “How old were they when they wrote that song? 22? 23? Genius!” And it is a beautiful song, with a melancholy meandering melody that wanders unorthodoxly over seven- and ten-bar phrases. (Almost all American pop music is in 8, 12, or 4 bar phrases.)

A few months later I saw “With the Beatles” cheap at Costco, and I bought it. Trove of unknown Beatles! Unknown, that is, to me.

I had always loved “Please Please Me” as much as any of their albums except maybe “The White Album.” “With the Beatles” is their most consistently wonderful. High energy, a performing rock band, at the peak of (British) Beatlemania, 1963, the same year as the monumental “She Loves You” and the almost as towering “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” this is the album to stand with those songs.

14 songs, in order:

1. “It Won’t Be Long.” A new one for me, and the most Beatle-maniacal in the “She Loves You” sense on the album, with repeated, shouted, call-and-response “Yeah”s. Lennon lead vocal, and presumably mostly his composition. One of the reasons I prefer the first two Beatles records to anything except “The White Album” (which itself has a number of clunkers but is so expansive that it rumbles over any objections): The Girl Group influence. Five girl group cover songs on the first two albums. The call-and-response vocals and -- crucially -- the vulnerability and traditionally passive feminine role. This is a musically Beatlemaniacal song with passive, feminine “girl group” lyrics. Lennon is ecstatic, his wandering girl friend is “coming on home,” he’s been lonely, crying, having no fun, but now he’ll “be good like I know I should,” and -- the crowning ping of just-rightness, the chorus, “It won’t be long till I belong to you” -- the singer is not the possessor, he wants to be possessed. Traditional “girl” lyrics, sung with masculine gusto & even aggression. Brilliant.

2. “All I’ve Got to Do,” another one new to me, another Lennon lead vocal and original song, another one in the wandering, odd-phrase-length, melancholy gorgeousness of “Not a Second Time.”

3. “All My Loving” -- one of the ones I knew. Paul at his jaunty best, with a rollicking rhythm guitar & nice twang guitar solo from George. Part of the melody is (no doubt unknowingly) lifted from a Brubeck composition from the “Time Out” album.

4. “Don’t Bother Me” -- George’s songwriting debut. Great rock beat with a subtle cha-cha undercurrent, moody tune with nice electric piano & tasty lead guitar. A toe-tapper.

5. “Little Child” -- another Lennon lead vocal new to me with nice riffing harmonica. Energetic tuneful teen lust throwaway filler -- not in a bad way -- with a great mincing vocal, “I’m so sad and lonely” alternating with a confident, leering vocal, “Baby take a chance on me” -- the utterly false mincingness is the best part of the song.

6. “Till There Was You” -- a cover from “The Music Man,” Paul in moony Broadway crooner mode, sung beautifully, with a slightly bossa nova feel from the band and lovely acoustic guitar playing, especially George’s jazzy solo. The moon-eyed satisfied melodious sigh of love. I had heard this one.

7. “Please Mister Postman” -- Lennon covering the Marvelletes, Motown girl group marvels. I’d heard this one, and it repeats the brilliant wild-eyed gusto leering joyous singing of passive lyrics of the first song. Poor Lennon, waiting, waiting for a letter from his wandering girlfriend. Those are the words. The singing says -- I’m going after her! Great, great record. (Another one I had heard.)

8. “Roll Over Beethoven” -- George servicably covering Chuck Berry with nice energy from the whole band.

9. “Hold Me Tight” -- McCartney’s only “shouter” vocal on the record, the least distinguished song on the record but not bad. Macca sounds a little tentative to me, but that’s OK. Another one I’d never heard.

10. “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” Lennon’s lovely cover of Smokey Robinson. Smokey beat the Beatles to the “vulnerable male” angle, but I suppose Sinatra had too. (One I had heard before.)

11. “I Wanna Be Your Man” -- Ringo singing -- shouting -- a Lennon & McCartney original. Like with the Ringo feature “Boys” on “Please Please Me,” the whole band cut loose for this one. Great rave up. And Ringo sings great, as usual. The exuberance of lust, the exuberance of lust, the exuberance of lust. (I had heard this one.)

12. “Devil in Her Heart” -- George covering an obscure girl group song. His boyfriends try to talk him out of dating the bad girl. “She’s got the devil in her heart,” John & Paul leer. “Oh no! This I can’t believe!” George protests. Another classic inverted gender song, with the “innocent” boy insisting on the goodness of the “bad” girl. Really great, and featuring a wonderful Beatles trademark: slightly menacing background harmony vocals. Note: George sings as many leads as Paul on this album. And holds his own. (This one was new to me.)

13. “Not a Second Time.” Beautiful Lennon, discussed above. I’d never heard the Beatles’ version before buying the record.

14. “Money,” the album’s third Motown cover, with the most menacing background vocals they ever recorded (“That’s . . . What I want!”), and great proto-punk tom-tom pounding by Ringo (the Troggs really listened to this one), and grinding bluesy dissonant piano riffing, and an amazing over-the-top lead vocal from Lennon. (Not a new one to me.)

All of the other Beatles records, even “Please Please Me,” there inevitably comes a song, usually a bunch, that I want to skip. Not this one.

So, thanks Mr. Woebot. Maybe getting all the writing-goo about this old music out of my system will clean out my ears for new ecstasies. And if not, it’s still a pleasure.

I wonder if, in It Won't Be Long, you caught Lennon's clever double entendre: "It won't be long til I belong to you." Makes one realize again how young they were.

-Michael B.
No, I missed that one.

Is it a Freudian pun on Das Ich und das Es? "Where the It was, there the I shall be." When "I belong," "it won't belong [be long]."

Nah, probably not.

Another reason I love the first two albums especially: The rave-up energy dissipates on later records. Great songs on all the albums, but rave-up energy pushes middling songs higher.

Thanks for the comment!
I've listened to that album about 20 times in the last two weeks. It must be in the air. I love the girl group covers, it puts the Beatles in perspective. For those of us who weren't around then, it's an immediate explanation for how they got so popular in the first place. The critically "great" albums - Revolver, Rubber Soul, Abbey Rd, Sgt. Peps - don't contextualize very well.
I really enjoyed Woebot's post as well. The Beatles for Sale era was my Beatle-baptism, too -- a well-worn hand me down copy of Beatles 65 from my Aunt (she had almost completely worn out I'll Follow The Sun, the needle would skip almost all the way across it). I had that and a reel to reel tape copy of the White Album, which was brown in the tape version.

Lennon's full throated, melodramatic singing on those exploding choruses -- No Reply, Baby's In Black, Mr. Moonlight -- still gives me goosebumps. And those driving tandem acousics. MacDonald's book was such a thrill when I cracked open my bought-in-Oxford-on-tour copy on the plane back -- and then he rags For Sale so hard. I got over it. Still my favorite music book.

My aunt, first gen beatle fan, me 10 years removed, and Woebot another 10. The Beatle generation regeneration. It's incredible.

I found my own copies then of the American albums -- Beatles VI, Hard Days night w/ the soundtrack stuff, etc.

My friend Charles had all the EMI/Parlophone albums, but I didn't get into the proper stuff until I read Lewison in college.

Jay, I remember listening to that reel-to-reel of the White Album at your house growing up! Did your folks have Abbey Road on reel-to-reel too? I remember a reel-to-reel of classic Atlantic Records R&B, with "Drinkin' Wine Spo-dee-oh-dee" by Stick McGee & His Buddies, and "Poison Ivy" by the Coasters.

"For Sale" I'd say is pretty mixed, but "No Reply," "I'm a Loser," "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," "Honey Don't," and, in a way, "Mr. Moonlight" are among my fave rave Beatles recordings.

Ali, I'm not sure what you mean about Abbey Road and the others not contextualizing well, but I'm glad you dig the girl group connection too! "With the Beatles" rocks.
They had a few reel to reels that I think came with the machine -- The Beatles, The Atlantic History of Rhytm and Blues (a treasure trove for young ears) Tiajuana Brass' Going Places, that hit Ramsey Lewis live record, and a couple of contemporary Broadway shows.

A package deal for the near-hip, college town audiophile.

Thanks for sharing this fresh evaluation of an old LP. I grew up in the post-Beatles era and got into my parents' records as a young'un, but got imprinted with Segeant Pepper's etc etc, Beatles for Sale and Hard Day's Night (oh, and a 7 inch EP lifted from Please Please Me), and always thought less of With the Beatles when I heard it later.

I haven't heard these albums in a while, but you've persuaded me to think I might have underrated this LP - I already suspect I've overrated For Sale.

Incidentally, I grew up in Australia, where Beatles records were released the same way as in the UK, only With The Beatles was released with a different cover, because the artwork from England got lost in the mail.
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