Sunday, October 18, 2009

Album project: Beatles For Sale

The Beatles, Beatles For Sale (1964): The Beatles spent most of 1964 touring the world, In June, they did 19 shows in 32 days, visiting Denmark, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. They folowed this with a triumphant return to the United States in August, performing 30 shows in 23 cities during the month. The tours became a monotonous grind, with the time before shows spent with promotional appearances, and dealing with obnoxious promoters, journalists, and DJs. The shows themselves were frustrating experiences, the group usually hurrying through 15 songs in 25 minutes that neither band nor audience could hear over all the screaming - as John Lennon remarked, "We might as well had been playing broomsticks." Afterward, the group headed back to the hotel, parading scores of young women through their rooms into the wee hours of the morning. On August 28 in New York, The Beatles met Bob Dylan, an artist that Lennon particularly admired. This meeting became a turning point for both Dylan and the Fab Four. According to legend, Dylan introduced The Beatles to marijuana that afternoon, opening up the group to all manner of mind-expanding experiences that would in time show up in their music. For their part, John, Paul, George, and Ringo gave Dylan the inspiration to start moving away from folk music and form his own rock band.

Physically and emotionally exhausted, The Beatles returned to England in September needing a break, only to discover that EMI Records and Brian Epstein were demanding that a new album be completed for release during the Christmas season. Furthermore, they only had a few weeks to complete the record before going out on another tour of Great Britain. During this time, the group knocked out Beatles For Sale, which bears the marks of a tired group pushed to its limits.

When one writes of a mediocre Beatles album, it must be noted that this is a relative assessment: a sub-par Beatles disc is nevertheless superior to the best efforts of the majority of rock groups. The frenetic pace of the band's tour schedule made it difficult for John Lennon and Paul McCartney to compose new material; Lennon told interviewers, "Material's becoming a hell of a problem." Once again, The Beatles decided to augment their original material with a selection of covers, which account for most of the disc's weak spots. Of the outside material, Ringo Starr's vocal on "Honey Don't" is the best moment, as Starr was by now showing a flair for country and rockabilly-oriented material. Uptempo material like "Kansas City"/"Hey Hey Hey" and "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby" seems uninspired; even John's performance on Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" lacks spark when compared to earlier efforts like "Twist And Shout" and "Money". The less said about "Mr. Moonlight", the better.

The eight original compositions show an increasing musical sophistication, as well as reflecting the ever-increasing pressures of The Beatles' fame, and the claustrophobic feeling of living every moment in the spotlight. "No Reply" was a surprisingly downbeat way to open an album. Along with the next two tracks, "I'm A Loser" and "Baby's In Black", they form a trilogy, mostly written by Lennon, that highlights John's sad, despondent feelings; Lennon increasingly seems to be a man trapped by his own fame. "I'm A Loser", with its chord structure and vocal inflections, also shows the increasing influence of Bob Dylan on The Beatles' songwriting. "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" continues in this vein. A counterpoint to the moodiness is found in the shimmering "Eight Days A Week", with its unusual fade-in introduction and extensively overdubbed guitar parts. Although not released in the UK as a single, "Eight Days A Week" became the Fab Four's seventh US chart-topper in March 1965.

On Beatles For Sale, the group and producer George Martin continue their experimentation with multi-tracking and overdubbing, in the process sparking a revolution in music recording that would continue for the rest of the decade. Some of the aggression and despair that marks the album could be due to the nervousness of The Beatles realizing that they had crossed into uncharted territory, and wondering if they might be getting too far ahead of their times to sustain their success. A lot of it, though, could have been the tensions caused by that success itself - even in the cover photo, the group looks fatigued, on edge. As George Martin said, "They were rather war-weary during Beatles For Sale. One must remember that they'd been battered like mad throughout '64, and much of '63. Success is a wonderful thing, but it is very, very tiring." But success was also continuing to be lucrative, as Beatles For Sale replaced A Hard Days Night atop the UK album chart upon its release on December 4. In the US, the Beatles For Sale material showed up on Beatles '65 and Beatles VI.

The Beatles' musical progress is even more apparent on the non-LP single "I Feel Fine"/"She's A Woman", released the week prior to Beatles For Sale and one of the strongest double-"A" sided singles ever. The riff-driven "I Feel Fine" features a confident group creating a style of rock all its own. The song is notable for the first-ever use of feedback on record. According to Paul McCartney, “John had a semi-acoustic Gibson guitar. It had a pick-up on it so it could be amplified… We were just about to walk away to listen to a take when John leaned his guitar against the amp. I can still see him doing it… and it went, ‘Nnnnnnwahhhhh!” And we went, ‘What’s that? Voodoo!’ ‘No, it’s feedback.’ Wow, it’s a great sound!’ George Martin was there so we said, ‘Can we have that on the record?’ ‘Well, I suppose we could, we could edit it on the front.’ It was a found object– an accident caused by leaning the guitar against the amp.”

"She's A Woman" is another driving riff-rocker. McCartney turns in one of his best Little Richard imitations here, with counterpoint provided by his bass and piano. Many Beatles experts also credit Paul with the lead guitar solo. Lennon and Harrison nail it all down with their chunky guitar chords.

The Beatles entered 1965 on top of the world, ready to make another movie. Not even they could have predicted the impact that the musical revolution they sparked would have over the next twelve months.