Thursday, October 01, 2009

Album project: With The Beatles

The Beatles, With The Beatles (1963): Most Americans first heard of the Beatles in early 1964 with "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and their Ed Sullivan Show appearance. But the Fab Four's true watershed moment came on August 23, 1963, with the release of their fourth single, the irresistibly catchy "She Loves You". Paul McCartney said of the tune, "I’d planned an ‘answering song’ where a couple of us would sing ’she loves you’ and the other ones would answer ‘yeah yeah’. We decided that was a crummy idea but at least we then had the idea of a song called ‘She Loves You’. So we sat in the hotel bedroom for a few hours and wrote it — John and I, sitting on twin beds with guitars.” The structure was simple, but The Beatles adorned the tune with expert harmonies, and the hook - that "Yeah, yeah, yeah" - summarized the entire British Invasion sound that was now poised to sweep the globe in the next year. "She Loves You" stormed to the top of the UK charts, and became the biggest-selling single in British recording history. That record would be broken by McCartney himself in 1977 with "Mull Of Kintyre".

The Beatles were now the biggest musical act Great Britain had ever seen. The next several months would be a whirlwind of live shows and promotional appearances, while manager Brian Epstein worked diligently to secure his clients a beachhead in the US market. In the midst of this activity, producer George Martin booked six dates scattered through their hectic schedule between July and October for the recording of the Fab Four's second album. With The Beatles maintains much of the energy level of the debut, while also featuring a bit more polish, as well as starting to hint at some of the directions The Beatles' music would follow in the coming months.

The songwriting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney had quickly become the band's greatest strength, kicking off the album with "It Won't Be Long", an aggressive number cemented by those familiar "Yeah! Yeah!" interjections. "All My Loving" features one of McCartney's best early vocals, as well as featuring distinctive chord changes that would become a Beatles trademark. One of the best compositions, "I Wanna Be Your Man", was saved for Ringo Starr to sing, and he gives a fine performance that is still one of his best vocal turns. George Harrison checks in as a composer for the first time as well, although his "Don't Bother Me" is most notable for its guitar solo, an example of Harrison's steady improvement as a guitarist.

As with the debut, With The Beatles featured eight originals and six cover versions. The covers are arguably the LP's weakness, for as songwriters The Beatles were already beginning to outstrip many of the American R&B artists they derived their early sound from. Their versions of "Please Mr. Postman" and "Roll Over Beethoven" sound flat, and "Devil In Her Heart" is downright cheesy - a trait the early Beatles were not immune from. The best of the covers was Barrett Strong's "Money", a raucous, stomping set-closer with another throat-straining Lennon vocal in the manner of "Twist And Shout". Overall, With The Beatles is a portrait of a band with still-unfulfilled vast potential, with one foot still planted in the sweaty beat music of the Cavern Club, and the other preparing to explore the new worlds opening up before them.

With The Beatles, released on November 22, replaced Please Please Me at #1 in the UK album charts, staying there for 21 weeks, for a total of 51 consecutive weeks spent by the Fab Four at the top of the album chart. The nearly year-long stranglehold was finally broken by The Rolling Stones' debut LP. The closest US equivalent LP is Meet The Beatles!, featuring nine tracks from the UK release. A week later came the release of their fifth UK single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand". The Fab Four's most groundbreaking work yet. Brian Epstein requested that Lennon and McCartney write a single with the American market in mind. "I Want To Hold Your Hand", with its dramatic buildup and innovative chord structure, provided not only a breakthrough hit for The Beatles in America, but also a preview of the next decade's musical evolution. John Lennon said of the song's creation, "We wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in 'I Want to Hold Your Hand,' I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher's house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, 'Oh you-u-u/ got that something...' And Paul hits this chord [E minor] and I turn to him and say, 'That's it!' I said, 'Do that again!' In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that—both playing into each other's noses."

Alan Pollack gives a detailed analysis of "I Want To Hold Your Hand", although much of it may be a bit deep for those who are not musicians or students of music theory.

What "She Loves You" did for The Beatles in Britain, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" did for them in the rest of the world. Capitol rush-released the single on December 26, 1963, and backed by an unprecedented promotional blitz from Capitol Records, it sold 2.6 million copies in the US by the time the Fab Four landed in New York for the first time on February 7, 1964. Two days later, their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance was seen by 73 million viewers. Beatlemania had gained full force, unleashing an incredible wave of popularity that crested on April 4, when "Can't Buy Me Love", "Twist And Shout", "She Loves You", "I Want To Hold Your Hand", and "Please Please Me" occupied the first five positions in the US singles charts.