Sunday, June 19, 2011

With the Beatles (1963)


(Parlophone)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

With the Beatles is everything. If the Beatles' career had ended after their life-affirming, infinitely powerful second album, released the day JFK was shot, it would be enough to secure their legend. It contains all the detail, idiosyncrasy, urgency needed to make the idea and perfect execution of rock & roll clear to anyone. Arguably nothing else in the LP form can compete with its immediacy. So what if rock & roll was no longer new by 1963, so what if this record was the shot in the arm required to wake it up? And so what if its most sublime moment, its crowning touch, appears in its first thirty seconds? John Lennon's first words to his adoring disciples (almost exclusively European at this point; the first trip to America was still months away) in "I Won't Be Long": "Every night when everybody has fun / Here am I, sitting all on my own." Fuck sex and drugs... that is rock & roll. That is the spirit and the truth. Every second of the rest of the album is an illustration of Lennon's manifesto.

Behind that massive voice, the Beatles make good on their Please Please Me promises by playing with even more graceful abandon. Their proficiency with studio work has increased, and they now have the luxury of spending more than one day on an LP, but it has not softened their impact. The songs on their second goround gain a stark eloquence, a musical dialogue of their own, and most importantly, they're loud. And if you're not playing them with the volume pumped to the maximum, you are not hearing them as they must be heard. It's been said that With the Beatles at top volume essentially approximates the sound of the Beatles at the Cavern, which is useful since only a handful of recordings of their pre-Beatlemania performances survive. But it's beyond that -- get this on loud enough and it is, quite precisely, punk rock. In England in 1963. If you spend enough time thinking about it your head will explode. So don't. Just scream and dance, like they did then.

The opening three cuts ("It Won't Be Long," "All I've Got to Do," "All My Loving") say it all, slyly coating the band's pop smarts and terrifying abrasiveness with a nuance and care passed over on the prior record in favor of impact. The Beatles in the fall of 1963 are not just wild dumb teenage sex -- they're smart, they're sensual, they're unstoppable. But they're also very, very serious -- no light sardonics or cuts into the mystique here, all detached quality control and impassioned playing and singing -- and they are no longer betraying the naive charm of London music industry newcomers. Already tight professionals as a live band by the time they signed to Parlophone, With reveals the rapidity of their learning process. In the interim between the two records, two singles had seen release, neither of them included on either long-form LP. "From Me to You," though a strong enough composition, sounded tentative and confused, a lily-fingered follwup to the fire and madness of the album, but its b-side, "Thank You Girl," suggested a phenomenal, almost sinister, developing of familiarity with the secrets of studio pop. By "She Loves You," only the band's fourth single, they are masters. Producer George Martin, always an improviser and always an asset, lends the song an almost alien force by layering on sheets of noise, making Ringo's cymbals sound as though they never stop crashing, making John and Paul's harmonies seem to extend forever in some rock & roll hall of mirrors. And they managed it all in the context of a song that was both improbably hard-edged, almost unbearably intense rock & roll... and sexually charged teenage music.

That same blanket of noise populates With the Beatles, constant but at times deliberately impenetrable -- how many times must one listen to "Devil in Her Heart" before that primal wall behind everything is actually revealed to be John and Paul's backing vocals? But even at the beginning, it was on the singles that the band showed their chops, and on the albums that they expressed themselves most deeply. It's a curious paradox that the original condition of the pop album as something not many fans actually listened to or cared about is likely what led the Beatles to save their darkest, most ambitious and experimental material for their LPs, which in turn led to the perhaps wrongheaded vaunting of the album as the definitive form of pop music. Clearly the Beatles cared a lot about this material, all the same; whether it was their decision or Martin's, it's telling that unlike Please Please Me, With the Beatles contains not one song issued as a single. In the end, nearly half of their albums would score record-breaking sales without the aid of singles. Instead, With scores on nothing more than its material, which is often bracing in its craft and intelligence -- innovative, fascinating chord structures and harmonies, adventurous compositions, and most of all their tight ("tighter!"), intimidating presence as a band, and their absolute conviction, their undiluted passion, as singers -- Lennon especially.

Lennon's alienated "It Won't Be Long," with its pressing and anguished performance and his trademark sympathy for the outcast, closes with a hell of a dramatic moment, turning the similarly jazzy finale of "She Loves You" upside down: an improvised, sweet but sudden climax to its royal mess of crazed emotions. This leads directly into what is certainly the finest song on With the Beatles and may indeed be (heavily competing with "Don't Let Me Down," "Help!," "I Call Your Name," and "Strawberry Fields Forever," only one of which is on an LP) the greatest Beatles song of all, John's tender "All I've Got to Do." The composition, tipping a hat to Smokey Robinson, is airtight and gorgeous, its stunning descending melodic trick reprised briefly and famously on "Not a Second Time," but the performance is surely the most riveting in a catalog that would soon be dominated by studio playtime that, however impressive, can never compete with the sound of John Lennon going off on a vocal tangent over this band playing together, better than ever before or since, as a unit.

As at so many other points, as much as all four Beatles are necessary to make this magic tick, it is Lennon who sets the scene and leads it to its peak. The passion and sex in his voice are irresistible, impossibly elegant, quickly displaying the reason he may be the greatest male singer in a field full of masters from Sam Cooke to Lou Reed, the things he does hypnotic: his wraparound of the "IIIII-hiiiii-IIIIII" hook worthy of Billie Holiday, his slip in and out of the intoxicating baritone on "On meeeeeee yeah," a revelatory moment that would be recalled on the Richard Lloyd guitar solo in Television's "Elevation" -- you think you understand the song's limits until Lennon and Lloyd dip below the ground. The build of the powerfully direct, communicative chorus, the way it grows warmer each time, is a magic seduction -- the teenage telephone tale never condescended to or deflated, no Phil Spector melodrama required. And the "ohhh!" just before the last "You just gotta call on me," and finally the band's tour de force entrance into John's sublime humming coda.

It's not an insult to the others that John Lennon dominates the best Beatles recordings; he was simply that astonishing. Nor is it an insult that "All I've Got to Do" destroys "Yesterday," "Michelle," "Imagine," "God Only Knows," everything -- this is the sound of uncluttered, unchecked, un-fucked up emotion pouring out of a human being. No second-hand documentary bullshit definition of rock & roll can approach its beauty and delicacy. To hear it blasting from speakers grand or small, to witness it, is a gift worth giddy excitement nearly five decades later.

But Paul too is capable, on "All My Loving," of a love song that brims with the same undiluted energy as the Beatles' idols -- it's rollicking country-western that, despite its ballad template, moves along with the same restless, driving speed as the rockers, picking up the pace considerably from "All I've Got to Do" without attempting its hard-soft dynamics in remotely the same fashion. Paul offers all the cushioning the song's sharp-edged arrangement needs, while George's solo underscores its Carl Perkins roots in a moment that peaks the populist divinities of With the Beatles' opening salvo.

Generally, With approaches its songs from a more controlled atmosphere than the debut; none of the three masterworks described above could have been possible on that remarkably divergent effort. The choices of covers here, scattered now rather than appearing in a row, are also more interesting, with the exception of the vaguely charming but slightly regrettable maxed-out balladry Paul shows off on "Till There Was You," a step down from the oddball mystery of "A Taste of Honey." The others are capable of spinning killer new angles on classics, like Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," and even standing alongside the immortal performances of masters, as on the still-flooring versions of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and the Marvelettes' "Please Mister Postman." Without the virtue of songwriting adventure, the covers become the place for startling, savory rushes of stabbing guitar, unstoppable beat, and indescribable frenzy. Banalities like "(There's A) Devil in Her Heart" are obliterated by the Beatles' hasty passion. And with Lennon at the helm, a girl group classic like "Postman" becomes exhilarating, a tearing-your-hair-out plead to a lost companion, coming apart with desperation. Musically, the revision of "Hold on Me," hardly a song it would seem remotely possible to improve, is even more extreme, stripping it of everything but minimalist instrumentation, Ringo (who careens miles ahead of all others, as usual), and the gasping, relentless drama of the voices. Add "Don't want to kiss you / But I need to" to the grand listing of iconic sophomore-LP moments.

And then there are the originals. Even the throwaways are virtually flawless. Ringo fucks up "I Wanna Be Your Man," already released as a Rolling Stones 45, with manic Indra-sized gusto; dig John and Paul's simultaneous scream of joy ahead of the bridge. The Motown knockoff "Hold Me Tight" is driven into oblivion by a perfect rhythm guitar line, the harmonies stretching upward forever. George's debut as composer, "Don't Bother Me," is haunting grade-A Brit invasion arrogance. And try to escape the grip of John's bruising "Little Child," as hook-filled as any Beatles single.

If the stark, stylish, gloomy album cover wasn't enough to suggest more in play on With the Beatles than the brightly lit corridors and grinning faces of Please Please Me, the last three songs fully realize a menace that had existed underneath the surface brightness of the Beatles' music since at least their first trip to Hamburg, now accidentally set to coincide with an approaching descent into darkness for the Western world, in particular the country that the Beatles would forever alter in the year ahead. It's simple enough to draw a cultural diagram, though; more interestingly, one actually seems to be hearing the beginnings of John Lennon's "Primal Scream" output, the confessional mode that would culminate seven years later on Plastic Ono Band but would in the meantime produce gut-splitting songs like "Help!" and the bulk of albums like A Hard Day's Night and Rubber Soul. In the bleak shred of his voice on "Not a Second Time" and "Money," he seems to be reliving the loss of his mother and (to a lesser extent) his father, of his childhood, of Stuart Sutcliffe, of all the endurances and dreads that brought him to the recording studio in which he now sits. He is living it, still, and on iPods around the world, he will be living it in perpetuity.

At first or even twelfth glance, "Devil in Her Heart" -- led by George -- is a relatively minor entry in the canon. But pay attention, with or without the aid of the Donays' obscure original, and live for a time with esoteric majesty and odd mysticism of the harmonies; the willingness to go crazy-eccentric for a cover dates back at least to their midnight destructions of "Your Feets Too Big" and the first album's "Boys," but that swirl is something new to the Beatles, something almost creepily foretelling. But they never again recorded anything like "Not a Second Time," and no one has. Turning around the ecstacy of Side One with last-minute menace, Lennon sounds ruthless, battle-lines drawn, as the tension escalates around him. At first he wails alone with George Martin's piano, later the centerpiece of an otherworldly solo, before Ringo's unflappable mechanic drumming pushes it all ahead. His fill after the first verse and the piano solo that follows need no words to humanize the suggestion of the moment. There is no protection or forgiveness within this track... a four-wall trap of agony and fury, John's wails filling every inch.

While there's little that's theatrical about With the Beatles, the band's entity and their individual personas create an effect of apocalypse. On "Money," possibly the band's finest cover, Lennon nearly betters his own wrenching "Twist and Shout" vocal with layers of bravado and angst behind smirking irony; it culminates in the spontaneous electricity of what may be the most important line he would ever sing... "I WANT TO BE FREE." It builds and builds some more, oppressive and unforgiving, until Lennon seems to be digging himself slowly out of a hole, out of the hole of all of his losses, into the cynicism that can save him, a world away from the vibrant loveliness of "All I've Got to Do" -- his triumphant final line carrying a John Lydon sneer, "That's what I want," at which point he seems to slap the rest of the music away nonchalantly. Okay, that's it, I'm done with you. And what's next. Mick Jagger's entire career cannot compete.

George Martin communicates the chaos across these fourteen songs with the aplomb of a grand but modest showman; he means to aid the boys in documenting their actual sound, as had long been his mission. His aim is selfless, not to make a name for himself by capturing some nervous energy or undercurrent, to frame them as whatever he could fathom. His decisions only underline the band's virtues, and With the Beatles and its followup, A Hard Day's Night, captures the beautiful moment when these forces sat perfectly in sync with a band in harmony. Martin is so sympathetic to the Beatles' chaos it's incredible he was removed from their generation; much would be made of his sober sonic empathy with drug use in later years, but his application of youth to what had long been a routine enough production gig is far more intriguing and refreshing. And despite the croaking angst from audiophiles and other dweebs about the stereo separation on these early records, Martin hits it just right on either mix, though the mono inarguably sounds best with one significant exception. In mono "Money" comes across merely as a strong effort, a worthy sibling to Barrett Strong's excellent original; in stereo, it blisters with want and electricity, almost sickeningly. And this one of many things it's astounding Martin was able to capture so well.

There are probably better albums. There are a few (very few) better Beatles albums, although only Rubber Soul makes as strong a case for them as a four-piece band. But there is no album with such vitality, no album that speaks directly into the heart of anyone with such focus and enthusiasm. This is life, immortalized, the boundless talent and intelligence of four men guiding it along through a universe of energy and light. We're fortunate to have it. It really does seem as though they could do no wrong back then. How lovely it is to revisit the time when the world was completely within the grasp of the Beatles, and when they had ideas for what to do with it when they earned it.

[Substantially revised from a review posted at d-b.com in 2003.]

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