Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Beatles for Sale (1964)


(Parlophone)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Quieter and sadder than any other Beatles album, this country-infected set is still dynamite whether you observe the six skillful covers or the overwhelmingly melancholy originals. Either way it's a rumination upon where the four of them were just as peak Beatlemania began to crest, as a year of international fame took its toll on head-spinningly young men who couldn't possibly have known how to process it. Simultaneously the Beatles seem to dig in their heels with more honesty, maturity and pessimism than ever before and also to yearn for a past, of blistering rock & roll nights and seemingly so much less responsibility. They might always have longed to "make it" but now they saw what making it meant, particularly for a band as good as they were.

The upbeat cuts -- Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music," Little Richard's "Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey," Carl Perkins' "Honey Don't" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," and the classic "Eight Days a Week" -- leap out of the speakers, of course, but their surroundings cause the album to seem like an introspective, vital piece of work reaching to a more direct and cathartic place beyond its influences. John Lennon sounds cold, hurt, and distant on the opening cut, "No Reply," a spit in the eye to the warmth and energy of A Hard Day's Night. "I know that you saw me / 'Cause I looked up to see your face / I tried to telephone / They said you were not home," and the chilling payoff: "That's a lie." These three words carry more weight than "You Can't Do That" and "Run for Your Life" put together. Just as the Beatles put every bit of their manpower into constructing the careening pop jet engines of their past, "No Reply" reveals them diving full-force into an unexpectedly angry, unforgiving world. "I nearly died / I nearly died." The drama is almost oppressive... and the tension does not lift.

On "I'm a Loser," John's navel-gazing lyrics of the previous album culminate in a single bare moment. No one else could write with this clarity. "Although I laugh and I act like a clown / Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown." In the chorus, the entire band nearly loses its reins on the song; it threatens to burst at any second and then, out of nowhere, comes the unabashedly foreign harmonica solo. John's vocals, unsurprisingly, possess a jolting magic for the duration of the album but particularly here. It's rare that every second of a song matters so much. The song betrays the influence of Dylan -- Beatles for Sale predates the Billboard dawn of the folk-rock movement by several months -- but sheds every bit of poetic abstraction or pretension; it's Lennon talking to us.

From there we travel to "Baby's in Black," a slice of melodramatic black humor that boasts, once again, a performance that speaks volumes about the Beatles' versatility. They fill a relatively simplistic ballad with noise, refusing to allow it the obvious fate. During a repetition of the verse that offers the song's ugly lyrical essence -- "Though he'll never come back / She's dressed in black" -- the wall of sound is shut off, underscoring the weight of the moment, before a drum fill leads it all back in. It's not exactly subtle, but there's something magnetic about it.

Even hearing "Eight Days a Week" after all these years, it's stunning that in Britain it was never a single. The way it hops straight at you and spends two minutes focused thoroughly on enchanting you. "Pop bliss" has never been such a true and valid term, and even the introduction and coda have sex appeal. If any song could dream of capsizing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as a peak of all the Beatles' powers, if any song could cause the mass surrender of "She Loves You" to a similar extent, this is probably it. And what an odd context in which to find it, but evidently they felt it lackluster in the face of prior hits. The concurrent choice of a single for the end of 1964, "I Feel Fine," does reassert the band's commitment to innovate, but the slow burn of Beatles for Sale is no less valuable in its palpable fear and pain.

As a composer, Lennon had a hell of a year in 1964; he even offers his own "Here, There and Everywhere" in the absolutely perfect, Spector-size, way too fucking short "Every Little Thing." Even in its platitudes it seems as personal as the stark folk ballads of Side One. And there's one more, another knockout. "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" is a start-to-finish masterpiece. The western tones finally reach their climax here on Lennon's last song of the album... the band is as quick, efficient, and loud as ever, but in this world the sadness is eternal. He takes a walk, but he never reaches his destination. The following year John would be striking with "Help!," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," and "Girl," all of which can be traced back in delicate spirit to "Party."

Paul McCartney's bizarre absence as a songwriter in the band's most crucial year rages on, but the two he offers are staggering. The moving "I'll Follow the Sun" is, without question, his most personal piece to date, and begins his golden era as a composer (though in fact it was written much earlier). And don't talk to me about "What You're Doing," just about the finest song he's ever written, because you will surely regret it. If you need proof that the soliders of the Beatles for Sale-as-worst-album school of thought are full of shit, dig that proto-Byrds guitar riff and "If you need a love that's true / It's meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee" and the piano. This should not be an obscurity; the commitment audible in the band's performance reminds you of what sort of confounding interplay they had at the beginning of it all. (Future fusions are also predicted within the perfect harmonies and stinging guitars of the Beatles' take on Buddy Holly's "Words of Love," which seems to bury itself simultaneously in the past and future and attain a true sweetness that doesn't devolve into the saccharine broadness of "Till There Was You.")

The covers that are peppered throughout the album continue the Beatles' tradition of outstanding taste and selection even though at least three of them stand in direct contradiction to the rest of the material. "Rock and Roll Music" is a perfect example, but somehow the transition seems natural. And it's useless even for a tireless Chuck Berry fanatic to deny that John Lennon's voice utterly revitalizes this gorgeously written anthem. McCartney lights up "Kansas City/Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" with his usual conviction, and George conquers the echo chambers of his Carl Perkins cover, "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," to deliver a moment of unbridled charm. Ringo delivers that same key ingredient in spades on perhaps his finest vocal performance, behind the wheel of a wonderful "Honey Don't." The expert understatement and southern swing of Carl Perkins' songwriting helps, but Ringo really makes this recording even with a flawless performance to back him up. "Aw, rock on, George, one time for me." He is really on fire after the solo, too. In its manner this is no less cause for Beatle worship than your "Eight Days a Week."

"Mr. Moonlight" is a cover, but it may as well not be; it belongs to Lennon forever. Okay, Lennon and George Martin's cheesy organ. The song passes into the overblown Paul Anka corners of songwriting... it is an outrageously dumb composition, and the Beatles' performance happily pushes all the buttons to ham it up to the max. John pushes his vocal chords to the end of the world. It is the band's stupidest, goofiest moment on record (the hell with "You Know My Name"), yet it's sublime. Dark, moving ballads, warmly surreal humor, naked self-examination, pangs of love, country, melodrama, the sheer wonders of growth, and undeterred rock & roll. It's not often these all come in a single package. When they do, the result is seldom -- if ever -- this strong, this unforgettable.

[Reformatted version of a review from 2003.]