Friday, December 6, 2019

The Beatles: In the Beginning (1961-62)

(Polydor 1970)

(First of all, I'm using this particular release of this material as a platform to review it because it's the most readily available and generous, and was issued by the original label for whom these tracks were recorded. More on this below. The disc also encompasses some non-Beatle material that was once thought otherwise, whereas Purple Chick's nearly definitive unauthorized examination of this period, I Hope We Passed the Audition -- reviewed on our studio bootlegs page -- keeps things strictly to songs on which the band actually played, and is probably now the best way to acquire and hear these songs.)

For all his reputation today as a bit player in history, Tony Sheridan was a tough-as-nails British heartthrob, a dyed-in-the-wool rock & roller who made waves and thrilled local audiences mimicking Elvis on various stages in Hamburg at a time when the thirst for raw, hard American-derived rock music in that city was nearly insatiable, which had of course led to Liverpool bands like the Beatles, Rory Storm & the Hurricanes and Derry & the Seniors being recruited and sent overseas to play the nighclub district. Sheridan's reputation as an able singer and guitarist and the chemistry he shared with the Beatles when they occasionally played together got him a recording contract well ahead of most of his peers, when in 1961 he was signed to Polydor by German orchestra leader, record producer and easy listening master Bert Kaempfert. Kaempfert also signed the Beatles, whose reputation among musicians and crowds had grown sterling by this point in their second Hamburg trip (and third Hamburg residency, at the Top Ten Club after ill-fated stints at the Indra and the Kaiserkeller), and thus got them their very first recording contract, though initially they would serve only as backing musicians for Sheridan with the promise of some brief indulgence for their own material.

The main sessions took place on June 22nd and 23rd, 1961 at a German high school built in the seventeenth century whose auditorium was known and well-used by Kaempfert for its high-quality acoustics. The Beatles -- at this point recently whittled to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best, though newly departed bassist Stuart Sutcliffe tagged along to observe -- appeared bright and early, having not gone to bed after the previous night's show spread on into the wee hours, mostly high on uppers. Recording for Kaempfert was a huge deal; he was not just a German star but an international celebrity after the widespread success of his Beautiful Music classic "Wonderland by Night," a #1 hit in America, which must have put stars in the eyes of all involved parties but particularly the four Beatles who so yearned for a tangible, mass-produced piece of their music on disc.

Paul had recently and grudgingly switched to playing bass in place of Stu, but proves adept and even fairly masterful at this early session. John and George were already in their long-established positions; John acquits himself fairly well, George only shines occasionally and probably had some hand in keeping the lone Beatles vocal (John's Gene Vincent-inspired cover of the '20s standard "Ain't She Sweet") recorded here unreleased for the time being due to his atrocious solo. But as would happen quite often, the true weak link was Pete Best, whose drumming was rapidly deemed unacceptable by Kaempfert; the producer took the rather extreme step of removing his bass drum and toms, so that all of his drumming on these songs is comprised mostly of rather frantic and repetitive work on the snare, though it does permit us to avoid the cursed rumbling common to most of the recorded evidence of Best's work with the group. Kaempfert's other major contribution was an overall slickness and cleanliness of sound that simultaneously makes these recordings -- multitrack and in true stereo -- sound much more "advanced" than the Beatles' Decca tape of six months later or even their early EMI output, which had a rawness that the Beatles would have distinctly preferred. But Kaempfert wasn't out to imitate American rock & roll, a genre that wasn't really in his wheelhouse, and objectively these recordings sound very good.

Where rawness does come through is in the performances. This music is instructive because it does give us more than a decent idea of why the Beatles were turning heads to such an extent in Germany, as even on this mostly lackluster material their enthusiasm is infectious and they play hard, fast and loud in a sonically advanced throwback to the first wave of U.S. rock & roll four to six years earlier. That said, the sessions' officially sanctioned single, an awkwardly rollicking rearrangement of the Scottish folk song "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" (nearly as old as the building in which the Beatles were recording), certainly is an oddity, harking back less to rock & roll's appropriation of black gospel and blues and more to the L.A. label Rendezvous Records' cash-in instrumental ensemble B. Bumble and the Stingers, whose lovably insipid "Flight of the Bumble Bee" rewrite "Bumble Boogie" was a top 40 hit in America this same month -- it's the same sort of bizarro conflation of classical or traditional music harnessed for an air of misguided legitimacy, and it seems more audacious than transcedent.

Sheridan and the Beatles had toyed with the song on stage for a while, and Kaempfert undoubtedly latched on because it's a lovely melody, but there's no real sense that Sheridan feels anything for it besides an excuse to practice both his uncanny Elvis ballad imitation (in the slow introduction, accompanied by the Beatles in a strange, wordless doo-wop burlesque) and his arms-to-the-wind, loose rock & roll vamping. He does contribute a truly excellent guitar solo, often erroneously attributed to George Harrison. Indeed, Paul's infectious yelling is the most distinctive way in which this stands out as a Beatles record, since George doesn't play the solo, John's rhythm guitar isn't terribly prominent, and the drumming is not by a canonical Beatle. In Mark Lewisohn's book, he places "My Bonnie" at the upper-tier of early British rock & roll singles pre-October 1962, on a level with Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac" and Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over," but those are masterful, revelatory records that still sound fresh and exciting today and never betray their distance from ground zero of the movement they try to recapture, while there's no reason to regard "My Bonnie" for anything besides its historical importance, of which more later.

The original b-side of "My Bonnie" upon its release as a 45 by Polydor in October was "The Saints," another adaptation of a weirdly traditional number (the spiritual "When the Saints Go Marching In"), establishing something of a pattern for the Kaempfert sessions; it's probably the most forgettable of the numbers they laid down here, and its (inexplicable) selection as the only other song Kaempfert initially chose to release was likely a source of disappointment to the band. The eventual LP release that encompassed both songs didn't incorporate any of the other material the Beatles played on during these two sessions either (it did have their Sheridan-led version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," taped later), and it wasn't until 1963, by which time it didn't matter one way or the other to them, that any other songs from June '61 made their way out. But now we have them all.

Sheridan led the Beatles on three other numbers in front of Kaempfert at the first block of recordings -- his own composition "Why," a credible ballad on which he's backed strictly by Paul and Pete; the mournful Hank Snow country weeper "Nobody's Child," coincidentally a favorite of future Beatles drummer Richard Starkey, and probably the best number they all recorded in June, Jimmy Reed's searing blues "Take Out Some Insurance" (sometimes mislabeled as "If You Love Me, Baby") on which Sheridan contributes a positively grinding, X-rated, desperate performance peaking with an uncensored Vincent-esque "god damn". Sheridan and the Beatles' version of "Insurance" is the Hamburg rock & roll experience as it's vividly recalled by those who were there in a nutshell -- all of the sleaze, the sweat, the grime, and none of the sweetness. It's impressive that Kaempfert left it unadorned, but not surprising that he didn't release it.

For the Beatles, the most exciting moment came when Kaempfert gave them the floor to record a couple of tunes without Sheridan. One was an instrumental, the fun and trifling "Cry for a Shadow" (the allusion in its title making its influences rather obvious, though it isn't miles away from surf music either) which boasts some fine guitar from both of its composers, John Lennon and George Harrison, and some still solid-as-a-rock bass playing from Paul McCartney -- but the material is unmistakably thin, and the song seems to go on forever despite not even reaching two and a half minutes. It's also probably the cut most harmed by Kaempfert's sparkling production, which makes it sound less like a ragged club band mach-ing shau and more like an arid demonstration disc for someone's hi-fi. This is particularly apparent during the bridge, when the careful separation of elements wrought by Kaempfert's harnessing of advanced technology doesn't allow the band to hang together, their chemistry absent. But it's still an enjoyable song whose status as the first professionally recorded Beatles composition is not insignificant, and Paul's enthusiastic off-mic screaming gives it a welcome touch of rock & roll abandon it might otherwise lack.

Unfortunately, the Beatles rather botched their other shot at center stage for Kaempfert. Given the chance to sing one of their own, John -- who, by all accounts, made the final decision of which song to play -- bizarrely went for "Ain't She Sweet," which he would have known from Gene Vincent's typically sinister crooning version from 1956. It was never a big live staple for the Beatles and wouldn't have been a song you would expect them to be sentimentally attached to in any major way; Lewisohn speculates it's a song that John learned from his mother before she died. Even in the arrangement Lennon would have preferred, which was more like Vincent's lazy ballad rendition, it was a wrongheaded waste of what might well have remained their only shot in a professional recording environment; with Kaempfert dictating a radical rearrangement into what amounted to a rushed, frenetic "march" (as John later put it), the song must have retained basically no appeal to any of them, more painfully shoehorned into a rock & roll format than even "My Bonnie" and only slightly redeemed by John's fairly spirited if obviously wary vocal, and certainly, as Kaempfert would have realized, to any potential audience... although when released by Atco in America at the height of Beatlemania, the song hit the top twenty, almost certainly because anything a Beatle sang would have at that point.

The matter might have rested there, the Beatles destined to remain heroes in Hamburg and Liverpool for a while longer before fading into obscurity; this same year, 1961, John and Paul considered discontinuing the group, believing they had gone as far as they could and bored with the few worlds they'd managed to conquer. But it was not to be, and it was thanks explicitly to the existence of "My Bonnie," credited upon release to the unholy record-label concoction "Tony Sheridan & the Beat Brothers." A member of the Beatles' locally rabid fan base named Raymond Jones entered Brian Epstein's Liverpool NEMS store in October asking for "My Bonnie," the debut record by the biggest group in town; the restless, curious Epstein set out to investigate, and ended up an incongruous presence at one of the Beatles' Cavern Club shows, and eventually signed them to a management contract -- spurred into the same sort of questioning and revelation that Hamburg associates like Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchher had reported upon hearing and meeting them -- and set about trying to land them a record deal. Epstein would work himself to the bone for the Beatles for the rest of his life, and his belief in them helped make them what they ultimately were. As such, the unfortunate details of the Kaempfert sessions ended up leading directly to the pop explosion that would change their lives and eventually ours.

Kaempfert was relatively relaxed about releasing the Beatles from their Polydor record deal, though he did ask Brian for one additional recording session in May 1962. This non-event resulted in a recording even less noteworthy than any of the songs finished a year earlier; Sheridan couldn't make the session so the Beatles just recorded the backing track for "Sweet Georgia Brown," arranged by Paul, over which Sheridan would later overdub vocals. The group, accompanied here by pianist Roy Brown, was now still reeling from Sutcliffe's death one month earlier, and were in the midst of a residency at Hamburg's Star-Club, during part of which they were opening for none other than Gene Vincent. Nerves had bombed their recording test at Decca in January and they were a few weeks out from their first EMI date and meeting with George Martin. Pete would be fired and replaced by Ringo Starr near the end of the summer. But the historical context is more interesting than the music, which is totally nondescript (more in spirit with Kaempfert's aesthetic of "rocking it up" with the classic songbooks, they supposedly laid down an instrumental track for "Swanee River," but no recording seems to survive), and its main claim to fame is that there are two versions, for one of which Sheridan rerecorded part of his vocal in 1964 to add some sardonic commentary about Beatle haircuts. The Animals' "Story of Bo Diddley" it ain't.

In the wake of the Beatles' jetting off for a very different life, Sheridan continued to be a popular attraction in the rest of Europe and especially Germany, though a decisive move toward blues in the mid-'60s left him without much of an audience and he joined up with a troupe of musicians to play for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, where he was nearly killed, and lived out sporadically still playing music -- he never lost his touch as a singer or guitarist up to the end of his life in 2013 -- and for the most part cheerfully accepting his place in a larger history, though these recordings and other performances suggest he deserved more than mere footnote status. It's heartening to know that to a certain extent, his Beatles connection, whever bitterness it might have understandably engendered, continued to allow him to connect with fans and play the music he loved until shortly before his death.

In addition to the few tracks from these sessions that were actually issued in Germany at the time, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of cash-in releases of this product dating from just after Beatlemania broke all the way up through the CD era, all traveling under numerous titles -- the coolest being The Savage Young Beatles, though this only came about because the gray-market label releasing it was named Savage, who later briefly signed Pete Best as a solo artist -- with a host of minor variations in song selection and mixing. "My Bonnie" and "Ain't She Sweet" even enjoyed some airplay, and cluttered up an already confusing discography in America (with official releases from Capitol, Vee Jay and Swan all competing), though MGM's attempt at turning "Why" into a hit left them only with a future collector's fetish object. Some of the longform releases of the Kaempfert sessions were technically legal, some weren't, and none were authorized by the Beatles. This is a bridge too far for my completist tendencies, but there's a good rundown that reaches up to 2006 here.

This attractive Polydor release of the material -- with an evocative cover, and an insightful if misplaced quote on the back cover from George Harrison about how strong the Beatles became in Hamburg -- appeared in stores just days before Let It Be, adding to its air of lost-world poignance, and is augmented by some other tracks of Sheridan's, which may at the time have been genuinely thought to feature the Beatles; Sheridan is the only reason to listen to any of those, with decent performances of the great Chris Montez single "Let's Dance" (Montez was top of the bill for one of the Beatles' first national tours), a perfunctory "What'd I Say," plus the Leiber-Stoller classic "Ruby Baby" and Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," all being songs the Beatles were known to play in Hamburg save "Let's Dance," adding to the confusion. For the CD release, Polydor cleaned up their act a bit and tried to be as consumer-friendly as possible when dealing with material that most people going out buying Beatles CDs were very unlikely to want; they removed the inaccurate "circa 1960" designation from the cover and correctly labeled which songs actually involved the Beatles, while retaining the haphazard sequencing of the vinyl (which headlined the legit "pure Beatles" cuts "Ain't She Sweet" and "Cry for a Shadow"). For a number of years, this was the only item that appeared when you searched "Beatles" on iTunes or the streaming services, but the special deal the band cut with those platforms has thoroughly erased it from ready visibility. The CD, boasting the only Beatles music that Apple still does not actually own (they eventually bought up and suppressed the Decca and Star Club tapes but had to license the three most noteworthy Kaempfert songs from Polydor for Anthology 1), hung in for years and finally appears now to be out of print, though in Europe the music has lapsed out of copyright at this stage.

Really, there's something a bit sad about the whole thing now. Once upon a time, shitty budget line releases of these songs were a dime a dozen, cluttering up the Beatles section of every record store in the country and probably the world, in the same plucky spirit of commercialism as the hardcore porn rag that offered mail-in picture discs of Decca audition extracts with nude women on them. The Beatles continue to be a rite of passage for pop music fans and students from a young age but they'll no longer go through the stymied feeling of initially thinking you've found some previously unheard major item for your consumption (wow, the Beatles' first tapes!?!?) only to discover "My Bonnie" or "Why" again, or something that isn't the Beatles at all, or something that's just generic studio musicians playing Beatles hits. Sure, this stuff isn't great and while it has some fun moments and is essential onetime listening for hardcore fans, there's a reason we used to groan when we would see someone attempting to sell it to us again. But raise a glass tonight for Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers -- and in the spirit of the Reeperbahn, light a cigarette, start a fight, fuck a stripper, wake up in a toilet. Rock & roll, motherfuckers.

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