Although my abiding love for The Beatles may be the most well-known aspect of my character, sometimes we must be critical of the things we love. My earlier post lobbing off 55% of The White Album made me consider a question along those lines: what is The Beatles’ worst album? Some might suggest the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. The second half of that record consists of instrumentals recorded by George Martin for the Yellow Submarine film, and the first half borrows “All You Need is Love” and the title track from previous releases. More to the point, the four original Beatles compositions that remain are hardly the band’s best work. Some might sayMagical Mystery Tour, which despite three U.S. #1 hits, is marred by inferior tracks such as “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way”, “Your Mother Should Know”, and “Baby, You’re a Rich Man.” Let It Be, which also had three #1s, may be a contender as well. Many of its songs are sloppy and recorded without the benefit of overdubs (until Phil Spector got a hold of the tapes, adding lush orchestration and women’s choirs to the songs, to McCartney’s chagrin.)
Returning from a lovely weekend in Inlet, New York with my girlfriend’s grandparents, H and myself listened to The Beatles first four studio albums.* It was fascinating to watch the development of a band that put forth four full albums with a total of 55 songs in under two years– not counting singles, B-sides, 78 rpm EP records, and so on. That’s a staggering total that today’s pampered musicians could not emulate. We moved from the kinetic amateurism of Please Please Me, the Motown-flavoured With the Beatles, the radio-friendly, all-Lennon-McCartney songs of A Hard Day’s Night, and…then the wheels started falling off the cart. During this listening session, I came to realize that The Beatles’ worst studio album was their fourth, Beatles for Sale, recorded and released in late 1964.
As a reminder, to those unfamiliar with the album, the track list is as follows:
- No Reply (Lennon-McCartney)
- I’m A Loser (Lennon-McCartney)
- Baby’s in Black (Lennon-McCartney)
- Rock and Roll Music (Berry)
- I’ll Follow the Sun (Lennon-McCartney)
- Mr. Moonlight (Johnson)
- Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey Hey (Leiber-Stoller-Penniman)
- Eight Days a Week (Lennon-McCartney)
- Honey Don’t (Perkins)
- Words of Love (Holly)
- Every Little Thing (Lennon-McCartney)
- I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party (Lennon-McCartney)
- What You’re Doing (Lennon-McCartney)
- Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby (Perkins)
A cursory glimpse here will reveal very few Beatles songs that have entered the public consciousness. Even journeyman Beatles fans may find themselves scratching their heads at this one. What happened?
- Time Constraints: In Eric Idle’s spoof group, “The Rutles,” the narrator notes that their first album was recorded in 12 hours, and the second album took even longer. Something very similar happened in the recording for Beatles for Sale. The sullen, bleary-eyed faces that greet the listener from the cover is no artistic conceit; these are four men at the end of their rope. When the band marched into Abbey Road Studios to make the Please Please Me album in early 1963, they were eager to put the energy of their live shows on record and create an album that would impress the larger British public. The result is salutary; the lack of time actually worked to their advantage. For Beatles for Sale, the band had only a few days of full-time recording with additional snippets here and there. In fact, fully 6 songs were recorded in one day, including most of the covers. This was not nearly enough time for a band that was utterly exhausted from world tours, television appearances, the psychological duress of unfathomable fame, and constant harassment by both the press and fans– factors not present when they hastily recorded their debut album. The result is the worst of both worlds; the album lacks the energy and eagerness of Please Please Me while also failing to show the craftsmanship and care that was given to Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. Most of the factors that make “Beatles for Sale” subpar can be indirectly traced back to this single overriding factor. With little time to rehearse new material, try out new covers, or engage in a great deal of experimentation, the results are proficient, but rarely creative or innovative. Even some frightful on-record mistakes remain; just listen to the background vocals of “What You’re Doing” where John, Paul and George often sing different words entirely, or Ringo’s botched double-tracked singing on “Honey Don’t.”
- Poorly Chosen Covers: In the early stages of their recording career, The Beatles enjoyed making cover versions of rock, pop, and rhythm-and-blues hits. They strove to improve upon them, or at least translate them effectively into the idiom of Merseyside pop. The band’s first two albums chose songs by flash-in-the-pan artists or obscurities– The Marvellettes (“Please, Mr. Postman”), The Cookies (“Devil in her Heart”), Arthur Alexander (“Anna”), or the Isley Brothers (“Twist and Shout.”) While these artists had talent, they are also low-hanging fruit. It wasn’t especially difficult for the Beatles to take songs that weren’t especially well-known or well-remembered and make them their own. For Beatles for Sale, the band made a deadline-powered beeline for evergreens made famous by the early legends of rock and roll, picking songs that they could not easily improve on or take liberties with. These include tracks from Chuck Berry (“Rock and Roll Music”), Little Richard (“Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey”), Buddy Holly (“Words of Love”), and two from Carl Perkins– assigned to George and Ringo (“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” and “Honey Don’t”, respectively.) In most of these tracks, the band doesn’t try to put it’s own interpretation on the songs. Instead, daunted perhaps by their reverence for the material they are covering, they merely try to copy it– especially in the case of “Words of Love,” which is almost a note-for-note recreation of Holly’s original. This significantly diminishes the album’s merit as a piece of original art, original musicianship.
- Questionable Sequencing: I would be hard pressed to name a Beatles album with more confusing sequencing than this one. George and Ringo have only one song apiece and they are both put on the second side, making the first side comprise wholly of tracks sung by Lennon or McCartney. More than this, “No Reply” is a strange choice for the opening track. While intriguing, it is not the sort of exciting rave-up that the Beatles used to open their first three albums, and it seems to constitute a lowering of energy, if not of expectations. Similarly, “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby” seems almost like an arbitrary choice to draw the album to its close. The track is drenched in echo, and George’s usually fine playing is instead repetitive and uninspired. It ends the album with a whimper, rather than a bang. Also, the three consecutive songs on side 2: “Every Little Thing”, “I Don’t Want To Spoil the Party” and “What You’re Doing” are three of the most nondescript songs in the entire Lennon-McCartney catalog. Putting them next to each other when better covers and better originals are available halts any momentum that the album might have.
- Mr. Moonlight: Yes, this track is so problematic it deserves its own bullet point. The only cover on this album not written by a rock pioneer, the Beatles choose this unknown track from black America, recorded under the name Dr. Feelgood and the Interns. Here, their delivery is half-heartedly jocular. From Paul and George’s glaze-eyed backing vocals to the circus-organ solo that dominates the instrumental break, it is never made entirely clear whether the track is being included as a joke or the Beatles have simply given up, and their sense of taste has forsaken them. What makes the inclusion of this track especially frustrating is that a far superior cover, Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone,” was recorded and left on the cutting room floor until 1994’s Beatles Anthology 1. “Leave My Kitten Alone” is high-octane, not well known, and immersed in the bravado of Lennon’s vocal delivery with the same confidence he gave to “Twist and Shout.”
- Paul’s songwriting skills are on holiday: Incredibly, Paul McCartney contributes only one “new” song to the record. (at this point, John and Paul were writing more or less separately, although they did consult each other often when in the studio.) Paul resurrects a song written in the Quarrymen days, “I’ll Follow the Sun” and chips in on John’s “Baby’s in Black”, but only “What You’re Doing” is a new composition with McCartney as its principal author. Even then, “What You’re Doing,” is not up to Paul’s usual standard although the unusual drum inroduction and the wistful bridge suggest that it could have been a better song had more time been spent on it. For a man who would literally dream up the melody to “Yesterday” a few months later, Paul’s muse is remarkably absent.
And there you have it. When you take these factors into account, you have the recipe for a substandard artistic effort, ironically releases during the very height of Beatlemania.
Even here, though, Beatles for Sale isn’t a bad album, by any stretch. It merely fails to match the Beatles’ high standards. The bar is set higher, the handicap is set lower, and what would have been a very creditable, even groundbreaking, effort by a lesser band becomes a low-water mark for the Fab Four. What is incredible, and what contributes to The Beatles’ legerdemain, is that even their least remarkable album contains numerous artistic steps forward. “No Reply” is their first song to resemble a coherent narrative, blazing a trail that would lead to “Norwegian Wood” and “She’s Leaving Home.” “Eight Days a Week” is a worthy hit song, with a fade-in introduction, double-tracked vocal, and pregnant pauses. While the importance of “I’m a Loser” is often overstated, it is nonetheless a roundabout admission of security in the form of a boy-girl pop song. As such, it anticipates “Help” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” on the Beatles’ next album, and the Dylanesque influence would forever alter Lennon’s approach to songwriting. “Baby’s In Black”, while a sub-par song, is nonetheless the first Beatles song to be written in waltz time. So, Beatles for Sale, whose very title implies that it was hastily conceived and recorded for the lucrative Christmas market, often succeeds in spite of itself, overcoming the lack of production and artistic care given it.
* And by “first four studio albums,” I refer to the U.K. rather than U.S. releases during the 1960s. The difference between the canonical U.K. albums and their American counterparts is a hot mess. The Beatles’ U.S. subsidiary, Capitol Records, milked the band’s catalog for all it was worth. The average Capitol album was only 10 songs against the 14 provided by the definitive British versions. Moreover, the American releases often contained singles and B-sides that the Beatles would have preferred to have kept off of their record releases so as to provide more new material for the money. In this particular case, the material the British found on Beatles for Sale