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Posts Tagged ‘#Beatlescountdown’

Our intrepid countdown continues as we mark down some of the less inspired Beatles efforts on our road to Fab Four greatness. This particular batch is heavy on one particular era and one particular Beatle. The era is late 1964, between some lackluster tracks on the otherwise solid A Hard Day’s Night,  as well as some of the problematic tracks on Beatles for Sale, perhaps the band’s least compelling and most enervated studio album. And then there are some subpar b-sides, and EP tracks as well. The Beatle at hand is George, who sings lead on four of these fifteen tracks, far above his usual output. When George was great, George was great, but he struggled to find his voice until Rubber Soul, as these tracks demonstrate.

180. “What You’re Doing,” (Beatles for Sale): There is a kernel of a good song here. Harrison is copping a bit of the early Byrds sound on guitar. But the effort is marred by the single most audible mistake- or rather series of mistakes- in the entire Beatles catalogue. The song requires the first word of each line in the verse to be shouted in unison by John and Paul. But more than once during the song, they sing the wrong word or goof up the pronoun. George Martin was a meticulous man, so I am very curious how such an error-ridden take was deemed acceptable for release.

179. “Bad Boy” (Williams, Beatles VI): Lennon’s love of Larry Williams and his up-tempo rock and rollers manifests in this misbegotten track, which was not formally released in the U.K. until the 1966 compilation album A Collection of Beatles Oldies. Lennon’s singing style and the band’s accompaniment is pointlessly frantic; at a different point in their careers, I would have wondered if they were coked up. The biggest trouble with this track, in my judgment, is its incongruent Americanism. With references to hula hoops, putting tacks on the teacher’s chair, and general juvenile delinquency, an indelibly British act had little hope of translating this piece, despite their evident love of American culture.

178. “What Goes On” (Lennon/McCartney/Starkey, Rubber Soul): Rubber Soul is one of the band’s most forward-looking records, which makes a retread like this nearly tragic. One of Lennon’s earlier songwriting efforts, this was given a dust-up. But in the end, it sounds for all the world like a country-flavored reject from Beatles for Sale. Some solid background vocals from John and Paul are the song’s best quality, but the paint-by-numbers Chet Atkins guitar work by Harrison, and the song’s similarities to the last few Ringo vocal outings make this track expendable and skippable.

177. “Another Girl” (Help!): I read Rob Sheffield’s quasi-memoir Talking to Girls About Duran Duran yesterday, and in it, he goes on an extended riff about McCartney’s public persona. He wisely notes that this is McCartney’s only known attempt at a snide Dylanesque “It Ain’t Me Babe” kind of song. It doesn’t work because it cuts so incisively against the grain of who McCartney projects himself to be. The song’s callous rejection of one girlfriend for another breaks no meaningful thematic ground nor is its ponderous instrumental track very good either. A disappointment from a creative stage in the band’s career. It did inspire a fun sequence in the Help! film that I enjoy watching, though. Pure filler.

176. “Thank You Girl” (B-side): This early flip side of “From Me to You” isn’t terrible or anything, but it is a more careless throwaway, and an indictment of the slapdash nature of many B-sides throughout the record industry in the early 1960s.

175. “Baby’s In Black” (Beatles for Sale): The band clearly wanted to try out some country, and this song does have an appealing 3/4 swing (the first Lennon/McCartney song in waltz time?)  The experiment doesn’t wholly succeed. As a song grappling with loss, and perhaps even death, it is too direct whereas the superior “Yes It Is” is evocative and circumspect. Moreover, Harrison’s limp guitar solo shows that his proficiency in rockabilly didn’t necessarily translate to country and western. Inexplicably, this song remained in the band’s live setlist until their final performance in Candlestick Park.

174. “She’s A Woman” (b-side): Some have portrayed this song as a daring rhythm-and-blues outing. Others have called it proto-punk. Nah. The flip side to “I Feel Fine” is simplistic, repetitive, and ties the band to a more Stones-like sound that they don’t have the experience or the proper background to perform well. Also, it rhymes “presents” with “peasant.”

173. “Magical Mystery Tour” (Magical Mystery Tour): This song encapsulates a lot of what is wrong with the television movie to which it serves as our theme. Empty promises, lyrics that are merely coy salesmanship, and a failure to evoke either magic or mystery are just the beginning of its problems. I can’t think of a less inviting way to entice someone to psychedelic wonder than this track. You can hear Lennon rolling his eyes while he’s singing the background vocals.

172. “Anytime At All” (A Hard Day’s Night): There is a fair bit of anonymous phoned-in writing on the second half of the A Hard Day’s Night LP. This track kicks the side off, where Lennon repeats his trick of flipping between a sensitive verse and an urgent chorus used earlier in “It Won’t Be Long” and “All I’ve Got To Do”. An uncreative “I’m here if you need me” kind of song, it is further diminished by possibly the worst instrumental break on any Beatles song.

171. “I Call Your Name” (Long Tall Sally EP): Some cool rhythms can be found here which resemble almost a cro-magnon version of reggae. Although the band’s version flounders, it did at least inspire a worthwhile cover from The Mamas & The Papas.

170. “Chains” (King/Goffin; Please Please Me): This is George’s first lead vocal in the band’s professional recording career. As such, it comes across merely as a showcase, and it breaks the first rule of doing cover versions: don’t do them if you can’t add anything to the original. Even so, the band’s courage in defying strict Northern gender roles and doing songs by The Shirelles or, in this case, The Cookies, is noted. It gave the group a much wider repertoire of songs to use in their live set.

169. “I Need You” (Harrison; Help!): Sometimes less is more. Harrison’s second composition to land on a Beatles record, “I Need You” has a simple and earnest core to it. What could have been endearing merely becomes jarring, as the band experiments with too much wah-wah pedal, having become somewhat infatuated with the device during the Help! sessions. It’s an incongruous choice for a plaintive song that could have been much better without it.

168. “Devil in Her Heart” (Drapkin; With the Beatles): This was originally sung by The Donays, and its 45 single appears to have been the only thing they ever recorded. (This was the era where girl groups on small labels were paid in shampoo vouchers and bubblegum.) The Beatles make a go of it, with a wink and a smirk; its lyrics were clearly written as an exchange between girlfriends, despite the band’s change of pronouns. What I find interesting is how, for the band’s first three records, George seems to have been deliberately marketed as the younger brother of the band, given much more simplistic, juvenile material, while John and Paul handle songs dealing with more mature aspects of relationships.

167. “When I Get Home” (A Hard Day’s Night): This song comes in like a wrecking ball, with a relentless beat creating what Lennon called a “four-in-the-bar cowbell song” in the vein of Wilson Pickett. Yet it lacks Pickett’s easy soul and wan smile. Running on fumes during a busy schedule, the band resorts to cliches like “til the cows come home” and sounds nowhere more tired than in this attempt at a high-octane, uptempo track.

166. “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You” (A Hard Day’s Night): Although three songs from the album appear on this post, I truly do believe that A Hard Day’s Night is the best of the four LPs from the height of Beatlemania. This is the only lackluster track on the otherwise sterling Side 1. The penchant for saddling Harrison with simplistic songs from a young teenager’s point of view is wearing a bit thin by now. While John and Paul sing of coming home to a woman (mercy!), Harrison remains stuck at the high school dances wearing uncomfortable loafers.

 

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It’s time to begin our next big project on the Northumbrian Countdown: ranking the Beatles catalogue. As many long-time readers know, I am a huge, huge fan of this group, to the point of being considered obsessed as a teenager. I owned their entire catalogue by the time I was 15. My high school graduation speech was about The Beatles. During my senior year, my friends and I made (with a bit of help from our moms) Sgt. Pepper costumes to wear for Halloween. I’ve seen Paul once in concert and Ringo four times. I’ve probably read upwards of 50 or 60 books on them over the course of my life. While I try to be humble, I know my Beatles. Now it’s time to rank their output.

A few words about this. First of all, I am listening mostly as a fan and partly as a historian of the 1960s and 1970s, and this will impact what I look for. I don’t have much musical training beyond a basic proficiency in piano, so I’m not one to talk about pentatonic scales and aeolian cadences, and all that. In terms of what I am looking for, I suppose I am looking for how a song comes together as a whole. Does it highlight a crucial aspect of Beatlemania? Does it move the band’s oeuvre in a new direction, or perhaps even alter the trajectory of rock and roll itself? I also try and consider context as well- the Beatles generally wrote their music, at least at first, for dancing, not listening with headphones. I penalize lazy writing, hackwork, and malice. If I have a bias, I suppose it’s that unlike many Beatles writers, I slightly prefer Paul over John, or at the very least tolerate Paul’s music-hall diversions more than Lennon’s pretensions to literary genius.

Now we come to the problem of what, exactly, is ranked. Obviously, every track on every British studio album is accounted for, with the exception of the George Martin instrumentals on Yellow Submarine. Some rankings include the cover songs that showed up on their first five LPs, and others don’t. I will incorporate them. Similarly included are the hodgepodge of non-album singles, EPs, and other material collected in the two Past Masters volumes, with the exception of their two German-language remakes of their hits. Abbey Road was tricky (some people consider all of side two one long track), but I combined “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” and “Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” while considering the other tracks individually. I do not include the two reunion tracks from the 1990s.

So, let’s begin our magical mystery tour through the collected works of one of the most important musical artists of the twentieth century. All songs are Lennon-McCartney unless otherwise noted.

203. “Run For Your Life” (Rubber Soul): Tanking at the very bottom of our ranking is this closing track from one of the band’s finest albums. “Run For Your Life” is in some ways the single track that least caters to the band’s best qualities. It is malicious, with John Lennon dwelling on seeing a lover dead. It’s not ironic. It’s not winking. Lennon gives every indication that he’s serious. It’s also unoriginal, with it’s first line nicked from an early Elvis record, with bland, generically country and western instrumentation that could have just as easily come from Beatles for Sale, two albums earlier. I have no trouble writing this off as the nadir of the band’s recording career.

202. “Taxman” (Harrison- Revolver): I’ve always found it fascinating that George Harrison was both the most spiritual of the Beatles, yet also the most miserly. Some consider “Taxman” to be the first sign of greatness from the Quiet Beatle, but I disagree strongly. This song fits one of the most loathsome rock archetypes: rich people complaining about problems only rich people can understand. At the time this song was written, income taxes on the very top earners in the U.K. topped 90%. My problem is that this kind of taxation rate was necessary to sustain the U.K. welfare state, and Harrison, of all the Beatles, benefitted most from that welfare state. His father enjoyed a municipal job driving buses. The Harrisons dwelled in government-subsidized council flats, housing that was far superior to that enjoyed by any previous generation of the English working class. What’s more, The Beatles, and most British rockers, collected welfare payments between gigs, a practice Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn calls “rock and dole.” This social democracy gave Harrison the material comforts as a youngster and financial stability as a young adult to help him realize his potential. So for Harrison to whine about the tax rate now that he was finally among the top earners strikes me as deeply hypocritical.

201. “Wild Honey Pie” (White Album): The question of whether the White Album should have been cut down to one lean, trim album or left in its sprawling 90-minute state remains a contentious debate among Beatles aficionados. Few, however, would disagree about this song’s reputation as filler, barely a minute of acoustic guitar, and funny voices warbling “honey pie.”

200. “Maggie Mae” (trad. arranged by Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-Starr- Let It Be): The “Get Back” sessions of early 1969 often got derailed into jam sessions and impromptu cover songs. Led by Lennon, the band tries their hand at this ribald Merseyside ditty about a neer-do-well prostitute. It has neither the joy of true spontaneity, nor any of the polish that would come from actively working on the song. Instead, the four Beatles try to soldier their way through a song none of them can remember, and none of them look back on especially fondly. The track cuts off mid-verse, 40 seconds in.

199. “Matchbox” (Perkins- EP): Although George Harrison was the group’s resident Carl Perkins devotee, the band’s first of three Perkins covers went to Ringo, probably because the song’s doleful lyrics matched his public persona. Unfortunately, the result is paint-by-numbers rockabilly, and Ringo hasn’t learned the art of double-tracking yet, as he can be heard changing the cadence of the lyrics throughout between tracks.

198. “Mr. Moonlight” (Johnson- Beatles for Sale): I’m going to come out and say it- Beatles for Sale is easily my least favorite album by the band. It’s problems include the band’s burnout from constant touring and Beatlemania, and with limited time and limited energy, the group resorted to quick, easy covers of familiar material. This obscurity bespeaks Lennon’s deep interest in black rhythm & blues, an interest shared by many Merseyside artists. But the recording of this song is dreadful, with Lennon’s bite removing much of the soul and plaintiveness of the original. The gimmicky organ part sinks the already troubled track. George Martin made a rare mistake putting this on the album rather than the frantic “Leave My Kitten Alone.”

197. “Little Child” (With the Beatles): This is the band at their most pedestrian and least inventive, as they recorded this forgettable track for their sophomore album. It exposes Lennon’s tenuous harmonica abilities and it’s patronizing tones haven’t aged well.

196. “Misery” (Please Please Me): I’m grading the first album on a bit of a curve, since the band hadn’t logged much studio time, and only had a day to record ten tracks. Nevertheless, “Misery” is a marked step down from the album’s stellar opening track, “I Saw Her Standing There.” Written for British pop act Helen Shapiro, some amateurism is on display. Between the silly falsetto during the fade-out, and the band’s shaky incorporation of a piano into their sound, it’s clear that the band still had a bit of a learning curve to navigate.

And here we are…just a few songs to start out the first post. Stay tuned as we count down to Beatles greatness!

 

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