An edited version of this essay is now included in my book The Beatles In Mono. Hardback paperback
With The Beatles
Cover of With The Beatles
, the band’s second album, is a triumph of style over substance. Significantly inferior to the albums immediately preceding and following it, it has managed to remain the most highly-rated of the band’s pre-Rubber Soul
albums, despite being one of their worst.
That it has had that success is almost certainly down to Robert Freeman’s cover photo. The Beatles always took care – at least in the UK – to ensure that their fans got a good deal, and as such they ensured that the packaging of their albums was as attractive as the records themselves. The famous silhouetted-heads cover was their first truly great album cover (and looks far better on this CD release than in the picture here – it’s printed darker so you can’t see the turtleneck jumpers they’re wearing, so their heads do look as if they’re floating in empty black space). It’s just a shame that the same attention wasn’t spent on the music itself.
To an extent this is understandable – the album did have more time allocated to it than Please Please Me, but this was still only three sessions as opposed to the earlier album’s one. And it was the epitome of ‘second album syndrome’ – not only did they have to come up with material for a new album after using up songs built up over years on the first album, but they had to do it in five months – and in that five month period they went from being third on the bill to Tommy Roe and Chris Montez to being the biggest band in the history of British popular music (American success would still take another couple of months).
The extra time spent in the studio wasn’t all to the record’s advantage, either. With The Beatles has the first real examples of the band using studio trickery and overdubbing, but what this means throughout the album is out-of-synch double-tracking (practically every lead vocal is sloppily double-tracked – none of the band had the experience to do a decent job), and overdubbed piano and maracas, giving a thick, dense texture without the space of a live performance. The band would get much better at using the studio very quickly, but this album is at an uncomfortable halfway point between the record as thing in itself and the record as recording of live performance, with the disadvantages of both and the advantages of neither. This also means that With The Beatles has the smallest difference between mono and stereo mixes, and is the least improved of all the albums by remastering. Frankly, the source material sounds bad in comparison to pretty much anything else the band ever did,
And finally, it’s formulaic – the album seems like the product of a conscious, concerted effort to make an album that’s *exactly like the album before*, from Paul doing a winsome cover of a standard, to George doing a ‘little boy lost’ girl-group cover, to John ending the album on a screaming R&B cover, to John taking half the lead vocals (George gets an extra one here, and it feels like more of a group effort, but John is clearly the leader).
Sometimes, though, the formula works – as on It Won’t Be Long, the opening track, and the start of a run of three songs as good as any in the band’s early catalogue. It Won’t Be Long bears all the marks of a song written to order, combining the hooks of the band’s current hit single (the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ of the chorus) with the punning title of their first big hit. Still, Lennon manages to come up with something so unusually structured (seven-bar verse, chorus, and ‘middle eight’ introduced after only one verse) that it carries a lot of conviction, and the arrangement is very well thought-out, particularly the tiny guitar/drum fill going into the chorus. One of the very best of the band’s early tracks.
All I’ve Got To Do, the second song, is practically the only one on the album not to be badly double-tracked, and the result is one of Lennon’s most human vocals. The song itself is an obvious attempt at writing a Smokey Robinson song, but Lennon has internalised this style so much it sounds entirely natural. This is another one where the arrangement makes it though – the snapped, broken drum part under the melismatic vocal line is something the Zombies would later make an entire career out of – Tell Her No in particular is almost a clone of this track.
Much as on the last album, McCartney only gets to shine once here, with All My Loving, by far his best song to this point, and the first time he wrote something up to Lennon’s standard. Even so, the song has signs of laziness in its writing – the fact that he uses the same words to rhyme in both the first and second verses *could* be seen as a clever touch, except that he can’t be bothered to write a third verse (just repeating the first) or a proper middle eight lyric. That said, this would have been an obvious choice for a single for any other band, and (like the two tracks before it) it shows sign of a lot of care in the arrangement. Incidentally, for those of you who still believe the nonsense in Goldman’s book about Lennon being a poor guitarist, listen to those triplets throughout the song – that’s a HARD part to play. Harrison also gets to shine here, doing his best Carl Perkins on the solo, and this is the song here most improved by the remastering – Lennon and Harrison’s backing vocals in the last verse cut through now in a way they didn’t before.
Harrison’s Don’t Bother Me, the next song, was his first solo composition, and surprisingly good for a first effort. One can already see the beginnings of his style – being grumpy over minor chords – but it’s a surprisingly sophisticated song for a beginner.
After that though, we have a whole cluster of sludge in the middle – a lazy, half-written Lennon song (Little Child, where he sounds almost contemptuous of the song while singing it, and where the arrangement is just ‘every instrument including harmonica and piano playing as loudly as possible’), McCartney’s one for the grannies (Til There Was You) , a McCartney song left off Please Please Me (Hold Me Tight, whose only point of interest is the way the chorus lyric carries over into the middle eight, something he’d repeat with The Fool On The Hill four years later), a song for Ringo (I Wanna Be Your Man, where he does a much better job than on Boys) and a cluster of undistinguished R&B covers (probably the best of which is the version of Please Mister Postman, which has far more energy in the vocal performances than the song deserves, and which is again improved by the remastering – I’d actually never heard the ‘ooh’ backing vocals until this release – they’d just got swamped in the stereo mix I own on vinyl).
The album comes together again, however, for the last two songs. Not A Second Time is a sloppy performance and arrangement (apart from George Martin’s (varispeeded?) piano solo), and by any reasonable standards it’s a badly-written one, too – but it’s so unpredictable that it manages to overcome this. It’s clearly a song that meant something to its author, and that does come across.
And the album finishes on Money, one of the Beatles’ very best cover versions. Everything comes together here perfectly, and the mono mix, and remaster, give the track a power it never had in stereo (ever notice McCartney’s almost-inaudible ‘waah’ during the instrumental break?). The sound of the distorted, reverbed guitars playing in synch with Martin’s piano, with the bass end now rich and strong like it always should have sounded, is extraordinarily inventive for the time, Starr’s drumming is exemplary, and Lennon and McCartney both give the vocals their all.
The album works far better as an album than as a selection of tracks, thanks to some smart sequencing – the good stuff is front-loaded, and it closes with the best track – and it shows the first signs of the band’s fascination with studio technique, which would soon start to pay off – but it’s clearly a regressive step. They’d lost the innocence and enthusiasm of the first album, but not yet replaced it with sophistication and craftsmanship. That would soon change, however.
(I may well review A Hard Day’s Night tomorrow rather than in a week, so this rather negative review doesn’t stay the top one for very long. While you wouldn’t believe it from reading this, the Beatles are my favourite band…)