An edited version of this essay is now included in my book The Beatles In Mono. Hardback paperback
After that temporary hiatus, caused by my stereo breaking, and the CD drive in my computer breaking, and my external CD drive breaking, and my replacement stereo and replacement external CD drive breaking, which lesser men would have taken as a sign not to bother continuing with my inexplicably-mildly-popular series of reviews, I’m continuing with the Beatles’ fourth album (I’ll go and backfill the rest of the A Hard Day’s Night album at some point).
Beatles For Sale is an album that causes me much the same problems as a reviewer as did The Five Doctors, as both are things I fell in love with before developing any kind of higher critical faculties, and both are also things which are part of a body of work I love very much, but which don’t actually stand up very well on their own merits.
Beatles For Sale was the first album I ever grew to love as an album – my memories of my very young childhood are hazy, but I believe the only albums I owned before this one were Dannny Kaye Sings Tubby The Tuba and songs from Hans Christian Andersen, a collection of novelty hits, two Shakin’ Stevens albums, Elvis’ Greatest Hits, the best of Buddy Holly and the Beatles ‘blue’ album. But somehow around the age of six I acquired this one, the first proper album by a proper band I ever owned, and certainly the first one I ever obsessively listened to, over and over.
Rather embarrassingly, the song I listened to most, Mister Moonlight, is regarded by most as a terrible blot on the Beatles’ discography, and I can see why now – with twenty-four more years’ experience listening to music, I know all the cultural associations that Hammond organs have, and now the solo does rather make me think of Armando Iannucci as Peter Fenn on Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World, but… damnit, if you throw out that baggage, it sounds so strange and eerie, and Lennon’s vocal is just extraordinary.
This album is also the one that confirmed in me a preference for the mono versions of the Beatles’ albums over the stereo ones. After several years of being played to death by a very small Andrew, my second-hand mono copy became almost unplayable (though I think I still have it somewhere) and I got – in a batch with half-a-dozen other Beatles albums and a load of solo McCartney ones one Christmas when I was about ten – the stereo mix.
And in comparison to the original, it sounded appaling. Both mixes are slathered with reverb, but on the stereo mix the reverb on the vocal is panned to one channel, with the vocal itself panned to the other – and they’re (at least on my stereo vinyl copy) out of phase enough that the reverb comes in fractionally before the vocal. Just an incredibly shoddy mix.
But while it’s an important album to me, it was rather less important in the Beatles’ career, being the last of their ‘moptop’ phase albums, before the huge leap in songwriting quality that came with Help!, and it’s the last one to be full of filler cover versions.
But those cover versions are interesting in themselves. While all the previous cover versions (apart from Paul’s moment of cuteness per album) had been of soul or R&B tracks, this time we have, along with the Chuck Berry and Little Richard, rockabilly – two Carl Perkins songs and one Buddy Holly one.
And that points to one of the distinctive things about this album – even more than A Hard Day’s Night, this is the Beatles’ folk-rock album. Almost every song has acoustic rhythm guitar, many have bluegrass-tinged harmonies, and overall the feeling is that they’ve heard Bob Dylan and he’s reminded them of a strand of influence they’d previously neglected.
Which is not to say, though, that they are going for ‘authenticity’ – this is also the point where the Beatles first start really pushing the boat out in terms of outrageous sounds. Although Derek Taylor’s rather sweet liner notes try to reassure people that it could be reproduced on stage, almost every song has a little note by it saying who was double-tracked, or what else was done to make it sound odd.
And the final thing of note in the album as a whole is that McCartney is, for the first time, the writer of as many songs as Lennon. Lennon still feels like the dominant member, thanks to him taking the opening three tracks of the album and also taking lead on two of McCartney’s songs (Eight Days A Week and Every Little Thing), but the balance of power is shifting.
As this is a lesser album, I’m not going to talk about every track, just those that show some point of interest.
No Reply, the opening track, is quite a creepy track – listen to the cold way Lennon sings “they said that you weren’t home/that’s a lie”, or the rage bursting out in “I saw the light!” – but the interesting thing about this is that the way Lennon merges both the more laid-back Dylan influence with a melody that shows more of Smokey Robinson’s influence – again, listen to the melisma on ‘that’s a lie’, coming after the flat Dylanesque line right before it. or the Vandella handclaps on the middle eight. If you’d ever wondered what Dylan would have sounded like as a Motown artist, this is the answer.
I’m A Loser is a much more straightforward track, with Lennon again going for a Dylan feel, with harmonica chords (huffed on a folkie diatonic harmonica, rather than the single-note chromatic harmonica passages of the early hits), and a lyric and vocal so seeped in irony it’s almost possible to miss the very real self-pity that’s in there. Harrison does a sterling Carl Perkins impersonation on lead guitar, but unfortunately the clear sound of the reissue highlights a rather weak performance by the rhythm section. McCartney is just busking a walking bass part, not really quite right for the track, while Starr is stiff, heavy handed, and seems to be keeping time less than perfectly – very rare for him.
I’ll Follow The Sun is one of McCartney’s strongest early songs, if very callous. After listening to this track since I was tiny though, I still can’t make out for certain which bits of the harmony are double-tracked Paul (as it says in the liner) and which are John (some definitely are, but not all – the two could sound amazingly alike at this point).
Mister Moonlight is dead good, and I’ll deck anyone who says otherwise.
John’s I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party is the most obvious genre-pastiche the Beatles ever did, being a straight country song (and a precursor to Paul’s I’ve Just Seen A Face from the next album – listen to Paul’s harmony on the middle eight and compare to ‘falling, yes I’m falling…’) with a Chet Atkinsesque guitar solo from Harrison. This could easily have been a hit for the Everly Brothers (other than maybe the line about ‘a drink or two’, this inhabits very much the same lyrical world as most of the Everlys’ mid-period hits combining humour and pathos more or less equally, like Wake Up Little Suzy or Bird Dog). It’s a sign of the attention that was being paid to even throwaway tracks on a throwaway album, though, that the song has a seperately-composed instrumental intro/outro (which is in itself slightly reminiscent melodically of the Everlys’ Cathy’s Clown).
And Paul’s Every Little Thing and What You’re Doing are the two real pointers to where the band is going production wise. The use of piano on Every Little Thing is extraordinary – you have the tiny single-note bits leading into ‘yes I know I’m a lucky guy’, but in the chorus it’s used to double the percussion! – piano and timpani playing the same note, while the lead guitar is stabbing at the word ‘thing’ – that’s Jack Nitzsche level arranging. The whole production is full of little touches like that, and these remastered CDs let you hear every tiny detail (even the fluffed guitar part *right* at the end of the fade, which I’d never heard on any previous copy of this album, mono or stereo).
And What You’re Doing, as well as being the inspiration for the Byrds’ entire career (though probably in its turn inspired by The Searchers’ recent hits), sees the first appearance of The Paul McCartney Drum Part. This broken fill (played by Ringo but under Paul’s instruction), can be traced as it evolves through the next few Beatles albums, most noticeably in Ticket To Ride, before ending up being the basis of Tomorrow Never Knows. Here it’s just one element in the drum part rather than the whole thing, but it’s a pointer to the future.
Beatles For Sale is a deeply strange album, with songs about depression, betrayal and loss, but all delivered with a distanced affect and with swathes of black humour. It’s obviously an album put together in a hurry, as a quick filler for the Christmas market, no matter how much the liner notes try to deny it, but the mere fact that it was knocked off so quickly makes it probably a better representation of the band’s mental state than the more polished albums on either side of it, and while it’s never going to make any ‘best albums’ lists, it’s invaluable to anyone who wants to see how Lennon & McCartney’s songwriting and production ideas came together.
I realise that for these first few albums I’ve not had that much to say about the sound quality of the remastered CDs – that’s because it’s simply less important on these early albums, which were primitively and quickly recorded. They sound clearer and sharper than any previous issues of the albums, but there are no great revelations as there are with the albums from 65 onwards. In the case of Beatles For Sale the remaster is hugely clearer than any previous version I’ve heard (I’ve heard the original mono vinyl, an 80s stereo vinyl pressing and MP3 rips of the original CD release) but this album doesn’t benefit from that clarity as much as the others – it’s a murky, muddy, confused album, and should be heard that way. Possibly the best way to listen to it *is* on an old scratched vinyl copy you’ve had since you were seven, where you drew glasses on John Lennon’s face on the gatefold so he’d look more like he did in Yellow Submarine.
Next week – Help!, in mono and stereo…