The Long and Winding Road Part 4: Beatles for Sale

Note: I wrote this over three days when I was starting to get a little bored with the project, and even with my lack of sleep I realize that this is very incoherent. But I’d like to get to the interesting albums (Help and beyond) ASAP, so I’ll rewrite this when I have the time. For now, though, thanks for reading!

Beatles for Sale (released 4 December 1964)

Dear Beatles for Sale,

In an age where stars can easily remind everyone of their presence with concerts, social media and possibly the odd documentary combining both (Ariana Grande, anybody?), a new album has become something further down the priority list. Of course, new music (or the promise of it) is still a must, but given how easily satiated we can be over our musical heroes these days, combined with the pursuit of musical perfection over quantity, musicians can afford to release new albums every two or three years without worrying too much about their legacy. Unfortunately for the Beatles, though, YouTube and Instagram were still more than forty years away from being invented, so the only way to maintain a fan base was to push out albums at a breathtaking rate.

Your final song, “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”, is a pretty ironic yet apt look at the Beatles in 1964 (sung by George, of course). “Woke up last night, half past four/ fifty women knocking on my door” may sound like a funny exaggeration, but is somewhat accurate about what had happened by then: fans were screaming everywhere they went, every member of “cultured” society trying to suck up to them, while all the time they got more and more tired and simply longed for a good night’s sleep. As if to underscore the point, George’s voice here is appropriately echoey and hollow, as if he can’t even muster enough energy to do it properly.

Indeed, 1964 was a very tiring year for the Beatles. Even with all the constant touring and filmmaking, George, John, Paul and Ringo still had to crank out two albums just five months apart — one for the summer, and one for Christmas. Now, I have never made an album before (nor do I wish to make one in the near future), but from what I can see on numerous social media posts, it’s a really tiring business. You need to be imaginative, both musically and idealistically; you need to reach out to an audience and empathize with them, and all the while you need to seem encouraging, a paragon of strength for your confused fans. Even if they hadn’t had all those additional commitments, it would have been a superhuman feat for the Beatles to accomplish all of those factors, TWICE, in just under a year. Something had to give, and that something was quality. But how is it that, in spite of all that, you still come out sounding pretty okay? (Unlike A Hard Day’s Night, it’s mostly agreed that you’re not one of the finest Beatle records… sorry. On the plus side, though, it does mean I can type this without worrying about fans coming after my blood.)

On paper, everything about you seems like a recipe for disaster. You introduce yourself not with an awe-inspiring chord or with an energetic call to action, but with a distressed John trying to come to terms with a breakup. It’s an anguished rant that simmers with resentment the whole way through, the downbeat energy depressing rather than uplifting. Perhaps “No Reply” is an anomaly, there to stun us and make a grand statement than indicating the general feel of the album? No, the next track is even more sombre: “I’m a Loser” continues to have a theme of love lost, and in fact hammers home the point by repeating the title phrase TEN times in two and a half minutes (yes, we HEARD you, John). As if that wasn’t clear enough, John elects to deliver this piece as if all the energy has drained from him, as if he just can’t go on cause he’s such a loser (DAMN, OSMOSIS). By the time we reach the end, it doesn’t matter how many major chords John is cramming into the song, it’s pretty clear that we have an album which tramples the previously rosy image that the Beatles portrayed.

What were you doing? Nowadays, showing your vulnerable side is a rite of passage for musicians, right up there with “announcing sexuality” and “getting into spat with other musician whom you previously respected”. But though it wouldn’t have been professional suicide (their fans were too busy fainting to notice the change in music), it would certainly have been a little weird for their audiences: previously only known for their cheery attitudes and their inexhaustible vitality, their audiences would have certainly found it odd that here instead were four tired musicians, struggling on with songs with a gloomy outlook that bely a weary attitude and a reluctance to keep up their shtick for any longer.

And yet it works. The band may be tired, but we don’t find evidence of a band wanting to throw in the towel when we listen to you. Instead, the rest of the album, like the opening tracks, simmers with the energy of a band determined to do despite their dejection, and eager as ever to try new directions and experiment with different styles. And this being the Beatles, they do a fantastic job with their new sound.

Leading the charge is of course John, who has by now followed his bandmate George both in reaching inward and trying out different styles. Ever the keen innovator, he tries to make something good of. and having tried his hand at a little Bob Dylan, he goes full country and folk with “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”. His performance here is somewhat more subdued than what we’re used to: gone is the exuberance (some might say ferocity) that can be seen in his previous albums, replaced by a soft, understated performance that only surges, ever so slightly, on the higher notes, as if it’s reaching a climax. And it’s definitely an improvement: more than those wild, impassioned performances that we’ve seen from John in your older siblings. I mean, we’ve heard John emote before, he just wasn’t convincing in his soft side (in fact, the other understated performance on the LP, “Baby’s in Black”, isn’t a very convincing performance either as John sounds WAY too happy in talking about how his girlfriend is mourning her ex), so this seems like confirmation that yes, John can be emotionally complex, and yes, his songwriting can be diverse.

I know I sound like I’m jesting, but as I said in my letter to your older sibling, one of the major issues I had with A Hard Day’s Night is that John and Paul were running around shouting positive lyrics when they didn’t necessarily mean them. They tried to pretend that everybody was having a great time in the Beatle world when it just wasn’t. With you, at least they come around to admitting (and maybe embracing) this aspect of their life. And they come out the better for it: I’ve read in many places that the band actually came to enjoy recording these songs, and perhaps that accounts for the jaunty and somewhat relaxed attitude: more than A Hard Day’s Night, you give out a vibe of a band which is learning how to take their tiredness and use it as another driving force behind their music. And it works: behind all the sad lyrics, you can hear that they’re tired, but happy. And even when John screws up songs with his overly light-hearted manner, you can forgive him for that. Almost.

But for those missing the vitality of former Beatles albums, there is still a positive side to things as Paul supplies us with much-needed relief from all the gloom. It’s interesting to note the composer divide: while John composes most of the negative songs in you, Paul seems to have a much happier time and continues to churn out happy tunes. (It’s a divide which becomes even more apparent in later albums, but this is the first album where you can actually find confirmation of it.) And the contrast it creates is also wonderful to behold: the quasi-tragic attitude from “Baby’s in Black” is balanced out by the gentle hope of “I’ll Follow the Sun”, as if Paul’s song is a sort of answer or even a solution to the negativity that John can’t seem to shake himself out of. It’s quite sweet.

Of course, one is tempted to dismiss this as more posturing from the most pretentious member of the group. And given what I’ve always said about the core quality of the Beatles being true, Paul’s reckless joy may seem saccharine, even hypocritical. (Paul’s a bit like that annoying friend who keeps putting his arm round your shoulders and calling you “bro”. Urgh.) But Paul is that kind of person who views the world through rose-tinted glasses, so it’s only natural for him to come up with lovely tunes — tunes like “I’ll Follow the Sun”, with its acoustic guitar and soft rhythm, straightforward yet gentle in its declarations of hope and love. It’s simple, yes, yet it’s still the closest thing to the wonderful, dynamic McCartney tunes we started discovering in A Hard Day’s Night. And just like his buddy John, Paul’s had a shot at playing with instruments too: bass drums feature in both “Every Little Thing” and the strangely pessimistic “What You’re Doing”, casting an ominous shadow over each of the songs and reminding us all that this is, after all, an album that’s running on uncertainty and fumes (but very jacked-up fumes). The only song that I’m not too sure about is “Eight Days a Week” (the only song that anyone actually remembers from this album). It’s classic sugary pop music, yes, yet there’s something rather empty about the lyrics. Sure, the melody is nice, but the lyrics are nothing deep and after a few listens the relentless positivity grows cloying and unnatural. One is tempted to think that there’s not much difference, that these songs all sound the same, but such is the increase in quality over the past three albums, that to return to such empty filler just doesn’t seem right.

And sadly, “Eight Days a Week” is only one of the songs which make this album something of a chore to listen to (which has not made my job any easier). I’ve mentioned some issues with your quality upstairs, and these mostly come from the covers: so little time did Lennon-McCartney have to write new songs, they had to dust off some old covers long dropped from their repertoire to fill up the album, and the relative lack of nuance on these tunes is evident. My least favourite track on this one is indeed a cover, but not the one everyone loves to hate: “Words of Love” doesn’t have anything wrong with it per se, but it is TERRIFICALLY boring and features so little vocals that it sounds like an instrumental, which is definitely not what I came here for. Meanwhile, “Rock and Roll Music” is delivered in a rush by John, almost as if he can’t wait to get to the next song and get this boring cover out of the way — and how am I supposed to talk about a song if I can’t even hear what’s being said? And the one everyone hates, “MISTERRRRRRRRRR MOONLIGHT” admittedly does feature some jumbled vocals, and the number of instruments they stuff inside the song makes it pretty hard for anyone to take it seriously, though it’s somewhat rescued by the harmonies, and it’s worth going through just for John’s very aggressive opener (guess what it is).

But at least you offer us balance: for each bad cover you produce, you still give us a good one to compensate. For those of us sorely missing John’s passion, Paul makes up for it (one might even say he overcompensates for it) in “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey”, a medley where Paul takes after his idol Little Richard, and it’s a tour-de-force performance and he basically shouts his head off. Meanwhile, “Honey Don’t” is also a somewhat inconsequential song, but at least it has a rather flippant Ringo singing in it, which in itself is good enough for me. And as mentioned before, the Beatles manages to end the album on a touch of sarcasm with “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”: with George in charge of the vocals, you know that they’ve kept that cheeky streak — and remained true to who they are as people.

I know I’ve been going on for way too long, and nobody’s here to read the stuff I write, so let me say this: despite everything, I’d say that you were the album in which the Beatles really started to grow up. All the things that came before? That was them trying out different styles, trying to find the direction in which they gelled best. And it was here, on this album, that the four tired musicians simply wrote from their hearts, and discovered that it was a gold mine of material. All the hiccups that we find on you are only symptoms of trying out something new — you don’t get it right first time round, and that’s okay; nobody’s perfect, after all. And it’s astonishing how they got it right just on their second try: you’re the last album where there exists something off-kilter. From Help onwards, everything — and I mean everything — is epic.

Phew! That was a long letter.

Yours sincerely,

Favourite track: This is a collection of mostly okay songs, but “No Reply” is an effective album opener which gets the balance between “tiredness” and “keeping it professional” well. It’s really the only song from this album which has stuck in my head, really.

(Featured image from cover of Beatles for Sale, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records.)

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