Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beatles bonanza

As a child, one of the geekiest items I devoured was some kind of trivia book based on incredibly large subjective assumptions—like when it asked, “What is the only bad Beatles song ever?” Their answer, of course, was the avant-garde tape experiment “Revolution 9,” which is the single song in the Beatles catalogue without a melody. Which hardly makes it the worst of anything. I’m fine with “Revolution 9.”

But the point of the question is that the Beatles are supposed to be infallible. It’s considered heresy to dis the Fab Four, no matter what your own musical leanings may be. They’ve survived overexposure, boomer backlash, and Michael Jackson licensing their songs to commercials.

The Beatles mean everything to everyone: the cute, cuddly boy band; the soundtrack to a cultural revolution; the inventive and curious musicians who pushed the pop envelope; the rock’n’roll revivalists; the trippy weirdoes who brought the avant-garde into the mainstream, however tentatively. Hell, even our hopelessly square Prime Minister fancies himself a Beatles expert (though surely his advisers—and Laureen—told him that the Beatles were the new fuzzy sweaters).

There will never be another band like them, with such broad cultural appeal across every sector of society and around the world—and that actually has more to do with their actual talent and output than narrowcasting and niche marketing, which are the usual scapegoats when discussing diminished cultural impact.

And so this fall we once again witnessed an avalanche of press about the Beatles: every single album was remastered for CD (though still not available on iTunes), and the video game Beatles Rock Band promised to be a fantastical intergenerational love-in.

As part of the promotional push, I arrived home one day to discover the entire Beatles catalogue on my doorstep, in an envelope from EMI—surely one of the biggest pleasures of my life as a professional promosexual. I hadn’t owned these on CD; in fact, I’d never owned most of them at all. The Beatles were always so ubiquitous that I never had an urge to have them in my house, even though I’ve loved them passionately all my life.

My personal history: I first fell in love with them through an ’80s compilation called 20 Greatest Hits; those served me well for years, and I eventually wore out the cassette. I also had the two-LP collection Rock and Roll Music, which captures the best of the Beatles outside of their pop and psychedelic personalities.

Other than that, I own the White Album on CD and Abbey Road on vinyl. I took out Rubber Soul and Revolver on vinyl from the Toronto Public Library as a teenager. I’ve never read a Beatles biography. Of the movies, I’ve only ever seen Yellow Submarine.

And so this seemed the perfect time to dive in deep and discover Beatles songs I’d never heard before, had completely forgotten about, or had only the faintest recollection of. In some cases, I knew the song only from learning it from a Beatles songbook for piano.

I constructed a playlist based solely on whether I could recall a melody by glancing at the title. I came up with 85 songs out of the 227 tracks on the 14 CDs (including the Yellow Submarine instrumentals, which are technically not Beatles songs).

Some of them I recognized instantly. Many I didn’t. A few I fell in love with immediately. Some suffered merely in comparison to the high standard set by other Beatles songs. Some totally sucked.

“Act Naturally” from Help!
I didn’t realize until doing this exercise that Help! was such a country album. That might explain George’s Stetson hat on the back cover. This is the most obvious debt, a cover of an earlier hit by Buck Owens. Ringo’s “sad and lonely” vocal suits the narrative perfectly.

“All I’ve Got to Do” from Meet the Beatles
Underneath the teen treacle of the lyrics is one of Lennon’s stronger early melodies. I’m finding most of the first three albums largely unbearable other than the obvious hits, so this song is a pleasant surprise.

“All Together Now” from Yellow Submarine
I remembered this vaguely from the film, but never sat down and listened to it. Sure, it’s a silly children’s song on par with "Yellow Submarine" and "Octopus’s Garden," but it’s one I’m not sick of. And there are some slightly more adult lines (“Can I take my friend to bed?”) hidden amidst the naïvete. One of the things I’ve always loved about the Beatles is their willingness to be completely silly and ridiculous—a trait that, of the other great bands of the era, only The Who seemed to share.

“And I Love Her” from A Hard Day’s Night
I know this song primarily from my cherished Beatles songbook as a teenager; I don’t know the original, even though it’s one of my favourite Beatles melodies. I believe my grandmother’s Bontempi organ would classify this clave rhythm as a rumba. George’s Spanish guitar lead is lovely.

“Anna (Go to Him)” from Please Please Me
Creepy, reverb-laden backing vocals make this Latin-tinged mid-tempo pop song more interesting than it might be otherwise. Lennon sounds quite impassioned about willfully losing the love of his life. I guess this makes up for those “come back to me or I’ll kill you” songs (“Run For Your Life”).

“Another Girl” from Help!
Another passable country song, but definitely filler, George’s guitar notwithstanding.

“Any Time at All” from A Hard Day’s Night
Classic pop melody with rock’n’roll delivery, though it could definitely use a bit more bite. The fact that the vocals are mixed twice as high as the instruments doesn’t help.

“Ask Me Why” from Please Please Me
Oh, God. Any song that starts off with “I love you-woo-woo-woo” gets the gong immediately.

“Baby’s in Black” from Beatles for Sale
A rare waltz. If they’re not in 4, I’ll take Beatles in 6 rather than 3. That’s just me.

“Baby It’s You” from Please Please Me
I know the original by the Shirelles (written by Burt Bacharach), but not this version. It’s remarkably faithful, right down to every sha-la-la.

“Baby You’re a Rich Man” from Magical Mystery Tour
There’s a paisley-era Prince song that lifts this melody, but I can’t place it. The clavioline (the keyboard also heard in Del Shannon’s “Runaway”) noodles in between every vocal line on an Eastern scale, adding a wonderfully demented element to an already oddball song.

“Bad Boy” from Past Masters Vol. 1
I only put this on the list because I wasn’t sure at first if this was the Carl Perkins’ song. It is, and it’s fabulous: easily one of the best of their American rock’n’roll covers, and Lennon sounds like he recorded this slightly before he shredded his vocal cords for “Twist and Shout.”

“Blue Jay Way” from Magical Mystery Tour
This appears to be the one exception to my belief that the weirder the better when it comes to the Beatles. Everything about this just sounds lazy.

“Boys” from Please Please Me
On the one hand, this is a dreadful British appropriation of American R&B. On the other hand, it’s actually pretty good.

“Chains” from Please Please Me
Mediocre performance, cliché song. Why would they cover this? Next.

“Devil in Her Heart” from With the Beatles
I have an acquired distaste for “devil woman” songs, but especially ones that sound like they’re being sung with a shit-eating grin by boys wearing sweaters. This song almost sends me screaming into the Stones camp.

“Dig It” from Let It Be
This starts out with Lennon singing an interpolation of “Like a Rolling Stone” and… oh wait, that’s it, all 48 seconds of it.

“Don’t Bother Me” from With the Beatles
This sounds like a warm-up for “The Night Before”—which is a far better song.

“Every Little Thing” from Beatles for Sale
Woof. Not wussy enough to be a ballad, not rockin’ enough for a rocker, not remotely weird enough to be interesting. The bad pseudo-tympani tom hits on the chorus are extremely low-rent Phil Spector.

“Flying” from Magical Mystery Tour
Tasty and trippy, this one. The oboe-like keyboard is a lovely treat, and the man chorus in the second verse is strange and surreal—as is the indeterminate soundscape that closes the piece. This is the kind of gem I was hoping to find with this experiment.

“For You Blue” from Let It Be
A rare Beatles blues that works, primarily because of its light touch, and the weird interplay between what sounds like an electric ukulele or a prepared piano and the boozy slides of the lead guitar. Too bad their self-consciousness gets the better of them when John jokes, “Elmore James has got nothing on this, baby.”

“Hey Bulldog” from Yellow Submarine
I love the “you can talk to me” chorus and the guitar riff that follows it; it’s the Beatles at not necessarily their late-period weirdo best, but close. The last 30 seconds is deliriously deranged.

“Hold Me Tight” from With the Beatles
With so many songs in their early catalogue that sound exactly like this one, it’s more and more apparent why they were so itchy to break the mould.

“Honey Don’t” from Beatles for Sale
Is this a skiffle song? Because I thought they WEREN’T A BLOODY SKIFFLE BAND. I have no idea what skiffle actually sounds like: a bit rockabilly, a bit country and western, a bit British, maybe? Coz that’s what this is. Nice Paul vocal; George does a Bill Haley-ish solo.

“I Call Your Name” from Past Masters Vol. 1
I like how it shifts into a ska shuffle during the guitar solo and then back to jangly rock’n’roll. But that’s about it.

“If I Fell” from A Hard Day’s Night
This golly-gee schoolboy love song (“iI I fell in love with you/ would you promise to be true? And help me understand?”) would be unbearable if the melody and harmonies weren’t utterly gorgeous; they could make Brian Wilson giggle with joy. They should have gone all-out a cappella for kicks.

“If I Needed Someone” from Rubber Soul
Holy Byrds, Batman. Parts of the verse also sound like a precursor to Yes’s “Roundabout.” This song might be the best thing in the repertoire of some ‘60s no-hit wonder, resuscitated decades later on a psych-pop compilation—but it’s definitely beneath the Beatles’ standards of this era.

“I’ll Be Back” from A Hard Day’s Night
Another unheard gem to these ears, rich in California harmonies. A nice minor key verse makes it a wonder that the Mamas and Papas didn’t tackle this.

“I’ll Cry Instead” from A Hard Day’s Night
Rockin’ country song that I’d love to hear Roy Orbison sing; no doubt they had him in mind when they wrote it.

“I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” from Beatles for Sale
Another suspicious skiffle song.

“I’ll Follow the Sun” from Beatles for Sale
This is one of the earliest songs where Paul sounds like a mature adult, perhaps because it’s the kind of tender acoustic ballad that the young rock band wouldn’t have attempted until then.

“I’ll Get You” from Past Masters Vol. 1
I don’t know how I feel about these sweet, snappy stalker songs: “I’ll get you in the end.” I’m sure people used to find them charming.

“I’m a Loser” from Beatles for Sale
This country-inflected pop song could stand beside “Please Please Me” or “Love Me Do” as one of their greatest early tracks.

“I Me Mine” from Let It Be
They were really into 6/8 on Let It Be, and this one switches back and forth from an orchestral Phil Spector pop song to a 4/4 bluesy stomper with awesome Billy Preston organ fills. You can almost hear every side of the Beatles pulling at each other here, and it works.

“I’m Happy Just to Dance With You” from A Hard Day’s Night
I’m beginning to think that half of Hard Day’s Night’s titles start with “I,” and that the whole album was consciously designed to set teen hearts aflutter.

“I Need You” from Help!
This sounds a bit like early R.E.M. Or a much better Herman’s Hermits.

“The Inner Light” from Past Masters Vol. 2
Here’s a George Harrison ode to cocooning that claims “The farther one travels, the less one knows”—and yet I’m sure he didn’t find all those harmoniums and ehrus or whatever else is on this track at his neighbourhood junk shop. Bad stoner hippie poetry and dorky guitar fills aside, it’s quite good.

“It’s All Too Much” from Yellow Submarine
Thurston Moore built his career around the first 15 seconds of this song. The rest of this one-chord wonder is just as glorious, with a monstrously distorted guitar, droning organ, disproportionately loud handclaps, and a fine performance from Ringo. This is probably Yo La Tengo’s favourite Beatles song.

“It’s Only Love” from Help!
“I get high when I see you go by/ My oh my.” My oh my indeed. A passable melody by Beatles standards, but these lyrics are dreadful. “Is it right that you and I should fight? Every night?” If you keep speaking in dipshit nursery rhymes, it’s sounds right to me.

“I’ve Got a Feeling” from Let It Be
The Beatles suck at the blues. There, I said it.

“I’ve Just Seen a Face” from Help!
Of the Beatles songs whose titles I don’t recognize immediately, this is perhaps my favourite. The guitar intro alone is sublime; the rest of the song is flawless. I know I’ve heard more than a few folkies cover this.

“Little Child” from With the Beatles
Paul McCartney himself described this song as filler, but it’s better than many of the covers they were doing at this point.

“Maggie Mae” from Let It Be
Forty seconds of a silly Scottish folk song.

“March of the Meanies” from Yellow Submarine
This is an all-too-typical villain theme, but not a bad one—and you can hear its influence on John Williams’s Darth Vader theme.

“Matchbox” from Past Masters Vol. 1
This is one of the weirder songs Carl Perkins ever wrote, with one verse boasting: “Let me be your little dog until your big dog comes/ when your big dog gets here/ watch your puppy dog run.” An anthem for cowards who flee with their tail between their legs—and that’s supposed to be a come-on?

“Misery” from Please Please Me
Other than a hilarious two-second piano fill in the bridge, this is obviously album filler.

“Mr. Moonlight” from Beatles for Sale
I don’t know if this is better than Roy Lee Johnson’s original, but they don’t do much with it, and surely they were writing better songs by 1964, no?

“The Night Before” from Help!
Ah yes, this one. A classic quality album track; not dissimilar to their earliest hits like “Love Me Do,” but played by a more mature group of men. The Wurlitzer gives it a rollicking Ray Charles feel; nice backing vocals and guitar solo.

“No Reply” from Beatles for Sale
Oh, this one. A slight bossa nova feel to the rhythm, clumsy handclaps in the bridge, but great melody and harmonies on the verse. The explosive “I nearly died” part belongs in a rocker like “Twist and Shout,” not so much here.

“Not a Second Time” from With the Beatles
The title sums it up. Once is enough.

“Old Brown Shoe” from Past Masters Vol. 2
A sizzling shuffle from George, the b-side to “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” this was apparently recorded first for Let It Be but was ditched—no idea why, considering the filler that mars that album.

“One After 909” from Let It Be
In what is an obvious attempt to dial back to their beginnings, this rock’n’roll shuffle sounds like a tired band trying to remember what excited them in the first place, before the drugs and the discord. It’s not terribly convincing.

“Only a Northern Song” from Yellow Submarine
The meta lyrics are awful, not to mention patronizing: "If you’re listening to this song/ you may think the chords are going wrong/ but they’re not.” Thanks, guys, for assuming your audience is full of simpletons—even if this is a song for a children’s film. And yet the music is magical. Paul’s bass is the anchor while a carnival of cacophony drifts in and out of the mix, including one particularly persistent trumpet. This was the pop song that attempted to prepare fans for “Revolution 9.”

“Pepperland” and “Pepperland Laid Waste” from Yellow Submarine
Generic film music.

“P.S. I Love You” from Please Please Me
Aw shucks. What nice boys. What treacle.

“Rain” from Past Masters Vol. 2
Another song I know more from my Beatles piano songbook than the original; I also recall Crash Vegas covering this in their live set around 1989. I love everything about this melody and arrangement, especially the wiggly bass, one of Ringo’s finest hours, and the Scottish-inflected flattened fifth note in the choruses.

“Run for Your Life” from Rubber Soul
“I’d rather see you dead little girl, than see you with another man.” I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the Beatles singing threatening murder ballads as jaunty two-steps.

“Sea of Holes” from Yellow Submarine
This is perfect and instantly evocative of soundtracks to creepy scenes in animated films—and a reminder that no one writes this kind of music for film anymore, never mind children’s film. This could be mistaken for a Morricone Italian horror score in a blind test; the sparse use of wah guitar and backwards tape are nice touches.

“Sea of Monsters” from Yellow Submarine
This sounds more like a romantic Dr. Zhivago outtake than something titled “Sea of Monsters.” I don’t recall this scene in the movie, but I’m guessing those monsters are pretty cuddly.

“Sea of Time” from Yellow Submarine
This starts out like a melancholy R.D. Burman Bollywood piece before dancing into Mary Poppins territory.

“She’s a Woman” from Past Masters Vol. 1
Thanks, master of the obvious. Paul’s vocal dances is unusually gritty for this pleasant country stomp.

“Slow Down” from Past Masters Vol. 1
Standard 12-bar-blues boogie by Larry Williams; far too similar to another Williams song, “Bad Boy,” which the Beatles also cover—and the latter is obviously superior.

“A Taste of Honey” from Please Please Me
Here’s a weird one: the theme song from a play and film that came from the “kitchen sink” drama of the time, dealing with interracial relationships and homosexuality. There’s a tragic melancholy to the melody, which a heavily reverbed Paul takes a bit too seriously. In fact, the whole thing is a bit giggle-worthy—which is sad, because it’s a lovely song.

“Tell Me What You See” from Help!
I could swear there’s a song from Steve Earle’s prime pop period (El Corazon, Transfiguration Blues) that rips this off wholesale. Again, another song that would be a high-water mark for most other pop bands gets lost in the shuffle in the Beatles catalogue.

“Tell Me Why” from Help!
Tell me why this made it onto a Beatles album.

“Thank You Girl” from Past Masters Vol. 1
Wow, it’s crystal clear why this didn’t even make it as album filler.

“There’s a Place” from Please Please Me
Nice two-note “Moon River”-ish harmonica line, but those two seconds are the only memorable moments in the entire song.

“Things We Said Today” from A Hard Day’s Night
I remembered this instantly; it was in the Beatles songbook I used to play all the time on the piano in high school. I love the lilt between the two minor chords in the verses; very British folk harmonies on the chorus. Can’t believe I forgot this; may be one of my favourite Beatles songs.

“Think For Yourself” from Rubber Soul
This has many of the best traits of late-period Beatles, but is little more than a lukewarm rehearsal.

“This Boy” from Past Masters Vol. 1
Lennon admits he was trying to write a Smokey Robinson song. He fared much better covering him outright (“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”).

“Till There Was You” from With the Beatles
A light rumba touch, bongos and tasty acoustic guitars all support a lovely vocal from Paul on this song from The Music Man—the only Broadway tune the Beatles ever recorded.

“Two of Us” from Let It Be
Despite the fact that this is the first song on Let It Be, I always forget about it—which is a huge mistake. This is a gloriously melodic acoustic foot-stomper; the guitars are present and lush; Ringo’s subtle shades of percussion are perfect; and the whole thing sounds like it could have been recorded live in a room—a rarity for late-period Beatles.

“Wait” from Rubber Soul
A wonderful amalgam of their country and Motown influences. Ringo’s got it going on here.

“What Goes On” from Rubber Soul
The chorus is an obvious inspiration for the Velvet Underground’s song of the same name. Not sure where this sits in the timeline of the Byrds’ country conversion, but it’s one of the Beatles more drugged-out, off-kilter takes on Nashville.

“What You’re Doing” from Beatles for Sale
Nice electric 12-string work from George, but the lame backing vocals (“Hey, let’s shout the first word of the line!”) are lame. As a Paul pop song, this is decent, but the arrangement is flaccid.

“When I Get Home” from A Hard Day’s Night
If any other band recorded this, they’d be accused of shamelessly ripping off “A Hard Day’s Night.” The Beatles put it on the album of the same name.

“The Word” from Rubber Soul
This sounds vaguely familiar, a jaunty pop song with harmonies rooted in the psychedelic folk of the time. The bass line and piano foreshadow “Taxman” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” and there’s an awesome dirty Farfisa organ that pops up here and there.

“Words of Love” from Beatles for Sale
What’s with the insistent quarter-note clapping through this entire song? Didn’t anyone think that was weird?

“Yellow Submarine in Pepperland” from Yellow Submarine
Basically an orchestral arrangement of the title song, this is a bit too Disney.

“Yes It Is” from Past Masters Vol. 1
No it’s not. This is a major yawnfest. Every single Beatle sounds like they’re falling asleep in the studio in the middle of this. I’m nodding off just typing this.

“You Can’t Do That” from A Hard Day’s Night
This is a refreshing change from so many early Beatles garage rockers in that the rhythm section actually sounds sexy: not just the push and pull between Paul’s pulsing bass and Ringo, but the rhythm guitar as well. Compelling vocal by John, as well.

“You Know My Name (Now Look Up the Number)” from Past Masters Vol. 2
I haven’t heard this in years, since around the release of the Anthology sets, and had forgotten how ridiculously awesome it was, more suited to a Monty Python or Muppets skit than a Beatles album; it was the b-side to “Let it Be,” and was recorded in four separate sessions between 1967 and 1969.

“You Like Me Too Much” from Help!
A solid George track: obviously overshadowed by all the Lennon-McCartney compositions on the album, but he’s really starting to shine by this point.

“You’re Going to Lose That Girl” from Help!
A passable attempt at a Motown-style song. I’d rather hear someone from Motown do it.

“You’re Going to Lose That Girl” from Help!
Thank god for those distracting bongos. More bongos! Also: it sounds like George Harrison just learned how to bend notes in his solo. (Also: if A Hard Day's Night is the "I" album, is Help! the "you" album?)

“Your Mother Should Know” from Magical Mystery Tour
I’ve definitely never heard this song before in my life—my loss. It’s a lovely psychedelic music hall number about a song that “was a hit before your mother was born.” Definitely a new favourite.

“You Won’t See Me” from Rubber Soul
All right, Ringo-haters, just try and nail this beat!

And so back to that trivia book’s question: what is the only bad Beatles song? Well, it turns out there’s quite a few, most of them on the first three albums. Of the 128 Beatles songs I know inside out, I’d only add a few to that list of stinkers (“Dig a Pony,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “All You Need is Love”).

With 196 Beatles songs now shuffling on my iPod, including the ones that have already been seared into my brain for 30 years now, it’s refreshing (if not painfully obvious) to rediscover what an embarrassment of riches they are, all created in the span of six years, all of them turning an awaiting world on its ear, each of them containing tiny production touches that would go on to inspire entire genres of music.

There’s a reason this legacy endures beyond boomer bullshit and subsequent generations’ rosy childhood memories. And you don’t need to play a video game to appreciate it.

1 comment:

Dacks said...

Awesome exercise, Michael! This former/current Beatlemaniac (seriously, I got turned on to the music though the stage show 'Beatlemania' at the-then O'Keefe Center)in me loves ever more trivia/opinion on the catalog. I don't think I've ever embarked on a recording project without being inspired by tales of 1967's studio wizardry.

Came across this amusing interpolation of "You Know My Name" - I always suspected the beginning was breakbeat gold -

Anyways, all the best over the holidays