Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Beatles — With the Beatles

With the Beatles, released a scant 8 months after their debut, cemented the band as the biggest act to ever come out of Britain. Prior to their numerous chart successes with Please Please Me as well as the band's first singles, the only acknowledged British rock classics were Cliff Richard's "Move It" and Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over." Notice that those are singles; Please Please Me was a whole album of mostly gold, with 4 tracks ("I Saw Her Standing There," "Love Me Do," "Please Please Me" and "Twist and Shout") that could justifiably be called classics then and haven't aged a day since. The Fab Four began knocking US mainstays such as Roy Orbison off the top of the charts, establishing themselves as the first true British rock gods. Naturally, this got people interested, and pre-orders for With the Beatles hit the half-million mark, and the album shifted a further half million units over the next two years. At the time, it was only the second album to do so in the UK, after the soundtrack to Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical South Pacific.

More important than numbers, of course, is the quality of the material. To be honest, the rush on the band shows. With the Beatles is shamelessly structured to ape Please Please Me, right down to the rollicking cover to close out the proceedings. With the Beatles, then, is evidence of the first industrialized pop product, formulated, indistinguishable albums produced on an assembly line to keep those teen dreams out on the road charming the ladies right out of their milk money.

Of course, even as they are being made into the first example of the capitalist frenzy of the music industry, the Beatles manage to put their own spin on it. For all of the album's same-y feel, for all the disturbing connotations about the future of the music biz, wherein individually exploitative producers and businessmen (think Colonel Parker's leeching of Elvis) gave way to an oligarchy run by such people, With the Beatles shows the band growing in confidence and ability even if it never hits the same highs as Please Please Me.

The first side, undoubtedly the stronger of the two, is taut and fierce. "It Won't Be Long," with its precise, alternating John's shout of "yeah" with Paul's gentle echo an octave higher, is the album's best track, and one of the shining gems of the band's early canon. It builds a feeling of anticipation -- we're back baby, and better than ever, it practically yells at us -- then Harrison fills the bridge with descending chords and the vocals back off, turning from a sexually charged rocker into a more romantic piece halfway before ramping back up in the end.

"All My Loving" repeats the love letter motif of "P.S. I Love You," but McCartney is blossoming before our eyes. A marked improvement over his previous effort, "All My Loving" is a strong challenge to "It Won't Be Long" for the title of the album's best track. Where McCartney's lyrics and vocal styles on Please Please Me typically followed a more melodramatic style (and worked), here he begins to work in subtler ways: his vocal here is tinged with a bittersweet edge that shows the boys -- who haphazardly tried for passion on covers of "Anna" and "A Taste of Honey" but chiefly betrayed their youth -- grappling with a more adult voice and succeeding. George Harrison also gets his first chance to start setting himself up as the dark horse of the group with his excellent "Don't Bother Me," a downbeat number with a massive sound thanks to some modestly paced but thoroughly busy drumming and reverbed vocals.

More impressive than the group's broadening songwriting skill, though, is the way in which the members are coming into their own as musicians. Harrison demonstrates on tracks such as "All My Loving" and his excellent, if by-the-numbers rendition of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" broadcast his understated genius with the guitar. A disciple of Carl Perkins, Harrison demonstrates an ability to play well-rehearsed, inventive riffs, chords and solos within the frame of the song. It's funny to see some people jamming these days to his songs, drawing out their solos for technical displays, when Harrison displayed so much technical proficiency without ever needing to steal the spotlight. McCartney's bass -- if the first two remasters are any indicator, the single greatest beneficiary of the improved sound -- is rarely prominent in the mix, but with the remastered sound proves itself to be a tightly-coiled spring anchoring Harrison's riffing.

But it is Ringo, yes Ringo, who truly drives the album. We've all had a good laugh at one point or another at poor Starkey's expense, but if the remasters bring out McCartney's bass as the instrument that keeps the band rooted in pop as Harrison subtly branches out into new territory, then one can only hope that they also prove once and for all that Ringo was a powerhouse every bit as understated as all the other players in the band. Listen to his rollicking, full sound on "Don't Bother Me" or how he gently guides "It Won't Be Long" through its shifting moods to see a drummer who knows his stuff, and his bongo work on "Till There Was You," aided by the lush softness created by engineer George Martin moves the song as much as Paul's gentle vocal.

Ringo also delivers one of his better vocal performances on the snarling "I Wanna Be Your Man," originally written by Lennon/McCartney for the Rolling Stones. Harrison's guitar has a serious bite, and Ringo plays like a sedated madman, and even the harmonies have an edge. "Money," that shameless stab at repeating "Twist and Shout" never comes close to the fever pitch of that classic, but where "Twist and Shout" was open and anarchic, "Money" is darker and scheming. Lennon's vocal has an audible contempt and condescension, while the subtly unsettling backing shouts and warping piano line underline the band's true feelings toward the song's subject matter, and perhaps the way that they were rapidly becoming product in the eyes of the record company (though that feeling doesn't openly pervade a Beatles album until Beatles For Sale). All in all, it's a fitting stand-in for the album itself: not really as good as what it's meant to copy, but with a heretofore unseen ability to add nuance and improved craft to the proceedings.

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