If ever an album burst into life, flying the flag for a revolution of music and a bright new future and a new generation, it had to be this one (yep, even beating the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” opening riff).
First off, it’s The Beatles. The fucking Beatles. What am I supposed to say here? Well, I’ll start with a confession – I was never really grabbed by the early albums. Not that I don’t love their first few years, but they’re defined by the singles, the two minutes and twenty seconds of euphoria that jumps out from the speakers in “She Loves You” or “Love Me Do”. You want to get what the boys were capable of? Play the Red Album or Past Masters 1.
That said, maybe I’ll reappraise. First off, I won’t be the first to note that the debut, “Please Please Me” is conspicuous by its absence from this list. Fair? Well it’s arguable that “With the Beatles” was the first real ‘album’ – an ensemble rather than a collection of tracks, but it’s a shame to overlook that earlier little gem that closed with “Twist and Shout”.
Anyway, this one. It was the first ever million-seller by a group in Britain. It contained no singles, was recorded in six days and contained the first ever recorded George Harrison composition, the subtly catchy “Don’t Bother Me”.
“It Won’t Be Long” opens up the album ferociously, but it’s really when you get to track 2, Lennon’s intimate and introspective “All I’ve Got to Do”, that you start to feel the scope of the album. As Lennon sings, he tips his hat to Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers with a ballad swoon, but this is a proper Beatles song – melodic, lyrical and modest.
“All my Loving” is a PROPER proper Beatles song though. It’s a McCartney song, and Lennon later expressed his approving envy that Paul had written it and not him. There’s a theory that it was based on Dave Brubeck’s “Kathy’s Waltz” (according to Wikipedia anyway), but it’s damn subtle if it’s true.
“Don’t Bother Me” is charming, even if it doesn’t really hint at George’s future creativity. “Little Child” doesn’t really set the world aflame, and McCartney described it as ‘filler’, but that “I’m so sad and lonely” line oozes soul even atop the upbeat tempo.
As for “Till There Was You”, it was a surprise to me that it wasn’t actually a Beatles original (it was written by Meredith Wilson for “The Music Man” and covered by Peggy Lee), because it sounds so, well, Paul. In retrospect, it actually seems quite out of place for a band fresh from rocking out Hamburg to lay down such a sentimental piece, but then the fab four were nothing if not diverse.
“Please Mister Postman” and “Roll over Beethoven” bring things back to life, mind. Both classics from their Cavern Club days, they’re played with the same fire that got the boys dwarfing messiahs in no time.
“Hold me Tight” doesn’t make many waves, both Lennon and McCartney were dismissive of it, but it’s not a BAD song, particularly when you compare it to lemons like “I don’t want to spoil the party” from the later “Beatles for Sale”.
The piano that kicks off “You Really Got a Hold on Me” are a big hint if you weren’t aware that it’s a Smokey Robinson song, but it’s given the harmonic touch by Lennon and McCartney and stands up well on the album.
The track that follows it, “I wanna be your man” was penned by McCartney, who put the finishing touches to it with Lennon while Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were in the same room, and it’s no surprise that the Rolling Stones recorded their own version. Even with Ringo on vocals, it still sounds a bit like a Stones song.
“Devil in her heart” sounds dated now, a homage to the ballad pop of a few years earlier, but it still works. “Not a Second Time” is a big surprise though. It’s hardly one of the boys’ more well known tracks, but to me, there’s something about the piano opening that makes me think of the mood they’d later capture in “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”, and Ringo does a pretty good job on the drums (honest). Yet still, by the time “Money” starts to bring the album to a close, it feels appropriately timed, and that piano-mashing backbeat that would later make up “Hey Bulldog” sounds delicious here.
It’s not the greatest Beatles album, but it’s a testament to a band evolving from small skiffly origins into something that would change the world. And as an album, it’s upbeat, fun and mostly consistent in quality.
Oh, and how awesome is that cover image?