Some people will cite The White Album, many will talk about “Sgt Pepper…” and everyone else will hail “Revolver”, but for me, THIS is my favourite Beatles album (well, wrestling with “Abbey Road” anyway).
Why? Well, it’s always felt to me a lot like Revolver, almost to the point that it’s a companion album, and one isn’t quite the same without the other. But for me, where Revolver is slick and experimental, this is sort of slightly more rough around the edges, a first step into proper experimentation that’s like a musical puberty for the boys. Or to put it another way, in the transition between the Red Album and Blue Album Beatles, this is the mauve bit.
Anyway, it’s my favourite Beatles album. So please excuse this long review.
It starts with “Drive my Car” which we all know of course, and at least you’re in safe territory for this one. It’s a bit rockier, a bit more visceral, but at least it’s got that familiar vibe that would put it neatly in “A Hard Day’s Night” without causing too much suspicion. Apparently this song is really about fucking, but that always passed me by. There’s a pretty fuckable cover of it by The Donnas out there though.
Things get interesting once it gets to “Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown)”. Probably the greatest lyrical tribute ever written to Ikea furniture (actually this is sort of true), it’s notable for being the first song where George stopped shaving and whipped out the sitar. It’s one of my personal favourites – it’s always felt like a turning point in how the women are portrayed in Beatles song, not the teenage heartache objects of “I wanna hold your hand” or “Eight Days a Week” but mature, mysterious and above all, having the upper hand (“I crawled up to sleep in the bath…”).
“You Won’t See Me” is a great bit of songwriting too – it’s got an upbeat feel despite being quite a morose and introspective song (dealing with McCartney’s breakup with Jane Asher), and its lyrics are smart and playful. It was also apparently the longest Beatles track recorded at that point, which is a surprise because it feels almost too short.
We used to sing “Nowhere Man” in school assembly, and at face value that makes sense – it seems like one of those character portrayal songs (like “Eleanor Rigby” or “The Fool on the Hill”) that are part of the Beatles portfolio. It’s only when you learn the history of it, that it was a song that Lennon wrote about himself whence was starting to get lost, that that introspection jumps out in the lyrics. Give it another listen with that in mind. It will sound like a totally different song.
“Think for Yourself” is one of George’s, and it disappears among the giants of this album, but it’s actually a nice balance of pop fun and political satire. There are better tracks here, but it’s still worth a nod. “The Word” is also a humble addition to the album, mainly notable for the lack of chord changes and more abstract composition.
Things get back to legendary with “Michelle”, a song that’s musically and lyrically brilliant (although the French bits always felt a bit twee), and at the same time, very very Paul. He played it to Mrs Obama a couple of years ago apparently.
As we get into Side B, we’re back in pop song land with “What Goes On”, a song written nearly a decade earlier back when the boys were The Quarrymen. It’s a nice bit of country and western with Ringo having fun on the vocals.
“Girl” has grown on me over the years. A tribute to the ethereal dream girl we all meet on our road through life, it’s a gentle melancholy track. For me though, it was a track that I rediscovered with Jim Sturgess’s cover in the otherwise iffy 2007 film “Across the Universe”. When he sings unaccompanied with the sea in the background, you realise just how smart those lyrics are.
As far as rediscovering goes, it’s only when I listened to this album for the purpose of this review that I realised how bitter “I’m Looking Through You” is. Once again, it’s a note from Paul to Jane Asher, but with lyrics like “love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight”, he’s venting a little more here than on “You Won’t See me”. Musically it also rocks.
When I was sixteen, I thought that “In my Life” was the dog’s bollocks – pure Lennon deep and arty cleverness. It doesn’t have quite the same effect these days, feeling more self-indulgent and a bit overplayed, but when you realise that a great deal of it was john’s dedication to Stuart Sutcliffe you’re willing to give it a break. There’s no excuse for the fucking awful Sean Connery cover on the George Martin album that borrows this song’s name mind.
“Wait” and “If I Needed Someone” are among the album’s lesser tracks, although the screamingly loud Byrds influence on the latter is worth noting. It’s also famous for the fact that The Hollies released a cover of it on the same day it was released.
Which brings us to the closing track, “Run for your Life”. What do you say about this festering piece of shit?
It’s nasty, it’s mysoginistic, it’s immature, and it is by far the worst Beatles track ever recorded. It makes “I don’t wanna spoil the party” and “Revolution 9” seem brilliant in comparison. Lennon hated it, it’s thoroughly unpleasant lyrically (“I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man”), plus the guitar is out of tune and the vocals are shit.
The best summary I ever heard of it though, was on the show “Roseanne” – “Yeah, that’s what every wife beater needs. An anthem”.