Short Books
52 Guitars: Week 8

What They're Saying in 2014

Ok, what I really mean is what I'm saying; I just wanted to tie this post to the one about the contemporary reaction to Meet the Beatles.

I don't think I had ever, until now, sat down and actually listened to this album.  I'm not even sure I ever heard it all the way through as an album. I heard the songs on it many times, so many that they are still very familiar to me, though I can't have heard them very much at all since the mid or late '60s. But it was stuff I heard on the radio, or perhaps at some friend's house, on a cheap stereo. 

So, in hearing this on a good sound system, with nothing else going on, after an interval of several decades, I'm hearing this old music with fresh ears. And I must say I'm very impressed.

The most immediately striking impression is of speed and energy--an almost ferocious energy, which is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Beatles. The twelve songs are brief, most of them barely passing the two-minute mark, one under that, and none make it to three. The playing time of the whole album is only twenty-seven minutes. And with the exception of the two ballads (the beautiful "This Boy" and "Till There Was You," the only tune not written by the group), the tempo ranges from fast to flat-out.

Likewise with volume: on most of the songs Lennon and McCartney sound like they're singing as  loudly as they possibly can, as if they're trying desperately to be heard over something--their instruments, maybe, in a crowded Hamburg or Liverpool club?

More than in the performance, though, the energy is in the music itself. At the end of the '60s or beginning of the '70s there was a fashion for self-styled "high-energy" music, from groups like the MC5. And punk bands that came along a bit later aspired to be fast and loud above all. In those cases there was a lot of screaming and banging and sweating, but the result was frequently monotonous. Not so with the Beatles. They're loud and fast, yes, but it's the sweep of chord changes and melody that really pulls you in and carries you along, irresistibly. And they're considerably more inventive than most pop songs of their day. We tend to think of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" as a simple song, I suppose because its words are so simple, but in the context of its time it really isn't.

One thing I noticed almost immediately that had never registered on me before is the extent to which McCartney's bass both anchors and propels the songs. In comparison, the other instrumental work seems fairly ordinary. It's been clear for a long time that in purely musical terms McCartney was the greatest talent in the group, and it's interesting to see that manifested here at the beginning.

 Yes, it's lightweight pop music, and the lyrics are mostly pretty banal even for that genre: "My heart went boom / When she crossed that room"; "When I held you near / You were so sincere"; etc. But they're very singable, well-matched to the music, and the result is almost maddeningly catchy, every bit as much so as it was 50 years ago. It's hard to imagine anyone listening to this album and not having something from it stuck in his head for hours afterward. 

The one disappointment, and it's a fairly big one, is that the sound is terrible: dry, thin, and cramped. I have one of the original mono LPs and although it appears to be in pretty good shape I doubt it was treated gently in its early days. Perhaps the CD re-issues are at least somewhat better. I enjoyed this so much that I'm almost tempted to buy it on CD, which is something I certainly didn't expect to say.


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That sounds marked their albums until Rubber Soul, when the engineer, among other things, made a simple adjustment that made a big difference: he turned Paul's bass up. Also, the cramped effect is less on the stereo mixes, even of the earlier albums. The UK version of the LP, With the Beatles, had 14 tracks.

I'll shut up. I know that Beatles geeks are a pain in the neck.

Well, I'm going to listen to some on youtube now! :)

No, don't shut up, Robert, it's interesting.

I agree with you about the energy, Mac. I tend to think of the early Beatles records being a little prim, but I am surprised to find that they are actually quite ragged in both the playing and the singing.

I read somewhere that at least some of their early records were recorded in one day of studio time. Not a lot of time to get things perfect, and the songs are better for it.

I think in some cases not even a whole day, just a matter of hours. Really, a lot of this album sounds like they just burned through it live, with tape rolling.

Could be. It sounds that way.

I have the feeling that by the time they got to Sgt Pepper they were spending just a wee bit longer at it.

Raw energy is the perfect description, and as you say, it's quite complex.

I might have known there would be a Wikipedia article: rather more than I ever wanted to know about the Beatles' recording sessions, or at least some of them. The later entries are sort of sketchy. It is far from obvious at a glance how long it took to record Meet the Beatles or whatever the original UK album's name was.

With the Beatles was recorded in a few over a couple of months. Two or three songs were recorded at each session. That's what I read, anyway.

*in a few day-long sessions.

I think you can divide the Beatles into four periods, based on John Lennon's drug of choice at the time: through 1964 = amphetamines, late 1964 = pot, Middle 1965-1967 = acid, 1968ff = heroin.

I didn't even know he was ever a junkie. Shows how much I know. Not at all surprised, though. I just googled "john lennon heroin" and got a real mixed bag of stuff that looks plausible and stuff that doesn't.

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