Discussion in 'Charts, rates etc' started by Ironheade, May 10, 2021.
Still working on it, but it will be a last-minute vote!
I'm done with my preliminary scores. Will probably have final scores to you around Paul's birthday.
I plan to finish this up this week, the first evening I get the chance.
Yay! Glad to see everyone coming together (heh) for it. I must admit I was a bit worried about not getting many voters, but I think it'll turn out alright. I can potentially do a one-week extension at the end though, if necessary.
In other news, #8-5 delayed till tomorrow, but not to worry, it will get done. (This is the first rate I've been writing around a much more demanding full-time job, and it's trickier than I thought, but fear not, guys - it'll be finished in the timeliest fashion I can manage.)
I think my 11 is set in stone already but I still have to listen to a couple of tracks I'm not familiar with.
Y'all wanted it. PART FOUR!
THE TWENTY BEST BEATLES SONGS (THAT AREN'T IN THE RATE (AS SELECTED BY ME))
At number eight...
LONG, LONG, LONG
From The Beatles
The typecasting of their press personas might have rankled on the Beatles, and George in particular forever wore his reputation as “the quiet one” (partly brought about by a bout of strep throat on their early US appearances) like a hairshirt – particularly as it seemed to give Lennon and McCartney, both much brasher personalities, license to walk all over him and treat him like the junior partner. But at times, that supine introspection was very much to his advantage musically, and it is particularly the case for “Long, Long, Long”, an achingly pretty indisputable highlight of the White Album's latter half.
If ever the Beatles approached outright ambient music (before Brian Eno even gave birth to that genre, mind you), “Long, Long, Long” is it. Based loosely on the chord shapes of Bob Dylan's “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, with a heavy emphasis on jazzy ninths, the song is a misty evocation that never quite comes into focus, with a gentle droning organ and intermittent bass guitar setting up a dreamlike atmosphere that's easy to get lost in as the mood of George's singing (at times almost inaudible, ready to disappear into the floating keyboard chords) suggests a sort of holy trance. Continually drifting away from the home key, with a slow 6/8 in the verses giving way to 9/8 at times, the song perfectly evokes its protagonist's journey, at first frozen in time and unsure where to go, then allowed to find what he seeks, if only briefly. George also makes fine use of natural distortion on his acoustic guitar for a few low-register slides, suggesting a sitar – it adds atmosphere and colour to the song, and these brief evocations of India, to me, were always rather more successful than George's over-precious imitations of the Indian raga like “Within You Without You”. Yet before the listener can be lulled into a trance, one of Ringo's thunderous drum fills hits the scene like a nuclear bomb, the White Album's beefier drum mix than any previous Beatles record making them all the more impactful, like the thunderbolt of revelation crashing down upon George's head. The more strident middle eight serves this job too, with its ringing piano chords a fine depiction of the protagonist's endless search as they interrupt the serenity of his belief. And then comes the end – inspired by a bottle of wine vibrating on the organ's Leslie speaker cabinet, with a final weird, wailing vocal note that could be a sound of fear or release or both. Discordant to the peaceful mood of the song, in keeping with the strange mood of the White Album which almost sounds like it was taken over by a group of Beatles impostors, yet somehow unmistakably perfect. (Only the Beatles could ever be so inspired by random happenstance in the studio, but more on that in the thinkpiece on George Martin and their engineers!)
“Long, Long, Long” also makes for a superb expression of George's growing skills as a lyricist, and introduces another one of his most frequently recurring lyrical themes: is it a paean to God, or a standard love song, or more likely, both? (George himself said he thought of all love as “universal”, one and the same.) Where Paul developed a more poetic and overtly romantic sense of writing that owed much to his Brill Building forebears, and John delved into the knotty wordplay of songs like “Happiness is a Warm Gun” or the caustic wit of a “Working Class Hero”, George hewed closest to where the Lennon-McCartney team began, in his perfect-in-their-simplicity expressions of a very big idea. I do have something of an affinity for songs that equate spiritual and earthly love – indeed, one of my all-time musical idols, Van Morrison, has practically made his career of it – and “Long, Long, Long” is one of the most succinct, even minimalist expressions of this idea out there, but all the better for it. Sometimes, you just have to say what you mean – lost contact with God (Krishna really, but George would generally use “God” to denote Him in his lyrics), found him again, “how I love you”. Enough has been said; the very richness of the music's atmosphere, mingled serenity, doubt, and the eternal quest in which (qua Pete Townshend) I won't get to get what I'm after till the day I die, says it all without the necessity of words.
At number seven...
SHE SAID SHE SAID
Don't do drugs, kids. Stay in school.
Much has been said, and will be said in the rate writeups, about the impact that the use of LSD had on the Beatles and their songwriting – introduced to it around the time of recording Rubber Soul, the heightened perceptions that it brought them to may or may not have had an impact on their quest for more progressive music on Revolver, but I can't argue that it didn't help. Unfortunately, it also heightened already existing tensions and factionalism in the band: John and George became such devotees, convinced so much of its potential as the key to understanding that they felt they could no longer relate to Ringo or Paul; the former had to be pressured into trying it, but never became a serious acid-head (his vice, which would later destroy his first marriage, was alcohol), and the latter flatly refused to do it at all until after Revolver was finished, driving a serious wedge between the Lennon-McCartney team. Meanwhile, it slowly started to take its toll on John: it made his already existing laziness (as documented on “I'm Only Sleeping”) worse, to the point that at a lot of recording and songwriting sessions he was essentially useless and had to be strongarmed into doing anything. As a result, he ended up ceding the leadership role he had largely held up to that point to Paul – and while Paul's schoolmasterly guiding hand resulted in several albums of the greatest pop music ever recorded, his obsessive studio perfectionism and frequently patronising and bossy attitude didn't take long to get on everyone else's nerves. By the time of the White Album, these tensions were boiling over, and the miserable months-long sessions that produced it, and eventually led to the slow realisation that the Beatles could no longer function as a band, were their child. LSD, you could say, made the Beatles into The Beatles – but it also destroyed them.
But for now, we have “She Said She Said”, one of the sweetest fruits of the Beatles' acid period. Its creation is a snapshot of the strange and fascinating celebrity scene on the West Coast, where they holed up in a Beverly Hills mansion for respite from touring in 1965, the year before its recording. It was inspired by a bizarre conversation they had with Peter Fonda during a trip, when he showed them his self-inflicted childhood gunshot wound and claimed to know what it was like to be dead, unsurprisingly freaking them out. (“I know what it's like to be dead” and John's response of “you're making me feel like I've never been born” ended up in the lyrics, with a gender swap. And funnily enough, given that the Beatles would epitomise the whimsical and loopy, distinctly British strain of psychedelia with Sgt. Pepper, I think they nailed the darker and heavier "acid-rock" American strain with "She Said She Said" - perhaps this transatlantic meeting was, in its own way, prophetic.) The same gathering was attended by Jim (not yet Roger) McGuinn and David Crosby, whose own Byrds had its impetus to “go electric” largely in the Beatles themselves, who demonstrated some raga scales to George Harrison on their guitars, and recommended that he investigate the works of Ravi Shankar. The result, as of now, is another triumph: not only does George contribute yet another superb Indian-tinged guitar lead, with a sour, spiralling metallic quality, but his work in arranging and cohering several of Lennon's fragmentary ideas into the finished “She Said She Said” introduces one of the Beatles' finest moments of changing meter. The verses play out in 4/4 time, while George's guitar and Ringo's drums clatter and thrash threateningly behind the ominous “I know what it's like to be dead”; the bridge switches to a waltz, George's bass briefly imitating a calliope (yes, George's: Paul had walked out after an argument in the studio), while John desperately strains for the serenity of his younger days. George had already introduced the idea of a changing meter in “Love You To”, the first of his ragas, and the switch between common and waltz time had been used in “We Can Work It Out”, but if you ask me, “She Said She Said” executes it better than the former and every bit on par with the latter. It's so elegant you could almost fail to notice it, and plays into the song's narrative superbly.
In fact, “She Said She Said”, I would argue, is one of the Beatles' greatest “hard rock” moments. As I've said before, the Beatles could rock pretty hard for the early 60's, and here they do their bit to keep up with the harder groups who were rising contemporaneously, combining the drum-driven musical Pollocks of the Who with the heavy, global-influenced haze-blues of the Beck-era Yardbirds. George's guitar riff plays the part throughout of a nagging trickster spirit, prompting uncomfortable reflections upon the meaning of death and rebirth. Ringo's drumming here, too, is every bit the equal of his most famous tom-heavy percussive turnaround on “Rain”, darting left and right to play the role of the lead melody while the band holds it down with an unflappable bassline and a single organ note, shockingly catchy and rhythmic for a drum performance that seems to consist at times almost entirely of fills. It is odd, perhaps, to hear a song where every instrumentalist seems like it should be playing the lead while the vocal is the timekeeper, but that is effectively what “She Said She Said” is. Revolver, then, becomes a collection of songs that expand the frontiers of pop music, not only in production technique and arrangement, but in how that arrangement is framed. And while John's vocal is oddly detached for all the swirling musical chaos about him, it is very suitable for a line like “you're making me feel like I've never been born” - as concise a summation of the LSD-induced death of ego and rebirth into a colourful new universe as ever there was, I suppose. And if that doesn't describe Revolver to a tee, I don't know what would.
At number six...
BABY, YOU'RE A RICH MAN
B-side to “All You Need is Love” // Magical Mystery Tour (US edition)
Back in the day (cue the Hovis music), a B-side denoted something inferior. Something to pad a single out, and little more. But the Beatles were not to be bound by this rule, nor many others, and a long lineage of superb B-sides came out under their name – I'm particularly fond, among those not appearing on this list, of “I'm Down” and “This Boy”. Though they did not invent the double A-side with releases like “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out” or “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever”, they certainly popularised it, as having two songs deemed good enough to be A-sides on a single had been little heard of prior. We'll get to the champion of the Beatles' B-sides in the top four of this little countdown, but first, the runner-up - “Baby, You're a Rich Man”, a song so crazily inventive and colourful that their discography would have been incomplete without it getting LP inclusion, even the belated one of the US Magical Mystery Tour.
But first, a word on the man to whom “Baby, You're a Rich Man” was, in part, a backhanded yet affectionate tribute - Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager from the start of their major label career until his untimely death in 1967, from an overdose of barbiturates at the age of just 32. There can be no doubt, Epstein was a crucial figure in the Beatles' career: he gave them their defining image, transforming them from a scruffy proto-punk band who cursed out their audience and ate chicken on stage, to the four cheeky but lovable mop-tops we came to know; having already been a successful businessman, he was able to finance them in the young-and-hungry stage of their career. It was his faith in them, and relentless pushing, that led them to George Martin and Parlophone in the first place. The band always liked him personally, and gave him credit for his kind and positive attitude and hard work on their behalf, joking that the MBEs they received in 1965 should stand for “Mr. Brian Epstein”. In their circle, too, Epstein found acceptance – he was a Jew in a time of still widespread antisemitism, and it was an open secret that he was gay at a time when it was still illegal in the UK, but the Beatles never seemed to care, some of John's less savory jokes aside (though in reality, Lennon and Epstein were very close). Some of his business decisions, however, were questionable at best, such as signing away 90% of the American merchandising rights in advance, and leaving a lot of money on the table from publishing and film deals – then again, he was learning on the job, having had no previous experience as a band manager, his business NEMS initially having been a family-owned chain of record shops. By the time they were recording “Baby, You're a Rich Man”, shortly before his death, their relationship with him was somewhat strained due to his lack of ruthlessness in business and an attempt to sell NEMS without telling any of his artists, and it's been rumoured that they had been planning to fire him. Nevertheless, if any one event can be said to have precipitated the eventual end of the Beatles, it was Epstein's death – he had always handled all their financial affairs, and none of the Beatles had any experience in that. Their attempts to take over for themselves, via Apple Corps, and the eventual involvement of Allen Klein and Lee Eastman, would lead them to personal ruin... more on that, however, in the actual rate writeups.
The impetus for “Baby, You're a Rich Man”, however, did not lie solely in Brian Epstein. The primary inspiration came from the all-night festival called the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, at London's Alexandra Palace, that John had attended, the “beautiful people” repeatedly referenced in the song being the burgeoning hippie subculture. And the song is a triumph in that regard, reflecting the musically omnivorous, democratic, spiritually transcendent, and (in the nicest possible way) slightly out of touch with reality nature of this culture in its very best form. The most distinctive musical element of “Baby, You're a Rich Man” is the clavioline, an early form of electronic keyboard, set on its oboe setting so as to imitate the shehnai (a type of Indian woodwind). Its swoops and trills really make the entire song, with its beguiling disregard for the prevailing harmonic logic – with the stolid chords of two overdubbed pianos holding down the bottom end, and a surprisingly swinging march-like rhythm (inspired, per MacDonald, by the Four Tops' seminal “Reach Out I'll Be There”), the melody's playful air really captures the counterculture that inspired the song in part, reaching out with both hands to the music of the East with feet firmly planted in the West, to create a sound that seemed to belong to both and neither. In this context, the chorus, inspired by one of John's frequently recurring lyrical themes – the lack of need for material wealth and the importance of spiritual happiness – becomes one of the Beatles' most successful expressions of the crowd sing-along that can bring everybody together.
Like much of John's later-period writing, “Baby, You're a Rich Man” is thorny with innuendo and double meaning. We've already talked about the innuendos referring to Brian Epstein and the primary thrust of the hippie movement, but there is another layer of meaning at play: the “beautiful people” perhaps referring to celebrity culture, the jet set, the “one percent” if you will, of which the Beatles had long since become a fixture. There is a tension at play throughout the entirety of the lyric, John ready to turn his sights upon the shallow and consumeristic nature of this set (“What did you see when you were there? Nothing that doesn't show!”), while always guiltily aware that he is playing the hypocrite by doing so. His delivery in the verses plays this up beautifully, asking questions in a wavering falsetto before his standard sharp baritone delivery punctures them like a pin to a balloon, bringing the whole thing back down to earth. “Now that you've found another key, what are you going to play?”, he asks, a question that remains unanswered, like the big question mark hanging over their relationship with Epstein and what they could do to follow up the groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper. And since it was Paul who wrote the chorus and stapled it to John's tentatively named, unfinished “One of the Beautiful People” demo, a rather monotone and hectoring thing that comes crashing in after relatively delicate verses, the chorus cannot help but take on the tone of an admonishment as well as a declaration of spiritual wealth. It still surprises me, really, how much the Beatles can pack into lyrics that seem so simple, even facile. Perhaps that is the true mark of a great artist, more so than any literary pretension or plumbing of the depths of the soul.
No word yet, however, on whether Brian Epstein actually did keep all his money in a big brown bag inside the zoo.
At number five...
FOR NO ONE
Well, you guys wanted it, so here it is. “For No One”, for my money, takes the prize as the best song from Revolver that didn't make it into the rate. Paul was so often typecast as the balladeer of the group, though in reality both John and George made fine efforts in this vein. And indeed, a lot of his early efforts in this vein were more than a bit sappy – the show-song crooning on the first two albums is faintly embarrassing. But “And I Love Her” put him on the road to greatness as a balladeer, “Yesterday” gave the Beatles a true enduring standard, and “For No One”, if you ask me, is Paul's feather in his cap, a sorrowful, multilayered masterpiece that is just as reflective of the Beatles' ever-growing ambition on Revolver as anything else he ever wrote. And all this in less than two minutes – nobody ever said the Beatles were not masters of songwriting economy.
Paul had inaugurated his string of “solo” numbers released under the aegis of the Beatles with “Yesterday”, and “For No One” is another one of this lineage, with only a light, almost subliminal percussive backing by Ringo preventing it from being a true solo outing. While this would eventually be a bad sign of the Beatles' collapse from a proper band to a marriage of convenience, Paul acquits himself here superbly. He always did have the most traditionally fine voice for ballads of the group – while John's coming-apart-at-the-seams way of emotional release and George's blissful delicacy could both be leveraged to this effect, Paul truly does have the soul of one of the great Brill Building crooners, and gets to prove it again here. Yet his singing has an oddly detached mood to it, unadorned and stark as it is turned up unusually loud in the mix, as do the lyrics: Paul sounds almost puzzled as he speaks of “a love that should have lasted years”, as the emotionally deadened duo of protagonists “cry for no one”, and even the second-person perspective puts him at something of a distance. The narrow melodic range of the song in general, almost more characteristic of John's writing in that way than of Paul's, complements the lyric superbly – though it kicks and struggles against it, we do not, cannot, escape the haze. You want her, you need her, and yet you don't believe her.
Furthermore, the song is interesting for furthering the Beatles' ever-growing ambitions in including classical instrumentation in their songs, the lack of necessity for the constraints of touring expanding their potential instrumental palette massively. “Eleanor Rigby” might have given over the entire task of instrumental backing to the string octet, but “For No One” is a different sort of beast: it marks the first time the Beatles made space in their catalogue for an outsider (i.e. not themselves or George Martin) to really shine as a feature. In this case, it is French horn virtuoso Alan Civil, recommended to the Beatles by Geoff Emerick as “the best horn player in London”. Civil reportedly resented that he was better known for this one recording (he also played in the orchestra on “A Day in the Life”) than for his distinguished classical career, and also criticised the song as being in “rather bad musical style”, vacillating between the keys of B flat and B major thanks to another dose of varispeeding, and thus making it hard to get his horn in tune. Nevertheless, there are far worse things to be solely known for, as his gently insistent, melancholic instrumental line, first given space of its own to breathe as an exhausted and hollow expression of detachment, then reintroducing itself in the song's final coda as it entwines itself around Paul's lead vocal, a physical rendering of the lyric's melancholy (“you find that all the things she said will fill your head”). It lifts the sour melancholy of the backing, driven by Paul's stern descending bassline and the strained rise and fall of the doubled piano and clavichord. As far as guest features go, you really could wish for none better. And as much as we wish to appreciate the Beatles here, I wouldn't like this forgotten: nobody achieves great things entirely by themselves.
That I've written less about "For No One", I think, reflects something great about it. It doesn't need vast reams of analysis. It merely is, a near-flawless object. Enough said, true believers!
I was very cagey about my scores and the 10's are really top-of-the-line. I also wanted to make sure the scoreline was kind of spread out with true meaning applied to what each scoreline stands for to me.
Please Please Me/With the Beatles // (1963) // 8.65 // 10 x 1 // 7.75 x1
A Hard Day’s Night/Beatles For Sale // (1964) // 7.45 // 8.5 x 1 // 6.5 x 1
Help!/Rubber Soul // (1965) // 8.10 // 10 x 2 // 5 x 1
Revolver // (1966) // 6.70 // 10 x 1 // 2 x 1
Magical Mystery Tour/Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band // (1967) // 8.45 // 10 x 2 // 5 x 1
White Album // (1968) // 7.37 // 10 x 2 // 4.5 x 1
Abbey Road/Let It Be // (1969-1970) // 8.09 // 10 x 1 // 5.5 x1
Getting caught up here & loved the Ringo essay @Ironheade
As a drummer myself, I've always been a bit annoyed at how Ringo is somewhat dismissed by some when talking about the great drummers of the era. For some reason, I always felt his lead vocals on some of their more 'novelty' songs in later years , did create an aura of him being a joke to some, even though most of his vocal takes were all just in good fun. Sorry, just a side-ramble/observation I always had.
As far as his drumming, I especially loved some of the Anthology takes on Beatle songs (specifically songs from the experimental era) as some the mixes & takes on those discs show how how he experimented & tweaked his grooves as the songs morphed & needed different things. 'Strawberry Fields Forever' really comes to mind.
Also (and I don't know if this is true or what exact metrics were used) but I remember reading a bit years ago where, that throughout the 70s, mathematically Ringo had the most successful solo Beatle career (chart wise in comparison to the number of top 10 hits her had vs. amount of releases). Having looked into some, that might actually be correct.. and I kind of get a kick out of it. Regardless, I always had a soft spot for some of his solo work & loved that despite the odds had a pretty successful run through the 70s. (I also always loved the George was the first solo Beatle to have #1)
Alright, guys. Current plan is for the last of the out-of-rate Top 20 to go out on the day before we close voting, then proceed to the reveal of #60 on the next day after that. (I'll actually close on the morning of the 22nd, so the American-time-zone gang get a full day to vote on the 21st.)
But in the meantime, another thinkpiece. I'm planning on one of these every ten reveals. (Next up: the Beatles films, reviewed!) But for now, some meditations on the Fifth Beatle, and some insight into their origin story... you know, so as not to bloat the "Love Me Do" reveal too much.
Well, For a Start, I Don't Like Your Tie
Being for the Benefit of George Martin
In these days of instant gratification and the demand to switch things up for every new “era” (ugh, how I have come to loathe that term), it's rare to find a relationship between artist and producer as consistent of that between the Beatles and trusty old George Martin. Martin, the most frequently dubbed “Fifth Beatle”, oversaw production for every one of the Beatles' albums, with the exception of the final Phil Spector rework of Let It Be (which he cracked should be credited “produced by George Martin, overproduced by Phil Spector”). The impact he had is hard to overstate. Along with Joe Meek, he was one of the pioneers of multitrack recording in Britain; even working with often outdated technology at Abbey Road (Sgt. Pepper was recorded on four tracks when eight were already available) and seeming to regard stereo as a fad, his crisp and ruthlessly tight mixes for the Beatles made it the standard. He gave them, in John Lennon's words, “a language to talk to other musicians”, with his deep knowledge of classical composition and a formal musical education that the band members lacked. He was the one to suggest a string section for “Yesterday” despite Paul McCartney's reluctance, to provide keyboard parts like the iconic varispeeded baroque piano of “In My Life”, and to arrange orchestral parts on the later records with no eye towards schmaltz or over-sentimentality; with his classical inclinations from the earlier era of traditional pop, he was able to package the Beatles for an older audience that was still suspicious of rock and roll. And being, per McCartney, “quite experimental for who he was, a grown-up”, he was always willing to try anything the Beatles wanted to mess about with in the studio or introduce tape loops and primitive sampling into the equation, with the willing aid of studio engineers, Norman Smith early on, Geoff Emerick for Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. Even as the Beatles were falling apart, he was able to facilitate a last hurrah on Abbey Road by demanding the “professionalism” of their earlier sessions.
More on Martin's individual contributions to each song will be brought up as we go along in the rate. But for now, I wish to relate what happened just as the Beatles got signed – not only for historical context, but as a fine demonstration of it.
Parlophone had once been a proud label within the mighty EMI conglomerate, best known as the European licensee for major jazz and blues artists like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, but by 1962, it had fallen well behind its stablemates Columbia and HMV. The roster consisted largely of jazz, light classical, and regional British music, and sold modestly for the most part. That changed, however, with the appointment of George Martin as its head in 1955. One of Martin's major moves was to diversify into comedy and novelty records, with which they would have great success over the next decade, the most notable in this vein being Peter Sellers – who, with his fellow Goons Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, would form the greatest influence on John's anarchic sense of humour (he later cited Martin's work with the Goons as one of the things that most interested him about the producer on his first meeting). The label also began having success with pop music, teen idol Adam Faith being their most consistently successful act, and 1961 brought Martin his first UK number one as a producer, with trad jazz combo the Temperance Seven's “You're Driving Me Crazy”. The one thing it rarely issued, however, was rock and roll, and Martin seemed to care little for it; on the occasions when Parlophone dabbled in this strange new American sound, he would generally leave the task of production to his assistant, Ron Richards. After all, Martin was 36 years old when he first met the Beatles, a creaky old fuddy-duddy in the eyes of our impish foursome, and of an older generation that had never really understood, at least in Britain, what rock and roll was about; this, of course, was never likely to make him a hip name in the nascent British pop scene. (Despite his patrician bearing and demeanor, Martin had a working-class upbringing in the London suburbs, though he strove to hide it to fit in with a more rarefied world of classically trained musicians.) All in all, Parlophone was being left behind, not treated with much seriousness. And such was the atmosphere into which the Beatles arrived, at first looking to be in the same mould.
The Beatles, remember, had been forged in the crucible of seedy Hamburg nightclubs, entertaining drunken sailors in gruelling, amphetamine-fuelled sets that would last an entire night and into the morning (alongside their original cohorts, Pete Best and the tragically gone-too-soon Stuart Sutcliffe). Their primary task was to make plenty of noise, and being good didn't enter into it. Even as they worked themselves up into more professional form at Liverpool's Cavern Club, the place had (in Martin's words) “the ambience of an oil tank”, the result being performances only one step up from those at the Kaiserkeller, and it took Brian Epstein to get them to stop eating chicken on stage and cursing at the audience. Though these savage young Beatles could certainly get a crowd going, for all Epstein's tireless work, every major label turned them down, most notoriously Decca, where Epstein was told by executive Dick Rowe, “Guitar groups are on their way out”. They themselves admitted, however – and the evidence is available on Anthology – that their audition tape caught them in poor form. The band sounds too nervous to give any kind of good performance, and Pete Best's limitations are glaringly apparent, with his cloddish four-on-the-floor “make show” beats being, per Unterberger, “thinly textured and rather unimaginative”. The set was mostly covers, and peppered with cabaret-style selections like “Besame Mucho” and “The Sheik of Araby”, familiar songs which went down well with the Cavern's punters, but which sounded awkward in their hands in a studio setting. Only three Lennon-McCartney originals were played, and it's telling that none of those songs made it to a Beatles LP. (Decca seemingly regretted letting them slip enough, however, that they opted to sign the next young rock and roll band that came through their doors. Luckily for all concerned, that band was the Rolling Stones.) At their wits' end in trying to get signed, Parlophone was quite literally their label of last resort.
Martin was not impressed with what they had to offer on their demo tape, either. But the suits at EMI wanted the Lennon-McCartney songwriting catalogue for the use of other artists, so aboard they came for an audition in June 1962. And Martin had no choice in the matter – in part, this was a punishment by his bosses, for having been caught having an affair with his secretary (whom he would later leave his wife for). The audition also proved an unimpressive affair... until, that is, Martin tentatively and politely asked if the Beatles thought there was anything they didn't like, as a way of easing into the criticism. “For a start,” drawled George Harrison, “I don't like your tie.” And they were off: he, John and Paul, Pete Best being the squarer outsider of the group, were already off riffing on everything in sight. And so charmed was Martin that he decided to give the group a chance on the basis of their humour alone. Given the way it expressed itself in their music, it'd be a hard shot not to take, that being perhaps their finest aspect at times. But groups at that time were not expected to be artistes. Very few, if any Merseybeat artists had a significant amount of self-penned material like the Beatles did, and the producer was expected to be a svengali of sorts. Martin immediately set about imposing himself on them.
First, he informed Epstein that he intended to use a session drummer when it came time to record, that being standard practice then to ensure a reliable rhythm track even when a group's drummer was competent enough, and the band seized the opportunity to sack Best in favour of their old friend Ringo Starr. Then, taking the initiative as their producer to select material to record, he chose a Mitch Murray number called “How Do You Do It”. The Beatles dutifully got a version made up, and it can be heard on Anthology if you're interested, but you shouldn't be. They thought little of the song, and their desultory instrumental performances and unimaginative harmonies betray that. What exactly went down between them and Martin is not known, but they somehow managed to persuade him to ditch “How Do You Do It” as their debut single in favour of “Love Me Do”, the Lennon-McCartney number that they had chosen as having the most commercial potential out of their catalogue. This might have been a canny move on Martin's part. By leading with self-written material, the Beatles could immediately be positioned as unique, not leaving the manifestly inferior originals as B-sides to highly competent covers, as many of their contemporaries would. Martin, however, was still not satisfied with the tone of Ringo's drums - they were muddy and slightly shaky. So he brought in session drummer Andy White for the LP version, Ringo adding reinforcement on tambourine there, and briefly fearing that he too was to go the way of Pete Best. This sent a message to the Beatles: this sort of thing might be all very well for the provinces, but you're recording in London now, for the big major-label dogs, so step your game up! Competition will be a recurring theme here - it is, after all, kind of what brought the Beatles down. But for now, I think we can see that as a positive force, a push towards their relentless drive to self-improvement.
According to Jonathan Gould in Can't Buy Me Love, “Love Me Do” was so bare in lyrical and musical progression, and so unadorned but for its breezy dockside harmonica, that Martin's co-workers at Parlophone at first thought it was one of his novelty records. Pushed by a huge NEMS order from Epstein that ensured Parlophone would make a profit from it, “Love Me Do” had a modest peak of number seventeen in the winter of 1962; come April 1963, “How Do You Do It”, now serving as debut single of less fussy fellow Scousers Gerry and the Pacemakers, would go to number one for three weeks, their first of three chart-toppers in a row. Martin could have been forgiven a little gloating at this point. Here lies the push and pull that would define the relationship between the Beatles and George Martin, and in particular, how well he knew how to get the very best out of them, and what would work and what wouldn't. “How Do You Do It”, in its Gerry and the Pacemakers form, is not a bad song really – it's a solidly-constructed bit of bubblegum Merseybeat with a pleasant melodic hook. But it sure as hell isn't the Beatles. The Fabs always had too much grit in them, too much of a distinctly Liverpudlian edge in their stripped-back instrumentation and rock-solid backbeats, for this teenybopper fluff to ever work for them, even as the lyrics trod a not dissimilar road. The Beatles had set out their terms, as a self-reliant and self-contained band, and such they would remain, at their core, throughout their entire career, orchestration aside. Martin, meanwhile, had set out his terms, that he was not to be pushed around, and that he was the adult in the room who knew what he was doing and how to guide these inexperienced young men. It is the same sort of mutual respect and friendly rivalry that would play itself out between Lennon and McCartney, befoe that relationship went sour.
And Martin realised this as they began work on their second single, “Please Please Me”, which had been conceived as a dramatic ballad in the manner of one of Lennon's heroes, Roy Orbison. But it simply wasn't working, and Martin had to prod them into “livening it up” as best they could. And with a more energetic tempo and a new harmonica part for continuity with “Love Me Do”, they did just that. “Gentlemen,” said Martin at the recording session where this arrangement was debuted, “you've just made your first number one”. (And sure enough, it went all the way to number... two! Oh well.) This, if you ask me, is where the Beatles properly came into their own – and it took quite a bit of guidance to make it happen. And by the time they did finally get that elusive number one with “From Me to You”, they were able to do it standing on their own feet.
Martin was always diffident about his role in the Beatles' success. “I was merely an interpreter,” he would say. “The genius was theirs, no doubt about that.” Perhaps. But it's a rare genius who comes to it alone.
RIP Sir George Martin, 1926-2016
...Bottle of claret for you if I'd realised...
I wish I had time to do this one but life is throwing all manner of curveballs at my lately. Sad times, I'd like to properly sit down and listen to them.
I feel like I've heard so many covers, interpretations and music class sing-a-longs without actually knowing the originals.
Gerry and the Pacemakers "How do you do it" reminds me of the scouse lyrics....
How did you lose your virginity
I wish I knew
If you could only do it with me
when I did it with you
Scores submitted! First rate I've done in a while where the lower end of the number line was really not used. Besides my 11, I gave out 10 10's, and only 5 scores under a 6 (lowest was a 4). Talent!
Well, with five days remaining, we're now up to 7 sets of votes - good work guys, keep 'em coming!
We've already got some surprising dark horses emerging here, but with this small a pool, a single vote can easily tip the scale. Or deliver the necessary justice for some of these. One of those two. Hopefully the second one. PLEASE?
I get why people might not like "When I'm Sixty-Four," but... I love that clarinet part so much.
You know, that was one song I thought would either get beaten to death or do surprisingly well. Which is it actually? Wait and see...
(Running count: 8 voters. Thank you kindly to all!)
It's Paul's birthday today and my scores are basically done, but I'm actually attempting to write commentary, so I'm not submitting just yet. Almost there, though, @Ironheade!
My scores are done. Adding some more commentary (though I'm not gonna have time to add as much as I want/normally would). I don't even know where to start with writing about 11, though. I love it so much it kinda melts my brain & I can't piece my thoughts together (and that's under normal circumstances, much less the rather weird/kinda sad mood I've been in of late.)
Anyways, I will submit what I have on the due date & if I can get together some better thoughts on my 11 I'll get those to you ASAP.
Scoring complete here too. Just want to flesh out the commentary a bit with justification/explanation for both high and low end marks. I'll send it over tomorrow.
Made an executive decision here, as the writeup for the #1 song not in the rate... grew in the telling, let us say. So, I will reveal #4-2 on the Monday, and give that song its own post in amongst the other between-reveal thinkpieces. Probably before the top 10 when we really get into the upper echelons.
I keep going over my scores again and again. I've been a Beatles fan for so long, and certain songs in their discography are so overplayed, that it's surprisingly hard to come up with ratings that make sense with each other.
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