Beatles For Sale.
1964, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.
IN A NUTSHELL: Beatles For Sale is a record that has the band sounding a bit more tired, and a bit less sunny, than on their previous records. It’s full of covers, once again, but George Harrison’s guitar brings many of them up to Beatle greatness. The original Lennon/McCartney songs are generally darker than previous songs, but they retain that magic the partnership always delivered.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I remember hearing about my dad’s reaction when he learned some details of the salaried position my older sister had recently taken at a local college. This was in the early 90s, and by then my dad had been working for hourly wages as a tool and die maker in machine shops for over thirty years. He worked with his hands, standing behind big machines all day. He didn’t sit much, and the closest he came to having a desk was either his workbench, where he kept his tools, or the drafting table he’d stand behind while designing his work.
He was blue-collar through and through, and he seemed to love his work. He rarely complained about it, or about what others were doing. He was a “shop guy,” and true, he’d sometimes make some comments about the office guys1, folks in management who were often derisively called “pencil pushers2” by some blue collar workers. But he wasn’t mean toward them, and didn’t seem to be waging battles against them. He simply seemed to be uncertain what it is a guy sitting in a chair could really do all day. My dad took big hunks of metal and through precision-measured cuts (usually without the help of computers, by the way – it was all analog micrometers and calipers until well into his career) he formed all sorts of moldings and dies and tools and parts, small enough that he could bring them home and show them to us kids. What did office guys take home to show their kids?
So flash forward a few years to my now-young-adult eldest sister, who had recently acquired a salaried position. I don’t remember the details, only the generalities, but during a conversation with my parents about planning some sort of a family event, she mentioned that she could leave work early. My dad, aghast, implored her NOT to take any time off! She should earn all the money she could! Then she explained that she’d get paid even if she left because she didn’t get paid by the hour. As I recall from her retelling, it took him a little while to comprehend that you could get paid for NOT working. Once he understood it, I’m not sure he ever got comfortable with the idea.
We all have a unique perspective on work and what it means. Everyone knows the intricacies of their own job, the details and operations hidden from others that make it challenging and interesting. Everyone else’s jobs seem kind of easy in comparison. If you have a desk job with a lot of responsibilities, driving a forklift seems like a comparative relief. If you’re planting trees in the hot sun all day, sitting in air-conditioning calling customers seems easy. And if you have any “normal” job, being a Beatle seems like perfection!!
But from everything I’ve read, it wasn’t easy being a Beatle. First of all, you had to be a world-class musician and/or songwriter. Then there were the years spent playing in Hamburg, Germany, where the band played twenty-eight shows a week for less than 3 pounds a day, while living next to toilets. Even after they started to succeed, their schedule was crazy and the demands on them intense. In 1964, they toured the UK, the US, and the world, recorded two albums, shot a movie, and appeared on TV around the world. It was exhausting. Sure, they weren’t standing behind a hot, oily machine 8 hours a day, but I’ll bet my dad wouldn’t have traded his job for theirs.
The album they released at the end of 1964, Beatles For Sale, sounds like it was made by a group of tired musicians. Don’t get me wrong – it sounds great! But between all the cover songs (similar to With the Beatles, this album is almost 50% non-Lennon/McCartney or Harrison songs) and some originals that aren’t up to the band’s usual caliber, one can almost hear the weariness of criss-crossing the globe. Even the album cover, the band’s four stoic faces evidencing the stress of the grind, sends the message that the carefree mop-tops have reached their limits of smiles and amiability.
But there is so much good stuff here, and it starts right off the top with one of their most familiar hits, “No Reply.” I love a song – and an album – that opens cold with vocals …
Ringo sets down a nice bossa nova beat during the verses, and transitions smoothly to a rock beat in the choruses. Lennon’s lyrics about a girl who’s no longer interested were praised by the band’s music publisher, Dick James, as being the first in the band’s career with a story, something Lennon was proud of. The band’s harmonies, particularly in the bridge (“If I were you/ I’d realize …”), are great, as usual. Even the Beatles’ songs I’ve heard a million times, like this one, still hold up. Side note: since the record contains many covers, I decided to feature other artists covering Beatles’ songs. But I couldn’t find any for “No Reply3.”
Up next is one of my favorite Beatles’ songs, “I’m a Loser.”
The vocal-harmony opening is terrific, and the Paul’s walking bass line, with Ringo’s shuffle beat and George’s twangy guitar fills, give the song – like “I Feel Fine,” which was released as a single around the time of this album – a country rock feel. John’s voice goes deep, and his lyrics are personal and moving. He also gets to throw in some harmonica, an instrument he and the band mostly abandoned around this time. (For a cover, here’s 60s folkie Marianne Faithfull’s version of “I’m a Loser.”)
“Baby’s In Black” is a sort of sad waltz, which sounds a bit like a drinking song about a girl hung up on her old boyfriend. It opens with a cool George riff, then gets right to the harmony vocals, which are outstanding. At 1:06, George plays a weird solo that’s really great. I also like Ringo’s insistent kick-drum at 1:35. (The bluegrass outfit Trampled by Turtles has a nice bluegrass version of this song.)
Up next on Beatles For Sale is one of their best all-time covers, in my opinion, Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music.”
The song’s a rave-up, a salute to the heat and energy of rock and roll. John’s voice has been fantastic on the entire album so far – whether singing harmonies or taking the lead on a ballad – and he really nails this one. Interestingly, there aren’t any harmony vocals in the whole song. The band sounds like they’re having fun. It’s a song they’d performed for years by the time of the recording, and their love for the song shows. Producer George Martin plays piano, according to Mark Lewisohn, although the album’s original liner notes credited Martin, Lennon and McCartney on piano.
The boys often follow up a rocker with a softer song, and up next on Beatles For Sale is McCartney’s sweet “I’ll Follow the Sun.”
For a purportedly romantic song4, the song’s lyrics are actually kind of harsh, as Paul says – basically – hey, look, things are great between us, so I’m leaving before they have a chance to sour. But it’s a lovely song, with (as usual) great harmonies and a nice, simple guitar solo from George. And Ringo plays his lap instead of his drum kit, which is pretty cool. (Chet Atkins did an amazing cover of this song.)
So, I’m not gonna bullshit you guys. The next couple songs I really don’t like. “Mr. Moonlight” and “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey.” “Mr. Moonlight” sounds like the kind of song they had to play at respectable clubs in the late 50s and early 60s, but by this point they’ve outgrown the schmaltzy stuff, and could have picked a better cover. “KCHHH” is okay, but really just a less satisfying version of Chuck Berry, which they already did. Paul’s vocal is fantastic, but between the two songs there’s not much I find appealing, besides the fact that they lead into the fabulous “Eight Days a Week.”
One of the band’s most famous tracks, starting off with a then-new-sounding fade-in played by George on his 12-string, it’s a catchy singalong song co-written by Lennon and McCartney5 that became the band’s 7th U.S. number one song in a year. After the personal lyrics of “I’m a Loser” and “I’ll Follow the Sun,” this song reverts to the happy-mop-top-in-love genre that kicked off Beatlemania in the first place. Paul’s bass is great, and the band’s harmonies are perfect. It’s classic Beatle stuff. (Here’s soul superstar and “5th Beatle” Billy Preston’s6 cover of the song.)
“Eight Days a Week” opens the second side of Beatles For Sale, although it’s been 30 years since anyone really cared much about album sides. And the second side has some of my favorite covers that the band ever did, all of which feature Harrison’s guitar work. First up is the charming Buddy Holly original “Words of Love.” George’s guitar is what really makes this song excellent! His intricate playing was double-tracked, and it really adds some beef to a song that is soft enough for Ringo to have played a box instead of drums. “Honey Don’t” is the first of two Carl Perkins tunes on the record, this one sung by Ringo. It’s a standard blues tune with an extra measure in the middle that keeps it interesting. George (“The King,” according to Dr. Dave) takes lead vocals on the second Perkins tune “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.”
All those covers have a rockabilly twang, a sound the group was into at the time. Though not on Beatles For Sale, the single “I Feel Fine” b/w “She’s a Woman” was also recorded around this time. One original in this vein that did make the record was “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party.”
As with most of these style songs, George’s guitar takes center stage – there’s a nifty solo at 1:24. Also notable is John singing the lead with Paul taking a lower harmony – he’s typically on top. Paul takes the lead on the chorus, with George on harmony. It’s a fun, quick song with a return to the more personal lyrics, about running into an old flame. (Roseanne Cash did a nice country version of this song.) Not all of the songs on side two are country. “What You’re Doing” is a very British-Invasion-sounding song, with a cool guitar riff and a shout-out vocal. I didn’t find a cover of this song7.
I would have closed Beatles For Sale with the terrific “Every Little Thing.”
It’s a wonderful love song from Paul, sung by John, that borders on schmaltzy but is saved from it by George’s guitar and Ringo’s crashing timpani. The lyrics are lovey-dovey, but the melody is rather sad, creating a nice counter-balance. And did I mention anywhere that the Beatles do great harmonies? Because they do. (Prog rockers Yes, who I love, did a version of this song, believe it or not.)
My dad worked really hard, and he ended up with a lot to show for it. A happy family, many friends and a terrific reputation. He made something good out of all that hard work. The Beatles did too, obviously. They were exhausted, but they put it into their music and made a great record in Beatles For Sale.
“I’m a Loser”
“Baby’s In Black”
“Rock and Roll Music”
“I’ll Follow the Sun”
“Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey”
“Eight Days a Week”
“Words of Love”
“Every Little Thing”
“I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”
“What You’re Doing”
“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”