Tag Archives: George Martin

6th Favorite Beatles Album: A Hard Day’s Night

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A Hard Day’s Night
1964, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: A Hard Day’s Night demonstrates everything about The Beatles that made them so brilliant in their early recording years. Before they ever added orchestras, psychedelia, and odd instruments, they were cranking out gem after gem. Their voices, songwriting and musicianship were beyond what was expected, especially for a teeny-bopper movie! This album leans heavily on John Lennon’s talents, but each of the four shines throughout, and the songs are excellent even if you haven’t seen the film.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Since well before actors’ voices were heard, movies have included music to enhance the action shown by the flickering lights on the big screen. Before sound was added to films, movies would often be shown with a full orchestra accompaniment. Other times, a single piano would play music. In small towns where nobody knew how to play the piano, often a single guitarist might play along. The point is, music can make a movie. That’s always been the case.

I’ve loved movies since I was a little kid in the early ’70s, when, due to some fluke of community planning, my rural Pennsylvania township had cable TV well before the rest of America did. This meant I got to watch movies on TV channels from Philadelphia, which was 100 miles (or 50 years) away from us. This is before pay-channels, like HBO, so the movies were interrupted by commercials and had all the bad words bleeped out. But they had music! And I loved watching movies and hearing songs in them.

Actually, my love of film music was first sparked by perhaps – no, not perhaps, it’s definitely true – by THE FINEST performer that has ever graced a movie or television screen: Bugs Bunny. Bugs could sing, everything from opera to folk, he could play banjo, guitar, harp, fiddle, piano, even conduct an orchestra. Though he wasn’t familiar with them at first, he eventually even mastered the bagpipes. Watching hours of Bugs each week primed my brain for a lifetime of enjoying music in movies.

My mom also helped develop my love by playing her Broadway show 8-tracks all the time. From listening to them I expected music to help tell a story. But even though I’m a fan of musicals, from Singin’ in the Rain to Grease to Purple Rain to LA LA Land, a movie doesn’t have to be a musical to have a great soundtrack.

Pulp Fiction has one of my favorite soundtracks ever, and I’m not alone. The record usually appears somewhere on all of the “Best Soundtracks” lists you see out there. There are songs from Kool and the Gang and The Statler Brothers and everyone in between. From the opening credits through all of the iconic scenes, and even in the background (which is where I discovered Maria McKee, and one of my favorite albums), this soundtrack has great, diverse songs that didn’t used to seem to fit together, but now sure will forever.

A lesser-known film from the 90s, yet equally terrific and also with a tremendous soundtrack, is the 1996 John Sayles film Lone Star. It’s set on the Texas/Mexico border, and the music sets the tone perfectly. From Texas blues to Tejano to sultry jazz, the songs always set the scene for the action. All of the songs were unfamiliar to me, yet I still left the theater wanting the soundtrack – an impressive feat for a film. In the early web days of the mid 90s, I learned the perils of online shopping due to this soundtrack. I tried to buy it online and instead ended up with some lame country band also called “Lonestar.” If you ever get a chance, check out the movie and music sometime!

Sometimes movie music isn’t even about the entire soundtrack. Sometimes it’s just a terrific song behind a great scene, like John Candy doin’ the mess-around in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Or the Caddyshack scenes in the pool, on the golf course, or inside the country club. There’s Paul Newman riding a bike in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And Napoleon Dynamite dancing. Or Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray doing karaoke in Lost in Translation. Music can make a scene unforgettable.

And then there are all the terrific movies about bands and musicians that have amazing music. For comedies there’s This is Spinal Tap. Fear of a Black Hat. And The Blues Brothers, although unlike the first two, the Blues Brothers band is a group of real musicians. (This is Spinal Tap is by far the funniest film of the three. Perhaps of all time.) And there are more band movies (real and fictional), like Yellow Submarine and Gimme Shelter and The Last Waltz and Human Highway and Rock ‘n Roll High School and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains and Stop Making Sense and 1991: The Year Punk Broke and That Thing You Do! and School of Rock and 8 Mile and Shut Up and Play the Hits and Straight Outta Compton and on and on and on. I haven’t seen all of them, but I will.

One of my favorite soundtracks is from a movie that I’ve only seen once, years ago. People find it hard to believe, but I actually bought the soundtrack several years before I ever watched the movie because – to be honest – I’m more interested in the music than the film. This isn’t typically the case with movie soundtracks. But with a band like The Beatles, the typical is atypical. And with an album as great as A Hard Day’s Night, I sometimes forget it’s a soundtrack.

Early in my Beatles-loving career, in high school and college, I dismissed any Beatles songs before about Revolver, in 1966, as moldy oldies, bubble-gummy “yeah yeah yeah” pop that to my (immature) ears sounded about as interesting as the doo-wop songs Sha-Na-Na covered. In the early 90s, I carpooled to work with a woman named Ximena, who’s now one of my oldest friends. She was the one who told me I should listen to A Hard Day’s Night. (We may have played it during our commute, but usually we listened to 80s stuff.) I trusted her musical opinion, so went out and bought it, and I immediately realized these songs were neither moldy nor oldie-sounding. The songs sounded as fresh as any guitar music on the radio, and the album still sounds great today.

From the opening chord on the opening title track, perhaps the most-studied and most-discussed two seconds of music ever recorded, A Hard Day’s Night delivers great sounds and songs throughout.

What a showcase for the singing of Lennon and McCartney! Both voices are double-tracked, John on the verses (which is where the title is sung, which is odd), McCartney on the choruses (which are the same each time, but don’t include the title, which is odd), and they sound terrific! I love Paul’s cool little bass noodle thing he plays to accompany Ringo’s toms after each verse. It’s hard to hear unless you listen with headphones, but it’s great. George has a nice, fast, 12-string guitar solo that producer George Martin doubles on piano. And Ringo’s insistent cowbell through the chorus is the first of many percussion implements he’ll use throughout the album.

A Hard Day’s Night is really very much a Lennon album. He wrote most of the songs (of course, all are credited to Lennon/McCartney) and sings most, too. “I Should Have Known Better” is one of the last Beatle songs to feature John playing harmonica, and also features a nifty chord change going into the chorus. (It’s another song that has the repeated title in the verse instead of the chorus.) George deftly changes chords and strumming patterns throughout the song. It’s not my favorite song, and neither is the Lennon/McCartney song that George gets to sing, “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You.” Although, Ringo is credited with playing an “African Drum,” whatever that may be, and it sounds really cool. George didn’t get any of his own songs on the record, but he sings this love song just fine.

While John’s often associated with the more rockin’ Lennon/McCartney pieces, he gets sentimental on the lovely “If I Fell.”

I’ve always loved this song about the desire for new love to last. John and Paul’s harmonies are perfect, although on the stereo version of the song, at the end of the second bridge, Paul’s voice cracks (1:45), a charming faux pas, in my opinion. George plays a simple solo, and Ringo does a great, subtle job holding it all down. Paul gets to show off his own love-songwriting chops on the ballad “And I Love Her.” Ringo picks up bongos and a pair of claves this time, and George adds a terrific classical guitar line throughout, and a nice solo.

After all that lovey-doviness, the boys need to pick things up, don’t you think? And they do it in fine fashion with a couple rockers. First comes the awesome three-part harmony of “Tell Me Why.” While John, Paul and George pull off those amazing vocals (about another girl who done John wrong), Ringo is playing cool fills and pushing the band toward the climactic falsetto of “is there anything I can do?” (1:32). Next the absolute classic “Can’t Buy Me Love” rocks even a little harder. Paul’s bass is bouncy, George plays one of his best early-Beatle guitar solos (at 1:18 you can hear a faint, second solo in the left speaker), and the lyrics are not about a prostitute.

For my money, A Hard Day’s Night really picks up on what used to be known as (in the days when records had two sides) “Side 2.”

Side 2 opens what a slam on Ringo’s snare drum, as “Any Time at All” begins, one of my favorite Beatle guitar songs. I love Harrison’s riffs throughout. And in addition to Ringo concluding each verse with a ‘thwack,’ he also breaks out his trusty cowbell once again. John sings lead again, but Paul adds the second, higher-pitched “Any Time at All.” It’s a fun song, and the next one, “I’ll Cry Instead,” is fun, too, despite its sad-sack lyrics. It’s one of those Country-Western style Beatle songs that Ringo usually sings. (Since Ringo didn’t get a song to sing on A Hard Day’s Night, I wonder why they didn’t give him this one?) George nails the rockabilly guitar, and Paul has a sort-of-not-really bass solo (1:05 & 1:35).

Next comes one of my all-time favorite songs, “Things We Said Today.”

I’ve written many times that lyrics are not usually what draws me to a song, but one of the reasons I love this one is the lyrics. The idea that what we’re saying today, especially as young lovers, will become tomorrow’s happy memories is such a sweet, romantic idea. Paul sings lead, and the harmonies George adds (i.e. “someday when I’m lonely”) are perfect. I really dig Lennon’s acoustic guitar strumming throughout, and how Ringo emphasizes things in the bridge (1:00). It’s a tremendous “Paul song,” one of my favorites.

But A Hard Day’s Night is really mostly John’s. “When I Get Home” is about a man waiting to get home to his girlfriend, and is the only song I know that uses all five syllables of the word “trivialities” in metered, rhyming verse. The intro is pure Ringo. It’s a decent song, but I’m a much bigger fan of John’s “You Can’t Do That.”

In the 90s, when I was carpooling with Ximena, who’d extolled the virtues of A Hard Day’s Night, we worked with an older guy named Paul who’d seen The Beatles live – TWICE! He saw them in San Francisco at The Cow Palace in 1965, and at their LAST CONCERT EVER, at Candlestick Park. Of course I spent hours talking Beatles with him when I should have been running lab experiments, and he even showed me his Candlestick Park Beatles ticket stub. Anyway, he told me “You Can’t Do That” was always he and his friends’ favorite Beatles song – because of the super-cool guitar riff that Harrison and Lennon play. I love the riff, too. And listen to Paul’s awesome, twirling bass line! (The guitars and bass really come alive on headphones.) I also really dig Ringo’s drums – and his trusty cowbell. The harmonies are sweet (“gree-eeen”) on John’s tough-guy lyrics. But what I really love is the ending, as the band slows things down and then gently slides up to that final note. It’s subtle things like this that set The Beatles apart: a throwaway album track that was cut from the film, yet they can’t help but add some artistry to it.

The album closes with a promise from the band: “I’ll Be Back.”

The harmonies, on rather-stalkerish-but-of-the-era lyrics, are fabulous, Harrison’s acoustic guitar riff is lovely, the syncopated strumming behind the verses is cool, and it’s got a shifting time signature, throwing in a 2/4 measure after the “oh, oh”s (0:40). Then it has a really weird, rather sudden fade out. Not to get too interpretive, but considering the song’s title, it’s almost like they’re saying, “don’t worry, we’ll be back … we wouldn’t leave you hanging like that!”

And return they did, the following year, with another movie, and another soundtrack. There was nothing this band couldn’t do. I don’t know why I didn’t get into this album earlier, since it sort of harkens back to the TV days of my youth. A Hard Day’s Night shows The Beatles were almost as talented as Bugs Bunny! (Almost.)

TRACK LISTING:
“A Hard Day’s Night”
“I Should Have Known Better”
“If I Fell”
“I’m Happy Just to Dance with You”
“And I Love Her”
“Tell Me Why”
“Can’t Buy Me Love”
“Any Time at All”
“I’ll Cry Instead”
“Things We Said Today”
“When I Get Home”
“You Can’t Do That”
“I’ll Be Back”

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7th Favorite Beatles Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
1967, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album that is inescapable in rock, a cultural touchstone truly unlike any other. Its importance as a work of art has probably overshadowed the actual songs on the record, which are diverse and strange and layered with studio effects and tricks. It can be hard to get past the sheer brilliance of the production, but if you can, I think you’ll find that the songs themselves are actually very good, too! Some call it the best ever – but for me it’s middle-of-the-pack Beatles.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I will try to write this first section with a minimum of creepiness. I’m nearly 53 years old, so there’s a possibility this story sounds really gross. If it ends up sounding gross I’ll trash the whole thing. But assuming I can make it through, I want to immediately acknowledge three things I intend to discuss: 1) I was once a teenager attracted to teenaged girls; 2) my friends and I had ignorant, immature and inappropriate discussions about teenaged girls; and 3) I can recall both numbers 1 and 2.

But I intend to not be creepy. Let’s give it a try.

I entered high school in the fall of 1981, 14 years old and awkward and chubby and unsure of myself. Upon arrival, I was struck (as were my friends) by the fact that the senior girls around us were unlike any girls with whom we’d ever shared a school. I’m sure freshman girls noticed the same thing about the older boys. There were now students in our midst that looked more like attractive adults than any students we’d ever seen before.

As a younger student, I remember being enamored of some schoolmates. At Ebenezer Elementary School from kindergarten (Angie L.) through fifth grade (Juli Z.). At Cedar Crest Middle School from sixth through eighth grades (Jana C.). These crushes were very sweet, in retrospect, and never reciprocated. They were based mostly on the fact that these girls had cute faces and they laughed at my jokes. If there was any sort of physical attraction beyond a pretty face, I have no memory of it. Getting a laugh was the main thing.

However, at high school there were suddenly girls in the hallways walking to class who looked more like women – attractive women like I’d seen in movies or on TV – than girls. My friends and I had never been around so many people like this. Senior girls became a regular topic of conversation at my lunch table that freshman year. Sharon, Kathy, Pam, Lisa, Kelly … we discussed these popular seniors as if they were Hollywood celebrities. From our vantage as ninth grade nerds trying to get through the day unnoticed and unbeaten, they seemed just as remote.

My freshman year was also the first semester at school for a young, male art teacher. I don’t remember his name, but he had long (for a 1981 teacher) wavy hair and wore preppy clothes, like those woolen ties with a square bottom that I only saw on rich people and, once in a while, Detective Arthur Dietrich. It was also the only semester that art teacher was at the school, as a few months into the school year he was no longer employed there. Word soon got around the students that the reason he was gone was because he’d asked one of those popular senior girls, Kathy, out on a date. Even in 1981 this was frowned upon.

This situation, of course, was THE HOT TOPIC at our lunch table for several days, perhaps a week. We were all newly-arrived 14 year olds with varying levels of dating experience – ranging from “too scared to ever think of asking out a girl” to “have thought about it and rejected the idea as too scary,” plus one guy who claimed to have actually been intimate with several girls, but who everyone knew was a bullshitter. The question we aimed to resolve at these daily summits was this: “Was an opportunity to date Kathy worth giving up a job, and possibly a career, and perhaps even an arrest and criminal record?” In other words, did Mr. Wavy-hair Art Teacher make the right choice in asking Kathy on a date?

After considerable discussion, the consensus among the group of us five or six boys was this: he made the right choice. It was probably worth it.

Of course, now, as an adult with experience and an understanding of power dynamics and the patriarchal system that continues to cause inequities in our society, along with a clear understanding of professional boundaries and criminal law, I recognize that this was a ridiculous position for us to take. Still, in my memory (I’ve retold this story countless times), the Kathy character in this vignette is a goddess, an angel, a pure distillation of feminine beauty such that I, as a youth, believed men should risk everything just for an opportunity to share a slice of pizza with her at Special Pizza City.

My sister, Liz, was also a senior that year, and she was an average kid with lots of friends. She knew, and had classes with, the popular girls, Kathy and Sharon and Pam and all the others. But she and her friends were not part of that crowd. Recently I got to hang out with Liz, and talk turned, as it often does, to our high school years. We looked through her senior yearbook, and I recounted the above story. As we flipped through and looked at all the kids, I noticed something. Kathy didn’t really seem like the unbelievable beauty I’d always remembered. She was a cute kid, but there were lots of cute kids in the book.

Clearly my friends and I were swayed by the idea of Kathy as much as the actual appearance of Kathy. We’d been shaken by our entrance that fall into an arena unlike anything we’d ever experienced. We were overwhelmed by it, and it put us off balance. And all these names of senior girls became images in our heads that didn’t even have a basis in reality. Before I went back and looked at that yearbook, I couldn’t even conjure an image of any of them in my head. I knew that Sharon was tall and blonde and Kathy was shorter with brown hair. The others were only names. “Really?” I thought. “What was all the fuss about?”

I have similar feelings these days when I listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Since becoming a rock music fan – about six months before entering high school – I’ve heard Sgt. Pepper’s called the greatest album ever. It’s seemingly been on the top of every “Best Album” list. Story after story have been written and produced about its ground-breaking production, its cultural impact, its uniqueness and power and legacy. It is the most inescapable record in the history of rock.

And you know what?

It’s really good! There’s no denying that the songs are great. But the production – especially considering the technology available in 1967 – is truly astounding. The band’s instruments don’t take center stage (well, McCartney’s bass often does), but instead the recording studio does. That was a novel idea in 1967, and people were blown away by it. I was blown away by it when I first heard it – a feeling not unlike being a 14-year-old entering high school and seeing attractive young men and women roaming the halls. It’s a feeling that can skew one’s perceptions. Now that I’m older I can reflect on the situation, take a fresh listen, and conclude … “It’s a really good album.” I don’t think it’s the best album ever. It doesn’t even crack my Beatles Top Five. But it’s damned good.

I first heard the opening pair of Sgt. Pepper’s tracks on my oldest sister Anne’s 8-track of 1967-1970, often called “The Blue Album.” It was a 1973 greatest-hits compilation released with 1962-1966, or “The Red Album,” and both were quite popular. I was probably 10, and hearing the audience sounds, I thought the title track was recorded live. I tried to imagine what the band was doing on-stage during the horn interlude, beginning at 0:44 on “Sgt. Pepper’s,” that was making the audience laugh so heartily.

I’ll say up front that one of the reasons the album isn’t higher on my list is because there’s not enough guitar on it. However, the guitar on this song, particularly in the first 0:20, is actually pretty cool. It’s McCartney playing lead, with George adding cool rhythm chords underneath, and on headphones you can hear them dueling throughout the whole song. It’s a great intro to the concept album, with great vocals, and it leads into one of my favorite Beatles’ songs ever.

“With a Little Help From my Friends” is a perfect Lennon/McCartney song for Ringo to sing, and he sings it (as Billy Shears!) perfectly. Paul’s bass is front and center, with its swooping ranginess. The band’s harmonies, and call-and-response vocals, perfectly support Starr’s limited range, and really make the lyrics, about the precious value of friendship, come alive. Harrison gets a few opportunities to throw in some signature guitar riffs, but throughout the album, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for him. After this song, the album becomes very studio-focused.

For example, the wonderful and weird “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which is one of the band’s most well-known songs. With instrumentation including a tambura and electric guitars made to sound like other instruments, McCartney’s bass is the only rock instrument that stands out. In a great BBC documentary on the album, composer Howard Goodall explains why Paul’s bass is so great on the song – all technical music terms and such. But the point is it sounds cool. And all the instrumentation make John’s wild imagery sound particularly strange.

One song on which Harrison’s guitar gets to shine is the terrific “Getting Better.”

It shines in the way George’s playing always does – with subtlety, and warranting repeated listens to fully appreciate it. His ringing chords throughout the chorus make the song. It’s a Paul song, but John famously contributed the “couldn’t get no worse” lyrics. It’s a fun piece, and my favorite of the three McCartney tracks that have always run together a bit in my mind. “Fixing a Hole,” although a music-hall song instead of a rock song, also features Harrison’s guitar genius, for example, from 0:38 to 1:00 and his solo beginning at 1:16. The lyrics are definitely upbeat-Paul. Which is different from the next song, “She’s Leaving Home,” which features maudlin-Paul lyrics.

“She’s Leaving Home” is a lovely song, but it’s one that I’ve liked less and less over the years. I’ve grown tired of the song’s lush orchestration, which may have been the inspiration for Phil Spector’s overdone Let It Be production. When I first heard the album I was impressed by this style of song coming from a rock band. In the same way, I was very impressed by Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” a show-tune style of song about a Victorian acrobat, of sorts, with impressive studio tricks and sounds. I liked the song because it was unexpected and represented what I thought the album represented. It’s sort of how I was impressed by those senior girls when I was a freshman.

The song on Sgt. Pepper’s that is the equivalent of an overlooked student – someone with different hair and different clothes that, back in the day, my friends and I thought was just a weirdo – but who, in viewing a yearbook 40 years later might have caused me to ask “why didn’t I know this cute person?” is Harrison’s “Within You, Without You.”

For many years I’d skip over this song. Then, at some point in the past 20 years or so, I began to allow myself to be enveloped by its strange (to my ears) sounds and insightful lyrics and now it might be my favorite on the record. It’s actually got a great melody that sticks in my head, and the line “life goes on/ within you/ and without you” is a stroke of genius, and a timeless lesson that has helped me greatly in dealing with all the ups and downs of being a human. I no longer skip the song, I look forward to its strangeness.

Which isn’t to say I don’t also love the timelessness of a great Western pop song like McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four,” a song which would have been a hit at any time since about 1840.

This is one of my earliest favorite Beatles’ songs. I grew up hearing (and enjoying) my mom’s show-tunes and my dad’s brass music, and this song sounds like an incorporation of both of those styles. It’s true that, as John Lennon described it, it is “Granny Music,” and the part of me that loves The New York Dolls and Sonic Youth HATES this song. But it’s so catchy, and has sweet lyrics that get better as I approach 64 years old. And with Paul’s melodic bass once again front-and-center, carrying the piece, it’s hard for me not to love it.

I love all the songs on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and by pointing out some that I’m less-enthused about than others, I don’t mean to denigrate the entire album. Whenever the album is in the news, typically on -0 and -5 anniversaries of its release, there are many pieces written that go out of their way to say the album is garbage. I’m all for people expressing dislike for popular artists based on their own tastes (I’ve written before that I just don’t get the appeal of Bob Dylan) but sometimes people just want to stir shit up. I’m not saying I dislike songs like “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning Good Morning,” they’re just not strong favorites of mine.

Lovely Rita” has great bass (of course), cool harmony vocals throughout and a catchy piano solo, played by producer George Martin. It’s about a meter maid, a real one who gave Paul a parking ticket at Abbey Road Studios. My favorite part is the end, after 2:10, with all its weird sounds and voices. “Good Morning Good Morning” has an awesome guitar solo played by McCartney at 1:17, and strange time signature changes. A brass band backs Lennon on lyrics about a day in the life … It also features cool animal sounds at the end, each animal capable of frightening the preceding one.

Next Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band comes back, with more electric guitar from George this time, to thank the audience for coming to the show, which leads into one of the all-time great Beatle songs: “A Day in the Life.”

It’s a true Lennon/McCartney collaboration, each of them bringing the best of their talents to the song and combining them into a masterpiece. John mostly wrote the beginning and end, and Paul mostly wrote the middle. I haven’t mentioned Ringo much yet, but he really shines on this song, heightening the tension in Lennon’s sections with his fills and rolls. He plays like an orchestral percussionist. The crazy orchestra crescendo after Lennon’s section (1:45) is thrilling, especially as it explodes into Paul’s jaunty wakeup section (2:16). The transition back to John, at 2:49, with its dreamlike sounds, is perfect, and once again Ringo is brilliant on John’s final verse. The crazy orchestral crescendo occurs again leading to that epic piano note – four Beatles on four pianos all playing the same chord. Astounding. And be sure to stick around for 5:11, where nonsense gibberish and a pitch only dogs can hear await!

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album unlike any other. It stands out in a line of popular musical development, a touchstone for Western civilization. But don’t let that fact overwhelm you. There are many other pretty faces in the crowd, and just because everyone tells you who the best are, you should decide for yourself which ones are the superstars.

TRACK LISTING:
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
“With a Little Help from My Friends”
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
“Getting Better”
“Fixing a Hole”
“She’s Leaving Home”
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
“Within You Without You”
“When I’m Sixty-Four”
“Lovely Rita”
“Good Morning Good Morning”
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”
“A Day in the Life”

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12th Favorite Beatles Album: With The Beatles

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With The Beatles.
1963, EMI. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1996.

IN A NUTSHELL: With The Beatles is The Beatles’ second album, written and recorded in a hurry to capitalize on Beatlemania. It’s a testament to the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team that they could write so many excellent songs so quickly! And a testament to the entire band that they could execute so well these songs, and a slew of their favorite covers, and make a record that remains one of the best in the past 60 years.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

~ ~ ~

Way back in 2006, I released my first stand-up comedy CD, It’s Weird, Man. You’ll notice I said “first comedy CD.”

This is because when I recorded my album, I was hoping there would be more. I’d been doing stand-up for about 12 years by 2006, doing it in earnest for about 7, and I thought it was time to get some of my jokes on record. Rick Jenkins, owner of the best comedy club in the world, The Comedy Studio, in Cambridge, MA, gave me two nights to record in front of terrific weekend crowds. The excellent comedian Tim McIntire recorded my sets, and helped select and sequence tracks.

Then I called some old friends. I got in touch with an old acquaintance from my days in The April Skies, Larry Geiger, and he did all the amazing CD design and packaging work. I called Jake Crawford, still doing great work (then, as now) in The April Skies, and worked it out so the CD could be on his WiaB Records label. Then, oblivious to the changes that were already afoot in the delivery and consumption of recorded material by 2006, I went about having CDs manufactured.

The CD company said I could manufacture 300 CDs, or 1000, or 5000 or even more. I was sure that 5000 was the number I’d need, given the hilarious nature of my jokes. However, that was expensive, so I settled on 300, knowing that I could use the proceeds from selling those first 300 to finance a second batch of pressings, which I was quite certain would be 5000. Or more.

As of November, 2019, I’m still the proud owner of 237 copies of my CD, all of which are stored lovingly in a few moldy old cardboard boxes in the basement. My album is on all the streaming services, and approximately once every 18 months, I’ll get a check, out of the blue, for $9 or so. But despite all that loot, I don’t think that it was digital streaming that cut into CD sales, preventing me from reaching that second pressing. I think that reality simply didn’t live up to my grandiose expectations.

But what if it had? What if reality had actually EXCEEDED my expectations? What if I’d sold those first 300 discs, then the next 5000, then had orders for thousands more? What if some entertainment conglomerate had signed me to a contract, and the world was eager, yearning, even demanding more product from me? What would I have done? I didn’t have enough jokes for another record!

The Beatles, 1960, Hamburg. (l to r) Lennon, Harrison, Pete Best, McCartney, Stu Sutcliffe.

One thing I definitely could not do would be to “cover” other peoples’ jokes. I couldn’t decide to fill out my next album by recording Jim Gaffigan’s classic “Hot Pockets” bit, and throw in a bunch of old Joan Rivers jokes. Comedy doesn’t work that way. (Rather, it’s not supposed to.) However, music does! And lucky for The Beatles! When the album Please Please Me shot them to the top of the charts in the UK in 1963, and they needed more music on the market, they had a backlog of hundreds of songs from other artists that they’d been performing for years. They recorded some of those songs first, while Lennon/McCartney wrote a few more new songs, then recorded the new ones, and next thing you know, With The Beatles hit the stores.

Of course, the band’s first album, Please Please Me, was also nearly half cover songs, so this arrangement wasn’t unusual. The Beatles were great musicians, and they had logged hundreds of hours of live performances, so their cover songs were particularly strong. But Please Please Me included originals that had (mostly) been around for years. And as With the Beatles shows, even the songs dashed off by Lennon/McCartney are better than most of the stuff by other bands. Take, for example, the phenomenal lead track, “It Won’t Be Long.”

What a great opening track! Lennon’s double-tracked voice opens the album with an urgent message to all those Beatlemaniacs: it won’t be long! It’s got all the hallmarks of a terrific Beatle song: great melody, George’s cool, descending guitar riff (first heard at 0:13), Ringo’s sloshy drumming, and the catchy backing vocals – shouting “yeah” back and forth with John, and the “you left me” countermelody in the bridge, at 0:42. I guess it’s the bridge – it’s played twice, which is unusual in a bridge. I’ll call it the bridge just to point out that the song has an unusual structure – chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus. Whatever you call it, I absolutely love when McCartney hits a higher note on the 5th “yeah” the second time through the bridge. It’s stuff like that that makes me love this band. The simple stuff.

Up next is a quiet piece, a slow dance after that frantic opening, Lennon’s “All I’ve Got to Do.” It’s got a bit of a Motown feel to it, and John’s lead vocal is really strong. McCartney plays chords on the bass through the verse, which sounds cool, but I mainly like this song because it leads into a classic: “All My Loving.”

It’s another song that opens with vocals, Paul’s this time. What stands out immediately is the triplet-strumming rhythm guitar by John Lennon. It’s really impressive, and Ringo makes it swing with his syncopated backbeat. The harmony “Oooo”s are classic Beatle, and I can’t forget to mention Paul’s walking bass line. Also – Paul harmonizes with himself on the third verse. This is one of the songs the band played on their first Ed Sullivan Show performance in the USA, in February 1964, and since Paul can’t harmonize with himself live, George sang the melody and Paul took the high harmony.

On With the Beatles, George gets his first composition on a Beatles album with “Don’t Bother Me,” sort of a dour song with an upbeat rhythm. It’s a decent song, and has really cool guitar throughout, and a nice surf/country guitar solo at 1:18, but I think it’s safe to say George will do much better on future records. Then again, not every Lennon/McCartney song was incredible – as “Little Child” shows. I mean, it has great vocals (particularly “I’m so sad and lonely”), and is a rocker, and Lennon shows off his harmonica chops … but it doesn’t do a lot for me.

The cover songs begin in earnest next, with the band covering my parents’ favorite song, “Till There Was You.” They were fans of the original from the Broadway musical The Music Man, which I prefer as well. George plays a nice solo, and McCartney can really sing, but … it sounds like filler. Even the next song, “Please Mr. Postman,” a Motown cover, sounds – to me – like filler. The harmonies are great, Ringo is terrific, but the 1961 original by the Marvelettes was so excellent that it makes me wonder why the band put this on With the Beatles.

This isn’t to say The Beatles cover songs couldn’t be excellent. Next up is a cover of the Chuck Berry classic “Roll Over Beethoven,” and it’s terrific.

I’m a Chuck Berry fan, and I love his stompin’ original version, but I like what the band does with it, as well. It’s less rockin’, but has a bit more swing, thanks to Ringo. He plays a heartbeat beat, and on my CD of With the Beatles (not so much on YouTube) I can clearly hear him accenting the “one,” really driving the song. Harrison’s guitar is really cool, and as usual Paul takes the opportunity to make the simple blues bass line more interesting than you’d expect.

The next song is one that both Paul and John later dismissed, rather coldly, and which many people – even Beatles fans – seem to dislike. But I really like it a lot: “Hold Me Tight.” Sure, Paul’s out of tune at certain points, but his voice matches the urgency of the handclaps, the insistent riff and Ringo’s drumming. And the three-part harmony, always a strength of the band, sounds great on the “You” choruses.

One of my favorite cover songs on With the Beatles is “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” an old Smoky Robinson & the Miracles song.

This is a case of the band, and producer George Martin (who plays piano on the recording), selecting a great song. It also shows off Harrison’s knack for singing those difficult close harmonies. On most Beatles’ songs sung by Lennon, McCartney usually sang the high harmonies, and Harrison was usually the third part – often close to the melody and much subtler. Here it works (as in the original) as the main harmony. Lennon’s lead vocal is strong and soulful, and Ringo plays nice, odd fills in the bridge.

Ringo gets to show off his pipes on the next number, “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Ringo (and George, to a lesser extent) tends to be overlooked, or even scorned, by many folks – both for his drumming and his singing. His crime seems to be that he is not John Lennon or Paul McCartney – just like everyone else who’s ever lived since the dawn of humanity. He’s actually an excellent drummer, and a fun singer, and “I Wanna Be Your Man” shows off both. It starts with a little guitar, and features a nice George solo, later. John and Paul wrote the song but neither loved it very much so they gave it to Ringo to sing. They also gave it to the Rolling Stones, who had a UK hit with it by dirtying it up a bit.

Next the boys are back to their cover-song ways with an obscure song by a group called The Donays, “Devil In Her Heart.” It’s a fine song, and George really does a great job on the lead vocal. Ringo’s fills are nice, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Similarly, John’s composition “Not a Second Time” is a fine song, but isn’t one I turn to very often. The melody is strangely complicated and meandering for a Beatles’ song. McCartney’s bass is great, but I wonder why they chose a piano solo instead of a guitar?

But leave it to The Beatles to finish With the Beatles off with a bang, even if it is a cover song. It became one of their signature songs, even though it had already been a hit for R&B singer Barrett Strong.

I do love the original, but The Beatles do a great job here. Ringo’s eight-beat bass drum gives the song an urgency, and the boys’ harmonies are terrific. It’s a great number that they really made a classic. John’s screams are cool, Paul’s bass notes leading to the chorus are sweet, and it’s simply a classic.

I’m not saying cover songs are bad, or that they should be avoided. In fact, With the Beatles shows that the band can truly play any style – from Broadway to R&B to rock ‘n roll – and make it work. I prefer the band’s albums with more Lennon/McCartney and Harrison songs, but With The Beatles is wonderful, no matter who wrote the songs! And it certainly sold more than the 63 CDs I managed.

TRACK LISTING:
“It Won’t Be Long”
“All I’ve Got to Do”
“All My Loving”
“Don’t Bother Me”
“Little Child”
“Till There Was You”
“Please Mr. Postman”
“Roll Over Beethoven”
“Hold Me Tight”
“You Really Got a Hold On Me”
“I Wanna Be Your Man”
“Devil In Her Heart”
“Not a Second Time”
“Money (That’s What I Want)”

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13th Favorite Beatles Album: Yellow Submarine.

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Yellow Submarine.
1969, Apple Records. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Yellow Submarine is an album that I find difficult to rate higher than any other Beatles’ albums simply because there are only 4 new Beatles songs on it! The band contributed four excellent new songs to the soundtrack, and a couple older favorites were added, and that’s the extent of the band’s contribution. Brilliant producer George Martin adds some orchestral background pieces from the movie, and that’s that.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

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I’m 52 years old, so it’s no use lying, or even minimizing, what I’m going to say: I don’t mind kids’ music. I’m talking about music produced and aimed directly at kids, not music recorded by kids, although some of that’s pretty good, too. I liked kids’ music when I was a kid, and I liked it as a parent, and I’ll probably like it again when I’m a grandparent.

I think somewhere over the past several years on this blog I’ve discussed my love, as a child, for the LP Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert. It was released in 1972, the year I turned 5, and it’s the first album I recall that was all mine, that wasn’t a family record, or one of my sisters’. I used to go to the basement every day to play its songs and, as my mom has recalled, “march around the basement.”

The album had fun songs with lots of activities, and a gatefold opening that included a map (for helping Cookie Monster with “The Magic Cookie“) and pictures and tips on how to best enjoy it. (“Get some pots and pans from your pantry to bang on!“) The songs on the album were purely for kids – fun, silly, simple. The only (subtle) tip of the hat to the larger world of pop and rock into which it was released was the cover art that seemed to be a nod to Simon & Garfunkel.

The other kids’ albums I remember from my childhood are selections from Walt Disney movies. I think we may have had a “Disney Greatest Hits” type record, and perhaps a soundtrack from Mary Poppins, or Bedknobs and Broomsticks, although I may be conflating my memories of childhood jigsaw puzzles with childhood music. But the point is, these were orchestral, Broadway-style songs. Back then Kids’ Records were not interested in staying current with pop music tastes and sounds.

I moved on from Ernie and Bert pretty much directly to my sister’s Elton John albums and the 70s version of Weird Al Yankovic: albums of collected novelty songs sold on TV by companies like K-Tel and Ronco. But my childhood musical tastes – Ernie & Bert, Disney songs – have maintained through adulthood: the music I like continues to skew strongly toward good melodies. (This is probably a big reason why I love The Beatles.)

The Wiggles (and pals)

By the time I had kids of my own, in the late 90s and early 00s, an entertainment juggernaut had completely transformed kids’ music: The Wiggles. Many parents disliked The Wiggles when they first saw them, and I think a big part of it was that in the 90s it was unusual to see grown men performing for kids with no women. That may seem odd today, in 2019, but in 1999 it was really jarring to see. Myself, I immediately loved the band – mainly because my toddler son LOVED THE BAND. It was impossible for me to see him sing and dance along to the songs and NOT feel some love for the geniuses that gave that to him.

Dan Zanes & Friends

What I really liked about The Wiggles, however, was the fact that they took rock music sounds and styles and put them into kids’ songs. The Wiggles were a band, playing their own songs, on their own instruments, and they touched off a wave of “rock music” kids bands. The fabulous Dan Zanes & Friends, The Laurie Berkner Band, The Imagination Movers … There were just so many! Then there was Choo-Choo Soul, a show that made R&B-style kids’ songs. It was the Golden Age of Kids’ Music for Gen-X Adults.

The proof was when bands for grown-ups began getting into the act. The wonderful They Might Be Giants released several terrific kids albums, including Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s. Def Leppard, Barenaked Ladies, even former freshmen, and one-hit wonders, The Verve Pipe, released kids’ albums. (Of course, Johnny Cash was ahead of everyone by 30 years.) Soon, parents were demanding rock music as kids music.

But leave it to the best band in the history of the universe to have presaged all of this kids rock music by a couple generations. The band, and Paul McCartney, in particular, had been writing Wiggles-style songs since the start of their run. They also produced flat-out, old-school kids-style songs (i.e. not Wiggles-style) throughout their career. Catchy, singalong melodies were right in their wheelhouse. And although they usually sang about love, which any child will tell you is “icky,” many of their songs are about less icky stuff, like colorful submarines and counting with friends, and, in fact, would sound really good as the soundtrack to a cartoon movie!

For details about how the movie Yellow Submarine and its soundtrack came together, you should consult any Beatles biography, particularly one by Mark Lewisohn. Or, to save time, check out the Wikipedia page. Basically, the band was contractually obliged to produce four new songs for the movie, which they did. These songs were slapped onto some other old Beatles’ songs used in the movie, a few orchestral selections from the film, written by producer George Martin, were tacked on, and Voila! Beatles album.

So, basically, even without trying, The Beatles could produce an excellent album – albeit one that mostly sounds like it’s made for kids. In particular, the title song (originally released on the band’s Revolver album) seems aimed squarely at the elementary-school, let’s-sing-a-song age group. This is a difficult song to write about because it seems like it’s become a children’s staple – like “Old MacDonald.” Nearly every kid in America, Europe, perhaps the world, has heard and sung along to it. I’d wager more people know the song than know that it’s by The Beatles.

It was written together by McCartney and John Lennon expressly for drummer Ringo Starr to sing, and its simple, contagious melody and magical lyrics suit him well. Perhaps the coolest thing about the song is all the sound effects created for it. The band and its friends blew bubbles in water, rattled chains, and talked in tin cans to create the undersea atmosphere. It’s a fun recording, and if you haven’t listened closely to the original in years, it’s worth a listen.

One of the best things about the album is that George Harrison contributes a higher percentage of new songs (two of the four) than on any other Beatles album. The first is the weird, wonderful “Only a Northern Song.”

The song’s (hilarious) lyrics show Harrison’s justifiable frustration (“It doesn’t really matter what chords I play/ What words I say …/ As it’s only a Northern Song.”) about the band’s publishing arrangement, in which his songs were owned by publisher Northern Songs, a company of which Lennon and McCartney each owned 15%, compared to Harrison’s 0.8%. This meant he made far less from the publishing rights to his own songs than John and Paul. It opens with a spooky organ, which suits Harrison’s laconic delivery. McCartney’s bass is terrific, and Starr’s drums fills are really great. About 1:10 a section of crazy dissonance appears, then recurs at 2:30 to finish the song. It’s a song that benefits from listening on headphones, and for a song that the band (and many listeners) has frequently dismissed, it’s pretty cool.

Next, the band goes all-in on kids’ music again with “All Together Now.”

It’s a cute little number that has some cool Beatle-y things in it. For one, it’s one of their songs where both Paul and John sing lead – Paul on the “1-2-3-4,” etc., and John on the “sail the ship,” etc. I love when they sing in harmony, because their voices blend perfectly. But I also love when they are co-lead singers because I like to think of them as best buddies, and they sound like it when they trade off lines. It’s got a fun build up, from acoustic guitars, then adding bass guitar and drums and harmonicas and voices and I think some sort of saxophone. Then it speeds up at 1:15 through to the end. It’s a fun, goofy, terrific song for kids.

Speaking of John and Paul singing harmony, and acting like best buddies, the next song up on Yellow Submarine is one of my all-time favorites from the band: “Hey Bulldog.”

There’s a cool story about recording this gem, and you can watch a video about it here. The song opens with Lennon playing a piano riff that is somehow both dark and upbeat at the same time. Harrison’s guitar joins in on it, with Ringo’s terrific tom-heavy drums, and finally McCartney adds his bass to the riff. Lennon’s voice is perfect on lyrics that are part nonsense (“sheepdog/ standing in the rain”), part koan (“some kind of innocence is measured out in years”), and part simple kindness (“if you’re lonely you can talk to me”). McCartney’s bass on this song is outstanding, constantly changing, holding down the low end while providing, basically, a second lead guitar. And while we’re talking lead guitar, check out Harrison throughout, but especially his solo at 1:13. Lennon and McCartney’s superlative harmony singing is on display, and I love how near the end they dissolve into silliness and banter and make each other laugh. I ESPECIALLY love near the end, when they completely break down then pull it together for one final, terrifically harmonic “Bulldog,” at 3:03. It’s these tiny things that bring me joy, and really underscore the fact that I’m rather obsessed by this band.

So obsessed, in fact, that Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” his second number on Yellow Submarine, is a song I often find going through my head, especially when I’m stressed out and thinking, well, “it’s all too much.”

It’s a noisy, droning, psychedelic song, with a tooting organ riff throughout. Harrison’s voice, beginning about 1:03 sings a great, rangy melody that seems to ignore the crazy sounds around it. And this really suits the lyrics, which are a positive reflection on all the joyful wonder of the world. Ringo’s drums, once again, are really cool. He plays off-kilter fills that accent the song perfectly. The guitar is cool, played by both Lennon and Harrison. A variety of horns are added, McCartney & Lennon add harmonies, and the whole thing begins to sound on the verge of breakdown beginning around 3:45. From there it becomes a kind of meditative drone, as Harrison wails about 4:40 and the three singers sing “too much,” well, perhaps too much, but that’s kind of the point of it. It’s one of the band’s most distinctive songs.

Next up is another all-time great Beatles song, “All You Need Is Love.”

The song was released as a single a year before the movie, but since it appeared in the film it was included in the soundtrack. It’s one of my favorite Lennon compositions, including the lyrics, and one of my favorite performances by the band. Since it was recorded partially live, as part of “Our World,” a worldwide live TV broadcast, there’s a party atmosphere to it. As usual, McCartney plays lead bass and Harrison’s guitar solo is unforgettable. It’s a timeless classic, and actually has a bit of kids’ song cheer and simplicity to it.

The rest of the album, well, look. I’m not gonna try to bullshit you people: I can’t get through it. It’s a suite of 7 orchestral pieces by George Martin, the band’s longtime producer, that were written as the film’s score. There’s “Pepperland,” “Sea of Time,” “Sea of Holes,” “Sea of Monsters,” “March of the Meanies,” “Pepperland Laid Waste,” and “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland.” I’m sure they are brilliant pieces, and I have Beatle-y friends who swear they are some of the best works to appear on any Beatles’ albums. But I am not a classical music guy, nor a recorded orchestra guy, and I haven’t seen the film in 35 years, so it just doesn’t connect with me.

So there you have it. Yellow Submarine is my least-favorite Beatles record, but still probably my 13th-favorite all-time record. It make me happy, it makes me feel good, and that’s what we were all taught music was supposed to do back when we were kids. It’s what I learned from Ernie and Bert, and it’s a big part of why I love The Beatles!

TRACK LISTING:
“Yellow Submarine”
“Only a Northern Song”
“All Together Now”
“Hey Bulldog”
“It’s All Too Much”
“All You Need Is Love”
“Pepperland”
“Sea of Time”
“Sea of Holes”
“Sea of Monsters”
“March of the Meanies”
“Pepperland Laid Waste”
“Yellow Submarine in Pepperland”

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