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12th Favorite Beatles Album: With The Beatles

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

IN A NUTSHELL: Meet 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.

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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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