Saturday, February 24, 2007

Some British group...

The first group that I was able to listen to a complete discography by was the Beatles. Now, a lifetime could be spent hunting down every scrap of tape in which one of the lads may have farted into a microphone, so let me make some clarification. I used the official discography as stated at, and only up through Let It Be, subsequent releases, while official, were after the group disbanded. I did make one slight variation from their list (which is based solely on UK releases) which was to add Magical Mystery Tour (technically a US only album). Counting the so-called White Album as two, the band released fourteen albums in seven years. Not a bad rate of production. It is also a very interesting arc to follow, in part because it was such a short period of time. So, here's my impressions of that catalogue (in chronological order, of course).

Please, Please, Me & With the Beatles. One of the first things my research clarified was the ordering of these two albums. I had always thought of Meet the Beatles as being the first album. Turns out that while it is the first US release, the title is a bastardization of the second UK release, With the Beatles. The two albums (Please.. & With..) seemed interchangable, and not all that revolutionary. Both are solid Pop-Rock albums strongly rooted in the music of the era. They still have a fairly large pecentage of cover songs on each (both contain six covers and eight originals). One thing that did strike me (if you will forgive the pun) was the power of Ringo's drumming. He is often ridiculed and over-looked because of his later flamboyances, but these early discs show that he truly was the "beat" that helped make the "Beat"les so popular in the beginning.

Next up is the soundtrack to A Hard Day's Night. This is the first album comprised of all original songs, and starts to point towards things ahead. The writing is more sophisticated than on the first two albums. It also shows the Lennon/McCartney team finding their own voice, rather than imitating other artists.

The next two albums, Beatles For Sale, and Help! see a return to more cover material (in fact Sale contains the same 6 to 8 ratio of the first two albums). The originals continue to mature, reflecting the exhaustion of being super stars. And then things get interesting.

Nobody who's going to read this needs me to tell them that Rubber Soul & Revolver are two of the most beautiful Pop-Rock albums of the 1960's. Scratch that, of all time. Again the lads return to all original material, and the songwriting is so solid that one might start to think they could do no wrong.

I had a funny reaction to Sgt. Pepper's. My reaction was, "OK lads, take Pet Sounds off the turntable..." Upon this listening it really struck me just how much they were influenced by that album. Certain songs (Mr. Kite springs to mind) sound as if they snuck into Brian Wilson's studio, stole some master tapes and slapped their own lyrics over the backing tracks. This album also marks a new lyrical direction for the group. Allow me to back-track a bit..

Overall I identify three main lyrical approaches for the Beatles, which evolved over their seven years together. Early on they were writing essentially "Teen" lyrics. Songs like Seventeen & I Wanna Hold Your Hand are prime examples of this. Teenage love in all its glory. As the band matured they began writing more "Adult" lyrics. In My Life, For No One, songs of disillusionment, lost love, the ennui of growing older, of trying to understand your place in the world. The third stage, which begins with Pepper's, and comes to it's ultimate conclusion on Yellow Submarine, are songs that have essentially become "Children's" music. These are the songs we first glom onto when, as youngsters, we discover these funny looking records in our parents music collections, and we hear these funny little songs about walruses and submarines. It should be noted that these eras do overlap, and that by the end they returned primarily to the "Adult" lyrics.

Not much to say about Magical Mystery Tour. Goofy psychedelia. Funny costumes. A few good songs.

The so-called White Album has always been my favorite Beatles album, which is kind of like cheating since it's two discs. The entire scope of what makes the Beatles great is contained on these discs. Four lads gettin' down to some serious business in one of the best recording studios of the times. I'll end my comments here so as to refrain from gushing.

Yellow Submarine. Yawn. Don't bother.

Abbey Road can no doubt be seen as the top of the arc. The band are at their peak as an ensemble, the songwriting is superb, the performances are spot-on, the lyrics are heart-breaking. But you probably already knew that.

And finally, Let It Be, which is advice they should have taken. Had they left us with the previous album as their last they could have ended on a high note. Instead they chose to show us a band coming apart at the seams. One thing the album does illustrate is that had they continued as the Beatles through the seventies they would have really sucked bad. They would have become overblown stadium parodies of themselves (gee kids, can we think of any other sixties bands that fit this description?) While there are some good songs from these sessions, all in all it's a good thing the boys did decide to "Let It Be."

So, after all of that, what do I have to say about the Beatles? For one, they wrote some of the catchiest songs of all time. During the time I spent listening to their catalogue, and for weeks after, I had nothing but Beatles songs stuck in my head. Overall I found the ride fascinating. I highly recommend taking the time to listen to all fourteen studio albums in order. It's an amazing journey that will only take you about ten hours of your time. Hell, take the day off work and do it all in one sitting!

1 comment:

JOHN O'LEARY said...

Hey, a solid analysis of the Beatles catalogue. I might quibble that Let It Be deserves kinder treatment (it has more classically great songs than Abbey Road), but I agree with everything else. And, yeah, Sgt Pepper owes a lot to Pet Sounds, which was inspired by the Beatles to begin with. Intense competition between the Beach Boys & Beatles at the time really stoked the fires of innovation.