Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Shadow and Light: The Fiftieth Anniversary of With The Beatles (1963)

When The Beatles' second album, With The Beatles, was released almost fifty years ago in the UK, it stayed at the top of the pop charts for a startling 21 weeks. If you consider that it was released on November 22, 1963 (on the day President Kennedy was assassinated), and was ignored by their British label's subsidiary, Capitol Records, in the United States, the feat was extraordinary. Yet despite the circumstances, or perhaps, in part, because of them, the sounds within those grooves caught the times like few other albums ever did – and changed them. With The Beatles arrived on that cold late fall day amidst a national tragedy, and yet it became a tonic. The songs would mix joy seamlessly with sorrow, their brightness overshadowed darkness, as four white boys exuberantly celebrated their love of black music.

The stark black-and-white cover photo of the group had them posed in moody half-shadow. (Greil Marcus once called it a "take it or leave it" shot.) Taken by Robert Freeman, it was inspired by images of the band created by Astrid Kirchherr, an existentialist photographer in Hamburg, Germany. She shot The Beatles while they were dressed in their tough leather outfits on days between their battles with the drunken patrons in the seedy bars of the Reeperbahn's red light district. Freeman's cover photo tells us more in retrospect than it did at the time of the record's release. When The Beatles first entered Hamburg in 1960 it was a prosperous commercial city that had attracted ships with cargo and people since the nineteenth century, just like the group's hometown of Liverpool, England. But Hamburg, for them, was like stepping into a dark mirror of their own upbringing. Hamburg offered the group a reverse image of the repressive postwar Britain they'd come to know and reject. Coming from a world where they grew up on food rations, The Beatles had now entered a world of free sex, prostitution, drugs and alcohol. But the German audience they faced in Hamburg was also living in its own dark mirror. They existed in the silhouette of a painful history that they shared with The Beatles – the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Those horrors were still present for Germany, but now the German audience wished to distance itself further from the violence it had perpetrated a couple of decades earlier. Meanwhile, The Beatles sought through the force of their stage presence to act out retribution for the violence that had been perpetrated against them during the blitz. "They traded curses and outrages with their crowds," wrote critic Devin McKinney in his book Magic Circles: The Beatles In Dream And History. "Lurched about like cartoon cripples, hollering holy hell into the sunrise, [John] Lennon in particular must have found it a kind of heaven: demented mind theatre, Goon Show without censor or good taste, as he goose-stepped and played Der Fuhrer to the crowds." Playing off the Nazi horrors of the recent past, The Beatles turned the audience into their adversary as well as their muse. In treating this drunken mass as their foe, they discovered a way to mould their distinctive differences as four individuals into one soul: they found their identity as a group. From there, their ultimate goal was to become a musical force that would conquer the world. And soon, they did.

The Beatles in Hamburg in 1960
But by the summer of 1963 they had already shed those leather outfits in Hamburg for suits. Instead of drunks screaming obscenities and hurling objects at them in dingy bars, there were now young girls screaming in adulation and fainting in their presence in theatres all across Britain. In Hamburg, The Beatles operated in the shadows of night and out of the trauma of a darker history to become a powerful affirmative force. From the rubble of the blitz in Britain and into the dolorous subculture of Hamburg, The Beatles had cause to say "yes."  "Existentialism was our way of expressing our difference from the old Germany," Astrid Kirchherr recalled. "Our major influence was France. America was too far away, and it couldn't be England for they were our enemies." The Beatles, returning from that enemy country, dramatically altered the perceptions of these young Germans. Now on home turf, they would step into the light with an affirmative sound that also had its shadow side. With The Beatles was a musical cyclone next to their 1962 debut record, Please Please Me, because the emotional drive of the album was pitched about as high as the decibels in the songs. With The Beatles took love songs and tinged them with doubt, desperation and regret, and then turned them into pure ecstasy.

In the studio recording With The Beatles

On the opening track, "It Won't Be Long," Lennon's cry jumps out of the speakers before the band seems to realize the song has started. The song revels in its triumphant "yeah, yeah, yeah" refrain (the same refrain that decorated their previous hit single, "She Loves You"), but you can hear the underlying torment in Lennon's tone. "Lonely and rejected, he sits at home waiting for the girl who has walked out on him to come back and make him happy," wrote Steve Turner in A Hard Day's Write. "As in so many later songs, he contrasts the carefree life he imagines everyone else is having with his own anguish, believing that once he's reunited with his loved one all his problems will be solved." Lennon's "All I've Got to Do" follows like a quiet exhale of breath after the urgent exuberance "It Won't Be Long," but the yearning is equally intense. Drawing its inspiration from Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and the seductive moodiness of "You Can Depend On Me," the track's optimism is tinged with fear and uncertainty that forces us to imagine Lennon's horrible fate if the loved one he calls out to doesn't reply. "All My Loving" is probably the most joyful song Paul McCartney has ever written about abandoning a lover. Conceived rightly as a country and western song, with a rhythm section nicked by Lennon from The Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron," the song aches with longing. The sweet desire in McCartney's voice is answered by George Harrison's supple guitar solo which is as beautifully economical as James Burton's deft touch in Ricky Nelson's equally joyful "Hello Mary Lou."

If  "All My Loving" is optimistic about the future, George Harrison's first composition for the group, "Don't Bother Me," speaks for its title. A rock rhumba motored along with the hypnotic rhythm of African percussion, the track brings to the surface the brooding underbelly of the album. "Don't Bother Me" is not only a plea for privacy from a composer who didn't trust the utopian dream of The Beatles; it anticipated the madness of Beatlemania, which would vindicate the fears he expressed. While it's easy to assume that only McCartney could have been attracted to a show ballad like "Till There Was You," both he and Lennon were steeped in the history of Broadway tunes. For McCartney, this famous track from the Meredith Wilson 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man came from his father, who played many traditional standards in his jazz band. Since "Till There Was You" was written as a duet between the con artist Harold Hill and the scrupulous librarian Marian, McCartney duplicated the conception by having Harrison's flamenco guitar answer McCartney's pleas. While many pejoratively cite "Till There Was You" as nothing more than Paul McCartney's taste for kitsch, the track is actually more a romantic reverie, a nod to the Tin Pan Alley balladry that inspired the group, than a concession to sentimentality. No doubt after the relentless momentum created by the previous tracks, the band saw the need for a breather. There's a delicacy in their performance here that's matched by the beautiful precision of the playing.

Out of the soft classicism of "Till There Was You" jumps "Please Mr. Postman" with a hungry cry of "Wait!" heard over Ringo Starr's urgent slap of his drum cymbal. Sung by Lennon, this cover of The Marvelettes' first Number One song in December 1961 has a primal urgency that changes the original intent of the song. In The Marvelettes' version of "Please Mr. Postman," lead singer Gladys Horton goes for charm in conveying her despair. If her boyfriend's letter doesn't arrive in the postman's hands, she lets you know that she'll probably get by until it does. As far as she's concerned, it's the boyfriend's loss if he doesn't write her. John Lennon, on the other hand, approaches the song with impetuous abandon, his voice a gale of unrestrained craving bubbling out of an electrical current of anxiety. He seems to be saying that if he doesn't get the letter, he'd just as soon die. There's so much anguish in his voice that by the time he reaches "you didn't stop to make me feel better," you can hear the primordial echoes out of Lennon's past when a 17-year-old boy experienced the loss of his adored mother who was killed by a reckless driver.

Out of the cyclone of "Please Mr. Postman," With The Beatles cuts loose with George Harrison's take on Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven." If there is one songwriter in rock 'n' roll who has an endless gift for memorable (and enjoyably clever) anthems, it's Chuck Berry. Whether it's his wry pledge of allegiance in "Rock and Roll Music," his testament to roots in "Back in the USA," or the happily defiant "Roll Over Beethoven," Berry is the supreme storyteller, rock's Johnny Appleseed, a smooth talker and a smooth walker. "Roll Over Beethoven" is a personal manifesto: by the time The Beatles covered it, the song was a climatic cry announcing a new music designed to knock down doors, and put all those middle-of-the-road icons in their grave. The fact that it's George Harrison, in his self-deprecating voice, who's chosen to take the boots to those doors only makes the ironies richer and the song more pleasurable. While "Hold Me Tight," a Lennon/McCartney composition that tries to emulate the galloping rhythms of The Shirelles (who they covered with "Baby It's You" and "Boys" on Please Please Me), is the record's only clunker (it clumps instead of gallops), they're on much firmer ground with Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me." As on "Please Mr. Postman," Lennon dramatically changes the character of the song. In the original 1962 version by The Miracles, Robinson comes across as a man who is feeling fragile and in need of finding strength in the wake of discovering his own vulnerability. Lennon turns those tremulous yearnings into demands and transforms Robinson's tenderness into a resilience that's borne out of having your heart violently seized by the one you desire. In The Beatles' version of "You Really Got a Hold on Me," she has a hold on Lennon, but Lennon makes sure that we know the romantic obsession cuts both ways.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
"I Wanna Be Your Man" is a quickly tossed together rave-up for Ringo to sing (The Rolling Stones, who covered it, gave it the much needed pungent drive of an Elmore James blues), but The Beatles responded right after with the rare 1962 Motown track by The Donays called "Devil in His Heart" (retitled "Devil in Her Heart"). The Beatles never shied away from covering girl band songs – like The Shirelles' "Chains" and "Baby its You," and The Cookies' "Boys" – because it gave them a more encompassing view of romantic love. (The fact that The Beatles, because of their long hair, were always being teased by older adults for 'looking like girls' further broke down the period's traditional gender perceptions.) Girl group bands had come out of the Tin Pan Alley of the Brill Building between 1958 and 1965, and would also include The Chantels ("Maybe"), The Paris Sisters ("I Know How You Love Me"), The Crystals ("He's a Rebel") and The Ronettes ("Be My Baby"). While their hits were written mostly by contract songwriters, they turned those tracks into a joyful revelry about 'getting the boy.' If the 'boy' was the ideal love object to these girl groups, the 'girl' was for The Beatles. The warmth and generosity in the sound of those girl group records also had the same kind of utopian spirit that The Beatles found fit right into their own quest.

"Devil in Her Heart" is a song about romantic betrayal that George Harrison heard while in the U.S. visiting his sister a couple of years before the band would debut there. In The Donays' version, singer Yvonne Allen keeps insisting the boy she met is an angel sent to her, while the background chorus advises her that he's got the devil in his heart. Besides the switching of gender roles, there's another significant difference between The Donays' version of duplicity and The Beatles' particular take. "[Allen]'s pissed at her friends for slandering the guy; she's not going to even consider that they're right," critic Dave Marsh writes about the song in The Beatles' Second Album. "[Harrison]'s not denying anything, just insisting that she's such a great, uh, kisser that he's willing to operate under whatever set of illusions is required...where Allen is strident in her denial of the accusations, he's obstinate in his denial of the truth." What follows "Devil in Her Heart" is "Not a Second Time," one of John Lennon's most underrated songs, a mournful dirge in which his system of defenses – erected against being rejected – are put to the test by his remorseful voice. Although he doesn't want to be hurt a second time, he still can't live without the possible hope of passionate love. "Not a Second Time" never received much airplay, nor was it ever performed live, but this was the first Beatles song to attract serious attention from classical music critics. William Mann, the reviewer with The Times, put unneeded weight on this pensive track by comparing the song to Gustav Mahler's "Song of the Earth" with its "Aeolian cadences." (Upon reading the review, Lennon assumed "Aeolian cadences" were exotic birds.)

With The Beatles concludes with a mammoth punch that echoes its opening. "Money (That's What I Want)" is another Motown cover co-written by the label's founder, Berry Gordy. First released in 1959 and sung by Barrett Strong, "Money" is about a man who substitutes a lust for money for his romantic desires. In The Beatles' version, sung by Lennon as if he is fighting through a hailstorm, he goes for the cash with a raw gusto. But he also lets you know that he's lost a lot of sleep making that choice. Lennon's delivery is resolute, like that of a prisoner who has spent too much time in solitary confinement and is now breaking out of prison without a care that he could be captured by the guards at any moment, or even defeated by his own doubts. Lennon embraces the belief that money will fulfill all his promises of freedom, but it's a last ditch hope because his soul is torn up by going for the loot. As in "Please Mr. Postman," Lennon is driven by a torment that won't let him settle for less. In this case, it's the attainment of a freedom he feels money will offer him. Lennon goes beyond expressing the song's basic sentiments in a frenzied attempt to let the emotions carry him forward with the sole purpose of making the experience of freedom authentic to him. Within the unprecedented lunacy of Lennon's performance is buried the singer's knowledge that attaining money won't give him the freedom he requires. So he sings like a man motivated only by his hunger, by his belief that this brink of desire will be the only freedom he'll ever know.

The incongruous qualities built into The Beatles' cover of "Money (That's What I Want)" didn't find their equal until 1983 when Cyndi Lauper, a punkier Betty Boop, startled listeners of her 1984 debut album, She's So Unusual, with an astounding version of The Brains' 1978 track "Money Changes Everything." The Brains were an Atlanta punk band led by Tom Gray and "Money Changes Everything" was a modern equivalent of Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" in which Gray watches his girl take off with a guy who is rich. As he sang it, Gray appears completely resigned to the pain caused by her departure. It's as if her leaving was inevitable in such callow times, so he takes refuge in his defeat. In his mind, money is clearly the enemy for what it's done to their romance. Cyndi Lauper, on the other hand, infuses her version with some of the same ambiguous hunger John Lennon expressed in The Beatles' cover of "Money (That's What I Want)." Portraying the role of the departing woman, she is as defiant as John, and yet she fully recognizes that her love has been violated by her desire for lucre. But she also sees that in seizing the cash, in an impulsive jump for freedom, she has become fully culpable in the destruction of the love affair. When she spits out "It's all in the past now/ Money changes everything" (with a wincing emphasis on "past"), she expresses the sting of what that past means, and you know that she'll feel it long into the future. With a biting fury, Lauper uncovers the tangled mess left when true love becomes corrupted by the things you fail to see, or can possibly even control.

With The Beatles, which was recorded in 11 sessions and took over 30 hours to complete, would eventually find listeners on American shores in 1964 when (after the single "I Want to Hold Your Hand" went to Number One and The Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show) Capitol Records issued two LPs in quick succession, Meet The Beatles and The Beatles' Second Album, which cribbed together the songs from With The Beatles supplemented by singles not approved by the group. Today it would be unthinkable that Capitol, a subsidiary company of EMI, would turn down the official albums and instead create their own bastardized versions of Beatles records without the group's input. In Canada, Capitol actually released With The Beatles intact as Beatlemania! With The Beatles simultaneously with the UK. Since Paul White, the A&R executive at Capitol Canada, was from England, he knew how big the band would be. Meet The Beatles had the same cover photo as With The Beatles except that the image was brightened with a blueish tinge, perhaps because they didn't like the starkness of having the band's profile in half-shadow. (Neither did EMI or The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, for that matter.) But the cover photo, with its shadow and light, did express the bold complexity of the new sounds within the record.

The cover became so iconic that it often got parodied, as in The Residents' 1974 album Meet The Residents. Genesis also invoked it for the cover art of their 1986 single "Land of Confusion," a song that passionately lamented the broken legacy of the Sixties in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Despite the uncertainty at the time of that black and white photo, the public demand for the record was unabated. While the rest of the world was concentrating on the tragedy of JFK's murder, the police in England were more concerned with keeping control over the crowds that were bustling into the record stores. With joy spilling into the streets of London, it wouldn't be long, to paraphrase the title of the album's opening song, before dour, grief-stricken America would experience the same.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.                   

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