May 2, 2015
I remember as a kid listening to a friend of my father’s rhapsodizing about how much Roy Orbison’s music had meant to him in his youth. He recalled being out on his paper route, riding along with a tinny little ear piece connected to his transistor radio, and becoming so absorbed by the climax of “Running Scared” that he crashed his bike into a tree. It always seemed to me a striking model of perfect attunement to music–a level of engagement that only a truly, uniquely compelling kind of song could provoke.
Many years later, in my early twenties, I had my own version of that experience. I was taking a summer class at a community college in Massachusetts, and drove there every morning along misty, unpopulated country roads. It was kind of a rough summer for me–I was nursing a broken heart, and was generally unenthused about life. Sometimes, I felt very sad. (Don’t cry for me. It all worked out okay.) Anyway, I listened to this record just about every morning on that drive, and far and away my favorite track at the time was “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” which, if it didn’t speak all that specifically to my condition, at least resonated in a general way with my profound sense of self pity. The rousing “sometimes I feel very sad” chorus was, of course, a particular highlight, and one morning I got so into it that I simply drove right off the road. Nothing happened. I was fine. I just rolled onto the grass, slammed on the brakes, collected myself, and sheepishly pulled back out onto the empty morning road. It’s not great that I actually lost control of my car, and the whole thing feels less archetypally resonant than a kid on a bike crashing into a tree. But still, on some level, I felt gratified that I had finally found a song powerful enough to lull me into that kind of singular absorption.
It was not ever thus. Compared to albums by The Beatles, for example, I had very little connection to this album as a kid. It’s not something I really grew up with in the same way as all the other albums in the top five. I first heard of it by way of my Beatles obsession, as one does, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. When I first learned about it, the idea seemed preposterous–that The Beach Boys, with their striped shirts and surf boards and squeaky clean fun in the sun ethos–should also have made an album that was regarded as something not only on par with Rubber Soul and Revolver, but as an entry in a kind of artistic arms race–a friendly competition with The Beatles to elevate the status of the pop album to something approaching real art. I was intrigued, if skeptical.
I wound up buying my father a copy for his birthday one year, since it was he who had told me about it. I don’t think he really listened to it much, since he hadn’t actually ever been much of a fan of the record–he just knew enough about it to help me round out my interest in the music of his generation. I listened to it once or twice, and was unimpressed by it. I don’t remember exactly what about it didn’t sit right with me–I guess a lot of it seemed kind of vague and unengaging, and the songs that did jump out more–like the opening track “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”–just sounded like…The Beach Boys. I didn’t get it at all.
It was many years until I came back around to it. I started hearing about the fabled Smile sessions, and tracked some of that remarkable music down in the waning days of Napster. The almost mind-altering brilliance of that music, even in murky unfinished fragments, was harder to miss, and I became an immediate convert to the idea of Brian Wilson as one of the singular geniuses of twentieth century popular music. And so naturally, I gravitated back toward this album, which, if not as jaw droppingly complex and compelling as the fragments of Smile I had managed to track down, did have the advantage of being an actual, finished, readily available album.
I’ve been a fan of this album ever since, although having backed into in that way, I will perhaps never quite shake the slight taint of feeling underwhelmed by it. To cite the most obvious (really the only truly relevant) point of comparison, it would be as though you had spent a lot of time absorbing Sgt. Pepper before ever hearing Rubber Soul. I’m a big fan of Rubber Soul, but there is some obvious sense in which it is less overly amazing than the wizardry of the later album. Now, some–quite possibly including myself–might argue that what Rubber Soul lacks in orchestral ornamentation, it makes up for in a warmer, more emotionally accessible feeling. And one could also perhaps say the same about this one compared to the album that would be Smile.
Smile is, after all, not only a good deal more overt in the brilliance of its orchestrations, but also much more psychedelically abstract in its lyrics. While Wilson was able to come up with broad strokes of what he wanted his songs to be saying, he was not a wordsmith at heart, and on both projects, he employed third party lyricists to help him realize his vision. For this album, he worked with Tony Asher to come up with a set of songs that, in the main, addressed in an intimate, almost artless way, some of Wilson’s nascent existential confusion and melancholy. That state of mind, of course, fueled by psychedelic experimentation and artistic pressures from within and without, eventually grew into the full blown mental breakdown which is the chief reason he never quite finished Smile in 1967. On Smile, he employed the more ambitious and experimental-minded Van Dyke Parks to write a suite of songs that was intended generally as a kind of fantasia of the American experience, but which is characterized especially by a very psychedelically-tinged kind of obscurity. On paper, the former sounds more up my alley–emotional immediacy over flippant, stylish abstractions. And yet for whatever reason (possibly simply because Parks was more gifted than Asher), I tend to be more seduced by the cavalcade of brilliant nonsense on Smile. God help me, but “Dove nested towers the hour was, strike the street quicksilver moon” just sounds cooler to me than, say, “I went through all kinds’a changes, took a look at myself and said ‘that’s not me.’”
Many people, of course, found this album disappointing from the opposite direction. Not everyone who grew up with “Little Deuce Coup” and “Fun Fun Fun” was willing to follow Wilson over to this more personal, maudlin kind of territory. There are even a number of critics out there who maintain that this album is overblown and overrated, and that Wilson’s genius is really best enjoyed on some of the gorgeously orchestrated but more unpretentiously themed songs in the years leading up to it, such as “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Let Him Run Wild,” “Please Let Me Wonder” and “California Girls,” the last of which, despite its quotidian subject matter, was the first song Wilson wrote under the influence of LSD. I have an old family friend I discuss music with a lot who graduated from high school (with my father) right around the time this album came out, and he has never been able to understand what the big deal is with this album. To him, it’s just less fun and less immediate than the simpler pleasures of The Beach Boy’s classic cars, surfing and girls material. And he’s not a terribly conservative, “I like what I like” kind of music lover. He just regards himself as insufficiently musically educated to understand what’s so special about what Wilson is doing on this album. He simply doesn’t hear it, and sometimes asks me to explain it to him.
It’s a somewhat daunting task that I’ve never managed to pull off to his satisfaction, which is regrettable, since that’s also the job that lies before me here. What I don’t want to do is a song-by-song analysis of the sort I’ve fallen into over the past several entries. Briefly, the only song I actively (though not intensely) dislike is “Sloop John B.” It’s not just that a Caribbean sea shanty feels out of place with the more personal nature of the album (even factoring the double meaning of the line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”), though that is part of it. It’s also that it feels like a rare misstep in Wilson’s vocal arrangement, so that the “hoist up the John B. sails” chorus feels kick of shrill and off-putting, or always has to me, anyway. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” also feels slightly out of place, as though it’s there primarily to meet the obligation for a good, accessible single rather than to contribute to the presiding spirit of the album. But it’s a good solid tune, so it gets a pass. It’s really one of the very last songs Wilson ever wrote that fits in easily enough around the teenagerly concerns of The Beach Boys‘ first and most commercially enduring period.
Beyond those better known, single-type songs, I feel like part of the reason some people have trouble finding their way into this record is that it does not, truth be told, have an overabundance of what you’d call great songs on it. Certainly there are a handful. “Don’t Talk, Put Your Head on My Shoulders” and “Caroline, No” are both heartbreakingly gorgeous ballads, and exceptionally fine solo vocal performances by Brian Wilson. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” though it’s one close to my heart, may not in the end be a great song so much as just the “Sometimes I Feel Very Sad” part has a unique and transfixing power. And a lot of songs, like “I’m Waiting for the Day” or “I Know There’s an Answer,” while certainly nowhere close to bad, also don’t really have that immediately graspable aura of great songness about them. The one song that best matches that description and more is the magnificent “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney famously considers the greatest pop song ever written, and whose peculiar spiritual power is undiminished by the passing decades. When people say (and they do) that Brian Wilson’s music will endure in the same way that Mozart’s has, this is surely one of the songs they have most prominently in mind.
So it is, of course, not principally in the songs that this album’s greatness resides, but in its spectacularly thoughtful, adventuresome and gorgeous orchestrations and production technique. But let’s be clear–it’s not fair to say that what makes the album great is just its orchestrations, any more than it makes sense to say that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is just a nice decoration. It’s really where the action is–in the ethereally uplifting vocal harmonies, in the rich tapestry of timbres and unusual instrumental sounds (marimba, bass harmonica, that clicking hooves percussion sound, and on and on). One who is confused about why this album is so important might do well to start by focusing on the album’s two instrumental tracks, “Let’s Get Away for Awhile” and the title track, since, though they could almost be dismissed as like cinematic sort of background music, one can at least more easily hear the level of thought (and playfulness) Wilson is putting into his instrumental arrangements. Indeed, though the meaning is obscured by the presence of farm animals on the album’s cover and the barking dogs at the album’s end, the title “Pet Sounds” actually refers to the specific timbres and tones that Wilson was most excited by, and lovingly wove throughout this album.
The fact of having had to defer listening to all of these emphatically great albums until the very end of the project has been a trying one, but the bang of finally being able to hear them now under more ideal sonic conditions than ever before has proved to be worth it, and never more so than with this one. I’ve long admired the gorgeous orchestration and harmonic complexity of this album, but I was never before able to hear it so clearly, and so movingly, as I was this time around. “God Only Knows” didn’t happen to make me well up with tears this time, as it sometimes does (such as, let’s face it, at the end of Love, Actually). But much of the album got much more deeply under my skin than it ever had before.
Near the end, a thought that I never imagined I would have struck with me a certain force and clarity: this album is, by a wide measure, greater than anything The Beatles ever did. I don’t mean that I like it more, necessarily, or that it has better songs on it. I don’t even necessarily mean that it’s the better pop album, since the song has always and rightly been the measure by which pop music is usually judged. But evaluating it by some other, more distant vantage point–one that extends a good deal further back than Elvis or Chuck Berry–there’s just no way to compare what Brian Wilson did here with The Beatles, or with any of his contemporaries. (Frank Zappa’s music may approach a similar degree of impressiveness, but is far less emotionally compelling.) Brian Wilson may not be a Mozart or a Bach, but he is the closest thing that music understood to be twentieth century popular music ever got.
It’s also worth noting, of course, that he was much more of a self-contained artist than The Beatles. Sure, he needed help with the lyrics, and he wrote with the voices of his brothers and other bandmates in mind, but as an orchestrator–or composer, really–he was a wholly singular artist. As The Beatles developed more “classical” aspirations, they would come up with their own general ideas of what they were looking for, but would ultimately leave the actual working out of all the parts to George Martin, who was an extraordinary producer and arranger, but ultimately more a deftly interpretive technician than a real artist in his own right. Wilson, who had a good deal less formal musical education than Martin (and no more than Lennon or McCartney), figured out every last bit of the music on this album all by himself. It’s kind of mind-boggling. Even Wilson’s hero, Phil Spector, generally relied on his arranger Jack Nitzsche to hammer out the specifics of his musical vision.
While the sort of aspirations toward art music that both Wilson and The Beatles displayed in this period pretty quickly devolved into a morass of overblown pretensions in later, lesser artists, Wilson’s work on this album strikes me as anything but pretentious. There is a kind of innocence and purity of motives one hears in Wilson’s music that has rarely existed alongside such obvious genius. Certainly this music is ambitious, but it seems to me to be an ambition of the very best kind–to express that which was within himself as clearly as he could, and to give to the world music that would be uplifting, healing, and ultimately spiritual in intent and in effect.
Source: LP. I have a Capitol copy from the 60s–maybe an original, though I’m not sure. But I have heard from a lot of people that, oddly enough, the copy they threw in as a bonus with their 1972 album Carl and The Passions – So Tough (which seems a pretty poor indicator of their confidence in that album) is regarded by many as the best this album ever sounded. When I found a copy I snapped it up, and have been eagerly waiting to hear it ever since. And yeah–it’s absolutely incredible–transparent and immediate feeling, practically glowing with sonic beauty. I haven’t done a side by side with my Capitol copy yet, but this one seems destined to become my go to.
Before I close this one out, I’d like to pay tribute to a fallen comrade of musical appreciation. Bob Fisher, who very dearly loved this album, was one of the warmest, most generous and genuinely spiritual people I ever had the privilege to meet. Though we first met in real life, I came to know him better in an online capacity. At some point, he found his way to my blog, and quickly became my most treasured reader and interlocutor. Bob was a few years younger than my father, and a good deal less cynical (sorry, Dad), meaning that he came of musical age right at about the time a lot of these great records were coming out. But, like a true and dedicated music lover, he kept right on exploring and discovering new music his whole life through. His love and knowledge of music was incredibly, often unexpectedly, far reaching. What was both wonderful and challenging about talking music with Bob was that he loved everything. Or damn near everything, anyway. He at least gave it all a good honest try. But the music of this period–and that of Brian Wilson in particular–I believe remained a particular favorite, a touchstone whose spiritual sort of beauty I think really resonated with the person that he was.
We often disagreed on the merits of any given album, since I do not love everything in the way he did. But no matter how indelicately I treated an album that he held dear, he always responded with remarkable generosity. He would often write long, articulate rebuttals to my reviews, revealing a keen intelligence, a more personal perspective than I had, and a patience with my particular musical predilections that was unerringly kind. (I only wish that he had posted them here, rather directly to Facebook, so that I could more easily access them now.) I began to listen and write with him in mind, with the result that I found myself trying (imperfectly) to approach every album I heard with a kind of generosity and curiousness. He reminded me of what the core purpose of my project really was, which was to remain as open as possible to new music, and to enjoy as much of it as I could, rather than merely to sharpen my critical acumen or develop the “right” kind of tastes. I didn’t do it as well as he did, but he helped me to reaffirm that a love of music was what was–and should be–driving me as I made my way through this project.
Somewhere along the line, Bob let it slip that he had been diagnosed with cancer, but he seemed so unworried about it that I didn’t quite grasp the immediacy of his condition. As the project wore on, he became less consistent in replying to my posts, but would sometimes come roaring back, writing a series of passionate defenses, personal reminiscences and general appreciations of the role some of these albums had played in his life. Even where we sharply disagreed, he seemed glad to have the opportunity to reflect on the music that he loved. The last such outpouring came just a few weeks before I received word that he was within the final hours of his life. Though I didn’t even know him all that well in person, I wept when I heard the news.
The blog carried on, of course, but it never felt quite the same without having Bob there to read and offer his thoughtful replies. Though great conversations carried on with other readers, an essential voice was missing from the mix which I have missed terribly. And especially here, near the very end, and on an album I know Bob loved, I feel a real sadness that he’s not here to round this thing out with me. Best to you, Bob, wherever you are–and thank you.
February 28, 2015
As we turn the corner into the uppermost echelons of the list, there is inevitably a greater concentration of albums that are not merely great, or popular, but are legitimate cultural phenomenons–albums that pretty much everyone has owned, or at least heard, and which changed the entire tenor of the musical and aesthetic landscape. And arguably, there have been none bigger than this one–the best selling album of all time by a pretty wide measure.
It’s also one of the few that was released in my lifetime, though it was early enough in my life that I can’t say that I really felt its full impact. Or at least, I had no context in which to understand it. I was five when it came out, with the result that Michael Jackson was probably the first celebrity I was ever aware of. I remember my older cousins obsessing over him, singing along to “Beat It,” collecting Michael Jackson trading cards. (My favorite card, I recall, was the one where he was wearing a yellow sweater vest.) In a sense, then, this incarnation of Michael Jackson, and many of these songs, just felt like immutable facts of existence, rather than this being an album whose release I was in a position to take particular note of.
This album was omnipresent enough that even I, a small child living in rural New England, couldn’t help but feel its influence to some extent, although I can’t say I ever considered myself a fan. My father didn’t own it, and we didn’t have MTV until many years later, so I had fairly limited exposure to it at its peak. I suspect that “Eat It” ultimately had greater effect on me than did “Beat It.” As with a lot of other superstars of my early childhood–Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen–all artists I have to varying extents been able to reevaluate in adulthood–I stopped well short of embracing Michael Jackson as mine.
My reevaluation of the album came relatively early and unexpectedly, right at the peak of my smug adolescent conviction that extended, heavily improvisatory music comprised the majority of what was worth listening to. The sleek, mega-commercial pop confections of Michael Jackson were far removed from something I would consider taking seriously. And yet a friend whose tastes were pretty similarly aligned played me “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and I was blown away by it. Sure, it had that kind of early 80s post-disco slickness to it, but its groove–angular yet infectious–was undeniable, and its funky breakdown of vaguely African sounding nonsense syllables tickled my youthful penchant for absurdity. (It wasn’t until years later that I learned he had lifted that part froma song by Manu Dibango, an actual African.)
It wasn’t a song I had memory of having ever heard before, but once I did, it permanently opened up for me the slightly unsettling premise that Michael Jackson might be good–even great. That song has stayed with me ever since, and continues to be among my favorites on the album. It was only a few years ago that I took note of the whole “They hate you, you’re a vegetable” part. What the fuck is going on there? And then, just a few weeks ago, I was waiting in line with my older daughter in a takeout restaurant and the song was playing. There’s a moment I never really took note of–a small break in which he sings something like “Whee-haw!” My daughter picked right up on it, repeating it with a puzzled but slightly reverent air. I tell you, that song just keeps on giving.
My fondness for that song, however, did not translate immediately into a more widespread appreciation for either the artist or the album. Some many years later I picked up a copy in the spirit of it being an album that no serious music library should be without, and I have listened to it intermittently ever since, but never with the kind of fevered devotion that it doubtlessly inspired in lots of people. Over time, I’ve really grown to appreciate a lot of it. “Billie Jean” especially feels like an exceptionally great song–menacing and catchy at once, and really dark for such an immaculately appealing, well put together pop song. It’s arguably his finest song, although it doesn’t move me in quite the same way as “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” It is, at least, this album’s finest song, edging out even my beloved “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”
Some of the other big tentpole songs, however, have not aged all that well for me. “Beat It,” the biggest song of the bunch, has for a long time felt kind of after school specially and didactic to me, and, while catchy, somehow not quite musically appealing enough to overcome that impression. It’s too bad, because it’s probably the first big hit song I was conscious of in my lifetime. Though certainly it could be a lot worse. “Thriller” too puzzles me a bit–like it’s a song about a…movie genre? I know the video was a huge piece of what made it such an indelible song, and, though of course I’ve seen it, I didn’t really grow up with it, so perhaps that’s why it’s kind of lost on me. Still, I should concede that listening to it this time did bring a slight–well, thrill–that I don’t usually associate with the song. I think Vincent Price had as much to do with it as anything.
On the other hand, a handful of songs that didn’t cut across into my childhood awareness have really grown on me over the years, and now seem among the album’s best. “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) is a great, exhilarating groove much in the spirit of Off the Wall, but with some added wrinkle of complexity and sonic sheen. Then there’s the exceptionally beautiful “Human Nature,” whose delightfully nonstandard phrasing and undercurrent of something like existential dread amidst its romantic frustrations make it easily the best ballad on the album. I recently came across a modern jazz trio arrangement of the song that helped drive home to me just how inventive the melodic line of the song is.
Most of the album’s remaining softer material is a good deal less successful. I’ve recently heard more than one person (Chris Rock and someone else I can’t recall) point out that, important as this album is, it has a full three tracks that aren’t really that great. It wasn’t specified which, but I’d imagine it’s the remaining three I’ve yet to mention: “Baby Be Mine,” “The Girl is Mine,” and “The Lady in My Life.” Although I’m probably less of a fan of the album overall, I can actually my way clear to forgiving at least some of these songs. “Baby Be Mine” has an easygoing catchiness that mitigates to some extent its basic lameness. “The Lady in My Life” is really syrupy and uninviting, and yet the depth of almost psychotic emotionalism Jackson bring to the lyric gives it some kind of depth that seems worth revisiting from time to time. Or possibly I’m confusing it with “She’s Out of My Life.”
That leaves the sappy as all get out duet with Paul McCartney, “The Girl is Mine,” as the only irredeemably horrible song on the album. It is a stunningly, spectacularly lame song–extraordinarily tepid even in the context of both Jackson and McCartney’s recorded output, which is saying something. And yet here too, there’s some unlikely shred of fondness to be found. It’s one of those songs that really qualifies for “so bad it’s good” status–a song everyone kind of loves, mostly ironically, but with some faint seepage of legitimate affection. It makes a good karaoke duet. A doggone good karaoke duet.
In terms of my basic disposition and general aesthetic bent, this album will never be an easy fit in my life. It’s an album I have to decide to listen to, although when I do, I always enjoy it. For such a massive phenomenon of an album, it fell at a funny time in my life–too young to really get swept up by it, but old enough that it left some mark on my musical and cultural awareness. But to the extent that I like it today–and I really do–I don’t think its all that attributable to that early childhood exposure. The associations are too inchoate and tangential to really provoke a serious pang of nostalgia. That leaves as the only explanation that it actually is a really great album. It’s production ethos is a bit too much of its own time, and it can be regarded as a significant progenitor of a kind of not terribly soulful pop R&B sound that I don’t regard as a particularly good development in general. But even so, it’s lasting greatness seems inarguable.
November 10, 2014
One of the underlying conditions of my musical existence is that, since the great majority of music I love was made before I was born, I am generally denied the thrill of hearing it when it is new–of being a part of the zeitgeist that surrounded it in its own time. I’ve fallen in love with the occasional massive hit single in my lifetime–“Hey Ya,” for example, or “Crazy”–but for the most part, that experience of loving music at the exact same time everyone else is loving it has eluded me.
The Beatles are no exception, of course, and yet I feel in some small way that I had the good fortune of being able to reproduce that kind of excitement in my own youth by virtue of this being my first Beatles record. My father was never a big Beatles fan, but when I went to him at a young age asking about them, he had exactly one album he could give me, and it was this one–their first release on Capitol records, and thus the first Beatles album that most Americans herd back in 1964. (My Aunt Jody would soon graciously supply the rest.) I was of the last wave of music fans to get to know the band through their American releases, just before the move to CD prompted the standardization of the British albums as the canonical versions. So for better or for worse, I got to know The Beatles in the way that most Americans before me, and very few after, did: through the bastardized versions of the British albums, and the occasional collection with no British equivalent, like Yesterday and Today.
In adulthood, I’ve become accustomed to the proper albums, and readily concede that they are generally superior. But I also wholeheartedly agree with the consensus of this list that the one big exception to that rule is this one. Being that it was the first way most Americans of the time heard The Beatles, at least at album’s length, it has a huge cultural-historical resonance to it, not unlike Elvis’s first album a few entries back. But the case for it being a better record than its UK counterpart, With The Beatles, is not merely one of extra-musical sentiment. It is also a better, more consistently exciting album, and a perfect introduction to the already extraordinary music that The Beatles were producing at this early point in their history.
It includes only three songs that are not on With The Beatles, but they are really good songs, and are wisely put right up front. The album opener is “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which had already been released as a single, and is perhaps the song most closely associated with the arrival of Beatlemania to American shores. One practically hears the screaming of a million hysterical teenagers implied in the excitement of the opening chords. On their British releases, The Beatles were scrupulous about keeping singles off their albums, so that fans wouldn’t have to buy the same music twice. Capitol Records had no such scruples, and while there’s nothing very honorable about that, it does kick this record off with a bang that would have been difficult to achieve with a non-single album track. It’s a song I always took for granted as a kid as being almost too obvious a song to love. But as I’ve gotten older, I have more perspective on what an extraordinary song it was–and is. Its chord movement, eccentric rhythmic figure, structure of peak moments occurring throughout the song, and remarkably tight harmony singing in the unusual context of a pretty hard rocking song (for the time) all add to a pretty amazing piece of work. It really kind of deserved the hysteria it seemed to provoke in the nation’s youth–and not only youth. I recently learned that when Allen Ginsburg first heard it, he leapt out of his chair and started dancing ecstatically. And it’s one of the songs that directly inspired Dylan to “go electric”. I lacked the context to appreciate the revolutionary nature of the song as a kid, but it’s grown on me since.
Next comes “I Saw Her Standing There,” which Capitol saw fit to thieve from The Beatles’ first British album Please Please Me, on which it was the opening track. Here too, the record label shenanigans are not particularly laudable, but it does keep the energy at a high level, and was a fine choice of an earlier song to include. The last of the three added tracks is “This Boy,” which I really hated as a kid, but whose good qualities have grown on me considerably over the years. I used to only be able to focus on the lilting lameness of the A section, but have come especially to recognize just how soulful (and specifically American soul-derived) the B-section is. It’s really great, and even the slightly saccharin main part really isn’t too bad. The song bring the energy down considerably from the previous two cuts, but serves as a nice segue into the main album tracks.
The differences between this album and With The Beatles are not merely additive, though. This album is also improved by what Capitol opted to leave off–the rather large number of R&B covers that somewhat weigh down the back half of the British release. Those covers–of songs by Chuck Berry, Smoky Robinson, etc.–aren’t bad, but they don’t really add much to the experience, especially if one is already well acquainted with the original, better versions. By keeping the focus limited to originals, this album is tighter, and gives a more concentrated dose of what made The Beatles as great as they were.
Actually, there is one cover on here, and it’s an odd one. For whatever reason, they decided to leave on the slightly bizarre, Paul-led cover of “Till There Was You” from The Music Man. I guess they figured it would be one for the grownups to enjoy–to make the group appear not quite so threatening to parents. It’s pretty lame, and pretty odd, but also, my adult self must confess, kind of just plain pretty. It could almost pass for a song of Paul’s own devising. I’m actually something of a fan of The Music Man, though more for its wildly clever, upbeat numbers like “Rock Island” and “Ya Got Trouble.” In reading up recently on the musical and its author, Meredith Wilson, I was interested to discover that Paul McCartney actually owns Wilson’s entire catalog. I’d like to hear him try “Rock Island” sometime.
Otherwise, though, it’s Beatles music all the way through, which is more than fine by me. Not every last song is great. The quality dips a bit on side two, with some lesser material like “Little Child.” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” a song John and Paul wrote for The Rolling Stones and farmed out to Ringo for their own version, has a certain heavy kind of primitivism to it that I have never felt fits in all that well with the rest of the album, although my respect for the complexity of its weird, frenetic rhythm has grown in recent years. But in general, and in retrospect, I think it’s downright amazing the degree of sophistication they were already showing at this early stage. It ain’t Rubber Soul, but a lot of the songs on the album have the kind of unusual harmonic movement and thoughtfulness of arrangement that placed them well ahead of their contemporaries, and which represents an impressive leap forward from their first batch of songs from Please Please Me. My favorite of the more elevated songs on the album are probably John’s “All I’ve Got to Do,” and Paul’s “All My Loving.”
But my very favorite song on the record–when I was a kid, and to this day–is actually George’s contribution, “Don’t Bother Me.” I appreciate its note of misanthropy it injects amidst the feel good love songs that surround it, and it just sounds cool with its reverby guitar part and clippety-cloppety rhythm. It was George’s first real song, and one he always professed embarrassment at. I’ve never heard anyone single it out for praise until recently, when I came across an article in which Lars Ulrich of all people explained his love for the song in ways that very much jibed with my own. Certainly it’s not the best song George ever wrote, but it’s far from his worst, handily beating out almost all of his terminally vague mid 60s spiritual meanderings, up to and including the oft-celebrated “Within You Without You.” That’s a much more sophisticated song, of course, but it’s also a bit of a bore–a droning harangue about impermanence or whatever–that none of The Beatles even played on. For all of George’s spiritual proselytizing later on, I think we get a much truer glimpse of the real core of his persona–a little bit morose and cranky, but with a mordant kind of wit underlying it–on this simpler and much catchier earlier work.
My older daughter has recently begun expressing an interest in The Beatles. Ever since the new Mono box set arrived in our house a couple of months ago, she has become fascinated by their records–pouring over the covers, learning the names of band members. Her favorite, perhaps inevitably, is Ringo. Since this project limits the whole albums I can listen to right now, I put together a playlist of Beatles songs that feel at least tangentially kid-appropriate–mostly their earlier, cheerier stuff. It came out to exactly 100 tracks–a little less than half of their recorded output. Without any prompting, she quickly settled on “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as her favorite, which I think is as good a testament as any to the enduring excitement that song is capable of generating (and to my daughter’s good taste, of course).
So I was excited to play this record for her–to perhaps vicariously rekindle my own youthful excitement for it through her. But pretty much every song on here is on her playlist anyway, and while she’s dimly aware that sometimes music comes from the record player and sometimes from the computer, she didn’t, like, have a moment with this particular record that was distinguishable from her general enjoyment of their music. Times change, and while I suspect she’ll grow up appreciating the sanctity of an LP (given that she’s spending her youth surrounded by them), she’s equally at home in the shuffle mode universe that has more or less taken over the way kids these days consume their music. Nevertheless, however familiar all of these songs are, I still experienced a little pang of excitement putting this record on, hearing these songs in this order, with a nice warm analog sound. This isn’t my favorite Beatles record by a long shot, but it was my first, as it was for so many before me, and will always hold a special place in my heart for that reason.
Source: LP (Mono). The copy I had as a kid is pretty beat up by this point, so although I still own it, I bought a cleaner copy at some point, which is the one I listened to.