The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

The Beatles revolutionised popular music, yadda yadda yadda. People who don’t like them get tired of hearing that over and over again (and if you’re one of them, you really need to read Nitsuh Abebe’s hilarious article on how to write an effective anti-Beatle rant before you post a comment.) This blog assumes that, like me, you find the Beatles interesting. But perhaps, like me, you get a bit impatient with talk of how the Beatles ‘changed the face of’ popular music, or whatever. I was curious about whether or not it could have seemed like that at the time. On thinking about it, I realised that I didn’t know what the face of British popular music in 1962 looked like.

Everything gets revived sooner or later, or at least it seems to. Look at Richard Hawley, who’s got to where he is by conducting his entire career as though there hasn’t been any popular music since around 1963. This is the only explanation for why he would want to collaborate with Hank Marvin (on what’s admittedly a very pretty track.) But Hawley is an unusually intelligent and talented fan of pre-Beatles pop music. For most fans of the era, it’s simply a cue for nostalgia. Nostalgia being a longing for something that seems better in retrospect than it was at the time, Beatles fans who were actually around while the band was making music tend to feel nostalgia with tragic intensity. The most conspicuous example is the late Ian MacDonald, whose Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ Records and the Sixties sought to put the band in its historical and cultural context. It’s a great book but its flaws are great too, and they’re deeply bound up with MacDonald’s overall take on the Beatles, which has to do with his sense that all of cultural history since the Beatles’ breakup was a sad falling-away into empty meaninglessness. MacDonald’s great failing as a critic was one he shared with Sainte-Beuve, an inability to see the good in his contemporaries, especially if they were the coming thing, as opposed to something he’d grown up with. Hence his bizarre contempt for Bill Hicks, who he dismissed as — if memory serves, since I don’t have a copy of the review in question — ‘a speeded-up version of Lenny Bruce’, a wisecrack which registered Hicks’ idealism but missed his comic materialism, his irrepressible Goat-Boy persona.

Gah! I’ve let myself be sidetracked into writing the critique of Ian MacDonald that I wanted to do some other time. What I really want to do is something that the print-bound Ian MacDonald would surely have liked to do: offer a direct sense of the cultural context of the Beatles’ early releases, instead of just write about them. This is the first of a series of posts in which I’ll be presenting some Beatles’ recordings in the context of the UK top 20 charts, at the times that their earliest recordings were released, and also when they reached their highest position. The Beatles’ recordings didn’t get issued in the USA until later, and we’ll deal with that a bit further on.

We can do this because of the UK Singles Archive, which gathers together the singles charts as compiled by Record Retailer back in the day, and Spotify, which at this point has gathered together every nanosecond of music ever recorded — with one notable exception. The Beatles’ music isn’t on Spotify, except for Love Me Do, which is the only recording of theirs that’s in the public domain, and it might not be there for long. Still, I’m guessing that most of you will have their music available in some form or another (and even if you don’t, it’s on iTunes) so you can slot it into a playlist where necessary. If you don’t have Spotify, you can get it for free, or else you can look up all these songs on YouTube. They’re all there.

Why did the Beatles’ music take off the way it did? Against what musical backdrop did they appear? Why did people think that they were so cool? Without wanting to alienate fans of the below artists — and I enjoy some of the music in these lists, if not all of it — I think that hearing the music that was in the air when the Beatles came along helps us to understand the nature of the impact they had at the time. If you love this music, please feel free to ignore my more negative commentaries. (I’m not looking for a fight and if you attempt to pick one, I won’t rise to it; comments are moderated.)

The Beatles’ first single, Lennon & McCartney’s Love Me Do, was released in the UK on 5 October 1962. The week beginning 29 September 1962, the UK Top 20 was this:

1. Elvis Presley – She’s Not You

2. Cliff Richard and The Shadows – It’ll Be Me

3. The Tornados – Telstar

4. Frank Ifield – I Remember You

5. Ronnie Carroll – Roses Are Red (My Love)

6. Bobby Darin – Things

7. Brian Hyland – Sealed With A Kiss

8. Adam Faith – Don’t That Beat All

9. Neil Sedaka – Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

10. Tommy Roe – Sheila

11. The Shadows – Guitar Tango

12. Ray Charles – You Don’t Know Me

13. Little Eva – The Locomotion

14. Shirley Bassey – What Now My Love?

15. Pat Boone – Speedy Gonzales

16. Jet Harris – Theme from The Man With the Golden Arm

17. Duane Eddy – Ballad of Paladin

18. Lonnie Donegan – Pick A Bale of Cotton

19. Mike Sarne with Billie Davis – Will I What

20. Billy Fury – Once Upon A Dream

spotify:user:1161554209:playlist:2M7LuL4OQYSZme9W9WqpgS

So this is, from the Beatles’ perspective, the competition. Elvis’ She’s Not You is the King in country-by-numbers mode. Cliff Richard was the biggest thing in UK pop music before the Beatles, but his most convincing hit, Move It, was from 1958 and by 1962 he was doing this rather bombastic cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ It’ll Be Me, not helped by the song’s ungainly structure. The way I hear it, each verse has two extra beats at the end of every third line to include the title phrase (‘If you hear somebody knocking / on your door / If you see somebody crawlin’ / cross the floor, baby, it’ll be me / and I’ll be lookin’ for you’), which makes the song seem like it’s taking too long to get to the point — not that this has stopped plenty of other people from recording it.

Frank Ifield crops up a lot in the early 60s charts, and is a good example of the kind of musician whose career was destined to be pounded underfoot by the hordes of post-Beatle guitar bands. His yodelling croon was perfectly suited to this kind of widescreen standard. The harmonica-led country-pop arrangement was obviously designed to capitalise on Ifield’s background as an Australian stockman, as close as UK pop had to an authentic cowboy, but I can’t help thinking for all that he sold a lot of records (this one sold a million copies), the melancholy of his material must have seemed a bit stuffy and grown-up, compared to the Beatles’ lusty immediacy. I Remember You, written by Victor Scherzinger and Johnny Mercer, belonged in the 1960s to the kids’ parents’ generation: Dorothy Lamour originally sang it in 1942’s The Fleet’s In. Amusing irony department: The Beatles themselves used to do this song, and it’s featured on their maddeningly elusive Live at the Star Club album from 1977.

Ronnie Carroll’s Roses Are Red is a slice of stodgy Norn Irish country, and presumably well-loved by people who like that kind of thing. Bobby Darin’s Things is entirely forgettable, falling between his earlier finger-snappin’ swing hits and later earnest protest-folk (I mean, come on, who calls a song ‘Things’? It’s like calling a song ‘Stuff’.)

Brian Hyland’s drenchingly minor-key Sealed With A Kiss came as a surprise to me, who only knew his upbeat yet squicky Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Again, Sealed With A Kiss sounds way too maudlin for teenagers; instead of lamenting separation from the object of desire, the Beatles preferred to celebrate being in the same room as her (I Saw Her Standing There).

Adam Faith’s turgid Don’t That Beat All is pushed towards the bizarre by a weird scrapy violin part, played as if by the arranger’s illiterate hick cousin. Neil Sedaka’s hit starts ‘Doo doo doo dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, breakin’ up is hard too-oo-oo do’, a curiously casual way to talk about the death of love. I’ll admit to a slight grudge against Neil Sedaka, whose 1975 hit Laughter in the Rain will always remind me of being five years old, watching TV, seeing this song on heavy rotation and being both bored and saddened by it — bored because I couldn’t empathise with the emotion, and saddened because it was the first time I realised that music had the power to repel me. (I have to admit that the key-change into the chorus is effective, dammit.) He’s also notable for being someone who had to leave a band before it could become successful, his high school band The Tokens having a hit four years after his departure with The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Tommy Roe’s Sheila is essentially a riff on Buddy Holly‘s Peggy Sue, down to the softly pattering drum part, but it has some interestingly snarly guitar (by either Wayne Moss or the great Jerry Reed.) In March of the following year, Tommy Roe was unlucky enough to find himself headlining a package tour with Chris Montez, and the Beatles further down the bill. According to Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle, the Beatles so brutally upstaged everyone else that the organisers were forced to place them in the headliners’ slot after the first night of the tour.

The Shadows’ Guitar Tango is nimble faux-Hispanic nonsense. Ray Charles’ You Don’t Know Me, easily the greatest track here, comes from his classic album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and it may not exactly be country and western, but to paraphrase what Samuel Johnson said of Oliver Goldsmith, Ray Charles touched nothing that he did not adorn. The combination of power and vulnerability in his vocal puts most of the singers in this chart to shame, and the arrangement remains sensibly discreet; even the heavenly choir in the middle eight sounds like it’s taken a step backwards out of respect for Ray Charles’ greatness.

Little Eva does the Locomotion, and there’s just no stopping her; it’s rubbish, it’s silly, it’s naggingly catchy, it’s completely brilliant. Shirley Bassey is equally unstoppable, in her own way, but this too sounds to me like parent music. Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales is probably Pat Boone’s finest hour, which isn’t saying much, since Pat is upstaged by his own backing vocalists: session singer Jackie Ward has great fun with the self-consciously idiotic La-la-la’s and, yes, that’s Mel Blanc himself as Speedy, gleefully heaping ethnic stereotype upon ethnic stereotype.

Former Shadows bassist Jet Harris throws himself at a rather tasty surf-flavoured remake of Elmer Bernstein‘s raucous title music from The Man with the Golden Arm — I miss the blaring horns of the original, but in terms of bringing rock bottom-end to jazz sleaze, this is at least dreaming fitfully of the towering Barry Adamson version from 1988. Duane Eddy’s The Ballad of Paladin, however, is an insane (and not in a good way) mashup of knightly nobility, sax sleaze and guitar twang.

Lonnie Donegan makes picking a bale of cotton sound like something we could do right here in the barn, guys! After a minute and a half I want to say, alright, just pick the f***ing cotton, already. Mike Sarne’s Will I What makes my skin crawl, even though it’s a comedy record (with an amazingly sexist punchline). The weird thing is that although Mike Sarne, like John Lennon, was only 22 when this was recorded, he sounds terrifyingly middle-aged. Finally, Billy Fury’s record shows that the initial energy of British rock & roll was, by late 1962, pretty much spent. This isn’t ‘Billy Fury’. This is Ronald Wycherley wondering what’s happening to his career.

So, that’s how things were when Love Me Do first went on sale. Our next post will be about how things looked when it reached its highest point in the charts, no 17, just after Christmas 1962, when Beatle fandom was beginning to break out of the North. In the longer term we’ll be covering Please Please Me, their first major hit, and From Me To You, their first undisputed number 1 single. I’ll look at later singles and early albums if there’s enough enthusiasm for the project, but right now I think that a project like this is likely to be confined by its nature to the first couple of years of the band’s success; after a certain point the singles charts start to look very familiar. (Although it’s still worth checking out the charts from later in the decade: the UK top 20 from late June 1967 contains, besides Procol Harum, The Kinks, The Supremes, The Mamas and Papas and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, also Vince Hill, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Engelbert Humperdinck, the New Vaudeville Band and Topol. And yes, Topol is awesome, but If I Were A Rich Man belongs to the ages, not so much to the summer of ’67.

Hope you enjoyed this snapshot of history. The next one will be along soon. Happy listening.

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The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

3 thoughts on “The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

  1. Rob Geurtsen says:

    This is nice. It’s this kind of context I will be listening to while reading ‘Tune In’ the extended version. I am expecting Mark’s book will cover what the musical and cultural context was during the period covered in the first installment of Tune In.

  2. I would like to stand up for “I Remember You”. It’s a minor entry in the Great American Songbook, if you will, but it has charm and is finely crafted. And even though Frank Ifield’s version undercuts the poise and sophistication of the original, I think there’s a lot to enjoy in his genial, loping, unpretentious rendition.

    “It’ll Be Me” is an intriguing song. The melody is hardly inspired, but the structural quirk to which you refer (eight-and-a-half-bars rather than the expected eight) to my ears is pleasing and gives the record an endearing spikiness.

    I’d also like to put in a plea for “Telstar”. I’ve always been fond of this record. It’s a good tune, and a thoroughly likeable novelty record.

    On a non-musical point, you refer to Mike Sarne’s “Will I What?” as having an “amazingly sexist punchline”. I’m not so sure though. It seems to me that the payoff is that the young woman, having refused the man’s advances, finally succumbs, but only on her terms. She wants commitment, and at this point, realising that he’s not going to get a no-strings legover, the man flees. I’m not suggesting that this record could be held up as an example of enlightened values, but surely it is male shallowness that is being satirised here. Or have I missed something?

    I don’t make these points as an attempt to undermine your thesis about the fresh-air that the Beatles blew through mainstream pop music at the time. Indeed, I’m entirely sympathetic to your project and hope very much that you’ll continue with it. I merely wanted to stand up for a few of the songs included (and there are a few more that aren’t half bad – in fact I would vote for the Jet Harris track as the most musically sophisticated offering here). I confess that I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of songs in the list. I was expecting much more C-Am-F-G and its variants. Nonetheless, there is something a little bit cobwebby about the chart … with a lot of the better tracks being covers of earlier songs, or renditions of tunes from “proper” composers of film and television scores.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I have nothing against ‘I Remember You’ as such, a pretty song which in the hands of a great jazz musician could yield treasure — Lee Konitz did a lovely version on Motion, for example. But Frank Ifield was not such a musician. I didn’t like ‘Will I What?’ partly because Cock-er-nee novelty songs grate on my ears but also because I didn’t think we were invited to laugh at the male protagonist, but to sympathise with him.

      ‘Telstar’ is fun, sure, and it’s not the Tornadoes’ or Joe Meek’s fault that it was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pop record.

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