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


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.

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

The Beatles and Ambiguity #1

I was putting my daughter to bed the other night and just as I was on my way out of the room she said ‘Dad, why do you like the Beatles so much?’

‘I love their music,’ I said.

‘But why do you love their music?’

‘It makes me feel happy,’ I said. ‘Even when it’s sad, it still makes me feel happy.’

‘But why does it make you feel happy?’ she said, with the grin in her voice of the kid who knows she’s approaching the Explanation Event Horizon. I gave her a last hug and said goodnight.

The question of why the Beatles’ music makes us feel happy is the question at the heart of the Beatles’ greatness, because not all pop music makes us feel happy, nor was meant to. I would speculate that people who despise or dislike the Beatles do so precisely because the Beatles’ music makes them feel happy, which is not how they want to feel. This seems to have been behind the way that American rock critics started to mistrust the Beatles, around about the time of Sgt. Pepper. The USA in 1967 was a far more tense and divided place than the UK in 1967, which is not to say that the UK didn’t have its class divisions, but neither did it have an army festering in Vietnam.

Lester Bangs‘ 1975 rant about the Beatles, ‘Dandelions in Still Air’, is a classic piece of rock writing, not so much because it illuminates the Beatles’ music but because it speaks for the way people began to feel about the Beatles in the mid-1970s. The Beatles have by now traversed the strange abyss by which a cultural phenomenon, valued in its day, passes through a phase of being worthless before gaining more and more value until it’s pretty much unassailably part of the pantheon. Bangs’ essay is a map of the low point in the Beatles’ reputation. What he has to say about them amounts to the idea that, in 1975, it’s not difficult to regard the Beatles as being over with. Their recorded legacy is, he says, ‘a mere annoyance’. The Beatles irritate Bangs because he feels that they stood, at one point, for an ‘unconscious sense of intimacy and community which automatically self-destructed the instant it became self-conscious’, which instant he traces back to ‘the very day we opened up Sgt. Pepper and saw those four smiling moustached faces assuring us with a slightly patronizing benevolence that all was well.’ Bangs can’t abide what he calls the ‘smugness’ of that big photo on the Sgt. Pepper gatefold. For him, as for many Americans, all was not well, and the Beatles claiming that it was didn’t make it so. So what, in Bangs’ view, was the problem?

We can search Bangs’ writings, the funniest and punchiest and most anguished corpus of rock journalism ever created, and we will never find a coherent critique of American society. Bangs tried to give up rock writing on the grounds that ‘writing Allman Brothers reviews was not the proper training for a Spengler‘, but he never managed it; his self-loathing prevented him from realising that in the America of his time, someone who wrote Allman Brothers reviews was almost perfectly placed to be a Spengler. (Greil Marcus being the closest any American rock writer has come to achieving the goal.) The closest Bangs came to a straight statement about the discontent of America was that nobody had real emotions anymore. His prescription for this sickness of the soul amounted to massive amounts of booze and fuzzy guitars. Bangs, it’s fair to say, had a low tolerance for the good humour of the Beatles.

The Beatles are perennially popular and perennially unpopular because the best of their work maintains a tension between aggression and what for want of a better word I’ll call hospitality. Devin McKinney, in his hugely underrated book Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, noted that the first generation of rock & rollers lacked what the Beatles brought to the game, which was ambiguity. Buddy Holly was inventive, but too polite. Chuck Berry was aggressive, but the songs all sound like each other. Nobody was going to project their fantasies onto cheery journeymen like Carl Perkins and Fats Domino, Elvis got straightened out by the Army and Jerry Lee Lewis was a batshit-insane redneck who married a small girl. It took The Beatles to become the first true pop superstars because they seemed to accommodate every angle. They played harder and with more aggression than anyone else in 1962, but they wore suits and were friendly, funny and cheeky in interviews. The journalist Maureen Cleave, in a February 1963 profile of them at the very outset of Beatlemania, quoted a friend (a ‘Liverpool housewife’) who phrased it perfectly: ‘They look beat up and depraved in the nicest possible way.’

That’s why the Rolling Stones were not a progression beyond the Beatles, but a throwback. The Stones could get away with playing the rebel because the Beatles were charming enough for everyone else, and quicker-witted than any of their contemporaries. When a friendly host like Tommy Smothers attempted to interview The Who, at the outset of their legendary, eardrum-busting appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, you sense that the band wants to come across all laconic and hard but instead they just look like a bunch of tongue-tied amateurs.

When Paul McCartney decided to be the first Beatle to own up to using LSD he ran rings around his interviewer, pointing out that the media were pressuring the band for its own purposes, that ultimately the decision to broadcast his admission was in their hands, and all he was doing was deciding not to lie about it.

The last time the British media behaved as though it had the choice to not broadcast a hot story was when Edward VIII was shagging a married woman.

The Beatles’ instincts were highly unusual in rock music. They wanted everyone on their side, not just one sector of the market. That’s why Sgt Pepper is perhaps their greatest album; it balances their intention better than any other, and the reason US critics tended not to agree is that, from an American perspective, the summer of 1967 was not a time for balance but a time, as the MC5 put it a couple of years later, ‘for each and every of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution.’

The Beatles tended not to think like this. Even when Lennon attempted to steer them in the direction of revolution — on, well, ‘Revolution’ — he first of all hedged his bets, singing ‘You can count me out . . . in . . .’ on the White Album’s ‘Revolution 1’, and changing it definitively to ‘out’ on the far more raucous single version, which was recorded later. He then confused matters even more when the band came to mime the song to his live vocal for a promotional film; he clearly adds an ‘in’ that isn’t on the record (0:51). Talk about fence-sitting. And yet this tendency to qualify, to add ambiguity, is one of the greatest strengths in the Beatles’ recordings and is one of the reasons why they now seem to exist in a sort of timeless Beatles era, an alternate universe from the actual 1960s, whereas something like Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ seems to belong far more to its own era. (This is probably because it’s been used in way more documentaries about the 60s than the Beatles’ music has, which in turn is probably for licensing reasons. Other 60s rock & pop music is used to illustrate footage about the 60s; the Beatles’ music is used to illustrate footage about the Beatles.)

More ongoing meditations on the Beatles in future posts, I’m sure.

The Beatles and Ambiguity #1