The Beatles | With The Beatles (April 1963)
Rock and Roll / Rock / Pop / Merseybeat – 32:24
“We were just four guys… We were just a band.”
How do you deal with fame? Not simply being well-known but to be regarded as an icon in your own lifetime – a living legend. Even at our most egotistical and narcissistic, there is that nagging doubt in our minds: are we really as great as people claim we are? By the time The Beatles split up in 1970, they had become more than “just a band” (as John Lennon later insisted); they were the biggest phenomenon on the planet. But, at their heart, were still four lads from Liverpool who had simply wanted to make rock ‘n’ roll music together.
It is impossible to come cold to a band like The Beatles. Over the years, they have continued to draw in a massive audience as each new generation discovers them. Even today they are top sellers; within 48 hours of allowing their music to be streamed in December 2015, their songs had been listened to 50 million times. The group had split up 45 years ago and yet their popularity still outstrips the majority of artists who have hit the charts since. All of which makes looking back at their output very difficult. Not just because I know all the songs already but because I know how their style developed over the coming years. Added to this is the fact that I am a huge Beatles fan. So how do you disassociate yourself from 20-plus years of fandom to look at an album objectively? Do I simply pretend that this is the first time I have heard it? That I have never experienced the Fab Four’s output? That I, along with millions of others, have not been influenced by their work?
Of course not. Instead I will take this as an opportunity to look back on a record which I already know and try to describe what I like and dislike about it now rather than guess my feelings as a teenager hearing it for the initial playthrough (I will face a similar task with a number of other records on this list – including Bob Dylan’s debut which makes its appearance in the next blog post). Of course With The Beatles stands up to scrutiny; of course it is a fantastic album. But what is it that keeps us coming back to those long-haired musicians from Liverpool after all these years?
With The Beatles was the second album released by the band and featured a mixture of self-composed numbers and cover versions (it wouldn’t be until Rubber Soul that they would release an album consisting solely of songs they had written themselves). Lennon and McCartney take the lion’s share of the tracks, with John kicking things off with the It Won’t Be Long. It is a shock to be reminded how rock orientated the band were in the early days. With the later tracks from the career being more familiar, it is easy to associate The Beatles with psychedelia and the Hippy movement than rock ‘n’ roll. But the band had begun life in leathers, covering Buddy Holly records – they were a group well acquainted with rock ‘n’ roll history (short as it was, back then). It is reflected in It Won’t Be Long, a song that declares its intent from the start. With the hoarse, almost-screamed backing of George and Paul, Lennon opens the album with a belter that shows the group’s mettle. And as it seems things slow down with All I’ve Got To Do, it isn’t long before Lennon is showing his musical talent with a mixture of styles – switching between slower and faster styles within the same verse. It reveals that, even at this stage in their career, there was a confidence in the ability to write fantastic songs which would remain in the memory long after they had finished.
McCartney steps up with the jaunty All My Loving, a fantastic piece of throw-away bubblegum pop, before Harrison is given his one chance to show off. Already having to fight for space against the more dominant John and Paul, his Don’t Bother Me shows the direction he would head in (there is already a sense that the more regular pop song was not for him). It is always a shame that The Beatles didn’t record more of his work as it is a fine piece of work. Little Child sounds like a throw back to the less accomplished work of their contemporaries in the early 1960s – not one of their best (although still displaying their talents as musicians) – while Till There Was You marks the only Broadway song to be recorded by the band. It proves their confidence that they were already experimenting beyond the traditional styles; simply working within one genre was not enough for either Paul or John. Their cover of Please Mr Postman only proves that their own material was often far better than the work they were covering; it is a good song, but doesn’t really match the quality which they were capable of producing.
Side two of the album reveals both their strengths and weaknesses: the guitar work, particularly the opening, is tremendous and George’s voice is just as good as Paul or John at holding a rock ‘n’ roll tune; however, the drumming by Ringo – never the best of drummers – feels a little heavy on the cymbals. There was a reason why, when asked if Ringo was the best drummer in the world, Lennon replied: “He’s not even the best in The Beatles.” Hold Me Tight shows that, occasionally, the Lennon/McCartney songwriting skills were not at their best (in this case it was Paul). Always the one to focus on pop over experimenting as the band progressed, this feels weak even for him; the singing isn’t really great either – a shock given how beautiful The Beatles’ harmonies usually were. Fortunately, the cover of You Really Got A Hold On Me begins to save them from this slight hiccup, although it is their version of their own-penned I Wanna Be Your Man that proves that Hold Me Tight was an exception rather than a rule. It is no surprise that The Rolling Stones chose to cover it and, while the Stones’ version has a certain sexy swagger, The Beatles are still able to hold their own with it. The cover of Devil In Her Heart again sounds out of time with the band’s own work and while Not A Second Time isn’t the strongest, the group was wise enough to pick a stormer to finish on – Money (That’s What I Want). John goes all out as he performs the words; you can almost hear his voice cracking under the strain. The pounding piano and (fortunately) some fine drumming from Ringo leaves the album ending on a high.
This is a mixed bag with, it is surprising to hear, the occasional weaker number – not something I thought I would admit. But, at the end of it all, this was The Beatles using the chances they could find to declare their intent – to push the boundaries as they showed their talents as one of the greatest songwriting teams to ever record together. With some outstanding tracks of their own, this is truly the start of world domination for one of the best bands in the world. It is no surprise that this is on the list – if you haven’t listened to The Beatles before (and I suspect that includes nobody) this is the perfect place to start your journey. The age of modern music had finally arrived.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to With The Beatles here:
Next time: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan