Friday, July 24, 2009

Beatles For Sale (1964): To Cover Or Not To Cover? That Is the Musical Question

Earlier this week, crossword puzzle constructor extraordinaire Brendan Emmett Quigley sparked a very minor but amusing firestorm when he mildly dissed the Beatles For Sale album.

In the aftermath, my friend Karmasartre felt compelled to comment on Brendan's blog. Anyone who reads my blog knows I have nothing whatsoever against covers and have written in glowing terms about many of them. One of the reasons is that, done with the appropriate flair, they exposed us to musical genres and artists we'd not likely have known about otherwise, for reasons of marketing (read: profiling).

I thought Karma's perspective was well worth bringing out into the open, as his points are well taken and insightful. They follow, edited for standalone publication.

In a recent casual poll rating Beatles' albums, Beatles For Sale made a poor showing. The lack of appreciation was linked to the number of cover songs - six out of 14 - on the album. Hard to reconcile with the joy I remember hearing it.

When any of the Beatles albums came out, I slipped a twenty to a friend whose father was a pilot. He would pick up the "real" version (as opposed to the Capitol Records smush job) for me in London. So, I was able to hear the songs the way they were intended, plus enjoy the hyper-glossy finish of the EMI sleeve. In my dorm, Beatles For Sale got as much turntable time as the other early albums.

Until the Beatles came along, nearly all songs were composed by others. Neil Sedaka sang his own stuff, but many 45s were a combination of great writer/great performer. Purchasing an LP was a waste, as much of it would turn out to be crap. Think 11 B-sides and one A-side. There were exceptions: folk albums (and other genres, of course) where the entire album was good material ... and then along came Bob. But for rock and roll, covers meant the best music.

The Beatles, combining great songwriting and performing skills, were the first to make albums a great value. Part of the early allure, though, was not just their own compositions, but their ability to transpose r&b or soul songs into a more penetrable - for some - format. When their version of Twist and Shout first hit the airwaves, people were transfixed, overwhelmed, amazed. There was a bit of "Hey, if John can sing that, maybe I can" among a certain set of listeners ... those who couldn't conceive of matching Ron Isley's soaring notes.

The simple four-instrument lineup added to that fantasy. Could other magic music be similarly attainable? Hearing George transform some wild horn section's scream into a simple guitar line was a normalization of sound that reached the ears of listeners who wanted to replicate it in their parents' garage. It wasn't better, but it was approachable. And the Beatles had traditionally performed r&b songs as part of their repertoire. I wanted to hear them do Shout (and finally heard it on some VHS tape) and Desiree, some Sam Cooke numbers, and other beautiful, soulful sounds (e.g., Phil Specter, more Smokey, maybe an Impressions).

So when Beatles For Sale emerged, most of the covers were warmly welcomed. Rock and Roll Music was explosive and exciting; John's particular brand of gravel needed to see the light of every stylus. Mr. Moonlight was an unfortunate choice, to these ears (note from Estivator: I loved that thing). Always fun to tell people "If you were a Beatles song, you'd be Mr. Moonlight." The Kansas City medley (Estivator: see my 2007 review) was inspired and wild. Words of Love was a serviceable interpretation with excellent harmonies. While Honey Don't just seemed like a vehicle to give Ringo a microphone (Estivator: again, I loved this tune), Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby, showcasing George's obvious dedication to exploring Carl Perkins' guitar licks, was a delight. That these tunes were mixed with such a sweet selection of John/Paul numbers was gravy. The covers may not hold up as well, or appeal to new listeners, but at the time, they were gold.

How many of us have spent good time in the shower meditating on Eight Days A Week or What You're Doing, struggling to grasp how someone dreamt up those wondrous melodies? (Oh, not that many, sorry.) Those are just two of the gorgeous John/Paul songs on Beatles For Sale. This September, the remastered versions of the Beatles' catalog will finally be available. Having heard a few of their songs remastered, I know what a joy this is going to be. Can't wait to hear I'm A Loser (Estivator: along with No Reply, one of their best ever) and the rest in all their glory.


Wade said...

Great collaboration on this one, guys. I had never really focused on the Beatles' pioneering roles as songwriter/performers until karmasutre pointed it out to me in another forum recently (the point he made there was that the new paradigm put less focus on the singer as singer and the writer as writer, i.e., may have diluted the professionalism of each role, though I'm somewhat putting words in karmasutre's mouth with that phrasing.) Coming more from a country/folk background than rock/pop background, I am more familiar with the Jimmy Rogers/Hank Williams/Lefty Frizzell (and Loretta Lynn) model of singer-songwriter than the Brill Building model the Beatles kind of busted up. It's very interesting to see this fuller treatment of that topic in the context of Beatles' performing cover songs.

Melissa said...

Please ignore this comment on the PREVIOUS post. I must have ESP!

I love the guest posts! I of course love your writing -- but it's fun to read what others have to say. Love the Beatles and love covers - will have to check out the CD.