Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Beatles take a hack song and make it better

I have this scenario in my mind that from 1963 to sometime in 1965, Brian Epstein or one of his mates that was close to the Beatles (Mal Evans, Derek Taylor) would lock John Lennon and Paul McCartney in a room, maybe with some speed or coffee as well as guitars, and say, "Lads, we need six new songs for the session tomorrow, right? The door will open when you've written them." There was plenty of pressure on them to produce in those early days. A lot of the early songs seem rather tossed off bits of fluff, but even in those throwaways, the Beatles managed to inject some catchy element that helped them rise above the slag heap of assembly line pop music from that era.

Last night I pulled out the UK version of A Hard Day's Night and listened to side two. For those who only know the CD version, this refers to the songs that did not appear in the film, which all follow "Can't Buy Me Love." Most of them are pretty simple fair, and maybe not the strongest in the Beatle catalog, but they're all pretty good.

"Anytime At All" rides on the strength of John's vocals: the passionate delivery in the chorus - not to mention the clever idea of Paul singing the higher second line and nothing else - and the way his voice drops down an octave in the version. Ringo really seems to be drive the band in the verses too. I don't think they ever played this song live but I can only imagine how strong it could have sounded if they really worked it out. This song was going through my head yesterday evening, which inspired me to put the record on in the first place.

"I'll Cry Instead" has very little not working in its favor. George's guitar line provides an excellent foundation, especially with that twangy response to the second line of each verse. Great extra percussion too - good ol' Ringo. The only thing that could be considered dubious is the line, "I've got a chip on my shoulder that's bigger than my feet." After the half-baked lines in "Anytime At All" ("There is nothing Iiiiiii won't do") at least this one has some wacky imagery to go with it.

"Things We Said Today" doesn't really qualify as assembly-line Beatles. This is one of Paul's strongest songs from that period, methinks. For a song played on acoustic guitars, this one's bridge really rocks. That way it descends so smoothly back into the verse after the middle eight reveals one of the reasons these guys could make a simple song so memorable. It's almost like a jazz hook, which they were hip to. They knew all about augmented chords and whether they got it from a Mel Bay book or from jazz records - probably the former - they knew how to incorporate it.

I always disliked "When I Get Home" until I read that John was trying to channel Wilson Pickett with it. Suddenly those "woah-ah woah IIIIIIIIII"s made more sense. The guitars in the verses because they slash hard on those 7th chords, and Paul goes down low on his bass which gives it something of a funk. That doesn't excuse the line "I'm gonna love her 'till the cows come" but it makes the whole song a little more listenable.

The side of the record ends with two songs that really shouldn't be considered in the assembly-line discussion, even if they came together that way. "You Can't Do That," as my wife has said a couple times, is like the Beatles in drag doing their best Shirelles for the accompanying vocals. Ringo again gives it extra punch with the cowbell. Also, I just noticed last night that the bridge doesn't rhyme in the traditional sense. "Green" and "seen" do, but they're in the middle of the line. Brillant, John, positively brilliant.

If you think too hard about how John borrowed Del Shannon's "Runaway" and turned it into "I'll Be Back," it can put a damper on the song. So don't. Besides, he tried to make it a waltz at first, as Anthology One proved, before realizing that he should play it natural. Those three-part harmonies are impeccable and it shows what playing together for - what was it at this point, five years? - can do for an act. The way John phrased the middle eight, not to mention the lyrical punch of it, also shows that he could toss off great ideas like they were nothing. I've always loved the major-to-minor switch that they pluck on the acoustic during the fade.

Several years ago while working at Pulp I got into a discussion with an intern about this very subject with the Beatles. She thought "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" was written strictly to cash in on the teeny bopper crowd. She was right about it being a dumb song, but it does have a great major-minor chord change as the song moves on. And if they had only written better words for it, it could have been a lot better. As it stands, those "ahhhh oh"s are still pretty catchy.

More recently (well, maybe about two years ago), I ran into Celanie, the former intern, and she remembered having that talk where I explained how the Beatles weren't hacks. I had completely forgotten about it until she brought it up. But it was nice knowing that there was some info in all my hot air.

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