Beatles Four: Sale!

John Lennon has thoughts on your opinion of Beatles for Sale

The guys at Nothing is Real, top Beatles podcast, have made my week with a season finale focused on my favourite Beatles album, Beatles for Sale. Obviously, I have thoughts.

But first, some internet history. If I wave my internet metal detector over here, do you hear that faint beep? Yes, buried down there – eight feet under – that’s the BBC’s own real-life Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (no relation), known as H2G2, a project that was an early attempt at a crowdsourced online encyclopaedia. And because I was working in an office and nobody who works in an office ever does any work, I had enough time on my hands to volunteer.

I wrote four entries. Two were on beloved and often overlooked female singer-songwriters (Matraca Berg and Maria McKee); one was an introduction to Don DeLillo (subject of my PhD); and one was on Beatles for Sale. It’s still there. I wrote that in October 2000, my own small tribute to Derek Taylor’s sleeve notes.

Anyway, Wikipedia came along (15th January 2001, fact fans), and there was (of course there was) a political kerfuffle about the BBC doing free stuff on the internet instead of leaving it to capitalists (ironic, since Wikipedia isn’t for-profit). And H2G2 was smothered at birth.

Beatles for Sale was the Beatles album in my house as I was growing up, and I’m as familiar with its grooves as I am with my own caved-in face. I have always loved it. It’s warmer sounding than any other Beatles record, it’s their first truly sophisticated release, and it contains not only some of the best early Lennon-McCartney numbers but also their best cover versions. Here is a list: No Reply, I’m a Loser, Baby’s in Black, I’ll Follow the Sun, Eight Days a Week, Every Little Thing, I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party, What You’re Doing.

As the podcasters mention, one of the reasons this album might not be high on anyone’s list is that it wasn’t even released in the USA at the time, not even in a bastardised, cut-down form. But that run of songs above, most of which feature Lennon on lead vocal, is the absolute peak of a certain kind of Lennon-McCartney composition. And I agree with my podcast friends that Beatles for Sale represents a fulcrum, a moment of in-betweenness for the group, which is in the process of shedding its skin. Just listen to What You’re Doing: it’s fucking excellent, and the arrangement is just fabulous.

Back in 1964, nobody believed you could have a long-term career in the music business. So-called music journalism was completely inadequate to the task of covering the Beatles. Even as late as 1970, the NME were incapable of writing what we would now recognise as a proper review. Nobody knew anything and the critical vocabulary the Beatles would inspire didn’t yet exist. The first question they were ever asked in interviews was, “How long do you think you’ll last?” or “What will you do when it’s over?”

Those four faces staring coolly out from the cover have an answer to that question, as do Derek Taylor’s excellent sleeve notes. Taylor confidently predicts that we will still be enjoying this music on Saturn, in the Year 2000. It was hype, and astronomically suspect, but it was accurate.

Listen, I even like Mr Moonlight. I’ve never understood what’s supposed to be wrong with it. Incredible vocal, over-the-top hammond organ, what’s wrong with that? And the other covers: Paul’s vocal on Kansas City, seven times better than Little Richard. Lennon’s vocal on Rock And Roll Music, seventy times better than Chuck Berry. The harmonies on Words of Love, which is literally seven million times better than Buddy Holly’s original. They may be songs they did in Hamburg, but these versions sound so great, they’re so well recorded, they’re an absolute cut above all the earlier recordings. It’s a fond farewell to the covers band they once were, produced to the highest standard possible by Mr George Martin.

Which brings me to Leave My Kitten Alone, the cover they recorded and forgot about. Or did they? A lot of people have argued that it should have been included in preference to one of the others, but it just would not have fitted on this record. It needs an acoustic guitar, for a start. Beatles for Sale is late-1964, indicating the direction they were about to take in 1965, jangly guitars and all. Leave My Kitten Alone sounds like With the Beatles. Lennon’s vocal tone is the same as on Money, and the arrangement is pure 1963, and the lead guitar is shit in comparison to George’s excellent channeling of Carl Perkins throughout Beatles for Sale. (Most of all, I’ve always loved this record because it sounds like a country album.)

The Beatles, Janus-like, are looking back to the band they were, and forward to the band they were about to be. It’s not a step backwards or a return to basics, it’s a snapshot, a freeze-frame in the middle of a metamorphosis. It’s not a bad Beatles record because the Beatles can’t be bad. Even when they were at their laziest, can’t-be-arsed, nadir, in January 1969, they did the rooftop concert. Beatles for Sale is the answer to a question: what will you do next?

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