The Wayback Machine - Beatles For Sale (1964, UK)
review by Kevin Harvey
I've always resented Group Mind, collective interpretation, misunderstood context, and the ongoing work of Critical Thought Thugs. Expectations, as my wife reminds me, are preconceived disappointments. Greil Marcus, up to his neck in expectations, called Self Portrait shit in print, mind you, causing far too many people to feel they had to either hate the record or risk looking foolish by admitting otherwise. Best we keep quiet on this one until enough time has passed for it to be reissued in a beautifully designed box set that includes a nifty book and the much maligned Isle of Wight performance. So, safe now - because Bob lives in a realm wherein he is allowed to do or say anything he damn well pleases - people can say: Hey, I always liked Self Portrait! Which brings me, at last, to Beatles for Sale.
Something similar happened to Beatles for Sale, not quite as drastically or as overt as the assault on Self Portrait, but similar. Chopped up in America into Beatles '65 and Beatles VI, it became more commercial - two albums instead of one - escaping the commercial-irony tag of the British release. It took years for the perception to solidify, but once it entered the building it refused to die or leave. The argument went something like this: "The title says it all! They need product; we need product, and they're willing to give it to us! Look at the cover photo: They're exhausted. burned out, pooped. And so is the record. They needed time to rest, recharge, to create the far superior masterpiece Rubber Soul!" Now Rubber Soul may indeed be a masterpiece, but look again at the cover of Sale. They don't look burned out; they look cold - beautiful, human, and cold. (No one would complain when the obviously hammered Rolling Stones would appear stoned and freezing in the early morning light of Between the Buttons, another underrated beauty of a record; Jones' eyelids hanging like teabags, a goofy half-smile on his lips, but that is a piece for another day.) The Beatles are staring at us, locking eyes with the buyer, iconic, beyond criticism or context. The edge to the record is not the result of weariness, overwork, or an admission of Capitalist Cop Out, but rather that of an implacable defiance, a new irony. Don't ask us to be cheerful, witty, or to pose with umbrellas in doors or goof around with Dada ironing boards. Beauty never comes cheap. We are artists now, and ART has to be paid for on several levels. Or so say the unsmiling faces on the winter-tinted cover of Beatles for Sale.
The extraordinary opening trio of tracks is to my mind the most underrated opening sequence on any Beatle album. No Reply, Baby's in Black, and I'm A Loser are as dark, Beat- as in generation - Dylan-tinted today as they were in 1964 or 5. Baby's In Black, weirdly funereal , would point towards The Velvets, The Stone's Paint It Black, which no one considered a statement of burnout; No Reply is existential Kafka, his surveyor, K, calling the Castle for an authorization that never comes. I'm A Loser is the raw precursor of Lennon's early solo work; performed live on television , Lennon in dark glasses, a harmonica holder around his neck, followed by McCartney's Kansas City, was their best combination punching ever for a televised bout. Go back; listen to the three tracks again. Defying time, flying somehow under the radar, they have lost nothing. The Beatles were in the process of raising the stakes and no one seemed to notice. Taken together, as I think they should be, they are every bit as strong as anything on Rubber Soul. Indeed, taken together , Sale and Rubber Soul would have made a monumental double album, as great as Exile a half decade earlier. The mix of styles is just as impressive; the chosen covers just as compelling, but we are standing front of a Dream Jukebox in another world.
So, the opening trio is followed by the one track that I'd have left out. Chuck Berry covers, be it Rock n' Roll Music or any other, age badly. I am probably alone now, but, to me, this is true of all of Berry's most famous work. Played out over time, it lands with a dull thud. His obscure stuff can still hold one's interest, but the obvious numbers, the semi-hits, have been played to death, reduced to sing along predictability, bar band corn. Has anyone listened to My Ding A Ling recently, Berry's only number one? I didn't think so. Call it a cheap shot to use his worst song as an example, but it was his only number one. No, Berry, unlike the egomaniacal, self-referencing Bo Diddley, is someone to be endured. Let's skip Rock n' Roll Music; Lennon sings it well, but its best heard while shopping at Trader Joe's . The album, to this point, has been all Lennon's but it's Lennon's prominence that allows I'll Follow the Sun, the first of the Beatle's Sun Tunes, to stand out; a beautiful thing, a less than two minute classic, it is a small gift that simply refuses to leave the listener's mind. Give it another listen; it's very nearly the equal of Here Comes the Sun, which is very nearly the equal of Good Day Sunshine, which beats Here Comes the Sun by a tab, all three a length in back of Sunshine Superman, but I digress.
A few years ago, I've forgotten how long and where, I read a readers poll that crowned Mr. Moonlight as the Beatle's WORST recorded track. Mr. Moonlight! What? Lewd and obscure, Lennon shreds it! It even has a skating rink organ from Hell! Mr. Moonlight isn't terrible; quite the subjective opposite: It's a wonderful oddity retrieved from the depths of the Cavern. And a perfect tune to end what has been essentially Lennon's side of Beatles for Sale. Or at least on America's Beatles '65. McCartney's Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, listed as a medley in England would close the unedited first side of Sale while opening side one of Beatles VI in the States. In either slot, his performance is definitive, a punch in the throat, our throats to be exact, he owns it. No one has ever sung it better, including McCartney. Perhaps some part of him was going toe to toe with Mr. Moonlight; no matter, the performance is one for the ages. Is I'm Down as great? I've spent years wrestling with this one and still can't decide.
Okay, an admission, perhaps even a purely subjective one: The song that opens the second side of Sale, Eight Days A Week, is, to my ear, one of the truly great Beatle singles. There is something glorious about it, something so unforced and genuinely joyful, a ringing, that if I had to make an argument for the transcendent beauty of POP and were restricted to using a single example, it's quite possible that I'd go into the dock with Eight Days A Week. It just does what pop should do and, what I love most about it, is it has managed to do so under the radar. It is seldom pointed to as an example of artistic Beatle perfection, but it is. It really is. Go back to it, blow your ears clean of expectation or context - perhaps hear it unexpectedly in a vegetable section somewhere in the world, where even Wholly Bully can stop your hand above the Russets, and hear it for what it is: a beautiful, infectious performance that will never die. And then, staying with Sale, Words of Love captures what was best in Buddy Holly's work - the unique warmth and rhythm - while making the argument that perhaps the groups of the day didn't have to write every track on an album. Ringo's Honey Don't, perhaps his best cover performance, furthers the argument before Every Little Thing reminds us that this band, when they did write their own stuff, coming together as a unit, a four-headed beast, they were extraordinary. The voices, as perfect together as those of brothers, are again flawless, and yet another gem goes by barely noticed. I Don't Want to Spoil the Party or Its My Party and I'll Leave if I Want To is more great harmony with Lennon at the center, a B-side that makes Eight Days a Week an unnoticed Double A. And then McCartney steps back into the light to carry What You're Doing, forcing this writer to wonder how all this work could fly so low to the ground, to be considered okay, but not quite great, while it is actually the band working as a band! I'll say it again: a band! And to prove it, they suddenly remember that the guitar player sings! Hell, he used to sing all the time in the early days. And George is allowed to remind us that he adored Carl Perkin's work from the outset that, in point of fact, everyone was trying to be his baby. It's a solid ending to a exceptional album. There are days, quite a few actually, when I'm glad the album was somehow overlooked, if overlooking the Beatles is even possible, because the record has lived in a spot that escapes overkill, that is never forced into unintentional self-parody. Let me try this from another angle. I love the cover of BEATLES FOR SALE because the four of them look so damn real in the photo- the photo and lettering, lettering as pure as that of a late '40's COMICS and stories Disney comic, are magically untouched by TIME. Forever simple; forever private. And then look at the jacket on Sgt Pepper. Can you see it? Can you still locate its mind-blowing charm, or, like the Mona Lisa, have you looked at it too many times to see it? Leave it that Beatles for Sale, remaining underestimated, is something I never fail to hear. And that, I would argue, is a gift one cannot sell.