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Beatles for Sale marks a strange interlude in the rapid and prolific career of the Beatles. Their first two albums, Please Please Me and With the Beatles featured a selection of around eight Lennon-McCartney tracks with six covers. A Hard Day’s Night, the soundtrack to their 1964 film, was the first to feature 100% Beatles compositions. Help, to follow in 1965, was almost the same, bar the odd Carl Perkins number ('Act Naturally' sung by Ringo). From then on, not another cover passed the test, as the Beatles realised the creative and financial benefits of writing your own songs.
In this sense, they have a lot to answer for, because there has ever since been stigma (in rock, at least) attached to artists who fail to write their own material. But pop music doesn’t require the myth of the romantic creative individual any more than the movies. Nobody suggests that it's a bad thing for a director to make a film he or she did not write; nor that an actor is failing for acting in the same movie without having written the script.
There is a point to this digression. Beatles for Sale has been critically neglected, on the whole, because it doesn't fit the paradigm of genius-artists writing their own material. It was a hiccup on the way to their classic mid to late '60s recordings, back to the formula of eight originals and six covers, a reminder that record companies are part of large corporations with an interest in clawing some song writing royalties back from the artists on their roster.
Furthermore, went the critical consensus, it was a stocking filler, recorded at the end of their busiest year (American tours, feature film); they sound tired, they look tired on the cover, and it doesn't even contain any hit singles. Yes, bizarrely, the Beatles were perfectly capable of releasing a whole album without releasing even one track from it as a single. US releases were different, of course, much more exploitative of fans. Not only did they churn out at least two albums a year for most of the 1960s, but they also added a number of original singles, B-sides, and EP tracks that were never included on official album releases, except those cobbled together as shelf-filler or US-only releases1.
14 album tracks, plus a single, and a B-side, makes 16. And that doesn't satisfy the Beatles for two, three or four years, but for just a few months, in the winter of 1964/5. The single in question with Beatles for Sale was 'I Feel Fine', and its B-side was 'She’s a Woman', both of which were star album tracks in anybody else's hands.
So why is Beatles for Sale such an important document? For the reasons outlined above, it's a measure of the value for money provided by some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. If anybody needs to know what it takes to be really successful, they need look no further. You make the movie, do the soundtrack, tour the world playing concerts barely heard by screaming crowds, and then you get another record in the shops for Christmas. And a single. And not forgetting the special, fan-club-only recording and all the BBC sessions. Quite apart from all that, however, it's a measure of sheer talent by other means. George Harrison's Carl Perkins fixation was at its peak, and his guitar playing here is better than on any other Beatles record. The breadth of their creativity is also evident: using the limited means at their disposal, they always made cutting edge recordings. Sgt Pepper is remembered for its multi-tracking, but Beatles for Sale features John, Paul, and George Martin all playing the same piano on Chuck Berry’s 'Rock and Roll Music'. This latter is possibly one of the best '50s rock and roll song recorded by anybody at any other time, unless you include Buddy Holly’s 'Words of Love', or Lieber and Stoller’s 'Kansas City', which also feature.
So the covers, such as they are, are superb renditions, but it is the self penned tracks that shine. 'No reply', 'I’m a Loser', 'Baby’s in Black', 'I'll Follow the Sun', 'I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party', 'Every Little Thing', and 'Eight Days a Week' are all cracking examples of the sub-three minute pop song, made without fuss, without pretension, without fanfare and artistic agony. Some of them are pretty sad songs, downbeat and up tempo, or down in both beat and tempo. What with all the country guitar riffs, it's their most Country album, at a time somewhat before Dylan and the Band made it briefly fashionable2.
Here we get a glimpse of the great musicians and songwriters they were to become. It's also a great album for filler tracks for the end of cassettes and mini disks: most of the songs are around two minutes, though some are even longer!
The original UK release date for this album was 4 December, 1964, and the track listing is as follows:
- 'No Reply' (Lennon/McCartney)
- 'I'm a Loser' (Lennon/McCartney)
- 'Baby's in Black' (Lennon/McCartney)
- 'Rock and Roll Music' (Berry)
- 'I'll Follow the Sun' (Lennon/McCartney)
- 'Mr Moonlight' (Johnson)
- 'Medley: (a) Kansas City' (Lieber/Stoller) '(b) Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey' (Penniman)
- 'Eight Days A Week' (Lennon/McCartney)
- 'Words of Love' (Holly)
- 'Honey Don't' (Perkins)
- 'Every Little Thing' (Lennon/McCartney)
- 'I Don't Want to Spoil the Party' (Lennon/McCartney)
- 'What You're Doing' (Lennon/McCartney)
- 'Everybody's Trying to be My Baby' (Perkins)