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Thursday, October 6, 2011

WITH THE BEATLES - side one

Photographer Robert Freeman posed the boys in black turtlenecks against a black background, lit them from one side and, with one click of his camera, created an iconic image of the Beatles.  The photo is like the group itself - often imitated, sometimes parodied, but never equaled.

Before the single She Loves You was even released, the Beatles were back in the studio to begin work on this second album.  The schedule of half a dozen sessions spread out over three months was positively luxurious compared to the marathon day it took to record the album Please Please Me.  Producer George Martin dispensed with the live-in-the-studio premise of the previous release and took the time to get each track to his satisfaction.  Numerous overdubs were employed, including many (John Lennon later said too many) double-tracked lead vocals.  The instrumentation is still basic, but various percussion instruments, piano and even organ begin to slowly work their way into the sound.

It Won't Be Long - As before, Martin gives a lot of thought to the layout of each side.  He wants to start off with a bang and then hold the listener's attention from track to track.  No count-in is needed this time, just the urgency of John's double-tracked voice is enough to propel us into the album.  The excitement in this number is palpable.  The interplay between John's lead and Paul and George's backing vocals is marvelous - in the exchange of "yeah"s during every refrain and even more so through the relatively complex middle eight.  And George plays a crisp lead guitar throughout.  His playing already sounds more assured on this album, with the knowledge that he has the luxury of multiple takes and even overdubs to help him achieve just the right performance for each song.

All I've Got to Do - After the rush of the opening number, a gentle strum lets us know that we are in for a more reflective piece here.  John now applies to a composition of his own the soulful singing that he has only reserved for covers to this point.  In these first two songs, we catch a glimpse of the vulnerability that lurks beneath the cocky, glib persona he projects.  Simple devices begin to give a sense of variety to these songs.  In It Won't Be Long the bridge is somewhat hushed compared to the rush of the body of the song, while in All I've Got to Do the reverse is true, with the bridge driving until it comes to a stop-time moment before the next verse.

All My Loving - Paul's first offering on the disc is one of his minor classics.  The verses ride along not only on Paul's walking bass line, but especially on John's driving rhythm guitar.  And again, George is allowed to take the time to perfect his lead guitar solo in the studio.  They added this number to their live repertoire and, in fact, it became the first song that they would perform several months later on the Ed Sullivan Show.  This song also charted in the US, a fact which confused me for years until I learned that it was released as a single by Capitol of Canada and sold in such great numbers as an import that it made the Billboard chart.

Don't Bother Me - George Harrison's debut solo composition is a brisk, bristly little number enhanced by numerous bits of percussion including Paul on claves, John on tambourine and Ringo on a loose-skinned Arabian bongo which they actually found lying around in the Abbey Road studio collection.  Though in later years Paul and John would be accused of giving less than their all (or in John's case, sometimes not showing up at all) when it came time to record one of George's songs, everybody is clearly throwing themselves into this effort.  The fact is that John and Paul almost never helped George with any of his compositions.  And even George Martin admitted years later that he, too, usually gave Harrison's recordings short shrift.  No wonder, then, that it took years for young George's songwriting skills to develop.  For a first outing, Don't Bother Me is not too shabby, especially considering what immediately follows it.

Little Child - This Lennon-McCartney composition is a throwaway, a song not even close to the quality of the two singles they had recently co-written.  Still, there are some nice touches.  John plays his harmonica with abandon, turning in a wild solo.  Plus we have Paul's debut at the piano.  The boys certainly don't treat the song as sub-par, and no listener will be tempted to skip over it to get to the next track.

Till There Was You - For the first cover on side one, the Beatles show off their musical knowledge by tackling this Meredith Willson song from the Broadway show The Music Man, although they were probably familiar with it from the Peggy Lee version, an even further demonstration of their wide-reaching taste.  It's the only quiet number on the entire album and they do an exquisite job of it, with Ringo on bongos, Paul doing a masterful vocal and George playing an impeccable acoustic guitar solo.  You can also hear them doing this at the Royal Command Performance on Anthology 1, including Paul's standard gag intro.

Please Mister Postman - "Wait!"  Paul and George's shout shatters the mood of the previous track and tumbles us into this frantic rendition of a girl group song originally recorded by the Marvelettes.  John turns in yet one more brilliant vocal performance with still more to come on side two.  By the time they get to the fadeout, all three vocalists are screaming wildly.  Though the song is about desperation, they sound as if they are having an absolute blast in the studio.  And George Martin once again achieves his goal by bookending the album side with two breathless performances, leaving the listener wanting more.

See you on the flip side.

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