One could be forgiven for expecting that the Beatles’ second record wouldn’t be as groundbreaking as their first. But the group avoided the dreaded sophomore slump with their album With the Beatles, released November 23, 1963. 1 Coming off of two more hit singles, From Me To You and She Loves You (both recorded and released after Please Please Me and prior to With the Beatles), the band more than lived up to the challenge. With the Beatles is in my personal Top Five of their best albums and the supreme example of their early work. Put it on and it practically explodes with enthusiasm and joy.
Recording sessions began on July 18th, 1963 and finished six sessions later on October 23rd.2 In between making the record, the guys spent more time playing live gigs in Britain, recording at the BBC for radio shows, taping for TV appearances, filming for a music documentary, doing interviews, and preparing for an Australian tour which wouldn’t take place until the following year. Oh, and they squeezed in a couple of weeks for vacationing.3 It’s a wonder they were able to finish the album at all (they began by recording four covers, which makes me think they hadn’t finished writing new songs yet), but they did—and it’s a classic.
It Won’t Be Long: Rocks hard right out of the gate. I think John and Paul said, “Oh, you thought we used too many ‘yeah’s in She Loves You? Well, choke on this!” At any rate, it overflows with energy and excitement. John’s vocal and the backing vocals are perfect. Love that guitar riff.
All I’ve Got To Do: Oh, Ringo’s drumming here is sublime. He keeps the song moving even though it’s a ballad. John’s tender voice sends chills down my spine. When he sings “I’ll be here, yes I will,” the second time around, you feel that he means it. The stop-and-start rhythm is inspired. Paul’s bass line is perfect.
All My Loving: Repetition has dulled this song’s charms, but not too much. John plays mean guitar triplets (of which he was quite proud), Paul goes up and down on the bass, and George turns in a nice, compact solo. A bit of country and Western here. Again, good use of stop-and-start-again instrumentation.
Don’t Bother Me: George’s premiere! Not bad, either. Allegedly he came up with the idea when the others were nagging him about writing songs. Heh. I suspect he just wanted to get in on the sweet songwriting cash that Lennon/McCartney was raking in. Anyway, I like the samba rhythm and sound, and the minor-key chords. Instrumentation includes claves and a loose-skinned Arabian bongo!
Little Child: One of the weakest tracks, especially for Lennon/McCartney. Sounds as if it got dashed off in an hour or so. But great piano work from Paul, and wailing harmonica from John. The only song here with harmonica, in fact.
’Til There Was You: Sappiness returns in this cover from The Music Man. Still, it’s much more tolerable than A Taste of Honey was on the first album. Beautiful guitar plucking, nice bongo playing from Ringo, and lovely emotive vocal from Paul. I’m convinced that the adults heard this and softened towards those nice, polite lads with the bizarre haircuts when they featured it on Ed Sullivan a few months later.
Please Mr. Postman: What a killer ending for Side One! Again, the energy here is almost off the chart. I love the call-and-response vocals, the heartache in John’s voice, Ringo’s drum fills, the harmonies…I hope the Marvelettes approved. Fantastic cover, not eclipsing the original, but not simply a straight take on the song, either.
Roll Over Beethoven: Rocks harder than Chuck Berry. That’s saying something. Love George’s lead vocal and guitar work. Great Side Two opener.
Hold Me Tight: Ugh, no. John and George’s backing vocals go audibly flat toward the end, and this is not such a wonderful song, in any case. Paul sounds a bit flat as well. (Strangely enough, the film Across The Universe had a really good cover of this number.)
You Really Got A Hold On Me: Just as good as the Miracles’ original. Again, wonderful piano work from George Martin, and super harmonies with John and George (and Paul joining on the chorus). I think going silent for brief key moments within a song was a Beatles trademark in 1963.
I Wanna Be Your Man: Originally knocked out for Mick and Keith. The Rolling Stones’ version is not really all that great, but it did net them their first Top Ten hit. I prefer the Beatles’ take; it’s got that great Hammond organ in the background played by John, lively guitar work, and a full hearted vocal from Ringo.
Devil In Her Heart: More Latin sounds from George, but this time on a cover of the Donays’ song. At this point, the band could cover girl groups and make the result seem all Beatles. Clever choice for a George cover, since it highlights his onstage “shy, vulnerable” persona.
Not A Second Time: Good piano work from George Martin on a straightforward pop song. This is the one which got touted by classical music critic William Mann for having an Aeolian cadence. I’m not enough of a musical expert to know or care what that is, but I do love the echoed vocal on the last line.
Money: Wow, what a rocking take on the Barrett Strong number! George Martin’s piano makes the song. If you doubt me, find the Decca audition’s version and give it a listen. Ringo’s drumming does a lot as well. Of technical interest: Because of overdubbing, this was recorded twice on two two-track machines, resulting in a sort of primitive four-track recording. The band’s first true four-track recording was I Want To Hold Your Hand, released at the same time as this album as a single. (Side note: Why was it “I Want To Hold Your Hand” but “I Wanna Be Your Man”? Why couldn’t they be stylistically consistent??)
Robert Freeman took the trend-setting, evocative cover photo, and Tony Barrow penned the effusive liner notes on the back. Capitol Records threw in the hit single I Want To Hold Your Hand (recorded October 17, 1963) with its B-side I Saw Her Standing There and UK B-side This Boy, dropped five of the six covers to use later (OF COURSE they kept ‘Til There Was You), tinted the black and white photo blue and released the result as Meet the Beatles! Like its UK counterpart, it was a US Number One hit. The remaining covers, along with a couple of B-sides, two songs from a British EP and She Loves You, comprised The Beatles’ Second Album soon afterward.
The CD was first released in 1987 in mono; the stereo release, merely the two-track recording with that wonderful balance of vocals on the right and instrumentals on the left (except for the aforementioned Money), didn’t come out digitally until September 9, 2009, with the remasters. Seek out the mono release if you can.
If you only buy one of the Beatles’ early albums, make it With the Beatles. Or perhaps A Hard Day’s Night. But that’s next time….