There’s no denying that Beatles For Sale, the band’s fourth album, is a bit of a comedown from the first three. The exuberance of the earlier records is muted, and the overall tone is sadder and a bit cynical. In addition, the pressure of constant world tours cut into John and Paul’s songwriting so much that they had to rely on cover versions for almost half the album.
Nevertheless, while I admit that Beatles For Sale is not their best album, nor their most innovative or groundbreaking, it will always be my favorite record.1 My first encounter with these songs was through the Capitol refit Beatles ‘65, which I played over and over at the age of eight or nine, haunted by its melancholy beauty. Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for them.
In point of fact, hindsight reveals that this was the record where things began to change, slowly but surely. There’s some unusual instrumentation, and the lyrics, possibly inspired by the band’s perusal of Bob Dylan’s output, begin to stretch from the usual love song cliches. While this would go much further until quantum leaps were being made during each recording session, it all started here.
No Reply: John’s echoing a cappella “This happened once before” is a killer way to begin and feels like a commentary on the entire record: yes, we have been here before, and we’re getting tired of it. However, I will never tire of this song. It’s the first Beatles song to really tell a story, with different scenes: she peeps through her window, he tries to call her but she won’t speak to him, he sees her walk in her door hand in hand with another man. (Sounds awfully close to stalking behavior, doesn’t it??) The harmonies with Paul on the repeating lines and middle eight, the cymbal crashes and guitar strums at these key moments, the ache in John’s voice…all of this makes for a magnificent song. In contrast, the early take on Anthology shows them joking around when John forgets the lyrics, and shows how the addition of George Martin’s piano helps give the song gravitas.
I’m A Loser: Even better than No Reply. Electric guitars strummed like acoustics, a harmonica solo, introspective lyrics….Whoever could’ve influenced this direction? However, this was one of the only times that Lennon was blatant about his Dylan infatuation, so it works. It doesn’t hurt that George’s guitar solo, which to me is the best guitar solo he ever played, is obviously rockabilly. A great, great song, with a tribute to Smokey Robinson in the couplet “Although I laugh and I act like a clown/Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown.” The chorus also has the fantastic “I’m not what I appear to be.” Speaking of harmonica, this was its last appearance on a Beatles recording until 1968.
Baby’s In Black: Is No Reply/I’m A Loser/Baby’s In Black the best one-two-three opener on a record album? It is for me. John loved to introduce this live as a waltz, but it’s the darkest waltz I’ve ever heard. Another story song, with the tale of a woman in mourning for her lost love. George’s licks again have a touch of country to them, and John and Paul’s harmonies break my heart.
Rock And Roll Music: This Chuck Berry cover, while powerful and strong, feels out of place after the first three songs. Still, John gives it his all, and it is definitely a harder rocker than the original. George Martin’s piano makes it even better. One take and done!
I’ll Follow The Sun: A weak track, probably because Paul was only sixteen when he wrote it. It’s a pleasant bauble of a tune, though, with nice guitar work. Geoff Emerick, an observer at the session, didn’t think much of George’s guitar solo, and I suppose I can understand why. For myself, I think that Harrison opted for simplicity, which works pretty well for such a lightweight piece.
Mr. Moonlight: This is where the experimentation began, and fell flat on its face. The song itself is a little strange, but not bad; check out the live Hamburg version for a hard rocking take which is excellent. For whatever reasons, though, Martin and the lads opted for an African drum (thumped by Harrison) and cheesy Hammond organ played by Paul, which sounds as if a ballpark instrumentalist wandered in to help out. Routinely voted one of the worst Beatles numbers despite a passionate vocal from John. I’m sure Dr. Feelgood appreciated the royalty checks.
Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!: A much more successful version of the Little Richard medley, nailed on the first take. An incredible imitation from Paul, if not quite as good as the one he did for Long Tall Sally. The answering vocals in the latter half of the song improve the original arrangement beyond all measure. George’s guitar playing and Ringo’s drumming stand out as well; again, those licks have more than a taste of country.
Eight Days A Week: Side Two opened with this pop number which John later disavowed, saying it was “written for the film.” He meant Help!, which was originally titled Eight Arms To Hold You (and we can all applaud THAT change). I don’t know if this is correct, though, since “eight” is the only word the two titles share. At any rate, it’s a bouncy singalong tune with neat handclaps, great harmonies from John and Paul, and a fade-in at the beginning. Originally the plan was to start with “Oooooo”s, as can be heard on the original Anthology take. This works better.
Words Of Love: An almost note-for-note duplicate of the Buddy Holly original. John and Paul’s vocals are gorgeous, and George’s guitar licks perfect. One of Holly’s slower numbers, but captures the country/rockabilly sound which permeates this record. Ringo plays, of all things, a packing case.
Honey Don’t: Ringo gets his turn to sing a Carl Perkins number. John had been singing this in live performances, 2but Ringo needed his solo moment. He does a great job with it, though; his little asides—“Ah, rock on, George, one time for me!”—make the song special. A marvelous tribute to the rockabilly king.
Every Little Thing: Interesting lyrically in that it’s a love song, but John seems ambivalent about it. “Yes, I know I’m the lucky guy,” he sings, as if trying to convince himself it’s true. Nice use of a timpani from Ringo on the choruses; otherwise, an average song.
I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party: Along with the first three numbers, my favorite moment on the album. George’s guitar is sharp and sweet; coupled with John and Paul’s harmonies and John’s despairing lyrics, it’s all perfect. Another story song: he’s slipping out of the party, but wants people to let him know if his girlfriend turns up (without cell phones??). He’s a bit tipsy, doesn’t care; he’s going to take a walk and look for her. Sad, and pathetic, because he still loves her even though she stood him up.
What You’re Doing: Paul’s take on being hurt by a girl seems less sad than John’s and much more pissed off. “Would it be too much to ask of you what you’re doing to me?” he asks petulantly. The guitar/piano solo stings, and Ringo’s drum lick a la “Be My Baby” at the beginning and toward the end is inspired.
Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby: George finally gets his moment with another Carl Perkins cover. (Fun fact: George renamed himself ‘Carl Harrison’ in honor of Perkins for the Beatles’ first tour of Scotland with Johnny Gentle.) For some peculiar reason, echo delay is plastered all over his vocal, but it’s still a great song, and ends the record on a rockabilly note.
Beatles For Sale was released on December 4th, 1964. In the US, Capitol took the first six songs of Side One and the Carl Perkins covers, tossed them together with I’ll Be Back from A Hard Day’s Night and their new single I Feel Fine/She’s A Woman and got Beatles ‘65 for Christmas of 1964. The remaining songs ended up on Beatles VI the following spring.
The album cover photos were taken by Robert Freeman; although they do look weary, that’s a gorgeous fall photo, with lovely greens and oranges. This was their first gatefold album, as well, with amusing liner notes by their new publicist, Derek Taylor, who would go on to a stellar career with Apple Records. Some of his thoughts are quite prescient in 2018:
When, in a generation or so, a radio-active, cigar-smoking child, picnicking on Saturn, asks you what the Beatle affair was all about – ‘Did you actually know them?’ – don’t try to explain all about the long hair and the screams! Just play the child a few tracks from this album and he’ll probably understand what it was all about. The kids of AD2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well-being and warmth as we do today.
For the magic of the Beatles is, I suspect, timeless and ageless. It has broken all frontiers and barriers. It has cut through differences of race, age and class. It is adored by the world.
The 1987 CD release was mono; EMI execs heard George Martin’s request not to release the early stereo mixes as referring to the first four albums when he actually meant only the first two, both recorded in two-track. Morons. Happily, the remasters of September 9th, 2009, gave us back the stereo mix.
As I said, Beatles For Sale is not their best record, but it’s a step on the path towards greater studio and lyrical innovations. And it will always be my favorite Beatles album.