Album Review: “Beatles For Sale” — The Beatles (1964)

That’s a rather somber, slightly chilly album cover, isn’t it? You can’t blame the band though… the album came out at the tail end of 1964, THE hallmark year of Beatlemania. They broke huge in America after their legendary Ed Sullivan appearances, toured the world, filmed a classic motion picture along with a host of television appearances, recorded two full albums and a bunch of singles, sold several massive metric tons of merchandise (in probably one of the worst royalty deals ever signed, thank YOU Mr. Epstein), and changed the world forever. You can’t blame them for the pallid visages plastered across the cover of Beatles For Sale.

But EMI Records (through their Parlophone label) was having a banner year with their Liverpudlian discovery, and wanted to get product in the stores for the lucrative Christmas season. Meanwhile, the band was fresh off the creative triumph of A Hard Day’s Night (both the movie and the album), which was the first album comprised entirely of original songs. With little rehearsal and studio time available to them, the boys quickly cut 14 tracks, with only eight originals and six cover tunes. The resulting album is one often referred to as the “worst Beatles album”, which is something along the lines of being the “least flattering view of Shakira’s ass”. Which means it’s still pretty good.

I think Beatles For Sale is more than pretty good. It’s certainly much more than the “red-headed stepchild” of the catalog, more than sub-standard, and much, much more than their “least” album.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first: while it’s one of the band’s folkiest and most acoustic albums — at least up until Rubber Soul, anyhow — Beatles For Sale admittedly has its share of throwaway songs. “Mr. Moonlight” is considerd one of their worst tracks ever, and it is. As one of the album’s infamous cover tunes, it’s an odd mish-mash of island music uncomfortably repurposed as early 60s Motown crooning. I’ve also never been a fan of “Kansas City”, “Honey Don’t”, or “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby” either, but to be honest I have never held a warm spot for Leiber/Stoller R&B or rockabilly of the Carl Perkins variety.

But what makes the rest of Beatles For Sale so remarkable is its prevailing sense of melancholy, its introspection and solemness which might of been a “downer” in the height of euphoric Beatlemania. While it had one foot in the past with its rockabilly/rock/r&b covers, it also heralded the evolution of the Beatles sound to more sophisticated lyricism, complex arrangements, and deeper, more textured songs.

Witness the opening salvo of “No Reply”, “Baby’s In Black”, and “I’m A Loser”, three dark, self-critical numbers which open the album, and each is superb. The “I SAW THE LIGHT!” refrain from “No Reply” is pure anger/resentment that contrasts, if not smashes entirely against, the soft melancholy vibe of the song. “Baby’s In Black” retains a killer 3/4 rhythm, a rolling reflection on unrequited love or perhaps, acknowledgement of being second-fiddle to a memory. “I’m A Loser” is, as Lennon put it, insecurity put to song, the flip side of feeling like “Christ almighty” half the time, all put to a catchy, uptempo country flavor.

“Rock & Roll Music” is one of The Beatles best-known cover songs, and probably one of their better ones, but I’m infinitely more impressed by the melodic, soulful “I’ll Follow The Sun”, a soft folky number that is one of the best songs off the album. Paul is in full balladeer mode here, one that suited himself well throughout his entire career (both in and out of The Beatles). “Eight Days A Week” is an unabashed Beatles classic, pure and simple, an upbeat tune that wonderfully exemplifies everything about their pop craftsmanship.

“Words Of Love” is a Buddy Holly cover but it’s also quite the captivating song, beautiful harmonies accompanied by simple, earnest lyrics. The brilliant British chime of those guitars is like jelly on toast, sweet and warm. But then we get to a three knockout songs in a row. The first, “Every Little Thing”, is an outstanding song, a beautiful pop ballad highlighted by George’s tasteful solo and those unforgettable tympani beats punctuating the chorus. This leads directly into John and Paul dueting magnificently on the folky, self-loathing desperation of “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party”, a masterful tune from start to finish. Finally, Paul’s “What You’re Doing” is a bouncy pop piece, replete with Ringo’s driving drum riff, that unforgettable Rickenbacker 60s twang, the anchoring acoustic backbone, and Paul’s unforgettable vocals. I’ve loved this song forever, a highly underrated Beatles tune which was gratifyingly woven between “Drive My Car” and “The Word” (with a little “Taxman”) on the LOVE remix album.

So there you have it. Without question, the album has its share of filler, but the good songs on this album are GREAT, of such an impeccable quality that I feel this rates as one of the Fab Four’s best albums of their early period. Beatles For Sale, for me, gets a ton more play than Let It Be, Please Please Me, Sgt. Pepper’s, With The Beatles, or A Hard Day’s Night. Not necessarily because it’s a better album, but because it’s so much more fascinating and listenable to me as a recorded body of work. While it doesn’t match the peerless heights of Rubber Soul, Revolver, The Beatles, or Abbey Road — and honestly, how many albums really do? — Beatles For Sale is entirely emblematic of the beginning of their evolution from mop-topped Mersey rock-n-cover act to an evolving and exciting creative musical vision.

Track List:

1. No Reply
2. I’m a Loser
3. Baby’s in Black
4. Rock & Roll Music
5. I’ll Follow the Sun
6. Mr. Moonlight
7. Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey! [Medley]
8. Eight Days a Week
9. Words of Love
10. Honey Don’t
11. Every Little Thing
12. I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party
13. What You’re Doing
14. Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby

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