Originally published November 2012, revised March 2016.
In the video The Compleat Beatles, Malcolm McDowell (who does a beautiful job with narration) referred specifically to the cover of Beatles for Sale as evidence that The Beatles were pretty tired and shagged out after a year of frantic movie-making, jelly-bean contaminated concerts, jet lag and the conquest of America. They certainly missed their appointments with the barber when compared to the more classic moptop look of With the Beatles.
The audio evidence supports Mr. McDowell’s hypothesis. Cover songs? I thought we were done with cover songs! And they were pretty piss-poor covers, especially “Mr. Moonlight,” which has to rank as one of the worst things they ever did. Lennon’s extraordinary lead vocal on “Rock & Roll Music” is certainly impressive, but that corny cha-cha-cha piano ending spoils the experience. “Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey” has none of the raw excitement of “Long Tall Sally.” George and Ringo each pay tribute to Carl Perkins with “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” and “Honey Don’t,” and fail to come close to the energy of the Perkins original. Their version of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love” isn’t much better.
As far as the originals are concerned, well . . . definitely a mixed bag.
“No Reply” is a most unusual way to open any album, a ballad of embarrassing rejection (or male obliviousness—take your pick). The Latin strum of the verses shifts to a more intense arrangement in the middle eight, heightening interest somewhat, but the song still ends on a down note. I’ll give them credit for a gutsy opener, but the song is . . . well, okay.
The down mood is reinforced by “I’m a Loser,” where John bemoans another missed opportunity for poontang. The song is oddly upbeat in defiance of its lyrics, and George’s cute little solo does nothing to reinforce the theme of loss. When we get to “Baby’s in Black,” we’re ready to break out the hankies. What saves this song is the outstanding harmonies John and Paul generate throughout the piece.
The next original is the sad, sappy and positively ancient “I’ll Follow the Sun,” a barrel scraper if there ever was one. “Eight Days a Week,” on the other hand, is a perfectly constructed hit (which it proved to be in the U. S.), with classic Beatle handclapping and frequent use of stop time. However, even “Eight Days a Week” sounds a bit too formulaic and doesn’t add anything new to the catalog.
“Every Little Thing” is probably the best original on the record. The melody has good movement, Ringo does some great work on the toms and the harmonies are just right.
“I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” is another melancholy number with nice harmonies, but in this context tends to reinforce the overall tiredness of the album. I rather enjoy “What You’re Doing” with Ringo’s splendid precision and Paul’s octave-leaping vocal and solid bass work. Still, none of the originals represent forward movement.
Beatles for Sale reinforces the fundamental truth that the Beatles were indeed human beings and human beings get tired from time to time. It’s a running-in-place album. Considering the great leap they made in the astonishingly short period between Please Please Me and A Hard Day’s Night, an album stuck in neutral should have been expected.
The down period would continue for at least one more album until The Beatles finally reached a small break in their hectic schedule and had the opportunity to spend a little more time in the studio to explore new directions.