Originally written November 2012; rewritten March 2016.
With the Beatles is a marked improvement over Please Please Me. Though nearly half the songs are covers, they chose better songs to cover. Though Lennon & McCartney are still in the nascent phase as songwriters, when you combine the work on With the Beatles with the stream of singles they wrote during that period and the songs they gave to others in the Epstein empire, their body of work in this early period was pretty impressive. It’s also obvious that the band feels more comfortable in the studio and with their producer; the arrangements are more varied and daring.
The fabulously unusual opener “It Won’t Be Long” demonstrates the progress. The surprising shift from C to A-flat in the verse defies expectations and ignites interest; the lovely layering of harmonies in the middle eight creates a depth that was lacking on Please Please Me. Most importantly, they sound both confident and positively exuberant.
As they did on Please Please Me, they follow an upbeat opener with a down-tempo number, in this case, “All I’ve Got to Do.” I have to say it’s not one of my favorites, as the disparate parts never seem to gel, but it serves its purpose to provide contrast between two energetic numbers.
The second energetic number is “All My Loving,” the first song American television audiences heard them sing on The Ed Sullivan Show. I can imagine millions of teenage girls across the U. S. A. screaming themselves into wet, juicy orgasms as Paul moved up and down the scale over John’s intense strumming and unusually audible (for the time) bass runs. And I can imagine millions of young teenage boys observing closely the hysterical reaction of those girls and vowing to save enough money to get a gee-tar before summer. Apart from the sheer excitement, the melodic movement of “All My Loving” is superb, especially considering the relative inexperience of the songwriters.
Obviously sensitive to lawsuits from enraged parents holding the Beatles responsible for turning their daughters into sex-obsessed sluts, the next song is our first Harrison original, “Don’t Bother Me,” a message that hardly encourages making whoopee. Even with George’s rather sour attitude, this remains his best song in the early years and his vocal is both unusually nuanced and expansive. It’s followed by a less intense bit of Beatlemania with the harmonica-driven piece, “Little Child,” a cheery little tune brimming with good spirit.
Now we get three covers in a row. Oh boy! “Till There Was You” was a regrettable choice on many levels, but at least the American chickies got to swoon over Paul’s pronunciation of “sawr.” And though the band is tighter and more expressive, “Please Mister Postman” is such a silly song that I have a hard time getting through it. The best of the three is their version of “Roll Over Beethoven,” where George nails the vocal and the overall performance is far more enthusiastic than the Chuck Berry original.
We leave the covers for a moment to find the original work, “Hold Me Tight,” a curious song indeed. I rather like the song but you have to admit they kill the mood when the melody drifts down low in the scale at the end of each chorus. Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me” comes next, and the Beatles do a fair job of it while falling far short of the Miracles’ version. Ringo finally gets a turn in “I Wanna Be Your Man,” a pretty weak number (I can’t believe The Stones wanted it) but redeemed somewhat by Ringo’s charm. They really scrape the bottom of the barrel in covers with “Devil in Her Heart,” a rather trite piece of songcraft.
However, the Beatles seemed to adopt the principle of saving the best for last on this album. “Not a Second Time” is another one of those Beatles album cuts like “Any Time at All” and “Every Little Thing” that never gets its due. The chord structure and melodic movement was far ahead of what anyone was doing at the time and John sings this number with absolute command.
With the Beatles closes with “Money,” my vote for the best cover song the Beatles ever did. The sheer intensity of the lead and backing vocals as they shout and scream the lyrics of shameless greed is almost frightening. John’s voice drips with lust, greed and cynicism all the way through the final rendition of “That’s what I want!” While the politically correct can scoff at the crassness of the song’s message, one has to understand that these guys were members of the poor-to-middle classes in a decaying seaport and money meant freedom from a dreary existence. When they sang this song, they fucking meant it, and that’s what really matters.
With the Beatles was another step in the right direction, and the momentum the Beatles were riding throughout 1963-1964 would carry them all the way into feature films and the album that would prove to be the signature expression of the Beatlemania period.
I might give the edge to “Twist and Shout” for best cover song by the boys, but I concede it’s a close question.
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