OLD REVIEW DUMP #3: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO (3/6)
Less vivid description here, but more actual critique. It’s not worded as well as I would like, with a lot of reused words, but the actual thought process is well-conceived. I was impressed with myself for making both a defense of the album and an honest assessment.
Here it is, in all its money grubbiness…
Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown
My tears are falling like rain from the sky
Is it for her or myself that I cry
I’m a loser
And I lost someone who’s near to me
I’m a loser
And I’m not what I appear to be
-I’m a Loser
…annnnnd we’re back to square one. Six covers, six originals, the whole shebang. Beatles for Sale is thrown under the bus more than anything else they put out (except probably Please Please Me) as an album that lives up to its cash-in sounding name. “Mr. Moonlight” is listed as the worst Beatles song more than any other in my experience. I haven’t seen a lot of people who hate this album, but there’s a great many who either dislike it or are dismissive of it.
I disagree. No, it’s not great, in fact, it’s only slightly better then Please Please Me, but that’s mostly because of an overabundance of dreary covers. The original material is not only enjoyable, but representative of an extremely mature step forward in the writing of both lyrics and melodies. Even the covers are more bland then horrific atrocities. Beatles for Sale is, by any measure, a disappointment, but it’s a necessary one. The growth shown here is an essential piece of the history of the Beatles, and, by extension, the history of music.
So let’s get to haggling for your favorite mop tops! The album opens with the Lennon-penned “No Reply”, an extremely bitter look at being abandoned by someone who doesn’t even have the decency to be up front about abandoning you. The lyrics are clearly in John’s forte, and his vocal performance here is impeccable. The melancholy music features a subtle but notable use of piano, and it aids the already wonderful melody. A truly fantastic opening.
Lennon serves up another near-masterpiece with “I’m a Loser”, which effectively offsets the self-justification of the previous song by going into detail about how much he sucks. It’s a bold move for the relatively light world of the Fab Four, complete with another marvelous and more upbeat melody and great vocals from John. The song is a surprising amount of fun for how affecting it as. And the harmonica’s back! Yay!
“Baby’s In Black” is an even Lennon-McCartney composition. John brings emotional honesty, McCartney brings a singalong melody, and the result alternates between depressing and amusing. Not as strong as the previous two tracks, but a worthy addition.
Then Lennon sings the first cover, “Rock and Roll Music” by Chuck Berry and…uggggghhh. First of all, thanks for killing the mood, guys. Second, though John fares well vocally, the playing itself is completely uninspired, bringing nothing to the song. On Please Please Me and With The Beatles, the Fab Four’s musical talents brought a nice personality to each cover. This song is a straightforward 50s rocker that isn’t all that infectious or fun. It’s not a disaster, just a waste of time.
Thankfully, Paul swoops back in with “I’ll Follow the Sun”, which counteracts sad lyrics with a beautiful guitar and a smooth, listenable vocal tone. The metaphor at the heart of the song is simple, but clever, and of all the songs on the album I find myself coming back to this one the most. I’m suspicious of my own McCartney bias as anyone, but this is my favorite song on the album.
Sigh, and once again, LE SIGH. We have reached “Mr. Moonlight” by Roy Lee Johnson. It’s bad. In fact, it’s awful, one of maybe four or five songs in the catalogue of the Beatles that deserves the title. The melody is limp and John’s singing is oddly unenthusiastic (other than the memorable opening title drop). And then there’s the music, which is…wait, is that an organ? Why the crap is that there? I mean, I guess that could be kind of a cool tone setter, but it has NOTHING interesting to do. If this song can be given any kind of faint praise, it’s that even though the melody is boring, it’s repetitive enough to be catchy. Is it the worst Beatles song? I’m still on the fence whether it’s worse than “Ask Me Why” or “It’s Only Love”, but it’s definitely the worst song on the album.
The next song fares only slightly better. It’s a medley of “Kansas City” by Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller and “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey” by Richard Penniman. While John was too apathetic in his singing last time, here Paul is trying WAY too hard to channel that rockin’ feelin’. It get so bad that it’s actually kind of hilarious, but not enough to make the song any less boring. The idea of a medley is interesting, but they could not have picked two less interesting songs to stick together. The backing piano is fun, rendering the song listenable, but side one closes with a thud after opening with a bang.
Side two opens with one of only two non-melancholy original composition, the Lennon-McCartney “Eight Days a Week.” Lyrically, it’s a step back from the fun and sincerity of A Hard Day’s Night, but musically it would fit right in. The melody bounces and swings in all the right places, making an extremely memorable and fun pop song.
Then we get another cover, oh boy. This time it’s Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love” and…it’s not terrible! It’s the best cover on the album by miles, creating a really pleasant, cozy atmosphere in music and vocals to compliment the lyrics. It’s charming, which is something the Beatles brought to most of their covers before “Mr. Moonlight” ruined my life forever.
Speaking of ruining my life forever, Ringo steps up to the mic with Carl Perkin’s “Honey Don’t.” Ringo’s vocals are amusing enough, but that’s where my praise ends. The music is limp and unsatisfying, and…ugh, I don’t like to criticize lyrics on covers because the band wasn’t responsible for them, but…“I like the way you wear your clothes”? Not all the lyrics are that bad, but there’s just nothing to hang musical ideas on. I’m not sure why this was even chosen as a cover.
I suppose now’s a good a time as any to clarify the album’s crucial flaw: the covers are not only bad, they detract from the largely downer tone of the originals. The covers are all upbeat and happy and clearly meant to soundtrack a party or romantic dance. The Beatles were really good at that sort of thing, covers or not, but on this album their minds are clearly elsewhere. The subject they bring to the table here are hurt, self-loathing, concern, not wanting to burden others with your problems…all very mature, sobering topics. The covers bring none of these things. In effect, you’re listening to two albums: an amazing piece of mournful growth and an extremely sub-par Fab Four party. The two sides don’t mix, and they’re the reason why this album has such a bad reputation.
But let’s not dwell on negativity, because now we have another original, from Paul no less! “Every Little Thing” is just as good as his material on A Hard Day’s Night, bringing emotional and musical sweetness. “Sweet” is probably the best word for the song. It’s cute, honestly. That’s not a high goal, but not a bad one either.
Lennon brings the melancholy back with “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party.” Despite the bouncy music, the lyrics pack a sincere punch. Plus, there’s some great vocal harmonies going on. It’s simple, but effective for what it is. Paul’s “What You’re Doing” is more or less in the same vein, though I think John’s concern for others is more affecting the Paul’s attempting to defend himself.
The album closes with the horrifically poorly chosen “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby” by Carl Perkins. First of all, it’s sung by George, which is hilarious seeing as how he was marketed as “the shy one.” I really hope that irony was intentional, because otherwise it’s generic and banal. The playing is stilted, as is George’s singing, which is a shame because he’s usually wonderful. Like most of the other covers, there’s nothing particularly offensive in it, but it’s a pure waste of space. The album ends on a whimper.
And that’s why the music industry sucks. The title of the album and the strangely off-putting sleeve photo were apparently meant to show the Beatle’s disgust with how they were being abused and milked by the very system that brought them to prominence. If they had been allowed to run wild on another fully original album, Beatles for Sale could very well have been the antithesis to A Hard Day’s Night, and probably just as good. In fact, if it consisted of ONLY the original material, I’d probably give it a 10/10. Unfortunately, the record company forced more covers on them, and the result is a bipolar and mostly unsatisfying album. Still, for reasons I stated in the introduction, its essential listening. The lows are low, but the highs are in orbit.
Listenability: 5/5 Even the covers don’t bring this one down.
Themes: 4/5 One point off for the covers. An admirable step forward.
Lyricism: 3/5 See “themes.”
Diversity: 4/5 The styles and tone are surprisingly varied, though they don’t stray too far from comfortable 60s rock and pop.
Resonance: 3/5 The covers are so stale that, for the first time, I’m taking two points off. My reviews, my rules. It REALLY sucks, because most of these originals are emotional gold.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10 An album divided against itself cannot stand. It can kneel pretty well, though.
Recommended Listening: I’ll Follow The Sun, I’m a Loser, No Reply, Every Little Thing, Eight Days a Week, I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party, Baby’s In Black, What You’re Doin