A beginners’ guide to The Beatles

For me there is one genuine great body of creative work from the 20th Century which is beyond criticism. It towers above the collected work of artists like Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. The collected writings of JRR Tolkien finds itself overshadowed by comparison. The original trio of films in the Star Wars franchise looks rather insignificant by comparison. Frank Sinatra would never come close. Bob Dylan only rarely lifted himself to the same level of brilliant achievement. It is a body of work that unquestionably enriched the lives of anyone lucky enough to experience it and it continues to influence and delight millions upon millions of fans around the globe. It is one of the few bodies of work that was never once negative, mean or unpleasant and it is all the better for it.

It is the Peanuts cartoon strip by Charles Schulz and it is a work of unquestionable genius.

A distant second to this body of work is that of The Beatles, the most popular, influential and famous of all 20th Century rock and roll bands. Unlike the work of Schulz, The Beatles were not flawless. Their early work was occasionally a little rough around the edges, their mid-period work could be blighted with over-production and a reliance on mind-expanding substances and their later work could be hamstrung within-fighting between the band. Nevertheless they remain the 20th Century’s enduring music icons and the touchstone for all rock and roll music since.

The music of The Beatles transcends music, art forms, generations and cultures, in a way that no one else, other than Beatles favourite Elvis Presley ever managed to do. Half a century after the height of their fame they are still arguably the biggest act in recorded sound, whose albums continue to sell in large numbers, still getting name dropped across music genres and generally being the biggest thing since The Beatles.

For all their all pervading influence, at a dozen studio albums The Beatles back catalogue is actually quite manageable. Yes there are all the various compilations, radio sessions and the Anthology project to consider, but ultimately it boils down to those dozen albums released over nine years.

So what have I got to say, that hasn’t already been said many, many times before? Probably not that much, but these Beginners Guides are as much about giving an opinion on the best place to start with an act than anything else, and it just so happens to be my opinion that The Beatles most famous album, isn’t actually one of their best.

So let us begin…

1) With The Beatles (1963)

While their early ‘pop’ material may not be as widely celebrated as their later ‘rock’ material, With the Beatles is as big a highlight of their unparalleled career as any of their later, ‘cooler’, albums. What it does have that some of the later albums lack is a sense of enthusiasm and energy. This is the sound of four young men in mid ascent into the stratosphere. True, they and their material became much more mature over time, but they were rarely this much fun again.

Listening to With the Beatles it’s obvious that youthful optimism rather than technical skill holds sway here, but what is even more obvious is that Ringo Starr was the most musically adept of the Mop Tops at this point of their career. Anyone that has ever doubted Ringo’s ability as a drummer should take a very careful listen to this album as he swings throughout this album. Perhaps more than any other album of their career, With the Beatles  is the album where Ringo leads the way in terms of musical invention. Just listen to him nail it throughout “It Won’t be Long”, he’s fantastic.

While Beatle-purists may balk at the number of cover-versions that pepper With the Beatles, there’s no denying that they tackle them with gusto and anyone who accuses them of of simply padding the album out with filler couldn’t be more wrong. With the Beatles is 33 minutes of economical enthusiasm, classy drumming and the sound of a band just enjoying themselves before fame smothered their love of what they were doing. Who cares if it isn’t ‘cool’, it’s a hell of a lot more fun than being cool ever was.

2) Beatles for Sale (1964)

The shift from carefree youth to accepting the responsibilities and life of a mature adult is something that creeps up on most of us eventually. For most of us it’s a slow and steady process which can take a good number of years. Few of us though have ever grown up in quite such a public manner as The Beatles and with Beatles for Sale, they made the first crucial move from youthful exuberance to something much more rounded and mature. Something more fulfilling. Something darker.

Given that they had just gone through eighteen months of bonhomie and cheery moptopery and the international press following their every move, it’s perhaps inevitable that The Beatles would grow weary of being constantly under such close scrutiny and abandon their optimistic facade and give pop music a decidedly adult slant.

Dual openers “No Reply” and “I’m a Loser” deal with heartbreak, rejection and general misery, which is hardly what the Beatlemaniacs must have been expecting given the bounce of The Beatles previous material. It’s not all new horizons though, as the Fabs do resort to cover versions to pad out the album. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the version of “Rock and Roll Music” is one of the band’s finest covers and it beautifully captures the excitement of early American rock and roll translated by the kids it originally enraptured. The best song of all though is “I’ll Follow the Sun”, an often forgotten reflection on having to cut the love of your life out of your life because they just doesn’t love you back.

While Beatles for Sale may not be one of The Beatles most popular albums, in the grand scheme of their career it is one of their most important. This is where they made the move from cheery pop to something much more adult and (if you like it or not) changing the course of rock music permanently.

3) Rubber Soul (1965)

Although it is often overshadowed by the more experimental Revolver, I personally find Rubber Soul to be the more consistent of The Beatles pair of transitionary albums, with next to no filler clogging up its run time. Even a lesser tune like “What Goes On” provides good singalong value and the generous credit to ‘Starkey’ reminds us of a time before the Lennon and McCartney estates started squabbling over whose name should go first.

Although only running for just over 35 minutes, one of Rubber Soul’s strengths is it’s diversity. It’s easy to forget that there are tunes as different as “Norwegian Wood”, “Nowhere Man”, “Michelle”, “I’m Looking Through You” and the band’s nod back to their beat-group roots with “Run For Your Life”. There’s joy to be found in the details as well though, such as the rhythmic handclapping in the background of “I’m Looking Through You” and the lusty “Girl”. The album’s crowning achievement though is the beautiful “In My Life”, one of the few songs that can reduce a big Sheffield lad to tears if played to him at the wrong time. It may very well be The Beatles most emotionally effecting moment.

4) Revolver (1966)

If Rubber Soul was the first time that The Beatles set out for uncharted sonic territories, Revolver was the sound of the band finding them. Of course these days everyone and their grandmother will tell you that it’s the greatest album that The Beatles ever released, but for many years it was eclipsed by the public nostalgia for Sgt Pepper .

Although perhaps a little gimmicky in itself, Revolver is still a fine piece of work, a little more diverse than it’s predecessor, but as it is stretched further the same genius that impregnated Rubber Soul is present in a lesser sense. Although you can enjoy the diversity of tunes like “Taxman”, “Good Day Sunshine” and “She Said She Said”, the album jumps between moods and pace at such a rapid rate that it can be disorientating.

That said Revolver is unique for the fact that the Ringo fronted track is one of the pillars of the album. Indeed the wonderful kid’s singalong that is “Yellow Submarine” only has competition from the breathtaking “Eleanor Rigby” and the joyous “Got To Get You Into My Life” for the honour of best song on the album, although admittedly “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Here, There And Everywhere” do have a certain charm of their own.

5) The Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Where I’ve always felt that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would have made for a great EP, conversely I believe that Magical Mystery Tour (originally released as an EP here in the UK) was only ever complete when the full USA album version was released.

In complete contrast to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, to me Magical Mystery Tour has always stood as a solid, well rounded and pleasing listen. That’s quite amazing when you consider that half of it is a soundtrack and the other half consisted of singles that the band had released in the previous twelve months. It shouldn’t work, it should be messy and undisciplined. But it does work and it’s infinitely preferable to Sgt. Pepper which was recorded using the same techniques and at about the same time.

Only two tracks dip below total brilliance, the nice but odd instrumental “Flying” (The Beatles’ only credit shared equally between the four of them) and Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way”, everything else here is of the highest quality and as a collection of songs (even though they were never intended to be such) it’s The Beatles at their best, with the title track and the unstoppably wonderful “I Am The Walrus” vying for the title of the most fun Beatles tune ever.

If The Beatles do have an under-appreciated album then Magical Mystery Tour is surely it. It allows you to dip in and out as you choose and is an effortless listen. It’s one of the most generous albums released by anyone ever.

6) Love (2006)

Ah yes, the controversial choice… While there have been many successful efforts made to compile a Best Of collection (The Red & Blue albums, and 1 are fantastic distillations of their career, and Past Masters is a comprehensive mopping up exercise), no one needs to tell the newcomer to check them out.

There has been much heated debate as to whether Love is a compilation or a remix album. Personally I see it as one of the finest examples of the mix-tape ever compiled. To many fans the original Beatles recordings are sacred gifts not to be tampered with and the cut and paste, chop and change rejigging of their works are the most heinous crimes imaginable. While I on the whole frown on the dissection, rearranging, remixing and general buggering about with music, Love is an informative and entertaining demonstration of how, if the original source material is treat with the appropriate reverence and respect, this mucking about with timeless music can actually bring a new dimension to listening to songs you thought you knew off by heart.

Much of the immediate appeal of Love is the desire to dissect every piece of music and try and figure out which Beatles recording that drum beat / guitar riff / bassline / piano motif came from. For the Beatle anorak this can either provide many happy of hours or frustration, for the rest of us it’s something which initially distracts us to how good these recordings sound.

If I have a grumble about this album, it’s that too much of the material here has been taken from The Beatles’ later years and not enough from their energetic early years, when they were a guitar pop band without rival. Also, some of those choices here are just too obvious – granted The Beatles released some of the greatest singles ever recorded, but they’re so much more than the stuff that topped the pop charts.

These are minor grumbles though, as ultimately Love is a thoroughly entertaining listening experience and which is the whole point of buying CDs really. While purists may be outraged that such liberties have been taken with the original songs, the rest of us can sit back and listen to one of the finest Beatles mix-tapes ever assembled.

The Beatles never really released a bad album, just a few that were less good. Sure, their feature films seem archaic now, but they could equally be viewed as fascinating period pieces. After all, there’s been no one that’s made a similar impact, before or since.

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