The Beatles: 1962–1966
The Beatles have come to TIDAL. As part of our massive celebration of this historic addition to the TIDAL music library — which includes The Beatles Experience, our immersive presentation of their timeless catalogue — journalist and Beatles expert Jeff Slate is writing an ongoing feature series on the history and legacy of the biggest band to ever live.
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The Beatles invented the rock and roll album.
Before the group’s debut long player Please Please Me in 1963, albums were nothing more than a single or two cobbled together with some hastily recorded filler to capitalize on a gullible public’s yearning for more of the Hit Parade’s flavor-of-the-month. And in fact, that’s how Please Please Me started out.
With the modest success of the band’s first single “Love Me Do,” and their chart-topping follow-up “Please Please Me,” producer George Martin was merely following the obvious path in convening the group on February 11, 1963 for a marathon recording session to capture the best of The Beatles’ current live set on tape, for a hasty release and an expected modest payback.
To say that any of the participants might have imagined we’d still be listening to the recordings they did that day, 50 years later, is ridiculous.
It would have been greeted as lunacy amongst the tight-knit group in EMI Studios that cold winter’s day.
But Please Please Me turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts. From the lowly B-side to “Love Me Do,” the relatively slight “Ask Me Why,” to the instant fan-favorite “Twist and Shout,” every track stands up today against the peerless catalogue The Beatles went on to deliver over the next seven years. That every garage band in the world can play at least a few of the 14 songs on Please Please Me is no accident. It was just that good.
It’s follow-up, With The Beatles, is one of those rare sophomore efforts not to suffer from the jinx that befalls so many bands tasked to turnaround a quick sequel to a surprise hit.
In fact, the album was a huge artistic leap forward, both for The Beatles as a group and for the songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Preceded by the remarkable singles “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (which also contained the astonishing B-side “This Boy”), the co-writing duo were clearly on a roll. Perhaps what is most remarkable about With The Beatles is the fact that Lennon and McCartney chose to willfully toss aside the simple but effective formulas employed on Please Please Me, and instead challenge themselves to stretch not just their own abilities, but the art of pop songwriting itself.
Just listen to the near-perfect “All My Loving,” any of the Lennon/McCartney rockers, not to mention the more R&B-oriented cover songs, and put them up against anything from the band’s debut, and you’ll see they’d traveled light years as both songwriters and performers.
As for the group, unshackled by the limited 2-track technology employed on their first album, they set about filling all four tracks (and then some, by mixing down their results and starting over), adding unique percussion, keyboard and backing vocal parts, as well as those indelible, instantly-recognizable George Harrison guitar fills – on full display in “Don’t Bother Me”, the guitarist’s songwriting debut – that they might never have dreamed of attempting during their earliest days in the studio.
Thus, the one-two punch of Please Please Me and With The Beatles saw John, Paul, George and Ringo, along with producer George Martin and engineer Norman Smith, throwing out the rulebook and taking risks that would rewrite the template not just for them but for every true recording artist to come after.
With two era-defining albums behind them — as well as a clutch of superb singles and EPs — surely no one in 1964 was expecting A Hard Days Night.
With the Fab Four set to star in their own film, and riding the sort of success that still seems impossible, expectations for both the group’s movie and soundtrack album were fairly low. Instead, The Beatles, director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen, turned in a cinema classic that captured the mayhem of the band’s existence and put their larger than life personalities — or at least caricatures of them — on display for all to revel in, while Lennon and McCartney delivered 13 mini masterpieces for an album that set an impossibly high bar for the competition.
The songs on the original side one of A Hard Day’s Night still stand as towering achievements in pop music. But the album also includes an equally strong second side that showcases just how quickly Lennon and McCartney were developing as songwriters. Similarly, it showed how effortlessly sympathetic Ringo Starr and Harrison — who used the Rickenbacker 12-string guitar given to him on the band’s first trip to the U.S. in February 1964 to astonishing effect — had become at interpreting their works on the fly, with the studio clock ticking, enabling the foursome to take great songs and turn them into rock and roll gold.
Lennon in particular was on fire. Faced with an overnight deadline to come up with the film’s title song, he turned a quip by Starr into a draft on the back of a matchbook that he played for a dumbfounded Lester and producer Walter Shenson the next morning. Though he continued to deliver gem after gem for the next six years, it was never with the same fluidity or intensity as during the making of A Hard Days Night, when he was the primary author of nine of the albums’ thirteen songs, making this the moment when The Beatles were truly Lennon’s band.
For any band but The Beatles, the next album, Beatles For Sale, would be a triumph.
It was a global smash, but the bleary eyes and weary faces in photographer, and Beatles intimate, Robert Freeman’s cover shot told a story. Overwhelmed by a relentless album-tour-BBC performance-TV appearance-film-single-one day off schedule, John, Paul, George and Ringo were visibly spent.
Still, Beatles For Sale was head and shoulders above all but the best albums released in 1964. Featuring six cover songs (seven if you count the “Kansas City”/”Hey, Hey, Hey” medley as two) and performed with minimal overdubs, the album exhibited a leaner, though fully refined, sound, especially in its quieter numbers. But when the band let loose, the joy so omnipresent in The Beatles’ catalogue practically oozed from the recordings. The album also includes several songs that hint at the band’s nascent relationship with Bob Dylan, and especially Lennon and Harrison’s growing fascination with his work.
So, while not the triumph its predecessor is rightly held up as, Beatles For Sale is still a feat beyond any of The Beatles’ contemporaries, and an invaluable snapshot of a band at the edge of physical if not creative exhaustion and, more significantly, in rapid transition.
If the only memorable song on The Beatles’ next album was “Yesterday” we would still be talking about it today.
But Help!, released in mid-1965 to coincide with the group’s second film, was chock full of new sounds, new styles, new approaches to recording and instrumentation, and, of course, new remarkable songs, including two from George Harrison.
1965 is the year that pop music exploded. Dylan went electric, the Byrds released two seminal albums, the Rolling Stones and The Who took their first serious steps as world-beaters, and a host of other artists, including the Kinks, Small Faces, the Animals and the Yardbirds, followed suit. But The Beatles were light years ahead.
With the success of both the film and album A Hard Days Night, as well as a massive world tour, under their collective belts, John, Paul, George and Ringo were faced with the daunting task of following up that success in 1965. After taking a collective breath with Beatles For Sale, they more than delivered the goods.
The tracklisting for Help! reads like a greatest hits package for any other band, incorporating folk-leaning lyrics and acoustic six- and twelve-string guitars juxtaposed against their driving, R&B-infused counterparts, so much so that this album represents nothing less than The Beatles shifting gears and heading for the creative stratosphere.
In fact, amongst all the remarkable original songs by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, there’s even a nod to the band’s collective rock and roll roots in the cover of Lennon favorite Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” buried at the end of side two that would have been a sure-fire single for any other group.
Within The Beatles’ inner circle, the follow-up to Help!, 1965′s Rubber Soul, has always been thought of as a companion disc to 1966′s Revolver.
In reality, it’s a stepping stone; the natural progression of a band collectively chasing the sounds in their heads, on its way to the mountaintop.
Released on the heals of Help! and a supporting world tour, at the beginning of December as a Christmas gift to the world, Rubber Soul was the first album that The Beatles didn’t make during recording dates wedged into a jam-packed schedule. Instead, they spent about a month in EMI’s Abbey Road studios crafting the album into an exquisite pop masterpiece.
Kicking off with the bluesy “Drive My Car,” which originated from an idea of McCartney’s that John Lennon sharpened into a perfect album opener, Rubber Soul then takes a left turn with the confessional Lennon-as-Dylan “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” written about a fling (or two) and featuring George Harrison on his newfound love, the sitar.
Imagine it’s 1965, and the hit parade contains “I Got You, Babe,” “Wooly Bully” and “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” to see just how far Lennon and company — by now firmly embraced as the biggest band in the world, and thus with the most to lose — were willing to push the envelope.
After that remarkable 2-song opener, 20 minutes of effortless pop genius follows. In fact, it’s almost impossible to choose the highlights without delving deep into each and every track. Songs that, in the context of the album (or with the knowledge of where The Beatles were to go in Rubber Soul’s aftermath), may seem slight, would be considered masterworks by any of the band’s peers, then or now.
But for any album that includes “Nowhere Man,” “Michelle,” or the elegant and haunting “In My Life” to be considered anything less than one of the greatest albums of all-time would be heresy. And if you’re not convinced, especially after listening with fresh ears, consider that this was the band’s sixth album in less than three years.
And yet, almost beyond belief, the best was still to come.
1966 began with the usual round of commitments for The Beatles, including shooting a third film. But when no suitable script could be found, the band found themselves with time on their collective hands. Rather than taking a sorely needed break, the band began taking the first steps toward making their finest artistic statement yet: Revolver.
Books have been written about the significance and achievement that Revolver marks, not just for The Beatles, but for pop music, rock and roll and beyond. Not merely the album released to coincide with The Beatles’ 1966 world tour, Revolver contains fourteen of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison’s best songwriting efforts, as well as the group’s most refined ensemble achievements, while George Martin and his production team stretched the boundaries of the studio beyond anything previously imaginable.
Harrison’s “Taxman” kicks things off with a peak into The Beatles at work in the studio, via some barely audible banter and a double count-off. In just 2 minutes and 39 seconds – punctuated by two scorching Paul McCartney guitar solos – The Beatles that existed prior to Revolver are wiped clear away, as a new group, seemingly with superpowers, took their place.
By this point, The Beatles’ glaring genius is simply mind-numbing.
Just listen again – or anew – to McCartney’s baroque “Eleanor Rigby,” Lennon’s dreamy “I’m Only Sleeping,” Harrison’s sitar-drenched “Love You To,” and the song that Lennon himself ranked as McCartney’s finest, “Here There And Everywhere,” and place them up against anything that’s come before or since as the first five songs on an album, and you’ll realize just how peerless The Beatles were at this remarkable stage of their career.
Then look at the rest of the tracklist, and if you’re not convinced that you are in the presence of the godlike at the absolute peak of their powers, then the power of music is surely lost on you. But if you’re not convinced, listen again to McCartney’s glistening “Good Day Sunshine” and elegiac “For No One,” or the groundbreaking Lennon-on-mountaintop closer “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and that should seal the deal.
It had been just four years since The Beatles had taken their first, tentative steps into the recording studio, and they had seemingly reached the summit of what pop music could deliver. And yet, incredibly, they were just getting started.
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Frequent TIDAL contributor Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He has written intimate portraits of The Beatles as a group and as solo artists, and about many other rock legends, for publications like Esquire, Rolling Stone and the fanzine Beatlefan, and is a go-to expert for many Beatles-related radio shows. Jeff has appeared at Beatles events and conventions in New York and Liverpool and is a well-known collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and The Beatles.
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