I seem to have something of a problem listening to Beatles' albums... I simply never do it.
I have played the albums so many times from my very earliest days of record collecting - even my normally Ray Conniff/Herb Alpert loving parents had a couple of albums - that I never think to sit down and listen to them properly. I'm always delighted when I hear them elsewhere but their familiarity always seems to stop me from choosing to pick one out and play one.
However, recently I decided to rectify this and with one album in particular - the one no critic seems to laud particularly - their fourth album "Beatles For Sale" released just in time for Christmas 1964. I confess that even at the height of my Beatles fanaticism it is the one I turned to the least.
So in the spirit of reappraisal...
I mean it is the Beatles so it's not going to be terrible is it?
When I wrote 'fourth album', let's not forget that this was their fourth album in 21 months during which time they had also released three further singles with bespoke A and B sides and an EP ("Long Tall Sally"). To put this into perspective, a fairly prolific band such as Coldplay take, on average, three years between releases.
What is even more surprising is that 12 months before this release, the Beatles had never visited America, had not held the Top 5 positions in the US chart, had not made their first feature film or recorded its entirely self-written soundtrack or completed three tours of the UK, two of North America, two to Europe and one to Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand as well as a Christmas season at Finsbury Park Astoria.
In fact they were about to start another run for Christmas just after the release of "Beatles For Sale".
it is an extraordinary and punishing schedule and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was during the summer tour of Europe and then Australia that Ringo, struck low with tonsillitis, was temporarily replaced by forgotten footnote of rock history, Jimmy Nicol. After the kind of global pandemonium they had witnessed in that landmark year you would have thought they would take a well-deserved break.
They began recording one month after the release of "A Hard Day's Night" and fitted recording of the album in over a three week period whilst they were still touring the UK. And today's bands think they have it tough...
Popular opinion is that this album bears all the scars of this workload.
There is a return to several cover versions - several of which had been staples of their live set since back in Hamburg - and many of the originals have a fairly downbeat outlook. Even the cover - a famous shot taken of the unsmiling band at sunset in Hyde Park - is held as a symbol of their fatigue.
Hence, the album is always characterised as a bit throwaway - certainly in comparison to their other works. It may well have been turned around quickly but there is so much that is interesting now when listening all these years later.
This appears to be the last album in which the hegemony of the band rested clearly with John. John and Paul were not writing together as much as their hectic situation really didn't allow it but instead were completing songs in the studio. Paul, it is claimed, was rather diverted by his new relationship with Jane Asher and so the bulk of this album - as the previous one had been - have John's contribution as the backbone. It was John pushing Paul to a more energetic vocal delivery for "Kansas City".
All of which seems on reflection strange now when we know that later the roles were clearly reversed with love-struck John having to work to the mandates of Paul's assumed leadership. This was probably the last album over which he held such sway and vocal dominance.
History has tended to put the Beatles crossroads moment as one of... the introduction of outside instrumentation on "Help"... the recording of "Revolver" none of which could then be replicated live... "Sgt Pepper's" studio creation. It's all of these, in truth, as the trajectory of the Beatles career changed so quickly. However, though often lumped together with their earlier work, "Beatles For Sale" and its sessions show the band demonstrating firstly, their powerful live tightness but then their studio inquisitiveness which would lead them to further musical explorations.
There's no better place to start than at the beginning with the opener "No Reply" - the first of a trio of rather gloomy tunes at the start of the record. It is not the usual rip-roaring lead that we have come to expect from the three previous albums but instead is pinned down by an acoustic led jazzy backing. The mood is subdued but subtly beguiling as it launches from the catchy hook to the sudden emotional outburst. Undoubtedly, this is a consequence of their meetings with Bob Dylan during the US Tour which all of the band have remarked had a profound effect on their music-making.
Dylan meanwhile was on the cusp of going electric in return. "I'm A Loser", the second track is definitely John's nod to Mr Zimmerman which whilst not as loose has the kind of introspection their work had not featured before.
This turn towards the rootsier side of American music also manifested itself in some very "country" like compositions such as "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" and "Baby's In Black" - a song that would remain a staple of their live set until their retirement from touring. None of this kind of influence could be heard on their album from barely six months previously.
This may have also led to the choice of two Carl Perkins' covers from their old Kaiser Keller back catalogue - "Honey Don't" and "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby" - which add to that Western feel.
Undoubtedly, the speed with which they were having to write and record during this period, is what will have driven them to look back to their old stalwarts that they had played hundreds of times before - so "Words Of Love" - their only ever Buddy Holly cover - has a very accomplished (if copied) solo from George. There was always a desire to include a "deep" cover such as The Drapkins "The Devil In Her Heart", and on this album it's "Mr Moonlight" which has another strong vocal from John but does admittedly suffer from a rather tepid backing (for which I think we can forgive them under the circumstances).
Meanwhile, Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" is one of the very best cover versions they ever made and would also remain in their set - often as an opener - until the end of their touring days. John's voice is in really fine form, absolutely owning the track with the force of his vocal - it's up there with "Twist And Shout" and "Money" - but hats off to George Martin for his Little Richard glissando.
Such was their familiarity with many of these songs that they were able to turn them around in very few takes.
All of which makes their desire to experiment all the more fascinating - even if it is at this point in their career, more simplistic.
Take for example the single they produced during these sessions the epic "I Feel Fine". It is one of the first examples of distortion being used on a mainstream single - certainly in such an abstract way rather than as an effect. The opening burst from Paul's bass distorting next to a speaker and then setting off John's guitar was a sound that John felt was interesting and charged George Martin with incorporating it into the recording.
As we know, of course, nothing was ever too much of a challenge for their magical producer.
Meanwhile, the B-side Paul's "She's A Woman" - another set staple - has an almost ska bluebeat rhythm that again had not really been tried out before. Paul still likes to pay this live to this day. It is another interesting departure into another style.
Similar experimentation can be heard in Ringo's drum patterns for the evocative "What You're Doing" which seem to set a precedent for the magnificent "Tomorrow Never Knows" which would be recorded two years later.
And of course, there is also a lurking a US number one at the start of Side 2 - "Eight Days A Week".
In later years, Lennon would describe the track as "lousy" and certainly in their canon - even at this time - it's not one of their strongest but a testament that virtually anything they produced at that time would simply race off the shelves. However, despite its later denigration, it also used the unusual technique of not just fading out of the song but fading into it as well. This seemed particularly imaginative for a song at the start of a side of vinyl.
Bearing in mind that "Beatles For Sale" is barely 30 minutes long, there seems so much to discuss with it. Its subsequent overlooking in the band's catalogue of almost unending praise seems understandable because it is an uneven record.
They are trying out different composition styles, they are trying out different instrumentation and they are trying out different effects. Meanwhile, they are also lapsing back to their tried and tested covers in order to ensure speed in putting out new product. It is a crucial point in their development because although there are some false starts such as Ringo's shabby "Honey Don't" and Paul's slight "I'll Follow The Sun" - a song that probably would not have made the cut in normal circumstances, it manages to link up their often forgotten prowess as a live unit coming off the back of virtually four years of non-stop playing together and their desire to try out new things.
When reflecting on the album much later, Paul said that this was the point where they started to perform for themselves in the studio rather than thinking about their female audience. It is certainly therefore a more thoughtful album in places.
In the circumstances, getting an album out of the band at all should be considered a triumph. To get one that still manages to achieve the twin goals of demonstrating the band's performing unity but still intriguing the audience with new flavours, even more so. It is yet one more important staging point in their journey.
"Beatles For Sale"?
I'm still buying it.