It’s impossible to wrap your head around quite how busy The Beatles were during the first few months of 1964.
After kicking off the year with a marathon 18-day residency in Paris - two shows a night, mind you - they re-recorded their hits in German (“Sie liebt dich, ja ja ja!”), played the Ed Sullivan show - twice! - made a classic movie, and a classic album, published John Lennon’s book of nonsense verse, hobnobbed with Muhammad Ali, and crisscrossed the globe from Blackpool to Hong Kong to Adelaide to San Francisco.
Suffice to say these motherfuckers put in a shift.
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Nevertheless, as summer turned to autumn the Fab Four were told, basically, ‘pull your fingers out, lads, there’s wedge to be made.’ And so they slunk back to the studio and cracked on with their second album of the year. Their fourth, by the way, in the space of just 21 months.
Whereas previous triumph ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ contained only original songs - groundbreaking, in those days - on ‘Beatles For Sale’ the band were compelled by straightforward scheduling pressures to rifle through old Hamburg setlists and dig out hit-and-miss cover songs to pad out the record.
The wheedling doth-protest-too-much tone of the sleeve notes kind of says it all. “Many hours and hard day’s nights of devoted industry went into the production of this album,” claims the blurb on an LP bashed out in seven days. “[Beatles For Sale] isn’t a potboiling quick-sale any-old-thing-will-do-for-Christmas mixture.”
Sorry, but it absolutely is. The clue is in the title.
Still, this being The Beatles, there’s magic if you know where to look.
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John Lennon was still ‘the leader’ at this point in the Fab’s career, and his crackling brace of new-minted openers stand up with the best of The Beatles’ output. ‘No Reply’ is a mischievous little toe-tapper that tells of our hero getting ghosted, before that was even a thing.
‘I’m A Loser’ might be downbeat, but there’s real glee in the performance. Paul McCartney later said of ‘Beatles For Sale’ that by then they were confident enough in their songwriting to go beyond the old mantra of ‘please the girls’. His sprightly walking bassline on ‘I’m A Loser’ suggests, happily, that even under colossal pressure the boys were having a blast.
There’s filler, for sure. George and Ringo butcher a Carl Perkins tune apiece, caked in ludicrous amounts of vocal reverb. ‘Mr Moonlight’, deservedly one of the band’s most-hated tracks, is just about forgivable if you consider McCartney’s cheesy Hammond organ solo must be a deliberate piss take. Likewise the fanboy handclaps on Buddy Holly cover ‘Words Of Love’.
You get the feeling they might be nostalgic for the simpler days of Hamburg. Old faves like ‘Rock And Roll Music’ sound slicker - tighter, better rehearsed anyway - than the newer numbers. A hint of country and western creeps in at the margins too, an artifact of long hours on the tourbus marinating in American radio.
Oh, and Bob Dylan introduced them to weed. Literally that month. As I say, mental year.
To paraphrase an oft-misquoted Fab Four zinger, ‘Beatles For Sale’ is not the best Beatles album ever. It isn’t even the best Beatles album from 1964. But it is a solid effort, all things considered, from rock and roll’s ultimate grafters.
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Words: Andy Hill
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