Monday, November 12, 2007

The Beatles' Second Album

My first memory of hearing the name “The Beatles” is an odd one. I was sitting in a classroom in Saint Matthews, the local Catholic boy’s school. I think I was in the 5th grade at the time. Occasionally the tiny public address speaker in the front of the room would crackle in anticipation of an announcement from the disembodied voice of Mother Superior, a figure not that unlike the character of Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or the character of the Emperor in Star Wars. But above even Mother Superior in the pantheon of my childhood authority was the voice of the parish priest. It was the voice we would expect to hear shortly before the incoming Soviet ICBM’s struck the high priority target of the naval shipyards five or six miles from where we sat. It was as close as you could get in 1963 in Northeast Philadelphia to the voice of God.

“Boys…” the voice said. I think I grasped the edge of my desk expecting to hear “This is not a drill” followed by instructions containing the words “duck” and “cover.”

Believe it or not, but in 1963 children were regularly shown films of the effects of nuclear explosions – the shock wave obliterating the farmhouse, mannequins disintegrating at the table, the car engulfed in flames and spinning wildly through the air – and then instructed to dive beneath our small wooden desks for safety in the event of this nuclear fire. I don’t know if anyone has ever really charted the effects of this on the so-called “baby boom” generation. The corresponding rise in popularity of the “Theatre of the Absurd” may not be a coincidence.

But I digress….

The voice of the priest continued.

“I want to make it very clear that under no condition will beetle haircuts be permitted in this school.”

We sat, silent, uncomprehending, still behind the curve of new cultural trends. But while it was true that not a single kid in the room had any idea what the priest was talking about, it was also true that every kid in the room wanted one.

There are many different definitions of “THE SIXTIES.” Some put the decade in literal terms from 1960 to 1969. Some use the death of JFK in 1963 through the resignation of Nixon in 1974. Some trace it from the birth of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan to the death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont. A new academic journal on the era uses a “long sixties” of 1955-1975. Those of us who were around during those times each have a personal sixties; mine starts with that announcement.

All of this is documented in a million other places: The Beatles were signed to EMI in England which, even though it owned Capitol Records in the US, could not get Capitol to release the early Beatles recordings. The ones that were released appeared on small regional labels like Tollie, Swan, and Vee-Jay and registered no impact on Top 40 radio. Finally in late 1963, early 1964 Capitol could no longer ignore the success the band was experiencing across Europe and released the first US LP, Meet the Beatles.

Actually 1964 was a pretty good year for Beatles albums. In addition to Meet The Beatles, Capitol also released The Beatles’ Second Album, Something New, Beatles ’65 and a double LP, The Beatles Story, that collected news stories, interviews and snippets of live recordings. United Artists also released the soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night, and Vee-Jay records released Introducing The Beatles compiling all the early tracks they still had the license for.

During the week of April 4, 1964 The Beatles occupied the first five slots of the Billboard Hot 100, #1 - "Can't Buy Me Love," #2 - "Twist and Shout," #3 - "She Loves You," #4 - "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and #5 - "Please Please Me," the only group in rock and roll history to achieve this feat. That same week they also had another seven charting records in the Hot 100: "I Saw Her Standing There," 31; "From Me to You," 41; "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" 46; "All My Loving," 58; "You Can't Do That," 65; "Roll Over Beethoven," 68. The Beatles had twelve songs on the charts that week, a feat never matched before or since.

In 1964, the Beatles had the never-matched total of 15 American million-selling records (9 singles and 6 LPs), representing US sales of over 25 million in 1964 alone.

In other words, 1964 was a very good year for the Fabs.

But it is The Beatles’ Second Album that fascinates me because it is this, and not “Revolution” that stands as the most political statement they ever made. It also rocks harder than any of their other records as it manages to avoid any of the pop ballads favored by Paul McCartney that usually slowed down the group's other early albums.

As Bruce Eder writing for the All Music Guide notes:

The Beatles' Second Album stands as probably best pure rock & roll album ever issued of the group's music. In the process of pulling songs from various British and American EPs, singles (including "She Loves You") and B-sides, as well as tracks left over from the editing of With the Beatles for American release, the compilers somehow No other long-player by the group featured them doing more covers of songs by black American artists or songwriters, including Little Richard ("Long Tall Sally"), Chuck Berry ("Roll Over Beethoven"), Smokey Robinson ("You Really Got a Hold on Me"), Barrett Strong ("Money"), and others, and just to show how rich a vein this all was at the time of its release, the version of "Roll Over Beethoven" here actually charted briefly as a single.

In his new book, The Beatles’ Second Album, Dave Marsh writes:

"The Beatles showed their allegiance to the principles of the civil rights movement when they refused to play any racially segregated shows on their 1964 concert tour. It was an unusual statement. The Beatles never again took a political stand as a group, and very few performers made such demands when they worked in the South. Making that choice did not endear them to many white American adults, Southern or Northern....

....I don't know what was in that teacher's conscious mind; I do know that everything he tried to teach us smacked of the message I got at home, which was that white was right and black needed to be kept back, or, since it was advancing, north and south, into territory that had been "ours," pushed back. That stuff about the Beatles being revolutionary is more than just talk. There was a war going on, and we were asked to take sides."

The racial history of US pop music up until The Beatles is Pat Boone covering Fats Domino and Little Richard, sanitizing the music, bleaching the color from it, neutering any hint of sexuality. But The Beatles covered these songs as triumphant celebrations of the original artists and every copy of the album that sold was an engraved invitation to an army of middle class white kids to go to the record stores and track down the albums of black America.

The White Southern Christian Citizens Brigades that were formed (along with some Northern ones) in the mid-1950s to fight the threat of race-mixing inherent in the records of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Louis and Little Richard had been successful. Elvis was in the army, Berry was in prison, Jerry Lee in exile and Little Richard had found Jesus. Pat Boone and the legion of the one-named teen idol pop crooners (Frankie, Dion, Fabian, etc.) had fought back the Visigoths of pop culture.

But in 1964 the Visigoths were back at the gates and this time they had WMDs.

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