Chances are, if you ask anyone to name their favorite Beatles album they will probably reply with almost any album from 1965 on. Every single album after Help! was drastically different in its approach and sound. Rubber Soul and Revolver showed a “grown-up” version of the band ready to move beyond songs about love. Sergeant Pepper re-wrote the rules about what an album could be, and for better or worse made rock and form into a viable form of art. The White Album was a stark contrast to the Pepper’s excess as The Beatles embracing every genre under the sun. Abbey Road was a culmination of their entire career – it was an adult album, but the entire second half was a nod to their early pop days.
Since these albums changed popular music and the world, it seems as if their early albums tend to get lost in the shuffle. When was the last time you heard someone say their favorite Beatles album was Beatles For Sale, With The Beatles, or Please Please Me? It might be a bit simplistic, but unless you’re like to complete an artist’s catalog or grew up with the band, their early days seem to be reduced to images of appearing on Ed Sullivan or the singles collected on 1.
The general consensus seems to be that The Beatles really didn’t really make “albums” until Rubber Soul. Rock critics love to hammer this into the ground, as do fellow musicians. When Rolling Stone recruited various musicians, critics and other rock dignitaries to compile the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Sergeant Pepper, The White Album, Rubber Soul and Revolver were all included in the Top 10. Abbey Road came in at 14 and it wasn’t until number 39 that Please Please Me was listed. The American re-hashing and reinterpretation of With The Beatles dubbed Meet the Beatles was included at 59, but after that the early Beatles albums disappear until Help! appears at 332, while A Hard Day’s Night comes in at 388. I could gripe for paragraphs about this list, but is The Neil Diamond Collection really better than Help! or A Hard Day’s Night?
I suppose this shouldn’t really come as a shock since even The Beatles themselves have gone on record in preference of their later albums. Lennon in particular dismissed their early songs, wanting instead to create music that actually meant something and deal with more worldly problems than simple love songs.
It’s certainly easy to cut their career in two parts – the early “Beatle-mania” years, and the “studio” years. But to overlook their early records undercuts Lennon and McCartney’s early brilliance and enthusiasm for rock and roll.
Please Please Me, With the Beatles, Beatles For Sale, and A Hard Day’s Night all fly by with an irresistible and joyful energy that has rarely been equaled. They may not be as groundbreaking as Revolver or The White Album, but Paul and John’s ability to churn out song after song each one with an impeccable melody is no less than staggering. Even revered pop songwriters should be jealous of Lennon and McCartney’s consistency across these albums.
Now, to the actual albums.
Please Please Me starts with one of the best opening songs ever – the infectious “I Saw Her Standing There”. There’s no way to not get caught up in McCartney’s yelps and whoops. Harrison also gives one of his best solos from the early period here as well. “Boys” is more rocking fun complete with Doo-Wop backing vocals. While some of the material has dated slightly – “Chains” in particular, the most impressive aspect of Please Please Me is how their original songs stand up to the R&B classic “Twist and Shout”. Apparently, The Beatles recorded the entire album in a 24-hour period, which makes the performances even more impressive.
With The Beatles follow the same template as Please Please Me, but there are subtle differences. The rockers are tighter and sharper especially “It Won’t Be Long” and “Little Child” which contains a pretty impressive Harmonica solo. With The Beatles might be the first Beatles album where they really proved that they could tackle various styles of music, while still maintaining their own identity. There’s R&B (the superb cover of “You Really Got a Hold On Me”), beautiful ballads (“Till There Was You”) straight up pop (“All My Loving”). Like Please Please Me, the originals on With The Beatles easily stand alongside the covers, which is no easy feat when you decide to play Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”.
A Hard Day’s Night (which is actually my favorite Beatles album) is the first album composed entirely of Lennon/McCartney originals. The title track is one of the best songs the Beatles ever recorded, and a great showcase for the vocal interplay between the two lead singers. On “I Should Have Known Better” there’s a slight bittersweet quality, which would become of Lennon’s trademark qualities as the years went on. Paul displays a great leap in his songwriting with the immortal “Things We Said Today”. Ultimately, A Hard Day’s Night retains the best elements of their early rocking years while also incorporating a more reflective side further explored on subsequent albums.
Beatles For Sale might be the weakest of their early albums, as the quality slips slightly. There’s still plenty of fun and joy throughout, but Lennon’s songwriter seems to take a slightly darker undertone on such songs, as “I’m a Loser”. Up until this album, The Beatles cover versions had been just as good (if not better in some cases) than the originals, but “Mr. Moonlight” is slightly embarrassing and goes nowhere. The best song on the album is “Eight Days A Week” which remains under-rated as far as I’m concerned, even if it is the most well known song on the album.
Help! is probably the album where The Beatles really tried to escape Beatle-mania for the first time. On the title track, for the first time Lennon shows his genius for combining a serious topic with a sweet melody, a gift that he would take to creative and artistic heights on “Imagine”. “The Night Before” is one of Paul’s bounciest songs which I’ve always thought of as a sweeter and distant cousin to Bob Dylan’s “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met”). Speaking of Dylan, his influence is all over this record particularly the acoustic based “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”. I haven’t mentioned Ringo yet, but on Help! his personality really begins to shine through. Those who dismiss him a crap drummer should listen again to his inventive drumming on the verses of “Ticket to Ride”. Plus he gets his first chance on lead vocals on the hilarious “Act Naturally” which acts as a counter-weight to the heavier songs like “Yesterday”.
After Help! The Beatles would shed new skin and completely come into their own and continue a string of creativity that has never been rivaled in popular music. But if they had stopped recording after Help! there’s no doubt in my mind that they still would be considered the greatest band to ever exist.