Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Two)

WITH THE BEATLES
 
14 songs in 33 minutes and 6 seconds.  Like its predecessor, that running time doesn’t even fill half the space on a modern compact disc.  But because we’re talking about The Beatles’ second British studio album, the question of length is never an issue.  These songs are so tight and energetic you never get much time to even think about being bored, let alone actually experience that tedious emotion.  Not even close to being deep, With The Beatles nonetheless makes up for its lack of lyrical excitement with a series of capable arrangements and memorable melodies.  You’ll sing along to every single track, no matter how repetitive the words can get.
 
Coincidentally released the same day as President Kennedy’s assassination the album follows the same formula laid out by its predecessor:  eight original tracks plus six covers.  John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who famously (and falsely) bragged in 1963 of having written about 100 unrecorded songs together (they overstated the actual total by about 80 or so, give or take a few), had not yet reached their true potential as potent songwriters.  (In the liner notes for Please Please Me, the overwrought Tony Barrow claimed the duo have “enough self-penned numbers to maintain a steady output of all-original singles from now [1963] until 1975!”  Nice try.)  For With The Beatles, their contributions only constitute 50% of the album.  (They wrote about 60% of Please Please Me.)  Although their confidence was growing, over time with fewer promotional and touring distractions to deal with they would allow themselves far more time to improve.
 
47 years after its original release, despite the simplistic lyrical content, you can still understand why this music excited so many.  It is endlessly entertaining.
 
It Won’t Be Long kicks things off with its instantly catchy chorus.  Lennon trades emphatic “yeah”s with a equally game McCartney as he cheerfully declares to a returning lover, “It won’t be long ’til I belong to you.”.  It’s a simple play on words but it works.  One of the rare, early numbers that doesn’t repeat verses, Lennon is in full self-pity mode.  Despite the appearance of an unshakeable confidence in achieving his mission of full reconciliation, he spends much of the song reliving those days of temporary separation.  When he wasn’t avoiding socialization due to his deep depression, he was endlessly weeping.  One of the best lines in the song is this one:  “I’ll be good like I know I should.”.  One wonders what drove his woman away in the first place.  That hint of mystery helps make It Won’t Be Long a moving opener, one of the strongest tracks here.  It rarely fails to give me goose bumps.
 
Four consecutive originals follow.  All I’ve Got To Do features Lennon at his most assertive as he simplifies the art of courtship.  (If only romance were as easy as a summoning phone call and some whispered sexy talk.)  Drummer Ringo Starr offers an atypical drum pattern during the first two lines of every verse, purposefully hesitant, while returning to his usually energetic, self-assured open hi-hat/snare drum routine the rest of the time.  Not unlike From Me To You with its “give me a call when you need me” theme, despite its rather basic nature All I’ve Got To Do is saved by its strong melody line.  Ditto the frenetic All My Loving which features a rather effective George Harrison guitar solo.  McCartney’s trusting vocals elevate the less-than-stellar lyrics, although the “I’ll pretend that I’m kissing/The lips I am missing” couplet is a nice twist on the usual formula. 
 
Harrison’s train-rhythmed Don’t Bother Me is It Won’t Be Long without the happy ending.  Wearily addressed not to an ex-lover but a concerned friend who won’t let him be, like the earlier song, the protagonist is too sad over a failed relationship to even be social with another person.  With a Bo Diddley-inspired guitar lick and lots of percussive thumping, it’s a good debut effort even for today’s listeners.  The fact that it even made the cut was a real breakthrough.  (Lennon and McCartney were quite territorial about the placement of their songs on Beatles’ albums and singles.)  The harmonica driven Little Child is very much in the tradition of the blues when female love interests weren’t always treated as equals, making the title a little dated.  Essentially a self-pitying variation on I Only Want To Dance With You, because this routine song is so well crafted you don’t mind singing along to it.
 
In less capable hands, Till There Was You (from The Music Man) would be even cornier than this cover version.  But McCartney’s vocal performance is strong and the rather lovely acoustic arrangement (featuring Ringo on bongos) makes the somewhat fruity lyrics work.  A cover of The Marvellettes’ Please Mr. Postman is a worthy tribute as are Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven (which features way better lyrics than all the originals put together here), Smokey Robinson’s creepy You Really Got A Hold On Me (at three minutes, it’s the longest track on the album), the moving Devil In Her Heart (first performed by forgotten girl group The Donays) and the slightly warped take on Barret Strong’s Money, which ends the record on a good if slightly odd note.  Lennon’s vocals are determinedly out front as they should be.
 
The Beatles present a few more originals in between all these covers.  Hold Me Tight is pretty much a singable, danceable throwaway.  (It was originally in contention for Please Please Me but ended up being re-recorded for this album.)  “Making love to only you” is about as racy as it gets.  I Wanna Be Your Man (later recorded by The Rolling Stones) is another Bo Diddley-style rocker.  Ringo’s double-tracked lead vocals are ably assisted on the choruses by Lennon and McCartney who, for some appreciative reason, like to scream just before solos during a number of the up-tempo numbers, a trend that would spread to other albums.
 
Next to It Won’t Be Long, Not A Second Time has the prettiest melody and the most thought out lyric.  A very straightforward tale about a wronged lover not willing to give an ex another shot at love, the piano is the lead instrument here.  Good choice.  It gives the song a stronger sense of urgency.
 
As for the overall sound quality, there should be no complaints from even the most anal of audiophiles.  This reissue isn’t overproduced (unlike most CDs these days), you can hear every instrument and vocal quite clearly, and it should provide years of enjoyment for those willing to partake, trusting that the album is looked after properly.
 
Early pressings are enhanced with an unnecessary three-minute mini documentary about the original LP.  (You need QuickTime and at least Windows 2000 to access it.)  If you saw The Beatles On Record on MuchMoreMusic or Bravo late last year, you’ve seen this footage.  Featuring clips of songs from the album, old TV performance clips and narration by producer George Martin and all four band members, there’s not much here you don’t already know.  Lennon notes that this album was a good showcase for how the band sounded before they became “the clever Beatles”.  Ringo claims that he barely knew the guys before he joined but they did have one common bond:  they tended to like the same music.  And as Harrison and McCartney both note, rock and roll acts didn’t last longer than two years so they had no idea how long the ride was going to last.  Technically, the sync problems that plague the Please Please Me doc also affect this one.
 
As for the expanded liner notes, like the documentary, much of the information covered has been widely known for decades.  Unless you’re a newbie, you won’t be terribly enlightened.  Even the black and white pictures you’ve seen before, as cool as they are.
 
Despite the disappointing CD-ROM material, this new version of With The Beatles is still a welcome addition to your collection.  That is, unless you still enjoy the original CD.  Otherwise, save your money.
 
Although the band would easily top it with many of its follow-up releases, despite its lack of originality, this flawed second album is still worth repeated listens.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
1:08 a.m.  
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Published in: on February 2, 2010 at 1:08 am  Leave a Comment  

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