Dave Amitri on With The Beatles
As we approach the 60th anniversary of the release of With The Beatles just eight months after Please Please Me I’ve been listening to not only the album for the first time but also some of the music that came before. Trying to get myself in the mind of a music fan in 1963 which requires me to dismiss everything released in my lifetime and more. As luck would have it our dear friends at Nothing Is Real have a two part podcast looking back, just at November 1963 in Beatles world and it has provided the kind of history lesson I could only dreamed of having at school. It has also helped me understand the unique madness of the original and biggest pop mania. So before I get to the album let me try and set the scene as I see it with absolute acknowledgment that these gems are Steven’s and Jason’s as they microscopically followed a month in the life of The Beatles where they were touring the country in front of 120000 fans, an ever voracious press desperate for any snippet of information and increasing interest from the US.
How can I understand something that was going on two years before I was born? Reference points are what I need. Mine is Cliff and The Drifters / Shadows. How does that help? Well something that has really stuck with me from the podcast was a long term employee from one of the local theatres, Southampton or Plymouth being quoted as saying he’d seen Johnny Ray, Bill Haley and Cliff playing at his theatre, but this was something completely different. Just eight months after the release of their first album and before the release of their second. This was new, before their second album they were already causing more fuss than Cliff. What about TV? I know TV and I know about Royal Command Performances. They are huge especially in an era of two channels and bugger all else to do. The Beatles appeared in November 1963 and 20 million people saw them do their thing which was an edgier Cliff and The Shadows turned up to 11, bundles of cheeky Scouse charisma, more risque and all the ooohs, wooohs and yeahs any self-respecting young music fan of 1963 would demand of their idols. Forget your Starman, Virginia Plain or Do you Really Want To Hurt me this must have been the talk everywhere the following day not just the playground. In my imaginary 1963 living room watching this clip with no other way of hearing or seeing them until the next TV appearance or if I could manage to get my hands on a record I would be in. Hook, line and sinker. This clip with John’s killer line delivered like a naughty schoolboy just puts the lid on it. Right here is where The Beatles go beyond the music and into celebrity on the way to phenomenon.
As an observation which I know will upset some but it is just how I see and hear it. While they are obviously a foursome and the dynamics may well change the further I go through the rest of the albums this is John’s band. He is the front man. The voice that is unique as far as I can tell, the attitude, he’s the one, right now he’s the one I’m buying in to.
Other events in November 1963 included Brian Epstein being in New York organising the Ed Sullivan appearances and the band signing a deal to make a movie (even The Beatles thought it wouldn’t last and that was the route to take, not just Cliff). On November 22nd the day the album was released on this tsunami of activity JFK was shot in Dallas. I don’t know what that means but it feels important, significant. All of this to me in 2023 is much more fascinating than the music but that is probably down to Nothing Is Real. I’m in now and want to find out more even before I get to The Beatles own “Summer Holiday”, “A Hard Day’s Night” next July (winky emoji).
Right, I still can’t move on to the music until I’ve mentioned the cover. It’s so striking. Wikipedia tells me it was a photo by Robert Freeman. To fully understand how brilliant it is it’s worth checking out the awful cover on the Australian release. Still four headshots on a black background but couldn’t be more different. These things matter.
Now we get to the music. Six cover versions, seven Lennon and McCartney tunes and one George Harrison song. It’s interesting to me how the vocals are shared as it slightly contradicts my ‘John’s band’ theory. Yes, John does most of the heavy lifting but Paul and George get a more than fair share.
Out of the blocks with three Lennon and McCartney songs. It Won’t Be long is classic early Beatles. John giving it plenty, nice guitar parts, lots of yeahs in a song about falling in love. All I’ve Got To Do is more of the same just slowed down. I love the ahh backing and John’s vocal is yearning enough to set young hearts racing. Paul’s up next with a hit. The brilliant All My Loving. It’s simple again but that is the where the genius lies. More kudos for what I assume is George’s guitar here. It is however sticking to The Shadows formula and you can imagine Hank doing the guitar breaks.
Don’t Bother Me is my favourite on the album by some distance. It has a different feel to the rest, it is a George song after all. I’ve been trying to work out what it is. George’s vocal is great but he still sounds like a Beatle. Lyrically it’s another boy / girl song but Geroge is more angsty about things in general than the soppier Lennon and McCartney songs. It’s edgy. It does different things melodically too which someone with more musical knowledge can probably explain to me. It feels out of another time while being an obviously Beatles song. I’ve been listening to The Coral a lot lately and they wear their Liverpool hearts on their sleeves. Don’t Bother Me would fit very nicely on any Coral album. As great as All My Loving is, it wouldn’t. Glad I’ve cleared that up. It’s a hell of a song either way.
With its harmonica and Buddy Holly vocal styling Little Child is a step back in time into the 50’s and none the worse for that. I wish people still made one minute 46 second songs.
Side one finishes with two covers and they are chalk and cheese with Paul providing the cheese. They did Till There Was You at The Royal Command Performance and followed it with Twist and Shout. Paul there for the mums while the girls wanted John and the boys wanted to be John. It’s a pleasant enough song that Paul sings beautifully but he’s 21 here. It’s all very Gary Barlow or dare I say it Cliff. John meanwhile rips into a definitive version of Please Mr Postman to end side one on a massive high. Overall 1963 Dave clinging to his copy would be thrilled with what he’d heard and been desperate to get side two on. 2023 Dave is starting to fall for the bands charm while not yet fully convinced that Macca won’t surface throughout like a whiff of Yardley among the Brut and Old Spice. On to side two………
George excels again here with a fantastically dry performance of the Chuck Berry rock n roll classic Roll Over Beethoven. I love the way George sings in Scouse. Great start.
Hold Me Tight is a low point. Nothing wrong with it per se it’s just a bit of unnecessary fluff.
You Really Got A Hold On Me is George and John doing their best Everly brothers on a Smokey Robinson song. It’s ok and I’m sure 1963 Dave would have made a valiant attempt to sing along into his bedroom mirror just wishing he could be as cool as John and as George as George. In 2023 it doesn’t have a lot to grip me. This is probably my problem.
Ringo gets a vocal credit on I Wanna Be Your Man. But I think I can safely say this is another for team George. His guitar throughout is inventive and drives on this fantastic foot stomping romp of a song.
I recently came across a couple of Shadows songs on which they actually sing. Devil In Her Heart puts me in mind of this
That’s The Way It Goes.
Nothing wrong with that at all, it’s good to hear George sing again.
Another great Lennon vocal lifts another potentially weak song in Not A Second Time with a piano break that I can imagine Hank Marvin doing behind his fixed grin on the infamous red Fender.
The closing track is an absolute highlight. It’s a down and dirty version of Money that’s all about John. The backing from the rest of the band is interesting because it’s The Beatles stepping out of their natural habitat. There’s some piano and all sorts going on a million miles from Hold Me Tight.
14 songs with nods to the future, leaning heavily on the past but absolutely in the present. The Beatles were rewriting how musical bands behaved, were spoken about and how they interacted with their fans. With The Beatles immediately replaced Please Please Me at the top of the UK album charts and stayed there for 21 weeks. (Please Please Me had held it for 30 weeks). None of this is normal, how can I truly appreciate its magnitude 60 years on? I will say that I wish I was there to feel it, experience it, live it. A black and white world lived in colour? I wish. Without a time machine that can’t happen. So I ask again. For those of you that were there please share how it felt and did you realise what was happening in front of your eyes?
Remarkably I’ve discovered that I Want To Hold Your Hand was recorded at the same time and not included on the album but released just a week after. One of my heroes Paul Weller often left some his best work for singles not on albums and maybe this was another of his many nods to the band. I could get lost in this stuff and never finish this review but the madness is summed up by this extract from Wikipedia
With advance orders exceeding one million copies in the United Kingdom, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” would have gone straight to the top of the British record charts on its day of release (29 November 1963) had it not been blocked by the group’s first million-seller She Loves You, their previous UK single, which was having a resurgence of popularity following intense media coverage of the group. Taking two weeks to dislodge its predecessor, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” stayed at number one for five weeks and remained in the UK top 50 for 21 weeks in total.
Musically I’m starting to get it but have they hit their creative heights yet? Of course not. I’ll have to wait until July for the next one and the net stage in their development. The Beatles are definitely under my skin but more for the hullaballoo around them than the actual noise they create. 2023 Dave is more keen to hear the next Nothing Is Real podcast than the next Beatles album. 1963 Dave has stopped cutting his hair, saving up for a suit and is spending hours practicing smiling and shaking his head at the same time.