Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Beatles Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Please Please Me (1963, Parlophone)                                                

A –

Like most bands of the British Invasion, the Beatles’ early repertoire consisted largely of covers, and if this debut album – famously recorded in all of ten hours – isn’t quite as fondly remembered as the band’s later discs, it’s precisely because six of the fourteen cuts are covers. Still, they’re well-performed, and one of them – their energetic remake of “Twist and Shout,” previously recorded by the Top Notes and the Isley Brothers – would even go on to become the definitive rendition of the song. Where this album really makes a statement is in the strength of the newcomers’ original material. The Number One hit “Love Me Do” might be a little overly simplistic, but it’s also impossible to get out of your head. “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and the gentle cha-cha of “P.S. I Love You” (one of the band’s most underrated singles) are much more endearing and impressive. The harder-rocking “Misery” is catchy enough to make you wonder why it wasn’t a single, while the album’s iconic title track still impresses to this day with its innovative harmonies. Most memorable of all is the McCartney-sung opening cut, “I Saw Her Standing There,” simultaneously one of the hardest-rocking and one of the most danceable songs of the early British Invasion, capped with clever harmonies from Lennon and fiery performances from George Harrison and Ringo Starr. [The American version of the album, Vee-Jay’s Introducing the Beatles, unfortunately omits “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why,” and also excises the full count-in to “I Saw Her Standing There.”]   

With the Beatles (1963, Parlophone)                                                  

B  

For years, the British and American versions of the Beatles’ studio albums were wildly different, to the extent that the American wing of Capitol records were able to compile several American-only full-length packages (i.e. Something New) largely from tracks they’d previously left off the American versions of the British albums. While the British versions are typically superior (and were also the only ones that were available on CD until 2004), this is one rare case where the American counterpart (Capitol’s 1964 release Meet the Beatles!) is actually far more memorable, thanks to the addition of the revolutionary Number One single “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the gorgeous harmony-laden ballad “This Boy,” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” Like the debut, With the Beatles is loaded with cover material, and while the covers sound perfectly fine, none of them are terribly memorable, either, with the possible exception of McCartney’s charming rendition of “’Til There Was You” from The Music Man. The original material here isn’t quite as memorable as that on the debut, though it’s still solid. Lennon’s “Not a Second Time,” “It Won’t Be Long,” and “All I’ve Got to Do” are all very good and really show off his increasing sophistication as a songwriter since the previous album. The most famous tune here is also the best, McCartney’s rollicking “All My Loving,” which surprisingly was never actually released as a single in either America or England.  Compared to the hit-laden debut, there is an unfortunate lack of familiar material here, and it’s consequently hard to avoid wishing that Parlophone had opted to incorporate non-LP singles like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” here, but it still makes a fine sophomore outing even without any official singles present. 

 A Hard Day’s Night (1964, Parlophone)                                          

A +

The band’s third full-length – effectively doubling as a soundtrack for the film of the same name – is its most definitive artistic statement yet, the Fab Four dispensing with covers for the first time, Lennon and McCartney penning all of the fourteen cuts here. The sequencing may not be perfect (“And I Love Her,” for example, would have worked more effectively at the close of Side One, while “Can’t Buy Me Love” should have been pushed to the beginning of Side Two), but as a set of songs, it’s an absolute knockout.  The album’s iconic title track – opening with one of the most distinctive and memorable guitar chords in all of rock music – is the band’s most groundbreaking song yet, while “Can’t Buy Me Love” finds the band fusing swing, blues, and British Invasion pop all in one fell swoop to clever results. “And I Love Her” is McCartney’s first great ballad, and the wistful “Things We Said Today” is his most sophisticated melody yet. Lennon packs some serious bite with his fun rockers “You Can’t Do That” (easily one of the greatest non-singles of the band’s earliest years) and “I Should Have Known Better” and contributes his prettiest song to date in the vaguely flamenco-flavored acoustic pop of “I’ll Be Back,” which cleverly alternates between major and minor keys to great success. Perhaps the loveliest moment of all is the ballad “If I Fell,” which finds Lennon and McCartney harmonizing throughout to stunning effect.  [The American version of the album is wildly inferior, deleting four cuts (including, inexplicably, “You Can’t Do That,” “I’ll Be Back,” and “Things We Said Today”) and replacing them with four orchestral instrumentals.] 

Beatles for Sale (1964, Parlophone)                                              

A –

Obviously a rushed album, the band’s fourth studio outing finds them reverting to the cover-heavy nature of their first two albums, with only eight of the fourteen tracks here being new originals. Of the covers, the most inspired are their harmony-driven reworking of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love” and their version of Carl Perkins’ “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.” The originals throughout are consistently fantastic, Lennon kicking off the album in first-rate fashion with the vulnerable rockers “No Reply” and “I’m a Loser” while McCartney contributes another lovely ballad in “I’ll Follow the Sun.” The playful shuffle of the American Number One hit “Eight Days a Week” (shockingly not even released as a single in the U.K.) opens the album’s second side to great effect, while the end of the album contains several truly underrated gems in Lennon’s “Every Little Thing” and “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” both first-rate compositions featuring incredible harmony arrangements.  (The American counterpart of this album, Beatles ’65, oddly retains most of the covers while excising “Eight Days a Week,” “Every Little Thing” and “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” though it includes the major hits “I Feel Fine” and “She’s a Woman” in their place.)

Help! (1965, Parlophone)                                                          

A

It’s not a perfect album – if only for the inclusion of the pointless covers of “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Act Naturally” – but Help! (the first side of which serves as the soundtrack to the film of the same name) is an undeniable improvement on its predecessor, and the number of songs here that would go on to be classics (three of them Number One hits in America) is astounding. Lennon’s groundbreaking layered title cut is still impressive to this day and is one of his all-time greatest compositions, while the equally influential “Ticket to Ride” packs every bit as much of a punch and features some of Ringo Starr’s most memorable drum work. Lennon is at the top of his game on this disc, also contributing the first-rate album cuts “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and “It’s Only Love.” George Harrison turns in a fine cut here as well with the deceptively complex “I Need You.” Paul’s material here isn’t quite as consistent as John’s, but he does get in two classics of his own with the country-flavored “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and, more significantly, one of the most famous ballads in all of pop music, the timeless “Yesterday.” [The American version of the album deletes seven cuts – including, unbelievably, “Yesterday” – and replaces them with five orchestral instrumental tracks from the movie’s score.]   

Rubber Soul (1965, Parlophone)                                                       

A +

Rubber Soul is where the band really starts to turn its focus to creating albums that are truly meant to be album pieces, and this consequently is significantly only the band’s second album to not include any covers. (Intriguingly, the album would produce no singles in the U.K., though its track “Nowhere Man,” which was deleted from the American version of the album, would be released as a single in the U.S. and reach the Top Three).  The overall mood is not nearly as playful here as it was on Help!, unfortunately, but the songwriting is just as strong.  Lennon’s songwriting here is even more innovative and sophisticated than his contributions to Help!, and he delivers some real knockouts here in the form of the cynical folk of “Nowhere Man,” the timeless introspective ballad “In My Life,” the emotional desperation of “Girl,” and the sitar-laden story-song “Norwegian Wood” (which boasts what might be the most clever closing lines in any pop song from the ‘60s).  McCartney steps up his game here as well, contributing the much-covered bilingual ballad “Michelle,” the angry pop of “I’m Looking Through You” and “You Won’t See Me,” and the playful stomp of “Drive My Car.” Even the requisite Starr-sung cut, “What Goes On,” is much more memorable than his prior vocal outings. [The American version of the album curiously omits “Nowhere Man” and “Drive My Car,” along with two other lesser cuts, but replaces them with “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” to shockingly good effect, so you really can’t go wrong with either edition of the album.]