A little context:
As soon as it became clear that 'Please Please Me' was going to have staying power, George Martin asked the boys if they had any more songs like the ones they'd already written. As he would later remark, it turned out there was a 'bottomless pit' of songs. To keep the momentum going, they released 'From Me to You' as a single:
It's a fascinating song, showing clear development and invention from what had gone before - from the singing of the riff to the harmonies over the chord changes, to the lack of a traditional chorus, it subverts expectations at every turn. It also scored them their first official number one single and knocked Gerry and the Pacemakers off their perch as the pre-eminent Merseybeat band. Not to be outdone, EMI/Parlophone released 'Twist and Shout' as an EP shortly afterward - it also went to number one, a significantly harder task for an EP.
I realise some of you may not really know what was meant by EP in the sixties - essentially, singles were, as we know, 7" pieces of vinyl with one track on each side, played ("for higher fidelity") at 45 RPM. LPs, or long playing records, were 12" in diameter and played at 33 (and a third) RPM. For those who had more than pocket money to spend, but perhaps not quite a full disposable income, there were EPs - Extended Play singles. The ones I owned (which were, to be fair Pinky and Perky and selections from Disney soundtracks) were 7" in size, but played at 33RPM, allowing for two tracks per side (I did once own something spoken word - perhaps Peter and the Wolf - which was designed to be played at the spoken word speed of 16RPM. Good luck finding that setting on your modern hipster decks, kids). Anyway, EPs allowed for further milking of the album market for those who weren't quite able or willing to splash out on a whole long playing record. Eventually, by the end of 1963, three Beatles EPs, featuring virtually every track from 'Please Please Me' reached the top end of the singles chart, in spite of the significant price difference over a single. In those days, there was no separate EP chart, and even album sales (although separately recorded) were lumped in with all records in the main chart. This made little difference, as single sales far outstripped albums. Well, until The Beatles came along…
The next single release changed everything. If you can pinpoint the start of Beatlemania and the moment when they moved from being a successful pop band to a wider cultural phenomenon, it's the 23rd of August 1963, when this happened to an unsuspecting world:
Entire books have been written on the impact of 'She Loves You'; I think that from this distance, where we simply hear it as one of those touchstones of the 1960s, it's almost impossible to grasp just how seismic a shift in the landscape this was. On the face of it it's just another Beatles song - another Beatles love song, but just listen to it. Not only is it sung in the third person; not only is 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' the most astoundingly catchy motif which instantly entered the cultural lexicon; not only are all the Beatles hallmarks suddenly in place, but it gets in your head and just won't go away. I'm not exaggerating when I say everything changed - before this, The Beatles were another British touring act; after it, few parts of the world had not heard of them.
Although, as we shall see, it took a few more months for US record companies to get on the bandwagon.
Then 'With The Beatles' came out, featuring neither of the preceding singles, nor the one which came out the following week, 'I Want to Hold Your Hand':
(or, as it was no doubt interpreted by millions of teenage girls all now old enough to be your granny: ' I Want to "Hold Your Hand" ')
So, what's the plan for the second album in the light of all this going on - especially given that the first one is still sitting at the top of the charts? 'More of the same' seems to have been the order of the day. EMI, still a little nervous about allowing them to write all their own songs, held out for some well-known covers, leaving Lennon and McCartney happy enough to test their songwriting ability by putting out singles which became instant classics. The success of 'With The Beatles' marked a key turning point in their relationship with EMI - it, along with the staggering success of the singles, proved that the band knew what they were doing and while they weren't exactly left alone to get on with it from here on, they were at least given a significant and pretty much unheard of amount of creative freedom.
As long as they kept churning out the hits, of course.
The other key feature of 'With The Beatles' is the iconic cover image. If you have time, take a look at this short documentary on the album cover art of Blue Note to get an idea of what other genres were doing with image, and where the idea for this came from:
Right from the start, the Beatles were image conscious - I'll leave it to the many reference works to debate just who was driving their sense of image, but the result is a record cover entirely unlike anything their contemporaries were doing, and as striking an image of the early sixties as any. Having them in a broken line (Ringo, according to one testimony, is out front because he's a shortarse), not smiling, half in shadow broke pretty much all of the rules of iconography as it applies to pop bands, yet it remains one of the first images you call to mind when you think about The Beatles.
Incidentally, if you're ever poking about in a second-hand record store in Canada (something I do remarkably often), you might find the Canadian version of this, which completely misses the point of the stark beauty of the original by filling all the spaces with liner notes and other extraneous text. It's quite jarring.
Talking of Canada, what of their North American record labels? Surely by the time this came out, they were falling over themselves to get Beatles product out?
Well, not quite yet. Canada followed the UK in Beatles matters, perhaps unsurprisingly, and they were much better known north of the border than they were in the US. The big promotional push was due to kick off on the day after 'With The Beatles' UK release, which was the 23rd of November 1963. For obvious reasons, things got a little overshadowed, and it seemed that the moment might have passed. Rights to the first album had not been taken up by EMI's US arm, Capitol, and had been sold on to Vee-Jay Records, who managed to fail to release anything until it was almost too late. A butchered version of 'Please Please Me' was slated to come out in the summer of 1963, but corporate shenanigans involving gambling debts and the sudden resignation of a number of senior officials, pushed it back. Because Vee-Jay were doing nothing with the material, the contract was scrapped, although Vee-Jay hung on to what they already had as well as a few things they didn't technically have the rights to. This saga was a long way from being over, but at the time of 'With The Beatles' coming out, there had only been three US single releases, and none of them had troubled the scorers, not even 'She Loves You', which was appallingly handled by Swan Records, who also appeared to have no idea what to do with these British upstarts. All this would change, but not until 1964, which was pretty exciting in the UK, but totally off the scale insane on the other side of the Atlantic…
Fun fact - 'With The Beatles' sold so well in its first week that it appeared at number 11 in the singles chart.
Anyway, what do I make of it now?
Well, I think it lacks something, and it's not hard to see what - three of them are further up this post. It's a fine collection of songs, and it shows a definite progression from the previous album all of four months ago. More time has been spent on it, and what it loses in spontaneous joy, it gains in polished musicianship. The covers are for the most part not the definitive cover versions of these songs (I'm pretty sure I can name versions I prefer for all of them), and that may be down to the band being a little more focused on their own material, and keen to put the 'covers band' part of their life behind them. There's a more careful, considered dynamic to the album - the love songs are a little more mature, less about the thrill of first meetings and more about the realities of being in a relationship and a band at the same time.
Well, not all of the realities, just the ones the girls want to hear.
You can hear the songs the record company wanted on there, and with the benefit of hindsight you can hear Lennon saying 'No, we're not doing that again'.
Two key standout moments for me - the slightly hurried version of 'I Wanna Be Your Man', worked up over a lunchtime because the Rolling Stones wanted a hit single - Lennon and McCartney still imagined themselves as heading to the Brill Building when this 'pop star' nonsense was over - (Brian Jones elevates the Stones version, but it stands out as a songwriter's song; effortlessly catchy), and 'All My Loving' which discreetly shows off many of the tools in the Beatles' songwriting kit - the ridiculously simple and effective descending unaccompanied opening, Lennon's deceptively complex guitar part, Harrison's neat and punchy solo, the staggeringly effective vocal harmonies and the fact that it does everything it has to do, says its piece and shuffles off again in just a hair over two minutes, yet is as familiar fifty plus years on as anything which was released as a single.
It's a great album; of course it is. But it's also a little overshadowed by its predecessor and the singles which came out around it, and it lacks that one clear defining moment which would set it apart from its peers.
Never fear, though - the very next chord released on a Beatles album would more than make up for that.