Following the release of the Hard Day’s Night albums, everything just got cranked up a notch or two more. A significant proportion of the remainder of 1964 was spent on the road – not, as had been the case only a year before, slogging round the ABCs, Gaumonts and Music Halls of the UK, but all over the map, including Australia and New Zealand, and a month in the US consolidating their popularity there while on at least one occasion, refusing to go on until the audience was desegregated. The Beatles generally flew everywhere, but air travel wasn’t what it is today – a trip to Australia required stopovers and one can only imagine the level of exhaustion they were all permanently living with.
It bears pointing out that a Beatles show, largely inaudible to the audience over the screams in any case, was pretty much unchanged from their ‘variety bill’ days – you got about 30 minutes of music, and that’s your lot. For many people, the price of admission basically covered being in the same room as the band while their underpowered amps struggled to make themselves heard over the racket the fans made. Having said that, they were a terrific live band, and if you’ve not seen Ron Howard’s documentary ‘Eight Days A Week’, I highly recommend it – he and Giles Martin managed to extricate the music from the general feverish yelling, and a lot of it sounds as good as you’d hope.
There is another radical change coming, and it was at least partly driven by the band meeting Bob Dylan. Not only were they famously introduced to Bob’s herbal relaxant of choice, but they all – Lennon in particular – were made aware that there was more than one way of going about this music business thing. Dylan was in some ways the antithesis of the Beatles at this point – serious music for intellectuals and Beatniks, as opposed to pop music for teenyboppers, but both realised that there was a lot more overlap than there appeared on the surface. It’s around this time that the Beatles stopped wearing collar and tie to every event, and properly let their hair grow out. It’s after meeting Dylan that they begin to explore more abstract lyrics and more complex music, while Dylan began to work with a band, electric instruments and started dressing a little less bohemian. The meeting has acquired mythical status over the years, but there’s a reason for that.
For all that they had already been worked into the ground, there was a need, on both sides of the Atlantic, for some new product to sell. Capitol kicked things off with the sixth Beatles album of the year, ‘The Beatles Story’. As if to prove that people would buy any old tat with the Fab Four on it, this was not an album of songs, but a spoken word telling of the story so far. A couple of weeks later, some of the songs from ‘Beatles For Sale’ came out on “Beatles ’65” – it didn’t include ‘Eight Days A Week’ for some reason, but did include the UK non-album single, released to promote the new UK album, ‘I Feel Fine’, complete with that feedback sound which seemed to mark a change in the way the band used the studio:
George Martin had noted the year before that there seemed to be a ‘bottomless pit’ of new songs, but the truth was that at the end of 1964, there was very little left in the tank for anyone. As a result, ‘Beatles For Sale’ remains that one album you can’t quite remember; the largely unloved runt of the litter whose cover you can never quite picture clearly, unlike all the others. It sold – as they all did – in vast amounts, but I doubt it’s the first one anyone reaches for when they feel like some early Beatles.
Which is a shame, because there’s some great stuff on here – it’s a proper transitional album, with songs like ‘No Reply’ and ‘I’m A Loser’ adding proper storytelling to the established Beatles song structure, and several of the songs exploiting minor keys and mournful lyrics; I think you can hear all the way through it hints of what’s to come, and if you compare it to the bright pop music of 12 months before, it’s clear just how far everything has come. Of course, the reason it’s not as successful in retrospect is that its padded out with filler, and not particularly good filler – ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ is promising, but it really does sound like what it is, which is very early McCartney trying to figure out how to write a ballad, and the covers, which are only there because EMI wanted something out in time for Christmas, are plodding and uninspired for the most part – McCartney’s tortured vocal on ‘Kansas City’ works, as does Harrison’s slightly anxious sounding one on ‘Everybody’s Trying to be my Baby’, but they had grown out of covering Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly, and their hearts aren’t in it.
Its title is shameless; it might just as well have been called ‘Some Beatles Product’, and it marks the first time a Beatles album isn’t an unqualified improvement on the one which came before it. However, it really does need to be taken in context – this is the last gasp of an utterly drained band who had spent the previous twelve months conquering the known world – pretty much unknown in the USA at the start of the year, they ended it having had seven albums and at least eighteen singles in the charts, many of them number ones, and having set several records which still stand. 1964 was utterly insane and given the run of albums they are about to embark on, we can forgive one which doesn’t quite land.