Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Beatles for Sale (1964)

Most Overrated: “Eight Days a Week.” This song is overrated not because it’s bad, or even mediocre, but because it doesn’t overall live up to its moments of brilliance. If the song was comprised solely of its title, its four-bar intro, and the parallel 5ths in the bridge, it would be accurately rated as a clever, harmonically revelatory gem from the period when the Beatles made better music than they got credit for. Unfortunately, the lyrics (apart from the title) are lame and repetitive, and not in the way that makes you want to sing them over and over – a la “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Its shortness does help disguise its lyrical and structural predictability, but it remains a disappointment – to me, at least. The rest of my family loves it, and Beatles musicologists regularly point to it as evidence of the group’s maturing sound. I dunno.

Most Underrated: “Words of Love.” Again, an easy guess for my friends, because of my enduring obsession with Buddy Holly and (in particular) this song. I even recorded a version of it for Camille, with me on all three harmony lines and a charmingly bad facsimile of the solo. You will never hear this version, ever, ever. My original picks for most underrated were actually “I Don’t Want To Spoil the Party” and "Baby's in Black," which I’ve always felt (and still feel) have been unfairly ignored. But I realized that I mostly love those songs for their bizarre feel (“Baby’s in Black” = malformed hillbilly waltz) and their unexpected, open-interval bridges. Plus neither of those songs are really underrated, they’re just unknown by most and liked by a few people for whom the overwhelming feel of “Beatles-ness” is enough. I’m included in that crowd, by the way.

“Words of Love” is too often dismissed as a faithful tribute with a few quirks (e.g. Ringo playing a packing case). Like I sort of got around to arguing before with “Please Mr. Postman,” the early Beatles reveal a lot of their energy and personality through covers, however stiff or approximate. This Buddy Holly cover replicates the original closely, but somehow the Beatles stamp remains all over it. Could be the faux-Holly vocalizations, like “tell me love is real-ah," or the ingenious piecemeal switch from humming to singing during the coda. Wait, I want to explain that last thing because though I normally just throw out musicological tidbits, this one deserves an explanation. Throughout the song they’ve been humming the between-verse refrain (with more care and finicky attention to the harmony than Holly, as you’d expect), but at the end of the last verse, in preparation to ride out on the refrain, they gradually change from humming to singing “Ah.” It would be physically impossible to produce a sound between a hum and a note sung open-mouthed, so instead they switch one by one from humming to singing, so that by the end of the third refrain they’re all singing. Coupled with the precise fadeout, this technique ends up building momentum into the final moments of the song in an odd, uplifting way that bears no relation to Buddy Holly’s sensibility. It’s pure Revolver, a little preview for the outro to “Good Day Sunshine.” I hope that made sense, because “Words of Love” earns its Most Underrated status for those 15 seconds alone.

Of course, the rest of the thing deserves close attention too. In particular, I enjoy how the Beatles' predictably stiffer version reins in the Buddy Holly shamble to show off the beauty of the melody and the simple joys of the structure. Which isn’t to say I prefer the Beatles version – Buddy Holly and the Crickets cannot be outperformed, as was indisputably proven by the Rolling Stones’ version of “Not Fade Away” – just that if the songwriting is as good as it is on “Words of Love,” talented people will find new wrinkles to exploit. All of which goes to show that along with being an underrated Beatles song, “Words of Love” is also an underrated Buddy Holly song and an underrated song overall. Go find it.

No comments: