Reviewing The Beatles is a bit like commenting on the architectural wonders of the Eiffel Tower 120 years into its life. You could be forgiven for wondering what more there is to add to what’s already been written and said. Still, this month’s reissue of the band’s album catalog in remastered form provides another chance to look back at the early years of perhaps the greatest rock band ever.
Released in 1963, With The Beatles is the band’s second album. Picking up where Please Please Me left off, it practically provides a template for how to build and promote a young rock band. Well-known covers of R&B staples? Check. Songs that barely clock in at two and a half minutes, and leave the audience wanting more? Check. Four charming, photogenic and eccentrically coiffed English lads? Check. That the album has aged so well is a testament to the musicianship and drive of the four band members.
With The Beatles not only captures the Fab Four at their quirky, harmonizing best, it also gives early hints of the band’s lively songwriting approach. Not surprisingly, their original compositions form the heart of the album. John Lennon brings equal amounts of teenage angst and rock star swagger to “It Won’t Be Long”. The yearning “All My Lovin'” foreshadows the band’s future song-crafting genius. And “Don’t Bother Me” (George Harrison’s first solo songwriting effort for the band) is a stellar contribution, propelled by a minor-key melody and what would become his trademark deadpan delivery.
In remastering the Beatles’ albums, Abbey Road engineers sought to clean up the sound of the records – removing or repairing sounds that took away from the album’s sonic dynamics. The result is a crisper, clearer sound that highlights outstanding musicianship and nimble songwriting chops for the still-young band. For instance, you can hear Paul McCartney’s pronunciation of the word “saw” as “sawr” in The Music Man cover “Till There Was You”. The music mix on “Devil in Her Heart”, comes across louder, but doesn’t sacrifice the sweet girl-group style vocal harmonies.
With The Beatles also shows the band beginning to enter more mature songwriting territory, as on the Lennon-sung kiss-off “Not a Second Time”. And on “I Wanna Be Your Man” (where Ringo Starr takes lead vocals) they prove they can rock as hard, well, as hard as anyone was rocking in 1963.
But it’s the little moments that were largely missing from the 80s-era CD releases of The Beatles catalog (check out the innovative percussion on “Don’t Bother Me”) that really make the remaster. With this new version, the fullness of the band’s chemistry is once more brought to the forefront of the mix.
Sadly, no amount of tweaking and spit shining can improve their rather stiff rendering of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”. Indeed a number of the covers collected on With The Beatles (most notably, “Please Mr. Postman”, “Money”, and “You Really Got a Hold On Me”) remain the misfires they were on the original recording.
But even with its occasional missteps, With The Beatles is still miles ahead of a good portion of current pop music.