The Beatles were the first major musical influence I had when I was a wee lad; the proverbial light that lit the trail of all the rock music I would soon begin purchasing and the lifestyle I would come to inhabit. As I’ve said in other places, I was able to acquire the discs new or used and so I built up a fairly large collection quickly for less than full retail. I had every Beatles album available through the early 70s before I was out of high school…and some were even imports! The Beatles were and still are the perfect “first” band to get excited about and at this point multiple generations of fans have come of age listening to these recordings. Growing up and learning about music and learning how to play guitar only made me appreciate the band’s talent and abilities that much more.
With that said, I don’t think everything they ever wrote, recorded and released was AMAZING. I don’t think any artist has a “perfect” catalog and even the best artists have work that outshines their other efforts. Unlike many other bands where I don’t review their less than stellar albums, I review all of the Beatles’ releases because I had them all. So, as I did with the Stones, I will rate these as an old guy who has heard a lot of music over the years.
Introducing the Beatles ***1/2 The first Beatles album released in the United States! Sepia-toned awesomeness; looked like it was made in the 1920s or something. While it wasn’t the first Beatles album I owned, I found it a fascinating listen because compared to their later original, more polished releases it sounded totally caveman to my young ears. It has a few originals like I Saw Her Standing There, P.S. I Love You, There’s a Place, Love Me Do and Do You Want to Know a Secret, plus a bunch of covers like Boys, Anna, A Taste of Honey (which John Lennon hated and called A Waste of Money!) Chains, and Baby, It’s You. The Beatles had great energy, great vocals and vocal harmonies, and were a great rock and roll band from their first albums. Also, it was obvious that George Harrison (and John Lennon) had absorbed all of the best from their various guitar influences (Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Elvis, Scotty Moore, skiffle, blues, and r n’b) and were now building on those sounds and styles to create their own music.
Meet the Beatles **** The big debut. A pretty amazing achievement and it’s only their “first” album!. Side A is flat-out great: I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Saw…, This Boy, It Won’t Be Long, All I’ve Got to Do, and All My Loving. Fourteen minutes of perfect pop and they are all Lennon/McCartney compositions!
Side B isn’t quite as good: Don’t Bother Me never did anything for me, Til There was You is nice, but a cover and the other originals like Little Child, Hold Me Tight and Not A Second Time are okay, but not quite the quality of Side A. The last song, I Wanna Be Your Man, they gave to the Stones and Ringo, so it is obviously not a great tune. Through it all there is some absolutely killer guitar playing and arranging going on; the riffs on It Won’t Be Long, the Lennon gypsy jazz rhythm on All My Loving, George Harrison’s Neo-Carl Perkins guitar fills and his jazz solo on Til There Was You, plus all of the interesting chords in the harmony of the songwriting that was the best mix of rock n’ roll and popular music. It was obvious, even at the time I’m sure, that these young lads were going to the Top of the Pops!
The Beatles Second Album *** Kind of a boring, but very noisy album, mainly because of the vocalese of the Motown numbers. I know I’m in the minority but I never liked the Beatles’ or anyone else from the British Invasion doing Motown. The Beatles did Motown numbers at their normal rock and roll volume and it was total overkill. The good songs here: Roll Over Beethoven, (George plays Chuck Berry effortlessly) Devil in Her Heart, (George singing a silly, jazzy number with cool guitar lines), Money and I Call Your Name (John Lennon’s smokin’ rock and roll numbers), Long Tall Sally (Paul doing Little Richard), and She Loves You, the explosive third single that catapulted the band to stardom. The bad songs is everything else.
A Hard Day’s Night ***** John Lennon steps up and writes the definitive first ever rock and roll album. Sure, he had help from Paul McCartney; And I Love Her (great acoustic guitar solo from Harrison) and Can’t Buy Me Love (great electric solo from Harrison) are both classic tunes, and Paul certainly helped with the title cut and some of the others, but it’s pretty much accepted that the rest is John Lennon. Because they were “writing for a movie” there was a continuity and a focus that defines any great album; it becomes so much more than a just collection of songs. I received this as a gift and for some reason it was the British version of the album…because the American version was kind of weird.
But the import album encapsulates all of the excitement that was Beatlemania: the raucous title track (another great solo from George), acoustic guitar, harmonica and 12-String Gretsch solo on I Should’ve Known Better; the sweet harmony/melody of If I Fell; the rowdy rock and roll of Tell Me Why, which Lennon said was influenced by the girl groups of the early 60s and sounds so much better as a “noisy” number than the previous album’s Motown covers. The other bluesy rock and roll: When I Get Home, You Can’t Do That (great 12-string guitar riff and Lennon solo), Any Time at All, and the “skiffly” I’ll Cry Instead all prove that Lennon had completely mastered writing the rock and roll form. His subdued I’ll Be Back and McCartney’s Things We Said Today round out the album on melancholy notes and show that both songwriters were already capable of writing songs with an adult depth of emotion and thought. While this was recorded in 1964, it is already anticipating what the band would become at their peak. Aside from all of the obvious great stuff I mentioned there were all the production/creative “Beatle-isms” that put them so far ahead of their contemporaries, like the legendary first chord to A Hard Day’s Night, Harrison’s final riff fade-out on You Can’t Do That and Lennon’s final fancy chord on Anytime At All. Sassy!
Beatles 65 ***1/2 Okay, but as it’s a thrown-together American release it doesn’t really qualify as an album. It has great songs like No Reply, I’m A Loser, Baby’s in Black, I FeeL Fine and She’s a Woman, plus a couple of cool Carl Perkins numbers, Honey Don’t and Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby. There is a lot of pretty suave Neo-Rockabilly Harrison guitar on these numbers and a great Lennon riff on I Feel Fine. But it has I’ll Follow the Sun, which is boring and I’ll Be Back, which I already owned, plus Lennon singing Rock and Roll Music which I never liked. Mr. Moonlight is silly, but pretty awesome because of Lennon’s ear-splitting vocal and the cheesy organ solo.
Beatles VI *** Another lame American-packaging record and the material isn’t very good either. You Like Me Too Much is terrible, What You’re Doing is thoroughly average and Yes It Is, finds the band repeating itself already by re-recording This Boy with different lyrics. Eight Days a Week has a great guitar riff and there is some neato axe-work on Tell Me What You See, Every Little Thing and the Larry Williams tune, Bad Boy. I was never a fan of McCartney’s take on Kansas City or the Dizzy Miss Lizzy cover, although George’s playing on these rock and roll numbers is stellar (as usual).
Help! ***** I had the American version of this disc when I was a kid, but later I bought the British version on CD because it is just a whole lot better. This is the first in the 4 album run that is the height of the Beatles’ creative mojor. While Help! does have two songs I already said I don’t like, You Like Me Too Much and Dizzy Miss Lizzy, everything else is the best of the Beatles circa 1965 with some great guitar as well. There is something about the riffs and sounds of this period that I’ve always liked. The singles: Day Tripper and We Can Work It Out were also very good and show the band on the cusp of leaving behind the energetic rock and roll simplicity that launched them to international stardom for a more mature and developed sound and style. In the process they were helping expand the boundaries of rock music and many technological innovations that would later become a part of the recording process.
The title cut is super-duper and shows how much Lennon is growing as a songwriter. George’s quick-picking descending riff is a highlight of the song! He also plays a great solo and fills on You’re Going to Lose that Girl and uses a 12-string Rickenbacker through a volume pedal for lead work on his own I Need You. Ticket to Ride is one of the band’s best ever singles and has a great 12-string chiming riff and a nice rock and roll outro. Another Girl has Paul McCartney playing some lead guitar Paul McCartney-style and his rambunctious acoustic number I’ve Just Seen a Face has a whole slew of acoustic guitars and Harrison banging out the lead lines on an acoustic 12-string like Leadbelly or Lonnie Donegan. Though lyrically not a very good song, Lennon’s It’s Only Love has some great capo-ed acoustic guitar and electric 12-string lead lines played with a tremelo effect. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away shows the influence of Bob Dylan and has a very nice Beatles’ acoustic combination of 6- and 12-string guitars and some flutes! Harrison also plays some great rock and roll guitar on The Night Before and a double-tracked lead guitar with a “dropped D” for Act Naturally. The album also has McCartney’s Yesterday, which would go on to become one of the most covered songs of all time and a great vehicle for solo guitarists.
Rubber Soul ***** Universally regarded as one of the best albums ever made, Rubber Soul captured the Beatles’ at the height of their creative power and accelerated the process of expanding pop boundaries and how musicians and bands could more effectively harness the sound capabilities of a recording studio. All of the songs are originals and they reflect a maturation, a worldliness and an expanded depth and breadth of vision that was the result of drug experimentation. I’ve always heard Rubber Soul as very “marijuana” album; warm and resonant…woody and brilliant. This period of Beatles music has quite a few great songs driven by acoustic guitars and interesting electric guitar sounds and riffs. For all intents and purposes the Beatles became their own producers with this album because what they were hearing and writing was far beyond the scope of what George Martin or any other producer was capable of at that time.
The music shows further development from Help! and represents some of the best of what the 1960s had to offer: Lennon’s Norwegian Wood, which features a very tasty acoustic riff plus George Harrison doubling said riff on the sitar, the first appearance of that instrument in connection with a rock band. Michelle is a McCartney number that has a very minor jazz feel (personally I think it owes a whole lot to Django Reinhardt’s Tears [it’s even sung in French! Are we going to split hairs here? Am I wrong?]) and a very cool rhythm acoustic and a moody guitar solo. Lennon’s Girl is another worldly acoustic tune that features audible breathing for the song’s “sighs” and a Greek-style instrumental break near the end that was made possible by faking the sound of a Bouzouki by placing capos high on the guitar necks. McCartney’s I’m Looking Through You has both Harrison and McCartney jamming the electric guitar parts while Lennon plays the acoustic rhythm. Run for Your Life, while a not very good lyrical song, has Lennon’s great acoustic strumming and deft slide playing while Harrison rocks the song’s cooking riff and smoking solo.
As usual, in addition to the great musical work the band did, the vocal harmonies were unparalleled, then or now. The combination of great vocals with these various guitar highlights made for a multi-dimensional panorama of sound! Nowhere Man has the vocals I’m talking about plus Lennon and Harrison doubling the repeated descending riff while Harrison picks the melodious solo that ends with quick harmonic on the high E. Further experimentation with effects occur on the rockin’ tune Wait, which features Harrison on a guitar with a volume pedal, and his original Think For Yourself features McCartney playing a pretty prog rock fuzz-bass overdub, which was another thing the world had never heard before. Harrison’s other original If I Needed Someone was one of his best ever and was influenced by the Byrds and all of the little riffs and melodies a guitarist can play around a “D” chord. Lennon’s very mellow In My Life featured a tasty guitar lick, cool harmonic changes, and a very adult view of life, which was remarkable given that he was only 25 years old at the time. Drive My Car and What Goes On both have some great guitar parts and solos by Harrison, and some very inventive vocal harmonies. Unfortunately, the final tune, McCartney’s You Won’t See Me, while not terrible, is a bad harbinger of things to come. All of the guitar goodness of Rubber Soul would be exchanged for keyboard-driven Fool On the Hill-isms sooner than later, but there would be a couple more albums of awesomeness before then!
Revolver ***** The best Beatle record? Possibly. Certainly a wide range of styles and sounds and they manage to make it cohesive. Paul McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby is recorded with a double string quartet; none of The Beatles play an instrument. At the other end of the spectrum there is John Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows, inspired by the harmonic structure of Indian music and recorded Automatic Double Tracking (ADT) and effects like the flanger and Leslie speaker. The tune is enhanced even further by Ringo’s insistent drumming, tape loops supplied by everyone in the band, Lennon’s very distant vocals and Paul McCartney’s brief backward guitar solo. I’m Only Sleeping, another very spacey Lennon track also has a backward guitar solo, this time courtesy of George Harrison. She Said, She Said a Lennon composition that features he and George playing all of the guitars and George playing the bass. This tune has key center shifts and a time shift from 4/4 to 3/4 and the sound of the guitars are bright and gnarly. McCartney has said in interviews that The Beatles recorded a lot guitar tracks directly into the board and I wonder if that is how they got the sound on this track??
Taxman, a George Harrison composition has a pretty nifty little guitar solo supplied by Paul McCartney. Paul and George do the fast doubled guitar melodies on Lennon’s And Your Bird Can Sing. Then there is I Want To Tell You, another Harrison composition that had a riff so mighty that Ted Nugent recorded a version of it 10+ years later. Here, There and Everywhere and For No One are two of McCartney’s best-ever ballads. There is a sparse instrumentation to both of these performances that allows the tremendous melodies and vocals to dominate — something that would be sorely lacking on some of the later love songs. George Harrison’s Love You To and Lennon’s Dr. Robert are also astonishing songs. The mix of sitar and electric guitars in the former and the nice chunky guitars and the ringing drones of the latter make for a couple more fine Beatles’ guitar moments. Yellow Submarine has a very novelty-esque tone to it, but the whole song is driven by Lennon’s always tight acoustic rhythm guitar. This album, along with the 1966 dual-side single Paperback Writer/Rain (both tunes have great guitar and vocal sounds and great bass and drums as well!) make this year the height of Beatledom for me. Everything the band had been doing led up to this point and while Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is often celebrated as the pinnacle of Beatle achievement (and it may be) it does so with less guitar than this album and this is The Guitar Cave, so while I don’t mean to neglect other instrumentation in favor of the guitar, I will admit a certain bias.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ***** The Beatles’ most celebrated album and a major artistic statement that rocked the pop world of the time and still has the capacity to influence and excite. While not as guitar-heavy as the previous three albums, Pepper still has some tasty stuff and I do admire and have always respected the album as an entirety or a whole. However, it also demonstrates a bit of waywardness and the beginning of the wrong kind of excess (which was actually already evident in the Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single released prior to this album). This is to be expected in an era or period of experimentation; the inevitable distance of “how far can we go” includes points where the music becomes secondary or the ideas become experimentation for experimentation’s sake, or way beyond what will appeal to most listeners. Also, while I completely understand George Harrison’s desire to be a serious sitar player and not merely a dilettante, by this album his forays in that direction were growing a bit old. While his compositions were sonically very interesting, the lyrical content was usually very hit or miss and he spent less time with the guitar in a very guitar-heavy period of music, which he shouldn’t have done because he was a great player!
The great guitar on Pepper includes the rockin’, snarling lead of Sgt. Pepper; the spacey wah-wah fills of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds; the great rhythm ringing chords and drones of Getting Better; George’s fuzzy Stratocaster solo and fills on Fixing A Hole; McCartney’s blaring Fender Esquire solo on the very weird-timed Good Morning, Good Morning; Harrison’s electric on the Sgt. Pepper reprise, and Lennon’s prominent acoustic guitar heard on A Day in the Life. The rest of the tunes have very little guitar (When I’m 64, Lovely Rita, With a Little Help from My Friends) or no guitar at all (She’s Leaving Home, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, Within You Without You). On this album that is not the major dealbreaker it ordinarily would be as Pepper is a masterpiece of writing, performance, and production and there is a sonic continuity throughout that holds the album together. Other very admirable qualities (aside from guitar contributions) step to the fore on this release and while I wouldn’t rank many of these individual songs as favorites compared to one of the Beatles’ better guitar-driven numbers, within the context of this album they are super because they belong to this album. I don’t feel that way about any subsequent Beatles’ release save for Abbey Road…and even then, not always.
Magical Mystery Tour *** An album that was released only in the USA and the beginning of the decline unfortunately. This is the first album since Help! that isn’t more than a bunch of songs and while the material isn’t terrible it is a) short on guitar, and b) driven mostly by the aspirations of Paul McCartney. His songs Magical Mystery Tour (ok), The Fool on the Hill (eh?), Your Mother Should Know (odious), Hello Goodbye (likewise) dominate. Harrison’s Blue Jay Way is pretty weird and not in a good way. The over-orchestrations of this period are like the worst excesses of Prog Rock and really the only tune where this approach works for me is on I Am the Walrus and even then only as a curio. Flying, the only song ever credited to all four Beatles, and Baby You’re a Rich Man have noticeable guitar parts, but that’s it. I’m sure everyone who was off their face on LSD or whatever in 1967 really dug these songs and maybe they aren’t terrible, but a great album, this is not.
The Beatles (The White Album) *** People to this day think that this is a great album, but I disagree. It is a huge collection of stuff and is the beginning of the Beatles going into solo artist mode, but it is not a great band album. 5 “songs”: Wild Honey Pie, Goodnight, Mother Nature’s Son, Blackbird and Julia have only 1 Beatle performing. Revolution #9 is really a John Lennon/Yoko Ono solo project and Why Don’t We Do it in the Road, aside from being moronic, has McCartney playing every instrument except Ringo’s drums. That qualifies as one side of music and another side of music: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Honey Pie, Martha My Dear, Bungalow Bill, Revolution 1, Piggies, and Don’t Pass me By could likewise be jettisoned and then this would be a solid single album instead of the first version of “Sandinista Syndrome“, which is that point where a band does a boatload of drugs, fully embraces the bad side of their collective and individual ego, and commits every stupid idea to tape so it can be pressed, and released to the public…see Sandinista by the Clash circa 1980. In every positive review I’ve ever read for this album, the high marks are rationalized by the canard “…the Beatles explore every facet of Western music” or something to that effect (which, coincidentally is how Sandinista is justified). But a very old saying applies here and it should have been taken to heart. Just because one can do something doesn’t mean one should do something. By 1968 everyone knew that Paul McCartney was capable of dashing off something like Honey Pie in about 10 minutes, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good song or that a bunch of divergent material makes for a high-quality, consistent album that deserves to be #10 (?) on the Rolling Stone list of Greatest albums eva…
The best tunes: Happiness is a Warm Gun, Helter Skelter, Back in the USSR, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, I Will, Savoy Truffle, Rocky Raccoon, Long, Long, Long, Sexy Sadie, Everyone’s Got Something to Hide…, Birthday, Yer Blues, Dear Prudence, and Glass Onion would make a great 5-star album. There is also a whole boatload of great guitar on these tracks, courtesy of Harrison, McCartney, Lennon, and Eric Clapton on While My Guitar… and frankly I don’t think listeners should have to wade through a bunch of subpar stuff to find and hear the band rocking out…as a band. It’s kind of interesting how McCartney’s first solo record, and Lennon and Ono’s various avant-garde releases were all panned pretty hard by EVERYBODY for their lack of accessibility and focus, but on the White Album this same kind of half-assed material qualifies as “genius”.
Yellow Submarine ** The soundtrack from the Yellow Submarine movie, and was accepted as a “throwaway” even at the time, so not much to get excited about. The only interesting songs on here are one from Harrison; It’s All Too Much, a really great psychedelic rocker with some cool guitar from Paul McCartney and Lennon’s Hey Bulldog, which has a pretty great proto-stoner rock guitar riff even if it’s a dumb song. The world had already heard Yellow Submarine and All You Need is Love and All Together Now is the 13th Paul McCartney song inspired by family sing-a-longs. Only a Northern Song has a nice organ sound, but it needed a guitar. That would’ve helped every song from this period. The George Martin soundtrack orchestrations are nice, but not really something to sit around and listen to.
Abbey Road ***** The Beatles make their final band effort. There is a plethora of really cool guitar on the album: Something, I Want You, Come Together, The End, Sun King, Polythene Pam, Octopus’s Garden, You Never Give Me Your Money and Here Comes the Sun all qualify as great Beatle 6-string moments and unlike the earlier two albums they sound like they are all playing together in the same room again. Also, the era of experimentation was mostly over and there was a desire to, at least temporarily, get back to playing music with minimal additional instrumentation. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is the only tune from Abbey Road I’ve never liked and has anyone ever liked it? Probably, but there is no accounting for taste.
This was the first Beatles album recorded on 8 tracks and the production values are really super. Everything sounds crystal good, so many fine moments: the guitar lines of You Never Give Me Your Money, the glorious vocal harmony vocals on Because, the guitars and overall vibe on Sun King. Harrison’s numbers, Here Comes the Sun and Something both have a bevy of great guitar on them and he also plays a fine doo-wop/old rock and roll style guitar on Octopus’s Garden. Lennon’s hyped-up Chuck Berry stolen-Come Together and the proto-metal jazz of I Want You is an avenue he should’ve explored further after leaving the Beatles. I have no idea where (musically) that came from, but it’s one of the most awesome moments in Beatles’ guitar history. Finally there is Ringo’s drum solo and the big guitar rave-up of The End, which has Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison all trading solos on their final musical statement. A fantastic way to go out!
Hey Jude ***1/2 Not a bad compilation album. It contains songs from Can’t Buy Me Love and I Should Have Known Better in 1964 through singles Paperback Writer and Rain (1966) that had never been released on an album through the late 60s singles that had also not been released on an album: Hey Jude, The Ballad of John and Yoko, Don’t Let Me Down, Old Brown Shoe, Revolution, and Lady Madonna. While this disc would kind of be eclipsed by later compilations, I don’t know that any of those comps had both Paperback Writer and Rain, which I think is the best Beatles guitar single of all time.
Unlike the Stones (and others), who usually (but not always) put their hit singles on current albums, the Beatles generally avoided doing this, especially in England. Paperback Writer was one of Paul McCartney’s finest creations and it is probably he who plays the fantastic guitar riff that drives the song. Rain is also a great number and is explored in detail here on The Guitar Cave as a GuitarSong. It also has some great guitar, once again supplied by Paul McCartney (probably). While Hey Jude (the biggest Beatle hit ever) and Lady Madonna don’t have much guitar, Revolution has great Lennon fuzzy rocking. He’s just doing simple rhythmic Chuck Berry stuff, but the tone on the guitar is so fuzzed out and terrible, it’s awesome! The Ballad of…is just Lennon and McCartney with all of the guitar supplied by John. Don’t Let Me Down has some very nice chords and a whole lot of sweet fills and “touch” playing from George Harrison. It also has an inventive syncopated bridge that is deceptive in difficulty. Finally, George’s Old Brown Shoe finds him playing all of the instruments except for piano and drums, including the pretty intense guitar solo played through a Leslie speaker.
Let it Be *** The final nail…even though by the time it was released the band was basically no more anyhow. There aren’t really many good songs, but some of the guitar is good. It was great that George Harrison bounced back from his sitar adventures to start playing some really hot guitar on later-day Beatles releases. His riffing on I’ve Got a Feeling, Two of Us, I Me Mine, Dig a Pony and the solo on Let it Be is pretty stellar. His acoustic blues, For You Blue, is really a not much song that John Lennon plays a nice bottleneck slide on, but this album wasn’t one I ever played much.
1962-1966 ***** This double record compilation, released in 1973 was one of my first albums. I was already buying singles, and I received this for Christmas and my brother got the 1967-1970 version of the same release. It was compiled by Allen Klein and was the first definitive Beatles compilation and I still think it’s great. It has the best tunes from the early years through Revolver except for Rain, which I think should have been included because it is a watershed recording, and Twist and Shout, which wasn’t included, even though it was a big hit, because this set is all original material.
Listening through the album is a great study in early and mid-60s guitar rock/popular music. This “era” was before Beatles records would be dominated by keys, brass, and strings, Only Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby have any of that kind of sweetening while there are numerous guitar riff songs: Please, Please Me, I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Feel Fine, Day Tripper, Ticket to Ride, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), Michelle, Eight Days a Week, Paperback Writer, Nowhere Man and a bunch more. It’s all the hits and none of the filler or the covers, which were always a hit or miss proposition anyway.
1967-1970 **** The companion to 62-66; good but not as guitar-heavy as the first era. How much a listener will enjoy it will depend strictly on what material is preferable. There are a lot of great guitar tunes on this set: Something, Revolution, Come Together, Back in the USSR, While My Guitar…, Get Back, Across the Universe, Here Comes the Sun, Old Brown Shoe, but there is also a bunch of the more experimental, keyboard-driven material that became prevalent in the late 60s. Obviously the best scenario is to have both ’62-’66 and ’67-’70…digitally and then make a very self-serving guitar playlist, because you won’t really be missing much from the best the Beatles had to offer.