Why The Early Beatles Albums Are Under-Rated

Chances are, if you ask anyone to name their favorite Beatles album they will probably reply with almost any album from 1965 on. Every single album after Help! was drastically different in its approach and sound. Rubber Soul and Revolver showed a “grown-up” version of the band ready to move beyond songs about love. Sergeant Pepper re-wrote the rules about what an album could be, and for better or worse made rock and form into a viable form of art. The White Album was a stark contrast to the Pepper’s excess as The Beatles embracing every genre under the sun. Abbey Road was a culmination of their entire career – it was an adult album, but the entire second half was a nod to their early pop days.

Since these albums changed popular music and the world, it seems as if their early albums tend to get lost in the shuffle. When was the last time you heard someone say their favorite Beatles album was Beatles For Sale, With The Beatles, or Please Please Me? It might be a bit simplistic, but unless you’re like to complete an artist’s catalog or grew up with the band, their early days seem to be reduced to images of appearing on Ed Sullivan or the singles collected on 1.

The general consensus seems to be that The Beatles really didn’t really make “albums” until Rubber Soul. Rock critics love to hammer this into the ground, as do fellow musicians. When Rolling Stone recruited various musicians, critics and other rock dignitaries to compile the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Sergeant Pepper, The White Album, Rubber Soul and Revolver were all included in the Top 10. Abbey Road came in at 14 and it wasn’t until number 39 that Please Please Me was listed. The American re-hashing and reinterpretation of With The Beatles dubbed Meet the Beatles was included at 59, but after that the early Beatles albums disappear until Help! appears at 332, while A Hard Day’s Night comes in at 388. I could gripe for paragraphs about this list, but is The Neil Diamond Collection really better than Help! or A Hard Day’s Night?  

I suppose this shouldn’t really come as a shock since even The Beatles themselves have gone on record in preference of their later albums. Lennon in particular dismissed their early songs, wanting instead to create music that actually meant something and deal with more worldly problems than simple love songs.

It’s certainly easy to cut their career in two parts – the early “Beatle-mania” years, and the “studio” years. But to overlook their early records undercuts Lennon and McCartney’s early brilliance and enthusiasm for rock and roll.

Please Please Me, With the Beatles, Beatles For Sale, and A Hard Day’s Night all fly by with an irresistible and joyful energy that has rarely been equaled. They may not be as groundbreaking as Revolver or The White Album, but Paul and John’s ability to churn out song after song each one with an impeccable melody is no less than staggering. Even revered pop songwriters should be jealous of Lennon and McCartney’s consistency across these albums.

Now, to the actual albums.

Please Please Me starts with one of the best opening songs ever – the infectious “I Saw Her Standing There”.  There’s no way to not get caught up in McCartney’s yelps and whoops. Harrison also gives one of his best solos from the early period here as well. “Boys” is more rocking fun complete with Doo-Wop backing vocals. While some of the material has dated slightly – “Chains” in particular, the most impressive aspect of Please Please Me is how their original songs stand up to the R&B classic “Twist and Shout”.  Apparently, The Beatles recorded the entire album in a 24-hour period, which makes the performances even more impressive.

With The Beatles follow the same template as Please Please Me, but there are subtle differences.  The rockers are tighter and sharper especially “It Won’t Be Long” and “Little Child” which contains a pretty impressive Harmonica solo. With The Beatles might be the first Beatles album where they really proved that they could tackle various styles of music, while still maintaining their own identity. There’s R&B (the superb cover of “You Really Got a Hold On Me”), beautiful ballads (“Till There Was You”) straight up pop (“All My Loving”). Like Please Please Me, the originals on With The Beatles easily stand alongside the covers, which is no easy feat when you decide to play Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”.

A Hard Day’s Night (which is actually my favorite Beatles album) is the first album composed entirely of Lennon/McCartney originals.  The title track is one of the best songs the Beatles ever recorded, and a great showcase for the vocal interplay between the two lead singers. On “I Should Have Known Better” there’s a slight bittersweet quality, which would become of Lennon’s trademark qualities as the years went on. Paul displays a great leap in his songwriting with the immortal “Things We Said Today”.  Ultimately, A Hard Day’s Night retains the best elements of their early rocking years while also incorporating a more reflective side further explored on subsequent albums.

Beatles For Sale might be the weakest of their early albums, as the quality slips slightly. There’s still plenty of fun and joy throughout, but Lennon’s songwriter seems to take a slightly darker undertone on such songs, as “I’m a Loser”. Up until this album, The Beatles cover versions had been just as good (if not better in some cases) than the originals, but “Mr. Moonlight” is slightly embarrassing and goes nowhere. The best song on the album is “Eight Days A Week” which remains under-rated as far as I’m concerned, even if it is the most well known song on the album.

Help! is probably the album where The Beatles really tried to escape Beatle-mania for the first time. On the title track, for the first time Lennon shows his genius for combining a serious topic with a sweet melody, a gift that he would take to creative and artistic heights on “Imagine”.  “The Night Before” is one of Paul’s bounciest songs which I’ve always thought of as a sweeter and distant cousin to Bob Dylan’s “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met”). Speaking of Dylan, his influence is all over this record particularly the acoustic based “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”.  I haven’t mentioned Ringo yet, but on Help! his personality really begins to shine through. Those who dismiss him a crap drummer should listen again to his inventive drumming on the verses of “Ticket to Ride”. Plus he gets his first chance on lead vocals on the hilarious “Act Naturally” which acts as a counter-weight to the heavier songs like “Yesterday”.

After Help! The Beatles would shed new skin and completely come into their own and continue a string of creativity that has never been rivaled in popular music. But if they had stopped recording after Help! there’s no doubt in my mind that they still would be considered the greatest band to ever exist.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Why The Early Beatles Albums Are Under-Rated

  1. As I am from Liverpool I have been born to love the beatles. There is a film. “Across the universe” which I think features some of the old beatles songs too. You should watch it.
    But just letting you know the scouse accent is not that great.

    • I saw “across the universe” a couple years ago and found it to be pretty enjoyable. the versions was quite good and it was a lot of fun. it’s always good to see a movie bring their music to a whole new generation of fans.

  2. pete

    as a huge beatle fan i would have to agree with you. although beatles for sale seems to be one of the weakest. they were busy at that point. remember that those first albums are gems. recorded live with few overdubs and in mono. what a sound. another good thing to look at is the bbc sessions. a great collection of covers and originals that really rocks and shows talent.

    • it’s still stunning to me how they were able to record those albums so quickly and consecutively – and all of it is top notch quality. lennon/mccartney were already proving by then now talented their songwriting was.

  3. Tough call. I think song-for-song both A Hard Day’s Night and HELP rank up there as my favorites. I’ve heard this criticism before, from an ex who was a huge Beatle fan, who lamented that while everyone name-checks their later albums as artistic triumphs, but when it comes down to it, and they’re playing a Beatles album before going to work, they’ll reach for the early stuff. More easily digestible.

    • My friend and I were talking about this the other night actually which what led me to write about it. I think one of the main reasons why I love the early albums (besides the quality) is that the individual songs are harder to pin down as a “Paul song” or “John song” though they are there. But even a song like say “A Hard Day’s Night” Paul’s part is essential to the song. With the later albums you have Paul doing his thing and John doing his, with some George stuff thrown in for good measure.

      I also feel that they tried to top one another instead of focusing on what makes the song good. I’m certainly not suggesting that the later albums were shit by any means, but Sgt. Pepper had half as much fluff as it does brilliant songs.

      • I’ve always felt “Sgt. Pepper” as being way overhyped. It’ll be interesting to watch its critical perception as their fan-base keeps aging, and more and more of their core fans no longer understand what that album is trying to recreate.

  4. Back when compact discs were just starting to take over the sales floor of the music stores the Beatles coming to CD was a much hyped event. It was done smart in one way (the remastering was horrible though) they released the CDs in order of the original release and they spaced out the release dates by a month. The earlier releases spent plenty of time in my CD player. My favorite early album would be Help!…’You Got to Hide Your Love Away’ is just that good.

  5. Part of the problem assessing those first albums was the distribution chaos which surrounded them: different track and listings for UK vs. US releases, even different labels (Introducing the Beatles on VJ). Therefore, those early titles evoke different album atmosphere’s depending on where you were when you heard them. Nevertheless, those first albums were really masterful in an inchoate way, an innocent exuberance which a rarely been realized since.

    • I totally agree with you about the distribution issues. When I was researching it I became totally confused. So I just went with the ones that re-issued in 2009 as a starting reference. As someone who was born in the 80s those issues make it very hard to figure out exactly what album came out first, etc. I’ve had the same issues with the early Who records. In the UK their second album was titled “A Quick One” while over here in the US it was dubbed “Happy Jack”. Which is very funny since “Happy Jack” is a very British song.

  6. Joe

    Great post! I’ve said pretty much the same things for years. Incidentally, I also would take “A Hard Day’s Night” as my favorite Beatle album. There’s just no clunkers on there. Everything is really, really good. “Help” is right there with “Revolver” for second place for me. I bought a vinyl copy of “Help” in England when I was over there for a week in the ’90s. Amazingly, when I got it back, it hadn’t broken, been warped, etc.

    • Thanks for reading. I only have “Sgt. Pepper” and “Abbey Road” on vinyl. Wish I had more. That’s awesome you got a copy of “Help!” in England. I bought a copy of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” in Italy a few years back and no scratches or anything.

  7. JC40

    Beatles for Sale is underrated to me. It may not have had the impact of the first three albums, but I listen to it all the way through more than the first two anyways. Some view it as their quasi-country album. But I think Mr. Moonlight is great in all of its campiness and pre-rock sensibility. Lennon’s vocal on it is killer. C’mon, its way better than A Taste of Honey, which is the same sort of song.

    By the way, Act Naturally wasn’t Ringo’s first lead vocal. He’s sings lead on the first and second albums

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