At nearly six pounds and two and one-half inches thick, it’s not a book to take to bed. I’m sure that Santa was glad to divest himself of it this Christmas when he placed it under my tree. Yet All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release, is, however, worth its heft. Somehow, given the contributions that The Fab Four have made to the canon of popular music, reading this song encyclopedia on a tablet or smartphone would make ephemeral what is timeless. I held it on my lap. When my legs grew numb, I hoisted it away.
The Beatles released a remarkable 213 songs in less than a decade. I was nearly 14, the year 1972, before I knew or cared about any of them. And then, when I finally heard them and figured that there was something to this band, they had disbanded. I spent the next several years working my way back through the catalog, reliving their music a half-decade late, catching up with them when they were on to their solo careers, watching that unintended testament to their break up three times (the movie, Let It Be), poring over their lyrics, and having heated discussions with other Beatles fans at high school lunch breaks.
The authors of All the Songs, in addition to recording the details about each song - writers, musicians, date and location of recording, number of takes, technical team, and (where applicable) single release dates - include relatively brief information about the genesis of the songs, production, and technical details (instruments, recording technique). Some of this is pure nerd-dom, as when the authors note mistakes an inexperienced George Harrison made in singing “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” For example, in the bridge, he sang “I’ve known a secret for the week or two,” instead of “a week or two.” That, and the minor mistakes that Paul made on the bass around 1:10 and 1:50 in the coda will have Beatles fanatics all a-twitter, scrambling for their recordings to hear it for themselves. I confess, I listened and heard, gasped at that mis-plucked string.
But you needn’t get lost in such trivia when the story here is the songs themselves and the impetus reading about them gives to giving these well-worn recordings another listen. For example, I had to pull down their first album, Please Please Me, released in the UK on March 22, 1963, for a listen during drive time this week. Its crackling energy and freshness was palpable, particularly having read the account of how it was recorded. On one day, February 11, 1963, between 10:00 a.m. and 10:45 p.m., eleven songs were recorded. There were multiple takes, of course, anywhere from one to 18, yet the energy of the performances is incredible, something that I now understand stems in part from the then unorthodox way it was recorded. Contrary to what was standard for the day, sound engineer Norman Smith did not attempt to separate the instruments but, rather, simulated a live performance by stationing the microphones away from the instruments. The band was literally performing live, and even without a proper sound system and listening to compressed digital files on my car’s modest sound system, I felt it. On the two takes given the incredible “Twist and Shout,” the last recording of the day, John Lennon’s voice is nearly broken, and yet this #1 hit is high-energy and a testament to the energy and commitment to perfection of this working band. For a minute, I wasn’t at a traffic light but present in Abby Road studio that day in February, 1963. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
John, Paul, George, and Ringo, were, of course, mere boys when they began. Whatever you think of their escapades (and they had many), they were tireless workmen first. They honed their craft in the raucous clubs of Hamburg, Germany, over the course of two years - between 1960 and 1962, when the boys were 17 to 20 years of age - playing to drunken German audiences for as long as six hours at a time. As John later said, “As long as we played it loud, they liked it.” For more of that story, I recommend Bob Spitz’s well-researched and documented 2005 biography, The Beatles, where he provides details about their unheated, unsanitary accommodations and scrappy food. And they endured all this at a time when they didn’t know if they’d amount to anything, before they became, as John Lennon quipped, the “clever Beatles.”
Well, that’s just the first 14 songs. Open this book anyplace, at random even, and there are gems to discover. I flipped to the end, to the little known “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number),” the B-Side of the 1970 better known “Let It Be” single. It’s not their best, but it is their last, and I will listen with new appreciation knowing what went on in its recording. I remember the look and feel and smell of that particular 45 rpm Capital Records single. In fact, I’m holding it now.
Reading this massive book, hearing these now half-century old songs, I have a touch of sadness. So many no longer appreciate the weight of words and of recorded music, of the effort bound up in those early three-minute pop songs. With an internet saturated with music and words, talk and sound is cheap. If every feckless twenty-something with their digital playlist had to lug All These Songs around under their arm for a week or so, it might sink in: This was work. This was craft. This was four working-class young men who, despite their faults and misbehaving, cared about making good music and about doing good work, at least for a time. From that, we can learn.
You may not rush out and buy All the Songs. But you can do something: Listen well and listen long. Carry that weight of words.