In preceding posts I have occasionally referenced what I call “secret knowledge.”
Hell, I pretty much based this entire website on the concept: it’s when a piece of art is so personal that it feels as if some aspect of its true nature is known only to you.
It seems private, protected from view. You feel yourself to have “discovered” it, no matter how well-known or ubiquitous it might be.
Disclaimer: I did not discover The Beatles.
That said, their unique gift as an artistic entity seems to be the ability to endow generations of fans with precisely that feeling, often multiple times over the course of a single album.
1964’s Beatles For Sale, often relegated to shaggy-dog (or Dark Horse, if you like) status among Beatles fans, is an album full of secret knowledge.
Starting with the autumnal tones of the album’s cover–the boys’ famously fatigued faces, coat collars turned up against the cold–the entire work feels cloistered, distant; and yet, like all The Beatles’ work, fabulously accessible once you get close enough.
My experience with Beatles For Sale started as a pure instance of secret knowledge. Back in about 2005, while working a desultory temp job, I came across an All Songs Considered online segment in which musicians shared their idea of “the Perfect Song.”
(My temp gig consisted of surfing the 2005 web and listening to Air America [RIP/LOL] all day, while inexplicably collecting a paycheck every Friday).
Matt Caws, of alt-rock band Nada Surf, offered “Every Little Thing” by The Beatles. All I really knew–and still know–of Nada Surf was the memorable video for the song “Popular.” You remember–the one with the guy running down the street on fire?
(If you do [mis]remember, congratulations: you are, like me, officially old. That was actually a video for the song “Southern California” by Wax. “Popular” depicted an arch, pre-Glee take on high school as soap opera. Both slosh around my mind in a primordial stew of 90’s content. It turns out “Popular” was actually directed by a young Jesse Peretz, while “Southern California” was directed by a young Spike Jonze. But I digress.)
What I do remember is that seeing the name of an unknown Beatles song was an odd, moment-out-of-time experience. I was a casual Beatles fan; their music was canonical but remote. I assumed their catalogue to be about 25 songs deep, starting with “A Hard Day’s Night” and ending with “Yesterday.” I knew nothing of Hamburg or psychedelia, British versions vs. American versions, Blue, Red or White Albums.
I went home that night and downloaded “Every Little Thing” a la carte. This ability–legal or otherwise–was still novel, and though I didn’t recognize it at the time, also provided a perfect aesthetic test: imagine listening to the greatest music of the 20th century with complete objectivity, totally devoid of context. Literally, for the first time.
For my money, there are few things that can pass that test. Pet Sounds? Nope. The Godfather? Probably.
I still remember sitting in my Greenpoint apartment, experiencing that euphoric sensation known only to culture’s latecomers:
This shit is every bit as good as people said it was.
That crazy, stentorian tympani blast and the oblique, is-he happy-or-bummed-out lyric–where the hell did they come up with this stuff? They’re The Beatles. I’m supposed to know everything about them already.
And thus, secret knowledge was born.
“Every Little Thing” became a mainstay on those piecemeal, pre-iTunes mix CD’s we all used to make.
It would be another ten years before I re-“discovered” Beatles For Sale.
In the midst of one of those transitional life periods–new job, new city–in which the Fabs always seem to appear, speaking words of wisdom, I resolved (perhaps in a subconscious bid for order and meaning) to acquire a complete knowledge of The Beatles’ catalogue, starting with the unfamiliar early albums; starting with Beatles For Sale.
“This happened once before / When I came to your door / No reply-iy-yi-y”
There I was, back on my Greenpoint couch! Sitting once again inside the enormity of all the things I did not know.
“No Reply” is an audacious way to start an album–a breezy samba with a horror movie tension drawn through it, jolting suddenly from innocent longing to violent anger. Lennon’s voice seems dropped in from a dark recess, one both physical and psychological.
It’s John as we haven’t seen him before–a Jealous Guy, sure; but also a skulking creep.
The whole thing summons together contemporaneous elements–the upbeat bossanova is pure 60’s pop, while the stalker imagery and shrill stab of the chorus (“I saw the liiiiiiight”) are the stuff of Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann.
Beatles For Sale makes no claim to an overt, Sgt. Pepper-like motif, but like Rubber Soul and Revolver, it is unmistakably thematic.
George Martin’s production makes persistent use of reverb, the effect of which is a chambered, inward-looking quality. You can feel a chill blowing through it.
Take “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby:” a goofy Carl Perkins number that, in this recording, takes on a slightly surreal, almost spooky undertone.
“Baby’s In Black” is a morbid take on a sea shanty and also provides a perfect example of the Beatlefication of a pretty straightforward tune. It’s a fairly standard waltz, fun but unremarkable until the bridge, when an unusual harmony elevates the song and makes it stick in your ear. This same phenomenon occurs on “I Don’t Want To Spoil the Party,” a pleasant enough country number that grows suddenly luminous, also via a unique harmony and repeating bridge.
It’s Beatles 101: major/minor, sweet/sour, normal/weird.
The album is, of course, littered with covers, most of which play the role of filler. “Rock n Roll Music” absolutely rips, “Mr. Moonlight” is… “Mr. Moonlight.” “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey” is McCartney at his most buoyant, “Honey Don’t” is a fine Ringo track, “Words of Love,” in this interpretation, has always sounded as if sung by aliens. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.
Either way, it’s the originals that tell the story of this album. On Side A, “No Reply,” “I’m A Loser” and “I’ll Follow The Sun” are all acoustic tracks of fine melancholic detail; throw in the Poe-ish, death and sex-obsessed “Baby’s In Black” and you start to see the theme emerging.
On Side B, “Eight Days a Week,” sits glittering like a diamond in the darkness, shining proof of the boys’ constitutional inability to write an album without at least one hit on it.
“Every Little Thing” we’ve discussed, and then, just before the end, one of The Beatles’ great deep cuts, “What You’re Doing.” Ian MacDonald dismissed it, Greil Marcus identified it as one of several 1964 Beatles tracks that “made nearly everything else on the radio sound faintly stupid.”
Sometimes I wish I had been around to know for myself.
For most of my life, 1964 would have seemed impossibly distant. More ancient than ancient history. Greece and Rome are cartoonish imaginings, so much modern cosplay.
But 1964. My parents’ generation. Eternally immediate, forever out of reach.
I don’t know if it’s the internet, or aging, but what was once ancient now feels close at hand.
And the transmissions from that time–picked up on the oldies stations of my youth, in hints dropped by older siblings and hip babysitters–were secret knowledge, waiting to be discovered and re-discovered, made new and old and new again.
Like reading about The Beatles? Check out my 3-part series here.