On Facebook today, I saw a fellow music writer—one of my favorite music writers, in fact—say happy birthday to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. That’s strange, because Rubber Soul’s birthday was yesterday and it was only turning 49. Beatles for Sale, meanwhile, had its birthday today, and it was turning 50. But this undervaluing of Beatles for Sale is nothing new.
In the Beatles’ discography, few albums are viewed as unimportant to the rock canon. Nearly all of their studio LPs are believed to have some sort of mastery or importance, and no wonder. They’re generally viewed as the greatest rock band of all time, so their catalogue would naturally be seen as having some kind of unmatched consistency.
Beatles for Sale is too often left out of the discussion of the great Beatles albums, though. It contains songs that are up there with their best work, and yet it’s one of their only albums that didn’t make Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It’s among their most musically distinctive, but it gets left out of conversations about their biggest innovations. It’s a major step forward in their emotional maturity, but it gets left out of those conversations as well. Come to think of it, the album cover might be more well-remembered than the album itself.
It’s very likely the band’s most underrated LP. To understand why, you have to look at how people view The Beatles overall.
Pre-Beatles for Sale Beatles
“I’m the kind of guy
Who never used to cry
The world is treating me bad, misery
I’ve lost her now for sure
I won’t see her no more
It’s gonna be a drag, misery.”
-The Beatles, “Misery”
The debut album from the Fab Four, Please Please Me was released on March 22, 1963. It’s a mixture of originals and covers, and at first seems like just a fun record. However, a strong listen to Please Please Me shows that they were already writing heartfelt, emotional material on their first album. In fact, “Misery” and There’s a Place” are similar to the country influenced sad love songs on Beatles for Sale. And while they hadn’t gotten around to covering Chuck Berry or Little Richard yet, their covers of songs by Arthur Alexander and The Isley Brothers stay close to the original recordings while at the same time showcasing the band’s own personality.
Their next albums, With the Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night, showed them growing as both musicians and songwriters, with each new album containing more originals. The covers on With the Beatles are even stronger than the ones on Please Please Me and, by A Hard Day’s Night, there were no covers featured at all.
It’s easy to see why Beatles for Sale gets underrated so often, considering the consistency of these early releases. But you have to look at their career after the album as well.
Post-Beatles for Sale Beatles
“And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
My independence seems to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before”
-The Beatles, “Help!”
The year 1965 is generally viewed as a turning point for The Beatles, with everything that came before placed in one category and everything that came after placed in another. Early in the year, the band released “Ticket to Ride” as a single, followed by an album, Help!, a few months later. Both single and album display more of the sound that a large section of the Beatles fanbase tends to prefer, which was even more evident on Rubber Soul, released in December of 1965.
Rubber Soul and Help! happen to be my two favorite albums the group ever released, sitting tidily in between the band’s early, more poppy music and the later, more progressive stuff.
In 1966, Revolver was released, beginning a period where every year brought along a Beatles album that a relatively large amount of people view as the greatest of all time. Revolver is currently Acclaimed Music’s highest ranked album, 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is almost synonymous with “greatest album of all time,” 1968’s overrated The Beatles (or The White Album) was named the greatest of all time on a Kitsap Sun list in 2005, and 1969’s Abbey Road is Abbey Road—easily the best album ever if you’re judging by how many people have the poster on their wall. This trend was ended by their final studio album, 1970’s Let it Be, which even obsessive fans of the band acknowledge as flawed.
The way people idolize the band’s later albums while underrating the early releases does seem to be tied to a certain rockist mindset, the same mindset that’s made “Hey Jude” their most acclaimed song. But, despite how much people forget about Beatles for Sale, the album did play a major role in the evolution of their music that eventually brought them to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper.
“This happened once before
When I came to your door
They said it wasn’t you
But I saw you peep through
-The Beatles, “No Reply”
Beatles for Sale begins with John Lennon singing these lyrics, setting the tone for an album that is considerably drearier than their previous work. But the song is also a step up in Lennon’s storytelling. He once said that Beatles for Sale was the band’s country and western album, but judging from this song, he was likely borrowing elements from the growing folk-rock scene. “No Reply” fits the kind of storytelling and variety of different emotions that you might find in a Bob Dylan song into just over two minutes.
The two songs that follow, “I’m a Loser” and “Baby’s in Black,” are similarly dark and sad. In his review of the album for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine described the three songs that open Beatles for Sale as “the darkest sequence on any Beatles record.”
“What You’re Doing”
“Look what you’re doing, I’m feeling blue and lonely
Would it be too much to ask of you
What you’re doing to me?”
-The Beatles, “What You’re Doing”
Despite the fact that Lennon is generally seen as the more cynical one, Paul McCartney still had plenty of misery as well. He would later bring it out fully on Rubber Soul tracks like “You Won’t See Me” and “I’m Looking Through You,” which were inspired by his increasingly difficult relationship with then-girlfriend Jane Asher.
“What You’re Doing,” one of the best Beatles deep cuts ever, is also likely inspired by their relationship. The Rubber Soul songs are angrier, likely because of McCartney’s growing frustration. But “What You’re Doing”—like A Hard Day’s Night’s “Things We Said Today”—serves almost as a teaser to those songs. It makes me wonder how great McCartney’s solo career could have been if he’d been a little moodier.
Also, my favorite part of “What You’re Doing” is the melody when McCartney sings, “What you’re doing to meeee.” I once wrote a song that accidentally borrowed that same melody and one of my favorite recent bands, Avi Buffalo, used a similar melody on their single “What’s In It For?” It’s too good for one song, I guess.
“I’ll Follow the Sun”
“And now the time has come
And so my love I must go
And though I lose a friend
In the end you will know”
-The Beatles, “I’ll Follow the Sun”
Another sad song from McCartney, “I’ll Follow the Sun” is possibly the most beautiful track on the album, with a melody that has to rank among McCartney’s finest. Lyrically, though, it’s heartbreaking, dealing with a relationship ending.
As the title implies, though, there is hope behind the tragedy. While McCartney had his share of sad songs, he was generally the optimistic one, always looking for the sun and not worrying too much about the potential rain.
“I’ll Follow the Sun” was actually written years before Beatles for Sale was recorded, and it was originally intended to be a rockabilly tune. The somber tone is more fitting, though.
“Eight Days a Week”
“Love you every day girl
Always on my mind
One thing I can say girl
Love you all the time
Hold me, love me, hold me, love me
Ain’t got nothing but love babe
Eight days a week”
-The Beatles, “Eight Days a Week”
“Eight Days a Week” was the one song from Beatles for Sale that was released as a single, albeit only in the United States, and it’s no wonder. It’s unusually cheerful compared the rest of the album, and is essentially a simple pop song. It’s a good one, though, and was the seventh Beatles song to go to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in a one-year period.
Despite the song’s success, Lennon hated it, calling it “lousy.” I wouldn’t rank it among my favorite Beatles songs, but it’s definitely not that bad.
The Cover Songs
“Hold me close and tell me how you feel
Tell me love is real
Words of love you whisper soft and true
Darling I love you”
-The Beatles, “Words of Love”
Unlike the previously released A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale is not made up entirely of original songs. Six of the 14 songs, in fact, are covers, which adds a lot to the album’s overall feel. A cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music,” for example, bridges “Baby’s in Black” and “I’ll Follow the Sun,” bringing some rock and roll joy into the mix. Their medley of Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City” and Little Richard’s “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!” is a lot of fun, and the Buddy Holly cover “Words of Love” is almost as good as the original.
Two Carl Perkins covers, the Ringo Starr-sung “Honey Don’t” and the George Harrison-sung “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” (which closes the album), are pretty decent, although neither has the energy typical of a Beatles cover. And, while a lot of people hate “Mr. Moonlight” (Erlewine called it, “arguably the worst thing the group ever recorded”), I can tolerate it. I’d rather listen to it than “Yellow Submarine,” anyway.
“I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”
“I don’t want to spoil the party so I’ll go
I would hate my disappointment to show
There’s nothing for me here so I will disappear
If she turns up while I’m gone please let me know”
-The Beatles, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”
In my opinion, this song would have been a better closer than “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.” Along with the somber lyrics that show Lennon in a very vulnerable state and music that sounds as country as the “Act Naturally” cover that would appear on Help!, the song just sums up the album perfectly. It easily would have ended things better than an upbeat Carl Perkins cover.
If heartbreak is the heart of country music, then I guess Lennon was right about Beatles for Sale being the Beatles’ country and western album.
“But, if this is a low point, they still sound fantastic. Acoustic guitars have come to the fore, softening the attack but allowing the harmony singing to flourish. The Beatlemania pop songs are of a high standard, even if they are becoming slightly generic.”
-Neil McCormick, The Daily Telegraph
Today, Beatles for Sale is reviewed fairly well, although it’s rarely mentioned alongside albums like A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. And, I pretty much agree. Those are all fantastic albums that this one doesn’t match in terms of consistency.
But, I can’t agree with Erlewine, who described it as, “the group’s most uneven album.” (That award should definitely go to either The Beatles or Let it Be.) Beatles for Sale’s imperfections may make for a less great album, but they also make it interesting and moving. It’s the sound of a band that’s tired, heartbroken, and angry, and that makes for fascinating music.
Elsewhere, Paste’s Mark Kemp gave the album a 79/100 in a retrospect of the band’s career, writing, “The Beatles plateaued momentarily on their second disc of 1964,” while in Rolling Stone’s 2004 record guide, it only received a 4.5/5. That’s insane for Rolling Stone, who probably have a pre-written five star review of the next Beatles album just in case Lennon and Harrison miraculously come back to life.
My point is, if you’re going to include ten Beatles albums on your list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, this should be one of them. Happy 50th birthday, Beatles for Sale.