If “With the Beatles” had a cover that put consumers off, imagine seeing the four sourpusses on the front of “Beatles for Sale”, clad in black with windswept hair, looking like they just left the funeral parlor and got caught mid-exhale by a paparazzi. The title dripped with cynicism, let alone the song titles. Putting the album on, the first three songs are a dour trilogy, flat and dejected and out of tune, thematically woozy and punch drunk and self-loathing. Almost a different band entirely. They continue the ambiguous folk timbres of the previous album but much more fully-formed and natural this time around.
The song “No Reply” centers around the disconnect between the speaker and the subject, a girl who won’t even dignify the speaker with outright rejection. “I’m a Loser” is a bit more spry but equally dejected and self-explanatory in its subject matter. “Baby’s in Black” is a weird waltz with an acidic guitar tone (the kind that burns you) that sounds copy-pasted from a more abrasive song. The mood is shattered by the band’s blah cover of “Rock and Roll Music” but redeemed by the weary “I’ll Follow the Sun” and the strained take on “Mr. Moonlight”, a song that Beatles fans seem to despise for no good reason I’ve been able to discern. The weird organ solo is as off-putting as the cover, a surreal insertion that wouldn’t be out of place on a Yo La Tengo album.
Side two begins with “Eight Days a Week”, an ecstatically happy song that earns its goodwill and acclaim through being actually exuberant instead of being about exuberance. I assume the band’s collective positive energy was shot after recording this one, leaving the rest of the album drained of positivity and comfort. “Honey Don’t” is a cover with Ringo on the mic, an appealing piffle that gets by on charm. They don’t want to spoil the party so they go. And so on. The bleak mood carries to the end of the record.
“Beatles for Sale” is regarded by a lot of folks as The Beatles at their worst (somehow missing the first two albums), and I’ve always disagreed with the assertion. It still sounds fresh and enjoyable to these ears, in spite of the group audibly wilting throughout (the chorus of “Words of Love” sounds closer to the living dead than the biggest band in the world at that time). Or maybe it succeeds because of the lack of enthusiasm. “Beatles for Sale” has, for the first time, an unwelcoming atmosphere. It begins with a confrontation, continues with a grotesque parody of their standards ’n’ singles stage show (the difference being that the studio tracks aren’t drowned out by mindless shrieking), and just sort of ends. It doesn’t seem to be a loving vibe in the studio but if I had to run for my life every time I played an inaudible concert to a bunch of screaming halfwits, I would be pissed too.
Gotta get the product out, regardless. The early sixties pop market was a fickle place to be. Beatles for sale indeed. A lot of this album resonated with me as a teenager and the more adult elements still do. I don’t know if I could recommend it to the layperson in good conscience but if you already like The Beatles, don’t be a turkey. Spin this and hear them out.
A version of this article first appeared on Medium, Jan. 09, 2016