Evaluating a remastered copy of The Beatles’ Beatles for Sale — or any Beatles album, for that matter — presents a host of problems. How can you critique the work of iconic band decades after its release? How do you listen to classic songs that everyone recognizes and find something new in them? Do you choose the stereo version of the album or the mono one?
Working backwards, I decided to review the stereo remaster of Beatles for Sale. The effort that went into remastering the mono edition is noticeable and, although pop music of that period was manufactured in mono for the sake of AM radio, the new release does have a surprising richness that you wouldn’t expect from a non-stereo mix. At its core, however, is the same Beatles album you’ve grown to love. The stereo release brings might not be how the band or George Martin intended you to hear it, but it allows for a few moments of “Hey, I never noticed that detail before!” and that’s a noteworthy experience 45 years after the album’s release. That also allows you to listen to the songs with a new pair of ears, which ultimately lets you reevaluate the band’s performance in a way you might not have otherwise considered.
Beatles for Sale is probably one of the least cited albums among the band’s discography, although it contains one of the band’s best known tracks (“Eight Days A Week”). The album came at a time when the group was overworked and strapped for time, as is evidenced by the inclusion of six covers, whereas the previous album was all original material. It also came at a time when the boy band was showing its maturity. Opener “No Reply” might be about love and getting the girl, as boy bands are prone to sing about, but there’s a melancholy in Lennon’s words when you hear “I nearly died” that wasn’t previously there. With the acoustic guitar strumming in the left channel and hand claps rising through both speakers during the bridge, the stereo mix quickly differentiates itself from the mono version-for the better. The extra breathing room lets the sullen words hang in the extra a little longer than they had previously. The grim picture of love continues for the next two tracks with “I’m a Loser” and “Baby’s In Black”, both which reflect the era of rock Bob Dylan was ushering in. Although the songs sound purely like Beatles efforts, they definitely give a nod to Dylan, complete with a soulful harmonica solo.
Then comes the collection’s first cover, Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”. As a cover, it’s interesting because Berry’s prints are all over it, but it still harks back to the loose rock of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout”. On the one hand, the familiar sound is comforting, but it’s also aggravating because the opening trilogy paints a depressing but enthralling picture of romance. “Rock and Roll Music” feels like a bizarre misstep-one of a few on the album. It sounds like a deliberate result of a band transitioning to a more interesting sound and one that needed to put out an album ASAP. At least, I hope that’s the case, because the much maligned cover of “Mr. Moonlight” is probably the weakest spot in the 14 tracks. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the worst thing they’ve done, but compared to the opening tracks and classic “Eight Days A Week”, it makes you scratch your head.
As it is, “Eight Days A Week” is permanently embedded in my brain, but it isn’t a track I rank among the group’s best work, but hearing it in stereo did make me appreciate it more than I had. For the first time, the vocal harmonies flow together and pull apart at just the right moments. Basically, now The Beatles sound like they are singing and playing in your speakers instead of like a band fighting to be heard.
Beatles for Sale has more ups and a few downs, but the best moment comes with “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”, which shows up on the tail end of the tracklist. It alludes to the woe-is-me pain of the “No Reply” and “I’m a Loser.” Not much hope exists in “There’s nothing for me here, so I will disappear / If she turns up while I’m gone, please let me know” and as painful as the sentiment is, listening to the group exorcise the demons is still an interesting experience. The juxtaposition of pleasant but superfluous covers with standout, heartfelt tunes only serves to make the personal moments that much more valuable.
Although I wouldn’t classify Beatles for Sale as one of the band’s most noteworthy LPs, it’s definitely one of the most interesting. The personal songs give a glimpse into the band’s aging hearts and improving songwriting skills, and the song selection is a snapshot of the band in 1964. It’s the kind of album where what’s going on outside the studio is almost as important as what’s happening in your speakers. And hearing this album in its remastered form raises a pretty good album to a strong one. Listen to the harmonica fill the left speaker in “I’m A Loser”, and as it fades away, the guitar in the right speaker perks up. Maybe it’s the music nerd in me, but if this is the closest I’ll get to sitting in the room with the band and hearing their instruments come at me from all sides, I’ll take it.