Beatles For Sale (1964)


Title: It’s often taken to be a pessimistic reflection of the group feeling like a product, having been ‘sold’ all over the world for 30-odd months – a view not dispelled by the…

Cover: Four glum-looking Beatles in an autumnal Hyde Park. It’s moody and, I think, rather magnificent.

Best song: No Reply, the opener written by John. It has quite a sedate feel for most of its 135 seconds, but about a minute in there’s a tremendous little crescendo powered by piano and handclaps.

Honourable mentions:

* John’s I’m a Loser has mournful lyrics, harmonica solos and a bubbling bassline that drives the chorus.

* Paul’s breezy I’ll Follow The Sun is enormously charming – I especially like George’s ‘solo’ (four strikes of his guitar, each one slid up its string).

* How the polished Eight Days A Week was never a single is beyond me – it’s catchy and has a cute structure (including a famous fade-in intro). Although worked on by both Lennon and McCartney, it was based on an idea of Paul’s – so why John sings the lead vocal is a bit of a mystery. The usual rule was that whoever initiated the writing took the lead.

* Another ‘wrong singer’ song is Paul’s Every Little Thing – it’s one of the many usually ignored gems you can find on Beatles albums. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say they like it, yet each time I hear Beatles For Sale it sidles up like an old friend and makes me feel very happy. Ringo pounds on a timpani to inject some effective drama into the choruses.

* The drum pattern on What You’re Doing, meanwhile, is also great fun. The whole song, with its Byrds-like guitar work and detailed harmonies, sounds like it should be from later in the Beatles’ career (Rubber Soul, say). It’s terrific.

Worst song: For once, it’s not something sung by George or Ringo! Mr Moonlight, first recorded a couple of years earlier by Piano Red, is like something from a tired student cabaret. Lennon seems to be enjoying himself, but the whole thing is just nonsense. And that Hammond-organ solo: Jesus!

Notable outside contributions: George Martin again plays piano when needed – listen to him go all Jerry Lee Lewis on the tubthumping cut of Rock and Roll Music!

Review: Overall, it’s a mixed bag – there are some world-beaters, but with a few tracks there’s a sense of the group padding out the LP. Perhaps what’s most interesting about this album is the development of the lyrics – songs such as No Reply and I’m a Loser show more thought in the words than the ‘boy loves girls’ stuff of earlier albums. Bob Dylan – who the group met in August 1964, just as they were starting to record Beatles For Sale – had an undoubted influence. Yet, after the totally self-written A Hard Day’s Night, it’s back to a mix of originals and covers – while four albums in, George and Ringo have contributed only one song between them. It was definitively John and Paul’s band at this point, but even they couldn’t keep up with demand.

Seven tears falling like rain from the sky out of 10.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)


Title: A malapropism of Ringo’s, which tickled John so much he used it in his book of poetry before it became the name of a Beatles song, film, album and EP.

Cover: Rows of thumbnail pictures: five per Beatle as they lark about for the camera. Is George smoking in one of them?! I’ve never spotted that before. The cover deliberately echoes a scene in the first Beatles movie, of which this is in effect the soundtrack album: George pulling funny faces while he has his picture taken at a party.

Best song: It’s a real toss-up between two tracks. The title song is so packed full of energy, drive and fun it’s impossible not to love. I can’t help but picture the opening scene of the film whenever I hear it – the band being chased by fans, darting into Marylebone Station, hiding in phone boxes and photo booths, climbing over a wall, and rushing onto a train. The song’s famous opening chord – a mission statement, really: strap yourself in – has been analysed to death, with many explanations of exactly what each instrument is playing. I’ve no idea who’s right, but my favourite deconstruction is by a gleeful Randy Bachman (of Bachman-Turner Overdrive). However, Paul’s Can’t Buy Me Love is equally effervescent. It has a *terrific* lead vocal, a hip, lolling rhythm, a clipped guitar solo and one of Macca’s best early basslines.

Honourable mentions:

* There are lots of great tracks. And I Love Her – written by Paul, but I’ve seen him warmly credit the main acoustic riff to George – might have bland lyrics but is a pleasant, soft tune.

* John’s Any Time At All, meanwhile, is whip-crack quick and infectious.

* Things We Said Today (by Paul, about his long-distance relationship with Jane Asher) is fantastic and interesting and pleasingly pensive: I love the acoustic guitar flourishes.

* It’s a shame the lyric to John’s You Can’t Do That is such misogynistic tripe, as it’s a wonderful rock’n’roll tune.

* His I’ll Be Back has a nice warm vocal sound and closes the album well.

Worst song: Every song is at least good. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You, written by Lennon and McCartney as George Harrison’s showpiece in the movie, is probably the weakest. (Though there’s a bit of the otherwise fine Tell My Why where the vocals go annoyingly shrill…)

Notable outside contributions: More piano-playing from George Martin, most effectively on the title song.

Review: The entire album was written by Lennon and McCartney, which given their schedule in the winter of 1963/64 (a relentless rush of gigs, TV and radio appearances, location filming, interviews, studio days and almost daily travel) is quite astonishing. The level of quality is so high, and the Beatles sound is being defined more and more: reverb-y vocals, a warm cushion of music (there’s lots of acoustic guitar on this album). While working on this review, I rewatched the film too. Obvious thing to say, but it’s bloody entertaining.

Eight diamond rings, my friend, out of 10.

With The Beatles (1963)


Title: Self-explanatory.

Cover: A moody black-and-white picture taken by fashion photographer Robert Freeman. The boys are lit from the side to give them half-faces.

Best song: Paul’s All My Loving is a joyful pop song full of attack. Remarkably it was never a single in the UK, despite having hit written all over it. I love the vocals beginning a beat before the instruments, the walking bassline bouncing up and down the scale, and George’s short but neat guitar solo. (According to rumour, All My Loving was playing on a radio at Roosevelt Hospital in New York when John Lennon was pronounced dead on 8 December 1980.)

Honourable mentions:

* Side A kicks off brilliantly. Before All My Loving, we get two gems written by John. Firstly there’s It Won’t Be Long with a cute lyric punning on ‘be long/belong’ – it’s energetic stuff, featuring a catchy guitar riff (mixed archly high) and great call-and-response vocals. Then there’s All I’ve Got To Do, a stylish and dramatic aping of Motown’s ballads.

Worst song: I Wanna Be Your Man, sung gamely by Ringo, wears out its welcome quickest. It was written by John and Paul as a commission for the Rolling Stones (John in 1980: “We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?”). The Stones version had already been released when the Beatles put this out.

Notable outside contributions: Producer George Martin plays piano on a few tracks.

Review: More consistent than Please Please Me, more confident, and more enjoyable overall – you can sense Lennon and McCartney flexing their musical muscles. Like last time there are six cover versions, the best of which is a terrific take of Smokey Robinson’s You Really Got a Hold on Me. It’s really well sung by John, Paul and George, while Ringo’s having fun with his drum fills. I also like the picturesque go at Broadway hit Till There Was You. Meanwhile, George has written his debut song. There’ll be classics to come, but sadly Don’t Bother Me is nothing special.

Eight letters in your sack for me out of 10.

Please Please Me (1963)


Title: It’s the name of the Beatles’ second EMI single, which had been released a couple of months earlier. ‘Please Please Me with Love Me Do and 12 other songs,’ announces the LP cover – should we be using this as its proper title?!

Cover: A gleeful photo of the band taken on a staircase at EMI’s London HQ. Christ, they look young. I suppose they were: Ringo, the eldest, was just 22. Years later, they wittily recreated the same pose in the same location – now with long hair and beards – for a photo intended (but not used) as the cover of their final LP.

Best song: The opening track, I Saw Her Standing There, written by Lennon and (mostly) McCartney. My heart goes boom every time I hear it. It’s a very powerful rocker: fun, vibrant and dynamic. It begins with a count-in to get you in the dance-hall mood (Paul’s “One, two, three, four…”) and has a suggestive lyric added by John (“She was just 17/You know what I mean.”).

Honourable mentions:

* The title track, with its harmonica phrases, strident guitar runs and detailed drumming, is tremendous. It was mainly written by Lennon. You can hear Beatlemania being born as Paul and George do their backing vocals.

* I also have a soft spot for Paul’s sombre, moody PS I Love You, which had also already been released (as the B-side to debut single Love Me Do).

* Twist and Shout is a sensational cover version, bettering the Isley Brothers’ original by boosting the energy and sense of danger. For most of us this recording is probably our best chance of understanding just how good the Beatles were on stage. It was recorded live in one take at the end of the session – Lennon’s throat was cut to ribbons by singing all day with a cold, and his vocal is thrillingly raw. The song brings the album to an almost orgasmic climax (listen carefully for a yelp of delight as the tracks fades out) and was later used in one of the most joyful scenes in any movie:

Worst song: Ringo hollering out the vocals on a cover of dreary Shirelles song Boys.

Notable outside contributions: The drumming on this version of Love Me Do was by session man Andy White, much to Ringo’s chagrin, because producer George Martin wasn’t convinced by Starr’s abilities. (Ringo drummed on the take that had earlier been released as a single.)

Review: The bulk of the album – 10 of 14 tracks – famously had to be recorded in one day (11 February 1963), so we get a handful of instant classics mixed in with some polished if unspectacular songs from the band’s live set. Remarkably for the era, Lennon and McCartney wrote over half the album (there are also six cover versions), but George and Ringo have to make do with three poor songs between them to sing. When it’s good it’s magnificent, but most of it is throwaway fluff.

Seven chains of love out of 10.

Thanks to Gareth Davies for suggesting this idea.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961, is crashing on friends’ sofas and pestering his agent for money… Will he have to give up his music and return to the merchant navy?

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Sally Sparrow from Doctor Who gets lots of shouting and swearing to do, but it’s not a huge role.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): John Goodman (6), in a wig and with an affected voice, crops up for a section in the middle.

Best bit: The comedic Columbia recording session.

Review: Well, there’s plenty of lovely music, often with the songs being played in full. But I found this really quite dull. The first half has been meandering along – neither grippingly nor unpleasantly – but then a lengthy road trip involving John Goodman sucks all the energy out of the film and I just wanted it to end. Characters come and go, but none is especially likeable. A disappointing way to end this 16-movie viewing of the Coens’ canon.

Five cats out of 10.

True Grit (2010)


Written by Joel and Ethan, based on True Grit by Charles Portis; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

In the post-Civil War Wild West, 14-year-old Mattie Ross hires one-eyed US Marshall Rooster Cogburn to hunt down the man who killed her father…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Hailee Steinfeld is just brilliant as the headstrong, smart and astute Mattie.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Jeff Bridges (2) is having great fun playing Cogburn, while Josh Brolin (2) plays Tom Chaney, the man they’re looking for. JK Simmons (3) has a voice-only cameo.

Best bit: Our first sight of murderer Chaney.

Review: As full-blooded in its commitment to a genre (here, the Western) as, say, Blood Simple or Miller’s Crossing were. But this is more successful because as well as conventions it has conviction. There’s real heart to this movie. We get clear storytelling, playfully elaborate dialogue, interesting characters, good performances and stunning production design – and unlike in the last two Coen movies, we also have an emotionally satisfying ending. The best one in this watch-through since O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Nine half-bitten-off tongues out of 10.

A Serious Man (2009)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

A schoolteacher’s wife wants a divorce, his dream job’s under threat, his brother’s sleeping on the sofa, his neighbour’s crossing into his garden, his son’s dealing with a bully, his daughter wants access to the bathroom, and a student’s trying to bribe him… How will he cope?

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Ooh, look: it’s The Big Bang Theory’s Howard as a young rabbi.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): None.

Best bit: The shaggy-dog story about the dentist.

Review: A strange one. The way Larry’s life gradually crumbles apart around him is fun to watch and is well paced, and there are lots of good actors in fun roles, but it’s hardly the most gripping 100 minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen. The movie begins with a seven-minute prologue – all in Yiddish and set at some indeterminable Ye Olde time – which, as far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in the film. And, like in Burn After Reading, the story just stops rather than having an ending.

Six TV aerials out of 10.

Burn After Reading (2008)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

When CIA analyst Osbourne Cox loses his job, he decides to write his memoirs – but the sensitive document falls into the hands of two gym workers, who plan to blackmail him…

Seen before? Yes, on DVD about three years ago.

Best performance: The headline five – sex addict George Clooney, self-doubter Frances McDormand, angry John Malkovich, childlike Brad Pitt and severe Tilda Swinton – are all terrific.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): McDormand (6), Clooney (3), Richard Jenkins (3) and JK Simmons (2).

Best bit: When Linda and Chad attempt to extort money from Cox.

Review: There’s a really odd clash of tones in this one. It begins like a Tony Scott techno-thriller (something like Enemy of the State or Spy Game). There are shades of One Foot in the Grave in Cox’s forced-retirement blues. It’s partly a twisted romcom, at times like a 1970s paranoia thriller, and becomes more Hitchcock-esque the longer it goes on. Despite (or maybe because of) this, whenever the script hits a crossroads it turns down the road with the fewest clichés, which keeps it interesting. Perhaps the film loses its way at the death (the end is sudden and perfunctory), but mostly it’s enormous fun.

Eight sex swings out of 10.

No Country For Old Men (2007)


Written by Joel and Ethan, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy; directed by Joel and Ethan; produced by Joel and Ethan

Llewelyn Moss stumbles across a bloody crime scene – a drugs deal gone bad – and walks off with a bag full of money. Psychopathic murderer Anton Chigurh gives chase…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tommy Lee Jones. An obvious casting choice for a world-weary, grizzled Texas sheriff – but nevertheless a good one.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Stephen Root (3) has another small role, and Josh Brolin (1) plays Moss.

Best bit: The tense nighttime chase in the desert.

Review: The Coens’ fifth movie set in the American South is a splendid return to form. They know how to shoot and populate wide, open spaces so well (compare with the studio-bound Ladykillers, which felt so dreary). We’re back to the slow and methodical style of Blood Simple: there’s little humour, lots of sequences have no dialogue, but it’s engrossing. I constantly wanted to know what was going to happen next. A prime slice of film soleil.

Eight motel rooms out of 10.

The Ladykillers (2004)


Written by Ethan and Joel, based on 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers by William Rose; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Ethan and Joel

‘Professor’ Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) rents a room in the house of a religious, elderly woman so he and his gang can use her cellar in their plan to rob a casino…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Cloak, white suit, odd facial hair, false teeth, geographically unsure accent – what the buggering fuck is Tom Hanks doing?!

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Bruce Campbell (4) has a cameo, Stephen Root (2) has a small role, and JK Simmons (1) is one of Dorr’s gang.

Best bit: An American football game filmed from a player’s point of view.

Review: Tiresome beyond belief. Good comedy is based on truth, but this drivel is about outlandish cartoon characters played by actors more concerned with being eccentric than being interesting. If you ever wondered what 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven would be like if you took away the wit, style, panache, likeability, skill, talent, tension, comedy, charm, charisma, class, subtlety, surprises, twists, intelligence, good cast, cool music, sharp dialogue and enjoyment levels, then this is the film for you.

One irritable bowel out of 10.