Mini Album Reviews, Part 3

The Beatles – Beatles for Sale

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The black sheep in Beatles’ discography…or is it? In terms of consistency, it definitely loses to A Hard Day’s Night, which featured a non-stop, high-energy pop attack on the ears unmatched at the time. But on the other hand, Beatles for Sale introduces a new dimension in the Beatles’ style, particularly in John’s compositions who seems to do his best to move away from all the cheerfulness. He is in turns paranoid (No Reply), self-deprecating (I’m a Loser), heartbroken (I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party), and isn’t that exactly how we like our John to be? People point to Dylan’s influence for this, but I’ve always thought it had more to do with Lennon finally accepting that “Love, love me do/ You know I love you/I’ll always be true” was simply not who he was.

Chuck Berry – Chuck Berry Is On Top

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Contrary to popular belief, some 1950s rock ‘n’ roll albums are worth listening to. Maybe the record label cared more than the artist himself about them, but sometimes this haphazardous approach resulted in mini-masterpieces. Chuck Berry Is On Top is such an example, with classic singles from previous years such as Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode or Carol, but also some underrated gems like Jo Jo Gunne. This is the type of stuff that birthed entire bands; Chuck’s impact on guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll is simply immeasurable. But his influence is not the only good thing about him – the catchy guitar lines, the witty lyrics and the all-around charismatic performances make his music still a delight after all these decades.

John Lennon – Rock ‘n’ Roll

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For all the hype around it, Lennon’s solo career is one of the most disappointingly uninspired by any major rock/pop artist. This album was born out of John losing a copyright lawsuit and being forced to include 3 rock ‘n’ roll covers on his next release in order to promote them. The 3 eventually became 13 and the finished Rock ‘n’ Roll reads like a journey through the classic songs of artists that shaped Lennon’s musical tastes growing up. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke are all covered, but the performances still feel like Lennon on auto-pilot, with no real desire to put his own stamp on them. His voice still sounds great and I’ll admit that Stand By Me is a well-deserved hit, but otherwise I see no real reason to ever return to this album.

The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death

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Biggie could’ve used the double album format to tackle more subject matters, expand his production choices and immerse the listener into his vivid storytelling for an even longer duration. Instead he opted to go more…commercial. The beats here are just sickeningly glossy and overproduced; and it’s not hard to antagonize Puff Daddy for this, who is credited with more than half of the album’s production. But more baffling is how Biggie let his artistic vision be overshadowed by the effects of the ‘shiny suit’ hip-hop era. I guess he wanted to be a pop star and in many ways both him and 2Pac achieved that and took hip-hop to the next logical level. But something got lost for me and Life After Death always leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, despite having a few great tracks.

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16 replies

  1. Yes on two counts: I always thought Beatles For Sale is (maybe) the black sheep. These days I’m thinking Let It Be, coming deep within their amazing run, had further to fall, since they were still developing as songwriters on For Sale. Let It Be isn’t as strong as what the Stones were producing contemporaneously, which seems telling. And you’re spot on about Lennon’s solo career. When he was on he was amazing, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sad to say that I agree that Lennon’s solo career wasn’t what it might have been, though there were a handful of really great songs. Interesting to compare Lennon and McCartney’s solo careers. McCartney wins on volume, even before 1980. I think he wins on breadth too. Wings truly had its own sound, but could Macca have achieved that on his own without the very good musicians he chose for Wings? He might have been McCartney minus Lennon. Sometimes that’s what Lennon sounds like solo — Lennon minus McCartney.

    I have met quite a few people who prefer Wings to the Beatles, though obviously they are not evaluating the music to the degree that many of the folks who follow blogs like yours do. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone prefer Lennon solo to Lennon with the Beatles.

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  3. Love the first three, don’t know the fourth, but thanks for the tip. The Beatles for Sale album had several great original songs – the two you mention, but also “I’ll Follow the Sun” and “Eight Days a Week.” I think Lennon does not give enough credit to his earlier work. Yes, he became more pertinent with lyrics later on, even with simple ones, but just the ones on this album echo loudly.

    Chuck Berry belongs on any short list of great performers and singers. He shaped a generation and does not get the credit he deserves, as most African-American artists did not. Lennon’s tribute album to his roots is an attempt to give more credence to his influencers.

    If you have ever been to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, one of my favorite parts is where you can read an artist’s influences and then hear a snippet of the influencer and the artist’s take on that influence. Janis Joplin was influenced by Bessie Smith and Etta James, e.g., and you can hear them belting out songs, which Janis did so well.

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  4. Agree about the Lennon album. Agree and double down on the great Chuck Berry. Ray Charles did some nice work in the 50’s. There were many great do-whoppers and R&B singles. Elvis, Roy Orbison. But rock really took off with the Beatles – which brings us back to Lennon and Chuck Berry!

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  5. Good stuff! I don’t think “Beatles For Sale” is their best but it’s certainly not bad, and you’re right about it being the point at which Lennon starts feeling sorry for himself. Post Beatles he did a couple of outstanding albums and then ennui hit him hard. Nice to see a Chuck Berry record reviewed.

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  6. The group’s more somber Beatles For Sale album, which came off their hectic touring/filming/appearance schedule, set a more reflective and cynical tone upon its December 1964 release. The first three songs (‘No Reply’, ‘I’m a Loser’, and ‘Baby’s in Black'”), which were all original, made for quite the unexpected opening. I think BFS represented more a maturation and marked another of the band’s turning points. I wouldn’t label the LP a “black sheep”, though, since by definition it denotes disgrace. It’s certainly not that, but that’s just an opinion of one longtime Beatles fan. Either way, even if the material was unanticipated and more solemn, it was another highly successful LP by The Lads. Especially in the UK — eleven weeks at #1. BTW, all this talk of Beatles For Sale makes me want to get it back out on the turntable. Thanks for that. 🙂

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  7. Hey, It’s Chuck Berry. We don’t have him we don’t have a lot. Just those cuts you mentioned are what rock n roll is about. Good choice.

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  8. agree on Lennon solo – I was and remain a big fan of the Wings’ Venus and Mars, and the Wings Over America tour that followed. For uneven Beatles, my pick was always Magical Mystery Tour – couple of interesting singles, but just doesn’t hang for me – Let It Be has always been last on my list, though again there are great cuts, and the title track itself is one of Paul’s best, even if way overplayed in the day!

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