Somewhere amongst the pages of the Burt Bacharach fan forum, A House Is Not A Homepage, lurks a thread titled ‘100 reasons the Beatles suck’[sic].
Here people are perfectly happy to state, publicly, that the three ‘most overrated acts in pop music history’ are Frank Sinatra (‘mediocre vocalist’), Aretha Franklin (‘excruciatingly bad’) and the Beatles.
Assuming that Burt tops the list of poppermosts for forum contributors - and why shouldn’t he? He’s one of the 20th Century’s great composers - we can reason that comments like this are typical from those who assume no overlap exists on the great Venn diagram of music appreciation. For these people, something has to be resolutely best and worst and there’s no room for pesky nuance to inconvenience a firmly held prejudice.
However, in news that might land like a brain haemorrhage, a The Beatles sing Burt Bacharach album isn’t a concept so far removed from reality. Even during their sweaty, eating chicken on stage and swearing at the audience, phase of their career.
The release of Baby It’s You by the Shirelles in February 1961 represented a sea change for the Beatles. Both in the way the band represented itself on stage and in the artistic aspiration that it was harbouring off it. Long before NEMS manager Brian Epstein had his interest in some local amateur musicians piqued by Raymond Jones and his request for a strange German release of My Bonnie, the members of the Beatles would camp out in the listening booths in the basement of his Charlotte Street branch of NEMS. Just around the corner from Mathew Street, the Beatles would take deep dives into new and obscure American releases, searching for something they’d only recognise as the destination once they’d found it: a sound.
Great musical discovery was the lifeblood of the Beatles. First there was Elvis, ‘the Real One’ as Harrison would put it, who was a monument each of the boys came to independently of each other. Then came deviation from the King to Little Richard, ‘when I heard it [Long Tall Sally] it was so great I couldn’t speak’, said Lennon. Then came Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, who together had probably the biggest influence of all on the Beatles’ early songwriting.
These were all obvious icons, however. From thereon it was off to the shadier corners of American music for John, Paul and George to find gold before anyone else. Acting as frontiersmen, whoever found the new obsession, whatever it was, put a flag on it, claiming it for themselves. By the time Lennon found the Shirelles, there was a short queue of leather clad local lads with flags waiting their turn, but by then it was too late.
At its peak, the Liverpool scene had around 300 groups/acts vying for audiences and songs to play to them. When the Beatles made their BBC Radio debut in 1962 they opened with Roy Orbison’s Dream Baby which, despite only having been released that week, had already been honed by McCartney. In the face of fierce local competition, the Beatles strove to do it best, and usually did. This was in part due to their talent and in part due to their competitive nature; an act akin to spraying, marking their territory around new music, making sure that if Gerry and the Pacemakers et al had a go, everyone would know it was already a ‘Beatle song’.
American sounds were evolving right under the nose of its public. Out were the rockers of old. They were either all disgraced (Jerry Lee Lewis), coerced into the establishment (Elvis), dead (Buddy) or horror, given over to God (Richard). In were the new sounds coming from small black labels like Motown, Scepter or Dot. From these cottage industries came the new sounds that enveloped the evolving Beatles. Motown’s complex, interesting and dynamic vocalists, Smokey Robinson, the Marvelettes and Barrett Strong and co, became engrained in the band’s psyche and identity, allowing a shift away from the oldies of Chuck Berry and Elvis toward a more unusual, darker and more sexually charged sound. These complexities not only subtly diminished Pete Best’s value to the band, but also enriched the local scene, expanding expectations of what a band could and couldn’t play.
Music came first in the Merseybeat scene, which is why the Beatles and other bands were able to take songs from the new American girl groups and sing them in earnest, without bothering to change the gender perspective. They were able to do this whilst escaping the kind of derision that Liverpool audiences would usually be quick to dole out.
Working class boys singing love songs about boys back to other working class boys was one of the Liverpool scene’s more unexpected developments.
In this context, that John Lennon saw fit to nearly beat Cavern compere Bob Wooler to death for suggesting that he’d had a romantic sojourn with Brian Epstein, but had no problem singing about a one night stand from a teenage girl’s perspective of in Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, says all we need to know of the attitudes of the time.
Motown’s house band, known later as the Funk Brothers (pre-dating another group of elite session players, LA’s Wrecking Crew) were responsible for amongst other things, Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’. A collective of sophisticated session musicians including James Jamerson and Earl Van Dyke, the Funk Brothers and Wrecking Crew, played on thousands of studio recordings, backing several hundred American top 40 hits. These players could play in any number of styles. Be it swing, rock, jazz, R&B or the newly emerging soul, they grooved with consummate ease. Their range and feel left imitators foundering in their wake. For Liverpool groups who’d just emerged from the can-do simplicity of Skiffle, the jump from four in the bar chugging rhythm to the swing and roll inherent in the new sound was a leap into the unknown. Not everyone made it.
The driving force behind any good band is the person that sits at the back holding sticks, and the drummer was never so important than when making the switch between two fundamental styles. Ringo Starr would prove proficient in every style that was asked of him and especially commanding in anything with a loping swing - which was abundant in the new black music they were listening to. When occasionally playing in Best’s stead - whether through illness or just not turning up for one of four gigs during his last year as a Beatle - Ringo replaced Best’s ‘stick up and down’ style with a more assured feel. ‘Every time Ringo sat in, it seemed like “this is it!”’, recalled a still excited Harrison, years later.
Ringo explains it himself:
‘They were doing really great tracks — Shirelles tracks and Chuck Berry tracks — [and] they did it so well. There was a whole feel about John, Paul and George…Pete Best? It’s no offence but I never felt he was a great drummer. He had one sort of style which was very good for them in those years, I suppose, but they felt…they wanted to move.’
Starr brought authenticity to the group and it got the core three very excited.
Entering into R&B territory accelerated the Beatles’ rise from one of a number of local rock and roll curios to a tight unit of some renown. When American audiences fell under the Liverpool band’s spell, professional imitators struggled to recreate the very sound that the Beatles had taken from them. A fitting compliment.
Part of the Beatle’s live set from 1961 to 1963, Baby It’s You was played in Hamburg and the Cavern, and was recorded for the BBC and EMI. It spans several incarnations of the pre-fame and new-fame Beatles and was, surprisingly for the time, one of two Shirelles numbers that appeared on their debut Please Please Me album; the other being the very macho, Boys. This is the Beatles successfully toeing the line between kitsch and soul, with Ringo’s simplistic but gently swaying backbeat providing sure footing. If Boys is a fun romp around 12 bar structure, Baby It’s You was something altogether different.
Effectively made up of three verses without a chorus, Baby It’s You lands a heavy punch with the reveal of the title at the end of each verse. Played and arranged as per the Shirelles original, the song is sung on a knife edge to wring out every last drop of sincerity from Lennon’s failing voice. The recording was made at the end of the gruelling all-day session to complete the Please Please Me album on 11th February 1963, with only Twist and Shout left to perform. His voice is starting to crack and the support harmony from McCartney and Harrison sways between hushed and anguished at the betrayal of the protagonist ‘Cheat! Cheat!’ This and the song that followed at the session are two cornerstones of Lennon’s early reputation as an interpreter. Though hamstrung by a cold, he delivers an ugly/beautiful pean of jealousy that’s all too easy to believe.
The best recorded version is found from the 11th June 1963 Pop Go The Beatles BBC radio broadcast, however, where John has full facility of his upper range. He’s sings passionately and emotes with caustic ease. Instead of cracking and audibly tearing up on the ‘don’t want nobody’ line, he sounds positively furious.
Burt Bacharach found the Beatles at arguably their most kitsch. Having heard and liked the cover of the song he co-wrote with Mack David and Luthor Wilson (‘a real honour’), he found himself sharing the billing at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance. He was there to conduct an orchestra for Marlene Dietrich (who gloriously tried to soak up some of the Beatles’ spotlight and reignite her fading career by gatecrashing several photographs) and caught the group on the cusp of crossing over from cheeky chart invaders to National obsession. This was the last time that the Beatles would play ‘lap dog’ for the British establishment, though Ringo got to live out his sole ambition of playing his ‘drums for the Queen Mum’.
Here they played to the gallery, balancing the new She Loves You and the comforting ’Til There Was You before Lennon made his famous ‘rattle yer jewellery’ comment and roaring into Twist and Shout.
McCartney and Lennon took more than was immediately obvious from Burt. They and Bacharach have so much diverse quality in their songbooks that it’s clear now, 6o years on that perhaps they could have seamlessly collaborated during their peak years.
‘There was something about them’, remembers Bacharach. ‘It’s hard to explain. I’ve never forgotten it. These four English guys were on their way somewhere that not even they knew’. Regardless, Burt knew. Maybe he should start a thread on his fan forum.