Saturday, August 10, 2013

Please Please Me vs. Mr. Tambourine Man


Two debuts by two iconic, highly influential beyond highly influential, legendary '60s bands.  The different career paths are obvious in retrospect:  while the Beatles continued to improve by leaps and bounds from such charmingly brash and amateurish beginnings, the Byrds never really got any better than this.  Oh, the Byrds did arguably release a few better albums (and that's quite arguable - considering their debut their best is hardly an unreasonable opinion), but the artistic progression between Mr. Tambourine Man and Sweetheart of the Rodeo is not particularly drastic (in terms of sheer song quality - we all know the Byrds practically defined the term 'diversity' for a '60s rock band).  I do not need to underscore the gulf between the Fabs in 1963 and 1969, and so will elaborate no further.  But at the time, these were two fresh debuts by young, inexperienced, exciting new rock bands introducing startingly new sounds to the world.  Both, in their own ways, completely revolutionized popular music; and both relied a bit too heavily on outside covers, when their own chief songwriters were already quite capable of penning their own pop/rock standards.  The choice in covers also underscore key differences between the bands - the Beatles were rooted in black R&B; the Byrds steeped in the whitest of whitebread folk.  Curiously enough, both did share a token penchant for covering schmaltzy mainstream pop standards, as well, so here their influences overlap.

One non-trivial problem for this particular match-up is that there are 14 songs on the Beatles' debut, and only 12 on the Byrds' first LP.  Luckily, I've found a way around this stumbling block:  the Mr. Tambourine Man reissue adds several bonus tracks, most of which are merely alternate takes, but a pair of which are previously unissued, original outtakes.  Thus, with a little "cheating", we get down to the actual scoring.

1.  "I Saw Her Standing There" vs. "Mr. Tambourine Man" - 1,2,3, FAWH!  The Beatles certainly kick off their debut on an exciting note with a classic, horny'n'hungry '50s style rocker.  However, it doesn't amount to much more than that, and the Byrds' debut single is pure, soaring magic.  And incidentally invented folk-rock, jangle-pop, whatever you want to call the aural template for tens of thousands of alternative rock bands.  Byrds 1, Beatles 0.

2.   "Misery" vs. "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" - Well, the Byrds are certainly starting off strongly at the gate.  One of the most muscularly chiming singles of the entire decade.  Up against a Beatles tune with not much more to offer than a superbly catchy vocal melody + harmony, and all Beatles songs have that.  Byrds 2, Beatles nothing.

3.  "Anna (Go To Him)" vs. "Spanish Harlem Incident" - A rather weak and maudlin Arthur Alexander cover competing with a Bob Dylan cover that's far, far less magical than "Mr. Tambourine Man".  I'll take rambling if sprightly Dylan over a ploddingly tempoed croon.  Byrds 3, Beatles 0.

4.  "Chains" vs. "You Won't Have To Cry" - A weak George vocal set to a repetitive, generic soul tune: this is the textbook definition of filler.  An unexceptional but sparkling early Gene Clark tune easily wins.  Byrds 4, Beatles 0.

5.  "Boys" vs. "Here Without You" - Once again, an obvious slice of filler sung by one of the lesser side members (this time it's Ringo).  But it does feature some clean'n'tasty rockabilly licks from George.  The brooding Gene Clark tune, which seems oddly too intensely moody for lightweight teen melodrama, sets the template for Clark's subsequent depressive balladry.  Easily Byrds 5, Beatles still 0!  (!!!) (???)

6.  "Ask Me Why" vs. "The Bells of Rhymney" - I'm hardly a fan of either:  one is a treacle and a bore, the other is somber-faced and a bore.  Ultimately what mitigates the Pete Seeger tune is the cowbell-drenched rhythm work and the wave of ching-ching-chiming guitars:  the Byrds could coast on sheer sound even when their songs were dull.  The Lennon tune has a catchy vocal melody - so what.  Byrds 6, Beatles still zero.  Yes, I'm as surprised as you!  I would have expected this contest to come out a lot more evenly.

7.  "Please Please Me" vs. "All I Want To Do" - Both songs are sung by guy begging a girl for sex.  Dylan's 'I'm a nice guy' proposal is too transparently insincere (he's OK with just being friends - yeah, uh huh, sure).  Lennon's exasperated plea with his lover to reciprocate sounds both anxiously tense and joyous, making it possibly the greatest ode to oral sex ever penned.  Byrds 6, Beatles 1.  The Fabs score a punch - finally!

8.  "Love Me Do" vs. "I Knew I'd Want You" - Let's face it, the first Fabs single was rather amateurish and too thin on non-repetitive melody.  Like a lot of Clark ballads, it's too weirdly morbid and molasses slow considering the teen angst lyrical subject matter, but it's miles more advanced melodically and harmonically.  Byrds 7, Beatles 1.

9.  "P.S. I Love You" vs. "It's No Use" - The Byrds track starts off with an exciting, almost hard rock-ish guitar intro, but fails to catch fire after such a promising start.  Not a terribly effective attempt at a rocker, though it is an admirable change of pace from the mid-tempo, soaring jingle-jangle formula.  You see, that's why these album battles are a little deceptive - they don't take into account the album listening experience as a whole.  The Beatles so far have been losing track by track, but their debut flows better for two reasons:  the sound isn't nearly as monotonous, and despite the excess of plodding soul ballads, at least there's some dang energy.  That was the Byrds' Achilles heel - lack of energy.  They sounded old before their time.  Anyway, the McCartney tune is Paul at his embryonic cuddliest - charm!  Byrds 7, Beatles 2.

10.  "Baby It's You" vs. "Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe" - Classic Burt Bacharach is as classic as pure pop for all-times people gets.  Despite a young and callow Lennon oversinging the chorus at points, and undersinging some of the verses.  Classic Jackie DeShannon - is there such a thing?  Well, maybe, but this hardly counts as one of her best - I hope.  Despite a fine stomping shuffle in the chorus.  Byrds 7, Beatles 3.

11.  "Do You Want To Know a Secret?" vs. "Chimes of Freedom" - Despite another nasal Harrison vocal, this is a fluffily tickling early Beatles neo-classic.  Certainly too lightweight to count as one of their best, but it's tuneful, catchy, and charming, with a deceptively dark-tinged intro - what's not to like?  Bob Dylan is at his least interesting when he's at his most sincere and propagandistic.  And the Byrds don't even bother to come up with a memorable hook to make this surging thumper any more than a yawnfest.  Byrds 7, Beatles 4.

12. "A Taste of Honey" vs. "We'll Meet Again" - Two covers of pop oldies to please the grannies.  There is practically nothing to redeem this Paul-crooned slice of pure schmaltz, and it's easily the worst cut on the Beatles' debut.  The WWII era chestnut, revived for the Dr. Strangelove era, works surprisingly well  - out of left field, the Byrds' debut concludes with one of its strongest, most charming cuts.  Byrds 8, Beatles 4.

13.  "There's a Place" vs. "She Has a Way" - Almost a toss-up; both songs are highly undervalued, almost hidden gems in the respective bands' catalogues. However, it should be pointed out that the Beatles - amazingly - recorded most of their debut in one day-long marathon session.  And at this point it's clear that the band were growing tired.  The performance leaves something to be desired; it clops along too slowly and perfunctorily.  Just listen to the draggily straining vocal harmonies, the hoarseness in Lennon's voice, and the even more draggy rhythm section that just barely limps along.  It was nothing less than a crime that the Byrds never included this cut on their debut - it's a young, fresh-faced Gene Clark at his melodic pop best.  Byrds 9, Beatles 4.

14. "Twist and Shout" vs. "You and Me" - This is hardly fair.  The Isley Bros. cover, rushed in one agitated take as the final track of the session (saved for last because it was feared John would blow out his voice after straining for those screams - which he did, and that's why there was only one take) is a stone hot party rock classic.  Nuff said.  The Byrds track is just a throwaway instrumental.  Byrds 9, Beatles 5.

Wow.  Once again, I'm as surprised as you are - the Byrds shockingly trounce the Beatles.  I bet that's the first time in history that's ever happened (no disrespect to McGuinn & Co.).  But once again, I have to reiterate - the Beatles did get better.  Much better.  This is as close as prime Byrds as it gets.


  1. THe best way to deal with album battles is to do a composite 14 songs of the two albums. So you don't have songs winning simply based on where they lined up to each other. I mean I Saw Her Standing There and Mr. Tambourine Man both deserve to make the composite XIV songs but one is knocked out simply due to where it stands in the tracklisting.

    I Saw Her Standing There
    Mr. Tambourine Man
    I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better
    Spanish Halem incident
    Anna (Go To Him)
    You Won't Have To Cry
    Here Without You
    Please Please Me
    All I Really Want to Do
    It's No Use (I think it does maintain it's energy throughout, the mini-guitar solo is almost a psychedelic precursor to 8 miles high)
    We'll Meet Again
    A Taste Of Honey (come on it's an excellent song, don't you love the double track vocals in the chorus)
    Twist And Shout

    So that's an 8-6 win from The Byrds over The Beatles in

  2. Things during the 60s were changing so fast that the comparison is not fair. PPM is from 1963 and MTM is from 1965, light years ahead. The Byrds wanted to be the American Beatles and were influenced by the Beatles. Without PPM and other Beatles albums and singles ... no Byrds. I am not a native English speaker. I think that the word in English language is biased. Your analysis is biased.

  3. Things during the 60s were changing so fast that the comparison is not fair. PPM is from 1963 and MTM is from 1965, light years ahead. The Byrds wanted to be the American Beatles and were influenced by the Beatles. Without PPM and other Beatles albums and singles ... no Byrds. I am not a native English speaker. I think that the word in English language is biased. Your analysis is biased.