NOTE: Welcome to the first of many ‘Blogging the Beatles’ posts! I’ve been wanting to do this for some time now, considering I’ve been a fan of the band since I was a child. My aim is to go through all of the Beatles’ official music releases in the UK catalog, in chronological order. My approach to this series is going to be twofold: first, I’ll give some detail to the release, including any recording notes as well as what was going on in the world at the time, just to give the release some cultural background. Secondly I’ll give my own take on the release, any opinions and/or thoughts about it. Hope you enjoy this series!
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Single: “My Bonnie”/”The Saints”
Released: October 1961 (Germany), 5 January 1962 (UK)
Some background is in order:
The era was the summer of 1961, and popular music was evolving at an amazing rate. Only a few years before, Elvis was singing countrified blues and Bill Haley and His Comets were playing dancy swing. The popular music of the day spanned all kinds of disparate genres by the start of the sixties, from the soul of Motown, the jazz of Brubeck, the country of Patsy Cline, and the rebellious new “rock and roll” of The Shadows and more. And with the sudden influx of youngsters grooving to these new beats, the music labels knew a cash cow when they saw one.
At this time, it was still de rigeur to have a lead singer (preferably a pin-up of some sort) backed by a band, whether it was a solo singer backed by the ubiquitous Wrecking Crew, or Cliff Richard and his Shadows. It was a holdover from the jazz orchestra days when you had So-and-So and His Band filling the dance floors. This was especially exciting in post-WWII Europe, when everyone was just about sick of hiding in their houses and wanted to get out and have fun. The historic transport hub of Hamburg, Germany became a hotspot of youth activity, especially with art and music. After a few years of playing around Liverpool, The Beatles made their way to Hamburg for two stints at various music clubs in the red light district, with two aims: learn their chops, and get famous. You could most likely call this the Beatles’ “bar band” era, since in essence, that was what they were. They didn’t get famous, but they had a regional following and they stuck with their killer schedule, playing multiple shows a night.
During the first stint, they had met a solo singer/guitarist named Tony Sheridan, a fellow Liverpudlian who played nightly at various clubs and had set a name for himself in Germany as a mid-level rock crooner. They hung out, jammed, and occasionally even played on stage together, and in the summer of 1961 Sheridan had asked the band if they wanted to be his back-up band for some of his songs. Now, considering the band’s wishes for fame, how could they resist? They recorded a small handful of songs under the name “The Beat Brothers” which were soon released in October of that year. [Rumor states that the name change was warranted because “Beatles” in a German accent sounded like “peetles” which was apparently slang for a man’s naughty bits…but I’m more inclined to think that the label (Polydor) wanted a more generic yet still catchy name for the band to make Tony’s name stand out, which was a common label move.] The above two songs were selected as a lead single.
It sold reasonably well in Germany, and the oft-told story goes that someone brought a copy of this single into a small London record/hi-fi equipment shop hidden on the upper floor of a furniture store, handed it to its manager Brian Epstein, and the rest is history. It’s not often considered part of the official Beatles canon, but it is definitely their first released recording. It’s by no means an exciting debut, but it was enough to get them noticed by the locals and give them a step towards a professional level.
Side A: My Bonnie
The song itself is a typical rock interpretation of an old standard, of course. This was a common trick in the 50s and 60s, to “update” the sound of a well-known song so the kids would love it and even the older generation would enjoy it. Tony and the band start the track off in typical showbiz fashion as a slow ballad with harmonized vocals and some well-played guitar…then BAM! A repeated G7 chord swings it into high gear, and we’re off on a wild surf ride. Paul McCartney’s voice is obvious about a minute in, singing the high end, while John Lennon hits rather comedic vocal bass notes. The guitar work is tight but not mechanic, as you can hear both Tony and George Harrison hitting some Berryesque riffs every now and again. Pete Best, here being one of the very few songs he’d record with the band, keeps the beat strong but never gets overbearing. It’s a dirty, unkempt version of the song, and Tony warbles quite a few of the notes as if he couldn’t quite hit them, but that’s part of its charm–this is the Beatles as Bar Band, cutting loose and having a bit of fun in the studio.
Side B: The Saints
Another old standard–this one an old Christian hymn from Belgium–given the rock and roll treatment. Fats Domino did it first and Bill Haley had introduced their own swing versions, but Tony and the band give it their own interpretation as a rocker. It starts off as a quiet shuffle and slowly builds until you’re not sure if it’s a lively gospel song or if it wants to do the Twist. Again, this is very typical of the time–get a song everyone knows and remodel it in a way that will get the crowd out on the dance floor. This track isn’t quite as thrilling as ‘My Bonnie’ is, and a few of the other tracks the band worked on with Tony are much stronger, but it’s a good b-side nonetheless.
Personally, I could go either way with their Sheridan-era recordings, as they’re good for historical purposes, but nothing that would hint at greatness. They were still wet behind the ears here, learning what being a professional musician was about: hard work, long days and nights, bouts of loneliness and insanity, all at a level most would have not dreamed of nor wanted. But they were stubborn enough to want it, and persevered.
NEXT: the official debut single, ‘Love Me Do’/’PS I Love You’