Celebrating 50 years of Beatles’ country music
Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 — It was 50 years ago this week The Beatles made their first live appearance on American television on the Ed Sullivan show and changed the music world forever.
But here’s one you haven’t heard. For years, one of my favorite baits to cut has been, “The Beatles are a country band.” Now informed folks readily admit The Beatles played some country music, but they argue their catalog includes many more styles. I have to agree with that assessment because it’s absolutely true, but I continue to set the hook with the anecdotes and song citations that reveal the band’s country influences.
I know it sounds crazy and outrageous— The Beatles as a country act — but don’t just take my word for it. Here are the words of some music biz insiders who agree with me!
According to the liner notes to “The Beatles Live At The BBC,” following their audition to appear on the BBC’s radio programs, producer Pete Pilbeam wrote, “An unusual group, not as rocky as most, more country and western with a tendency to play music.” This was some seven months before the release of The Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do,” when Pete Best still pounded the drum skins and whacked the cymbals.
Many countrified rockabilly numbers highlight The Beatles’ BBC sessions — “Sure to Fall” (they even sing, “natural thang to do,”) and “Glad All Over” from Carl Perkins (the guy who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes”), “Lonesome Tears in My Eyes” from Johnny Burnette and “So How Come Nobody Loves Me” by the great husband and wife team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Love Hurts” and “Rocky Top.”
Capitol Records, their eventual American label, a company owned by their English parent company, rejected The Beatles’ debut album and the band’s first few singles (including the smash that helped launch Beatlemania, “She Loves You”) because the Beatles’ music was “derivative,” and they sounded like hillbillies with English accents.
Pop music icon Dick Clark said “She Loves You” sounded like Buddy Holly and the Crickets and would never be a hit in America. The kids on American Bandstand agreed. How wrong could they be?
The Washington Post also piled on, reporting on The Beatles’ first American concert that they were, “imported hillbillies who looked like sheepdogs and sounded like alley cats in agony.”
But consider this. Not only did The Beatles record a hard core country song, “Act Naturally” by Buck Owens, they wrote their own — “I’ll Cry Instead” from A Hard Day’s Night, “Baby’s In Black,” a live concert staple throughout their career, “I’m A Loser” and “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” from Beatles For Sale, “What Goes On,” and “I’ve Just Seen A Face” from Rubber Soul and “Don’t Pass Me By” from the White Album.
And none other than bluegrass master Roland White commented on The Beatles’ country harmonies on “Ticket To Ride” of all songs.
Hey, I kid you not — The Beatles’ country roots were recognized as far back as 1965 when the bluegrass band The Charles River Valley Boys recorded an album of Beatle songs called — you guessed it — Beatle Country (complete with their version of Yeller Submarine!) That same year Chet Atkins released a wonderful country album called Chet Atkins Picks On The Beatles.
The Byrds, folkies originally influenced to go electric by A Hard Day’s Night, attribute pop music’s shift toward country music in 1967 (the year they recorded the seminal album Sweetheart of the Rodeo) to the Beatles’ “approval” of country music. Why, George Harrison is even wearing a cowboy hat in a photo on the back of the English Help album.
And I haven’t even mentioned all the great country guitar solos on stuff like “She’s A Woman,” “I Feel Fine” or “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
But for a final pull let me take you all the way back to the very beginning and “P.S. I Love You,” the B-side of “Love Me Do.” How can you listen to that call and response, “As I write this letter,” “Oh,” “Send my love to you,” “You know I want you to,” “Remember that I’ll always,” “Yeah,” “Be in love with you,” and not feel that good old country vibe? I rest my case. The Beatles are country.
Happy Beatle anniversary, y’all.