Anthony Robustelli’s I Want To Tell You is a passionate musical analysis of The Beatles’ first two studio albums, Please Please Me and With The Beatles, and accompanying singles – the formative 16-month (net) period in their recording career.
The first section of the book is biography of the band, and Brian Epstein, from Hamburg nights, through the Decca debacle, to signing finally with EMI and George Martin. Here, among multiple other sources, Robustelli quotes heavily from two very recent works: Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In: Volume 1 (Extended Special Edition) and Kevin Howlett’s The BBC Archives: 1962-1970, which lends the work a fresh and current feel.
It must be said that, while instructive, the writing in the biographical sections lacks the sophistication of other Beatles chroniclers, most notably Lewisohn, Ian MacDonald and Philip Norman – a patchwork of disparate sources create the rather cobbled-together feel of an essay rather than a flowing text or narrative.
However, it is in the musical analysis – the meat of this book – that Robustelli really shines. A musician and producer himself, his examinations of the 34 songs – 22 of which are original Beatle compositions – are assured and astute, developing and even improving on that of MacDonald and others at times, if not as refined in prose and construction.
Lennon and McCartney contributed no less that eight of the 14 songs on Please Please Me, an achievement virtually unheard of at the time, particularly on a debut release. The non-originals had initially relied on piano and horns; The Beatles (re)arranged with guitars in the role of both, creating a new ‘toughened’ sound.
I Want To Tell You conveys admirably that, while The Beatles had no formal musical training, all four did have an exceptionally intuitive grasp of complex musical ideas. They revived traditional rock ‘n’ roll and blues, yet simultaneously pioneered. Lennon’s ‘ska’ guitar technique on ‘I Call Your Name’, for instance, predates the first ska hit in Britain by two years.
Robustelli, thankfully, is not afraid to challenge received wisdoms and facts. For example, contrary to many sources (and what the ear perceives) he states with some certainty that both rhythm and lead guitars on ‘Twist And Shout’ are in fact the acoustic Gibson J-160Es “played through the Vox amps pushed enough for warm tube distortion”, with no electric guitar present.
He is confident enough in his research and analysis to state baldly that even Lewisohn, whom he holds in high regard, gets things wrong (concerning edits in ‘Hold Me Tight’, for instance). Robustelli explores the recording evolution of certain songs by cycling through available, or extant, takes – for example, the numerous changes in Harrison’s guitar and Starr’s drumming on successive takes of ‘There’s A Place’.
Those in possession of ‘Beatlegs’ can supplement their reading by listening to the takes in question. The author also cites many live concert and radio performances, adding further depth and interest. In addition, differences between mono, stereo, US and UK mixes are discussed.
There’s a lot packed in. Robustelli tracks The Beatles’ evolution in the studio, from their ‘discovery’ and first to second album releases, their dizzying creative growth, the sudden seismic crash of Beatlemania, their insatiable quest for and use of innovative techniques and technologies such as double-tracking, ‘bouncing’ and overdubs, and the myriad textures afforded by combining these with new instruments, equipment and ever-expanding musical sensibilities.
There are significant recording and mixing notes for each song in addition to a comprehensive listing of instruments, microphones and outboard gear used on both the albums and singles, in addition to discussion of the genesis of and close musical analysis of each song.
Given the (necessary) repetition in some of the material, Robustelli does well to find fresh and interesting ways in which to convey similar or recurring facts and ideas. Logic dictates that fresh analysis might flag as the book goes on, but in fact the opposite is true, and indeed the more sophisticated the music becomes (and it does) the more interesting and apposite the analysis, boding well for further volumes.
The chapter/track listing is chronological rather than album-order, and so by the time we get to Twist And Shout you feel the sense of sheer slog the 10-hour Please Please Me session must have been, and practically find yourself hacking in throat-inflamed sympathy with Lennon’s shredded larynx.
Most – or many – people know that the Beatles’ compositions were ‘genius’ without being able to articulate the how and why. Robustelli’s deconstruction of the nuts and bolts of (mostly) Lennon and McCartney’s compositions, and the four musicians’ technique, presents us with that information.
Robustelli has read intelligently and fairly widely, and it shows, as does an authentic intimacy with the songs discussed, as well as with the Beatles oeuvre as a whole. His passion is infectious, and it’s nigh-on impossible not to accompany his extrapolations with repeated listening of each song – fragmentarily and complete. His close analysis is absorbing, and, while a little complex at times, makes reasonable efforts to avoid the arcane. Dilettantes and wizened Beatles aficionados alike couldn’t fail to learn interesting things here.
This first volume, while perhaps falling short of a pantheon of Lewisohn, MacDonald (no shame there) and one or two others, shows definite promise of developing – as a complete entity – into an essential part of the Beatles reference canon.
I Want To Tell You, Volume 1 is an ideal length – analysis of two albums and their attendant singles and b-sides. Enough to satisfy and whet the appetite for more. And whetted it is. I look forward to Robustelli’s intelligent scrutiny of, say, the infamous ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ opening chord, or perhaps his take on the ‘disputed-authorship’ classics ‘In My Life’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ using further stylistic comparison of Lennon’s and McCartney’s musicality. And so on…