It was fifty years ago today. More or less, give or take. The Beatles released their first recordings. The ’60s revolution in music and style began somewhere, maybe here.
With this stirring declarative language is introduced The Beatles With Tony Sheridan: First Recordings — 50th Anniversary Edition. It is by no means the first time this material has seen the light of day — as these self-same liner notes allow, “these recordings are among the most released and rereleased recordings in the world” — and will likely not be the last, given the insatiable desire of Beatlephiliacs like your reviewer to hear something, anything that promises to still further illuminate the incalculable achievement of pop music’s greatest band. Whichever future archivist does take up the challenge of repackaging these songs will, however, have to meet a daunting standard: there are 34 tracks on this two-disk set … but only seven songs.
Let me explain, on the off chance you don’t already know the story. While the Beatles were performing their famous residencies in Hamburg, they became close friends with another Liverpudlian rocker on the scene, Tony Sheridan, whose energetic performances in the Reeperbahn’s nightclubs sparked a minor fad for imported English rock acts. Sheridan didn’t have a lot of originality, his performances mostly channeling Elvis with side helpings of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran (both of whom he toured with), but even so, he was charismatic, and could play a lead guitar that must have left George Harrison slack-jawed with envy. Impresario Bert Kaempfert thought highly enough of him and his occasional backing band the Beatles to sign them to recording contracts in 1961. Seven tracks were recorded before the Beatles moved on to better things and Sheridan went on to not much of anything. The most renowned of these is “My Bonnie,” the Record That Started It All.
As daft a conception as it may seem and despite a cheesy half-time intro, “My Bonnie” is good fun: Sheridan sings with the same gusto he might have brought to “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” even beginning a few lines with that record’s signature “weee-e-l-l-l-l,” and his guitar solo elicits shouts of genuine excitement from John and Paul and remains a pretty hot piece of playing for 1961. “When the Saints Go Marching In,” its original b-side, repeats the formula with Sheridan swapping his Gene Vincent act for his Elvis; it doesn’t have the former track’s excitement but is still a surprisingly good time; in fact its absurdity, like “My Bonnie’s,” today actually kind of distinguishes it. (This is as good a point as any to lament the one flaw shared by all these tracks: Pete Best’s drumming. Not to beat a long-dead horse, but he had no imagination at all as a drummer, and judging by his complete reliance on the snare, regarded his floor tom as a handy place to rest a beer.) More straightforwardly enjoyable is “Take Out Some Insurance on Me Baby,” the kind of oddball rock obscurity the Beatles loved to do themselves; I could imagine it fitting alongside some of Harrison’s more off-kilter selections like “Sheikh of Araby” or “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” The other tracks with Sheridan — “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Nobody’s Child” — you may not have heard, and you aren’t missing anything.
By far the most interesting to Beatles fans are the two tracks that feature the group without Sheridan. Again, these numbers have been heard by everyone: “Cry for a Shadow,” a simple instrumental worked out by George and John, and “Ain’t She Sweet,” sung by John Lennon. (The German market preferred to digest its English-language rock n’ roll in the form of recognizable standards, hence “My Bonnie,” “When the Saints” and the present song, which was presumably the most popular mainstream number the Beatles felt they could play well.) A more engaged producer than Bert Kaempfert might have suggested some backing vocals to fill out the raw-sounding “Ain’t She Sweet,” but what strikes me in listening to the track now alongside the ones with Sheridan is that, even from the beginning, Lennon sounds only like himself. The bellowing howl of “Twist and Shout” is obviously still some ways off, but he seems not have needed to find himself through a process of imitation and refinement, as many pop artists do: he does not sound like Elvis, or Gene Vincent, or Eddie Cochran or Buddy Holly or Little Richard or whomever. There may not be much to “Ain’t She Sweet,” but what there is is quietly unlike anything else.
So, to return whence we began so many paragraphs ago, how did Time-Life Records squeeze 34 tracks out of a mere seven performances? Well, there are mono mixes; stereo mixes; U.S. mixes (augmented with additional drums and guitar played by session men); and various dubs, edits, and shortened “medley” versions that collectively catalogue every fast buck anyone attempted to make via these recordings. I can’t imagine playing most of these tracks again — and this comes from someone with 35 versions of “From Me to You” in his iTunes library. Yes, Tony Sheridan was a genuinely talented performer, and the fledgling Beatles were lucky to meet him and learn from him. But if you want to hear the best of the Beatles’ Hamburg material, buy Anthology Volume 1: I promise that the filler tracks on that release are of a much higher quality.