In the old days — I’m talking mid-90s — when record companies were riding high, stuffing themselves with money (mostly mine, it seemed) from ridiculously overpriced compact discs, and iTunes was still a gleam in Bill Kincaid’s eye, I would say to anyone who’d listen that the EP was the ideal way to package and consume music, especially from new or unestablished artists. Anyone who’s ever bought an entire CD after seeing one video on MTV’s Buzz Bin should sympathize with me here. Paying $17 (after tax) for an overlong album when you know damn well there will be only about four songs that you really like? Why couldn’t bands and their record companies put out their four or five strongest songs on a $5-7 EP? I would’ve bought a shitload of those.
By this point, the person who was listening to me was hurriedly walking away, so I would grab on to his sleeve (my hypothetical listener is a he — a girl wouldn’t even have let me start talking about EPs) and explain how the humble EP never really caught on in the United States. EP stands for “extended play,” which in the ancient era of vinyl and record players, meant that although the record was seven inches across and spun at 45 rpm like a standard two-sided single, they managed to squeeze an extra song (or even two!) onto each side, and it cost only a little bit more. An interesting format, but one that seemed to leave the American market cold. But across the Atlantic…
1964… The British Invasion was wreaking havoc across the American music scene, and never were the differences between British and American record companies more apparent. If a British band (or “pop group” in the parlance of the time) was lucky enough to warrant a full-length album, they would go into studio and record sixteen or so tracks for their British label. The more ambitious bands would include several original compositions, but there would also be plenty of old American R&B standards that every British band could play in their sleep. Even the Beatles had to pad their early albums with chestnuts like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Money (That’s What I Want).” Ideally, the bands would stockpile enough material for a 14-track album and the A-side and B-side of a single. According to custom, British singles were not included on original albums and considered a separate entity. This rule was informal and not always observed, but in the U.K., if you wanted the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” or the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” you either got the 45 or waited for a greatest hits album.
It would seem simple for the band’s American label (often a subsidiary of their U.K. label) to go ahead and put out the same album for U.S. consumers, but American record companies were a little stingier. They carelessly chopped up and re-ordered the carefully sequenced British albums. Ten- or twelve-track albums were the order of the day, and singles were always included, pushing four to six songs from the original running order. So for every two albums produced in Britain, the Americans squeezed out three or even four (they were not shy about re-using a few songs here and there.) As a result, cobbled-together stateside favorites like Beatles VI or the Stones’ December’s Children were a source of bafflement and irritation to their creators, who viewed them as crass bastardizations and underhanded cheats on their American audience. Even if an American album bore the same title as its British counterpart, it often had different songs (and was, of course, slightly shorter.)
Hey, where are you going? You’re not walking away now, are you? Yes, OK, back to EPs. The thrifty British embraced the format. Early on, they were used as a kind of greatest hits collection (who could envision a pop group having more than four hits in the early ’60s?). Sometimes they featured album tracks as a kind of sampler, to whet the appetites of their intended teenage audience as they saved their shillings to buy the full-length version (or waited until Christmas.)
But every once in awhile, one of the top-tier British bands was so bursting with ideas and material that they put out stand-alone EPs, featuring new songs unavailable in any other format. And what’s more, these provided even more material for the American record companies to cannibalize, so although they wouldn’t sell EPs, they certainly didn’t discourage the artists from making them. Let’s take a look at a few of the most noteworthy:
The Beatles — Long Tall Sally. (Tracks: 1. “Long Tall Sally.” 2. “I Call Your Name.” 3. “Slow Down.” 4. “Matchbox.” Released June 1, 1964).
In the rush to lionize the Beatles’ amazing songwriting capabilities, it is sometimes overlooked that they were also a crack cover band. They toiled in nightclubs and coffeehouses for almost eight years before they made it big, and their time as human jukeboxes gave them a pretty broad repertoire. For example, they took a second-rate Isley Brothers song intended as a quickie cash-in on the Twist craze (“Twist And Shout”) and turned it into a raucous orgasmic maelstrom, the likes of which had never been heard by early ’60s listeners.
As the sessions for what was to become their third album, A Hard Day’s Night, were wrapping up in the spring of ’64, it was realized there was enough material to make the album all Lennon-McCartney originals. Unprecedented in the still-embryonic world of British rock: An entirely self-penned album! Their song publishers were over the moon. The handful of cover songs that were recorded during the sessions were shelved — but not for long. Such was the appetite for all things Beatle, the songs were put together as an EP and rush-released ahead of the Hard Day’s Night album. The EP was titled after its standout song. It’s a brave or foolhardy singer who attempts to replicate the otherworldly vocals of Little Richard, but Paul McCartney was up to the task, shrieking for all he’s worth, and taking the tempo at a breakneck pace, even faster than the original. The shady lyrics (is it really about a married man sneaking out to rendezvous with a transvestite prostitute as the music-biz legend has it? You be the judge…) come out in a nonsensical gabble, Beatles producer George Martin hammers himself into arthritis at the high keys of the piano, and two guitar solos (one each from Harrison and Lennon) veer almost totally out of control. A tour-de-force performance that leaves everything in smoking ruins, just as “Twist And Shout” did the year before.
The second track is the cover that’s not really a cover. “I Call Your Name” was written by the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team on order for someone else the previous year. Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas put it on the B-side of their single “Bad To Me” (also from the Lennon-McCartney songbook) in July 1963. John Lennon always considered “Bad To Me” a song he was glad to get rid of, but he couldn’t quite shake the thought that he should have kept “I Call Your Name,” and it irked him that it was relegated to a B-side. Finally, during the Hard Day’s Night sessions, he decided to take it back. Keeping the basic structure of the original version. Lennon can be heard on the session tapes asking Martin “D’you think it’s a bit much doing Billy J’s intro and solo? ‘Cause it’s our song, anyroad, innit?” The Beatles gave the song their special touch. Sonically, it bears a strong resemblance to “You Can’t Do That” (recorded the week before as the B-side to “Can’t Buy Me Love”), with its prominent 12-string Rickenbacker guitar and clanking cowbell. Lennon, normally relegated to, in his words, “chunk-chunk rhythm guitar,” takes the solo (as he did on “Long Tall Sally” — he’s really flexing his six-string muscles on this EP). He decided to forgo copying the Dakotas’ solo and, by his own admission, attempts to recreate the sound of ska, just beginning to make itself known in the underground London music scene. For all this effort, however, the Dakotas version was considered too familiar to British audiences at the time (“Bad To Me” was a pretty big seller), so the Beatles’ own “I Call Your Name” was denied a spot on the album (probably in favor of its more original soundalike, the former B-side “You Can’t Do That”) and ended up on this “covers” EP.
Speaking of B-sides — Dammit! Get back here! Quit your eye-rolling and learn something!– the Beatles always had a soft spot for the little known ’50s rocker Larry Williams. Considered New Orleans’ answer to Little Richard, the dangerous Williams was a gun-toting, drug-abusing wild man who came to a bad end, but not before he left us with a handful of blistering R&B cuts that were a treasure trove for young British bands. (The Stones buzzsawed through “She Said Yeah” in about ninety seconds as the opening track of their third album.) In 1965, Capitol Records was two songs short for one of its American re-packagings (Beatles VI, as it turned out). In a slight breach of protocol, they made a special last-minute request of the Beatles — could you lads please record a couple of songs specifically for this American album? The Beatles responded with two unhinged bash-outs of Larry Williams songs, and shipped them across the Atlantic. Delighted, Capitol slotted “Bad Boy,” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” onto Beatles VI, and the latter song also ended up closing out the British version of Help! later that summer, becoming the last official cover song put on record by the Beatles.
Which brings us, at long last, back to the Long Tall Sally EP. Its third track, “Slow Down,” was the B-side to Williams’ original “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” single from 1958. In the vinyl days, the B-side of a single was a lonely place, generally ignored by radio stations and often used as a dumping ground for producers & artists wanting to clear their vaults. But every so often, you could find a hidden treasure on the so-called “flip side.” Avid record-store prowlers in their pre-fame days, the Beatles delighted in unearthing great B-sides, and these formerly obscure tracks often provided cover material for their early albums. Their own singles’ B-sides became famous for being songs that could be, and often were, hits in their own right. “This Boy,” “She’s A Woman,” “I’m Down,” “Rain,” even the mighty “Revolution” — all originally only available as the B-side of a single! As recorded by the Beatles, “Slow Down” is pretty low-grade stuff by their standards, but it rolls along pleasantly, and any other band of the era would be proud to have it in their catalog. Classically-trained George Martin once again tries his hand as a rock & roll pianist (John & Paul were still a little green at the keyboards, but not for much longer…)
The final song on the EP, “Matchbox,” goes back a long time. As early as 1927, Blind Lemon Jefferson committed a version of “Match Box Blues” to wax when commercial disc recording was only a few years old. That’s not the version the Beatles recorded, but rather Carl Perkins’ 1956 rockabilly version. Perkins, along with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, was one of the “Million Dollar Quartet” made famous by the legendary Sun Records. Unlike his peers, Perkins never made it to superstar status although, like Larry Williams, he was a special favorite of the Beatles. The twangy, countrified lead guitar of George Harrison in the ’63 to ’65 era owes a great deal to Carl Perkins. It was tradition that drummer Ringo Starr would get one lead vocal per album, and “Matchbox” was intended to fill that role for A Hard Day’s Night –until the “all-originals” concept came about, sidelining Ringo’s cover. As a result, A Hard Day’s Night is the only album in the Beatles discography until 1970’s Let It Be that did not feature a Ringo song. At that point in the sessions, Lennon & McCartney had neither the time, nor likely the inclination, to pen an all-new number for Ringo. In fact, their tank was empty, resulting in their next album, Beatles For Sale, going back to relying on covers (including two Carl Perkins songs — “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby” and “Honey Don’t” featuring, at last, Ringo on vocals) and the originals, many written at the last possible minute, sounding a little forced and tired.
Was Long Tall Sally the end for the Beatles as far as EPs of all-new material was concerned? Not quite. There’s more on that topic in our Exciting Conclusion. When is that coming, you ask? Soon, I promise.
Yes, I guess it is time for a bathroom break. I’ll wait here and shuffle my note cards until you get back, then we’ll go on to Part 2…