Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thoughts on "All I've Got to Do"

With some pop bands, especially those that are considered among the greatest, it can be strange thinking about them as not only creators of music but also fans of it. That is, other people's music, oftentimes the work of a lesser band than the one in question. When I first came to know the Icelandic quartet Sigur Ros, it was in the context of them being one of Radiohead's favorite acts, and I remember puzzling over the idea of Thom Yorke and company having deep admiration for the music of a contemporary. Radiohead makes untouchable, boldly innovative art, I thought - so how could they deign to praise younger, less accomplished musicians? It almost seemed like an admission of weakness, i.e., they write songs and create sounds that we haven't and perhaps couldn't have. When I was younger, such an idea struck a false note with me. It took me a while to become comfortable with the obvious truth that all bands, regardless of their stature, have influences and are fans of other artists.

I thought of my erstwhile confusion several weeks ago as I listened to "All I've Got to Do," the second track on With The Beatles. For not only is it a heavily Motown-influenced song, it is in fact an attempt at a Motown song. It's John posing as Smokey Robinson, the legendary lead singer of The Miracles, and letting us know that he's a fool for the sound of Motown. It's an instance of The Beatles not really caring to be a distinctive group. Rather, they were responding to and aping the songs that they, as music fans, greatly enjoyed.

None of this is surprising, of course. After all, The Beatles' music wasn't created in a vacuum. It didn't simply appear out of thin air. And though we rarely think about them in these terms, The Beatles were at one point a raw, musically undeveloped band. Their abilities weren't fully flowered from the start. It only makes sense then that, on their way to becoming the greatest and most significant band in pop music history, they drew inspiration from many other artists, building on their artistic imprints. The list includes Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, girl groups, Motown acts, and more. The Beatles borrowed from them to vivify their own musical instincts and creativity as they matured into accomplished musicians and songwriters.

That The Beatles were influenced by Motown was evident before they recorded "All I've Got to Do." Like that song," "Ask Me Why," which is off Please Please Me, was a product of John's enthusiasm for Smokey Robinson. According to Wikipedia, it "emulates in style that of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, by whom Lennon was influenced, and draws its opening guitar phrase from the Miracles’ 'What’s So Good About Goodbye.'" "There's a Place" is another song John wrote for Please Please Me with Motown in mind.

But it was on With The Beatles that The Fabs' high estimation of Berry Gordy and his acts really came into full view. In addition to recording "All I've Got to Do," The Beatles cut three Motown covers for the album: "Please Mister Postman," "You Really Got a Hold on Me" (written and originally performed, of course, by Smokey), and "Money (That's What I Want)." And just for good measure, according to John, "Not a Second Time" represented yet another imitation of, who else, Smokey Robinson. The Beatles (John, more to the point) were making no secret of what music they prized. They were seemingly proud to brandish their tastes. The fact that, on one album, they covered three Motown hits and recorded two other songs inspired by an artist from the same label gives this admiration an eager, youthful quality. In those moments, The Beatles were just as much fans of music as they were professional recording artists.

Also, it makes sense that John handled the lead vocals on all of these songs. His voice was so well-suited to the material. It possessed a sensitivity that was genuine and affecting, but behind that there lay a forceful and fiery passion that could erupt when needed. John was closely acquainted with rejection, abandonment, and heartbreak, meaning that he was rarely at a loss for potent emotions. Often when he sang, those thorny, deeply-buried feelings would flow through his voice and instill earnest conviction in his words. He could do wounded, needy, and tender all very well. It was perfect for Motown songs. Just listen to the cover of "You Really Got a Hold on Me," and notice how natural John sounds within its confines. This is true of "All I've Got to Do" as well. It's an excellent song - sexually nervy, emotionally compelling, and sonically taut - , and John seems right at home in it.

John truly cherished Motown. He drew fertile inspiration from the music, and this underscores the fact that part of The Beatles' genius was how effectively they incorporated many rich influences into their own songwriting. They were historic taste-makers who, perhaps necessarily, had great taste.

For more on "All I've Got to Do," check out its Wikipedia page.

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