Can't Buy Me Love - Reviews

Reviewed by Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head:

The Beatles' January 1964 residency at the Paris Olympia was a chore, their audiences finding the new British pop idiom hard to grasp and the French press loftily insulting the group as 'juvenile delinquents' and 'has-beens'. While their spirits were raised by hearing that I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND had vaulted in virtually one bound to the top of the American charts, more drudgery had to be faced on 29th January when they reluctantly attended EMI France's Paris studio to tape German-language versions of it and SHE LOVES YOU.[1]
These done, they used the last hour of the session to record a number McCartney had written only days before. [2] Originaliy conceived with the rolling backbeat and bluesy delivery later used in SHE'S A WOMAN, CAN'T BUY ME LOVE was altered on the spot, turning into a bouncily commercial pop song - a redraft accomplished in four takes. [3] The fact that George Martin had to tell the group to start with the chorus rather than the verse shows how little they'd considered the song before recording it (the change being so obvious that they would have made it themselves had they tried the tune out earlier).

Among the simplest of the group's hits, CAN'T BUY ME LOVE consists of a jazzy blues in minor chords with a straight-up eight-bar major chorus. As such, it spoke a musical language the parental generation could relate to, and it was almost logical that Ella Fitzgerald recorded a cover version as soon as she heard it. The only incongruity lay in McCartney's artless lyric which, despite some smart syllabics in the second line of its second verse, stands no comparison with the work of the professional lyricists to whom Fitzgerald was accustomed. The most effective aspect of the words to CAN'T BUY ME LOVE was largely accidental: its author's decision to replace the conventional 'my dear/my love' with the bluff, asexual 'my friend'. Though McCartney was merely recycling a throwaway rhyme from the little-known I'LL GET YOU, the effect was arresting, seeming to define the casual etiquette of a coolly unromantic new age.

Partly by luck, partly by intuition, The Beatles managed time and again with such simple strokes to place themselves in a subtly futuristic context. As the decade advanced and they continued to bring off variations on this trick, a sense grew among their audience that the group 'knew what was going on' and were somehow poised above events, guiding them through their music. Yet The Beatles wooed convention with an equally intuitive touch, establishing their cross-generational viability in America with CAN'T BUY ME LOVE in the aftermath of the youthquake impact of I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND. Where the latter threatened something almost too vigorous to be contained, the idiomatic familiarity of CAN'T BUY ME LOVE, delivered with old-fashioned showbiz 'oomph' by the wholesome McCartney, offered canny reassurance - a sly conquest soon consolidated by the cheeky wit of A Hard Day's Night.

The Beatles' ability to be two contradictory things at once - comfortably safe and exhilaratingly strange - has been displayed by no other pop act. A by-product of the creative tension between the group's two dominant personalities, this effect increased as Lennon and McCartney drew apart as writers, and it is significant that, with CAN'T BUY ME LOVE, their 'one on one, eyeball to eyeball' collaborations more or less came to an end. So far as records are concerned, the pair's golden age of full fifty-fifty co-composition was 1963, with a sustained run of such numbers. Only one such occurred in 1964 [BABY'S IN BLACK] and the same was true in 1965 [WAIT]. During The Beatles' last four years, Lennon and McCartney stopped working together like this, though they continued to meet formally to 'check' each other's new songs in three-hour writing sessions [4] held mostly at Lennon's house in Weybridge. Here, they would show each other their new material, fixing details and often helping with unfinished or unwritten sections, such as middle eights. Several of their best tracks resulted from semi-collaborations begun after one of them had written part of a number and needed help from the other with finishing it. So far as songwriting was concerned, Lennon and McCartney saw them-selves as business partners and took a disciplined professional attitude to their work. Yet the truth was that each was a self-sufficient entity with an egotistic eye on his own career and a different conception of the qroup. [5]

Similar enough to allow fruitful interaction in the later stages of composition, their tastes in music, as they grew up, diverged too much to accommodate much fullscale start-to-finish collaboration. Theirs was a classic attraction of opposites, and one which worked increasingly at a distance after CAN'T BUY ME LOVE, the first Beatles single to feature only one singer.

With its bobbing beat and light acoustic rhythm, CAN'T BUY ME LOVE prefaced the second phase of The Beatles career: that of global recognition and 'standard' status. Its effortless rightness - from McCartney's boisterous vocal (beginning three beats before the rest join in) to Harrison's first wholly memorable guitar solo - bespeaks a band of talents on top of their world. Their teenage ambition to displace Elvis Presley from the ruling summit of pop is achieved here.

Notes:

  1. I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND ('Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand') was made fast, using a two-track mixdown of the original backing track over which new vocals were sung. (Newly anxious to exploit every last scrap of Beatles product, Capitol issued this version on the American compilation LP Something New in June 1964.) SHE LOVES YOU ('Sie Liebt Dich') was entirely remade in fourteen takes - thirteen for the backing track, one for the vocals. (The German rewrite didn't go as far as insisting on 'ja, ja, ja'.) Since the Swan label still held the US rights to SHE LOVES YOU, it issued the German version as a single in America, backed with I'LL GET YOU, in May 1964. The custom of recording special versions for foreign markets, standard practice at the time, was never afterwards bothered with by The Beatles and consequently fell into disuse. The resulting promotion of the English language around the world is one of their most substantial, and least documented, achievements!
  2. Many of the songs for A Hard Day's Night were written, or begun, while Lennon and McCartney were in Paris where they had a grand piano installed in their suite at the Hotel George V.
  3. The arrangement initially featured a superfluous lead guitar figure on the chorus and interjected backing vocals from Lennon and Harrison on the verse. Apart from its many melodic blue-notes, CAN'T BUY ME LOVE emulates the swing style with its 'big band' stop-time breaks ('I don't care too' [beat] 'much for money') and the rich jazz turnaround chords at the end of each chorus ('Can't buy me lo-' [Dm11] '-o-' [G13] '-ove' [C]). McCartney may have dropped into this idiom - that of Sinatra and Peggy Lee - after hearing Helen Shapiro's version of Lee's 'Fever', then climbing the UK singles chart. Lee was one of his favourite singers.
  4. These, notionally, matched the three-hour recording sessions then standard, owing to Musicians' Union rules, at Abbey Road.
  5. A list of early Beatles songs sent by Brian Epstein to George Martin on 6th June 1962 shows Lennon and McCartney's 'original compositions' under their respective authors rather than as the product of a partnership. (McCartney: LOVE ME DO, P.S. I LOVE YOU, LIKE DREAMERS DO, 'Love Of The Loved'; Lennon: ASK ME WHY, HELLO LITTLE GIRL.)

Posted: 28 dec 2009

Other reviews by: