Friday, February 20, 2009

Bad Boy

"Bad Boy" is another, like "The Inner Light," that could count as a genuinely obscure Beatles song, inasmuch as such a thing can exist at all. But what's really weird about this is that American audiences heard it before English audiences, which was rare, considering that American fans were much more frequently screwed over. "Bad Boy" was an extra song recorded specifically to pad out one of the grotesque fake American albums, Beatles VI, assembled piecemeal by the schmucks at Capitol (the American division of EMI, which released the official Beatles canon in the states), and as such it was sort of a first, for Capitol hadn't needed extra material before.

Just to very very quickly sum up why this sort of thing happened: there are a few reasons why the British and the American albums don't match up properly. The primary one has to do with American royalty structure at the time: if an American album had only 10 songs on it, contracts stipulated that the band's royalty percentage was smaller than if it had 12 or 14, which incentivized record companies to trim songs at a time when artists had very little control over how their work was released. Whereas in Britan, royalties weren't tied to song quantity, and consumers had come to expect at least 14 songs on a pop album. This meant that original 14-track British LPs released on Parlophone would, in the states, routinely have a few songs shaved off to bring the total down to 10 songs, and Capitol would save all the trimmed songs and eventually release a brand new album that had never existed in the U.K. It's all totally sordid, but this is how we have mutant Beatles offspring like Yesterday and Today and Beatles '65 and, here, Beatles VI.

So the stupid, stupid, STUPID system in place until Sgt. Pepper in 1967 (which even the godless morons at Capitol realized it would be heretical to mess around with) did yield a few good things, and two of them were the Beatles' recordings of "Bad Boy" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzie," both of them covers of Larry Williams originals. The latter, also on Beatles VI in the states, found its way in Britain to Help!, which is where the official canon as recognized by critics and contemporary CDs still places it today. But "Bad Boy" is an oddity, and never found a home on a British album until 1966's A Collection of Beatles Oldies, probably the first Greatest Hits album, released in lieu of a new Christmastime album that year. The best place to listen to it today is Past Masters Volume 1. Or, you know, right here.

The original was written and performed by Larry Williams, but I've never heard the original version, more's the pity, since I understand that Williams was a phenomenal performer. When Little Richard found religion and gave up rock & roll in the late '50s, I know that Williams was styled to be some kind of successor to him, and he had some hits with "Bad Boy" as well as "Bony Maroney" and "Slow Down" (which is one of my favorite under-appreciated Beatles covers), though by the early '60s it looks as though his career had actually slowed down (har har) quite a bit.

"Bad Boy" is a jokey sendup of fears of rock & roll's effect on the young people, with the titular bad boy doing everything from putting tacks in Teacher's chair to actually killing people's pets. And if I know anything about Beatles' covers, I'll speculate that this is a fairly faithful rendition of the original. Since I only know this version, though, I want to call out George's amazing guitar licks, which act as replies to John's almost better vocal. I love John's vocal on this, I really do. John is totally getting a kick out of everything this kid is doing-- and no doubt he's really singing about himself, of course, remembering feeling like a misfit and a rock & roll freak in his schoolboy days. When he sings "behave yourself" it's a weird mocking come-on, or maybe a dare, but it's certainly dripping with a charming disingenuousness. The Beatles were, by now (they recorded this while filming Help!) a respectable pop band with zillions of mainstream fans, but John's taking this opportunity to call out to all the rocking kids that he's just like them. The sense of the freakiness of rock & roll comes through here in spades, which makes it an excellent foil to the songs that John was writing and recording around this time ("Help!," "I'm a Loser," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," etc.). I think you can see this cover as part of the continuum of John's unique brand of loneliness really began to come to the forefront in the mid-'60s. After all, why this song, when they had heaps of others in their repertoire to rush out for their stupid American record company? I really think this wasn't an accident.

But all this is beside the point when the song is so damned good anyway. I hate that it's songs like "Bad Boy" that get overlooked-- no one could argue that the Beatles were just establishmentarian wanker goody-two-shoes in moptops listening to John's heartwrenching vocal and the tight, tight band at work here. Seriously. I love this kind of rock & roll-- clearly, I need to seek out some Larry Williams records-- and the Beatles loved it too, and my God could they play it. Listen again, and dance around your living room! Then break a lamp or something for good measure. It feels deliciously bad.

"Bad Boy," released in the U.K. side B track 2 of A Collection of Beatles Oldies, December 9, 1966; in the U.S. side A track 4 of Beatles VI, June 14, 1965.
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