Monday 21 February 2011

The Beatles "Please Please Me" (1963) (News, Views and Music 92)

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The Beatles “Please Please Me” (1963)

I Saw Her Standing There/Misery/Anna (Go To Him)/Chains/Boys/Ask Me Why/Please Please Me//Love Me Do/P.S. I Love You/Baby, It’s You/Do You Want To Know A Secret?/A Taste Of Honey/There’s A Place/Twist and Shout

(First published 21st February 2011; Revised edition published August 1st 2014)

The Album:

So, here we are at the start of a journey that started in a cellar basement and will end up on a rooftop, a peak in fortunes that will surely never be matched again. From playing in a school band that nobody gave a second's thought over to the day when The Beatles were finally legally dissolved (in Disneyland, Florida, of all places, when lawyers finally caught up with the one missing signature of John Lennon during a 'lost weekend' day out with May Pang and son Julian), The Beatles' story is one that shaped at least a generation, probably more and whose ripples in all lines of society are still being felt. Would we have ever had shaken off the gloom and shadows of the second world war without The Beatles to twist and shout their way through them? Would the young ever have had a voice or would they simply have turned into clones of their parents on leaving school, as every previous generation had done? Would music ever have become the powerful force it became in the 1960s and beyond? Would anyone have stepped out of line to say 'no, you're wrong!' to authority? Together with the bands that started all around the world at more or less the same time and who followed bravely in their footsteps, The Beatles started the single biggest revolution in popular culture and they did it without weapons, executions or money. Instead they changed the world through that haircut, that dress sense, that energy and excitement and most of all those songs. Who knows what the world might have been like without The Beatles - much like it always had been before I suspect - but the one safe thing we do know is that, after more than their fair share of false starts, the revolution starts here.

I can’t quite believe that there was ever a time when this album didn’t exist, that on any day up to March 21st 1963 people could innocently have been living their lives without the presence of a Beatles long-player in their collection. As far as me and many of my fellow collectors are concerned, all of mankind’s past success and glories were simply a warm-up act for getting civilisation to a point where The Beatles could exist. Many, many times it looked as if they wouldn't. The band's first line-up, while still The Quarrymen, haemorrhaged members left right and centre until John, Paul and George found themselves the core trio and fought on, drummer-less, for several months when most bands would simply have given up. Until 1962 their biggest break came when working 12-hour-shifts in Hamburg, encouraged by club promoters to 'make show' and be alert and lively the whole time, aurally forcing anyone in the vicinity to come in and see what the noise was (and, hopefully, buy a drink). Along the way John and Paul lost their mothers in difficult circumstances, both John and Ringo were abandoned by their fathers, band friend Stuart Sutcliffe died of a brain tumour at the heart-breakingly early age of 21 and all four had to fight to be heard: the schoolmasters who told them they were wasting their time, the parental figures who told them 'the guitars all right for a hobby but you'll never make a living out of it', the German police who deported George for being under-age past a 10pm curfew and the odd-jobs taken to make ends meet. Reading The Beatles' much-worn early story makes you think that the band were fated to play this role, as there were at least a hundred moments in their early history when The Beatles should have been over - and a hundred more when they could have been forgiven for giving up or at least making the least amount of effort, getting by with what had come before because doing something 'new' past all the people nominally 'in charge' of them was such hard work.

Making the 'Please Please Me' record was one of them. After all, put yourself in the Beatles' boots. EMI still don't have true and utter faith in you just yet (at this stage the band had only released two singles). Pre-recorded material aside (against popular convention in the 1960s, the last time The Beatles will allow a previously released song on a long-playing record with the exception of the film soundtracks and 'Abbey Road'), EMI are only granting the band a total of one 12-hour session to get the job done. Their view is that The Beatles will be over soon, so everyone had better cash-in on the popularity now before the 15 minutes of fame are up. Even George Martin, while enthusiastic, isn't fully convinced about what The Beatles can offer yet and more than a little bit worried about whether this project he's been handed, so different to anything else out there, will work across a full LP ('Love Me Do' only really sound in Liverpool while the single 'Please Please Me' could have been just a 'fluke' hit). In this context The Beatles could be forgiven for giving less than their best, for saving all their best material for future singles and recording something that's easy and straightforward. Instead they experiment, even at this early stage, borrowing songs not just from the well thumbed lexicon of rock and roll but lesser known moments from doo-wo, Motown, soul, country and even girl bands (is it just me who finds it weird that Ringo spends his first song singing about 'Boys'?!) The Beatles are already so sure in their abilities that they break the  idea of  a band sound that most people don't even know they have yet, with perhaps the greatest of all 'Please Please Me's many achievements the fact that it manages to be as varied and different to anything around in 1963 as it is.

‘Please Please Me’ isn’t the best Beatles album, of course. Lennon and McCartney haven’t quite reached their rich vein of songwriting yet (despite comments in the press about writing ‘hundreds of songs’ before the band signed to EMI, in truth they’d only written the original seven songs here and around a couple of dozen more, most of them unused or unusable and quietly given away to others over the next two years), with only 'I Saw Her Standing There' instantly heralded as a 'classic' amongst this album's original compositions. A lot of the half-remaining half-album of cover versions were better done by the original artists anyway (especially Arthur Alexander's sultry 'Anna (Got To Him)', the two Shirelles songs 'Baby, It's You' and 'Boys'), with the Beatles sounding under-rehearsed or sometimes unsuitable for the role ('Chains' is the most hopeless Beatles moment until 'Mr Moonlight'). The band aren't as telepathically tight as they will be on most future albums either and sound quite audibly nervous on parts of this album, understandable for a band who’d never even visited London until a year before (for the Decca audition), never mind a recording studio. The musicianship is in fact so spectacularly below anything else The Beatles will ever do (except, perhaps, the equally raw ‘Let It Be’) that ‘Please Please Me’ is a harder struggle to sit through for modern audiences than any other album (Ringo, don’t forget, has been with the band a mere matter of months at the time of these recordings and still isn't quite comfortable with his place in their sound until the next album). In many ways the original plans drawn up loosely by Brian Epstein for this album (a live album recorded at the Cavern, with atmospheric recordings of all the band's set highlights in a setting they were comfortable in and including some songs they never did professionally record such as 'Some Other Guy' 'What'd I Say?' and 'Besame Mucho', rejected when George Martin paid a visit to the club and baulked at the small space and the damage the condensation running off the walls might do to the microphones) would have been a far better bet all round.

All the above are reasons why most Beatles fans won’t have this album on constant play on their turntables and why later generations will scratch their heads over what the fuss is all about. However, they’re also irrelevant. Without ‘Please Please Me’ marking the first stepping stone towards greatness, not only would we never have had any of the Beatles’ future glories, we’d have probably never had any of this website’s great albums. (The one exception to this is The Beach Boys – their debut album ‘Surfin’ Safari’ was already five months old when ‘Please Please Me’ came out,– but even they would never have sounded quite the same without the Beatles’ arrival in 1964 to kick-start their own moments of genius.) That means we can cut 'Please Please Me' more slack on this site than perhaps any other album we've reviewed: it's a lot easier to excuse someone's mistakes when they're the 'first' at what they do, unaware of the pitfalls and while 'Please Please Me' gets a lot wrong (mainly thanks to the hurried recording schedule and rather varied song choice), it gets an awful lot more right. The template for all Beatles albums is here, certainly the ones made up until the 'middle years' when Lennon, McCartney and Harrison started coming up with all the songs between them instead of relying on 'filler' covers, and while the reliance on 1950s sounds and styles has made this album date more than the Beatle records that come later 'Please Please Me' is still audibly the same group from later years. Lennon's feistiness, Macca's gift for melody, Harrison's sturdy solos and Ringo's powerhouse drumming are all here. What's more, this album is a huge step up from anything The Beatles have recorded up till now. While you could excuse the band for taking the 'easy route' (nobody making this album expected it to sell the way it did and the 1963 idea of an album was something to sell on the back of successful singles), they never ever do: unlike the wild days of the Tony Sheridan recordings, the slightly awkward air of the Decca audition tape and the rather lazy playing of the Star Club tapes (admittedly from a time when The Beatles were weary, about to go home and didn't know someone had a tape recorder going) all these recordings are committed.

Reviewing this album is a challenge, both because modern ears find it hard to adjust to a climate where songs still had to share some vague DNA with the 1950s and what had come before  to be successful and because this album is so unlike all the albums that follow. 'Please Please Me's greatest success, I think, is that it manages to sound natural in an environment where crooners and one-off singers were key ('A Taste Of Honey' is it's biggest backward moment) and yet appeals hugely to an audience waiting for something 'new'. Even the second album ‘With The Beatles’ is light years ahead of ‘Please Please Me’, thanks to copious use of overdubs, echo effects, a bigger range of instrumentation and the biggest factor later Beatles albums possess which this one doesn't: sheer confidence. Many critics dismiss the album as ‘primitive’, but that’s true only by comparison with other Beatles records – nearly everything else made in Britain in the first half of 1963 was as rushed and low budget as this one. The first Searchers, Stones and Hollies records - all made just a fraction later in the year - are equally hap-hazard and ramshackle and, while I have a soft spot for the latter, ‘Please Please Me’ has actually dated better than any of these.

Quite apart from the skill in the playing, there are two main reasons for this. The first is that Lennon and McCartney, while not yet stuffing the album full of originals, are still writing the majority of the songs (8 out of 14) at a time when it was still seen as unusual for an artist of the time to write any of their own material. More to the point, all of the songs here are strong – far stronger than most of the covers on this album, if not always as consistently great as they’ll become. Even the choice of covers are intriguing. The biggest Beatle live songs of the day, along with ‘Twist and Shout’  and the soon-to-be-recorded ‘Money, were ‘Some Other Guy’ and ‘Lend Me Your Comb’, both of which are conspicuous by their absence from this LP. In fact, many of the songs the band will go on to cover on their BBC sessions (see news and views no 24) were in the band's setlist in 1963 and yet are missing from this album, with the Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and Elvis songs overthrown in favour of a much stranger, obscurer run of covers. The only song on this 1963 album that an average rock fan in the street would know is ‘A Taste Of Honey’ and even that is probably the obscurest of all the ballads Paul used to sing in his set lists at the time. So why did The Beatles choose to cover Arthur Alexander, The Cookies and Isley Brothers songs nobody else was covering on what might well have been their only shot at making a long-playing record? Because the Beatles already had a clear vision of what they wanted to sound like and become, with all of these songs – barring perhaps ‘Honey’ and ‘Chains’ – sounding like Beatles songs already. If the band don’t always do the material justice or sound rushed or tired or both in places, that’s the fault of the hectic recording schedule, not the plans the Beatles had for this album when they were already in it for the 'long game', determined not to be restricted to being 'simply' a rock and roll or ballads act.

By a neat twist of fate and a tiny bit of planning, it was 47 years ago the day before I was writing this that The Beatles started the mammoth recording session that will see them record an impressive 11 songs on the same day in a mammoth 12 hour session, to add to their two A and two B sides from previous sessions (the unused song is a first try-out for ‘Hold Me Tight’, a song abandoned until later on in the year when the Beatles have more time to spend on it - another side that they aren't just throwing things away lightly on this LP). Thanks mainly to The Beatles, who got away with murder in a few years time thanks to a sympathetic producer and a run of success that allowed them to get away with whatever they wanted, all future recording acts will spend the same amount of allotted hours focussing on just the drum sound. The fact that a band with very little experience of recording (‘My Bonnie’, two singles and the unused and detested cover ‘How Do You Do It?’) could not only work but thrive in such a pressurised environment, recording several songs that are fondly remembered among fans to this day, says much for the Beatles’ belief and ability. The Beatles may break every record in the book in the future, play to the biggest audiences, be seen by more television audiences than any other musical group, sell a ridiculous amount of albums and singles and have a longer stretch of #1s than any other band for 20 years, but I would say its the 10 recordings that make up the bulk of this album that rank with their biggest achievements. ‘Please Please Me’ is ragged, raw and at times pretty ordinary for a band of such talent (the cover of ‘Chains’ and the original ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ are hardly among their greatest masterpieces) and yet this album has so many more iconic songs than by rights it should. Somewhere between McCartney’s genuinely thrilling ‘1-2-3-4!’ count in on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and Lennon’s last whoop on ‘Twist and Shout’ a whole new sound has been born, one that artists who are only vaguely aware of The Beatles are still mining today.

For those who, like me, are interested in such details, the order the album was recorded was this: Love Me Do and P.S I Love You (11th September 1962), Please Please Me and Ask Me Why (November 26th 1962) and, in order, There’s A Place, I Saw Her Standing There, A Taste Of Honey, Do You Want To Know A Secret?, Misery, the aborted first version of Hold Me Tight, Anna (Go To Him), Boys, Chains, Baby It’s You and Twist and Shout, all on February 11th 1963. Next time you fancy trying something a bit different, programme your CD player to play the songs in this order. The results are striking. First up, ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me’ no longer stick out like sore thumbs in the middle of the album but sound like crucial stepping stones towards the duller, deeper sound of this album (George Martin, too, had to learn on the fly how to record pop/rock, after years of working with comedians and the Temperance Seven). Secondly, listen out for the band getting looser and rawer as the session goes on – Lennon, especially, loses his voice little bit by little bit throughout the day, ending up with the screaming tearing vocal on ‘Twist and Shout’, a number chosen, remarkably, at the last minute when the band had a bit of time spare and wanted their album to go out with a bang (at first George Martin thought it was too raw and tried for a second take; thank goodness Lennon's voice was shot and the sessions ended then and there). The evolution of The Beatles from 1962-69 has always been seen as one of mankind’s greatest achievements (well, it has amongst music listeners and anyone with half a brain and a pair of ears, anyway), but on no other album can you hear The Beatles evolving at such a speed, song by song.

Talking of speed, EMI realised they had no album cover and had to arrange the iconic shot of The Beatles smiling down a staircase (at EMI's headquarters in Manchester Square, London) very much at the last minute. Earlier shots intended for the album cover included The Beatles in a small Liverpool park (round the corner and along a bit from The Cavern) that was included in the album's CD booklet in 2009 and an aborted session George Martin tried to book for the band at London Zoo (a keen zoologist and an 'honorary member' of the board, George thought it would be fun to have the band posing outside the insect house, but the organisers sadly refused! Just as well or people would be making fun of this cover and spoofing it the same way they do 'Abbey Road' today - or the similarly animal-loving 'Pet Sounds' come to that). Like the album, the finished rough shot is impressively structured with semi-famous 1960s photographer Angus McBean never really given the proper accolades he deserves for capturing such a natural and un-posed shot of a band unused to having their picture taken. Like the music, the 'Please Please Me' Beatles seem impossibly young and a winning combination of polished and raw (Ringo is so new to the Beatles he hasn't even got a full haircut yet and we won't see this much of his ears until he shaves most of his hair off in the 1980s!) The Beatles will take better, more carefully thought through photographs but this is still one of my favourites. What a shame, though, that the band's plan of returning to the same staircase, plus many years' worth of extra hair, six years later wasn't used for the cover of 'Get Back' as intended (probably by Lennon; however full marks to EMI for putting these covers on the 'Red' and 'Blue' sets so we can compare the two photos alongside each other; a clever fan-made combination of the two photos, above and below each other, is also my preferred screen-saver!)

The old joke amongst Beatles-haters is that Decca were right to fail The Beatles at their audition on New Year’s Day 1962. Their act sounds tired and corny, the band sound ill at ease and Dick Rowe’s assessment that ‘guitar groups are on their way out’ makes a lot more sense when you analyse what really was in the charts in 1961 and 62 (mostly singers without bands). Most groups would have sluing off home with their tails between their legs, never to pick up their instruments again. But The Beatles just won’t take no for an answer, they’ve spectacularly turned things around in the space of a year, writing their best material to date, tidying up the performances, knocking out the rough edges and insisted on doing things their way while still being polite and enthusiastic enough to keep their supporting creative team behind them. ‘Love Me Do’ may be laughed at now by more than one casual fan, but play it back to back with the Decca tape and its clear the band are on the right road. It’s the beginning of the road of course, nothing like the hills and mountains the band are about to climb, but there’s a reason no other group climbed that mountain before them: no other group changed their style, adapted to trends, modified their weaknesses and re-invented themselves half as well as The Beatles. There’s a reason we’re still so in awe of Beatles music today, some 50 years nearly since it was first released. There are of course better examples of why The Beatles were so right for their times on other LPs, but never perhaps again do they grow quite as quickly in such a compact space of time. Please me? This record does much more than that. It impresses me. It thrills me. It excites me. It impresses me. It makes me feel alive. It tears at my heart strings. It forces my foot to tap in rhythm. None of the thousands of records made before 1963 - even The Beach Boys' 'Surfin' Safarai' clever and fun as much of it is -  does that for me. I’m in awe of this album now, sitting here in 2011, so what must it have been like hearing this in 1963? It must have sounded like the start of a whole brave new world and even though we've all heard so much of what that brave new world brought in over the years that this album has lost much of its sparkle, back in the context of the times you can so see why 'Please Please Me' was the record of it's generation that everyone had to have - the same way that 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' is for the late 1960s crowd, 'Never Mind' by The Sex Pistols was for those in the late 1970s and the way that Oasis' 'Definitely Maybe' was for anyone adrift in a sea of mid-1990s mediocrity. 'Please Please Me' isn't perfect and it might struggle to stand up against any other Beatles LP, but it cut through the slightly artificial, slightly throwaway music of the time like a knife and while modern ears can never hear it in quite the same way quite a lot of that sparkle remains intact.

The Songs:
There aren’t many better starts to your album career than ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. Pink Floyd may have set out their stall with the pulsating and scary ‘Astronomy Domine’, the Stones might have been making a point with their cover of ‘Route 66’ and, best of all, The Hollies were at their energetic peak with ‘Talkin’ Bout You’, but no song has successfully pointed the past, present and future as well as ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. On the face of it, the construction of this song isn’t too different from the Tin Pan Alley songs of the period – the narrator sees a girl, falls in love and dances with his loved one. Even the riff sounds like a Carl Perkins phrase as played by Chuck Berry to a Bo Diddley rhythmic beat. But there are so many pointers of what’s to come: the line about the girl being 17 ‘you know what I mean’ is a big breakthrough for John and Paul’s songwriting, suggesting a knowing wink at the girl being older than the age of consent (especially the way Paul sings it). There are plenty of other lyrical points too: after decades of twee teenage songs about ‘moon and June’ to hear a singer speak seemingly from the heart with colloquialisms such as his heart ‘going boom’ (as he crossed ‘that room’), this is groundbreaking stuff, which taken with the informal backing makes this song sound so much more ‘real’ than almost anything heard before it. There’s also so many switches of key here for such a simple song that, compared to most of the pre-1963 rock and roll songs, this is positively sophisticated, complete with an unexpected chord change on the final note that still takes the listener by surprise now.

‘Twist and Shout’ apart, this song is also the closest we can get to the thrill of seeing The Beatles in all their glory as a live act par excellence, recently returned from Hamburg and setting the walls of the Cavern throbbing with a whole new sound. The original plan, worked out between Brian Epstein and George Martin, was that The Beatles would be recorded live in their natural habitat for this album which would be a kind of concert-with-overdubs affair and like many fans its such a shame that plane fell through as ‘Please Please Me’ is an album that sounds like it should be recorded live (allegedly, George Martin sent his deputy up North to have a look at the acoustics in the Cavern and he came back and laughed about how awful it sounded; The Big Three’s live EP at the Cavern shows how good this alternate version could have sounded, however). Merseybeat at its peak, with Paul on top form with his wandering vocal, John his perfect foil with his nagging backing vocals and Ringo at his primitive best. The only part that lets the song down is George’s un-characteristically throwaway guitar solo, which sounds every bit as rushed and hurried as indeed it should. Oh and stories that the band used to play a full 10 minute version of this song on stage, stretching it out with solo after solo, driving the excitement levels up higher. You can understand why the band thought it best to chop this song down to its basics, but it’s still a great shame for us (perhaps Paul should revive the original arrangement of this song for his solo gigs?) Oh and a small point but a valid one – this was the days when bands were dominated by their lead singer, from Cliff and the Shadows to Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. Already The Beatles are bucking the trend, with John on lead for most of the songs on this album although the first single and first album track are dominated by Paul, unthinkable just a short while before (even the Beatles were billed as ‘Long John Lennon and the Silver Beatles’ for most of 1960).  And full marks to George Martin for keeping Paul’s hollered ‘1-2-3-4!’ count in, which sets the tone for much of the energetic and exciting sounds to follow.

‘Misery’ is another ground-breaking song and one that’s always overlooked in The Beatles’ canon. Before ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ nobody sounded unhappy in pop-rock songs and precious few songs go there even as late as 1963 (now, of course, you’re thought odd if you don’t have a record full of bleeding heart ballads). Putting this song second on the album was a brave move and presumably a deliberate one (strangely the band have never spoken much about how they chose the running order for this album - presumably George Martin, perhaps with Brian Epstein - whereas it was quite a big deal for the band in their ‘middle years’), showing the band could do more than happy teenage love songs and sound happy. ‘Misery’ is a curious song for the times, albeit it very much in the style Lennon was to make his own, with an angular melody that keeps trying to throw the singers off their feet (just hear Lennon’s voice crack with the strain on the remastered set) and a melody that without the words and played at a snappier tempo would actually sound happy. The lyrics don’t add much you won’t get from the title and, like many of the band’s earlier songs, modern day ‘sophisticated’ audiences can guess what rhymes are coming the first time they hear the song, but when taken together with a tune that seems to be going together in the opposite direction, the effect is very disorientating and somehow very Beatles. The listener doesn’t know whether to feel genuinely sorry for the narrator or not – he tells us himself that he’s not used to hardship or sorrow (‘I’m the kind of guy that never used to cry’) and even though he’s obviously hit hard by the revelation his girl’s left him, he sounds almost excited about the thought of being alone, however dramatic he’s being for the majority of the song (hence the first real evidence of the band’s Goonish humour, with Lennon’s falsetto ‘la-la-las’ on the fade deliberately ruining the mood). In fact, it’s deeply unusual for the time that the guy has been jilted by his girl – we’re going to see a lot more of this in the years to come (ending up with, gulp, The Spice Girls) but here this was a new concept and very revealing that The Beatles’ narrator is being the passive one even this early in their career (Lennon even sings ‘send her back to me’ at one point, rather than taking the situation into his own hands and getting her back himself). Overall, ‘Misery’ is an overlooked song in The Beatles’ canon, a brave stab at breaking a formula even in the days when the band hadn’t been recording long enough to have a formula yet. Oh and incidentally, Allan Clarke and Graham Nash, then of The Hollies, were there when this song was written (backstage, during the Helen Shapiro tour of 1962-63) and this song sounds far more like their work than even Lennon’s, thanks to the juxtaposition between melody and words and the use of tight, taught harmonies (The Hollies themselves only start doing this song as late as the 1990s, alas!)
‘Anna (Go To Him)’ is another overlooked song that might suggest where Lennon got his ideas from the above song from. Arthur Alexander is one of the true unsung heroes of the 1950s, one of the few Black singer-songwriters who were respected as much by White audiences and who had a rare talent for combining heart-tugging drama with catchy pop hooks. Lennon, especially, was a big fan so its surprising that the band didn’t do more covers of his songs (‘Soldier Of Love’ is the other one they do and then only on a BBC session). Lennon may have done his best to cover it up with humour, pranks and arrogance, but even here as a 22-year-old he’s not just interpreting these words about breaking up like so many bands before 1963, he’s re-living them and putting his own emotions into them. (Some reviewers claim that he’s singing about his dead mother Julia here). For the standards of the day, ‘Anna’ is a moving song indeed, one that goes through angst, sorrow, anger and acceptance all within the space of two minutes (in fact it actually goes round these feelings twice, thanks to an unexpected repeat of the middle eight in the middle of nowhere, as if the narrator still hasn’t quite got his emotions under control enough to give his girl the big send-off just yet). Above all, the narrator actually does the right thing and tells his girl to move on to somebody who loves her more, even if the middle eight does send like emotional blackmail in trying to get her to run back to him out of sympathy – I can’t tell you how rare this is in music of its day – this is more of a hippie free love manifesto than a pop song by 1963 standards! Lennon sings his heart out on this song but somehow The Beatles’ cover never takes off despite his obvious passion – if only the Beatles had recorded this when Lennon actually had a voice left (instead of the 7th song of a hard night) and been a bit tighter with the backing, this song could really have taken off. You have to say, though, for a band who varied in age from 19 to 22, this is exceptional stuff with an emotional weight few other bands of the time were capable of carrying.

After all this energy and emotion, ‘Chains’ is a bit of a backward step. Considering he’s the hero of both the ‘Decca’ tape and the ‘My Bonnie’ recording, George Harrison doesn’t half sound out of sorts on this album. It’s as if the 19 year old has suddenly realised that the band aren’t looking for their big break but are actually right there in the middle of it and George seems to have lost all confidence in both his singing and guitar playing. Unkind people who don’t know better have been known to laugh at George’s singing down the years, but I’ve always liked his reedy, vulnerable style (he’s still got a stronger voice than all the Spice Girls combined). Only here does it falter, cracking nearly all the way through – although John and Paul’s unusually high-pitched backing vocals don’t fare a lot better. This song is a curious choice all round – it barely went top 40 when released by Little Eva’s backing band The Cookies, despite a lot of hype and quite a hefty following. It’s also badly undercooked for a Goffin and King song, even back in this early period, with a sing-songy melody and a repetitive song structure that should be taught and snappy but here, several hours into a long long day, sounds tired and jaded. In short, nobody sounds bothered about it except for George, whose trying hard but his falsely happy vocal just makes things worse. Listen out too for both the curious sound in the middle of the song (George coughing into his mike or perhaps covering up coming in at the wrong part – something George Martin really should have removed) and the end, which is plainly meant to be a full ringing pow-wow-wow type of end but is cruelly cut off by a very sudden fade. Did the Beatles get the ending wrong? To be honest, they aren’t getting much else right on this song, the lowest point on the record.

‘Boys’ fares slightly better, thanks to passing over subtlety and an attempt to sound like vintage recording stars for some welcome no-holds-barred rock and roll. But a quirk of the Beatles’ scattered box of cover songs means that Ringo ends up spending his first recorded vocal for the band singing about the wonders of ‘boys’,  with no sense of irony or anything strange. To be fair to Ringo, this wasn’t his choice of record, it was just the band’s ‘drummer’ song played by all their percussionists because it had a vocal line and a drum pattern simple enough to sing at the same time (although some wag sometime suggested it might have been Brian Epstein’s choice of song!) This song should, of course, be sung by The Shirelles, but despite their lapse in not updating the lyrics The Beatles do wonders with the arrangement here, turning a so-so song about lust and excitement into a truly thrilling song with an infectious hook and the best George Harrison guitar solo on the album. Again, nothing like the wonders the Beatles will give us in a few years time, but an interesting sight into their stage act of the time – not least the band’s ear for a good tune to copy (this song was only ever a B-side for The Shirelles and not on the back of one of their biggest hits at that).

‘Ask Me Why’ has been somewhat forgotten in the band’s canon, but The Beatles were clearly pleased enough with it to pluck it out of their pile of early originals to become the B-side of the ‘Please Please Me’ single. Along with the other early Beatles songs like ‘Hello Little Girl’ and ‘Like Dreamer’s Do’, it’s a very generic but still very good song that’s one of only a handful you could ever imagine having existed before 1963. Lennon is clearly inspired by the Roy Orbison records in his collection at this point (the ‘I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I’s in this song and the original bluesy arrangement of ‘Please Please Me’ are both very Orbisonesque) and may well have been an early example of Lennon competing with McCartney, with John trying to elicit the same screams from girls his partner did for his slower songs. It’s not as powerful or as moving or even as honest as the love songs Lennon will go on to write, but its far too good a song to have languished as a B-side. Lennon invests the song with real power on the verses and clearly has someone in mind here given the way he sings these lines (presumably but not necessarily new wife Cynthia), but rather lets the song down with the middle eight (‘I can’t conceive of any more misery’ is not a natural line for a pop song now, never mind in 1963). The result is an intriguing hotchpotch that’s more than the sum of its parts and much better than its generic trappings would have you believe and yet Lennon is still early in his songwriting career here, forming this song almost before our ears without yet getting the most out of it.

‘Please Please Me’ itself is the best known song on the album and its the last time (barring the upcoming ‘Love Me Do’) that a hit single will be on a Beatles album, a momentous decision that saw the Beatles work longer hours for less sales than they might otherwise have had (so intent were they not to rip off fans who’d have already bought the songs as singles). ‘Please Please Me’ was, depending on which record retail chart you used, either the Beatle’s first top five hit or their first number one record, an extraordinary rise to fame after ‘Love Me Do’. Like many of the band’s early singles, I never feel as much affection for this song as I ought to – its the Beatles’ B-sides and album tracks that feel much more like ‘my’ property than the singles – and yet its easy to see why it was a success, even here in a hurried, frenetic  version that’s more about energy than finesse. Lennon’s vocal is breath-taking, his urged ‘come ons’ both dangerously erotic and funny (he himself breaks down in laughter during the last chorus), McCartney’s long held one-note harmony is breathtakingly exciting, Ringo’s drums are driving the song forward and George’s unusual guitar chords make a sound like no other heard before. We’ll hear this format done an awful lot better over the next few years, but it’s still pretty striking even here, in a frenzied garbled performance that (on the stereo version at least) features lots of wrong notes, clashing harmonies and an out-of-synch overdub at the end. Somehow it doesn’t matter a bit. For such a straightforward, simple song though ‘Please Please Me’ had a very varied background. At first the song was recorded at a much slower tempo, as more of a blues-ballad than the frenetic arrangement we have here – it says much for Lennon and McCartney’s growing powers that they were able to see how much better this song would sound at a faster lick (and the original recording – taped at the session for ‘Love Me Do’ – is one of the few Beatles outtakes not to secure an official release or even appear on bootleg; why on earth was it passed over for ‘Anthology One’?!) The title comes from a typically Lennonish pun on the word ‘please’ (and a tag line from a Bing Crosby song ‘Please’, where the narrator asks his girl to ‘please lend an ear to my pleas’). The Beatles are only at their third recording session and they’ve already stopped treating the studio as an unknown quantity and more as an old friend. Legend has it that tape engineer Geoff Emerick sent this tape anonymously to Dick Rowe, boss of Decca records, to see if he’d turn the group down a second time. However, the band have moved on so far and so fast in just a year that even he could see the greatness in this work. Most of the UK joins the Beatles at this point, with the world ready to fall to the Beatles in just a single or three’s time.

‘Love Me Do’ has a spottier reputation among fans, mainly because this first Beatles recording finds them even less sure about their abilities and even closer to the style of other songs around in the period. But I actually prefer it – there’s a sincerity about ‘Love Me Do’ missing from ‘Please Please Me’ and a real jazz-like swing behind the beat that turns it from the mediocre into the ear-catching. What most fans forget is that the version heard on the album is very different from the one heard as the A-side of The Beatles’ first single in October 1962 (which can be heard on Past Masters Volume One). For a start, Ringo isn’t playing drums on the album (though he is one the single), due to George Martin’s doubts about his abilities. There are two points to be made here. One is that Ringo’s version is generally accepted as the better version amongst fans – there’s a buzz about it missing from the album version which sounds emptier somehow. The second is that this song really doesn’t suit Ringo’s style that well, putting the emphasis on all the usual things drummers do such as the switch between the different drums and cymbals, rather than the inventive backward rolls and metronomic beat that Ringo will become known for (he’s very lucky the Lennon-McCartney writing style followed the looser style of ‘Please Please Me’ hereafter, rather than the taught precision of this song).
Talking of the composition, there’s a reason this is one of the simplest songs the Beatles ever did (using only two chords throughout – even the tamest and shoddiest Cliff Richard songs in this period used three). Paul was all of 16 when he wrote the bulk of it and had barely learned to play guitar himself and this is a pretty startling song for such an early try. What’s always amazed me about it, though, is that ‘Love Me Do’ hardly figures in The Beatles’ plans up until 1962 – they didn’t play it for Decca, they never played it in Hamburg and they rarely played it at the Cavern, so it’s remarkable that they should decide to give it a go at their first ever recording session and arguably the most important of their lives (their EMI contract was riding on this song, don’t forget – George Martin was under no obligation to release it if he didn’t think it was up to scratch). The fact that George Martin not only saw the worth in the song but actually supported it’s use in favour of the awful Mitch Murray song ‘How Do You Do It?’ he’d picked out for the band says much for his abilities as a producer and ‘Love Me Do’s well meaning infectious enthusiasm and its slight DNA link to Tin Pan Alley songs. Yes The Beatles recorded far better songs than this and yes, it doesn’t have the same glamour or obvious link to their future abilities as other AAA debut singles do (The Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’ is virtually their whole career in miniature) – but they came later. The Beatles were the first, give or take a Beach Boys surfing song or two and ‘Love Me Do’, while not the perfect single, is a near-perfect debut single, rocky enough for the teenagers, cute enough not to scare the folks and with a very ear-catching and easily recognisable sound that will keep The Beatles going for their first few years. Much of the credit belongs to McCartney – its song, after all, his bass playing is marvellously eccentric though not distracting and as the first Beatle to sing lead in a studio there was an awful lot of pressure riding on the then-20-year-old to get things right (which he did, marvellously, despite the obvious tremble in his voice). However its Lennon’s harmonica that rings in your ears long afterwards, a marvellous part which finds the young Beatle playing in a style all his own, quite unlike the note-bending virtuoso runs by American mouthorgan players – how sad that Lennon will never play this instrument again on record after 1965! The shock isn’t so much that The Beatles made it into the top 20 as unknowns (and accusations of Brian Epstein buying up hundreds of copies for his NEMS shop has since been disproved), but that ‘Love Me Do’ failed to get any higher.

That single’s B-side ‘P.S. I Love You’ is even more neglected amongst Beatle fans, despite being one of Paul’s prettiest (and one of his earliest) ballads. Other critics will tell you that this B-side is even more generic than the A-side, features a recycled idea about writing the song as a letter to a loved one and rarely moves away from it’s one simple chord. But the genius is how The Beatles and McCartney in particular make this song sound more than the run of the mill. Firstly, this record may again make use of session muso Andy White on drums but his style is far more suited to this song than ‘Love Me Do’, with a rat-a-tat accompaniment that mirrors the narrator’s desperation to get home quickly well (poor Ringo’s relegated to maracas). Secondly, the backing harmonies from John and George are excellent, dark and brooding and giving the song a real feel of urgency and need. Finally, Paul’s own vocal is amazingly good for such a young and inexperienced singer (it’s actually a lot better than the way he sings now) and his shouted ad lib in the penultimate verse is a moment of pure magic, taking the song somewhere new with a burst of passion. In fact, I’m surprised this wasn’t the A-side of the band’s first single rather than the B-side – the band certainly knew it better, having played it for much of 1961 and 1962 (legend has it Paul wrote it about a Liverpudlian girlfriend while travelling to Hamburg for The Beatles’ second trip). In retrospect, I’m amazed that Lennon allowed Paul to dominate the group so much from the outset, writing the bulk of the band’s first A and B sides, which for all John knew might have been his only claim to posterity had the record stiffed. Perhaps Lennon recognised even this early Paul’s ability to write melodies that get under your skin and pretty, romantic songs girls of a certain age found it impossible to resist. Or perhaps he just wanted to blame Paul if the record flopped! Either way, ‘P.S. I Love You’ is an impressive song played very well for a band so unused to recording and – even as early as the first single – shows the Beatles giving value for money to their fans by offering B-sides just as good if not better than the A-side.

It sounds rather odd to hear The Beatles suddenly revert to being a covers act and ‘Baby, It’s You’ is one of the rather less Beatlesified arrangements on the album, with a swing, meter and lyric very much Americanised rather than Anglicised. Most fans don’t like this song either for some reason, but I’ve always quite admired it, especially Lennon’s vocal which manages to somehow be detached and involving at the same time. The song is – unbelievably – a second song from the Shirelles’ stage act (did one of the band have a crush on them or something?!) co-written by Bert Bacharach, who reportedly added the nastier touches to the song (‘Cheat! Cheat!’) when the band’s producer accused it of being shallow and sentimental. There’s nothing sentimental about the way Lennon sings the lyrics, pouring his heart and soul (and his already fading larynx) fully into the song and rescuing a rather drab song by the power of his voice. I’m surprised the band decided to cover this song rather than, say, Lennon’s beloved ‘Some Other Guy’ though – not because it’s a bad song but because it’s so un-Beatlesy and it’s also probably the best known song they ever covered on record, a top 10 record in 1961 (not many people remember the original now but they would have done in 1963 when this album came out).The Beatles’ arrangements of other songs on this first album don’t often top the original but this song is an exception, perhaps because the original was really a tinny writers demo, with the Shirelles’ vocals added on top!

‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ is easily the weakest of the Lennon/McCartney originals on this album and modern commentators assume the reason John (the song’s chief composer) gave it to George was because it was too soppy for him to sing. While not exactly in keeping with the Lennonish image, it’s more likely this song suited George’s voice more than John’s (it’s unusually wide-ranging for a Lennon song, sounding more like a McCartney one the way it sweeps up and down the octaves) and his younger personality (George was 19 when he recorded this and very much the junior member of the band in this period). The song is perhaps better known from a Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas cover which if anything is even more twee than The Beatles’ version even though it suits him better – certainly Lennon never tries writing a song like this one again his whole career, ‘Tin Pan Alley’ rubbish he’ll leave to Paul from here on in. Interestingly, this very early song was based on the Disney song ‘Wishing Well’ from Snow White which Lennon’s mother used to sing him off to sleep with during his early years (for more on Lennon’s mother fixation see either the ‘Nowhere Boy’ film drama or our review no 43 for the Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album). That’s interesting because, at more or less the same time (late 1961) Brian Wilson is on the other side of the Atlantic writing one of his early songs ‘Surfer Girl’, basing the song on ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ from Disney’s follow-up film ‘Pinnochio’. Someone sometime is going to have to make a study on Disney films’ impact on modern music (it might well be me if I have the time) because there are just too many coincidences for comfort, with the films turning many future musicians onto music for the first time. I tell you this partly to fill up the paragraph because, really, there’s not much else to say about one of The Beatles’ lesser songs, which they clearly don’t know well enough to record with ease during the 12 hour session (they recorded dozens of takes of it and yet the finished version is still this sloppy and half-hearted?) and George Harrison for one sounds deeply uncomfortable singing it. Not one of the band’s better ideas.

‘A Taste Of Honey’ is another odd-seeming choice, but it makes more sense if you remember that it was the theme song of a film that was possibly the only other medium apart from music that focussed on Liverpool in the 20th century. The film has rather been forgotten nowadays – the city does have The Beatles, The Searchers, The Swinging Blue Jeans and Gerry and the Pacemakers to be proud of, after all - but must have made quite a stir at the time. It was one of those kitchen sink dramas that came in the wake of ‘Kathy Come Home’s success, one that tried to give rich people down south an insight into the poverty suffered by people just a few hundred miles North of them (it also starred Liverpudlian actress Rita Tushingham, a forgotten name now but a big deal at the time when most film stars had ‘posh’ accents). The film must have appealed to McCartney in particular, who was always quite involved with helping out other people even back then (one of his first acts on getting money from The Beatles was to buy his dad a house, back when he was still living with Jane Asher’s parents; it’s also notable that his first extra-curricular work is the music for the film ‘The Family Way’, a work remarkably like this one). The song too is very much in keeping with McCartney’s early image as the balladeer of the group (an image he still has trouble shaking off to this day). Things make even more sense when you read that Acker Bilk had just scored a big hit with a revival of it – this is clearly the part of the record The Beatles have ear-marked for the ‘mums and dads’ (Paul will repeat the trick with the toe-curling ‘Til’ There Was You’ on the next Beatles record). Paul does his best with the vocal, with his ‘gruff’ voice well suited to the song’s weight, but the other Beatles are plainly bored and Lennon is treading a thin line towards taking the mickey out of his colleague with his terse backing vocals (to be fair on him, the band did a lot of takes of this song before they were satisfied too and Lennon got bored very easily). The result is not as bad as it could have been (see ‘Til There Was You’ for a McCartney cover that’s truly unlistenable) but neither is it particularly good. The Hollies score much better with their jazzy re-arrangement of the song, recorded in 1968, but alas that won’t be heard until a box-set in the 21st century.

‘There’s A Place’ lifts the mood just when the album was beginning to sag and it’s another Lennon/McCartney original that, had it been performed just a record or two later, would have been a big fan favourite. It’s a close cousin of ‘Misery’, the first song to be recorded during that mammoth 12-hour session and it’s everything the last track isn’t: it’s real, it’s honest and above all it’s raw. Both Lennon and McCartney crack under the strain, perhaps because they know the pressure on them to get this first song out of the way so they can move on quickly, and this song is one of the barest Beatles songs of them all, more like the early Rolling Stones in fact than ‘Love Me Do’ or ‘Please Please Me’. And oh boy it must have sounded great in 1963 when nothing like this existed: for the first time on record The Beatles aren’t talking predominantly about ‘love’ or ‘romance’ or any of the usual pop standards here, but the narrator’s need to be alone after a setback in his love life, one that finds him hanging his head in sorrow for most of the song only to rise it again in a thrilling passage where he realises ‘that I love...only you’, the musical equivalent of a lightbulb turning on. We’ve compared the early Beatles to the early Beach Boys a few times already, but bear with us because the similarity between this song and the latter’s brooding work of genius ‘In My Room’ is notable (and yet both songs are so early in their respective authors’ canons that you doubt whether they’d have even have heard each other’s songs from opposite ends of the Atlantic Ocean). In short, this is a milestone among pop songs, even more than ‘Please Please Me’ because for the first time love isn’t a happy place to be – not just in a false where-did-it-all go-wrong Tin Pan Alley sense but in a very real, teenage angst sense that sounds so real you can almost hear millions of youngsters from around the globe going ‘wow, that’s me’ the first time they hear it. The performance isn’t the best Beatles performance on tape as we’ve seen, but it’s very rawness gives a real edge to this song, as if you’ve accidentally overheard Lennon and McCartney in the act of writing the song and feeling that emotion for real – an astonishing watermark for song-writing by 1963’s standards and one of the band’s better originals not withstanding the many hundreds of gems that are to follow. 

Talking of raw, ‘Twist and Shout’ takes the concept a stage further, with the band – and Lennon especially – pushing themselves to the limit after a heavy 12-hour day slog. This song is so synonymous with the band that’s it hard to believe it ever existed before but, yes, it is an Isley Brothers song and – raw and great as that original is – the Beatles beat it in so many ways it’s hard to believe that the two performances are of the same song. Amazingly the Beatles hadn’t fully intended to record it that day at Abbey Road even though it was a major attraction in their live set of the time (the band decided on it over a quick break in the staff canteen, when they realised they had some time left and needed a good ‘end’ to the record – in retrospect I’m amazed Brian Epstein wasn’t handling the material more closely, but then The Beatles were pretty furious with his choices at the Decca fiasco). Even more amazingly, George Martin wasn’t satisfied with it and asked for another take (mainly because someone – Paul it’s usually claimed – audibly walks into a microphone at the song’s end). Lennon, though, couldn’t even squeak out the words the second time around after 12 hours of recording and a throbbing throat so the band left it at that – and another milestone of music was born. Legend has it that The Beatles were already on the road to play their next gig the following morning – you have to ask what on earth the audience must have made of the shambled state the band must have been in, having been up all night working on this album without much of a voice left from any of them. How I wish I had a tape of it. Arguably, ‘Twist and Shout’ is the most important early Beatles song. Yes it was ‘Love Me Do’ that was the first recording, ‘Please Please Me’ the first big British success and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ the big international breakthrough, but it was ‘Twist and Shout’ that got fans talking and equalled the sales of any of these singles, even when released as a pricier EP a few months after the LP. Lennon’s larynx have always been special and nowhere does he squeeze more passion, energy and determination than he does here, putting his all into the song he’d been making his own for more than two years onstage. The rest of the band too are sharp – so sharp compared to the other cover material here that you have to question why they didn’t simply record their live set straight out as per the original plan – and Paul and George’s backing vocals, George’s short guitar solo, Paul’s ever busy bass lines and Ringo’s first genuinely triumphant drum part are all as close to perfect as music can be. McCartney’s closing yelp of delight ‘hey’ says it all – The Beatles had one shot to get this right and they’ve just got it down better than they’ve ever played it. If all it took for this moment of pop genius was 12 hours of hard work, a bad throat and a ticking clock then it was a sacrifice well made – and I know exactly what I’d be doing with McCartney if I was producer on his next record. After all that, it’s amazing to think that this song, really, is just a novelty song about a dance craze, with some more ‘come ons’ borrowed from ‘Please Please Me’ – but that’s all it is, superbly played, superbly sung and arguably the wildest recording ever made by anybody up to that February night in 1963.

So why does ‘Please Please Me’ get such short shrift from Beatles fans and critics if it’s such a great album? The short answer, of course, is that there are even better albums soon to come and that even the ever-consistent Beatles mess up a few too many times for comfort on this record, especially on the second side. 

But this was all new ground back then, mountains that had never been approached before never mind conquered and the reason the Beatles took off isn’t just down to their perfect timing, their catchy singles or their irreverent wordplay in press interviews. It’s the excitement in this first record, the fact that the band made a long-player that was more than just a couple of A and B sides and some filler material thrown in but a fully functioning, rounded work of art (not that they’d have ever called it that – but have you seen what people get away with calling ‘art’ these days? If any medium qualifies it’s definitely music, which has less visual means of portraying it’s message and yet has a bigger impact on hearts and minds than any good film, good painting or good novel) Youngsters intrigued by the songs on the telly and the hoo-hah in the press naturally nagged their mums and dads for the Beatles’ first record to see what they were like – had ‘Please Please Me’ been any less exciting than it was Beatlemania might never have happened and I wouldn’t be typing away at this paragraph right now. But the Beatles intuitively right – like they seemed to get most things intuitively right – and by making this album the raw but passionate, deep but accessible work that it is they ensured the careers of every single band on this website. There’ll never be another album like this one – not because it’s never been bettered but because there will never be an album that creates a new sound and an exciting alternate way of life the way this one did. And still does, if you’re prepared to listen to it in context, without the cynicism or sophistication of modern ears. 

A now complete list of Beatles links available at this website:
'Rubber Soul' (1965)

'Revolver' (1966)
'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band' (1967)

'Magical Mystery Tour' (1967)

'The Beatles' aka 'The White Album' (1968)
'Yellow Submarine' (1969)
The Best Unreleased Beatles Recordings

A Complete AAA Guide To The Beatles Cartoons
The Beatles: Surviving TV Appearances
A 'Bite' Of Beatles Label 'Apple'
The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part One: 1958-63
 The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part Two: 1964-67
The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part Three: 1968-96
The Beatles: Compilations/Live Albums/Rarities Sets Part One: 1962-74
The Beatles: Compilations/Live Albums/Rarities Sets Part Two: 1976-2013
Beatles Bonuses: The Songs John and Paul Gave Away To The World/To Ringo!

Essay: The Ways In Which The Beatles Changed The World For The Better
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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