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The Beatles – Please Please Me
WHENEVER I need a lift and a bit of cheer…
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1963
music is always there and ready to provide something special. Now, as I look at transition and taking on new challenges; I have been looking at the music industry and trying to find guidance. There is an album, however, that provides everything I need in one place: the marvellous debut from The Beatles. Whilst other albums of theirs – Revolver, Abbey Road; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beatles – are more celebrated and better-received; there is something to be said for their debut. Put 1963 into context. The boys were known by then – having played in Hamburg and establishing a name for themselves at The Cavern Club (in Liverpool). The debut single, Love Me Do, was released in 1962 and, already, the band was popular and creating buzz. After the success of Love Me Do and its number-one follow-up, Please Please Me; there was demand for an album and more material. At the point of entering the studio; eight original songs were written – producer George Martin and Parlophone needed more tracks so they could get an L.P. out. At the time, The Beatles were performing cover songs at their gigs: several of these tracks made their way onto the L.P. The concept was simple, yet daunting: record the album during a single day; essentially, as a live-sounding L.P.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1963/PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
The aim was to release something that was, in essence, a Beatles live set – a sprinkling of covers alongside the originals of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Interest in The Beatles piqued at this time so that pressure could have resulted in something hurried and slapdash. The fact the album was recorded during a day-long session meant, technically, there was a need for expeditiousness and ‘efficiency’. With EMI Studios in Abbey Road booked; on Monday, 11th February, 1963; The Beatles began working on the album. The idea was to have a morning and afternoon set – getting everything dusted and captured by the evening. The guys started the recording at 10 A.M. and performed a different number of takes for each song – finishing at 10:45 P.M. (Ten songs were recorded during that session; they had already recorded four tracks - Please Please Me, Love Me Do; P.S. I Love You and Ask Me Why - as sides A and B of the two singles released prior to that point). What is amazing to me, and George Martin back then, is the endurance and discipline the band had. Compare it to a modern-day Pop band and you would not get the same stamina and results. Now, they would record a few songs a day, if that, and enjoy the luxuries of the studio. The urgency and desire to have Beatles material into the world meant there was a pressure to get the material sounding right and pure – whilst ensuring it had a live feel and replicating their sets at The Cavern Club. The fact they managed to perform the songs that fast, and keeping their voices strong and working, is a huge feat in itself!
The fact remains: the longer the day went on, and the more they played, the better they came. After 585 minutes of recording – the most efficient and spectacular in all of music – they had a record finished. To get a sense of why the album is so groundbreaking and important; we need to pick the needle up and reposition it into the groove. There were some double-tracked vocals (McCartney on A Taste of Honey) and overdubbed instruments (piano on Misery; harmonica on There’s a Place) but, for the most part, it was that simple and bare-naked bliss. You listen to the first track from the record: the insistent and joyous, I Saw Her Standing There. McCartney counts it in and launches – with the band – into a captivating and youthful paen to the possibilities of a night out. It has innocence and allure but there is a sexuality and suggestiveness that makes the song both pure and salacious. Boasting, perhaps, the most-noted opening lines from any Beatles song – “She was just seventeen/You know, what I mean…” – it is a delirious, raucous sting that gets the album off to a brilliant start. At this time, given the way albums are promoted and singles drip-fed; it would be tempting to throw their biggest hits into the top-three. They could have put Love Me Do and Please Please Me right after the opener – hooking people in and keeping them invested. Those tracks, transposed, do not appear until tracks seven and eight – right at the half-way marker!
The ordering of the first-half is interesting. After that explosive opening; Misery (another original) is followed by Anna (Arthur Alexander). The guys showed their songwriting variation up-top before unveiling a diverse hattrick of covers – Chains and Boys followed (the latter handed the microphone to Ringo Starr). Ask Me Why, track-six, brings it back to original territory; the closer is the title cut. It is a great move ending the first side with a big hit – it gave the first side a great balance and ended it (and started) with a huge high. The same is true of the second-half. It opens with their debut single, Love Me Do. Whereas the opening side started with fizz and race: the next side opens with something more romantic and Blues-inspired. Lennon’s harmonica playing has been highlighted by critics as a revelation. Most people would have expected bent notes and American-style playing. Lennon’s performance was rawer and truer to Northern England. It has expression and melody and far more honesty than what was floating around Rock and Pop. Again, another original completes a glorious opening duo of songs. P.S. I Love You, more popular with some critics than Love Me Do, builds the mood up and shows, even in 1963, what interesting and perspective songwriters Lennon and McCartney were. Although the writing was simpler than the work they would produce by 1966 (Revolver); the original recordings on Please Please Me reflected where the band were in 1963.
They were in the studio to get down something quick and exciting: labouring over melody, compositional layering and pushing technology wouldn’t have been cost-effective or required. It was not until the band transitioned from Rubber Soul to Revolver (1965-1966) that they transformed from more straightforward songs to the experimental and mind-altering tracks that would take them to a new level. It is the freshness and verve one hears through Please Please Me that strikes the mind. George Martin’s production manages to leave the songs uncomplicated yet professional. He got the best out of the band but did not expect them to record endless takes of the same song – the clock was out and the budget limited. The remaining five songs of the record sprinkled covers and originals: Baby It’s You and A Taste of Honey (tracks three and five of the side) were sandwiched by Do You Want to Know a Secret? and There’s a Place (tracks four and six). Cleverly, and economically; the band closed their debut with a popular and explosive cover – bookending the thrills and rush McCartney provided at the top. Unlike later albums like Abbey Road and Let It Be; Please Please Me saw John Lennon take more of a role in the band. One can chart The Beatles up until 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to see when the dynamic shifted.
The fall-out from that world-changing, paradigm-shifting album was the vast and compartmentalised, The Beatles (‘The White Album’). From 1968-1970; McCartney took more of the ‘band leader’ role – he exerted that sort of command during Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – until the end. The debut, to me, is defined by Lennon’s role. Although the two songwriters showed their skill and variation: the entire band was present and featured in vocal roles. Starr took the lead for Boys; George Harrison took the mantle for Do You Want to Know a Secret? Although Harrison’s vocals were criticised by journalists (and seen as a bit weak by the band) it was good to see a democracy and four different voices through the record. Please Please Me has that balance of meticulous construction and planning with live-sounding music and simplicity. If the spread of covers and originals was a savvy move and balance – alongside the bookended choices – the finale was always going to be Twist and Shout. The song was the last to be recorded and one could argue, was John Lennon’s voice in better shape, it would be higher up the pecking order. It is conceivable the album, and The Beatles’ careers, could have changed and been different if another song ended their debut album. The reason Twist and Shout ends things is because Lennon, during recording, was suffering a bad cold. Whilst the rest of the studio was drinking coffee and smoking: Lennon was drinking milk and preserving his voice.
An all-day recording session could bust a healthy and perfect voice: one that was already damaged and vulnerable should not have lasted as long as it did! With little time left, and little voice left in Lennon, the band knew they had to master Twist and Shout on the first take. If the take had gone wrong (the voice breaking or the band fluffing) they would have stopped tape to regroup. Lennon might not have had the capacity to complete the recording and, as such, the record would have entered its second day. To consider how disruptive and inorganic that would sound makes the actual recording of Twist and Shout a marvel. Lennon gives it his all and, with that sore throat, created one of the most rebellious, electric and impressive vocals of the 1960s. It harked back to Rock ‘n’ Roll icons like Elvis Presley. Such power and raw sexuality was not expected, or promoted, in 1963’s music scene. It changed the game and excited the bored youth – with it, sparking a revolution and launching The Beatles onto the world stage. Please Please Me was recorded for £400 (just under £8,000 in today’s money) and, given the fact Parlophone had a yearly budget of £55,000 to cover all musicians on their roster – it was a fair chunk of change but, compared with the impact the album made; I figure it is money well spent! Please Please Me went to number-one on the U.K. album charts and was made platinum in the U.S. (it has sold in excess of 1,000,000 copies!).
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles at The Cavern Club (circa 1961/1962)
To me, the album represents the first (literally) flourishes of The Beatles and discovering music in a different way. I remember gearing the songs, on tape and radio, when driving to my grandparents’ house in the late-1980s/early-1990s. I was used to a different sound and type of music when I was that young. The simplicity and excitement of Please Please Me opened my eyes and seeped into my imagination. Every time I hear the opening harmonica notes of Love Me Do or that ready-to-rock-and-roll clarion from McCartney on the opening track – I am transported to my early life and discovering The Beatles. There are, yeah, some rougher patches on the record – Harrison’s sole vocal lead; covers like Anna and Baby It’s You – but, on balance, it is an exceptional and revelatory album. Those looser edges and weaknesses make the album such a treasure. It represented and mirrored the type of performance one would expect from The Beatles at that time. They would, as I mentioned, go on to grow as innovators by the middle/end part of the 1960s. Even from the debut album; people knew what The Beatles could achieve and how talented they were. The closeness and brotherly spirit of the band is evident in every track. To be a fly on the studio wall when they were putting the songs together would be a dream come true. I can only imagine what sort of conversations happened when the album’s last note was captured – you can hear McCartney let out a jubilant cheer at the very end of Twist and Shout! All said and done; Please Please Me is one of the most important and underrated albums of all-time – and one we should all have as part of our collection. It is perfect on vinyl and, if you have a spare thirty-three minutes; stick it on the turntable, drop the needle; let that evocative and genius music…
IN THIS PHOTO: John Lennon and Paul McCartney at EMI Studios; 4th September, 1962
TAKE you to another place.