Please Please Me
“1, 2, 3, 4!” It’s the start of a legacy, the beginning of an empire, but it’s so simple. Please Please Me is not a complex album—it’s not a masterpiece, not a work of art, but it sure is one hell of a triumph. From that opening jangle to the closing howl of “Twist and Shout”, Please Please Me doesn’t feel like a debut. It feels like a statement, the sound of a band confident enough to play to their strengths before those strengths had even really developed. Please Please Me has been called the worst Beatles album, or at best, second worst to Beatles for Sale. But “worst Beatles album” is like the worst painting by Michelangelo—at that level, it’s all relative.
Of course, there are the facts. That eight of the album’s 14 songs were penned by Lennon & McCartney, in the first hints of what would become the greatest songwriting partnership of all time (challengers? I think not). Or that after the overnight success of “Please Please Me”, the band rushed to finish their debut in one day, for the grand sum of £400. Or that Lennon’s inimitable vocal riff on “Twist and Shout” was done in one take, after suffering from a cold and nearly ruining his vocal chords in the process. That the band intended to record a live version at the Cavern Club, but the venue’s poor acoustics forced them into the studio, coming out with the musical equivalent of a one-night stand.
But the Beatles were never about the facts. Could you ever really reduce the feeling of pure joy that accompanies the band’s first single, “Love Me Do”, to something logical? More importantly, why would you want to? The Beatles might have had one of rock’s great stories (the greatest, maybe), but they always had the music to back it up. And that’s what makes them more than a curiosity, more than a legacy even after nearly five decades. Because as long as there are kids discovering pop music for the first time, there will always be a place for the Beatles, and there will always be a place for Please Please Me.
But of course there are the songs, all 14 of them, slightly worse for the wear after 40 years, but (for the most part) holding strong. There’s the ebullient burst of “I Saw Her Standing There”, which has as much pop power and verve as it ever did, maybe even more so in an age of ineffectual indie-rockers and Lady Gaga. Not to mention the charming goofiness of “Misery”, halfway between coy and sincere, like so many Beatles tracks, a promise from its very first chorus of “Oo-oo”. Or the plaintive soulfulness of “Anna (Go to Him)”, showing off the album’s true strong point—Lennon’s vocals. More than any other part of the album, Lennon’s voice truly stands out, preventing Please Please Me from becoming just another historical relic. Take “Twist and Shout” as the case in point: a single take of such violent brilliance that it still sounds just a bit too wild today. While a good deal of Please Please Me might sound dated, Lennon’s propulsive vocals take a simple number like “Baby It’s You” and make it into something unrestrained, dangerous, even sexy.
Could we have known back then that Please Please Me would be the start of the biggest phenomenon in pop history? Not really. “A Taste of Honey” or “Boys” aren’t exactly keys to the future. Maybe the hint was in the originals, how even back on album number one they still made the covers sound like filler. After all, “I Saw Her Standing There” still blows every other number out of the water, and the plaintive harmonica of “Love Me Do” still keeps up the beat. The croon at the heart of “Ask Me Why”, with its potential name check of “Misery” masks a seriousness that would blossom into impeccably developed tracks, taking the soul-inspired vocals of that number in a dozen different directions.
It’s a common trope that 1963 was the moment when it all changed—what it is exactly varies with the teller. Sometimes it’s the end of innocence, the birth of modern rock, or the rise of teenage rebellion. Maybe that’s the case, but there’s a lingering sweetness to Please Please Me even in the face of its inventions and its promises. But then again, with the Beatles, nothing was ever black and white. Because this, right here, is the birth of Beatlemania. Here is where the screaming starts, where that first round of sobbing girls in the concert hall got their taste of something strange and wonderful. Like all beginnings, it’s inseparable from what came later, and unlike most pop debuts, it only got better from here. At times it seems amazing, like a badly-told joke, but this is where it all began. Welcome back to Beatlemania. It’s been a long time, but as it turns out, you can always go back.
// Notes from the Road
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