Please Please Me
For North Americans of a certain age, the album newly remastered as Please Please Me was a prequel. We purchased it in 1964 as Introducing the Beatles on Vee-Jay Records—after we’d been set aflame by Meet the Beatles and unattached 45s like “She Loves You” and “From Me to You”. But no matter how the record companies slice and dice the goodies, “Please Please Me” on CD is probably the best studio reproduction of the early Beatles’ stage act. (That raw-yet-innocent big beat was also captured on The Beatles Second Album, another North America-only album title.)
Please Please Me embodies the no-guarantees rocky road traveled by the fledgling Beatles, which is hard to appreciate in retrospect. The album is a flavorful salad of cover songs and promising Lennon-McCartney originals, recorded mostly in February 1963 in London’s EMI studios, supervised by George Martin when he was a slightly skeptical classically trained old fogy (he was 36). Because EMI’s U.S. partner, Capitol Records, had yet to warm up to the mop tops, a deal was cut with Vee-Jay, a Chicago-based R&B label that had enjoyed successes with Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler and the Four Seasons. The not-quite-yet-Fab Four came in a package with a now-forgotten British chart-buster named Frank Ifield.
One clue to the collection’s primordial qualities is the cover photo—both the one on the original and another on the remastered version—in which Ringo has suspiciously short hair, having just joined the group after Pete Best was sacked because EMI had complained that the handsome original drummer was a weak link. Curiously, the album includes “I Saw Her Standing There”, which Capitol would later see fit to repeat on Meet the Beatles, but it does not include the Beatles’ veritable theme song during their radio appearances, “From Me to You”. (It would not show up on an album until the 1 collection in 2000.)
“Please Please Me”, the song, was born in the minds of John and Paul as a slower-paced ballad. Only after Martin suggested speeding it up did it become the exuberant teen thriller we love, and the producer called out from the mixing booth, “Congratulations, gentlemen, you’ve just made your first No. 1 record.” Elsewhere, the songwriting displayed by the rookie Lennon-McCartney team is pleasant and romantic, but formulaic. Good journeymen efforts, but the numbers lack the subtle and jaunty confidence the duo would later display.
“Love Me Do”, the Beatles’ first song to chart, boasts perhaps the band’s most primitive lyrics (okay, outside of “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”). It’s strangely indecisive—is it a blues plea or a shallow ballad? But it’s relaxing in a folky way. Its hidden drama lies in the fact that there were two versions, one with drumming by studio session man Andy White, another with Ringo. (Yet a third, using Pete Best, was released on the 1995 Anthology.) The Beatles’ use of simple chords and earnest vocals continues on such charmers as “Misery” and “P.S. I Love You” (early glimpses of Lennon’s chip on the shoulder and McCartney’s sentimentalism). The vibrant “Ask Me Why” allows Lennon to show off his intensity. The two lead voices blend beautifully in the lonely ballad “There’s a Place” (inspired by the West Side Story number “Somewhere”.) Lennon and McCartney wrote the rigid but lovely “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” and generously handed it to George Harrison for a vocal that’s firm but of limited range. During this show-bizzy, pre-psychedelic era, John and Paul could get away with its schmaltzy “doo wah doo” as a backup vocal.
The heart of this debut album is its set of cover versions of red-hot American pop and R&B hits. There’s no shame in exploiting other artists’ work if you reinterpret it and attract a wider audience. The young Beatles had their horizons broadened when they purchased U.S. records that British sailors had brought back to Liverpool. The Liverpudlians proceeded to make brilliant adjustments and cycle them back to a largely white American teen market to which the songs seemed spanking new. The self-pitying but contagious “Anna”, by Arthur Alexander, on which John practically weeps, was just one of several Alexander numbers the Beatles performed on stage and on BBC radio, others being “Soldier of Love” and “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues”. (Lennon would later acknowledge his composition “All I’ve Got to Do” as a tribute to Alexander.)
Equally intense is Lennon’s vocal and Paul/George’s harmonies on the Burt Bacharach-penned “Baby It’s You”. The low-note guitar solo mimics the organ on the Shirelles’ version—both of which conjure the desperation of love gone wrong on some now-deserted high school dance floor. Less successful were the group-sung cover of Carole King’s “Chains”, (not one of her cleverer melodies), and the McCartney-led “A Taste of Honey”, a theme from a 1961 flop of a movie. Ringo’s rendition of the Shirelles’ “Boys”—which launched the pattern of each album containing a Ringo sampling—is hard to embrace since it was written from a female perspective.
Which leaves for last the album’s piece de resistance: the Beatles’ party-climaxing reinterpretation of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout”. This gem was the final task in a marathon 12-hour studio session that left Lennon’s voice so hoarse he had to gargle with milk before rising to the challenge. Yet the result is a complete reimagining of the original, changing the pace from reggae staccato to an ambling sexual invitation. The climbing-octaves vocal that gives three different Beatles each a turn became a staple of dance-floor lip-synchers. Its pelvis-jolting allure makes you never want to head home.
Please Please Me take two
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.
With the Beatles
With the Beatles
Four eclipsed black and white photographs appear on Parlophone’s With the Beatles album cover. They bear somber expressions. The release date—November 22, 1963—coincided with the Dallas, Texas assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This same year Astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, and author Betty Freidan’s book The Feminine Mystique fostered dialogue among women facing societal limitations. Alongside these American touchstones, a cultural awakening was taking place world-wide, with anti-war slogans and love-ins on the horizon. But, for now, the baby boomer generation would gravitate to a long-awaited album which spoke directly to them; not their parents or aunts and uncles.
Most of the With the Beatles tracks would appear on the American counterpart Meet the Beatles released in January 1964, while those tracks left-over would appear on The Beatles Second Album. Being under pressure to record and not having the opportunity to get much writing done, the four Liverpuddlians had to divide the album into a blend of covers and originals. To that end, With the Beatles borrowed heavily from the Motown sound pioneered by producer Berry Gordy. Still, the covers they did choose were carefully selected for catchy hooks, riveting bass lines and universal themes.
Each Beatle here has a chance to perform and each of the covers mirror the personality of the singer. For example, when McCartney sings Meredith Wilson’s “Till There Way You” his voice is warm and sincere and he draws out the romance in the lines, “there was music and wonderful roses they tell me and sweet fragrant meadows of dawn and dew…” Also, when McCartney sings, “there were birds in the sky, but I never saw them winging” his thick accent rests on the word “saw” (sawrrrr), and we are reminded that the British Invasion is imminent.
The sweet “Please Mr. Postman” was originally recorded by the black all-girl group the Marvelettes, but Lennon’s rendition is riddled with masculine angst. “So many days have passed me by, see the tears standing in my eyes” he details. The sense that he is missing his long-distance lover is clear—his voice is double-tracked and emotion-filled. Harrison and McCartney provide antiphony and the combination is highly-charged.
It’s also amazing to hear how Harrison emulates Chuck Berry’s classic “Roll Over Beethoven” (released by Chicago’s Chess Records in 1956). Harrison masters Berry’s guitar riffs (those which once accompanied the hilarious “duck-walk”) and uses his crusty-edged voice to showcase difficult, double entendre passages: “My temperture’s rising and my jukebox is blowing a fuse, hey diddle diddle, come and play my fiddle…” Meanwhile, McCartney and Lennon provide completely infectious back-up. Still, another cover was Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me”. The original version was a smooth and soulful ballad, but Lennon twists and wrings out each syllable. “You treat me badly, I love you madly” he moans and his melismas demonstrate pure panic.
Two more covers bear mention: “The Devil in Her Heart” by Richard Draper carries elements of Latin rhythms and bongo. Another all-girl group “The Donay’s” made it famous in 1962. Surprisingly, Harrison takes the lead here and engages in a vocal debate with Lennon and McCartney who attempt to convince him to stay away from his dream-girl. They ensue in an upbeat call and response. Harrison plays a elaborate Hawaiian sounding solo and the whole song—a hybrid of vocal activity and blurred genre—is very exciting. Barrett Strong recorded “Money” on the Tamla label in 1959. Written by Barry Gordy, it’s a galloping 12-bar blues with an intense bass line. Though Strong certainly did the song justice, Lennon shrieks and wails the lyrics, and though he’s singing about a tangible object, the universal emotion conveyed could be associated with devastating tragedy.
Flip the album over and you will find a treasure-trove of originals. “I Wanna Be Your Man” was meant for the Rolling Stones, but Starr with his sour drone and insidious back-beat deeply personalizes it while “Don’t Bother Me” holds that same pale demeanor, but Harrison is the lead. His cavalier approach is surprisingly endearing—as he sings, “just go away, leave me alone, don’t bother me” he sounds so grim, you almost want to laugh.
Also, in this camp, “Not a Second Time” touches on despair with a grain of wisdom and Lennon illuminates that point. “It Won’t Be Long” and “Little Child” offer Lennon a chance to express romantic anticipation and perform throaty harmonica. In “All I’ve Got to Do” he drags out melodic vowels perfectly while exhibiting stellar song structure. McCartney sings “Hold Me Tight” and “All My Loving”—songs which pander to his “cute” Beatle image. When he sings, “close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you, remember I’ll always be true” it’s easy to feel taken in and completely spell-bound by the innocence and reassurances of the message. These originals are stand-outs with chord progressions that embellish the universality of the lyrics.
The charm on With the Beatles is the ever-mounting wealth of surprises as lead vocalists shift exposing strong personality traits, backing vocals escalate (replete with the occasional “wooh” borrowed from Little Richard), maracas, tambourines and hand-claps join the mix and lyrics switch flawlessly from confessional to irreverent and cynical. Though most of the content does deal with romance—the pitfalls and joys—the mood and tone make each track distinctive. With the Beatles foreshadows the prolific song-writing partnership of Lennon-McCartney and introduces us to those teddy-boys who smoked cigarettes, wore leather, and turned rebellious backs to screaming girls whose mania launched their unprecedented rise. To re-meet the Beatles, start here.
Meet the Beatles
Meet the Beatles
Although the American versions of the early Beatles albums are dismissed by purists as not of the canon, for those who lived through the British Invasion in the early ‘60s, no album epitomizes the full fury of Beatlemania more than Meet the Beatles.
The iconic half-shadow headshots of the front cover suggest the apotheosis to come, and the disk itself is seminal, beginning with “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, a song that, overnight, transformed pop music, followed by “I Saw Her Standing There”, Paul’s rollicking ode to ephebophilia. After these back-to-back rockers, the album moves through moods and styles, foreshadowing the Beatles’ subsequent expansions of the boundaries of pop music and the further development of their already-impressive musicianship.
“This Boy” features the Fabs’ facility with three-part harmonies and includes an intricately syncopated rhythm guitar figure. “It Won’t Be Long” rocks hard courtesy of George’s insistent, descending guitar riff as well as Paul’s maniacal vocals echoing John’s “yeah”s during the chorus. John’s moody “All I’ve Got to Do” is notable for its unorthodox shifts in time signature as well as Ringo’s maddeningly catchy hi-hat accent on the three-and beat during the rest leading into each verse. “All My Loving” continues in the vein of rhythmic innovation, as John dominates the song with his strident, strummed triplet guitar part.
The second side begins with George’s first attempt at songwriting, the dour “Don’t Bother Me”, penned while he was sick in bed as an experiment to see if he could actually write a song. The result is quirky in the extreme and features odd percussion effects, stop-start rhythm guitar, and George’s strained, droning vocal. “Little Child” was subsequently dismissed by John as one of his throwaway tunes, mere album filler, and yet its jaunty good cheer carries the day, fueled by John’s raucous harmonica and Paul’s ebullient background vocals.
“Till There was You” is the sole cover tune on the album, and it’s one of the highlights, as John and George’s intricately orchestrated guitar parts ride effortlessly over Paul’s pulsating bass, providing a luxurious underpinning for one of Paul’s most natural, lucid vocal performances ever. “Hold Me Tight”, like “Little Child”, is filler by nature, though it entertainingly features the Beatles’ trademark dinosaur-stomp heavy four-to-the-bar also heard in such tunes as “Roll Over Beethoven”.
Ringo’s turn in the spotlight follows with “I Wanna Be Your Man”. The received wisdom is that the Rolling Stones’ version of this song trumps the Beatles’, though an objective comparison of the two makes such a verdict hard to countenance, as the Fabs rock out maniacally: Ringo bellows; Paul shrieks wildly; George intersperses intermittent, twanging guitar fills; John anchors the groove with a Bo Diddley-style guitar hustle. The result is music that seems on the verge of mayhem, suggestive in its almost Dionysian abandon of the later “Helter Skelter”.
The album ends fittingly, and prophetically, with the ominous strains of “Not a Second Time”, featuring John’s brooding, double-tracked vocal and a spare musical accompaniment, a somber coda in a time of frothy, mindless pop.
The boys would, of course, go on to conquer the world and blow our minds, but they’d never again quite capture the feral genius of when we first met them.
A Hard Day’s Night
A Hard Day’s Night
When John Lennon sang “I feel alright” in the title track to A Hard Day’s Night, he meant it. In the spring and summer of 1964, Lennon was brimming with confidence. And who could blame him? Helping his band conquer America, writing a best-selling book, making out with Jayne Mansfield in the backseat of a car—the man was on fire. (Before too much fame, family, and food made him feel like a trapped, overweight Nowhere Man.)
Above all, this confidence manifested itself in a tremendous outpouring of songs. In 1963, the Lennon/McCartney team still wrote collaboratively—or “eyeball-to-eyeball”, as John put it. While the results were almost uniformly excellent, they began exploring what they could do individually the following year. And A Hard Day’s Night is evidence that for the time being, going it alone was much easier for Lennon than McCartney. In fact, on this album—the only one in the Beatles’ catalog comprised entirely of Lennon/McCartney compositions—John was the primary author of 10 of 13 songs. Considering the Beatles’ unbelievably busy schedule in early 1964, Lennon’s prolific output is nothing short of amazing. Even more amazing is that every one of his A Hard Day’s Night contributions is a gem.
The album’s best-known songs are those that appeared in the A Hard Day’s Night film and on Side A of the original LP (released in July 1964 and recently remastered). The kinetic title track—which John wrote to order for the movie—deservedly became a chart-topping smash. But “I Should Have Known Better”, the George Harrison-sung “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You”, and “Tell Me Why” would surely have enjoyed similar fates had they been released as singles. And towering over all of them is the timeless “If I Fell.” Marrying one of Lennon’s most beautifully complex melodies with some of his most vulnerable lyrics, the close-harmony ballad is a major work that belongs in the same discussion as the likes of “Yesterday”, “In My Life”, and “Something”. Stunning.
The non-movie-soundtrack side of the original album finds Lennon branching out stylistically, and is arguably an even greater showcase for his precocious musical gifts. John claimed “Any Time at All” was an attempt to rewrite 1963’s “It Won’t Be Long”. But its searing vocal and clever piano-guitar interplay prevent it from being a mere retread. “I’ll Cry Instead” is a highly successful foray into the country and western vein, with lyrics that are at once amusing and affecting (“I’ve got a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet”). And the R&B-infused rocker “When I Get Home”—a desperate tale of infidelity and guilt—is one of the most inexplicably overlooked songs in the Beatles’ canon.
Better yet are the two tracks that close the album. “You Can’t Do That” captures the essence of the young John Lennon brilliantly—with its swaggering vocal, near-violent lyrics, fierce (and rare) Lennon guitar solo and mercurial structure (how many 12-bar blues songs veer off in melodic tangents like the one “You Can’t Do That” takes in its middle eight?). And while his wistful, folk-tinged “I’ll Be Back” is one of the Beatles’ least explosive album closers, it’s easily one of their most effective.
None of which is to say that Paul McCartney didn’t make a significant impact on A Hard Day’s Night. His three contributions—the gorgeous “And I Love Her”, effervescent “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and atypically moody “Things We Said Today”—are all rightly regarded as classics. But he wouldn’t begin to reach his peak as a composer until two years later with Revolver, by which point the quantity and quality of his output surpassed that of his partner. In 1964, John Lennon was still enjoying his day in the sun as the Beatles’ dominant force. And A Hard Day’s Night is his finest hour.