“Chains” marks the first time on Please Please Me where the Beatles sound indifferent to the material they’re playing. Their version of the Gerry Goffin and Carole King-penned R&B ditty is flat, repetitious (seemingly more so than the original, somehow), and musically underdressed. The harmonies are rather staid and none of the Beatles seem to find anything inventive to try instrumentally (though the harmonica-led intro is notable as it would reappear, often memorably, in a considerable amount of their songs).
To hear the earlier, Cookies-performed rendition is to realize that “Chains” is an R&B number through and through and perhaps not ideally suited to the Fab Four’s abilities. In translating it to rock ‘n roll, the Beatles opted to shed the original’s sax drop-ins and handclaps (but why), thereby losing much of its color and looseness. It just doesn’t take flight on the strength alone of their guitar-bass-percussion interplay. And John and Paul’s vocals come off almost stodgy when compared to the bright, lively chirp of the Cookies. The Beatles, it seems, simply didn’t know where to take the song.
The structure of “Chains”, which remains constant between the two versions, does contain a feature worthy of mention. It’s how the chorus introduces the song and then essentially continues through the space where you’d expect there to be a proper, set-apart verse (several bridge-like, modified verses do arrive later). The chorus and standard verse seem, more or less, merged into one, which facilitates a smooth flow but can also be repetitious.
It’s only a detail of minor interest and doesn’t have any bearing on how effective “Chains” is in the hands of either band. The Cookies’ version really is a blithe confection while the Beatles’ uninspired interpretation serves as a reminder (among others to come) that the future greatest-ever pop band didn’t immediately achieve artistic eminence. They first had to test their evolving skills against the vast and newfangled possibilities of rock ’n’ roll.
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