[18 December 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Gordon Thompson’s Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out is an intriguingly comprehensive look at the British recording industry during the seminal years from 1956 to 1968. Using information and interviews from many of the key figures of that era, Thompson explores how Britain became the center of the modern international music scene. Although his focus is the British recording industry and British pop music during the first “British Invasion,” he seeks to avoid that term and the perspective it implies, as his narrative details the British musical experience from the—as the subtitle states—“inside out”.
Thompson briefly covers the early years of British Pop, commenting on everything from fabricated origin stories of artists like Tommy Steele in the late ‘50s, to the networking and competition that formed the community of ace session players of the early ‘60s. But the bulk of his examination is centered on the musical innovation of the period, on how it was influenced by concurrent cultural changes taking place in Britain, as well as its direct affects upon those cultural shifts.
In addition to relating the cultural and musical facets of his subject, Thompson places the cultural changes within the historical, economic, political, and social contexts from which British pop was born. Of course, the biggest influence on the rise of British pop was the fact that the members of the post-war generation were entering—or extending, as Thompson posits—their adolescence during this time. Thompson also talks briefly of the rise of skiffle and its subsequent demise, and also of trad jazz artists attempting to reinvent their sound as British teens opted for real rock and roll. This new generation was devoted to copying the sound of authentic American rock. At the same time however, as evidenced in the later ‘60s by everyone from the Beatles to King Crimson, British musicians were also more likely than their American counterparts to experiment with the sound.
It’s here that Please Please Me gets really interesting. Unlike other studies of the period and genres, which focus mainly on songwriting or the image of the artists, Thompson delves into the technical and technological back-stories of the music. While his first chapter does cover “Approaches and Material,” the second and third chapters are devoted to the art of production and sound engineering, respectively. Alongside sections on some of the iconic producers of the period, such as Shel Talmy, Andrew Loog Oldham and George Martin, and top studio engineers at the time Malcolm Addy, Norman Smith, and Geoff Emerick, Thompson explains the technical palette with which these men were working and the technological changes many of them adapted. It’s not at all difficult to imagine, while reading these details, that some of the greatest music ever created was recorded and produced in such an environment. The willingness of producers and engineers to take risks and experiment with new methods contributed greatly to the evolution of British music just as surely as did the experimental impulses of the songwriters and performers.
Chapters five and six, naturally, cover the changes that occurred in popular songwriting and the life of a successful musician at the time. The study of British pop, indeed British pop itself, would not exist without these changes. Again, Thompson profiles some of the major players (Mitch Murray, Carter and Lewis, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend), much of the information on the songwriters obviously overlaps other sources, but the last section of that chapter is most interesting in its explanation of the emergence of a distinctly British voice in songwriting. Thompson tells two tales of musicians in the ‘60s, the one of the stars constantly and exhaustively touring, and the other of studio musicians suffering both anonymity because they weren’t stars, and ill will because they were often booked to replace the stars on recordings. Thompson also charts the life of a musician at the time, from picking up an instrument, to first gigs, to going pro. He provides a glimpse of the often overlooked atmosphere inside a recording studio (of particular interest is a passage on the hierarchy of session players).
The final chapter of Please Please Me begins by describing the EMI recording session which included “Please Please Me,” with memories from session drummer Andy White and producer George Martin. It sums up with questions on whether the British pop recording industry of the ‘60s accurately reflects class issues, how generational, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation issues influenced the musical landscape and the way in which the social network of the music scene helped the music’s evolution. Thompson doesn’t really answer these questions, though it’s clear that previous chapters are meant to assist readers in coming to their own conclusions.
Thompson’s postscript conclusions consist of a list of London recording studios in the ‘60s, a selected discography, an extensive bibliography and a song index. These, along with Thompson’s exhaustive research and expertise make Please Please Me one of the most thorough, as well as one of the most entertaining and engaging, treatises on the topic yet written.