Meeting the Beatles for the first time, what did we hear? Did we know? Could we have ever known? Today, we will look at the first three shots from the Fab Four, from 1963-1964. To Re-meet the Beatles, start here.
Please Please Me (1963)
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.