Saturday, July 11, 2009



Did you ever try to take a picture of a large crowd of people with an outdated, cheap camera? Without access to an adjustable, wide angle lens, and no tripod to steady the shot, you would expect to lose quite a bit of detail in the final product. On the plus side, you have captured an important moment in time with the only equipment available. The result is oddly beautiful, despite technical shortcomings.

Please Please Me is the aural version of that snapshot.

Before they entered the domain of mass consciousness, The Beatles had spent countless hours honing their skills, playing in dives for next to nothing. Plenty of their contemporaries in Liverpool were doing the same, though they weren't writing their own material. When fate finally smiled on the quartet, a record deal was struck and two self penned singles ("Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me") emerged with "Please Please Me" hitting number one on the British charts.

EMI saw dollar signs and decided to squeeze an album out of the upstart group before the fickle record buying audience turned their attention to some other distraction. George Martin assembled the quartet with the intention to record ten more songs, live off the floor.

In one day!

These days, finding the right mic for the kick drum might take ten hours of a session. The Beatles walked away with their first LP in the can in the same time frame. One factor was budget (non-existent) and the other was recording process. Generally, everyone was in the same room, with some separation (baffling for the drums) and you had to have your act together. If you screwed up a take, you simply had to start again. Post session editing and overdubbing was possible, though not welcome when dealing with a 2 track recording console/mixing desk.

Anyone who subscribes to "the Beatles couldn't play" philosophy should really do some homework. Very few mistakes were made by the four during this very punishing session. McCartney was especially pro, playing bass notes in quavers and singing lead or harmony vocals simultaneously. Lennon and Harrison were suffering through colds. Can you imagine being sick and having to step up to do vocals all day? Out of these arduous circumstances, history was made.

Kicking in the door with an energetic count-in, "I Saw Her Standing There" grabs the listener immediately with an intensity that strikes from all angles. Heavy, driving beat, excellent guitar work (Harrison's solo in particular) and those iron clad, Everly Brothers influenced harmonies top an excellent performance. McCartney employs the exact bass line from Chuck Berry's "I'm Talkin' Bout You" in delivering this classic. It ranks with "Shakin' All Over" as a towering example of early British rock. Superb choice to open the album. "Misery" is a minor piece of work, though the enthusiasm in the vocal harmonies manages to make it seem more interesting than it actually is.

Strong on spontaneity, the songs are ragged in places though this only adds to the charm. Always masterful in their picks when covering material, they dutifully run through "Chains" and "Boys", which were originally performed by female singers ("Girl Groups", The Cookies and The Shirelles respectively). Quirky in their tastes, concentrated effort was made not to do things that were well known. Obscure B-sides by US acts often found a home amongst their set lists. The strongest interpretations, by far, are "Baby it's You" and the monstrous "Twist and Shout".

The idiosyncratic "Please Please Me" with its call and response harmony vocals, massive hook and impeccable playing had already scored as a single. "There's A Place" looks forward to the more introspective side that Lennon would eventually incorporate in his compositions. You can really hear the vocals chords beginning to wear on this one, yet the delivery is entirely committed. It's an excellent song.

Some misfires are present. Covering "A Taste of Honey" prefigures the schmaltzy side of McCartney and "Do You Want to Know a Secret" suffers from a weak lead vocal. This is all forgivable considering the deadlines imposed, though.

Just when it seemed that everyone's batteries were running low, they rallied to blast out an absolutely devastating version of the Isley Brothers "Twist and Shout". Ringo's bricklayer hands pound the drums mercilessly, while the violence of Lennon's vocal is supported by stellar harmonies from Paul and George, who holler encouragement and push the climactic three part buildups way over the top. It's a one take revelation that surpasses just about everything here and slams the record shut with an authoritative force.

Critics take note: When you listen to this, keep in mind that much of what you hear is live, without recourse to fakery. Ensemble playing gives everything an extra boost, though it's a shame that this wasn't captured on a four or eight track machine. Given the primitive technology, it still sounds damn good, with particular hats off to George Martin and his engineers/tape ops. The stereo mixes are pretty sharp, though it was widely distributed in a mono format. (The Ultra Rare Trax bootleg series gave collectors a huge shock when they hit the streets in the 80s. Pristine alternate takes of these songs in stereo sounded far better than the official releases)

Explosive for its era, nothing like this had come out of any studio in Britain up to this point. Please Please Me hit stores on March 22, 1963 and met with resounding commercial success in the UK. The first chapter in the history of this storied band took flight.

Music was about to change, with the Beatles in the vanguard of a movement that would see Pop morph into Rock.

Trivia: Name the two UK artists who covered songs from this album back in '63? (Name the tunes, too.)


Anonymous said...

"the violence of Lennon's vocal". Awesome.

rock and roll history said...

One of my all time favorites.
Sometimes the first takes are the best. This album is proof.

Barbara(aka Layla) said...

Times have changed haven't they? Not often do you get raw spontaneous - its all rehearsed mixed and polished.

Great post!