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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Beatles: Please Please Me


1) I Saw Her Standing There; 2) Misery; 3) Anna (Go To Him); 4) Chains; 5) Boys; 6) Ask Me Why; 7) Please Please Me; 8) Love Me Do; 9) P.S. I Love You; 10) Baby It's You; 11) Do You Want To Know A Secret; 12) A Taste Of Honey; 13) There's A Place; 14) Twist And Shout.

We deserve a little bit of a preface here. This is, after all, the third time that I am writing about the same Beatles albums — the first one was from a generally fanboyish perspective, poorly wor­ded and quite uninformative, and the second one was written in a text-generating frenzy that pro­bably went over the top. Third time, hopefully, be the charm, or else it just was not meant to be.

It is amusing to look back on the old days — not even the early reviewing days, but the good old Iron Curtain days when music was scarce to come by, and each album received approximately the same span of attention that is today reserved to a large shelf crammed with CDs — and realize how the Beatles could be «everything and more» to somebody who had so little context to place them into. Many people knew the Beatles, but not their sources and influences — not Motown, not a lot of early rock'n'roll (Elvis, perhaps, but Buddy Holly? Carl Perkins?), certainly not skiffle or the late 1950s / early 1960s British pop music scene. Of their contemporaries, with whom they constantly traded ideas back and forth, also only select figures were known to the average Soviet listener — and, I dare say, many of the average non-Soviet listeners as well. No surprise, then, that many of the musically knowledgeable people like to think of — or, at least, talk of — the Beatles as phantom-like figureheads, a band whose achievements are vastly overrated just beca­use they happened to market stuff better than the people who actually invented it.

It would seem, then, that as we pick up more and more «context», the Beatles are more and more probable to turn into «just another band», a good one, maybe a great one, but hardly the ultimate benchmark for every musical adventure of the 1960s. Who would dare judge Frank Zappa by ap­plying the same criteria as one's mind sets out for the Beatles? Or The Grateful Dead? Or Carlos Santana? Surely the idea is laughable.

And yet... every time I have the occasion to put on a Beatles record (which I do not actually need to put on — after all these years, each single note on each single Beatles record is inextri­cably ingrai­n­ed in my head), I cannot help wondering how different it sounds. If the primary goal of music, after all, is to incite vibration in our emotional nerves, then different artists, throughout the history of music, have displayed various levels of skill in inciting this vibration — and the diffe­rence of the Beatles is that, in almost everything they did, no matter how «derivative», «imita­tive», or «tentative» it was, they seemed to work as if not making these nerves ring out at top vo­lume was not even an option. Where others would string together «nice-sounding» or «catchy» chords, the Beatles consistently — and I stress, consistently — strung together chord sequences that went somewhere goddamn deeper than they were supposed to. (The infamous discovery of «Aeolian cadences» by William Mann in Lennon's early ditty ʽNot A Second Timeʼ may sound funny, but there is a grain of seriousness beyond each such bit of fun: whatever there was, it must have hit The Times' resident musicologist real hard — unless, of course, he was bribed by Parlophone executives or Brian Epstein in person).

Let us take Please Please Me as our first test case. There can hardly be any disagreements here — it is literally the «weakest» Beatles album, if only because it was recorded in such a rush: 9 hours and 45 minutes of studio time altogether, from a young band with very little studio expe­rience. Already guided by George Martin as the wise studio guru, for sure, but, by February 1963, the band and their producer had not yet even gotten to know each other all that well. The band's original compositions were still few and far between: John Lennon still struggling as a songwriter, Paul McCartney feeling a little bit more self-confident, but stuck hands and feet in a simplistic teenage mindset, George Harrison not even beginning to look up to his «elders», and then there's always Ringo — or, rather, there was beginning to always be Ringo, having quite freshly repla­ced Pete Best and not yet «proven» as an integral part of the band.

In short, there is no need to prove to anyone that Please Please Me represents the tender infancy of the Beatles. For most bands, such «tender infancy» is, at best, giggly-cute, at worst, confusing and ugly, but in both cases, normally, there is no good reason to listen to this music for a second time other than research purposes. But Please Please Me still stands up — despite all the flaws, the silliness, the rampant naïveness, and ʽAsk Me Whyʼ, which may be the worst Beatles original ever composed (and is definitely the worst original Beatles song composed by John Lennon).

It all begins with ʽLove Me Doʼ. "Love, love me do / You know I love you". When the Ramones wrote lyrics like that twelve years later, they were taken as smart, ironic, streetwise minimalism. When the Beatles wrote them, they were dead serious, or, rather, they did not give a damn — the words never mattered anyway, except for the stipulated convention that it had to be something about «love». As an «artistic statement», ʽLove Me Doʼ has even fewer credentials than a Sesame Street composition (the latter ones have educational value at least). Big question, then: why does it stick so sorely in the head, much more so than the average Dave Clark Five or Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas song? Melodically, it has very little going for it other than the main harmonica part, and the repetitive vocal melody that partially replicates it.

But there is this little matter of the Beatle-specific hook: the resolution of that melody during the extended "so plea-ee-ee-eeese..." bit — I'd bet my head on it that a hypothetical Billy J. Kramer would have been able to come up with everything in this melody but that particular resolution, which so admirably breaks up the monotonousness of the main part of the verse. Simply put, we start out «simple, stupid», then add a tense «longing» effect with the "please", then bring it all to a natural conclusion with an accappella moment of half-comic «spookiness». It might seem stu­pid, but there is a touch of suspense, maybe even some primitive mystique, in the song — which makes it stand out among dozens of technically similar compositions of 1962, and explains its ra­pid chart success (No. 17 on the UK charts at the time), achieved, by the way, without any serious marketing / promotional campaign.

There is no such element of mystique in the follow-up single, ʽPlease Please Meʼ, which, instead, concentrates on overwhelming joy, conveying it with as much effect as a standard four-piece band in 1963 could be capable of. Lennon's harmonica is triumphant rather than menacing this time, the joint vocal harmonies sound as if George Martin was pushing them in a «Beethoven for teens» direction, and, again, the Beatle-specific hook: the "come on come on..." crescendo that nobody else could think of delivering at the time. The Dave Clark Five would later shamelessly steal that technique for ʽAny Way You Want Itʼ — but even if they had enough talent to more or less convincingly replicate the mood, they still did not come up with the better song.

It is interesting that, for all of the band's Hamburg- and Cavern Club-acquired reputation as rough and tough onstage performers of genuine rock'n'roll, Please Please Me features only one genuine self-penned «rocker». I have always thought that, perhaps, had the Beatles started their recording career one or two years later, when mainstream fears towards «aggressive music» had already slightly diminished, they may not have had to endure the reputation of «softies» compared to the Stones' «tough guys» image; but then, on the other hand, had they started out later, they would not be so much in the lead — plus, there is no use in all these ifs and buts.

In any case — what a rocker. Paul's "one, two, three, FOUR!" countdown that opens the song was specially glued on to the final master tape from another take — a genius decision, giving the al­bum an energetic blast-off start, again, sounding like nothing before it. The idea behind the LP was to give the audiences a slight approximation of a Beatles live show; clearly, this was incom­patible with George Martin's perennial quest for sonic perfection, but the few «live» elements that they did incorporate still gave the record a huge advantage. To me, the main hero of ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ, however, is the other George: it is his lead work, both in between the verse lines and on the solo, that gives the song its genuine tough edge. The vocals, harmonies, lyrics are all «teen fluff», but George's echo-laden licks, some of which seem to be imitating 1950s guitar gods such as Scottie Moore, are the true grit of the song. The transition into the instrumental section is one of the ass-kickiest moments in Beatle history.

Of the other originals, I have always thought of ʽMiseryʼ as tremendously underrated — not only does it have a fabulously catchy melody, but there is something deeply disturbing as well about how the bitter-tragic lyrics of the song clash with its overall merry mood: how is it possible to sing lines like "without her I will be in misery" when the singer is clearly having a hard time pre­venting himself from toppling over in spasms of laughter? (The truly disturbing realization about it is that the song might easily have reflected John's genuine feelings about his affairs). The rest is fluff, ranging from passable (ʽP.S. I Love Youʼ — Paul in his songwriting infancy stage) to quite awkward (the already mentioned ʽAsk Me Whyʼ: the most fake song John ever wrote, trying to convey an atmosphere of care and tenderness of which he quite obviously knew nothing at the time — the whole song is a mess of poorly strung together clichés that are really grating).

ʽThe­re's A Placeʼ is frequently found in comparisons with the Beach Boys' ʽIn My Roomʼ due to both of them exploring the topic of «loneliness» in the lyrics, but if we dig from there, there is no question that the Brian Wilson song is the better of the two — its slow, melancholic musical ba­cking fully matches the word, whereas the Lennon song is upbeat and optimistic (but not devoid of subtlety: its harmonica blasts are notably sterner and sadder than the ones on ʽPlease Please Meʼ). Still, the vocal modulations are beyond reproach.

Of the six covers, Arthur Alexander's ʽAnnaʼ is a fantastic achievement — on the instrumental plane, the band extracts and amplifies its main melodic hook in the form of a finely shaped, mys­teriously resonating guitar riff; and in the vocal department, John finds a good way to let go of the self-restraining «mannerisms» of traditional black R'n'B and actually convey a believable tragic atmosphere in the bridge section. Goffin and King's ʽChainsʼ is given to George, who does a fine job of transposing his natural slight tongue-tiedness onto the song's message of love confusion; and the Shirelles' ʽBaby It's Youʼ, like so many other songs the Beatles did, simply converts the original's excessive «roundedness» into sharper angles.

It is useless to speculate on whether Please Please Me already «sows the seeds» of the grand suc­cesses to come. The Beatles certainly do not come across as «enthusiastic revolutionaries» when you listen to Paul telling us how he'll be coming home again to you love, or even when John is screaming his head off throughout ʽTwist And Shoutʼ, trying to beat the Isley Brothers at their own game (and I think he did — except, of course, the Isley Brothers probably did not need to go home and nurse their voices with cough drops after the recording session). But it also never real­ly seems as if they «just» went into the studio to record some songs, knock off an LP and be done with it. All of the little things I have mentioned show ambition, and lots of it: a strong desire, right from the start, to be the very best at what they are doing, otherwise there's no point in doing it in the first place. And there is a clear understanding of the long-playing record as the proper medium to do it — a realization that it is a bit humiliating when your fourteen song-long col­lec­tion consists of two well-written hit singles surrounded by a sea of useless filler.

Which is why Please Please Me, after all these years, holds together quite fine as an album, un­like 99% of pop-oriented LPs from 1963. (Too bad for the Wilson brothers, who did not start pro­perly understanding the LP's potential until All Summer Long). It is slight, occasionally clumsy, lyrically trivial, not devoid of very strange decisions (such as saddling Ringo with ʽBoysʼ, a tune that was perfectly fine when the Shirelles did it, but predictably earned him a gay image with cer­tain audiences), yet it is unmistakably Beatles, and everything that is unmistakably Beatles deser­ves a thumbs up without any need for meditation on the subject. And anyone who tries to slight it too much should just try to remember the names of at least ten other pop LPs from 1963 with­out calling on the Internet for help. Might be a chore even for some of those who had already struck their teens back in the day.

Check "Please Please Me" (CD) on Amazon


  1. Glad you've finally gotten round to re-reviewing the Beatles.

  2. I think I read in one of the Lewisohn books that actually Ringo inherited "Boys" from Pete Best - not only that, Pete didn't sing and drum at the same time, so for that number Pete sang and Paul played drums!

  3. Can such be the case that one when listens to The Beatles doesn't feel anything yet for example Current 93 by listening feels deeply say moved?

    1. In Nature, nothing is impossible unless proven so.

  4. Great review as ever, George (your PPM best so far). Even though now I strongly believe that this Only Solitaire site will go down in history as that famous A-B-C blog. Not that I don't wish you to review ZZ Top, of course.
    As for the actual album, it's the one I find hardest to criticize (after Abbey Road, of course) - simply because its flaws seem so obvious and so inevitable. However, I've always been greatly annoyed by "Love Me Do". Somehow it seems too pedestrian even by the band's early standards. How it hit number 1 is beyond me.

    1. It didn't. Maybe it did later in some country after the Beatles were already a household name, but in their original British release it only got to #17.

    2. It did, it briefly was no.1 in the US charts. In 1964 -which, frankly, makes it even more odd. Any song from A Hard Day's Night...

  5. I was 10 in 1962. My dad bought a stereo. We played mostly Walt Disney albums, movie sountrack albums and sound effects records that demonstrated the stereo effect. We discovered The Beatles on top 40 radio. My older sister (she was twelve!)kept searching the radio dial for "I want to Hold your Hand" and they were playing it like crazy. We bought "Meet the Beatles" after seeing them on Ed Sullivan. It was the first record I heard that I didn't want to end. There was not another one like it so we would play it again and again. "Introducing the Beatles" was released but everyone told us it was not any good. We bought it anyway and played them both over and over even after they started skipping. The only other first record by a group that had that effect on me was "Are YOU Experienced" in 1967.

  6. This is a great review, even by your amazing standards. A few people would contest the Beatles' resonance, but even on their earlier works, you feel real emotions (and this is coming from a former Beatles hater too...), unlike from, say, other 1962-1963 artists like DC5 and Billy Kramer. There was actually a time where this was my favorite Beatles' album, if only because my original dislike of the Beatles was due to people's praise of Sgt. Pepper and the like.

  7. This was a great review and a huge improvement over your beatles reviews in your old site. Wheras before you tended to sound too fanatical, here you carefully and objectively analyze the Beatles curious reputation as pop music gods, their occasional lapses towards banality, but ultimately what makes them so great even after decades. It is a piece written with a maturity which was molded after years of musical listening.

    1. Thanks, gentlemen. Re-reviewing the Beatles is always a pleasure.

  8. George, long time fan, love the Beatles with the same analytic passion as since I agree with every word you wrote, I'll just be bitchy and point out that McCartney wrote, "There's a Place," I think...dammit, well if anything, it's a genuine 50/50 collaboration...great work though...

  9. I love the sound. That echo and the wonderful playing/singing. Wich is more amazing if we think in how it was recorded. Never knew why "Love me do" is often considered 5th class. I love it. It's not easy to write a good simple-stupid song. This is one. "Surfing Bird" is other. "You really got me" another. Ramones? Nah. Their best songs are covers, they simply couldn't write songs. "Love me do" is better than any original Ramones song.

  10. Me encanta el sonido de este disco. Ese eco... y la fantástica interpretación, lo que es más increíble si se tiene en cuenta cómo se grabó. Nunca entendí por qué "love me do" es considerada de quinta clase. No es fácil escribir una buena canción simple. Esta es una. "Surfing bird" es otra. "You really got me" otra. Ramones? nah. Sus mejores canciones son covers, simplemente no sabían componer buenas canciones. "Love me do" es mejor que cualquier original de Ramones.

  11. (Loving your blog reviews, George -- big improvements on the old site's!) As I think you're as much of a Beatle-nut as I am, there are a few things I wanted to comment on, which may be of interest (or not). I'll quote you and then "respond":

    - "9 hours and 45 minutes of studio time altogether"

    The "altogether" there is inaccurate of course, because only 10 of the 14 tracks were recorded on February 11th, 1963 -- "PS I Love You" and the 'remake' of "Love Me Do" (both with Andy White) having been recorded on Sept.11th 1962, while "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why" (both with Ringo) having been recorded on Nov. 26th, 1962.

    - "The band's original compositions were still few and far between: John Lennon still struggling as a songwriter"

    I don't think their original compositions were few in sum -- they had, for a time, stopped writing new songs during 1961 and into 1962 during their push to become performing 'professionals' under Epstein's direction, but Paul and John had written numerous songs or partial songs going back to 1958. By early 1963, this included 'Love Me Do', 'Please Please Me' (newly a #1, or #2, hit), the further two B-sides and 4 new songs on the album (including major hits/classics 'I Saw Her Standing There' and 'Do You Want to Know a Secret'), 'One After 909', 'When I'm 64', What Goes On', 'I'll Follow the Sun', 'Hello Little Girl', 'Like Dreamers Do', 'Love of the Loved' (the song that indirectly led them to EMI and George Martin), 'Cry for a Shadow' (aka: "Beatle Bop", and written by George and John), 'Pinwheel Twist' (Paul's attempt to match the 'Twist' craze dominating the pop scene in 1962), and many more. Paul said in 1962 that he and John had written 100 songs, almost surely an exaggeration. But they had written or worked on a lot. The real wonder of it was that George Martin was so deaf on his first meeting with them in June 1962 that he didn't rate their original songs (nor did he in September).

    1. - "George Harrison not even beginning to look up to his «elders»"

      I know you're a George fan, but I think this comment is inaccurately infantilizing him. George is essentially the same age as Paul, and both of them were "under" John up to this period. George was easily the best guitarist in the Beatles at this point, and was there from the beginning, just as John and Paul were. As songwriting wasn't really a 'professional' thing yet, George was not really at all a junior member of The Beatles here. On stage, he sang as many songs as Paul and John.

      - "Please Please Me represents the tender infancy of the Beatles"

      Well, I don't think so. The 'tender innocence' might more accurately be the Liverpool recordings from the late 50s. By 1963, The Beatles had had 1,110 hours on stage in Hamburg (equivalent to 740 ninety-minute concerts) and God-knows how many hours in Liverpool on top of that. They were the most experienced live rock band on the planet at the moment they made this album. They'd already record a number one hit and had toured with Little Richard and Gene Vincent.

      We could perhaps say that 'Please Please Me' (the album) represents the infancy of The Beatles' recording career.

      - "ʽAsk Me Whyʼ, which may be the worst Beatles original ever composed...the most fake song John ever wrote, trying to convey an atmosphere of care and tenderness of which he quite obviously knew nothing at the time"

      It's interesting that you apparently hate this song so much -- I'm quite fond of it, and I think most early-Beatles' fans are. The melody is very inventive, I think, with an interesting rhythm unlike their other songs at this time. The line "I can't conceive of any more misery" is pretty cool, using the word "conceive". This song was written, by John, in early 1962, and probably first played in April or May. It would seem to be a Smokey Robinson inspired tune. The song was actually first recorded in April 1962 (with Pete Best on drums) at The Beatles' first-ever session with Ron Richards and George Martin (none of the tracks recorded that day were issued).

      By the way, "Ask Me Why" was the first ever Lennon/McCartney song broadcast on British radio -- The Beatles played it live for BBC at the Playhouse Theatre in Manchester on June 11th, 1962, and it was broadcast four days later to about 1.8 million listeners.

      I think your comment that John Lennon "obviously" knew nothing of "care and tenderness" at the time is a little presumptuous. There is certainly a wealth of written evidence (like, 20-page letters he wrote to Cynthia) and eyewitness accounts (by people like Astrid Kircherr and others) to suggest that John had both a hard side and an extremely caring, sensitive side in his youth.

    2. - "stand out among dozens of technically similar compositions of 1962, and explains its rapid chart success (No. 17 on the UK charts at the time), achieved, by the way, without any serious marketing / promotional campaign."

      I'm not sure what you mean by "technically similar compositions". I wasn't there at the time, but the evidence seems to suggest that one reason "Love Me Do" took off and way-exceeded everyone's sales expectations for it is that it sounded really different from everything else on Brit-radio at the time. The harmonica alone made it different-sounding from anything any other British artist was doing (there had been Bruce Channel and "Hey Baby!").

      It's true that the record probably sold itself in Liverpool where their following (obviously) was, but it was promoted quite a bit in London and around the UK by a guy called Kim Bennett (real name: Tom Whippey).

      "Love Me Do" reached #17 on the Record Retailer chart, it's true, but it didn't reach that high on any of the other popular charts at the time (except for the Liverpool Echo's 'Liverpool's Own Top 5', where it was #1 for its first two weeks on sale). I believe it peaked at #27 on the NME chart, which was the most popular one and the one The Beatles themselves were most excited about.

      I'd really recommend listening to the (rather wonderful) Bootleg collections of The Beatles' BBC appearances. There's a fairly new collection of many discs, collecting the best quality of all their appearances (with brief interviews and such) currently doing the rounds on the 'Net. You really get a sense of what they were about from spring 1962 (the first performances for BBC still had Pete on drums) into mid-1963, before they starting taking celebrity and success for granted. What comes across is a terrific sense of 'togetherness', and a very strong group cohesion.

      For myself, 'Please Please Me' is the most enjoyable Beatles album of the first four. I hesitate to call it the "best", but I think it easily trumps the second album and has a fresher and more endlessly rewarding quality than albums two, three, or four. After all, it ends with 'Twist and Shout', which must be one of the three or four greatest rock'n'roll recordings ever made.

      Anyway, just some points to chew on. Love your blog. Keep it up!

  12. I'll second Regan's take on "Ask Me Why." This song showcases the Beatles idiosyncratic abilities for fashioning a beguiling pop tune that rests as much on the silences between the verses as the music itself, which is lovely to these ears.

    I'm presently re-reading Tim Riley's 1988"Tell Me Why" critical overview of the Beatles' discography, which pushes "Ask Me Why" as a harbinger of Lennon's skills in the songwriting department. He makes a good case for it, even if he oversells some of the other efforts. ("There's A Place" is one he thinks is even better than the Beach Boys' "In My Room;" I fall in line with your take here.) Interestingly, he avoids talking up "Twist And Shout" very much at all, which is pretty surprising given how much of a monument it is and was especially in 1988, just a year after it was re-introduced to the airwaves after being featured in the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

    However much it was covers-dependent, and not as much a product of a single-day's recording as we imagine it to be, "Please Please Me" is a solid and lasting collection of the pop music art that remains a totally pleasant listen all the way through. The songs are simpler than we would come to expect from these guys, but the spirit and energy are already locked in.

  13. I am back in a Beatles phase and re-reading your re-re-reviews. I enjoyed the old ones plenty, then the other ones too. But these are on a different level. These are the product of decades of thinking, and of enough writing that you're able to articulate your hard-won insights. It's Beatles analysis on a deep, deep level - new (well, as of 2012) insights into a band that nobody has anything novel to say about anymore. Well, on to With The Beatles...

    1. Thanks, Ben. Hopefully, this is the LAST time, though.