THE BEATLES: PLEASE PLEASE ME (1963)
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.
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