Album: Please Please Me
Released: 22 March 1963
Let’s start with some interesting facts:
1. Photographer Angus McBean, who had previously worked on comedy record covers, took the famous picture in the stairwell of the old EMI house in Manchester Square on 5 March after an unsatisfactory session with photographer John Dove. Dove’s ideas were very typical of the day: standing on stairs, corny dance poses, arty ground-view shots. McBean’s iconic shot was quite different from the norm, especially for a debut album.
2. Four songs already recorded as singles made their presence known here, the A and B sides mirroring each other (the “Please Please Me” single in reverse order and ending Side A, the “Love Me Do” single in its right order, starting Side B). This running order is quite uncommon for the time, considering most pop albums would have the hit songs starting Side A, so the average listener would hear the hit song right off the bat.
3. The remaining ten tracks (plus an eleventh unused track, “Hold Me Tight”, which would be rerecorded and released on their second album) recorded for this album were all done on 11 February in 585 minutes (roughly ten hours, not including breaks, and not including two extraneous overdubs by George Martin), for the princely sum of four hundred pounds. And John Lennon had a heavy cold at the time.
Mind you, recording an album in a day was typical for the time, but it was quite rare for every single track to be up to snuff–more often than not, a pop singer’s album would contain two or three hit songs and the rest would truly be filler: half-baked songs and throwaways that were recorded to pad the playing time. Added to that, eight out of the fourteen tracks were written by the band themselves, with only six covers used.
Granted, even though their recorded output at this point was exactly three singles, they were by no means amateurs. The band was ridiculously busy at this point, playing shows nearly every single day for about two and a half years straight, sometimes double shows (one afternoon, one evening). This was the price they paid for wanting to be famous pop stars, and they weren’t going to be lazy about it. They wrote and jammed in between shows, on tour buses, on days off, whenever. Thanks to the unflagging loyalty and relentless work of Brian Epstein in managing their tours and recording time, the band could solely focus on what they did best: the music itself.
Track 1: I Saw Her Standing There
…and what a great way to start an album! George Martin had understood they were primarily still a live band at this time, so he’d decided to keep the excited count-in (very rare in studio tracks back then) nicked from Take 9 (which you can hear on 1995’s “Free As a Bird” single) and edited onto Take 1. The song itself, a great party rocker written by Paul and aided by John, is one hell of a great opening track for an album, especially when it’s not the big single of the moment. It’s a love song, but it’s also a love song for the excitable British youth of the era–Paul’s not meeting a girl on the street or in a quiet parlor…he’s catching a girl’s eye on a crowded dance floor and falling in love instantly. This is exactly why, when the song was released in the US as a single at the end of 1963, it would be the main catalyst for Beatlemania in America. It provided the kids exactly what they wanted to hear.
Track 2: Misery
This one’s interesting, in that they’d specifically written it for Helen Shapiro, who they’d been touring with for the last few weeks on a package deal, and was about to record a country album in Nashville. However, Shapiro’s manager nixed the idea, and the song ended up in Kenny Lynch’s hands–Lynch was a well-known actor/singer in Britain who was part of the Helen Shapiro tour (and interestingly enough, he later ended up on Paul’s Band on the Run album cover…he’s the guy right behind Paul, grabbing the shirt of the guy behind him). Lynch’s version ended up being the first Beatles song to be covered by someone else. John and Paul both admit this is a space-filler song for the album, considering it was for someone else, but they don’t waste it. The vocals have strong delivery, and the playing is tight. It’s also one of the first Beatles songs where George Martin features as a session musician, offering the piano opening.
Track 3: Anna (Go to Him)
The second song recorded during the third session of the day, and you can hear John’s voice starting to crack ever so slightly here from strain. This is pretty much a straight cover of Arthur Alexander’s original, right down to Ringo’s drumming; the single had come out in late 1962 on Dot Records, so it’s most likely that this was another in the Beatles’ recent live repertoire of obscure American singles. Despite all that, it’s a strong cover that captures the desperation of Alexander’s, right down to the the pleading middle eight.
Track 4: Chains
The first of two George-sung songs on the album. This Goffin/King composition was a hit for Little Eva’s backup singers, The Cookies. Though this is another spot-on cover and a filler, the Beatles loved it for the three-part harmony. It was covers like this that inspired harmony in future songs of their own such as “She Loves You” and “Nowhere Man”. This song seems just a touch above George’s range, as he tends to reach a bit on the higher notes and thus sounds ever so slightly flat, but for a vocal debut, it works well.
Track 5: Boys
Even Ringo was given a lead vocal now and again, often simple songs to fit his minimal range. This cover of a Shirelles b-side is definitely a live staple and a crowd pleaser (and one to let the other three rest their voices a bit). Unlike most gender-switching covers, however, the band only changed the pronouns in a few verses (from “my” to “her”) and the rest of the track is another nearly spot-on cover, with George soloing where the original’s sax solo resides.
Track 6: Ask Me Why
It’s interesting to hear this and the next few tracks within the context of the rest of this album, for a few reasons. First of all, John’s voice is obviously cold-free here and a lot stronger. And while I felt it was kind of a weak song and understandably relegated to the b-side of “Please Please Me”, it fits really well in the middle of this album. Stylistically it’s very similar to the other mid-tempo songs here like “Do You Want to Know a Secret”, and is a good segue between the raucous “Boys” and the poppy “Please Please Me”.
Track 7: Please Please Me
Again, I find it quite fascinating that the current single on the charts at the time was planted right here in the middle, and at the end of the first side. This was part of George Martin’s plan, to sequence the album as if it were a live show: don’t put the big hits at the beginning, because everyone will walk away after you play them–put the hits in the middle so they have to wait, but not for too long.
Track 1: Love Me Do
This is the re-recorded version with Ringo on tambourine and session player Andy White on drums. Again, context plays here: its sparse, countryish style is quite different from the rest of the songs on the album, but not enough for it to stand out like a sore thumb. It’s contained here mainly to say “you remember this from six months ago? Well, here they are, and they sound even better!”
Track 2: P.S. I Love You
Again, one of my favorite tracks of their early career, and one of Paul’s best early songs. Compare this track to “A Taste of Honey” and “Baby It’s You”, and you can see how deftly Paul can pick up on a musical style. And as with “Ask Me Why”, this track works okay as a single, but works even better as an album track.
Track 3: Baby It’s You
The next-to-last song recorded that day, and John’s voice is really starting to waver here. Another Shirelles cover, it’s another live staple and filler. Paul and George (with a bit of John) provides backup vocals, but it’s mainly John here, delivering a very Motown-esque vocal. Listening to these tracks in chronologically-recorded order, you can hear the band are a bit tired here (this was most likely somewhere around Hour Nine in the session), but despite that, they deliver the goods.
Track 4: Do You Want to Know a Secret
This was written primarily by John and inspired by “I’m Wishing” from Disney’s Snow White, a track John knew from his childhood. He turned it into a simple “I’m falling in love with you” track, specifically for George to sing. At the time, George was not much of a songwriter, but he was often given equal stage time for his vocal abilities. In these early days, his singing voice had a gruff tone–you can hear more of that Liverpudlian accent than with the other two. It’s not as strong as John’s or as dead-on as Paul’s, but it’s unique and it works well here.
Track 5: A Taste of Honey
The first track for the band’s afternoon session that day. The song was written originally as an instrumental for the Broadway version of the Shelagh Delaney play of the same name. It was given lyrics soon after and recorded by Lenny Welch, who released it as a single in late 1962. It was most likely this version that the Beatles knew and copied, as theirs is close to the original. There’s some lovely guitar work here from George, who calmly plucks the strings during the verses and strums the chorus. John, Paul and George get some nice harmonies in there on the title phrase (and the “doo-doo-dn-doo”). Even Ringo’s quite restrained brush playing is perfect. One of my favorite bits in any Beatles song is in the “I will return” refrains here…Martin gave Paul some heavy echo to emulate the poor soul walking away, hands stuffed in pockets and sad to be leaving, and it works brilliantly. Added to that, we’re given a tiny speck of hope at the end, when the B minor-to-F# minor riff repeats only to finally land on F# major instead. Maybe he really will return…
Track 6: There’s a Place
Though this is the next-to-last track on the album, it was the first track they’d attempted to record that day, with ten takes. John uses the harmonica sparingly here, but it’s an interesting use, with the first note of the melody being a dissonant E-flat, echoing the song’s personal sadness. It’s a John and Paul song from start to finish, sharing harmonized vocals throughout. George makes a minor vocal appearance with harmony on the chorus.
Track 7: Twist and Shout
…and how else could they end the album, but with their showstopper? Originally a throwaway dance track by Philly band The Top Notes in 1961, it was soon covered with great success by the Isley Brothers in late 1962, and the Isleys’ party-shaking performance is obviously the one that the Beatles decided to emulate. This was their live set closing number, the one to go out with a bang, and after a brief bit of debate and argument down in the Abbey Road canteen, it was decided as the last song to record. John’s voice is quite audibly in shreds at this time, so they had to get it right the first time (a second complete take was attempted but quickly aborted when it was obvious he just didn’t have any voice left). Despite the obviously painful vocal delivery, they nailed it flawlessly, and it remains one of the bands’ best known and loved songs of the early era.
This obviously was not your typical debut album of the early sixties. This was a band purely dedicated to their craft and a love of music. You can hear signs of their trademark sound right from the beginning–the harmonies, the boundless energy, the unique songwriting ability, even the clever way John and Paul played off each other. It was an instant hit in the UK, and stayed in the charts for weeks, where it finally got chased off by…their second album, With the Beatles.
And yet in the US…Capitol Records didn’t care for it at first. Obviously their parent distributor, EMI, thought quite well of the band, but the US were slow to catch up. For most of 1963 in America, Capitol passed on their early output, leaving Epstein to broker a deal with low-budget label Vee Jay for the album. Even then, a legal delay caused it not to be released until January 1964, one full week behind Meet the Beatles, when Capitol finally jumped on the bandwagon. And to add insult to injury, Vee Jay capitalized on their license by releasing the same album (or songs from it) under at least four different titles. Even the band’s singles before “I Saw Her Standing There” languished on small labels like Swan and Tollie. Capitol would finally buy out the license in 1965, “officially” releasing the songs under the title The Early Beatles. It wasn’t until the CD releases in 1987 that the US finally saw Please Please Me as it ought to be.
Mind you, the album wasn’t even out yet and they were already working on their next single.
Next up: “From Me to You”/”Thank You Girl” single