Monday, February 11, 2013

The Beatles' "Please Please Me" after 50 (!) Years: An Appreciation

"One, two, three, four." With these spoken words, Paul McCartney not only introduced "I Saw Her Standing There," the stirring opening number to the Beatles' debut UK album; he, for all intents and purposes, announced a new, thrilling era in the annals of Western popular music. Despite some exceptions (Roy Orbison and the "girl groups" associated with Phil Spector's Philles Records), popular music had languished in a treacly stupor ever since the induction of Elvis Presley into the Army in 1958, the death of Buddy Holly in February of 1959, and the arrest and imprisonment, later that year, of rock 'n roll's greatest pioneer, Chuck Berry, for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for "immoral purposes." The Beatles, single-handedly, reversed this trend. Indeed, the "Beatlemania" that swept the UK in 1963 and America in 1964 was the opening salvo of the "British Invasion" that revolutionized rock music and, through the work of such potent artists as the Rolling Stones, The Who, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, dominated the popular music scene for the next decade.

Paul, John, Ringo, and George in 1963

And the bulk of that debut album was recorded in a marathon 10-hour session fifty years ago to this day—a sobering thought to any aging baby boomer for whom the Beatles will always remain the standard bearers of youthful vitality. The four lads from Liverpool had already created a buzz with the release of two singles, "Love Me Do" in October of 1962 (eventually reaching #17 on the UK charts) and "Please Please Me" in January of 1963 (ultimately reaching #1 in February). In order to capitalize on the momentum generated by these records, producer George Martin had them come to EMI Studios in Abbey Road to record what amounted to the standard live set they were then performing at Liverpool's Cavern Club. The results were revolutionary. Their earliest singles, incorporated in the album, were competent: "Love Me Do" was an agreeable, if somewhat slight, pop-rock/R&B ditty written by McCartney back in 1958-59. "Please Please Me," written by Lennon, was better—a pop/rock 'n roll number incorporating the Fab Four's greatest strengths: an unmatched gift for catchy melodies and harmony singing. No other band, then or (especially) now, could do such songs the way the Beatles could.

Listening again to this album after 50 years, some of the 12 remaining songs can only be categorized as filler that now sound dated, despite their often-sappy agreeableness (e.g., "P.S. I Love You" and "A Taste of Honey"). Three songs, however, stand out as among the group's greatest songs. The first is the aforementioned opener, "I Saw Her Standing There." In many respects, this is a somewhat-standard Chuck Berry-style rocker dealing with adolescent infatuation. But the chorus still thrills in its use of a non-standard chordal progression toward resolution. And the attack! The unbridled enthusiasm of McCartney's Little Richard-style vocals (especially evident in the bridge) and Harrison's and Lennon's dual guitars was simply unparalleled in the popular music of their day. Even if, as I would argue, the Stones would later go on to become the greatest practitioners of traditional rock 'n roll, the fact remains that the Beatles provided the template for their success. In my view, this song remains the band's most sublime rock performance, and one of the greatest rock 'n roll numbers ever recorded by any artist.

The second great song is their faithful, exquisite cover of the Shirelles' Burt Bacharach-penned "Baby It's You" (see here; for the Shirelles' 1961 original recording, see here). The song speaks for itself. But what stands out is Lennon's vocal performance: sensitive and poignant, the rasp in the upper register displaying an emotional intensity devoid of the maudlin tendencies that often marred McCartney's performances of love songs. This song, more than any on the album, provides hints as to why, in my view, it was John who was the greatest Beatle.

The third and final classic number was the rousing finale, another cover, this time of the Isley Brothers' 1961 rock 'n roll classic, "Twist and Shout" (here; for the Isley Brothers' original, see here). Once again, Lennon's vocal performance stands out. The story is a well-known one. Lennon, on 11 February 1963, was suffering from a terrible cold, and so Martin waited to record "Twist and Shout" last, fearing that the demands of the song would shred what remained of his vocal abilities and render him unable to sing on the other songs. When, after more than 9 hours, they finally got around to recording it, they did so in one take, which we still hear to this day. And what a marvelous take it was.

I leave you with a live performance of "Twist and Shout" from the Royal Variety Show in November of 1963. Lennon's marvelously cheeky introduction of the song (with the Queen Mum in attendance!) is almost as entertaining as the group's fine performance of the song itself: "For our last number, I'd like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you would just rattle your jewelry."

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