In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we take a look at The Beatles’ debut LP, Please Please Me.
“The Beatles adopt a do-it-yourself approach from the very beginning. They write their own lyrics, design and eventually build their own instrumental backdrops and work out their own vocal arrangements. Their music is wild, pungent, hard-hitting, uinhibited… and personal.”
The above gem comes from the liner notes to The Beatles’ Please Please Me, which turned 50 this past weekend. There are so many things that The Beatles are remembered for, chief among them an unmatched catalog of songs. There have been way too many bands to count that started in The Beatles’ wake, and it’s likely that most of them write their own lyrics, as well as “design their own instrumental backdrops” (i.e. compose their own music) and work out their own vocal arrangements. But before the Fab Four, this wasn’t the norm.
Later in the liner notes, Beatles press officer Tony Barrow writes, “Their own built-in tune-smith team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney has already tucked away enough self-penned numbers to maintain a steady output of all-original singles from now until 1975!” It’s hard to read that bit without a feeling pang of regret.
Another thing that wasn’t the norm back then: Spending years, months or even weeks in the studio making a pop album. Please Please Me was famously recorded in a 10-hour session. These days, it could take exponentially longer than 10 hours just to get a drum sound. So credit producer George Martin – these days, that’s Sir George Martin to you – for producing a world-changing bit of music in less than half a day. Indeed, BBC Four recently shot 12 Hours To Please Me, a TV documentary in which a number of British acts (including Joss Stone, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, Paul Carrack and Mick Hucknall of Simply Red) attempted to re-record all the songs on the album in 12 hours (they succeeded in this). Today, it’s the premise for a reality show, but back then, it was simply what the budget allowed for.
The band was absorbing influences from all over the map. They loved R&B (covering Arthur Alexander’s “Anna” and The Isley Brothers’ “Twist And Shout”), the girl group sound (they did two songs by The Shirelles: “Boys” and the Burt Bacharach-penned “Baby It’s You” as well as the Carole King song written for The Cookies “Chains”), and pop (“A Taste Of Honey,” “Misery,” “Do You Want To Know A Secret”). And while rock and roll was cited for the fall of dancehall music in England, that surely wasn’t the Beatles’ intent. Songs like “Ask Me Why” and “P.S. I Love You” aren’t that far from pre-war pop — a genre that McCartney revisited on his 2012 album, Kisses On The Bottom.
So, that’s a bit of the context of the album – of course, you can talk forever about the album’s place in history and its impact. But how does it sound, a half century later? Certainly it sounds like a product of the early rock and roll era, but that said, it holds up incredibly well. There are no recordings of the Beatles’ early Cavern Club gigs in decent fidelity; if you weren’t hip enough to be in the pubs that they were playing in their early days, sorry, you missed hearing the band in four-on-the-floor garage rock mode. This album is as close as you’ll get to hearing that incarnation of the band. And all these years later, with metal, punk, hip-hop and electronic dance music having made faster, louder, angrier and more distorted music, it’s hard to remember that, in 1963, “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and (especially) “Twist And Shout” really kicked ass. The fact that those songs existed alongside such tender songs as “P.S. I Love You” and “Do You Want To Know A Secret” only hinted at the diversity that the group would display in the years to come. And even then, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were passing the mic to George Harrison (who sang “Chains” and “Do You Want To Know A Secret”) and Ringo Starr (“Boys”).
Also from Barrow’s liner notes: “Disc reviewing, like disc producing, teaches one to be wary about making long-term predictions. The hit parade [i.e. Billboard chart] isn’t always dominated by the most worthy performances of the day…”
But it’s nice to remember that, for The Beatles and Please Please Me, it was. Only two songs on this album made 1962-1966, the definitive best-of of the band’s early era (also known as The Red Album). But don’t cheat yourself: There’s way more to the album than “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do.” From some of their greatest covers (“Chains,” “Boys”) to their (relatively) lesser known songs (“There’s A Place,” “Ask Me Why”), this is a classic album that holds up to repeated listening, a half century on.
– Brian Ives, Radio.com