“Their first album, Please Rut Me, was made in twenty minutes. Their second took even longer. Success was only a drum-beat away.” – The Rutles
Please Please Me is an album that I’ve only experienced in mono – apart from the title track, which I knew in stereo before I got my mono vinyl copy of this album back in the early 90s. Many people will be having the reverse of the shock I got then, when they listen to their new stereo CDs and realise that the stereo and mono mixes of that track are actually different performances (I think the stereo mix actually edits together two different takes – the difference is most noticeable on the line “why do you make me blue?”)
What’s oddest about this album in retrospect is how much it’s Lennon’s album. At this point the songwriting credits for the Lennon/McCartney partnership were still McCartney/Lennon, and McCartney was viewed by George Martin as the obvious ‘frontman’ of the group (he took lead vocals on both sides of the band’s debut single), yet here Lennon gets seven lead vocals (and wrote Do You Want To Know A Secret?, which Harrison sang) to McCartney’s four.
Possibly this was because the album was made in a rush – other than the four songs that had been on previously-released singles, the other ten tracks on the album were recorded in a ten hour period – and so the band (who still at this point regarded Lennon as the ‘leader’) would have fallen back to the songs that were regulars in their live performances – but then, if you look at the tracklisting of the Star Club live album, recorded just over a month before, only four of these songs were in the set, two of them McCartney tracks. It may also be, though, that Martin had changed his mind for the time about who the ‘leader’ was, after McCartney’s Love Me Do/P.S. I Love You had got to number 17 while Lennon’s Please Please Me/Ask Me Why had reached number one.
Either way, this dominance – which Lennon would only achieve once more, on A Hard Day’s Night – was all the odder for the fact that Lennon had a terrible cold on the day the album was recorded, and was having clear problems with pitching on the day. Luckily, even at 22, Lennon was already an experienced enough vocalist that he could turn this to his advantage, and he manages through sheer willpower to turn in some of the best vocals that had ever been heard on a British record to that point.
In particular, praise must go to his take on Anna, the Arthur Alexander song. Ian MacDonald, in Revolution In The Head, describes this as sounding like a youth singing a man’s song, which just goes to show that even MacDonald could have a tin ear. Alexander and Lennon have very different takes on the song – Alexander being more resigned, the key phrase in his version being the repeated ‘go with him’ of the chorus, while for Lennon the key phrase is the practically-screamed “what am I supposed to do?” of the middle eight – but good as Alexander is (and he is extraordinarily good, one of those figures like James Carr who deserve much wider recognition) Lennon just has the edge.
The only time where Lennon’s vocal is let down by his cold is There’s A Place – which is a shame, as it’s one of his best early songs (McCartney claims this one as a straight co-write, suggested by himself based on Bernstein’s “There’s A Place For Us”. This may well be the case, but the finished product has far more of Lennon’s fingerprints than McCartney’s, from the harmony vocals throughout, to the pensive mood of the lyric, to the harmonica part).
On the other hand, his vocal on Twist And Shout is, without a doubt, one of those defining performances that comes along maybe once a decade. Recorded last thing, at the end of a long day, because they knew his voice wouldn’t stand up after this song, you can *hear* him damaging his vocal cords to get the performance out, but backed by an amazing performance by the rest of the band – taut and wiry where the Isley’s original had been loose and swinging – this is the performance where ‘rock’ (as opposed to ‘rock and roll’) is invented.
Lennon also wrote the bulk of the original material on here, from the Roy Orbison pastiche turned uptempo pop song Please Please Me to the Miracles-esque Ask Me Why (with its lovely turnabout in the middle eight – “I can’t conceive of any more misery”). Not all of it is great, but it’s promising.
That said, McCartney does write three songs here – the first single Love Me Do, its B-side P.S. I Love You (quite possibly the worst thing the Beatles ever did – not just bad, but *lazy*), and (the only indicator of his future greatness) I Saw Her Standing There, which opens the album in as much style as Twist And Shout closes it. (It feels like I’ve sold McCartney short on this album, but he’s just not really a presence yet – he really comes into his own from Help! onwards, though he’s more noticeable on all the albums after this one).
At this point, neither George or RIngo could actually sing – George’s vocals on Chains and Do You Want To Know A Secret are those of an adenoidal adolescent, while Ringo just bellows cheerfully on Boys. Both would get better (Ringo less so than George).
What is very obvious here, though, is that the Beatles were music lovers. The cover versions here were all (with the exception of A Taste Of Honey) of black American music, all soul music and girl groups – two songs by the Shirelles, and one each by the Cookies, the Isley Brothers and Arthur Alexander. I’ve seen people recently saying that the Beatles were just doing ‘obvious Motown covers’ at this point, but these records were largely unknown at the time – certainly in Britain, but even in the US.
But the thing that’s obvious from listening to the originals – and the key to their success – is that the band weren’t *just* listening to soul music. If they were, they’d have been the Rolling Stones. But they were taking from *everywhere*. Yes, John tries to do the Miracles in Ask Me Why, but he also borrows from Roy Orbison (Please Please Me) Bernstein and Sondheim (There’s A Place) and Disney songs (Do You Want To Know A Secret?). I Saw Her Standing There is Chuck Berry’s Little Queenie with the serial number filed off, Lennon’s harmonica style comes straight from Hey Baby by Bruce Channel, Lennon’s vocals owe far more to Buddy Holly than most people realise (listen to Holly’s eponymous album – his only solo one released in his lifetime – and you’ll realise just how similar the two were), George Harrison’s guitar is Carl Perkins, the harmonies are the Everlys…
This is a band that had listened to and absorbed every record they could get their hands on, and learned from all of them. The Beatles, like all great musicians, were syncretists – taking elements from every possible style and genre and adding them to their own style. Which is one reason it’s so sad that many musicians who claim the Beatles as role models have such a limited range of musical influences, often involving only groups of four white men with guitars.
As for the remastering, as this was the most primitive of the recordings, being recorded essentially live on two-track tape, it’s also the one improved least by modern technology. That said, the sound here is a lot clearer than on previous releases – the reverb on Lennon’s voice on Ask Me Why is more audible, for example, and as on all the albums there’s a general improved bass response, as well as greater separation of the vocals and instruments. Overall a *lot* of improvement can be found – like being able to distinguish Lennon and Harrison’s guitars from each other in Chains, even when they’re playing the same part – but they’re subtle differences, not the massive eye-openers of some of the later albums.
At times, this can almost be as much a curse as a blessing – Starr’s brushwork always marred A Taste Of Honey for me, sounding more like tape hiss than an actual instrument (one of the few bits of genuinely bad drumming from Ringo, and more a lapse of taste than of ability), and here it’s even more noticeable. And the missed notes (mostly from Lennon, because of his cold), fluffed backing vocal lyrics and general roughness are all more noticeable now.
But that’s also part of the appeal. Nothing like this would *ever* get released today. My band’s last EP took several times as long to record as this full album, used 64-track digital recording and partly pre-programmed music, and *still* sounds vaguely sloppy and ‘unprofessional’ compared to the mechanical, auto-tuned, compressed-to-death output of almost everyone at the moment, because we only had a budget of what Tilt and I could afford to pay.
The progress of recording technology – in large part spurred by the Beatles themselves – has rendered this kind of recording almost as obsolete as illuminated manuscripts, but the result has been that recorded music has lost a lot of character. This is an album made by humans – the occasional fluffs make it all the more impressive that, for the VAST majority of the time, they get it so very right.
This is the Beatles album recorded before ‘Beatles album’ meant something, and as such is effectively the work of a different band from all the rest of them. And much as I love Revolver and Rubber Soul and Abbey Road and Help!, while I’m listening to this I can’t help but wish that this band had made a few more albums, too…