It’s one of the most exhilarating openers in the history of rock and roll. Usually, count-ins are left on the cutting room floor since they serve no purpose for the listener and are not actually part of the song, but who would even want to imagine “I Saw Her Standing There” without Paul McCartney’s “One, two, three, faah“? Even after all these years, that simple count-in is enough to get the blood flowing. All of the excitement and sheer joy that were hallmarks of the early Beatles are present in those two seconds before the actual music even begins. The fact that it directly leads into one of the greatest of all early Beatle songs is just icing on the cake.
The Please Please Me album was intended as a moneymaker, benefitting from the moderate success of the first Beatles single, “Love Me Do” and the huge success of the #1 followup, “Please Please Me.” In 1963 albums were done strictly to cash in on the success of singles, which was the primary market for music (strangely, much like it is again today in the world of iTunes). Most rock “albums” were dreadful affairs…a hit song or two surrounded by filler that was chosen by a band’s producer or manager. Maybe there would be a few original songs thrown into the mix (especially if you were a particularly good songwriter like Brian Wilson, Buddy Holly, or Chuck Berry), but an enormous amount of the material for these early rock albums were either covers of earlier hits or new material produced by professional songwriters. There are exceptions, of course. Elvis Presley’s first RCA album was simply killer, and Presley was good enough to bring something special to even the most mundane songs that were forced on him, but that was still the exception to the rule.
A quick cash-in was certainly EMI’s intention when they agreed to let the Beatles release a full-length LP. But the Beatles were different, and their producer, George Martin, was different, too. The Beatles were perfectionists and incredibly headstrong. There would be no covers of “Old Shep” or “Blue Moon” for them. It’s not that they disliked those songs, it’s simply that they felt those songs weren’t right for them.
One of the end results of this band personality was that the Beatles refused to do anything that they felt was second rate. There would be no quick cash-in LPs…each song must be as good as the single. They wanted their fans to have 14 songs of outstanding quality, rather than two great singles (four songs) and 10 pieces of filler. In this sense, the Beatles helped to invent the rock album. (In 1963 in America, Bob Dylan was making a similar argument which led to the flawless The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but he was still operating in a folk milieu.)
Please Please Me is not a great album when you compare it to what the Beatles would do later. When you compare it to what was being passed off as rock music in 1963, it was a lightning bolt straight to the heart of the Brill Building.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been writing plenty of songs, but the first album still contains many covers. The full blossoming of Lennon and McCartney’s brilliance was still to come. What this album provides the listener is the invaluable service of hearing what a typical set at The Cavern Club must have sounded like. Recorded in approximately 10 hours, Please Please Me is the Beatles racing through the best of their live show: roaring originals and smartly chosen covers of songs the band chose, not some record company or studio head.
After the opening cannon shot of “I Saw Her Standing There,” almost anything else would pale in comparison. “Misery” is a Lennon/McCartney original, and it’s a standard rock and roll number, circa 1963. The rhymes are simple, almost childish: “me/see/be/misery.” But even on this number the chorus soars when Lennon starts singing the ascending line “I’ll remember all the little things we’ve done,” enunciating each syllable as if the world depended on it, followed by a descending piano lick and the ascending “She’ll remember and she’ll miss her only one” and then the despondent tag of “lonely one.” Sure it’s an early song, and owes a great debt to Buddy Holly, but the voices lift the song over the somewhat flat music and transform it into a promise.
The songs the Beatles chose to cover were invariably well-chosen. One gets the feeling that they chose their covers not because they liked the songs, but because they felt they could bring something to the songs that hadn’t been heard before. Arthur Alexander’s “Anna (Go To Him)” has always been one of the great Beatle covers. Lennon’s voice is all pathos and the instrumentation is sublime. But here again, on the chorus when Lennon’s voice starts breaking against the rocks and McCartney and George Harrison start their wordless, Jordonaires-style backing vocals, the song becomes more than what the songwriter himself achieved.
From Carole King and Gerry Goffin comes “Chains” which features a harmony vocal on the chorus before George takes over for the verses. It’s a good number, but nothing special. But even here, the sound is extremely unusual for rock and roll because it sounds like an integrated group. This continues with “Boys,” a girl group number by The Cookies. Aside from the odd idea of a boy (Ringo Starr) singing about “boys/what a bundle of joy!” this is the fifth song on the record and the fourth lead singer. This idea of the “band” as a “group” is highlighted by Ringo’s exhortation “Alright, George!” before Harrison plays the guitar solo. What often goes unnoticed is that at this early stage, it can be credibly argued that Ringo’s homely singing voice is actually better suited for rock and roll raveups like “Boys” than George Harrison’s. Harrison later developed into a superb singer, but at this point his voice is all Liverpudlian teenage warbling. He seems unsure of himself, where Ringo is ready to just let fly.
They return to Lennon/McCartney originals with the “Please Please Me” single, starting with the B-side, “Ask Me Why.” It’s not a particularly good song, a bossa nova-style number with a solid, if unspectacular, hook. There’s a very real feel to the song in the vocals. Listen to Lennon’s voice crack when he tries to hit the high note on the “my happiness still makes me cry” line at 0:30. Throughout the song Lennon’s voice is, to be charitable, rough.
“Please Please Me” picks up the pace with one of the early examples of a great McCartney bass line pumping through the song, underlining Lennon’s blues-inspired harmonica, and the harmony vocals that raise the song above the ordinary. The lyrics are a cleverly disguised plea for oral sex, taking a subject that was certainly taboo on the radio and bringing it to #1 on the pop charts.
By the time the first Beatle single, “Love Me Do,” kicks off side two, it already sounds primitive. The lyrics are simplistic, on a par with any moon/June/spoon song, but the song contains a great harmonica solo and a captivating vocal tradeoff between Lennon on the verses and McCartney on the title of the song. There’s really nothing special about the song and if the Beatles had not gone on to be the Beatles, it’s likely that the song would have drifted into obscurity.
“P.S. I Love You” is McCartney’s tribute to Buddy Holly (“I love you/Peggy Sue”). It’s another slight song, but features really nice harmony vocals from Lennon and a very nice chorus. “Baby, It’s You” is a solid cover of a Burt Bacharach song. Clearly Bacharach was writing songs at a much higher level than Lennon and McCartney at this time. From a structural perspective, it’s one of the best songs on the album, and features a great Lennon vocal and one of those sublime George Harrison solos that mimics the melody.
Harrison takes another unconvincing lead vocal on “Do You Want To Know A Secret?” Lennon’s and McCartney’s “Doo dah doo” backing outshines the lead, and the song sounds pretty dated, but it’s still a fun listen with the band providing a sympathetic backing to Harrison’s scouse-infused vocals.
Strangely, “A Taste Of Honey” was one of my favorite Beatle songs when I was 10 or 11 years old. I’m not sure why I gravitated to this track, but the melody is superb and the vocals (McCartney on lead, Lennon on backing and harmony) are never less than excellent. The song had been kicking around England for a couple of years at that point, first as an instrumental and then with vocals, so when the Beatles recorded their version it was already on the charts.
“There’s A Place” is the final original track and it’s fascinating. The music is very straightforward and not all that interesting despite another solid bass line from McCartney, but the lyric is very unusual. Predating Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” by a few years, and predating the whole “transcendental meditation” craze by several years, here was Lennon singing about retreating into his own head: “There’s a place/Where I can go/When I feel low/When I feel blue/And it’s my mind.” That wouldn’t be all that out of place on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but it shows up here in 1963, tacked in between a pop standard and a cover of a popular dance tune.
It is this dance tune that provides one of the great highlights of the early Beatles. The movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off made this song into a hit again in the mid-1980s, and the Beatles Anthology film includes about a hundred live versions of this song so, for me at least, it’s a little overdone. But there’s no mistaking the raw power behind “Twist and Shout.” Coming at the end of the album, sung in one full take by a shirtless, raw-throated Lennon at the end of a grueling 10-hour recording session, “Twist and Shout” is less an invitation to dance than it is a blast of pre-punk aggro rock. The ascending backing vocals from McCartney and Harrison blend with Lennon’s howl, punctuated by great drum fills from Ringo, to create two and a half minutes of rock aggression, ending the album with the same tone with which it begins. Those final seconds, where the music comes crashing down and someone (Lennon? McCartney?) manages one last defiant “Yeah!”, nail the lid on the album, and also close the door on 1950s and early 1960s-style rock and roll music. Even here, though, it is worth comparing McCartney’s formalized raveup “I Saw Her Standing There” with Lennon’s primal transformation of an Isley Brothers song. While both songwriters would later prove more than capable of working in the other’s wheelhouse, the division between the more formal McCartney and the more anarchic Lennon was already in place.
Please Please Me is the sound of the Beatles working with their influences, supremely confident in their abilities as a band, but still somewhat unsure as songwriters. From this point on, the growth exhibited by the band would be unparalleled in modern music.