Friday, October 15, 2010

The Beatles: Please Please Me (1963)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Mark Lewisohn's been working on a full-scale, immaculately detailed, three-volume biography of the Beatles for the last five or six years; it emerged this past week that he is currently "up to Hamburg." In other words, he's still chronologically three years away from the band's debut album. Such is the status of the Beatles that their first LP barely qualifies now as a beginning; the religious converts, which in this band's case encompass much of the mainstream music audience, know that so much of the story that would have permanent impact on millions of lives, four in particular, had already occurred by February 11, 1963, the date on which most of Please Please Me was laid down. Approaching this audio document as an opening, thus dismissing with the galvanizing places -- The Reeperbahn, Liverpool, Penny Lane, The Cavern, etc. -- and people -- Astrid Kirchher, Stuart Sutcliffe, Allan Williams, Pete Best, Tony Sheridan -- touched in the prior years, seems inherently false and inaccurate because of how much we've been conditioned to the Beatles' endlessly fascinating history.

To an extent, that's a good thing, but maybe we should scale back a bit and try to view Please Please Me from the perspective that is most relevant to the majority of us and our parents, maybe even grandparents. From the outside, there were no predecessors, no signals, no avant garde-bent crowds in Germany whispering that these boys were going somewhere, no girls screaming over their secret thrill at the Caven Club. In most of the UK as of March 1963, the Beatles were just a serviceable pop group who'd done their country proud with a big hit in the form of this record's title track, now followed by the inevitable Album of the Same Name, surely for the label to cash-in on the fast fade of the pop throne. If it was unusual to discover how much of the record consisted of original compositions (over half, although four of them had already been released as 45's), it was surely bracing to lay the heavy needle down and discover an explosion like this.

It was all different in the U.S., where American fans often grew up thinking of Meet the Beatles! -- mostly derived from the band's actual second album, With the Beatles -- as the initial bow. That's a thunderous record, sure, and deservedly celebrated, but to hear Please Please Me is to hear the full story of lightning striking out of a portrait of stately, respectable normalcy. Insanity met the Beatles when they landed in America, but in Great Britain, their prowess and success grew out of something like an actual Establishment, and that is what makes this album subversive.

Paul McCartney's barking count that opens "I Saw Her Standing There" could never be anything but the start of something huge. He roars through the first three lines of the song, accompanied by handclaps, John Lennon's smirking rhythm guitar and breakneck drumming from Ringo Starr, and twenty seconds in, something happens, a ruthless drum fill, and a sound that already threatened to make the rest of the world spontaneously combust becomes outrageous. The powerful, melodic bass line, the relentlessly rising melody, and robust, mischievous songcraft remain stunning, and in 1963 must have been a compelling indicator of how much different things were going to be with this band than all rock & roll prior.

But not the first. Greil Marcus has written that, in America, the Beatles made everything else on the radio in 1964 sound "faintly stupid." In terms of the UK's output of rock & roll, which ironically would soon be overflowing with innovation and talent, Please Please Me must have been even more of a bullet-force scream against the tedium. Of course they had antecedents; Buddy Holly is everywhere, Chuck Berry is nearly to the same extent, and the Everly Brothers serve as the clear inspiration for the song that made them a Force. But the first incarnation of the Beatles dates to the dawn of rock & roll; who was more equipped to further the invention than a creative entity that had existed from the beginning?

Discounting their work with Tony Sheridan in Germany, the Beatles' first commercial release was the Parlophone 45 "Love Me Do" b/w "P.S. I Love You." Both songs are included here, "Love Me Do" in a brighter alternate take with Andy White on drums (Ringo on tambourine). As infectious and funky as even this origin is, their second single "Please Please Me" is the one that sold the UK public on the Liverpudlians. The improvement is startling; it's largely sheer force, but also composition. Copping a lively "Cathy's Clown"-like arrangement but without the desperation, the song has size and swagger, and John Lennon's first released lead vocal already feels wonderfully lost in a moment. Even the clever, eloquently developed lyric is a vast improvement. And the hooks are immersive -- who can deny the almost big band-like guitar lick after each line of the verse? "Last night I said these words to my girl..." badum badum badadadada. It's the first taste of Beatles magic.

Yet, that was the sound of the band putting on their best face for a new audience. The real identity of the group lies in the raw crunch and grind of "I Saw Her Standing There" and that direct-from-Hamburg drumfill and glide into the first chorus. That is undoctored, un-gentle rock & roll, the noise and product of working musicians, for whom this was actual l-i-f-e. From that second, the most intense, exciting debut album ever made refuses to let up. The band that cut its teeth on impossibly fierce audiences in Germany rips through fourteen songs -- a mixture of their originals and a delightful set of favorites -- as if they will never even wake up the next day to see what the future will bring. The future is just irrelevant here, and even forty years later, all you know with Please Please Me on the speakers is that it's not happening in 1963, it's happening now.

If With the Beatles is the album that exposes their intensity (as if this didn't do plenty of that), A Hard Day's Night is the birth of John Lennon the singer-songwriter genius, and Beatles for Sale the moody sound of maturing, Please Please Me is the inside-out exploration of the group's dynamic, and their arresting spontaneity. That an album recorded in the space of a few hours remains as remarkable as other Beatles LPs that were months in the making says enough about their effortless bombast, their assurance and their complete love for and devotion to what they did.

The personalities are already in place. Paul, with his eclectic bass playing lighting up the proceedings, is the gruff balladeer; his b-side "P.S. I Love You" slows down the album a bit and is the kind of thing they'd soon start leaving off their LPs, but he strains nowhere else. Even on the oddball version of "A Taste of Honey," his enthusiasm leaves the amusingly tired backing of the other ones in the dust. His vocal is mannered but impassioned, and the workmanlike performance only enhances the smoky jazz-club feeling conjured up by George Martin with crude but evocative echo. But only on "I Saw Her Standing There" does Paul really get to cut loose. It's new recruit Ringo Starr who gets the floor on the wildest, most unorthodox cut, the killer Shirelles cover "Boys," not so much homoerotic as simply a shockingly bold song for straight men to sing in 1963, which lends it a defiant liveliness today and provides a welcome glimpse at the juggernaut force of the Beatles as a live band in those days.

George Harrison is given the least inspiring numbers to sing, but they still work. "Chains" is an extremely, somewhat admirably obscure girl-group number, showing impeccable taste on the Beatles' part in niche product. John Lennon's "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" is a sweeter, more personal number than it might initially seem -- based on childhood memories of a rerelease of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to which his late mother Julia took him -- but the Roy Orbison-like emotional drama of the intro and the carefully paced, playful chorus are slightly ill-suited to Harrison's voice, although the song was a big hit when inexplicably released as a single in America. The song itself is yet another early Lennon/McCartney triumph, the melody and chords sideways and intriguing, as they consistently would be in the first half of the band's Parlophone output. No matter anyway; Harrison's great shining achievement is that impossibly loud but infinitely heartfelt guitar solo on "Baby It's You," a perfect complement to an arresting love song.

Throughout the album and, in fact, particularly on "Secret," George Martin's attentive production is nothing but an asset... and not just for his lovely piano bit on "Misery." He seems to understand precisely what it is about the group that must be captured, and throws its emphasis to the forefront. Every note feels so convicted and undoctored that whether you listen to the mono (ideal) or stereo (better than reputed) mix, you feel as though you are in the studio. You can hear the walls and the ceiling and the floor and you can sense the pregnancy of the moment, that beginning suggested so eloquently by the opening "one, two, three, four!"

Even if Martin is owed a great deal for how he puts all this (and every subsequent Beatles record) together, and even if Paul McCartney is the most versatile band member at this stage in terms of his musicianship, John Lennon is the star of the album. His songwriting already displays a maturity and intelligence above and beyond his peers and even his idols, well before his discovery of Bob Dylan and well before rivals from Mick Jagger to Brian Wilson approached their peaks. Take "Ask Me Why," the most John-centric of the first four Beatles songs released. It's startlingly vulnerable, a more confessional piece of work than one could reasonably have expected from a rock & roller up to now; Orbison remains a key inspiration, but how much did even he look straight into his soul to his extent? I don't know many times Lennon sings "cry" here, but it's a lot, and when at one point his voice cracks under the weight of the word, it's as telling a microcosm of the seventeen years remaining in his professional career as could be devised.

There are several fine ballads on this record, some written by Beatles and some not, but "Misery" and "Ask Me Why" are a class apart. "Misery" is a compression and furthering of pop conventions dating back to before Lennon was born, beginning with an addictive hook and just bounding until it exhausts itself. It has a full but effortless sound, almost prototypical power pop. And "Ask Me Why" is John Lennon's idea of a slow burn; amidst vaguely jazzy chords and subtle but profoundingly expert writing, he lays it all out. The naked emotion and honest confusion of these lyrics is remarkable, and Lennon's enigma is in place from the beginning. He already seems so observant, angry, and vocal, like the kind of person you observe from a distance in a crowded room. His singing is dynamic, and on his numbers, even the (absolutely outstanding) Shirelles cover "Baby It's You," he seems to come from a different and separate, somehow more pained, place than the others, which only reinforces the power of the band behind him. He proves himself a master interpreter: "Anna" is a fine old Arthur Alexander obscurity, but John's pained, urgent vocals make it no one's but his own -- the pain belongs to him. All of the slow ones, but John's in particular, have a propulsion and sadness that never allows them to cloy. They sit comfortably alongside the rockers and even deepen and enhance them.

It's on the last two cuts, though, that Lennon truly makes his intentions known. "There's a Place" is the album's best original, and one of the finest songs of the early '60s. A case can easily be made that the Beatles and Lennon never actually topped this explosive cut, its message of insecurity and alienation so well-expressed so concisely. The band's precision is clean but unforced, and on a song this darkly universal, faintly hopeful, it's easy to see how they became so easily embraced as a generation's "voice," but perversely, the song's power today comes from its note of privacy and isolation (a sibling of sorts to the Beach Boys' "In My Room"). It is innovative both for its unstoppable, loud exuberance and for its deeply introspective lyric, and particularly for the fact that the two elements are matched. The song is so splendid it could only be followed by something like "Twist and Shout," something that could raise the hackles of the most seasoned rock & roll veteran.

There is a kind of vocal in rock music, a kind exhibited frequently by the likes of James Brown and perhaps Otis Redding. There is no word for it but it occurs to an almost frightening degree when a performer is so enraptured and enclosed in the world of the song he is playing that he loses all the reins on his voice until it seems as if the song is a demon that most be exorcised from his soul. "Twist and Shout," a rather mild Isley Brothers song, becomes in Lennon's hand a bloodcurdling, insane bullet train of beautiful noise. All the while, as John is lost more and more in the world of his voice, as his screams become less tuneful and more unearthly, the backup singing of the others retains its deadpan machismo, keeping us grounded in a world that is increasingly difficult to sense in the ripping vocal chords of the frontman. The trick would be employed later in the Velvet Underground's "I Heard Her Call My Name," but Lou Reed never sang like this. No one did.

The Beatles did not become legendary, at least initially, because they sang nifty pop songs and appealed to everyone of all ages. They became what they were because they were dangerous and dirty, Buddy Holly and Elvis and Little Richard times a thousand. Brian Epstein did his best to hide this for commercial interests, but you could still hear it in 1963 if you listened hard enough. Now, the cultivation of Beatles style as universal fact of our time, and the band members' rise to virtual ambassadors for Western civilization has further obscured the edginess and concealed sexuality of their initial genius. The gateway is the songs. They would, of course, Change the World and this and that in years to come. But they would never top their first four albums for songcraft, invention, passion, raw power. You want to hear why the Beatles matter, forget (for a moment, at least) the albums VH1 talks about and return to the songs that made teenaged girls scream their heads off. They knew what they were doing, and they were better at it than anyone. Please Please Me is revolution in a long, dirty day.

[Editorial Note: This is a revision and expansion of a review I wrote and posted on my old website in 2003.]

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