Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Please Please Me (1962-63)


RECOMMENDED [grade reflects the unreleased material only; the album itself, reviewed elsewhere, is graded A+]

The first in Purple Chick's series of unofficial "deluxe editions" of the Beatles albums sets the stage for those to follow, although it's by some distance the shortest of these collections. As quickly becomes standard, it opens with the stereo version of the record plus any major extant outtakes (in this case, the September 4th recording of the George Martin-imposed outside composition "How Do You Do It," released on Anthology 1 and later an inexplicably huge hit for Gerry and the Pacemakers) and then the complete mono album. Other sets typically follow these with stereo and mono alternate mixes of the various tracks that have been released over the years; because the Beatles' first album is a twintrack recording, such mixes are thin on the ground (though there are a few variants, made by George Martin in the '70s and '80s, which go uncollected here, probably a case of the compilers just trying to keep things reasonable), so stereo and mono versions of this record are able to occupy the same single disc.

At the time this bootleg was constructed, the stereo version of Please Please Me had never been issued on CD, and the 1987 mono CD was deemed unsatisfactory by many fans, so PC uses needledrops of top-quality vinyl pressings (for stereo on this outing, the German Die Beatles, which is legendary among fans for its supposed superior quality, apparently due to the newness of the stampers, or something; and for mono, as for most of the PC releases, the red vinyl Japanese set from the early '80s). I'm not much of an audiophile in normal circumstances -- I love vinyl but what I really love is the collecting and ritual more than a huge perceptible difference in sound quality, though I do think drum sounds and other transients audibly suffer on some digital formats -- but I must admit, it's hard not to hear an enormous difference in reproduction quality here. On the headphones especially, this is as good as Please Please Me has ever sounded to me, solely excluding the later 2014 mono vinyl; and I would contend that, even as much as I love my '80s UK vinyl edition, this is the very best way to hear the album in stereo, with the bass sound astoundingly full and enveloping; you barely even notice the oddity of the stereo mix when the music is this immersive.

By "oddity of the stereo mix" I'm referring to the fact that the first two Beatles albums were recorded on just two tracks, meaning that you end up with some major mix peculiarities, drums on one side and vocals on the other, etc.; this album's stereo version is somewhat less bizarre than many other early stereo mixes, like the Beach Boys', because the band recorded the vocals and instruments simultaneously so there isn't that harsh a separation, but some contemporary listeners will still be put off by it. Nevertheless, in either mix the album absolutely thrills and never seems to wear thin or grow old. This unofficial edition allows a unique opportunity not only to witness the frequent superiority of vinyl mastering but also to closely compare the stereo and mono versions of the albums. (A broad summary of these differences and the reasons for them can be found in this blog's review of The Beatles in Mono.) Please Please Me in stereo, again, sounds better than is often reputed and really offers an extraordinary sense of place; if With the Beatles is the sound of a musty club, this is the sound of a band learning to fill any sort of room. Much as you can hear the dreariness and mundane routine in the walls of Decca on the Jan. 1, 1962 recording test, on these songs you can deeply sense the Abbey Road studio itself, and the "sky's the limit" feeling the band's first major recording process entails. Talking of Decca, it's hard to believe this accomplished bunch is even the same band we hear a year earlier on that tape. It's an exciting sensation; there are moments when you genuinely feel as if you're there, with such promise coming to fruition and so much still ahead; this is true in every version of the record but the broader soundstage on "I Saw Her Standing There" and "A Taste of Honey," plus the echoing of the overdubbed celeste solo on "Baby It's You," enhances the sensation considerably despite the artificial nature of the parallel tracks. (Note that "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You," recorded well ahead of the album sessions, only exist in mono and were placed by Parlophone on the original vinyl stereo album in rechannelled "fake stereo" mixes, reproduced here by PC. Additionally, the title track, which also predates the album session along with its b-side "Ask Me Why," seems to be from a different take altogether, despite the flying in of the same harmonica track in stereo and mono. You can tell the difference when John flubs a line, "why do I never even try..," and then loses his voice slightly on the next "come on.") It should be added, however, that there's no comparative weakness on this record in mono, which is probably the definitive version; it sounds spectacular here, with "I Saw Her Standing There" really attacking right off, and none of the feeling of distance that people sometimes seem to sense in mono mixes.

The album is followed here by the so-called "dry" mono mixes of "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why," which come from the original Parlophone 7" release and weren't discovered as alternate mixes for a number of years. They lack the prominent echo on the album versions. The difference is more obvious on "Ask Me Why," with the feeling that you're a microphone pressed right up against John's voice, and a general sense of greater intimacy, though most casual listeners will hear no change, which is probably why there's been little effort by Apple to preserve or represent these mixes; the 1992 CD single lacks them, as does every reissue except the 20th anniversary vinyl release of the single, probably the easiest official way to find these now.

The second disc, billed as the "complete" Please Please Me sessions (meaning, complete in terms of what has been bootlegged over the years), continues the other part of the PC tradition, which is to gather all booted and even officially released supplemental ephemera from a given album cycle on these deluxe sets, saving us all the trouble of gathering heaps of out-of-the-way, overpriced luxury items. In an archival sense these are indispensable for fans. As a listening experience they range from taxing to fascinating, often depending on sheer volume; the Please Please Me set falls squarely in the middle, with fans of the band and particularly of this album who are attuned to minor differences likely to have a better time hearing the songs develop than anyone else. The repetition here isn't too overwhelming; multiple solid performances of a song like "There's a Place" or "I Saw Her Standing There" certainly beat a half-hour's worth of the Beach Boys stumbling through their half-hearted "Summertime Blues" cover. The Beatles were better than almost everyone at almost everything, and that includes massive collections of outtakes.

The band's first album was mostly recorded in a single magical session on February 11, 1963, apart from the four songs that had been released as the A- and b-sides of their first two singles, "Love Me Do," "P.S. I Love You," "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why." The second disc of the PC set briefly addresses this matter by taking us back to the previous September and incorporating a recording of "How Do You Do It" that lacks the minor futzing around done for the aborted Sessions album and therefore Anthology 1; it's followed by the original 7" version of "Love Me Do," with Ringo on drums, no tambourine, and Paul's slightly more nervous vocal (we talk more about all this on the Past Masters review). Then another Anthology 1 cut, the early acetate version of "Please Please Me"; sadly, the Roy Orbison-inspired slow version George Martin heard and rejected at an earlier session has not survived except in the memories of those involved.

We move on then to the main February album recording date; a surprising amount of extra material from this day has leaked out over the years, starting no later than 1991, including what seem to be all recorded takes of both "There's a Place" and "I Saw Her Standing There," plus the great majority of those for "Misery." The morning sessions are captured in stereo, allowing for unparalleled clarity. The basic version of "There's a Place" was put in the can in ten takes, including seven complete performances (all quite good; take 10 is the master sans harmonica overdubs); the song is of course magnificent, and the band already seems intimate with it. They're tight and soulful throughout, with only the first take slipping a bit with minor gaffes, mostly in the rhythm section. (The tapes of the afternoon session offer the harmonica overdubs, with which bridges us over into the purely inconsequential completist-only territory. Also, note: in 2013, as part of a short-lived copyright extension initiative, takes 5 (a false start), 6, 8 and 9 were officially released briefly on the iTunes-only release Bootleg Recordings 1963.)

The catalog of takes of "I Saw Her Standing There" (then titled "Seventeen") are much more interesting, especially because thanks to the Cavern rehearsals from a few months earlier and the Hamburg tape from December we have such a complete perspective upon how the song evolved. The first take was used; it's impossible to argue with its forcefulness and spontaneity. But it's remarkable to hear the Beatles still, in contrast with their approach to "There's a Place," playing and experimenting with their approach to the song. Take 2 (also on Bootleg Recordings 1963) offers a bluesier vocal from Paul plus several flubs on vocals and bass, and a much looser instrumental break. Takes 3 through 5 are edit pieces, the first for the end and the latter two meant to revise the instrumental break and guitar solo, which never improved on the first take. Take 6 is a false start in which Paul flubs a line again, even after discussing the lyrics earlier on, then points out that the band is going too fast, a problem that repeats on take 7. Take 8 has a softer count-in and a bass problem. Finally, take 9 -- included, remixed, on the "Free as a Bird" CD single in 1995 -- offers the source of the famous, aggressive count-in on the master recording (spliced onto take 1) but has Paul's voice going too high on the chorus (shades of Decca) and seemingly cracking up afterward. The band never quite recovers and doesn't have a full handle on the performance musically. Later, the disc brings us what we were all waiting for -- all three attempts at the handclap overdubs, including an amusing take that breaks down into applause.

There's a bit less detail on the rest of the tape, mostly mono in the second half, with probably very little else from the day surviving even in the vaults. We get two vocal overdubs, rather than basic takes, of "Do You Want to Know a Secret"; take 7, also on Bootleg Recordings 1963, is intriguing, with the "doo-da-doo" backing vocals kicking off on the first verse rather than the second, some additional vocal contributions from John and Paul on the first part of the chorus, and generally -- with the lack of echo -- a less ethereal sound. They're a bit of a hoarse mess, but the song is overall rawer and less saccharine, and without the fadeout you get to hear its slightly jazzy ending, which is surprisingly satisfying, and probably cut at George Martin's behest. (He argued with their use of a similar ending on "She Loves You" and lost that battle.) The dialogue on these cuts is also entertaining, with John commenting on his inability to climb to George's heights on the chorus, and some back-and-forth with George Martin discussing the change to the backing vocals on take 8, which is the master.

Overdubs for "A Taste of Honey" are the source of the least absorbing dissection on offer here. Take 6, the one later chosen for Bootleg Recordings 1963, sounds almost identical to the master except quite a bit dryer. This is an odd choice for a cover in the first place, but it seems better suited to the band's sound -- especially the bridge, which they tackle tremendously well -- than, say, "Till There Was You." Take 7, again, is the master recording with the backing vocals in place.

Finally we come to "Misery"; the audio evidence of this session isn't quite complete -- we never reach the master -- but we have the first eight takes; the song is neither as rigid as "There's a Place" was by this date nor as malleable as "Seventeen." Take 1 (one of two later officially released on Bootleg Recordings 1963) has a weak guitar intro, but more assertive drumming than on the master. The absence of the piano overdub gives the guitar added prominence, though hearing its thinness on the instrumental break, you understand why George Martin felt the augmentation was needed. (Speaking of Martin, his cheeriness and casual give-and-take with the band are impressive throughout the recordings.) The band's vocals at the end vary, but clearly indicate that they -- especially Lennon -- had something specific in mind. His deep "oooh" at the end of take 1 is very nice; obviously his throat wasn't quite shredded, as it famously would be by take 2 of "Twist and Shout," yet. The intro is a little slower on the second take, John sounding a little more rote and even sarcastic this time (remember, this was very early in the band's experience of repeated takes). The band breaks down in the second verse and there is then some conversation about guitars and needing "a little less bottom." Takes 3 through 5 are all false starts -- a weak intro on take 3, vocal screwups on 3 and 4, and a timing gaffe (while John tries to swing, sort of) on take 5 -- while the next complete take, number 6, follows some discussion about the line "I won't see her no more" and finds guitar and bass slightly out of sync plus another big drum fill in the bridge. There is, again, some interesting vocal experimentation on the outro; John seems to still be feeling it out but has something in mind, as it's conclusively demonstrated that the spontaneous sounding "la-la-la" you can hear in the master's fadeout wasn't spontaneous at all. The other take that was eventually released was #7, which is close to the master but with minor timing problems. Finally, John immediately fumbles the last take that has slipped out, take 8.

We sadly don't get to hear the sessions for other classics on the record, but what is available offers an engaging glimpse into the Beatles' early process. The Please Please Me sessions are only haphazardly represented on the 1963 copyright extension set and barely at all on the Anthology-era releases (the sole outtake that slipped out from the actual album session at that time, take 9 of "I Saw Her Standing There," was slipped quietly onto one of the CD singles from the project). But Please Please Me is a masterpiece deserving of this kind of deep dive, and the detritus from February 11th makes for fascinating listening for the strongest of fans, while PC's comprehensive and well-ordered organization of this material, officially released and otherwise, offers both the best way to hear what has been bootlegged -- as always -- and a unique, privileged perspective on a truly great debut.

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