Album Spotlight: The Beatles—Please Please Me

It was fifty-five years prior to this date of publication that the main recording session for the Beatles’ first album, Please Please Me, took place. As Mark Lewisohn, the Beatles’ foremost biographer, later wrote, there have scarcely been 585 more productive minutes in recording history. 1

Please Please Me is far from the Beatles’ best album, in my opinion. The rough edges are apparent, and the group still sounded quite derivative; they hadn’t yet found their own voice. However, it is one of the most stunning debut albums in rock and roll, and contains two songs (one original and one cover) that still rank among rock classics.

Background: George Martin, an A&R man for EMI Records, had signed the group at the insistence of his boss Len Wood, who was buddies with the head of Ardmore and Beechwood, a music publishing company which had just signed Lennon and McCartney. They wanted a single of “Love Me Do”, being more interested in the duo’s songwriting potential than that of the group. 2 Martin was stuck with producing two singles for the group, but being a professional, he hired a session drummer to work on the first single. “Love Me Do” was a moderate hit, reaching #17 on the British charts, which gave Martin some encouragement for the second single. He found a song by Mitch Murray which was a guaranteed Number One—“How Do You Do It”—and insisted that the boys record it. They did, but in so grudging a fashion, that he decided to let them try the most promising song he’d yet heard from them, albeit at a sped-up tempo. At the end of the session, he announced, “Gentlemen, you’ve just made your first Number One.” Which they had. (“How Do You Do It” did hit Number One—for Gerry and the Pacemakers.)

Once the group had hit real paydirt, EMI agreed to finance an all-day recording session for an album. On February 11, 1963, the band went into the studio at 10 AM and emerged around 10:45 PM with ten new songs in the can, enough for a record. This despite John in particular suffering from a vicious cold. They took songs from their live set and banged them out in just a few takes each onto two-track equipment (vocals on one, instruments on the other for the most part; this is why the mono mix is far superior to the stereo). A few overdubs were done both that day and in a later session, but for the most part, what you hear is live Beatles.

Track by track:

I Saw Her Standing There: A McCartney-Lennon original (they reversed the order after this album), this rocker borrowed a bass line from their live cover of Chuck Berry’s I’m Talking About You and turned it into a classic of their own. This one song which sounds like nothing but the Beatles features a killer guitar riff, the aforementioned bass line, an incisive solo by George and some inventive fills from Ringo. As Roy Carr and Tony Tyler mentioned in The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, this song could’ve been recorded by the band at any point in their career and still received the same acclaim. Nowadays the thought of romanticizing a seventeen-year-old makes most of us a little ill, but bear in mind that Paul was nineteen when it was recorded and probably eighteen when it was written, and the song was aimed at the teenage market.

Misery: This pleasant but unremarkable ballad is the second original on the album, written for Helen Shapiro, at the time a famous British singer who toured with the band. George Martin overdubbed the piano in the middle eight, and John and Paul sing together almost sounding like one voice. A celeste was also overdubbed but then removed.

Anna: Originally by Arthur Alexander, this is a reverential treatment of an aching love ballad by John. The Beatles were fond of Alexander and covered other songs by him in their sessions for B.B.C. radio, including A Shot Of Rhythm and Blues and Soldier Of Love. A nice treatment, but it doesn’t really add anything new to the original.

Chains: George sings lead with help on harmonies from John and Paul on this cover of the Cookies, written by Goffin and King. John’s wailing harmonica gives it a bit more character than some of the other covers here.

Boys: Ringo takes the lead vocal on this rocker, one of the best covers on the album and a great adaptation of the Shirelles’ B-side. They didn’t even bother changing the lyrics to a guy’s POV—that’s how confident they were! George’s guitar solo shines, and Paul plays another thundering bass line.

Ask Me Why: The B-side of Please Please Me has a bit of a Latin tinge to it, but otherwise, this ballad is pretty forgettable. Rhyming “you” and “true” and “show” and “know” doesn’t help. I do like the way John sings, “I, I-yi-yi”.

Please Please Me: Their first Number One, and it still deserves it. The chorus is catchy, heading up and up on the “Come on, come on” until it bursts into “Please, please me” for release. Opinions are divided on whether the song is about heavy petting or oral sex. John, for his part, said he was influenced by Bing Crosby (“Please lend your little ear to my pleas”) and the pun on the word. The original was arranged and sung like a slow Roy Orbison ballad, but alas, that tape no longer exists. An early version can be found on the Anthology 1 album; it’s close, but lacks the signature harmonica riff.

Love Me Do: Not much of a song, but it has a great recording history. The audition on Anthology 1, with Pete Best on drums, is horrible, and is an excellent example of why Best was fired. He completely lost it in the middle eight. The first proper session featured Ringo drumming and can be found on Past Masters; it was released as the single. However, Martin still wasn’t satisfied, and at the second session brought in Andy White as a session drummer, relegating Ringo to a tambourine. Ringo never quite forgave him for this. This is the album version, and it’s the best, honestly, sounding fuller than the single. Also of interest is that Paul sang the song for the first time at the audition (John had been singing the “Love me do” line, but Martin needed him to play harmonica), and he sounds quite nervous. The single still has him seeming shaky, but by the Andy White session, his confidence is back. The song itself is sort of catchy, but nothing to write home about.

P.S. I Love You: Another ballad with a Latin flavor by Paul, and the B-side of Love Me Do. Andy White drums, and Ringo plays maracas. There is no known recording of Ringo drumming on this song. I like the harmonies on the first word of each verse, and the unusual chord progression.

Baby It’s You: The second Shirelles cover, one penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. John’s vocal is tender and warm. The “sha-la-la”s don’t quite work, but on the whole, this is one of the better tracks. George Martin added the celeste on the instrumental break a few days later.

Do You Want To Know A Secret: Written by John, inspired by Snow White’s first ballad in the Disney film (“Do you want to know a secret? Promise not to tell?”) and given to George, who does an adequate job. Lots of echo on the vocals, and a catchy riff. It suited George’s onstage persona and became a hit in the US when released as a single.

A Taste Of Honey: One of Paul’s side trips into adult pop music, from the 1960 play of the same name. The guitar work is lovely, and I’m sure a lot of girls swooned to this, but it’s embarrassingly hokey nowadays.

There’s A Place: The last McCartney-Lennon original and a forerunner, perhaps, of Brian Wilson’s “In My Room”. John is already taking trips inside his head. Great harmonies and harmonica work.

Twist And Shout: The one Beatles cover which completely eclipses the original, with all respect to the Isley Brothers. This is take one, done at the last minute when everyone realized they still needed one more song, and it smokes. John screamed out his vocals and made his already strained throat bleed. Magnificent guitar work and powerful drumming. Hordes of British bands immediately began performing this live (The Who grabbed both this and “I Saw Her Standing There”). They did perform another take, but this first one nailed it.

The cover photo was taken in the stairwell of EMI’s office building at Manchester Square, after flirting with photos at the London Zoo (beetles, get it?) and other ideas. Tony Barrow wrote the informative and gushing liner notes. One other track was recorded, an early version of “Hold Me Tight”, but it didn’t work and was saved for the next album. Sadly, nothing of that take has survived.

Please Please Me was a smash hit, hitting Number One on the UK album charts and staying in them for 30 weeks. 3 In the US, the rights were given to a tiny company, Vee Jay Records, after Capitol passed on it. Their version, Introducing the Beatles, was scheduled to be released in the summer of 1963; however, due to financial difficulties, it remained unreleased until January 10, 1964, when it competed for Number One with Capitol’s Meet The Beatles! 4 Eventually Capitol got the rights back and released their own version, The Early Beatles, minus Misery and There’s A Place. These songs remained unreleased on Capitol in the States until the Rarities album in 1980. In 1987, Please Please Me was released on CD for the first time, standardizing all foreign markets to the British releases. It was not released in stereo (such as that was) until September 9, 2009, with the remasters.

Please Please Me was an auspicious beginning and laid the groundwork for some truly fantastic records to come. If only for I Saw Her Standing There and Twist And Shout, it deserves to be remembered.