#Rethink Thursday: The Beatles, “Please Please Me”

THIS IS PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES CALLED RETHINK THURSDAY, IN WHICH I REVISIT ALBUMS THAT I REMEMBER EITHER LOVING OR HATING, TO SEE IF TIME AND EXPERIENCE HAVE CHANGED MY OPINION. OR HECK, MAYBE THE DIFFERENCE IS JUST THE DAY THAT I’M LISTENING. AS I LISTEN I REVIEW THE ALBUM, TRACK BY TRACK PLUS OVERALL COMMENTARY, AND YOU GET TO WRITE THE FCC AND TELL THEM NET NEUTRALITY’S OK EXCEPT NO ONE CAN READ ANYTHING ONLINE EXCEPT MY BLOG.


There are two kinds of people in this world: early-Beatles people, and late-Beatles people. I am a late-Beatles person.

Or at least I think I am. When I was a kid my dad owned The Beatles’ two best-of collections – the red one and the blue one (red: 1962-‘66; blue: 1967-‘69). Both were big 2-disc sets with like 13 tracks on each disc, and I remember thinking it was every song the Fab Four had recorded. (Spoiler alert: They recorded over 20 studio albums, so it wasn’t.)

Cover photos of two Beatles collections: 1962-1966, and 1967-1969.

You can’t love them both. It’s not allowed.

I always went straight for that blue set. The red-set stuff – the straight-ahead tunes struck me as canned, standard, worn out. More Stone Age than modern music. Most of the red tracks were released before the Beatles’ studio-is-the-instrument experimentations, and the setup of drums-bass-guitar-guitar felt too played-out for me to really connect to. Sure, the band kept that core arrangement till the end, but by the time they were making blue-set stuff (Sgt. Pepper and later) it was layer upon layer of anything else anyone could imagine.

The early Beatles recordings just sounded so… boring.

And I never got into them. I never cared. My friend Alan and his sister Lauren were real early-Beatles fanatics. Anytime I brought up the band they’d rattle off a dozen or so songs I’d never heard of, and I’d nod my head politely and wish I hadn’t said anything.

Then I’d see film of these circa-1964 mod girls screaming and tearing their hair out and I’d think, “Is that what 60s kids did to show someone they were falling asleep from boredom?”

So anyway, enough preamble. Tonight I’m sitting down with

The.

Album.

Please Please Me is the debut release that launched the most famous band ever to walk the planet. The Beatles’ first two singles had already sold like mad in the UK, and Parlophone needed to get a full album out to capitalize on the insanity. So the band recorded what I’m about to listen to, and it was released in the UK in 1963, and the rest is history.

Running from preteen mobs. Ed Sullivan. Shea Stadium. India. Rooftop. Yoko Ono. Seven years and seven bajillion dollars and an entire cultural revolution later, it was all over.

So we’ll take a look at the beginning. Before we start, two quick notes.

First: Because the Beatles’ albums aren’t available on Spotify (and because I never cared enough to own this one before tonight), I had to buy Please Please Me on iTunes. (Thanks Steve Jobs!) That also means you can’t stream it and listen along — you’ll have to find another way to hear it.

Second: This sucker has fourteen songs in about 33 minutes, averaging about 2:30 per track. There are several that don’t even hit two minutes. So I don’t have a lot of time to write about each track, but that’s ok: fewer words from me makes your life less painful. Go ahead and celebrate.

Ok let’s listen.


What I think I’ll say when it’s over:

There was more energy in that than I remember, but I still think those early-Beatle people are tripping acid. (Which is ironic.)

Track 1 – “I Saw Her Standing There”: One of the problems I’ve had with bands’ recordings is that they don’t capture the energy of their live performance. Everything sounds stale, rehearsed, lifeless. Not here. Not at all. Even the lead-in count has life in it.

2 – “Misery”: I wish I had more context about what recordings sounded like in late 1962 and early 1963, because I wonder if that intro would have sounded unique at the time. The piano fillers — the descending, skipping line as well as the one-note fill — are what give this track any stand-out power.

3 – “Anna (Go to Him)”: Pretty sure I saw on Wikipedia that this one isn’t a Lennon/McCartney product. I’m not surprised. Run of the mill. Nice — but run of the mill. Tightly played though. Take for example the legato/staccato contrast in the B section. Well thought out! I also read that this album was literally made from the band’s live show, like they didn’t really have anything else. I can tell how much those live shows made this a tight recording.

4 – “Chains”: The vocals releases aren’t perfectly together, and that gives the whole thing some fresh energy. Twelve-bar blues and a B section. Boring to my ears, but the boys pull it off with energy. Talk about a hokey concept for a song though. She’s got chains around me that you can’t see. Guess what kind they are… they’re chains of love! Got you, guys!!

5 – “Boys”: Energy. Energy! Oh yeah!! This is John singing, right? He’s not the best singer, but he throws himself fully into it, and that’s all I need. The drums are so perfect throughout this track, especially during the breakdown/intro sections to new verses. Another twelve-bar blues. No surprise there. (Just looked — this is Ringo singing. Awesome.) (I fully expect some Beatles fan to harpoon me in the comments for ignorant moments like that.)

6 – “Ask Me Why”: Meh. Tracks like this have never been my scene. Too mushy or something. Reminds me of Paul Anka, full of talent but super stuffy. By the way, one time I heard a bunch of Beatles vocal tracks with no instruments, and they often sounded like genuinely bad singers; this track could have been included in that collection. And yet it works ok.

7 – “Please Please Me”: Uptempo eighth notes in the bass are killing it!! And when they go unison with the guitar, I bet that was just magic live. I can see Paul and George(?) locking eyes and grinning ear to ear every time they hit those lines. Be sure to scroll down to listen to a really great cover of this one.

8 – “Love Me Do”: What a way to start the B side of the album. Love that the guy singing the low harmonies in the chorus, then takes the melody on the hook. Harmonica solo on the second B section’s super nice. The hokey bass guitar-crash guitar hit coming out of that section HAD to be Paul’s idea.

9 – “P.S. I Love You”: If this ends in a cha-cha-cha I’m gonna be upset. I dig the out-of-key chord change right before the hook. (Does it go up a whole step from the tonic, or down? Or something else? I’m have a hard time hearing today.) Ok track, not great. Didn’t end in a cha-cha-cha! Thank you George Martin!

10 – “Baby It’s You”: I completely love how free these lead vocals sound. That’s all I have to say about this otherwise-standard song.

11 – “Do You Want to Know a Secret?”: This reminds me of hearing two buddies of mine talking about how to pick up girls. Apparently it’s a good move to tell a girl that what she’s about to hear is a secret. Intimacy and stuff, I guess. Sounds manipulative and low to me. But hey George sounds nice on lead vocals.

12 – “A Taste of Honey”: Too-doot-n-doo to you too, sir! I’d rather hear The Kingston Trio do this one. Oh hey pickerty third!

13 – “There’s a Place”: Ok finally let’s breathe some life back into this album! Cool stops and breakdowns here, very Beatlesesque if that’s a word. The B section rocks — this has got to be a Lennon/McCartney. Checking, and… yep! Classic John and Paul. The more cerebral elements of the lyrics

14 – “Twist and Shout”: I mean, let’s just finish it with the perfect pop song shall we? Apparently John had a cold when they recorded the album, so this one was held off till last because George Martin was afraid the vocals would shred Lennon’s vocal cords. I can hear the saliva spraying onto the mic from back by his jaws. It’s awesome. And I love the slide up from the blue note every time John finishes a vocal line.

What I’m saying now that it’s done:

I’m half-and-half on this. There’s a reason we remember the songs we remember from this album, and there’s a reason you forget the rest along with so much early-60s pop. (Yes, I know today’s no different.) And the ratio is about one-to-one on this album, for me. It sounds like the band really believed in some of the tracks they were recording for their debut, and the rest they just did their best on. I don’t know, maybe the best-sounding, most energetic ones tended to be recorded early on in their marathon session. Or maybe they really are better songs. Every band deals with this, I’m sure — and so did the Beatles. To be honest, the best part about listening to this album all the way through is that despite its status as unquestioned hit and an unmitigated legend, it’s not perfect. That’s a lesson worth remembering when I’m making my own music. (Some of which I plan to post here, on this very blog, very soon.)

Bonus final note: You really should listen to this cover of “Please Please Me” by Wyckham Porteous. Yes that’s his name, and yes this track is fantastic.

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