The Long and Winding Road Part 1: Please Please Me

Please Please Me (released 22 March 1963)

Dear Please Please Me,

I wonder how little you knew you were kickstarting a global phenomenon? Back in 1963, the idea that the Beatles would shortly become global superstars was laughable, absurd. Sure, the band was slowly gaining traction in Britain, making a bit of an impact. But these fourteen songs that you contained — ten of them recorded in a SINGLE DAY! — proved to be the herald for a series of albums and songs that proclaimed the Beatles’ everlasting legacy. And listening to you, it’s surprising how little of it shows.

This isn’t because this album is in any way bad, of course. (Well, at least you’re not the worst album, and most music critics go gaga over you, so I hesitate to damn you to the lower layers of musical hell.) But when I listen to you, what reaches me are a lot of Merseybeat songs: songs that were largely influenced by the rock-and-roll/rhythm-and-blues craze from America, songs that are instantly catchy but don’t suggest much experimentation. We’ll get to that in a while, but for the moment let’s focus on what you WERE all about: setting down recognizable features for a band that had yet to reach a lot of British households, many of whom had turned their uppity noses up just upon hearing that they were from LIVERPOOL. (Seriously, this was a HUGE issue back then.)

So what features were you trying to get across to those listening? Well, for one thing, how unique the Fab Four’s vocals are. Now I’m not saying that all four of them do a particularly good job of it on you — this being their first LP outing, some of them sound a little nervous. But it’s agonizingly clear how much John’s singing stands out so much: anybody who has found you boring (raises hand) will surely be given the shock of their lives when John suddenly belts out “Twist and Sh” — er, sorry, “TWIST AND SHOUT”. He is so amazingly wild throughout the whole performance, you can actually hear the man slowly losing his voice (literally — he had a cold and this was the ONLY complete attempt they did because his voice gave out just after that), and yet after 80 seconds of screaming he still provides, without wavering, a SUSTAINED NOTE of a melody! How are you not gonna be amazed by that?

That passion, that exuberance, is the capper for an experience in which John shows us his full emotional range as a singer. He really does convince (well, mostly) in trying to show how despondent and heartbroken he is in “Anna” — it doesn’t show at first, and the jaunty mood of the first two songs still seem to linger on, but then the bridge kicks in and his voice breaks with emotion and you just can’t help feeling sorry for him, even if you come to your senses after a little while. On the other side, he is also adequate in suggesting that we give him a little something in “Please Please Me”. His voice turns a little guttural during the “come on”s, and there’s something in his enthusiasm that sounds just that touch suggestive as well. The former song tells the listener to go somewhere else, the latter tells him/her to “come on”… between them, John’s voice has us in the palm of his hand.

Mostly. It has to be said that he doesn’t manage it all the time (contrary to what some people think, I do not worship the Beatles like deities). “Misery” is an example where he utterly fails to make me think that he is feeling said emotion, so jaunty is his voice (though the echoey sounds at the beginning do convey a little melancholia). Whatever loss he has in feelings, though, he makes up amply with the harmonies he has with Paul McCartney: something which was obviously a huge selling point in the Beatle package. Which brings me to Paul’s vocals: similarly exuberant like John’s (he is the reason why you get off to a flying start with “I Saw Her Standing There”), but when it comes to sentimental songs… he doesn’t really sound convincing. “P. S. I Love You” is a little drab, and in “A Taste of Honey” he sounds downright cloying and affectedly sentimental. (Not that this would be the last time Macca’d be accused of that…)

George also suffers from “not meaning what you sing” syndrome: he does well on “Do You Want to Know a Secret” as a young man trying to shyly tell somebody he’s in love with her (so, George Harrison’s default mode circa-1962, basically). “Chains”, on the other hand: if you want to convince somebody that you’re “not free”, maybe try to be a little more sincere? But his vocals/songs are not the focus here (or for the next eight albums, for that matter): for now his guitar solos are the main draw for audiences here. The lad is not yet twenty, and yet he’s already churning out solos that drew attention to himself. I don’t know anything about musicianship (something which will become painfully obvious over the next fourteen letters) so I can’t comment on how well he did, but you are drawn to it the moment you hear it, and it immediately encapsulates the mood for you.

Which leaves just one person for me to talk about: Ringo. If anything, he stands out more than George and Paul, for his drumming is the lynchpin that holds everything together. His rhythm is what makes the songs tick on you: John (and the others) may have good vocals, yes, but the energy from underneath has to come from Ringo’s beats and the atmosphere he conveys. Even when he’s only playing the maracas in “P. S. I Love You”, he manages to steal the show over session drummer Andy White’s drumming, lending an exotic ambience to the song. (Truth be told, I think it’s the best thing you can say about “P. S. I Love You”…)

But enough about the members themselves. When all their efforts are gathered into a whole to become you, we discover that you’re quite the innovative spectacle yourself: yup, even back then, the Beatles were innovating. It seems a little weird for us in the 2010s now, but the harmonica that John played (why is it always John who gets the good stuff on this album) was ground-breaking, something easily found in more folky songs in the US, but less so in rock records. And yet John introduces it in the two singles you produced: “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do” all contain harmonica solos and they lead you into the song. Even with such a simple, earthy instrument, the Fab Four was using you to smash our concepts of rock-and-roll. And there are some slight changes to the formula as well: “Ask Me Why” gives us a final verse which is suddenly cut short and returns to the first verse. Of course it does smack of Lennon-McCartney losing patience and cutting the song there (and given what we know of John, it probably was), but it does provide us with a slight change on the thirty-two-bar form. (And that’s the most technical term you’ll hear from this writer in these letters.)

The fact that they do add their own refreshing twists to the mix, however, doesn’t really hide the fact that… well, I do think you go somewhat stale after “P. S. I Love You”. The Beatles have done a very good job of adding their own style to covers (like the slow and steady “Baby It’s You”), but then the presentation of the same type of song, over and over again, starts to wear you down after you’ve listen to a few of them. You slow down and get sentimental after that song, and start to sound slightly weary, as if the four of them are getting bored after singing thematically similar songs six times in a row. And I got bored too: I’ve listened to “There’s a Place” about five times and I still haven’t been able to remember anything about it other than the title — and I’m supposed to be good at memorizing things. And as mentioned above, sentiment isn’t something that Paul in particular does very well: you can practically hear him trying to squeeze out melancholia in “A Taste of Honey”. It’s just not convincing and even a little insipid. (Cue shock and horror from reader.)

Which is a shame, because it did go against what the Beatles themselves sang in their first ever single, “Love Me Do”: “I’ll always be true”. People can always smell a phony when they’re trying too hard to not be themselves, to sell a song which doesn’t really fit them like a glove, and the Four’s simulated affection is just never good enough. But in other aspects, you really can hear how the Beatles strive to be true, something which also had to be sold to the British public. For right from the start, it’s evident that you can’t really separate the personas of George, John, Paul and Ringo from the music they produce.

You projected that image with your “live album” feel: producer George Martin originally wanted something that was like a live album, a snapshot of the hit rockstars that the Four were on stage at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. That wasn’t possible (as anyone who’s ever visited a pub in Liverpool will know), but the “one, two, three, FOUR!” at the beginning of your first track, “I Saw Her Standing There”, is a great indicator of just how infectious the Beatles would have been as performers. It’s impossible not to get up and dance to some of those songs, especially the first and the last one: and John and Paul are equally good at encouraging people to do that. (Some of them I even sing in the bath, to much consternation from my parents. All this is on you, Please Please Me.)

And it’s because of the unabashed vigour they have when they deliver their songs, you are an EXTREMELY upbeat album, at least for the first half. Even on the more morose songs — I’m thinking of “Misery” and “Chains” — you always seem to be somewhat sunny in outlook, just like the ways you were sung. It’s difficult not to imagine that all four of them were smiling their heads off even as the pressures of recording for their first LP bore down on them. Even when Ringo — who’s always had a reputation for looking and sounding morose — turns up to sing “Boys”, he really sounds like he’s bursting to tell you all about boys, er sorry, girls. You can’t help but feel happy for him as he drums like a man possessed before yelling “hey, HEY!”

His excellence here is just one thing that adds to the four good performances that make you up: a wonderful debut from four young Liverpudlian musicians cutting their teeth on their first album, and on the cusp of making it big. One can hear the four of them, each with their own wonderful musical talent and yet contributing to each other’s work, fast coming together, fast getting good at bouncing off each other to become one amazing entity. One can hear, in you, four volcanoes of potential, just waiting — bursting, even — to be unleashed on the world. And that’s why even in spite of the odd bump here and there, you’re still a wonderful album to listen to.

Yours sincerely,

Favourite track: I did think of giving it to “Misery”, because the descending piano scale on it is such a stroke of genius and the echoes reach into your heart and make it melancholic — but that’s not the thing this album generally is reaching for, so it’s “I Saw Her Standing There”, which not only has wonderful harmonies, bass work and hand-clapping, but is also an ABSOLUTE earworm. (I believe I’ve mentioned how often I sing it in the bath?)

(Featured image from cover of Please Please Me, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records. Google has told me that it is not copyright infringement as long as I attribute the record company and use a low-res image, so three cheers for fair use or whatever Hong Kong’s equivalent is.)

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