A Dance to the Music of Time — “I Saw Her Standing There”

Hey guys — this was originally planned for release two Wednesdays ago, AKA the 60th anniversary of the Beatles’ first album “Please Please Me”, but I couldn’t finish it on time, so the ABBA piece came first and I decided to shift this one to today so that I could keep my little tradition alive. Hope you like it!

The Song: “I Saw Her Standing There”
from the album Please Please Me by the Beatles
not released as single in the UK/reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100


It begins with Paul, because only Paul could sound this excited. John was the leader, yes, and he called the shots. But he was always too busy being smart to be as joyous, as uninhibited as Paul. So it’s Paul’s shout that begins the Beatles’ Please Please Me, and it is therefore Paul’s voice that is the first thing you hear on the first Beatles album. It is a shout of excitement, a shout that hails the morning sun. It is the ignition key that starts the Beatles’ story.

But what makes that excitement unique is that Paul really believes in it. This isn’t just some amplified version of sincerity, like what happened with Elvis’ later singles or anything Noel and Liam Gallagher put out. He really loves the girl, and more importantly he’s not afraid to look goofy doing it: “and the way she looked, was way beyond compare!” he gushes, and you can picture his face lighting up just before you. It’s infectious — it puts a smile on your own face, just as it surely did for the other three. Why else would their playing be so loud, so irresistible?

That’s the main thing that Paul bought to the table: he could always pinpoint how it felt to have your heart go boom. All four of them knew what it meant to fall in love, of course, but none of them really did manage to harness its energy, translate it into something that you could sing with abandon and glee quite like Paul did. He recognised happiness when it was staring him in the face, and he turned that into the most insane, delightful whoops and screams that ever graced humankind: “and I held! Her! Hand! In MIIIIIIIINE!” He knew, too, that it didn’t have to be new or even complicated: who really cares if he lifted the bassline from Chuck Berry or not, who cares that the lyrics are pedestrian and repetitive. The important thing is that they all fit, and they fill you with wonder.


Barely has Paul finished his count-in than Ringo begins to drum. If Paul was the match, then Ringo was the gasoline: that propulsive backbeat is what makes “I Saw Her Standing There” so catchy, so brimful of enthusiasm. Ringo is the one who glued everyone together; as Rob Sheffield said, “he inspired his mates to hang on as long as they did”. And it’s around his playing within the song that everything congregates: the bass, the guitar riffs, everything. Paul even stretches his vocals a bit on the bridge, just so that his rhythmic overlord can give his words the right punch. The song just doesn’t exist without that beat to push it along.

But it’s not just the backbeat: with practice, any good drummer might be able to do one. Instead it’s the little drum fills Ringo throws in that REALLY make the song: every time Paul announces just how awesome this girl is and how he’s fallen in love with her, Ringo accompanies it with a little flourish, a triple tap of sonic thunder that sets your heart on edge. Rarely has elation been so simple and yet so complete — if you have ever been able to listen to this song without once air-drumming to one of those fills, you are a better person than I am.

I’ve already said much about Paul’s genuine excitement, but Ringo is the reason why it’s more than just a flash in the pan. He is why the longest song on Please Please Me feels like its shortest, its most dynamic: in keeping that beat going, in giving it just the right amount of twist every now and then, he captures what it’s like to see the girl you like across a crowded room and keep on discovering more things about her throughout the night. With him at the drums, the romance on the page leaps right out of the radio and into your ears; how, indeed, can you dance with another?


Of the four people involved in “I Saw Her Standing There”, John’s contributions are the hardest to parse. His guitar work is buried deep in the mix, and Paul dominates the vocals so thoroughly that it might seem like he’s taken a backseat for this one. But imagine any of the lines without his harmonies: without John by his side, Paul sounds faintly ridiculous, like an annoying teenager who’s simply busting to tell everyone around him about his new crush. (And my friends wonder why I love Paul McCartney so much.) It’s John’s lower notes that ground Paul’s excited yelping: he backs up his best mate, and stands by him no matter how silly or immature he sounds. Not for the last time, John is basically Paul’s wingman here.

But John’s contributions to this song go far beyond the harmonies. It was he who had the wonderful idea to laugh at Paul’s original line, and he was right because “never been a beauty queen” sucks real bad as a lyric. John was always the smart one, the one who knew how to write the killer lines: “you know what I mean” sounds like the ultimate handwave, yet the more you think about it the more ineffable it sounds — which, in a sense, is what your first love SHOULD feel like anyway. It needs to be mysterious, it needs to be both weird and wonderful beyond words. John knew how to nudge Paul in the right direction.

So John may not have been the main songwriter for “I Saw Her Standing There”, but this is indisputably “another Lennon-McCartney original”: he always pushed Paul further, was never afraid to call him out, and the two of them had a direct line to each other’s brains. It’s that camaraderie, that ability to be so in sync, that makes the Beatles so good. It was never just one man leading three, or even two men leading two other on. It was always about four people falling into each other’s orbit, and discovering that they had ways to turn each other on creatively — Paul did for John just as John did for Paul — while always being there for each other, no matter what. That fell through later, but in 1963, that was the truth.


And finally we have George. On this album, George is already establishing himself as the Quiet One, the one who doesn’t say much unless he’s got something earth-shatteringly wise. On this album, though, George doesn’t say too much because he knows he hasn’t got much to say yet: he’s still only a lad of nineteen, still the fresh-faced lad who’s just returned from Hamburg. Later on this album we will hear George trying out different sounds: cheerful insouciance (terrible), and morose pining (slightly better). But on “I Saw Her Standing There”, he sits back and does the barest minimum, doing his musical duty and then getting out of the way.

His presence is not as low-key as John, but there’s little that sticks out here. The guitar solo is all business: no frills or fancy guitar shredding, like he’ll come to do in “A Hard Day’s Night” or “The End”. Right now, he is, in the words of Marcello Carlin, “picking out his prepared solo with audible apprehension, as though performing it before the headmaster”. It’s not bad at all — any guitar player might kill to have something like this — but this is the Beatles. Don’t we have the right to deserve better?

But then again: perhaps it’s because this is the Beatles that George is so apprehensive. This is the first song of their first album; they knew that they had just this one shot to make it, to become the toppermost of the poppermost. None of them could put a foot wrong, and in those twenty seconds it was George’s turn to uphold their dignity. And also, think of who George is playing with: a guy who’d already made his name as the best drummer in Liverpool, and Lennon-freaking-McCartney. A lesser man would have crapped their pants in no time at all; as it is George managed to not only hold his own, but to move onto greater things. George is all of us in the presence of the Beatles: astonished, awestruck, and unable to believe their amazing good luck and the even better music they’re putting out. Can you blame him for being a little bit shy?


I remember the first time I heard this tune, five years ago: it was my last night in Melbourne, and I was packing up my stuff and getting ready to leave the country. I’d spent five whole happy months in one of the best cities on Earth, and the thought of leaving was just exhausting, forbidding, too much to bear. I don’t know how I ended up cueing up the Beatles, but for some reason I decided that I wanted to listen to their first album. I’d heard good things about that first song, “I Saw Her Standing There”. Maybe it would be good —

“One, two, three, FOUR!”

— and that was it, that one single shout. The drumbeat from Ringo, the lyrics of John’s making, the guitar fills from George, but above all the enthusiasm of Paul, the combined of all those knocked me backwards onto the floor. I was twenty, an Asperger’s kid. I’d liked songs before, even felt touched by them, but I’d never felt excited. But the four of them, they got me excited, they got me on my feet. I danced through the night, held them oh so tight, and before too long, I’d fallen in love with them. And so began my five-year-and-counting love affair with the Beatles, my eternal fascination into how songs move us and groove us. It all started with this song for me, just as it did for many a Beatle fan.

What I’ve been trying to say in the last 1650 words is that any one of these four would have been a threat on their own. Everybody had something to bring to the table: enthusiasm, stability, wisdom, envy. But none of this would matter if they didn’t love each other, if they hadn’t wanted to impress and be there for each other. For me, the best musical element in “I Saw Her Standing There” isn’t the bass, or the drums, or even the godly harmonies that fill the air. It’s the handclaps from all four of them as they sail, four giddy boys, through the central couplet: “so how (CLAP CLAP) could I dance (CLAP) with another (CLAP CLAP)? OH!” In that moment, the three of them are all cheering on Paul, feeling the same kind of elation he has, perhaps even thinking of their own experiences, er, dancing with someone and falling in love with them. They summon up their own transcendent memories of teenage gladness, and in the process they make the narrator’s experiences transcendent too.

And perhaps this, more than anything, is why the Beatles broke through and still hold on, sixty years after they released their first album. Not because they were talented (though they were), not because of the ten thousand hours of Hamburg practice (though that helped), not because they were ruthlessly determined to succeed at any cost (but oh, how much they were). It was because they knew how to take one anonymous guy’s experience — that one little flutter of the heart — and give it that stratospheric boost, just by banding together and partaking in that one experience. No matter how many times you hear “I Saw Her Standing There”, it still feels like they’re talking about your experience, that one unforgettable night you had (or wish you had), and they make it sound like it was unquestionably the biggest and best night of your entire life.

All of them knew what it meant, too. “I Saw Her Standing There” is the only song that all four Beatles have performed live after their final break-up: George played it with Ringo, Paul played it with Billy Joel, and John played it with Elton one night onstage at Madison Square Garden. (Twice in a row, too, and Lennon never sounded more excited after 1970 than he was that Thanksgiving night.) And why shouldn’t they? If you asked me to pick one song, just ONE song to represent the Beatles, it would not be any of their complex, multi-fragmented later work, or any of their harder, intensive tunes. It would be this song, a three-minute tune of energised, sparkling perfection. How can you dance with another, once you see them standing there?

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