Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Please Please Me (1)

Somewhere in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by devout Beatles fan Douglas Adams, there’s a neat line that goes ‘it is a well-known and popular fact that...’ and it is certainly true that there are facts which, for whatever reason, do become not just well-known but also popular. People like to repeat them to each other, to the point where they become sufficiently well-known that there’s no longer any point repeating them because everyone knows them already. They may once have been remarkable or interesting, but have long since become banal. Did you know that they only made twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers? That was big for a while, for some reason. Did you know that Santa Claus is red because Coca-Cola decided to depict him that way?

For a time, the all-time #1 banal fact about popular music was that The Beatles recorded their first album in a day. Like a number of banal facts – the Santa/Coke one, for example – this manages the double whammy of being not only banal, but also untrue. Yes, The Beatles were permitted a single day of recording sessions to record Please Please Me – but this was after their second single had started to shift copies, and the A and B-sides of the first two singles were slated for inclusion on the LP. Therefore, more than a quarter of the album was already in the can before that day’s recording started, and the album was in fact made over three sessions, several months apart.

OK, so cutting ten tracks in a day is still no mean feat. But what particularly annoys me about the popularity of the ‘recorded in a day’ myth is that it’s used as a stick with which to beat anybody who takes their time over making an album. Don’t get me wrong – one of my main bugbears with modern music is the rise of the ‘three-year album cycle’ where the artist and label flog one album to death before working on the next one (Nick Cave, bless him, believes that ‘musicians are the laziest bastards in the world, writing 12 songs every two years, and they haven’t got a clue what real work is like’). And yes, I find myself constantly wishing my favourite artists would pull their fingers out and be a little bit more prolific. But The Beatles made better albums than Please Please Me, and they partly did that by spending more time on them.

That’s one reason why, for many years, I didn’t rate the album that much. In some ways Please Please Me is a great demonstration of why recording your album in a day isn’t a great idea – most glaringly, in the fact that Lennon had a heavy cold and this is hilariously obvious on the record. (It also exposes the all-on-one-day myth – on the already-recorded Love Me Do and Please Please Me he’s clear, on Anna (Go To Him), Baby It’s You and particularly There’s A Place he’s audibly impaired.) It’s unthinkable today that any major label would release a record in this state, without calling the vocalist back in to re-do his performances – but this tells us a lot about the state of pop music in 1963. Trends were there to be cashed in on. There’s something to be said for not being too precious, but there’s also something to be said for actually doing things fucking properly.

That said, part of the point of this blog is to avoid the perspective that views The Beatles’ career as a natural progression towards Sgt Pepper. It seems absurd to point it out, but there was a time when The Beatles’ first album was the only Beatles album there was, and it’s worth thinking about it that way when you listen to it. Considering its hacked-out nature, what’s really striking is that it’s not a one-note effort like a lot of quick cash-ins are; it’s not a series of variations on their two hits. One of The Beatles’ strengths, in my view, is their electicism – but I’ve always regarded that as something that they developed as their career went on. Listen to Please Please Me in isolation and you can hear that they were already pretty eclectic, already far more than the tight little rock’n’roll band of Cavern myth. It seems this paid off, as over the summer of 1963 the record proved to have a better shelf life than any British pop album that had come before it.


  1. Never noticed John's vocal being paricularly flawed. He still sounds better than George.

    You're right that this album is a rush-job cash-in - it's more-or-less the last time a Beatles album would include b-sides.

    The eclecticism is a good point; compared to the Stones, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, who just covered blues/Chuck Berry songs, recent hits or did dodgy instrumentals (even the few original compositions were pretty rudimentary).

    The Beatles, on the other hand, are covering flop singles by US girl groups - the thing about PPM is that somebody listening to it at the time would think it was all new Lennon & McCartney compositions unless they checked the songwriting credits, because they wouldn't have heard of any of the tracks (except maybe Acker Bilk's cover of A Taste Of Honey). Even Twist & Shout had failed to get into the UK top forty.

    Most of the Lennon & McCartney songs are pretty average (Misery is a pretty obvious re-write of Love Me Do) but I Saw Her Standing There you have the first instance of a Beatles album track that could easily have been a hit single.

  2. Yeah, the next post will look at the choice of cover versions on the album and how they dodge obvious material. It's not until Beatles For Sale, when they start to run low on new originals *and* have stopped learning esoteric covers to drop into the live set, that they start covering the more famous songs they've known for years.

  3. Like Jonny I'd not noticed Lennon sounding audibly poorer. I'll neeed to stick the remastered version on tonight and give it a proper listen...

  4. Handily have the mono remasters on my iPhone - so will have to give this album a listen on way home tonight and see if I can notice it too.

  5. The bad vocals are most noticeable on There's A Place, by far the worst vocal ever to make it on to a Beatles record.

  6. Thanks for the point about the Stones and Kinks' early efforts, Jonny - I've incorporated that into the latest post, as it does throw what The Beatles did with their early releases into sharp relief. The Beatles were not only doing their own material first, they were doing different things with their covers too.