Sunday, 31 January 2010

Please Please Me (2)

It’s often been said of Please Please Me that it was essentially a recording of The Beatles’ live set. Indeed, this has been said by at least one member of the band – Harrison says as much in the Anthology interviews. However, it’s worth considering that, although The Beatles should still be considered the primary sources of information about The Beatles, they have been known to misremember which tracks were on their own albums. I suspect the line-up of Please Please Me didn’t quite select itself by default.

There’s probably no great mystery about the original songs which made the cut for the album. Although Lennon and McCartney had written many, many songs over the years, they didn’t consider most of them to be up to scratch. McCartney would later unearth a couple of his early efforts – ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ and ‘When I’m 64’ – but in the main, the nine originals which were recorded for Please Please Me (they failed to record Hold Me Tight to their satisfaction, and it was put in mothballs until With The Beatles) were the best they had.

Having got themselves signed, and made the decision to push their own songwriting to George Martin, they were improving fast – Misery, which is a good effort, had been written only a couple of weeks earlier – but they didn’t have a stock of material to fall back on. Pick up Live At The BBC and you can hear ‘I’ll Be On My Way’ for an example of an original song they never bothered to properly record – in fact, by 1963 it had dropped out of their live set, and the BBC recording is probably the last time they played (or indeed thought about) it. Most bands would probably have considered it OK as something to pad out an LP, and indeed the song was recorded by Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. (That the same group managed to have hits with a couple of sub-par Lennon/McCartney songs, ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’ and ‘Bad To Me’, says a lot about the state of the British charts in those days.) However, either The Beatles set their standards higher or George Martin did. Possibly both. But clearly someone was operating with a level of quality control creditable for 1963.

What’s more interesting is the selection of covers. The standard version of events was that, having pissed away an hour of the evening session on ‘Hold Me Tight’, The Beatles kicked up a gear by recording songs they knew well. This is where the idea comes in that the album was essentially just their live set. However, thanks to the frankly mental depth of information that exists regarding The Beatles, we can easily demonstrate that it wasn’t as straightforward as that.

Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles Chronicle furnishes us with a then-recent Beatles set-list, from the first night of their first national tour (supporting Helen Shapiro), and it includes ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Baby’, a track which The Beatles never put on an album and which only exists as an off-air tape of a BBC session. (This is on Live At The BBC and when I first heard it I was taken aback to hear a crunchy, distorted drum sound of the sort you might expect on a Boards of Canada record, not played live for The Light Programme’s Saturday Club by Ringo Starr in 1963. However, I then realised that it was simply a very old, very dodgy recording.) On this tour they also played ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, recorded by Bing Crosby and soon to be taken up by Roy Orbison.

In addition, given the time constraints, you might have expected The Beatles to knock out one of the long-standing staples of their act, like ‘Long Tall Sally’ or ‘Rock And Roll Music’ – but given their rock’n’roll roots, it’s surprising to note that none of the covers are rock’n’roll tunes. Another obvious choice might have been ‘Some Other Guy’, which they evidently liked enough to keep in the set even after Please Please Me was released. By contrast, one of the songs they did record for the album – ‘Anna (Go To Him)’ – was, as Ian MacDonald notes in Revolution In The Head (the best book on The Beatles, bar none), quite a recent release and a relative newcomer to their act. The result is a performance that’s not as sure-footed as they probably would have liked. Why didn’t they play something more familiar?

One reason is probably that The Beatles’ own material was clearly influenced by the covers they played. Indeed, one reason they originally developed their own songs was because other groups on the Liverpool circuit were playing the same material they were, and if you had to follow a group who’d just played four or five of the songs on your own setlist, you were a bit screwed. ‘Some Other Guy’ was a prime example, an obscure R’n’B track released in 1962 which immediately became a Merseybeat standard, so ubiquitous that Ringo didn’t need to learn it upon joining The Beatles because his old group, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, had played a version.

MacDonald speculates that The Beatles may have written ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ as an attempt at emulating ‘Some Other Guy’; putting two and two together, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that they wrote it precisely because they wanted a song which was like it, but which wasn’t being played by every other band in Liverpool. If that was the case, it’s no surprise that they opted against putting the two songs together on an album, as that might expose the roots of their own composition.

However, a greater consideration was probably The Beatles’ desire to appear distinctive. Decca was preparing to release a version of ‘Some Other Guy’ performed by fellow Merseybeat group The Big Three, and theirs was locally reckoned to be definitive – which is probably why The Beatles never recorded it. Perhaps they rejected their copious rock’n’roll repertoire because the songs were too famous, or they felt they couldn’t add much to the originals, or maybe they just seemed slightly passé. This is another thing which emerges if you consider Please Please Me in isolation from the rest of The Beatles’ career: it doesn’t really root itself in rock’n’roll at all. I’d often thought of it as a record that sits in the transitional space between 1950s and 1960s pop, but in spite of wearing its influences on its sleeve, Please Please Me is eager to establish its own identity.

The tunes they ultimately recorded were more esoteric and seem designed to showcase The Beatles’ versatility (more successfully than with the grating variety-act fare with which they had failed their audition for Decca the year before), establish their credentials and provide material they could make their own. Three of them are girl-group numbers, one of which – ‘Boys’ – had been their standard ‘drummer’s number’ since the days of Pete Best. (Although I’ve sometimes wondered whether that was some kind of cruel initiation prank played on Ringo. I can just imagine the others telling him: ‘Yeah, it’s a song about boys, that’s the one you’ll be singing. No, really, it’s fine – Pete used to sing it all the time,’ they said, sniggering behind their hands.) ‘Anna (Go To Him)’ was a soul ballad by Arthur Alexander which had only been a very minor chart hit in America, ‘A Taste of Honey’ was best known via an Acker Bilk version, and the celebrated ‘Twist and Shout’ had been recorded by The Isley Brothers as a bit of a cash-in (the Twist was the craze of the moment, and ‘Shout’ was the name of their biggest hit to date; it seems likely these were the main considerations in the Isleys recording it). If not obscure, this stuff certainly wasn’t obvious.

Now, compare this to how The Rolling Stones opted to introduce themselves to the world; with a Chuck Berry cover. Two singles later, their first big hit came with a Buddy Holly cover. The Kinks debuted with a Little Richard cover. Those three artists were practically The Beatles’ holy trinity, and the group’s repertoire included more than ten songs by each of them – but all three were eschewed on their debut album. From the beginning there was something a bit more savvy about The Beatles. They became the biggest and best band of their generation partly by luck, but mostly by good judgement.


  1. Good stuff, Eddie. Hadn't considered just how selective the choices made for the first album were. One question I guess is about George Martin's involvement in the process. I seem to recall reading - in the Anthology book maybe? - that he had the band basically run through their entire live repertoire when they began working together in the studio. Maybe it was him who nixed the inclusion of some of the more hoary old stage favourites, 'Long Tall Sally' etc. It's certainly striking, as you say, how different the set-list is from the Decca audition, where they were doing stuff like 'Three Cool Cats' and 'Besame Mucho', on the advice of the showbiz-minded Epstein. There was clearly a whole different approach by the time of Please Please Me.

  2. I was listening to the Decca tracks on Anthology 1 last night, and you can see what Epstein was thinking but it's totally misguided. They sound like chirpy middle-of-the-bill entertainers, not a pop sensation. There was nothing short-sighted about Decca's decision at all, because they just didn't see the Beatles that we know.

    Good point about Martin's input - he does say in Anthology that he went up to the Cavern to watch them so he knew what material they had, and that he asked them to run through all their songs before recording started, so I'm sure he had a hand in selecting the covers - which again, shows remarkable judgement for a guy who didn't specialise in guitar pop.

  3. Yes, I'm sure George Martin had a hand in the selection process but as you say he wasn't exactly from a rock'n'roll background: hard to imagine him out sourcing obscure Motown B sides etc! Key thing I guess is that the band had a huge repertoire. Eight hour sets in Hamburg'll do that, I guess...

  4. Nice blog and commentary regarding the what’s what in Beatleology. It’s so nice to see that the “boys” are making a resurgence--I’ve seen thousands of posts on YouTube from kids as young as 14 who just love them. It goes to show you how magical they really were.

    My blog is http://the early if you wanted to take a peak or swipe anything you might find interesting. :)