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.

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.

Thursday, 21 January 2010


First of all, I should probably explain the ‘concept’ behind this blog, such as it is.

Last September, I bought all the Beatles albums all over again, in a shiny black box. Like a lot of people, I’d been waiting for them to be remastered for years; I eventually realised that I could make it happen. How? Why, by simply by completing my collection of Beatles albums on CD. I’d held off on filling in those final gaps for years, figuring that remasters had to be on the way, but sod’s law dictated that it wouldn’t happen until it would cause me the greatest personal inconvenience. So I finally bought Beatles For Sale, and sure enough the announcement of the remasters duly appeared in Mojo.

Anyway, I bought the box and gave my old CDs to my parents, who did own some Beatles albums in the 1960s but have somehow lost them all over the years, which is frankly bloody typical of them. Since then, I’ve listened to all the group’s material through in order, twice. Once, immediately after buying the box, in a couple of days; and again, in a way that turned out to be more interesting. To indoctrinate my two-year-old son into The Beatles, I played him the lot, three or four tracks at a time, on the short car journeys to nursery and the supermarket. This took about two or three months, and I found that by slowing it down, I could hear the group’s progression much better. I’d listen to one album, get my head around The Beatles being like that, then move onto the next.

So what I’ve decided to do is this. I’m going to listen through the Beatles at the rate of one album per month. In January, I’ll only listen to Please Please Me (and I’ll let myself have the From Me To You single as well). Next month, I’ll add With The Beatles – listening to Please Please Me will still be allowed, although I’ll probably be a bit sick of it by then. And so on and so on (in September I’ll do Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine together). The idea is to get a small taste of what it was like to listen to the albums at the time, able to look back on what the group had done but not skip forward and see what they’d do. Yeah, it’s artificial – I’m compressing it, and obviously I’ve heard everything already, scores of times – but it’s not like I can wipe the tracks from my brain like in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, is it? (If I could, I might actually be tempted. That’d be really interesting.)

Anyway, I’ll be posting scribbles and thoughts about the albums here as I go along. Some stuff about Please Please Me will appear here once I get it into shape.