I’m going to start with a disclaimer – The Beatles are, by some distance, the most analysed and written-about band in the history of recorded music. There is literally nothing I can say which hasn’t already been said a hundred times before, and often better. If you want to know anything at all about any period in the history of The Beatles – hell, if you want to know the minute details of pretty much every single day in the band’s existence – it’s all out there for you to explore. As an illustration, the latest biography by Mark Lewisohn, All These Years, Volume One – Tune In runs just short of 1,000 pages. This album doesn’t even appear in it – the first third of the band’s biography doesn’t even reach all the way to their first full recording session: that’s how much detail we already know about them.
So, given that there’s nothing new under the sun, what can I bring to the table? I think perhaps three things: I’ll try to put each album in some kind of context for those of us not old enough to remember its release (and I’m more than happy to be corrected on my assumptions by anyone who actually is old enough); I’ll react to the album as well as I can given that I’m not really listening to any of them with what you’d call fresh ears; and as the thread grows, I’ll try to unpick the tangled mess which is their North American release schedule, and explain why the first time I looked in a Canadian record store for Beatles albums, I was met with swathes of things I didn’t recognise.
For all that we can argue about the merits of The Beatles vs The Stones, or talk up any of the other British Invasion bands of the early to mid sixties; for all that we might claim that The Beach Boys were just as innovative; for all that those born after 1970 who don’t know any of this first hand might look at what came after as more relevant to modern music, I think its undeniable that there’s something special, something ‘other’ about The Beatles. No other band is revered the way they are; no other band is pored over and dissected with such devotion; no other band’s recording studio inspires pilgrimages and traffic jams. Partly this is circumstantial – the band were working recording artists for less than eight years, and the recorded output fits neatly on to less than a dozen albums (and a couple of EPs); had they meandered on into the seventies and beyond like the Stones did, who knows what their legacy would be. Certainly, the ‘Anthology’ period singles didn’t exactly add anything to their reputation, and while all four of them (well, OK, three of them) wrote some magnificent solo songs, they never again reached the heights of their combined output. Perhaps they needed each other to spur themselves on; perhaps the fire had actually gone out. Either way, the recorded legacy is pretty much untouchable because it didn’t start before they were ready and it ended while they were still on a higher plane than pretty much everyone else. In between, they recorded a sizeable chunk of the greatest pop songs ever written, and that, in the end, is the reason why they remain so revered. The Rolling Stones albums had filler material here and there; every band’s albums did. The Beatles didn’t – not really. Even the novelty songs they got Ringo to sing, the music hall witterings McCartney loved so much, the eastern noodlings which Harrison brought to the table, and the wildest excesses of Lennon’s imagination all brought something interesting and listenable (although we’ll get to Revolution in due course…)
So, what about ‘Please Please Me’? How do I put the first Beatles album into context?
Well, how about this – it isn’t the first Beatles album.
I mean, it obviously is, but there’s a precursor. During the Hamburg days, the boys occasionally worked as backing band to Tony Sheridan, and his German album ‘My Bonnie’ features some tracks recorded with the Beatles as they were then – with Pete Best on drums, but without regular bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, a move which forced McCartney to play bass for the sessions. Most of the album features other musicians, but the title track does showcase what the band sounded like in the middle of 1961:
Debate rages over whether that actually is Pete Best on drums; let’s say it is, but feel free to pore over all the available evidence.
Some of the other ‘My Bonnie’ songs – including the delightfully-named ‘Take Out Some Insurance’ – were later released, and turn up on rarities compilations to this day. However you look at the Hamburg sessions, there’s no real argument that ‘Please Please Me’ is the first actual Beatles recording – the four of them (Starr having been poached from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes to replace Best, who was struggling to keep up with the playing of the others) together in the studio with George Martin producing.
In 1963, pop groups sold singles, and put out albums for those people who wanted a little more. LP sales were not considered particularly important – LPs were the preserve of jazz musicians, crooners and soundtracks, whether to movies or West End / Broadway shows. If you were a new or established pop act, you would lump all your singles together, and pad the LP out to about 30 minutes with other songs which were not strong enough to be released on 7″. As a rule, you didn’t actually write any of this stuff, so there was no particular pressure on you to put an album together; you’d just be offered a handful of songs not deemed quite good enough for single release by other artists.
Not for the last time, the Beatles changed all that. Not with this album specifically, although there were early signs of things to come – eight of the 14 tracks on ‘Please Please Me’ were written by the band, including non-singles like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret’ which became standards anyway thanks to being singles in the US much later on. What changed was how record labels looked at LPs, because this album stuck around at the top of the album charts for most of 1963 – unheard of for a pop band – and was only dislodged by the Beatles’ second album. Clearly there was money to be made at 33rpm as well as 45…
This album didn’t see the light of day in North America – the USA was a distant dream when it was recorded – which led to the convoluted and intractable situation which followed for the next couple of years, as competing record labels pumped out endless more or less official Beatles albums, but we’ll get to that…
So, what does it sound like now?
To these ears, it’s wild and raw; the sound of a band who are finally getting the shot at stardom they had been working for and were not prepared to let slip. Famously, it was recorded in one day, and consists pretty much of their Cavern Club set as it was towards the end of 1962 – a mix of originals and (mostly) well-known and loved standards. There’s a Goffin and King song on there, a Burt Bacharach song, and – of course – it ends with the force of nature which is Lennon howling his way through ‘Twist and Shout’ – left to last, as Martin was concerned he might not have a voice left after it. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, clocking in at just over half an hour, but it covers the full range of Beatles material at the time – all four of them get a lead vocal (Ringo tackling the Shirelles hit ‘Boys’, which sounds odd to modern ears, but it wasn’t unusual for songs to be recorded cross-gender. More innocent times, I think is the usual explanation) and all of them get to shine instrumentally – another thing which wasn’t always the case – many bands of the time would happily wheel in session musicians to make the thing go faster, but the Beatles were the real deal, and I think you can hear even on the relatively simple arrangements that this is a tight, well-honed band in full charge of their instruments. There are a couple of overdubs, and Martin added some keyboards to two tracks about a week later, but otherwise it is exactly as it sounded on the day.
The other obvious thing for modern ears listening to this is that it’s recorded in mono. Stereo was still the preserve of the serious audiophile, and both the equipment needed to play it back and the disks themselves were prohibitively expensive, especially for fans of a pop group. Therefore, everything was reproduced as a single source. A stereo mix does exist, but it is simply the two tracks which were laid down in the studio separated to appear one in each speaker, and sounds extremely odd to modern ears, as one track was generally reserved for the vocals, and one for everything else. Mono was how it was intended to be heard, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. If anything, it adds to the rough and ready feel of the whole thing – there’s an immediacy and excitement to it all which still oozes from every track.
I maintain that every Beatles album cover is iconic, and this is where it all started. It’s a simple idea, beautifully executed, and often copied and parodied but never bettered as an expression of the sheer joy of being in a band with your mates, about to become the biggest thing in the world.
It was released in early 1963. It has never been out of print in the succeeding 55 years, which probably says everything that needs to be said about it. It lacks the sophistication and experimentation which took the Beatles from good to great to one-of-a-kind, but it more than makes up for that with its sheer infectious enthusiasm. It might not be the first Beatles album you reach for, but it should be up near the top of the pile.