Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Would The Real Drummer On "Please Please Me" Please Please Stand Up?

Most Fab Four fans are aware that "Please Please Me" was the Beatles' second 7” single release in the UK, and arguably their first number one record. The track, along with its flip side "Ask Me Why," was recorded on November 26, 1962, exactly 49 years ago this week. We all know that the single featured the now familiar line-up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr on drums, and followed the shaky start of their debut UK single "Love Me Do." That track required a total of three drummers and three recording sessions to get it right.
However, the release of Anthology 1 in 1995, and particularly its inclusion of an earlier recording of "Please Please Me," introduced some confusion into the song’s history. The existence of that version also provokes some interesting questions which have, as yet, remained unanswered. From which recording session did this version originate, and depending on the answer to that question, who sat on the drum stool as it was taped? In the red corner we have Liverpool's own Ringo Starr; in the blue, Glaswegian session drummer Andy White. In the interest of historical accuracy (and Beatles geekery) we put this session under the microscope.
The stuttering start to the Beatles' EMI recording career between June and September 1962 witnessed the dismissal of one drummer (Pete Best), and the temporary suspension of another (Starr) in favour of installing a seasoned professional (Andy White) for the "Love Me Do" session of September 11, 1962. The fading memories of all involved have, too often, conflicted in comparative recollections regarding these early sessions.

Furthermore, the fact that EMI willingly destroyed the tapes and all session sheets after the recordings means that there is no existing evidence to study, other than the finished product itself of course. This is why the sudden appearance of an earlier recording of "Please Please Me" in 1994 is so interesting; here at last was an existing piece of evidence which could be compared with the final released version recorded on November 26, 1962. But at which early Beatles session was this earlier version captured – September 4 and 11, or November 26?
The official sleeve notes on Anthology tell us that the acetate (flexible plastic disc cut at the end of a session) dates from September 11, and various internet sources suggest this disc contains a catalogue number of E47852. This is of course the infamous session for which George Martin had hired professional drummer White, and during which the Beatles, with White on drums, cut the versions of "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You" which were featured on the Please Please Me LP.
The sleeve notes also suggest that the song was recorded with White on drums and not Starr. These details match (or perhaps are based upon) session producer Ron Richard’s recollections that Starr did not play drums at all that day. However, the appearance of the acetate in 1994 seems to fly in the face of these "facts," particularly as it conflicted with the well-known remarks of Beatles producer Martin.
Martin has always claimed that the group brought him "Please Please Me" on September 11, and that he had deemed it unfit for release at that time. He claims it was "very slow" and "very dreary." He advised them to speed it up and add some tight harmonies. The problem is that these remarks just don’t fit the rediscovered acetate. Anyone with a half-decent pair of ears can tell that this version is incredibly close in arrangement and performance to the released version. It’s practically identical in tempo, and is certainly not "very slow" in comparison.
All the elements (harmonica excluded) in the final released version are present in this earlier version. The song’s signature hooks are clearly in place as are the stops and starts, as are Harrison’s scaled guitar intro on each verse, his verse-chorus splitting riff, the call and response “c’mon, c’mon” of the chorus, and the busy drum fills which permeate the track. Most convincingly, the tight harmonies (which Martin claims to have requested) are present and accounted for in this earlier version.
So, is Martin simply confused, a victim of mixed memories in a head rammed to the bursting point with dates and sessions, songs and faces? Perhaps he was referring to the yet earlier session of September 4, during which "Please Please Me" was first presented to EMI in a rehearsal, but not recorded?
Surely we can turn to the established Beatles scholars for answers. Famed Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, author of the seminal and wonderful The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, attributes the drum credits on September 11 (including this attempt at recording "Please Please Me") to White, with no mention of Starr, aside from his tambourine and maraca cameos. Lewisohn was, after all, writing six years before the discovery of the earlier acetate version. His work was so definitive that its details have never been questioned or revisited, and pretty much every author who picks up the story thereafter falls in with Lewisohn’s production credits. John C. Winn in Way Beyond Compare: The Beatles Recorded Legacy also echoes Lewisohn’s credits.
Curiously however, critic Ian McDonald in Revolution In The Head: The Beatles Records And The Sixties, claims that the newly discovered version was actually an earlier take from the November 26 session which harvested the released version. McDonald seems to offer this alternate idea as an afterthought; it’s even presented in parenthesis. The problem is that he fails to reference it at all. A common problem throughout his book is the author’s replacement of fact with his own opinion, and this remark seems to be no different. Besides, why would EMI staff cut an acetate of an inferior and seemingly random take of a song, from an evening that produced the final released master version? It makes no sense.

It seems we are left to conclude that the rediscovered acetate was a cut from the session of September 11 after all, and the overwhelming written evidence seems to point towards White on drums.

But wait – the defence has just produced a star witness, and as his memories were recorded in 2005, none of the classic Beatles scholars have had a chance (or bothered) to depose him. Geoff Emerick, the young engineer behind the sounds captured on Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and so much more in the Beatles' later canon, was in 1962 a young EMI apprentice tape-op (button pusher to you and me). Emerick was present at the September 11 session (aged 16), and in his book Here There And Everywhere: My Life Recording The Beatles, he recalls that after White had recorded drums on "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You," he packed up and left. Emerick witnessed Beatles roadie Mal Evans setting up Starr's kit, and later the group’s recording of "Please Please Me" with Starr on drums. Thank goodness for that, because to be honest, the drumming style and feel on both versions seems just too close to be the work of two separate drummers, captured almost three months apart. Of course Emerick too could be wrong.
Occam’s Razor specifies that all things being equal, the simpler explanation is the most likely one. With that in mind, are we to believe that White, during a short three-hour session which involved recording three songs, had time to work out and rehearse a drum pattern to a song which he had never heard before, and which contained a complex arrangement of stops and starts? If so, that means Starr must have copied White's contributions verbatim, and reproduced them for the November session. Or, is it more likely that White packed up for the night with his job done, allowing Starr the opportunity to step in on an unscheduled attempt at taping a new song, one which he and the band had previously worked on during rehearsals?
Why should we really care who played on that particular track? I mean does it really matter in the grand scheme of things who sat on a drum stool in a room 49 years ago? Of course not.
On the other hand, as interest in the Beatles shows no signs of waning, and the growing number of new and old Beatles books stress-test the industrial shelving in Amazon's aircraft-hanger sized warehouses, I think it's important to focus on facts over opinion. Many of these Beatles books still retain glaring inaccuracies, questionable myths, and more annoyingly, journalistic opinion. It's important that we continue to ask questions and seek the objective truth behind the band's history, in the same way we would treat any other historical topic.
We may never know for sure who sat on the "beat-seat" for this early recording, but based on the available evidence, my money’s on Ringo Starr.

If you like this article check out the new Please Please Me album guide, available on iPad/iPhone and Kindle, from December 2011. For more details visit:

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