Monday, January 9, 2012

49 Years Ago This Week, The Beatles Release Their Second 7” Single: Please Please Me

Article first published as 49 Years Ago This Week, The Beatles Release Their Second 7” Single: Please Please Me on Blogcritics.

Released during one of the bitterest winters in British history, ‘Please Please Me’ helped to initiate a post-war socio-cultural thaw among British youth. The release had a similar effect on its UK audience that ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ would have upon a US audience almost twelve months later.
Released on January 11th 1963, the records meteoric ascent up the charts brought the Beatles into virtually every British home, against the backdrop of the freezing winter and the unfolding political sex scandal of the Profumo affair.

Written in John Lennon’s childhood bedroom as a deliberate bluesy attempt at emulating Roy Orbison, ‘Please Please Me’ became the Beatles’ first number one (NME and Melody Maker polls) hit single in the UK, catapulting the group out of Liverpool and installing them as overnight national stars in one swoop.
In 1980 its author reflected:

‘Please Please Me’ is my song completely. It was my attempt at writing a Roy Orbison song, would you believe it? I wrote it in the bedroom in my house at Menlove Avenue, which was my auntie’s place. I heard Roy Orbison doing ‘Only The Lonely’ or something. That’s where that came from. And also I was always intrigued by the words of ‘Please Lend Your Ears To My Pleas,’ a Bing Crosby song. I was always intrigued by the double use of the word ‘please.’ So it was a combination of Bing Crosby and Roy Orbison."...John Lennon

Lennon must have composed the song sometime between June and September 1962 as it was not presented at the first EMI session on June 6th or at the earlier Decca audition in January of that year.

‘Please Please Me’ first appeared in the studio on September 4th 1962 during the recording session for ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘How Do You Do It’. It was rehearsed during a run-through presided over by EMI producer, Ron Richards, from 2:30 to 5:00 pm, with new Beatle, Ringo Starr, behind the drum kit.
The song was certainly in its infancy on September 4th, with a number of differences from the eventual official release. Probably slower in tempo, this earlier version featured Harrison playing the scaled guitar riff throughout the verses rather than at only the beginning of each. This repetition eventually grated on Richards’ ears, prompting him to lose his patience, declaring, “For Christ’s sake, George, just play it in the gaps!”

One week later, during the September 11th session, the Beatles recorded ‘P.S. I Love You’ and ‘Love Me Do’ with session musician Andy White on drums. Starr was also in attendance, and participated by playing maracas and tambourine. Perhaps cautious of Starr’s abilities, George Martin had arranged for a session drummer to attend on the day.
With the session winding to a close, the group attempted a taping of ‘Please Please Me’. However, according to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, George Martin was unhappy with the results and advised them to add harmonies and speed it up:

“At that stage ‘Please Please Me’ was a very dreary song. It was like a Roy Orbison number, very slow, bluesy vocals. It was obvious to me that it badly needed pepping up. I told them to bring it in next time and we’d have another go at it.”...George Martin, (Lewisohn: The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, p.20)

There is evident confusion about which session Martin was at when he dispensed this advice. The rediscovered version of ‘Please Please Me’ from September 11th, once thought lost and later included on ‘Anthology 1’, presents the song in almost identical form to the final version, recorded on November 26th.

The structure is identical to the completed version, as are the melody and harmonies. Most convincingly, the song’s signature hooks are clearly in place. These include the stops and starts, 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. There is also little difference in the tempo of these two versions, which conflicts significantly with Martin’s claim that at this stage (September 11th) the song was “very slow”.  

So is it possible Martin actually made the comments based on the version rehearsed the previous week (September 4th) with Ron Richards at the helm? If so, then the problem is that Martin was reportedly not present at this pre-session rehearsal.

Confusing? Yes. However, it serves as a reminder that when analysing Beatles’ recordings, individual and collective accounts often conflict and can never be totally trusted without corroborative evidence.

There is also confusion about which drummer can be heard on the rediscovered September 11th recording. Ron Richards stated that Starr did not play drums at all that day. However Geoff Emerick, then a young apprentice tape-op, recalled how session drummer Andy White was dismissed after his input on ‘Love Me Do’/’P.S. I Love You’. Emerick remembers Beatles roadie, Mal Evans, setting up Starr’s kit as White was leaving. To further confuse matters, Emerick also recalls this version of ‘Please Please Me’ being slow in tempo, a claim that the resurfaced recording seems to contradict.
We can never state categorically who sat on the drum stool during this early demo of ‘Please, Please Me’. However it seems probable, based on the similar styles evident on the September 11th and November 26th versions, and with Geoff Emerick’s recollections of the session, that with ‘Love Me Do’/’PS I Love You’ in the bag on September 11th and his job complete, Andy White may have handed over the drum stool to Starr.

The style of drumming, the snare and tom-tom fills, the stops and starts, indeed the pace and overall feeling on both tracks (Sept 11th/Nov 26th) are too similar, one might argue, to be the creative input of two different drummers, two months apart.

In fact, apart from a slight change in the snare/tom-tom fills leading into the bridge, the main drum pattern and the fills for each dynamic verse-chorus-bridge intro/outro are nearly identical. The brisk, energetic flurries of each of these fills, and in particular the identical ‘machine-gun’ phrased ending on the snare on both versions sound very much like Starr’s signature style.

Despite confusion over earlier sessions, on November 26th 1962 the Beatles did regroup at Abbey Road studios with a reworking of the composition which was tight and explosive. Taping began in earnest around 8:00 pm and was completed in 18 takes. Starr’s performance on the drums that evening was so incandescent, that he permanently banished any notions that he was another ‘Pete Best’.
‘Please Please Me’ begins with a hammer ‘baddum-dum’ pluck of the A string in E major, probably played on Harrison’s Gretsch (or Lennon’s Gibson J160E). This introduces us to the main hook of the song; Harrison’s scaled intro on guitar coupled with Lennon’s harmonica (overdubbed later in the session). The clever use of harmonica provides a familiar continuity with the group’s debut single, helping to establish a signature sound.

Just as the previous release, ‘Love Me Do’, may have been influenced by ‘Bye Bye Love’, the harmonies on ‘Please Please Me’ are most likely borrowed from another Everly Brothers single. Lennon’s lower melody, accompanied by McCartney’s high ‘E’, is particularly reminiscent of the style employed on the Everly’s 1960 hit ‘Cathy’s Clown’.

The vocals are utterly resolute, introducing the listener to the plight of the protagonist (thought to be attempting to coax his partner into engaging in oral sex). The animated, rushed climb of the chords, from G through A to B, matched by Starr’s energetic fills after the first line, serves to underline a climactic, sexually frustrated desperation. A sudden stop on ‘E’, preceded by some brisk strumming on guitar, again matched by Starr, introduces Harrison’s fat rockabilly riff on ‘E’. Lennon’s four desperate “C’mon” calls are delivered with a gruff sincerity. Each is answered by Harrison and McCartney, providing the representation of peer pressure.

A cleverly truncated scaled riff drops the listener into the bridge, courtesy of some expressive snare/tom-tom fills from Starr, who then deploys a Latin tinged rhythm, complete with a ‘cha-cha-cha’ response on the snare. During the bridge, Lennon explains why he’s expecting to be pleased, while McCartney and Harrison provide harmonies that would make Buddy Holly’s Crickets proud. In fact, the line referring to “rain in my heart” is borrowed from Holly’s ‘Raining In My Heart’ (1959). However what really broke ground here in contemporary pop music was the audacious ending.

The coda concludes with an aptly climactic triplet of repetitive pleading, with the last “you” held and then bent in falsetto. Meanwhile the guitars rise and fall through a climactic chord sequence, interspersed by a fill of four, even sixteenth notes on the snare. The result was one of the most revolutionary two minutes of pop committed to tape at the time.
George Martin certainly thought so. At the end of the final take he switched on the talk-back mic from the control room where he was sitting and remarked...

“You’ve just made your first Number One”...George Martin
...his prediction was not wrong.

Interestingly, an unsolved issue with the original master tape from the November 26th session forced George Martin to create the stereo mix of ‘Please Please Me’ from three separate takes (16, 17, and 18). One of these takes featured a lyrical fluff by Lennon, who mixes up his lines with McCartney’s. This error remains on the stereo mix at 1:27 as does the chuckle from Lennon during the first “C’mon” at 1:33, in acknowledgment of the error.

Upon its UK release, the single reached number one on both the NME and Melody Maker polls.
In the US the single was offered to, and rejected by Capitol Records. This blend of R&B was traditionally associated with black musicians and Capitol were thought to have believed that the sound was too raucous for a white group and, that the sexual reference within the song was too risqué for a US release. It seems unlikely however that the Beatles’ ethnic background would pose a problem for a society which had experienced white musicians such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly playing R&B seven years previously. The most likely explanation is that Capitol executives were simply deaf to a new sound when they heard it, and skeptical of a new musical phenomenon from England, an unlikely source of a rock ‘n’ roll revolution.

After the release of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ in the US, and the subsequent explosion of Beatlemania, ‘Please Please Me’ was re-released and peaked at number 3 in the Billboard Hot 100. The two songs at numbers 1 and 2 were; ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘She Loves You’ respectively.

The release of ‘Love Me Do’/’P.S. I Love You’ had guaranteed the group’s debut release was comprised exclusively of McCartney compositions. Now, ‘Please Please Me’/’Ask Me Why’ ensured their second release was a totally Lennon affair. Over the next year, while busy conquering the world, most of their single releases would be joint ventures.

This article is an excerpt from the App/eBook; Please Please Me – The AlbumGuide. Created by Dinosaur Album Guides, this guide is available on iPad and Kindle, and on multiple devices (PC/Mac/Android/iPhone/Blackberry) using Amazon’s free Kindle reader application.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Beatles Road Manager and Gentle Giant Remembered, 36 Years After His Death

Article first published as The Beatles Road Manager and Gentle Giant Remembered, 36 Years After His Death on Blogcritics.

There are many contenders for the coveted title of "Fifth Beatle." Some qualify due to their brief yet influential period as a fifth musical component of the Beatles' early career. Candidates include Stu Sutcliffe (bass) and Pete Best (drums) and to a lesser degree Chas Newby, who temporarily replaced Sutcliffe on bass, and who declined John Lennon’s request to join the group permanently in Hamburg in favour of returning to University. 

Others qualify due to their business relationship with the group, Brian Epstein and Neil Aspinall spring to mind. Then you have production candidates: Geoff Emerick, Norman Smith and of course "Fifth Beatle" extraordinaire, George Martin. There is one candidate however who fits almost all criteria as "Fifth Beatle", and who spent more time with the group than possibly anyone else in their short professional career. Road manager, bouncer, minder, nursemaid, travelling companion, loyal friend, session musician, talent scout, producer and general dogsbody: step forward, Mr. Fixit, otherwise known as Mal Evans. 

Born in 1935, Malcolm Evans was already married with a young family, a mortgage and a steady job as a communications engineer with the Post Office when he stumbled into a lunchtime Beatles session in 1962, altering his fate forever. After quickly befriending the group, George Harrison recommended Evans to Cavern owner Ray McFall as a bouncer at the chaotic underground entrance of the busy Liverpool music venue. This was a job that fit naturally with his calm demeanour and intimidating 6’6” hulking frame. In August 1962, just before Ringo Starr replaced Best and the group’s career began to take off, Evans was hired by Brian Epstein to assist Aspinall in roadie duties. He soon became the default van driver, the man who patiently set up the group’s backline equipment, tested it, stood by prepared for all disasters, and packed the van up again after the show had ended. 

As Beatlemania emerged, Evans fulfilled a pivotal role beyond stage duties by serving as the royal guard, protecting the group from hordes of fans while also performing the discreet role of minister of selection for female companionship. In other words, Evans would be sent out from hotel rooms to find suitable groupies to party with the boys. Evans has the unique distinction of being present at every Beatles concert from the time he started working with them. From the ballrooms and clubs of early 1960s Britain to the baseball stadiums and orchestral bowls of the world’s finest cities, if there was a fly on the wall, it was Mal Evans. 

It was Evans who punched out a cracked windscreen on a freezing motorway and drove hundreds of miles through the night into howling winds while the group drank whiskey and huddled for warmth in the back. Evans was also frog-marched off the plane alongside Epstein in Manila, and punched by crowds when the Beatles came close to being lynched by a mob in 1966. His duties on the road brought him into close personal contact with the group, and Evans maintained a relationship and trust with all four Beatles which perhaps extended beyond that of their own wives and girlfriends. 

He seemed to have enjoyed a particularly close relationship with both Lennon and Paul McCartney. He accompanied McCartney on a European road trip and African safari during the group’s career hiatus after ceasing touring in 1966, and he was also known to serve as the group’s watchdog when they were dropping acid. As they "turned on", Evans would remain with them to ensure their trips did not go bad or end in disaster. 

This relationship was, however, almost completely one-sided. Although Evans was an insider on the rollercoaster that was Beatlemania, he was also often subjected to verbal abuse, becoming the scapegoat for anything that went wrong during a gig. He was subjected to Lennon’s wrath many times, particularly for the theft of his beloved Gibson J160E acoustic guitar after a Christmas show in 1963. His role in the group’s circle was somewhat accurately portrayed in the 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night by the roadie character Shake. Harrison’s line “Shake, where’s me other boot? And would you get us some tea while you’re there" seemed to echo Lennon’s supposed trademark bark in Evans’ direction: “Mal, Socks!" 

Evans not only appears in A Hard Day’s Night himself (carrying a cello down a hallway), but he has the distinction of appearing in every Beatles film, Yellow Submarine excepted. He appeared as a lost long-distance swimmer (Help!), a magician (Magical Mystery Tour), and several times as himself (Let It Be). 

In addition to movie cameos, Evans also appears on several Beatles recordings despite being unable to play an instrument. The impressive run of credits include “You Won’t See Me” (organ, single note), “Yellow Submarine” (bass drum and vocals), “A Day In The Life” (ending piano, clock, and counting voice), “Strawberry Fields Forever” (tambourine), “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite” (harmonica), “Magical Mystery Tour” (various percussion), “You Know My Name, Look Up The Number” (spade in gravel), “Helter Skelter” (trumpet), “What’s The New Mary Jane” (possibly handbell), “Dear Prudence” (backing vocals, handclaps), “Birthday” (handclaps), and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (anvil). 

The highlight of Evans' career with the Beatles, however, must have been August 27, 1965. The big man never made any qualms about the fact that his idol was the King of Rock 'n Roll, even if his wages were paid by the Beatles. So it must have been the most surreal event of Evans' life to find himself suddenly socialising in the Bel Air mansion of Elvis Presley himself. Evans had worn a suit and tie for the occasion, and was reported to have been totally starstruck after shaking Presley's hand. 

During the chaos of the Apple years, Evans was given extended responsibilities, and is credited with discovering The Iveys, later Badfinger. He also enjoyed a brief period as a record producer for Apple Records, before finding that business and finances were stronger than loyalty and friendship. Evans kept a regular diary through the Beatle days, and on January 13th 1969 he wrote: 

Paul [McCartney] is really cutting down on the Apple staff members. I was elevated to office boy and I feel very hurt and sad inside—only big boys don't cry. Why I should feel hurt and reason for writing this is ego... I thought I was different from other people in my relationship with The Beatles and being loved by them and treated so nice, I felt like one of the family. Seems I fetch and carry. I find it difficult to live on the £38 I take home each week and would love to be like their other friends who buy fantastic homes and have all the alterations done by them, and are still going to ask for a rise. I always tell myself—look, everybody wants to take from, be satisfied, try to give and you will receive. After all this time I have about £70 to my name, but was content and happy. Loving them as I do, nothing is too much trouble, because I want to serve them. Feel a bit better now—EGO? 

It seems some Beatle associates were more equal than others. One might speculate that his position as dogsbody lost him the respect of the employers he saw as friends. As a jack of all trades, he never seemed to settle on one role. 

Evans found himself in such dire financial straits by 1969 that he was forced to ask Harrison for a raise, and when the Beatles imploded the following year, Evans found himself adrift and out of work. He roadied again for Lennon and his Plastic Ono Band, and spent the next few years alternating between sparse production work and various solo Beatle projects. 

When Lennon separated from Yoko Ono and stumbled drunkenly around L.A. for a year and a half, Evans was on hand to serve his old master. Once Lennon had reunited with Ono however, he was again surplus to requirements. 

In 1976, while still living in LA and separated from his wife and kids, Evans was working on the memoirs of his Beatle days Living The Beatles' Legend. He became increasingly depressed after his wife requested a divorce, and was drinking and taking pills. Following a fracas with his partner at his rented house in an L.A. suburb, the police were called and informed that Evans had a gun. Apparently drunk and disoriented from valium, Evans refused to drop his gun upon request, and 36 years ago on January 5, 1976, he was shot several times. He died instantly, and later was found to be in possession of an air rifle. 

Like his friend and former employer, shot dead four years later, Evans was 40 years old. Sadly, none of the former Beatles attended his funeral service or cremation, although Harrison did see that his wife receive £5,000. Evans became another victim of life after the Beatles’ success, and like Brian Epstein and John Lennon, had his life cut tragically short. 

Evans was there throughout all of Beatlemania, through the drugs, the fights, the triumphs, the letdowns, the implosion, even the fisticuffs. No one, aside from Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr, was as exposed as Evans was to the Beatles’ incredible rollercoaster ride. As yet, no book has been published from his memoirs. This unique fly-on-the-wall witnessed it all. Evans, the old workhorse and real unsung hero of the Beatles' incredible saga, could have told some stories.

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