Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Please Please Me: The Beatles Debut Album At 50

What did you do today? If you spent 12 hours creating a body of work in your name which would launch your artistic career and, almost half a century later was still the discussion of critics and fans, then you are either a genius, extremely hardworking, fortunate, or a little of all three.

Yet, when they recorded the bulk of their debut album on Monday February 11th 1963, that is exactly what a hopeful, young band of rock 'n' roll musicians with rough edges and a head full of ambition did, at EMI's recording studios in London's St John's Wood.
With its lyrical themes of teen angst, insecurity, euphoric joy, love and depression, combined with the high octane rock ‘n’ roll of its loud guitars and trashy open high-hats, the release of Please Please Me in March 1963 was a seminal moment in the history of British rock music.
Its success at home paved the way for the Beatles’ relentless evolution throughout 1963, culminating in their international explosion in 1964. The album's release launched a career which would radically alter not only every facet of popular music, but also the very essence of the music and entertainment industries themselves.

Please Please Me retains an impressive innocence and optimism, captured on the very eve of the early '60s socio-cultural revolutionary explosions; a global experience to which The Beatles were inextricably linked. The collective optimism enshrined on Please Please Me contrasts significantly with the individual optimism contained on Abbey Road; emblazoned with themes of either escaping, or hiding from, the nightmare of personal and business issues facing the group, and the pursuit of a life beyond 'Beatles'.

Besides the lyrical themes, the two albums which bookend the groups recording career are polar opposites in so many ways, that not only do they sound like two different groups, but two different groups in different decades (which of course they almost are). Abbey Road retains almost nothing of the Beatles distinctive early and mid '60s sound, and the musicianship, style, mood, approach and technical production of Abbey Road are almost incomparable with its two-track, recorded-all-in-one-day, pre-historic ancestor.

This fact serves to drive home the reality that not only were the four musicians who entered EMI studios in 1962, and finally exited the building in 1969, unrecognizable from each other, physically, mentally, and even spiritually, but so also was the music industry which had sustained them throughout those years.
That industry had changed radically. The Beatles had blazed such a trail in seven short years, that where you could play, what you could play, and how you could record it had altered drastically. These changes were most significant from 1965-1967, when the group reached their artistic peak, but they had also been occurring, albeit more subtly, in their earlier albums.

Please Please Me marked the beginning of all of this.

At the outset of their rocky and shadowy EMI beginnings, there was no inevitable indication of the enormous domestic and international success which was to follow in 1963 and 1964 respectively. Yet in retrospect, it’s all too easy to view the Beatles’ recording carer from a rose-tinted, perspective of chronological inevitability; the result of the group’s ever evolving individual and collective ‘genius’ if you will. There’s little doubt that they possessed talent in abundance. Yet to attribute their fame to that talent alone robs us of the many random incidents, or cleverly orchestrated circumstances which helped to engender their early success.

Following the surprising success of the groups second 7" single; 'Please Please Me' throughout January and February of 1963, the Beatles were pulled from a national tour in order to capitalise quickly on the groups present popularity.

EMI Producer George Martin's original intention for a Beatles’ debut album had been to travel to The Cavern Club in Liverpool, and record the group’s live act straight to tape. Martin was keen to capture the raw so-called ‘Merseybeat’ sound spilling out of Liverpool’s clubs, and at the time this proto-rock sound was an entirely live affair.

However, after witnessing the Cavern’s dark, low ceilings of grimy, sweaty brick and its rambling ante-chambers firsthand, he realised that his plan to capture a live album would never work acoustically. He decided instead to invite the band down to EMI Studio Two in North London to record the cream of their live act in one long day, with little or no overdubs.

The group took a day’s rest from their relentless touring schedule, bowing out of their double-house (two performances at the same venue on the same day) engagement in Peterborough on Sunday February 10th. Having arrived in London following a performance in Sunderland on Saturday 9th, the Beatles relaxed before turning up at EMI studios on February 11th for two pre-booked sessions; a third was added as the day progressed.

"The whole album only took a day so it was amazingly cheap, no-messing, just massive effort from us. But we were game, we'd been to Hamburg for Christ's sake, we'd stayed up all night, it was no big deal. We started at ten in the morning and finished at ten at night [...] and at the end of the day you had your album."...Paul McCartney (Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, 1988, p.11)

The unique sound of the Please Please Me album, particularly in relation to the Beatles’ subsequent early albums, owed much to Martin’s live approach to production and, more importantly, engineer Norman Smith’s skill at turning Martin’s ideas into reality. To add to the live approach, Smith broke with the usual EMI practice of sound separation and close instrument microphone placement and actually encouraged leakage, or ‘bleed’, between microphones during the recording. Studio protocol at the time dictated that the best sound reproduction could be achieved by placing microphones close to the instruments, thus minimising the amount of audio lost between an instrument and its microphone.

This practice also tended to reduce leakage, which occurs when microphones unintentionally pick up sound from another instrument. With the microphones placed several feet away from the amplifiers and drums, the production team allowed a more natural live sound to occur by encouraging leakage.
Martin and Smith understood that the Beatles were essentially a live club-band and would perform at their best when placed in as natural an environment as possible. This meant minimising the separation between the musicians on the studio floor and thus abandoning the use of baffles; artificial studio walls which were used to separate sounds, but often acted as physical barriers between a group’s performing dynamic. In addition Smith also placed ambient microphones at various locations on the studio floor.

By placing ambient microphones within the room Smith captured the sound of the instruments bouncing around the studio and added to the live quality of the record.
This deliberate leakage is best demonstrated when playing the stereo version of the album. The right channel was used to isolate vocals, if the listener pans their balance fader hard to the right; they can hear how the instrumentation, most notably the drums, has bled onto the track.

The Beatles instrumentation on the album was a fairly uncomplicated affair at this point of their early career, as they simply didn't possess a large cache of instruments. Those they did possess however were essential for providing the exciting ingredients which made up that early Beatles sound.
Lennon played the 1958 Rickenbacker 325 Electric guitar he had acquired in Hamburg three years earlier, but his chief instrument on the day was probably his 1962 Gibson Electric-Acoustic. This was played both through his Vox AC30 amp, and mic'd acoustically. Harrison used both his 1957 Gretsch Duo Jet, and his Gibson Electric-Acoustic, also through a Vox AC30. McCartney played his 1961 Hofner 500/1 bass, which had also been acquired in Hamburg, and he was still playing this through a specially rigged head and speaker cabinet. He too would acquire a Vox amp later in the year.

Starr had yet to upgrade to his first Ludwig kit, and was still playing a Premier 54/58 combo with Zyn cymbals; hardly a professinoal standard kit. Yet the monstrous drum sound on the album is a testament not only to Norman Smith's engineering capabilities, but also to Starr's rock solid style of heavy playing.

Playing rock 'n' roll at 10am on a Monday morning was hardly what you might call 'rock 'n' roll', but this was the professional league, and so the sessions begin in the AM led by 'There's A Place' and 'I Saw Her Standing There'. Following a break from 1-2:30pm, the group recorded 'A Taste Of Honey', Do You Want To Know A Secret' and 'Misery'. After yet another 90 minute break, the Beatles stepped up a few gears and thumped out many of their favourite live R&B covers in a minimum of takes (after an abandoned attempt at recording another original; 'Hold Me Tight'). 'Anna (Go To Him)', 'Boys', 'Chains', 'Baby It's You' and 'Twist And Shout' were all captured in a final session lasting from 7-10:30pm.

With ‘Baby It’s You’ just completed and the clock showing 10pm, the group had by then taped a total of ten songs. The prodigious one day recording session was drawing to a close and the studio was about to shut down for the night. George Martin wanted one more song however, to add to the four captured in 1962, and to complete the album.

In an effort to maximise their shrinking window of time, dissipating energy and raw vocal chords, the group set up in Studio Two as if playing to a live audience and prepared for a Blitzkrieg on The Isley Brothers hit; 'Twist And Shout'. The plan was to pull a stunning take out of the bag, drawn from pure adrenalin, and it worked. A small crowd of onlookers gathered round as John Lennon stripped to the waist, washed several throat lozenges down with milk and proceeded to lay down possibly the twentieth century’s most riotous vocal performance on one of rock music’s first real recordings.

The marathon one day session ended with a bang which stunned and caught the attention of the EMI staff who witnessed the performance first hand. In fact, for days afterwards, EMI engineers were playing each other the tape of the recording, and they all agreed on one thing; none of them had heard anything like it before.
The album was finally in the bag, and the entire crew of musician’s and EMI staff were so impressed with the results that they broke studio protocol by remaining in the control room, listening to repeated playbacks. At this point, nobody present fully grasped the significance of the groundbreaking event they had witnessed or participated in, it was just another day’s work. To all and sundry it must have seemed like business as usual. Half a century later, that single day’s recording is recognised as a defining moment in the history of popular music.

“You know, waiting to hear that LP back was one of our most worrying experiences. As it happens, we were dead chuffed, or to put in another way, we were very happy with it”...John Lennon (Badman, Keith, The Beatles Off The Record, p.50)

“This album was one of the main ambitions in our lives, we felt that it would be a showcase for the group and it was tremendously important for us that it sounded bang on the button. As it happened, we were pleased. If not, sore throats or not, we’d have done it all over again. That was the mood we were in. It was break or bust for us.”...Paul McCartney (Badman, Keith, The Beatles Off The Record, p.52)

In fairness, it was common practice at the time for an artist to record a collection of songs in one day, in order to compliment previously released singles with a Long Playing release. What the Beatles accomplished that day is less remarkable as a logistical feat, and more so for the quality of the finished product, and its longevity as a seminal rock album.
Indeed, Please Please Me remains a unique historical document. The album captured an energetic, exciting rock band live on tape right at the moment they were being pushed through a directional change, just as the genre of ‘rock’ music itself was being born.

“That record [Please Please Me] tried to capture us live, and was the nearest thing to what we might have sounded like in Hamburg or Liverpool.”...John Lennon (Ryan, Kevin & Keweh, Brian, RTBBOOK, Recording The Beatles, p.355)

Sales of the single ‘Please Please Me’ had just begun to drop off when the album of the same name (a deliberate marketing ploy to link the album to the single) hit the shops in an EMI rush release on March 22nd 1963. The arrival of the LP fuelled a frenzied interest in the group, who seemed to have come out of nowhere a few months earlier when they appeared on the television showThank Your Lucky Stars.

“I’ve never heard that sound from English musicians before. Honestly, if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes I’d have thought they were a coloured group from back home.”...Little Richard (NME, February 1st 1963)

In 1963 Please Please Me was as much of a radical break with mainstream pop as Elvis Presley’s outrageous rhythms and movements had been in 1956. Coincidentally the ‘1-2-3-4!’ count-in from McCartney, which introduced the opening track, echoed the “One for the money – two for the show” count-in from ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, on Presley's debut.
Both title tracks, both debut albums by seminal rock ’n’ roll artists, seven years apart. Presley was once at the centre of a whirlwind of socio-cultural change, whipping up adolescent-teen frenzies across the globe. Presley had since stumbled out of the US army, disoriented and irrelevant, releasing banal affairs such as ‘Rock-A-Hula Baby’/’Can’t Help Falling in Love’, ‘Return To Sender’ and ‘Good Luck Charm’. Furthermore, with the disappearance or neutralisation of major rock ‘n’ roll stars such as Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, the mantle would be passed to Britain, and in particular the Beatles (later the Stones and other British groups) to attach the jumper cables to rock ‘n’ roll.

The chart success of Please Please Me permanently changed the attitude of artists, publishers, record companies and the record buying public towards the Long Player itself. Prior to 1963, the 7” single was king. Following Please Please Me the Long Player began evolving into a credible art form in its own right, and each subsequent Beatles album would in turn radically alter the LP in relation to sequencing, content, artwork and concept. This trend finally peaked with 1967’s watershed release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a creation which would have been utterly inconceivable in 1963.

The album hit the top spot on May 11th 1963, and held onto that position defiantly until the groups second album With The Beatles dislodged it on December 7th. In a symbolic demonstration of the changing of the guard, the album which Please Please Me knocked off the top spot was Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday.

With the release of Please Please Me in March 1963, the Beatles’ account was well and truly open, and within a few months they would move to London permanently. From this moment on, Liverpool would mourn what the world would greedily embrace.

In March 1963 NME reviewed the Beatles’ debut LP commenting: “It looks like a bright future for the Beatles, but knowing them I don’t think they’ll let it go to their heads.”

This article is largely taken from the iPad/Android App and eBook The Beatles, Please Please Me - The Album Guide. Details are available here


  1. Beautiful article. If I ever feel like 'just putting and LP on', from any band, any era, 9 times out of 10 it's this one. You can't beat the optimism and fresh air it gives every time, even now, all these years later.

  2. This is a good read. The one question I want answered about Please Please Me (and I don't see it answered in this very interesting article) is why ALL of the credits on the original compositions say McCartney/Lennon. That must mean that Paul was the main composer in all of the songs. Why else would his name be first on every song? And then of course we know that John appealed to Brian Epstein and the two of them jointly pressured Paul to change it to Lennon/McCartney. It always amuses me that when people criticize Paul for trying to change the credits on a few of his own songs 7 or 8 years ago, and call him "manipulative," they seem to forget that John manipulated the situation from the get-go to get HIS name first.

    Anyway, no one has ever adequately explained why Paul's name is first on the album's credits -- even on Please Please Me which everyone always says is a "John song."

    I'd love to hear an explanation that makes sense. --- D. Stone

    1. I read somewhere (years ago)that although McCartney's name was first on the credits originally as you observed,it was then altered on the later albums so that it could be in alphabetical order.

    2. If my memory doesn't fail, the reason why the earlier recordings had the McCartney-Lennon composition credits was because there was a friendly battle between John and Paul of how the credits would end. But, as Paul stated once, John's bossiness overcame and eventually changed to what we know as Lennon-McCartney. And, as Paul continued saying, it had a better rhyme.

  3. The Macca/Lennon credits story has been covered in many places, but it is insignificant. For example: John's name comes first in the credits of Eleanor Rigby but as he said; "That was Paul, and we [others] were drinking tea."

    I'd like to mention that, on the PPM album and the Decca audition tape, George sang many of the songs and never sounded better as a real rock & roll singer. Also, the harmonies on most of the PPM album are sublime, even though they had terrible colds. You can clearly hear George coughing in the middle of "Chains" but the singing is impeccable.

  4. I beg to differ. The McCartney/Lennon credit on Please Please Me has NEVER been explained anywhere. At no point has it been explained why Paul's name was first on every single song on Please Please Me -- including the songs that were allegedly written by John like the title track.

    Was it because Paul was the main composer of all of those songs? What is the explanation?

    Yes, we know the story behind the switch to Lennon/McCartney: John wanted his name first. But what was the rationale on the first album for McCartney/Lennon on every song? I think it was because Paul was the main composer/arranger on every song. There really is no other explanation that makes sense.

    D. Stone.

  5. Good question. I know Paul used to joke about saying 'another McCartney-Lennon original' in their early writing career. I dont agree that McCartney was the main writer/arranger for PPM, as both are on record claiming and attributing major credit to each othe for various tracks. A possible explanation is that in their early Quarrymen days, McCartney was maybe a more prone to write than Lennon, and they had a verbal agreement on a partnership, which may just have been McCartney-Lennon. Lennon, having no reason to think this would go anywhere went along, until he saw the names on actual discs, and felt threatened by his younger parner. We all know the rumours that he lobbied fir it to be changed. Two very competitive men who coveted each others stengths.

  6. They started out McCartney-Lennon but Epstein and Lennon convinced McCartney to change it based on alphabetical. John told Paul that they could change it back if he ever wanted to. As far as who wrote what, that only became an issue after the fighting started. Up until then, they agreed that all songs would be Lennon-McCartney and almost always had input on the finished song.

  7. Well, it seems writing credits may have been changed to Lennon/McCartney but the publishing was the other side of this deal. That still remains Maclen Music which is controlled by SONY/ATV Music. They still jointly own 49% of their music publishing rights as Maclen Music. (So they do benefit from publishing deals as well, they just don't get all 100% of the publishing royalties).

  8. The order of names was not a big deal to either John or Paul at the time. It was later agreed by them, Brian and others involved that "Lennon-McCartney" just had a better ring to it, something Paul, himself, noted. As to compositional credit for the various songs, what's really remarkable when you consider the 250 odd songs that bear the "Lennon-McCartney" credit, is that in separate magazine interviews over the years (Playboy, Rolling Stone), wherein the writers asked each of them to recall the writing and recording process for every single song, they disagreed about the details for only two or three songs. That's another point that Paul has made in subsequent interviews.

  9. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
    -William Shakespeare


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