Thursday, October 4, 2012

Still Fresh And Original At 50! Happy Birthday, 'Love Me Do'

October 5, 2012 will herald the golden anniversary of the release of ‘Love Me Do’, The Beatles' debut 7" single for EMI in 1962.

This milestone will kick off a series of 50th anniversary celebrations of Beatles events and releases from Friday, October 5, 2012 right through to April 2020. Most of these events are sure to receive widespread media coverage as The Beatles prove to be just as relevant to today’s generation as they were to the 1960s generation. But exactly what was so different about this 7" circumference of black vinyl released to very little fanfare in October 1962?

There was something utterly original in its performance and in its reflection of its influences. Half a century after its release, the recording still sounds remarkably fresh. Investigating the events that led to the single’s release reveals a fascinating insight into the fledgling relationship between EMI and The Beatles camp, demonstrating each side’s ability to adapt quickly to new departures, while remaining true to their respective principles.

Despite moderate success – particularly with comedy acts such as The Goons – EMI producer George Martin was looking for something different to offer his modest Parlophone label in 1962. Decca Records had famously turned The Beatles down earlier that year, crucially however, the group's manager Brian Epstein had retained possession of the audition tape funded by Decca. Having been shown the door by most major UK labels, Epstein was referred to George Martin during a chance meeting which changed the fortunes of all parties involved.

Martin recognised the X factor which Decca Records had been deaf to, even if he didn’t yet realise what it was. What piqued the producer’s interest was the rough sound of beat music, an emerging – as yet unrecorded – style of music which emphasized heavy back beat drumming and loud instrumentation infused with live energy. A prototype of late 1970s punk music, beat music would be pivotal in the evolution of rock and roll into rock, and would carry an army of British Beat groups across the Atlantic during the mid-1960s.

Yet, The Beatles' debut single was far from representative of their beat music stage performances. More country-blues than R&B or rock and roll, how ‘Love Me Do’ became their first 7” release is an interesting tale of self belief and a small leap of faith.

McCartney claims the song was written with Lennon in 1958 while ditching school. Indeed the song's influences would seem to back up his claim. The song's style, structure, close harmonising, key of G Major and even its three word title is strikingly similar to the Everly Brothers’ 1957 hit ‘Bye Bye Love’. The Everly Brothers were a huge influence on The Beatles, demonstrated by Harrison controversially recording a rewrite of ‘Bye Bye Love’ in 1974 and Lennon going as far as to admit that in the group's early days: 'We were just writing songs a la Everly Brothers....' (Sheff, David, All We Are Saying p. 152)

However, ‘Love Me Do’ is strangely absent from surviving records of the group's stage sets from Liverpool and Hamburg. Furthermore, as a Lennon-McCartney original, it was not presented to Decca Records during the fateful audition of January 1962. Most likely the group sat on the song for four years and reintroduced it at an EMI recording session in mid-1962 to demonstrate their songwriting capabilities.

During an interview in 1988 McCartney claimed '’Love Me Do’ was us trying to do the blues.' (Lewisohn, Mark, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions p. 7) Indeed the song may have been inspired by ‘Hey! Baby’, an enormous hit for American singer Bruce Channel during the spring of 1962. The Beatles supported Channel in June 1962 and Lennon was rumoured to have discussed his harmonica playing with Delbert McClinton, who was touring with Channel.

‘Love Me Do’ was originally presented to EMI during the Beatles’ debut recording session at Abbey Road on June 6, 1962, a session which featured Pete Best on drums. However, the same session exposed Pete Best’s drumming flaws which EMI felt were substandard for commercial recording purposes.

A second attempt at recording ‘Love Me Do’ took place at Abbey Road on September 4, 1962, this time with new drummer Ringo Starr replacing the sacked Best. This was only the group's second appearance at Abbey Road and amazingly, they were involved in a tense standoff with the producer who held the key to their professional career in his hands.

Martin had presented the Beatles with a song by Tin Pan Alley writer Mitch Murray which he felt was a certain hit. He instructed the group to learn ‘How Do You Do It’ in advance of the September 4 session, much to the group's disdain. The issue allegedly led to a row between Lennon and Epstein, although the latter won out and the group prepared the song as requested. However, when they recorded the song for EMI, their perfunctory performance left George Martin in little doubt as to their feelings for material they felt was tame.

Lennon allegedly informed Martin: 'We want to record our own material, not some soft bit of fluff written by someone else.' (Emerick, Geoff, Here, There and Everywhere, My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles, p. 45) Martin apparently countered with a bruising retort, informing them that when they could write songs as good as this [‘How Do You Do It’] he would record them. In the end, Martin reluctantly allowed them another crack at recording ‘Love Me Do’.

Starr’s drumming was an obvious improvement over Best’s from June 6, although the rhythm track took at least 15 takes to complete. The recording was a huge improvement on the first version, with the vocals vastly improved. Lennon’s harmonica playing took a huge leap in confidence, possibly since meeting McClinton on June 21.

George Martin overrode his gut instinct for Murray’s song and decided to take a chance on the McCartney-Lennon original. However, it appears he was still not entirely happy with the version he had on tape and clearly felt it was worth one more attempt at recording the song. Perhaps owing to Starr’s unease at nailing the rhythm track during the September 4 session, Martin hired a professional drummer for the third and final attempt one week later on September 11, 1962.

When the group arrived at EMI studios that morning, they were surprised to find another drummer present. Starr was stunned, later claiming that he felt EMI were ‘pulling a Pete Best’ on him. Banished to the control room like a naughty school boy, he must have felt his Beatles career was over before it ever got started. He later quipped: 'I saw a drum kit that wasn’t mine, and a drummer that, most definitely, wasn’t me!' (Badman, Keith, The Beatles Off The Record, p. 43)

There was no strike action over Starr’s treatment however, no protests of ‘we don’t play if Ringo doesn’t play.’ The others simply got down to business with Lennon and McCartney running over the arrangements of two songs with drummer Andy White while Starr watched from his perch in the control room. They completed the track in 18 takes, curiously three more than the previous week when Starr had played drums. However, the difference between White’s performance on the 11th and Starr’s on the 4th was ultimately the difference between a nervous club drummer and a seasoned professional.

Experience is everything when it comes to recording studios and White had it in spades. He was clearly comfortable in these surroundings and this is obvious in the performance. The drums were laid down with a solid beat delivered evenly and cleanly while Starr’s sole contribution was a tambourine rhythm throughout.

Aside from the new vitality provided by Andy White’s steady rhythm, the vocal harmonies from Lennon and McCartney were attacked with even more country-blues gusto than before. McCartney’s solo spots were more competent and comfortable, while Lennon’s harmonica dripped with bluesy despair.

The session of September 11 ultimately served to confirm George Martin’s hunch about the Beatles’ appeal. It may have taken three attempts, but the producer was now confident that he had an unorthodox record which was fresh, yet contemporarily analogous with transatlantic sounds.

The Beatles had stood their ground and remained true to their principals. They were not prepared to compromise their style or sound for the sake of commercial success. They had won their first battle with George Martin, but most importantly Martin had demonstrated the qualities that would make him – and The Beatles – so successful throughout the decade to follow. He proved he was willing to listen, to arrange, to advise and he proved he was willing to go out on a limb.

In a final twist however, the version which was released on 7” single was the September 4 version featuring Starr, while the Please Please Me LP and later single releases contained the September 11 version featuring White. No explanation has ever been given for the two separate releases, although an error, or a possible gesture from Martin to Starr cannot be ruled out.

To the untrained ear, tambourine is the easiest way to differentiate between the two released versions of ‘Love Me Do’. The presence of the tambourine indicates White on drums, while the absence of tambourine indicates Starr.

Early in October 1962, Brian Epstein supposedly took possession of 10,000 copies of ‘Love Me Do’ and set about employing every contact he had in the record industry to push the release as far as it would go. Rumours persisted that he used his position as a record store owner to buy the single into the charts. However, this is something that the Beatles always denied. If he had bought the record into the charts he wouldn’t have been the first to do it, and he certainly wasn’t the last.

As the world nervously watched the perilous standoff between the U.S. and Soviet Union over the Cuban Missile Crisis and Britain slipped into one of the bitterest winters in living memory, ‘Love Me Do’ began to climb the charts. Distinctive and different, the song stood out it in stark contrast to the cautiously tame mainstream British chart material of the time.

Although the record peaked at number 17, the experience galvanised the band and injected in them a new confidence in their abilities as songwriters and recording artists. The limited national exposure gave them a vital toehold upon which to launch their follow-up single. This new confidence acted as a catalyst, boosting Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting development which – based on a healthy rivalry – was breathtaking in its escalation once set in motion.

Not everyone was appreciative of the group's first release however, perhaps John Lennon included. Brian Griffiths, guitarist with fellow Liverpool group Howie Casey and the Seniors recalled visiting NEMS record store in Liverpool to hear The Beatles' debut single with John Lennon in 1962. Griffiths – who was used to the group's heavy rock and roll act – recalled how he thought it was 'bloody awful' and told Lennon as much. 'I said, what is that crap? It’s a country and western song', to which Lennon replied, 'Isn’t it? But they picked it, not me.' (Uncut, March 2012)

George Martin’s brave decision to allow the Beatles to issue a self-penned debut single would ultimately prove to be revolutionary. If the Beatles could write and release their own songs, why couldn’t everyone else? Fifty years ago this Friday, October 5, the music business as well as the aspirations and goals of musicians all over the world – throughout the 1960s and beyond – were altered forever.

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