Thursday, September 24, 2009

Album project: Please Please Me

The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963); The Beatles, The Early Beatles (1965): As noted in my last post, I bought the entire set of Beatles remasters not long ago. My original intent was to just fill some holes in my collection, but Barnes & Noble gave me an additional 20% discount to go with the 10% I already received with my card, and I couldn't pass that deal up. The Beatles had already been remastered for CD in 1987, but the results were generally considered to be poor. The latest remastering effort represents four years of painstaking work, finally providing rock music's most important body of work with the sound quality it deserves.

It is presumed that those who have had an interest in the album posts possess at least a general knowledge of the Fab Four's career highlights. The Beatles' Wikipedia entry is a good place to start for those unfamiliar with the group's history, and Google will lead you to dozens of Beatle-related sites dealing with their discography, lyrics, recording notes, etc.

Having cut two previous singles, the bulk of Please Please Me was recorded in a marathon session at Abbey Road Studios on February 11, 1963 in which producer George Martin requested that the group play him virtually everything that had. These Beatles were not yet the all-conquering maestros of myth and legend. John Lennon and Paul McCartney's songwriting skills were not fully polished, still-teenaged George Harrison at times sounded tentative on lead guitar, and Ringo Starr had only been behind the drumkit for a few months. Yet the group laying down these tracks at Abbey Road had some things going for it: boundless enthusiasm, a raw, aggressive style honed by night upon night of woodshedding in the sweaty basement pubs of Liverpool and the seedy waterfront clubs of Hamburg, and perhaps most importantly, a burning ambition to be the most successful artists in pop music history.

The "one, two, three, fuh!" that opens the lead track, "I Saw Her Standing There", sets the tone for the rest of the LP. Martin had set out to capture some of the ambiance of The Beatles' club gigs, and one way to hear the record is as a non-stop dance party disc. From the beginning to the final chord of "Twist And Shout", Please Please Me bristles with irrepressible energy. Yet some of the group's more notable talents were already starting to show. Eight of the fourteen tracks were written within the group, which was quite unusual and audacious for pop acts in 1963. The six covers highlight The Beatles' fondness for American R&B. Lennon sings heartfelt lead vocals on "Anna" and "Baby It's You", McCartney's romanticism begins to flower on "A Taste Of Honey", and Starr turns in one of the record's most surprising performances with his strong vocal on "Boys".

"Love Me Do" and the title track, The Beatles' first two British hit singles, also made it to the debut LP. "Love Me Do" reached #17 in the British charts, a respectable first-time showing for an act that was then unknown in most of the UK. The song is built around Lennon's harmonica riffs, which he picked up from Bruce Channel's worldwide hit "Hey Baby". When Channel visited England, The Beatles landed a spot on the bill. Lennon took advantage to receive tutoring from Channel's harmonica player Delbert McClinton, who hit on his own in 1980 with "Givin' It Up For Your Love". "Please Please Me" was the first Beatles single to hit #1 in the UK. It is one of the group's all-time finest moments, arguably one of the greatest odes to sexual frustration ever recorded. Few moments have ever reflected a guy's desperation to get some from his girlfriend like Lennon's guttural "come on"'s echoed by McCartney and Harrison in response. Had the radio programmers understood the depths of unrequited lust conveyed here, this song would have been banned.

Their version of The Isley Brothers' "Twist And Shout" captures the early Beatles at their most raucous. Producer Martin saved this for the last number to be recorded at Abbey Road that day, as John Lennon's throat-shredding vocal left him too hoarse to do any more singing; the problem was compounded by Lennon spending the day of the sessions fighting a cold. Martin recalls Lennon sucking on throat lozenges all day in order to keep his voice in shape for the grueling finale. The end result closed the album with a tour de force, with Lennon's vocal backed by driving rhythms, capped by the soaring three-part "Ah-ah-ah-ahhh!"'s and piledriver guitars of the bridge.

With The Beatles' popularity soaring to unprecedented heights, Please Please Me smashed into the UK album chart upon its release, reaching #1 in May and holding the top spot for 30 weeks, finally displaced by its successor, With The Beatles. In April, the non-LP single "From Me To You" also topped the British chart, taking the Fab Four to the brink of the greatest success any British recording act had ever known.

The Early Beatles is the US version of Please Please Me, leaving off three of the 14 tracks. Capitol released this LP in early 1965 after reacquiring the rights to the group's first recordings from Vee Jay and other independent labels. Capitol, the owners of the rights to EMI's releases in the States, originally sold the rights to The Beatles' releases to these minor labels noting that few British groups had ever had success in America at that time except as novelty acts. One of the frustrating aspects of writing about The Beatles is the variation between UK and US album releases. UK album releases often left off singles; the thinking being that if listeners would buy the album with the single on it, they wouldn't buy the 45 version, which could be disastrous in a market the size of Great Britain. Also, extended play records, or EP's, which were 10-inch maxi-singles with two or three tracks per side, were popular in Britain but never caught on in the States. In America, Capitol sliced and diced the British releases in order to get the most mileage out of them that they could. In the end, 12 UK LP's were released during the Fab Four's career, along with 13 EP's. In the US, there were a total of 19 album releases during the same period. Not until Sgt. Pepper would their be a Beatles LP release with identical tracks on both sides of the water.