Monday 20 April 2009

The BEATLES: Please Please Me

(#34: 5 May 1963, 30 weeks)

Track listing: I Saw Her Standing There/Misery/Anna (Go To Him)/Chains/Boys/Ask Me Why/Please Please Me/Love Me Do/P.S. I Love You/Baby It’s You/Do You Want To Know A Secret/A Taste Of Honey/There’s A Place/Twist And Shout

“There’ll be no sad tomorrows, don’t you know!”

There is a Japanese word called “umami” which technically speaking signifies the fifth basic sense of taste and translates roughly into English as meaning “supreme deliciousness.” Although this taste is very specific – the nearest convenient approximate definition would be “savoury” – it arises out of a specific, but special, combination of different, seemingly incompatible elements and makes of its whole something considerably more than the sum of its parts.

That the most popular derivé of umami is monosodium glutamate is something which, for the time being, need not concern us. Nor am I wholly convinced that the other four basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter and salty – apply with full effect to each of the four Beatles; Paul as sweet, John as sour and salty Ringo are fine, but bitter George? Well, later on, perhaps – come back to this tale circa 1971 – but here he tends to be the dutiful, slightly shy schoolboy, nervously intoning the enclosed melody of “Do You Want To Know A Secret,” picking out his prepared solo on “I Saw Her Standing There” with audible apprehension, as though performing it before the headmaster. Of the band members variously featured on “Love Me Do,” he’s the one you notice least, if at all.

The overall impression from the cover of Please Please Me inwards, however, is one of prematurely unalloyed optimism. Already on this cover they are smiling down upon us from an unspecified height, happily demonstrating how rapidly they have risen above the rest of us, but still in touch with a rawer reality than that to which the album chart, or British pop music in general, had hitherto been accustomed; the Escher stairs suggest a block of flats although in fact they are posing halfway up EMI’s headquarters in Manchester Square, W1. Thus the double bluff reveals its cleverness and ambition; they are the salt of the earth but already have designs on buying the company.

Not that that worried or was noticed by anyone in 1963. Tony Barrow does the requisite PR duties in his sleevenote, complete with charmingly anachronistic expressions such as “pop picking” and “discdom,” but still finds it impossible to contain his wonder, his approximation of awe. He makes great play of the rapidity of the Beatles’ rise to the top, as though they strolled right into the building and rearranged the furniture without any ceremony, and indeed that is pretty much what they did. Light Programme DJ Brian Matthew, whose Saturday Club show was one of the few oases of pop in an otherwise stultified (not to say stratified) BBC, is quoted as calling them “visually and musically the most exciting and accomplished group since The Shadows.” Barrow even gets in what may be interpreted as a none-too-subtle dig at annotators of previous chapters in this tale with his barbed comment: “The hit parade isn’t always dominated by the most worthy performances of the day so it is no good assuming that versatility counts for everything” – Minstrels, take note. He excitedly goes on to attest that Lennon and McCartney had “…already tucked away enough numbers to maintain a steady output of all-original singles from now until 1975!”

The latter, as we shall see, turned out to be far from the case. It is impossible to articulate fully just how comprehensively the Beatles wiped out everything and everyone that had preceded them in this tale. Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the dominant joint force in British pop for the previous three years, do not reappear in this list until 1977. Elvis vanishes from the story until the sixties are practically over. With one significant exception, the Broadway/West End musical, whether filmed or staged, does not reappear at all in the sixties lists and indeed not in any form (the Beatles’ own film soundtracks notwithstanding) until well into the seventies. The genre which would go on to be known as Easy Listening will have to wait until the record buying market re-demographised itself as the sixties wound down to their close before we meet it again.

And yet elements of all of these, as well as everything else, went into making the Beatles, and in particular the Please Please Me album, what they were. However, what was important here was not the influences themselves but the multiple and surprisingly subtle ways in which the Beatles deployed them. Hence “A Taste Of Honey” appears on the record largely because Acker Bilk had recently enjoyed a hit with his version, and in the group’s quiescently if slightly stiffly harmonised McCartney-led performance we hear a clear descendent of the Shadows’ vocal folk ballad work (itself derived from the influence of the Kingston Trio). But here there is a connection with the young 1963 listener which doesn’t come across with the Shadows; the song may have been written for the Broadway production of Shelagh Delaney’s play but the roots of the play itself cut through the Beatles’ performance and we hear something approaching a genuine, contemporary folk music. Likewise, Lennon had “Somewhere” from West Side Story in mind when writing “There’s A Place” but the end product sounds nothing like Bernstein and everything like what Lena rightly refers to as the beginning of the long road (or circuitous road) that will eventually lead to “Strawberry Fields.” Their “Chains” borrows both harmonica and cantering rhythm from Ifield’s “I Remember You” but remains far closer to the spirit of the Cookies’ rather unsettling original.

Girl groups have thus far been given a raw deal in TPL but the progressive feminisation of pop which the Beatles set in motion – and not merely with their haircuts or Little Richard-meets-Darlene Love “whoo-ooo”s - is still underexplored. Apart from “Chains” Please Please Me also includes two covers of Shirelles songs, and McCartney had their “Soldier Boy” in mind when composing “P.S. I Love You.” Lennon’s lead vocal on “Baby It’s You” is one of many extraordinary performances he lends to the record and owes more than a little to fellow Liverpudlian Billy Fury – those descending “ohhhh”s, the drive-in Gielgud descents of “many, many, many, many nights” – though his pained “CAN’T HELP MYSELF!”s are not the only primal scream signposts here.

But Ringo’s essay on “Boys” is beyond Cliff or camp. One of the most pulsatile and audibly enjoyable tracks on the album as a performance, if also one of the messiest – the fadeout masks a missed ending – the drummer excitedly exclaims “I mean boys!” in such a way that one momentarily wonders if he’s yelling “I NEED boys!” and in any case to hear a boy band singing what is essentially a girl group song is as electrifying now as it must have been then. “All right, girls!” chuckles Ringo as they roar into the instrumental break – George having his most fun on the record with his Chet Atkins Play In A Day riffs – and his “Aaaaaahhhh!!” is as extreme as he ever got as a vocalist.

As for “Please Please Me” itself, its influences variously include Bing Crosby (the song’s title), the Everlys (the close-knit, symbiotic, self-multiplying harmonies), Buddy Holly (“i-hin my heart”) and Roy Orbison (the mounting bipolar tension of the “Come on!”s resolving in a sudden octave leap for the chorus) but its glory stands in the realisation that none of these is particularly noticeable since what counts is its now-unstemmed rush, a rash of scarlet noise and – yes – sex that rubs out all the preceding politesse without the need for rubbers. In common with most of these fourteen songs, Ringo seems the key structural figure; endlessly inventive, steadfastly refusing to lock in with McCartney’s bass, playing everywhere except the centre (his five triple climaxes at the peak of “Please Please Me” are what the rest of the song has been building up towards). In contrast, the album version of “Love Me Do” is the one with Andy White sitting in on drums and Ringo morosely banging his tambourine in the corner and does come across as slightly stilted in this company – even White’s busker cymbal crash signifying the end of the instrumental break doesn’t recapture that sod-you sour smile of Ringo’s on the 45 version. Still, its rudimentary structure – two chords, the most basic and Toxtethian of lyrics – was a speed of cold blood to most complacent 1962 pop heads. In contrast, White does better on “P.S.” since all he really has to do is add some echoing rimshots to Ringo’s patient maracas – and thereby, with the aid of George Martin, help pave the way for dub.

“P.S.” is, I feel, a crucial track since it illustrates that, far from intending to make a complete break with the past, there is a more-than-vague umbilical cord with the history of the popular song which McCartney in particular was keen to keep intact. As a cha-cha it utterly obliterates the Minstrels’ barking red, red robin; but in its unexpected punctum of a B flat chord in the chorus (or the third line of each refrain/verse which stands in for a chorus) of a song essentially set in D major it demonstrates very proficiently and eagerly how Lennon and McCartney were able to reach – no, imagine (ahem) – corners which the Teppers and Bennetts of their world never quite could. Cliff would have happily crooned it in D major all the way through, but McCartney is already reaching out further.

Similarly it is worth noting the extremely early and radical modifications of tropes based on Motown – and how fitting it was that of all the Motown artists and writers of the period the Beatles should focus on the essentially feminine/feminised Smokey Robinson. Both “Ask Me Why” and “There’s A Place” are based on Miracles memes but there’s hardly any audible evidence of them beyond the rhetorical vowel triplets, occasional dramatic pauses and Marv Tarplin-at-one-remove guitar top lines since Lennon is making something new of both – this at a time when Motown in Britain was still the preserve of a few avid import cratediggers. Lennon’s “Your happiness can make me cry” on “Ask Me Why” is pure Smokey but could have been sung by no one save Lennon.

In contrast, when Lennon tries to be a man, as he does in his interpretation of Arthur Alexander’s difficult song “Anna,” he doesn’t quite escape from still being a crying, confused adolescent (not helped by the weirdly echoing prairie backing vocals from the rest of the band) and yet the complete Lennon – never quite not being a child – is already evident; his astonishing scream of “All of my life I’ve been searching for a girl!,” his restless-verging-on-impatient repetitions of “What am I?” and his double triplicate “Oh-oh-oh” sobs all point pungently towards a future of disturbances.

But the overall impression remains one of freshness, of gleefully insolent youth, of souls too happy to worry overly about transience. “Misery” is as miserable as the Beatles get on this album, and it’s very far from anything resembling misery; at the prospect of never seeing his Other’s face again, Lennon snickeringly (if somewhat nasally and bunged up, since he had a heavy cold at the time of the recording session) drawls “What a draaaaaag!” and the song fades out with John and Paul mucking about with their backing vocals. Even on “A Taste Of Honey,” Paul’s earnest “I’ll be back!” is answered by a heavily sardonic Lennon-led retort of “HE’LL BE BACK!!”

Then there are the album’s bookends, and its keys to immortality. If Paul’s famous count-in/whoop to “I Saw Her Standing There” stands as a beginning of time, then it’s only partly an accident; the entire album was laid down “as live” in one 12-hour studio session and the group essentially went through their stage set, everything they knew in 1963 (and perhaps everything they might ever know). If I haven’t mentioned George Martin much yet it’s because he wisely decides to stand back for much of the record and let the band speak for itself. Apart from the occasional application of echo to Ringo’s floor kit or drop-in piano decoration, Martin is generally very unobtrusive, though clearly indispensable; compared to the processed cocoon world of other post-skiffle/pre-Merseybeat Britpop, he lends the Beatles a dry, immediate sound (though was still criticised in some quarters at the time by diehard fans for not recapturing their live sound adequately; this, however, was down to the relative inadequacies of the average British recording studio of the period, including Abbey Road, though both Martin and the Beatles would work hard to overcome these limitations and invent new horizons with each succeeding record).

However, a song and performance as strong as “Standing” needs only to be allowed to breathe in order to work. It overthrew every preceding British pop convention, both in terms of subject matter and execution; “Well, she was just seventeen/You know what I mean” immediately sets the bar higher (what about this then, All Round Entertainers?). The “’cross that boom”/”heart went boom” couplet carries the same emotional and febrile weight as the crowded room of “Some Enchanted Evening” but these musicians are younger and more impatient – they want it NOW! – and the extended, androgynous “mi-eeeeeeeeeeeee-ne!”s are unprecedented.

Although the Beatles were still called upon to some extent (notably by Epstein) throughout the first half of their career not to forsake the All Round Entertainment route, their music is already making it very clear that they are speaking to and for their own generation in the first instance. In time the Empire loyalists and war survivors will find their own grace in the Beatles’ work (again, largely via McCartney), but “Standing” and especially “Twist And Shout” – still one of the greatest closing tracks to any album, and in this context one of the most significant and decided – are speaking to The Kids, those who had hitherto not been allowed to speak, or speak only politely and humbly.

And it cannot be underemphasised how much of a beginning the ending of “Twist And Shout” signified, and the circumstances in which it was recorded – they’d been in the studio half a day, Lennon’s voice was nearly gone, he was sweating so much that he’d stripped down to the waist, but both Martin and the rest of the Beatles espied a blueness in the corner of his air and set about painting and preserving it. Taken down several keys from Ronald Isley’s lead vocal on the original version, and yet still managing to be as intense as any lead vocal could hope to be, Lennon screeches, croaks, demands satisfaction, demolishes the buildings which previously stood in his way, and everyone else in the studio is right with him, urging him on, Ringo hammering his snare and floor tom in the song’s chaotic closing moments like a reborn Pharaoh wanting to get out of his pyramid. Lena was quick to note the date of the recording session – 11 February 1963 – and the fact that recording would have started almost exactly at the point when Plath’s life ended. Lennon’s scream certainly bears the elements of resurrection, as well as the consummate, entirely new and wholly satisfying taste which the elements in the Beatles combined to create from the history this tale has so far traced, as well as other, as yet unspoken histories. For many people, however, Please Please Me represented the first number one album which spoke directly to them, which (unlike Elvis) was local and accessible, which (unlike Cliff and to some extent Tommy) was not dependent upon a retinue of professional writers and did not require watering down via the All Round Entertainment filter, which (unlike trad and the Minstrels) offered a palpable here and now, which (unlike Sinatra and the musicals) didn’t belong to their parents. And so the sun rises on a wonderful land – but not the one some people thought might come about.