We never had lots of money when I was a child but we were comfortably off. My Dad was a cockney and my Mum was Australian – both from an aspiring lower middle class background. My Dad worked for a business in London that was, amongst other things, the British agent for German shipping companies, arranging cruises that started from Southampton. Having fought in the war as a navigator on a Swordfish airplane in the Fleet Air Arm, he was, within a few years, liaising with German business people. He managed to get family holidays on some of these ships – we were in Hamburg only two months before The Beatles in 1961, but kept clear of The Reeperbahn (that would have made for a good post – how I came across The Beatles in Hamburg when I was 7 years old). I’m not sure exactly how, but he also had some connection with P&O and in 1964 we all went on a free Mediterranean cruise on The Canberra, calling in at Lisbon, Palma, Naples and Gibraltar. It was a very sanitised way of visiting another country – all we did was walk into a small part of the city near the port, look in all the gift shops, have a semi authentic foreign meal and get back on board.
I remember very little about this holiday with one exception. As we walked around Palma, we came across a record shop in a wide, tree lined road, slightly away from the main drag. It was dimly lit but I was delighted to find that it was open because I begged my parents to buy me the E.P. that I could see in the window. It was simply called “The Beatles” and it had four tracks on it. Being a spoiled brat, it was soon purchased and I waited impatiently for the holiday to finish so that I could play it. When I got home, I played it to death – it lasted less than 10 minutes but I loved it. This was the first E.P. I owned although my sister had the “Twist And Shout” E.P. Later I bought another E.P. called “The Beatles (No. 1)”. Each E.P. had four songs on it. I have no idea where these E.P.s are now, sad to say.
Over the next year, I bought The Beatles’ first two singles from a shop in Enfield. A year or so later, I was excited to find a track listing for “Please Please Me”, The Beatles first album, and I was pleased to realise that I had every track on it. “The Beatles (No 1)” consisted of the first four songs on the album. The “Twist And Shout” E.P. consisted of the final four tracks on the album. The two singles and B sides are the last two songs on Side One and the first two songs on Side Two. My Spanish E.P. duplicates “Chains” and “Love Me Do” but also has the two missing songs, “Boys” and “Baby It’s You”. Who made the decisions about the makeup of these E.P.s? This meant that I never bought a vinyl copy of “Please Please Me” and I never listened to the songs in the correct order until I bought the CD in about 1998. I always dismissed the music as a worthy first attempt but it makes for very good listening, even today. For its time, it was remarkable.
None of this next paragraph is important or interesting to anyone but me. There are three myths vaguely connected with this album. One is that all 14 songs were recorded on one day. Not true – “Love Me Do”, “P.S. I Love You” (11th September 1962), “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why” (26th November 1962) were all recorded beforehand. The other 10 songs were all recorded on 11th February 1963. The second myth is that The Beatles never released an album with singles on it. Clearly not true. The third myth is that “Please Please Me” never got to Number One in the Charts. It depends which charts you mean. Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Disc and, most importantly, the BBC all made it Number One. However, in Record Retailer, also used by New Record Mirror, it only got to Number Two. This led to the song being excluded from the “1” compilation, released in 2000 and claiming to be a compilation of all The Beatles Number One songs.
You will know this album. You probably don’t need me to go through it song by song. All I will say is that listening to the CD again, several things stand out. (I have written about the songs in the order in which they were recorded).
Although most of the lines of “Love Me Do” are sung in harmony, Paul McCartney’s vocal is quite wobbly and he sounds nervous when he sings the title by himself. Originally, John Lennon sung this but, as he was playing harmonica at the same time, George Martin suggested at the last minute that Paul McCartney sing that part instead. I’ve already written about the drumming and the three different versions of this song that exist.
“P.S. I Love You” sounds great and the contrast between Paul McCartney’s octave spanning vocal line and John Lennon’s single note harmony is part of its charm.
There are three meanings to the word “please”, some or all of which may apply to “Please Please Me”. Please is a polite way of asking for something. To please can mean to pleasure, possibly sexually. And a number of pleas can result in getting what you want. The well read and pun fan John Lennon might well have been aware of all this when he contributed to the lyrics.
Musically, “Ask Me Why” is incredibly sophisticated. Experiments with syncopation and jazz chords were rare in 1963, but The Beatles always insisted on good B sides. Think of “Thank You Girl”, “I’ll Get You”, “This Boy”, “You Can’t Get That”, “Things We Said Today”, “She’s A Woman”, “Yes It Is”, “I’m Down” , “Rain” and “I Am The Walrus”. What an album that would make.
Buried towards the end of Side Two, “There’s A Place” was the first song recorded on 11th February 1963. It’s a wonderful song. A great melody, lovely harmonies and thoughtful and self-reflecting lyrics that borrow from Leonard Bernstein’s “There’s A Place For Us”. The place that John Lennon goes to when he feels low is his own mind where presumably he can turn off his mind, relax and float downstream. It reminds me of “In My Room”, the incredible Brian Wilson song.
“I Saw Her Standing There” was mainly written by Paul McCartney and is a perfect example of why the Lennon-McCartney combination was so wonderful. “Well she was just seventeen, never been a beauty queen” is sweet, naïve and typically Paul McCartney. Once John Lennon changed the second line to a nudge, nudge, wink, wink, “you know what I mean”, it became a classic.
Brian Epstein saw himself as a showbiz impresario and encouraging Paul McCartney to sing songs like “A Taste Of Honey” (and “‘Till There Was You” on “With The Beatles”) was part of ensuring that his proteges appealed to all ages as a “variety” act. The 1958 stage play, ” A Taste Of Honey” included the line “Your Mother Should Know”.
A doo-wop group from called The Stereos recorded a song in 1961 called “I Really Love You” which George Harrison covered on his 1982 album “Gone Troppo”. He claimed that this was the inspiration for “Do You Want To Know A Secret”. An alternative (or additional) inspiration may have been John Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia which was kept a secret from his fans by Brian Epstein. John Lennon later said that he gave the song to George Harrison to sing because it only had three notes and he wasn’t a very good singer.
“Misery” was the 8th original song to be recorded for the album which was an unheard of achievement for an act in 1963. The song was written backstage in Stoke-On-Trent, waiting to go on stage. Tony Bramwell, part of The Beatles’ entourage, claimed that Graham Nash and Allan Clarke, of The Hollies, helped with the lyrics.
At 7:30 p.m. on 11th February, the final recording session of the day started. Five more songs were needed by 10:00 p.m. and they tried to record “Hold Me Tight” 13 times but they didn’t like it so the song was held over for “With the Beatles”. They still needed five songs so they raced through some covers. “Anna (Go To Him)” had been released by its composer, Arthur Alexander, in October 1962. John Lennon’s voice on this is really impassioned. The song was recorded in three takes.
“Boys”, a vehicle for Ringo Starr, was recorded in one take. The sexual ambiguity of the lyrics remained in plain sight for all to see without comment. Ringo sings a love song to boys. His drumming is superb and this song really rocks.
The first version of “Chains” is the one that was released on the album although three more tried. It was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and has another George Harrison vocal, with exemplary harmonies from Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
“Baby It’s You” was my favourite song from my E.P. bought in Majorca for three reasons. 1) John Lennon’s vocal is soulful. 2) The “sha la la la la” harmonies are terrific. 3) I liked to substitute the word “shit” for “cheat” much to my parents’ horror.
Finally, “Twist And Shout”. Legend has it that only one version was recorded but they tried it again, only to find that John Lennon’s voice was completely shredded by his astounding version on the first take. This song was so familiar at the time, it’s astonishing to think it was never released as a single.
This is a very good album. But you knew that anyway.
So this blog comes to an end point. That’s now a year since I wrote about “Abbey Road“, the Beatles last album and I’m signing off with their first album. This is my 370th post. That’s one on most days for a year; I’ve missed some days and I’ve sometimes written two on one day. 18896 page views. 1777 likes. 545 comments. All very much appreciated. Writing has been a good discipline for me although some days recently, it’s felt like a chore. I started by trying to attach a personal story to each album but I ran out of ideas and some of the posts have simply been my own review. (Having read Kitty Empire’s excellent review of Lana Del Rey’s album in The Observer today, I realise that I have some way to go before a second career beckons.) Some of the entries have been musings on my current state of mind in the context of the pandemic. and it’s been very cathartic for me to do this. What I’ll do next is unclear. Writing of some sort but without a daily deadline. The occasional blog about music, for sure. There’s a John Lennon box set coming soon…..