The Beatles – Please Please Me – Listening in Depth

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Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series, this time for The Beatles’ amazing debut from 1963, Please Please Me.

The first Beatles record is nothing short of amazing. It captures more of the live sound of these four guys playing together as a rock and roll band than any record they ever made afterwards. (Let It Be gets some of that live quality too and makes a great bookend for the group.)

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

I Saw Her Standing There

Like any of the boys’ most radio ready singles, this song tends to be a bit bright. If this track sounds at all dull, there’s probably no hope for the rest of this side.

Misery

This track should sound lively and punchy. The best copies have excellent bass definition and superb clarity, allowing you to appreciate how the wonderful bounce of the rhythm section really energizes the song.

Anna (Go to Him)

Does it get any better? This is the real Beatles magic baby!

Chains

Note that the vocals on this track are not as well recorded as they are on the track above. As a rule they’re a bit edgier and not as transparent.

Go back and forth between the two songs a number of times and we think you will hear exactly what we mean. Although this difference is more audible on the better copies, it should still be noticeable on any Hot Stamper pressing.

Side Two

P.S. I Love You

Another track with a bit of that “mixed for radio” sound. On most pressings this song tends to be bright, thin, and grainy.

Baby It’s You

Listen carefully to the middle eight section — you can hear the rhythm track levels turned down at the first bar and then back up at the last.

Some of the most Tubey Magical sound on the album — we love this song!

This is the real Beatles All-Tube-Recording-Chain Magic, Parts Three through Seven. Every track from here on out is killer.

Do You Want to Know a Secret

Even richer and more Tubey Magical. How can it be this good!?

If you know someone who doesn’t understand why anyone in his right mind would still bother with a turntable and old records in this day and age, play these songs for him. No CD can begin to do what a Hot Stamper pressing of this album can do.

A Taste of Honey
There’s a Place
Twist and Shout

Pitchfork

Whether or not you think the Beatles are the best rock band of all time, it’s hard to deny they’re the best rock story. Their narrative arc– of graft, tragedy, and stardom; of genius emerging and fragmenting– is irresistible. More so when you factor in the sense that they drove their fascinating times as much as mirrored them.

But the satisfying sweep of the Beatles’ epic risks doing them a disservice. It makes their achievements and development feel somehow predestined, an inevitable consequence of their astonishing talent. Of course, this isn’t the case: Every record they made was born out of a new set of challenges and built around tough decisions. The marketing of the band over the past few decades by their record label, Apple, has been aimed at creating a sense of apart-ness: Let lesser talents digitize their songs, feature on compilations, sell their music to samplers. The Beatles are different. This flatters listeners who were there, but setting the band apart from the rest of the pop world risks sterilizing their music and making newcomers as resentful as curious.

Besides, at the start they weren’t so different at all. Britain in the early 1960s swarmed with rock’n’roll bands, creating local scenes like the Mersey Sound the Beatles dominated. Rock’n’roll hadn’t died out, but it had become unfashionable in showbiz eyes– a small-club dance music that thrived on local passion. It was raucous, even charming in a quaint way, but there was no money in it for the big-timers of the London music biz.

At the same time the record market was booming. The Conservative UK government of the late 1950s had deliberately stoked a consumer boom: Aping the post-war consumption of the U.S., more British households than ever owned TVs, washing machines, and record players. The number of singles sold in Britain increased eightfold between the emergence of Elvis in 1956 and the Beatles in ’63. Combine this massively increased potential audience with the local popularity of rock’n’roll and some kind of crossover success seems inevitable– the idiocy of the Decca label in turning down the Beatles isn’t so much a businessman’s failure to recognize genius as a businessman’s failure to recognize good business.

The Beatles’ life as a rock’n’roll band– their fabled first acts in Hamburg clubs and Liverpool’s Cavern– is mostly lost to us. The party line on Please Please Me is that it’s a raw, high-energy run-through of their live set, but to me this seems just a little disingenuous. It’s not even that the album, by necessity, can’t reflect the group’s two-hour shows and the frenzy-baiting lengths they’d push setpiece songs to. It’s that the disc was recorded on the back of a #1 single, and there was a big new audience to consider when selecting material. There’s rawness here– rawness they never quite captured again– but a lot of sweetness too, particularly in Lennon-McCartney originals “P.S. I Love You” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret”.

Rather than an accurate document of an evening with the pre-fame Beatles, Please Please Me works more like a DJ mix album– a truncated, idealized teaser for their early live shows. More than any other of their records, Please Please Me is a dance music album. Almost everything on the record, even ballads like “Anna”, has a swing and a kick born from the hard experience of making a small club move. And it starts and ends with “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout”, the most kinetic, danceable tracks they ever made.

The “evening with the band” feel makes Please Please Me a more coherent experience than other cover-heavy Beatles albums: Here other peoples’ songs work not just as filler, but as markers for styles and effects the band admired and might return to as songwriters. McCartney, for instance, would go on to write songs whose drama and emotional nuance would embarrass “A Taste of Honey”, but for now he puts his all into its cornball melodrama, and the song fits.

Please Please Me also works as a unit because the group’s vocals are so great. At least some of this is due to the remastering, which makes the Beatles’ singing thrillingly up-close and immediate. I’d never really paid much attention to “Chains” and the Ringo-led “Boys”, but the clearer vocals on each– “Chains”‘ sarcastic snarls and the harmonies helping Ringo out– make them far more compelling.

And as you’d imagine, making the voices more vivid means Lennon’s kamikaze take on “Twist and Shout” sounds even more ferocious. Done in one cut at the session’s end, it could have been an unusable wreck. Instead, it’s one of the group’s most famous triumphs. This sums up the Beatles for me. Rather than a band whose path to the top was ordained by their genius, they were a group with the luck to meet opportunities, the wit to recognize them, the drive to seize them, and the talent to fulfil them. Please Please Me is the sound of them doing all four.

 

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