[With the reissue of The Beatles' discography today and the mounting hype that preceded it, I've decided to go through each album as well as films such as A Hard Day's Night for the next few weeks because I'm so caught up in the excitement. Unfortunately, I lacked the money to reserve a mono set, so I'll have to wait for the next issues of those to get one, but I do know someone with a mono set who will let me burn his onto my iPod until I can get a mono set of my own, and I can buy the latter, stereo-only albums myself. So, hey, why not get lost in Beatlemania '09?]
Released in March 1963, Please Please Me is not by any stretch the start of the Beatles' legend. No, by this time they'd had a good three years of hard touring under their belts, honing their craft in the seedy dens of Hamburg for two years before returning to Liverpool's Cavern Club to shame everyone playing on the British Isles. By 1963 the group already had a legend, built upon those Hamburg shows, which stretched for hours and demanded that the band stretch out their tunes to incredible lengths through solos and restructuring (supposedly, one gig saw them push their popular cover of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" to a staggering 90 minutes in length). Please Please Me was as much an attempt to cater to the mythos of the band's early days as the later Introducing... The Beatles and Meet the Beatles! were to prime the U.S. for the impact of, well, Please Please Me.
Recorded in a single day after the single "Please Please Me" hit the top of the U.K. charts and rushed into stores as quickly as humanly possible, Please Please Me, if nothing else, demonstrates the group's astonishing ability to churn out material with hardly any time to spare. We call an artist prolific these days if a musician puts out an album ever year or so, but the Lennon-McCartney team was so efficient they cranked out singles with regularity and managed to put out 4 albums and star in a movie within two years. They of course did all of this while touring extensively in both the UK and the States. Even when the pressure got to them and they quit touring to focus on the albums, they still managed to keep an economic pace, at least until all the bickering got to them.
But the Beatles' debut album is so much more than a simple testament to their ability to toss out a record in a pinch. Though no studio can ever truly recreate the conditions and feel of a live performance, especially the sort that stretched for two hours back in the days where LPs only ran about 30-40 minutes, Please Please Me is a fantastic distillation of the group's deceptively simple pop facade. Featuring self-penned lyrics on 8 of the album's 14 tracks (McCartney also revised some lines on the Bobby Scott/Ric Marlow standard "A Taste of Honey"), it was an impressive artistic statement at a time when rock 'n' roll artists still based much of their albums around covers.
It also happens to be book-ended by the two most hip-shaking slabs of early rock that the group ever put out. McCartney opens the album with a rushed "1-2-3-4!" that suggest a different band altogether (a band wouldn't come along with a count-off that fast until the Ramones started tearing up CBGB's 15 years later) before launching into the chugging riff of "I Saw Her Standing There." It draws openly from black artists, with McCartney not only copying the bassline in Chuck Berry's "Talkin' About You" but aping Little Richard's falsetto whenever he sings "ooh!" But Lennon and McCartney display their ability for pop subversion even in this first song, breaking from the typical riff in the giddy chorus before leading up to that terrific shriek that might as well come with a sign marking it as a placeholder for the screams of wild-eyed teenage girls that were just on the horizon.
The closer, "Twist and Shout" is a cover, but ask the average Joe who wrote it, and they'll think of no-one but the Beatles. That's because John Lennon's anarchic screams, aided by a sore throat and head cold, blast the more melodic versions by the Top Notes and the Isley Brothers right out of the water. When he screams himself raw on "Come-on-come-on-come-on-come-on baby, now" you get the sense that the face of rock music has changed just as much as it did when Chuck Berry duck-walked on-stage and strummed out the riff for "Johnny B. Goode" or Elvis danced on The Ed Sullivan Show. (Of course, the Beatles themselves would soon appear on that same program and, whether they intended to or not, blasted the specter of Presley off the stage and announced themselves as the new kings). Their version of "Twist and Shout" blends primal rebellion and irresistible melody that you won't know whether to dance or throw a trash can through a window.
Those two tracks alone signal the arrival of a force to be reckoned with, but the meat of the album is just as satisfying even though much of it is filler. "Misery" is a far cry from later self-critical Lennon gems such as "I'm a Loser" or "Help!" (to say nothing of the whole of his first solo album Plastic Ono Band), but it displays that quirky Beatles trait of mixing a depressive lyric with a bubbly sound, albeit without the ironic juxtaposition that made "Help!" so great. The bolstered mono remaster adds punch to rockier numbers such as "Chains," which now reveals a distinctive edge in Harrison's normally thin vocals, as well as "Boys," Ringo's moment to shine at the mic.
Things get really good, though, starting with the jazzy "Ask Me Why." Not a number that rises to the lips of many fans when recounting favorite songs, it contains perhaps the best harmonizing on the album. The singing drops out every few lines, but they don't miss a beat coming back in for the next few lines. This is complemented by the doo-woop harmonizing on drawn-out words such as "you-u-u-u-u" and "mi-i-i-i-i-ne." "Please Please Me" and "Love Me Do," the singles that lit the fire under the boys to write this album, are just about perfect. Both sport superb uses of harmonica, particularly in "Love Me Do," in which it has such a soulful, swinging sound that it might as well be a saxophone. "Do You Want to Know a Secret" displays that Lennon wasn't always the screaming rocker to McCartney's sweet soul and could craft a loving ballad just fine.
Not everything works, mind you. Lennon's vocal on the syrupy "Anna" veers between passion and insecurity with the material; McCartney's take on "A Taste of Honey" makes better use of such melodrama, though it too is one of the weaker numbers. I'm also not too keen on their version of the Shirelles' "Baby It's You," which lacks the memorable qualities of nearly every other tune on the album. But the bolstered sound of the remaster shocked me in its revelation of the bite of Please Please Me: the early Beatles were not simply a group of smiling mop-tops, as those of my generation might see them on our way to Rubber Soul and the "real" start of the Beatles. No, these cats came to play, and they do so with vigor. It's far from a perfect album and even the better cuts have their weaknesses, but there are cunning minds at work here, and Please Please Me is, upon actual inspection, worthy of respect outside of its context as the Beatles' first album.