at 50, the secret trick of ‘please please me’

Cliff Richard and the Shadows reigned as the biggest thing in Britain on March 21, 1963. “Summer Holiday,” Richard’s seventh number one single, rode atop the British chart, a jaunty bit of light fare accented by bright strings. It was the title track to the film “Summer Holiday,” in which Richard and his summering buddies meet up with some gals and go on a rousing but ultimately adolescent adventure. Richard sports a freshly Brylcreem head of hair atop his well-fit figure. He’s a good kid, a square guy, a boy you can take home to mom. And he was atop the British hit-making world.

As “Summer Holiday” scorched the British charts in February of 1963, a score of lads from Liverpool belted out a handful of songs over one day at EMI Studios. Fresh from Germany, teeth cut by the dangerous Hamburg scene, the Beatles burned out their first long-player, which would be titled “Please Please Me.” A month after recording, on March 22, 1963, “Please Please Me” hit every record store in England. Richard wouldn’t score another number one album until thirty years later.

Today marks the fifty-year anniversary of “Please Please Me,” an obvious shift in Western music, the moment most would surmise that rock ’n’ roll legitimized itself as a thing to do among people. Elvis Presley had already broken through across the world, but the Pelvis loomed larger than life, a gangly and ultra-suave impossibility of a star. Nobody could be Elvis. But anyone could be the Beatles, and for a generation of folks, “Please Please Me” proved that.

They say that on February 9, 1964, when the Beatles first appeared in America on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” most of America’s rock stars of the 1970s and ’80s were born. Guitar sales boomed. Barbers chairs filled with sickly kids pining for the mop-top look. But in Britain at least, March 22, 1963, was the day that nation’s rock stars were born. There’s something so simple about “Please Please Me,” something so scratchy. It’s not the perfect album. Hell, it’s one of the Beatles’ worst efforts in retrospect. But “Please Please Me” is perfect as a landmark. You can’t imagine rock ’n’ roll before Paul McCartney yelps “1, 2, 3, 4!” and you can certainly point forward from John Lennon’s final wheezing strains of “Twist and Shout.” You may think that compacted within that thirty-two minutes is the essence of rock ’n’ roll, the thrill of the chase, the longing for freedom, the innocent joy of being seventeen. It’s not stylistic like Elvis. It’s not clean and cut like Cliff Richard. It’s the sound of a band of guys writing a script that would be followed for decades. Well, at least that’s the idea. It’s not actually that true.

The story of the album’s creation is well known by hardcore Beatles fans. The success of single “Please Please Me” led producer George Martin to rush an album recording session, so the Beatles shuffled into EMI Studios at Abbey Road and cranked out the remainder of the album in twelve hours. The session echoed a Beatles live show, as the boys decided which songs to play sometimes on the fly. The very last song was “Twist and Shout,” the Isley Brothers’ track that nearly led a sickly Lennon to death by tonsillitis.

But there’s something astounding about “Please Please Me.” Again, it’s not a perfect album. It’s not even a great album.

“Please Please Me” is a tin can. Plenty of echo, as the boys were recorded close together with microphones right up at their noses. Guitar reverb floats around the room, a result of the hasty recording process without any major edits. Some songs were recorded in just one take, not that it shows, because the Beatles had become a seasoned professional outfit by this point. They rehearsed on their lunch break, part completely focused on task and part completely dedicated to performing great songs. And they pulled that one off. Listen to “A Taste of Honey,” one of the weirdest songs to ever receive a popular cover. Previously recorded by Herb Alpert, the instrumental won a Grammy in May 1963. It seems like a terrible choice for a rock ’n’ roll band, but the Beatles somehow inject enough energy into the track to make it decently enjoyable, while McCartney provides one of his finer early vocal readings. That said, “A Taste of Honey” is one of the Beatles’ worst songs despite the band’s professionalism.

Along with “A Taste of Honey,” the covers are judicious, but not really  improved from the originals, though altogether a telling example of the band’s stunning versatility. “Boys,” originally mastered by the Shirelles, sounds peppy and tight when read by the Beatles, vocalized by Ringo Starr. Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison supply an overtly feminine background vocal, and sure they’re honoring the Shirelles, but they’re also injecting some coy promiscuity into the song. On the other end is “Anna,” whose original is a tight and soulful rendition sung by Arthur Alexander, and a stone-cold classic. Lennon takes the vocal on the cover, and he simply adds yearning urgency while the Beatles play the song straight toward the original. Nothing original about it. Then there’s “Chains,” which doesn’t pop like “Boys,” but it isn’t supposed to. Instead it swings as a nod to the original by the Cookies, another girl group from the early 1960s. But the Cookies did it better. The Beatles also cover the Shirelles in “Baby It’s You,” which was originally written by Burt Bacharach. The Beatles’ version is cleaner, but both are pretty similar.

As for the originals, most aren’t even real rock ’n’ roll songs. “Love Me Do” is a swinging pop track with banal lyrics. “P.S. I Love You” is like a race against a ticking clock filled with heavily echoed vocals. “Do You Want to Know a Secret” is merely Harrison serenading a lonely blonde up in the manor window. “Misery” approaches rock ’n’ roll, and it’s a fun song, but it ultimately falls short of grabbing you by the pelvis. And “There’s a Place,” a fantastic song with an underworld of introspection, relies more on harmony than ripping guitar and drum. “Please Please Me,” the title track, gets raunchy and edgy but relies on its choral and bridge harmonies. It’s basically all pop, a whole lot of Cliff Richard stuff.

The only real rock ’n’ roll in “Please Please Me” are “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout.” Those are the songs where the guitars wail, and the drums kick, and the singers holler and yelp. That’s the rock ’n’ roll. And that’s the wonderful secret of “Please Please Me,” the mediocre album that defined the Beatles as stars.

The Beatles smartly inserted the rockers at the front and back of the album, pulling in the listeners with the kick of “1, 2, 3, 4!” and pushing them out with the wheeze of “Twist and Shout.” In between are genre exercises, covers of black music, pop excursions and soft ballads. It’s the sound of a band that knows it can do anything and everything, churning out a set of its live songs in twelve hours, rushing an album into the public so it can capitalize sufficiently. But it’s a rough studio set, a couple guys with guitars and drums and microphones, and it seems easy and obvious. Anyone can do this. Anyone can be in a band and play the Shirelles. Anyone can be in a band and write “Love, love me do, you know I love you, I’ll always be true, so please love me do.”

But not anyone can pull off the infectious urgency of “I Saw Her Standing There” or the breathless buoyancy of “Twist and Shout.” Those are the key tracks, the ones that turned the Beatles into stars. Those are the songs of legend, where Paul McCartney is turned into a loving chap who can chirp like a bluebird, and where John Lennon is turned into a feisty brawler whose just as apt to stir a happening with his falsetto.

“Please Please Me” is a landmark album, and yes, it is the launching point of rock ’n’ roll as we know it. But it’s because every single rock ’n’ roll act since March 22, 1963, has tried to copy those two songs, the first and last, the ones that pulled and pushed, and mattered most for the past, present and future of Western music.

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