Please Please Me - The Beatles, 1963, Parlophone
I Saw Her Standing There
Anna (Go To Him)
Ask Me Why
Please Please Me
Love Me Do
PS 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
I approached this week’s column with some trepidation, how do you talk about the greatest band in music history? What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? Especially when, just between you and me, you’re not really a fan of them? I obviously couldn’t do this column without including a Beatles album and it seems sensible to me start with the first one because without it, the legend we all know so well could never have been written. Also I have no desire to wander into the proverbial minefield of the Revolver v. Sgt. Pepper’s debate. So, at the risk of offending Beatles purists by picking this one, here we are.
Knowing how this story eventually unfolded, it would be easy to think that The Beatles were guaranteed to succeed, but prior to the release of this record they had spent three years on their local Liverpool scene and were at serious risk of becoming stuck in it and never progressing. Although their live shows were exciting and well received, this was only the case in their hometown and during their regular appearances at clubs in Hamburg, Germany. Surprising as it may seem, they tended to meet with a lukewarm reception in other parts of the UK. The Merseybeat scene they were part of was not considered fashionable or more importantly lucrative by music executives, however the band had released two successful singles, the album’s title track and “Love Me Do” so Parlophone thought it was worth releasing an album to try to cash in on this success, as long as it could be done as quickly as possible. As we saw last week with Cliff Richard, Britain at this time was booming with conspicuous consumption and record buying teenagers were an important market to tap into.
The way this album was recorded seems incredible today. It was almost completely finished in a single day at Abbey Road Studios. In order to get the album completed as quickly as possible, it was decided to simply run through The Beatles’ live set and put it on record in the hope of capturing the exciting atmosphere of one of their gigs. Although there are some covers on the album, the majority of the songs are original. This was a first for British recording artists and of course albums made up entirely of original material are now the norm. Not only was the production of the album quick, it was cheap too, costing just £400. It was to prove a brilliant investment for Parlophone.
Even the album art was made cheaply and quickly. The picture featured on the album cover was taken in the nondescript stairwell at the offices of EMI (Parlophone’s parent company). When EMI moved offices in the mid 1990s they considered the stairwell such an important part of musical history that they had it taken apart and moved across London from Marylebone to their new offices in Hammersmith.
Despite what could be perceived as cutting corners in all areas to save money on the part of the record label then, the album was hugely successful. Going into the chart on 6 April 1963, http://www.officialcharts.com/charts/albums-chart/19630331/7502/ it hit the number 1 spot on 5 May (knocking our old friend Cliff off the top spot) and stayed there for an incredible 30 weeks being replaced at the top by...The Beatles’ second album “With The Beatles”. From the release of “Please Please Me” until the end of the 1960s, it seems that the Beatles just never stopped. In 1963 alone they released two albums, seven singles and three EPs.
So, what about the content? Well I am surprised to say that overall I enjoyed it. I have to admit that the first song “I Saw Her Standing There” immediately made me want to move, it still stands up - what a great way to open an album (or a gig presumably - I hope it was their regular opener). I hate “Love Me Do” though. What a horrific song. The harmonica just bores into you and the lyrics are so banal. In fairness, I don’t really like love songs generally, but at least “P.S. I Love You” is a bit more interesting. I can see why teenage girls would have liked it anyway and of course that was who this album was being made for. I enjoyed the cover of “Baby It’s You” a lot too, strangely it put me in mind of Shed Seven. “A Taste of Honey” seems to have been pretty much dismissed as filler but I actually quite liked its folky sort of vibe. Maybe I like it so much because it doesn’t sound much like I think The Beatles should sound. “Twist and Shout” is the most talked about track on this album, it seems like it was the most successful track in terms of catching the sound and feeling of a live show and the vocal is the most interesting. I don’t think he’d thank me for saying it, but I feel like the line that you could draw from this to a Johnny Rotten vocal 15 years later wouldn’t be all that wavy.
People seem to talk about the raw energy of this album a lot, but overall I didn’t really feel that. To me it seemed curated with songs chosen to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and therefore sell the most records. I can’t imagine people getting excited about some of the love songs in local clubs, although I am sure “Twist and Shout” would have got people dancing anywhere.
My lack of excitement about this record would clearly have put me in the minority in 1963. Beatlemania started with this album’s release and the live shows that followed - The Beatles toured the UK four times in 1963. This is another important social point to draw from this album. It marks the start of our obsession with celebrity and the minutiae of the lives of the famous. I imagine the major cities of the UK full of mop top haircuts and men in Chelsea boots trying to emulate the coolest guys in the country (in fairness I am still partial to a Chelsea boot in 2018, so I support this wholeheartedly).
This album is important, not because it represents the best work of The Beatles but because it represents the beginning of their rise to global prominence and a huge change in how music was made in Britain. Last week we saw how Cliff cracked a chart filled with soundtracks and showtunes, The Beatles continued this and took it further. They made it acceptable for a self contained band to make and record their own music successfully and pretty much became the blueprint for how every other band would create music, at least until the manufactured pop of the 1990s came along.
Admittedly this isn’t truly a rock album, it’s music to dance to, but it paved the way for the rock albums the Beatles would make over the next few years and it captured something of the band before they became the greatest band ever(TM). They are still widely considered the greatest rock stars Britain has ever produced and of course Sir Paul McCartney has national treasure status and the right, always invoked, to play “Hey Jude” at every event of national significance until the end of time.
As for me. I still don’t buy into the legend and I don’t want to listen to this album again. I think I would like to listen to some more of their music so I can better understand their progression though, and for someone who has spent her life trying to ignore this band, that is high praise indeed.