Classic Music Review: Please Please Me by The Beatles

Originally published October 2012, revised May 2016.

Rolling Stone rated Please Please Me the 39th best album of all time.

It wouldn’t even make my Top 10 Debut Album List if I had one.

I’m such a bitch.

The inflated rating is a classic example of Baby Boomers allowing their devotion to the Beatles to distort the process of assessment. The Baby Boomers have a marked tendency to view anything that happened to them while they were growing up to possess greater historical significance than anything that happened in any other generation. Since the music on Please Please Me is generally insignificant, it would appear that the evaluators at Rolling Stone placed it in such a lofty position because of their perception of its historical significance.

They did so while ignoring the evidence. Please Please Me had virtually no impact outside the borders of the United Kingdom at the time of its initial release. The album was altered and repackaged as Introducing the Beatles in the United States by Vee Jay Records, but due to legal hassles, wasn’t released until nearly a year after its British release—a few weeks after the appearance of Meet the Beatles, the chopped-up American version of With the Beatles.

In other words, Please Please Me played a minor role in what was the most important historical event in the early years of the Beatles: the conquest of America. What made that possible was the combination of Ed Sullivan, a slew of singles (especially “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”), Brian Epstein’s marketing strategy, the Beatles’ charm and wit during their first press conference, and the album Meet the Beatles. In the buying frenzy that followed the appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, when nearly everything the Beatles release shot to #1, Introducing the Beatles was the rare exception: it peaked at #2 (behind Meet the Beatles) and stayed there.

Fact: If the Beatles hadn’t conquered America, they would have remained a uniquely British novelty, very much like Cliff Richard (whose name fails to ring a bell with the vast majority of Americans). Fact: If the Beatles hadn’t conquered America, its citizenry would never have experienced The British Invasion in full force, an event that made it perfectly normal for British artists to appear regularly on AM station rotations. It’s not an understatement to say that the Beatles’ conquest of America made possible the extraordinary development of rock ‘n’ roll we saw in the 1960’s, for America is the center of the universe when it comes to money and media reach. And the album that contributed most to that blessed event was Meet the Beatles, not Please Please Me.

Fortunately, the few people who still bother to read Rolling Stone seem to think their ratings are ludicrous, so only true Beatle fanatics will object to the following review.

I do like the album very much. Well, most of it, anyway. Except for “Boys” and “Twist and Shout,” the cover songs are a waste of good vinyl and two-track tape. The McCartney-Lennon songwriting duo (yes, the names were reversed) hasn’t quite found their stride. “P. S. I Love You,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” and “Ask Me Why” could have been written by any songsmith locked up in a New York office with Neil Sedaka and Paul Simon.

What I like is the energy of the album. Sometimes they sound a little nervous and uncertain, but when they forget about the strange and sterile studio and start channeling Cavern club energy, you almost wish that George Martin’s original thought—to record their stage show in the Cavern—would have come to fruition.

“I Saw Her Standing There” is a great opener, right from the opening countdown. Do you know that the geniuses at Vee Jay Records cut the countdown from the record because they felt it was superfluous? It would be interesting for a forensic accountant to analyze Vee-Jay’s books to figure out how much money they saved with that travesty. The countdown makes this sucker go, for fuck’s sake! Thank God they didn’t mess with the falsetto crescendos, where time seems to freeze in a glorious display of raw energy.

It was also good to follow up that song with “Misery,” if only just to show that the band had range and an exceptional gift for harmonic touches. Those tiny moments where John and Paul harmonize on the word “misery” are absolutely delightful. The mood sinks with two pedestrian covers of “Anna (Go to Him)” and “Chains,” but Ringo gets us back in the groove with a strong lead vocal on “Boys.” The three covers do demonstrate something curious about the Beatles: unlike the other British Invasion bands (The Kinks, The Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals), the Beatles did not have a foundation in the blues. The Beatles did covers of soul singers and African-American girl groups but never really ventured into blues territory until much later (with the perfectly dreadful “Yer Blues.”) I point this out because although the Beatles had a great rhythm section, I consider very few of their songs sexy, and the only Beatles song I ever place on my fuck-time playlists is “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” The Beatles’ energy was more exuberance than eroticism . . . at least for me. I certainly would not have been one of the screamers—I would have been the one trying to get all those little girls to shut the fuck up so I could hear the fucking band!

“Ask Me Why” comes next, an original that only confirms that McCartney-Lennon had a long way to go to become great songwriters. But thanks to the staid George Martin’s wise advice to speed it up and the application of the harmonic technique from the Everlies “Cathy’s Clown,” “Please Please Me” is a tremendous song that makes me wish I’d hit my teenage years in 1960’s Britain instead of 1990’s America . . . or even 1960’s America. I would have preferred the Beatles to announce their arrival through “Please the Beatles’ arrival than though “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “She Loves You.” It just sounds more triumphant, a more appropriate harbinger of things to come.

“Love Me Do” certainly doesn’t fill the bill. It’s only significance was that it was the Beatles’ first single, and I’m surprised that it made it into the Top 20. It’s bo-ring. As is “P. S. I Love You,” a song very reminiscent of something Brian Hyland might have done. We get another meh Shirelles cover with “Baby It’s You,” followed by the obligatory George vocal, the horribly sweet “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” The Beatles’ version of “A Taste of Honey” doesn’t even rank with Herb Alpert’s.

“There’s a Place” is an interesting little piece, sort of thematically reminiscent of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” but with a significant difference. The Beach Boys’ retreat is the physical space of a teen bedroom in Southern California in the 1960’s, whereas the less-affluent Beatles chose to retreat into the mind. They describe the experience as timeless, though in the somewhat awkward language of the unseasoned songwriter (“And it’s my mind/And there’s no time/When I’m alone”). The harmonies overshadow the melody, a phenomenon that was common in early Beatles songs. As a listener who wants to sing along, this means you often have a hard time figuring out when to follow Lennon and when to follow McCartney. You’ll experience this on “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Baby’s in Black,” “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” and more. I think this gives Beatle songs a huge advantage for those who want to accompany them in the morning shower: you have multiple access points and lower chances of hitting a wrong note. And since both the melodic and harmonic lines are usually strong, you can’t lose!

The album ends with Lennon’s heroics on “Twist and Shout.” While I appreciate what it took for him to sing this as well as he did with a bad cold (saved by milk, cough drops and cigarettes), and while the energy on the song is undeniable, people tend to rank the the song too highly on the list of “The Best John Lennon Rock Vocals.” I’ll take his vocal on “Money” over “Twist and Shout” any day of the week. And “Slow Down” as well. The layered harmonies are just as impressive and important to “Twist and Shout,” and it’s still one of the most flat-out exciting songs in the Beatle’s catalog.

The importance of Please Please Me is that it gave the Beatles more experience in the studio and more awareness of the possibilities of recording (as opposed to preparing songs for the stage). Lennon and McCartney still had a lot to learn about songwriting, but they would prove to be quick studies. And though I don’t think Please Please Me is a great album in its own right, I appreciate it as the first chapter in a long novel. The characters have piqued my interest and I’m very curious to see where these boys will wind up.

 

5 responses

  1. […] Please Please Me […]

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  2. Considering that most pop albums of the early 60’s era were generally disposable and forgettable – George Martin was itching to please please please his bosses at EMI here – this wasn’t a bad effort at all showcasing the bands’ versatility. Sure, it’s sappy and soppy in places but it is that energy and charm that makes it listenable all these years later with the hindsight that we know these guys got better… much much better!

    Right from the start they set into stone the rigid formula that dictated that George and Ringo would sing at least one song on each album (though they let that slip on “A Hard Day’s Night” which spared us Ringo’s voice for once) and that the original compositions were more important. It’s interesting to hear how confident they were even at this early stage no doubt thanks to the long hours in Hamburg and a producer who was willing to let them have their own way.

    Great you singled out “There’s A Place” since that is definitely the most interesting track musically and lyrically, inward looking but delivered with that energy of youth. Yes, Lennon did sing better than he did on “Twist And Shout” but it’s the overall vibe – they were running a little later than expected, knackered from the day’s long work and Lennon’s voice shot to ribbons, but under the pressure that demanded one final track to complete the album, they just threw all caution to the wind and went for it – no overdubs, just raw live excitement and that truly comes across. A true one take wonder which captures a remarkable moment which would resonate far and wide.

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    1. And it’s a compliment to EMI’s technical quality and everyone involved’s competence, commitment and energy that “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Boys” and “Twist And Shout” still makes many a body move and shake more than half a century later.

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  3. Recently I’ve come to appreciate these early Beatles albums more than I used to. This happened after I put them into heavy rotation in my CD players and listened to them so many times that the originals and the covers started to blend together a lot more than they used to. I think we sometimes downgrade these albums a bit unfairly due to all of the cover songs, when it was the Beatles themselves who set the standard for rock/pop bands to compose most of their own material. At the time this first album came out, it was pretty remarkable that more than half of the songs were originals. And the covers were not necessarily filler, as I believe they gave the group more credibility, showing that they could interpret others’ songs as well as writing their own.

    I like the quirky choice of cover songs here. “Anna (Go To Him)” is one of my favorites. I also think it’s impressive that they could perform credible versions of girl group songs like “Chains,” “Boys,” and “Baby It’s You.” Those were some gutsy choices in my opinion. When I listen to this album (and the second and fourth albums) now, I’m listening to the performances as much as the songwriting, although I acknowledge that the songwriting, more than anything, is what has made the Beatles’ music endure for all these years.

    I don’t think the Baby Boomers are being selfish by claiming so much historical significance for this album. I’m not a Baby Boomer, but I think the music of their era was better than the music of my era, and it’s not even close. (I came of age in the eighties.) It seems pretty logical to me to place high importance on the debut album by what was easily the best band of the second half of the twentieth century, and it’s not like anything even close to the Beatles has come along yet during this century.

    Also, I think it’s best to refer to the British versions of the albums when assessing the Beatles’ work, because those were the versions that were created by the group and George Martin, and they are simply better than the American versions.

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    1. I definitely agree that “I think the music of their era was better than the music of my era,” and so when I make critical comments about The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Stones, The Kinks, etc, those comments have to be read with that qualifier in mind. The bar for excellence was much, much higher, and The Beatles had a lot to do with constantly raising the bar.

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