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Though they're now famous the world over as the greatest rock 'n' roll band of all time, until the end of 1963 the Beatles were just the most famous act in Liverpool yet to release a record in the UK1.
In the first two years of the 1960s, they became the biggest band in two cities - their native Liverpool, and Hamburg, the German home of the Top Ten and Kaiserkeller nightclubs where the Beatles had performed on and off for the previous two years. But playing to a friendly crowd in Liverpool was not the same as winning over the rest of the country; for that, they'd need to make a record. A previous attempt to secure a recording contract at Decca famously failed when they were turned down by the label's A&R2 man, Dick Rowe. In the summer of '62, the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein had finally secured them a recording contract with Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI, and a producer in the form of George Martin.
Before the Beatles could begin recording though, there was one other change to come - their drummer Pete Best was fired by Epstein. Having been the band's drummer for two years, this move came as something of a surprise for Best and Epstein never really explained his decision fully. But there wasn't time to grieve for long as a new drummer had already been found - Ringo Starr, previously drummer with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
Though history would ensure that Ringo would forever be linked to the 'Fab Four', at the beginning his position was not so assured. George Martin even went to the trouble of hiring another drummer (Andy White - see 'Love Me Do' below) for the recording sessions, just in case things didn't work out.
The first recording session for the Beatles' first album took place at Abbey Road Studios on 11 September, 1962, with 'Love Me Do' and 'Please Please Me', songs that would become the band's first two singles. Aside from the recording of 'Ask Me Why' on 26 November, '62, the rest of the album was recorded in a 15-hour session on 11 February, 1963.
That record tried to capture us live, and was the nearest thing to what we might have sounded like to the audiences in Hamburg and Liverpool. You don't get that live atmosphere of the crowd stomping on the beat with you, but it's the nearest you can get to knowing what we sounded like before we became the 'clever' Beatles.
- John Lennon, interviewed in 1976.
'I Saw Her Standing There'
'I Saw Her Standing There' had been part of the band's repertoire for many years, when it was called 'Seventeen', and had been written by Lennon and McCartney back when they were at school. As the first track on side one, it played on their reputation as a live act, beginning with Paul McCartney counting the band in: 'One two three FOUR!'. McCartney takes the lead vocals, with John Lennon harmonising.
The song took its inspiration from Chuck Berry (notably 'I'm Talking About You') and Liverpool vocal group The Vernons Girls ('You Know What I Mean', which Lennon added to the lyrics in preference to McCartney's original line 'Not exactly a beauty queen'). Formed from the typing pool of Liverpool football pools company Vernons, the Vernons Girls had made it big that year with TV appearances on pop show Oh Boy! and would later record a song called 'We Love You Beatles'. Chuck Berry, meanwhile, recorded a whole album dedicated to the Beatles' home city - St Louis to Liverpool - which featured a jaunty instrumental called 'Liverpool Drive'.
It was kind of a John song, more than a Paul song... but it was written together.
- John Lennon, interviewed in 1980.
Lennon and McCartney wrote this song while the Beatles were touring with teen singing sensation Helen Shapiro. When Shapiro's management rejected the song, it found its way onto the Beatles' first album instead. It was later adopted by singer Kenny Lynch and released as a single in January 1963 (though surprisingly it failed to chart).
'Anna (Go to Him)'
The first of five cover versions on the album, this ballad was written and originally performed by American Blues singer Arthur Alexander. Curiously, the title is never actually sung at any point in the Beatles' version, Lennon changing the lyric to 'go with him'.
With lead vocals by George, this was a fairly late edition to the boys' act, having been released in the USA the previous November by The Cookies, one of a number of acts to emerge from the legendary Brill Building. As with 'Baby it's You' and 'Boys', it's a song originally sung by a girl band, which shows the Beatles' versatility and their openness to celebrate a good tune. It was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and, like the original, featured an unusual hand-clap (two claps, then one, alternating), though this version boasted an additional smouldering harmonica solo for Lennon.
Sung by Ringo Starr, this had been a favourite of the Beatles for some time. 'Boys' had been a hit for girl group The Shirelles, but at the time no-one thought anything of the Beatles covering it. Only subsequently have critics tried to question whether their version has gay undertones ('I'm talkin' bout boys, now'), despite certain concessions made for gender ('My girl says when I kiss her lips...').
'Ask Me Why'
At a time when Lennon and McCartney were writing songs not just for themselves but for other artists, it's interesting that 'Ask Me Why' doesn't appear to have been covered by anyone. The lyrics are gender-neutral, meaning that it could have been sung by a man or a woman - Lennon sings 'You're the only love that I've ever had' where 'only girl' might have been expected. The reason for it not being picked up by anyone else might be down to its rather old-fashioned approach, the 'iy-iy-iy-ine' that comes at the end of the word 'mine' and a rather twee arrangement. The song had featured in the Beatles' stage act and had been the B-side for their second single, 'Please Please Me'. Speaking of which...
'Please Please Me'
When it came to the band's second single, following 'Love Me Do', George Martin was keen on them recording 'How Do You Do It?', a song that had previously been rejected by pop singer Adam Faith. The Beatles recorded the song but demanded that it should not be a single for them, preferring that their singles should all be self-penned; Martin eventually gave it to Gerry and the Pacemakers, another of Brian Epstein's Liverpool bands, who took it to Number One.
Released as a single prior to the album's launch, 'Please Please Me' is often credited with being the band's first Number One in the UK Charts. This is a little problematic as at that time the singles charts hadn't been formalised and the Record Retailer chart listed the song at Number Two, just behind Cliff Richard's 'Bachelor Boy'. It's this chart that the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles regards as the definitive chart at the time, despite the NME chart placing it at pole position.
John Lennon took main vocals on the track and played the harmonica (a regular element in these early recordings), with harmonies from Paul and George. Though Lennon and McCartney worked as a writing partnership, this was a song that Lennon had written on his own many years before, taking inspiration for the lyrics from Roy Orbison and (strangely) an old Bing Crosby song called 'Please' that his mother used to sing when he was a child. The Orbison influence might have been easier when the band first performed it to their producer, but George Martin decided the song would be a bigger hit with a faster tempo. The song was recorded on 26 November, 1962, shortly before the Beatles left the UK for their final performances in Hamburg.
Chosen as the title track of their first album, 'Please Please Me' was released as a single in January, 1963 and appeared on the end of side one of their first album.
'Love Me Do'
Though 'Love Me Do' was the Beatles' first single, a different arrangement of the song was used on the album. The biggest difference was the drummer: though Ringo had played the drums on the single, a different take appeared on the LP, with Ringo on tambourine and session drummer Andy White on drums. The song was recorded, after 15 takes, on 4 September, 1962, and released as a single on 5 October, '62, eventually peaking at Number 17 in the charts. For its US release in 1964, the Andy White version was used. Ringo's version appears on the first Past Masters album (the one with the black cover), while a rerecording from a BBC radio session can be heard on the Live at the BBC compilation.
Just to confuse matters further, an earlier recording of the song, from 6 June, 1963, featured drumming from Pete Best. This recording - which boasts an intricate syncopated beat for the instrumental section before the final verse - was only rediscovered in 1994 and swiftly added to the first of the Beatles' Anthology compilations for release in 1995.
When the band had performed 'Love Me Do' during their live sets, the harmonica had not featured in the arrangement. When it came to the recordings, John was inspired to add a harmonica part by Bruce Chanel's 'Hey! Baby' just a few months before. This provided a slight problem in that John was also singing lead vocal, and the harmonica would have to come in at the same time on the end of the last line of each verse. Producer George Martin solved the problem by giving that line to Paul.
'PS I Love You'As well as three cover versions of three songs popularised by girl groups, Paul wrote 'PS I Love You' while in Hamburg as a tribute to / pastiche of those songs, specifically 'Soldier Boy' by the Shirelles. It was not, however, an autobiographical song, as some have assumed.
'Baby, It's You'
A cover of the Shirelles song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the Beatles' take on 'Baby, It's You' actually has a softer percussion, which manages to balance out Lennon's harsher, more aggressive vocals. The shrill electric organ of the original is replaced by a basic guitar solo from George, though the 'sha-la-la' backing vocals are retained.
'Do You Want to Know a Secret'
For such a gentle love song, there's quite a bitter-sweet back-story to it. Lennon had reluctantly married his long-time girlfriend Cynthia after they'd discovered she was pregnant and the rushed wedding had been kept quiet so as not to alienate the fans back in Liverpool or ruin the band's chances of success. But the 'secret' in the song's title apparently refers to Lennon's realisation that he loved Cynthia after all.
The song was also inspired by a tune from Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that Lennon's mother used to sing when he was a child ('Want to know a secret? / Promise not to tell? / We are standing by a wishing well').
John allowed George Harrison to take lead vocals on this track, and it's interesting to hear how Harrison's Liverpool accent is much more audible than the others ('You'll never know how much I really curr'). In an interview in 1980, Lennon said:
I thought it would be a good vehicle for him, because it had only three notes and he wasn't the best singer in the world. He has improved a lot since then; but in those days, his ability was very poor.
Lennon gave the song to another Brian Epstein-managed band, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, a Manchester band with a Liverpudlian singer. It was their first single and it reached Number Two in the charts in May 1963, two months after the Beatles' Please Please Me LP was released.
'A Taste of Honey'
With a title inspired by the play by Shelagh Delaney, 'A Taste of Honey' was written by Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow. The Beatles weren't the only artists to cover it; Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Chet Baker, Cliff Richard, The Supremes and Peggy Lee all had a go. The version by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass was used by British DJ Chris Evans as his theme tune on Radio 1.
The Beatles performed the song due to its popularity - even going to the trouble of recording it in German - but they themselves were not fans (John Lennon called it 'A Waste of Money'). The version included on Please Please Me was, as publicist Tony Burrow noted at the time, the only song on the album to feature a 'trick', in that Paul McCartney provides both the lead and backing vocals (a trick he borrowed from Buddy Holly).
'There's a Place'
The first Lennon / McCartney track to allude to daydreaming, which would become a recurring theme on later albums, 'There's a Place' once again features a part for John Lennon's harmonica. It's said that John used to joke that he was the band-member most likely to end up in prison, so he thought it would make sense to learn the harmonica.
'Twist and Shout'
After an exhausting 12-hour day, John Lennon's vocals were near breaking-point when it came to the recording of this song written by Phil Medley and Bert Russell. It was George Martin who decided to save this song until the end of the session, figuring that it would make best use of the harsher aspect of Lennon's voice (and also because he knew that it would need Lennon to shout, and he'd be unlikely to be able to sing anything else afterwards). In the event, it was recorded in just one take.
While the Isley Brothers originally made the song a hit, the Beatles truly made it their own. Their arrangement can be heard in covers subsequently recorded by other artists such as David Essex, Fleetwood Mac, Deacon Blue, Salt 'n' Peppa, Showaddywaddy and Chaka Demus 'n' Pliers. Despite their success with the track, John Lennon claimed in 1963 that he never felt confident singing it if a black performer was in the room:
It doesn't seem right, you know. I feel sort of embarrassed... It makes me curl up. I always feel they could do the song much better than me.
The Finished Album
The whole album only took a day... so it was amazingly cheap, no-messing, just a massive effort from us. But we were game. We'd been to Hamburg for Christ's sake, we'd stayed up all night, it was no big deal. We started at ten in the morning and finished at ten at night... it sounded like a working day to us! And at the end of the day you had your album. There's many a person now who would love to be able to say that. Me included.
- Paul McCartney, interviewed in 1988.
Please Please Me was released on 22 March, 1963 (in mono only; the stereo version was released on 26 April the same year) and soared to Number One in the album charts. Its cover boasted 'PLEASE PLEASE ME with Love Me Do and 12 other songs', while the cover photograph (which had been taken at the EMI building on 5 March, 1963) showed Ringo, Paul, George and John leaning over a balcony. Ringo had only officially been with the band for seven months and significantly still had a rocker's quiff hairstyle in this photo. Soon after, he'd adopt the band's standard 'mop-top' style.
In 1969, the Beatles would recreate the cover in the same location and poses for their ultimately abortive Get Back project. That photo would eventually be used on the blue double compilation album The Beatles 1967 - 1970, with the Please Please Me photo reused on its companion release, the red The Beatles 1963-1966 album.
Introducing... The Beatles
The Beatles' first album was released in the USA on 22 July, 1963. Published by Vee-Jay Records, it sported a different name - Introducing... The Beatles - different cover with a generic group shot and, as American albums tended to feature just 12 songs as standard, two fewer tracks; 'Please Please Me' and 'Ask Me Why' were excluded from the album. But a dispute over publishing rights with Capitol over the songs 'Love Me Do' and 'PS, I Love You' led to the album being pulled and rereleased on 6 January, 1964. This time, 'Love Me Do' and 'PS, I Love You' were removed and 'Please Please Me' and 'Ask Me Why' popped back in. This release was also repackaged along with Golden Hits of the Four Seasons to form a double album, The Beatles vs The Four Seasons.
When the American rights passed to Capitol Records in 1965, the album underwent another reshuffle as 'Love Me Do' and 'PS, I Love You' were reinstated, but 'I Saw Her Standing There', 'Misery' and 'There's a Place' were dropped ('I Saw Her Standing There' had previously been included as a bonus track on the US release of Meet the Beatles). It was renamed once again - to 'The Early Beatles' - and the running order of the tracks went as follows:
- 'Love Me Do '
- 'Twist and Shout'
- 'Anna (Go to Him)'
- 'Boys '
- 'Ask Me Why '
- 'Please Please Me'
- 'PS I Love You '
- 'Baby, It's You '
- 'A Taste of Honey '
- 'Do You Want to Know a Secret'
The full version of Please Please Me wouldn't be released in the USA until 1987.
Prior to 1963, Liverpool had been responsible for a very few top-charting acts: Lita Rosa was the very first British singer to chart, with 'How Much is that Doggy in the Window', while in 1960, old-fashioned crooner Michael Holliday scored with 'Starry Eyed'. After the release of the Beatles' first album, Liverpool acts became golden and dominated the UK charts for over four years. The Beatles outlasted them all and went on to change the way pop music was created, marketed and regarded by critics. No longer was it just a noise from America, it was the music of the people, a cultural heritage that would be analysed forever more. And it's with Please Please Me that the legacy began.