8th Favorite Beatles Album: Please Please Me

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Please Please Me
1963, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: Please Please Me is an album as old as most grandparents, yet it still delivers songs that sound exciting and fresh. The vocals of Lennon and McCartney are particularly fine throughout the album. The terrific guitar and drums from Harrison and Starr are buried a bit, due to the recording technology of the time, but if you listen closely you’ll love what you hear.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

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In the 1970s, my sisters and I didn’t appreciate how cool this car really was!

I grew up in the 1970s in a family without much money. We weren’t super-poor, but raising three kids on a machinist’s wages, supplemented by my mom’s work as a lunch lady, meant my parents had to be conscious of every penny. We didn’t dress in the best clothing – we got the Hill’s Department Store versions. We didn’t drive a new car – we tooled around in a peacock blue 1962 Ford Fairlane, complete with tail fins. We didn’t own gadgets or the latest cool stuff – although my dad did get a Texas Instruments calculator around 1977, and it was probably the most expensive item my parents bought that year.

My family’s wringer-washer sat in our garage under an old, plastic picnic-tablecloth.

Because money was tight, the most important feature of anything we owned was that it was DURABLE. Sure, my dad could fix almost anything, and my mom repaired, and resized, hand-me-down clothing with ease. But to them there was nothing better than a decades-old product still working like the day it was produced. We owned a television from the 60s, an ice cream maker from the 50s, and a movie projector from the 40s. And our washing machine was like something out of a museum.

The washtubs served as useful cold-drink coolers at summer BBQs.

It was a wringer washer, and you had to fill it with water using a hose. Then it agitated for a while. When it was done washing you pushed the wet, soapy clothes through THE WRINGER, two rubber rolling-pins that squeezed out the suds and water. Well – some of the suds. You had to next dunk the clothes in tubs of water and push them through the wringer another couple times to get all the soap and water out of the clothes. Then they were ready to be hung to dry on the clothesline. It was a clothes-washing process that was probably easier than it had been in the 1920s, but by 1970s standards it was archaic.

All that filling of tubs and moving clothes by hand and shoving sopping wet fabrics through rubber rollers … it was time-consuming. Sometimes, particularly in the winter, when our unheated garage wasn’t conducive to grappling with soaking clothing, my mom would just take our dirty laundry to the nearby laundromat1. Still, the idea of getting a new washing machine just made no sense. Why save a little time and energy when we had a perfectly good, 30-year-old model out in the garage? If something worked, it worked. If something was good, it was good – no matter how old it was.

The Beatles’ first LP, Please Please Me, is nearly 60 years old and it is still working, and still good, durable enough to satisfy my mom and dad. The idea that an album from 57 years ago is still listenable, let alone recognizable as an excellent rock record, is rather unbelievable. To put it in perspective, this would be the equivalent of the 1977 me, out in the garage helping mom push wet clothes through the wringer, listening to, say, Al Jolson’s 1920 smash “Swanee” and enjoying it just as much as the contemporary Emotions song “Best of My Love.” This scenario is extremely unlikely – and not only because I never helped with the laundry.

I’ve mentioned several times while writing about The Beatles that I’m not going to go into much detail about the band’s story – their history, their cultural impact, etc. Far better writers than me have done far more extensive research, and I recommend you read them. But it is worth noting here that the persistence of Please Please Me as a viable listening product is evidence of how much The Beatles helped change Western music. As I write this, the Number 1 song in America is “Circles,” by Post Malone, and it has noticeable guitar, a bass line, a strong back-beat and melody. It’s not too dissimilar from, say, “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” Sure, it’s more modern and the production is different. But the two songs aren’t nearly as different from one another as “Swanee” and “Best of My Love.”

Clearly this rock/pop music throughline from 1963 to 2020 isn’t entirely and directly related to The Beatles. Still, they released Please Please Me nearly 60 years ago and, while it sounds a bit dated, it remains a collection of songs as listenable and enjoyable today as the day it was released. Perhaps no 57-year-old recording has ever sounded as good the album opener, “I Saw Her Standing There.”

The most astounding thing about this song, and the entire album, is that it was recorded live2. Producer George Martin has said that it was basically a recording of their stage show, “a broadcast, more or less.” Paul’s bass line is front and center, and perfect. George’s guitar sounds best on headphones, where you can clearly hear all his work under the vocals, as at 1:00, and after his solo, at 1:36. Paul sings lyrics that, even though they are sung by an adult, aren’t as cringey as they might seem. The song is in past-tense, so he’s remembering himself as 17 with a girl who “was just 17.” John’s harmonies are terrific, and I love Ringo’s fills to lead the group into each chorus. It remains one of my favorite Beatle songs ever.

Misery” is a fun pop song, catchy and simple, about the downside of love. There’s a cool opening chord, and the band’s voices sound a bit watery and distant, which somehow adds to the sound, as does George Martin’s plunking on the piano. “Chains” is quite similar, with the same lyrical theme, and John’s harmonica taking the place of piano. The band was wild about 60’s girl-groups, and this song was originally done by The Cookies. Paul’s bass, once again, carries the song – although Harrison’s guitar work is subtly very cool.

Among the band’s many early cover songs, one of my favorites is “Anna,” an old song by Arthur Alexander.

It’s a song that really lends itself to headphones3. Once again, the watery vocal sound (probably due to the recording technology of the era) adds to the power of John’s vocal performance about yet another girl who’s left him. This is a Harrison song – a song on which, as a listener, I just want to focus on his guitar. He plays a weird chord, just before the third beat of every other measure in the verse, and once again sounds cool without dominating. The band’s “Anna” vocals are spooky, and their “ahhh”s behind the chorus and bridge are thrilling. Ringo, also, has some cool fills entering and throughout the bridge.

Ringo really gets to shine on the stomper “Boys,” on which he also sings lead.

This is a wild early-60s song, with Ringo admirably shouting the vocals while he plays fills and keeps a beat. And his drumming behind Harrison’s guitar solo, beginning at 1:05, is outstanding. The Beatles really seem to be having fun singing and playing another girl-group hit, originally done by The Shirelles. And even though Ringo sings about “boys,” the band never worried about the implications. According to Paul, it was just a fun song to play, and a crowd favorite. Please Please Me includes another Shirelles hit, “Baby It’s You.” John’s vocal is warm and inviting on this love song, and really makes the song – along with Paul and George’s backing vocals.

As great as many of the covers sound (except for “A Taste of Honey,” probably my least-favorite Beatles’ track ever, and I’ll just leave it at that), it’s the Beatle originals that make the album such a favorite. The title track, for example, is just so much fun.

“Please Please Me” features great vocal harmonies, John and Paul pleading for a little more from love. The harmonica sound dates the song a bit, but one thing that’s not dated is Ringo’s drumming. His fills between verses and choruses, and during the “Come on, come on” build-up, and in the bridge are outstanding. Ringo didn’t play on all the songs – producer George Martin was unhappy with his playing on “Love Me Do,” so Andy White played4 on this simple ditty. This song is okay, but has a bit too much harmonica for my taste. The vocal harmonies are once again brilliant, however.

White also drummed on “P.S. I Love You,” a nice little cha-cha song, with lyrics in the form of a letter. Paul nails the vocals, as he always does. Both John and Paul nail the vocals on the tricky “There’s a Place,” another love song. It’s got many chord changes, and I love what Harrison does with them, sometimes playing staccato chords, sometimes single notes.

I particularly like Harrison’s guitar in the popular “Do You Want to Know a Secret.”

He plays a nice figure at 0:14 to introduce it, then a cool arpeggiated chord on the “I’m in love with you” in each chorus. The background “Do da do” vocals are catchy and the whole song is fun. John’s voice is great, as it is on the showtune-y “Ask Me Why,” a love song I used to always think was a cover. Ringo does a nice cha-cha5, and Paul and George are great on the “woo-woo”s and “I-I”s throughout. It’s another fine original.

And as great as their originals are, it’s a cover song that became one of their most popular songs some 60 years after its release. “Twist and Shout” was a mid-tempo groove when it was made famous by The Isley Brothers. The Beatles revved it up6, John blew out his voice, and now it’s one of the band’s most-streamed songs.

Ringo’s drums are great, Paul’s bass is great, George’s guitar is great … but Lennon’s screams are what make the song. There’s a massive energy to the song. When the band builds the song on the multi-voiced “Aah,” at 1:25 and the end, it still sounds exciting today, decades later. (This excitement got the song prominently placed in two 80s film classics: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back to School.) It’s nominally a song about a dance, but who really cares about the lyrics? It’s a song that has truly stood the test of time.

Just like that old washing machine my mom had.

TRACK LISTING:
“I Saw Her Standing There”
“Misery”
“Anna (Go to Him)”
“Chains”
“Boys”
“Ask Me Why”
“Please Please Me”
“Love Me Do”
“P.S. 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”

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