The Beatles – Song by Song on the First Album from the Liverpool Lads
This is a bit of a change in direction for a travel blog, but I haven’t signed a contract with anyone to write only about my ongoing journeys – after all, the oldest cliche is that ‘life is a journey’, so what the hell, let’s meet The Beatles.
I am among the many millions of little brats to be born in that period now called the Baby Boom, but I am sure at the time was more probably referred to as ” Mom’s pregnant again!”. No generation has more celebrated it’s own narcissism than those raised in the relative peace that was secured by the unbelievable sacrifices of their parents and grandparents. We are truly a generation of spoiled shits who have done more to despoil the earth with our unbridled consumerism than all before us and yet we celebrate our own ‘originality’ as if it were indeed, a fact. But we do have one thing I am not ashamed of – great music.
There are only a few transformative moments in life that are shared by almost everyone, but they are as real to each one of us as they are to all. For Canadian boomers there are quite a few – the day John Kennedy was shot, the day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, the Paul Henderson goal, Trudeaumania and the night The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Nobody with a pulse will ever forget any of these events.
Mark Lewisohn is widely recognized as ‘the expert’ when it comes to The Beatles and having just finished listening to his gigantic tome Tune In Vol.1 , I have to agree. This is the first of three books that will tell the once and for all story of the Beatles. Volume 1 starts with the antecedents of the various Beatles’ families and ends with the about to be recording of their first album, Please Please Me. In between we learn of the many starts and stops that could have derailed the world’s greatest group from ever getting off the ground, including the death of Stu Sutcliffe, the replacement of Pete Best with Ringo and the intractable establishment reluctance to accept a bunch of Liverpudlians as legitimate music makers.
The rest of this post is dedicated to the songs on Please Please Me. This is an album that was released in March 2003 in Britain with a cover photo that is identical to that on the so-called Red Album released in North America years later as Vol.1 of The Beatles’ greatest hits.
What Mark Lewisohn does very well is describe how each song that Lennon-McCartney wrote for this first album came to be – the how, what and why. He also does the same for the songs on the album that were not written by Lennon-McCartney. So without further ado here are the songs.
I Saw Her Standing There was written by Paul after he went on a one day trip to London with a 17 year old member of The Beatles’ fan club and they walked around the city holding hands. There was nothing sexual going on, just friendship. The lyrics were later refined by John, who removed the then second line “She was no beauty queen” and replaced it with the totally meaningless, but better ” If you know what I mean”. The first of the Beatles’ danceable and singable hits that still brings a smile to every boomer’s lips today.
Misery is a true Lennon-McCartney composition written in haste to fill the need for original material on their first album.
Anna (go with him) was in the Beatles’ repertoire since 1962 and according to Lewisohn was George’s favourite song, even though John was the lead singer. This song really shows the range of John’s voice as he builds up to a frenetic crescendo midway through. The original was by Arthur Alexander, one of the Beatles’ go to sources for r&b material. I honestly think John does a better job of conveying the sense of sad resignation that really makes the song.
Carole King and Gerry Goffin were huge influences on John and Paul’s songwriting style – for example, Misery. Their version of Chains is not one of my favourite Beatles’ songs, but I do like it better than Carole King’s almost gospelly version.
Next up is the Beatles’ version of The Shirelles’ Boys, sung by Ringo without any reservations as to why he was ‘talkin’ about boys now’.
Ask me Why is one of the songs recorded by the Beatles at their 1962 audition session with EMI. Written by John, he made no bones about the fact that he was trying to emulate the style of Smokey Robinson and I think they did a great job on the harmonies of trying for The Miracles’ touch.
Please Please Me was the song that put the Beatles on the map and was the first of an almost endless stream of #1 hits.
Love Me Do was the Beatles’ first song to hit the charts and for most Brits the first Beatles’ song. Believe it or not a limited number of singles were released in Canada in early 1963, well before anyone had a clue who these guys were. I wonder what one of those 45’s would be worth today? Paul wrote the song way back in 1958 and with John, polished it off later. John wanted to be the first musician to play harmonica on a pop song in Britain and he got his wish with Love Me Do.
PS I Love You, composed by Paul was the B Side of Love Me Do, but in a tradition breaking move by the Beatles, both sides of their singles were almost always hits. Instead of fobbing off some piece of crap that nobody would listen to, like most artists, the Beatles gave full value for the 90 cents that I paid for their singles in the ’60s.
On Baby It’s You John Lennon who sings lead on this cover of the second Shirelle’s song on Please Please Me. The original version is just a little slower and by listening to both you can really appreciate how damed good the Beatles’ harmonies really were. This was one of the earliest songs that Burt Bacharach wrote the music for. At age 92 in 2021 he’s still writing new material.
I’ve always thought that Do You Want to Know a Secret sounded more like a Herman’s Hermits song than the Beatles’, but it was written by John and is the second song on the album that George sings lead – the other is Chains.
A Taste of Honey is a rather bizarre addition to Please Please Me as it was written as an instrumental in 1959 for a play of the same name and only recorded with lyrics by Lenny Welch in 1962. Apparently John thought it sucked, but Paul liked it so much that it made its way onto the album and popularized what had been a pretty obscure song up til then. Herb Alpert later had a monster hit with his trumpet version in 1965.
There’s a Place is the penultimate offering on Please Please Me and it is a genuine Lennon-McCartney composition right down to the two of them sharing lead vocals. It is based on the line “There’s a place for us” from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Somewhere, one of the hits of West Side Story. Except for the harmonica it sounds very much like something Brian Wilson might have written for the Beach Boys, particularly In My Room.
Always save the best for last is a popular saying and in the case of Twist and Shout I think that’s exactly what producer George Martin did on Please Please Me. Here is their rendition on the Ed Sullivan Show.
I don’t think there is a better Beatles’ cover of any song they recorded (although Long Tall Sally comes close). The absolute energy and charisma of The Beatles comes through here in spades. I can still remember jumping up and down on my bed like a deranged lunatic with my first attempts at air guitar mastery and playing this song over and over and over again. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship – one way to be sure, but my unrequited love for The Beatles remains as ardent as ever. R.I.P. John and George. Keep on rockin’ Paul and Ringo.
Years after I first wrote this post I had the opportunity to do a private tour of Beatles’ sites in Liverpool with expert guide Paul Beesley. Read about that extraordinary Sunday morning here.