Wednesday, 13 February 2013

50 Years of "Please Please Me"

The Beatles - Please Please Me

50 years ago, on February 11, 1962, the Beatles recorded their first LP at the Abbey Road Studios of EMI, under the guidance of producer George Martin.

It was recorded in 12 hours, with only 10 songs recorded in that time, live with some basic overdubbing, to two-track tape. The balance of the LP was padded out with both sides of the previously released singles "Love me Do" and "Please Please Me". The latter of which gives the album its name.

It's interesting how times have changed. Nobody in professional music circles records albums in 12 hours anymore. And what's more, the band made it abundantly clear that the lion's share of music on their albums was to be original. As a result, 8 of the 14 tracks were written by John and Paul. That in itself was a game-changer: before this, most bands and performers sourced their material from external professional song writers and never gave a thought to composing a song themselves.

The album is not one of my personal favourites by The Beatles. They would go onto bigger and better things, but this is a pretty decent start. It contains some great originals, some questionable cover choices and a handful of insipid performances, but their energy and passion are evident throughout.

By now, the band were a lean, mean performing machine. They tight as performers, they were tight as a group of friends. They could own the stage on any given night. They could bash out these songs competently and confidently, as they had been doing for months. However, performing to an audience of two from behind sound-proof glass must have been intimidating for them. All members took the lead vocal on at least one song. John shreds his vocal chords on "Twist and Shout", Ringo sounds confident on "Boys", George sounds a little intimidated by the studio on "Do You Want To Know A Secret".

Paul's energy is evident almost from the moment the needle hits the groove on side 1. One of the most famous count-ins in music history begins the album and it hints at the solid energy to come in tracks like "I Saw Her Standing There", "Boys" and "Twist and Shout". However, some of the song choices, while they demonstrate their versatility of taste and style, are a little of the naff side. "Chains" and "A Taste Of Honey" are quite twee, while "Anna (Go To Him)" is quite watered down compared to Arthur Alexander's original.

One thing that is quite noticeable about the sound of the original stereo mix is the amount of bleeding across channels you can hear. The album was recorded onto two-track reel-to-reel tape - instruments on one track, vocals on the other. As it was recorded without the luxury of isolating instruments and voices, there's heaps of sound seeping into the vocal mics, giving a weird echo effect that is not noticeable on the mono version. They did subsequent retakes of certain songs but others were cut in one take, like "Twist and Shout", which has to be one of the greatest one-take live-in-the-studio performances ever. Also, the guitars are quite tinny, because the bigwigs at Abbey Road wouldn't let the band turn up the amps to stage volume!!!

Plenty of bands have created amazing first records, only to see their second LP pale in comparison (here's looking at you Boston, The Jam, Dire Straits, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Aerosmith, Bob Seger, Cold Chisel, Guns 'n' Roses et al) but the Beatles started off on the front foot, and got better and better in a rapid space of time. Their second LP "With The Beatles" has stronger material and stronger performances all round, while still maintaining the 8-orignals/6-covers template. With album number three, then they went stratospheric in terms of popularity.

One thing I didn't know is that this album topped the UK album charts in 1963 for 30 weeks once it was released in March 1963. Decca Records were surely kicking themselves once they saw that...

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