Please Please Me - Reviews

Reviewed by Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head:

John Lennon wrote PLEASE PLEASE ME at his Aunt Mimi's house, taking the first line of Bing Crosby's Thirties hit 'Please' as a starting point for a mid-tempo solo ballad in the doomily climactic style of Roy Orbison [1]. Tried out at the end of the final session for LOVE ME DO, it intrigued George Martin without seeming to him to be finished. Still sceptical of Lennon and McCartney's song writing capacities, he suggested that they speed it up, rearranging it for harmonised voices.

With the threat of HOW DO YOU DO IT still hanging over them, The Beatles worked hard on the rewrite and, nine weeks later, with LOVE ME DO dithering in the UK chart, they returned to Abbey Road with what they knew had to be an all-out success. The redraft, including a new hook played by Harrison, retained, in its octave-leaping chorus, Orbison's characteristic rise from sepulchral chest-register to moaning falsetto. However, the main influence was now that of The Everly Brothers' 1960 No. 1 'Cathy's Clown'. (Lennon and McCartney were practised Everlys impersonators, 'Cathy's Clown' being a special favourite.) Restricting the verse virtually to one chord, the group had gone all out for impact, with Lennon singing the melody (the low 'Don Everly' part) while McCartney (Phil Everly) held a repeated high root E mirrored in the bass. Tension mounted graphically through a syncopated bridge of call-and-response between Lennon and a powerfully harmonised McCartney and Harrison, before exploding in three parts on the chorus. In truth, it was contrived and, in relation to the lyric, more than a little hysterical - yet contrived hysteria only fails if the material is weak and The Beatles had done a thorough job of covering every crack in the fašade [2]. (McCartney, in particular, demonstrates his perfectionist attention to detail with his counter-melody bass-line through the bridge and the backing vocals for the middle eight, where a hint of Buddy Holly is discernible in the interjected 'i-un my heart' [3].)

Apart from requesting a harmonica overdub doubling Harrison's guitar riff, a delighted George Martin had little to add. 'Congratulations, gentlemen,' he said, pressing the control room intercom button after the final take, 'You've just made your first Number One.' [4] That he was right is less remarkable than that someone of his age and background should have understood music as new and rough-hewn as The Beatles' well enough to see that emphasising its quirks would improve it. Martin has painstakingly refuted the notion, floated by classical critics, the he was the real genius behind The Beatles. ('I was purely an interpreter. The genius was theirs, no doubt about that.') Nevertheless, it's almost certainly true that there was no other producer on either side of the Atlantic then capable of handling The Beatles without damaging them - let alone of cultivating and catering to them with the gracious, open-minded adeptness for which George Martin is universally respected in the British pop industry.

PLEASE PLEASE ME pinned back many ears in the UK music business. On the strength of this record, publisher Dick James approached Brian Epstein to found Northern Songs, the group's own copyright company. Meanwhile engineer Norman Smith sent an uncredited tape of PLEASE PLEASE ME to Dick Rowe, the legendary 'man at Decca' who had turned The Beatles down, hoping to trick him into rejecting them twice. (He failed to fall for it.) With excited reviews in the British pop press and extensive airplay, the record was selling so well by its third week of release that Martin advised Epstein to call the group in from their spot on Helen Shapiro's UK tour to record an album. The Beatles were accordingly booked for three three-hour sessions on 11th February 1963 in Studio 2 (making their debut LP Please Please Me with only an hour's overspill and going back out on the road the following day!). Two weeks later PLEASE PLEASE ME arrived at the top of the UK singles chart, fulfilling Martin's prediction [5].

As with LOVE ME DO, there was a transatlantic translation problem. EMI's American outlet, Capitol, could make no sense of PLEASE PLEASE ME and refused to release it, believing it to be a purely British phenomenon. (Part of the problem for American ears was the production - too raw and raucous for a white group. Another difficulty was the lyric, widely interpreted as an exhortation to fellatio.) Epstein swiftly licensed the disc to the Chicago label Vee Jay, which issued it to nil reaction in February 1963. Not until it was reissued in January 1964 in the dam-busting wake of I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND did PLEASE PLEASE ME win American recognition, climbing into the US top five fifteen months after being released in Britain.

Notes:

  1. According to Lennon, the inspiration was Orbison's 1960 hit 'Only the Lonely' (or 'something').
  2. Another possible influence is of the outline (and contrived histeria) of Burt Bacharach's 'Tower Of Strength', a UK No. 1 for Frankie Vaughan a year earlier.
  3. This is absent from the harmonica-less take of PLEASE PLEASE ME issued on Anthology 1 as the 11th September version. (In fact, this is an early take from the eighteen compiled during the actual recording of PLEASE PLEASE ME on 26th November. At this stage, it seems, there was no vocal arrangement for the middle eight. Presumably George Martin asked the group to create one on the spot.)
  4. Lennon's aunt Mimi, who had sniffed that her nephew thought he was going to make his fortune with LOVE ME DO, observed, on hearing PLEASE PLEASE ME: 'That's more like it. That should do well.'
  5. There being no standardised chart, PLEASE PLEASE ME made No. 1 only in Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Disc, and on the BBC's Pick of the Pops; other sources registering its highest position as No. 2 (to Frank Ifield's 'Wayward Wind').

Posted: 5 jun 2022

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