"Gentlemen, you've just made your first number one record." So said producer George Martin after the Beatles recorded Please Please Me on November 26th, 1962. But was his prediction correct? More on that later.
First, we must go back to September 11th, 1962 and the session which produced their first single. After recording both Love Me Do and P.S. I Love You, there was still some time left over. And so, with Andy White still sitting behind the drum kit, they set about recording John Lennon's composition Please Please Me. When time expired, George Martin knew that they hadn't gotten it right yet, but according to Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles: Recording Sessions he told his assistant Ron Richards that "it's too good a song to just throw away. We'll leave it for another time."
Most accounts mention that the song was rather slow and bluesy when first demoed for George Martin, but as you can hear on Anthology 1, the pace is already brisk on this date with White driving things along nicely. The only major difference is that George Harrison is playing the distinctive riff on guitar. He would have a less prominent role on the finished product.
When the Beatles returned to the studio in November, Ringo was back on drums, the question of his competence apparently resolved. And John was playing the opening riff on harmonica, although this had to be overdubbed after the basic track was recorded. The song is exciting from the opening moment. This is not the laid-back skiffle of Love Me Do. There is an immediate sense of urgency and exuberance which would characterize most of the group's music over the next few years. Their trademark harmonies are becoming recognizable, as well, with Paul singing the high part except for the rare moments when John simply can't resist jumping up for a falsetto note. The entire performance clocks in at just two minutes, leaving both band and listeners breathless.
The composition is also a marked improvement over Love Me Do. The importance of this cannot be overstressed. From this point on, George Martin will never again question the quality of the material they will present to him for singles or dare to suggest that they record a song by anyone else. Lennon and McCartney established themselves as songwriters, one of their self-professed goals, right from the start. And, by doing so, and by being so damned good at it, they set the first of many new standards for the industry. It would soon be expected that all new groups be capable of providing their own material, which had not been the norm before.
The breadth of their songwriting ability is evident on the B-side, John's Ask Me Why. For me, this song is one of the group's many hidden gems. It's corny, old-fashioned and quite uncharacteristic for the angry young Lennon. And it is hard to imagine John, Paul and George singing lines like "I love you-woo-woo-woo-woo" and "Now you're mi-yi-yi-yi-yine" with straight faces, but there is such a genuine warmth to the whole thing that they somehow manage to pull it off.
But to return to my original question: was George Martin's prediction correct? Did Please Please Me hit number one? Well, yes and no. Unlike the United States, the UK did not have a single chart like Billboard. There were, in fact, several charts at the time and the song did go to number one on all of them - except one. On the Record Retailer, it peaked at number two. If you own the collection "1" released in the year 2000, you know that it contains 27 songs by the Beatles that hit number one. Please Please Me is not among them. That is because the Record Retailer was used as the official source for that collection instead of the New Musical Express or Melody Maker, only two of the other charts where the record did go to the top spot. To me, this is a grievous omission.
And how did it fare in the US? After exhausting all other options, manager Brain Epstein was finally able to convince a small Chicago-based label called VeeJay Records to release the single, but with no marketing budget and practically no airplay, the Beatles' initial US record went virtually unnoticed. A year later, in the wake of I Want To Hold Your Hand, VeeJay rereleased the song backed with From Me To You and it went to number two on the Billboard chart.
So, technically, no, it was not a true number one. But it will always be a number one in my eyes.