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Thursday, September 15, 2011

PLEASE PLEASE ME - side one

"There can scarcely have been 585 more productive minutes in the history of recorded music," states Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles: Recording Sessions.  The boys only had one day to lay down the necessary tracks to complete their first LP, and though they were still neophytes in the studio, they were consummate professionals as a live act, so George Martin went with their strength and was able to produce their first concept album.  Concept album?  Yes, indeed.  Sgt. Pepper was still four years in the future, but Martin conceived the idea of a live-in-the-studio album almost from the get-go.

Once the single Please Please Me jumped to the top of the charts, it was only natural for Parlophone to expect an album from their new stars.  This was a standard industry practice.  But most albums were predominantly filler material packaged around an artist's latest hit song for the sole purpose of making a quick buck.  The single was still the primary unit of commerce at the time.  Martin wanted a quality product, something that would stand out in the marketplace.  He knew that the Beatles had a dynamic stage act culled from years of almost non-stop performing in the red-light district of Hamburg and the highly competitive club scene in Liverpool.  If he could capture that on tape, it would be the equivalent of lightning in a bottle.

He had actually wanted to record the Beatles performing live in the Cavern Club, but a trip to Liverpool to witness one of their lunchtime gigs in the dark, sweaty cellar convinced him otherwise.  The only alternative was to bring them back down to London to play a live set in the studio, albeit without an audience.  But manager Brain Epstein had them playing a different venue every night, constantly criss-crossing the country as their fame began to grow.  They had one off date - February 11th, 1963.  That would have to do.  Since the normal British LP at the time consisted of fourteen songs, and since the first two singles were to be part of the package, they would only have to record ten songs.

Ten songs!  This was considered to be a doable task.  The time allotted for this was three three-hour sessions between 10am and 10pm.  But even playing live with minimal overdubbing, it takes time to get the right sound and the right performance for each individual number, so after only working on two songs during the first three-hour block, the Beatles astonished Martin and his staff by remaining behind in the studio and rehearsing right through their lunch break.  And though the pace picked up after this, the day's work did not conclude until 10:45pm, already an unthinkable break of protocol at the Abbey Road Studios.  But George Martin got what he wanted - as close a portrait of the group as you could get at the time before they began to change all the rules of the recording business.

The sequence of songs on the album was of vital importance to Martin, and not just the overall sequence, but the sequence of each side, as well.  We're not talking CDs or downloads here.  When you put a piece of vinyl on a turntable, the idea was that you listened to the entire side from start to finish, and for George Martin the flow from song to song was critical.  Again, this was not the usual way of thinking in 1963.

I Saw Her Standing There -  Martin gives us the feel of a live show right from the top with Paul's "One, two, three, faw!"  count-in, edited from take 9 onto take 1, which, as it turned out, was the best.  The band kicks in and delivers Paul's first great rocker.  By the time he sings the second line "And you know/what I mean," we know that he means business - and this record is going to be fun.  Just before the instrumental break, he lets out a wild scream, something he had already been doing for years.  You can hear him screaming throughout several of the songs they recorded as a backing band for Tony Sheridan in Hamburg.  It's not forced or affected in any way - he simply can't help himself.  He loves playing this music.

George Harrison then turns in his first guitar solo on an official Beatles' record and acquits himself admirably.  He was still learning at this point in his life, and his attempts were often clumsy or workmanlike, but he is clearly caught up in the excitement of the day and he delivers.

The fact that take 1 was the best is very telling.  While the Beatles were unparallelled at delivering the same performance night after night, they had not yet developed the ability to do so take after take, but this, too, was a skill that they would soon master.  No other song in their repertoire could have opened the album so effectively.

Misery - In his book Beatlesongs, William J. Dowlding attempts to give a definitive breakdown of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership, trying to determine from numerous sources just how much each of them contributed to each song.  For Misery, he figures that the song is 60% Lennon and 40% McCartney (he notates this as .6 and .4, the figure 1.00 representing a total song).  John and Paul had only recently written this tune for singer Helen Shapiro, who was on tour with them.  Her people rejected it, so they decided to record it themselves.  Very soon, other acts would be clamoring for material from the rapidly maturing tunesmiths.

Despite the ominous title, the song is a lightweight pop number, which they sing as a duet, tongues planted firmly in cheeks.  By the fadeout, John is singing falsetto "la la la"s, giving an indication of just how seriously they take this song.  On February 20th, George Martin added a simple piano part, making this one of the few songs on the album to receive an overdub.  It's a brisk little piece which serves as a nice transition between the opening rocker and the first slow number.

Anna (Go to Him) - While John and Paul were adamant about recording only their own compositions as singles, they had no such compunctions when it came to making this album.  They were, after all, taping their stage act, and like most bands, their act was chock-full of cover versions of other people's songs.  The Liverpool sailors brought in new singles from the US all the time, and all of the local bands fed upon the influx of fresh material.  One of John's favorites was this torch song by an obscure American rocker named Arthur Alexander.  While he had been flip with his own material only seconds ago on the album, he sings this song (and I will use this expression many times in describing Lennon's singing) as if his life depended on it.  It's the first time we hear such passion from him, and, as we will later learn, he is only scratching the surface here.  A wonderful performance of a little-known song.

Chains - One of the reasons John and Paul wanted to be songwriters in the first place was because of the great tunesmiths from New York's famed Brill Building, including the great songwriting duo Goffin and King.  The Beatles pay homage to their heroes by recording this number, originally done by a girl group called the Cookies.  And though much of the song is sung in three-part harmony, the solo spotlight is focused for the first time on George.  This was an important facet of their stage act, especially during the marathon sets they had to perform every night in Hamburg.  No one singer was forced to carry the load all night long.  They took turns in front of the microphone, and the material varied according to their personal tastes.

This fact was not lost on George Martin.  When deciding whether or not to take a chance on this unknown group, he had wrestled with the problem of picking a frontman.  But he wisely chose not to tinker with their chemistry.  They were a group.  Though John and Paul took turns dominating the lead vocals, George always got his turn, as well.

Boys - And then there was Ringo.  He had a large following in Liverpool, too, from his days with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.  He had to have his turn at the microphone, as well.  And, back to back, we get songs from girl groups, this time the Shirelles.  This song had been the B-side of their smash hit Will You Love Me Tomorrow?  The Beatles had an unabashed love of these songs.  They performed many of them in their stage act and would record more than a few of them.  Ringo sings this one with abandon with some wild backing vocals from John and Paul. 

And so, only five songs into the album, we have been introduced to all four members of the group.  Their individual personalities have been allowed to shine through and we have already learned that this group is unlike any other.  The London-based groups developing at the same time, such as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Who, all came from a background that was primarily centered around rhythm and blues.  But the Liverpool groups had a much broader knowledge of pop music in general thanks to the local sailors and the constant flow of singles from America.  And nobody had a greater knowledge or love of this material than the Fab Four.  As a result, they could sound like a different band on almost every track.  By resisting the urge to homogenize them, George Martin opened them up to limitless possibilities.

Side one concludes with Ask Me Why and Please Please Me, the B and A-sides of the recent single, which I have already covered in my previous entry.  Closing side one with the title song  is a masterstroke - most producers would have opened the album with it.  But Martin leaves the listener both highly satisfied and hungry for more, eager to flip over the record.  I hope you feel the same way and will join me next time for side two.

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