Today marks an absolute milestone in the history of recorded music as Please Please Me, the debut album by The Beatles, celebrates its 50th anniversary.
It would now be incalculable and unthinkable to try and imagine what life would be like if these four men from Liverpool hadn’t come along and made an absolutely indelible stamp on the culture, makeup, and landscape in the musical world. And while of course the band was still in sort of a growing pains mode and possibly even experiencing a slight identity crisis when Please Please Me was released, the out-of-the-gate charm and superstar success the “early Beatles” were to have rather quickly afterwards was firmly right on the launching pad.
Originally only released in England, the album was rush released after the buzz of The Beatles became manifested by positive word-of-mouth and the acquisition of their manager Brian Epstein, who was enamored by seeing the group at their live performances at the Cavern Club in Liverpool to incredible success. The main concept of the album and The Beatles themselves, was that they were one of the first musical ensembles to refer to themselves as a band; Buddy Holly had sort of opened that door, ushering in the first wave of musical groups that were not simply lead singer driven, but in that each member on their respective instruments played an integral part to the chemistry and inner clockwork of the musical unit. It’s already evident on The Beatles first album; it was evident when they were sidemen for singer Tony Sheridan on tracks such as his cover of the traditional song “My Bonnie” a year earlier, in 1962. The one thing that The Beatles were always — and this was during a time before the whirlwind trappings of the global success and the influence that ran to the rafters with each subsequent release they put out — was a tight ensemble. They were a swinging, rocking, and rolling band who used the influences of American rock and roll, which they drew and quartered obsessively growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s, and coupled it with their native land’s own Skiffle music, which was a popular dare say musical fad of the times that kind of combined traditional folk music with a slight attitude involved to it contributed by the fact that is was mostly played by young people.
But for sure, when The Beatles hit, even during this early era in England before they even came abroad when their plane touched down on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City during February of 1964 and they were firmly planted in the hub of the media and fan attention of America, there was a freshness about them and a wild-eyed confidence. They were decked out in similar tight suits and bowl haircuts that were crafted for them and brought them an instant recognizable physical image, but for sure, nothing could trump the music itself. At that time, their repertoire consisted of covers of aforementioned genres of American rock and roll and the band’s original compositions, and sported a chemistry of a duo consisting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who became one of if not the all-time great partnerships in songwriting history, certainly in pop music history. Lennon and McCartney, both who were barely into their twenties at the time, wrote songs with a self-assurance and panache like they had been doing it for decades.
Arguably, there is a polarization among many Beatles fans, some of whom dismiss the early era of the group, reducing it to a simple line of calling it the “Yeah-Yeah-Yeah” period. To most of those fans, that era is akin to the black and white opening sequences of the 1939 cinematic production The Wizard of Oz, the drab grays and blacks which existed before suddenly things became Technicolor, just like in the film. For many fans, The Beatles didn’t really start to musically purport their influence and wide scope until their 1965 master work, Rubber Soul. But it’s important to still regard their early era as a springboard for what was to come and where they came from. There was still an excitement in those early years that in a way had sort of mellowed by the time of Rubber Soul, in terms of the hysteria and frenzy that accompanied the band in public life. The band for sure was probably relieved that by the time their “drug use” era started (it has been well documented that marijuana usage has been a huge catalyst for the changing of their sounds, along with the songwriting craft of Bob Dylan, which already was evident on their album Help, released prior to Rubber Soul), the fans had mellowed out for the most part and began to take The Beatles more as musical artists than simple four men in a small cage, being wheeled around to be screamed and gawked at. It was still crazy in public settings somewhat, certainly each tour was met with a melee of shrieks and an energy almost like a Nuremberg rally or riot by first glance, but during their early heyday, there arguably may have been no one as big or able to glean the type of hysterical responses (and eventually on a global) that The Beatles and their “Beatlemania” did.
And that kind of energetic milieu is extremely evident on Please Please Me. The record (produced by George Martin, who many consider the “fifth Beatle” who was an important ingredient in the success of their studio recordings for the rest of the decade) for the most part captures the spontaneous kind of atmosphere The Beatles had notched for themselves in the Cavern Club. Over a span of three days, they managed to lay down 14 tracks, almost half of them cover songs.
The young, wide-eyed, boundless energy still carried over from a group of four men who were barely out of teenagedom, permeated the recording sessions and spilled over onto the recording itself. And in the finished product, instantly, that captured energy elevates the listener, like a sort of metaphoric sonic amphetamine as Paul McCartney counts off the 1, 2, 3, 4, accentuating the “4” like a pulled-back slingshot that finally gets released by the end of the countdown, and the band goes directly into “I Saw Her Standing There.” From the first opening notes of that song, there is already a sense of excitement, something certainly indescribable here; one can only imagine what it was like to be a young, alienated youth growing up in England during the late 1950s-early 1960s, shrouded in oppression and ironclad values, and to suddenly hear the liberation of a rock and roll group shattering conventions and boundaries with their take on this kind of style of music.
It must have been amazing, terrifying, earth-shattering, liberating, and intimidating all in a positive sense, and all at once, the vocals of Lennon and McCartney coming through loud and clear like a bell tolling and extolling a new shift, a new paradigm in culture and it created a curiosity and level of acceptance instantly within the listener. Coupled with the guitar lines of George Harrison playing the lead over Lennon’s rhythm and Ringo Starr’s driving drums over the pogo stick up and down bass-playing that McCartney laid down, “I Saw Her Standing There” may arguably be the most electric opening to a rock and roll record ever produced; it’s like the birthed child in a way to the kind of excitement Bill Haley and his Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” manifested less than a decade earlier at the time, and just as irresistible.
Other tracks on the album, especially their cover of “Twist and Shout,” with the strap-yourself-in-with-a-seatbelt delirium of the vocal cresecendos by the band which climaxes in more ways than one, and the urgent vocals of Lennon, in a way singing his throat out in like an early version of what Primal Therapy did for his art seven years later, in which he made music that was passionately frank and raw, puts the song over the top. It arguably stands as their greatest cover song in an ocean of a lot of them done during this era for the band. “Love Me Do,” another song which has now entered the pantheon of all-time classic pop tunes, also swings and is aided and abetted by Lennon’s swift harmonica playing and the thud of the drums (played by Andy White on record), which gives it just the right musical propulsion it needs.
Even original ballads like “Anna,” “Misery” (in which Lennon unashamedly waxes about his insecurities, another staple of his art which he would carry right to the end of his life publicly and on his recordings), “P.S. I Love You,” the George Harrison-crooned “Do You Want To Know A Secret,” in which almost belies a bashful, playfulness in his singing (something not heard too much from him on later records when he started to become frustrated with his role in the band), and “There’s A Place,” transcend their first listen sort of mushiness with a kind of songwriting craft and in the extreme hindsight that the ensuing decades have ensured it, a kind of free pass for most Beatles zealots who admire the band’s entire oeuvre. They may sport lyrics that have a dime store/greeting card quality (an example being the simplistic stanzas of “Love, Love Me Do/You Know I Love You/I’ll Always Be True” etc), but again, the band’s overall charm and sly winks they gave the world, (even then) when every move they made was still one of a sort of spontaneous unknown, jump out of the airplane without the parachute quality, trumped any sort of lifelong in perpetuity negativity that could have been the overall side car to their early works.
For most, if not all Beatles fans and fanatics of those early years it was simply a swooning, literal and otherwise, lightbeam of four smiling faces, shining at the world, decked in like-minded apparel, haircuts, and attitudes cheekily reckless, unexpectedly erudite, always approachable with a sort of pied piper mentality. And the end result was a world of fans who were more than ready to follow them at every turn, and be led by their bootstraps wholeheartedly and gladly submissively at every learn.
It all starts here with Please Please Me. The fact that it’s the first, though certainly not the best (an obvious statement), Beatles record is besides the point and ultimately inconsequential to the entire Beatles story, the fantastical tale which as the years went on, created music and attitude like no other, spawned generational bridging and divide, unity, harmony, respect, and influence unseen and arguably, not seen since. For novelty’s sake, for nostalgia’s sake, for goodness sake, re-listen today to the embryonic Beatles music that is on Please Please Me, recapture all over again the magic and energy of the band at its earliest recorded points in time, before the starting gun fired into the skies, and The Beatles took off into the sunset, into that new horizon which they built and kept rebuilding, never looking back at this crucial early period in their careers, but ultimately, never forgetting it either.