A hastily arranged beginning to their catalogue, hampered slightly by inexperience, but ultimately defined by the charm that would soon conquer the world. Hamish McBain looks back…
Upon its release, The Beatles were in no way assured of their legendary status. They had made one alright, fairly successful single ‘Love Me Do’, and one great hit single, ‘Please Please Me’. The hundreds of gigs they had done up until this point had largely been made up of cover versions, and the tracklisting here is filled out with seven of these. A sobering thought: had their manager/record company waited until 1964 to release the first Beatles album, these could have been replaced by: ‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘All My Loving’, ‘This Boy’, ‘It Won’t Be Long’ and ‘I’ll Get You. In other words, it could have been a stone-cold classic, entirely written by the band who created it in an era when bands were barely even expected to write their own names. But that was not the way things rolled back in 1963. Pop music was not considered ‘art’. Many even still thought it might be a passing fad. Just get something out there, cash in while people are still vaguely interested.
And so The Beatles’ first full-length broadcast to the world is – in the best possible way – a disjointed, ramshackle, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am kind of a record. Their own songs show flashes of brilliance, from John’s early lyrical hints of what was to come on ‘There’s A Place (“There’s a place where I can go when I feel low/When I feel blue, and it’s my mind”) to Paul’s python-like bass on ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ ‘Please Please Me’ itself, as the single that necessitated this album in the first place, is pop genius – its sophisticated middle eight an early sign of the world-changing talent in the room. ‘Love Me Do’ is fine, as is ‘Misery’. But venture in to ‘Ask Me Why’, ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’ or ‘PS I Love You’ and you have the albeit charming, hastily assembled sound of magicians learning how to do a trick (which at this point amounts to ripping their heroes off without anyone noticing).
In truth, the real magic on ‘Please Please Me’ lies in the cover versions, The Beatles at this point were born interpreters. Here is where you can literally feel their charisma and their character, honed over those million nights in a million shitty clubs, emanating from the speakers: the way George’s lead vocal gets swamped by his over-keen bandmates’ harmonies on ‘Chains’; the Fabs’ lapdog humour in giving Ringo a song called (and about) ‘Boys’; Paul’s doe-eyed balladeering on ‘A Taste Of Honey’ and John’s ever-so-slightly over-egged, throat-shredding attempts to stamp his ‘I’m a rebel, me!’ credentials over soppy ballads ‘Anna (Go To Him)’ and Burt Bacharach’s ‘Baby It’s You’. Where the magic is most potent here is on ‘Twist And Shout’: where all of these things beautifully combine to present the world with the two-and-a-half minutes that evoke the image of Beatlemania, and thus the earliest peak of pop culture better than any other. Perfection that is all over the shop. Anarchy you could take home to mum. Rock’n’roll that is about fuck-all and absolutely everything at the same time.
They’d make better records, and better recorded records, and more perfectly realised statements, and get Ringo to get rid of the not-very-moptop-at-all quiff he sports on the cover. The Beatles were learning as they went, but the resulting, snapshot nature of their first foray into albums is exactly what makes it so great. It is, and was, buoyed by the excitement of ‘Please Please Me’ the single, for certain. Had they spent another 12 months in the studio re-jigging things and making it ‘just right’, the world may well have moved on to something else. Yet it just came out as it was, imperfect but beautiful enough, then a month later there was another new single, then a couple of months after that another new single, and then a couple of months after that another, better album, and so on. Repeat ad finitum. They wouldn’t let people forget them. Thank God.
Maybe that’s the way it has to be now…
This article originally appeared in NME’s Beatles Collector Edition, September 12, 2009.