Friday, March 22, 2013

The Great Albums: The Beatles 'Please Please Me'

Great albums weren't a huge concern in the Rock & Roll world in 1963. Until that point, Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson were the only Rock & Roll artists to have number one albums in the United States. Singles continued to be the preferred media, and they'd remain in that position until 1967, the first year a group of electric-guitar pickers had the number-one album of the year (though More of the Monkees was the one album The Monkees released that year on which the boys didn't actually do much guitar picking).

However, on this date, precisely fifty years ago, The Beatles released an album in their homeland that set the change-over in motion. There had been great Rock & Roll records before Please Please Me: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry's After School Session, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar, Here's Little Richard, Buddy Holly's The "Chirpin'" Crickets, Bo Diddley, The Beach Boys' Surfin' USA. A few of those records were even better than The Beatles' debut, but it was The Beatles who would alter the LP more radically than any other band, the ones who'd make it necessary for artists to work just as diligently on that track buried down at the end of Side B as they'd work on potential hits. 

Not that The Beatles were so calculated when making Please, Please Me. That album was simply a a sampling of their live set and John Lennon and Paul McCartney's best incipient songwriting efforts. Not all of these were fantastic. "Love Me Do" lumbers along at mid-tempo. It lacks dynamics or an interesting lyric or melody. Harmonically, it is as primitive as a nursery rhyme, and when it went to number one in the US in 1964, it mostly did so because nearly everything The Beatles released in the year of The Beatles went to number one. Elsewhere, their songwriting genius was already flowering: the exhilarating title track with its coy sexuality and tension-building "Come ons," Lennon's first brushes with self-pity ("Misery") and introspection ("There's a Place"), McCartney's first blasts of filthy Rock & Roll ("I Saw Her Standing There") and the pure craftsmanship that would make it not-ridiculous to speak of him in the same breath as Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael ("P.S. I Love You").

Rock & Roll artists always filled out their LPs with covers in those days, but few did so with the imagination of The Beatles. By adapting Girl Group and R&B hits such as "Boys," "Chains," "Boys," "Baby It's You," and "Twist and Shout" to their four-white-guys-with-guitars format, they ended up with creations completely unlike the original records. Their performances here were as committed as they were on John and Paul's songs. That completely unhinged reading of "Twist and Shout" may only be rivaled by Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" for Rock & Roll's greatest cover. Even more intriguingly, if a lot less excitingly, The Beatles toyed with non-Rock or Soul material by recording Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow's "A Taste of Honey," which began life as incidental music for the play of the same name. On The Beatles least diverse album, we're already getting a taste of the wild variety to come.

As already noted, Please Please Me did not change the album overnight, and it's impact in America was watered down when Vee-Jay records lopped off the Capitol single "Love Me Do" / "P.S. I Love You" and released it as Introducing... The Beatles in early 1964. By that point, The Beatles had already taken command of England, had already released their second album there. By that point, 1963 had already seen several other great Rock & Roll albums by The Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, and Phil Spector's stable of artists. And again, one could make a case that a couple of those albums (Surfer Girl and A Christmas Gift for You, perhaps) were better than The Beatles'. But, hey, Please Please Me was and is still a great album by the greatest album group. The great-album era was not here yet, but now it was just a matter of time...
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