originally published February 11, 2013
First off, I’d like to apologize in advance to all members of the baby boomer generation. This article may assist in making you feel old. That said, you’re going to have to get used to the fact that every significant cultural accomplishment of the 1960’s is going to turn 50 soon, and that begins today.
When the Beatles woke up in the morning of February 11, 1963, they had two British singles under their belt: “Love Me Do”, which had barely cracked the top 20, and “Please Please Me”, which was threatening to do the same. They reported to EMI Studios on Abbey Road around 10:00am, with a plan to devote the next thirteen hours to recording the entirety of their first album. It was the 60’s. They had too much to conquer; there was no time to waste.
British pop albums traditionally came bundled with 14 songs, because songs were generally less than three minutes long, and prog-rock/jam-band/one-song-a-side albums hadn’t been invented yet. The Beatles had two A-sides and two B-sides ready, but ten vacancies that needed to be filled.
“Love Me Do” had been recorded twice. The first version came from Ringo Starr’s initial recording session as a Beatle; this was the one that had been pirouetting atop turntables on a 45RPM wax disc since October. The second version was recorded a week later; producer George Martin had enlisted session drummer Andy White to sit in, as his confidence in Ringo’s skin-skills weren’t great. This version – with Ringo’s audible tambourine work – was the one they picked for the album.
(Ringo almost didn’t recover from the shame)
Luckily, when it came time to record their first album, the Beatles’ stage show had been refined to near-perfection. The bad news was that they were a tad worn out, having been busy hopping from town to town through a particularly bitter-cold British winter, playing every night in a new venue. John Lennon had a nasty cold, and kept his motor running through the day via a regular intake of Zubes throat lozenges and Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes.
The first track recorded on February 11 was the Lennon-penned “There’s A Place”, a song about the comfort of one’s own mind. Lennon claims the track was his attempt at a Motown song, though the subject matter was a little more heady than the soul songs of the era. It’s a great song to karaoke to, if you’ve got a partner who can sing perfect harmony in fifths with you. Chances are you don’t. Pick something else instead.
Something like “Seventeen”, the second track recorded in the morning. This track would later be renamed “I Saw Her Standing There”, and tacked to the beginning of the album to be the primordial orgasmic opening number. Nine takes of the song, which was written one afternoon while Paul McCartney and Lennon had been playing hooky from school, were recorded. Take one ended up making the final cut, though George Martin was particularly fond of the “one-two-three-fah!” count-in from take nine. He executed his first act of brilliant Beatle splicery by joining the two.
Lunch came next. George Martin, along with engineers Richard Langham and Norman Smith (who would later produce three of Pink Floyd’s first four albums) zipped around the corner to a pub. The Beatles chose to rehearse through lunch, something Smith had never seen a band do before. They still had a long day ahead of them.
“A Taste Of Honey” was recorded next, a pop standard from a 1960 Broadway play by the same name. Kind of a schmaltzy song with a McCartney vocal, but it marks the first use of double-tracked vocal on a Beatles record. Also, a Grammy-winning cover was recorded by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass a couple years later. That version was released on this album:
Next came the obligatory George-Harrison-on-lead-vocals track, “Do You Want To Know A Secret”. Lennon claims the inspiration for the song came from “I’m Wishing”, a song from Snow White & The Seven Dwarves. He also says they gave it to Harrison to sing because “it only has three notes and he wasn’t the best singer in the world.” Nice.
Eleven takes of “Misery” rounded out the afternoon session. For such a dreary title, “Misery” is a surprisingly jaunty number, penned 50/50 by McCartney and Lennon. This track is notable for being the first Lennon/McCartney track to get a cover version, when Kenny Lynch cut his interpretation a few months later.
After dinner, the band kicked into high gear. They recorded thirteen takes of “Hold Me Tight”, all of which wound up scrapped and destroyed when the song was declared surplus. Arthur Alexander’s “Anna (Go To Him)” was covered next, with Lennon taking the lead vocal. This was a song that maxed out at #68 on the pop charts, but the Beatles were astute enough to know it would fit with their sound. They had a knack for that sort of thing.
A more curious choice was The Shirelles’ “Boys”, which was recorded next with Ringo Starr on lead vocals. They changed the lyrics so as to keep Ringo from singing about kissing boys, but he still praises the gender as a “bundle of joy.” It’s a little odd, but the song rocks.
“Chains” was next, a Brill Building concoction from the writing team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and originally recorded by the Cookies, a band whose biggest claim to fame was singing backup on Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion”. I honestly don’t know why they picked this song out of their repertoire; it’s the weakest cut on the album.
They moved on to another Shirelles song, “Baby It’s You” with Lennon on lead vocals. Tucked into the middle of Side 2, this is one of the most enduring recordings on the record.
When 10:00 rolled around, they had time to record one more track. After a friendly argument, the Isley Brothers’ “Twist And Shout” was picked. At this point Lennon’s voice was on the verge of complete collapse. He had to shoot back a handful of lozenges and gargle with some milk to get ready. Take 1 was a perfect, ball-blastingly manic performance. Take 2 was a washout; his voice didn’t make it to the end. But they had take 1, and with that they had one of the finest rock ‘n roll recordings ever to hit a slab of wax.
The Beatles took a quick photo looking over the railing in the stairwell of EMI’s London headquarters, and Please Please Me was ready for its journey to the top of the charts. This was the album that turned the group into British superstars, and it contained many of the tracks they’d use to conquer the world. Sorry Boomers, but that magic turns fifty today.
Over the next seven years, everything great about the 60’s will do the same. Even the memory of that amazing joint you smoked that time. Remember? No, of course you don’t.