By Gordon Thompson
For the Beatles first visit to EMI, George Martin (the director of Parlophone Records) asked his associate Ron Richards to serve as the artist-and-repertoire manager, which involved rehearsing the band and running their session. Pop groups represented a normal part of Richards’ portfolio and clearly the Beatles didn’t rank high enough on Martin’s list of responsibilities to warrant his presence. That would eventually change, but on 6 June 1962, the Beatles presented only a blip on his radar.
Martin later admitted that sometimes he would tell his associate Ron Richards, “you take that because I’m up doing such-and-such.” Furthermore, this session was simply an artist test: “just looking at four berks from Liverpool. It didn’t mean anything in our lives at all.” As the Beatles arrived, balance engineer Norman Smith quipped, “What in the bleedin’ hell have we got here?” Still, by the end of the day, when Martin asked for his opinion, Smith would encourage the manager to sign the Northerners. The events that followed would forge one of the most successful and well-known production relationships in popular music. Smith remembers, “George Martin, in fact, was there at the test and why I say that in that way is that most of the … artist tests were done by the assistants of the main producer. Each main producer had an assistant. It would normally be assistants that oversaw the artist tests.” (Personal communication.)
This first session established Lennon, McCartney, and Martin’s collaborative approach to transforming musical material for years to come. According to McCartney, he and Lennon faced a number of last minute changes that challenged their conception of “Love Me Do.” When Martin heard their arrangement, he immediately began tweaking the performance, beginning by telling them to speed up the tempo. Lennon a year later recalled that, “When we went to London for the first recording, ‘Love Me Do’ was a slower number like [Billy Fury’s] ‘Halfway to Paradise,’ you know, Dum-di-di-di-Dum; but George Martin, the recording manager, suggested we do it faster. I’m glad we did.”
Lennon and McCartney’s original arrangement featured them in duet, with Lennon singing the lower part — notably during the song’s title and the refrain when he sang solo — and McCartney providing an upper co-melody. But a distinctive aspect of the recording’s identity lies in John Lennon’s harmonica part. George Martin broached the precipitating question: “Can anyone play harmonica? It would be rather nice. Couldn’t think of some sort of bluesy thing, could you, John?” McCartney claims that this change in the arrangement left him “very nervous … John was supposed to sing the lead, but they changed their minds and asked me to sing lead [on the hook] at the last minute, because they wanted John to play harmonica. Until then, we hadn’t rehearsed with a harmonica; George Martin started arranging it on the spot. It was very nerve-wracking.”
Part of the inspiration for including the harmonica was Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby,” which featured Delbert McClinton’s harmonica. That recording had entered British charts on 22 March 1962 and the Beatles appropriated it into their repertoire. The harmonica line that Lennon creates for “Love Me Do” lies in a lower register and in a much simpler style than McClinton’s performance, but the tone quality is reminiscent of the Channel recording. The “some sort of bluesy” aspect of the line might be heard in the chorus melody, particularly when Lennon solos, alternating major and minor thirds in the repeated descending phrases. (The Beatles would open for the two Americans on 21 June 1962, two weeks after their first session at Abbey Road on 6 June.)
At the conclusion of the session, Martin, Richards, and Smith invited the band to climb the stairs to the control room where they critiqued the group’s playing and equipment. Smith in particular remembers offering a very frank opinion of their amplifiers, informing them that he could only record a sound that they produced and that their noisy and unpredictable speakers didn’t speak of professionalism. At the conclusion of their dressing down, a pause ensued. Martin asked if some aspect of the recording session hadn’t met with the approval of the Beatles. The question was rhetorical. His position as both producer and the director of Parlophone Records placed him in the position of dictating conditions, not embracing the opinions of performers. Still, he politely allowed a brief window for these northern working class lads to murmur their grateful thanks for the opportunity to audition.
Both Smith and Martin remember their shock when George Harrison expressed his dislike for Martin’s tie, which Smith described as leading to a “cabaret” atmosphere in the control room. Indeed, Martin cites this episode as the critical element in his decision to record the Beatles. The story of Harrison’s haberdashery quip plays a prominent role in Beatles hagiography, but fans and scholars usually downplay the exchange as lacking any real long-term significance. After all, the Beatles had built their Hamburg and Liverpool reputations through music, not through throwaway one-liners. Still, that moment of tension and release in many ways neatly describes an aspect of the social dynamics involved in their successful recordings.
British session musicians of the era often mention humor as a crucial part of easing the artistic tension involved in recording. For all of the obvious reasons, the ill-prepared Beatles presented George Martin with little in the way of star material. Like Scottish accordionist Jimmy Shand whom he also had produced, Martin may have imagined the Beatles as a regional phenomenon able to sell records around Liverpool and Manchester and occasionally strike a minor national demi-hit. Moreover, their humor played into popular British notions about Merseyside (the area around the Mersey River), exemplified by working-class singing comedians like George Formby and Ken Dodd. If we recognize 6 June as a test, then Harrison’s humor outweighed Lennon and McCartney’s ability to write songs. Their sense of humor may have been their strongest suit, while their songwriting had provided only “Love Me Do” as evidence of their potential.
Martin would need to make his decision about a contract soon. Manager Brian Epstein optimistically had told Decca that the Beatles had already signed with another company and had sought to release the band from a contract with German artist-and-repertoire manager Bert Kaempfert. The heads of EMI’s labels convened regularly to announce their upcoming projects, with the next meeting coming soon. Would the Beatles be on Martin’s agenda?
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.