By Gordon Thompson
Fifty years ago, the Beatles recorded their arrangement of “Please Please Me,” a lilting lover’s complaint transformed into a burst of adolescent adrenaline. On 26 November 1962, after repeated attempts to capture just the right balance of frustration and anticipation, George Martin informed them over the studio intercom that they had just recorded their first number-one disc. But the path to the top of the charts would not be easy.
John Lennon remembered the afternoon he began writing the song, sitting in the bedroom at his Aunt Mimi’s, playing Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” over in his mind, and beginning a song that would include word play from a Bing Crosby record. He had studied the architecture of Orbison’s music and the American’s affinity for torch-song “climbers” (e.g., “Running Scared,” 1961) in which melodies gradually ascend to a dramatic climax. The young songwriter in “Please Please Me” shows he has learned the lesson well, the chorus and the refrains to the melody climbing to falsetto peaks. Another technique comes from the Everly Brothers from whose records Lennon and McCartney had learned about “wedge” harmonies (where one voice holds the top note while the other descends against it). The principal verse phrase of “Please Please Me” illustrates the same device heard in “Cathy’s Clown” (1960), McCartney pinging the top note as Lennon’s declaration tumbles.
When they first played Lennon’s song for artist-and-repertoire manager George Martin on 4 September, the tempo would have more closely approximated an Orbison slow-rocker, with a dragging backbeat and wide-open spaces between phrases. The producer recommended that they increase the tempo, which surprised the band, both because the new speed worked and because the word “tempo” was unfamiliar to them.
When they returned a week later to record a new version of “Love Me Do” and “P.S., I Love You,” they brought out a faster and improved version of “Please Please Me,” probably with an introduction and coda that they had fashioned with George Martin on the earlier recording date. With Ringo Starr observing, session drummer Andy White now improvised tom fills in the gaps that the Beatles had left after the end of the second verse and after the first phrase of the chorus. Ron Richards, who sat in that day for George Martin, would have known that the performance had potential, but that it lacked essentials.
The Beatles needed to work on their arrangement, which they would do during a pre-arranged (but inconvenient) return to Hamburg where they would be appearing with American legend Little Richard. Lennon remembers rehearsing the song over and over again, speeding it up, changing the words, and generally tightening the arrangement until they were happy with it. Moreover, for sonic continuity with their first recording “Love Me Do,” Martin wanted Lennon’s harmonica to proclaim the song’s recurring motif. They would spend afternoon hours in the Star Club rehearsing in anticipation of their next visit to the EMI Recording Studios in St. John’s Wood.
Back in the UK, unimpressed with the promotion that publishers Ardmore and Beechwood and recording company EMI had given “Love Me Do,” Brian Epstein engaged music critic Tony Barrow to help create buzz for the band and their recordings. Barrow had been one of the first in the media that Epstein had contacted in his efforts to get a recording contract and he now hoped the writer could get the Beatles the attention of the press.
Returning to the UK from West Germany, the Beatles entered a small studio in EMI’s Manchester Square offices on 16 November to record an appearance for the program “Friday Spectacular” that the company would broadcast with time purchased on Radio Luxembourg. “Love Me Do” had defied expectations, continuing to climb the charts and leading EMI to take begrudging interest in the band and to book airtime on the one station where Britons could hear more than a few hours of pop music. As host Muriel Young began announcing the band to the studio audience, teens screamed and rushed the stage; Barrow rightly interpreted the event as portending something special.
On 26 November, with the tempo increased again, a vocal response added to replace an awkward gap in the chorus, and Lennon’s harmonica proclaiming the song’s motif, “Please Please Me” was ready to rock. Capturing the best performance would not be easy and the Beatles would work through eighteen takes to get the recording right. In the end, Martin felt sure they had a hit, but a hit requires more than a good recording: it needs promotion, and neither their record company nor their publishers had given “Love Me Do” much support. Manager Brian Epstein, new disc in hand, set out to find someone who could change his luck.
On 27 November, the day after the Beatles had recorded “Please Please Me,” Epstein headed to the heart of London’s publishing district in search of a publisher who could deliver. There, in a redbrick building at the corner of Denmark Street and Charing Cross Road, the manager walked into the offices of the publisher who would help the Beatles reach a national audience. As a singer in the 1950s, Dick James had scored a modest hit (with George Martin as his producer) with the television theme for Robin Hood; but as his teenage appeal and hairline receded, James proved more successful at finding good songs. Indeed, he had been responsible for Ron Richards (and subsequently George Martin) hearing Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It?”, and Epstein hoped that the eager new publisher would give the Beatles the attention they deserved.
Back in October, the band had appeared on People and Places, a regional television program out of Manchester. On 23 November, needing national exposure, they had auditioned for BBC Television, but were unsuccessful. Brian Epstein wanted another chance and Dick James would give it to him. Listening to “Please Please Me,” James immediately offered to publish the song; but Epstein remained true to his original goal of making the Beatles successful recording artists, not just successful songwriters. Picking up the phone and talking with Philip Jones, producer for the British ABC television show Thank Your Lucky Stars, James held the handset up to the record player in his office. After a short listen, Jones let the publisher know he would book them for January. James had secured a spot on the show for the Beatles and for himself in history.
Epstein rightly felt optimistic, but January now seemed oh so far away.
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 Gordon Thompson’s posts on The Beatles and other music here.
Image credit: Please Please Me single cover used for the purposes of illustration under fair use. Via Wikimedia Commons.