By Gordon R. Thompson
With Northern Songs (their publishing company) established, the Beatles needed a song for their next single and, flushed with the success of “Please Please Me” and the emerging ecstasy at their performances, they again brought together elements from different songs in their repertoire to create something new and fresh. George Martin scheduled a recording session for Tuesday 5 March, towards the end of their first national tour when they served as a warm-up act to British singer Helen Shapiro. On the Thursday (28 February 1963) before the recording session, as the bus barreled through the cold from York to Shrewsbury and as the tour began its final zigzag retreat towards London, Lennon and McCartney put their heads together to create something they could record.
Fifty years ago, setting up in studio two was beginning to feel comfortable to Paul McCartney: not as familiar as the Cavern Club in Liverpool perhaps, but comfortable. The carpets on the parquet floor, the high ceiling, the wood paneled stairs and doors, the movable acoustic panels, and the quilted drapes of damping cloth gave the room a warm if institutional library feel, complemented by the professorial air George Martin brought to their meetings. Their ordeal on 11 February recording the remaining tracks for their first album had served a cathartic function, transforming them from ambitious amateurs into professionals. With a hit record, they now returned with confidence and a growing sense of authority.
They had prepared songs for the session, including the most likely candidates for their next single, “From Me to You,” “Thank You Girl,” and “The One after 909.” We cannot know how much time they had been able to rehearse before they arrived; but the rigors of touring left little opportunity for practice, especially now that they squeezed in radio appearances as well. Indeed, they had only written the core of “From Me to You” a few days before this session. We know that they commonly ran through the material in advance of the tape rolling, such that takes one and two of “From Me to You” show most of the principal elements already in place.
McCartney has commented that he and Lennon would introduce a song to the group and Martin, and would work out the basics such as chords, melody, meter and rhythm, at which point each musician would retire separately for a brief period before returning to try performing the song. Apart from some occasionally ragged singing, the early takes sound reasonably prepared and over the course of seven attempts at a suitable track, they would increase the tempo, alter lyrics and form, and generally smooth out their performance. Sometimes, they chided each other on missing endings, chord changes, and other details, but the atmosphere remained positive and constructive.
Lennon and McCartney would already have rehearsed vocal parts as they created the song so that in “From Me to You,” they differentiated the two statements of the chorus (the first in unison, the second in two-part harmony). With take one, however, they also left room for something they would overdub later. That is, they were already anticipating how to use the studio creatively. George Martin likely functioned as an educator in this process, telling them how they might approach making the recording, and the Beatles would be good students.
The recordings also reveal that the Beatles performed live in the studio. That is, rather than recording an instrumental backing track and then adding the vocals, they sang and played simultaneously as though on stage. British performers and production crews understood this approach as the norm in the early sixties, although by the end of the decade, technology would allow and encourage asynchronous recording where musicians no longer interacted in real time with other performers in the studio.
McCartney functioned very much as a music director, counting in every take as he and Lennon faced each other to sing into different sides of the same Neumann microphone, balancing the relationship between melody and harmony by ear. They had no opportunity to sing the parts separately and have engineer Norman Smith balance them afterwards. Over the course of the first four attempts at a suitable performance, they slightly increased the tempo and brought the details more closely into focus. Still, they sensed room for improvement: the band continued to search for a satisfactory performance, correcting as they played.
The repetitiveness of the text leads to problems with the second verse, in which they repeatedly have difficulty remembering to sing “so call on me…” instead of “just call on me.” To create variation to the short performance, in take five they added half an empty verse followed by the refrain just before the second chorus, clearly indicating the intention to overdub material. By take seven, they had a solid basis upon which to work. Playing back take seven, they now added harmonica over Harrison’s electric guitar and when they came to the inserted verse, the electric guitar, harmonica, and even the bass all doubled the melody. Nevertheless, Martin wanted more options, so they recorded multiple edit pieces, including the introduction, an inserted verse, and the coda that the artist-and-repertoire manager could cut (literally, with a pair of brass scissors) and then splice with adhesive tape to replace part of the original recorded performance.
With this recording, the production team and the band firmly moved into the realm of creating works that could exist only in a magnetic environment before being cut to disc. Although they recorded parts of “From Me to You” live in the studio, the end recordings (the mono and stereo versions are different) are the products of George Martin and Norman Smith editing the material together after the band had packed their equipment and left. Thus, in its way, “From Me to You” portends the magnetic revolution in which the Beatles were to be major players in the coming decade.
Gordon R. 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.
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Image credit: Cover art for “From Me to You” by The Beatles used for the purposes of illustration via Wikimedia Commons.