By Gordon R. Thompson
Fifty years ago, the Beatles entered EMI’s recording studios on Abbey Road for their first official recording session. Their June visit had gained them a recording contract, but had cost Pete Best his position when artist-and-repertoire manager George Martin winced at the drummer’s timing. With little ceremony, Lennon, McCartney, and especially Harrison recruited the best drummer in Liverpool — a mate who sometimes subbed for Best — and left the firing of Best to manager Brian Epstein. Thus, Ringo Starr ascended to the drummer’s throne.
The band’s announcement of Pete Best’s replacement provoked outrage on the part of some fans, one of whom assaulted Harrison as he stepped off the stage at the Cavern Club. On 4 September 1962, when they flew from Liverpool to London to record, the guitarist sported a black eye for his support of Starr. They arrived at EMI with material prepared, including Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It?” and their own “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.” Almost as importantly, Paul McCartney had obtained a better bass amplifier. At their June audition, balance engineer Norman Smith, with Ken Townsend, had substituted a makeshift rig from studio equipment that produced a warm, rounded bass sound, with little or no attack. McCartney’s new homemade setup punched a hole through the middle of the Beatles’ sound.
EMI producer Ron Richards oversaw the rehearsal, coaching them on tempo, phrasing, and their arrangement before Martin took them to dinner. When they returned, they rendered a reasonable, if unenthusiastic version of Murray’s tune before turning to their own material. Martin was convinced that “How Do You Do It?” would top the charts and he would be proved correct. Murray remembers approaching Ron Richards with the tune, who immediately recognized its potential, and when Martin heard the demo (recorded by the Dave Clark Five), he was sure the song could put the Beatles on a national footing. The Beatles have said that they convinced Martin to release their own song, but Murray has indicated that he rejected the Beatles’ version. The songwriter considered the Beatles version of his tune lackluster and he withheld permission from Martin to release it.
One of the other songs they prepared for this 4 September session was “Love Me Do,” almost the most simple item in the Lennon-McCartney catalogue with only a little over a dozen words and, for most of the song, only two chords. Back in June, their arrangement shifted between musical meters, sliding into a lazy shuffle during the harmonica solo of the second chorus; but more problematically, McCartney and Best let the tempo float faster and slower. This time, Martin recorded the instrumental backing separately from the vocals, allowing McCartney and Starr to focus on the tempo, which they hold at a faster tempo than in June, despite occasional temporal disagreements between the two musicians. In addition, McCartney’s bass dominates the mix such that Starr’s bass drum is barely audible.
With Murray rejecting their version of “How Do You Do It?,” Martin arranged for them to return on 11 September to record two more McCartney-Lennon tunes, a new song called “P.S., I Love You” and the work-in-progress, “Please Please Me.” He hoped that one of these songs could serve as the principal side of the release. However when they arrived, they found that Ron Richards, not Martin, would oversee the session and, more surprisingly, Richards had hired a session drummer: Andy White. With the Beatles having already wasted a recording session on a song that Martin could not release, he wanted no more delays. A session drummer could solve the problem.
The startled Starr remembers, “I saw a drum kit that wasn’t mine, and a drummer that most definitely wasn’t me!” Andy White remembers saying very little to the other drummer, whom Richards put to work playing maracas on “P.S., I Love You.” At this point, Starr could rationalize that they were working on a new side and that his original recording of “Love Me Do” would stand. That was before Richards called out for them to rehearse “Love Me Do.”
In the Andy White version of “Love Me Do,” his American-made bass drum and drum heads possess a presence that neither Starr nor Best had achieved, and his cymbal crash following the second chorus has warmth and sustain that shames Starr’s British equipment. More importantly, White synchs with McCartney’s playing as though the two had been born joined at the beat, the tempo standing as steady as a rock. Starr’s tambourine, which doubles White’s snare hits (even if these sometimes arrive at micro-temporally different points), serves as the most obvious way to tell the difference between the two recordings. The session would also feature another attempt at “Please Please Me,” sped up from their 4 September session, but still in need of improvements. It would wait until November.
With two sides recorded, George Martin weighed which one would be the “A” side. Ron Richards reminded him that Frank Sinatra and Dion and the Belmonts had already released another song called “P.S., I Love You” leaving Martin with “Love Me Do” as the featured recording; but which version? He set a release date of 5 October and pondered which recording to choose: Starr or White?
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.
Image credit: Cover art for the single “Love Me Do” by The Beatles. Copyright Parlophone records. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Used for the purposes of illustrating the work examined in this article.