By Gordon R. Thompson
Although “Love Me Do” had been the Beatles’ induction into Britain’s recording industry, “Please Please Me” would bring them prominently into the nation’s consciousness. The songwriters, the band, the producer, and the manager all thought that they had finally found a winning formula. An advertisement in the New Musical Express proclaimed that the disc would be the “record of the year,” even as it raised a chuckle among industry insiders; but the hyperbole would prove prophetic.
Britons struggled as January introduced them to 1963. The biting cold and snow only reinforced a national funk incubated by French rejection of the UK’s application to the European Common Market, by the recurring strikes of power workers, and by the sudden decline of Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell’s health. Families gathered around television sets waiting for news on Gaitskell’s condition, even as some had their electricity interrupted, leaving dark screens and colder rooms. With the recent Cuban missile crisis still in the nation’s minds and the international Cold War in its most frigid phase, viewers pined for some warmth.
When Parlophone released “Please Please Me” on Friday 11 January, Keith Fordyce in the New Musical Express expressed skepticism, with most of the year ahead of them, that “Please Please Me” could possibly be the “record of the year”; however, he made a powerful observation. He noted that the disc was “full of beat, vigour, and vitality — and what’s more, it’s different. I can’t think of any other group currently recording in this style.” Musically, the Beatles stood out. Cliff Richard’s fans may have swarmed him trying to get to a London theater; but the crooner was a British sanitized version of Elvis, or rather of American imitators of Elvis. The Beatles’ embrace of Black-American musical models, their stark vocal harmonies, and the joyful energy of their performances would distinguish them from docile British crooners like Johnny Leyton.
Readers of the Record Retailer on Thursday 17 January would have observed that “Please Please Me” had nudged into the trade paper’s UK’s top 50 recordings. Unfortunately, that night, unions providing Britain’s gas and electrical service conducted a work slowdown, darkening much of the east and southeast of England, including London. Even Buckingham Palace felt the effects of workers who refused to work overtime without a new contract. For those waiting in the hope that Hugh Gaitskell’s health would improve, this would be a long weekend.
On Saturday 19 January, newspapers carried word that the previous evening Gaitskell had succumbed to what doctors would later describe as an autoimmune disease. (Harold Wilson would succeed him as the leader of the Labour Party.) Much of the nation would be in mourning for the economist turned politician, pouring over papers like the Daily Mirror for information on the widow, the doctors, and the funeral arrangements. These same papers would also list the guests on that night’s edition of the television show Thank Your Lucky Stars, recorded in Manchester on 13 January and tape delayed. The trad-jazz clarinetist Mr. Acker Bilk and his band would headline the show, with appearances by Petula Clark, Mark Wynter, and others. Near the bottom of the bill (added by producer Philip Jones at Dick James’s request), the name “The Beatles” could have referred to a comedy act, for all most readers knew. Viewers would have to wait to see. A little levity would be welcome.
That evening at 5:50 PM, Thank Your Lucky Stars (on ITV) introduced the Beatles to their first national television audience. With the power back, families watching the flickering black-and-white image would have seen four grinning, dark-suited musicians with schoolboy hairstyles playing their instruments and singing (albeit miming) “Please Please Me.” Unlike Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Billy Fury and the Tornados, Marty Wilde and the Wildcats, and innumerable other British acts where a band backed a singer, the Beatles presented a unified, egalitarian ensemble.
As interested teens and others began looking for information on the Beatles, they would have learned of the band’s Liverpool origins, a city that most of Britain associated with the working-class poor. (An estimated 37,000 were unemployed in early 1963, marking it for special economic attention.) As such, the Beatles became an extension of that identity and of a continually growing social discontent with British class attitudes.
That night on Thank Your Lucky Stars, in particular, their hairstyle made an impression. In the UK, young males let their washed hair fall forward naturally; but, when they became men (or aspired to be men), they greased and coifed their hair. The Beatles’ friends in Hamburg had introduced them to the idea that returning their hair to a style characteristic of young teenagers served as a subtle form of cultural subversion. A week after that appearance, the Daily Mirror ran a photo of the four somber Beatles (not the usual pop photo demeanor), staring directly at the camera. The accompanying article advised readers to watch the band in 1963. Indeed.
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.