It’s always hard to write about the career of The Beatles without lapsing into clichéd superlatives. After all, it would be a genuine challenge to find someone in the western world over the age of 13 that had not at least heard of The Beatles, or a song by them, so great is the back catalogue of the band, as well as their effect on contemporary music. Listening to this album, although you get a sense of the energy and vitality that was such a key part of the band, something else that immediately stands out is the fact that it doesn’t really bear much resemblance to their later albums, due to the fact that it can only really be described as a pure pop album, steering well away from the more complex, ambitious music that characterised their later career.
However, the band was also something clearly out of the ordinary, even at this early stage. This was one the first albums recorded by an artist that was not already a massive success, where the artist was given the freedom to decide what songs would go on the album, with other bands recording their debut album generally putting the “big single" on it, along with other filler songs. Here, 4 songs on the album had been released as 2 double sided singles (Love Me Do, PS I Love You, Please Please Me
and Ask Me Why
), although none of these had been great successes, meaning that George Martin, the band’s producer, must take a lot of credit for his willingness to take the risk on the band. The fact that 10 of the 14 songs here were recorded in 15 hours, in addition to no less than 6 of the songs being covers clearly indicates though that Martin was aware that although some risk taking could pay off, he was understandably wary of completely throwing caution to the wind.
So, what are the high points of this album? Most obviously, as I’ve already said, there is a lot of energy bubbling under the surface of this recording, which is thrown into relief by the fact that it’s nowhere near as produced as some of their later music (Let It Be
springs immediately to mind). On songs such as Twist And Shout
, which was the last song recorded at the end of the 15 hour recording session that made up most of this album, this produces exhilarating music, when it becomes apparent that John Lennon’s voice is struggling, making this one of the more rocking songs on here, and showing raw determination from the band: it’s hard to imagine many eagerly anticipated new bands today displaying that level of commitment. Songs like this also break up the album, which would otherwise become repetitive relatively fast, due to the similar nature of many of the songs, and, of course, of the lyrics.
Although Lennon and McCartney are rightfully revered as one of the greatest lyrical partnerships ever, it’s fair to say that on this album they hadn’t really got their craft up to the levels that they later would do. Although love is a staple of many Beatles songs, here it’s somewhat overdone, most notably on songs such as the single, Love Me Do
. Although some of, if not the majority of the beauty of this album could be said to lie in its simplicity, it’s taken to extremes at times on here, meaning that in spite of the shortness of both individual songs and the album (not one song reaches the 3 minute mark), it can grow tiresome, which is one of the main reasons that the album hasn’t aged well, especially compared to much of the band’s other work.
That being said though, there are some songs on here that really show the band as being, at the time, a great pop act. The opening song, I Saw Her Standing There
, has Lennon and McCartney alternating vocals, and combined with Ringo Starr’s flams on the drums, and an instrumental break midway through the song, it’s a very strong opener, which, over forty years on, definitely has the ability to get people dancing when they hear it. Likewise, Misery
, is, as it’s title suggests, a lyrically downbeat song, but has the same jangly pop harmonies that make it a fun listen, and, again, a very simple one. In spite of the band’s lyrical simplicity at this time though, there’s still a clear difference in quality between their original compositions, and the cover versions here. Both Anna (Go To Him)
, and Chains
are covers, and simply lack the energy and sense of fun that the best songs on here do, meaning that, although he had no way of knowing it at the time, George Martin would have been better advised to throw more confidence behind the band. An exception to this though is Boys
, which features Ringo Starr on lead vocals, and, although it somewhat bizarrely is all about the joys of boys, it’s another of the better songs here.
Ask Me Why
, Please Please Me
, and the famous Love Me Do
, were all released as singles, and make up the strongest section of the album. The first two of these were primarily Lennon compositions, with Love Me Do
being written by Paul, and something that’s interesting is the differences in the writing style, with, although the whole album is relatively simple, the McCartney compositions largely being simpler than those written by Lennon. Ask Me Why
is a down-tempo ballad, which ends very suddenly, while Please Please Me
is more typically upbeat, and fashioned after a Bing Crosby song entitled “Please", which Lennon remembered from his childhood. Love Me Do
features Lennon on harmonica, and is one of the bands most famous early songs, although, even by the standards of these songs, it hasn’t aged well, and sounds very antiquated today. It’s still a good listen, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it’s a good thing the band progressed from this, when you’re listening to it.
There isn’t a huge amount to say about the other songs, without this review becoming like the album, more repetitive than necessary, but something that does need attention drawn to it is Twist And Shout
, which has a completely atypical sound compared to the rest of the album, with Lennon sounding like he’s attempting to begin the punk movement 15 years early rather than singing in his usual, laid back melodic way, with even the vocal harmony section of the song sounding strained, making it a clear strong point of the album.
Although this album isn’t anything like The Beatles’ best work therefore, it’s definitely worth buying if you’re a fan of the band. It drags a bit at times, but there’s a definite freshness in many of the songs, that the band retained throughout their career, and was such a large part of their success. All the ingredients that would make them such a great band are present, albeit in a somewhat diluted form, with the members seemingly not quite sure at times of where they want the music to go. But even if you don’t like the album itself, and think The Beatles were at their best later in their career, the sheer historical value of this CD alone means that if you’re a fan of the band, this should be on your list of CDs to buy.
Twist And Shout
I Saw Her Standing There
Please Please Me