The Beatles' Please Please Me turns fifty
Fifty years ago today, the Beatles' electrifying debut album, Please Please Me was issued in the U.K. Designed to reproduce the manic intensity of an early Beatles' live performance and hastily produced to meet demand after the group's song of the same name rocketed to number-one on the British singles charts in February of 1963, most of the record was recorded in a single ten-hour session at Abbey Road Studios.
Eight Lennon-McCartney originals were to be included on the disc, including four that had already been released on the Beatles' first two singles. The rest of the record would be made up of covers of girl groups (the Shirelles, the Cookies), R&B (Arthur Alexander), the theme from a kitchen sink realism film, and, most famously, a definitive version of the Isley Brothers' hit, "Twist and Shout."
By the early 1960s, rock and roll was no longer a new phenomenon, having taken the United States by storm a decade earlier in the personas of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and many others. With its incessant backbeat and catchy, suggestive lyrics, the music instantly attracted a young, multicultural fan base and quickly became perceived as a threat to the mainstream culture of Cold War America, as rock's earliest practitioners began to challenge conservative attitudes about race, class, gender and sexuality (see Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" and Richard's "Long Tall Sally").
However, as critic Todd Gitlin argues in his 1987 book The Sixties, early rock soon became marginalized due to commercialization. Gitlin states, "The American mainstream greeted the challenge in its usual way: trying partly to expunge the menace, party to domesticate it...By 1957, carefully overproduced teenage crooners like Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka and Fabian were all the rage...The critics' consensus is that when the likes of Bobby Vinton and Fabian rose to the top of the charts, the real music went into cryogenic death for several years until the Beatles kissed it back to life in 1963" with the arrival of Please Please Me.
The albums' first single, "Love Me Do," appeared in October of 1962, and it made the top twenty, but it was not until the recording session for the follow-up, "Please Please Me," that producer George Martin declared, "Gentlemen, you've just made your first number-one record," and indeed, he was correct. These two singles and their respective B-sides, "P.S. I Love You" and "Ask Me Why," form the core of the album and are situated in the middle of the disc.
Please Please Me is bookended by its two finest tracks, beginning with the exuberant "I Saw Her Standing There," one of the group's finest early rockers, and ending with a frenetic version of "Twist and Shout," the rock standard that had just been a major hit for the Isley Brothers, but which would henceforth be known mostly as a Beatles' song.
Please Please Me finds the Beatles' songwriting ability in a relatively embryonic state, but as musicians, the band was already functioning as a tight, professional unit the likes of which had never been seen before. An impressive debut by any standard, the album is not just the first major statement from the Beatles -- a group that would go on to redefine popular music as a serious artistic medium while simultaneously reshaping American popular culture -- it is a watershed moment in the history of rock music and also, it is arguably the first cohesive long-playing rock album.
Graham Nash, in his essay on Please Please Me for the new book 101 Essential Rock Records, released last year and compiled by Jeff Gold, argues that "up to this point long-playing records were basically a bunch of singles put out to capitalize on the success of the 'singles.' But John realized that they could actually be a collection of music that made a statement, and after Please Please Me that's what they did. Of course it affected every band; the Beatles opened up the door and we all ran through it." With the release of Please Please Me fifty years ago today, the Beatles established themselves as the most important and influential recording artists of the 1960s. A new era had begun.
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