Six decades on, we look back at the recording of the Beatles’ world-changing debut album, Please Please Me
Released sixty years ago today, no one could have foreseen the cultural earthquake The Beatles were about to detonate with their debut album. It’s a statement of intent, a culmination of where they’d been, and a sign of where both the band and the wider music industry was about to go.
Recording Please Please Me
Whilst multiple major bands recorded at Abbey Road, it is now largely known as the home of The Beatles. Photo By Tom Swain
Gathering at EMI Studios on a nondescript Monday morning in February 1963, it’s incorrect to say the band recorded the full album in one day, despite the myth having taken hold over the years. With hit singles “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me” slated for inclusion, along with their b-sides, it still left ten tracks to complete during one long session. Their producer, George Martin, had initially wanted to capture the band playing live in The Cavern, their spiritual Liverpool home, but with the venue not being deemed suitable for recording, they arrived in London with little energy and John Lennon suffering with a sore throat.
"They arrived in London with little energy and John Lennon suffering with a sore throat"
It was a day off from a national tour, but it was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. Musicians perceived to be the preserve of the teenage market didn’t make albums. The 45rpm single was still king.
The Lennon-McCartney power duo were only at the start of what would be one of the most successful writing teams of all time
Pulling from their stage set of embryonic Lennon-McCartney originals and a varied collection of cover versions, the day would start slowly. Attempting to capture their strongest material first, the morning was taken up perfecting “There’s a Place” and “I Saw Her Standing There”. Recording the songs live with minimal additional work, it was a case of warming up and eradicating mistakes, having to return to the start over and over again until George Martin was satisfied with what he heard.
Reassembling after a short lunch break, the remaining original material was captured quickly. Still developing as writers, makeweights in the form of “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and “Misery” were swiftly ticked off the list. Even at this stage, it’s noticeable how their own songs are fired like arrows to the heart of the listener, something they would quickly elevate to an art form as the year played out for them.
Chains was originally recorded by the American girl group The Cookies
With the clock ticking, attention turned to the cover versions they’d include to bulk out the album. Capturing them efficiently was no fluke. This was a band like no other. Knocking on the music industry’s door from their Liverpool base, the city was blessed with an incredible network of dancehall and clubs in the early 1960s that sustained countless bands. The vast majority of these were semi-professional, combining regular jobs with music. Crucially, The Beatles were different.
"“Boys”, featuring a raucous vocal from Ringo Starr, was completed in one take"
The volume of gigs on offer was enough to offer them a living, but it also allowed them the time to explore new music. They could learn songs other bands simply couldn’t. Throw in several grueling visits to play through the night in Hamburg’s notorious Reeperbahn district and it was the most unforgiving and dangerous of apprenticeships, but one that was now paying dividends.
“Boys”, featuring a raucous vocal from Ringo Starr, was completed in one take, no further work necessary before more ambitious songs were tackled as the clock ticked onwards. “Anna (Go to Him)” is the sound of John taking on a vocal challenge slightly beyond his tender years, something he corrects with an impassioned reading of “Baby It’s You.” A jaunty run through “Chains”, a hit for American girl group The Cookies, retooled for George Harrison’s lead vocal, all adds up to justifying the hours spent hanging around in record shops.
The last song recorded for the album, you can hear the vocal strain on the track
With the session due to close at 10 pm, the album was still coming up short. The band and George Martin knew it needed a memorable closing track. There was only ever one candidate. With John drinking warm milk to reinvigorate his throat, it’s clear they only had one shot at getting it right. Attacking “Twist and Shout” like their future depended on it, it’s the natural full-stop of the hundreds of hours spent toiling away on less glamorous stages. The result is arguably the most raucous three minutes recorded in a UK studio, Paul’s spontaneous expression of joy as it ends confirming he knows they’ve hit the mark.
Please Please Me was the beginning of a 'Beatlemania' that would take hold across the globe
A product of their environment and defiantly true to themselves, the day spent working on the album captures a moment in time. Climbing to number one in the chart, Please Please Me would stay there until their second offering, With The Beatles, was released later in the year. The fuel in the engine that would power Beatlemania, the album was a stepping stone towards their biggest hits, but it also signalled something more.
"The fuel in the engine that would power Beatlemania, the album was a stepping stone towards their biggest hits"
It cemented the popularity of guitar bands—the inclusion of eight Lennon-McCartney songs normalising musicians writing their own material. The Beatles would go on to scale greater heights, but without the pressure of working against the clock in the future, they would never let the listener get so close to them again.
Read more: Everything we've learned from Get Back
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