“One, two, three, fah!” Like Dylan’s electric snare crack or Johnny Cash introducing himself to a room full of convicts, it’s a totemic moment in pop history. While Johnny Cash rehearsed his introduction for maximum potency, the countdown at the beginning of the “Please Please Me” album hews closer to Dylan’s moment: it’s workmanlike, unassuming, the sound of something big happening without any self-important weight or baggage added. “I Saw Her Standing There”, is a banger to be sure, and hearing it again reminded me of what I found appealing about The Beatles before: they have the ability to convey certain moods effectively. The predominant moods this first album evokes are wistfulness and youthful innocence. Sometimes it’s genuinely affecting.
I’m reminded of being twelve years old and spending my allowance money on a discounted copy of “The Beatles 1” (which I assume was a shared entry point for much of my generation) and hearing the harmonica-led “Love Me Do” through my little headphones. Even then, I felt as if I were listening to a bygone sound. Even hearing something as Liverpudlian and twee as “Do You Want to Know a Secret” puts me in a peculiar mood, in large part because I know how the story ends and the performers do not. To think this is the same band that will someday write “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and end the same album with a collection of song fragments and one of the first hidden tracks is staggering to consider. It would be like hearing The Walker Brothers and being told in the future the singer would release a drone metal album: yeah, okay.
Twee is the word I keep returning to when I try to describe the sound of the album. I was a bit shocked to hear how spartan the early Beatles sound is. The guitar timbre would be aped by every indie pop band that came after, though this is a fairly standard period tone. At times, the songs could pass for The Shaggs or Beat Happening with a ton more tightening. The chords chime unobtrusively and everything seems to be coated in echo.
This is the world of pop, freeze-framed circa 1963 and the song selections reflect that. I’ve read that the album was cut in a short span on the cheap and consists of the group’s well-honed show from their days in Berlin. It’s a mix of covers and originals, and the originals are where the group seems to really perk up. The covers themselves are pretty standard for the time but not bog obvious (too early for the Batman theme, thank god), staying in the realms of r&b and the girl groups. The later work with Phil Spector is at least prepared for in this incarnation of the group’s sound. The song “Anna” is probably the highlight of the covers. Add a delay pedal and some volume and it wouldn’t be out of place in 2015, with the circular guitar figures and a slinky vocal melody foreshadowing yacht rock and Deerhunter.
“Boys” is where the cracks show. The band sounds bored, and though the originals aren’t exactly Keats, the idiotic lyrics of the covers (and most early rock music) reveal one of the parts of the album (and early rock) I struggle with the most: the lyrics veering between charming naivety and couplets straight out of the rhyming dictionary. When the energy level or the beauty of the melodies drop off, the lyrics distract. It helps that The Beatles have good taste in their song choices, choosing a set of songs that are sturdy and likable no matter who performs them, but the low points slow down the flow of the album.
I’ve tried to place myself in the position of a teenager in 1963, spinning this album for the first time, because it is uncomplicated teenage music. The originals are a cut above most of the million trillion other bands named The __________, but I start to feel that familiar creeping feeling that what’s on display here has been done by someone else and done better. For sheer energy and power, who could match The Kinks? For lasciviousness, The Rolling Stones were infinitely more threatening. The Beach Boys were miles ahead with their arrangements. Future rival and colleague Bob Dylan was never threatened by The Beatles lyrically but certainly not here. The moral outrage begs even more questions: who would be threatened by this? It’s very genteel and quaint music but it was such a pervasive influence, even in the beginning, that even James Bond had something to say about the band.
The Beatles excelled at assimilation throughout their brief career. Their willingness to borrow from different traditions and schools of thought and put their findings in a pop context allowed previously inaccessible textures, compositions, and instruments into the average living room. This quality is barely on display here, but there are flashes of interest. Had the band split after this album, they would be remembered favorably by record collectors and maybe even pop up in a Nuggets box set. Hearing the album, all 14 tracks breezing by in half an hour, is a reminder of the older industry model (two singles and a lot of crap) and a good riposte to anyone convinced that albums were more well-constructed then than today. Though The Beatles would help to redefine the album as a self-contained piece of art, this release boasts a pleasant atmosphere and some nice performances and that’s all. And that’s enough. Of historical interest, for sure.
Article originally featured on Medium, Oct. 24, 2015.