Released during one of the bitterest winters in British history, “Please Please Me,” The Beatles’ second 7″ single release, helped to initiate a post-war sociocultural thaw among British youth. The release had a similar effect on its U.K. audience that “I Want To Hold Your Hand” would have upon a U.S. audience almost 12 months later.
Released on January 11th 1963, the record’s meteoric ascent up the charts brought the Beatles into virtually every British home, against the backdrop of the freezing winter and the unfolding political sex scandal of the Profumo affair.
Written in John Lennon’s childhood bedroom as a deliberate bluesy attempt at emulating Roy Orbison, “Please Please Me” became the Beatles’ first number one (NME and Melody Maker polls) hit single in the U.K., catapulting the group out of Liverpool and installing them as overnight national stars in one fell swoop.
In 1980 its author, Lennon, reflected:
“Please Please Me” is my song completely. It was my attempt at writing a Roy Orbison song, would you believe it? I wrote it in the bedroom in my house at Menlove Avenue, which was my auntie’s place. I heard Roy Orbison doing “Only The Lonely’”or something. That’s where that came from. And also I was always intrigued by the words of “Please Lend Your Ears To My Pleas,” a Bing Crosby song. I was always intrigued by the double use of the word “please.’” So it was a combination of Bing Crosby and Roy Orbison.
Lennon must have composed the song sometime between June and September 1962, as it was not presented at the first EMI session on June 6th or at the earlier Decca audition in January of that year.
“Please Please Me” first appeared in the studio on September 4, 1962 during the recording session for “Love Me Do” and “How Do You Do It.” It was rehearsed during a run-through presided over by EMI producer Ron Richards, from 2:30 to 5:00 pm, with new Beatle Ringo Starr behind the drum kit.
The song was certainly in its infancy on September 4, with a number of differences from the eventual official release. Slower in tempo, this earlier version featured Harrison playing the scaled guitar riff throughout the verses rather than at only the beginning of each. This repetition eventually grated on Richards’ ears, prompting him to lose his patience, declaring, “For Christ’s sake, George, just play it in the gaps!”
One week later, during the September 11 session, the Beatles recorded “P.S. I Love You” and “Love Me Do” with session musician Andy White on drums. Starr was also in attendance, and participated by playing maracas and tambourine. Perhaps cautious of Starr’s abilities, George Martin had arranged for a session drummer to attend on the day. With the session winding to a close, the group attempted a taping of ‘Please Please Me’. However, according to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, George Martin was unhappy with the results and advised them to add harmonies and speed it up. Martin stated that “at that stage “Please Please Me” was a very dreary song. It was like a Roy Orbison number, very slow, bluesy vocals. It was obvious to me that it badly needed pepping up. I told them to bring it in next time and we’d have another go at it” (Lewisohn: The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, p.20).
There is evident confusion about which session Martin was at when he dispensed this advice. The rediscovered version of “Please Please Me” from September 11, once thought lost and later included on Anthology 1, presents the song in almost identical form to the final version recorded on November 26.
The structure is identical to the completed version, as are the melody and harmonies. Most convincingly, the song’s signature hooks are clearly in place. These include the stops and starts, Harrison’s scaled guitar intro on each verse, his verse-chorus splitting riff, the call and response “c’mon, c’mon” of the chorus, and the busy drum fills which permeate the track. There is also little difference in the tempo of these two versions, which conflicts significantly with Martin’s claim that at this stage (September 11) the song was “very slow”.
So is it possible Martin actually made the comments based on the version rehearsed the previous week (September 4) with Ron Richards at the helm? If so, then the problem is that Martin was reportedly not present at this pre-session rehearsal.
Confusing? Yes. However, it serves as a reminder that when analysing Beatles’ recordings, individual and collective accounts often conflict and can never be totally trusted without corroborative evidence.
There is also confusion about which drummer can be heard on the rediscovered September 11 recording. Ron Richards stated that Starr did not play drums at all that day. However Geoff Emerick, then a young apprentice tape-op, recalled how session drummer Andy White was dismissed after his input on “Love Me Do”/”P.S. I Love You.” Emerick remembers Beatles roadie Mal Evans setting up Starr’s kit as White was leaving. To further confuse matters, Emerick also recalls this version of “Please Please Me” being slow in tempo, a claim that the resurfaced recording seems to contradict.
We can never state categorically who sat on the drum stool during this early demo of “Please, Please Me.” However it seems probable, based on the similar styles evident on the September 11 and November 26 versions, and with Emerick’s recollections of the session, that with “Love Me Do”/”PS I Love You” in the bag on September 11 and his job complete, White may have handed over the drum stool to Starr.
The style of drumming, the snare and tom-tom fills, the stops and starts, indeed the pace and overall feeling on both tracks (Sept 11/Nov 26) are too similar, one might argue, to be the creative input of two different drummers two months apart.
In fact, apart from a slight change in the snare/tom-tom fills leading into the bridge, the main drum pattern and the fills for each dynamic verse-chorus-bridge intro/outro are nearly identical. The brisk, energetic flurries of each of these fills, and in particular the identical “machine gun”-phrased ending on the snare on both versions sound very much like Starr’s signature style.
Despite confusion over earlier sessions, on November 26, 1962 the Beatles did regroup at Abbey Road studios with a reworking of the composition which was tight and explosive. Taping began in earnest around 8:00 pm and was completed in 18 takes. Starr’s performance on the drums that evening was so incandescent, that he permanently banished any notions that he was another “Pete Best.”
“Please Please Me” begins with a hammer “baddum-dum” pluck of the A string in E major, probably played on Harrison’s Gretsch (or Lennon’s Gibson J160E). This introduces us to the main hook of the song: Harrison’s scaled intro on guitar coupled with Lennon’s harmonica (overdubbed later in the session). The clever use of harmonica provides a familiar continuity with the group’s debut single, helping to establish a signature sound.
Just as the previous release, “Love Me Do” may have been influenced by “Bye Bye Love,” the harmonies on “Please Please Me” are most likely borrowed from another Everly Brothers single. Lennon’s lower melody, accompanied by McCartney’s high E, is particularly reminiscent of the style employed on the Everly’s 1960 hit “Cathy’s Clown.”
The vocals are utterly resolute, introducing the listener to the plight of the protagonist (thought to be attempting to coax his partner into engaging in oral sex). The animated, rushed climb of the chords, from G through A to B, matched by Starr’s energetic fills after the first line, serves to underline a climactic, sexually frustrated desperation. A sudden stop on E, preceded by some brisk strumming on guitar, again matched by Starr, introduces Harrison’s fat rockabilly riff on E. Lennon’s four desperate “c’mon” calls are delivered with a gruff sincerity. Each is answered by Harrison and McCartney, providing the representation of peer pressure.
A cleverly truncated scaled riff drops the listener into the bridge, courtesy of some expressive snare/tom-tom fills from Starr, who then deploys a Latin-tinged rhythm complete with a “cha-cha-cha” response on the snare. During the bridge, Lennon explains why he’s expecting to be pleased, while McCartney and Harrison provide harmonies that would make Buddy Holly’s Crickets proud. In fact, the line referring to “rain in my heart” is borrowed from Holly’s “Raining in My Heart” (1959). However what really broke ground here in contemporary pop music was the audacious ending.
The coda concludes with an aptly climactic triplet of repetitive pleading, with the last “you” held and then bent in falsetto. Meanwhile the guitars rise and fall through a climactic chord sequence, interspersed by a fill of four, even sixteenth notes on the snare. The result was one of the most revolutionary two minutes of pop committed to tape at the time. George Martin certainly thought so; at the end of the final take he switched on the talk-back mic from the control room where he was sitting and remarked “you’ve just made your first Number One.”
His prediction was not wrong.
Interestingly, an unsolved issue with the original master tape from the November 26 session forced George Martin to create the stereo mix of “Please Please Me” from three separate takes (16, 17, and 18). One of these takes featured a lyrical fluff by Lennon, who mixes up his lines with McCartney’s. This error remains on the stereo mix at 1:27 as does the chuckle from Lennon during the first “c’mon” at 1:33, in acknowledgment of the error.
Upon its U.K. release, the single reached number one on both the NME and Melody Maker polls. In the U.S. the single was offered to, and rejected by Capitol Records. This blend of R&B was traditionally associated with black musicians, and Capitol supposedly believed that the sound was too raucous for a white group, and that the sexual reference within the song was too risqué for a U.S. release. It seems unlikely, however, that the Beatles’ ethnic background would pose a problem for a society which had experienced white musicians such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly playing R&B seven years previously. The most likely explanation is that Capitol executives were simply deaf to a new sound when they heard it, and skeptical of a new musical phenomenon from England, an unlikely source of a rock ‘n’ roll revolution.
After the release of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in the US, and the subsequent explosion of Beatlemania, “Please Please Me” was re-released and peaked at number three in the Billboard Hot 100. The two songs at numbers one and two were “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” respectively.
The release of “Love Me Do”/”P.S. I Love You” guaranteed that the group’s debut release was comprised exclusively of McCartney compositions. Now, “Please Please Me”/”Ask Me Why” ensured their second release was a totally Lennon affair. Over the next year, while busy conquering the world, most of their single releases would be joint ventures.