It’s easy to categorise the early work of The Beatles as pop fodder. To all intents and purposes, it is. But, it must be remembered that just because an album full of songs that shot straight to the top of the charts lands like a seismic moment in pop culture, it doesn’t have artistic quality permeating every single note. While it’s hard to avoid the moniker of ‘pop’ falling on this LP, one must remember that, by and large, it defined the word.
This album was one of the most revolutionary moments in music. It set pop music on course for the golden horizons yonder and shaped rock ‘n’ roll for decades to come. That’s because, with Please, Please Me, an album jam-packed with The Beatles own compositions, the Fab Four confirmed that things would never be the same again. While there are endless reviews and revised reports of this landmark moment in music, we think it’s best to hear about the album in the words of those who helped create it. So, below, we’re looking back at The Beatles’ debut album through the words of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
The record was revolutionary for two main reasons. Firstly, the album contained, by and large, songs that The Beatles themselves had composed which was, at the time, a more than unusual occurrence — pop groups were expected to ‘play the hits’. Equally as innovative was George Martin’s employment and his desire to ensure that the album sounded like attending a Beatles concert.
The Fab Four had made a name for themselves on the stage. Not only in their native Liverpool and the hallowed Cavern Club but across the channel in mainland Europe too, where they had a particularly interesting residency along with the great and good of the music scene in the unlikely pop mecca of Hamburg. As well as their songwriting, the band’s incredible live shows had been a huge part of why they were signed and given the opportunity at a live album in the first place.
Lennon remembered the album back in 1976 as a true to life occurrence. “That record tried to capture us live,” the bespectacled Beatle recalled, “And was the nearest thing to what we might have sounded like to the audiences in Hamburg and Liverpool. You don’t get that live atmosphere of the crowd stomping on the beat with you, but it’s the nearest you can get to knowing what we sounded like before we became the ‘clever’ Beatles.” The album captures the band’s intensity in their salad days, with all the sweat and joy of performing live pouring out of the LP with every rotation.
The reason George Martin was able to capture so much of that visceral showmanship was that the band had reacted well to the arduous conditions for recording. Unlike most artists today, the group were shovelled into the studios for a searing day of sessions. “The whole album only took a day… so it was amazingly cheap, no-messing, just a massive effort from us. But we were game,” remembered McCartney in 1988 of the experience. “We’d been to Hamburg for Christ’s sake, we’d stayed up all night, it was no big deal. We started at ten in the morning and finished at ten at night… it sounded like a working day to us! And at the end of the day, you had your album.”
Adding: “There’s many a person now who would love to be able to say that. Me included.”
While the thrill of making an album emboldened the band, that didn’t mean they let their artistry slip away. In 1963, Lennon recalled the experience: “We sang for twelve hours nonstop. Waiting to hear the LP played back was one of our most worrying experiences. We’re perfectionists. If it had come out any old way we’d have wanted to do it all over again. As it happens we’re very happy with the result.” Considering the songs on offer, we’re not surprised that Lennon was sated.
Largely buoyed by Lennon-McCartney’s powerhouse partnership, The Beatles revolutionised pop music by writing and performing their own songs. At the time, it was a partnership that seemed as steadfast as it was successful. Lennon could see the value of his partnership from the very beginning, speaking in 1963: “All the better songs that we have written — the ones that anybody wants to hear — those were co-written. Sometimes half the words are written by me, and he’ll finish them off. We go along a word each, practically.”
There are some serious songs on the album too. The record’s opener, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, is one of the Fab Four’s most beloved songs. A track which came out of the duo ditching school, “We sagged off school and wrote it on guitars,” remembered McCartney in 1988. “I remember I had the lyrics, ‘Just seventeen/Never been a beauty queen,’ which John… it was one of the first times he ever went, ‘What? Must change that!’ And it became, ‘you know what I mean.'” Starting with a bang, the songs only go further to showcase the talent at hand.
Next on the record was ‘Misery’, a song originally written for Helen Shapiro; it now works as a perfect representation of a John Lennon pop song, Lennon himself telling David Sheff: “It was kind of a John song.” Another track that was Lennon’s song “completely” was the title track from the record ‘Please, Please Me’. Though it was an original composition, the song was heavily inspired by one rocker: “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.”
The next track on the album also showed the band’s promise, as ‘Love Me Do’ remains a seminal moment for the entire band, including McCartney, who recalled in 1982: “In Hamburg, we clicked… At the Cavern, we clicked.. but if you want to know when we ‘knew’ we’d arrived, it was getting in the charts with ‘Love Me Do.’ That was the one. It gave us somewhere to go.” Coming to the studio to lay down the tracks for ‘Love Me Do’, The Beatles approached their first real recording session, “I was very nervous, I remember,” said McCartney some years later. “John was supposed to sing the lead, but they changed their minds and asked me to sing lead at the last minute, because they wanted John to play harmonica. Until then, we hadn’t rehearsed with a harmonica; George Martin started arranging it on the spot. It was very nerve-wracking.”
‘P.S. I Love You’ may not go down in history as the best Beatles number of all time, but it did set a precedent for a songwriting trick McCartney would employ through a lot of his career: “A theme song based on a letter… It was pretty much mine. I don’t think John had much of a hand in it. There are certain themes that are easier than others to hang a song on, and a letter is one of them.” It shows that while the band weren’t relying on other people’s material exclusively, they knew how to play the commercial side of the game. One aspect of which was ensuring that each band member — who were being marketed similarly to something we’d align with a boyband — had a song to sing. ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’ was penned for Harrison to add his vocals to, something he didn’t exactly relish: “I didn’t like the vocal on it. I didn’t know how to sing.”
The album isn’t all hit after hit, and ‘There’s A Place’ is probably one of the least-loved songs on the LP even if it does, by bis own estimations, say “the usual Lennon things,” the track is a definite damp squib. Equally, the only song on the album not composed by Lennon-McCartney, The Beatles cover of ‘Twist and Shout’ was never loved by the band that much, especially not Lennon. Speaking even back in 1963, the singer said of the song: “I always hate singing the song, ‘Twist And Shout’ when there’s a coloured artist on the bill with us. It doesn’t seem right, you know. I feel sort of embarrassed… It makes me curl up. I always feel they could do the song much better than me.”
While Please, Please Me was a revolutionary pop album, it was still a pop album. Meaning that it still needed to have a set of songs that could play out of a teenagers radio and be endlessly pawed over. Across the entire record, there are continuous references to young love, but more often than not, they were inspired by the need for a song, rather than any bursting artistic expression, as was the case for ‘From Me To You’, even if it did turn out as one of the better songs on the album: “We were writing it in a car, I think…” recalled Lennon to Sheff in 1980, “and I think the first line was mine. I mean, I know it was mine. (hums melody) And then, after that, we just took it from there. We were just writing the next single.”
Another example of that comes with ‘Thank You Girl’, which Lennon described as “one of our efforts at writing a single that didn’t work. So it became a B-side or an album track.” But McCartney suggested it was more of a calculated effort, speaking in 1988, he recalled: “We knew that if we wrote a song called, ‘Thank You Girl’ that a lot of the girls who wrote us fan letters would take it as a genuine thank you. So a lot of our songs were directly addressed to the fans.”
The penultimate song on the album would be one that the world still remembers and revisits to this day. ‘She Loves You’ is such a classic piece of Beatles iconography it’s hard to imagine the genuine and simple conception of the song. “John and I wrote it together,” recalled McCartney in 1963. “We were in a van up in Newcastle somewhere, and we’d just gone over to our hotel. I originally got an idea of doing one of those answering songs, where a couple of us sing about ‘she loves you’ …and the other one sort of says the ‘yes, yes’ bit. You know, ‘yeah yeah’ answering whoever is saying it. But we decided that was a crummy idea anyway.
“But we had the idea to write a song called ‘She Loves You’ then,” Macca confirmed. “And we just sat up in the hotel bedroom for a few hours and wrote it, you know.” The song also represented the band’s first footsteps into the studio as real recording artists rather than hired guns: “Occasionally, we’d overrule George Martin, like on ‘She Loves You,’ we end on a sixth chord, a very jazzy sort of thing. And he said, ‘Oh, you can’t do that! A sixth chord? It’s too jazzy.’ We just said, ‘No, it’s a great hook, we’ve got to do it.'”
The final track, bringing to an end one of the most widely adored debut albums of all time, certainly isn’t a classic. ‘I’ll Get You’, Lennon describes as not working out, but McCartney suggests it provided the groundwork for the previous classic, “If we write one song, then we can get going after that and get more ideas. We wrote ‘I’ll Get You,’ which is the B-side, first. And then ‘She Loves You’ came after that. You know– We got ideas from that. Then we recorded it.” It closes one of the most revolutionary albums of all time.
It’s easy to categorise The Beatles as pop music; it may even be possible to call them a ‘boyband’ at this stage in their career. But to do so would be to miss the subtle but permanent changes they were making to pop music. The band were instilling a desire for artists to be authentic about their work. Though they were writing songs to top the charts, they also wanted them to be something they could be proud of. They wanted an album that didn’t just sound like The Beatles but was the physical and attainable embodiment of them. In that regards, we’re certain they succeeded.
If one album captures the pure excitement and energy of launching a career, then it has to be Please, Please Me — the fact it launched a whole new way of creating, proposed a whole new scope of songwriting and revolutionised pop music along the way, is just a bonus.