The Beatles song inspired by Roy Orbison and Bing Crosby that put them on the map
The Beatles back catalogue is a dense and varied place to revisit. But while many might get caught up in the intricacy of later works, we thought we’d look back at the band’s first record and their international breakthrough. For that, the Fab Four used simple rock ‘n’ roll.
When John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr began making music, they did so marketed as something brand new. These guys were not rock ‘n’ roll 100%, they were ‘pop music’ and they were capable of moulding themselves into any image they wanted. Something they did with impressive regularity.
John Lennon ‘imitating’ an artist is something the bespectacled Beatle admitted to on several occasions, often citing Bob Dylan or Nina Simone as particular influences. But back in 1963, the band wrote a song inspired by two geniuses of their field, Roy Orbison and Bing Crosby.
At the time there was nobody bigger than Roy Orbison. The rock and roller had broken into the mainstream charts and started to write records not too dissimilar from what the Beatles would later produce. Equally, Bing Crosby was still a consummate professional and offered up a glimpse of the slick sentimentality which had propelled his entire career.
There was one track which The Beatles used to fuse these two ideas together, that track was ‘Please, Please Me’. Taken from the album of the same name, producers were keen to use the LP to show off the band’s intensity, the thing that had got them their album deal in the first place. Lennon shares in 1963: “That record tried to capture us live, 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.”
Arriving equipped with songs is one thing but arriving with them perfectly arranged was never going to happen while George Martin was around. A genius producer, Martin always pushed the band for more. In 1963 Lennon said of the song: “Our recording manager (George Martin) thought our arrangement was fussy, so we tried to make it simpler. We were getting tired though, and just couldn’t seem to get it right. In the following weeks we went over it again and again.
“We changed the tempo a little, we altered the words slightly, and we went over the idea of featuring the harmonica just as we’d done on ‘Love Me Do.’ By the time the session came around we were so happy with the result, we couldn’t get it recorded fast enough.”
While Martin’s influence on the song is upfront and clear, during his infamous Playboy interview in 1980, Lennon shared the song had some more direct inspiration too: “‘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,” he added. “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.”
Eight years later and McCartney was happy to confirm the idea, saying: “It’s very Roy Orbison when you slow it down. George Martin up-tempo’d it. He thought it was too much of a dirge, and probably too like Orbison. So he cleverly speeded us up… and we put in the little scaled riff at the beginning, which was very catchy.”
Whoever the song was inspired by, it’s fair to say it had a large hand in helping the band get off the ground and help Beatlemania to sweep the globe. As Macca says, it is, after all, “very catchy”.