Roy Orbison and The Beatles started around the same time at similar junctures in their careers. They were soulful, but not exclusively so, which is why rock audiences were able to engage in their work without feeling like they were abandoning their hard-worn principles. Indeed, their influence spanned many corners of the globe, and there was more to their work than mere dressing and flair.
Orbison was oblivious to their appeal in 1963, reportedly asking manager Brian Epstein “What’s a Beatle?” But he enjoyed the experience of touring with a band on the rise, deeply impressed with their energy and bonhomie. The rock outfit was key to the songwriters’ development as a person, and key to the group’s changing dependency as people in the wake of an artistic competition.
“He would play us his song,” Paul McCartney said, “and we’d say, ‘Oh, it’s great, Roy. Have you just written that?’ But we’d be thinking, ‘We have to have something as good.’ ”
Orbison was also influential in the way he sang, and John Lennon – searching for the way to sing truthfully and clearly – modelled ‘Please Please Me’ on his voice. When he presented the ballad to producer George Martin, it was done as an Orbison style weeper. The yearning of the track was impressive, but Martin felt the ballad could be done in a style that was more in keeping with the band’s turbo-charged energy and infectiousness. He may have been polite to the band, but the producer could barely conceal his resentment in later years.
“At that stage ‘Please Please Me’ was a very dreary song,” Martin complained.”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.”
The finished recording cast off many of the Orbison trappings, but there’s definitely a yearning in the finished vocal that suggests that the singer needed something grander and more fulfilling in his life. Orbison had shown young men that it was fine for them to express their sadness through tears a la ‘Crying’. And with tenderness replacing bravura, Lennon happened upon a new lyrical voice that showcased his innate sense of vulnerability and vigour.
For McCartney, the presence of Orbison made him step up as an artist, and he wrote ‘All My Loving’ on the tour bus that drove Orbison and The Beatles across England in 1963. Clearly, the singer made an impression on the young songwriter, as the finished track, ‘All My Loving’, is replete with shadows, emotions and unfinished realisations that showcase the singer at his most raw and vulnerable. ‘All My Loving’ sees the bassist addressing his past misgivings in one almost tantric address, as he finds the strength within himself to change.
Orbison would go on to work with George Harrison in the 1980s, harnessing the guitarist’s wild sound to create something that was decidely more bouyant and bouncy in tone and timbre. The pair formed The Travelling Wilburys with rock stalwarts Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan, which resulted in the excellent ‘Handle With Care’, a tune that saw Harrison’s cheeky singing style meld nicely with Orbison’s more forlorn approach to singing. Orbison was earnest, The Beatles were saucy, and when the two forces combined, the results were excellent.
Naturally, Orbison’s biggest imprint was ‘Please Please Me’, a longing tune that was sped up on the finished result but kept true to the original intent of the vocals in question.
Stream ‘Please Please Me’ below.