Or, what might this…


have to do with this…


and this…?


More than I would have guessed.

It’s always fun to think of some small new twist on a story that’s been done to death. Not too many stories have been worked over more thoroughly than The Story of the Beatles.

But one thing I’ve never done before is try and listen to the music that made them big in England, a year and half before ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and The Ed Sullivan Show sent them into the international stratosphere, in the context of what was happening on American radio in the months must before which we’ve always known they had an ear for.

How much of an ear?

Well, their first album, finished in February, 1963, included fourteen songs. Eight were Lennon/McCartney originals. One was a recent Broadway tune (“A Taste of Honey”). The other five were hits of recent vintage (no fifties’ rocker stuff, as there would be on later albums), three of them straight from the Brill Building (though one of those was by way of the Isley Brothers) and another, “Boys,” that might as well have been.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but outside of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and “There’s a Place” (that last, a space even the Beatles never got back to) and, at a stretch “Love Me Do,” the Brill Building cuts, real and faux, are the strongest stuff on the album. “Chains” is solid. The other three (“Boys,” with Ringo’s first recorded vocal and his best until “It Don’t Come Easy,” plus “Baby It’s You” and “Twist and Shout”) all epic.

Having four sides in the can (the A’s and B’s of their first two singles) when they prepared to cut the album, their assigned producer George Martin asked Paul and John what else they had. They answered “our stage act.”

Meaning all that Broadway/Brill Building/Faux Brill Building stuff of such recent 1960–63 vintage wasn’t thrust upon them. It was what they liked. What inspired them.

Which is odd, given that for several decades after, as professional rock criticism bloomed, flowered, withered and died, the basic narrative pretty much held that rock had “died” in those years. (You can still find Greil Marcus going on about it in his latest, which I’m still loving by the way.)

For many reasons, the strongest maybe being because I came in at the Beach Boys (first national hit, albeit one I never much cared for, released June, 1962) and, especially, the Four Seasons (first national hit, August, 1962), I never bought that particular narrative myself.

Later on, when I got to know much more about Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Brenda Lee and Gene Pitney and Ray Charles and girl groups and surf rock and second-generation doo wop and early Motown and so on and so forth, I bought it even less.

But, amongst all those “nevers” I still never thought to actually play the Beatles first album next to a well chosen anthology of the music that was in their LIverpool-to-Hamburg-to-London air, via Pirate Radio or the BBC or their record collections or whatever other distribution methods were targeting their demographic at the time.

Then, this week, I found myself with my latest additions to Time Life’s year-by-year collection, “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” which happened to be the two discs devoted to 1962. And, since I was duty bound to listen to them anyway, I went, “h-m-m-m-m.”

Why not stick the Beatles’ first, Please Please Me between Time Life’s 1962 and 1962 Still Rockin’?

That was Monday, which makes this Segue of the Day a week late and a little bit of a cheat, but what’s a blog for if you can’t bend a cheap concept like Time out of shape once in a while to suit a narrative?

Anyway, it sent me off on that whole tangent I mentioned in my other posts this week, and I might still have one or two posts to go before I exhaust that particular day.

The day itself didn’t exhaust me. I found it pretty exhilarating

Because listening to a multinational corporation’s repackaged definition of what the Beatles were trying to fit into as they climbed their first mountain made both experiences bigger and better.

In the first place, I learned something.

Listening to all this music thrown together, I could finally begin to understand the belief held by so many about rock’s “demise.”  There are 44 tracks on the two Time Life collections and, even with the names I mentioned above being mostly absent (except for Gene Pitney), the period was heavy on reaching for quiet spaces. That wasn’t quite the rejection of Little Richard and Chuck Berry so many assumed. More like a broadening of perspective. But I can see how some might have been fooled.

Because while there are rockers (the Isley’s “Twist and Shout” among them, though it doesn’t rock like the Beatles, who tended, along with everything else, to be smart about choosing their battles), the major emphasis is on introspection, heartbreak, longing.

That really shouldn’t be surprising.

These are the kind of things you might expect the era’s outsiders: black people, urban immigrants, girls, perhaps even the occasional hillbilly (throw Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby” up against “Love Me Do” some time if you need evidence history doesn’t always move in a straight line even in the short run), to be especially invested in communicating as a dual language: part public, part secret.

The Beatles certainly didn’t miss that. A lot of that first album, including something as joyous and up-tempo as “Please Please Me,” reaches for those very same qualities. Sometimes they missed. Several cuts tend to commodify rather than amplify the melancholy, skate over it rather than deepen it (something else they would also always be very good at and which the public accepted enough, in the immediate wake of February, 1964, to make cuts like “P.S. I Love You” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” into big hits–what happened with the Beatles, there was a reason they called it Mania).

But about half the time, they grabbed hold. On top of which they, or somebody, had the sense to start and end strong. “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Please Please Me” frame the first side of the British debut LP; “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout” the second.

All to the good.

Believe me, coming out of Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park” and Don and Juan’s “What’s Your Name” (both wonderful) at the end of the first 1962 volume, “I Saw Her Standing There” really is a leap in the dark, a rush that feels like “What’d I Say” must have felt in 1959 or “Tutti Frutti” must have felt in 1955. In fits and starts at least, Please Please Me still sounds like some sort of revolution.

By the end, with this…

and this…

closing the record*, it becomes possible to think Americans must have been flat out deaf and stupid not to respond to the various attempts to sell the Beatles over here throughout the latter months of 1962 and all of 1963.

That, in fact, is just what I was thinking.

But then I put on the second Time Life disc.

And it started with a reversal of form: The Beatles’ quiet-place-bleeding-into-a-loud-place becoming a loud-place…

bleeding back into a quiet place…at a party no less…

And I was yet again reminded that the competition in early rock and roll was literally insane. That maybe the miracle wasn’t so much the Beatles didn’t make it here sooner, but that they made it at all.

In the Contours’ Detroit, after all, and Sam Cooke’s Chicago-or-L.A., and a whole lot of other American spaces, they might have gotten lost in the crowd.

Well, until Rubber Soul anyway.

By which time they probably would have had other jobs.

*Sorry, no decent studio cut was available. Even YouTube isn’t perfect.


2 thoughts on “ILLUMINATION AND ALL THAT…THE BEATLES IN THEIR TIME (Segue of the Day: 11/8/15)


    I am going to assume that you didn’t intend your sixth ‘paragraph’ above (“Not to put too fine a point on it“) to sound as harsh as it did. But I will respond to it as though you did, okay? That the Beatles were able to get that much original material on their first LP (seven songs) at that time is still amazing to me fifty years later!

    Only a few weeks earlier (okay: three months earlier) they were fighting their producer NOT to record a song that they were more or less ordered to record by their record company.

    They wanted to do their own material and they were ‘wrong’: the song they fought TO record (“Love Me Do”) was a modest hit while the song they fought NOT to record (“How Do You Do It”) was #1 on all the major UK weeklies.

    For that debut long-player, they had to record ten tracks in one day! Today’s artists don’t record that much material in a year! That the PLEASE PLEASE ME album wasn’t an embarrassment also amazes me.

    Other than that, I concur with you: “Please Please Me,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “There’s A Place” are the only strong originals. That said, “Love Me Do” does have its charm and I am a sucker for the girl-groupy, doo-woppy “Misery” (played straight-faced, but was there a wee bit of irony here?) including George’s clunky guitar part.

    Also agree with you on “Boys,” a recording forever lodged in my head as part of the British Invasion despite it’s not having been a hit) and one of my faveravest early Beatles side.

    And “Baby It’s You,” where the John was able to ignore the coyness of Shirley Owens’ original reading and go for a manlier version that appealed to the guys.

    And then there is the apocalyptic “Twist and Shout” . . . I could argue it to be their greatest moment ever in a studio but I don’t want to start that argument because most Beatles fans aren’t really fans of the rock & roll that the Beatles were fans of and wouldn’t get it and I wouldn’t trade “Twist and Shout” for all of ABBEY ROAD and LET IT BE but I tend to the extreme with this one.

    Also agree with your assessment that the early ‘60s wasn’t anything like what so many of the early (R&B-obsessed) critics/rockwriters wrote of in the early days of Rolling Stone etc. Granted it didn’t rock and it didn’t roll like the ‘50s, but there were tons of superb records released on an almost monthly schedule.

    It’s a shame that more moviemakers don’t look into this era: someone might figure out how to make a GRACE OF MY HEART type of movie that makes some money.

    Please note that the early ‘60s was a period where the old, fat, conservative, Mitch Miller-type record company execs and A&R men took pride in having rescued pop music from the Elvises and Jerry Lees and Pennimans.

    Had they not been so secure in keeping their young artists focused on the “quiet spaces” (love the term), they might have been better prepared for the onslaught that the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Animals, etc., were about to export across the Atlantic. Then they would have defended America’s Top 40 airwaves better than they did and we would all be the poorer for it!


    PS: Aside from the Brill Building (and by extension Phil Spector),1960-63 was the time when ’50s R&B was morphing into ’60s soul; Berry Gordy was laying the groundwork for the Sound of Young America; Brian Wilson was inventing California / West Coast / Sunshine Pop; Bob Dylan was learning how to become the Voice of a Generation; Ray Charles was Ray Charles; yada yoda blah blah . . .

  2. I probably should have included a “by the Beatles’ incredibly high standards’ caveat in there! Please Please Me is a strong first album and, like you, I’d take its high points over a lot of the more revered later stuff. (On the other hand, it’s ranked 39th on Rolling Stone’s greatest album list, which is way-y-y-y high and a testament, I think, to how powerful the Beatles’ hold on the rock-crit class still is.) Also on the other hand, I’d say “There’s a Place” and “Twist and Shout” is as strong a one-two punch as any band could deliver any time, especially at the end of a first LP. And they weren’t stronger than what was happening on AT40 every day at the time. I think there’s still a general idea out there that the Beatles’ “saved” us. Great as they were, I always tend to ask “from what?” So throwing them in with the Time Life comps was just another step on my quest for understanding (lol).

    You make all good points as usual, though. I like the image of Mitch Miller, et al, sitting in their offices, thinking *Well we’ve finally got all these Negroes and Greasers under control, and….”

    Uh-oh. And from England. Who saw that coming!

    If the Beatles saved us from THAT (and I think the accelerated an ongoing process as opposed to making it happen out of thin air but that argument will always go on), then, of course, they can never possibly be thanked enough!

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