Thursday, April 14, 2011

Not Now But Now: The Beatles: "Please Please Me"

"I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after."

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" Wallace Stevens

"So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP."

"Annus Mirabilis" Philip Larkin

"The men there all looked as though they distrusted him, and, as for the women, they were all intent on showing their contempt for this rather odd creature, but no one seemed quite sure how to do it...I knew I was taking on more than I was ever likely to be capable of bearing, but there never seemed to be any choice..."

"He thinks he's got a sort of genius for love and friendship - on his own terms. Well, for twenty years I'd lived a happy, uncomplicated life, and suddenly, this - this spiritual barbarian - throws down the gauntlet at me."

Look Back In Anger, John Osborne

The word novelty is used to connote things which are new at the time but then quickly wear off, to be remembered as a passing phase or craze but embarrassing and childish in retrospect. But novelty means new, and music doesn't move ahead without newness.

George Martin was in the business of taking what was most difficult - comedy - and somehow getting it committed to tape. Parlophone was the label for comedy at EMI, whether it was The Goons, Sellers & Loren or Bernard Cribbins; if you were at all strange or different, such as Mrs. Miller or Rolf Harris, this is where you ended up - being produced by a frank but polite man who knew how to get the best out of what could be best called a unique group of people.

And in come the newcomers to Parlophone - The Beatles.

The story of their first meeting is well-known, just as is the song Martin predicted would go to number one (it did, but not on the chart I'm following) is well known as the song that started Beatlemania, a song that had its roots in Orbison's longing and long vowels (sped up to Everly Brothers harmony-bearing levels) and the Bing Crosby line "Please lend a little ear to my pleas" which Lennon took and then altered in his own way. Martin didn't want a ballad*, hence it was sped up, but the lyrics didn't change and this is where the watershed is - though for the listening public, it was all in the alternately breezy and urgent playing and singing and above all eager noises emanating from their wireless that gave the impetus to lifelong loyalty.

And it could have been heard as a novelty, at the time; as something that would blaze up and die down in a matter of months; but enthusiasm like this cannot and does not fade away easily, zipping through the air like lightning and refreshing a rather parched public like nothing else. (That it was a hit once spring had finally arrived after a bleak winter is most fitting.) Indeed the public responded to this so strongly that I wonder if they ever stopped to notice what the lyrics were about (or to put it another way, how did this ever get on the BBC) is almost as much as what isn't being sung/said here as what is that counts, the desires and urges that have been denied or scheduled or just plain tucked away as wrong or bad or immoral are here, the urgent "Come on" calling forth not just those urges but seemingly the rest of the 60s to get on with it, it's not the 50s any more, happen already.

Where did this urgency come from? From the United States, of course! It is somewhat odd to realize this, but The Beatles were essentially making their own version of American music. Now, I know I should know better in this regard, that they had been churning out the US and UK chart hits for years on the club circuit, playing any number of favorites and songs they may not have liked but had to play in order to please the punters...but I can guess this was not the easiest or most pleasant of lives, and to sustain it and not get tired of the music is an achievement in and of itself; to take a girl group*** (The Shirelles) as an example of great songwriting (not forgetting Motown) and championing that sound and feel and putting their own particular stamp on that is, as Bob Dylan said in a different context, outrageous. No one in the UK could have done this, at this point**; written an original song that was utterly loyal to its American roots and yet not come off as a rip-off or lame imitation but be its own thing, quickly altering the direction of influence (once they reached the US in a year's time) and giddily asking for the audience's love and attention.

It could be that this song did so well because of the producer; because it was utterly new; in part because a laugh was hiding in the song as well as pleading eyes; but for whatever reason, music in the UK and thereafter the rest of the world would and did change. Just how much is to be shown by this blog, amongst so much other music writing, and when we return to them, it will be with something so different from this as to be from a whole other band altogether.

*At EMI George Martin was in competition with Cliff Richard & The Shadows producer Norrie Paramor and the last thing he wanted was something like what Paramor did (it is hard to imagine The Beatles doing a cover of "I'm Looking Out The Window", for example). The Beatles could have recorded a song they wrote but didn't think was quite for them ("How Do You Do It" which they gave to Gerry and the Pacemakers) for Martin instead - he thought it was much better than the "dreary" original version of this song - instead they worked on "Please Please Me" until Martin approved of it.

**I realize there are those who believe that if The Beatles hadn't come along then someone would have - The Man plc would have found some group that did the same thing - but as it stands there were no rivals and in many ways, if I may say so, the rivals they did have would not have gotten as far as they did without the example of The Beatles in the first place. The lyrics of this song matter not just because they suggest so many interpretations, but that they were written by the group and not a couple of people hunched over a piano somewhere (that said, The Beatles paid a great deal of attention to the Brill Building, of course)...

*** Between their love of girl groups and their long hair, The Beatles also bring in ye olde feminisation of rock, which is perhaps why this song only caught on in the US once the Beatles were not just heard but seen on tv; parents may have approved of them at first, but the moptops irked (and as I know from personal experience) continue to irk those who thought the tidy early 60s needed no change or improvement.