RIP George Martin. Possibly the best producer in music history. We are all poorer now.
OLD REVIEW DUMP #2: THE SQEAKUAL (3/7)
For the longest time I thought this review was a slog. I still liked the album fine, but the monotonous sound bleed into my now much-less-colorful descriptions, as well as taking up the fair-but-restrictive “don’t criticize the writing in a cover” mantle.
Okay, fair enough. The review is pretty vague, as I wasn’t used to talking about sound in terms of pure playing ability…you can blame Floyd for that one. Still, this review was an essential step in that direction, and it’s simplicity means the filler is minimal. I continue relentlessly stereotyping each of the Beatles according to their one-note public images, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon because A. it’s a useful organization tool and B. it’s fun. I understand why some people might see it as lazy, and that’s…because it is. Sorry.
Here it is, in all its miiisssery…
Well, my heart went boom
When I crossed that room
And I held her hand in mine
Whoa, we danced through the night
And we held each other tight
And before too long I fell in love with her
Now I’ll never dance with another
Since I saw her standing there
-I Saw Her Standing There
Let me tell you a story about some guys from Liverpool.
They played constantly in the place they were employed, wrote simple songs for the purpose of memorization, got picked up by one George Martin (sadly not the Song of Ice and Fire guy), and made their own album, which consisted of six covers and a staggering EIGHT original compositions! It’s hard to understand now, but for 1962, and especially for a new and unestablished band, that’s an impressive amount of artist-produced material. So what did these guys have to offer? More than most people will tell you, it turns out.
Please Please Me is usually ranked as the “worst” Beatles album, or at least as low as being a Beatles album will allow. This is understandable, but I think it gives off the impression that it isn’t worth exploring today, which is completely untrue, for at least two reasons:
REASON ONE: This is one of the most important albums of all time. Not only does the legacy of the Beatles begin here (which is of an epic scope in and of itself) but also the driving force of album-based music. It also revitalized rock in a way that almost every musician of today owes some debt to. Even if it didn’t hold up very well, Please Please Me would still be an album worth owning for historical importance alone.
REASON TWO: The album is still fun bubblegum today, with tons of catchy pop melodies and entertaining musicianship. It’s not a huge, self-conscious deal like Sergeant Pepper or Abbey Road, but the album as a whole still holds up very well. This isn’t in spite of its lightness and exuberance, but because of it.
So let’s get this party started! “I Saw Her Standing There” is a really fun way to kick off the album, with an infectious melody and great energy. Like a lot of songs on the album, it’s very basic, but its shallowness means nothing gets in the way of the fun. I mean come on, just listen to Paul’s vocals. How can you not want to party with this guy?
Oh, hi “Misery.” What the crap are you doing here?
Yeah, in this fun album that perfectly exemplifies all the best parts of 60s pop, the next song is literally called “Misery.” Tonal shift aside, it’s a good song. Paul claims that it was a pretty even Lennon-McCartney collaboration, but this song’s fluctuation between self-pity and genuine emotion feels distinctly John to me. To be fair, John was the weak link the in the writing team at this point, because it’s obvious despite his youth and energy, he wasn’t really in his element with the lovey-dovey stuff. Thankfully, the writing in the song came out just fine, occasionally feeling whiny, but in an amusing, self-aware way. Hey, maybe the Fab Four DID have some nuance! This song is nothing short of an underrated classic.
The first cover is “Anna (Go to Him)” by Arthur Alexander and…wow. It’s depressing, mature, catchy, and falls squarely in John’s range. A very well picked cover, elevated by some fun backing vocals and John’s delivery.
The next cover, “Chains” by The Cookies, brings the fun back. The melody is really bouncy and definitely headbop-worthy, the lyrics are amusing, and George gets his first vocal performance, which suits the song well.
Then Ringo gets his first lead vocals with “Boys” by The Shirelles and…enh. The doo-wop vocals are fun, and Ringo acquits himself well, but the song just feels really generic and clumsy, especially lyrically. Its cardinal sin is that it’s just not that much fun. Come on Ringo, you’re the KING of fun! Such a shame.
You remember what I said about how Lennon couldn’t really do lovey-dovey stuff? Some people like to contradict this with “Come on, in the Fab Four era they were all young and romantically focused! John only got weird later on.” Counterpoint: “Ask Me Why.” Clichés, lack of energy, and generally clumsy writing. Lack of fun once again kills the song, making it the worst on the album. Hey, you know what would make a GOOD John Lennon love song? One where he’s dissatisfied with the relationship, is obviously invested and honest but also vulnerable, and where the music is still allowed to be catchy and upbeat. Wouldn’t that be great?
Oh wait, that perfectly describes the title track, doesn’t it? “Please Please Me” closes out side one, and it more than compensates for the last two disappointments. The fun has returned, the vocals are enthusiastic, and generally it’s just a perfect singalong. I told you these guys could do it! This is the best song on the album, and it’s not even Paul’s, whoda thought?
Side two opens with “Love Me Do”, The Beatle’s first single. It’s kind of amazing how much comes back to this one song: The Beatle’s legacy and all that entails, the era of LP driven rock, 60s pop, the revival of various 50s trends…and it’s a repetitive glob of nothing written by Paul when he was 16. Yeah, it’s not horrible, but it suffers from a complete lack of…anything. It’s a catchy little ditty, but that’s pretty much it.
“PS I Love You” is a much better showcase of Paul’s abilities. It’s still simple, but uses its simplicity to convey genuine emotion. It’s also quite pretty, while still having a lot of singalong fun. This is basically the proto “From Me to You.”
Speaking of “From Me to You”; Please Please Me is all well and good and everything, but it’s overly simple, and its simplicity is largely the result of constraint and an emphasis on playing live. If you want to see what the Fab Four could REALLY do, you need to check out the singles from this period. “From Me to You”, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” are all-time classics, boasting gorgeous melodies, singalong vocals, and genuinely sweet lyrics. I won’t discuss them any further because I’m supposed to be reviewing Please Please Me, but rest assured, they’re some of the best pop songs of all time, and three of my favorite love songs for sure.
The next cover is “Baby It’s You”, by Burt Bacharach, Mack David, and Barney Williams. It isn’t all that remarkable, but it’s a nice slow dance. John does surprisingly well here, and the backing vocals remain one of the consistent highlights of the album.
“Do You Want To Know a Secret?” is another John song, sung by George and…uggh, sorry John, I love you, but you just weren’t good at this stuff. This song is a slog, only slightly better than “Ask Me Why” because George seems more comfortable with this material then John.
“A Taste of Honey”, by Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow, is the perfect Paul song that Paul never wrote. He is clearly in heaven belting out something like this, and it’s a joy to listen to. It’s more pretty then fun, but who said that was a criticism? This is my favorite cover on the album.
A similar feel is found in Paul’s own “There’s a Place”, where he and John play off each other wonderfully. The writing also feels very personal and genuine, because of course it does, this is Paul’s territory. This song is another underrated classic.
The album closes with The Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout”, which is just as fun if not more so then “I Saw Her Standing There.” John really goes all out with the vocals, elevating an already irresistible melody. It’s still very simple, but it’s the best kind of simple.
And that’s the beginning of modern music. It’s unassuming, it’s simplistic, it’s sweet, and it’s charming. Basically, it’s great pop, with very few duds. The only thing that holds it back is that it’s clear that they didn’t have a lot of time to throw it together. Thankfully, once they jumped deeper into the album world, they got even more clever and proficient. Even though it’s overshadowed by most of their discography, it’s still a must-own, even if only for completions’ sake. And come on, everyone needs to listen to “Please Please Me” or “Twist and Shout” every once in a while.
Listenability: 5/5 It’s fun, it’s witty, and it’s charming. Even the duds aren’t too unpleasant. The infectious vocals and playing ability greatly add to this.
Themes: 2/5 So yeah, it’s all about love. A worthy subject to be sure…but it’s still all about love. Thankfully, there’s a bit of exploration of the different facets, but not much.
Lyricism: 3/5 There’s some cleverness and honestly (mostly from Paul) but it’s all a bit too cliché-reliant for the most part (looking at you, John).
Diversity: 3/5 See “themes.” Thankfully, the music is never samey, just similar-sounding.
Resonance: 4/5 Sincerity is actually pretty prevalent. Paul is mostly to thank for this. Thanks, Paul!
FINAL RATING: 7/10 Perfectly enjoyable singalong pop, even if it’s eclipsed by the group’s later achievements.
Recommended Listening: Please Please Me, Twist and Shout, A Taste of Honey, PS I Love You, There’s A Place, Misery, I Saw Her Standing There, Anna (Go to Him)