Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part One)

It was supposed to be a live album.  They were going to play a gig at The Cavern Club, George Martin was going to record it, they’d pick the best tracks to use and that would constitute their debut.  But when Martin went to investigate the venue in December 1962, he realized that the acoustics were really bad.  Time was also an issue.  There wasn’t a lot of it to waste on unproven ambition.  It turns out that there was no foreseeable way to make the concept work. 
Instead, Please Please Me, The Beatles’ 32 minute and 31 second full-length introduction, was recorded in one day in what is now known as Abbey Road Studios (back then, it was EMI Studios).  The new idea was to present material the band had been playing live in a studio setting.  There weren’t enough strong originals to fill out an entire LP so the band decided to include six covers, establishing a formula that would continue for two of the next three releases.
The album gets off to a roaring start with I Saw Her Standing There.  How could you possibly improve the opening verse?  (“Well she was just 17/And you know what I mean/And the way she looked was way beyond compare/So how could I dance with another…/When I saw her standing there”)  There’s another nice moment when Paul McCartney acknowledges his own nervousness in approaching this mysterious girl.  (“Well, my heart went boom/when I crossed that room”)  The rest of the lyrics involve the quick maturation of the new couple’s feelings as they dance the night away in each other’s arms.  In less than 3 minutes, The Beatles immediately establish themselves with this solid opening number.
Next up is another good original entitled Misery.  When The Beatles weren’t writing songs about being happily faithful to their special ladies who (mostly) returned the favour, they were bemoaning the single life without them.  Instead of singing about the joys of being care-free bachelors, they were pining for their exes.  It’s not quite clear why things didn’t work out for John Lennon in Misery.  All he knows is that, much to his surprise, he’s a weepy mess since his girl left him.  Reflecting upon the good times they shared (“I’ll remember all the little things we’ve done”) doesn’t help matters.  He wants her back and will remain unhappy until she does.  George Martin’s quick little piano flourishes are a welcome addition to this typically tight little number.
The band then offer three straight covers, all well executed.  Fans of Married…With Children will remember the episode where shoe salesman Al Bundy is confounded by three notes from a song whose title he can’t remember.  All he has to go on is “hmm hmm him”.  He’s thinking of Anna (Go To Him) by Arthur Alexander.  Lennon seizes the vocal reins for The Beatles’ take which makes sense.  In fact, he could’ve easily written these lyrics himself.  The background vocal harmonies by McCartney and Harrison could’ve been a little stronger but that’s a minor complaint.  Alexander’s short story about a woman’s desire to break up with her boyfriend, a terminal loser in love, to be with another guy is easily relatable. 
Chains, written by Carole King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin for Little Eva’s backing vocalists, The Cookies, is one of two tracks that feature Harrison on lead vocals.  His slightly gritty take convincingly conveys the lyrical dilemma of a guy stuck in a bad relationship hoping to break free to start a potentially better one.  Basically, it’s a pitiless Anna (Go To Him) with the roles reversed and the situation unresolved.  One of many early Beatles’ cuts that feature John Lennon’s harmonica.
Boys, originally by The Shirelles, is Ringo Starr’s sole vocal showcase and it’s a good one, too.  However, it’s quite clear that the song should’ve been retitled Girls.  Hearing Ringo singing about how his own gender is “a bundle of joy” is unintentionally eyebrow raising.  American female vocal groups were a huge influence on the early Beatles’ music, as evidenced by this rocking cover.
Two more originals take us to the halfway point of the album.  Ask Me Why spins a tale about an inexperienced guy so overcome with emotion about his first love he wants to make it clear that those are tears of joy in his eyes, not sadness.  Featuring a touching vocal performance by Lennon (who’s unafraid to show vulnerability in a higher register), it’s quite a lovely ballad.  Simple yet personal.  The title song’s cheery disposition belies the growing tension between a guy and his girl regarding their problematic sex life.  (I like how Harrison’s guitar and Lennon’s harmonica are playing the exact same riff at the start, a cool idea that’s repeated near the end.)  He’s aggravated by her lack of enthusiasm (“I know you never even tried, girl”) and continually urges her to get down to business.  Essentially, he believes she’s getting more out of the bedroom than he is.  The absence of mutual pleasure is a persistent sticking point.  There’s a nice middle eight section where Lennon sings about how “there’s always rain in my heart” and how frustrated he is with his lover’s stubborn demeanour (“It’s so hard to reason/With you”).  The fact that all of this is covered in just under two minutes is quite remarkable.  The song says a lot without even coming remotely close to being explicit.  Nifty.
A needless re-recording of their first single, Love Me Do, and its original B-Side, P.S. I Love You soon follow.  Neither song will ever be considered inspiring but their craftmanship (particularly Lennon’s mouth harp solo on the former) and their overall cheerfulness easily make them lifelong guilty pleasures.  The latter track is one of many early cuts that involve writing love letters to girlfriends during trips abroad.  McCartney’s vocals are as warm and reassuring as the melody.
Another Shirelles cover, Baby It’s You, allows Lennon another opportunity to plead for the return of a special someone.  Nice backing vocals here.  A Taste Of Honey is another balladic detour with McCartney taking the lead.  Originally the instrumental title track of a late ’50s Broadway show, it was later re-recorded with lyrics by Lenny Welch.  Gently moving (Ringo puts down the sticks and picks up the brushes for this one while Harrison open-picks his six-string), it’s a good thing McCartney is singing up front instead of Lennon.  The latter sounds less than enthused doing back-up with Harrison.  Putting echo on McCartney’s vocals during the two “I will return” sections gives the song a ghostly quality that nicely emphasizes the long distance romance conveyed in the lyrics.
When you think about it, Do You Want To Know A Secret? doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  Why would George Harrison make that declaration at the top about his crush never knowing how he really feels and then proceed to tell her how he really feels?  Did he change his mind in a split second?  Also, why does the romance need to be kept secret between the two of them?  Is he not single?  What about her?  Clearly not one of the best Lennon/McCartney collaborations, it nonetheless remains engaging because of its hooky melody and Harrison’s fine vocals.  Despite its lack of logic, you can’t help but sing along.  Who wouldn’t want to whisper these lyrics to someone attractive?
Please Please Me ends with one last original and a memorable cover.  There’s A Place features Lennon and McCartney nicely harmonizing about finding solace in one’s own thoughts, particularly when they relate to a special someone.  The harmonica is the lead instrument here and it’s ably backed by guitar, bass and drums.  The band’s version of Twist & Shout (modelled after The Isley Brothers’ cover of The Top Notes’ original) features John Lennon at his rawest.  You can literally hear his vocal cords disintegrating as the song progresses.  Essentially a cheap knock-off of The Twist, in the hands of The Beatles, however, it has become one of their best loved songs.  It doesn’t take a genius to see why.  The energy is high and even today, it’s very much a pleasing yet raucous dance anthem.  No wonder Ferris Bueller wanted to mime to it during that parade.
Early pressings are enhanced with a three-minute mini documentary that features commentary from each band member as well as producer George Martin about the making of the album.  (You need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime to view it on your computer.  Check the back cover for complete details.)  Before getting into its contents, though, a couple of technical things need to be mentioned.  First, it’s best to let the documentary play through once without sound.  If you listen during the first runthrough you’ll get quite annoyed.  The sound isn’t smooth and sometimes the picture freezes before skipping ahead on its own.  From the second viewing on, there are no audio glitches.  However, the audio is never in sync with the video.  As you watch the band perform, it’s painfully clear that the video is either ahead or behind the audio. 
Second, you can watch the doc in a tiny window or click “Resize” to see it in full screen.  (Press escape to go back.)  Besides a link to The Beatles’ official website, a shot of the album cover and a very long credit roll, there’s not much else to peruse.  (By the way, this is the standard set-up for 13 of these reissues.)
As for the documentary itself, if you’ve seen The Beatles On Record, a 2009 program that aired in Canada on MuchMoreMusic and Bravo, this footage will be very familiar to you.  Still, it’s interesting to hear Ringo talking about musicians willing to sell their souls to get their music released on vinyl (a huge deal for the truly ambitious and hungry), John Lennon noting how much the band learned musically from George Martin in the studio and vice versa, and Paul McCartney mentioning how Lennon had to suck on throat lozanges all day to preserve his vocals for Twist & Shout, the last song recorded for the album during its day-long session.  You also get to momentarily eavesdrop on the between-recordings chatter.
The liner notes feature a good number of black and white photos from the era including an August 1962 Cavern Club still that shows Ringo’s Premier drum kit (he would later switch to Ludwig).  There’s another rehearsal shot from the same month where the band are not wearing their suits, one of the last times the Hamburg, Germany leather jacket look was photographed before their plunge into the madness of fame.  Tony Barrow’s original essay, which is just a tad over-the-top at times, is here along with historical information about the album’s production and its chart success in Britain.  Near the end of the Recording Notes section, you learn that Love Me Do and P.S. I Love You are mono recordings.  Everything else is in stereo.  Much of the information gathered here has already been made available previously in countless books and website articles but newbies will devour every word.
2009 extras aside, the real draw is the music which has been lovingly remastered here.  It’s not too loud nor is it too soft.  Please Please Me isn’t a great album by any stretch, but few debut releases are as compelling as this.  If you don’t have the original 1987 CD, pick this one up.  Otherwise, don’t trade up.  Only hardcore audiophiles will care about the remastering differences.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, February 1, 2010
3:16 p.m. 
Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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