>Sometime around Christmas, I discovered a great band.
They’re talented multi-instrumentalists. They’re razor-sharp live. Every album–from the infectious energy of their debut to the maturity and pure sonic grandeur of their last–entertains, moves, and challenges the listener. With each new release, they grow exponentially as songwriters and innovators. And the songs! They reinvent the pop-song wheel over and over again.
The name of the band is The Beatles, and they’re pretty great.
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Of course, this isn’t news: everyone knows the Beatles, and (seemingly) everyone loves them. I’ve known the Beatles since I was about five minutes old. They highlight all of my earliest music memories: Mom played their records (yes, records) around the house, played their tapes (yes, tapes) in the car, sang uninhibitedly to “Eight Days a Week,” etc. When I was five, my brother and I gave a concert (with Fisher Price instruments), and “performed” our favorite Beatles tunes. We called it “The Futuristic Beatles” (actual showbill to the right). The torch was passed.
Sometimes, when you know and love a band for that long, you take them for granted. For several years, I stopped actively listening to the Beatles. I thought I’d heard all there was to hear; no surprises, no new thrills. To a degree, that’s what pop culture periodically does with its icons: takes greatness for granted, confines it to the past. There’s nothing new to hear, nothing fresh to say, nothing that speaks to the present.
But sometime around Christmas, something happened to me. Maybe it was the non-stop Beatles-on-iTunes commercials. Maybe it was good sense getting the better of me. Maybe it was just the right time and right place. I don’t know. But I heard my favorite band again for the first time, as fresh and vital and exciting as ever, as relevant in 2011 as 1967, their influence inescapable on the charts and on the TV and on the nearest stage.
For the next nine weeks, I’m dedicating Song of the Week to a different tune from the Beatles catalog. Every Friday, I’ll pick one song off each album (in chronological order) and talk a little about it. The bad news: picking one song is really hard. The good news: I really can’t go wrong.
(Editor’s Note: Right about now, Superfans are noting that the Beatles, in fact, had more than nine albums. For mostly arbitrary reasons, I’m skipping Beatles For Sale and Magical Mystery Tour.)
Hopefully, these SOW will give you something new to love about the Beatles, to hear them in the present as much as the past. If nothing else, it gives me a great excuse to listen to some beautiful music. Let’s kick things off with the Beatles debut album, Please Please Me.
Song of the Week, Beatles “Please Please Me” (off Please Please Me)
There is so much to love about this song. A few examples:
1) It’s a snapshot of just how strong a band they were at this stage–flawless performances and mature harmonies, all recorded live in the studio, single take, no overdubs. This style of recording–and the mastery it demands from the musicians–is something of a litmus test today. While most bands wouldn’t dream of recording an album live, it’s become a point of pride (and, really, trump card) for those who do. Most recently, Tom Petty’s latest album Mojo earned universal acclaim for its live, no-overdubs production and exceptional musicianship).
2) The escalating “come on’s” (starting at 0:21) that spill into each refrain are some of the Beatles’ most joyful and infectious moments caught on tape. You can hear how much fun they’re having winding up to each refrain. Also, that escalating pre-chorus becomes important songwriting device for them, possibly first learned from the “ahhh…Ahhh…AHHH” rave-up of “Twist and Shout.” They employ this to similar effect in future songs, perhaps most famously the “I can’t hide’s” that explode before each new verse of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
3) Strange but true: there was a time when the Beatles worried about being type-cast as “harmonica rock.” Originally a skiffle band (a movement in the 60’s that blended different British folk influences), the Beatles showed their roots on many early singles: harmonica takes the lead in “Love Me Do,” “Please, Please Me,” “I Should’ve Known Better” etc. Never ones to be pigeon-holed, they soon ditched the harp.
Beyond all these specific elements, the thing that stands out about “Please Please Me” today (and remains an underrated aspect of the Beatles’ legacy) is just how subversive it is. To put it delicately, “Please Please Me” is a song about, um, sexual reciprocation. Everything about it–from Lennon’s craven vocal delivery to the muscular, coaxing guitar fills to the climaxing “come-on’s”–screams sex. And it’s not enough that the song–released in 1963–is implicitly about sex. It’s about particularly taboo sex, especially when sung by–and for–teenagers, with no small amount of manipulation and pressure involved.
To hear “Please Please Me” is to hear the Beatles sneak one past the goalie. The song is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a bouncy, infectious tune that forces you to sing along with something deeper and more complicated. It’s John Lennon trusting his own talents to convey sexuality and insecurity through a clever conceit. It’s the Beatles trusting their audience to instinctively understand the song, even if they’re not thinking about the song.
And, of course, they were right: “Please Please Me” was the Beatles’ first #1 record.
The say-it-without-saying-it advent has become the blueprint for subsequent generations of pop stars and their sexually precocious hits. From Led Zeppelin to Britney (and everything in between), its influence is inescapable.
What do you think? What’s your favorite part of “Please Please Me”?
I’ll see you next Friday for Hard Day’s Night!