Monday, May 23, 2011

Michael 5000 vs. The Beatles: "Please Please Me"

So here’s the backstory, as I understand it and without any especial research into the matter, in full confidence that BeatleHeads will jump right in to correct any errors or heresy: The four young dudes from Liverpool had been working like mules on their rock music act, putting in their famous “hard days’ nights” in dodgy nightclubs around England and Germany. Suddenly, they had a few successful radio singles, and it was clear to all concerned that a full-length album would be a highly lucrative commercial proposition. The boys were then herded eagerly into a studio, and recorded the cream of their standard live set over the course of a single long day’s day. John Lennon happened to have a bad cold, giving his voice a ragged quality; it’s interesting to speculate how much influence that cold may have had on the subsequent future of rock vocal stylings.

Key Points:

→ The album represents a dizzying blend of five hyperfamiliar tracks and nine that were completely new-to-me.

→ Singing! The Please Please Me Beatles are, whatever else they might be, a pop vocal quartet. And they’re great! The most remarkable musical feature on this set of songs is the seamless vocal harmonies.

→ I’ve been curious to assess Mike Doughty’s assertion of Paul McCartney’s awesomeness as a bass player. It’s sound. Early 60’s mastering leaves the bass line sounding rather thin by our standards, but McCartney has a subtle touch, keeping a strong but subtle pulse snaking around underneath.

→ Is Ringo the weak link? Nah. He’s not Keith Moon, but he’s a rock on this recording, and belts out a solid working man’s vocal on “Boys,” the best of the lesser-known tracks and possibly my favorite song on the album.

The Beatles Came Along, and Everything Changed?

Certainly not yet. On PPM, the Beatles show more interest in and influence of a wide variety of sources than anything revolutionary of their own. The much-discussed interest in American blues music is apparent, but it doesn’t dominate a sound shaped by the traditions of vocal quartet music, a mildly electrified version of the Folk Revival, and straight up 50s-era pop. The biggest surprise in this opening salvo by the Fab Four isn’t how much they pave new directions, it’s how often they sound like a scruffy version of the Kingston Trio. Well, except without the lyrical sophistication, for this is an album of juvenile and unimaginative little poems about “love,” as love is conceptualized by fifteen year olds. Well, that’s no crime, or if it is it’s a crime still being committed by 4/5ths of the musical acts going.

The Songs

1. "I Saw Her Standing There" -- A vigorous countoff, still sounding like the height of cool nearly a half-century later, is a hell of a way to kick off a recording career. An awesome hyperfamiliar rocker with all four lads performing quite nicely.
Theme: Boy Meets Girl.
Awkward Moment: Utterance of the phrase “She was just 17, if you know what I mean” is considered near-actionable in our in some ways more prurient age.

2. "Misery" -- Likeable but tepid midtempo number. It’s marred slightly by the sudden appearance of a strident piano riff -- the only place on the album, I believe, where the band goes beyond its basic instrumentation.
Theme: Boy Loses Girl
Awkward Moment: “I’ve lost her now for sho. I won’t see her no mo. It’s gonna be a drag.”

3. “Anna (Go to Him)" -- Not a Beatles-written song, it’s a bit of 50s fluff built around a nice little guitar riff.
Theme: Boy, his ass dumped, gives Girl permission to move on.
Awkward Moments: Dude, she clearly didn’t need your permission. Also, the lyrics.

4. "Chains" -- Also not a Beatles song, this may be the Beatles’ most wholehearted excursion into country and western.
Theme: Boy can’t love Girl because he’s chained by love. Wait, what?
Awkward Moment: This song makes no sense whatsever.

5. "Boys" -- A lovely hard rocker, with Ringo belting it out over harmonies laid down by the three stronger singers, this is the heaviest and most prescient track on the album. Led Zeppelin and the Mamas and the Papas can both be heard waiting in the wings.
Theme: Talkin’ ‘bout Boys
Awkward Moment: “Bundle of joy”

6. "Ask Me Why" -- Back to the Beatles’ own writing for a piece of vaguely Latin fluff featuring Lennon’s beautiful tenor voice. You can totally tell he has a sore throat.
Theme: I’m so totally in love baby!
Awkward Moment: “I love you ‘cause you tell me things I want to know.”

7. “Please Please Me” -- Hyperfamiliar but very satisfying, with some of the richest harmonic singing on the album.
Theme: If I’m not mistaken, this song is a plea for parity in the granting of sexual favors.
Awkward Moment: None.

8. "Love Me Do" -- Hyperfamiliar midtempo tune with, again, nice harmony and lead vocals and some serviceable harmonica playin’.
Theme: Boy desires love from Girl, or someone like her.
Awkward Moment: Chicks hate it when you admit that “someone like you” would do.

9. "P.S. I Love You" -- Vaguely smarmy filler song that must felt kind of dated even in 1963.
Theme: Boy writes letter to Girl.
Awkward Moment: “P.S. I Love You.”

10. "Baby It's You" -- A non-Beatles song with a “Sha-la-la-la” chorus dealie.
Theme: Boy expresses willingness to remain with Girl despite her dodgy reputation.
Awkward Moment: “Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!”

11. "Do You Want to Know a Secret" -- A fun and very familiar mid-tempo number, with a slightly off-kilter melody sung beautifully by Harrison.
Theme: Boy loves Girl.
Awkward Moment: A weak intro and an even weaker bridge, apparently tacked on to try to get the song to two minutes. It falls three seconds short.

12. "A Taste of Honey" -- A godawful piece of faux-Spanish exotica. Mrs.5000 claims that this song appeared on every schmaltzy pop album of the late 1950s, and was likely forced on the Beatles by greedy capitalist overlords.
Theme: Boy likes kissing.
Awkward Moment: in toto.  It's fun in Finnish, though.

13. "There's a Place" -- A nice uptempo rocker returns things to listenability. Check out the harmonizing on “don’t you know that it’s so.” The lyrical high point of the album, for what it’s worth.
Theme: Boy finds solace in introspection. And thinking about Girl.
Awkward Moment: none.

14. "Twist and Shout" -- Like “Louie Louie” or “La Bamba” except with arguably different words. We all enjoy this song, of course. If you prick us, do we not bleed?
Theme: Twist! And Shout!
Awkward Moment: Turns out it’s not a Beatles-written song.


Aviatrix said...

I encountered Beatles references twice today. Once was terrible artwork on a musical tunnel-of-love house-of-mirrors fairground ride, where slightly Asian versions of the Beatles, Pink, Keith Richards, Oasis, Janet Jackson, Elvis and other performers were painted on the outside of the attraction. The second time was when someone compared the look of a group of llamas, shorn except for the tops of their heads, to the Beatles.

Jenners said...

I am just going to LOVE this series of posts. I can't wait for the next one. You should like an authoritative music dude!! And this phase of their career is my least favorite and one that I usually skip over entirely.

Eric said...

Well-written. I'm looking forward to the rest of the albums.