It’s only appropriate that the opening song of the Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me starts with an iconic moment. Paul McCartney’s lively count-in (“one, two, three, fahhh”) puts “I Saw Her Standing There” energetically into motion, and what follows are two-plus minutes of joyous pop electricity.
Several of the touchstones of early-period Beatles are at work: jaunty riffs, mid-song screams, high-pitched “woohs”, and, most delightfully, handclaps (all of which reappear with frenzied effect on the album closer, the untouchable “Twist and Shout”). Overall the songcraft is economized and straightforward, if not a bit underdeveloped. Paul’s bass line (which evidently came from a Chuck Berry song) tugs and struts along, and blends with John’s rhythm guitar rather seamlessly. Ringo offers a simple-sounding percussive shuffle while George’s guitar work, especially his erratic solo, reveals a incipient talent that still isn’t sure how to occupy all its space. Combined, it’s the sound of a spirited young band that wants to tweak and refine the templates of rock ‘n roll into something distinctly its own. Lyrically, Paul projects an innocence that isn’t surprising of early 60s pop. This was a period when, in song anyway, a mere exchange of glances could spawn love. As Paul sings, “Well she looked at me/ And I, I could see/ That before too long/ I’d fall in love with her”. How carefree and seemingly puritan. He even vows that this squeeze will be his one and only. Yet examine those lines once more. If you’re swooning over someone after only looking at him or her, the draw is purely physical. And I must confess that my instinctive response to the song’s introductory lines “Well she was just 17 / You know what I mean” is “No, Paul, I’m not quite sure what you mean”. It’s uncertain how cryptic and suggestive he’s aiming to be. Perhaps Paul was smuggling touches of sexuality into what seems like a sweet, if hasty, courtship. It’s also possible that the lines simply work as efficient pop couplets and are not intentionally fraught with matters between-the -sheets.
So the subtle intrigue of the lyric is amusing. But the rousing rock ‘n roll sounds are clearly the magnetic attraction of “I Saw Her Standing There."
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