Thursday, October 30, 2008

"Love Me Do"

For a debut single, especially from a band of wide-eyed and excitable young rock ‘n' rollers, “Love Me Do” feels like a curious selection. It’s a decidedly mid-tempo and almost drifting amble that showcases patience far more than promptness. The Beatles don’t achieve any sort of boisterous rush within its running time and clearly didn’t intend to. The lyric, which simplifies the pursuit of love down to a mere request, seems underdeveloped and repetitious even by the standards of early ‘60s pop. As Steve Turner points out in A Hard Day’s Write, the word “love” makes over 20 appearances (it’s noted that Paul began writing this when he was just 16 or 17 years old. Even so….). And the song’s focal point, not to mention its most effective asset, is John’s performance on the harmonica, which provides well-measured texture throughout the chorus and verses, a quirky solo that memorably stands in for what might have been a guitar part, and, of course, the fluttering, blues-thick intro. Evidently the harmonica section helped convince George Martin of “Love Me Do’s” potential as a single. He had originally wanted to release the Fab Four’s cover of “How Do You Do It?” (as he would again the next time around before agreeing to “Please Please Me”). It’s a testament to the Beatles’ underlying ingenuity and Martin’s solid pop instincts that they arrived at this oddball-ish tune for the group’s historic entry onto the radio waves. It peaked at #17 on the UK Singles Chart in late 1962.

However, listening to the song in 2008, I’m not certain that it’s among the Beatles’ imperishable classics. It strikes me as overvalued even if not unreasonably so. On Please Please Me alone, I think “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Twist and Shout”, and the title track belong in the first tier of quality, with “Love Me Do” atop the second. Maybe it’s the modern urge for easy climaxes and quick gratification that prevents this inhibited and leisurely paced number from fully satisfying (my ears, anyway). Maybe my sensibilities are more at fault than the song’s casual way about things. Undoubtedly, “Love Me Do” is a charming song with skillful components and passages: the aching unison that Paul and John strike on “Ple-ee-ee-eeease” right before the chorus, Paul’s at times expertly tempered vocal, and the thumpy rhythm that naturally incorporates Ringo’s tambourine hits (Andy White played percussion on the UK album version, which I’ve used for my commentary here). But, overall, it seems slightly less than the sum of its parts and, in my view, lacks the spark to have been fast-tracked for the Beatles’ canon.

(If the embedding is disabled, go here).

Quote from George Martin

The fifth Beatle on the Fab Four's je ne sais quoi: "But what impressed me most was their personalities. Sparks flew off them when you talked to them". (Thanks again, Wikipedia.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

X-rated take on "How Do You Do It?"

After endorsing the strongly sexualized view of "Please Please Me," it might be grasping if I would attempt a similar treatment of "How Do You Do It?." It's a fair criticism, primarily because there isn't a credible case to be argued. Yet it's at least noteworthy that one of the songs which could have replaced "Please Please Me" as the Beatles' second single contains lines that can easily call to mind the matter of sexual reciprocation (just as "P.P.M" did).

The two chorus-type verses of “How Do You Do It” go as follows:

"How do you do
What you do to me?
I wish I knew,
If I knew how you do it to me
I'd do it to you.

How do you do
What you do to me?
I'm feeling blue,
Wish I knew how you do it to me
But I haven't a clue."

There's a healthy amount of "do(ing) it" taking place here. Alas, just one of the participants possesses the practiced know-how. The other can only fawn over such expertise. But enough of the overkill analysis. It's apparent (especially considering The Beatles' remarks on the subject) that "Please Please Me" is much more convincingly preoccupied with physical satisfaction than is "How Do You Do It?." The tone of the latter is one of almost eager curiosity. The singer might actually want to know how his counterpart does it (as in, how does she keep me so interested or emotionally invested?). Absent is any of the swelling carnal frustration which greatly enlivens "Please Please Me." And, besides, there's nothing (I know of, anyway) in the written record from Mitch Murray, the song's creator, or any critics and experts about “How Do You Do It?” as a Trojan horse for sexual innuendo.

But even so, the not entirely negligible overlap between each song's lyrical phrasing does at least rise to the level of intriguing.

Here's the rest of the lyric.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Important tid-bits to know

One who comes from America = an American.
One who comes from Liverpool= a Liverpudlian.

The term strikes me as even more fictional than Lilliputian. I suppose it's not difficult to grasp why The Beatles were rarely, if ever, described as the greatest and most famous Liverpudlian band in the world. They would've sounded like a fantastical, floating circus act.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Several versions of "How Do You Do It?"

Here's the Beatles' version of "How Do You Do It?" (1962), which George Martin was hoping they would agree to release first as their debut single and then, once that fell through, as the follow-up to "Love Me Do." As mentioned in my last post, the second attempt failed as well. Even so, it's apparent that Martin possessed sturdy instincts for chart-toppers. In the Beatles' handling, "How Do You Do It?" is a sporty and efficient earworm with winning harmonies and a pleasant melody. It's lightweight for sure, but in a likeably breezy way. Though, at the risk of overly harping on an unpolished 19 year-old guitarist, I must point out that George's solo once again sounds slapdash and unnecessary (it's always instructive to bear their youth in mind when assessing their early work). Regardless, I don't doubt that the Beatles would've found success in the song's release.

Gerry and the Pacemakers actually did issue it as a single and, with Martin as their producer, earned a number-one on the UK Singles Chart in early 1963 (need I repeat that Martin had an ear for effective pop). Their rendition isn't considerably different than the Beatles' but there are noteworthy disparities. Though unharmonized, Gerry Mardsen's lead vocal is more jaunty and expressive than John's thinner piece of singing. And, in place of a guitar, one of the (I suppose) Pacemakers performed the solo on a piano which proves more richly rocking and full-bodied than George's guitarwork. But both are entirely worthwhile listens. According to Wikipedia, the song's popularity persists to this day. Enjoy.

And why not? Here's a spirited live performance of the song from G and the Ps. The band is terrific. The crowd? Unmoved; elsewhere, nonplussed?

Update: The second video has been removed. If either of the other two is, go here and here, respectively.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Please Please Me"

“If they had wanted to, they could have found plenty of double meanings in our early work. How about ‘I’ll Keep You Satisfied’ or ‘Please Please Me’? Everything has a double meaning if you look for it long enough.” – Paul McCartney

It’s amusing to consider the harmless sources of inspiration behind “Please Please Me”. As John Lennon was writing what would become the Beatles’ second single, he was working off a Bing Crosby tune from the early 1930s and imagining soulful crooner Roy Orbison on vocals. As a result, “Please Please Me” was a more downcast and sonically tempered song in its earliest forms. Not ideal material for the follow-up to “Love Me Do”. George Martin was pushing for the Beatles’ cover of “How Do You Do It”, written by Mitch Murray, to claim that designation. But to their credit, the young foursome wanted their own songs to be released. Martin later relented and, after treating it to a dramatic studio revamp, which included a harmonica section, beefed-up vocals, and a faster tempo, the Beatles issued “Please Please Me” as their second single. Far from John’s formerly heartsick, bluesy conception, it emerged as an invigorating and sexually charged rush of a pop song.

I haven’t read anywhere that John greatly adjusted the lyric of “Please Please Me” between its initial and final versions. This is noteworthy because it’s hard to imagine that the song could come off as so subversively salacious (by 1963 standards, anyway) in its early Orbison-styled form. Without the fleet pace and bracing harmonica parts, what would have created the brisk energy that so vigorously animates the song’s sexual subtext? Without the call-and-response “come ons” and their tone of escalating frustration, how might John have sounded so desperate for fleshy satisfaction? Overall, the studio changes would seem to have transformed “Please Please Me” into a song whose needs were urgently of the moment.

The lyric of course remains the primary reason that, for instance, Robert Christgau once described “Please Please Me” as about oral sex. The chorus speaks for itself: “Please please me oh yeah/ Like I please you”. To “please” someone strongly suggests an action taking place. In this case, an action has been performed and the performer is seeking reciprocation. The same is true of “You don’t need me to show the way love” or “I do all the pleasin’ with you”. These lines again indicate physical activity much more than any sort of non-carnal exchange of affection. The rousing “come ons”, echoed back and forth between John and the supporting vocals of Paul and George, also factor in heavily. They prompt the question: would John really be shouting “come on” in an effort to elicit greater emotional attention from his significant other? It sounds strange to ask “Oh, come on, why won’t you love me more?” The pettiness implied in that phrase better suits a request for a sexual favor. And, finally, it doesn’t require much gutter imagination to interpret the line “Why do you make me blue?” in a bawdy manner.

In the end, “Please Please Me” is entertaining as a call for equality between-the-sheets but more gratifying as a pure pop pleasure. It’s just over two minutes of impassioned vocals, meaty guitarwork, and shifty percussion, with a bit of scandal to boot.

(If the embedding is disabled, go here).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Significance of song placement and order

I wouldn't want to fetishize the notion of the Beatles' immense contribution to pop music and cast everything genius and ingenious about them as proof-positive of their sui generis status. But it's hard to resist the temptation at times.

Consider something as seemingly commonplace and rote as song order. In pop's early years, when most artists (or their handlers anyway) viewed albums as little more than vehicles for potential hit singles, there wasn't much of a focus on arriving at a balanced distribution of quality or a nimble song-to-song flow over the space of a 12 or 14 track record. The strongest and most bankable material was to occupy the lead positions on each side while many of the remaining songs simply served as filler. It was the practice of the day.

Not so for the Beatles, even on their debut in 1963. Please Please Me contains 14 songs, thus 7 to a side. But on the final spot of the A-side (hardly a flattering placement by the standards of the time) is the rousing title track which, possibly outside of "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist and Shout," is the album's most insistently catchy and radio-ready entry. I should also point out that the other two songs I mention actually bookend Please Please Me, translating into a further dispersion of the highlights.

The Beatles then were of the view that an album could and, perhaps, should function as a unit of front-to-back strength and quality. This was their aim even if it was far from easily achievable.

P.S. Commentary on "Please Please Me" will arrive soon.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Clarification on "Ask Me Why"

In my previous post, I discussed the superb bridge on "Ask Me Why" and noted that, on the first section of each couplet, it seemed that either John's vocal was doubled or Paul's unison part blended in almost without a trace. On a separate website that runs these commentaries, one person took up this specific point and commented that "A Taste Of Honey" is the only entry on Please Please Me that features a "'trick duet.'" This term denotes a vocal that was recorded twice by the same person, but sounds as if two voices were at work. Thus, John and Paul were in fact singing in flawless unison on the part mentioned above.

It wasn't until 1967 that the more advanced and convenient technique for doubling, ADT (Automatic Double Tracking), was available to the Beatles. Here's an excerpt from the Revolver page on Wikipedia which explains the matter further:

“A key production technique used for the first time on this album was automatic double tracking (ADT), invented by EMI engineer Ken Townsend on 6 April 1966. This technique used two linked tape recorders to automatically create a doubled vocal track. The standard method was to double the vocal by singing the same piece twice onto a multitrack tape, a task Lennon particularly disliked. The Beatles were reportedly delighted with the invention, and used it extensively on Revolver. ADT quickly became a standard pop production technique, and led to related developments, including the artificial chorus effect.”

Friday, October 10, 2008

"Ask Me Why"

“Ask Me Why” was one of four songs that the Beatles played at Abbey Road Studios during their first recording session on June 6, 1962. Afterward, George Martin judged that this abundantly tender song wasn’t best suited for the Beatles’ debut single. That distinction would fall on “Love Me Do”, which is more instantly appealing and pop-wise than “Ask Me Why”. Conversely, the latter is a contained and low-impact affair that draws strength from the intricacy of its vocal arrangements.

On first contact, “Ask Me Why” comes off as little more than an earnest and submissive proclamation of love. Backed by an unassuming interaction of light guitar jangles, ticking percussion, and a lead guitar part lifted from a Miracles song, John Lennon, on vocals, anxiously plays the fool for his dearest: “Now you’re mine/ My happiness still makes me cry”. Why the tears, John? “It’s not because I’m sad/ But you’re the only love that I’ve ever had”. Evidently, he’s fallen hard for this girl. The one line that doesn’t seem vividly in sync with the lyric’s feverish tone is the opener – “I love you/ ‘Cause you tell me things I want to know” – which, far from being an indifferent sentiment, is just clumsily romantic. Otherwise, it’s all over-the-moon devotion. As if to reinforce the song’s intent, John and Paul even wrote its second half as a mere reprise of the first, only without one of the verses and plus an additional chorus.

What elevates the lyric above maudlin fluff is the vibrancy of its actual expression, mainly undertaken by John and Paul. Indeed, the technical prowess and invention of its vocal patterns, which also borrowed from the work of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, keep “Ask Me Why” crisp and pleasantly buoyant.

It breaks down this way. The opening verse begins (I believe) with John, Paul, and George all in unison: “I love youuuu”. I’m not sure who sings exactly what, but at the end of “you”, both a straight “uuuu” and a “wu-wu-wu” are held out concurrently. Then, after John performs the verse’s next line by himself and a similar unison part follows, he does a different and longer section (“That I-I-I-I….”), flanked by “oooos” from Paul and George. Within just that half-minute, the vocals have already nimbly shifted here and there. Next comes another verse, succeeded by an exquisitely subtle bridge. On the first line – “I can’t believe” –, John’s part is either doubled or Paul sings unison and blends in seamlessly. From there to the end of the bridge, the pair fade in and out of harmony, with Paul performing a series of “spot” harmonies: first on “it’s happened to me”, then on “of anymore”, and finally on “misery” (the latter two are in succession but Paul seems to alter his vocal between them, which makes for distinct parts). The “spot” harmony was, in fact, one of the significant innovations that the Beatles brought to pop music. Lastly, the chorus features a unison vocal on “Ask me why” and, again, a couple of lines from John paired with backup “oooos.”

Beyond the draw of its changing patterns, what’s so rewarding and almost endearing about the vocal proficiency of “Ask Me Why” is how it exists in such small moments. Looking at the bigger picture, isn’t it remarkable to consider that part of the Beatles’ historic stamp on the pop world could unveil itself in the singing of just one word, like “misery”?

(If the embedding is disabled, go here).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ringo, you can drive your car.

A momentous anniversary is upon us. On Oct. 8 1964, a bit more than 24 years after he was born and on the same month and day that would later witness the capture of "Che" Guevara in Bolivia and the birth of Matt Damon, the great Ringo Starr, whose ingenuity as a percussionist would too often play second or third banana to the skills of the other Beatles and who has seemed to navigate the pitfalls of celebrity so sanely and in good humor, yes that Ringo Starr on this day 44 years ago passed! his! driving! test! Congrats, brother.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Inspired by The Beatles

I'm going to start doing occasional posts focused on songs that strongly bear the Beatles' influence. They're great in number and many are superb tunes in their own right. They don't need to be directly linked to one specific song (like the Vines' "Factory" which strongly smacks of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" by way of Nirvana on a mediocre day). Some might be more traceable to an era of the Beatles or a certain album. "White Album pop" isn't an atypical phrase to come across in a music review (though one must ask how it's possible to isolate the essence of that wild madhouse of a record). Others might seem inspired by one of the Beatles in particular (Paul with his whimsical and often precious style that John derided as "granny-music" or George with his Eastern-influenced work, etc, etc). As is obvious, the Beatles cast an immensely large shadow over all of pop music.

The first entry is Franz Ferdinand's "Eleanor Put Your Boots On" from their excellent 2005 album You Could Have It So Much Better. It's a lilting, winsome, and lightly melancholic ballad that is Paul McCartney through and through. And I promise that the connection is not so spurious as to be based solely on the fact that Macca wrote "Eleanor Rigby."

Enjoy Franz. They rule.

(If the embedding is disabled, go here).

Friday, October 3, 2008


Paul McCartney has fondly remarked on the innocence of the Beatles’ early years, a time when they could perform a song that seemed keen on members of the male sex and not, as a result, inspire widespread idle chatter. The song, “Boys”, was in fact a noted crowd-pleaser and, judging by the glow of joy that their recorded version emits, also a favorite of the Beatles themselves.

Written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell, “Boys” is a busy and rhythmically perky rock tune that features Ringo’s debut as a lead vocalist. Ringo isn’t a natural, polished singer but neither is he entirely dismissible. His technical limitations can serve the purposes of the right material, like on self-mocking songs such as “Act Naturally” and “With a Little Help from My Friends”. On “Boys”, his shouty vocal style brings a spark to the already jaunty song while the accompanying screams, “bop-shuops”, and “yeah yeah boys” from John, Paul, and George make for a boisterous back-up section. The call-and-response dynamic is infectiously spirited. Ringo even delivers a shout-out to a fellow Beatle – “Alright, George” – before the latter proceeds into a guitar solo (which, like his composition on “I Saw Her Standing There”, is strangely patchy and untuneful. I have negligible knowledge of the early history of pop guitar solos. I can’t comment with authority on why George’s guitar-work, circa 1962-1963, might be the way it is beyond the fact of his very unfinished maturation as a musician. Even so, I don’t feel I’m terribly amiss in regarding those two solos as mis-hits).

In adapting the lyric from a female group (the Shirelles, of whom John was a big fan), to four males, the Beatles changed the verses so that, when Ringo alludes to intimacy with his significant other, he sings of kissing “her lips”. Within those lines, a girl is clearly the object of his affection. But the chorus remains unaltered (based on what I’ve read; I couldn’t find the original lyrics), meaning that what follows the claim of a heterosexual relationship are apparent exclamations to the contrary – “Well I talk about boys/Don’t you know I mean boys…/What a bundle of joy”. The effect, from the perspective of a listener, is a confusion of orientations. First Ringo mentions his girl but later he’s convincingly enthusiastic about the subject of boys. Even the song’s opening line is curious in a way. Ringo sings, “I been told when a boy kiss a girl/Take a trip around the world”, almost suggesting that he himself wasn’t practiced at kissing a woman. Perhaps he didn’t want to be. Thus, Ringo had to learn the ins and outs through someone else’s expertise.

It’s hard to resist this sort of line-by-line, innuendo-seeking analysis even when it’s obviously overkill. According to their testimonies, the Beatles didn’t harbor any scandalous intentions with “Boys”. The gay connotations of their cover were just incidental to the song’s addictively exuberant quality that attracted them in the first place.

(If the embedding is disabled, go here).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Cookies' "Chains"

(If the video is removed, go here; if it's taken off of YouTube entirely, my apologies).