The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘The Last Song Nearly Killed Me’

Posted on | March 22, 2018 | Comments Off on ‘The Last Song Nearly Killed Me’


On this date in 1963, the Beatles released their first album, Please Please Me, an event memorialized by the poet Philip Larkin:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

The story of how that LP was recorded in a single 10-hour session is told in a fascinating article by Jordan Rutagh. The Beatles had already released two 45-rpm singles — “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me” — which along with their B-sides (“Ask Me Why” and “P.S. I Love You”) gave them four songs already recorded. A 33-rpm vinyl album in those days typically featured 14 songs (seven on each side), so after “Please Please Me” went to No. 1 on the British charts and their label wanted to capitalize on this success by rushing an LP onto the market, the group needed to add 10 more songs to make the required total. The Liverpool-based quartet arrived at EMI’s London studio on the morning of Feb. 11, 1963, and by 10:45 a.m., the tape machine was rolling.

If you are familiar with the album, you know that there are really only three good songs on it. The title track was a sexual double-entendre, a plea for reciprocation the matter of what was then euphemistically called “heavy petting,” written cleverly enough that the censors couldn’t suppress it, but everybody knew why teenage girls went wild for it.

When the frenzy known as “Beatlemania” took hold in England that year, one newspaper assigned its classical music critic to analyze the group’s oeuvre. He obliged with a review that described the pentatonic structure of “Please Please Me,” and reading that review was the first time the song’s composers ever saw the word “pentatonic.”

It is often wrongly claimed that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were self-taught prodigies. In fact, Lennon as a boy had sung in the local Anglican church choir, and McCartney had been taught the basics of piano and trumpet by his father, who’d played in jazz bands. However, as songwriters, they’d mainly learned by imitating what they heard on their favorite rock, pop and country records. With no formal lessons in music theory, Lennon and McCartney lacked the vocabulary that permitted the highbrow critic to name such a thing as a pentatonic scale, but simply wrote and sang what they liked — and they did OK.

“Please Please Me” sounds incredibly corny and simple to us now, but in 1963 it was ground-breaking and innovative, a fresh new sound that was much different from anything previously heard in pop music. The Beatles’ producer, George Martin, was a classically-trained musician who had never recorded a rock band, but the way he mixed their sound made the drums cut through with tremendous clarity. It was Martin’s production skill that gave such emphasis to the beat in the Beatles.

For rock music fans, however, the title track is arguably only the third-best song on the Please Please Me album. It is eclipsed by the manic energy of “I Saw Her Standing There.” With McCartney on lead vocals, and playing a bass riff lifted from an old Chuck Berry tune, “I Saw Her Standing There” just flat-out rocks. Jordan Rutagh explains that the famous count-off at the start of the track — “One, two, three, FAW!” — was actually recorded on the ninth take. The first take ended up on the album, but Martin had them keep trying for a better version, which never worked out. After the band halted midway through the eighth take because Ringo had flubbed a drum part, Paul was becoming irritated. So he put some of his irritated energy into the count-off of the next take. Martin liked that so much, he spliced it onto the start of take one.

The process of repeated retakes and overdubs rapidly chewed up the studio time allotted to the Beatles’ sessions that day, and the band actually worked through their lunch break, rehearsing in an effort to get their sound together. To make matters more difficult, Lennon was suffering with a head cold that day and kept gobbling throat lozenges to prevent his voice from shutting down completely. By the time they finished recording their next-to-last tune of the day (the Burt Bacharach ballad “Baby It’s You”), it was 10 p.m., everybody was dead tired, and there was some question as to whether Lennon’s voice could hold up through their last number, a cover of a minor hit by the Isley Brothers. They had to get it right in one take and, wow, what a take it was!

Every after more than half a century, the savage intensity of “Twist and Shout” is still exciting. The simple three-chord riff (the same used in the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and Richie Valens’ “La Bamba”) isn’t anything special, and the Isley Brothers’ version had only reached No. 17 on the U.S. charts in 1962. Compare that version to what the Beatles recorded in 1963, and the difference is remarkable, mainly because of the raw sound of Lennon’s voice. “The last song nearly killed me,” he later said of that late-night session, but what an incredible sound!

It’s one of the greatest rock-and-roll records of all time. Later that year, the Beatles were invited to headline the Royal Command Performance, with Queen Elizabeth in attendance. They played three songs, and then Lennon made a joke: “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” Of course, it was “Twist and Shout.”


(Hat-tip: Ed Driscoll at Instapundit.)



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