I fell in love with The Beatles when I was eight. I found my parents’ tape of The Beatles Ballads (cover art by the late, great Alan Aldridge), and that was pretty much it. Embarrassingly, the clincher was ’Till there was you, a number they pilfered from the musical The Music Man. Hardly the rockingest number, even for a compilation of ballads, but an earworm none the less1.
The Beatles have been a cultural institution for half a century now, so much so that it’s easy to forget they started out like everyone else; young, hungry and hopeful. That’s why I like those early albums so much. Please Please Me and With The Beatles aren’t as awe-inspring as their later work, but it seems a shame that they seem to be dismissed as sub-par by many. (Granted, 1964’s Beatles for sale is a weary-sounding album, but they’d been run like dogs at that point.)
In the Anthology show, Paul McCartney says something like “at the end of the day, we were a great little rock band”, and while you should take Sir Macca’s self-deprecation with a pinch of salt, it’s true. They were good: on Please Please Me they only needed a few takes for each song; some of the recordings are even done in one take. Nor is there much studio trickery: those harmonies are recorded live on the spot. This was obviously the norm, but still: Please Please Me sounds like the work of a tight, road-hardened band who also know this, most probably, is their last shot at the big time.
It’s also difficult to hear where their songs end and the covers begin: their songcraft was already pretty much equal to that of their peers, and they they make the covers their own. The albums sound coherent, of one piece. No wonder they became bigger than Jesus.
1 I remain convinced that most of the people who claim to have had their minds blown by Tomorrow Never Knows when they were ten are, in fact, full of it.