Brow Beat

The Beatles’ Greatest Buzzer-Beater

The Beatles performing onstage.
The Beatles perform their first concert outside of Britain, on Jan. 17, 1964, at the Olympia in Paris.
AFP/Getty Images

Also see our Magnum Photos gallery on the Beatles.

On this day in 1963, The Beatles released their first album, Please Please Me. (In honor of the anniversary, Slate is running a special Magnum gallery of the band.) Looking back from 2012, the rise of The Beatles may look inevitable—they were the greatest rock band of all time, after all—but their massive success depended on lucky breaks as well as talent. One fortunate occurrence: joining forces with the classical expertise of producer George Martin.

In recording Please Please Me, the band almost came up short of the kind of breakout they needed. While later, after they’d sold millions of records, they could take over Abbey Road Studios whenever they wanted, as unproven artists they had only a few hours to record. And so, at 10 p.m. on their last day of recording, with Lennon’s vocal cords hanging on by a thread, they still needed to lay down one more song. Ian MacDonald’s masterful Beatles history Revolution in the Head tells the story:

The Beatles had been recording for twelve hours and time was officially up. George Martin, though, needed one more number—something to send the album out with a bang. Accordingly he and his team retired with the group to the Abbey Road canteen for a last cup of coffee (or, in Lennon’s case, warm milk for his ragged throat). They knew what they had to do—the wildest thing in The Beatles’ act: “Twist and Shout,” their cover of a 1962 U.S. hit by black Cincinnati family act The Isley Brothers. An out-and-out screamer, it was always demanding. That night it was a very tall order indeed. Back in Studio 2, the group knew they had at most two chances to get this arduous song on tape before Lennon lost his voice. At around 10:30pm, with him stripped to the waist and others ‘hyping’ themselves by treating the control room staff as their audience, they went for it. The eruptive performance that ensued stunned the listening technicians and exhilarated the group (as can be heard in McCartney’s triumphant ‘Hey!’ at the end).

In those tamer times, MacDonald declares, “Nothing of this intensity had ever been recorded in a British pop studio.” They tried one more take, but Lennon’s voice couldn’t bear any more. You can hear the “Hey!” at the 2:32 mark:

These days we think of The Beatles as revolutionary for their songwriting and studio experimentation, but at the time their sheer skill as performers was the group’s biggest strength. They’d honed their craft in countless club appearances in Hamburg and at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, filling the bulk of their shows with an army of covers and extended solos.

After they nailed “Twist and Shout” at the last moment on their last day, a once skeptical George Martin could hardly believe it: “I don’t know how they do it … the longer we go on, the better they get!