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The Beatles Rise Up the Charts

As part of our new series Blogging the Beatles, we’ll be featuring occasional excerpts from Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, a thrilling song-by-song history of the Beatles’ records which Slate’s Stephen Metcalf has called “one of the best, if not the best, work of pop culture criticism I’ve ever read.” MacDonald was a British music critic; he died in 2003. In the passage below, he tells the unlikely story of the Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do,” which was rising up the charts 50 years ago this month.

Made up while ‘sagging off’ (playing truant) from the Liverpool Institute in 1958, “Love Me Do” was one of 16-year-old Paul McCartney’s earliest songs. Unsure of how to finish it, he showed it to his friend John Lennon, who may have contributed the rudimentary middle eight. The lyric is perfunctory and, where pop numbers of this period classically revolved around three common chords, “Love Me Do” mostly makes do with two (G and C). One of half a dozen songs rehearsed during the afternoon of Sept. 4, 1962 in Abbey Road’s Studio 3, “Love Me Do” had to wait on Parlophone’s preferred choice “How Do You Do It?” before being attempted by an understandably jittery group.* (Unused to headphones, they were stiff with nerves and took fifteen takes to get it right.) Both songs were considered for release as the Beatles’ debut single but, during the two hours it had taken to make, Martin had formed a hunch about “Love Me Do.” Its vernacular title, dockside harmonica, and open harmonies had a freshness that suited the group and seemed intriguingly hard to categorize. Texan singer Bruce Channel’s plaintive “Hey! Baby,” a hit in Britain that spring, had featured similar harmonica but, apart from that, nothing else on the market sounded anything like it.

There was still, though, something bothering him about “Love Me Do”: Starr’s drumming. (The legend is that he was unsteady, hurrying into the choruses.) According to Abbey Road’s general manager Ken Townsend, McCartney was as dissatisfied as George Martin with Starr’s approach, though when questioned by Mark Lewisohn 25 years later the song’s author put a different spin on it. Martin, he recalled, decided that “Love Me Do” needed remaking with a session drummer because Starr had failed to ‘lock in’ his bass-drum with the bass guitar. This convention of the polite studio style of the early ’60s was about to vanish under the impact of loose-swinging drummers like Starr and the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts (to reappear around 1980 under the automated auspices of the drum-machine). However in 1962 Starr’s virtue as an intuitive time-keeper had yet to be recognized and consequently the group trooped back into Studio 2 a week later to record “Love Me Do” all over again. Andy White, a regular player on EMI sessions, ‘sat in’ on drums while a disenchanted Starr tapped a superfluous reinforcement to the snare on tambourine. In the event, both versions of “Love Me Do” were issued: The first (mixed bottom-light to disguise Starr’s bass-drum) went out as the A-side of the Beatles’ first single; the second was issued on later versions of the single and as the opening track on Side 2 of the group’s debut album Please Please Me.

Written in what the group thought of as a ‘bluesy’ style, “Love Me Do” was extraordinarily raw by the standards of its time, standing out from the tame fare offered on the Light Programme and Radio Luxembourg like a bare brick wall in a suburban sitting-room. Indeed, next to the standard pop output then strolling blandly up and down the ‘hit-parade’ on Alan Freeman’s Pick of the Pops every Sunday, its modal gauntness seemed almost primitive. As such, the public were puzzled by it and sales were cautious. While the record’s erratic progress to its highest position at No. 17 in December was followed with excitement by Beatle fans in Liverpool, many thought it a poor advertisement for the energy the group generated live. Purists claimed, too, that the arrangement had been messed about with. George Martin had changed the solo vocal line crossing into the harmonica break, giving it to McCartney instead of Lennon on the grounds that, due to an overlap between the last word and the first harmonica note, the latter had been singing ‘Love me waahh!, which was deemed uncommercial. (According to McCartney, they hadn’t rehearsed with the harmonica and had to alter the arrangement on the spot under Martin’s direction.)

Simple as it is, “Love Me Do” was quite a cunning record, serving to introduce the Beatles to the English public in several ways at once. As rearranged under Martin’s direction, it offered two features for the leaders (Lennon’s harmonica riff, McCartney’s unaccompanied title-phrase) as well as its playground-appeal ‘hook’ (the drone harmonized ‘Ple-e-e-ease’) and a little character spot for Starr (his po-faced cymbal crash at the end of Lennon’s solo). Only Harrison stayed in the background, strumming diffidently. But the subtlest effect was the record’s air of unvarnished honesty. Though the stark, open-fifth vocal harmony was bathed in reverb, the rest of the production was startlingly ‘dry’ compared with the echo-saturated sound of UK pop during the preceding four years. The result was a candor which perfectly complemented the group’s forthright image, setting them apart from everything else on offer.

If one element of the record can be said to have counted above all others it was Lennon’s wailing harmonica. Played with passionate overblowing and no ‘bent’ notes, it had little in common with any of the American blues styles, instead suggesting to British audiences the blunt vitality of working-class Northernness as introduced around 1960 in the soundtracks to films like Room At The Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and A Taste Of Honey.

Many UK pop musicians have since recalled sensing something epochal in “Love Me Do” when it first appeared. Crude as it was compared to the Beatles’ later achievements, it blew a stimulating autumn breeze through an enervated pop scene, heralding a change in the tone of post-war British life matched by the contemporary appearances of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, and BBC TV’s live satirical program That Was The Week That Was. From now on, social influence in Britain was to swing away from the old class-based order of deference to ‘elders and betters’ and succumb to the frank and fearless energy of ‘the younger generation.’ The first faint chime of a revolutionary bell, “Love Me Do” represented far more than the sum of its simple parts. A new spirit was abroad: artless yet unabashed—and awed by nothing.

* The first time the Beatles recorded the song, it hadn’t gone so well. While its fresh sound caused the ears of the Parlophone Records crew to perk up, it would take something more to convince producer George Martin. As MacDonald tells it, after Martin picked apart everything that had been wrong with their performance, he asked them if there was anything they didn’t like. “Well, for a start,” George Harrison said, “I don’t like your tie.” The Beatles persisted in comedy mode for the next 20 minutes, leaving the Parlophone team “literally crying with laughter, a factor which, more than anything else, seems to have induced Martin to sign the group.”

Excerpt courtesy of Chicago Review Press and IPG.

Previously in Blogging the Beatles
The Beatles Record Their First No. 1