As part of our series Blogging the Beatles, we’re 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.
50 years ago this month, the Beatles entered Abbey Road studios to begin a marathon session to record their first album, Please Please Me. We’ve already discussed some of the other recordings from the session. Below, MacDonald tells the thrilling story behind the final track they recorded, “Twist and Shout.” We quoted a portion of this section in a post about the anniversary last year; here’s the passage in full.
With “Baby It’s You” in the can, the clock in Studio 2 showed 10 p.m. 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 10:30 p.m., with him stripped to the waist and the 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). Trying for a second take, Lennon found he had nothing left and the session stopped there and then—but the atmosphere was still crackling. Nothing of this intensity had ever been recorded in a British pop studio.
As in their version of the Shirelles’ “Boys,” The Beatles’ arrangement of “Twist and Shout” makes the original bass line more explicit by formalizing it into a riff and doubling it with Harrison’s lead guitar. Starr’s tremendous hammering drums—his best playing on the album—are crucial to what is, in effect, a prototype of the heavy metal idiom, the group self-transformed into a great battering machine. On the Isley Brothers’ version, the bass is looser and the conception more spontaneously chaotic, with saxes and trumpets joining in on what is basically a party record with Latin overtones. Transposing the key down, Lennon moves away from the demented airborne shriek of Ronald Isley’s extraordinary performance towards something less sensual, more devilishly challenging. With his hoarse “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, baby, now!” he shrewdly adapts the song to a white female audience for whom such primal abandon was frenziedly thrilling in 1963.
Those who knew the group in their club days maintain that George Martin never captured their live sound. To the extent that this is true, it was largely due to the inability of contemporary British studios to cope with the bass amplitudes essential to rock-and-roll. On “Twist and Shout,” he goes some way to rectifying this by turning up the drums and pushing the gain to get more ambience, but even so the band’s authentic powerhouse sound, achieved through overdriving the Top Boost tone of their Vox AC30 amps, is only partly conveyed. Yet the result is remarkable for its time: raw to a degree unmatched by other white artists—and far too wild to be acceptable to the older generation. As such, it became a symbolic fixture of the group’s act during Beatlemania: the song where parents, however liberal, feared to tread.
Read more from Blogging the Beatles
The Beatles Bring Back Rock Rawness
The Forgotten Songwriter Who Inspired the Beatles
The Beatles Record Their Debut Album
The Beatles Are an Opening Band