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It Was 60 Years Ago Today, Side One: Beatles

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.

— George Harrison

Earl Fowler

Time was when time made sense. You get a little older with the passage of, you know, and the whole concept starts to look mind-bendingly sketchy.

For instance, using the James Webb Space Telescope, scientists have bagged light from four galaxies that travelled 13.4 billion light years en route to triggering photoreceptors in their retinas, thereby sending electrical signals through their optic nerves to their brains. Thereby triggering elated astronomers to tell us all about it.

That means:

a) We’re seeing 13.4 billion years into the past, a mere 350 million years after the Big Bang is believed to have created the universe, including all the elements of the periodic table, the New Coke and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

b) Star and galaxy formation must have started much earlier than previously believed, which might offer a fresh glimmer of insight into just what happened to the faces of Jennifer Gray, Renée Zellweger and Lil’ Kim.

c) Neither our solar system nor Keith Richards, thought to have formed about 4.5 billion years ago when a dense cloud of dust, gas, tie-dye headband and Naugahyde collapsed in on itself, had come into existence for the first nine billion years or so that the light we’re now registering was hustling toward the Webb at a warp speed of 186,000 miles a second.

We’re picking up old vibrations.

How about something a little more hip and Groove W contemporary? Well, try this one on for size:

Temporally speaking, we are closer to the reign of the Tyrannosaurus rex in the late Cretaceous Era, 68-66 million years ago, than the predatory theropod was to the long-extinct heavily plated stegosaurs that spent their days placidly munching vegetation during the Upper Jurassic, 155 to 145 million years ago.

For that matter, we’re more proximate in time to Cleopatra (69-30 BCE) than she was to the ancient Egyptians who built the first pyramids, dating back beyond 2600 BCE.

Which — bringing it all back home — leads us to 1903.

How well I remember those heady salad days: Edward VII was declared Emperor of India (Queen Victoria had died two years before). Cuba leased Guantánamo Bay to the U.S. “in perpetuity.” (No one foresaw how that cosy little beachfront rental would work out.) The Ford Motor Company and Harley-Davidson, Inc. both got off the ground. So did the Wright Flyer, in which Orville Wright gasped at an aerial view of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Now skip ahead 60 years to 1963, which stands out above all for a Nov. 23 assassination in Dallas seared into the brains of anyone old enough to remember where they were upon learning the news.

The year 1963 was also noteworthy for the monumental release of a couple of LPs that helped launch the Sixties Cultural Revolution: Please Please Me by the Beatles on March 22 and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on May 27, a scant two months later.

LPs? In the unlikely event that anyone younger than 50 is reading this, may I suggest consulting dear old Nana for the vinyl analysis?

And for those of us who bought the original albums (or the confusing iterations of Please Please Me butchered by Capitol Records on this side of the pond), once more with reeling:

Think of it. 1963 is the halfway point between where we are now and the flipping Wright brothers. In 1903, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were both newborns. The outbreak of the First World War was still 11 years down the road to absolute madness and the nightmare from which the 20th century never recovered.

Bummer, man. Time out of mind.

But back to March 1963. In fact, let’s rewind the reel-to-reel a little further to Oct. 5, 1962, when EMI Records’ Parlophone label released the Beatles’ first record, a 45 coupling of “Love Me Do” on the A-side and “P.S. I Love You” on the B.

(For you youngsters in the audience, as Ed Sullivan used to say, a 45 was neither a handgun nor a brand of piss-tasting lager from Pabst. If Nana’s resting and not available for an explanation, try Sock Hop Tuesday at the nearest community senior centre. Best arrive early before the hard-candy bowl is empty and the gals with cataracts are busy applying bright red lipstick to their canines and incisors.)

We are stardust. We are golden agers. And we’ve got to make our way back to the washroom.

(Oh, and Ed Sullivan? He was sort of like Jimmy Fallon for dead people, only with more bite to his unintended comedic gestures. Think the Cardiff Giant or one of those carved, angular eyeless Easter Island moai ... or maybe Ted Cruz, minus the natural warmth.)

I keep getting distracted. It happens at this age. But there are three things to remember about that 1962 Beatles 45, recorded on Sept. 11 (not always a red-letter day, it turned out) at EMI’s Number 2 studio in London:

a) “Fifth Beatle” George Martin, on the verge of becoming the world’s most famous record producer, hated it, did nothing to promote it and expected it to tank.

b) No one seems quite sure why — it might have been a careless mistake — but the version of “Love Me Do” on the record features Ringo Starr on drums rather than session man Andy White, whom Martin and his assistant, Ron Richards, had brought in as a replacement because they didn’t think Ringo was up to snuff.

Ringo took the demotion badly, as Mark Lewisohn notes in Tune In: The Beatles All These Years, the first volume (and the only one published so far; Lewisohn will soon be 65 so I’m starting to get worried) of what was optimistically conceived as a definitive three-volume history of the band: “(Ringo) would never forgive nor forget, and pinpointed George Martin as the cause of his misery. ‘I was devastated (Martin) had his doubts about me … I hated the bugger for years.’ ”

c) The popularity of the record far exceeded anyone’s expectations. Beatles press officer Tony Barrow, who wrote the liner notes that appeared on the back of their early LP album covers, picks up the story on his original cover notes for Please Please Me:

Eighteen months before their first visit to the EMI studios in London, The Beatles had been voted Merseyside’s favourite outfit and it was inevitable that their first Parlophone record, LOVE ME DO, would go straight into the top of Liverpool’s local hit parade. The group’s chances of national chart entry seemed much more remote. No other team had joined the best-sellers via a debut disc. But The Beatles were history makers from the start and LOVE ME DO sold enough copies during its first 48 hours in the shops to send it soaring into the national charts.

In all the busy years since pop singles first shrank from ten to seven inches I have never seen a British group leap to the forefront of the scene with such speed and energy. Within the six months which followed the Top Twenty appearance of LOVE ME DO, almost every leading deejay and musical journalist in the country began to shout the praises of The Beatles. Readers of the New Musical Express voted the boys into a surprisingly high place via the 1962/63 popularity poll … on the strength of just one record release.

Pictures of the group spread themselves across the front pages of three national music papers. People inside and outside the record industry expressed tremendous interest in the new vocal and instrumental sound which The Beatles had introduced. Brian Matthew (who has since brought The Beatles to many millions of viewers and listeners in his “Thank Your Lucky Stars”, “Saturday Club” and “Easy Beat” programmes) describes the quartet as visually and musically the most exiting and accomplished group to emerge since The Shadows.

High praise indeed in 1963, given that the Shadows — an instrumental rock group whose No. 1 hits in Britain included such live classics as “Apache”, “Kon-Tiki”, “Foot Tapper” and “Dance On!” — remain the fifth all-time most successful act on the U.K. Singles Chart, behind only Elvis, the Beatles, Cliff Richard (whom the Shadows backed from 1958-68) and Madonna.

Barrow, who coined the phrase “Fab Four” in an early press release, then ventures to offer a cautious prognostication:

Disc reviewing, like disc producing, teaches one to be wary about making long-term predictions. The hit parade isn’t always dominated by the most worthy performances of the day so it is no good assuming that versatility counts for everything.

It was during the recording of a Radio Luxembourg programme in the EMI Friday Spectacular series that I was finally convinced that The Beatles were about to enjoy the type of top-flight national fame which I had always believed that they deserved. The teen-audience didn’t know the evening’s line-up of artists and groups in advance, and before Muriel Young brought on The Beatles she began to read out their Christian names. She got as far as John … Paul … and the rest of her introduction was buried in a mighty barrage of very genuine applause. I cannot think of more than one other group — British or American — which would be so readily identified and welcomed by the announcement of two Christian names. To me, this was the ultimate proof that The Beatles (and not just one or two of their hit records) had arrived at the uncommon peak-popularity point reserved for discdom’s privileged few.

Shortly afterwards The Beatles proved their pop power when they bypassed the lower segments of the hit parade to scuttle straight into the nation’s Top Ten with their second single, PLEASE PLEASE ME.

This brisk-selling disc went on to overtake all rivals when it bounced into the coveted Number One slot towards the end of February. Just over four months after the release of their very first record The Beatles had become triumphant chart-toppers!

Producer George Martin has never had any headaches over choice of songs for The Beatles. Their own built-in tunesmith team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney has already tucked away enough self-penned numbers to maintain a steady output of all-original singles from now until 1975! Between them The Beatles adopt a do-it-yourself approach from the very beginning. They write their own lyrics, designed and eventually build their own instrumental backdrops and work out their own vocal arrangements. Their music is wild, pungent, hard-hitting, uninhibited … and personal. The do-it-yourself angle ensures complete originality at all stages of the process. Although so many people suggest (without closer definition) that The Beatles have a trans-Atlantic style, their only real influence has been from the unique brand of Rhythm and Blues folk music which abounds on Merseyside and which The Beatles themselves have helped to pioneer since their formation in 1960.

This record comprised eight Lennon-McCartney compositions in addition to six other numbers which have become firm live-performance favourites in The Beatles varied repertoire.

The group’s admiration for the work of The Shirelles is demonstrated by the inclusion of BABY IT’S YOU (John taking the lead vocal with George and Paul supplying the harmony), and BOYS (a fast rocker which allows drummer Ringo to make his first recorded appearance as a vocalist). ANNA, ASK ME WHY and TWIST AND SHOUT also feature stand-out solo performances from John, whilst DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET hands the audio spotlight to George. MISERY may sound as though it is a self-duet produced by the fine matching of two voices belonging to John and Paul. There is only one ‘trick duet’ and that is on A TASTE OF HONEY featuring a dual-voiced Paul, John and Paul get together on THERE’S A PLACE and I SAW HER STANDING THERE: George joins them for CHAINS, LOVE ME DO and PLEASE PLEASE ME.

If you’re a bit of a Beatle wonk like I am, you will have noted that the version of “Love Me Do” on the album is different from the one on the earlier 45. The LP cut features “proper pro drummer” White on drums. Ringo was reduced to vigorously shaking a tambourine, which you don’t hear on the 45. It’s harder to tell, but that’s also White on the drums for “P.S. I Love You,” giving the song a corny “cha cha” ambience. Poor Ringo was stuck shaking the maracas, like a sulky kid in a Grade 2 music class.

The 10 songs on the LP that weren’t on the group’s first two 45s were recorded in just 10 hours on Feb. 11, 1963, with Martin adding overdubs to “Misery” and “Baby It’s You” nine days later. The songs not written by Lennon and McCartney — credited to McCartney-Lennon on my Please Please Me CD — were covers of a few favourites from the group’s stage repertoire.

“Chains” was written by the husband-and-wife songwriting power duo of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. “Twist and Shout” by Phil Medley and Bert Berns (later credited as Bert Russell). “Baby It’s You” was by Burt Bacharach (music), Mack David (lyrics) and producer Luther Dixon (credited as Barney Williams). Mack David was the big brother of Hal, who later teamed with Bacharach to create some songs you might recognize.

Barrow adds some helpful historical context:

Please Please Me was released into a pop music market that was still in its infancy. In March, 1963, “music for teenagers” revolved around the single and many of the American rock’n’roll artists loved by The Beatles found little success in an LP chart dominated by sophisticated singers, easy listening instrumentals and musicals of stage and screen. The achievements of The Beatles would soon reverse that trend by vividly demonstrating the artistic, and commercial, potential of a pop album aimed at young record buyers.

In 1963, however, the first Beatles album on EMI’s Parlophone label was intended as no more than a quickly produced audio snapshot of a group enjoying its first taste of chart success. …

The gathering momentum of The Beatles during 1963 proved unstoppable. George Martin’s decision to sign the group to Parlophone in 1962 and EMI’s small gamble to fund an album had both paid off handsomely. Please Please Me topped the U.K. album chart at the same time that their third single “From Me To You” was at number one and only surrendered that position thirty weeks later to the second LP With The Beatles. It continued its run in the Top Twenty for a further nine months.

Which bring us to the confusing tangle of early Beatles recordings on this side of the Atlantic. I had never been able to sort it out, but Barrow — who died at 80 in 2016 — again rides in to the rescue:

In this era, local hits for British artists rarely translated to American chart success and, not unusually, EMI’s company in the States — Capitol Records — did not release either the album or “From Me To You.” Instead, the material was licensed to the independent R&B label Vee-Jay, who issued (the songs) “Please Please Me” and “From Me To You” in 1963. Although both singles failed to make any impact, an album was planned for the summer to include twelve of the Please Please Me songs.

Called Introducing The Beatles, the Vee-Jay LP eventually surfaced when the States fell under the Beatles’ spell in January 1964. It reached number two, held off the top by the group’s first Capitol album, Meet The Beatles! The tracks licensed by Vee-Jay returned to their rightful home at Capitol in October 1964 and eleven of them were shuffled into a different order for the album The Early Beatles released in March, 1965.

Simply through its initial British chart success, Please Please Me had given EMI an unparalleled return on their investment in studio time. It was The Beatles’ fifth single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and their second album, With The Beatles, which sparked the explosive international success that changed everything.”

Got that? Things get even murkier in the Canadian market.

Capitol’s Canadian division did issue a Beatles LP in 1963 — on Nov. 25, two days after JFK’s assassination. It was called Beatlemania! With the Beatles, and I remember proudly paying $4.20 for it at the Hudson’s Bay store in Saskatoon the following spring. It was the first LP I ever bought with my own money, amassed in 25-cent weekly allowance instalments.

Funny thing is, Beatlemania! doesn’t have a single song in common with Please Please Me. It’s superficially the equivalent of Meet The Beatles! in the U.S., and features the same iconic Robert Freeman cover (also used in the U.K. for the album With the Beatles): that black-and-white photo in which the faces of the Liverpool lads are half in the shade. Unlike the American LP, though, Beatlemania! doesn’t include the hits “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “I Saw Her Standing There” or “This Boy,” but does feature several songs not on Meet The Beatles!: “Please Mister Postman”, "Roll over Beethoven”, “You Really Gotta Hold on Me”, “Devil in Her Heart” and “Money.”

So far as the contents go, the Capitol Records of Canada album that most resembles Please Please Me was Twist and Shout, released Feb. 3, 1964, six days before the group’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Seen by a then-record of 73 million viewers, that gig is remembered by many as the cultural watershed that launched the British Invasion and sparked a revolution in American pop music, hairstyles, fashions, cultural mores, the works.

By the time the snow had melted that spring, two friends and I had fashioned guitars out of cardboard and were amusing the neighbourhood by strumming along to Beatlemania! and Twist and Shout in my backyard as loud as my mono, long-play 33 1/3 phonograph would play them, which wasn’t going to deafen anyone in spite what my dad thought. (Mono? Phonograph? 33 1/3? They were the auditory equivalent of milk chutes, saddle shoes and sundials, my blue-eyed son. Thou dost realize that I’m etching this onto stone tablets with a quill pen tipped in charcoal, oryx fat and chimney soot?)

Twist and Shout includes “From Me to You” and the mega-hit “She Loves You,” two significant upgrades from Please Please Me. A notable exclusion: “I Saw Her Standing There,” which didn’t appear on a Canadian album until the release of Long Tall Sally on April 27, 1964.

Long Tall Sally had the same cover as The Beatles’ Second Album in the States, but a significantly different lineup of songs. Rushing to cash in on the unprecedented popularity of the band, Capitol released movie soundtrack album A Hard Day’s Night two months later, on June 26, and Something New, which wasn’t all that new given that it reprised many of the songs on A Hard Day’s Night, on July 20. Something New does, however, spotlight “Komm, Gib Mir Dene Hand,” in which the Hamburg-schooled lads deliver a particularly spirited version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in German.

If you have a 1964 Capitol Canada 45 of “Komm, Gib Mir Dene Hand” and “Sie Liebt Dich” (She Loves You) hiding away in a box behind the furnace, by the way, you’re sitting on a goldmine. I just noticed a few for sale on the internet in the $700 range. Buggered if I know where mine went. Blutige Hölle!

My allowance pittance was funnelled into one more Beatles album before the end of the year: Beatles ’65, which came out on Dec. 15 in both the U.S. and Canada, just in time for Christmas 1964. It includes eight of the 14 songs from the U.K. album Beatles for Sale while adding both sides of one of my favourite 45s of all time, “I Feel Fine” and “She’s a Woman,” but enough with the inside Beatles baseball.

I did manage to resist the two-album cash grab issued on the first anniversary of the JFK shooting: The Beatles’ Story, a self-described “Narrative and Musical Biography of Beatlemania.” Even as a pretty hard-core apple scruff, I’ve never regretted my parsimony on that one. Except as an investment.

There is, however, one Columbia Records LP I dearly wish I’d purchased after its release in May of ’63, one that quickly became a sensation on college campuses, but that my friends and I were nowhere near capable of appreciating at age nine: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Now we’re 68 but we say we’re 24.

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