John, Paul, George, and Ringo
In New York City, 1964
Not just my thoughts, I discovered, but the thoughts of anyone with whom you endeavored to have any kind of Beatles-based talk. Parents, a music teacher, the glazed over, vaguely stoned high school freshman down the street who had suburban street cred on account of the fact that he said he liked the Doors. For instance, you thought the Beatles, naturally, must have had scads of albums, more than you could ever find the time to listen to properly.
“Dude, they have like 200 records,” the Doors kid would say. “A band like that was around forever.”
“200 records? No way.”
But then you realize that by 200 what is really meant is 13, more like 11 if you slice out Magical Mystery Tour, which was an E.P. in the UK, and an album in the States only because it was padded out with previously released singles, and the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, half of which was comprised of producer George Martin’s orchestral compositions. As for that “forever,” we’re talking more like seven years as a recording band. But again, we’re dealing in shady metrics, when it comes to quantity and time with this particular band, for whom shady metrics was a specialty.
The Beatles were a numbers band, with a knack for compacting time; that is, doing things in stretches of it that you wouldn’t think possible. People get a kick out of artists doing weird, paradoxical things with time that tends not to be done elsewhere. Or even dreamed of being done. There’s this additional element of thrill when you read the poems Keats wrote in 1819, when he knew — he must have, right? — that there was only so much sand left in the glass, and it was, as they say on the farm, nut cutting time. Ditto Mozart at just about any phase of his prime, or F. Scott Fitzgerald when he squirrelled himself away from Zelda, holed up over the garage, and began bashing out one short story after another, time being, if not of the essence, then at least strangely compacted.
When such a phenomenon occurs, we tend to focus on dates. Numbers lodge themselves in the brain, and sometimes we bring them to bear on what we’re reading, or listening to. Beatle people, for instance, naturally glom on to a page on the calendar like February 11, given that the Beatles tended to find themselves up to significant business on this date in the early portion of their career.
In 1964, February 11 saw them in Washington, D.C., making their first U.S. concert appearance, an absolute scorcher of a set — with the band having to pause to realign their equipment so they could turn and perform facing another section of the crowd — that gives the lie to the lazy notion that the Beatles were rubbish as in-concert performers.
I wonder though, when I listen to the bootleg of that gig, if anyone in the group gave any thought to the events that went down on that day the year before. For the people at Parlophone — the Beatles’ label — the events of February 11, 1963 were set up to be fairly typical. It almost feels fatuous to say that this year marks their 50th anniversary, given that we’re talking about art that has always felt dislocated from time in that peculiar, Beatlesesque way, but the 50th anniversary it is.
A beat group, in early ‘60s England, was going to record their first long player. This normally entailed lots of covers — and the Beatles certainly followed the script here — and what was essentially a reprise of the band’s stage act sans audience, and with a recording console setting down each flubbed note for posterity. Simple, yes?
Simply, no. We usually regard the Beatles as overnight sensations, this pack of devil-may-care Liverpudlians — with an abundance of cheek and good humor — who tore out of the north of England and made their home country a prime time player in the rock and roll game, while dragging this one out of its post-Kennedy assassination doldrums. “Balls,” as any member of the band would have said. The Beatles were a band that struggled — mightily. Derided as a piss poor outfit, for several years, who would inevitably louse up business ventures for their fellow Merseyside bands — like when the Liverpool groups started getting decent paying bookings in Hamburg, Germany — the Beatles excelled at failing to get a record contract. Granted, when we talk of an artist who struggles for years, we usually mean decades, if not decades after our genius-in-question has departed this oft-brutal coil before canonic mortality is assured. But there’s that sped-up, strange time thing again; there are human years, dog years, and Beatles years. The joke in the band was that they’d be lucky to land a deal with Embassy, the Woolworth label. The hope was that Decca, and their A&R man, Dick Rowe, would come through on New Year’s Day, 1962, and ink the band to a record deal.
For whatever reason, the decision was made to, in sports parlance, play not to lose, rather than win, at said audition. What Dick Rowe got was a set of tepid covers performed anemically, for the most part, when what the Beatles excelled in, at this juncture, was grabbing you where you were not accustomed to being grabbed and shaking the hell out of you.
Rowe passed — as just about anyone would have — and subsequently became known as the man who turned down the Beatles — hard luck — with little mention ever being made of the fact that he signed the Rolling Stones.
In June of the same year, the Beatles made a trip to London for an audition at EMI Studios. Engineer Norman Smith — later dubbed “Normal” by the group — found himself digging the bluesy, loping groove of “Love Me Do” (regardless of its putatively asinine lyrics which, in alchemical Beatles fashion, manage to “work”) and summoned his boss, producer George Martin, who didn’t care so much for the band’s music, as their personalities. The piss, as they say, was taken, when George Harrison slagged off Martin’s attire. The fey, unsteady band of the Decca audition, from just half a year prior, had become something more cocksure, steely and steady with what every great artist understands is endemic to who he is: the grand, ineffable “it,” of knowing, even if others have yet to be clued in, that one is better at what one does, than anyone else is at what they do.
The Beatles cut “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You” in September, after drummer Pete Best had been jettisoned — at Martin’s request — in favor of Ringo Starr. Manager Brian Epstein bought up 10,000 copies of the record, helping it to land at #17 in the charts. “Please Please Me” — in which the protagonist cajoles his girl for the same measure of oral sex that he’s just provided her — backed with “Ask Me Why” followed, a proper hit. Meaning: time to wax that first LP.
I was enough of a Beatles fanatic — although, truth be told, I always felt like there was something measured and vital to my interest in the band, so far as my own thinking went, and what that meant to my own future, even my sense of self — that when I was 15, and my parents went out, leaving me to baby sit, I’d balk at my sister’s bedtime reading choice of whatever the Berenstain Bears were up to and give my version of what went down in that London studio on February 11, 1963.
Long players were “quickies,” if you will; a single or two — hopefully a hit single or two — surrounded by material whose primary purpose, in most cases, was to fluff everything out so that there were 15 or so minutes on both sides of the disc. Doubtless, this was George Martin’s expectation, and it may have been the Beatles’ as well, though I suspect not.
There are myriad bootlegs documenting what occurred in the studio on that winter’s day, but it helps to underscore the bevy of outtakes with some of those Beatles metrics: the four songs from the ’62 sessions were flown in, meaning nine or ten more — ten would be the final tally — would be needed. All ten would be recorded in one day, in a marathon session lasting 585 minutes.
Lennon has a nasty cold, as the outtakes — and even the proper album — make clear. His voice cracks, breaks, you can hear the phlegm in his throat and, come the LP’s conclusion, you can hear something else in his throat, but that’s getting ahead of things.
Nowadays, the outtakes are everywhere, and a simple Google search will hook you up with everything that has managed to leak out of the EMI vaults. I first started listening to them — back before the Internet — on a couple of marvelous bootleg compilations called Ultra Rare Trax and Unsurpassed Masters.
At that point in my history with the band, I pretty much went with the belief that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were basically equal partners, divving up the songs and the singing of them as more or less a 50-50 split, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see just how much Lennon dominates the early portion of the band’s career, as McCartney would come to oversee the later years. This is his band, and wretched cold or no, it is Lennon who is going to drag his mates straight on into something far beyond the normal precepts of the debut long player, refashioning the LP’s possibilities in the process. The group’s 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band generally gets the credit for doing that particular brand of yeomen’s work, but excise February 11, 1963 from the Beatles’ story, and you might as well knock out “A Day in the Life” or anything that followed, really. This is the 585 minute big bang.
McCartney’s crucial contribution is the album’s opener, “I Saw Her Standing There,” a bravura piece of untapped energy right from it’s amped up “one-two-three-fauh” — like a Boston accent — count-in. The outtakes reveal a band buoyed by the oh-so-obvious tightness of their sound, each player reacting off the thoughts and notes of the others, McCartney’s assured vocal being, if anything, even better than the ensemble playing behind him.
There are false starts, flubbed notes, but with each new take, new momentum is gained, and McCartney’s bass ostinato — allegedly lifted from Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You,” but with the effect of making that earlier riff sound dour by comparison — pops along, driving the track as the lead instrument, making plenty of space for Starr’s booming accents. The original lyric of “She was just seventeen/Never been a beauty queen” — though so typical of its time, seems like one from lifetimes ago — thanks to Lennon’s suggestion of turning that second line into “If you know what I mean.” And so it was that millions of listeners would have the chance to say to themselves, as I have said many times: “Yes. I know exactly what you mean, sir. Cheers.” Relatability. A Beatles staple. And here it is, fully intact, at a session meant to produce ten songs of filler.
Ballads, like “Misery,” are handled with equal facility. Lennon’s voice can’t handle some of the upper register notes on the slower cuts, and you can just about picture his bandmates giggling into their shirt collars as he strains his way through several of the bridges. As a kid, I figured I’d like the upbeat stuff more. That’s how kids tend to work. But I sensed something in songs like “Anna (Go To Him),” a cover of a heavy — very heavy — Arthur Alexander rhythm and blues number that I sensed were beyond me, in some ways, even though I felt that I was partaking of them fully. There was this idea of, “whoa, maybe this will all sound different when I’m older, like it’s something you hear one way now, and another way later. Is this how music really works?”
It’s not like you put that question to anyone, or even think to. It goes on in some place of your mind you’re dimly aware of. Maybe you’re fortunate if you’re aware of it at all, and that bare, burgeoning knowledge is what gives greater knowledge a chance later on in life, such that the Beatles, and their art, and the art of this 585 minute session, becomes not just something you appreciate, and enjoy, but something you live.
Still, I didn’t expect the music from that first LP session to mean more to me more than two decades after I first heard it, than it did in those halcyon afternoons, headphones on, my teenage self mesmerized, oddly enough, by hearing the same number run through again and again. There was something ritualistic here, something necessary, but only because an end was, if not in sight, then at least sensed by the people on the other end of this music, the people from whom it was coming, as the listener would come to sense new directions of his own.
I listened — on an iPod, the Walkman days long a thing of the past — to the Please Please Me outtakes on a flight back from San Francisco, last summer. I was coming home to five deadlines on a red eye flight, and a life in tatters. I sat between a comely woman and a hipster who had removed his shoes the second I sat down.
Several hours before, I had had a stroke in the bathroom of the San Francisco Hyatt Regency. This was a result of having lived too hard, mostly by working too hard, and trying to dig myself out of a hole I had never expected to be in, after my wife left without a word of warning, offering up nothing by way of explanation, let alone closure, with no conversations to follow, only lawyers, none of whom were mine. This was simply something that was going to happen to me, and I was going to have to be a part of that compact, whether it was the last thing on earth I wanted or not.
It is a curious feeling, being acted upon, having no say in a significant segment of your own life. One tries to get gain a measure of control and, in that failing, one looks ever more inward, if not for answers, then for a way to move forward.
I had my own way of looking inward, one I had not anticipated. It began with me listening to the outtakes from that 585 minute session, on repeat, 20 plus years after I had first heard them, as we flew across the Rockies, the Middle West, and on into the East. I had always known that the finished record’s penultimate song, “There’s a Place,” was something both gritty and beatific, a confession of faith, really, where — and I found this its most gutting aspect, and, weirdly, its most hopeful — faith maybe ought not to be, but fights for its voice all the same. It was hard not to be assuaged — for a few blessed, merciful seconds, at least — by the idea that there is this secure, emotional hideaway, where life’s problems can be assessed, free from the strictures and demands of time, so long as you can find a way to have at it, as it so often has at you.
Lennon was a 22-year-old at that February 11 session. To be honest, I don’t know how he was 22, anymore more than I know how Rimbaud was in his late teens when he wrote his best verse. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. That beguiling knack for dislocating, and redefining, time, certainly has a way with how everything played out on that date, and you figure that for some people, life comes with a built in fast forward button, in terms of what you’re able to know when you know it.
Lennon is singing his ass off on “There’s a Place,” and George Martin must have been gobsmacked by what he was hearing. Rock and roll songs, simply, were not like this, so naked, so not about the moon-in-June-and-how-our-love-is-going-to-bloom-whoo-hoo. The nerve. The nerve cut open. The inside of the nerve on view. To me, even back when I was clueless in most matters in life, it sounded like a band saying, “You want some filler? Do you? We don’t do filler. Nor should you. Now let’s take a little stroll together.” When Lennon’s voice breaks — as it tends to on each successive bridge — you’re almost heartened at his fallibility, and less threatened by your own. In short: This feels good, even if it’s busy helping you process other things that do not.
Not all of the songs that came to make up the Please Please Me album have made it out on bootleg. And while I’d love to hear additional renditions of “Anna,” I’m actually kind of glad that the one outtake just about everyone would like to hear more than any other has never escaped its hold at EMI.
I’d always wrap up that bed time story with an account of the Beatles recording “Twist and Shout,” the Isley Brothers’ party-anthem, which to me features the single greatest rock and roll vocal ever put to tape, courtesy of a singer who couldn’t stop his voice from breaking about an hour before.
There was a gap in those 585 minutes when the Beatles and George Martin, knowing that they needed one more song to finish off the LP, reprieved to a local drinking establishment to discuss next moves. Someone suggested “Twist and Shout,” which always went down a storm with the drunken sailors in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district, where the Beatles had become trashy kings of sorts, after they had managed to shed their label as that “bum group from Liverpool.”
Concerns were voiced. Lennon absolutely screamed the song — so much so that on the Beatles’ 1964 world tour, a truncated version was performed, to save his voice for the rest of the gig — and here he was, not even at full strength. One take, most likely, would be possible, with a second being a long shot.
A second was indeed made. But it is because of the first that I have no need to hear it. I cannot say that about any other piece of Beatles music or minutiae; if it exists, and you have it, by all means, please cue it up for me. I would like to keep that first take of “Twist and Shout” its own thing though, the perfect closer to that 585 minute session, and the LP on which is appeared, but yet the starter, from a certain point of view, of so many things for so many people — divergent feelings, new thoughts, pockets of individual strength.
Martin had the studio lights turned down, and Lennon stripped to the waist — which has always played more excitingly in my mind, as a concept, than “Lennon took his shirt off.” He unleashed a vocal that makes it almost impossible to believe that here was a fellow dogged by a cold, screaming — and shredding his larynx, in the process — a song ostensibly about sex — which is why Lennon claimed he liked it so much—but which is more a clarion announcement of self. An inviolate self. All in an uptempo quasi-soul song. If you listen on headphones, with the volume up, you can actually hear, at the very end, blood in the back of Lennon’s throat.
My sister — my babysitting charge — would be passed out at this point, but that didn’t matter. As you go along in life, you realize, sometimes, that the story you tell others is a story that’s meant mostly for yourself. But as soon as you clock on to this, it becomes all the easier to pick up on everyone else’s stories, which in turn can help you figure out your own. As it seemed the Beatles themselves knew, based on the audio evidence of that 585-minute session meant to provide enough filler to round out a first album. Filler. That’s funny. There is no filler here. Just parts that went on a record, and parts that were kept off of it, and a hard won allegiance with time that taught both parties, I imagine, a good deal about the other. • 6 February 2013
Colin Fleming's Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep is forthcoming in June 2013 from Outpost19, and will be followed by Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories (Texas Review Press) a few months later in September. He writes for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review,The Boston Globe, ESPN The Magazine, JazzTimes, and Cineaste, and has recently completed two more books, The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and Here, Googan Googan: Home Videos, Rolling Heads, the One that Got Away, and All Manner of Briney Salvation from the Edge of America. A novel about a piano prodigy called The Freeze Tag Sessions will soon follow, in addition to Musings with Franklin, a novel (which may or may not be set in hell) in conversations centering on three characters — Bartender, Writer, and the guy from the suburbs who dresses up as Ben Franklin--and a book about living a life inside the early music of the Beatles. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.
All photos available under public domain.