October 15, 2020Series
I was 16, sitting on the floor of my high school bedroom, sorting through an assortment of cassette tapes. I had been gradually filing them in a little beige suitcase (designed specifically for transporting cassettes). It was smaller than a briefcase, with a maroon lining of rough velvet. There was a slot for each tape, room for 30 in total. I was sitting in front of my stereo with a radio, turntable, and double cassette deck. The tapes had been kicking around the house for awhile, and I’d been gradually organizing them without entirely paying attention. That day I was craving something new - I was tired of what was playing on the radio. Walk Like an Egyptian was the number one song that year. I liked it, but I was bored of it. So much of the music on top 40 just started feeling…insubstantial. Plus my friends and I had just reached the stage of our adolescence that I assume all high schoolers go through - we’d stumbled on the classic rock station and became convinced we’d unearthed this huge secret. Like we’d discovered bands like Lynard Skynard and Led Zeppelin our very own selves. So when I was sifting through the tapes that had found their way into my little case, I picked Please Please Me, the closest thing to classic rock I had in my collection. I rewound it to the beginning, and pressed play.
Obviously even in the 80s the Beatles got plenty of airtime. Surely I was aware of them before that day. But although I would come to realize that many of their greatest hits were already burned into the personal soundtrack housed somewhere in my brain, before that moment the music was mostly background noise. After that moment (“One two three FOUR” the first seconds of “I Saw Her Standing There”) the Beatles for me went from the black and white of Kansas to the technicolor of Oz.
I’m sure there are few musical acts that have been so thoroughly documented and analyzed, aggrandized and also diminished. I have a big thick book on my shelf I’ve been meaning to read for ages that is just Part One of an in depth look at the band and their impact. There’s no doubt of the historical and cultural shock waves for which the Beatles are responsible. But ultimately, all that happened only because their music had such a personal impact on so many people. As I flip through my own memories, so many stories, so many feelings are attached to my experiences listening to the Beatles. Like driving on Lake Avenue on a summer night, great friends in the car, windows down, singing “Twist and Shout” at the top of our lungs and feeling like we owned the world.
I’m still astonished by the fact that I can love so many songs across so many phases of the Beatles’ epic creativity. I’m crazy about the pop sugar fizziness of “She Loves You” and “Eight Days A Week”. But I also cherish their more complicated work like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” or “A Day in the Life”. I even enjoy the weirder stuff like “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” and “Piggies”.
To have one group of artists produce such a wide range of music, and for me to have equal affection for pieces from both the beginning and end of their production really kind of blows my mind. I can’t think of another cultural experience that has the same reach. Capturing and keeping the attention of the pop culture consuming world is tricky business. When we like something, we want more. But when artists do the same thing again and again, even if it was ACCLAIMED the first time around, we eventually get bored and drift away. On the other hand, often when artists try something new, people feel betrayed that the new thing is different from the old thing they loved (for an example of this, I will suggest you Google think pieces on the three Star Wars trilogies). But the Beatles wiggled out of that trap. Again and again and again. Sure, there were people that never forgave them for moving past “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. But so many others stuck with them from beginning to end. It got me thinking about the journey - the evolution from “I Saw Her Standing There” to “Get Back”. What an exciting, confusing, thrilling, frustrating, amazing ride that must have been. My own introduction to the Beatles was out of sequence, so I invite you to join me as I listen to their catalog chronologically this time. Once a month for the next 13 months I'll post some thoughts about each album, in the order it was released. In real time this was from 1963-1970. For us, we'll finish up before the end of 2021. I expect to both celebrate old favorites but maybe to create some new ones too. As ever, The Beatles for me are a gift that keeps on giving. You can listen to the samples of each song from here, and I've got a few thoughts below.
Track One: I Saw Her Standing There
What must it have been like when Please Please Me was first released in 1963? A quick scan of the billboard hits that same year seem pretty different. Songs like “Walk Like a Man” by The Four Seasons and “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore. I’m wondering if people heard “I Saw Her Standing There” and felt like a big raucous bomb had just been dropped into their sock hop. By the end of 1964, ten Beatles songs would be on the Billboard top 100, with “I Saw Her Standing There” at number 95. Imagine this moment in time - the moment when people went from not knowing who the Beatles were to them being everything. That moment when so much good stuff was ahead and undiscovered. Bonus - this is a fun performance of the song.
Track Two: Misery
This song is only 1:49! My favorite part is the very high-pitched "la la las" that come in at 1:44.
Track Three: Anna (Go To Him)
There's just a hint of that soon-to-be-famous John Lennon rasp that makes this song interesting for me.
Track Four: Chains
It's a pretty cheerful sounding song considering it's about the pain of not being able to cheat on your girlfriend.
Track Five: Boys
Ringo sings! See you again in about 20 songs pal.
Track Six: Ask Me Why
A lot of "you - woo woo woo woos". I like the key changes though.
Track Seven: Please Please Me
This was the last song on Side One (back when that was still a thing). I know I would have been flipping the record over so fast after hearing this for the first time.
Track Eight: Love Me Do
How can I not be tired of this song? I've heard it five million times.
Track Nine: P.S. I Love You
This song gets interesting for me about 30 seconds before it ends.
Track Ten: Baby It's You
There's always something to like - in this case for me it's the sha la la la las.
Track 11: Do You Want To Know a Secret
This feels like a remake of something else (it's not), but somehow also feels like original Beatles. An interesting summary of how they bridged the past and the future with their songwriting.
Track 12: A Taste Of Honey
Soooooo, slight retraction from Track Nine. I guess don't have to like EVERY Beatles song, right?
Track 13: There's A Place
There's something sad in these harmonies. But I know what song's coming next and I can't wait.
Track 14: Twist and Shout
Like a great cliffhanger - I can imagine everyone was dying for the next album to come out after hearing this song. Also #SaveFerris
Tune in next month as we listen to With The Beatles!