Introducing Blogging the Beatles: The Beatles Record Their First No. 1

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 26 2012 4:54 PM

The Beatles Record Their First No. 1

130128_BTB_recordPleasePleaseMe

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

Starting today, Brow Beat will follow the Beatles every week in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. We begin with the Fab Four’s first No. 1 hit, “Please Please Me,” recorded on Nov. 26, 1962.

John Lennon wrote “Please Please Me” at his Aunt Mimi’s house in Liverpool, but it was months later—50 years ago today, to be exact—that the Beatles finally got the song right. When they first played it in studio for George Martin, on Sept. 11, 1962, the producer was not impressed. It was a slower, bluesier number, modeled on Roy Orbison songs like “Only the Lonely,” and Martin dismissed it. He called it “a dirge.”

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Martin—and the Beatles’ label, Parlophone Records—wanted the band’s next single to be “How Do You Do It?” by the English songwriter Mitch Murray. Martin was sure it would be a hit. But the Beatles hated the idea. They thought the catchy but elementary tune was antiquated, even embarrassing—how could they show their faces around Liverpool if they made it big with that? If they wanted to succeed on their own terms, though, they would have to prove themselves as songwriters—and Martin was skeptical of their skills at songcraft. “Their songwriting was crap,” he later said. “The first record we issued was ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘P.S. I Love You’—which are not exactly Cole Porter, are they?”

So the band went back to work. First they sped up the tempo—the word tempo was new to them—and added harmonies, as Martin suggested, and then they added a new hook, played on lead guitar by George Harrison. While the song was inspired musically by Orbison and lyrically by Bing Crosby’s “Please,” the new version more closely resembled the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” particularly in the harmony: McCartney held a high E while Lennon’s melody descended below it, a trick from the Everlys’ repertoire.

When they debuted the new version in the studio on November 26, 1962, Martin thought better of their songwriting skills, adding only a harmonica to double up on Harrison’s new guitar riff. (You can hear the version without the harmonica on Anthology.) After they recorded their 18th and final take, George Martin piped in on the intercom: “Congratulations, gentlemen,” he told them, “You’ve just made your first No. 1.”

Please_Please_Me_45
Cover art for the "Please Please Me" single.

Martin was right—mostly. In 1962, there wasn’t one definitive chart in Britain, and the charts disagreed about “Please Please Me.” The single hit the top of the Melody Maker and New Musical Express charts, but others had it only at No. 2, behind Frank Ifield’s similarly harmonica-heavy “Wayward Wind.”

Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, who was skeptical of Lennon’s career choices after their first single—McCartney’s “Love Me Do,” which topped out at No. 17 in December—thought more of “Please Please Me.” “That’s more like it,” she said, “That should do well.”