How “There’s a Place” Captured the Live Sound of the Beatles

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 4 2013 6:18 PM

The Beatles Record Their Debut Album

Blogging the Beatles timeline

As part of our new series Blogging the Beatles, we’ll be 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. In the passage below, MacDonald describes the recording of the first song of the session, Lennon and McCartney’s “There’s a Place.”

Nothing better demonstrates the speed at which The Beatles found themselves as songwriters than this stirring period piece, the first title to be taped during the ten-hour session for their debut LP, Please Please Me. Borrowed from Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere (There’s A Place For Us),” the lyric is a young man’s declaration of independence—an assertion of self-sufficient defiance which, matched by music of pride and poignancy, marks a minor milestone in the emergence of the new youth culture. The strength of feeling in this record is inescapable and, arriving at no. 2 in the U.S. singles chart in April 1964, it duly transfixed American adolescents used to the bland commercialization of their lives in ‘beach movies’ and ‘teen music.’

Cover art for Please Please Me

Some of the forcefulness of “There’s a Place” may have derived from Lennon’s original intent to emulate what he referred to as the “Motown, black thing,” though little of this survives in the finished song. (He was presumably thinking of the Isley Brothers, then signed to the Wand label.) Recorded in thirteen takes, it’s a rough-house performance whose two-part harmony in fourths and fifths shows, if nothing else, that Lennon had a heavy cold; yet the passion of his and McCartney’s singing cuts through, while the band’s drive is fiercely urgent. Lennon supplies the low harmony for McCartney, stepping forward only on the first and third lines of the middle eight and dropping back again to an octave unison for the aerial answering phrases.*

Taking into account the taming effects of compression and the then-standard U.K. studio practice of damping the bass to stop the stylus jumping on domestic record decks, this is the authentic contemporary sound of the Beatles live—the singers miked in front of their backline of amps, unsegregated by baffles. With the studio clock ticking implacably and a near-impossible schedule to keep, the immediacy of the take was everything and no concession to tidiness could be afforded. Pitches wobble, microphones ‘pop,’ drums stumble, larynxes tear: 1:47 of the real thing.

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*According to Barry Miles’ biography of Paul McCartney, the song is a co-composition “but with a bias towards being Paul’s original idea” since he owned a copy of Bernstein’s West Side Story in which “Somewhere (There’s a Place For Us)” appears.

Previously in Blogging the Beatles
The Beatles Are an Opening Band
Where’s Yoko? On John Cage’s Piano Edition
How a Black Label Brought the Beatles to America
The Beatles Say Goodbye to Hamburg
The Beatles Hit the Airwaves
The Beatles Rise Up the Charts
The Beatles Record Their First No. 1

Ian MacDonald was a British music critic and the author of Revolution in the Head. He died in 2003.