As part of our new series Blogging the Beatles, we’re 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 impact “I Saw Her Standing There” had on early ‘60s rock.
Written in late 1962, this explosive rocker is often ascribed to its singer McCartney; indeed, Lennon himself recalled little involvement with it. Interviewed by Mark Lewisohn in 1988, however, McCartney remembered writing it with Lennon in the “front parlour” of his house at 20 Forthlin Road, Allerton.* What seems to have happened is that he presented a lyric plus a start on the music, at which point the two sat down and wrote the rest of the song on guitars (with, as McCartney remembers, “a little bit on the piano that I had there”).** Exactly what Lennon contributed is unknown, though according to McCartney his partner scoffed at the George Formby-style opening lines “She was just seventeen/Never been a beauty queen,” replacing them with the streetwise “She was just seventeen/You know what I mean.” As “Seventeen,” the song became part of The Beatles’ live act in 1962 and was still listed under that title when, following “There’s a Place,” they devoted the rest of the morning session of 11th February to it.
Now rated a rock-and-roll standard, “I Saw Her Standing There” is reckoned by those who knew the Beatles in their early days to be one of the two most representative Liverpool club songs, the other being the Big Three’s version of “Some Other Guy,” which the Beatles, too, played live. Lennon, in particular, was haunted by the latter, originally recorded in 1962 by Ritchie Barrett and written by Barrett with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In an interview given to Rolling Stone in 1968, he mentioned it twice as a record he wanted somehow to emulate. “I Saw Her Standing There” may have been the Beatles’ first attempt at writing something ‘off’ “Some Other Guy.”
Both songs were influenced by the prototype English rock-and-roller Tony Sheridan, whom The Beatles backed at Hamburg’s Top Ten Club in 1960 and whose Eddie Cochran guitar style suggested the bluesy sevenths which litter their early output. Hoping to capture some of the excitement of this ‘jive-hall’ ambience, George Martin considered recording Please Please Me in front of the group’s home audience, and it was probably this unfulfilled plan which prompted him to retain McCartney’s introductory ‘count off,’ so evocative of the Beatles’ gigs at the Cavern and the Casbah.
In performance, “I Saw Her Standing There” would stretch out for up to ten minutes, punctuated by multiple guitar solos. For the recording, precision and the strictly curtailed demands of radio-play called for something more concise and the group were obliged to confine themselves to the basic structure, giving Harrison a modified sixteen-bar verse/chorus break in which to get his reverbed Gretsch Duo Jet guitar into action. His first solo on a Beatles record, it might have been reeled off with more authority under less finger-trembling conditions. That apart, this is an electrifying performance and proof that the “charismatic powerhouse” which shook the Liverpool clubs during 1961-2 was no myth.
Built on blues changes and the group’s trademark abrasive vocal harmonies in open fourths and fifths, “I Saw Her Standing There” sent a shock of earthy rawness through a British pop scene whose harmonic ethos had been shaped largely by the sophistication of Broadway. Lyrically, too, it called the bluff of the chintz-merchants of Denmark Street with their moody, misunderstood ‘Johnnies’ and adoring ‘angels’ of sweet sixteen (the legal age of consent). By contrast, The Beatles’ heroine was seventeen, a deliberate upping of the ante which, aided by Lennon’s innuendo in the second line, suggested something rather more exciting than merely holding hands. But the clincher for the teenage audience was the song’s straight-from-the-shoulder vernacular. Its hero’s heart didn’t ‘sing’ or ‘take wing’ when he beheld his lady love; this guy’s heart “went boom” when he "crossed that room"—a directness of metaphor and movement which socked avid young radio-listeners deliciously in the solar plexus. With the authentic voice of youth back on the airwaves, the rock-and-roll rebellion, quiescent since 1960, had resumed.
*McCartney indicates that the song was written, like “Love Me Do,” while “sagging off” school. However, he adds that they were "18, 19, whatever" at the time—well past school age; indeed, if McCartney was 19 when he wrote it, this would put the song's origin in 1961. Beatles biographer Ray Coleman prints a Mike McCartney photograph of Lennon and McCartney working on “I Saw Her Standing There” in the front room at Forthlin Road, dated September 1962. Going by its style, this is a fair guess.
**According to McCartney, the bass line was taken from Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You.”