The Single That Showed the Beatles Could Write a Hit Pretty Much on Demand

Slate's Culture Blog
March 11 2013 11:08 AM

The Beatles Become Pop Professionals

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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 that 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 week, the Beatles recorded “From Me to You,” their first undisputed No. 1. Below, MacDonald describes how the song proved the Beatles’ professionalism as songwriters.

Though Lennon and McCartney wrote a substantial number of songs between 1957 and 1962,* their confidence in all but a few of them was low. The majority of the group’s pre-1963 act consisted of other people’s material with only an apologetic leavening of Lennon-McCartney originals. Realizing the weakness of his protégés’ existing catalogue, George Martin advised them to come up with more hits without delay, a plea repeated with added urgency when “Please Please Me” began to move in large quantities. They wasted little time. Based on the letters page of New Musical Express (“From You To Us”), “From Me to You” was written on the Helen Shapiro tour bus on Feb. 28, 1963—the group’s first custom-built Beatles song as Parlophone artists.

Dismissed in most accounts of their career as a transitional time-marker between “Please Please Me” and “She Loves You,” “From Me to You” was actually a brilliant consolidation of the emerging Beatles sound,** holding the No. 1 position for seven weeks (the longest occupation of this place by any of their eighteen British No. 1 singles apart from “Hello, Goodbye” and “Get Back”). That it was specifically designed to accomplish this testifies to the canny practicality of the group’s songwriting duo. Like most of Lennon and McCartney’s few recorded full 50-50 collaborations, “From Me to You” proceeds in the two-bar phrases a pair of writers typically adopt when tentatively ad-libbing at each other. The usual result of such a synthetic process, in which neither contributor is free to develop the melody-line in his normal way, is a competition to produce surprising developments of the initial idea. As in “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the variation surprise in “From Me to You” consists of a sudden falsetto octave leap, a motif first tried on the chorus of “Please Please Me” (itself rewritten in this to-and-fro fashion).

Bluesily horizontal in its intervals, “From Me to You” clearly grew from an original Lennon phrase, perhaps passing to McCartney for the vertical second phrase (delivered by Lennon with a rasping upward slide into falsetto, harmonized by his partner a pleading third below). The New York quartet The Four Seasons, then climbing the U.K. charts with “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” employed similar falsetto and almost certainly influenced The Beatles in this respect. Yet where the Americans built falsetto into their four-part harmony, The Beatles wielded it as an isolated device, and it was mainly these sudden hair-raising wails that made their early records so rivetingly strange. Far from a clever novelty, however, “From Me to You” has a distinctive mood of its own, Lennon’s abrasive voice—the trademark of the group’s ‘Beatlemania’ phase—turning a trite lyric into something mordantly sardonic. His harmonica, insisted on by George Martin, maintains continuity with the group’s first two singles, adding to the wildness so crucial to The Beatles’ early impact.

“From Me to You” demonstrates The Beatles’ pop professionalism, only the functionality of McCartney’s bass part betraying that less than a week had elapsed between writing and recording it. Echoing the wit they were displaying in their TV and radio interviews, their deftness and adaptability in the studio was already far beyond the reach of their immediate competitors.

By now, it was clear that something unprecedented and unpredictable was happening and, as the song raced to the top of the U.K. singles chart during the summer of 1963, a change could be felt in the atmosphere of English life. With sex newly an acceptable social topic courtesy of Vassall, Ward, Keeler, and James Bond, the frank physicality of The Beatles’ music—epitomized by Lennon’s mocking leer, lazy strum, and open-legged stance at the microphone—had arrived at exactly the right time.*** As the nation's centre of gravity slid from upper lip to lower hip, a degree of Dionysiac abandon was only to be expected, yet the shrill gales of ululation which began to greet the announcement of the group’s names before their live appearances took even The Beatles by surprise. Girls had been squirming about and screaming at their pop idols since Presley first pumped his pelvis at them in 1956, but what was happening now was mass hysteria. Jess Conrad, a typical ‘teen idol’ of the period, recalls appearing with the group on a pop show around this time: “I did my record and the girls went crazy as usual—but when The Beatles went on the place exploded! I thought ‘These boys really have it.’ ” This orgiastic release of erotic energy dammed up during the repressive ’50s—ceaseless avian shrilling so loud that the bands, standing only yards away from their amplifiers, could barely hear what they were playing—was soon greeting every ‘beat’ group to bob up in The Beatles’ wake.

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*Some sources claim up to 200—but since no list of titles has ever been published, it’s impossible to verify this. In The Complete Beatles Chronicle, Mark Lewisohn refers to 20 early Lennon-McCartney titles, including half a dozen that survived to be recorded by The Beatles. Many early Beatle songs were lost when Jane Asher threw out a lot of apparent scrap paper while spring-cleaning in 1965.

**Observing “this was our real start,” McCartney describes “From Me to You” as “a pivotal song ... very much co-written.”

***The cliché that, compared to The Rolling Stones, The Beatles were asexual ‘family entertainers’ developed later. Their initial impact was very different, while the Stones, with what seemed then like positively Neanderthal animality, didn’t begin to figure as rivals until the end of 1963.

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