Tips from the Top: The Making of the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”

With the release of the Cirque du Soleil soundtrack compilation album Love, Beatles fans (who never seem to grow tired of hearing the same old songs arranged in a brand new way) once again have yet another carefully conceived product to add to the collection. As good a time as any, in fact, to take a trip back 44 years and recall how it all began when Liverpool’s finest entered Abbey Road Studios and committed their very first album to tape-in just under 12 hours.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on February 21, 2007 by

Richard Langham still remembers the first few hints of pre-Beatlemania filtering through the halls of London’s otherwise all-business EMI recording facility. “It was a freezing cold day,” says Langham, the former EMI engineer who now runs a London-based import business. “We were outside getting all the Beatles’ gear out of the van to bring into the studio. I noticed these bits of paper falling out of the backs of the amplifiers - little folded notes that the girls had thrown on to the stage that they’d read and then tossed into their amps! I knew right then that this was going to be a very interesting time.”

With their second Parlophone single, “Please Please Me,” closing in on the top of the U.K. charts, producer George Martin hastily scheduled recording time for the purpose of assembling the Beatles’ first long-player. Years of incessant gigging had made the Beatles a solid live act, but it wasn’t until Monday, February 11, 1963 that Martin and the rest of the staff at EMI realized just how good John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr really were. By the end of that day, Please Please Me - the album that would officially launch British Beatlemania - was ready for release.

Beginning at 10 a.m. with the tricky two-part vocal harmony of “There’s a Place,” the group proceeded to knock out nine additional songs in under 12 hours, among them “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Baby It’s You,” “Misery,” “Chains” and “Anna,” leading up to the grand finale: John Lennon’s historic rendering of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” completed in a single larynx-shredding take just before 10 p.m. It mattered little that Lennon was nursing a bad cold and spent the day downing throat lozenges in order to keep up the pace. “I don’t know how they do it,” remarked producer Martin near the end of the marathon session. “We’ve been recording all day, but the longer we go on, the better they get.”

Please Please Me - and nearly every other Beatles work that followed - took shape inside Studio Two at EMI Recording Studios, a former nine-bedroom, early-19th century residential dwelling located at 3 Abbey Road in London’s St. John’s Wood district (and later renamed for the street the Beatles made famous). Opened in 1931, EMI housed three separate recording rooms, each with high ceilings and ample floor space typical of the era. “All of us engineers really got to know that room, its little nuances and characteristics,” recalls Langham. “For instance, we could tell someone who’d come in to record some tymps, ‘A little lighter on the sticks there,’ because we knew that corner of the studio was a bit too live.”

“We knew instinctively the best way of getting the right sound for the right instrument,” adds Ken Townsend, former general manager of Abbey Road Studios and one of the most creative technical engineers in the business. “Studio Two had a natural reverberation time of about 1.6 seconds, but we could always deaden it right down by using the big screens that we could pull around as needed.”

Sound processing was also a key ingredient in the Beatles’ formula, and on the Please Please Me sessions EMI’s team relied heavily on tried-and-true enhancements like echo chamber, tape echo and compression. “EMI’s live echo chambers were basically these former air-raid shelters, like we had in England, that had been built in there, L-shaped things,” says Richard Lush, who began engineering Beatles sessions in 1966 and later served both Lennon and McCartney on post-Beatles solo projects. “They got plates later on, but the chambers were quite popular because the sound was so good. And a tape delay was used on the chamber quite often, which really enhanced the quality.” Though EMI already had a four-track recorder in its possession, for the most part Please Please Me (portions of which were later used for the group’s first Capitol LP, Meet the Beatles) was cut live to two-track; extras like a McCartney double-track vocal on “A Taste of Honey” and the harmonica riff on “There’s a Place” would be “superimposed” via tape edits later on.

Much of the credit for the sound of Please Please Me (and the majority of the early Beatles albums) goes to first engineer Norman Smith, who used Studio Two’s vast interior to good advantage by having the band set up as if playing a live gig, without the constraint of baffling screens. Ringo was situated in the rear corner of the studio with the band taking up roughly half of the floor space directly in front of him; John’s and George’s Vox AC-30 amps were placed atop folding chairs, one on each side of Ringo’s kit; Paul’s “coffin” bass cabinet sat to Ringo’s right, baffled off slightly to prevent excess leakage. Neumann/Telefunken U47 condenser microphones, fastened onto twin mic holders, were set up out front for vocals; 47s were also used to mic the amps (and also Lennon and Harrison’s Gibson J-160 acoustic guitars). Only two mics were required for Ringo’s drums, an STC 4038 ribbon mic for the overhead and an AKG D-20 dynamic mic in front of the bass drum.

“The first album was basically just an effort to capture the feeling of their stage act, which they’d really mastered by then,” says Langham. “And because they were so used to playing together as a band, in the end there were really only very minor changes made.”

By today’s standards, Please Please Me was a remarkably uncontrolled recording event: vocals verge on distortion, the sound of picks hitting electric-guitar and bass strings is clearly audible through the vocal mics, Ringo’s uncompromising back beat resonates loudly throughout the entire mix. Yet it’s those elements that give Please Please Me a sense of urgency that is still palpable four decades on. In short, the Beatles sound like a band on a mission.

“You listen to ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ or anything on that first album,” remarks Lush, “and you hear the drums going all over the vocal mics, the limiters are going on and off, so whenever the guitars stop the sound of the drums immediately comes up. It’s so unlike anything you’d hear now, but it just adds to the overall excitement of the recording. Even now when ‘Twist and Shout’ comes on the radio, that live vibe always makes your ears ##### up.”

While in later years the band would take months to complete recording projects, the spontaneity of that first marathon session speaks for itself. “Paul went back to that sort of arrangement for some of his recent recordings,” says Lush, “starting work at 10 and going until 1, and even putting a bit of pressure on the band to actually come in with the intention of cutting two songs that morning. Rather than attempting one song, and cutting and pasting the first chorus twice. There’s just no way to get any kind of live energy going when you’re always working like that.”

“There’s nothing like having a deadline to focus the mind, and the Beatles were often working on a tight deadline,” remarks writer/historian Mark Lewisohn, whose book “The Beatles Recording Sessions” is still considered by many to be the ultimate Beatle bible. “It seems that whenever you get that kind of economy, things tend to happen in a more creative manner. Even when the Beatles were in the vanguard of a more relaxed and stretched form of recording later in their career, there was still an undercurrent of economy in their work. And I truly believe that they benefited from it.”

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