LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
originally published 1994; 2nd revised edition 2005
From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond
[11 February 1963, Abbey Road studios: The Beatles famously record their first LP, Please Please Me, in just over 12.5 hours.]
…the clock in Studio 2 showed 10pm. The Beatles had been recording for twelve hours and time was officially up. [Producer] George Martin, though, needed one more number – something to send the album out with a bang. Accordingly he and his team retired with the group to the Abbey Road canteen for a last cup of coffee (or, in Lennon’s case, warm milk for his ragged throat). They knew what they had to do – the wildest thing in The Beatles’ act: TWIST AND SHOUT, their cover of a 1962 US hit by black Cincinnati family act The Isley Brothers. An out-and-out screamer, it was always demanding. That night it was a very tall order indeed.
Back in Studio 2, the group knew they had at most two chances to get this arduous song on tape before Lennon lost his voice. At around 10.30pm, with him stripped to the waist and the others ‘hyping’ themselves by treating the control room staff as their audience, they went for it. The eruptive performance that ensued stunned the listening technicians and exhilarated the group (as can be heard in McCartney’s triumphant ‘Hey!’ at the end). Trying for a second take, Lennon found he had nothing left and the session stopped there and then – but the atmosphere was still crackling. Nothing of this intensity had ever been recorded in a British pop studio.
commentary: If reading that excerpt didn’t make you want to listen to the track it’s about, immediately, this amazing book is probably not for you. If it did: you might never get tired of dipping into it.
Ian MacDonald places every known Beatles recording (in chronological order) into context. And by context, I mean not just who wrote it and where and when and why, what they recorded before and after it, what they argued about, who played what on what instrument and who wasn’t even there, who was in the control room, where they went after the session and so on; but also what was happening elsewhere in London and the world, among their peers and rivals and fans and in society as a whole. The subtitle The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties is in fact a fair indication of its scope. Everything is relevant for MacDonald, even what John Lennon felt forced to watch on TV when he was feeling suffocated by his conventional marriage. (The sitcom Meet The Wife, mentioned in the song Good Morning, Good Morning on the Sgt Pepper album – made in 1967 but it feels as though it was a generation later than their first.)
It’s a long book, but The Beatles didn’t record much, by comparison for example to The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. (Only 188 proper recordings, including songs they gave to other people and the posthumous tracks based on Lennon’s demo tapes.) So there is room for a page or two or even three about a single track. But you trust MacDonald because – although he clearly loves a good 75% of the band’s work – he’s never afraid to dismiss something as throwaway or trite. Books that go into this kind of detail sometimes go too far down the road of completeness, obsessing over alternate takes or live versions, stating authoritatively that they are ‘better’ when this judgement is entirely subjective. But MacDonald always regards the officially released version of a song as key. You can always find your way to that, and read about the other takes within the same entry.
I’m old enough to remember new Beatles records coming out, and have heard some of these recordings literally hundreds of times. But on almost every page I read things I didn’t know, and discovered mistakes and clunky edits and weird noises I’d never noticed. There is a mass of fascinating trivia for those of us who like such things: I knew Norman ‘Hurricane’ Smith, who had a few hits as a singer in the 70s, produced the earliest Pink Floyd records, but I didn’t know he was also the engineer on just about everything The Beatles recorded before Sergeant Pepper. I didn’t know Paul McCartney was on holiday with Jane Asher when he wrote For No One. Or that the original lyrics of In My Life detailed a very specific journey through Liverpool, past real life landmarks dear to me and the original Clothes In Books.
One thing Ian MacDonald was not much interested in is clothes, but in this case he does at least let us in on the fact that Lennon was topless when he dragged this deathless vocal out of the exhausted recesses of his body. In the photo, however, he’s the only one with his top on. (L-R: George in sandals and socks, Paul, John, Ringo. The person flat out behind them is unconnected, as far as anyone knows.) The picture was taken in July 1963 in Weston-Super-Mare, when The Beatles had already had three hits, including two No.1s. But full scale Beatlemania would not start until She Loves You – written 26 June in Newcastle, recorded 01 July, released 23 August – went straight to No.1 a few weeks later.
The song Twist And Shout was co-written by Phil Medley – no relation to Bill, of The Righteous Brothers – and Bert Berns, who played a major part in the early career of Van Morrison. Under his pseudonym of Bert Russell, Berns wrote an amazing number of great songs.
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