You say you want a revolution

By my reckoning it all started 50 years ago this Monday. On the morning of February 11, 1963, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr descended on EMI studios at 3 Abbey Road in St. John’s Wood, London and in workmanlike fashion laid down 10 songs in less than 13 hours.

Producer George Martin could only marvel, "I don't know how they do it. We've been recording all day but the longer we go on the better they get." By 10:45 pm, after the last guitar chord of “Twist and Shout” had faded into the night (and the last of Lennon’s vocal cords had been thoroughly shredded) the insurgency was underway. Pop music and pop culture would never be the same.

Released five and a half weeks later, their Please Please Me LP would be #1 on the British charts for 30 weeks, to be replaced by their next album, With the Beatles for 21 more weeks. Thanks to these four insurrectionists, rock & roll—which had been in sleepy hibernation since the departure from the rock scene of Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, Richard, and Jerry Lee a few years earlier—was storming back to life in a more virulent, mutant form and would soon be ravaging the pop charts worldwide and laying waste to the easy listening format that had crept back onto the hit parade.

Disruptive innovation at its best. Creative destruction at its worst. Industries were launched. Careers were ended.

Meanwhile, 3280 miles away in Arlington Massachusetts, I had all but given up on rock & roll after its quick demise in the late 50s. While the Fab Four were busily banging out songs in St. John’s Wood that Saturday, I was busily boning up for Latin and Greek exams at Boston College High School—contemplating an academic career perhaps in pre-Socratic philosophy or New Testament Greek. Little did I know that a young “beat group” would scramble my plans for scholastic conquests and soon draw me into the wild and wicked world of rock & roll.

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  1. They recorded “live” in the sense that (1) they tracked their vocals and instruments at the same time (they only did a few overdubs); and (2) they tried to recreate the sound of their live gigs (at the cacophonous Cavern Club in Liverpool and numerous dance halls in the area) through a more distant microphone placement and abundant use of reverb. Engineer Norman Smith takes a lot of credit for this, especially given how amateurish the band sounded eight months earlier when they auditioned. (See my mini-chat with Norman here.) I originally said 14 songs, but just changed it to 10, because I had forgotten that four of the songs released on the UK album had already been recorded for their singles. But recording 10 songs is still impressive. They did many, many takes of each track until they got it right, while John was suffering through a heavy cold and borderline laryngitis. They also recorded an 11th song, “Hold Me Tight” that was, well, a little too loose, so it didn't make the cut. (For you technophiles, they recorded straight onto a two-track BTR tape machine.)

    Regarding new industries launched, that might require a separate post, but one was rock journalism, in which serious writers would analyze a band’s recordings as serious art. Rightly or wrongly, there was nothing considered artistic about pre-Beatles rock & roll. The most obvious new industry was the rock & roll band industry itself. Until The Beatles came along there were VERY few “self-contained” bands. Suddenly here was a team of musicians who did all the singing and playing themselves and even wrote many of their own songs! This brand of autonomy was unheard of in 1963. In my hometown of Arlington MA, within a few months of the Beatles' invasion a year later there were hundreds of kids learning to play guitar, harmonizing with their pals, jamming in their basements. As for careers ended, it was twilight of the gods for the Steve Lawrences of the world (at least as pop recording stars) as well as for surf guitarists and singing nuns. And as I’ve mentioned before, a lot of great soul and R&B was displaced on the charts too by this resurgence of rock.

  2. "pre-Socratic philosophy"

    Your career as a minor rock god may have been less than hoped for, but I have to believe it eclipsed anything you'd have done in pre-Socratic philosophy.

    You don't seem this much older than I, but I have no personal memory of the Beatles this early on.

    Here's an industry launched: analyzing the Beatles' effect on modern culture.

  3. Presocratic Greek philosophy was a pretty cool field for a classicist in the mid-60s. Studying Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Thales, Anaxagoras, and Parmenides had its appeal. (Heraclitus was the dude who said, "You can't step into the same river twice," tho it seems to me you can't step into the same river once.) But ancient Greek didn't exactly "pull birds," to use a Fab expression.

    I didn't know anything about the lads in early 1963, but hearing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" blaring out of my transistor radio that Christmas changed my life. Then seeing a video of them on Jack Paar in early January 1964 sealed the deal. By then I had dug my old snare drum out of the basement (I had played drums and percussion in a school band) and was torturing my family with it.

  4. What I failed to mention is my source for the details on the Please Please Me recording session: Jude Southerland Kessler's Shivering Inside — her second book in a 9-volume set on John Lennon's life. Jude is the most thorough Beatles researcher I know. She devotes 45 pages of her book to the events of that session.

  5. Don't what's up with that picture, but there's no mike on the amp, and there's no way you can record vocals with the singers that far away from the mike. This was obviously a fake set-up for the camera. In later Abbey Road recording pics, you see the drums are boothed-off with huge plexiglass acoustic isolators, and the amps are properly isolated as well. The way you get "live" ambience as the text described (and the early Stones did this as well) is to closely mike everything as usual, but blend in stereo room mikes which are just hanging low above the band--I say stereo mindful that this early product was all mono but this was just for coverage. This process allows you to get an optimal blend of crisp, tight vocals and band, but still hear some of what it sounded like in the room--exactly to the degree you need. But ambient mikes hear rooms completely differently than the human ear so you can't just hang a couple of mikes in the room.

    1. (Disclaimers: I'm not a recording engineer, I'm just a guy with an opinion. And my comments clearly ignore a temporal difference of 30+ years.)

      Louie Armstrong's early recordings with King Oliver were done using a single horn as a mic (speakers and mics are essentially the same, just modified for which direction the sound is going.)

      The King Oliver sessions with Armstrong involved having everyone in the room at the proper distance and facing the right direction to get the mix right. This meant Oliver was near the mic, facing it, and Armstrong was across the room, facing away. With the difference in power of their playing, it was the only way to balance their horns.

      Yeah, the photo was probably a marketing piece, not an analysis of recording process. I'm just not sure it's the only possible interpretation.

  6. I had just assumed that a photographer took this shot at the beginning of the Please Please Me session while they were rehearsing some parts and weren't completely set up. It just has that rehearsal look to me.

    But on closer inspection the Beatles' relatively short hair makes me think this was an earlier session. I just looked it up, and it turns out they had a session on 9/4/62 at EMI (their first with Ringo) in which they rehearsed for awhile, then recorded “Love Me Do” and “How Do You Do It.” Photographer Dezo Hoffman was hired to take official pix of the band during that session, whereas I don’t think he was at the 2/11/63 session. So I’d bet this photo is from that earlier rehearsal/recording session.

  7. From a Brit perspective, I have to say that my own view is the revolution began when Chuck Berry started recording. We've had this discussion before (JGO'L has opined it all started when a certain, "Awop Bop a Loo Wop..." was committed to tape) but I can't help but feel The Beatles, as good as they were, were really picking up the baton. You could argue that the baton had been dropped in the early 60s and we can debate the realtive merits of The Beatles vs. the early rock n' rollers, but I do think they were picking up the baton and running the second leg of the race.

    And I'm also enough of a fuddy duddy to think that their early work proves that the feeling and fun you get from a record are in inverse proportion to the amount of time spent recording it.

  8. I'd be the first to concede that Phase 1 began with Elvis, Chuck, and Richard. Without any one of them — certainly Elvis — there would have been no rock & roll explosion in 1956 and therefore no Beatles. (Buddy and Jerry Lee were key contributors too by 1957.) Yeah, the Fabs were picking up the baton but they turned the race into an international spectacle.

    I hate to get picky, Mark, but that's "Awop Bop a Loo MOP." We expect better rock literacy from our readers.

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