Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Beatles' Please Please Me: Remaking a Classic


This documentary about younger artists recreating the Beatles' day-long recording session for their first LP was better than I expected. It will be available on BBC iplayer here until 1:39AM GMT until Wednesday the 27th, and is worth watching.

As you may have guessed from this blog my interest in popular music and its makers falls off sharply by the seventies, so my expectations weren't very high: why watch this when you could be listening to the original album? But what was interesting to see was that quite a few of those involved were okay about following the Beatles' blueprints - not slavishly copying, but seeing them, not unreasonably, as a pretty reliable guides. And it was, essentially, about an act of homage, at a historical moment (the fiftieth anniversary to the day) in the place where it originally happened, so there was never likely to be much in the way of iconoclasm.

But it wasn't a tribute band experience either: Mick Hucknall's remaining ginger locks were neither literally nor metaphorically concealed beneath a Beatles wig. He made the point that Lennon stuck pretty close to Arthur Alexander's vocal for Anna, and the show was partly about acknowledging those artists like Alexander and the Shirelles, who had been covered by various Liverpool groups.


Stuart Maconie, presenting, asked a consortium of members of Liverpool bands "Why the Shirelles?" and I can't remember their answer, other than the availability of records, but I suspect it was because the lead singer had a really tough, streetwise-sounding voice: I used to have a tape which on which her vocal for Baby, It's You was wholly separate from the backing in the other channel and I would often listen to that on its own. (Presumably Lennon heard a mono 45, but the background is so distant and ethereal that the lead still cuts through anyway.)

The best moments for me were those which seemed to come out of the performers' deep affection for the album and served to remind us of its qualities. Do You Want to Know a Secret? may not be the best ever Lennon composition but Ian Brodie's version conjured up Lennon (yes, yes, I know George sang it), made us see the romantic yearning, the child in the man. And Graham Coxon, a self-confessed "creaky-voiced indie boy" gave a great reading of Baby, It's You, despite admitting to being cowed by having to do justice to the Beatles and Bacharach in one. What came out was just fine: no phoney over-emoting, no big physical gestures (he was hands-in-pockets throughout), just a self-effacing vocal which stuck close to Lennon's every move and yet gave us something else too: there was a suggestion of tremulousness which seemed to suggest emotional involvement.

The big finish was Beverley Knight's take on Twist and Shout, and a nice detail was that an Abbey Road engineer who'd been present at the original session, and said that he'd been unable to keep still at the sight and sound of Lennon in full cry, could be seen for a moment subliminally grooving in a manner more befitting to one of his advanced age (top).

Not much more to say, really, except watch it if you can. As we were hearing the full tracks in a one hour programme the interview snippets before or after the songs were fairly brief but you did feel they got to the essence of what most performers felt. We heard a phonecall to Burt Bacharach in which he said he had been reluctant to listen to the Beatles' version of Baby, It's You but ***SPOILER ALERT!!!!*** discovered he needn't have worried. Wonder what he thought of Graham Coxon's?


 

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