Six decades ago this month—on March 22, 1963—the British record label Parlophone released Please Please Me, the Beatles’ first LP. In commemoration, the New York Review of Books has re-run a 1968 appreciation of the band by Ned Rorem, the genre-shifting classical composer. Rorem characterized the Beatles’ emergence as “one of the most healthy events in music since 1950.”
Besides its title track, Please Please Me encompasses thirteen songs, including “Twist and Shout,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and the Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do,” a two-chord oddity that Ian MacDonald, author of The New Shostakovich as well as a song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ oeuvre, Revolution in the Head, called “extraordinarily raw by the standards of its time, standing out from the tame fare offered on the Light Programme and Radio Luxembourg like a bare brick wall in a suburban sitting-room.” Two singles from the album were released in America in mid-’63 by a Chicago blues and R&B label, Vee-Jay, but failed to break into the Billboard Hot 100.
Perhaps it took the roiling events that would give such a manic-depressive quality to 1963––the death in early June of Pope John XXIII (and with it, some feared, the demise of John’s policy of aggiornamento, “updating”); the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in August; the March on Washington the same month; and, in cruel culmination of the year’s roller-coaster ride, the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22––to open the ears (and hearts) of the American public, by year’s end emotionally spent, to the cheeky wit and fresh take on rock ‘n’ roll offered by the Beatles. As Rorem would observe, “Our need for [the Beatles] is…specifically a renewal, a renewal of pleasure.”
While Beatles fans continually renew the pleasure of listening to Please Please Me, whether on smartphones, CDs, or once-again-popular vinyl, perhaps the premier accomplishment of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr was the rocket-like trajectory described by their music in the four years from that first album to the arrival in 1967 of the emotionally complex and musically audacious Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, several of whose tracks won the hearty approval of the art-song master Rorem, particularly “She’s Leaving Home”: “A mazurka equal in melancholy and melodic distinction to those of Chopin.”
This quantum leap calls to mind Miles Davis’s progression from innovative yet radio-friendly covers of Broadway tunes like “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” in 1956 to his austere modal masterpiece Kind of Blue in 1959. Whose was the greater stride? Considering this question should happily engage any discerning fan of twentieth-century popular music. Whatever our answer, it reminds us of how our lives are enriched by all artists who invite us to join them in taking such glorious risks.