03/21/2013 05:27 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

Please Please Me at 50: Britain's Rock Monarchy Begins


The first sound on the first album. Paul McCartney's impromptu count-off that became the fanfare of a new British Empire that would engulf the world and leave no free nation untouched.

Fifty years ago, on March 22, 1963, EMI released Please Please Me, the debut LP by its newest budding act, The Beatles. Though no one knew at the time, it was the first stage of the showbiz equivalent of an Apollo Saturn V moon rocket, bigger, faster and stronger than anything that had come before. It spent thirty weeks at the top of the British album charts, which had previously been dominated by easy-listening vocalists and film soundtracks. The torch was passed from the old pop guard to a new youth movement to be known as Rock.

Barely a year earlier, the group had performed their first major label audition for Decca only to be rejected, as they would be many times by other labels in the ensuing months. Eventually, in the summer of 1962, they charmed producer and A&R man George Martin into signing them to EMI's Parlophone label. By year's end they had cracked the top twenty on the British charts with their first single and they had a second one on deck. Not bad for a group who had started the year off with little more than a local following in Liverpool and Hamburg, and was shuffling drummers like Spinal Tap.

The following year, they would spontaneously combust in a good way. Shortly after its Jan. 11 release, the "Please Please Me" single (recorded the previous November) began climbing the charts rapidly, catching Mr. Martin by surprise. "Suddenly we had a hit group on our hands and I wanted to get an album out as quickly as possible. And the obvious way to do it was to record pretty quickly." The original idea was to take a mobile recording unit up to Liverpool and tape the group performing live at the Cavern Club, capturing the excitement of this hot new band in their element. But when that was deemed too much of a hassle that wouldn't guarantee a good sounding result, Martin settled for having the boys run through their Cavern set in London's Abbey Road studio 2 on Feb. 11, picking the best numbers and adding them to the singles and B sides they had already cut. But how could they hope to convey the infectious energy of a live Beatles show in the calm atmosphere of a studio without a stage or an audience?

Studio engineer Norman Smith, the unsung hero of the Beatles' first six albums (who would later produce Pink Floyd), had an idea. The standard method of recording bands was to partition each instrument and place microphones up close so they wouldn't pick up nearby sounds. Smith did away with this practice, removing the sound baffles and pulling back the mics to let the sounds "bleed" from one to the other. He set the Beatles' equipment close together like a jazz combo, and placed ambient mics several feet away to get the sound of the room. The atmosphere was set and the rest was up to the band.

"It was done in twelve hours because they wouldn't spend any more money," John Lennon explained. In those days it was common for a pop group to track an album's worth of material in a single day. What was uncommon was for that one day to produce so much world-class material. The Beatles were not in the best shape, having slogged through one of the harshest winters on record with little downtime. They had colds, which inflamed their sinuses and altered their voices. In spite of this, they were well rehearsed, tight and polished, and from the first song, they were on. With each hour, they grew increasingly more at ease and the energy kept building, as if they had conjured up their own stomping, sweaty audience out of thin air. Several tracks ("I Saw Her Standing There", "Boys", "Twist and Shout") were nailed on the first take. "I don't know how they do it," Martin was heard to say. "We've been recording all day and the longer they go, the better they get."

By the evening session, they were flying through their favorite cover tunes and having a ball, racing to a thunderous, stunning climax with "Twist and Shout." After that, Lennon's larynx was in shreds. "I was bitterly ashamed of it," he said later, "because I knew I could sing it better." Lennon would spend the rest of the decade backing up that statement, from "Money" all the way up through "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." But "Twist and Shout" remains arguably his most iconic performance, because of the youthful determination found in it. Perfect in its imperfection, that track alone delivers the essential truth about the Beatles -- the instant knowledge that John, Paul, George and Ringo put forth everything they had in them and left it all on the field, from the first album to the last.

Please Please Me hit number one on May 11, 1963 and stayed there until the first week of December, yielding to its followup, the mania-inducing juggernaut With The Beatles. Although tracks from Please Please Me were issued at various times in the U.S. on different labels, the album itself, with complete tracks and artwork, didn't appear in the U.S. until its worldwide CD release in 1987. It is now available everywhere on remastered vinyl, capturing a day in history that changed music forever.