Before Beatlemania and The Ed Sullivan Show; before they met Queen Elizabeth and smoked pot with Bob Dylan; before they sprouted drooping mustaches, dropped acid, discovered sitars and pilgrimaged to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Himalayan retreat; before John met Yoko, before the walrus was Paul; before they took over popular music and, um, transformed Western culture – before all that, at 10 in the morning on February 11th, 1963, the Beatles were merely the world's finest little rock & roll band, gathered at Abbey Road studios in London to make a debut album. Twelve hours later, they'd done it. Of all the astonishing things about Please Please Me – and there are many – the most impressive may simply be the quick-and-dirty haste with which it was recorded. In 2011, it can take a band a dozen hours to mike the kick drum. But in a single long day – with just a £400 budget – the Beatles laid down 10 songs for their album, including some of their most indelible early performances: "I Saw Her Standing There," "There's a Place," "Do You Want to Know a Secret," "Baby It's You." The day's work wrapped up, sometime around 10:45, with a shirtless John Lennon roaring himself hoarse through two takes of "Twist and Shout." "It was amazingly cheap, no messing, just a massive effort from us," Paul McCartney later recalled. "At the end of the day, you had your album."
Coming into that day, the Beatles already had two singles under their belts. In October 1962, they released "Love Me Do," the bluesy vamp that McCartney had first dreamed up while playing hooky from school at age 16. "Love Me Do" was backed with another Lennon-McCartney original, "P.S. I Love You," which offered further evidence of their precocious songwriting gifts and the sheer strangeness – the mixture of rock & roll toughness and old-fashioned tunesmithery, the weirdly beautiful vocal harmonies, the wild left turns of their chord progressions.
"Love Me Do" reached Number 17 in the U.K. and was followed up, on January 11th, 1963, by another single, the emphatically rocking "Please Please Me." A week later, on January 19th, the Beatles performed "Please Please Me" on Thank Your Lucky Stars, a nationally broadcast pop showcase. It was the harshest winter in many years, and a huge audience of snowbound Britons tuned in to a transfixing spectacle: four Liverpudlian lads with odd haircuts, bashing through a ferociously catchy song whose lyric sounded suspiciously like a plea for orgasmic reciprocation.
That performance was enough to make the Beatles the hottest act in British music. Soon the Beatles' label, Parlophone, sent a request for a full album. In those days, 14 songs were the standard number on a long-playing record. So the Beatles entered Abbey Road that winter morning knowing that their task was to churn out the additional 10 songs. It was a job for which they were uniquely well-suited. They had honed their craft, and made their name, as a volcanic live act. In Hamburg, Germany, and at the Cavern Club in their hometown of Liverpool, the Beatles were renowned for the intensity of their performances, and for their stamina – for playing marathon shows, fueled by a schoolboyishly giddy love of rock & roll, and by over-the-counter uppers. At Abbey Road on February 11th, the Beatles' producer, George Martin, sought simply to capture the band's live energy, to turn a staid studio – previously known for recordings made there by the London Symphony Orchestra and Peter Sellers – into an annex of the sweaty, sepulchral Cavern Club. "It was a straightforward performance of [the Beatles'] stage repertoire – a broadcast, more or less," Martin recalled. "I had been up to the Cavern and I'd seen what they could do. . . . I said, 'Let's record every song you've got.' "
Those songs ran the gamut. There were girl-group covers ("Boys" and "Baby It's You," both by the Shirelles), R&B songs (Arthur Alexander's stormy "Anna [Go to Him]") and show tunes ("A Taste of Honey"). There were rave-ups ("Twist and Shout") and ballads ("Do You Want to Know a Secret"). There were unclassifiable things like "There's a Place" – an unusually introspective midtempo ballad, whose melody was tugged downward by lustrous minor-seventh chords. Soon enough, they'd be calling songs like that "Beatlesque."
The man charged with getting the music on tape was in many ways the temperamental opposite of his young charges. George Martin was a Londoner; the Beatles were Liverpudlian "scousers." Martin was a classically trained musician who as a child dreamed of becoming the next Rachmaninoff; the Beatles were musical autodidacts who couldn't tell a treble clef from a cleft chin. Martin was an Englishman of his generation, born between the First and Second World Wars, restrained, formal, a bit stiff; the Beatles were impish children of the first rock & roll revolution. When they first tested for Martin, he asked them to tell him if there was anything they didn't like. "Well, for a start, I don't like your tie," George Harrison shot back.
But Martin and the Beatles soon formed an odd-bedfellows partnership. The producer had initially been resistant to the Beatles recording their own material, but when they finished recording "Please Please Me," he told them, "Congratulations, gentlemen, you've just made your first Number One." (Not quite: The single peaked at Number Two on the U.K. charts.) "He had a very great musical knowledge and background," Lennon recalled. "I mean, he taught us a lot, and I'm sure we taught him a lot by our primitive musical ability."
Both Martin's sophistication and the Beatles' rough-and-ready musical intuition were on display during that long Abbey Road session. The Beatles played, and looked, like road-tested rockers. (When they showed up at Abbey Road with their equipment, the amplifiers were filled with mash notes from female fans.) Almost all the songs were recorded live, with only a few overdubs. McCartney's vocal in "A Taste of Honey" was doubled, to delightfully eerie effect. The Beatles added hand claps to "I Saw Her Standing There," and Lennon overdubbed a harmonica part on "There's a Place."
But for the most part, the session was a testament to the Beatles' warhorse durability – grinding out song after song, take after take, with unflagging adrenaline. They banged through 13 takes of "There's a Place," 12 of "I Saw Her Standing There," three of "Anna (Go to Him)." They nailed Ringo Starr's vocal showpiece, "Boys," in a single take. They even made 13 passes at "Hold Me Tight," a song that was left on the cutting-room floor. When Martin, the engineer Norman Smith and the tape operator Richard Langham piled off to a nearby pub for a lunch break, the Beatles stayed behind to rehearse. No one at the session could remember a band playing through lunch.
Finally, just around 10 p.m., the Beatles had completed nine songs. No one was sure what to do for the final number. Someone suggested the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout," a barnburning fixture of the Beatles' live act, with Lennon on lead vocals. Lennon was suffering from a cold; after 12 straight hours of singing, his voice was nearly shot. But he decided to give it a try. He sucked on a couple of throat lozenges, gargled a glass of milk and headed onto the studio floor. Two takes later, the album was a wrap.
"The last song nearly killed me," Lennon said years later. "Every time I swallowed it was like sandpaper. I was always bitterly ashamed of it, because I could sing it better than that; but now it doesn't bother me. You can hear that I'm just a frantic guy doing his best."
Even when frantic, the Beatles' best was awfully good. Please Please Me is now considered a landmark. It captures the group at its scruffiest and most "bar band" – it is a document, as Lennon once said, of the Beatles before they were "the 'clever' Beatles."
As their career took off, the Beatles got artier, more sophisticated, more visionary. But they were never purer than on Please Please Me.
This story is from the special Rolling Stone edition The Beatles: The Ultimate Album-by-Album Guide, November 24th, 2011.
Photo by Terry O'Neill/Getty Images