I’ve been visiting Stewart at Number1sblog for a few years. His blog never lets me down. Learning about #1 songs in the UK and how different the American charts can be from them. He is currently in the year 1989 but travel back to see the previous years also. He always gives you a quality take on every #1 song.
Stewart writes about every UK number one single at number1sblog.com. He’s 630 singles in, give or take, and about to enter the 1990s…
When Max asked us to write a post on our favourite Beatles song, I instantly thought about choosing one of their seventeen UK number one singles. It would have been ‘on-brand’ for me, at least, at the number 1s blog. But I’ve been there and done those, so I decided to cast my eye one place further down the charts.
The Fab Four have two very famous #2 singles. One is the ‘Penny Lane’ / ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ double-A that became their first single in four years not to make #1, in March 1967 (famously held off by none other than Engelbert Humperdinck). The other is the single that introduced them to the British public in January 1963: ‘Please Please Me’.
‘Love Me Do’ had been the Beatles’ first single to make the charts a few months before. It has huge significance, for obvious reasons, in the history of the band but I’ve never loved it. It’s slow, it’s a bit predictable. Not terrible, not at all, but I can’t imagine many who heard it on the wireless in October 1962 thinking that this new band were going to change the world. ‘Please Please Me’, however…
There are many moments in the Beatles’ discography in which they took a lightyear-sized step towards the future, and this was the first. The tempo has increased a hundred-fold from ‘Love Me Do’, everything – guitars, vocals, drums – is tight, the harmonies inspired by the Everly Brothers, the harmonica in the intro an alarm announcing them to the world. John Lennon was the main player here: he wrote it, and it’s his harmonica that gives the song its distinctive hook. It’s a simple song (a lot of the early, early Merseybeat hits were traditional pop arrangements modernised with guitars and drums) and originally a slow, bluesy number that George Martin thought was dreary. It’s him we have to thank for upping the tempo, and turning this into a rattling, breakneck pop hit, with that wonderful, swinging middle-eight.
The record was released during one of Britain’s worst-ever winters, and legend has it that the audience for their performance of the song on ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ on January 19th would have even larger than usual, with large swathes of the country snowbound. This was the first time most people had seen or heard The Beatles, with their long (by 1963 standards) hair and their natty suits. It created a buzz, and got them booked on tours supporting Tommy Roe, Helen Shapiro, and Roy Orbison. ‘Please Please Me’ began to shoot up the charts, and by the time those tours came around The Beatles had been bumped up the bill to headliners. Martin predicted that it would be the Beatles’ first number one hit, and he was correct.
Well, sort of… The singles charts of the 1950s and ’60s were a tad messy. There wasn’t just one of them, for a start. You had the ‘Melody Maker’ chart, the ‘NME’ chart, and the ‘Record Retailer’ chart. None of which offered a complete overview of a week’s sales – they all conducted ‘surveys’ of select record stores over the phone. ‘Please Please Me’ hit #1 in the NME chart (which had the largest circulation) and ‘Melody Maker’ chart, but it only reached #2 in ‘Record Retailer’, which was the one that the Official Singles Chart chose to follow. So, it may well have been the UK’s biggest selling single at some point; we’ll just never know for sure… The history books record it as having stalled behind Frank Ifield’s dull-as-dishwater country ballad ‘The Wayward Wind’ for two weeks.
It’s far from the only single to have suffered this unfortunate fate – it wasn’t until 1969 that the UK charts were unified into one – but it’s a landmark single from the biggest pop group in history, with one of the very best middle-eights. And it set the tone for the next two years, in which the Fab Four would release single after single of pop perfection. ‘From Me to You’, the record that officially gave them their first #1, was perhaps a step back towards ‘Love Me Do’. But then came ‘She Loves You’, and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, and there was no looking back.
It’s interesting to note that an intervention from George Martin, and a particularly snowy winter, contributed to the official start of Beatlemania. Of course a band as good as the Beatles, with a songwriting partnership as prolific as Lennon-McCartney, would have made it eventually. It’s just fitting that ‘Please Please Me’, their first of many, many great songs, was the record that did it.