Im sitting in front of the glow of my laptop screen with my nicest pair of headphones wrapped around my skull. The final track on the new remastered version of The Beatles debut album Please Please Me, a primal rendition of The Isley Brothers Twist and Shout, has just wrapped up. Theres a smile on my face and a single thought running through my head: Fuck The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Not just the album, fuck all the people who credit it as being the first alternative album, the first album to weave subversive elements into popular song. I guess this is a curious position for me to hold, since I love the solo albums of John Cale, Nico, and a few Lou Reed records. But there it is: Fuck that shit.
Please Please Me isnt the root of abstract freakout rock, of course. Its primarily a dance record: its goal is to rile up young girls so they can get their ya-yas out, rock the casbah, and kick out the jams. Incidentally, those allusions wouldnt exist without this 1963 masterpiece. Its an electric combination of Chuck Berry riffs, girl-group harmonies, Burt Bacharach-style pop composition, and R&B thump.
Theres more to it, however, and the remastered edition presents this with clarity: Please Please Me is much too clever to be dismissed as fluff. With a clean, bright new sound that makes each instrument sharp and distinct, the remaster makes all the more unusual elements of the songwriting transparent. On a first listen youll surely notice there are more dissonant chords, more snarls in the vocals, and more cheekily delivered lyrics than you remember.
A personal treat is how Paul McCartney’s bass was dealt with. His brilliant, ultra-melodic bass lines are often lost in past recordings, but stab through the mix wonderfully here. This helps showcase his ability to lock into Ringo Starr’s drumming to create a killer groove.
Meanwhile, songs long-maligned as slight, irrelevant excursions (“P.S. I Love You”, “Do You Want to Know a Secret”) reveal their overlooked complexity. “Do You Want to Know a Secret” may be a goofy little love ditty, but the remaster proves the track is only that superficially. Its harmonies are almost creepy; they’re rendered with a surprising David Lynch-vibe that bubbles its way up.
At this point I should take a step back and acknowledge that this isn’t a perfect album, and the remastering can’t cover the deepest flaws. “A Taste of Honey” still sucks, and the harmonica embellishments on tunes like “Chains”, “Love Me Do”, and the title track still sound like crap. Maybe this is a product of the rapid speed at which these songs were recorded (a single day!), but I can’t help wincing my way through some parts of the album. That harmonica’s disgustingly piercing treble sound is reminiscent of nails on a chalkboard.
Despite these minor (likely personal) issues, I can honestly declare that damn, this is worth it. The murk is cleared from the recording, activating not just your feet but, 45+ years later, your mind. This record that is seen as the most representative of their pretty boy period finally reveals that in addition to the bright smile is a knowing wink and a sly grin — and fucking way before The Velvet Underground & Nico. Fuck that shit.