"Chains" is a song from the illustrious Goffin-King catalog, originally recorded by The Cookies in 1962. The Cookies were best known at that point as the backup singers for Little Eva of "Locomotion" fame (to say nothing of "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby"), but they actually backed up several different singers at various points; in fact, "Chains" was one of their rare hits on their own, and a minor one at that. I'm unfamiliar with the original and today am once again unable to find it on the interwebs (if someone else can find a link, pass it along!), so unfortunately we'll have to skip that listen for now. What little I've read about "Chains" suggests that it was a bigger hit in Liverpool than almost anywhere else, a favorite of lots of local bands in the Merseyside scene.
So of course the Beatles had it in their live act too, with George covering the lead vocal. And it apparently seemed like a good one for Please Please Me, the album put together in a marathon 17-hour session to capitalize on the band's newfound fame. The track features the trademark early Beatles harmonica courtesy of John, but not very much of it-- it's in the introduction and really nowhere else, which is almost a little sad. Instead, the rest of the track is dominated by the thick, slowish three-part harmonies in the vocals and a shuffly guitar sound that really does put that Merseyside kind of skiffle sound in mind, doesn't it? I guess maybe it's not so surprising that those bands responded well to this song.
George gets criticized in this song sometimes for not bringing a bit more to it, and also for being out of tune (so says our friend Ian MacDonald, anyway), which-- yes. Okay. It's kind of out of tune. (And not the only Beatles song it's fair to say this about, by the way.) Worse, there's a tentativeness to George's vocal, particularly on the verses where he's singing solo, that can be a little off-putting. I swear "Chains" suffers, too, for its placement on Please Please Me, sandwiched as it is between John's soulful delivery of "Anna (Go to Him)" and Ringo's slightly tuneless but totally, totally spirited vocal on "Boys." By comparison, it's pretty much guaranteed come off the worse. Because on its own, I figure it's not bad. George mostly sounds nervous, or perhaps tired. As we've seen, even on earlier recordings, George is completely capable of delivering a dynamite, energized vocal, but here I think he gets a little comfortable in the laid-back groove of "Chains" and can't quite seem to find his core sound. Listen to Paul on the top notes of the three-part chords on the chorus-- he's giving it his all, as if he can hear that George needs a hand injecting some life into this thing. At least that's how I like to hear it.
So you're not going to hear me trying to argue that "Chains" is the best track ever, or even the best track on Please Please Me, but it's cool enough for my tastes. And speaking of cool, I feel like we need to give Ringo some kind of due here, if nothing else. Not only does he keep everyone in a perfect swing zone, he actually has some pretty killer fills, especially coming out of the verses into the choruses. The second time, in particular, he is doing something with the bass drum that can only be described as sweet. On the coda, too, listen to those cymbals! It's just another moment where Ringo is steadfastly, and modestly, keeping the whole texture really cool and interesting. Rock on Ringo.
"Chains," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of Please Please Me, March 22, 1963; in the U.S., side A track 4 of Introducing the Beatles, January 10, 1964.