Monday, July 20, 2009

There's a Place

Today I really want to go to this place, wherever it is. Oh yeah-- it's my mind.

My own brain reminds me of a lightly wooded area, perhaps a public park, where a gigantic bevy of squirrels scamper nonstop up and down the trees, neurotically wringing their little hands, squeaking irritably at each other, and cocking their heads at strange angles as if they keep forgetting where they were going. When I can get the squirrels to freaking shut up and shove off-- a task and a half-- I can retreat there and lay out a picnic in the sunshine, listening to the Beatles songs my brain plays on constant rotation, while John Lennon (circa 1966) sits beside me feeding me olives and Paul McCartney (also circa 1966) sits on my other side and pours me, oh, let's say a Pimm's Cup. In these rare moments, my brain can actually be a pleasant place to hang out. 

So I think I get what John and Paul are going on about in "There's a Place," a hidden gem of a track if there ever was one. It does, indeed, seem to be written by the two of them together at Paul's family home in Liverpool, though I think John came in with a chunk of it completed, and I feel like I've read some critical disagreement on this-- so take what I'm saying with a grain of salt, as it might be all John. The germ of the song comes from the West Side Story soundtrack, oddly enough-- the song "Somewhere" with its opening line "There's a place for us" seems to have struck a chord with the boys. (And, see? Let's not give too much cred to John when he goes on about granny songs, because as a youth he was totally sitting around with Paul listening to West Side Story and getting all moved by it.) But in their song, the "There's a Place" line goes somewhere kind of surprising, which is into the mind and the realm of the internal. It's not like "There's a Place" achieves great poetry, really, but for an early Beatles song the lyrics have some surprising depth. The "place" in question is not anywhere where the girl in question might actually hang out, but inside the mind, where everything is guaranteed to be even better and probably a lot more intense than whatever the reality is. There really is no sorrow, just like in my own little squirrel-free Beatle-filled fantasy. "There's a Place" almost revels in a sense of discovery in one's imaginative power-- it's less a love song than a song about John and Paul figuring out that they're artistic. And there's something so uniquely adolescent about that, isn't there? Definitely something the kids could relate to.

It's also, perhaps, why the song sounds so joyous as to be almost unhinged. There's not a song on Please Please Me that DOESN'T sounds raucous and exuberant and this close to totally falling apart, but "There's a Place" really stands out for me.  The tempo is as solid as ever thanks to Ringo, but I hear an urge to keep pushing it faster-- I don't know how else to describe that, but do you hear it too? Speaking of Ringo, it's one of the album's standout performances. I'm especially talking about the sound he gets on the triplets going into the second half of the verses-- the "and--it's--my--mind" bits. That, combined with the fact that Paul is singing up to the top of his range and hitting this almost-but-not-quite jarring fourth against John's vocal, makes that part so unspeakably kickass I almost can't stand it. Chills, kids. CHILLS. Oh, and speaking of the way that the vocals and the drums are complementing each other, the other really great moment in the song is when the instruments drop out and John and Paul duet on that little melisma "the-eh-eh-eh-ere," and then Ringo comes in on this artful little fill just a hair before the beat as they continue the line. Everything about that moment is so damned interesting, and just really smart. "Smart" is a word I use a lot to talk about Beatley stuff, but frequently I'm talking about production and arrangement specifically, so I think it's worth pointing out that "There's a Place," like most of the songs on the Please Please Me album, was recorded in a marathon session by essentially sticking mics in front of the band and telling them to just play, so there's nothing at all fancy going on here production-wise. They were that smart about arrangements as a live band, too.

There's a lot more I could say about the vocals in particular that I'll just touch on briefly before I dash back off to my picnic. Listen to the way John does those funky little trills on the ends of the verse phrases-- speaking of smart, it's particularly smart that only John and not Paul is doing them, as it just makes it that much more richer somehow. Also very cool is the way that the introductory harmonica-- which John somehow gets to sound almost siren-like-- sounds almost out of place and dissonant, until you realize that it's actually playing John's lower harmony vocal on the "and it's my mind" lines. In writing an introduction for this song, would you have ever thought to quote that particular moment? It's SO COOL. And finally, the resonant octaves that John and Paul are hitting on the bridge bits "don't you know that it's so" sound so clear and bell-like and over-the-top ebullient that I think I smile every time I hear them. Just tremendous. "There's a Place" is clearly another vocal showcase-- man, no one sings like John and Paul together, and they rarely sounded as amazing as they do here. Phew! Yow! I need another Pimm's.

"There's a Place," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of Please Please Me, March 22, 1963; in the U.S. side B track 5 of Introducing the Beatles, January 10, 1964.


  1. HEY! Nothing 'granny' about enjoying the stylings of West Side Story ...

  2. This is a case where your writing about the song is better than the song itself.

  3. I happen to agree with you on West Side Story, Troy-- but John doesn't seem like the type to enjoy admitting to liking showtunes, at least not later in his life. Just like we were talking about the other day.

    Neither of you guys seems to like this song as much as you should! Come on! Especially if you're going to defend the likes of "I Need You"-- you gotta give this one another listen.

  4. Because i respect your opinion so much, and i hate to disappoint you, i am listening to the song again ... (pause 1:50 for music) Ah, sorry Meg, it doesn't work for me. I do like the harp play. Does that help??? (smile)

  5. I don't like the first half of the verse, thanks to John's vocal, and the chords are a little weird, especially the change back to the I on "time." Octave on "don't you know that it's so" also doesn't do it for me. This also might be the only song where I ever thought "enough with the harmonica, already." It's one of my least favorites in the catalog -- 197th (and I probably should have it 198th behind All My Loving).

    On the other hand, as my kid asks for I Want to Hold Your Hand every time we're around an iPod or CD player, I've come around on that song, and often think of your post on it, which as usual nailed it.

  6. Heck, Troy, I like All My Loving. Guess we're not always in sync either.

  7. Tough crowd tonight. Well, you can't win them all. You guys are hardly the first to shrug indifferently as I try to win you over to this one. It's honestly one of my favorites on Please Please Me.