Thursday, October 15, 2009

Love Me Do

To be honest, I didn't intentionally put off the Beatles' very first single until now. I just kept not listening to this one, I guess, or not feeling like writing about it. But here we are. And the question of whether or not you can hear a hint of what the Beatles are going to be capable of on "Love Me Do" is an open one, if you ask me. "Love Me Do" is charming, and simple, and swinging, and really almost disarming-- but does it really drip with promise, or break any ground? Unfortunately, as the first single, it's bound to always be saddled with these kinds of questions. I don't entirely know, but I like listening.

Now, there needs to be a quick note here on the variously available versions. The video above is of the original single release, which features Ringo drumming on what was his first session in a recording studio (he had only recently joined the band). You can still hear this version on Past Masters and, nowadays, Mono Masters. More commonly heard, though, is the version that was recorded with a session drummer, Andy White--that one's on Please Please Me as well as later single releases, especially in the U.S. The session drummer had been hired because producer George Martin thought that Pete Best wasn't any good, and was going to use a session drummer on recordings whether anyone liked it or not-- which of course led to Pete being fired and Ringo being brought in. But Martin didn't feel like this version with Ringo drumming was any good either. In Ringo's defense, he hadn't been playing with the Beatles that long and was most likely under-rehearsed; since "Love Me Do" is a Lennon-McCartney original, he wouldn't have been playing it for ages with his previous band (unlike, say, "Boys"). So Andy White played on the second version, with Ringo on tambourine-- and now the presence or lack of tambourine on "Love Me Do" is one of the best ways to hear which version you're listening to right off the bat. That, and the fact that Paul is audibly nervous on the earlier version with Ringo drumming. Which is kind of cute, because nowadays it's hard to imagine Paul McCartney being nervous about anything.

There's also a bit of debate over which version is better, Ringo's or Andy White's (with a third rogue group that sometimes pipes up voting for Pete Best's version, which you can now hear on Anthology 1, and to which my response is, puh-lease). Of course people want to like Ringo's better, but my vote is for Andy White's, unfortunately. Ringo, you do sound under-rehearsed (sorry), and the extra tambourine on the White version is a nice touch, and Paul is singing with more confidence and less of that wobble in his voice (he also gets in a few whoops on the White version). So to my mind, there you have it. Here's the Andy White version so you can decide for yourself.

But this debate always seems so superfluous over such a breezy little song, especially when I get the distinct vibe that "Love Me Do" isn't really loved by that many people. Oh, sure, everyone likes it fine. But you know what I'm saying: the Beatles so quickly outdid themselves with their second single, "Please Please Me," that "Love Me Do" is bound to suffer by comparison.

There's a long history of rock and roll songs relying on deeply unsophisticated lyrics, but for some reason on "Love Me Do" they really stand out, don't they? Maybe it's because the words aren't just unsophisticated-- they're frequently also awkward ("love me, do"-- I know they have some funny expressions in Liverpool, but does anyone actually talk like this?), and they form these little stubby sentences that seem like the height of ineloquence. And, too, some of the rock songs with the dumbest lyrics often rock the hardest, so you get so swept up in the madness of the rock and roll that you just don't care. See, just off the top of my head, "Tutti Frutti." But "Love Me Do"'s not like that-- it's too chilled out, more of a mid-tempo skiffle number than a hard rocker. It tends to remind me more than anything of Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby," that long drawled catcall of a song that also relies so much on harmonica to set the mood and less on its own super-simple lyrics. (Though even Channel's lyrics at least have one fairly complete independent clause at their heart.)

My thesis on "Love Me Do" is that the harmonica line ends up being much more eloquent than the vocal line. There might not be a better harmonica moment in the Beatles' catalog; John is wringing as much soul from that little four-note riff as can be imagined. It's a damned good riff anyway, with its strong emphasis on the flattened seventh (the first and highest pitch John hits) setting up some pleasant dissonance right from the get-go. Every time John hits that first pitch, it wrenches my gut a little bit-- I hear some real emotional resonance, which might mean that John is just a freaking genius on harmonica (possible) or that the song is just written so well and so economically that this moment naturally takes on a lot of heft. Or both.

So the song opens with the head-turning harmonica riff, and then Paul and John come in on the vocal line, which sounds so downright breezy as to sound almost tossed off. Listen to Paul sing "Love, love me do" and the way he just light skips over those last two high notes. He is as casual as can be, as if the song means "well, you know, if you want to go out with me that's cool and all, but no big deal, I mean, right?". Even on the bridge, when Paul is jumping around in between octaves between "someone to love / somebody new," he's doing it so effortlessly (oh, Paul, you SO rule) that he comes off as someone who doesn't care WHAT octave he sings in, cause, you know, it's all the same to him. It's the harmonica that sounds like John and Paul are more emotionally invested in this scenario than they're letting on. It's as if the sung lines are some kind of macho exterior, while the meat of the song, the depth of feeling, is in the harmonica. At least that's how I piece "Love Me Do" together.

I touched on the song's economy already, and to me it's one of the most appealing traits. "Love Me Do" is made from very few musical ingredients-- there are basically two chords, with a third chord (the V) in the bridge providing some good color, and you know you've got a really simple song if your V chord is providing COLOR, of all things. The arrangement shows that even early on the Beatles had a way with a gracefully understated feel to a song-- we've got George on acoustic guitar, Paul just tapping at the bass, John sticking to the harmonica, and the percussion, and that's it. I swear, it's like even as they embark on what's going to be the most successful pop music career ever, they felt like they wanted to say goodbye to skiffle. Because that's kind of what "Love Me Do" is most like. But this song, which John and Paul wrote together (though according to some Paul might have written most of it), has a skeleton strong enough that it doesn't need a lot more than that. It would have been, in fact, completely lame and weird to hang too much more on this. I don't think anyone hearing "Love Me Do" in 1962 could have been prescient enough to predict how great these boys would be, but I also have no problem believing that it was a solid hit in Britain (#17 in the charts, I believe), enough so to warrant the band another single and another shot at fame and fortune. For a really slight little Lennon-McCartney number, "Love Me Do" is oddly lovable. And, you know, they had to start somewhere.

"Love Me Do," released in the U.K. as a single b/w "P.S. I Love You," October 1, 1962; in the U.S. as a Vee Jay single b/w "P.S. I Love You," February 25, 1963.


  1. Great column, Meg. You're certainly doing some of your strongest writing as things wind down toward the end of the year. As i was listening to the first version of the song you posted, I was thinking, man the harmonica is what makes this song work. The song is nice and sweet and clean and tight, but i doubt anyone, outside of George Martin, thought great things lay ahead.

    Question: If session drummer Andy White was so good, why didn't GM and the Beatles pick him to join the band? Was he a way bit older?

  2. Boy it sounds so innocent, doesn't it? How'd they go from this to the suggestiveness of Please, Please Me?

    I agree with Frank; this is another lovely read. There's a ton of stuff I didn't notice in this song till reading this.