Updated: Mar 23
The Beatles had a surprising habit of blowing their big shots at success in the early phases of their career. They also had a miraculous tendency to fail upwards.
Not getting what they wanted, but instead what they needed, gave the band time to breath and develop at numerous crucial junctures of their progress and often left them with an accidental discovery or two that would set them apart.
Their May 1960 audition for pop impresario Larry Parnes was marred by their ‘rhythm’s in the guitars’ excuse for drummer Tommy Moore not bothering to show up. This was compounded by Stuart Sutcliffe’s artful and mysterious ‘back to the audience’ performance, lest the judge rightly judge him for fumbling his notes. However, instead of getting the gig to back local Liverpool break-out star, Billy Fury on a national tour, they instead got offered the chance to follow relatively unknown nice boy Johnny Gentle around the backwaters of Scotland, offering the band a much needed opportunity to hone their skills to new, naive audiences night after night.
“That tour was the first time we had actually seen what it was like to be on the road. There’s no doubt Scotland gave us a taste for whatever it was we were looking for. It was a turning point.” Long John Silver of the Silver Beetles.
This pattern followed them around. The January 1st 1962 audition for Decca records saw each member leave their confidence and charisma at the door. This confidence was hard earned via gruelling Hamburg stints and Liverpool gig schedules that developed alongside a growing obsessive local following. A strange muted performance for Decca’s Mike Smith followed. Immediately unsettled by the recording technicians’ refusal to allow the band to use their failing amplifiers, they had to plug in to sterile sound studio monitors in a sterile, cold recording studio. Mike Smith also turned up late, nursing a not so Johnny Gentle hangover from the previous night’s NYE celebrations. The session was further hindered by weak drumming from Pete Best, lacklustre vocals from John Lennon and a slightly theatrical performance from McCartney, he likely sensing the band weren’t on their game and so tried to over compensate. Only George Harrison came out of the audition with any real merit - his guitar was mostly assured and his vocal performances lively and confident. But this wasn’t the Beatles that Liverpool knew..
Money (That's What I Want) from the Decca audition shows a stilted, nervous Lennon and oddly weak-voiced backed by an insipid and VERY white sounding group.
Of course, Decca passed and on listening back now, it’s no great shock as to why…but it was to the 1962 Beatles. This failure, though nearly fatal, ultimately lead to George Martin and Parlaphone, via a series of almost impossible events as outlined in Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In Vol.1.
Except, they nearly failed here, on the 6th June 1962, too. It’s well known that their drummer wasn’t up to recording standards but it was in their material, equipment, presentation, rudimentary playing and lack of any obvious front man (let’s take a moment to chuckle with hindsight at this observation) that had George Martin and Norman Smith, the present engineer, wondering what had strolled into Studio Number 2.
“The Beatles didn’t make a very good impression…I mean, we heard nothing of John and Paul’s songwriting ability…They had tiny little Vox amplifiers and speakers which didn’t create much of a sound. We actually had to tie string around John’s amplifier to stop the rattling. [And] there were also problems with Pete Best’s drums”Norman Smith
Hardly love at fist sight, it was thanks to their bluster and ’sod it’ repartee rather then their product that Marting considered them worth persisting with. Taking the several hints, they replaced their drummer and set about maximising their opportunity. Eventually, they managed to get the simplistic Love Me Do on tape, and coupling it with P.S. I Love You, into the charts. On the 26th November, nearly a full five months from the original Love Me Do session, the Beatles had struck an important chord with their new producer. Against his better judgement, he’d released the single from their first sessions (remade later), and now here he was - stuck with them and their interesting new batch of songs.
By the time Please Please Me was released and went to number one (depending on which chart you believe), 1963 had arrived. Martin was determined to capitalise on the first sniff of success and booked them into Studio Number 2 on the 11th February to make an album. The scene was set. This was their moment.
John woke up on the morning of the 11th of February, with one of the most challenging and important feats of endurance the band had yet faced ahead of him, with a stinking cold. Throat sore, nose blocked Lennon had ten or so hours with which to manage lead and backing vocals, knowing that lurking around a dark corner was Twist & Shout.
Whereas during New Years Day 1962’s Decca audition, a usually full throated Lennon was subdued - not knowing whether to go full throttle rocker or present himself as a more palatable pop star, he did neither. Here, he’d surely intended to cast aside any insecurities and give the EMI staff the Cavern treatment. Except he couldn’t.
It’s strange now to think that the record buying public didn’t really get to know the Lennon voice until the band's follow up album, November 1963’s With The Beatles. Until then it was hidden in support in Love Me Do, harmony in Please Please Me, and in duet with From Me To You…or restrained via lashings of reverb on the Please Please Me album material.
There’s a Place shows a shaky, very live, vocal performance with neither John nor Paul able to hold a note down for long, Misery is stuffy and throaty, Baby, It’s You is full of lush harmonies but driven by an earnest vibrato free delivery from John - a much better, more definitive performance is to be found on the first Live at the BBC album - exhibit A in the case of the prosecution of the difference between John's 1963 voice and his 11th February 1963 voice.
And then we come to Anna (Go To Him).
Arthur Alexander’s loping ballideering was an immediate favourite of Lennon’s, and had they not nicked the chord sequence from his Soldier of Love (It Won’t Be Long, All I Got To Do), they’d probably have placed that on an early album, too. The Dot record label also housed other important Beatle artists, like the Del Vikings and Lonnie Donegan, but Alexander roused some exceptional material from the band, specifically Lennon alongside the two already mentioned sits the Star Club's exceptional Where Have You Been All My Life.
Live, Anna was a powerhouse performance - put to a swaying, loping back beat, and with Paul and George in full on yearning mode, John would vocalise at the extremities of his range, like Marvin Gaye on Heard It Through The Grapevine, giving live performances a vibrato laden angst that was neither found on the original or on the Please Please Me cover version. This may have been by design or a result of George Harrison raising the key from a B on the original to a D, making the dobedoodoododoo motif easier to play on the guitar, but it pushes Lennon’s vocal performance to a pleasing break, revealing a more lustful, menacing tone, replacing Alexander’s romantic plea.
Alexander wrote the song about his own wife’s affair, but the sadness and desperation is all in Lennon’s Please Please Me album performance. Perhaps born of regret of his acts of extramarital affairs, or perhaps from the desperation he had to meet the woman that would elicit future pleading from him (this is all conjecture) but in the chorus/middle eight, going from a G to a G minor, ‘All of my life, I been searching…’ Lennon reaches something that elevates the song above the rest of the cover material found on the debut album, a direct sophisticated communication from somewhere beyond the trousers.
Unable to rely on his powerful upper register due to his cold, Lennon aimed instead for total communication, a good six years before he and Yoko got into a bag. Revolution in the Head author, Ian MacDonald argues the opposite. Instead of reaching new depths with the performance, he felt Lennon sounded like:
“A passionate youth grappling with a man’s song.”
But that take is a little disingenuous, paying little acknowledgement to the life John had already lived. Lennon’s strength was always speed and directness of communication, whether his wit or his ability to “write straight away what he felt” (Klaus Voorman), and at this session, restricted by illness but buoyed on by desperation in needing to make amends for historic recording failures, he demonstrated his ability to reach absolute sincerity, twice. Once on Anna (Go To Him) and again on the Shirelles’ Baby, It’s You. This was achieved without forceful bluster, but by a more sophisticated approach - likely delivered by closing his eyes and exercising significant restraint. It’s easy to visualise him concentrating on taking his voice as far as it would go before his breaking his vocal chords irreparably, ending the session prematurely.
By finding another way and having to fail upward, he’d found something that perhaps wouldn’t be present on another Beatle record - he was about to enter into his peak years as a rock vocalist - but the shackles placed on him by a virus lead to confirmation of the arrival of a new type of vocal technician. John Lennon the emoter.