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50 years ago, the Beatles found their ‘Place’

The Beatles — (from left) Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison — performing on British television in 1963.

David Redfern/Redferns

The Beatles — (from left) Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison — performing on British television in 1963.

Excerpted from Ian MacDonald’s ‘‘Revolution in the Head,’’ a song-by-song history of the Beatles’ records. MacDonald was a British music critic; he died in 2003.

Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles entered Abbey Road studios to begin a marathon session to record their first album, ‘‘Please Please Me.’’ In the passage below, MacDonald describes the recording of the first song of the session, Lennon and McCartney’s ‘‘There’s a Place’’:

Nothing better demonstrates the speed at which the Beatles found themselves as songwriters than this stirring period piece, the first title to be taped during the 10-hour session for their debut LP, ‘‘Please Please Me.’’ Borrowed from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘‘Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us),’’ the lyric is a young man’s declaration of independence — an assertion of self-sufficient defiance which, matched by music of pride and poignancy, marks a minor milestone in the emergence of the new youth culture. The strength of feeling in this record is inescapable and, arriving at No. 2 in the US singles chart in April 1964, it duly transfixed American adolescents used to the bland commercialization of their lives in ‘‘beach movies’’ and ‘‘teen music.’’

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Some of the forcefulness of ‘‘There’s a Place’’ may have derived from Lennon’s original intent to emulate what he referred to as the ‘‘Motown, black thing,’’ though little of this survives in the finished song. (He was presumably thinking of the Isley Brothers, then signed to the Wand label.) Recorded in 13 takes, it’s a rough-house performance whose two-part harmony in fourths and fifths shows, if nothing else, that Lennon had a heavy cold; yet the passion of his and McCartney’s singing cuts through, while the band’s drive is fiercely urgent. Lennon supplies the low harmony for Mc­Cartney, stepping forward only on the first and third lines of the middle eight and dropping back again to an octave unison for the aerial answering phrases.

Taking into account the taming effects of compression and the then-standard UK studio practice of damping the bass to stop the stylus jumping on domestic record decks, this is the authentic contemporary sound of the Beatles live — the singers miked in front of their backline of amps, unsegregated by baffles. With the studio clock ticking implacably and a near-impossible schedule to keep, the immediacy of the take was everything and no concession to tidiness could be afforded. Pitches wobble, microphones ‘pop,’ drums stumble, larynxes tear: 1:47 of the real thing.

According to Barry Miles’s biography of Paul McCartney, the song is a co-composition ‘‘but with a bias toward being Paul’s original idea’’ since he owned a copy of Bernstein’s ‘‘West Side Story’’ in which ‘‘Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)’’ appears.

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