“‘Seventeen,’ take two.”

Been on the road for weeks.

Sick as a dog.

It’s bloody 11 in the morning, hardly the time for rock ‘n’ roll.

Have a listen…

The Music of Caves

credit: thegilly

It’s common knowledge that the Beatles honed their sound playing in places like The Cavern, a cellar underneath Mathew Street in Liverpool that was used as an air raid station in World War II.

But they were not the first ‘band’ to hone their musical skills in a cave.

Around 25,000 years ago, Paleo-lithic tribes living in limestone caves like Pech Merle in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France painted red dots to deliberately mark the places inside the cave that had special acoustical properties where they could “excite the resonances” or mimic the sounds of the animals also painted on the cave walls. Professor Steven Errede of the University of Illinois, writing about the research conducted by researcher Iegor Reznikoff of the University of Paris X in Nanterre, reports:

These underground caverns function as immense echo chambers – their naturally-formed vaults are capable of producing sounds similar to those that can be heard in the most famous cathedrals and chapels in Europe, such as the Baptistry di Pisa in Italy.

Perhaps these occasions were the world’s first “rock” concerts – singing and playing musical instruments inside of a gigantic, complex, multiply-connected organ pipe, exciting complex resonances and echoes as they sang and played! They were actually inside a naturally-formed musical instrument of gigantic proportions!

The reverberant/resonant acoustical properties of these caves must have seemed mystical, if not magical (or even supernatural) to them, not having any quantitative understanding of these physical phenomena.

Between 1961 and 1963, the Beatles made 292 appearances at the Cavern. During their time in that cave, the Beatles mastered the art of creating three-part harmonies. While harmonies were somewhat common in pop music at the time, it was rare to find songs with three-part harmonies driven by the pulsating beat of a rock ‘n’ roll band. This became one of their differentiators, to use a marketing term, that helped them evolve from being a band that some Liverpudlians mistakenly thought was a German band to a national phenomenon on the verge of re-writing rock ‘n’ roll history.

Professor Errede reports of visting the Basilica di Pisa, and listening as the cathedral guard sang the individual notes of a C-Major triad – C-E-G – the same triad structure that was often used by the Beatles’ in singing their three-part harmonies, and how those simple musical notes circulating inside the cave-like basilica dome became something completely different.

The sound of this human-generated major triad evolved from what initially started off as recognizably human into a gloriously complex, temporally and spatially-changing sound that was beyond human.

By all accounts the acoustics of The Cavern would never be mistaken for the acoustics found inside the great cathedrals or Paleo-Lithic caves, but the reverb effect of playing in a cave undoubtedly energized their music and the fans listening to them. While the low-fi quality of this video could never capture the “mystical” experience that must have occurred inside that cave underneath Mathew Street in Liverpool, it at least lends a glimpse of what it must have been like. Check it out

Thank, Thank Hugo

Alternative cover for "Please Please Me" by Alex Hendler

An alternative version of the cover. It was hard to choose!

As the Beatles discovered in working with George Martin, no artist is an island, and I have Mr. Hugo Campos to thank for the great book cover (and web site header) he designed. Hugo and I met years ago while working at a San Francisco digital ad agency. In fact, I recommended we NOT hire him. Not the first or last mistake I’ve made because Hugo can pretty much design anything you give him with a phenomenal result – and he always does it with a concerted effort, thoughtful rationale, and a keen eye.

E-book cover design is still in its infancy, with no standard yet set. If you look at the Kindle Store or iBookstore, you’ll notice that, for a majority of the titles, a lot of the text is unreadable on the book cover thumbnails. This would normally get most designers fired, but the reason for that is the major publishers are just repurposing the covers used for their standard book publishing (just goes to show you how old school they are). Really they should be designing a separate version for their e-book releases.

Anyway, Hugo managed to come up with a design that I thought a) best captures the essence of the subject matter and the era and b) works very well with the e-book format, so he very much “pleased pleased” me.

Hugo is a leading light in the patient rights’ movement to secure the data outputted by their medical devices. Check out his very interesting TEDx talk.

Please Please Me Research Sources

Tape box with Beatle cuts for Please Please Me LPThere’s a lot of valuable historical material out there that made the telling of this story a little easier, including:

Way Beyond Compare – The Beatles’ Recorded Legacy by John C. Winn

The Beatles Recording Sessions – The Official Abbey Studio Session Notes by Mark Lewisohn

The Beatles’ Anthology – by The Beatles

But perhaps the most valuable resource was being able to hear takes from the actual session itself, which can be done here and here. Some of the chitter-chatter between takes in the Please Please Me e-book was ripped directly from the tapes.

We’re lucky the tapes managed to survive, because the usual policy back then was to get rid of the stuff that wasn’t used. Thus, the famous “Roy Orbison” demo version of “Please Please Me” appears to be gone forever, but fortunately many more treasures still exist allowing us to listen in as the Beatles work.

“[‘Please Please Me’] was my attempt at writing a Roy Orbison song, would you believe it? I wrote it in the bedroom in my house at Menlove Avenue, which was my auntie’s place. I remember the day and the pink eyelet on the bed and I heard Roy Orbison doing ‘Only the Lonely‘ or something. That’s where that came from. And also I was also always intrigued by the words of [sings] ‘Please lend a little ear to my pleas’ – a Bing Crosby song. I was always intrigued by the double use of the word ‘please.’ So it was a combination of Roy Orbison and Bing Crosby.”
– John Lennon
Quoted in The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono 
Interviews by David Sheff