The upside of The Beatles’ overnight success in America (nearly two years in the making) was a back catalogue ripe for discovery by newly-minted Beatlemaniacs. When the handful of singles owned by minor US labels Vee-Jay and Swan were depleted, however, fans began turning to imports. “Love Me Do,” the very first Beatles record (under their own name, at any rate), was recorded in 1962 but never got an American release. While some of the musical cognoscenti were hip to “She Loves You” pre-British Invasion, “Love Me Do” was completely unheard by the American public. Vee-Jay, which had been in serious financial trouble just the year before, capitalized on the band’s popularity and the import single’s unprecedented success by finally issuing the record in April 1964, where it shot to the top of the charts.
After the relative sophistication of the band’s previous American hits, “Love Me Do” is a glaring regression. If “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “She Loves You” could be condemned for having simplistic lyrics, then those of “Love Me Do” are borderline moronic. One of the first songs written by a 16-year-old Paul McCartney, the lyrics consist almost entirely of “Love, love me do/You know I love you/I’ll always be true/So please, love me do” – repeated four times. “Our greatest philosophical song,” McCartney deemed it, only half-jokingly.* The band’s co-option of American music is more blatant here, as they (not entirely successfully) attempt to take on the blues. “It came out whiter because it always does,” McCartney recalled.**
Nevertheless, the surplus of hooks on offer – the Everly Brothers harmonies on “ple-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ease,” followed by McCartney’s coy reading of the title lyric and John Lennon’s infectious harmonica riff – hint at the band’s potential. It was the harmonica that convinced producer George Martin to opt for “Love Me Do” as the Beatles’ debut single over the professionally-written song he had chosen for the recording session. (That song, “How Do You Do It,” would become a UK #1 in a version by Gerry and the Pacemakers.) Apart from its starring role in Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby,” the harmonica was still a novelty in early ‘60s pop music. In Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald argues that the band’s use of the instrument was not so much aping American blues as “suggesting to British audiences the blunt vitality of working-class Northernness as introduced around 1960 in soundtracks to films like Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and A Taste of Honey.” Likewise, basing the record around the vernacular phrase “love me do” is an explicit statement of how different The Beatles were from their counterparts in both London and America. Unlike The Rolling Stones and the British blues movement, The Beatles were less interested in “authentically” recreating American music than they were in reassembling and reinterpreting it. “Love Me Do” may be the band’s go at a blues record, but it’s as much country as anything else. Even with their first single, The Beatles were already expanding their sound, blending their musical influences and trying something different. So while “Love Me Do” may not represent the zenith of The Beatles’ career, it serves as a fine introduction – or, in the case of America, a fine way to bolster the momentum of Beatlemania. 8
*Quote from Beatles: In Their Own Words, edited by Barry Miles (1978).
**Quote from Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America by Jonathan Gould (2007).
Hit #1 on May 30, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
109 of 983 #1’s reviewed; 11.01% through the Hot 100