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Unsold Beatles op-ed

Saturday 2/11/23

A lesson from the Beatles’ “There’s a Place,” the first grown-up song in rock and roll history.

The Beatles had themselves a remarkable day on February 11, 1963, when rock and roll grew up considerably. Aiming to capitalize on the moderate success of their first single, “Love Me Do,” the Beatles repaired to EMI studios at Abbey Road to cut their first album, Please Please Me, in a marathon 585-minute session.

Among the treasures of the date was a Beatles song that doubles as the first mature composition in rock history, a work that would usher in much that followed, and holds a potent message for us today.

That song was “There’s a Place,” which was primarily a John Lennon composition, with an assist from Paul McCartney. Until this moment, rock songs were about moons in June, nipping out for a date with your steady, and what one might get up to in a cinema balcony. The Beatles had their influences, but “There’s a Place” was the indicator that a sui generis talent had entered the pop culture fray.

Rock songs then, like so much in our world now, focused on the external. They weren’t well-meant messages encouraging anyone to look within. Rock was leather-clad, and centered on being tough. When it was tender, it was tender in tough guy fashion, which is to say, partially for show.

Lennon himself postured as a tough guy, a young man who wouldn’t wear his glasses for fear that someone else might think him “soft.” At the end of this extended session, he screamed the lyrics to “Twist and Shout”—as plain a song about copulation as rock and soul had produced—to the point of tearing his larynx.

And yet, here was also this song of intense interiority, with the singer touting a place he can go to when he feels bad and life isn’t going as he wishes. That place is within. The self is the sanctuary. Not the girl, not the roughhousing with friends, nor the stabs at machismo.

People in the social media age generally act as if they need to pretend that all is perpetually well. They admit of no setbacks, no insecurity, no loneliness, which has an ironic knack for compounding those very things.

“There’s a Place” was and remains an emboldening song in its candor. Here was emotional nakedness. Not a pose, not simulacrum. All-out authenticity.

That’s the trick of admitting of where one is at. No one thinks that person is weaker for doing so. The Beatles recognized this truth at their very first album session. “There’s a Place” is rarely discussed as a major work from the band, but they must have viewed it as the departure song, the piece that suggested there’d be other doors for them to open in time and to help lead others through.

One such portal would be 1967’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which seems a long ways off from that cold day in 1963, but it opens up and lets us in the same way that “There’s a Place” does. I doubt Lennon would have written it if he hadn’t been the kind of person who could pen the earlier number.

Lennon had a cold at the February 11 session, which made it hard for him to hit assorted notes. On the released version of “There’s a Place,” there is itself a place where Lennon’s voice audibly cracks.

This was an upstart band and the expectation was that this first album session would likely be their last. The career of a pop group wasn’t one earmarked for an extended run. Still, they could have nipped back to the studio, done the song again, but they left it as is, and I wouldn’t trade those cracked lines for a perfect vocal rendering.

It’s human and real. I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve listened to “There’s a Place,” but each time I do, I feel like I’m returning home, to a friend. The friend is not just the song, nor the album itself—it’s the emotional immediacy and guidance that comes with the best art.

Often we feel like there’s nowhere we can go, but we tote a readymade port around with us, and the Beatles got this as well as any act ever has.

“And it’s my mind,” Lennon sings, with McCartney’s voice to back him up. “When I’m alone.”

He doesn’t sound worried. He doesn’t sound unmoored. He sounds secure. At peace.

“There’s a Place” is the song that set the Beatles free to be the Beatles. It’s the gateway song that evinces that the best art, like the best people, take us back to ourselves. Then we might better understand what’s there to be found, in our place of places. Wise lads.


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