Beatles' First Hit Gets 50th Anniversary Re-Release: Here's Why America Rejected It in 1962

The Beatles

The Liverpool quartet known as The Beatles were not only the quintessential rock band, but many considered John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Star to be the original boy band -- especially in the early 1960s when young girls would scream at the top of their lungs and pass out upon first sight of the “Fab Four.”

They have sold more albums in the U.S. than any other artist according to the RIAA.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' debut on Oct. 5, 1962, the survivors plan to release a replica of their first single, “Love Me Do.” John Lennon thought Paul McCartney wrote it around age 15 or 16, circa 1958 (when he also wrote the melody to “When I’m 64”), but McCartney says it was 50-50, one of the first five or so songs he co-wrote with Lennon (after “Too Bad About Sorrows,” the execrable “Just Fun,” the catchy “One After 909” -- recorded on Let It Be -- and “Like Dreamers Do”). Lennon vaguely recalled contributing something “in the middle,” where the melody goes from pop to bluesy:

Someone to love,
Somebody new.
Someone to love,
Someone like you.

This might be the first example of acerbic Lennon’s sardonic reaction to McCartney’s sweetness; if the song’s narrator wants somebody new -- anybody -- just how reliable is his preceding vow “I’ll always be true"?

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The Beatles (with Pete Best as drummer) honed “Love Me Do” in Hamburg in 1960 and at their London recording audition June 6, 1962. Best got fired, and they recorded it with new drummer Ringo Starr on Sept. 4. (This is the version used on the debut single.) Then producer George Martin had them record it again Sept. 11 with session man Andy White on drums (the version used on the first Beatles LP). “Martin had doubts about Ringo too,” New York Times writer Allan Kozinn, author of The Beatles, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The only thing that makes the White version arguably superior is that because White was drumming, Ringo played tambourine, and the tambourine gives that version a slightly brighter, fuller sound.”

But the crucial change -- the one that rescued The Beatles from being a cover band and established Lennon-McCartney as composers -- was not the switch of drummers but the last-minute addition of Lennon’s harmonica solo. "Despite its plodding beat, there was no question it had a catchy melody," Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick wrote in his memoir Here, There and Everywhere. " 'Well, I suppose you've got the kernel of something there,' George Martin said, 'but it needs something extra to make it stand out. Don't you play a bit of harmonica, John? Can you give me something bluesy? Perhaps do a solo?' "

Since then-de facto bandleader Lennon couldn’t both sing lead and play harmonica, McCartney sang lead. You can hear the fear and exhilaration in his voice when he comes in alone after Lennon’s harmonica solo.

“Martin suggested Paul sing,” says Martin biographer Jason Kruppa, “but I don't believe he suggested the harmonica. The harmonica was almost certainly John's idea.” Notorious Lennon biographer Albert Goldman said the solo was suggested by Bruce Channel’s recent hit “Hey Baby,” with Delbert McClinton on harmonica (and also that the guitar hook in "I Feel Fine" and "Day Tripper" was filched from Bobby Parker's “Watch Your Step”). Kozinn calls Goldman “loathsome” and “inaccurate” and hears no McClinton influence in “Love Me Do.”

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Kruppa thinks they were simply being trendy. “Melody Maker, in the summer of 1962, had predicted that the harmonica would be ‘the most popular instrument of 1962’ and by August, Hohner Ltd. had reported a significant increase in sales of the instrument,” says Kruppa. “I think The Beatles were simply plugged into what was going on around them.” 

“Love Me Do” peaked at No. 17 on the British charts -- possibly thanks in part to Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who bought 10,000 copies to boost its sales, according to a new BBC documentary, Love Me Do: The Beatles 1962.

“I kind of like the primitivism of 'Love Me Do,' ” says Kozinn, “both on its own terms -- the blend of American bluesiness and a sort of British folk medievalism that comes through the parallel vocal harmonies perfectly captures their talent for mixing diverse influences -- and because it provides the perfect benchmark against which to measure The Beatles' rapid development both as a band and, in Lennon's and McCartney's case, as songwriters. The jump from 'Love Me Do' to 'Please Please Me' is pretty big. But consider that the vast leap from 'Love Me Do' to 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and the dawn of Sgt. Pepper was a mere four years.”

But America resisted The Beatles at first. In what Ahmet Ertugen biographer Robert Greenfield calls “one of the most grievous errors in the history of the record business,” Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler turned the band down (without telling his partner Ertugen), calling it “derivative.”

For Wexler, a fan of black grown-up music, they were too white and youth-centric. “He was listening with his eyes,” says rock scholar Dave Marsh. “The idea that the most interesting new stuff was going to come out of people making music for teenagers hadn’t occurred to him since he was a teenager.”

The Beatles’ biggest enemy was Dave Dexter, in charge of choosing which releases from Britain’s EMI got released in America on Capitol Records. “For Dexter, the problem with ‘Love Me Do’ was the kind of harmonica being played there,” says Marsh. The very sound that made the band blocked them in America thanks to one executive perpetrating what Marsh calls “an act of sabotage.” As Marsh explains in his scathingly entertaining book The Beatles’ Second Album, Dexter, a great jazz A&R man, hated the new teen pop. “He was like a cartoon. Dave Dexter wanted to hurt people who disagreed with him.” So he rejected The Beatles three times, spurned most of the British Invasion youth bands and accepted instead the tiniest, corniest group on the British scene, Freddie and the Dreamers, creators of a dance fad called “the Freddie.” But when better songs than “Love Me Do” erupted from The Beatles and 73 million people watched them on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, Dexter was forced to release them in America. He “Dexterized” their British albums, shortening them, reordering songs and adding reverb The Beatles detested.

It made sense that the band faced resistance. “The Beatles broke the rules,” says Marsh. “They didn’t spit in your eye, but they laughed in your face if you didn’t get it. ‘What’s the name of your haircut?’ ‘Arthur.’ They were looking to cause trouble, and they did a very good job of it. When you change the world, everybody hates you.” Until they're ready for something beyond the Freddie and they love you forever.