‘Twist and Shout’: The one-take Beatles song that nearly “killed” John Lennon

One of The Beatles’ great strengths was their ability to adapt pre-existing material and make their guitar-drums-bass arrangement the definitive version. ‘Twist and Shout’ is a shining example. Initially recorded by The Top Notes and then by The Isley Brothers, the Fab Four’s 1964 rendition of the song has since eclipsed the original by some margin, becoming one of The Beatles’ most famous recordings. It was also recorded in just a single take.

Written by Phil Medley and Bert Russell, ‘Twist and Shout’ was first recorded in 1961 and released as a B-Side by Atlantic Records artists The Top Notes, featuring production by newly-appointed Atlantic Records producer Phil Spector. Unsatisfied with Spector’s work on the track, Bert handed ‘Twist and Shout’ to a struggling R&B group called The Isley Brothers, who released their version in 1962, scoring a top 20 Billboard hit in the process.

It was this version that The Beatles came across in November 1962. The first known recording we have of the song was made at London’s Paris Studios for the BBC’s Talent Spot radio show. It subsequently entered their live repertoire and became a staple of their sets in Hamburg’s Star and Indra clubs.

On their return to the UK, the Beatles were signed to EMI. On February 11th, 1964, producer George Martin took them to EMI studios to record “a selection of things I’ve chosen from what you do at the Cavern” for the Please Please Me album. When the session came to a close at 10pm, The Beatles were still in need of a showstopper to close the album.

“I knew that ‘Twist And Shout’ was a real larynx-tearer,” Martin remembers in Anthology, “and I said, ‘We’re not going to record that until the very end of the day, because if we record it early on, you’re not going to have any voice left.’ So that was the last thing we did that night.” The only problem was that Lennon’s voice was already on the cusp of collapse. It had been nearly 12 hours since The Beatles had started work, and John knew that he’d only be able to sing the track once before his voice went completely. Undaunted, he put a couple of lozenges on his tongue, had a swig of hot milk and strode over to the microphone.

Performing the track in the same way they would live, The Beatles gave a pitch-perfect take, stunning everyone in the studio. Even George Martin was lost for words, although that didn’t stop him from getting them to do a second take. The track was performed for a second time, but John’s voice began to crack, so they ended up using the first recording. “The last song nearly killed me,” Lennon said in Anthology. “My voice wasn’t the same for a long time after; every time I swallowed, it was like sandpaper. I was always bitterly ashamed of it because I could sing it better than that, but now it doesn’t bother me. You can hear that I’m just a frantic guy doing his best.”

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