The Beatles, “Anna (Go to Him)” from Please Please Me (1963): Deep Beatles

Share this:

This week’s column marks the first in a series exploring some of the Beatles’ most notable covers.

What makes the Beatles unique is how they gathered numerous musical genres, blended them, added their own songwriting techniques, and ultimately created an utterly original sound. One of their most important influences, rhythm and blues, helped shape their material. From Ringo Starr’s hard-driving drumming style to John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s voices to George Harrison’s songwriting, R&B played a significant role in the Beatles’ development. In turn, the band introduced audiences to talents often unfairly overlooked by the very countries that produced them.

One such example is Arthur Alexander, the Alabama-born singer-songwriter who experienced limited crossover success. Thanks to the Beatles, listeners were reintroduced to an artist with a highly personal composing style and a powerful voice. Their cover of Alexander’s “Anna (Go to Him)” pays homage to an underrated singer and highly personal songwriter.

As I have previously discussed in my DeepSoul column, Alexander began as a songwriter, penning the 1958 hit “She Wanna Rock.” After the success of that song, he seized on the opportunity to embark on a solo career. At the same time, songwriter Rick Hall and Alexander built a recording studio in Alabama; that business would later develop into the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Alexander’s 1962 song “You Better Move On” became the first song recorded in the studio, and reached No. 24 on the pop charts.

Unfortunately his partnership with Hall ended, and while he scored the Top 10 R&B hit “Anna (Go to Him)” that same year, he would be dropped by the Dot Label in 1965. What followed was a remarkable string of bad luck; he toiled in obscurity as a bus driver until releasing the comeback album Lonely Just Like Me in 1993. Sadly, he passed away while he promoting the disc. Thankfully, the Beatles’ recording of “Anna” and live covers of “You Better Move On,” “Soldier of Love,” and “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues” have helped keep his legacy alive.

In his autobiography Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life, Graham Nash recalled discussing “Anna” with Lennon on February 10, 1963. The Hollies and the Beatles had both performed shows at nearby Manchester venues, so the groups met for drinks afterward. According to Nash, Lennon appeared anxious about the next day’s recording session and expressed frustration over songs the Beatles should include on the album. “I want to do this fuckin’ song, ‘Anna,’ by Arthur Alexander … but I can’t remember the fuckin’ words,” he snarled. Nash responded that the Hollies had frequently performed that track in their shows, and happily wrote out the words for Lennon.

Despite this lapse in memory, John Lennon and the Beatles were longtime fans of Alexander. “We were lucky coming from Liverpool because it was a port and it seemed that half of Liverpool was in the Merchant Navy,” Starr says in Paul Du Noyer’s Liverpool, Wondrous Place: From the Cavern to the Capital of Culture. “All these records were coming from America, so you could find out about Arthur Alexander and people like that.”

George Martin concurred, explaining in Anthology that due to Liverpool’s port status, “[the Beatles] certainly knew more about Motown and black music than anyone else did, and that was a tremendous influence on them.” In 1987, McCartney told Mark Lewisohn that “If the Beatles ever wanted ‘a sound’ it was R&B. That was what we used to listen to, what we used to like, what we wanted to be like: Black. That was basically it. Arthur Alexander.” McCartney also admitted in Tune In that “it came out whiter because it always does; we’re white and we were just young Liverpool musicians. We didn’t have any finesse to be able to actually sound black.”

The Beatles recorded “Anna (Go to Him)” at Abbey Road during the marathon February 11 sessions that produced 1963’s Please Please Me, nailing the song in three takes. McCartney assumed bass and backing vocals; Lennon played rhythm guitar and sings lead vocals; Harrison played lead guitar and sang backing vocals; and Starr assumed the drums. Subsequently “Anna” became a staple of their live shows in 1962-63. While “Anna” was never released as a single, it was included in the Beatles’ radio appearances. They recorded the song twice for the BBC show Pop Go the Beatles; the second version is available on the compilation On Air: Live at the BBC, Volume 2.

The Beatles modeled their rendition loosely on the original, although there are notable differences. Strings and piano dominate Arthur Alexander’s version, but the drum pattern is retained in the Beatles’ cover. In addition, backing vocals are kept largely at a minimum, allowing Alexander’s tender vocals to remain in the foreground. In contrast, Harrison and McCartney execute the wistful backing of “Anna,” their voices lingering over each syllable. Their tight harmonies also frame Lennon’s soul-bearing vocals in the bridge, enhancing the drama and the narrator’s anguish.

The original features an uncertain ending, the song fading out as Alexander repeats “go with him.” Instead, the Beatles end “Anna (Go to Him)” on a defiant note, suggesting the narrator has moved on – or is at least attempting to do so. To underscore that point, Lennon adds the line “you can go with him, girl” right before the final repetition of the title phrase, as if granting his lover her final wish. Finally, Harrison’s lead guitar replicates the piano riffs present in the original.

According to Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, Alexander’s voice exudes “moody romantic resignation.” Lennon’s approach, states MacDonald, omits the “discreet display of sensitivity in the lyric—the singer attempting to melt Anna’s heart by assuring her that he cares more for her happiness than his own—found no echo in Lennon’s dealings with women at the time.” This “angry” approach resurfaced in future Lennon compositions such as “Run for Your Life” and “No Reply,” both concerning a man apparently betrayed by his lover and angrily terminating the relationship (or at least warning he will take such action). The mashup below illustrates the singers’ different interpretations of the lyrics.

Another fascinating aspect of the Beatles’ cover is how they subtly altered Arthur Alexander’s lyrics. In the original version, Alexander sang: “Just one more thing, girl / Give back my ring to me / And darlin’ you’ll be free / To go with him.” In contrast, Lennon cries: “Just one more thing, girl / You give back your ring to me / And I will set you free / Go with him.”

Alexander’s lyrics allow the woman slightly more autonomy; in other words, once she chooses to give back his ring, she will be free. In the Beatles’ rendition of “Anna,” the man seemingly controls the relationship and grants her freedom. Note that while both versions use the phrase “go to him” in the title, the lyrics actually state “go with him.”

With each album, the Beatles focused less on covers and more on developing original material. However, reexamining these early songs reveals the diverse musical influences the Beatles draw from. “Anna (Go to Him)” would impact Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney’s songwriting, and Alexander’s heartfelt vocal style would influence John Lennon’s intensely personal performances in future Beatles songs and solo work.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
Share this:
Close