Throughout their careers, the Beatles enjoyed challenging audiences with sophisticated lyrics and avant-garde leanings. In their early days, they demonstrated their willingness to take risks by covering unlikely songs ranging from Broadway to country to R&B.
Demonstrating an affection for “girl groups,” the Beatles paid tribute to groups such as the Marvelettes, the Donays, the Shirrelles, and a lesser-known group called the Cookies. The Please Please Me track “Chains” also represents their love of good songwriting, as the tune was composed by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Clearly, the Beatles would learn from the masters and also become expert at transforming unlikely songs into their own.
The Brooklyn-based Cookies have a long and complicated history despite their lesser-known status today. Formed in the early 1950s, the group originally consisted of Margie Hendrix, Ethel “Earl-Jean” McCrea, and Pat Lyles. Their first breakthrough came when they were signed to Atlantic Records in 1955, scoring an R&B Top 10 hit with the single “In Paradise.” However, the lineup had a short life thanks to a historic figure: Ray Charles. After Charles signed with Atlantic, he transformed them into his backing singing group the Raelettes.
Thus the Cookies name remained dormant until 1962, when original member McCrea reformed the group with Dorothy Jones and Margaret Ross. Finding work at the famed Brill Building, the trio cut demos for songwriters such as Tony Orlando and Neil Sedaka; these recordings would then be sent to artists for consideration.
According to AllMusic’s Bruce Eder, the group became an essential part of Aldon Music in more ways than one; it was McCrea who suggested Little Eva as a babysitter for new parents Carole King and husband Gerry Goffin. The teenager would become a recording star with King and Goffin’s first bonafide hit, “The Locomotion.” That single also boasted impressive backing singers: the Cookies themselves.
Regardless of its true meaning, “Chains” reached No. 17 on the pop charts in fall 1962; after releasing several more singles, the Cookies parted ways in 1964. McCrea subsequently embarked on a solo career, recording under the name “Earl-Jean”; all seemed promising when she released her first 45 in summer 1964, the sunny pop chestnut “I’m into Something Good.” Unfortunately for her, Herman’s Hermits would record their cover version in the fall, ultimately scoring the biggest hit with the song.
The Cookies may have faded into oblivion except for the Beatles. Like other American R&B tracks, “Chains” became a favorite among Liverpudlian bands, and a staple of the Beatles’ early live shows. They may have also run across the track in Brian Epstein’s NEMS store, similar to other singles such as “Devil in His Heart” by the similarly obscure the Donays.
When the Beatles entered Abbey Road Studios to record Please Please Me on February 11, 1963, they brought a smattering of original compositions as well as their most beloved covers, among them “Chains.” With George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney assuming the three-part harmonies that the Cookies originally performed, they put their own stamp on what was previously considered just a “girl group” track. Harrison played lead guitar; Lennon contributed rhythm guitar and harmonica; McCartney played bass; and Starr assumed, as usual, the drums.
In addition to its appearance on Please Please Me, “Chains” would also be performed in BBC shows such as Side by Side, Here We Go, and Pop Go the Beatles. One of the live renditions is available on the compilation On Air: Live at the BBC, Volume 2. Due to the increasing volume of Beatles’ original compositions, “Chains” would be subsequently dropped from their concerts.
In One to One, the 1982 concert video companion to her album of the same name, King recalled her surprise and excitement over the Beatles choosing to cover her song. Her performance of “Chains” also reveals her original intention for the track: a salute to street-corner harmonies.
Despite King’s enthusiastic endorsement, not all critics appreciate the Beatles’ take on “Chains.” Ian MacDonald, author of Revolution in the Head, did not believe “Chains” represented the Beatles at their best. He pronounced the song “slightly out of tune” and “low on spontaneity,” stating that Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney’s three-part harmony stifles the power of the Cookies’ original vocals.
MacDonald even criticizes the fact that they had to lower the key to fit Harrison’s range. This decision, he argues, “forfeits the original’s swagger” and “ is … defeated by pushing him in the mix so as to hide the harmony and reveal the thinness of his voice.” MacDonald concludes that the Beatles did not do the song justice, claiming that the ending fadeout was added “either because in retrospect [the original ending] seemed corny or because they messed it up.” In a final judgement, he accuses the group of not sounding “committed” to the track.
But a closer listen to “Chains” reveals an alternate perspective. Even in the three-part harmonies, Harrison’s voice dominates throughout the track. His slightly raspy vocals may reveal the strain of the marathon recording session, but his voice quality emphasizes the desperation of the lyrics.
The bouncy beat belies the narrator’s uneasiness; in contrast, Lennon’s opening harmonica previews the protagonist’s regrettable situation. He is resisting surrendering completely to love. These chains “ain’t they kind that you can see,” but he cannot break free from them and “run around.” The bridge reveals that the narrator is speaking to a girl, stating that he is not free to date her. Instead, he is “imprisoned by these … chains of love,” thanks to his current relationship. As the song fades out, George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney repeat the phrase “chains of love” as if underscoring the hopelessness of this love affair.
Another key ingredient is Ringo Starr’s deft but delicate drumming style, letting the vocals take center stage. Anyone who doubts Starr’s versatility as drummer need only compare how his performance in “Chains” versus the next Please Please Me track, “Boys,” a straightforward rocker.
Critics may argue about the Beatles’ take on “Chains,” but one fact is not in dispute: the song provides a snapshot of the early Beatles, a period when they were still learning from other artists. In their formative years, the band would find relatively obscure records, rearrange them to fit their style, and perform them in front of enthusiastic audiences. Eventually Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney’s own compositions would replace covers like “Chains,” but the Beatles learned their craft by listening to the era’s acknowledged masters. This King and Goffin track typifies that early period, a time when the band was forming their own identity.
“Chains” may have quickly faded from their repertoire, but it resurfaced in an amusing place: the Beatles cartoon series. In the season one segment, Harrison, Lennon and McCartney are depicted rescuing Starr from being trapped — naturally — in chains.