Written by the Brill Building songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, “Chains” was a minor hit in 1962 for The Cookies, Little Eva's backing singers. Although not a huge commercial success, the song was frequently covered by Liverpudlian bands of the time.
The track remained in The Beatles' live repertoire for only a short time, however, and was jettisoned once they assembled a superior set of their own songs.
George Harrison sang lead vocals with Lennon and McCartney providing backing harmonies. Lennon played the harmonica introduction.
Music critic Barry Lenser intensely disliked the song as he believed it was the first time on the Please Please Me album where the Beatles sound indifferent to the material they’re playing. He claims their version is ditty and flat, repetitious, and musically underdressed. He found the harmonies to be staid and none of the Beatles seem to find anything inventive to try instrumentally.
“To hear the earlier, Cookies-performed rendition is to realize that “Chains” is an R&B number through and through and perhaps not ideally suited to the Fab Four’s abilities. In translating it to rock ‘n roll, the Beatles opted to shed the original’s sax drop-ins and handclaps (but why), thereby losing much of its color and looseness. It just doesn’t take flight on the strength alone of their guitar-bass-percussion interplay. And John and Paul’s vocals come off almost stodgy. The Beatles, it seems, simply didn’t know where to take the song.”
What he did find interesting is how the chorus introduces the song and then essentially continues through the space where you’d expect there to be a proper, set-apart verse:
“Several bridge-like, modified verses do arrive later. The chorus and standard verse seem, more or less, merged into one, which facilitates a smooth flow but can also be repetitious.”
He believe the Beatles’ uninspired interpretation serves as a reminder (then) that the future greatest-ever pop band didn’t immediately achieve artistic eminence. They first had to test their evolving skills against the vast and newfangled possibilities of rock ’n’ roll.
Beatle scholar Alan Pollack commented:
“It seems that when it came to the Blues, that the Beatles preferred ordering takeout rather than take a chance with cooking it up for themselves; This song is an example of this phenomenon.”