As part of our series Blogging the Beatles, we’re featuring occasional excerpts from Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, a thrilling song-by-song history of the Beatles’ records that Slate’s Stephen Metcalf has called “one of the best, if not the best, work of pop culture criticism I’ve ever read.” MacDonald was a British music critic; he died in 2003.
50 years ago today, the Beatles recorded “She Loves You.” Below, MacDonald describes how they wrote and recorded the single, which he describes as “one of the most explosive pop records ever made.”
Lennon and McCartney wrote “She Loves You” in a Newcastle hotel room after a gig at the Majestic Ballroom on June 26, 1963. The initial idea (from McCartney) consisted of using the third person rather than their usual first and second.* To judge from the expressive link between the song’s words and melody, a roughed-out lyric must have come next, after which the pair presumably fell into the phrase-swapping mode familiar from “From Me to You.”
The opening lines follow speech inflections and stay within the compass of their chords—obviously Lennon’s work. What changes them, making a straightforward sequence surprising, is McCartney’s harmony. Already maturing, the partnership’s writing formula can be heard here as the dual expression of Lennon’s downbeat cynicism and McCartney’s get-up-and-go optimism. Much of the pair’s musical originality derived from their self-taught willingness to let their fingers discover chord-sequences by exploring the architecture of their guitars rather than following orthodox progressions. Yet these choices were driven by the harmonies they used—and these arguably reflected the contrast of their temperaments. Even at this stage their relationship could be acerbic and they were capable of bickering vitriolically in public, though under this lay an enduring emotional bond and a steady respect for each other’s talent and intelligence which overrode their disagreements. Like all lasting music, The Beatles’ best work is as much the expression of a state of mind as a construction in sound, and in “She Loves You” Lennon and McCartney can be heard fusing their different outlooks in musical form. The result is an authentic distillation of the atmosphere of that time, and one of the most explosive pop records ever made.
Five days after writing the song, they were in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, giving it final shape. Beyond the basic words and music lay the vital work of arranging, at which juncture the Beatles became not a duo but a quartet. The contribution of Starr and Harrison to “She Loves You” demonstrates the group’s acute cohesion. The drums on the chorus—which, reputedly on George Martin’s advice, begins the song, delaying arrival at the tonic (G major)—are intrinsic to the track’s dynamics, creating tension by replacing the offbeat with tom-tom quavers before blazing into the thrashed open hi-hat of Starr’s classic Beatlemania style. Steering the arrangement's changes with his gruff seven-note riff and gleaming Gretsch arpeggios, Harrison completes his contribution by adding a jazz sixth to the final “Yeah” of the chorus. No record of the takes involved in making “She Loves You” survives and it is impossible to know how much of its final form was evolved during the five-hour session in which it and its B-side, “I’ll Get You,” were recorded. The Beatles were known for their agility in making adjustments from take to take, and Johnny Dean, editor of The Beatles Book, who was at the session, recalls that the song seemed to him to have altered quite dramatically by the time it reached the form preserved on record.** If so, that only serves as further testament to the tightness of The Beatles as an operating unit. There were no passengers in this group and, when a situation warranted it, their drive to achieve was unanimous.
Issued in Britain in August 1963, “She Loves You” was an enormous hit and remains their biggest-selling U.K. single. Prodigally original yet instantly communicative, it owed much of its success to the naturalness of the match between its music and the everyday language of its lyric. The contour of the melodic line fits the feeling and rhythm of the words perfectly—and, where it doesn’t, the singers make a virtue out of it by altering their inflection (e.g., the cajoling emphasis of “apologize to her”). Indeed, so much were Lennon and McCartney led by their lyric conception here that there was no room for their usual middle eight, the space being usurped by an outrageous eight-bar bridge which, via a violent push, lands on C minor. Beyond doubt, though, the record’s hottest attraction was its notorious “Yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain, from which the group became known throughout Europe as the Yeah-Yeahs. (Almost as celebrated were their falsetto "ooos," stolen from The Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” and grafted onto “She Loves You,” along with the visual hook of McCartney and Harrison shaking their mop-top hair-dos as they delivered them. When The Beatles first showed this to their colleagues on tour, it was greeted with hilarity. Lennon, though, insisted that it would work, and was proved correct. Whenever the head-shaking ‘ooo’s came round, the level of the audiences’ delirium would leap.)
Claiming the British showbiz throne with their appearance on ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium on Oct. 13, the group brought their set to a climax with “She Loves You.” For the first time, a pop phenomenon which thrilled England’s youngsters became ruefully acknowledged by their parents.
* McCartney recalls some musical influence from Bobby Rydell, whose “Forget Him” was then in the U.K. charts.
** Lennon, as quoted by biographer Ray Coleman: “We stuck in everything—thinking when Elvis did ‘All Shook Up,’ that was the first time I heard ‘Uh huh,’ ‘Oh yeah,’ and ‘Yeah, yeah’ all in the same song.”
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