How “I Want to Hold Your Hand” Revolutionized Pop

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Nov. 11 2013 12:44 PM

How “I Want to Hold Your Hand” Revolutionized Pop

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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, works of pop culture criticism I’ve ever read.” MacDonald was a British music critic; he died in 2003.

Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles released “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Below, MacDonald describes how they wrote and recorded the single, and how it revolutionized pop and rock and roll.

With “She Loves You” at No. 1 in the U.K. throughout September, the Beatles took their second holiday since signing with EMI, returning to Britain early in October. During this break Lennon and McCartney wrote the two sides of their next single, the first Beatles songs for nearly a year not to have been dashed off while touring. Capitol’s refusal to issue the band’s product in the U.S.A. was by now an impediment to their career and a major worry to Brian Epstein who advised the pair to write with America in mind. Knowing they were on their mettle induced a tension tangible in the introduction of the song they came up with: “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

Written (“one on one, eyeball to eyeball,” according to Lennon) in the basement of Jane Asher’s parents’ house in Wimpole Street, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” displays the traits of the early Lennon-McCartney collaborative style. Going above all for impact, it makes no attempt at sustained melody, moving instead in half-bar phrases governed by its fourth-dominated harmony, the result of two writers competing with each other side-by-side at the same piano. As with “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You,” the method depended on surprise; indeed, the song is so dense with incident that McCartney’s octave jump to falsetto at the end of the verse is pre-empted by another shock four bars earlier: a plunge from the home key of G major onto an unstable B minor. Lennon remembered this as the chord that ‘made’ the song. When McCartney found it—to judge by the movement of the melody line, he was sitting on the left, voicing the chord-sequence in descending inversions—Lennon shouted “That’s it! Do that again!” (Left to their own devices, Lennon and McCartney were generally less liable to make ostentatious chord selections.) Such blatant contrivance mattered no more than it had in “Please Please Me.” It was exciting, unexpected, irreverent—and in practice made to seem natural by the beatific vitality with which the group belted it out.

Brought into the studio four days after the press had announced the onset of Beatlemania following the group’s appearance on Sunday Night At The London Palladium, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was thoroughly prearranged and rehearsed, only the eleven-bar middle section being altered on take 2, dropping Lennon’s rock-and-roll rhythm figure for the contrast of quiet arpeggios. The introduction postponed arrival at the tonic by starting with the last bars of the middle section. This time, though, the device was intensified with hammering repetition and a ‘pushed’ beat which created ambiguity in the rhythm, compounded by having the vocals enter two beats ahead of the verse (“Oh yeah, I...”). To complete this barrage of dazzling effects, the group brought the performance to a breathless full close on two bars of hard-braking 3/8. Apart from ending with the studio exploding, they could scarcely have hit their prospective American audience with more in two-and-a-half minutes.*

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In the U.K., “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the Beatles’ first Christmas hit, entering the shops in late November with advance orders of more than a million. In the U.S.A., release came too late for the festive season, which, in any case, had been dampened by the recent assassination of President Kennedy. When Capitol finally capitulated to Epstein’s pressure and issued “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the record’s joyous energy and invention lifted America out of its gloom, following which, high on gratitude, the country cast itself at the Beatles’ feet. Their TV performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, claimed by many U.S. commentators to be the pivotal event in American post-war culture, sealed the deal and by April, their back catalogue was flooding the U.S. charts.**

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” electrified American pop. More schooled in technique than their British cousins, aspiring American players and writers listened to the Beatles’ free-spirited unorthodoxies in excited disbelief. Just as Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison had studied the licks, changes, and production-effects used in the rock-and-roll and R&B records they had once bought at Liverpool import shops, so now American youths crouched by their Dansettes with guitars trying to work out what the Beatles were doing. Most of the North American groups of the late ’60s acknowledged the inspiration of the Beatles and their role in breaking the grip of showbiz convention on the U.S. pop industry. In fact every American artist, black or white, asked about “I Want to Hold Your Hand” has said much the same: It altered everything, ushering in a new era and changing their lives. That the Beatles represented something transmitting at a higher creative frequency was clear even to many outside the pop audience. The poet Allen Ginsberg, for example, amazed his intellectual confrères by getting up and dancing delightedly to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” when he first heard it in a New York night club. Bob Dylan, too, was able to see past the song’s naivety to the epoch-making spirit animating it. (Fascinated by the Beatles’ unorthodox chords and harmonies, he decided they must have been chemically assisted, mishearing the line “I can’t hide” as “I get high.”)

Not that the Beatles were uniformly welcomed in the U.S.A. The up-market press was notably sniffy, finding the group’s music barbarous and their lyrics illiterate, while the existing pop industry naturally resented the prospect of overnight obsolescence. (In moves to avoid this, many established artists made floundering attempts to adjust their styles to meet the “British Invasion” of lesser U.K. acts that soon poured in following the Beatles’ breakthrough.) Some of the adverse reaction was justified. Tommy James, a pop star with an interest in production, thought much of the early Beatles repertoire poorly recorded—which, by U.S. standards, it was. While “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (the first Beatles song to be made in true stereo on Abbey Road’s new four-track desk) sounded better than most of the group’s previous discs, it was primitive compared with the product of American studios, lacking bass response and offering raw vocal sound. What it did have, apart from power and originality, was an instinct for dynamic contrast and a brilliant grasp of construction.

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Primarily a hit record, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” makes less sense considered as a song. So much of its melody line is disguised harmony that singing it without chordal support makes for comic results, while its lyrics are embarrassingly perfunctory. In America, the words to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” were heard as a token of the group's social acceptability. Where the Rolling Stones dealt in sex, the Beatles supposedly respected propriety, knowing how far a young man should go with a young woman and hence how far a pop group could trespass without causing offense. This was true to the extent that Brian Epstein had carefully sweetened the Beatles’ image for public consumption (much to the rebellious Lennon’s annoyance).

Yet the real reason for the group’s lyric blandness at this stage was that they didn’t much care what words they sang as long as they fitted the overall sound. (Lennon and McCartney worked by singing random phrases while feeling around for chords. The title of the present track, for example, was probably a variation on “I wanna be your man.”) It was the record, rather than the song, that interested them. Haunted by the often imponderably strange productions that emerged from U.S. studios during the ’50s—“Give Me Love” by Rosie and the Originals being one of their favorites—McCartney and (particularly) Lennon were more devoted to spirit than form. To them, the sound and feel of a record mattered more than what it literally said; hence, the first requirement of a lyric was not to get in the way of the general effect. The Beatles sang of “diamond rings” in their early songs not because they wished to identify themselves with the marital conventions of the silent majority, but because it then seemed to them that clichés were less distracting than anything more original.

The epochal change that American listeners sensed in “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was, in fact, nothing less than a resumption, at higher intensity, of the carefree sensationalism of ’50s rock and roll. Since Little Richard’s crazed clarion call of “Awopbopaloobop, alopbamboom!” pop had strayed only timidly from the straight and narrow of civilized “good sense.” Indeed, the American folk-protest movement had thrust plain speaking so obtrusively into the pop domain that every transient youth idol was then routinely interrogated concerning his or her “message” to humanity. If it has any message at all, that of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is “Let go—feel how good it is. This though (as conservative commentators knew very well) implied a fundamental break with the Christian bourgeois status quo. Harboring no conscious subversive intent, the Beatles, with this potent record, perpetrated a culturally revolutionary act. As the decade wore on and they began to realize the position they were in, they began to do the same thing more deliberately.

*Because they were performers as well as songwriters, Lennon and McCartney had to find convincing ways of concluding their songs onstage. (Their main rivals—American studio artists and writer-producer teams—worked under no such constraints and so were inclined to the unresolved expedient of the fade out.) Almost all of the Beatles’ 1962-5 records finish with varieties of close, including covers of records by other artists that fade out in the originals. The extent of their craftsmanlike preference for ‘proper endings’ is manifest in albums like A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, where they were free to use fade outs but instead composed scrupulous intros and closes to almost all of the tracks. A Hard Day’s Night, for example, employs fade outs on only four of its 13 tracks, three of which are faded for specific dramatic effect: “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Things We Said Today,” and “I’ll Be Back.” During the second half of their recording career (1966-70), they mildly relaxed this embargo on fades, but closes still predominated while most of their rivals continued to favor fade endings.

**In the first week of April 1964, the Beatles held the first five positions in the American Top 10: 1. “Can’t Buy Me Love”; 2. “Twist and Shout”; 3. “She Loves You”; 4. “I Want to Hold Your Hand”; and 5. “Please Please Me.” A week later, they occupied fourteen positions in the Hot 100, a record exceedingly unlikely to be approached again.

Ian MacDonald was a British music critic and the author of Revolution in the Head. He died in 2003.

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