Saturday, July 4, 2009

I Want to Hold Your Hand

Happy American Indpendence Day! Hope it is awesome for you and yours, and that no one loses any digits playing with fireworks-- I find amateur fireworks unspeakably scary. To commemorate the day, let's listen to the single that finally brought the Beatles to America, the first single that Capitol bothered to release here, the song that made the Beatles a truly international sensation. You know the one.

Thanks, George Martin, for that introduction. But I think Martin's wrong when he says that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" wasn't written specifically for the American market. My understanding has always been that Brian Epstein was frustrated with the fact that after four singles in Britain so successful that the term "Beatlemania" had entered the lexicon within only a few months, the Beatles still hadn't been able to get a foothold in the states. You see, EMI, like so many record companies, was full of dumb people. Capitol, the American division of EMI, literally refused to even release singles like "She Loves You" and "Please Please Me," claiming that American audiences would never go for them. (Excuse me while I guffaw mightily for a moment. Though in their defense, English pop bands had NEVER fared well in the States, really, but I have too much fun laughing at EMI with my twenty-twenty hindsight to be very nice about this.) This meant that the first Beatles singles were picked up in the States by a smaller label based in Chicago called Vee Jay, where they languished, partly because Vee Jay had nowhere near the marketing capabilities that EMI did, and partly because there was some mismanagement there anyway. I refer the curious here for more on the company.

So anyway, Epstein KNEW that the Beatles could be big in America if anyone would give them the chance, so he tasked John and Paul with writing a song with the American market in mind. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is what they came up with, and Capitol finally agreed to release it, based on the song itself and also on the fact that the Beatles had by now managed to book the Ed Sullivan Show for February. I don't know what about it exactly makes "I Want to Hold Your Hand" more appealing to the circa-1963 American pop market than anything that came before, but maybe it has something to do with the slightly more noticeable acoustic guitars, or maybe the way the chord changes in the chorus could almost sound like a country song if they were in a completely different context. But that's just me talking out of my ass. Best to not think about it too much. Point is, when they played it on Ed Sullivan, the hive mind of a nation was forever blown.

John and Paul wrote "I Want to Hold Your Hand" together in the eyeball-to-eyeball method they used frequently in the early days of their partnership. John recounted in one of his last interviews exactly the way it happened, and tells a story of sitting at the piano at Jane Asher's house (where Paul was living) and how Paul played the E minor chord (which sounds right before the line "I think you'll understand"), and how John got all excited, because to him it's that chord that made the whole song. And then they just went from there.

As for the lyrics, I think the press tended at the time to make too much of how, you know, well-behaved the Beatles would be with your daughters compared to the Stones or some other unruly rock bands. But I've talked before about how there's sex all over the early Beatles tracks, even if it's never explicit in the lyrics, and those girls who were screaming and tearing their hair and rending their garments were not collectively losing their minds over the possibility that the Beatles would stop at hand-holding, okay? In fact, Paul and John have both made it clear that in the early days the lyrics simply didn't mean anything at all. They were much more interested in the feel of the song, in the music itself, and the overall effect. If you've ever wondered why lyrics to early Beatles songs are sometimes kind of lame and cliche-ridden, well, it's because they didn't really care. Remember that their heroes had gotten them excited singing lines like "be-bop-a-lula" and "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom" and you see where they're coming from on this. So the business about wanting to hold your hand? I don't know where it came from exactly, and I don't think they ever really commented on it themselves, but Ian MacDonald has a theory that they were just playing around with words and made up a variation on their earlier song "I Wanna Be Your Man." It's just a theory, but I like it, so I'm sharing it.

Anyway, there was a reason this song did so well: it's freaking fantastic. I admit to not really getting this song entirely for a bunch of years-- I think it always just sounded a little less interesting than, say, "She Loves You"-- but I've finally figured it out, and for me, the key is in the introduction. I know we've all heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand" a bunch of times, but can you imagine hearing that instrumental opening for the first time? That's just two chords, but dear God, they make them so exciting. Listen to Ringo hitting those cymbals, and that tight sound that George gets just hitting those two guitar notes, and the way the whole thing gets your attention and then sustains the tension almost to the breaking point (though only a few seconds are elapsing) until John and Paul (singing together, as they do for the whole song) come in on "OH YEAH" and we're freaking off. They do it again at the middle eight sections, though at this point they're singing "I can't hide," and Paul is harmonizing higher and higher until he's hitting that seemingly ridiculously high note, and it's like magic every time. So the song becomes, to my ear, this whole exercise in playing around with tension-- we have these huge highs in the beginning and in the middle eights, like a rubber band is being stretched to its breaking point or something, as well as the less significant highs in between when Paul jumps the octave on "hand" during the verses and Ringo does this crazy awesome drum roll underneath him. But the rest of the song, especially the chorus, has a much more relaxed groove to it-- even the handclaps feel easy and fun. In fact, they dial the tension way down in the second middle eight, when the guitar sound is reduced to just an acoustic on arpeggios. But all those low-tension bits just play up the highs. Does this make sense? I mean, if I were an even bigger loser than I am, I would draw a line graph of this song, but that much I'll spare you. Point is: one could. And I think that makes it a little different from "She Loves You" or the other early singles, just because the others seem a little more monochromatic, if still awesome.

Argh, you guys, it's so good, for real. I'll leave you with another really awesome live performance from the Morecambe and Wise Show-- it's one of my favorites of all the videos on YouTube, which I've now spent a long while watching dreamily.

"I Want to Hold Your Hand," released in the U.K. as a single b/w "This Boy," November 29, 1963; in the U.S. as a single c/w "I Saw Her Standing There," December 26, 1963.


  1. Wow; you nailed it. I was thinking as I read this, as I did yesterday when the little guy requested it, and as I do most times I listen to this song, that this just seems like more of the same. I can see why She Loves You or this song would be a better introduction for the U.S., but not why this would be better than She Loves You. Like you wrote of yourself, I didn't see the big difference; there are the handclaps, and the I can't hides, which are nice, and I notice in that last video that the ending does some interesting stuff. (I mean, I noticed it before, too, but I am more aware of it now.)

    But only after reading you do I see what the particular allure is. I still probably like She Loves You better, but thanks for making me see this in a new way.

  2. Ditto what Troy wrote. I always liked She Loves You better, but i dare anyone to listen to I Want To Hold Your Hand and not start taping a foot up and down. I really like the little five not guitar fills. Great history recap, Meg.

  3. Thanks, guys. There really is a lot to appreciate here. And I forgot to even mention the ending, with those triplets-- zow! that is awesome. It definitely goes out on a high.

  4. I also want to propose a 'misheard Beatles' playlist in honor of Dylan and anyone else who thought this song went "I get high" instead of "I can't hide." (Raises hand.) Mine looks like this:

    1. I Want to Hold Your Hand
    2. Please Mister Postman ("There must be some words in days")
    3. Things We Said Today ("Love to hear you say that love is love")
    4. Long Tall Sally ("I'm gonna tell that man about Uncle John")
    5. Norwegian Wood ("And when I awoke, I was alone, whispered the fool")
    6. Eleanor Rigby ("I look at all the lonely people")
    7. I'm Only Sleeping ("Keeping alive at the world going by my window")
    8. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds ("Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers, the girl so incredibly high")
    9. Back in the U.S.S.R. ("That Jojo's always on my my my my my my my my my mind")
    10. Blackbird ("Into the night of the dark black night")
    11. Revolution ("But if you go carrying pictures of Germans now")
    12. Savoy Truffle ("But you'll have to have the morfle out after the Savoy Truffle") (Yeah, I don't know what that means either)
    13. All Together Now ("Sail the ship, jump the tree")
    14. Across the Universe ("Jackaroo day va")
    15. Get Back ("Jojo was a man who thought he was a woman")

  5. Hee! Isn't the most common one in Lucy the "girl with colitis goes by" thing? Which always struck me as funny, since Sgt. Pepper was the first album to actually include the lyrics. Perhaps others didn't study them quite as closely as I did.

    I never knew the Across the Universe line for years, though- definitely sang some kind of gibberish like that.