Single: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”/”This Boy”
Released: 29 November 1963
By late Autumn 1963, John and Paul’s musical output was in full swing with no sign of slowing down at all. This was the sign of two writers who were lucky enough to work on what they did and loved all day long; they were also smart and attentive enough to understand that to be a strong musician and performer, they couldn’t do it half-assed. Even if the songs missed their mark and the end result wasn’t exactly what they’d wanted or planned on, they knew enough not to release something they’d be ashamed of later on. [John, however, would later be his own harshest critic in this respect and dismissed a lot of his own earlier work, even if the songs were strong.] They were a band made up of obsessed music lovers who had a bead on what sounds they loved and what sounded right to them, and had the dedication to focus on that in their own work.
In addition to this, near the end of their studio work on With the Beatles, they were given an extremely wonderful gift–four-track recording at Abbey Road, which gave them even more of an aural playground to work in than before. Their previous work had all been on two-track recording consoles which gave them an extremely limited amount of aural space to work with. Nearly all of their songs so far had been recorded with the full band playing and singing, with just the occasional overdub [which was recorded straight onto the master, meaning they’d damn well better get it right the first time!] and rarely a double-tracked vocal. This worked just fine for the band, but it left their sound just a tiny bit flat; they were itching to break that barrier like they very nearly did with “She Loves You”, attempting to capture not just the song but the emotion behind it. Expanding to four-track gave them two more tracks to play with–they could overdub, expand the sound, let it breathe like they’d wanted it to.
Of course, back then it didn’t make all that much difference to the listener; at that point in time, the kids in Britain were still listening to the BBC on handheld radios with single speakers or on the radio at home. AM radio was (and still is) monaural, and the prevalence of FM stereo radio was still quite a few years in the future. For the most part, most listeners actually preferred a well-produced mono recording over stereo, because it translated a lot better on their single-speaker radios. [This is also why the band’s discography has separate and unique mono and stereo mixes from their beginning all the way up to early 1969, and why there are slight differences in each. I’ll go into this later in the series.]
So on 17 October, they christened their four-track recording career with a new single that would change the game entirely.
Side A: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”
Their next single was written in the music study basement of the Asher residence in Wimpole Street, London–Paul was going out with daughter and well known London actress Jane Asher at the time, and they’d also become good friends with her brother Peter (one half of Peter & Gordon, whom John and Paul wrote a few songs for). It was a truly co-written song, “written eyeball to eyeball” as John would later put it, on the Asher’s piano. On the surface, and to many critics who didn’t quite get it, this track was yet another Beatles love song, same as all their others. What made it different, and what pricked the ears of quite a few fans, not to mention other musicians, was the innovative chord changes they were using. Unlike earlier songs influenced by American pop and blues, they were expanding out into complex melodies.
The home chord here is G, giving it a high, happy sound. The path the verse takes is almost literary: G-D-Em-B. The phrase takes us on a miniature journey of home-travel-conflict-return. Laid on top of that are lyrics of wanting–the narrator is attempting to ask out a girl he really enjoys being with. The following chorus is relatively simple and positive: C-D-G-Em, the Em used less as a conflict and more as a way to come back around to the positive A for the repeat, and then to the positive G to end the phrase.
We of course have the band’s trademark of a twice-used bridge, and I really enjoy what goes on here aurally. The simple progression of Dm-G-C-Am once is very similar to any other of their bridges; it’s then followed by Dm-G-C, and a final triple-repeat of C-D–you’re expecting a repeat of that first phrase, only the ending has been changed, and the excitement and anticipation builds up to return to the main verse again. But that’s not all…if you’ve noticed, Ringo has been playing his high-hat cymbals very loosely throughout the track, which fills up a lot of the background with white noise. It’s not until this bridge that he closes that high-hat and the cymbals are short and crisp, and that the song suddenly grows quieter. Added to that, lyrically this is where the narrator temporarily stops his pleas and dwells on just how happy the girl makes him; where the main lyrics are dialogue, the bridge is a reverie.
If your ears and brain aren’t trained or used to listening to things like this, this track is a relatively simple one, another love song made to order. But for the kids scrambling for something new, and for the musicians with the ear for it, this track completely blew them away. There were at least a million advance sales for it in the UK, even before anyone had heard it (mainly due to the popularity of their recent singles and albums), and considering the reaction when it finally dropped, it would only send them even higher into the musical stratosphere. In a way, it would also create a future goal, albeit a sometimes frustrating one for them–the song had gone past their fans’ expectations to the point that they now expected that to happen on a consistent basis. It pushed them ever further creatively, but it could also stifle and frustrate them. Tempering that balance would be a trick, but they felt they were up for it.
Side B: “This Boy”
A fascinating B-side, so much so that one wonders why they squandered such an excellent track. This was another of John’s attempts at writing a song similar to Motown doo-wop, like Smokey Robinson’s “I’ve Been Good to You”–the I-VI-II-V musical phrase that was so prevalent in many of those torch songs from the fifties and early sixties. What sets it apart, just like its A side, is what they do with it. Lyrically, it’s a change-up from the sad love song: this time it’s the narrator saying “he’s no good for you, take me back instead.” Vocally it’s absolutely gorgeous: John, Paul and George, who were naturals at three-part harmony, deliver the verses quietly and breathily, adding an extra level to the lyrics. It might be a wish for the girl to return to him, but he’s not expecting much. At least not until the middle eight, where John lets it all out in a double-tracked vocal, an incredibly strong and loud “I’m on my knees here” plea. The bridge is also fascinating in its own right, with a descending chord phrase filled with sevenths (G-F#7-Bm-D7, G-E7-A-A7) while John’s vocal line ascends. It’s a lovely piece, and one that was later recorded by George Martin with an orchestra for Ringo’s solo scene in their upcoming movie A Hard Day’s Night.
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Single: “The Beatles’ Christmas Record”
Released to the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: 6 December 1963
“The Beatles’ Christmas Record” was recorded on the same day as the above tracks, a short five minute track of semi-scripted silliness as a personal thanks to the members of their fan club. You can distinctly hear each member’s unique sense of humor here, even when having to read a scripted “thanks to everyone, it’s been a great year, etc.”: John’s deft wordplay (“Merry Christmas” as “Gary Crimble”), Paul’s smarminess (we love you, but please stop sending the jelly babies!), Ringo’s lovable straight man (I was the last to join, but I’ve been in other bands…), and George’s cleverly snide remarks (“Thank you Ringo! We’ll phone you!”). Each even gets to sing their own interpretation of “Good King Wenceslas”.
This recording and the Christmas messages that followed were never released as part of the official discography, only to the fan club members, and thus were relatively hard to find for quite some time. You may be able to find the original 1970 compilations (the UK From Then to You or the US The Beatles Christmas Album) on specialty vinyl stores, or you can find them on oft-bootlegged collections, but they’ve never been rereleased in their original flexidisc form.
* * *
Meanwhile, over in the United States…
Single: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”/”I Saw Her Standing There”
Released in the US: 26 December 1963
…Capitol Records finally gets on board. And only after much wrangling from EMI and Brian Epstein, a few renegade DJs who’d gotten a hold of the UK single weeks earlier, and many teenage fans telling their local radio stations to play the band already. To be honest, they’d been half-heartedly planning on releasing this particular single sometime in early January of 1964, to coincide with their scheduled performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, but one gets the feeling they hadn’t really put too much heart into it. Instead of the original single, they created their own by switching “This Boy” with the then non-single “I Saw Her Standing There” from Please Please Me. That itself is interesting, considering that track was at that moment about to be released by Vee-Jay Records on the long-delayed Introducing the Beatles. Nonetheless, the switch paid off, as both songs ended up being powerhouse hits. Given the overwhelmingly positive radio response, Capitol moved up the release to just after Christmas.
The outcome was instantaneous. It sold a quarter million copies within the first few days, and eventually sold up to five million. It hit number one in early February, only to be eventually knocked off the spot by none other than their previous UK number one hit, “She Loves You”, and soon the charts would be filled with multiple Beatle hits. The floodgates were opened, and Beatlemania had begun. But not just Beatlemania…it also triggered a “British Invasion” of UK pop songs entering the US charts and hitting high numbers, from the Hollies to the Kinks to the Dave Clark Five.
In retrospect, the time had been ripe for a musical revolution, one that tends to happen every decade or so. It’s fascinating to watch and predict once you know what to look for, and this had all of it. By late 1963 the country was in a troubling state…they’d just suffered a terrible blow due to the assassination of President Kennedy; racism and segregation in the South had become ever-rising hot button issues; other world events such as the Cuban Missle Crisis and unrest in France were still on the minds of the country. The mood of popular music had changed to mirror life: Elvis had returned from the Army, but his once-rebellious rock now sounded dated, and he’d just started a decade-long run of making lightweight movies with uninspiring soundtracks; other big names had fallen from the limelight either due to not changing their sound (Jerry Lee Lewis) or personal issues (Chuck Berry, who’d spent a year or so in jail) or death (Buddy Holly, a few years earlier); still other popular artists (Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra) were liked by the older generation but left younger fans wanting. At the same time, various subgenres of new music were gaining ground in localized areas: the southern California surf sound of the Beach Boys, the Detroit grooves of Motown, the southern gospel blues of Johnny Cash. New sounds were brewing just underneath the surface, maybe even popping up on local charts, sounds that the younger generation wanted and desperately needed, and it was only a matter of time before all hell broke loose.
The rise of Beatlemania and the British Invasion of the sixties was the catalyst for all that–perhaps just as Nirvana was for the Seattle sound, thirty years later. A new generation of music would rise with the changing times, only this time it was rock music.
Next up: Introducing the Beatles, Meet the Beatles, and many singles: the US catches up (sort of)