Electrified Hand Holding: British Invasion

by Kevin Burton

   The song that launched the British Invasion was released on this date 59 years ago.

   “I Want To Hold Your Hand” holds up to this day, but to get the full impact of it you’d have to hear it with ears attuned to the sounds of 1963.

   God bless Bobby Vinton, Leslie Gore, Bobby Rydell et all.  Those were some of the American artists with songs on the radio in heavy rotation that you would have been listening to at the time. But when this Beatles track hit the airwaves, it changed the game completely. Popular music has never been the same.

   “The importance of I Want to Hold Your Hand can not be overstated,” reads the entry in the Billboard book of Number One Hits.  “Next to Rock Around the Clock it is the most significant single of the rock era. Permanently changing the course of music.” 

   “The influence of the Beatles has been felt by every artist who has followed them.”

   “In his book Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald wrote that the song ‘electrified American pop,’ adding: ‘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,” reads the Wikipedia entry on the song.

   “Bob Dylan said ‘They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid.’”

   “The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson recalled his initial reaction to the song: ‘I flipped. It was like a shock went through my system … I immediately knew that everything had changed.”

  “I was pregnant with my daughter Kenya when the Beatles thing swept,” said singer/songwriter Gladys Knight, speaking to a video crew from Time Life. “I remember I Want to Hold your hand. I was in the kitchen just sweeping and cooking and talking care of the babies and singing I want to Hold Your Hand.”

    We could continue in this vein forever. Everybody, fans and fellow musicians alike, has a story of where they were, what they were doing and how they were affected by I Want to Hold Your Hand.

   John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote the song in the basement of a house owned by the family of Jane Asher, McCartney’s actress girlfriend.  The group got the recording done in just one afternoon, Oct. 19, 1963. It was number one for five weeks in the UK, for seven weeks in the US. 

    “It was the youth who discovered The Beatles, and while young people can be easily manipulated through hype and image, in the case of The Beatles it was the music that drew them in,” reads an account on SongFacts. “An American girl, Sandra Stewart, 15 years old in spring 1964 (according to Hunter Davies in his book Beatles) said: ‘I was one day in a shop with my mother when I suddenly heard ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ on the radio. Such a special sound! I could never stop thinking about it. No song has affected me in that way. Several other girls in school had reacted in the same way. We saw the Beatles on photos and thought they were ugly. But their music was fantastic.’”

   “The song was greeted by raving fans on both sides of the Atlantic but was dismissed by some critics as nothing more than another fad song that would not hold up to the test of time,” reads the Wikipedia entry. “Cynthia Lowery of the Associated Press expressed her exasperation with Beatlemania by saying of the Beatles: ‘Heaven knows we’ve heard them enough. It has been impossible to get a radio weather bulletin or time signal without running into ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’”

   Esquire’s music critic David Newman wrote, “Terrible, awful…. It’s the bunk. The Beatles are indistinguishable from a hundred other similar loud and twanging rock-and-roll groups. They aren’t talented singers (as Elvis was), they aren’t fun (as Elvis was), they aren’t anything.”

   “In its contemporary review of the US single, Cash Box described it as ‘an infectious twist -like thumper that could spread like wildfire here.’”

   “The nice thing about it was the vocal harmonies they were doing,” said Beatles producer George Martin. “When you got, ‘I want to hold your hand they hit that high sort of open fourth which is a great sound.”

   “They latched on very quickly to what worked, what sold,” Martin said. “They were very commercial in their minds. Voicings like that they knew, excited people. They knew that it excited people when they shook their heads. It was all very calculated stuff.”

   Dylan would later tell the Beatles that “You guys don’t say anything,” in their songs. That was true enough of their early stuff, including “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” 

  Singer/songwriter Tom Petty told Time Life that the band “gave us all an identity.”  Several writers have noted that the United States needed some kind of a positive jolt, after a period of mourning for their assassinated president John F. Kennedy.

   The Beatles have been viewed from every angle, musically, culturally, sociologically. Those screaming teenaged girls are now in their 70s, but Beatlemania never gets old.

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