It was the 1963-64 school year and the fifth grade talent show was fast approaching. Being only a spectator was not an option. Everyone had to have an act, a talent to display.
My friend Max at Powerpop has declared “Beatles Week” and invited others to write about “a favorite Beatle song”. (In another part of the same post he invites folks to write about “their favorite Beatles song”, an important distinction in my eyes. Who can have a single favorite from their catalog? I’ve written about
the my problem of declaring favorites before.) This post will appear over there sometime, but I’m guessing there is not a lot of overlap between us, so you see it here first. Maybe you’ll want to stroll over there and see what others have to say about The Beatles this week. It should last at least 8 days.
A classmate approached me about joining an act with a couple of friends. When I asked about the act he was very secretive. He couldn’t tell me what the act was until I agreed to be in it. Once he told me, I couldn’t back out. Note I called him a “classmate”, not a “friend”. I didn’t trust him enough to go along blindly with this. Besides, I already had my act together. What was my act? I have no idea. What was their act? That still sticks in my mind 60 years later.
Four guys took the stage. Each had a rag mop on his head, dyed black and trimmed just so. Three of them held brooms – no mere air guitar for them. The fourth was, of course, Ringo. They lip-synched to “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. It wasn’t my favorite Beatles song even then. I bought the single of “She Loves You” but I didn’t buy “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. It seemed like the sort of song that reinforced parental stereotypes about pop music (and “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” didn’t?) with its simplistic lyrics about holding hands. (Image from WebRestaurantStore)
On February 9, 1964, the US saw The Beatles in person for the first time, on The Ed Sullivan Show. Those of us in the know had seen them a month before on grainy, low fidelity video on Jack Paar.
They had appeared in an NBC News story on November 18, 1963. The news was more about Beatlemania than about the music, though they did acknowledge that The Beatles wrote some of their own songs. Early coverage of the band was more from a sense of amusement at the phenomenon of those crazy teenagers than it was about the music.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” was not received with universal acclaim in the US. Esquire 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.”
On the other hand, it did reach #1 in most western countries (stalling at #6 in Belgium and Finland). In the US it was replaced at #1 by “She Loves You”. In the UK, the order was reversed. It was subsequently released in German as “Komm, gib mir diene Hand” – that version also received US airplay. They recorded in German (just this and “She Loves You”) because the German division of their record company was convinced their records wouldn’t sell in English – despite the fact that they cut their teeth as musicians in Hamburg.
Contrast Newman with Rob Sheffield’s assessment in the Rolling Stone Album Guide (40 years later): “Just check out ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ which explodes out of the speakers with the most passionate singing, drumming, lyrics, guitars, and girl-crazy howls ever – it’s no insult to the Beatles to say they never topped this song because nobody else has either … It’s the most joyous three minutes in the history of human noise.”
So what made them such a big deal? We were used to “singing groups” lip-synching their latest single on American Bandstand, complete with orchestration and fadeout. These were actual musicians. They played and sang at the same time. Of course, they weren’t the first, but it was still somewhat unusual in the pop music world. And they wrote their own songs. Sure, they covered American R&B (“Twist and Shout”, “Roll Over Beethoven”) Girl Group hits (“Chains”, “Boys”), and even show tunes (“A Taste of Honey”, “Til There Was You”) but the list of hit songs (and great songs) they wrote is too long to recount here. Some singers can produce great harmonies in a studio with multiple takes and overdubs, but The Beatles sounded great live in an era without monitors (and with fans screaming loudly enough that they might not have heard themselves even with monitors).
I went to a summer camp that had a carnival with games. One game involved headphones through which a few notes of a Beatles tune were played. Your challenge was speed in identifying the song. How many notes did you need? How quickly could you answer? With what other band would you play that game? What other band went so far in the 7 years during which they released albums in the US?
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” is far from the best Beatles song, it’s not my favorite Beatles song, and it wasn’t even the first Beatles song. But it was the only one that dominated the fifth grade talent show at Winnequah School and made 4 boys instantly popular. I was not one of them.