It’s unlikely that any number-one has been written about as extensively as “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But despite the sheer amount of this literature, nearly all of it follows a similar structure. First, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is hailed as the triumph of “real music” (i.e., rock) over the (supposed) wanness of early ‘60s pop. But just as quickly as the single is lauded for its revolutionary sound, it is ridiculed for its chaste subject matter. Next to The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and The Beatles’ own “I’d love to turn you on” just a few years later, a plea to hold a girl’s hand sounds kind of, well, square. Typically, this statement is accompanied by a knowing smirk or a touch of irony, maybe even a little embarrassment that the band might have had commercial aspirations and actually did want to appeal to old folks and teenage girls – maybe, even, that the band was sincere.
But whether or not the lyrics of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” are endearingly sweet or just laughably naïve is beside the point. To borrow from Marshall McLuhan, the medium – bona fide, energetic, exhilarating rock and roll – is the message. The innocuous lyrics are just the pink satin bow around the neck of the Rottweiler. If you don’t think “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sounds ragged and hard-edged, listen to a few of the contemporaneous number-ones passing for rock. Or just listen to the guitar line that opens the song, which grinds and stutters as if winding the gears on a disused machine left to rust. But then the gears catch, and the machine springs back to life as powerful as ever. Part of the genius of The Beatles is the way the group tempered standard pop elements with subversive touches. George Harrison’s bent guitar notes jut out amongst the handclaps, and the brightness of the sung harmonies don’t quite mask John Lennon’s fraying vocal cords. Even the band’s famous Edwardian suits, foisted onto them by manager Brian Epstein to make them look more professional, look tougher and hipper than the cardigans or flannel suits favored by their contemporaries.
It’s difficult not to talk about “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – or really, The Beatles in general – without trucking in superlatives. Not only is this single the number-one that’s been the most written about in general, it’s also the one I’ve written the most about, discarding countless drafts in order to get to the secret history of the song: how the U.S. charts, packed with classic Motown and girl group hits, weren’t entirely dire before The Beatles invaded and would continue to be frequently dire afterward; how the single’s success derived from reviving a classic American sound rather than from the band’s innate creativity; how Epstein was the real force behind making the record a hit, persuading Capitol Records to spend $40,000 on mass-produced Beatle wigs and hyperbolic handbills. (There was also an extensive defense of the song’s lyrics, which I dropped in favor of disregarding them completely.) Yet sometimes the common wisdom is that for a reason. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is the kind of record that reminds you that rock can make a difference, that pop can feel new and exciting, regardless of whether the lyrics are earnest or the sound is familiar. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is more than a cultural touchstone – it’s simply one of the greatest pop records ever. 10
Hit #1 on February 1, 1964; total of 7 weeks at #1
104 of 982 #1’s reviewed; 10.59% through the Hot 100