The A-note that opens “I Feel Fine” is more than just the first blast of feedback on record; it also heralds the start of The Beatles’ middle period. While the band’s earliest records are sometimes condemned as too poppy, or their later records as too arty, the era stretching from late 1964 to 1966 is The Beatles everyone can agree on. The records released in this timespan tend to have the best of both worlds: bright, catchy melodies paired with more thoughtful, introspective lyrics, with an occasional experimental detour (culminating with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the closing track on 1966’s Revolver).
“I Feel Fine” still has a foot in the Beatles’ past, with its simple, chipper lyrics and uptempo beat. But that single note of feedback, less a shriek than a gentle hum, signals the band’s increasing fascination with using the studio to create new sonic textures. The Beatles weren’t the first to experiment with deliberate feedback; The Who, The Kinks and The Yardbirds had all dabbled with it in a live setting. But only a commercial juggernaut blessed with an understanding producer could have succeeded in getting such a sound on tape and into stores. What’s often overlooked here is what the song sounds like after the feedback: a sort of maximum R&B more commonly associated with mods than with rockers (or with mockers, for that matter). In fact, much of “I Feel Fine” is lifted wholesale from Bobby Parker’s 1961 R&B hit “Watch Your Step.” Even the feedback just subs in for the twin horn blasts opening that record. But George Harrison’s rockabilly picking of the “Watch Your Step” riff also hints at the folkier directions the band would explore a few months later on Help! and Rubber Soul. And anyone still doubting Ringo Starr’s bona fides should just listen to the Latin rhythms snaking around Harrison’s lead.
One further note on those seemingly straightforward lyrics: what does John Lennon mean by “I’m in love with her and I feel fine“? “Fine” seems like a mild reaction, unless it’s an intentionally dry understatement. Or is it meant to be an oblique reference to a darker time in the past, when he wasn’t fine? If it’s the latter, then “I Feel Fine” could be read as a companion piece to the triad of despair that opens Beatles for Sale (“No Reply”/”I’m a Loser”/”Baby’s in Black”). That album, released just two weeks after “I Feel Fine,” is the sound of The Beatles beginning to shed their cheery-chaps persona, posing solemn-faced on the album cover and writing more serious lyrics that, in Lennon’s case, verged on self-loathing. But when paired with Beatles for Sale, “I Feel Fine” acts as a reassurance to the group’s fans: The Beatles may be growing up, but they still remember how to have fun. 8
Hit #1 on December 26, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
125 of 1000 #1’s reviewed; 12.50% through the Hot 100