First Hit #1: February 1, 1964
There isn’t much left to say about the Beatles. Part of the problem is that they’re the icons of the Baby Boom generation, as millions of young people spent their youth doing too many drugs and listening to Beatles records, and have spent their years as old people justifying the way they spent their twenties. The other part of the problem is they legitimately changed pop music, which kind of makes people want to talk about them.
I’m not going to be contrary about the Beatles’ legacy, that would just be inaccurate really and I can’t see how anyone can deny the quality of the music. So let’s focus on the songs that made them famous, and the first hit they had in North America.
I Want to Hold your Hand is a pretty innocent song, much in the vein of the girl groups that had become popular immediately before them – a clear influence, since the band covered songs from girl groups. Lyrically, this is no real departure from what was going on before, it’s about teenage love with a focus on holding hands, which is a fairly sweet sentiment.
The difference between this and the songs that came before is primarily the arrangement and energy. This doesn’t really sound like the songs that came before, even if the lyrics aren’t a huge shock. Before, songs tended to sound like the vocalist was a bit apart from the background, and there were various tricks like putting lots of ethereal background vocals in there. The Beatles sound different here because they sound like a band. No one element really overrides the others, the guitars are just as much a part of the harmony as the vocals, and the percussion is just as much in the forefront as everything else. It sounds different because all the parts are the whole, there’s nothing that really sticks out and is apart from the others. It provided a new definition of rock because it kept it tight and together, which was very recently not the focus of most recording artists.
That affects the energy, because it sounds live, and translates the energy of a live performance better than most recordings. There hasn’t been quite so much emphasis on the band overall since probably the big band era, and guitars hit harder than saxophones. It’s simultaneously polished and raw, and it gets your attention because it keeps you in the moment. The group didn’t really come out of nowhere, lyrically this early material isn’t too far off from what’s gone before and the energy of a fresh band was something that I imagine was going on in live shows already. What they did was bring the energy from a good live performance and put it on tape, and that brought the early hits. Then they did a whole bunch of other stuff, but we’ll get to that.