‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ Turns 50: Let’s Celebrate the Birth of Beatlemania

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses!

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It was 50 years ago today next week that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play Beatlemania was born.

"I Want to Hold Your Hand" was written on October 16, 1963, and recorded the next day. Within two months, it would be firmly entrenched at No. 1 in Britain and starting to get a little bit of radio play across the pond. It was not much more than three months later that it reached the top of the pops in America ... paving the way for an "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance that still stands as just about the greatest example of "appointment viewing" in TV history. Here is the story, behind the seminal song.

Things were not so hysterical when John Lennon and Paul McCartney sat down together at the piano on that fall night a half-century ago. They were banging out some tunes for their soon-to-be-released sophomore album, "With the Beatles," and also looking to write some singles that would not appear on the album, as was the custom at that time. Some have claimed they had been asked to deliberately try to come up with something that could crack the tough American market, which had proven highly resistant to Britpop, as poor Cliff Richard found out.

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They were at the Winpole Street home of the Ashers, parents of Paul's girlfriend, Jane (and also Peter, of Peter & Gordon fame) on the evening of October 16. As Lennon later recounted: "We wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in 'I Want to Hold Your Hand,' I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher's house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, 'Oh you-u-u/Got that something...' And Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, 'That's it!' I said, 'Do that again!' In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that — both playing into each other's noses."

According to Steve Turner's "A Hard Day's Write" book, Lennon had been listening to a French avant-garde record that included a song "where a musical expression repeated as if the record had stuck," and that provided the inspiration for repeating the phrase "I can't hide" three times.

In the studio the following day, with producer George Martin recording on then-advanced four-track technology for the first time, they went through 17 takes. According to Mark Lewisohn's "Complete Beatles Recording Sessions," the master tapes "reveal that the Beatles had the song perfected before the session, the first take sounding not unlike the last." After all those years mastering their craft in the Cavern Club, it was no big deal for them to enter the studio with a completed arrangement a day after the first line had been written.

Their previous single, "She Loves You," was on its way to becoming their third No. 1 at home in Britain, but it had failed to even chart in the States. So everyone believed that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" would be the song to break them in the essential American market. Everyone, that is, but the powers that be at Capitol Records.

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Capitol executive Dave Dexter turned down the song, as he had with earlier Beatles tunes that had reverted to Vee-Jay Records under an odd right-of-refusal deal the two labels had at the time. This time, the Fabs' manager, Brian Epstein, got fabulously furious, so he appealed all the way to the head of the company, Capitol president Alan Livingston. "He knew it might be risky to go over people's heads," said Joe Flannery in "When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles' Rise to the Top." "But he had come too far and he decided to take the risk."

Livingston saw the light and approved "Hand" as an actual Capitol single. But a very small pressing of the 45 in the low tens of thousands was scheduled for a January 1964 release, with no one being overly impressed at the time that pre-orders for the single in Britain were nearly a million. Then fate further intervened to press Capitol into quicker and more serious action.

A teenage girl in the Washington, D.C., area named Marsha Albert had seen a report about the Beatles' success in England on "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" on December 10, and she begged a local DJ to get a hold of the song, which two weeks earlier had supplanted "She Loves You" at No. 1 in England. It wasn't just a matter of transatlantic downloading in those days; so the DJ, Carroll James of WWDC, asked a flight attendant he knew to personally bring a copy of the 45 over on from the U.K. James put it on the air on December 17, bringing Albert into the studio to introduce its American premiere.

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WWDC kept interrupting the song with its call letters to keep other stations from recording and broadcasting it themselves, but apparently some jocks at other stations also knew some stewardesses, because it immediately took off. Capitol decided to rush-release the single in the States on December 27. It entered the charts in mid-January at No. 45, and was No. 1 two weeks later.

On February 9, 1964, the Beatles played that song and three others for Sullivan and tens of millions of home viewers ... and barbers across America wept. The No. 1s hardly stopped for the Beatles after that point ... with "She Loves You," one of the songs Capitol had passed on and let go to a lesser label, being reissued and becoming their second American chart-topper.

What was it about this song? Some say it could have been any Beatles tune at that moment — that the depression and angst caused by the Kennedy assassination in November had created a vacuum just waiting to be filled up by something euphoric.

But any musicologist would point to how extraordinarily well-crafted the song is — especially for something that went from germ of an idea to completed project in about a day and a half. And then there's that essential mixture of puppy love and not-so-innocence. New York Times critic Allan Kozinn contended in his book on the Fabs, "The song is actually quite subversive. The innocent declaration of the title was exactly the sort of thing that would assure parents that the Beatles were safe and wholesome; yet for anyone listening closely, the music tells a different story."

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Bob Dylan thought the lyrics were much more subversive than they were. Like some other listeners, he thought that the repeated "I can't hide" line actually said "I get high," so he assumed the Beatles were extolling pot, only to find, when he met them in '64, that they hadn't even tried it yet.

The Beatles weren't done with "I Want to Hold Your Hand" yet. They were called back into the studio, against their will, to record a version for the German market: "Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand." What their handlers hadn't yet learned was that foreign translations weren't necessary: The Beatles were already on their way to making the rest of the world want to learn — make that want to be — English.