In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There are moments where history changes very, very quickly — floodgates open, landscapes reshape themselves, comets crash into land. When the Beatles finally arrived in America, that was one of those inflection-point moments.
In terms of sheer popularity — nothing else, just popularity — the Beatles did things that nobody else will ever accomplish. Between 1964, when they first showed up on our shores, and 1970, when they finally broke up, the Beatles had 20 singles that appeared at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. They spent a grand total of 59 weeks at #1. As a commercial entity in America, they only really lasted six years, and yet they spent more than a year of that time at #1. After they broke up, every member of the band had multiple solo songs that made it to #1 — yes, even Ringo. As solo artists, they kept hitting #1 into the late ’80s. Their run was baffling, monumental. They were vikings, visigoths, conquistadors. They ransacked our land and left it looking completely different.
It was instantaneous, more or less. The band was a phenomenon in the UK all through 1963, but Capitol, the American subsidiary of their label, was reluctant to release their music over here. Instead, the band released a couple of singles on smaller labels in the US in 1963. Without much promotional weight behind them, they fizzled commercially. But a Washington, DC radio DJ started playing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” after a fan persuaded him to get an import copy, and it was an instant sensation. So Capitol rush-released “I Want To Hold Your Hand” the day after Christmas 1963, and it hit hard and fast. By February, when the band flew to New York for the first time, thousands of screaming fans were waiting for them at the airport. And when they played the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, 73 million people — 34% of the entire population of the country at the time — watched them.
As we get into the Beatles era, I should make a quick disclosure: I am not a Beatlemaniac. They have songs that I love, and they have songs that I cannot fucking stand one bit. In this column, there will be Beatles songs that get 10s, and there will be Beatles songs that get 4s and 5s. The Supremes started scoring #1 hits soon after the Beatles and lasted about the same span of time, and there’s a good chance that they’ll finish the ’70s with a higher average score than the Beatles. (Diana Ross’ solo singles will definitely score higher than those of any of the solo Beatles.)
The rankings and reviews in this column are entirely subjective. They’re not based on importance. They’re based on what I like and nothing more. I can recognize the world-shaking importance of a piece of music without necessarily liking it. And given that these Beatles songs have been just as familiar as “Happy Birthday” ever since I was born, it can be hard to hear them with any sort of excitement, the same way it can be hard to look at “The Starry Night” as art rather than wallpaper. Also, I tend to find the whole narrative of the Beatles as rock’s saviors, the one true ideal that nobody else can hope to equal, both tiresome and oppressive. At different times in my life, I’ve made efforts to get into the Beatles, and it just hasn’t taken. It would be like getting into air.
All that said, it’s not hard to hear why people got so excited about “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” It’s a jagged, insistent blast, everything loud and hard and trebly and insistent. It opens up like an attack, all those handclaps and guitar-stabs and harmonic yelps battering you, forcing their way into your brain. It’s a simple song, but there are intricacies in the arrangement — the precise timing of the handclaps, the flourishes of twangy guitar, the moments when the bass walks out and announces itself. On the bridge, the guitars turn jangly and florid, and everything lets up for just a second.
In a lot of ways, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sounds like the musical complement to the endorphin-rush spectacle of Beatlemania. After a few years of pop music built on strings and choirs and repurposed jazz standards, here we had something that ripped through the air, that announced its presence as loudly as possible. No wonder they called it an invasion.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Al Green’s extremely funky 1969 cover of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”: