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.
The Beatles’ staggering commercial domination of America was complete, total, and immediate. A few weeks before “Can’t Buy Me Love” hit #1, 60% of the singles sold in the United States were Beatles songs. And the week that the song hit the top spot, all five songs in the Billboard 100 top five were Beatles songs. No artist had ever held down all top five spots simultaneously before, and none has done it since.
The Beatles were in ridiculous demand, and they worked overtime to meet that demand. The band literally bashed out “Can’t Buy Me Love” in their spare time. During an 18-night residency at the Olympia Theater in Paris, the band booked studio time to record German-language versions of “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” (Odeon, EMI’s german subsidiary, had insisted that the songs wouldn’t sell in Germany if they were in English.) The band got done ahead of schedule, so they had time to track a song that Paul McCartney had written on the piano he’d had moved into his hotel room. They added a few overdubs later, but most of what we’re hearing on the single is that raw demo, with double-tracked vocals from McCartney alone.
McCartney has said that he wrote “Can’t Buy Me Love” as a bluesier song than he’d ever attempted. (He’s also said that it is not, contrary to rumor, about a sex worker.) But even though the song has a 12-bar structure, it doesn’t sound bluesy. It sounds like the same kind of supercharged pop music that the Beatles had basically perfected in those early days.
The guitars are strummy, but there’s no calm. They push the song forward insistently, furiously. And the scream that McCartney hits, right before George Harrison’s twangy guitar solo comes in, is a moment of glorious frenzy. The song is hard and sharp and fast — speed music, music for losing your mind late at night. Today, after a whole lifetime’s worth of oldies-radio heavy rotation, it sounds good. But if you were a teenager in 1964, it must’ve sounded like the world exploding.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the extremely ’90s-R&B video for the “Can’t Buy Me Love” cover that ’90s R&B stars Blackstreet — a group who will eventually show up in this column — released in 1996: