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.
Years after “I Feel Fine,” John Lennon claimed that the song was the first time anyone had ever used feedback on a record — not as an accident but as a technique, as a cool sound: “I defy anybody to find a record — unless it’s some old blues record in 1922 — that uses feedback that way.” There’s not a lot of feedback on the song; it’s not like the Beatles had suddenly transformed into Sonic Youth. You only hear it for an instant in the song’s opening seconds. It’s Lennon’s electro-acoustic guitar picking up the feedback from the Paul McCartney bass note that opens the song. It sounds like a sitar drone, and it’s over as soon as that main riff kicks in. But it’s a cool little shiver of a noise and a sign that the Beatles were just starting to challenge themselves, to open up their sound and play around with it.
“I Feel Fine” is a sort of early shot from what I think is the best Beatles era — that Help!/Rubber Soul run where they were getting loose and weird and psychedelic but where they were still bringing the ridiculous headrush melodies that made all those teenagers fall in love with them in the first place. They weren’t yet bored with being pop musicians, but they were playing around with what the idea of pop music could be.
As a hook-delivery system, “I Feel Fine” is an absolute machine. Lennon wrote the bulk of the song, and he wrote it because he already had that great fucking riff and because he wanted to make a song out of it. Around that riff, the band built towering skyward harmonies and tumbling quasi-Latin percussion and a zippy little beauty of a George Harrison guitar solo. The lyrics are simplistic, almost to the point of infantilism, and Lennon himself thought the song was “lousy” before the band recorded it, but it’s a perfect little engine of a pop song.
Of course, the riff at the center of the song didn’t really belong to John Lennon. He’d taken it, with minor alterations, from “Watch Your Step,” a 1961 rave-up from the LA blues guitarist Bobby Parker, a song that the Beatles had already covered live. Later on, Led Zeppelin stole that exact same riff for “Moby Dick.” If that happened today, Bobby Parker would be getting paid. But then, that’s how pop music history works. People hear other things they like in songs, and they rip those things off. (The Beatles also copped to taking the “I Feel Fine” drums from Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?”) They recombine those things in new ways, and they add new ideas like that quick little feedback drone. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
BONUS BEATS: Sweethearts Of The Rodeo, a pair of Emmylou Harris proteges from Los Angeles who’d named themselves after a Byrds album, had a top-10 country hit in 1988 with an “I Feel Fine” cover that brought the song’s country influences to the fore. Here’s that cover: