People talk a lot about the impact the early rock ’n’ rollers had on the Baby Boom and Western pop culture in general, but they don’t always frame it honestly. The joke that “every generation thinks they invented sex,” for example, holds true — there was an impact, certainly, but it was hardly anything previously unheard of. Female impersonators performed in Weimar nightclubs. Shakespeare is packed with dirty jokes. Even with various moral crusaders’ attempts to destroy it, erotic art has persisted throughout human history. Before the Fab Four hit American shores, Elvis swiveled his pelvis onstage, whether Ed Sullivan liked it or not.
So when the Beatles came on the scene, they weren’t quite as earth-shattering as some critics and historians might claim. There had been plenty of “long-haired” men in history, and there had been plenty of pop songs about holding hands and kissing. Even the passionate following dominated by young women wasn’t wholly new. (We’ve already mentioned Elvis, but Lisztomania, from way back in 1841, comes to mind as well.)
But there’s a certain logic to the legend, because the Beatles’ great genius was synthesis. They weren’t original as much as they were singular. They borrowed and stole from the best, and as their careers continued, they incorporated lyrics and vocals that could be was achingly personal and a far cry from the innocent charm of their early hits.
“I Want To Hold Your Hand,” though, is firmly in the “innocent” camp. Sure, they sing about touching someone making them “feel happy inside,” but it’s also something the singer can’t hide. It’s hardly sexual fumbling in the dark, is it?
But aside from the haircuts, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” caused no real controversy. What it did result in was debate over who the Beatles actually were and what their legacy would be. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the band’s first US #1 single, and it’s generally considered the beachhead of the British Invasion.
Cultural change comes slowly, and then all at once, and the Beatles’ career is an ideal example. One minute they’re in near-identical haircuts singing about holding hands, and before you can turn around there’s four guys in hippie beards burying themselves in effigy and singing about weed and trauma. You can pick just about any single from the Beatles’ brief, earth-shattering career as a turning point, because the history of pop music in the 1960s, like the history of everything in the 1960s, is nothing but turning points. (The documentary Fire of Love recently reminded me that even science was having its own moments and revolutions. Plate tectonics, which most post-Boomers learned about in elementary school, became accepted science only in the last half of the 1960s.) Looking back from 2023, it’s hard to remember just now new everything felt, even things that everyone had seen before. (After all, we’ll buy a soda or candy bar sometimes when it’s packaged in an exciting new wrapper.) And there was an undeniable newness to the Beatles, far more than a familiar flavor in a new package.
In the winter of 1963–64, though, as the single jumped the pond and rocketed up multiple charts, not everyone could see that. “The Beatles are indistinguishable from a hundred other similar loud and twanging rock-and-roll groups,” David Newman wrote for Esquire. He was hardly alone in that assessment, though there were also plenty of critics and musicians who appreciated them. If the Velvet Underground’s debut album sold 10,000 copies and every one of those 10,000 people formed a band, The Beatles sold twelve million copies of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” alone, and probably 100,000 or more of those buyers took a crack at rock ’n’ roll.
The Beatles’ career was the original boy band speedrun, from four wholesome-ish young men singing broadly appealing songs with innocent lyrics, to escalating musical ambition, to four distinctly different solo careers whose legacies and cultural impact are still discussed and debated. No one had ever done it quite like they had, and no one really has since.
It helped that audiences were ready to hear something new and fresh. It helped that Lennon and McCartney knew their way around a riff so well that they ended up writing songs for other musicians, even “Beatles clones.” It helped that they had a phenomenal lead guitarist. It certainly didn’t hurt that their drummer was an innovator in his own right and less likely to fight for the spotlight than his other bandmates. (And, of course, it helped that they were white.)
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” isn’t really the turning point, though it is the band’s first #1 hit in the US and it might fairly be called a turning point. But it is one of the vinyl singles I listened to over and over as a child, part of a collection of 45s inherited from my mother (not all of them were so iconic; The Murmaids, anyone?). I had a toy record player that would play real 45s, then graduated to a real stereo system that I only let go of last year. (I still have my grandparents’ old cabinet-style stereo, don’t worry.) This is the Beatles song I remember playing the most. I think it was the way the chorus escalated to “haaaaand!” It made you want to sing along. Still does, honestly, after all this time.
I toyed with writing this like one of Todd in the Shadows’ “One Hit Wonderland” videos, pretending that the Beatles didn’t have much success after this one and broke up not long after. Of course it’s an impossible counterfactual, but I would have shouted out their influence on the Beach Boys, talked about Ringo’s solid career as a session musician, Paul’s work in movie soundtracks and video game music, and George’s obscure but influential experiments with non-Western music. I abandoned the idea completely when I couldn’t make up my mind on John Lennon. Christine McVie’s passing late last year reminded me of how rare and fortunate it is when all members of a band have that much sheer talent and creativity.