100 Greatest Beatles Songs

From 'Helter Skelter' to 'Sgt. Pepper's,' ranking of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison's output

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'I Want to Hold Your Hand'
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty2/100

2. 'I Want to Hold Your Hand'

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: October 17, 1963
Released: December 26, 1963
15 weeks; no. 1

When the joyous, high-end racket of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" first blasted across the airwaves, America was still reeling from the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Beatles songs had drifted across the Atlantic in a desultory way before, but no British rock & roll act had ever made the slightest impact on these shores. The Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, were determined to be the first, vowing that they wouldn't come to the U.S. until they had a Number One record.

"I Want to Hold Your Hand" changed everything. "Luckily, we didn't know what America was — we just knew our dream of it — or we probably would have been too intimidated," Paul McCartney told Rolling Stone in 1987. The single was most Americans' first exposure to the songwriting magic of Lennon and McCartney, who composed the song sitting side by side at the piano in the London home of the parents of McCartney's girlfriend, Jane Asher.

"I remember when we got the chord that made the song," John Lennon later said. "We had, 'Oh, you-u-u/Got that something,' and Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, 'That's it! Do that again!' In those days, we really used to write like that — both playing into each other's noses."

The song "was the apex of Phase One of the Beatles' development," said producer George Martin. "When they started out, in the 'Love Me Do' days, they weren't good writers. They stole unashamedly from existing records. It wasn't until they tasted blood that they realized they could do this, and that set them on the road to writing better songs."

The lightning-bolt energy lunges out of the speakers with a rhythm so tricky that many bands who covered the song couldn't figure it out. Lennon's and McCartney's voices constantly switch between unison and harmony. Every element of the song is a hook, from Lennon's riffing to George Harrison's string-snapping guitar fills to the group's syncopated hand claps.

With advance orders at a million copies, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was released in the U.K. in late November and promptly bumped the band's "She Loves You" from the top of the charts. After a teenager in Washington, D.C., persuaded a local DJ to seek out an import of the single, it quickly became a hit on the few American stations that managed to score a copy. Rush-released in the U.S. the day after Christmas, the song hit Number One on February 1st, 1964.

Having accomplished their goal, the Beatles' appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, drawing 70 million viewers, the most in the history of TV to that time. "It was like a dam bursting," Martin said.

Teens weren't the only ones swept up in Beatlemania. Some of America's greatest artists fell under their spell. Poet Allen Ginsberg leapt up to dance the first time he heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in a New York club. Composer Leonard Bernstein rhapsodized about the Sullivan appearance, "I fell in love with the Beatles' music — the ineluctable beat, the Schubert-like flow of musical invention and the Fuck-You coolness of the Four Horsemen of Our Apocalypse." Bob Dylan, who had just released The Times They Are A-Changin', saw the future. "They were doing things nobody was doing," Dylan said in 1971. "Their chords were outrageous. It was obvious to me they had staying power. I knew they were pointing in the direction of where music had to go. In my head, the Beatles were it."

Appears On: Past Masters

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