Key: G Major
Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Bridge | Verse |
| Bridge | Verse | Outro (complete ending)
CD: "Past Masters", Volume 1, Track 6
(Parlophone CDP 90043-2)
Recorded: 17th October 1963, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 29th November 1963 (A Single / "This Boy")
US-release: 26th December 1963 (A Single / "I Saw Her Standing There")
General Points of Interest
Style and Form
On the surface "I Want To Hold Your Hand" is deceptively straightforward and regular in design. Its high-level form is a standard two-bridge model with only one verse (and no solo) intervening between the two bridges. Similarly, its phrase lengths appear for the most part to be symmetrically even, and its back-beat for long stretches sounds closer to conservative pop than rebelliously hard rock.
And yet, by the same token, just about everyone of the Beatles' early trademark tricks of the trade is to be found within it: the abrupt syncopations, non-intuitive two-part vocal harmony, falsetto screaming, an occasionally novel chord progression, even some elided phrasing. And of course, don't forget the overdubbed handclaps!
Perhaps it is just this paradoxical contrast between familiar and more daring elements that is at the heart of the song's phenomenal success.
The list of chords used is not particularly unusual in itself, though the way they leave the V-of-vi chord (B-Major) repeatedly unresolved in the verse sections is rather creative. The subtle leaning toward the relative minor key is reminiscent to some extent of what we saw recently in "Not A Second Time"; and as I mentioned there in connection with "A Day In The Life", the same choice of key here yet again seems beyond mere coincidence.
There is also the relatively rare occurrence of a full-blown pivot modulation to the key of IV (C Major) in the bridges.
John might be said to be the lead vocalist here because it is he who sings the tune proper while Paul is delegated to singing harmony above him, but most notably, there is no actual vocal solo in the song; i.e. they sing in duet virtually the whole way through, albeit with frequent shifting back and forth between singing in unison and that "patented" vocal counterpoint style of theirs in which they seem to go out of their way to court open fourths and fifths, instead the more traditional thirds and sixths.
In addition to the handclaps already mentioned, Paul plays quite a bit of double-stops in the bass part, Ringo throws in some of his structurally significant drum fills in between the second and third phrase of each verse, and most subtle of all, George contributes a number of lead guitar fills which you almost don't notice per se, but have always been part of your special enjoyment of the recording.
This is a classic opening right into the midst of the action if ever there was one. It converges toward the home key, starting on IV and moving quickly with heavy syncopations into a big buildup on the V chord.
This intro is four measures long, but it opens with one and a half beats of music preceding the first downbeat. The syncopations place the accents on the eighth notes which follow the third and fourth beats of the measure, which is a bit hard to grasp at first because of the abrupt way in which the music starts. By measures 3 and 4 though, the rhythmic backing (especially the lead guitar) helps get you better oriented with the way in which it clearly beats out four in the bar:
Accents: ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ "Oh yeah, I ..."
Beats: 3&4& 1&2&3&4& 1&2&3&4& 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1
CCD|-----CCD|-----CCD|- - - - |- - - - ||G (verse)
G: IV V IV V IV V I
This large of a climax so early in the evening, so to speak, is unusual and draws one's immediate and expectant attention.
If you're a big maven of the film "A Hard Day's Night" then you probably have noticed long ago that Paul, in a rare moment of exuberant spontaneity, horses around at the end of their performance of "If I Fell" in the film by playing the bass riff for parallel fifths from this intro while simultaneously tripping the live fantastic for just an instant.
The all-important verse section here is twelve measures long, but (surprise!) it's hardly a standard blues frame:
mm. 1-4, 5-8
---------------------------- 2X -----------------------------
|G |D |e |B |
G: I V vi V-of-vi
mm. 9 - 12
|C D |G e |C D |G |
IV V I vi IV V I
The first two phrases form a couplet in which each contains the same harmony and even melody; the sole difference being that the first phrase melodically ends going down to F#, but the second goes up to that note (an octave higher than the first time). The third phrase, with its suddenly double-timed harmonic rhythm, provides the refrain-like title/hook which balances out and resolves the tension accumulated over the course of the preceding couplet.
The overall melodic arch peaks on the downbeat of measure 10, but in some ways it's an anti-climax, because the more palpable point of no-return occurs on the syncopated and falsetto-drenched leap to the high F# just before the downbeat of measure 8. You don't need to be a musicologist in order to feel such things :-)
The first two phrases each veer straight toward the key of the relative minor, e, via a deceptive cadence, finishing off on the V of e. In the first instance, this V-of-vi is left dangling like a non-sequitur when the next phrase starts off all over again from I (G) as though nothing had happened. Furthermore, this juxtaposition of the G- and B-Major chords creates a tastily wavering cross-relation between the notes D# and D-natural, somewhat analogous to what we saw regarding the relation between the chords on I and flat-III in "Hold Me Tight". In the second instance, the B chord is itself resolved deceptively by the move to IV (C) at the beginning of the final phrase.
The chromatic-scale-fill played in parallel fifths on the bass guitar during the second half of measures 2 and 6 may well be one of the most easily recognized riffs in all music history. Note, by the way, how neatly George coordinates his own little twang to coincide with the end of Paul's riff.
The rhythmic scanning of the words breaks up the natural phrasing of the lyrics with frequent pauses, adding a sweet hint of bashful tongue-tiedness to the affair; e.g. "Oh yeah, I (pause) tell you something (pause) I think you'll understand etc."
The restraint with which the vocal duet, sung primarily in unison, is allowed to briefly blossom forth into two-part harmony for only a few measures (measures 8 - 10) is a good demonstration of how less can be more.
The bridge has an unusual length of eleven measures. What I think happens here is that what "should" have been a more standard eight-measure bridge of two equal phrases is adjoined to a recapitulation of the song's intro in such a way that the last measure of the eight-measure bridge is elided with (or perhaps interrupted by) the first measure of the intro-recap:
|d |G |C |a |
C: ii V I vi
|d |G |C CCD|-----CCD|
C: ii V I
G: IV IV V IV V
|-----CCD|- - - - |- - - - ||G (verse)
G: IV V I
Harmonically, we have a textbook pivot modulation to the key of C. Additional textural contrast with the surrounding verses is achieved by a change in drumming. I also happen to especially like, in the measure immediately preceding the bridge, the way the guitar plays a couple of choppy chords on the off-beats in direct antiphony with the bass.
We have a great example in the voice parts of how the Boys could find an opportunity in even rather mundane melodic situations to set up one of their splendid open-fifths. When the music of the intro returns here and they sing the words "I can't hide" three times in a row, John sings the notes C -» C -» D in all three cases, whereas Paul on the top part sings E -» E -» F# the first two times, but very naturally precedes up the scale to sing G -» G -» A the third time, creating the parallel fifths with John.
In the avoidance of foolish consistency department they feature in the second bridge section a duet for two-part harmony the whole way through.
As we've seen in other songs, the outro here is developed as an outgrowth of the final verse. Measure 12 is modified the last time around so that instead of going home to the I chord (G), it moves quite deceptively to the V-of-vi (B), which neatly motivates a "petit-reprise" (no joke -- a legitimate "technical" term in the parlance of the French Baroque!) of the IV-» V -» I title phrase. Note, by the way, the incorporation of the intro-like lead-guitar riff into that deceptive cadence.
But wait -- there's still one last bang-up surprise to come: the slow triplets and the chord progression which interpolates two measures of IV coming in between the V and its ultimate resolution to I; talk about your pent-up but eventually fulfilled gratification!
Some Final Thoughts
This ever-popular number was released as a single in England (together with its B-side: "This Boy") precisely one week after the "With The Beatles" album near the end of November 1963. It is undeniably one of the Beatles all-time blockbusters and in many ways represents the compositional culmination of what might be called their their Very Early period.
The next recordings to appear would be the March 1964 single of "Can't Buy Me Love" (with its B-side "You Can't Do That"), by which time the Beatles would have their first appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show behind them and the "A Hard Day's Night" film project to look forward to. Their world (and ours, for that matter) by then would be forever changed, and this fact would appear quite obviously in the new music they would write from then onward. Though still relatively 'early' in comparison to "Rubber Soul" or "Sgt. Pepper", the songs on "A Hard Day's Night" represent a quantum leap from the first two albums in both technical command and temperament.
But getting back to "I Want To Hold Your Hand", in context of November 1963, it was the best they could do, a kind of summing up of all they had done to-date. And almost thirty years later, in spite of all its seemingly puppy-love simplicity, and for reasons so ineffable that I can't come close to adequately explaining them and in spite of all my analysis, it does hold up remarkably well, like a classic.
Copyright © 1991 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.
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