As pop-music masterworks go, the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is one of the most ambitious, self-conscious compositions in the fabled Lennon-McCartney songbook. It would also be the classic tune that would alter the group’s fortunes across the globe.
Originally written after manager Brian Epstein urged the band to aspire for a distinctly American sound, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” offered a deft blend of African American rhythm and blues, West Coast surf music and high-octane rock ’n’ roll. As John Lennon later recalled, “We wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher’s house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, ‘Oh you-u-u/got that something …’ and Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that — both playing into each other’s noses.”
But the unparalleled success behind “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — like so many of pop music’s greatest stories of fame and fortune — was, purely and simply, about timing. Recorded in 17 takes at Abbey Road Studios on Oct. 17, 1963, it was the first Beatles recording to benefit from four-track technology. Released in the United Kingdom on Nov. 29, 1963, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was a runaway hit in the band mates’ homeland, notching their fourth consecutive No. 1 single and racking up sales of more than 1.5 million copies by the end of January 1964.
Yet in many ways, the song’s breakneck success was even more dramatic and serendipitous in the United States. While “I Want to Hold Your Hand” wouldn’t be released stateside until Dec. 26, 1963, it marked their first appearance on Capitol Records, the American subsidiary of their U.K. parent label, EMI. As it happens, Capitol’s international A&R executive Dave E. Dexter Jr., had been rejecting the Beatles’ music for American release throughout 1963.
Given the group’s massive British success in the summer and autumn months, EMI’s managing director L.G. Wood ordered Capitol to release the Beatles without delay. In spite of his misgivings about the band’s sound, even Dexter couldn’t resist the magic of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” As Dexter later recalled, “I heard about four bars of that, and I grabbed it!”
Capitol initially scheduled the single’s release for mid-January in preparation for the band’s Feb. 9 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Their plans were thwarted, however, when Carroll James, a Washington, D.C., deejay began playing a U.K. import of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on WWDC radio. Faced with unprecedented public demand, Capitol released the single ahead of schedule in late December. As Dexter later remarked, Capitol was so overrun by the record-buying public’s massive appetite for the Beatles that “by New Year’s, we had to have RCA press Capitol records. It was that big.”
At one point, the single was selling a phenomenal 10,000 copies an hour in New York City alone; by March 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had sold an astounding 3.4 million copies in the U.S. Soaring on the wings of the tremendous success associated with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” American Beatlemania had been once and truly born, and as history well knows, it was here to stay.