200. ‘Help!’, by The Beatles

And it’s two hundred not out! Two hundred UK #1 singles covered; plenty more where they came from… And this isn’t a bad little record with which to celebrate our mini-milestone!

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Help!, by The Beatles (their 8th of seventeen #1s)

3 weeks, from 5th – 26th August 1965

Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody! Help! You know I need someone! He-e-elp… It looks ridiculous written out like that, doesn’t it? If you told somebody that you were going to write a pop song with those as the introductory lines they would probably laugh at you. Then look nervously away… But, The Beatles were the some of the best producers of pop that the world has ever seen, and this may well be their best pop moment.

Or, you know, it might be ‘She Loves You’, or ‘Please Please Me’, or ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, or ten other of their songs… Let me rephrase. This may or may not be their best pure pop moment, but it is their last. ‘Help!’ is a bit of a step back, after the stoned haziness of ‘I Feel Fine’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’. This is the same Beatles that gave us ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ – all floppy-haired enthusiasm and cheeky winks.

Except… listen to the lyrics. It’s an upbeat, summery pop song (from the soundtrack to their latest movie), but by God the words are bleak. When I was younger, So much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way… But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured… and Every now and then I feel so insecure, I know that I just need you like, I’ve never done before… do not your average pop song make. In the film, the cry for ‘help’ is from Ringo, who finds himself about to become the sacrificial victim of an Oriental cult (as you do…) In real life, the cry for help was John’s. His life, as the leader of the most popular band in the world, was getting to him.

I’ve never suffered from depression. But I know people who have, and the line: Help me if you can, I’m feeling down, And I do appreciate you being round… seems to be just about the most perfect description of the disease. The knowledge that nobody can really help you feel better; but that just knowing people are still around brings you some comfort. That’s it. Summed up in two perfect lines.

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Musically this is a short and simple song. But many of the best pop songs are. With The Beatles it’s often the small things that make their hits stand out over and above their contemporaries. The opening chord on ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, for example. On ‘Help!’, it’s the way that the backing singers’ lines (the countermelody, if you will) weave, and twist, and sometimes even precede the lead vocal. The Now I find… and the My independence… lines are the best examples. It’s the little touches like this that made the Fab Four peerless.

So, that’s it for the ‘pop’ Beatles. In 1966 they’ll stop performing live, smoke even more weed, start getting lost in India… all for another day. For now, press play on the link below and enjoy them as the mop-top Fabs for one last time. Plus, what with this being chart-topper #200, this seems like a good place to stop for a brief moment of reflection.

Chart-topper #1 – Al Martino’s pre-rock epic ‘Here in My Heart’ kicked it all off. It’s from another era – another planet – entirely. By the time we got to chart-topper #100 – Anthony Newley’s twee little ‘Do You Mind’ – we had traversed the rock ‘n’ roll era and were about to get stuck in the early-sixties slump of Elvis soundtrack songs and ‘death-discs’. And now here we are with #200. ‘Help!’ Perhaps the very final Beat-pop number-one. Experimental times lie ahead… I published chart-topper #1 at the end of January last year, to precisely zero interest, and so I’d like to say thank you to everyone who has since decided to join up for the journey. Your views, likes and comments sustain me! #100 was posted at the very start of November last year, and now here’s #200 at the end of August. A rate of a hundred every nine months. So… We should reach #300 by May 2020 (T.Rex, btw!) And which means we should reach the current UK number one (#1357) in about a decade… Hang on in there!

Remind yourself of all 200 of the first chart-toppers, here:

198. ‘I’m Alive’, by The Hollies

Finally, after all the recent gospel, jazz and country, we’re back on track. This is more like it. This is what the sixties were meant to sound like…

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I’m Alive, by The Hollies (their 1st of two #1s)

1 week, from 24th June – 1st July / 2 weeks from 8th – 22nd July 1965 (3 weeks total)

This record is like a ‘Best of the Sixties’ compilation distilled down into a two and a half minute song. Let’s take it step by step… The intro is pure Merseybeat – light, chiming guitars – with a generous side order of Doo-Wop. Doo- doodoodoodoodoodoodoo… Then in comes in a husky, Lennon-ish voice: Did you ever see a man with no heart, Baby that was me… It’s all about a man who had never lived before, until his girl came along. It’s an upbeat and positive song. A song that puts you in a good mood. He’s alive!

The build-up to the chorus is very Beatles-y. Think a milder version of their ‘Twist and Shout’. Now I can breathe, I can see, I can touch, I can feel… Each line ascends ahead of the previous one, until the singer punches the chorus out: I never felt like this… I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m alive! End, and repeat.

Then the solo, which is a bit more hard hitting. Think tinny Kinks’ guitars with a bit of Stones swagger thrown in. And by the end, they’ve gone full on Who – with Keith Moon style drum fills and a frenetic rock-out to the end. Sprinkle the tiniest hint of psychedelica in the guitar reverb, and soupçon of Beach Boys in the backing vocals, and there you have it. I mentioned in recent posts that Jackie Trent and Sandie Shaw’s recent #1s were the most ‘sixties-sounding’ pop hits and now, well, I think we have the rock equivalent. We are slap-bang in the middle of the decade, and the sixties have never sounded sixtieser. It’s the perfect mix of old-style rock ‘n’ roll, Merseybeat and the newer, harder-edged rock. It’s a great little record.

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The Hollies were also, like so many of the bands that they sound like, from the north-east of England, and went through the same Cavern Club circuit as all their peers. Founded by Allan Clarke and Graham Nash (later of Crosby, Stills and Nash), they started out as an Everly Brothers style duo before adding a few more members. Their name is – as you may have guessed – a tribute to Buddy Holly. ‘I’m Alive’ was far from being their first hit; nor was it their last. They would go on to have Top 10s well into the seventies, and were the 9th biggest chart-act of the sixties. Not bad, considering that they were up against Elvis, Cliff, The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks and more in that list.

And I have to admit that they are the one big sixties rock group that have passed me by. I know ‘Just One Look’ – another mid-decade pop classic – and ‘Stop Stop Stop’, as well as their later, mellower hits ‘He Ain’t Heavy…’ and ‘The Air That I Breathe’. But I should know more, and will explore their back-catalogue as soon as I’ve finished writing this post. ‘I’m Alive’ was their only UK #1* and that, given their chart longevity, feels like a surprise.

But, before you give delve into their Greatest Hits, give this record one more spin. A song that sounds like the love-child of every prominent sixties rock ‘n’ roll band, a record that faces both forward and back, a record that did a weird mid-summer’s dance with Elvis’s ‘Crying in the Chapel’ (Elvis was #1, then The Hollies, then Elvis, then The Hollies again) at the top of the charts. A classic, that almost slipped through the gaps.

*(My first ever footnote!) Actually, The Hollies will have one further UK chart-topper, with a re-release in precisely twenty-three and a bit years, for Miller-Lite based reasons that we’ll go into when we get there.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3sSYyPEUCTyMjMlN55z8SX?si=bb8dN5HuQtSgwGJDFDWTCQ

174. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, by The Beatles

Has there ever been a more memorable, yet concise, intro in the history of pop? One chord. Literally just one chord. But I’d bet anyone with even a passing interest in popular music would be able to identify it.

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A Hard Day’s Night, by The Beatles (their 5th of seventeen #1s)

3 weeks, from 23rd July – 13th August 1964

I’d also wager that entire theses have been devoted to this chord… (*Edit* Check out a 2004 report entitled “Mathematics, Physics, and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’” if that’s your thing.) As chords go, it’s quite a complicated one, with George Harrison playing an F and a G, while Paul McCartney adds a D on the bass, plus lots of other bits of wizardry from George Martin. Try the Wiki entry on the song for more detail. I didn’t really understand…

To the actual song, then. The intro fades, and we race into the first verse. It’s been a hard day’s night, And I’ve been working like a dog… And what’s that in the background, setting the frantic pace… Bongos?? Sure sounds like it. It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleepin’, Like a log…

Coming hard on the heels of two R&B chart-toppers, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘It’s All Over Now’, this sounds a bit light. Perhaps even a bit dated. So 1963… The But when I get home to you, I find the things that you do… line sounds like the climax to a cheesy sitcom theme. (‘One Foot in the Grave’, maybe…)

But the bridge comes in, and blasts all these doubts away. When I’m home, Everything seems to be right… Insistent cowbell, and the way that Paul half-screams Tight… Yeah! It’s actually a pretty filthy song. When he gets home to his girl, he finds the things that she does, make him feel alright… Who knows, maybe she’s just fetching him his pipe and slippers… Then scream! And solo. I love a scream before a solo. It’s second only to shouting the guitarist’s name in my list of ‘Brilliant Ways to Introduce a Solo’.

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Actually, listening properly to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the first time in years, it feels like this is actually four songs in one. You’ve got the intro, the cheesy verses, the intense bridge, then the outro… The jingly, jangly, echoey outro that sounds as if it’s coming from a year or two in the future. It kills of Beatles Mk I, and suddenly this record doesn’t sound lightweight, or like a re-tread of their previous hits. Those last five seconds basically announce that Merseybeat is dead; but that The Fab Four will continue setting the tone for the next few years. Everyone knows that The Beatles were ‘very good’; but it’s tiny moments like this that confirm it.

This song was, of course, from a film of the same name, all about the boys carousing their way around London, getting up to all sorts of hi-jinks. It was their first feature film appearance and, whaddya know, it’s one of the most influential music-movies ever made. Even their films turned out that way. They simply had the Midas touch.

Interestingly, what with this disc being released at the height of Beatlemania, as part of the soundtrack to the biggest film of the year, it didn’t enter the charts at #1. Entering the chart at the top was a big deal back then – Elvis had done it twice, Cliff once… That’s it. It seems natural to assume that The Beatles would have done so too in pretty short order. But they never did. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ entered at #3, before climbing. They would have to wait until ‘Get Back’, their penultimate #1 in 1969, to hit the summit in release week… I say ‘interesting’; but maybe it’s just me. A strange quirk, anyway. Onwards.

169. ‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies

Before listening to this next UK chart-topper, I would have put the house on ‘Juliet’ being a doo-wopish, soulful, Motown record and The Four Pennies a black vocal group from Detroit. And if I had, I would now be homeless.

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Juliet, by The Four Pennies (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 21st – 28th May 1964

For this is another Beat record, and The Four Pennies a band from Blackburn, Lancashire. Which goes to show how much of a forgotten #1 single this is. I have genuinely never heard this record before. I suspect most people haven’t. This record is so inconspicuous that I missed it every time I glanced down my list of UK chart-toppers, what with its single week at the top being completely buried amongst large swathes of Beatles, Pacemakers, Searchers and Cilla.

What is it, then – this most forgotten of #1s? Well, if I had to pick one word to describe it that word would be ‘gentle’. A gentle guitar rhythm, gentle drums, and oh-so gentle vocals that give us something approaching a lullaby. There was a love, I knew before, She broke my heart, Left me unsure…. It sounds like the last number played at a spring dance in 1955, a soundtrack to which sweethearts would pair up and decide to ‘go steady’, not a hit single from the swinging sixties. Ju-li-e-e-e-et, Don’t forget… (some high quality rhyming, there.)

It’s got a pleasantly lo-fi, home-demo quality to it, and I quite like the soaring, layered you gave me… line in the bridge. It’s nice that it sneaked a week at the top in amongst all the huge hits of the time; but there’s a good reason as to why ‘Juliet’ has been well-forgotten by the collective conscience… It’s pretty dull. Kind of like The Bachelors from a few weeks back, it’s a case of bandwagon-jumping, or perhaps clever marketing, from four guys with guitars who look like a cool new Beat group, but who are recording music for mums.

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Actually, the more I listen to it, and the more I look at my list of upcoming number one singles, I think this might be the final genuine, Merseybeat chart-topper. Suddenly the movement is dead. Or, if not dead then about to splinter into lots of different styles: R &B, garage, folk… especially once the Americans get involved. But what a run it’s been. I can’t imagine a similarly homogenous run of #1 singles at any other time, before or after. Since The Searchers hit the top back in August ’63 with ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ we’ve had a near flawless procession of Beat pop at the top of the charts. I make it fourteen out of fifteen #1s, with the only exception being Cilla Black’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, and she was from Liverpool and so was still halfway there.

The Four Pennies weren’t quite one-hit wonders, but ‘Juliet’ was their only Top Ten hit. The follow-up, ‘I Found Out the Hard Way’, could only make #14. By 1966, after only three years together as a recording group, Lionel, Fritz, Alan and Mike had gone their separate ways. Perhaps most tellingly, they were the only group from the Beat movement – and I’m talking about all the bands covered so far in this countdown and all the bands still to come over the next few years – that failed to chart for even a single week in the USA during the famous ‘British Invasion’.

Listen to every #1 so far with this playlist:

168. ‘Don’t Throw Your Love Away’, by The Searchers

The Searchers complete their hat-trick of #1s, with a very ‘Searchers’ record. Light as a feather guitar, restrained vocals, a hint of melancholy… Check, check, check.

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Don’t Throw Your Love Away, by The Searchers (their 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 7th – 21st May 1964

If The Beatles were the popular kids, and Gerry & The Pacemakers the class clowns, The Searchers were the cool kids in the corner, planning out their next, more grown-up, hit record. ‘Don’t Throw Your Love Away’ is the sort of record your gran wouldn’t have minded; but she would definitely have told you to turn off The Dave Clark Five.

It’s another Beat-pop song with a less-than-positive message. A song about a man who has been burned in the past, and who now sits at the end of the bar doling out advice to anyone who’ll listen. Lovers of today, Just throw their dreams away, And play at love… They give their love away, To anyone who’ll say, I love you… He doesn’t refer to himself specifically; but you just know he’s had his heart broken. Don’t throw your love away… he counsels… For you, Might need it, Someday…

When I first listened to this record a few days ago – a record I was aware of but had never really listened to properly – I noted that I ‘couldn’t really get into it’, that it was a little bland and uninventive. I even jotted down the phrase ‘Landfill Merseybeat’, meaning it in the same way that anyone who wasn’t The Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand or The Libertines in 2006 was ‘Landfill Indie’. But I’d like to officially change my mind, having listened to it on repeat, and admit that what I mistook for a bland number is actually a very subtle song that simply takes a while to fully reveal itself. The vocal harmonies are cute, and the guitars chime very tightly (I especially like the little ‘Arabian Nights’ fill in the bridge.)

And all credit to The Searchers, for not chasing the ‘Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ of other Beat songs, for ploughing their own furrow and taking this forgotten little slice of sad-pop to number one. This is a very ‘Searchers’ record; and if that means it’s a little hard to get into at first, then fine. I think part of the reason I didn’t get into their first chart-topper, ‘Sweets For My Sweet’, is that that was a song that really needed an up-tempo, grinning approach, which The Searchers couldn’t provide.

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That’s not to say that they couldn’t do better than ‘Don’t Throw Your Love Away’. ‘Needles and Pins’ stands out clearly as the best of their three #1s, if not one of the best Merseybeat records, period. And their next single but one, the brilliant ‘When You Walk Into the Room’, would have made an even better final chart-topper for the group. It only reached number three…

I really could just cut and paste this next sentence… The Searchers (as with Gerry & The P’s, Billy J, Peter & Gordon et al) couldn’t keep the hits going much longer than this. Their final Top 20 hit came in 1965. Perhaps their biggest problem was that they didn’t write their own hits – all their #1s were covers (‘Don’t Throw Your Love Away’ was originally released, in the US at least, by The Orlons.) In the fifties that would have been fine, but all of a sudden, it seems, acts – especially guitar bands – needed to be writing their own stuff. They tried to move with the times, covering songs by The Stones and The Hollies, but nothing stuck. The line-up changed at an alarming rate, and they now tour as both Mike Pender’s Searchers and the ‘original’ group. But, we can remember them fondly as the band who gave us a breather, with their wistful melodies and hesitant vocals, from the relentless march of the Beat revolution.

167. ‘A World Without Love’, by Peter & Gordon

With Beatlemania at its scream-until-you-vomit height, it should come as no surprise to learn that one Fab Four song is replacing another at the top of the charts. Except, one glance at the act involved in this latest #1 gives the game away… There was neither a Peter nor a Gordon in The Beatles.

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A World Without Love, by Peter & Gordon (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 23rd April – 7th May 1964

For those keeping track, this is the 6th Lennon & McCartney composition to take the top spot in the UK: four recorded by The Beatles themselves; two covered by other artists. But even if you hadn’t been filled in beforehand, the second the needle drops on ‘A World Without Love’ you know it’s a L&M number.

Is it the chord progressions? The harmonies? The fact it’s a catchy song with a sad underbelly? Is it all those things; or none? I can’t put my finger on it – but it’s there throughout the song. That Lennon & McCartney fairy dust. At the same time, though, this disc doesn’t sound exactly like a Beatles’ number. They were still, at this point, a guitars and drums pop group; while this record is driven by a bass riff and an organ.

The voices are different too – softer, more Everly Brothers than Beatles. They’re nice, drenched in echo… Please, lock me away… And don’t allow the day… Here inside, Where I hide, With my loneliness… It’s a song about how awful the world looks after a break-up. And this particular break-up must have hit pretty darn hard… Birds sing out of tune, And rainclouds hide the moon… By the end, the duo are begging to be locked away, hidden from all, rather than staying in a world without love.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it is surprising just how melancholy and melodramatic some of these Beat #1s were. You think it’s all youthful exuberance and ‘Yeah Yeah Yeahs’, but when you sit down and listen intently you notice that songs like ‘Bad to Me’, ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Needles and Pins’ are more concerned with the downsides of love, and that it’s not all sweetness and light. Apparently this song was written by Paul McCartney aged just sixteen, and that makes complete sense. That line about ‘hiding with his loneliness’ is pure teen-angst; while the bridge – in which it is revealed that the singer still holds out hope of his beloved returning to him – is pure youthful optimism. Although the line When she does (come back) I lose… adds an ambiguous element into the mix. Does he want her to come back? Or is he enjoying his gloomy wallow a little too much?

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Peter Asher and Gordon Waller were school friends, and ‘A World Without Love’ was their debut hit. Asher was the brother of Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane, and actually shared a room with Paul when he first moved to London, hence how he got to know him and was allowed to ‘borrow’ one of his songs. All the duo’s biggest hits were covers – ‘True Love Ways’ and a version of ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ followed – before, as with so many of the bands that broke through in the Beat explosion, their careers crumbled circa 1966/67.

McCartney was honest enough to admit that he thought ‘A World Without Love’ wasn’t good enough for his own band, and so they never recorded so much as a demo of it. I think that’s a little harsh – it’s a neat slice of pop that’s the equal of many Beatles’ album tracks. But I also get what he means. Nothing here matches the euphoric rush of ‘She Loves You’ or the guitar on ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. They may have had cute hairstyles and cheeky grins, but The Beatles, and Lennon & McCartney in particular, knew what they were doing, taking control of their careers from the off.

166. ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, by The Beatles

Our next #1 is a record that wastes no time in getting to the heart of what it’s all about. The song is called ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, and the intro goes:

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Can’t Buy Me Love, by The Beatles (their 4th of seventeen #1s)

3 weeks, from 2nd – 23rd April 1964

Can’t buy me love…. No-oh…. Can’t buy me lo-ve… It’s a jarring intro – a bit too in your face – but things improve a lot with the verses. I’ve always liked the swinging, bluesy rhythm on this record and today, listening to it for the first time in ages, I still do. Buy you a diamond ring my friend, If it makes you feel alright, I’ll get you anything my friend, If it makes you feel alright…

It’s a song about money not being everything; which is a topic that always sounds a bit off coming from hugely successful and completely loaded musicians. But I think The Beatles were young enough, and sufficiently green behind the ears, in early-’64, to get away with it. Actually, in a similar manner to ‘She Loves You’, Lennon & McCartney take a familiar theme here and add a layer or two. The lyrics aren’t about not needing money; they’re about having money and not really caring what you do with it. I don’t care too much for money, Money can’t buy me love…

It’s also a kind of contradictory message, as they then list the things they’ll give someone – as long as they love them back. Give you all I’ve got to give, If you say you’ll love me too… So money can buy you love…? I’m confused, guys. Perhaps we’re getting a first glimpse, four number #1s into their career, of The Fab Four’s disillusionment with fame and riches…? Especially in the final verse, where they hope that the girl wants the kind of things that money just can’t buy. Had they already been burned by gold-digging groupies…? It ends on what almost sounds like a wistful sigh… Ohhhhh….

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Musically, it’s a little basic. At least, it’s Beatles-basic (which means that most other bands would have bitten your hand off for a chance to record it.) The high points are the ear-splitting shriek before the solo, and the echoey, plucked guitar that follows. It’s never been one of my favourite Beatles songs – I guess I always overlooked it in favour of the ‘bigger’ hits – but it’s been nice to re-discover it for this post. For some reason I will always associate it with an episode of The Simpsons, in which Grandpa and his friends frolic in a meadow (I’m sure I’m not imagining that…)

‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ ensured that The Beatles joined both Elvis and Frank Ifield in scoring 4 #1s in a year (though only Elvis did it in a calendar year.) In fact, this record hit the top simultaneously in the UK and the US and pretty much marks the absolutely demented, scream your head off and throw your panties height of Beatlemania. It was #1 in the week of the famous all-Beatles Top 5 in the Billboard Hot 100, and followed directly on from ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and ‘She Loves You’ in occupying pole position. These three discs hogged the top spot over there for a full fourteen consecutive weeks.

Back on the other side of the Atlantic, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that a three-week stint at the top of the charts seems a little short for a hot new single from The Biggest Band the World Had Ever Seen. Perhaps, but they were about to be replaced at #1 by one of their own songs… again…

Listen to all the #1s so far by following my playlist:

162. ‘Needles and Pins’, by The Searchers

The Searchers return for a second run at the top. And if their first #1 – ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ – was a cute little slice of Beat-pop; then this is next-level stuff entirely. This baby is a classic!

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Needles and Pins, by The Searchers (their 2nd of three #1s)

3 weeks, from 30th January – 20th February 1964

We start with a simple, chiming riff. In my previous post on The Searchers, I mentioned that they had a sound slightly removed from frenetic Merseybeat – a bit more sedate, a bit more melancholic – a sound that wouldn’t sound out of place on Indie records of the 1980s. Well, that sound is back here.

Lyrically, too, this is a more complex record than the likes of ‘Do You Love Me’ and other such pub-singalongs. And no, ‘Needles and Pins’ doesn’t refer to waking up with a dead arm; it’s about the feeling you get when you see a lost love. One that did you wrong. I saw her today, I saw her face, It was a face I loved, And I knew, I had to run awa-y…

It’s also a song about bruised pride… Because of all my pride, The tears I gotta hide… and a song with an air of revenge about it: Let her go ahead, And take his love instead, And one day she will see, Just how to say please, And get down on her knees, Yeah that’s how it begins, She’ll feel those needles and pins, Hurtin’, Hurtin’… This is one grown-up love song. It’s like the sophisticated older brother of discs like our last chart-topper, ‘Glad All Over’, looking down his nose at his younger siblings’ silly little songs.

I wish I had the musical vocabulary to describe the chord structures and the key and whatever it is that gives this record its ‘mood’. Whatever it is that makes this song so good. But then again, if I could dissect it and pinpoint it’s genius maybe it would lose some of its magic. It’s a sad-sounding song about a sad-sounding break-up; and it’s superb. By the final verse, it’s reached a bit of a crescendo. Two voices – the lead singer (Mike Pender) and a high-pitched back-up which just adds to the emotion. Oh, needles and pins… And those drum-fills. Oh those drum-fills.

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I’ve been kind of surprised, listening to them all in a row, how cheesy (for want of a better word) these early Beat #1s have been. Musically they’ve been a huge step forward but, in lyrical terms, records like ‘From Me to You’, ‘Bad to Me’, and ‘I Like It’ haven’t moved on much from the 1950s.

‘Needles and Pins’ is different. Though I was shocked to find out that it is actually a cover. It’s a song I’ve loved for a long time and have assumed for years was a Searcher’s original. But no. It’s a Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono song, originally recorded by Jackie DeShannon in 1963. I feel betrayed… I really do. This – and I realise that this is a bold statement to make – is the first pop song I ever loved. I must have been maybe seven, and it was on a sixties mix-tape (which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before) in our family car. It would be playing on a Sunday evening as we drove home from dinners at my grandparents, along dark roads under orange streetlights. A melancholy scene for a melancholy song.

Actually, that’s another thing that has surprised me – just how many of these early Beat chart-toppers were covers. Since Gerry & The Pacemakers kicked the movement off in April ’63, I make this six covers out of eleven (I’m counting ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in this, though it isn’t your average Beat-pop number). I just assumed these boys with guitars were all writing their own songs. How wrong I was!

Anyway, the ‘Needles and Pins’ story doesn’t end with The Searchers. It’s classic status is confirmed by the fact it’s been covered by The Ramones and Tom Petty. It’s a song so good that it might just give you needles and pins! (Though I’ve always said ‘pins and needles’ – I guess that didn’t scan quite as well…)

Follow along with my Spotify playlist:

160. ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, by The Beatles

Oh yeah I’ll, Tell you somethin’, I think you’ll understand… Well, what you need to understand is that we end 1963 with the biggest band of the year. Three #1s spread out over a staggering eighteen weeks! The band that would go on to become the biggest band of the decade and then the biggest band of all time.

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I Want to Hold Your Hand, by The Beatles (their 3rd of seventeen #1s)

5 weeks, from 12th December 1963 – 16th January 1964

And what a cheesy wonder this song is. When I wrote about ‘She Loves You’, I mentioned that it was quite a sophisticated pop song, with a pseudo-3rd person narrative and melancholy chord progressions. Well, all that sophistication was dumped at the studio door when the lads turned up to record ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’

Oh please, Say to me, You’ll let me be your man, And please, Say to me, You’ll let me hold your hand… It’s so twee, so innocent. Can I be your boyfriend? I just really, really, really want to… hold your hand. I’ve listened to it several times now, scouring the lyrics for a hint of double-entendre, but no. And when I touch you… promising… I feel happy inside… Oh. It’s as chaste and vanilla a record as you’ll find.

This is not to suggest that I don’t like it. Who doesn’t like this record? It’s probably been proven, by a team of crack scientists, that it’s impossible for a fully-functioning human being to dislike this record. You’ve got that intro, for a start. Dun-dan-ding, Dun-dan-ding… And some quality drum fills from Ringo. And that twangy guitar – George Harrison’s, I’m guessing. And some clapping (Yes, clapping!) My personal highlight, though, is the Everly Brothers’ harmonising on the ‘Ha-a-a-a-a-nd’.

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Nope, we’re pretty close to pop-perfection here. It’s not quite in the same league as ‘She Loves You’, but it’s pretty, pretty, pre-tty good. The greatest threat to songs like ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is ubiquity – the fact that most people have heard them three hundred times already. You have to remind yourself that The Beatles were re-inventing pop music as they went here, have to imagine yourself as a sixteen-year-old in the winter of 1963, hearing this for the first time…

I think this might become a theme whenever a Beatles disc crops up on this countdown but, hey: some statistics. The band replaced themselves at #1 with this disc (‘She Loves You’ having returned to #1 after seven weeks, remember) becoming only the second ever act to do this. (Plus, The Shadows replaced themselves with records on which they were the featured, not the lead, artists, so…) ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is their biggest selling record worldwide, having sold 12 million copies.

It also holds an important place in pop-music folklore. Bob Dylan famously thought that they were singing I get high… when they were actually singing I can’t hide… and was shocked to find out that they had never smoked weed. And it was so good that it made Brian Wilson and Mike Love convene a special Beach Boys meeting to discuss the threat The Beatles posed to their position as America’s #1 band. (I love that – pop music meets military strategy.)

In the end, even Sgts Wilson and Love couldn’t hold back the British Invasion. ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was their 1st US #1 a few weeks after it hit the top back home. It was part of the all-Beatles Billboard Top 5 in April ’64. Suddenly they were HUGE. Bigger even – some might have said – than Jesus himself…

Follow along with my Spotify playlist:

157. ‘She Loves You’, by The Beatles

The record with which The Beatles went stratospheric. Woooosh. That’s them. Off they go. This next song takes everything that was good about their debut chart-topper ‘From Me to You’, everything good about this burgeoning Merseybeat movement, puts it in a rocket, sets engines to warp, and…

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She Loves You, by The Beatles (their 2nd of seventeen #1s)

4 weeks, from 12th September – 10th October / 2 weeks, from 28th November – 12th December 1963 (6 weeks total)

Take the opening drum roll for a start. It takes up less than a second of the song – it is literally a drum roll – but it sets the frantic pace that grips this record and propels it right the way through. And then in thumps the chorus. You’ve heard it, you’ve heard it again, you’ve heard it in German – but it bears repeating: She loves you, Yeah yeah yeah, She loves you, Yeah yeah yeah, She loves you, Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah… That is it. That is all there is to it. But there’s a manic energy in those ‘Yeahs’ that even today gives you goose-bumps.

Lyrically this is step up from songs like ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ and ‘I Like It’ – a little more complex. It’s about a man convincing his friend that his sweetheart still loves him: She said she loves you! And you know that can’t be bad… She said she loves you! And you know you should be glad… While the second verse shows that the friend has actually been a bit of a dick: She said you hurt her so, She almost lost her mind… And the final verse is a bit of a lecture: You know it’s up to you, I think it’s only fair, Pride can hurt you too, Apologise to her… What all this means, most importantly, is that it’s not a traditional ‘Love Song’. This is a ‘Rock Song’, with all the yelling and thrashing that that entails. There’s a strong hint of The Everly Brothers in the way that the ‘Bads…’ and ‘Glads…’ at the end of the lines in the bridge split into a high note and a low note. And then those ‘Ooohs’. Oh those ‘ooohs’.

One thing I’ve noticed about ‘She Loves You’ after repeated listens (I’m up to six as I write this paragraph, and I’m far from sick of it yet) is how melancholy the chord structures are, especially in the verses. It’s something The Beatles were excellent at early in their careers, combining the majors and the minors, from ‘P.S I Love You’, through ‘All My Loving’ to the pinnacle of sad-pop, ‘Help!’ If you stripped away the frantic drums, and the ‘Yeah Yeah Yeahs’, and the ‘Ooooohs’ from ‘She Loves You’ – you’d have a sad old song on your hands.

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But that’s a big ‘If’. The unhinged energy of this song, the madcap beat and tempo, are a huge part of its charm. It’s unsubtle, it’s cheesy, it’s glorious. It’s Sledgehammer Pop! Actually no, we don’t need another sub-category. I am, though, going to add ‘She Loves You’ to my oh-so-select list of ‘Time Capsule Pop’ records – the discs that need buried in the ground for all eternity so that the aliens can see what all the fuss was about, can see exactly why humans went crazy for this thing called ‘popular music.’ I invented the category for The Everly’s ‘Cathy’s Clown’, and then retrospectively added Johnnie Ray’s ‘Such a Night’, The Crickets ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and Jerry Lee’s ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ ‘She Loves You’, then, becomes the fifth disc in the pod. And I’d say that, while they will better this disc with some of their later chart-toppers (fifteen still to come, folks!), they will never sound more like The Beatles than they do here. This is the Beatlest Beatles #1 single.

Some facts and figures, before I go. ‘She Loves You’ is the band’s biggest seller in the UK. It is the 9th biggest selling hit ever. It was also #1 in the US, where it was part of the famous all-Beatles Top 5 on the Billboard 100 in early 1964. This was ‘Beatlemania’ – bigger than Sinatra in the forties and Elvis in the fifties. This was HUGE. Back in the UK, ‘She Loves You’ dipped down from the top-spot for an amazing seven weeks before returning to the top in late-November. Even today, no record has had a longer gap between stays at number one, without being re-released. It knocked ‘Bad to Me’ – another Beatles composition – off the top and was then itself finally knocked off the summit by ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. The charts of autumn ’63 were well and truly owned by The Fab Four. We are in the presence of greatness, here.

I have one personal story to tell involving ‘She Loves You’. Back fifteen years or so ago, I went to see McFly in concert (another of the best bands ever, fight me!) and midway through they announced that they were going to play a song that they’d just written backstage that very night. The twelve-year-old girls screamed. They then launched into a cover of ‘She Loves You’. The twelve-year-old girls still screamed. To this day I still wonder how many of them didn’t work it out…

Follow, and listen to every #1 so far, with this Spotify playlist: