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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Two Minutes and Twenty Seconds

The song that changed everything

David Wilson

The British historian and biographer Mark Lewisohn had already written or co-authored six books on the Beatles when he set out, in 2003, to research and write what he promised would be the definitive history of the  band. Tune In, the first volume in The Beatles: All These Years, a planned three-part opus, was published in 2013. Of the roughly 2,000 titles that have focused on the Beatles, it remains the gold standard: a work of staggering detail weighing in at more than 800 pages plus seventy-six pages of endnotes. And it doesn’t even cover the years when the Beatles were famous, concluding as it does with the first stirrings of Beatlemania at the end of 1962.

Initially, Lewisohn suggested that his second volume would be ready by 2020. There’s no sign of it yet. Instead, we’re left to imagine what pleasures await. We can assume this much: The next book will dwell extensively on the fan frenzy that swept Britain in 1963 and later spread worldwide. And no doubt Lewisohn will dive deeply into the catalytic role one song played in bringing Beatlemania to a boil and fostering the perception that John, Paul, George, and Ringo were heralds of a truth beyond the moment.

The song was “She Loves You,” which ascended to the summit of the pop charts sixty years ago this winter. Other Beatles songs may be more revered, but none were as consequential. By the time I first heard it at age nine, in late 1963, it had gone number 1 twice in Britain and was the first Beatles hit in continental Europe and Scandinavia. It would become the group’s all‑time best-selling single in the United Kingdom — not to mention the top-selling single of any artist in the U.K. for the next fourteen years.

As a youngster in southwestern Ontario, I was lucky. Major record labels in the United States were not impressed by the early Beatles, though the Canadian subsidiary of one of them was. As Piers Hemmingsen lovingly details in The Beatles in Canada: The Origins of Beatlemania, from 2015, Capitol Records of Canada took a chance on the band’s first three singles. They flopped, but after a CBC Radio affiliate in Pembroke, Ontario, convinced the network to showcase “She Loves You” on its after-school program in early November 1963, the record caught fire. By January, it was number 1 across the country, where it remained for the next nine weeks.

In America, it languished unnoticed for three months before the record’s success in Canada — along with mentions on the nightly news — caught the attention of teenagers and DJs alike. The Beatles included “She Loves You” in their legendary Ed Sullivan Show appearances in February; within a month, the song was number 1 in the biggest record-buying market in the world.

Like countless kids elsewhere, I’d never heard anything like “She Loves You.” The sparkling harmonies and pulsing rhythm grabbed me and never let go. But I also sensed something intangible — something I was too young to name. A lifetime later, I have an inkling of what that intangible was. To the right ears — and there were millions of them — its bracing freshness crackled with insurgent energy. It was a promise of emancipation in the guise of a jaunty pop song. It proclaimed: We can be new together, and it will be fun.

Such had been the allure of early rock ’n’ roll. Yet by 1963, the music was increasingly homogenized, its edge blunted by an industry that prefers the safe bet over a long shot. There were exceptions — including the American girl groups and Motown artists the Beatles adored — but, overall, the genre lacked sizzle. It was product, and it sounded like it.

Into this vacuum stepped John Lennon and Paul McCartney, two self-educated songwriters who had accumulated a doctorate’s worth of know‑how in the 10,000 hours of their apprenticeship. Their first few singles had innovative touches, but it was in “She Loves You” that their determination to be original burst forth with kaleidoscopic ingenuity.

The track defied convention. The full-throttle intro, ignited by a quick drum blast, dissolves into a dissonant chord that shouldn’t work but does, sensuously. Voices chanting in unison peel off to produce Elizabethan-sounding harmonies. Elongated vowels propel the rhythmic drive of the lyric (“I saw her yesterday‑ee‑ay”), and the space between verses and the chorus rings with falsetto “oohs” borrowed from American R&B. The drums hiccup to accentuate twists in the narrative (“She said she loves you”— bam!), and recurring guitar fills mimic the song’s central motif. Major chords morph to minor for dramatic effect, while vocal punches convey the urgency of the moral: “With a love — like — that — you know you should be glad.” And about that “Yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain: introducing street slang just two and a half beats into the song was as provocative as it was musically adventurous, a rallying cry against conformity. Young listeners feeling stifled by the constraints of what passed for polite society could detect a rebellious “No, no, no.”

This was no moony teenage love song. Lennon and McCartney wrestle with the intricacies of a threesome: an estranged couple and a narrator — presumably male but not necessarily so — trying to mediate a reconciliation. The narrator has come with a peace offering: the jilted woman will forgive her lover’s wrongs, but first her lover needs to know how badly she was hurt: “She almost lost her mind.” The narrator’s counsel: “You know it’s up to you / I think it’s only fair / Pride can hurt you, too / Apologize to her.” Twentysomething rockers in 1963 were not typically known for their worldly wisdom or the life lessons they imparted, but here were four young men affirming the legitimacy of their listeners’ emotions and the complexity of their relationships. The record validated young people as they danced to it. And it reverberated with a message that intensified as the decade progressed: girls, you deserve better; boys, smarten up.

Six decades later, the music of the Beatles is so firmly lodged in our cultural DNA that the transformative power of “She Loves You” may be lost on contemporary audiences. It seems like it’s been around forever, like gravity — its emancipating spirit hidden in plain sight in the new social, cultural, and aesthetic norms its creators inspired. “She Loves You” did not wipe out racism or eradicate injustice, but there’s no telling how many lives it shaped, directly or indirectly, fully or in part, through its sheer originality. Suffice to say that for a lot of people, it was a revolution in two minutes and twenty seconds.

Count Mark Lewisohn among them. This past June, on the anniversary of the night Lennon and McCartney began writing “She Loves You” in a Newcastle hotel room, Lewisohn tweeted, “Words, chords, brilliance and ambition weld to fashion She Loves You, perhaps THE most perfect pop song, one to cement the Beatles’ toppermost place and free millions of minds.” In interviews, Lewisohn claims that as a kid he felt the same twinge of something significant as I did upon first encountering the Beatles all those years ago. His version of the twinge translated into his life’s work. Mine endures as curiosity: the more I know about the Beatles, the more I might know about myself — about choices I’ve made, paths I’ve taken. Maybe the second volume of Lewisohn’s history will furnish some answers. Or maybe it will deepen the mystery. But of this I’m certain: the Beatles are part of my history, and in a small way I am part of theirs. “She Loves You” was ground zero.

David Wilson has been playing guitar and singing for decades but has yet to write a song.

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