Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" / The Beatles

I have these phases when all I want to listen to is British Invasion music--a sort of fetal position I curl into when the world's hammering at me too hard. A dose of the Zombies "You Make Me Feel Good" or the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" or even Herman's Hermits' "Something Good" usually pulls me out of whatever funk I'm in. Shoot, Gerry and the Pacemakers' "Ferry Cross the Mersey" is enough sometimes (unless things are really bad, in which case I switch to "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying.")

It's so satisfying, I begin to wonder -- gee, were the Beatles really that much better than these other guys? But then I put on a Beatles track--just about any early Beatles track will do--and realize that they really were that good.

"I'm Happy Just To Dance With You"--minor song off of A Hard Day's Night (although, let's be honest, there is no such thing as a minor Beatles song). The minute we hear those first abrupt strums, we know what song it is; it pitches us right away into the uneasy yearning of C# minor and an edgy samba beat. George, taking the lead vocal for once, plunges us right into the action, a quick cinematic cut: "Before this dance is through / I think I'll love you too." The melody is jumpy, excited, breathless. But it resolves into major chords, as he marvels at the joy of this moment: "I'm so happy when you dance with me." Flashing forward to another possible future, he insists "I don't want to kiss or hold your hand" (forget that earlier Beatle song about hand-holding; this is young and innocent George singing this time). No, really, luv, just dancing--it's so great, that's ALL I WANT.

This is no simple pop song. I love how it balances on the fulcrum between this perfect moment and that as-yet-unspoiled future; I hate to get all English-major-y, but this is exactly what makes Keats' "To Autumn" such a great poem. Everything that might ruin things is in the future too -- "If somebody tries to take my place / Let's pretend we just can't see his face." The whole drama is ready to be played out, but right now he's in control of it. When it happens, it could get messy; no, it will get messy, even he knows that. That's why he's savoring this moment, hyper-aware, poised on the threshold. Isn't that the essence of being an adolescent?

Sometimes when I listen to this song, I'll hear another version of events: the suave charmer working the angles (that would be angel-faced Paul McCartney's contribution). In this alternate universe, our singer knows that girls are suckers for a boy who isn't just interested in sex. All those innocent claims--that's the quickest way to get past her defenses. There'll be plenty of time later to get what he really wants.

You can't tell me this song isn't about sex. This was 1965; dancing was all that good kids were allowed to do, which is why pop songs turned it into a metaphor for intercourse. But this song is much, much more subversive. George actually ticks off the next steps--kissing, holding hands, hugging, holding tight--and rules them out; you can almost hear him tsk-tsk. Yet all the while, that sinuous samba beat, those minor chords, the percussive guitar work, keep pushing us somewhere else--into the dark corners of the school gym, where the crepe paper streamers are already starting to straggle to the floor.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I have to say it -- I'd hate to be a kid today, listening to a steady diet of contemporary music. A lot of it is excellent, but there's no suggestiveness left, no mystery. You have no doubt what they're about; "I want to feel you inside me" is about as vague as it gets. Personally I find this song much sexier.

It's astonishing, really, when you think what songwriting machines Lennon and McCartney were for a couple of years: "Oh, yeah, we'd better write a tune for George, okay, here's one," and it turns out to be something this brilliant. Minor track? I think not.


Holly A Hughes said...

Before you guys say anything -- the Kinks were better than those other guys too!! ;)

Uncle E said...

Couldn't agree more. And great song choice!
Been going through a "Brittanica" phase of my own, currently. Even changed the music player on my blog to reflect that.
Funny you should mention George, also: All Things Must Pass has been in constant rotation for a wek now, right alongside "The Villiage Green Preservation Society".
Great post. Too bad you don't have the time to do one a day, though...


IƱaki said...

I had never thought about this song so much, but you must be right. Anyway, if it's a minor track it's brilliant. And one of the catchiest songs ever in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

You probably can guess what my comment is!