Monday, August 3, 2009

"Twist and Shout"

The Beatles' version of "Twist and Shout" is one of the most sheerly joyous songs in pop music history. When its exuberant sounds hop, skip, and strut through my head, I often find myself reduced to laughter, the laughter of euphoria. Though I'm sure many experience this, it's still hard to explain. The song just always feels so fresh and electric, so right and true. It showcases the passion, swagger, and verve that gave rock 'n' roll such spellbinding appeal in the first place. It's a sonic orgasm; it's instant gratification; and it's the thrilling entry that closes out The Beatles' superb debut Please Please Me.

"Twist and Shout" is also the last song that The Beatles recorded during their ten-hour session for the album. It's a critical detail. As the famous story goes, John was battling a cold at the time and, despite medicating a bit, couldn't expect to deliver a clean vocal on all of his songs. George Martin was aware that the lead part for "Twist and Shout" would be especially taxing on the young man in his ill state. But he knew he couldn't allow John's voice to weaken too early in the session. So he delayed that particular recording until the very end, at which point John would basically have one chance to lay down a usable track. Any further attempts (and one did occur) would prove too much.

That vocal- raucous but vivid, straining but purposeful- sets "Twist and Shout" aflame. It's the heart and soul of the song. It's the reason why "Twist and Shout" is giddily life-affirming rather than merely exciting. John didn't think he could sing the part, and to our immense benefit, the end result sort of confirms this suspicion. For those two-plus minutes, his voice is rough and disheveled, only just getting by. Without losing those qualities, it's also energetic and triumphant; rarely has a singer sounded so alive. A crisp and lucid vocal simply would not have produced the same magic. And it's all in the service of boy-to-girl banter like: "Come on and twist a little closer now/And let me know that you're mine." For such flirty, saccharine sentiments, John seems to be putting everything on the line.

Of course, the other three Beatles aren't absent from the song. They are all involved and very in the moment. Paul and George memorably supply the backup vocals with their harmonized repetitions of John's pleas ("shake it a-baby," the chorus, etc.). The same three also contribute to the steady buildup of "aaahs" on the bridge, which climaxes with an eruption of delirious screams and exclamations. Everything goes wildly into flight. It's almost as if The Beatles were imitating the raw hysteria that they elicited from their fans (though Beatlemania hadn't fully taken off yet). Musically, "Twist and Shout" plays like a controlled firecracker of a song. The guitar parts jab and cut with precision while Ringo keeps the rhythm snappy. It is at once rather routine and also iconic.

Though "Twist and Shout" was written by Phil Medley and Bert Burns, recorded first by the Top Notes, and popularized by the Isley Brothers, The Beatles were the band to make a vital force out of the song. In their hands, it's nothing short of glorious. At weddings, in movies, on an iPod, and over the radio waves, "Twist and Shout" is a song that delivers the joy of pop music in its most sublime and unmistakable form.

(If the video is removed, go here.)

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