During his October 8, 2016 set at Desert Trip, Paul McCartney announced that he wanted to pay tribute to another band who performed that weekend: the Rolling Stones. His choice was a song that he and John Lennon penned that and helped kickstart the Stones’ career in the UK. “I Wanna Be Your Man” became the group’s first top 20 UK hit, tapping into their strengths as a blues-influenced band.
However, the Beatles made “I Wanna Be Your Man” their own by recording it for With the Beatles, performing it on tour, and even including it in a scene for A Hard Day’s Night. The Rolling Stones may have had a hit with the track, but the Beatles’ version recalls their early live performances in Hamburg and Liverpool. Its machismo-filled lyrics also allowed Ringo Starr to reveal a more sensual side to his otherwise “cute and cuddly” persona.
Three anecdotes exist explaining how “I Wanna Be Your Man” ended up in the Rolling Stones’ hands. McCartney described it as resulting from a chance encounter in London. As Lennon and McCartney walked down Charing Cross Road, a taxi containing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards passed by. As the car slowed, Lennon and McCartney recognized their friends and asked if they could share the taxi.
“So there were the four of us sitting in a taxi and I think Mick said, ‘Hey, we’re recording. Got any songs?’ And we said, ‘Aaaah, yes, sure, we got one. How about Ringo’s song? You could do it as a single,” McCartney told biographer Barry Miles. Up until that point, Lennon and McCartney had penned the track explicitly for Ringo Starr.
In his 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon recalled meeting the Stones backstage after a club gig. “They wanted a song and we went to see them to see what kind of stuff they did,” Lennon said. “Mick and Keith had heard that we had an unfinished song; Paul just had this bit and we needed another verse or something. We sort of played it roughly to them and they said, ‘Yeah, OK, that’s our style.’” Thus Lennon and McCartney moved to a corner of the room, and finished composing the track right there. “We came back and that’s how Mick and Keith got inspired to write, because, ‘Jesus, look at that. They just went in the corner and wrote it and came back!’ Right in front of their eyes we did it,” Lennon explained.
In an August 2016 Rolling Stone interview, McCartney revealed a key R&B figure who inspired the song. “The guy who turned the Beatles down at Decca Records happened to ask George if he knew anyone worth signing. We were friends with them, and I just thought ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ would be good for them. I knew they did Bo Diddley stuff. And they made a good job of it,” McCartney said.
Kenneth Womack’s Beatles Encyclopedia presents yet another version of the song’s origins. According to Womack, Lennon and McCartney first meeting the Rolling Stones in April 1963 at London’s Crawdaddy Club; a few months later, the duo ran into band manager and publicist Andrew Loog Oldham, which led to them presenting a rough draft of the track to the group. Lennon and McCartney then completed writing the song in front of Oldham as well as the Stones.
The day after John Lennon and Paul McCartney gave the song to the Stones, the Beatles entered Abbey Road to record their own version of “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Lennon contributed backing vocals and rhythm guitar; McCartney added backing vocals and bass; George Harrison played lead guitar; and Ringo Starr played drums and maracas and sang lead. They completed one take on September 11, 1963, then recorded six more takes the following day.
On September 30, George Martin decided to overdub a Hammond organ part onto take seven. During this session Martin completed six takes of the organ part, the last deemed best. The Beatles were not present in the studio, as they were on vacation. Work continued on October 3, when Starr overdubbed his lead vocal in two takes (his voice was double tracked). On the last day of the With the Beatles sessions (October 23), a tambourine part was added.
Despite Lennon’s dismissal of the song as a “throwaway,” “I Wanna Be Your Man” became a staple of the Beatles’ concert set lists. In addition, they recorded another version on February 28, 1964 for their BBC special “From Us to You”; a few months later, the Beatles rerecorded it yet again for their TV special “Around the Beatles.” The latter version can be found on the Anthology 1 compilation.
The song proved so popular that it even made an appearance in A Hard Day’s Night, with Harrison and Starr dancing somewhat awkwardly to the track at a club.
McCartney told Miles that he purposely wrote simple lyrics so Starr could easily sing while playing drums. “So ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ was to try and give Ringo something like ‘Boys’ – an uptempo song he could sing from the drums,” he said. Lennon later expressed disdain for the song, calling it a “throwaway.” “The only two versions of the song were Ringo and the Rolling Stones. It shows how much importance we put on them. We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?” Lennon told interviewer David Sheff.
Indeed, “I Wanna Be Your Man” is simply structured: verse-chorus, verse-chorus. The verses and instrumental break consist of one chord, while the chorus features two alternating chords – although the final chord change before the verse is a somewhat unexpected one. What distinguishes the track from other early Beatles material, however, is that it tries to recapture the band’s adrenaline-filled Hamburg and Cavern Club shows. Frequent screaming and shouting can be heard in the background, the Beatles egging each other on and ramping up the crowd.
Listen for the beginning twangy guitar note throughout the track; it reappears as a recurring motif. With the organ as a constant rumbling presence, Harrison and Lennon’s guitars crunch. Toward the end of the track, one can hear a band member clapping along to the beat as if to maintain the energy. During the break, George Harrison turns in a typically rocking solo, clearly referencing Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry as his main influences.
While not gifted with wide range, Starr half sings, half shouts the lyrics with grit. Slight raspiness enters his voice on the lines “I wanna be your lover, baby” and “Love you like no other baby / Like no other can,” emphasizing the sexuality pulsating throughout the song. During the height of Beatlemania, Starr was named the “cute and cuddly” Beatle, but “I Wanna Be Your Man” presents an edgier image. He brags of his prowess, that he can love her like no one else.
While he commands her to confess her love, he adds the phrase “let me understand.” Perhaps Lennon and McCartney felt the narrator sounded too aggressive, and that this line would soften the tone. Most of the track reeks of machismo, the rapid beat and growling guitars clearly designed to excite female fans. “Boys” presents Starr as a fun, jovial rocker; in contrast, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” reveals a sensual, rougher side to the musician.
To this day, “I Wanna Be Your Man” remains a signature tune for Starr. He still includes it in his All Starr Band shows, and even performed it during his 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. McCartney has been known to tackle the track, playing it during soundchecks on his 1993 world tour. One of those performances can be found on the album Paul Is Live.
By hauling out this old chestnut once again during Desert Trip, McCartney not only paid tribute to the Rolling Stones, but to Lennon and McCartney’s ability to pen catchy rock tracks that perfectly fit Starr’s quirky but bubbly personality. Their words helped to make Starr an unlikely sex symbol, further suggesting to female fans that the Beatles wanted to do more than just hold your hand.
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