Alright, I’ve got a confession to make: I do not love The Beatles. I know, that’s probably total blasphemy in the music critic world, but there’s just no use in pretending. I’ve listened to quite a few of their albums and many more singles, and while there’s certainly plenty to love there (Abbey Road is terrific, as are “Yellow Submarine” and “Hey Jude”) and while I am well aware of their influence on the 60s music scene as a whole (I wrote a couple paragraphs on it!), generally speaking… they’re okay.
And before anyone starts throwing tomatoes at my head, let it be known that I only mean this on a basis of personal opinion. And also that this is one of their good ones! But let’s draw back a bit with a little bit of background. “Can’t Buy Me Love”, though credited to Lennon-McCartney, was written solely by Paul McCartney, who also performs the vocals on the record. During its conception, Beatlemania was in full swing and this single was saddled with the added pressure to repeat the chart-topping success of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (what would eventually be the top song of 1964). But of course, since this was during the height of Beatlemania, it was only inevitable that this would become a hit, even if it were only half as good as its predecessor. These guys were on top of the world!
And indeed, “Can’t Buy Me Love” ended up topping the charts for five consecutive weeks – which brings us to a few records that the Beatles ended up breaking with this single’s success (fellow chart nerds, listen up!).
- Number one: upon its initial week at number-one, the song accomplished what was then the largest jump to the top spot, up from #27. It was also the only song to jump to #1 from outside the top 20 (this has been achieved numerous times since).
- Secondly, following the chart-topping success of their previous two singles “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”, the Beatles won the top spot four fourteen consecutive weeks with three different singles. To this day, this is the only time this has happened in the history of Billboard.
- At some point during “Can’t Buy Me Love”‘s reign, the band held the entire top five of the Hot 100, with (in order) this song, “Twist and Shout”, “She Loves You”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, and “Please Please Me” – also the only time this has ever been accomplished by an artist.
- Finally, it was during “Can’t Buy Me Love”‘s occupation of the top slot that the Beatles had, for a while, occupied fourteen places in the Hot 100 – a full 14% of the list taken over by one single artist.
Phew! Yeah, this was a pretty big deal at the time – certainly big enough to warrant it a #52 ranking in ’64’s year-end list (alongside eight other Beatles singles). But does it sound good? Well, of course it does. If you’re at all familiar with the Beatles formula, it’s pretty clear that this is what you’ll be getting here as well. There are a few unusual qualities that separate it from the rest of the Beatles’ early repertoire (namely that it only features one vocalist with no backup singers, and it begins immediately with an explosive chorus instead of a verse). But yes, it’s like all those other early Beatles songs: slightly rough around the edges, but polished enough to appeal to pop listeners with a bouncy 12-bar blues melody that sticks immediately.
The theory is that McCartney wrote this song about a sex worker, which is obviously reductive and does little to enhance the record itself other than with surface-level shock value. The theme is pretty much what one could expect from the title alone – “I don’t care too much for money, ’cause money can’t buy me love”. In other words, the best things in life are free, and that includes the love and affection that could only be granted by a certain special someone. Obviously, I stand behind this idea, but there’s a running theme in the lyrics that never really sits right with me. In the first verse, he states “I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend, if it makes you feel alright”, which is fine and dandy… but then he mentions in the second verse that he has “not a lot to give”, with the added caveat in verse three that states, “Say you don’t need no diamond ring and I’ll be satisfied”. There’s nothing wrong with having no care for material possessions (especially diamonds, which are just silly), but if you’ve no intention to buy the ring for your beloved and would much rather that they not be into rings in the first place, why make the insinuation in the first line that you’d do this if it made them happy? No one’s forcing you to do anything, Paul!
But yes, this nitpick is certainly nitpicky. Overall, this is a fun, bubbly little number about the simpler yet grander things in life, such as a loving relationship that has no need for frivolous gifts and trivial objects. The melody line and especially the titular chorus line are immediately memorable, certainly making it easy to see how this has become one of the quintessential staples of Merseybeat, the British Invasion of the 60s, and 1960s popular music as a whole. The Beatles may not be my favorite band in the world, but I’d hesitate to touch the dial when this pops up – at least not until that first blissful chorus passes through my eardrums.