The Beatles’ 1964 hit ‘I Feel Fine’ is, on the whole, a pretty straightforward piece of jangle pop. Suffused with the proto-psychedelic scales floating around the West Coast at the time, the track foreshadows the shimmering tones of groups like The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane while remaining firmly rooted in the syrupy world of teendom. But if you pay attention, you’ll hear a fleeting but quietly revolutionary sound: a brief pulse of feedback created entirely by accident.
In his 1997 memoir Many Years From Now, Paul McCartney recalled John Lennon using his “semi-acoustic Gibson guitar” on the ‘I Feel Fine’ recording. “John and George both had them; we used to call them ‘Everly Brothers’ because they were very similar to the ones The Everly Brothers had used and we liked the Everlys a lot,” he explained.
According to McCartney, he and the rest of The Beatles had just finished a take in the studio when Lennon had an accident with his guitar: “We were just about to walk away to listen to a take when John leaned his guitar against the amp,” he remembered. “I can still see him doing it. He really should have turned the electric off. It was only on a tiny bit, and John just leaned it against the amp when it went, ‘Nnnnnnwahhhhh!'”
Anybody who plays an instrument or goes to live gigs regularly will recognise that sound as feedback: the screeching sound that comes from a fraction of the output signal from an instrument – in this case, an electric guitar – returning to the input of the same device. Before Hendrix, feedback was considered a technical malfunction, but The Beatles decided they liked the sound and decided to use it as a way to enhance their record. “We went, ‘What’s that, Voodoo?'” Paul recalled. “‘No, it’s feedback.’ ‘Wow, it’s a great sound!'”
Like mad scientists, The Beatles set about incorporating the feedback into ‘I Feel Fine’. “George Martin was there so we said, ‘Can we have that on the record?'” Paul continued. “‘Well, I suppose we could, we could edit it on the front.’ It was a found object, an accident caused by leaning the guitar against the amp.” Today, that happy accident is regarded as the first example of feedback being used in a major release by a pop group, laying the foundations for everyone from Jimi Hendrix to The Jesus and Mary Chain.