While John Lennon was never did a lot of bragging about his Beatles-era guitar playing, he did take pride in his innovations in the studio. That included the backwards vocals on “Rain” as well as the work with tape loops he did on “Revolution 9.”
But an even bigger point of pride for John revolved around his use of feedback. During the October 1964 sessions for Beatles for Sale, John pushed to get the sound of his guitar/amplifier feedback on record. Producer George Martin agreed, and John considered it a major accomplishment.
“The record with the first feedback anywhere,” John said in his 1980 Playboy interviews. “I defy anybody to find a record – unless it’s some old blues record in 1922 – that uses feedback that way.”
Though not everyone agrees it was the first, the song in question became the Beatles’ eighth single and was released in November ’64. And it became a No. 1 hit in both the U.S. and UK.
‘I Feel Fine’ featured a couple seconds of feedback at the start
After you hear Paul McCartney strike a bass note to kick off “I Feel Fine,” listeners get a brief earful of the feedback John mentioned. Then he digs into the song’s challenging opening riff, with George Harrison following his lead.
Listening to the track in the 21st century, it might not be clear why John considered that moment so important. However, in ’64, the guitar players who became known for using feedback as a weapon were only getting started.
“I mean, everybody played with feedback on stage,” John explained in ’80. “And the Jimi Hendrix stuff was going on long before. So I claim it for The Beatles. Before Hendrix, before The Who, before anybody. The first feedback on any record.”
Yet that momentary buzz might not have meant as much as John believed. After all, Hendrix didn’t even form his Experience group until ’66. As for The Who, Pete Townshend was experimenting with feedback on stage in ’64.
Feedback never became a major weapon in the Fab Four’s arsenal, but it did for other contemporaries of The Beatles. Townshend, for example, made it a key element of his guitar attack in Who records of the era (including “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere,” recorded April 1965).
Eric Clapton, a good friend of George Harrison who took the solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” used it while playing in The Yardbirds. Jeff Beck, another London guitar ace who followed Clapton in The Yardbirds, also featured it in his playing.
As Ian MacDonald has pointed out, The Beatles played a gig with Townshend and an early version of The Who in summer ’64, so John may have gotten the idea then. (Jimmy Page once said Townshend made so much of feedback “because he didn’t play single notes.”)
Still, apart from some obscure recordings in the decade prior to The Beatles releasing “I Feel Fine,” you’d be hard-pressed to find other artists using the sound on record. It was only the beginning of his sound experiments.