At Beatles anniversary time, the stories write themselves. “It was 25/30/40 years ago today!” “The act you’ve known for all these years!” “A splendid time was guaranteed for all!” Last week’s 50th anniversary of the U.S. release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the most acclaimed rock album ever and the apogee of the Beatles’ cultural influence in the 1960s, is a time for all those chestnuts and more. But Pepper’s doesn’t make sense if it’s not put in context. And the only way to do that, given the weight of the Beatles’ presence, is to take a look at everything the band put on record over its eight-year recording career.
It turns out that ranking the songs recorded by the Beatles in the 1960s is easy; you put the worst one at the top, and the best one at the bottom.
The list is based on the band’s British releases, which is how they thought of their work. In the U.K. in the 1960s, the group released 13 official studio albums, including the A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and Yellow Submarine quasi-soundtrack albums. The so-called “White Album,” The Beatles, was a two-record set. There was also a flurry of non-album singles throughout those years, collected in different ways in the U.K. and the U.S. EMI also released a number of four-song EPs in Britain, particularly early on, but only one of them, Long Tall Sally, contained songs not available in other forms. Releases in the U.S. were a similar mishmash, but from Revolver onward, with minor exceptions, the studio-album releases, at least, were standardized. The songs the band released in the 1960s that were not on their studio albums were eventually consolidated in a catchall collection dubbed, quite lamely, Past Masters.
The Beatles based their sound largely on American R&B, and they, like their compatriots in the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, filled their early records with covers of their favorite tracks. They are duly noted below; most sound like the appreciative efforts of a young and not-quite-formed band; the Beatles being the Beatles, however, a few are transcendent.
I use the songs on those releases to create this ranking, with some ephemera (like the German versions of “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” or George Martin’s Yellow Submarine orchestrations) ignored, with a few other interesting tracks that have dribbled out over the decades added in.
This doesn’t get said enough: These songs were specifically designed to pack their punch at high volume. Try ‘em with real speakers, not headphones.
I am indebted to Beatles super-scholar Mark Lewisohn for his many detailed books on the band, most important The Beatles: Recording Sessions; Bob Spitz’s close-to-definitive The Beatles; engineer Geoff Emerick’s memoir, Here, There, and Everywhere; and the engrossing podcast Something About the Beatles, hosted by Briton Richard Buskin and American Robert Rodriguez. Any mistakes are, of course, my own. Please let me know if I conflated any facts or misrepresented anything in the comments section below, or publicly humiliate me on Twitter @hitsville.
Beyond everything else, the Beatles were the biggest cultural story of the modern era, and they were, in the end, pop, if pop is music that makes people happy. Through the confusion and the chaos, the pain and the self-questioning, they worked to create a joyous sound. They didn’t fuss about it; it’s what they wanted to do. They loved to turn us on.
213. “Good Day Sunshine,” Revolver (1966): Paul McCartney was welcome to write all the happy, upbeat, cheery-cheery songs he wanted. But this one is beyond the pale. It’s blaring, received, and strident. Even by McCartney standards (“Getting Better,” “Hello Goodbye”) the title is inane. It could have been “Yum Food Delicious,” or “Hot Sex Baby,” or any other three random words McCartney took out of his Young Man’s Collection of Positive Synonyms — and note that of these three choices McCartney chose the blandest. McCartney’s piano playing, which graced so many Beatles songs, right up to “A Day in the Life,” is a parody of itself. It’s the worst song in the Beatles’ classic period. And it ruins Revolver, otherwise the most consistent and mind-blowing collection of pop-rock songs ever conceived by man.
212. “Dig It,” Let It Be (1970): As Lennon himself put it, this is what you get when you’re stoned all the time and don’t give a shit. Docked eight notches for Lennon’s final spoken line, “And now we’d like to do ‘Hark the Angels Come,’” which on the record sounds like a swipe at the next track, “Let It Be,” a song that is tuneful and about something, unlike “Dig It.” McCartney sometimes produced schlock, but rarely work as annoying as this.
211. “Little Child,” With the Beatles (1963): Probably the worst of Lennon and McCartney’s early efforts. Filler from the second album.
210. “Tell Me What You See,” Help! (1965): A highly derivative track shoved onto the second non-soundtrack side of the record from the band’s second movie.
209. “Dig a Pony,” Let It Be (1970): Doggerel from Lennon. The most uninteresting song on one of the band’s least interesting albums. The lyrics are nonsense, but all he wants is you. Boo-hoo.
208.“A Taste of Honey,” Please Please Me (1963): John Lennon, a local Liverpool tough and an incipient art-school dropout, had a skiffle band. Paul McCartney, two years his junior, had a rapidly evolving understanding of music and a slightly younger guitarist schoolmate named George Harrison. Once the three jelled, the band honed its chops playing before ever-more-appreciative audiences in clubs in Liverpool, notably the Cavern, and in three separate residencies, with a drummer named Pete Best and a bassist named Stu Sutcliffe, in a succession of strip clubs in the red-light district of Hamburg. (The first of these ended when authorities discovered George Harrison was underage; he was unceremoniously deported.) The band’s undisciplined and chaotic performances are now the stuff of legend, ranging as they did from wild American R&B to the schlockiest schlock, like this. But at the end of this trial by fire — playing in front of gamblers, gangsters, strippers, and thugs — they emerged as tight and focused a band as can be imagined.
207. “Ask Me Why,” Please Please Me (1963): “I love you / Woo-woo-woo-woo.” “Ask Me Why” was one of Lennon and McCartney’s first compositions, as the lyrics here attest. With a major exception, “One After 909,” the results of these early efforts were as naïve and plain as you’d expect. Still, having left Sutcliffe in Hamburg, the band continued to rock the Cavern as a quartet, with Paul McCartney playing bass. A local music-store owner, Brian Epstein, saw potential in the band when no one else did and reinvented himself as their manager. After hitting dead ends with all of the established British labels of the time, he put together a last-shot meeting with an exec at Parlophone, an overlooked division of the conglomerate EMI. The exec was named George Martin; he was really a producer, classically trained, who’d fashioned a career making hit comedy albums with the likes of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Peter Cook. He auditioned the band and didn’t not like what he heard. He advised them to write some new material and get rid of their drummer.
206. “Free As a Bird,” single (1995): This single enraged me, in 1995, when it was released to gin up interest in the first Anthology album. It was a Lennon song from long after he’d left the Beatles; he sounded so vulnerable, and the studio work that had gone into making this distant-sounding, crummily recorded demo sound presentable felt like too big a burden for the martyred star to bear. His former songwriting partner, one Paul McCartney, added six lines as a sort of bridge. Of the six lines, two were taken from a Shangri-Las song, and they weren’t particularly good ones, either. (“Whatever happened to / The love that we once knew?”) Twenty years later, it still enrages me. Docked 100 notches for corpse desecration.
205. “Not a Second Time,” With the Beatles (1963): You keep waiting for a redeeming melody to rise to the surface, but it doesn’t come. The weirdest thing about the song is how the title words come on a low note that Lennon doesn’t quite hit, a rarity for a band with such vocal precision from the start.
204. “She’s Leaving Home,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): A bathetic lugubrious mess, the nadir of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The call-and-response chorus is labored; the whole thing reeks of having come from a squaresville OffBroadway musical about kids these days. The instrumentation is unusual; there are no actual Beatles playing on the track, but no one cares because the song is so bad. Note that the subject of the song is essentially the same as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” which does much more with it.
203. “Real Love,” single (1995): This was another Lennon demo from the late 1970s, already known via the Imagine movie, gussied up by the surviving Beatles and used as another fake new Beatles song to promote the second Anthology collection of outtakes and unreleased material. It’s unquestionably a pretty song. Docked 100 notches for grave robbing and general dishonesty.
202.“Thank You Girl,” single (1963): The highly inferior B side of “From Me to You,” the band’s third single, distinguished only by a few dissonant harmonica notes.
201. “I’ll Get You,” single (1963): Lots of Oh, yeahs here. An intermittently charming and chuggy very early composition, notable only for being the B side of “She Loves You.” You can hear McCartney working it on the bass, though.
200. “Chains,” Please Please Me (1963): A Carole King–Gerry Goffin song, from their Brill Building days, sung by a noticeably young George Harrison. After the first visit to Parlophone, McCartney and Lennon went back to Liverpool and did what needed to be done. With a professionalism they might not have possessed, they forthrightly confronted Rory Storm, the leader of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, a prominent Liverpool band, and told him they wanted to steal his drummer, who went by the name Ringo Starr. It was important, they said. They might have a record contract.
199. “Misery,” Please Please Me (1963): You can hear some harmonies coming together on this, but otherwise it’s a forgettable song from the band’s first album.
198. “Every Little Thing,” Beatles for Sale (1964): Some melodic lines of interest here, but not much else. There’s an unconvincing vocal by Lennon and some inappropriate drum sounds.
197. “Hold Me Tight,” With the Beatles (1963): One of McCartney’s earliest songwriting efforts and accordingly one of the slightest. The backing track is clompy, and we don’t need to hear all the you-you-you-you’s anymore. McCartney doesn’t sound natural singing, either.
196. “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964):
A simple chestnut from the early days, brought out to fill up the A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack.
195. “Only a Northern Song,” Yellow Submarine (1969): It’s possible George Harrison was the first pop star to attack his record label, or, in this case, his publishing company in a song. Band manager Brian Epstein had let many lucrative deals slip through his fingers; but particular concern was directed at Dick James, their song publisher, who made 1, 2, 10, 20 fortunes from this deal. (In fact, the band’s tie to him was somewhat loose, but they were never smart enough to hire a lawyer to restructure the deal.) Historical value aside, McCartney and Lennon had vetoed it for Sgt. Pepper’s, and it later turned up on the inferior Yellow Submarine soundtrack two years later, the weakest of the four weak songs the band added to the title track and “All You Need Is Love.”
194. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): The whimsy will continue until morale improves. Definitely in the top five of Most Irritating Songs Paul McCartney Ever Wrote. It took a long time for the band to get this right in the studio. No one liked it; but it was reportedly Lennon who finally sat down and banged the piano part out appropriately. This is a song that isn’t about anything in the first place; the last two verses are the same except for having Desmond and Molly’s names switched out, but McCartney’s vocal gets more and more excited. Newsflash: No one cares about Desmond and Molly Jones.
193. “Your Mother Should Know,” Magical Mystery Tour (1967): Another song that has existed in the cultural consciousness for 50 years and has been played on the radio incessantly over that time. The lyrics are inane even by McCartney standards.
192. “Don’t Pass Me By,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): This was a song that Ringo had been bashing about for several years. You can tell that by lines like these: “Sorry that I doubted you / I was so unfair / You were in a car crash / And you lost your hair.” To Starr’s credit, we have to acknowledge that the words unfair and hair do rhyme, so there’s that. The odd piano sound and aimless violin don’t do anything for it. And that repetitious backing track goes on for nearly four minutes.
191. “You Like Me Too Much,” Help! (1965): A very simple George Harrison song, dumped as filler on the second side of Help!
190. “Baby It’s You,” Please Please Me (1963): A minor bit of ’50s pop schlock, co-written by Burt Bacharach early in his career. The band’s delivery is deliberate and respectful, much like that on the original, a somewhat obscure Shirelles track; a much more over-the-top version would be a hit in the 1970s for a band called Smith. After being told by George Martin to write some material, the band came back with a few new songs: “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You.” Martin recalls thinking the songs were marginal. He was unsure about the group … but decided to go for it. “Love Me Do” became a minor hit for the band in England; such was the meteoric evolution of Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting skills that by the time Please Please Me, the band’s first album, made it to stores, in February 1963, they had already written the songs that would release the kraken of Beatlemania.
189. “I’ll Be Back,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): The least of the lesser songs on the second non-soundtrack side of the A Hard Day’s Night album, and an anticlimactic album closer.
188. “Baby’s in Black,” Beatles for Sale (1964): Another of the darker songs that marked a largely uninteresting, transitional album. Not that much as a song, though.
187. “Roll Over Beethoven,” With the Beatles (1963):
A creditable early lead vocal on the Chuck Berry classic by George Harrison, who loved the song. It was a stage favorite that is a little tepid on record. The band loved Berry, of course; Lennon said “Chuck Berry” was another name for rock and roll, and the Beatles played a variety of other Berry songs in their BBC appearances. With the Beatles was the band’s second album, coming out just before the end of 1963. Since Please Please Me, eight months earlier, the band had had three No. 1 singles in England, and a fourth that went to no. 2. The release of With the Beatles was where things in England began to get weird. Stores were overrun by teenagers wanting the record. It is said to have sold a half-million copies on its first day; that would be the rough equivalent of 4 million copies in the U.S. these days, and is even more impressive given the primitive distribution systems in the U.K. at the time.
186. “It’s Only Love,” Help! (1965): A Lennon song from the band’s second movie soundtrack. In the band’s early songs, both Lennon and McCartney affected a knowingness about love affairs. They worked out the logic of this or that scenario, and delivered verdicts or advice accordingly. It took a while before actual love songs with recognizable people and situations in them would be in the offing.
185. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): Fans sometimes marvel at Lennon’s habit, in the mid-’60s, of drawing inspiration for songs from real life — a news story about potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire, for “A Day in the Life,” a Corn Flakes commercial for “Good Morning, Good Morning.” As those fans know, Lennon had an actual 1800s circus poster in his home, and he and McCartney, working together, artfully borrowed a surprising percentage of the words from that poster for this song. (The new six-disc mega rerelease of Sgt. Pepper includes a reproduction of the actual poster.) With the help of Abbey Road’s munchkins, the collapsing calliope sound and a found-sound collage at the end they put together has some aural interest. But what I don’t get is this. The Beatles set themselves up as Sgt. Pepper’s band for this, their most celebrated (and technically advanced) album. So why were Sgt. Pepper & Co. writing songs about some other entertainment endeavors? And while the lyrical collage is itself artful, there’s either too much subtext here (i.e., the various acts have hidden roman à clef meanings) or not enough (i.e., it’s just words taken from a poster). The result is a decent novelty song that provides ammunition for those, like me, who contend that, track for (novelty) track, the song quality on Sgt. Pepper doesn’t live up its reputation.
184. “When I Get Home,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): The chorus of this Lennon vocal workout is downright irritating, and the bridge is worse. The song helped fill out the second side of A Hard Day’s Night. The film was designed to be quick and a cheapie, to capitalize on the group’s (presumably temporary) stardom. A flaw in their contracts allowed them to record outside songs for movies, a financial windfall for the studio lucky enough to make the film. What no one expected was that a young, canny director named Richard Lester would make the resulting movie an unexpected classic, with any number of comic set pieces, ranging from the slapstick to the satirical, that remain invigorating and pointed to this day. (In one scene, George is taken in to be quizzed by an amoral adman on what British youth were thinking.) A secret weapon: Lester’s crisp quasi-documentary photography, which captured the chaos of young girls chasing the band in all its kinetic, feral glory.
183. “For You Blue,” Let It Be (1970): A winsome romp from George Harrison. McCartney and Lennon were tossing half-baked, substandard throwaways onto the band’s later releases. It’s only fair that Harrison was able to do so as well. The overall production values of Let It Be are lousy; Harrison’s voice never sounded so thin and insubstantial. The song ended up being the (highly) inferior B side of “The Long and Winding Road,” the group’s last single before they broke up.
182. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” Abbey Road (1969): This song is catchy as hell. The anvil sound is hilarious. But it’s still one of those weird McCartney tracks. Wait — Maxwell kills people? In the wan Let It Be movie, you can see John Lennon looking pensive as the band runs through this piffle, wondering how his life has come to this. Docked 50 notches for the verse in which Maxwell kills the pataphysical scientist. She seemed cool.
181. “Wild Honey Pie,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): This silly Paul number offends on a lot of levels. It’s not a coherent track for an album. Much later, McCartney would allow that he was guilty of laziness for putting nontracks like this on his albums.
180. “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” Beatles for Sale (1964): Harrison’s upbeat, heavily echoed vocals make even this ginned-up jalopy going nowhere — a Carl Perkins cover — sound interesting, for a minute or so. An anticlimax to the last uninteresting album the band would release for several years.
179. “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” single (1969): Yoko Ono didn’t break up the Beatles. They broke up for a lot of reasons. But one big cause was John Lennon’s dickish moves. Case in point: Showing up to “The White Album” sessions with new girlfriend Ono, who stayed there for the duration. Outsiders had never been allowed in Beatles recording sessions, and Ono — ten years older, supposed to be a substantive artist in her own right and a pioneering feminist figure — sat silently by Lennon’s side, even following him to the bathroom. Then Lennon started using heroin. Fun times, fun times. Later he tried to paint the other Beatles as the bad guys. During this period, Lennon was being persecuted by the authorities, but the lines “The way things are going / They’re going to crucify me” seem a little whiney. And then there are the dulcet lines, “Oh, boy when you’re dead / You don’t take nothing with you but your soul — Think!” The song itself, stripped down and recorded by just McCartney and Lennon, is fairly catchy, but it’s crudely recorded and mixed, and Lennon sorely overestimates our care for the plight of his new wife and him —and our tolerance for his preachiness.
178. “Oh! Darling,” Abbey Road (1969): For this show-offy number, McCartney spent nights in the studio singing his lungs out to get the desired desperation and strain in his voice. The result is just that — show-offy. The Beatles were on to amazing stuff in the 1960s, and it’s disconcerting to think that McCartney was spending so much time on fluff when he could have been looking for mature follow-ups to “Penny Lane” or “Lovely Rita.” Also, his overuse of the “big voice” here made its much more meaningful use in “Golden Slumbers” slightly ho-hum.
177. “Bad Boy,” Past Masters (1965): Another song by the guy who wrote “Slow Down,” Larry Williams, a band favorite. You might not recognize the song from the title: It’s the one with the chorus, “Now junior, behave yourself!” I don’t think Lennon pulls it off. This first turned up on an American release, Beatles VI.
176. “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” Beatles for Sale (1964): Here’s John putting his emotions out, early in the band’s career, in an otherwise forgettable tune. The vulnerability is charming, though.
175. “I Call Your Name,” Long Tall Sally EP (1964): Another of those early chuggy numbers, Lennon singing lead. There’s a goofy, off-kilter solo.
174. “What Goes On,” Rubber Soul (1965): A minor, droning number, with a lead vocal by Ringo. One of the least interesting songs on the otherwise sparkling Rubber Soul. Ringo Starr grew up Ritchie Starkey — without a father and in the slums. He nearly died from an infection at 6 — remaining in a hospital for a full year. He then contracted tuberculosis, which gave him an extended stay in a sanitarium and no chance at all of regaining his footing in school. The dismal future that awaited him was thwarted by chance. His natural likability and gifted affinity for the drums changed everything. He came alive on stage — sporting a streak in his hair and flashy rings. That put his life on its unlikely trajectory, and ultimately made him a worldwide household name for some 55 years now. That likability, his reliable steady beat, and his flair for a tasteful fill made him an important part of the Beatles, which is saying something. He sang lead on 11 songs.
173. “No Reply,” Beatles for Sale (1964): In the chaos of Beatlemania — the filming of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in quick succession the least of it — the group’s songwriting suffered. The good songs went to the movies and toward the grueling single-release schedule that Martin and Epstein enforced. Beatles for Sale, which came out between the two soundtracks, was another unprecedented smash, spending months at No. 1 in Britain, but in retrospect we can see there’s only one Beatles song worthy of the name on it, “Eight Days a Week.” “No Reply” is more anonymous than the others.
172. “Think for Yourself,” Rubber Soul (1965): Harrison can’t help sounding judgmental on songs like this. Great groovy fuzzed-out bass line, though. Supposedly recorded in one take.
171. “Devil in Her Heart,” With the Beatles (1963): A Harrison lead vocal and another R&B-cover chestnut from the Hamburg era. One assumes this was a live crowd-pleaser, because its charms are elusive on disc. (American records were rare in Britain, and the band picked up what songs they could from the eccentric assortment that presented itself; this was originally done in a distaff version by an obscure Detroit girl group called the Donays, written by one Ricky Dee.) Of the four Beatles, Harrison was the only one who grew up in a nuclear family; like the others, though, he also grew up with an outhouse, and playing in rubbled lots, the detritus of a terrible war that had given undue attention to Liverpool, a major port. Harrison’s relative youth loomed large; both McCartney and Lennon in later years greatly exaggerated how much older than Harrison they were, and for understandable reasons it was difficult for him to get his songs taken seriously by the other Beatles and George Martin. Lennon could of course be much crueler about it. Harrison responded by leaving Lennon out of his autobiography.
170. “Till There Was You,” With The Beatles (1963):
This is routinely referred to as a Beatles oddity, but the song itself is from The Music Man, one of the best American musicals of the era. The song’s precision and internal logic undoubtedly was an influence on McCartney. He even sang it at the band’s debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, in February 1964.
169. “Mother Nature’s Son,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Some fans love this song. I think it’s too similar to “Blackbird,” and another sign of the unnecessary bloat of “The White Album.” The lyrics are among McCartney’s worst.
168. “What You’re Doing,” Beatles for Sale (1964): The band had to catch its breath in ‘64; they had dominated the singles charts at the beginning of the year, and were just beginning to envision what they could do. Too many of this album’s tracks aren’t good enough.
167. “Revolution 1,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): The first version of this song Lennon brought to the group was a slow groove; no one was particularly happy with it, but it ended up being on the album anyway. The fully electrified version, called just “Revolution,” which became the B side to “Hey Jude,” is much better.
166. “Rocky Raccoon,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): If you’re looking for the point at which Paul McCartney began to give whimsy a bad name, it is precisely here. The song about the meter maid, fine. But we draw the line at animal songs, particularly when the story, pointless to begin with, goes nowhere. McCartney’s “doo-dee-doo” vocalizings are irritating, too. Docked five notches for being undeniably catchy; after one last listen to make sure I wasn’t being unfair to it, its hooks were still in my head two days later.
165. “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” Help! (1965): Through their Hamburg residencies, they played almost exclusively a wide variety of covers, from schlock to wild R&B classics like this one, from one of Lennon and McCartney’s idols, Little Richard. Much later, Lennon would play it with the Plastic Ono Band.
164. “Good Night,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Lennon’s attempt to write a lullaby for Ringo to sing as an envoi to “The White Album.” It’s lulling, and nothing wrong with that, but it’s also kinda boring.
163. “Honey Don’t,” Beatles for Sale (1964): A second-tier Carl Perkins number, with Starr singing lead, is another piece of the filler on Beatles for Sale.
162. “Old Brown Shoe,” single (1968): As the band’s interior life broke down, bad decisions were made. This is a (very) minor Harrison song, unaccountably added to the B side of “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Together it’s the Beatles’ worst single release.
161. “Yes It Is,” single (1965): An overdone ballad; Harrison at the time was playing around with a newfangled guitar effect, known as the “volume pedal,” which marks this song. (You can hear it on “I Need You,” too). This song was the B side to the much better “Ticket to Ride.”
160. “All Together Now,” Yellow Submarine (1969): Paul McCartney is one of the most remarkable, and luckiest, people of the 20th century. He, too, grew up marginally in a damaged city; he lost his mother at 14. More than any of the Beatles, and indeed more than just about anyone you can think of, he has radiated happiness and contentment (and not in a self-satisfied way) for most of his life. He was the era’s most successful songwriter, and, in fact, is probably the most successful songwriter of all time. He was in the biggest-selling band of the 1960s, and was probably the biggest-selling artist of the 1970s as well. The industry analyst I trust for reliable record-sales figures says that McCartney’s total is about 650 million sold in total — about 25 percent more than Michael Jackson. He was also — how to put this? — gorgeous to look at, and somehow had developed the diplomatic skills and winning nature to get what he wanted virtually all the time. He smoked marijuana heroically most of his life, and lived a great love story with his wife, Linda Eastman, until her too-early death in 1998. If Paul McCartney has a dark side, it is the voice inside him demanding that he dominate every genre of pop music with his cosmically pleasurable, almost ridiculously facile skills. Here, a number for toddlers. The excitement builds and, if you’re 4, the ending is as apocalyptic as, I don’t know, “Gimme Shelter.” Damn him.
159. “All I’ve Got to Do,” With the Beatles (1963): A forgettable early track from the second album; the usual elements are there, right up to the crescendo in the chorus, but it’s highly unaffecting, and ends in two minutes.
158. “Her Majesty,” Abbey Road (1969): A McCartney throwaway that was supposed to be in the middle of the Abbey Road medley. It didn’t fit, and was cut out, roughly — leaving a last burst of sound from the previous song and a half-second or so at the end cut out — and stuck on to follow “The End” after a very long stretch of silence.
157. “She’s a Woman,” single (1964):
The verses are not too memorable, and the “peasant” rhyme is dreadful, but there’s a wonderful slide into the chorus. The B side to “I Feel Fine.”
156. “Savoy Truffle,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): George takes a strong stand about eating sweets. And some people say he was a humorless moralist. The lack of quality control on “The White Album” is striking when you get to songs like this. There’s even a passing reference to “Oh-Bla-Di, Oh-Bla-Dah,” which no one made George take out. While the band presented a united front to outsiders, a trouble strain in the band was Paul and John’s handing of George, particularly his songs. They weren’t unfair; he had three songs on Revolver, and McCartney provided assists on many of his tracks. But there was a way in which he was always on parole, and over the years his resentment grew.
155. “Honey Pie,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): As the group’s interior dynamics broke down in the wake of Sgt. Pepper’s and the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, hitherto suppressed urges in the two main songwriters were allowed to come to the fore. Lennon called McCartney’s worst instincts “granny music.” It’s generally put today into the catchall category of “dance hall” music — a key part of the country’s cultural landscape, and one that a generation that included McCartney and Ray Davies couldn’t seem to shake. McCartney always copped to wanting to write classic pop songs, so you can’t blame him for being a hypocrite. Still, this is a clichéd and received idea. Docked five notches for the Rudy Vallée microphone at the beginning. Docked another five notches for having basically the same title as another, even worse, song on the same album.
154. “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” Please Please Me (1963): One wants simply to answer, “No.” Notable for being George Harrison’s vocal debut; while Harrison’s voice wasn’t always showcased on the band’s records correctly, as part of the group’s early, bruising three-part harmonies he was extremely valuable, a third lead voice just similar enough to keep the band’s sound unified but just different enough to provide some rough texture.
153. “Mr. Moonlight,” Beatles for Sale (1964): The band had already written “She Loves You” and “Please Please Me,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” Why were they filling out their fourth album with more R&B covers? This one, by Roy Lee Johnson, is a genuine oddity, partly crooned, party wailed.
152. “Long Tall Sally,” Long Tall Sally EP (1964): A McCartney workout of the Little Richard classic and a favorite from their Hamburg days. He has an amazing voice.
151. “P.S. I Love You,” Please Please Me (1963): The even more rudimentary B sideB side of “Love Me Do,” the band’s first single.
150. “Fixing a Hole,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): The argument for this song is that it’s about something. In addition to the lulling arrangement and production — novel and relaxing, spectacular and subtle — we have Paul mulling things over, a step up from grinning platitudes about nothing. The argument against it is that it is in the end an argument for the status quo. Given his place in the universe, of course Paul McCartney liked things the way they were. I’m just saying he didn’t need to write so many songs about it.
149. “The Inner Light,” single (1968): A Harrisong of minor interest, on the B side of “Lady Madonna.” Very Indian, but it lacks the drama of “Love You To” and the grandeur of “Within You Without You.” As with George’s “Old Brown Shoe,” which ended up on the back of “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” you can see how internal quality control was breaking down.
148. “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” Magical Mystery Tour (1967): A lot of yelling. McCartney can make anything sound catchy; there’s a mildly interesting Lennon call-and-response going on, too. You might think the song is directed at rich, complacent hippies — but the rich, complacent hippies in the Beatles would never write a song about that, would they? The “tuned to a natural E” line is a gem, but there’s also that bit about keeping all your money in a big brown bag … inside a zoo. Which makes me think it’s just another Paul McCartney nonsense song.
147. “Long, Long, Long,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): A whisper of a song, easy to forget, memorable only for the big drum breaks, a trick Paul Simon would steal for “The Only Living Boy in New York” a few years later.
146. “I’m a Loser,” Beatles for Sale (1964): By Lennon’s own admission, this was one of his very first personal songs. The very antithesis of a moon-spoon-June love song. There’s a Smokey Robinson rewrite, and some of the rhymes are forced, but it’s hard to think of any other pop performers who were writing songs this baldly self-critical at the time. Lennon’s father disappeared when he was young; his mother, Julia, whom you might call a good-time girl, ultimately left him in the care of his aunt Mimi, who provided him with something like a middle-class upbringing. Lennon grew up a striking artistic personality, living, it needs hardly be said, at a time and in a place where this was barely recognized. Without getting too psychological about it, you can say this left him with lingering anger and displacement issues, manifesting in lots of drinking and random acts of cruelty many never forgot. As the Decade of the Beatles wore on, a growing realization of some of these issues put his sensibility on a collision course with the unprecedented circus of a professional life he had inadvertently found himself in. The result in the latter years of the 1960s was a lot of growing up, and out, in public, via this or that very personal, and sometimes not very attractive, artistic statement on the matter.
145. “Piggies,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Harrison had a very quick, and very subtle, sense of humor; those who knew him presumably saw a lot of that here, but to me it comes across as moralizing. This is a takeoff on Animal Farm, and anything but subtle. Funny voices, too.
144. “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Lennon thought he was striking blows against the empire with raspy, unproduced constructions like this. He wasn’t. The staff at Abbey Road managed to make the results often sound surprisingly crisp, as here, and Lennon’s natural way with a hook or at least a shtick is present as well. But it doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a dumb song. Lennon came up with “Dear Prudence,” of course, for “The White Album,” but when you consider that his previous year’s output had included “Strawberry Fields,” “A Day in the Life,” “I Am the Walrus,” and “All You Need Is Love,” it’s obvious that by the time the group started assembling “The White Album,” he was close to being an acid casualty. Just before the band returned to the studio, he called an emergency meeting at the band’s Apple headquarters. On the agenda: Lennon’s announcement that he was Jesus Christ, after a revelatory LSD trip the night before.
143. “Anna (Go to Him),” Please Please Me (1963): Ladies and Gentleman, Arthur Alexander. The soul songwriter, mostly known for “You Gotta Move On,” a U.S. hit for the Stones, wrote a handful of R&B gems. This is a slow grinder, sung earnestly by Lennon.
142. “Matchbox,” Long Tall Sally EP (1964): Ringo blasting through a Carl Perkins classic. Way too much echo on the track, though. Pete Best sang it in the band’s Hamburg days.
141. “Love Me Do,” Please Please Me (1963):
Painfully plain, this is one of the first complete songs McCartney and Lennon wrote together. Simple is not the word; there are exactly 17 different words in the song, three of which manage to extend to two syllables. (“For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” by contrast, has nearly 100 different words.) Producer Martin wasn’t happy with Starr’s drumming on the track, and he was replaced by a session player in a rerecording. It was the band’s first single, and rose to no. 17 on the British charts.
140. “Because,” Abbey Road (1969): This song, powered by a Beethoven-y harpsichord, an extravagant vocal track, and a rudimentary synthesizer, is supposedly not part of the extended medley on the second side of Abbey Road, but its limited lyrics and aimless structure gives it the feel of a fragment. Some people love it, and it’s arguably the group’s lushest vocal moment, but it’s still a fragment.
139. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): A story from the trip to India, where they saw a rich kid go on safari. “Not when he looked so fierce,” incidentally, is Yoko Ono. It’s droney and careless, goes nowhere, and has a lot of false jocularity in it, like the handclaps at the end. Love the segue to “While My Guitar,” though.
138. “Octopus’s Garden,” Abbey Road (1969): A rare Ringo songwriting credit. If you grew up with Abbey Road you probably still love it. But the sound effects are trivial by Beatles standards, the guitar solo is trite, and it’s really not something a serious rock band should have been recording in 1969. And in the wake of “Come Together” and “Something” it seems even slighter.
137. “The Word,” Rubber Soul (1965): Rubber Soul is the band’s first mature album; soundwise, songwise, vocalwise, sophisticationwise — it was all a clear step up from the best songs on Help! This is a less interesting, blaring track.
136. “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Not to be outdone by Lennon in the throwaway department during “The White Album” sessions, McCartney offered this. It’s just as bad as “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide.” Paul shows off some of his funny voices, which he could get away with because, aside from a Starr drum track, he recorded it alone, away from the other Beatles.
135. “Birthday,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): An effective rave-up, and one that has stood the test of time. But it’s still a minor song, one better suited to be a special present to a child rather than a record-buying public, much less leading off the second disc of a two-record set.
134. “Yellow Submarine,” Revolver (1966): One of Ringo’s signature songs. The call-and-response in the last verse was done on the spur of the moment in the studio and remains the track’s signature, along with the various sound effects, put together in the studio and remaining fresh and organic-sounding to this day. The 1969 animation film Yellow Submarine was built around it years later. The film was not written by the Beatles, and does not feature their voices either, but their inspiration made it a highly enjoyable cinematic experience, then and now.
133.“It Won’t Be Long,” With the Beatles (1963): The exuberance keeps on coming. In this early 18-month period, it seemed like Lennon and McCartneycould make a song out of any random romantic cliché. The pieces — voices, drums, bass, guitar fills — are the same as any song by, say, Herman’s Hermits, but there’s a palpable classiness and professionalism that radiates from the track. And no one could reproduce the inherent manic feel of the Beatles.
132. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” Abbey Road (1969): A tedious workout. It sounded novel at the time, and there’s some good sound, but it goes on for nearly eight minutes. I respect that Lennon is trying to strip down his work to elements, lose his ego, profess his love for Ono, and disappear to be reborn, all that shit. It’s just a little artless. The Stones, led by Mick Taylor, would show how to take an idea like this and do it right in “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” on Sticky Fingers. The outro is interminable, undergirded with a roar of white noise, a nice effect. It finally ends, abruptly, with a sharp cut, mid-note. It was Lennon’s idea, over the objection of engineer Geoff Emerick, as the latter tells the story. Later, Emerick came to feel Lennon was right.
131. “It’s All Too Much,” Yellow Submarine (1969): A promising rock-out of a beginning goes nowhere. While he was undoubtedly able to pull it off from time to time, the fact is that Harrison had a weak voice, and too often it’s just not a strong enough instrument to hold down a Beatles song.
130. “Any Time at All,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): Lennon and McCartney quickly became adept at creating magical pop songs out of common sayings. Here’s another one, though the magic doesn’t quite manifest.
129. “I’ve Got a Feeling,” Let It Be (1970): After the lingering bad feelings from “The White Album” sessions, the idea was that the band would “get back” to organic rock and roll played by real people. What came to be called the Get Back sessions featured songs like this — a guitar or two, bass drums, maybe a keyboard, with natural voices on top. You want to like songs like this — and particularly this song, with two of the most familiar voices in the world winding around each other with obvious pleasure. But at best it’s a goof, and none of it means anything. And in the end the center didn’t hold. The documentary made of these sessions, Let It Be, is an engrossing, wan, sometimes joyous, but ultimately troubled look at four friends who could no longer get it together to record earth-shattering music. The band shelved the material and eventually re-formed to record and release Abbey Road. The Get Back session tracks, by this point a red-headed stepchild, were later refashioned to varying degrees by Phil Spector and put out under the name Let It Be, which inadvertently became, in the eyes of the public, the Beatles sad swan song.
128. “Words of Love,” Beatles for Sale (1964): Buddy Holly’s efficient and timeless love songs are a key progenitor of McCartney’s simple love plaints. This is a great song, and the Beatles don’t ruin it.
127. “Tell Me Why,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): The Beatles early middle period was weird. There were signs of amazing things to come; the songs that don’t really carry those suggestions now seem a bit … eh. This is one of them.
126. “Don’t Bother Me,” With the Beatles (1963): Harrison’s first writing credit, and it’s not bad; the sulky melody and abrupt shifts in tone bring new dynamics to the group’s sound on the second album.
125. “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” With the Beatles (1963): A Smokey Robinson workout, and a favorite of the band from the start. It can’t compare to the original, however. With a sober nod to the past, they played it during the recording of Let It Be.
124. “Glass Onion,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): The import supposedly delivered in this song is pointless. Why does John Lennon feel he needs to confide (non) secrets about Beatles songs — and sing as if it all means something, which it doesn’t? This was two minutes and 12 seconds of their lives listeners in the ’60s would never get back. There are an awful lot of bad songs on the two-record, 28-song collection that came to be called “The White Album.” (It has an all-white cover. Its official name is merely The Beatles.) “Glass Onion,” coming after the terrific first two songs, is a clear sign things are about to fall apart — and there were more than two dozen tracks to go. Here’s a more appropriate song list for a single LP, which isn’t perfect but adheres to the International Beatle Protocols in force at the time (i.e., a Ringo song, one solid dollop of McCartney whimsy, a sop to Harrison, one Lennon misfire, etc., etc.):
“Back in the USSR”
“Martha My Dear”
“Don’t Pass Me By”
“Cry Baby Cry”
“I’m So Tired”
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
123. “Another Girl,” Help! (1965): After the manic and timeless success that was their first movie, the band and director Richard Lester went back to the well for Help! It was a poor, and racist, man’s Hard Day’s Night. The plot: A group of cartoony and fanatical Indians chase after one of Ringo’s rings. Despite the conceptual problems, there are striking moments in the first half, not least the cutaway to the credits, and of course the conceit of the foursome going home to a row of townhomes, all of which were connected inside. The Help! songs, like this one, were a step up; brighter, more mature, and tuneful in a more complex way.
122. “I’ll Follow the Sun,” Beatles for Sale (1964): A sunny McCartney track. He’s got a million of ’em.
121. “Doctor Robert,” Revolver (1966): A Lennon song about a celebrity doctor who dispensed drugs to rich clients in Manhattan. There are various stories about whom or what this song is really about, but in the end the critical undertones seem sophomoric; after all, the Beatles had been surviving on amphetamines for nearly a decade. And even hypocrisy would be okay if it were done artfully; the lyrics are among Lennon’s least creative.
120. “Martha My Dear,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): More subpar McCartney from “The White Album.” I know it has a melody you can’t get out of your head. I know it’s fun to sing along to, as well. It’s supposedly about the McCartney’s sheepdog, but lines like “Hold your hand out, you silly girl / See what you’ve done” don’t mean anything; they are just words McCartney thinks sound neat. They do; he’s really good at what he does. There’s a lame oompah instrumental break.
119. “Medley: Kansas City / Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey,” Beatles for Sale (1964): A high point of the band’s early shows. “Kansas City” is a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller song that was a hit for Wilbert Harrison. Little Richard did his own version, paired with a takeoff he called “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey.” McCartney — at what? 21? — could match his idol’s squeals, but no one would mistake him for a bluesman; Lennon’s take on the band’s most unbridled blues covers, as we will see, went deeper.
118. “Wait,” Rubber Soul (1965): Signs of growth, but boy this is an uninteresting song. The intro is one of their drabbest.
117. “Don’t Let Me Down,” single (1969): Another of the so-so unadorned Lennon songs from the last days of the Beatles. Too many of his songs consist of the title words repeated over and over in the chorus. The case for it is that it’s a naked profession of his love for Ono and a new statement of vulnerability. The band played it on the famous rooftop concert in Let It Be, but it was left off the album. It turned up as the B sideB side of the “Get Back” single.
116. “Blue Jay Way,” Magical Mystery Tour (1967): Harrison’s contribution to the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack. For Harrison’s segment of the movie, he sat cross-legged on the ground, pretending to play piano in the dirt. The song, famously written as he waited for some friends on Blue Jay Way in the L.A. hills, is a little too literal for my taste. Some nice sounds though.
115. “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” Help! (1965): McCartney’s staccato delivery in the verse contrasts nicely with the folkish lilt that transitions to the choruses. It’s a throwaway, albeit one more lively, engaging, and melodic than just about anyone else’s best single.
114. “Revolution 9,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): This exercise in sound collage could be seen as slumming. Here, after all, is one of the world’s most commercial songwriters — that is to say, people who put words and music together in a pleasant way — eschewing song and lyrics for tape experimentation. The result is probably fine for where it was found, the penultimate track on the fourth side of the exhausting 28-track “White Album,” where it ended up after a strenuous argument from McCartney, who felt strongly that it not be on the album at all. McCartney was thinking, “If I let this go, it will only encourage him.” It was put together by Lennon and Harrison, with help from Yoko Ono; the Lennon-Onos would go on to create other such ventures, inflicting on their fans two full albums (Two Virgins and Life With the Lions) of such stuff. Those who shelled out money for them at the time could take comfort only in the fact that they must have been more tedious to make than they were to consume. In the end, “Revolution 9” is fine for what it is: a gesture by a popular band to their fans to let them know there is adventurous work out there in the world. But we can all agree that these were not avant-garde artists, which is why, in the end, it’s slumming.
113. “Taxman,” Revolver (1966): A good, rough, and quite novel guitar sound kicks off this track, which the band thought was good enough to lead off Revolver, one of the most significant rock albums ever made. (Indeed, Harrison has three songs on the album.) Sound and music and meaning came together for the band here in a way that it never would again. They were adults with an ever-changing, ever-more-pointed way of looking at the world; at the same time, the extraordinary tastefulness of the production techniques instilled by George Martin gave them powerful tools to capture those impressions. As for “Taxman” (cf. “Batman”), this is basically a rich man’s complaint from George, only somewhat ameliorated by the fact that his specific issue (the taxman saying, “one for you, 19 for me,”) was basically accurate, the top British tax rate being nearly confiscatory at that time. In Harrison’s autobiography, he reproduced a tax check he sent in for a million pounds. (That the equivalent of $20 million or more today, and probably represented the vast majority of his income for the year.) Let’s also grant that he was entitled to be frustrated with the poor deals surrounding the band, from which millions more slipped through their fingers. Still, I don’t remember Harrison writing songs about the plight of folks who had even tougher times with their money. Docked 15 points for being a rich man’s complaint. That’s McCartney playing the (pretty good) solo, incidentally.
112. “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” single (1970): McCartney and Lennon worked on this song, off and on, for months. If you haven’t heard it, you should know that it consists of the pair, highly amused at themselves, repeating the title phrase over and over again, for six or seven minutes, using a lot of funny voices and varied instrumentation. The result is a poor man’s Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band track. For those who don’t know what that august aggregation was, it was a conceptual musical-comedy group (which has a cameo in the Magical Mystery Tour movie) that regularly did much funnier tracks than this. The song ended up on the B side of “Let It Be,” the band’s penultimate number one single.
111. “Two of Us,” Let It Be (1970): Too many of the songs on Let It Be are just … minor. This has a hummable melody, a decent bridge, a rambling bass track by McCartney, and really not much else. Upped 20 notches for the pointed lyric, “You and I have memories / Longer than the road that stretches out ahead.”
110. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Some people love this song. While the joke on gun fetishists is okay, I don’t get any other social comment in the track, and its provenance, just a collection of crap Lennon had lying around, shouldn’t have been encouraged. As I’ve mentioned, McCartney’s flaws, primarily an intermittent laziness (at least when it came to actual songwriting), would be much on display during this period. Here, Lennon’s are. For example, the line “Mother Superior jumped the gun,” besides not meaning anything, has the word gun in it, which confuses the meaning of the title.
109. “We Can Work It Out,” single (1965):
When you’re Paul McCartney, things have a way of working out. I guess this is a minor Beatles song, from the period just before things started to get really interesting, but the melody and the arrangement mix, here, as in so many other songs in their oeuvre, in a lovely and highly likable way. Note the waltz time in the middle eight, with the melancholy insert from Lennon. The B side of the single was “Day Tripper,” a weirder and better song.
108. “Rock and Roll Music,” Beatles for Sale (1964): A crisp and clean take on the Chuck Berry classic. Lennon’s raspy voice is a standout. The band barrels through the verses at top speed, not noticing they are supposed to done herky-jerky style.
107. “The Fool on the Hill,” Magical Mystery Tour (1967): Everything that’s good and bad about McCartney. As recorded, three minutes of pop glory set to a melancholy, aching melody, wrapped up in whistles, flutes, vocals, production swirls, and McCartney ululations. We take it all for granted now, but the sound spaces created on the track are exquisite. The result is lulling and stately, a dream in audio Technicolor. McCartney’s vocals capture the plight of the title figure, whatever it is exactly. Too much of the lyrics are clumsy. “The sound he appears to make”? “They don’t like him”? Is Paul himself the Fool on the Hill?
106. “Good Morning, Good Morning,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): A raucous song that tries to come up with a little social comment. Lennon’s successes in 1967 have obscured the fact that his regular LSD doses were changing his personality. Lennon’s wife, Cynthia, finding an upside to his drugged state, noted that a sense of compassion and love had replaced his previous world of “tensions, bigotry and hate.” But the other Beatles had to deal with him in a work environment, and it was plain his songs were losing some of their brilliance. “A Day in the Life” aside, there’s little of Lennon on Sgt. Pepper to compare with the three or four landmark tracks he delivered on Revolver. This song took its inspiration from a Corn Flakes commercial. There are a lot of groovy sound effects, but the story it tries to purvey is a little confused, and it clashes conceptually with the far more visionary treatment of the same subject in the last track on the album.
105. “Get Back,” Let It Be (1970): McCartney can write a great rock song out of anything. Here we have JoJo andSweet Loretta, with other whimsical words strung together as if they mean something, which they most assuredly do not. The Lennon-McCartney songwriting sessions were supposed to take care of vapid lyric conceptions like this. McCartney is barely even processing what he is saying. Why is Loretta Martin “another man”? He’s not making a point here, just mouthing words that sound good. Yes, yes, I know it’s one of the most highly pleasurable rock songs of all time. Docked ten notches for all the crap about Loretta’s mother wearing a “low-necked sweater.”
104. “I Should Have Known Better,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): Infectious, unexpected, uplifting, highly tuneful. And it’s one of the more forgettable songs from the movie.
103. “When I’m Sixty Four,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): The economy of the lyrics, while not as exhilarating as those in “Lovely Rita,” is appreciated, and the backing track is tasteful in its own whimsical way. I sing along every time it comes out of a speaker within earshot, just as you do. But it’s still very slight. McCartney’s voice is sped up on the track to make it higher-pitched and younger, to better capture the charming (so we are given to understand) juxtaposition of singer and subject.
102. “I Need You,” Help! (1965): A charming Harrison song from Help!, marked most distinctively by the cool guitar sound, via a “volume pedal.” The vocals are worth breaking down: Harrison double-tracked, with McCartney chiming in where needed. The real star here is the sound.The vocals, with a ghostly aura around them, fill most of the recording; way in the back, a bass and a subtle drum track seem to exist on an entirely different plane. It’s an early sign of the great art the band would make with simple recording tracks that were first meticulously created and then manipulated into new ways of conveying meaning through sound.
101. “Helter Skelter,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): It’s a nice guitar sound, hard and almost blistering. McCartney’s protean voice and delivery expand here considerably. The trouble with too many of his compositions is that they turn in on themselves; they have no meaning outside of the actual song, and neither do the funny guitar noises he comes up with here. The result? An exhilarating, unstoppable rave-up — one take the group did was nearly 30 minutes long — and another example of McCartney’s blinding virtuosity, just that and nothing more.
100. “From Me to You,” single (1963): The Beatles’ third U.K. single, famously written in the back of a bus during the band’s chaotic tour as Please Please Me rose to the top of the British charts. (It never appeared on a normal band album in the U.S., not even Hey Jude, the 1970 U.S. LP release that vacuumed up a number of uncollected hits.) The call-and-response chorus is fun, but the track of course lacks the concussiveness of the aural orgasm that was “Please Please Me,” the previous single, and what was to follow in the band’s fourth, a little ditty called “She Loves You.” At the time, though, few noticed, and an inferior song jetted straight to no. 1. (Still in the U.K. only, of course.)
99. “I Me Mine,” Let It Be (1970): I admire Harrison for singing about things he believed in. I don’t share those views, but most of the time he wasn’t being overly dogmatic, and the sincerity coming through seems true. “I Me Mine” deplores commercialism and greed; this from the guy who was complaining about his tax bill a few years prior. The chorus rocks okay. Owing to the decline in Lennon’s work, it doesn’t seem out of place on Let It Be.
98. “Flying,” Magical Mystery Tour (1967): A somewhat forgotten novelty instrumental from Magical Mystery Tour.
97. “I’m Looking Through You,” Rubber Soul (1965): Another bit of relationship knowingness. McCartney sings the heck out of it; the manic instrumental breaks lack rock-and-roll bite, but for a pop song they are pretty lively.
96. “Getting Better,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): Things are getting better. Better, better, better. The singer used to beat his wife, but things are getting better. Better, better, better.
95. “Got to Get You Into My Life,” Revolver (1966): People love this song for the brassy backing and Paul’s lively vocals. It was top-ten hit in the U.S. for Earth, Wind & Fire in ’73 — and then a top-ten hit again for the Beatles themselves in ’76.
94. “Maggie Mae,” Let It Be (1970): Generations know this song as the kiss-off to side one of Let it Be, right after McCartney’s full-throated, string-laden “Let It Be.” A fragment, less than a minute long, was attached to the end, partly for fun and partly, perhaps, to ease the schmaltz of the previous track. The song comes from deep in the Beatles’ memory. It was a well-known Liverpool seafarin’ ditty — complete with local geographic references to where the happy, larcenous hooker had plied her trade — they’d learned at a young age.
93. “Across the Universe,” Let It Be (1970): The goodwill the band engendered and the happiness it delivered sweeps over our perception of even the inferior work in late-period Beatles. This is a very pretty John Lennon song whose lyrics go on and on across the universe. He was proud of it; to me, the whole thing, including the faux-Indian chorus, sounds dated. (The Indian chant basically means “god is so great.”) Whatever. The song, which the band had recorded but not released, appeared on a charity album in 1969, and then, in different form, on Let It Be the next year, Spectored up. The original version is on Past Masters. All that said, Lennon’s vocal on the album version is unassailable, and Harrison’s contributions on the tanbura, an Indian instrument, are tasteful. The earlier version, while marred by some bird sounds and some chirpy munchkin backing vocal, is a little more organic-sounding. There’s another interesting take on the second Anthology album.
92. “All My Loving,” With the Beatles (1963):
On the second album, McCartney is stretching himself in the smiling rising melody — engineers marveled at the band’s vocal precision in the studio — and a loping bass line that won’t stop. The song is not well served by the clunky break.
92. “I’m Down,” single (1965): McCartney essays a Little Richard–style vocal on this Lennon-McCartney composition, not without success. The B side of the “Help!” single.
90. “Slow Down,” Long Tall Sally EP (1964): A groovy fast blues from a colorful R&B star named Larry Williams, who among other things wrote “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” for Little Richard. A great find by the band.
89. “Hey Bulldog,” Yellow Submarine (1969): Some people like this song for the guitar attack, and the full-throated vocal attack as well. I don’t understand the part about the bulldog. The song was recorded in the early part of 1968, before the group trouped off to India, and turned up later as part of the detritus on the first side of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album.
88. “Run for Your Life,” Rubber Soul (1965): The song begins with a lift from Elvis Presley: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man,” from “Baby Let’s Play House.” It’s got one of those amazing Beatles choruses. It can be asked about a lot of pop songs, in the 1960s and of course before and after: Why do boys who suddenly find themselves stars, and sleep with a different, willing woman after every show, suddenly start writing songs about unfaithful women? I mean, besides projection. Without mentioning any names [coughjohnandpaulcough], they were the ones who had fiancées back home and were out on the road contracting gonorrhea. Docked 20 notches for making you sing along with a guy who wants to kill his girlfriend.
87. “Yer Blues,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Lennon’s story is one of the most confounding and complex in rock. It’s very hard to feel sorry for him. He had so many advantages, and lived an amazing life. But something in him was wounded by the group’s experience more than anyone else, even Harrison, and the period from 1967 to 1970 seems to have been an extremely painful one for him. So he was of course entitled to — and deserving of — expiation artistically. That said, there was a marked decline in his work, and it’s on full display in several songs on “The White Album.” “Yer Blues” is routinely said to be a parody of white blues, but in fact the track itself, sung and performed straightforwardly, bears little hint of this, and the ideas bandied about here — persecution, self-pity — come up in other Lennon songs from this period as well. It feels like he wants to have it both ways. And I don’t understand the Dylan reference at the end, whether the song is meant to be funny or not. “I feel so suicidal / Just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones.” Mr. Jones wasn’t suicidal, and Lennon’s wild delivery of the line gives no hint he’s being ironic. All the guitar workouts seem forced. Lennon would tame and focus these feelings to much better effect a few years later on Plastic Ono Band.
86. “With a Little Help From My Friends,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): Starr’s vocal tracks were always beloved by fans; this track is quintessential Ringo. His voice was so limited McCartney fashioned a melody for him largely centered around five contiguous notes. The ending presented a challenge. For the final high note, the rest of the group gathered around Ringo as he recorded his vocals, urging him on to hit and hold it; few images in this adorable band’s adorable career are more affecting. Starr was actually the first Beatle to release a solo album of real songs, a predictably substandard collection of pop standards; he then focused a bit and, with a little help from his old friends, recorded two substantial singles in the 1970s (“Photograph” and “It Don’t Come Easy”), along with many other dreadful ones. He’s spent the next 45-or-so years practicing TM and marveling, seemingly every day, at how his life turned out.
85. “This Boy,” single (1963): A beloved track — the B side of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — done with an understated complexity and boasting some precise harmonies and a wailing lead vocal from Lennon. An instrumental of it is played over part of Ringo’s wanderings in A Hard Day’s Night.
84. “I’m Only Sleeping,” Revolver (1966): A nice acoustic guitar sound; Harrison’s solo is run backward, to lancing effect. By the time Revolver was released, the band members were adults, and dealing with unprecedented pressures — recording, money, the constant push and pull of fame, and pressing management questions. The members of the Beatles would have been much happier — and their story much happier — had they found some business partner who could have fully visualized the band’s career. Epstein, by all accounts a talented guy, was only half a visionary, and was damaged by drug addiction and the debilitating life he had to lead, hiding his sexuality from the world. The band knew Epstein was gay, but largely left it alone, except for Lennon and his sharp tongue. By most accounts, Lennon shared a common working-class attitude toward homosexuality, and expressed himself volubly about fags and queers — affectionately, but often with a bite, when it came to his manager. (“Baby, you’re a rich fag Jew,” he’d sing.) As Lennon grew older, he embraced feminism and grew out of his lumpen early attitudes, as of course someone with his intelligence and personality would. Still, he and Epstein were close. Very early on — in April ’63, just weeks after Lennon’s son Julian was born — Epstein took Lennon on a trip to Spain, during which he opened himself up to Lennon; and in Lennon’s later account made something like a pass at him. Lennon said the involvement was never consummated, but you could see how when he told his bandmates the story it could have been elaborated on to give Lennon a taste of his own medicine. Sometime after, at a large public party, Lennon beat the living shit out of a friend who made a crack about him and Epstein, nearly causing a scandal. McCartney later said that Lennon was amenable to encouraging Epstein’s attention to maintain his side in the balance of power within the group. Epstein’s reaction to the group’s success was to spend money, take increasing amounts of drugs, and embark on nonsexual adventurism that was both physically and reputationally harmful. His business instincts and flair for organization took the Beatles to the top, but it would have taken a far greater mind than his to ride competently on the financial whirlwind he helped create. He died of what was apparently an accidental overdose shortly after Sgt. Pepper’s was released. His absence allowed fissures in the band to appear — over management, changing songwriting priorities, Yoko Ono, drugs — that would in the end lead to the band’s breakup.
83. “If I Needed Someone,” Rubber Soul (1965): A very nice and original statement of ambiguity and self-doubt from George. “If I ever needed someone / You’re the one that I’d be thinking of” is a remarkably diffident opening line for a love song.
82. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): Sgt. Pepper’s came to be after the band, concussed from touring chaos and bruised by a controversy (Lennon had said they were more popular than Jesus), decided to stop playing live and concentrate on recording. “We’re going to make a record with sounds no one’s heard before,” John announced. McCartney came up with the conceit of the band-within-an-album to dampen the group’s high profile. This, the title song, might have been a good introduction to it. But the conceit didn’t extend past the second song. We then got myriad varying styles (and varying quality) with no sign of the metaband again until the reprise. That said, within the confines of the record, the song certainly rocks, albeit harmlessly. The release of the album was a worldwide event. The hullabaloo obscured more than a couple of bad reviews, which noticed that it’s a weak album when it comes to songs. These are fighting words to the album’s partisans, but without taking anything away from the album’s technological innovation and overall sonic wonder, it seems to me to be an objectively true statement to say that there are more great songs on the single the group released just before Sgt. Pepper’s (“Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane,” from early ’67) than there are on the album itself (“A Day in the Life”). However, the album’s technological innovation isn’t just the use of new sounds, but the unerringly tasteful and sometimes world-shaking way those sounds were employed, in their precision, their seamlessness, and, from time to time, their great and transformative meanings.
81. “I Wanna Be Your Man,” With the Beatles (1963): Grabbed by the Rolling Stones’ manager who begged for a track for the band, Lennon and McCartney went to the Stones’ studio and whipped this one into shape for Jagger and Richards. The Stones slur it up a bit, and provide a darker take; The Beatles’ version, with a chirpy vocal by Ringo, has a typically manic chorus.
80. “Eight Days a Week,” Beatles for Sale (1964): Happy, happy, happy. A great hook for the only good song on Beatles for Sale. The title came from McCartney’s chauffeur.
79. “Cry Baby Cry,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): This chorus has a tense groove and a lovely melody; all sorts of fans love this song. The verses are just pointless variations on a theme that goes nowhere. There’s no bridge; the song’s momentum comes only from the ever-more-elaborate sound effects, so it feels like it goes on much longer than it does.
78. “And I Love Her,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): This might have been McCartney’s first mature love song. Again, the effortless rise in the melody was tracked unerringly by his supple voice. Not too many harmonies here, and the band hadn’t yet learned to double-track. The resulting spare feel and the plucked Spanish guitar creates a texture the band hadn’t used before, and looks forward to similar touches in songs like “Michelle” and “Yesterday.”
77. “The Night Before,” Help! (1965): Of the myriad call-and-response numbers McCartney threw together, this is one of the most lethal. The melodic climb in the chorus nails it; note how he affects to have a bit of trouble hitting the high notes, when of course he could sing them easily. Great ending, too.
76. “I’m So Tired,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): This Lennon throwaway speaks multitudes. He was probably on heroin during the recording of this track, if not the composition, hence the convincing delivery of the title words. Lennon’s talent, like McCartney’s, was of course resilient in many ways, so even this careless thing has a spiffy middle eight and a neck-snapping chorus. With all due respect for Lennon’s (very real) demons, there’s something off about a millionaire wailing about needing “peace of mind.”
75. “Magical Mystery Tour,” Magical Mystery Tour (1967): The Magical Mystery Tour film was a McCartney project, designed to cap an extraordinary year. The film featured the members of the Beatles on what was supposed to be a surreal version of the British tradition of the touristy bus trip, and was shown in a high-profile forum: The traditional BBC day-after-Christmas special (Boxing Day, there). It created a minor scandal, not because it was outrageous but because it sucked balls. Magical Mystery Tour is unfunny, uninteresting, uncreative, cheap-looking, extraordinarily poorly shot, and — ironically — never went anywhere. (There’s an engrossing BBC special about the film and its reception that’s a lot more interesting than the original.) But the title song is a marvel. It’s insular and doesn’t mean anything, which means it doesn’t really resonate. But this is classic-era Beatles at their classic-era standard, which is to say the song sports a dizzying array of production innovations, melodic frills, thrilling instrumentation, head-snapping song construction, precise singing, and a driving backing track. And one of those lovely Beatles codas. Still, docked ten notches for false advertising.
74. “Love You To,” Revolver (1966): A hard-rock Indian song. Harrison found a thunderous riff in the music and uses it well. It trails off from time to time, though.
73. “Things We Said Today,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): What a great song, from the ringing acoustic strum to another one of those rising McCartney melodies in the chorus. It was a shtick, a trick, we knew it. But we couldn’t stop singing along. There’s a snazzy transition out of the middle eight, too.
72. “Act Naturally,” Help! (1965): An affectionate cover of a Buck Owens hit of the time, one that captures Starr’s own diffident personality perfectly. Doesn’t really fit in with the tunes on Help! Upped 20 notches for subtext.
71. “You Won’t See Me,” Rubber Soul (1965): A classic Rubber Soul track. There is a dissonant feel to the melody from the first words; the chorus is not what you’d expect from the beginning. The key lyric — “I will lose my mind / If you won’t see me” — has a nice triple meaning. (“See” meaning “date,” “see” meaning “look at,” and “see” meaning “acknowledge as a person.”)
70. “Michelle,” Rubber Soul (1965): A melancholy love song from McCartney for once. Another tossed-off track that outclasses virtually everything else around. The Beatles’ appeal was always down-to-earth, based on Liverpudlian humor, the local “Scouse” accent, and an obvious and palpable affinity for the working class. Notice how again McCartney effortlessly — that word again — makes the transition to European love man, dropping casually into French, and asserting his bass into a lead instrument. The track mirrored developments in his life. During this time, he was dating a model named Jane Asher who came from a privileged family. In continental fashion, the family invited McCartney to live with them. For many years, McCartney has pointedly noted that during this time he was out and about soaking up London’s avant garde arts scene, while Lennon was living in the suburbs with his wife and new child. Jane’s brother, incidentally, was Peter Asher, later of the pop duo Peter and Gordon, who had a hit with McCartney’s “World Without Love.” He went on to develop acts for Apple’s label then produced and managed the (very) successful careers of Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor in the 1970s, and even ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone with the pair.
69. “I Want to Tell You,” Revolver (1966): What happened to George Harrison between Revolver and Abbey Road, where his songwriting skills roared to the fore again, isn’t clear. But he had three creditable songs on this album. This one’s intentions are very mixed-up; there’s a good clanky beat, which may or may not be suited to the typically diffident romantic attitudes Harrison espouses in the song, but in the end it merely provides texture to the record. It’s another Harrison track that might have benefitted from more help from McCartney and Lennon. They and producer Martin expressed regret in later years for not being more available. Songwriting was slow for Harrison. He himself noted that the pair had the relative luxury of getting all their bad songs out of their systems early. He had to start from scratch, without a partner, and in public. And one other thing: Harrison himself contributed any number of powerful and distinctive riffs to Lennon-McCartney songs, over and above his distinctive playing. Any Beatles fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of the group is welcome to correct me, but I’m not aware of Harrison going out of his way to point this out publicly. There’s a personal aspect to this as well. Harrison and McCartney, remember, were best friends before McCartney met Lennon. The pair grew apart over the Beatles’ career, though McCartney was always more generous with his time than Lennon.
68. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): Another important Lennon-McCartney collaboration. (It always rankled McCartney, incidentally, that Lennon insisted that Lennon’s name went first on the labels.) “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is another famous song from Sgt. Pepper’s that on inspection is somewhat less than it seems. Lennon brought the title (taken from a child’s painting, not used as an LSD reference) and melody to McCartney. The pair stitched together three verses of psychedelic patchwork as a joint project, with a six-word chorus. The somber, ethereal, transporting opening melody makes the song, along with Lennon’s amazing delivery — carefully humanized by McCartney in the studio. Lennon makes the patchwork convincing, and infuses the song with an import that probably isn’t there. All that said, as a sheer piece of electronic sound, this is an extraordinary achievement, one whose preeminence would last about 25 minutes, until we found the band’s handiwork at the end of the second side of the album.
67. “Please Mister Postman,” With the Beatles (1963):
The Beatles loved Motown — Lennon said that Smokey Robinson was American’s greatest poet. Lennon himself works this one on out, and the other members of the group deliver the unrelenting pile-driver of a backing track. Starr’s drumming contributes a lot.
66. “Hello, Goodbye,” Magical Mystery Tour (1967):
Chirpy Paul at his chirpiest. Another virtuoso single (its B side was “I Am the Walrus”; both were on the Magical Mystery Tour album, too) tossed off amid chaos: Sgt. Pepper’s, the death of Epstein, the “All You Need Is Love” broadcast, the preparation for MMT. The studio treatments make the track; the band’s meanings now were conveyed primarily in sounds, not songs.
65. “Boys,” Please Please Me (1963): This is a hilarious idea — singing the Shirelles song “Boys” with a male lead. It was originally a showcase for drummer Pete Best in the Beatles, but Starr had also been singing it with the Hurricanes. Starr’s best-ever vocal and, to my ears, helped along by a punishing bass line and some manic backing vocals, one of the most lethal covers from the band’s earliest days.
64. “All You Need Is Love,” single (1967): Amid all the other distractions of the band’s most action-packed year, they wrote a song for a performance on the BBC’s first worldwide live broadcast. (They were in fact supposed to play live, but in the end the group created a typically ornate backing track in the studio to sing in front of.) Lennon didn’t live his lyrics; his treatment of his first wife, Cynthia Lennon, was pretty shabby; he was a bully sometimes, and a mean drunk. But if you’re going to use a pedestal to preach, why not preach this? Today such exposure is now available to every kitten with a smart phone that can play piano, but at the time the broadcast — a bravura show of technological force by the BBC — was a not insignificant event. You can find it online, and see Keith Moon and Mick Jagger in the audience. Maybe you can watch it and think about where these guys had been five years earlier and not get a little choked up. But I couldn’t. The song later turned up on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album.
63. “I Feel Fine,” single (1964): This scorching track was, amazingly, just another 1964 single. The beginning includes a slab of feedback, by most accounts the first use of feedback on record; it melts into the Beatles’ first and possibly greatest hard-rock guitar riff.
62. “If I Fell,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): If you view the Beatles through the prism of the McCartney-Lennon song competition, you’re constantly pulled back one way and then the other. McCartney, of course, wins in the pop realm. All but his very earliest songs and his later throwaways are sophisticated, and everything reverberates with taste and perspective. The amazing thing about Lennon is that he’s right with McCartney a lot of the time, which is to say right up with the most cosmically talented songwriter ever. This is a case in point; the careful logic of the lyrics is matched to the hesitation of the melody; it’s as if the conditional phrase that titles the song colors the singer’s words all the way through, with Lennon’s unsteady rise to hit the high notes matching his psychic tentativeness. In other words, the melody itself tells a story. Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison then lock into the harmonies that helped make their name.
61. “Girl,” Rubber Soul (1965): An interesting example of Lennon’s approach to songwriting. There’s something real and raw in this, even if in the end it’s slightly received, by which I mean, he’d heard one should write a song about an unapproachable and haughty woman, rather than having actually experienced one. But still this song cuts deeper than, say, “Drive My Car,” a typical McCartney love song from this period. The line about pain leading to pleasure takes this to the next level, as does his sharp intakes of breath. The “tit-tit-tit-tit-tit” part, incidentally, was in fact — as Lennon’s informed us later — about tits.
60. “Sexy Sadie,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Lennon’s burst of venom at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of transcendental meditation and a focus of the Beatles’ imagination for a time in the mid-’60s. “Sexy Sadie” has the same beats as “Maharishi.” It’s devilishly sung and performed. The Beatles spent a full month together in early ’68 at the compound run by the Maharishi in Rishikesh, in the far north of India, just south of Kashmir. After McCartney and Starr left the Maharishi’s encampment, word got around that the Maharishi might have been making passes at some of the women. From the record that remains, it’s not entirely apparent that this was true; Bob Spitz, in The Beatles, says that some of the anti-Maharishi gossip was spread about by a Lennon hanger-on known as Magic Alex, who had crazier ideas than even the Maharishi and would go on to waste enormous amounts of the band’s money during the Apple era. And who were the Beatles to point fingers at a guy sleeping with his groupies? But in the end Lennon and Harrison split as well, despite the Maharishi’s entreaties.
59. “One After 909,” Let It Be (1970): Until “Please Please Me,” Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting forays were Buddy Holly– and Everly Brothers–style works, with simple romantic plaints, plainly sung, and resonant harmonies they tried hard to re-create. This early song was an oddity; the structure, rhymes, and subject all seem years ahead of the pair’s painfully monosyllabic initial work together. It’s a rambling rave-up that stood, hardy and ready, some ten years after it was written. You can see the band experimenting with it in the Get Back sessions, and it ended up on Let It Be, one of the album’s better songs.
58. “Lady Madonna,” single (1968): One minute McCartney’s revving up one of rock’s definitive bass riffs, as on “Paperback Writer”; the next, he’s banging out equally effective boogie-woogie. His keyboard work here is as powerful a hard-rock piano line as I can think of. The song itself is another ridiculous, absurdly enjoyable pop single, and an organic piece of mock R&B after Pepper’s technological fanfare. He probably deserves some credit for the lines “Lady Madonna / Children at your breast / Wonder how you manage to feed the rest,” which seem to have something to do with the church and birth control. And I know he meant the song to be sympathetic to women. It’s still a bit paternalistic. (Confidential to P. McC: Men have something to do with babies, too.)
57. “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” Help! (1965): Another bit of romantic-advice-giving, with a not-so-veiled threat. Lennon would do it, too. The call-and-response and Lennon’s falsetto is irresistible.
56. “Revolution,” single (1968): The Beatles first version of this song, called “Revolution 1,” appeared on the fourth side of “The White Album.” It was pretty anodyne; they revved it up for a single release, which became the B side of “Hey Jude.” This version rocks in blistering fashion, with the roughest guitar sound the band had yet recorded, and removes Lennon’s coy insert of the word in after the lines “If you talk about destruction / You can count me out” on “The White Album” version. It’s another example of how when the Beatles worked together and pushed each other, better versions of their songs came out.
55. “Can’t Buy Me Love,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964):
Another concussive beginning, another arresting chorus; but the band to this point had never felt so unwound, so bashy. McCartney specialized in melodic lines that reached ever upward. Here he started high and went down, the perfect melody for doing the frug. The bass line adds a rollicking undertow to an already raucous production, and McCartney’s vocals hit every mark. The song accompanies the famous freedom scene in A Hard Days Night, creating one of the most enduring images of the band.
54. “I Will,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): A beautiful McCartney song that much more could have been made of. It feels like it was put on the album without much attention paid to it. (The hokey hootenanny guitar line at the end of each verse, for example, was a bad idea.) Alison Krauss’s heavy-on-the-steel-drum version is a bit overly sweet, perhaps, but it’s still one of those rare things: a cover of a Beatles song better than the original.
53. “You Can’t Do That,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): One of the first signs of the ferocity Lennon was capable of. Pissed off, vengeful, threatening … Stand back, girls, he’s taken.
52. “Within You Without You,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): A slight song that finds enormous force in Indian song stylings and a powerful production schema. The drones, the sitar lines that follow Harrison’s voice, and the vast centuries of composition undergirding the backing track make this one of the most distinctive major songs of the 1960s. Two quibbles: Leaving aside the line that includes the title words, the lyrics are quite lame. And whether it belongs on Sgt. Pepper’s — supposed to be a suite of songs by the psychedelically uniformed and happily oompah-ing Lonely Hearts Club Band — is another question. Harrison was a little checked-out in ’67; could the Pepper sessions have produced an appropriately meta way to handle “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”?
51. “There’s a Place,” Please Please Me (1963): “There’s a Place” has long been a critic’s pet — the great early Beatles song that was never played on the radio. It’s not as explosive as “Please Please Me,” but there’s a ringing dissonance in the harmonies that doesn’t let you go. The subject, too, is adult for the time: “There’s a place / I can go … / It’s in my mind …” It’s a remarkable song for 1963. The bridge has a character, and the ending fanfare works as well.
50. “Julia,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): This song is lyrically one of the most unusual Lennon compositions, a tone poem of soft images. The connection to his mother is dreamy and tangential, but there is no doubt that this tribute to her is one of his best songs. With his father entirely absent and his mother otherwise occupied, Lennon grew up relatively comfortably at his aunt Mimi’s, but with both parents gone, he obviously had some issues to work out, and they manifested themselves in fairly pointless antisocial behavior. (Lennon couldn’t even survive in art school.) By the time Lennon was in the Quarrymen, he’d found in his mother something like a friend; she saw the band once, just weeks before she accidentally walked in front of an oncoming car. It seems to have been the worst moment in Lennon’s life, setting his simmering anger to boil and driving away the support even from his band, which was the only thing standing between him and the unattractive life of a talented but unemployable malcontent. This song is a key early step in the very public therapy he embarked on, culminating in the simple and wrenching “My Mummy’s Dead” on the still-searing Plastic Ono Band LP.
49. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” single (1964):
Hard to remember today that, with a concern for the consumer that has never been evinced Stateside, British record companies thought it was cheesy to put singles on albums — forcing consumers in effect to pay for the same song twice. This song, the Beatles’ fifth single, which is about fucking and not hand-holding, has a glorious guitar opening, and all sorts of contrapuntal guitar things going on before the drums start rolling and you get to the point of the song, which is to hear Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison screaming in unison the words I want to hold your hand! When, onstage, they hit the high note and shook their heads together, it was clear they’d stumbled upon just about the only song in history that could follow “She Loves You.” Indeed, the two songs spent two weeks holding down the top two spots on the U.K. charts before “Hand” went to no. 1 and stayed there for five more weeks. In America, it would be no. 1 for seven weeks, the first of the Beatles’ 31 top-ten hits and 65 weeks at no. 1 in the next seven years. In other words, the Beatles occupied the no. 1 spot on the Billboard charts 20 percent of the time during their career.
48. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise),” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): Recorded in the studio live, with just an overdubbed piano. The attack is just this side of lethal, and produces the one song on the album that makes the album’s concept come truly alive. Critics sometimes play the game of “What concert would you have liked to see?” I think watching the four of them lay this down might be mine.
47. “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968) This is a funny song from start to finish, a Chuck Berry–Beach Boys mashup with a Cold War chaser. I suppose you could make the argument that, with quintessential McCartney cluelessness, it’s a tiny bit jokey on the subject of totalitarianism, but there you go. On this one, based on sheer velocity, good humor, and talent, he gets a pass. The recording of “The White Album” and Let It Be took place against the backdrop of the bitterest of the band’s disputes. McCartney wanted wife Linda’s dad, Lee Eastman, a high-toned Manhattan copyright and music-publishing lawyer, to help with the group’s affairs; Lennon, egged on by Ono and suspicious of McCartney, wanted to work with Allen Klein, a tough, almost sociopathic New York lawyer and manager. George and Ringo sided with John, and the rift was never healed. The record shows that McCartney was almost certainly right. Klein, while good at getting money for the Beatles out of its label, was a crook; the ongoing impasse meant that Eastman’s plan to have the four buy back their music publishing and the late Brian Epstein’s management company could never be executed. The debacle almost certainly cost the band hundreds of millions of dollars over the ensuing decades.
46. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” Help! (1965): The Help! soundtrack blew the Beatles’ creativity out in myriad directions. Here, Lennon, playing a bit with Dylanesque vocal stylings, produces another passionate pop song about self-doubt. At this point it was clear the pair’s aesthetics were veering off from each other. Lennon becomes disclosive, where McCartney is emotionally insular, and ragged, where McCartney tends to wrap everything up with a bow. (Though not always: See “For No One.”) You could see them, from this point not so much writing songs together as putting songs together, often with a bridge by one or the other that in various ways contradicts or questions the main part of the song. The development began to create enormous artistic tension in the band, which would lead to its greatest works. Notice how the song, innovatively, ends with a flute solo.
45. “The Long and Winding Road,” Let It Be (1970): Another intensely pleasurable emotional rock ballad from Paul McCartney. One of the difficulties McCartney had was that, when he tried not to write straight whimsy (certainly a laudable endeavor) he got himself all tied up in poettification. By any standard, “The wild and windy night / That the rain washed away / Has left a pool of tears / Crying for the day” is an appalling construction. And yet, as sung by McCartney here (or with him aiming his moon-cow eyes into the camera in the Let It Be film), any cynicism you might have gets washed away with that wild and windy night. As with “Let It Be,” the tsunami of strings smeared over it by Phil Spector may be a bit much aesthetically, but the song is sturdy enough to withstand it.
44. “Come Together,” Abbey Road (1969): The quintessential Lennon work in the post–”Day in the Life” transitional period that took him into the harsher, organic world of “Yer Blues” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” and then into “Instant Karma” and “Cold Turkey” as a solo artist. This is everything a rock recording should be. A killer hook, memorable even by Beatles standards; an innovative unique world of sounds, set off unto itself; even nonsense lyrics that paradoxically make sense. Starting with the Chuck Berry cop in the first lines, it’s the ultimate statement of strutting one’s stuff in a hippie demimonde, of which Lennon was once and future king. Fun fact: “Come Together,” a run-of-the-mill no. 1 for the band in ’69, is the Beatles track that remains the band’s most perennially popular, a rock radio behemoth that is played more often even than “Stairway to Heaven.”
43. “Twist and Shout,” Please Please Me (1963):
This was recorded late in the evening of the Beatles’ first recording session. The band squeezed in one last song, and John Lennon stepped up to scream his lungs out and lock down a whirlwind on the first take. It’s all part of our world now; at the time, though, the raspiness of his delivery on lines like “You know you twist, little girl” heralded something new. The way their harmonies came together at the song’s climax on this Isley Brothers classic was perhaps the most iconic moment of their live career.
42. “In My Life,” Rubber Soul (1965): This is Lennon’s greatest plain pop ballad, the one that can stand beside McCartney’s best. (In fact, McCartney says he contributed a lot to it.) The tiny-sounding intro gains enormous poignancy through the song, and in the end the complex point the singer is making in what isn’t necessarily a romantic song is a landmark in the development of the Beatles’ art. “In My Life” reminds us that perhaps the biggest tragedy of the Beatles’ career is the destroyed friendships, the dissolution of the bond among four fast mates who, despite the (passing) missteps that any armchair critic can point out, carried themselves through a maelstrom with a pretty consistent grace. It turned out that nothing could withstand the force of the Beatles, not even the Beatles themselves. That’s not a small thing: Even the titanic talents of Paul McCartney, as big a star as there was in the 1970s, never produced wrote another “Hey Jude,” “Yesterday,” or “Let It Be.” As a consequence, the two verses here — the lifelong wisdom of a 25-year-old —reverberate through the rest of the Beatles’ lives, and through my life, and perhaps yours.
41. “A Hard Day’s Night,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): As irresistible a song as the 1960s saw. The title came from Ringo, who delighted the band with his nonce catchphrases. (Another was “tomorrow never knows.”) The song is as explosive as “Please Please Me,” or “She Loves You,” but note how the harmonies are a bit darker, and there’s more texture and control in both the instrumentation and the singing. (The two rhythms guitars are whatever the aural equivalent of mesmerizing is.) The opening chord, incidentally, was the handiwork of George Harrison. Lennon and McCartney also manage to pull off making what could be a whiny song sound joyous and game. Upped ten notches for being written on demand, overnight, when the producers of the film decided they needed a raucous title song. It was recorded a few days later.
40. “Paperback Writer,” single (1966): At this point, innovation bled into every song the band recorded. The opening a cappella section; the new Beatles guitar riff, twisted and curled and unchanging; the bass booming like an Underground train rumbling below. McCartney’s supple voice is doing new things; engineer Geoff Emerick put a large loudspeaker cabinet in front of McCartney’s bass amp to act as a microphone to distort the sounds. The song pauses now and again, only to rev up again, all on the same unchanging chord. As for the lyrics, McCartney was approaching his golden era. I’m not sure I understand what exactly he’s trying to satirize here, if satire is what’s going on, but it has a somewhat regular character and an internal coherence, so there’s that.
39. “Yesterday,” Help! (1965): Rock’s perfect ballad, written and recorded by Paul on his own, and given texture by him and George Martin via a quick string arrangement. It’s not a profound song, though I suppose one can project a mystery into why the woman wouldn’t say why she was leaving, and what it was the singer said that was “wrong.” Internal politics prevented the song from being released as a single in Britain, a fact Paul McCartney probably has not forgotten; it was thrown onto side two of Help! In the U.S., it spent four weeks at no. 1, and, of course, became the pop standard of its time.
38. “Drive My Car,” Rubber Soul (1965): Paul McCartney has scores of them: Pops songs that are smart, ridiculously catchy, and varied in their instrumentation, tone, arrangements, melodies, and vocal performance. But Lennon helped him get the lyrics right. The chorus was originally “Baby you can buy me golden rings”(!).
37. “I’ll Cry Instead,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): Mid-range Lennon, again in confessional mode. Upped 30 places for the lines, “But I’ll be back again someday / And when I do you’d better hide all the girls.”
36. “Help!,” Help! (1965): This was one of Lennon’s very first baldly personal songs. It is ineffably sung and constructed, with one of Starr’s most supportive, and most exciting, drum tracks. It’s so difficult, of course, to feel sorry for someone who had exactly one capability in life and happened to be born at virtually the exact second he could realize it to the fullest. But Lennon never really had a mother or a father. He had anger issues, and was basically a full-time drunk by the time he was 20 — which was right about the time he got his girlfriend pregnant and, in accordance with the strictures of the time, married her, literally months before he became an international superstar. Harrison had issues in the Beatles, but it’s apparent that no one suffered its psyche-churching insanity more than Lennon. Why did he write the song “Help!”? “I was fat and depressed,” he said in his long Playboy interview. To him we owe the era of the confessional pop poet, with all its discontents. The tragedy for him was that it also took him into excessive acid and, later, heroin use.
35. “I Am the Walrus,” Magical Mystery Tour (1967): Aside from “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” Lennon’s most unmoored moment of pop psychedelia. You either buy into this or you don’t. Just as McCartney sometimes crafted careful lyrics about nothing, Lennon spewed clever nonsense about nothing as well. In large part, he confined the undiluted version of this (manic, and again quite clever) wordplay to his books (In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works). Here, your mileage may vary. On a good day, the stream of verbiage, coming at firehose strength, married to the ominous backing and whipped out in a lacerating vocal, becomes very convincing. There are stories this song wasn’t liked by the other Beatles or producer Martin; but the undergirding chords are heavy indeed. I was very pleased to read in Bob Spitz’s The Beatles that the “eggman” reference came from an orgy Lennon attended with Eric Burdon of the Animals; eggs were one of Burdon’s gay orgy accoutrements, Spitz reports. (That’s gay in the old-fashioned sense of the word; Burdon tells a slightly different tale in his own autobiography.) Lennon’s self-identification as “the Walrus” meant something, even if he was just channeling his subconscious, and even if he was a little hazy with his Lewis Carroll. Just a few months later, on “The White Album,” he’d assert, “The Walrus was Paul.” Later still, he’d insist that that had been just a sop to McCartney, who’d been the adult in the room since the death of Brian Epstein. And later still, of course, on Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s first commercial solo album and a masterpiece of raw anguish, he would reclaim the title, in what might be the most heartbreakingly sung lines in his oeuvre.
34. “For No One,” Revolver (1966): McCartney’s later laziness rankles. When he sat down and tried, as here, he was capable of highly observant pop songs that raised the bar — I want to say every year, but since the Beatles were moving at some celebrity warp speed, releasing two albums a year with an accompanying flurry of singles, I have to say seemingly every few weeks. The chorus, beginning with the line “And in her eyes you see nothing,” is a bleak encapsulation of love disappeared; he then follows it with “no sign of love behind the tears / cried for no one” — in which the singer essentially erases himself from existence. Not bad for a schlockmiester. And notice how McCartney’s simple piano work sets you up for the clavichord break.
33. “And Your Bird Can Sing,” Revolver (1966): Lennon’s songs have now become explicitly personal; his vocals and the highly exercised guitar line make it clear that there are corporeal issues on the table, though it’s not clear exactly what they are. The guitars — McCartney and Harrison playing together — are a terrific example of the advanced musicality the band was turning out.
32. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): This is a great pure rock song, as sturdy and definitive a workout in that genre as any other the Beatles recorded. By 1968, you could feel that Harrison’s abilities were evolving even as Lennon and McCartney’s were being confounded. The lyrics are mushy; it’s a George Harrison song, after all. But the song’s drama is apparent in the first measures; the clarity of the arrangement and the ornamentation hit highly emotional notes out of organic textures, not technological ones. Harrison’s keening organ provides a shuddery backdrop for the guitar solo, by one Eric Clapton, recorded with a naked immediacy, and one of Clapton’s best.
31. “Blackbird,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Again, McCartney’s casual virtuosity on display. One of rock’s most formidable bassists and melodic pianists delivers a timeless guitar progression, and marries it contrapuntally to one of his most filigreed melodies. The recording, in its restraint and presence, ranks with “Dear Prudence” as the best of “The White Album.” At some point, it became a McCartney talking point that this song is about the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t recall this being mentioned in the decades after “The White Album” was released. If someone has a contemporaneous TV interview in which McCartney explains the civil-rights connection to this song, I’ll take it back, but I think it’s bullshit. And if it is about the movement, it’s a poorer song. Why does the movement have “broken wings”? Why are they flying into the night? Seen through this lens, the song loses its stark beauty and becomes condescending, almost insufferably so.
30. “Day Tripper,” single (1965): The B side of “We Can Work It Out.” Another scorching riff married to a good-humored assortment of one-liners and other nonsense. By this time, the band’s early postures of being relationship arbitrators (“You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”) had matured into songs like this; entire relationship worlds created around this or that character, all drawn with a knowing authority. (“She was a daytripper!”). I love how the thing stops every once in a while, as if to digest the riff, or perhaps just draw breath; then the backing track slams into place, shaking its head at its own invention. Note the doubled vocals, and the novel break out of the guitar solo. In a word: killer.
22-29. “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” “The End,” Abbey Road (1969): At first it was unclear what, exactly, the Abbey Road medley is supposed to be. Some songs meld into one another; between others there is a distinct pause or a sharp cut. Perhaps “Because” belongs, perhaps it doesn’t. Whatever. As a whole, it is a lasting achievement, a pop fun house spilling out drama, melodies, and beauty. In some distant way, McCartney seems to be looking for some sort of catharsis for the frustrations of the management chaos the group had gotten itself into. (That’s all the stuff about money and negotiations and the limousine.) There’s some frivolousness, sure, but the thing starts building momentum, the melodies keep coming, and today, virtually all of the lyrics in the last three parts still haunt us — which is to say that, together, they build and create an appropriate envoi for this remarkable band. Among the many, many things that allow Paul McCartney to sleep well at night is that, one way or another, he always did his job.
21. “I Saw Her Standing There,” Please Please Me (1963):
Aside from the concussive classics “Please Please Me” and “She Loves You,” there are few songs in the early Beatles canon that provide such intense enjoyment. Performing this song live, back in the day, Starr would lean into the drums with a grinning intensity. The chorus is as powerful as those in any of its early-blockbuster-single compatriots; the difference is the laconic verses, which set listeners up for a wild ride. The bridge may be the most joyous in the band’s oeuvre. One of the great ‘70s bootlegs was a yellow vinyl LP featuring an appearance Lennon made with Elton John at Madison Square Garden. The pair sang “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” of course, but then Lennon ripped into this unexpected gem — “a song by an old estranged fiancé of mine, called Paul.”
20. “Hey Jude,” single (1968): You want to say it’s McCartney’s ultimate pop moment, but in all honesty there were several. With Lennon’s behavior erratic, McCartney tried to step up, but in this distressing environment his diplomatic skills sometimes failed him. Starr walked out of “The White Album” sessions, Harrison Get Back. This was just another single for the label, tossed off between Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album. McCartney himself saw its anthemic potential; Lennon, while resenting McCartney’s direction in the studio, appreciated the obvious reference to his son Julian and even thought it was directed at himself. Running for seven minutes, it became the group’s biggest hit ever, and remained at no. 1 for nine weeks. (Because of McCartney, there were fewer No. 1 songs in 1968 than in any other year in the era.) Today it’s a big arena sing-along for Paul. (“Okay, now the left side … And now the right side … And now the men …. And now the girls …”)
19. “Lovely Rita,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): Lacking in import, surely, but this could be the most perfect song Paul McCartney ever wrote. Every line is focused, half are funny, and most of these actually advance the quirky tale unfolding. (“Got the bill / And Rita paid it.”) The singing, deadpan and without a hint of impishness, is a joy; both the intro and the coda are a lively bit of musical ephemera. McCartney’s bass line is not only a work of art; note how it transforms what would otherwise be a slightly repetitious backing track. As is entirely not the case with so many Beatles songs, the world would probably not be a different place if McCartney hadn’t written this particular track. But I’m not sure I’d like to live in it.
18. “Ticket to Ride,” Help! (1965): A very heavy record, as Lennon later allowed. The clangorous overture contains multitudes. The halting but unstoppable attack, with Ringo serving as MVP, is the perfect fanfare for the “awww” that leads into the title words. Note also the grinding, regretful coda. Another sui generis single that outpaced the previous sui generis single and pointed the way to ever more maturity and depth.
17. “Nowhere Man,” Rubber Soul (1965): The Love Song of J. Alfred Beatle, a man living a life of high-toned complacency in a swanky suburb of London in a house with more than 20 rooms, married to a woman he hadn’t wanted to marry in the first place, and knowing he really doesn’t have anything to complain about. Harmonies aren’t bad, and the sound — crisp and heavy, rumbling with meaning — is among the Beatles’ best.
16. “Here Comes the Sun,” Abbey Road (1969): George Harrison wrote this hanging out at Eric Clapton’s estate. It’s an indestructible song. The lyrics don’t match McCartney’s sophistication, much less Lennon’s, but that chiming guitar line has reverberated for almost 50 years, and still heralds wonder. Harrison’s voice, as I’ve mentioned, is thin; but here he managed to pitch it perfectly and delicately to match the subject. The song also sports some of the last bits of sophisticated Beatles ornamentation: a dramatic synthesizer part, sure, but also a wheezing pipe organ and a Leslie speaker for the guitar. (That’s a weird setup with a revolving speaker that is then recorded.) The result is one of just three Harrison songs that can stand with the best of Lennon and McCartney’s (extremely extraordinary) work.
15. “Let It Be,” Let It Be (1970): This is a beautiful song. As I mentioned, McCartney lost his mother in his teens. Unlike Lennon, McCartney didn’t air his emotional laundry in public. That to me makes the unexpected appearance of Mother Mary quite moving. You can quibble with her advice; it is conveniently McCartneyesque. But this is the guy who’d already written “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude,” here delivering a rock ballad that in its melodic grandeur, personal meaning, and charged vocal performance transcends all of them. We’re supposed to like the de-Spectorized Naked version, but the original, while certainly not subtle, does what it’s supposed to.
14. “Money (That’s What I Want),” With the Beatles (1963): The low-key intro doesn’t prepare you for what you are about to hear: Arguably the definitive John Lennon performance as a rock-and-roll shouter. McCartney’s voice was of course more supple and protean; it is an unearthly instrument. Lennon’s was of the earth itself, and things below, never more evident than in his singing here. An insane recording.
13. “Something,” Abbey Road (1969): After ten years with Lennon and McCartney, Harrison finally delivered a song to rank with the best of theirs. While Harrison caused his own trouble with 1970’s “My Sweet Lord,” which he consciously pattered on the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” the coincidence here of the first line being the same as the title of a much different James Taylor song is beside the point. Beside the slow burn of a melody and percolating arrangement, the song is an exercise in dynamics much more subtle and fulfilling than McCartney’s sledgehammers. And this weak singer delivers his strongest vocal performance to match. The chorus is a blockbuster, and so is the guitar solo, deeply felt and a yearning journey in its own right. After the Beatles, Harrison’s solo career started with a bang: the overly long, overproduced, but intermittently impressive three-record set All Things Must Pass, and the wonderful The Concert for Bangladesh. Then came a steadily deflating solo career and a famous embarrassment of a solo tour. He died at the end of 2001, of cancer.
12. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolver (1966): This may be the most innovative and creative piece of recording during the entire decade of the 1960s, which is saying something. The sounds here — the screeching birds, the thunderous drum — were all created organically, and put down on loops until the tape was saturated. They were all manipulated in one way or another, but uniformly used as rhythmic or melodic elements. Here’s what I mean: In “Revolution 9” the taped bits are all there, standing discretely and stitched together. Here, they are musical parts of the song. A minute in, the birds take a fucking solo. The suitably cosmic Lennon vocals tie it all together. The result is mind-blowing, but tasteful; extravagant, but economical; hypnotic, but still rock. And all done in 2:59.
11. “She Said, She Said,” Revolver (1966): The coursing guitar work on this shows how expansive Lennon’s vision of rock was, far more questioning and quirky than McCartney’s. The guitar is postmodern, a Möbius strip of a riff: halting, determined, running back on itself and striking out again, taking us with it as it finds its way. It’s an appropriate guide for a song about just one moment on the road to enlightenment: The shuddering opening line “I know what it’s like to be dead” was a remark Peter Fonda made to Lennon at an acid party. Upped five notches for the great title.
10. “Rain,” single (1966): A bruising masterpiece, mostly from Lennon, right on the heels of “Nowhere Man.” Looking for ever deeper sounds, the band hit on the trick of recording at a faster speed and then slowing the playback; that gives this song its drawling, almost sepulchral feel, punctuated by McCartney’s primordial bubbling bass lines. Other electronic foofaraw was added, too, as you can hear. At this point, every song the Beatles released was a new chapter in an ongoing textbook on how to record rock and roll. With all respect to Brian Wilson, whose Pet Sounds came out the same year as Revolver, the sessions for which “Rain” emerged from, there’s really no comparison between the two, though of course Wilson’s advances spurred McCartney’s ambitions. This single, with “Paperback Writer” on the A, was an unsurpassed sound masterpiece, and the band’s unsurpassed two-sided single — until they surpassed it the next year. Historians say the last seconds sport the first prominent use of a backward track in pop recording. This song, like all the band’s best singles from this era — from “Ticket to Ride” to “Day Tripper,” from “Strawberry Fields” to “Lady Madonna” — benefits from being played from real speakers (not headphones) at high volume.
9. “Eleanor Rigby,” Revolver (1966)
It’s hard to hear today after 50 years of radio airplay, but this is a stellar and nuanced piece of work that avoids sentimentality and hits hard. From a germ of an original line — “Picks up the rice where a wedding has been” — McCartney envisioned a church with a lot of loneliness around it, and followed some of the implications out to their logical conclusion. This would be a much better song without the unsubtle chorus — “Ahhh, look at all the lonely people” — but let’s lay off McCartney for a moment and note the small touches here, like how the line “No one was saved” comes plainly from the mind of Father MacKenzie. The strings are ferocious.
8. “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” Rubber Soul (1965): The first use of a sitar in a Beatles record. With Rubber Soul, Lennon’s writing took another insane step forward; helped in some part by LSD and the massive amount of pot he was smoking, he shied away from simple love plaints and into higher consciousness. The abstract, allusive, possibly symbolist story here — apparently about an unobtainable woman who eludes his advances, in response to which he burns down her house — rivals Dylan, particularly in the way that it is unquestionably a personal tale with an ambiguous ending. He was just trying to rub her soul.
7. “Here, There and Everywhere,” Revolver (1966): I like this best of all of McCartney’s ballads; while obviously framed, even confined, by the title words, it is a surprisingly complex work, as when McCartney takes the “everywhere” part into the middle eight. You tend to focus on McCartney’s double-tracked vocals and the ooh-ing harmonies behind it. But the real story is the complex interplay between McCartney’s voice, his exquisite bass lines, and Harrison’s nice lead guitar work.
6. “Dear Prudence,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Another almost-perfect rock song. This lacks, barely, the apocalypse of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but it’s in the realm; even Lennon’s spare original demo track crackles with drama. John’s silky space voice could get old, but its power is unique here. His guitar, from that ghostly insistence at the song’s beginning, to the rockist slams midway through, to the fanfare at the end, outclasses virtually anything else at the time, not to mention everything else on “The White Album.” The subject of the song is Prudence Farrow, who’d gone to see the Maharishi with the Beatles, her sister Mia, and various other celebrities, and found herself taking it very seriously indeed.
5. “Please Please Me,” Please Please Me (1963)
This apocalyptic plea for mutual oral gratification is set to an appropriately orgiastic arrangement; so strained with desire is the singer that he can’t even sing the words correctly. Played by the band on Britain’s Thank Your Lucky Stars in January 1963, it blew away the memories of the wan “Love Me Do” and set Beatlemania in motion. For this reason it could be argued that “Please Please Me” is one of the most important pieces of pop art of the 20th century, but frankly, had it not existed, “She Loves You” would have accomplished the same result a few weeks later. One of the interesting things about the group’s best early recordings is how spacious they feel, but also how dense. The song’s sound is so heavy with energy you can’t imagine anything else being added; its center of gravity is so low it can bowl you over.
4. “She Loves You,” single (1963)
As the story is told in Bob Spitz’s The Beatles, Murray the K, the enormously influential NYC disc jockey, had been playing “She Loves You” for weeks with no big reaction. Once the four Beatles set foot on American soil, the madness began, and suddenly the drum temblor that heralds this epochal recording made sense. “She Loves You” is a paroxysm of sound and emotion. I’m not even sure why it works, given the singer’s detached relationship to the events in question. He’s just a guy delivering news to a friend, and it’s not really clear why he’s quite so excited about this development. There are hints of a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-style mystery here, or maybe just a species of transference. In the U.S., incidentally, a determinedly buffoonish series of steps by EMI’s U.S. arm, Capitol Records, led to the Beatles’ work being released on a variety of labels Stateside, all of them licensed, you might say, for a song. “She Loves You,” for example, came out here on an unknown label called Swan. And when, in April 1964, the Beatles achieved the unthinkable — holding down the top five spots on the U.S pop charts — no fewer than four different labels had a piece of the pie. All that aside, the song is lethal, another Beatles track crammed full of sound and drama, from Harrison’s sly guitar fills to more of those lubricious harmonies. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Upped three notches for the repressed homoerotic undertones.
3. “Penny Lane,” single (1967):
Paul McCartney grokked Lennon’s Strawberry Fields as a Liverpool reference, and created his own nostalgic inner travelogue back in time to another hometown locale, Penny Lane. Lennon went into his subconscious; McCartney stayed out, and looked around him, attentively, focusing his whimsy for once and capturing moment after moment of surreal small-town life. McCartney had a lot of nice melodies, of course. The one in the chorus here has meaning, rising with his thoughts and reveries, and then bouncing (“meanwhile back —”) down to reality, such as it is or was. His bass line is set contrapuntally against the chant of the verses, jaunty and yet calm; the other flecks of sound — those wordless “aaahs,” the piano and organ rising and dropping out, the clang of the drum, the extraordinary taste with which the brass is deployed and then amped up to ineffable levels, culminating in the mother of all piccolo trumpet solos — create a sensory overload. It’s the one pop single you can see and hear, and smell and taste and feel too. After the Beatles, McCartney ducked into an iconoclastic solo career that ultimately grew into a genial ’70s superduperstardom; with guidance from Lee Eastman, he became as rich as you can imagine. After a quiet ’80s, he went back on the road, where he’s been intermittently available ever since. He even releases the occasional record, which no one ever listens to.
2. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” single (1967):
Unlike the languid psychedelia in, say, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” John Lennon’s words here are surely poetry, if poetry is something in which words take on deeply referential and kaleidoscopic meanings. Strawberry Fields was an orphanage in Liverpool; the reference is not so much to the motherless children — though that certainly reverberates through the song — as to its garden, which Lennon frequented. The accompanying statement of loneliness, isolation, confusion, and struggling artistic awareness (“No one I think is in my tree”) took confessional rock to new levels. This was a lulling acoustic number Lennon worked on for weeks while filming a movie called How I Won the War. Back home, he and producer George Martin worked for days on the song, with Lennon focused on finding a grandeur, and otherworldliness, hidden in his original presentation. His voice was slowed down, horns were added, backward bits of sound marked the track. Finally, liking the beginning of one take and the end of a second, he had the engineer tie the two together — which sounds easy, but variations in the speed and pitch of the two takes made it anything but. The result stands assuredly apart from humanity, but somehow of it as well, and remains a thunderclap of rock creativity. Lennon announced his departure from the band at a meeting in 1970; they agreed to keep it quiet, until Paul, pissed off about ongoing management disputes, put out a press release announcing that he’d left the group to record his first solo album … which, somewhat spitefully, he released a few weeks after Let It Be. You can’t take sides; it’s a fight among family, with resentments going back a lifetime. Lennon’s solo career ran hot and cold, and sometimes ridiculously so. After some hiccups — like Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend” of some 18 months carousing in L.A. — he settled down with Ono into something like domestic tranquility in vast apartments at Manhattan’s Dakota, where, among other things, they raised their son, Sean. Lennon and Ono reemerged at the end of 1980 with a new album, Double Fantasy, with a surprisingly melodic suite of new songs by Lennon. A week later he was shot by a deranged fan.
1. “A Day in the Life,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
You can be a Lennon partisan or a McCartney fan, but the plain truth is that when, as here, they worked together to support each other’s talent, something transformative occurred. While this is another one of the songs for which Lennon took inspiration from the public press, here he projects meaning onto it, rather than just receiving banality. While it is unquestionably Lennon’s song, the record shows the pair wrote the bulk of it together, while of course the off-kilter middle section was a fragment McCartney was working on separately. It’s said he also provided the “I’d love to turn you on” part, and the idea to have the orchestra build to its crescendos. But this is, in the end, a John Lennon song. There is probably no vocal track more feeling in all of rock, which it needed to be to make his poetry in this song plain: Holes are souls, which often have their own holes, and what are we all but holes in the universe, each with our own holes that allow us to live and eventually kill us? That’s what the pair wanted to turn us on to. For the end, some 40 orchestra members ran up their scales for 24 bars, and did it five times. Those five tracks were combined, making for a momentous sound. There is time for a breath, and then a final chord on an army of pianos. That sound goes on for a minute. The rest is silence.