I can’t actually fully articulate how much this band has meant to me through the years, but since I first discovered their aural charms well over a decade ago they have become musical, literary, fashion, and lifestyle icons for me. Nearly everything I’ve done in any artistic capacity has been informed by their generation-spanning musical range and unprecedented mix of whimsy, psychedelia, lyricism, and good ole fashioned fun. They are the first, the best, and the last, and I am overjoyed that they have found a way to bring their music to a whole new generation of fans.
I realize Top 5 lists are a bit cliched so I wanted to steer away from something that would be too easy for me to do (i.e. top 5 Beatles albums, top 5 Beatles moments, best 5 members, those sorts of things) and instead go for something that would make me sweat a little in the making. So, I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s Weekly Top Five to the five “best” Beatles songs. Considering The Beatles recorded and released well over a 300 songs during their 8 years as recording artists I figured this would be sufficiently difficult, and controversial. Since The Beatles wrote very very very few bad songs I’ve decided to focus less on how good the song is and more how important it is/was to pop music and/or their career, and how clever it was in regards to the craft of songwriting. This is by no means meant to be a definitive list so let me know how you feel about my picks. Trust me, I won’t be offended if you disagree. the Beatles are like a Rorschach test, reasonable minds can very much disagree.
So, here goes:
5. “Paperback Writer”
Lennon/McCartney Single; released 10 June, 1966 A-Side; “Rain” B-Side
Like “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” a year later, the one-two punch of “Paperback Writer/Rain” heralded a drastic change a’comin in the Fab Four’s sound. In the psych-pop firestorm that was “Revolver” many would forget that it was actually the fuzzed-out guitars and Beach Boys-on-acid harmonies of “Paperback Writer” that got the inferno started that heady summer of 1966 when The Beatles officially came out of the drug closet and waved the banner of psychadelia high and proud. Featuring a fuzz-guitar sound that bands have been trying their damndedest to replicate for 40 years, and a lyric that seems at once throw-away and deeply poignant, “Paperback Writer” is a classic Beatles track from the first multi-tracked syllable.
The 10th #1 single in a row for The Beatles, “Paperback Writer” was the current hit as the boys criss-crossed the globe on their last world tour before calling it quits and focusing exclusively on their studio output. So, the song not only exists as a sort of John the Baptist to “Revolver’s” Jesus but it also signals the end of an era of Beatles music which could be dutifully replicated on stage by just the four of them (their next single, and the last before the earth-shattering “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever”, was “Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby” whose songs’ orchestrations are so complex that there is no way either song could ever have been satisfactorily recreated on stage without lots of extra musicians).
Aside from it’s unique position in history, this song was also ground-breaking in it’s construction. It’s a rocker whose backbeat is one of the most propulsive in all of Ringo Starr’s illustrious repetoire, belying the influence of heavier acts like The Who and Jimi Hendrix who were beginning to emerge in the underground London rock scene (but who were relative unknowns in the US) and were by all accounts bending the ear of Rock royalty like The Beatles and The Stones. It features an all-vocal breakdown that is at once classic early-Beatles and also strangely, psychadelically unsettling, upbeat and subtley sad. The bass was so thumping and complex that engineers at the time thought that it would make the needle skip when played too loud, so in the original mix they boosted the mid’s to mask the urgency of the low’s.
But above-all “Paperback Writer” is downright catchy. I defy anyone to listen to those first few seconds and not have “Paaaaperbaack Wriiiiter!” stuck in your head all day. It’s pure psych-pop genius, and that is why it is the 5th best song The Beatles ever recorded.
Oh, and I also recorded a pretty bitchin’ version of it myself during my Noble Three days.
4. “All You Need is Love”
Lennon/McCartney Single; original telecast 25 June, 1967 Secondary release on the album “Magical Mystery Tour” 27 November, 1967 A-Side; “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” B-Side
Arguably no Beatles song has quite captured the idyllic zeitgeist of the 1960s quite like “All You is Love”. Released in mid-1967, the song was written by John Lennon as The Beatles contribution to a live global telecast that brought together 18 different countries in one celebratory, and historic, satellite feed. Recorded and broadcast completely live the song would be worthy of a spot on this list for any number or compelling reasons: the historic occasion of its creation, the iconic opening*, the classic fade-out which features Paul singing a brief snippet of the earlier Beatles hit “She Loves You”. But what really sets this song apart from the rest of The Beatles’ stellar catalog is the optimism and singularity of its message.
In multiple interviews through the years Paul McCartney has said that “All You Need is Love” is his favorite Beatles song because it perfectly encapsulates what he feels is the over-all message of the band: that Love is the only thing on Earth which is powerful enough to defeat all manner of evils. Though on the surface “All You Need is Love” appears rather banal, it’s sing-song melody and backing vocals and simplicity of lyric belies a remarkable depth of message. Lines like “There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known / nothing you can see that isn’t shown / there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be / it’s easy” exude the sort of anything-is-possible attitude that characterized the Summer of Love and yet are universal enough** that generations of music listeners have been able to hang whatever meaning they want on them. It is the universality of the message, which remains as true today as it was 40 years ago, which has made this song one of the most beloved pop songs of all time despite the relative pickling of attitudes through the years.
Furthermore, “All You Need is Love” is a textbook example of 3 minutes of pure pop genius. Nearly every moment of the song is iconic. From the aforementioned intro and outro to the doo-wop backing vocals; from the jaunty, jazz-age horn section to the pitch-perfect lyricism of George Harrison’s guitar solo, “All You Need is Love” is a song that seems both to exist in a specific time and yet outside of time entirely***, existing both as an idyllic and potent symbol of the Love Generation and a symbol of optimism and stubborn idealism in the face of a steadily growing tide of cynicism.
There is more than enough distrust and hate in the world and as much for that reason as any of the previously mentioned, “All You Need is Love” is my pick for 4th best Beatles song.
*Lifted from the French National Anthem.
**and contain a certain Lennon-ish underlying darkness in my estimation. I mean, “No one you can save that can’t be saved”? That’s a classic Lennon kiss off if I’ve ever heard one. ***As all great songs do.
3. “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever”
Lennon/McCartney Single; released 17 February, 1967 Secondary release on album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” 1 June, 1967 Double A-Side
Either one of these songs would deserve a spot on this list on their own but when The Beatles decided to release them as a Double A-Side single in February of 1967 the two songs were inextricably linked in the minds of Beatlephiles across the globe. The choice to release them as co-headliners though is not as bizarre as it first appears since the two songs are almost like different sides of one coin. The subject matters for both were taken from very real places in John and Paul’s native Liverpool (the Strawberry Field Salvation Army orphanage and the commercial district Penny Lane) but in both cases the songwriters used these iconic places from their youths as springboards for their new-found drug-fueled surreal explorations.
Arguably the most celebrated of the two, John Lennon’s contribution “Strawberry Fields Forever” was actually the least commercially successful Beatles single up to that point, only reaching #8 on the US singles chart*. But what it lacked in initial commercial support it more than made up for in critical success.
From the moment of its release “Strawberry Fields Forever” was a polarizing song, instantly alienating much of The Beatles younger fan base with it’s oblique, Post-Modern lyrics**, trippy, slow-mo vocalization, and diffracted orchestration, while grabbing the older, college crowd with exactly the same qualities. The Beatles had been hovering on the fringes of drug-culture cool since “Rubber Soul” but it was this song that really blew the doors wide open and revealed The Beatles as the head of the new guard of pop musician.
“Strawberry Field Forever” is the penultimate psychedelic pop song and it immediately became the de facto template for all psychedelia that followed. Created from the combining of two disparate recordings, which George Martin combined by speeding one up and slowing down the other, “Strawberry Fields Forever” displays brilliantly the sort of Alice-in-Wonderland diffraction that would become a hallmark of 1960s psychedelia. Seemingly incongruent elements float in and out of the song in dream-like repose, and yet the over-all feel is not necessarily calming, rather there is a bit at the edges that is at once refreshing and discomforting. This bite gets free rein in the last few seconds of the song when the fade out morphs into a dissonant cacophony that smashes the dreaminess into a million bits.
The supposed sugar that makes the psychedelic medicine of “Strawberry Fields” go down is “Penny Lane”, a jaunty, infinitely infectious tune which, due in large part to it’s catchiness, is often denigrated unfairly as the more disposable of the two songs****. This is a common complaint with Paul McCartney-penned songs, that he was too interested in melody than creating interesting soundscapes or dealing with difficult subject matter, but in the case of “Penny Lane” this assessment would be a bit shortsighted. There is far more going on here than meets the eye.
For one, the orchestration of the song shows McCartney’s increased interest in creating songs that could not necessarily be reproduced on stage — an interest that would yield impressive results six months later on “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” but was only getting tested here. Unlike 98% of the previous Beatles catalog, guitars are relegated to the background in lieu of pounding pianos, various bells, and a horn section that is just as recognizable as the mellotron at the beginning of “Strawberry Fields”, combining to create a song that is at once fresh-sounding and yet quintessentially Beatlesque.
Secondly, “Penny Lane” proves a significant step forward in McCartney’s evolution as a lyricist. While John chose Post-Modern obfuscation and irony to express loss of innocence, Paul delved further into the surrealism he’d started experimenting with on “Revolver” in order to highlight the joys of white-washed joys of childhood. It is the subtlety of Paul’s experimentation that makes his songs so easy to downplay, but with lines like “Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout / a pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray / and though she feels as though she’s in a play / she is anyway” highlight a complexity of thought and a penchant for phrase-turning that has been a hallmark of McCartney-esque surrealism ever since.
In February of 1967 The Beatles released on an unsuspecting public one of the most iconic and revolutionary singles of all time, one that was at once nostalgic and progressive, and which has held the fascination of music lovers for over 40 years. “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” is one of the greatest musical achievements of the 20th century, and certainly is the most impressive display of psych-pop sensibilities that will ever be displayed.
*”Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” despite being on the same single were “released” seperately to radio stations and so the town songs had different chart positions in the US. “Penny Lane” reached #1.
**To my mind “Strawberry Fields” might be one of the first cases of Post-Modernism, which was pretty new at the time, in pop music lyrics. The whole song is ironic in that the music and vocals are dream-like and evocative of childhood, yet the lyrical content itself is fraught with self-doubt and loss, even sadness. Lines like “Always, no, sometimes, think it’s me / but you know I know when it’s a dream / I think I know I mean er yes but it’s all wrong / that is I think I disagree” show a great deal of confusion as well as utilize the idioms of actual speech which had been heretofore unheard-of in pop music.
***despite the fact that “Penny Lane” was the higher charting of the two, it is today the less talked about.
Lennon/McCartney Released on the album “Help!” 6 August, 1965 Secondary release in the US as a single on 13 September, 1965 A-Side; “Act Naturally” B-Side
So, what sort of person simply dreams up one of the most popular, and covered, songs of all time? Sir Paul McCartney, that’s who. McCartney has repeatedly insisted in interviews that he woke up one morning with the now-classic melody of “Yesterday” stuck in his head and, after spending all day trying to find out where he’d heard it from, finally resigned himself to the fact that he’d just dreamed up one of the greatest songs of all time.
When he took the number to George Martin for possible inclusion on The Beatles fifth studio album, “Help!”, Martin chose* to support McCartney’s quiet, melancholic tune with only a sparse and subtle string quintet, and it is largely that choice that has made for Pop music history, for the arrangement allowed the beauty of the melody (the song’s strongest asset) to emerge. As the first Beatles record to feature only one member, “Yesterday” is practically a McCartney solo record, and yet it is a testament to The Beatles’ fidelity to one another that no toes were stepped on when Capitol chose to release the record as a single.
“Yesterday” stands at a seminal point in The Beatles evolution from Pop Music moptops to true Rock pioneers: it was the first record to feature only one member; it was the first to feature exclusively non-rock-canon instruments; and it, along with John Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, signaled a darker edge to the duo’s writing. The Beatles had recorded and released several now-classic anthems before “Yesterday” but none achieved the same sort of instant celebrity that is reserved only for the most unrelenting of musical masterpieces. It was the type of song that takes on a life of its own and instantly establishes itself as a classic piece of Pop bliss. It truly was as if it had always existed and Paul McCartney simply channeled it into existence.
Now, 40 years after it’s first release, and nearly 1500 covers later, it is sometimes hard to see how incredibly beautiful and haunting “Yesterday” is, but hopefully with the release of the new stereo master recordings last week classic songs like “Yesterday” can take on a new life and spawn 1500 more covers.
*wisely I would say.
1. “A Day in the Life”
Lennon/McCartney Released on the album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” 1 June, 1967
When “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” was released in June of 1967 it was an instant critical and commercial success. Building on the experimentation of “Revolver” “Sgt. Pepper’s” took that sophistication and refinement to such an intense degree that the album became an instant classic*. The album was a whimsical and wide-ranging collection of songs that broke the mold for what could be included on an album together, but no song captured the fractured and disparate feel of the record quite like The Beatles penultimate masterpiece, “A Day in the Life”.
Formed from the combining of two song fragments, one from Paul McCartney and one from John Lennon, neither fragment would have stood quite so tall by itself, and yet once combined they took on a life of their own, creating a tour de force the like of which has seldom been equaled.
It’s fitting that the best Beatles song ever recorded would be one of the few that actually featured significant songwriting contributions from both Lennon and McCartney. The bulk of the song is Lennon’s folk piano ballad referencing several personal and contemporary stories in his classic mid-career postmodern surrealism, which straddles McCartney’s up-tempo vignette.
But it is the monstrous, swelling cacophony that splits and ends the song that is the most iconic. With nothing to go on but the vague instructions from Paul to “make it sound like the end of the world” George Martin, in one of his more ingenious turns, had an entire 40-piece orchestra play all at once, moving steadily up their scales in whatever manner and speed each individual player felt like. What emerged was a terrifying, all-encompassing shriek that builds and builds until finally, when it seems it can’t get any shriller, resolves to what has to be one of the only single piano chords that can be recognized without any context. The chord trails off for nearly a full minute leaving the listener awestruck and the power of the previous 4 minutes.
“A Day in the Life” is a singular achievement that was only made possible because all involved were so immensely talented at what they did. Lennon and McCartney brought to the table catchy and interesting song fragments, and legendary performances, Martin helped splice the ideas together into a cohesive and extraordinary whole. And in the end the five of them created one of the most brilliant recordings of all time, and certainly the greatest of The Beatles’ short but staggering career.
There you go; the five best Beatles songs of all time. What do you think? Did I hit the nail on the head? What songs should have been included?
*For instance the weekend after the album came out Jimi Hendrix, who had already become obsessed with the album, covered the album’s opener, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band”, at one of his shows in London.