It has never, ever occurred to me to write about the Beatles. It’s not because I’m indifferent to them; in fact, I hold them quite dear. But I think I’ve identified the main thing that has prevented me from really communing with them deeply and meaningfully over the years. You’re gonna think I’m a nut.
They’re not mine.
I once heard as a definition of eccentricity “a longing to fly over the horizon into silence”. You see, I’ve never wanted to be common, never wanted to dig what everyone else was digging, be it music or movies, clothing or anything. I’ve always wanted to look elsewhere. Back in the early Nineties, people would come to my place, Apartment Zero, on a Saturday night and they’d say that nowhere else in town could they hang out with friends and hear the Beach Boys, Tom Waits, Surf Punks or the local oldies station. I always liked that. The Beatles? Everybody and their mother likes the Beatles, then and now. Common. So, I think that’s why I’ve kept them at arms length at least when it comes to studying them and/or promoting them. I’m more likely to write about Tommy James. Then a couple of things made me reassess.
In the summer of 2021, over 30 years since I first began enjoying the Beatles, I was in a thrift store where I saw two books about the group. Since the beginning, I have owned Peter Brown’s Beatles book and the Hunter Davies biography and I have always felt like that was good enough for me. But these two books intrigued me and so I bought them – for $2 each. I read the first one, Shout, that fall and supplemented the reading with my annual autumn viewing of A Hard Day’s Night and the bulk of the first part of The Beatles: Get Back on Disney+. It was a good book that drove home for me what effect the Beatles had on the United States when they arrived in February of ’64.
Also that summer and just as significantly was a purchase of Beatles CDs at a garage sale. The guy had all of the Beatles’ UK albums plus the two volumes of Past Masters. He made me a good deal – I think $20 for all – that I made better when I pointed out that the Sgt. Pepper disc was missing. I remember that also at this sale was a unicycle. The guy said I could have it if I could ride it up and down his driveway. I regret to say that I didn’t even try it.
I had never owned much Beatles and now, all these years later, I finally had in my possession all of their recorded output – I had Pepper digitally and made a copy to put in the case – in the proper UK album form plus all their non-album singles on the Past Masters. Listening to them was quite a reunion. All these songs I remembered so well plus many that I felt unfamiliar with. Then in the fall of 2022, I tackled the second book I bought that day at the thrift store. Much more substantial than Shout was A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles (1995) by Mark Hertsgaard. This book is less a biography of the group and more a study of their music and its import and effect on popular culture. Reading this book and finally finishing up the Get Back documentary prompted me to want to assemble my thoughts on the lads. When wondering why I never had, I came up with this idea of having to share them. I also had the thought that I may not have the words to really describe the tremendous impact of the band.
I don’t feel I’m equipped to add much to the canon of stories about Cary Grant, for instance. Or John Wayne. Or maybe Stanley Kubrick. Many others smarter than me on these subjects already have this ground covered. With Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, I feel like I have found little pockets of bliss in their stories that I want to share with all of you and so I have done so. But the Beatles? They have millions of adherents the world over. Everybody loves them, young and old alike. But more than that, every, single, last moment of their career, every single, last element of their art, their influence and their monumental contribution has already been discussed, studied and talked about many, many times over for the last 60 years. I just don’t have anything to add. I guess I just don’t have much to say about them. I love them. That’s all. This epiphany is perhaps more fascinating to me than it is to you.
I’ve always been a Paul McCartney guy. I’ve always bristled when people have dismissed some of his offerings as too saccharine while they hold John Lennon up as the peace warrior rock & roll rebel martyr. For me it’s a no-brainer and talk about being common and liking someone so popular; Paul McCartney is the most successful pop songwriter ever. The man has had so much music flow out of him its unreal. Anyone that can give me disparate sounds like “Helter Skelter” and “Here, There and Everywhere”, “I’m Down” and “Eleanor Rigby” is tops in my book. Never mind the countless gems from his solo career.
John Lennon, I’ll be honest, I’ve often struggled to like him. But then I remember that he was the real rocker of the band and I call to mind his searing tunes like “Yer Blues” and “Revolution”. Considered the leader of the band, his contributions are of course immeasurable. And just look at him on the roof of Apple headquarters, listen to his guitar work there. Legend.
You’ll often hear it said that Ringo Starr is the luckiest man in rock but I think George Harrison might give him a run for his money. A no doubt talented guitarist and songwriter, I can’t say that I think he could have made it on his own. He found himself in the Beatles, propelled along by the extraordinary talent of his two bandmates. He learned from the masters and his abilities as a songsmith emerged culminating in “Something”, one of the finest and most covered songs in the Beatles catalogue. And don’t tell me that anyone could’ve been the drummer in the Beatles. Ringo’s style fit perfectly in the band and in fact became a definite part of their sound, even just down to the way he swung his stick at the hi-hat. And personality-wise, his affable demeanour was conducive to grounding such egocentric mates. Each of the four was essential.
I’ve been looking at their numbers and here I definitely have something to say. While chart success doesn’t always tell the story of an artist, the numbers where the Beatles are concerned are truly staggering. The Fab Four released 12 albums in the UK – and we will concern ourselves only with chart positions attained at home in England. Every one of them reached #1, save Yellow Submarine (1968) which stalled at #3. We can stop there. That’s ridiculous. But then there’s the singles.
The Beatles scored a total of 17 Number One songs. I count eleven times in their career that the Beatles released a “non-album single” which means exactly what it sounds like. Of their eleven songs released separately from their albums, only 2 of them did not reach the Number One spot in their homeland. “Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever” – a double A side from 1967 – and “Let It Be” both topped out at #2. From this we should understand that when the Beatles released an album or a single, it invariably topped the charts or came awfully close. Almost every one. Almost all the time.
Additionally, I am prepared to dish on the very best of the songs the boys recorded. I’ve broken the career of the Beatles down into three segments or mini-eras. This brings up maybe the single most fascinating thing about the boys from Liverpool; the vast leaps and gigantic steps their music took from “Love Me Do” to “Let It Be” a mere 7 years later. In the past, I have simply bisected their tenure in half but Hertsgaard’s book hipped me to the idea that you can find another milestone in there. So, we will take it from the top in 1962 and their debut LP, Please Please Me to Beatles For Sale, released 4 December, 1964. From Help! in ’65 through the end of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band issued in mid-1967. We chart the boys through to the end with the period encompassing The Beatles, commonly referred to as “The White Album”, from November of 1968 and out to Let It Be, released 8 May 1970 by which time the lads had already gone their separate ways.
A couple notes; I wanted to find the ten best songs from each of these eras but I cheated a little bit. From the first part of their career I’ve chosen the 8 best songs and came up with 12 from their second. In the end then, we will identify the 30 Best of the Beatles. Also, the first segment ends with the Beatles For Sale album but sadly no songs from that LP – Hertsgaard calls it their least listenable – made the list though one shows up in the Honourable Mentions and, make no mistake, there are indeed fine songs on the record. Anyways, here we go. Sure was hard to pick only 30 songs by a band that never made a bad one.
Part One: Beatlemania
8 — “Twist and Shout” (from Please Please Me) // Legendary recording of a great song featuring a shouting vocal from John Lennon. Their finest cover version; the only song on this list not written by a member of the band.
7 — “All My Loving” (from With the Beatles) // Another simple but charming melody from Paul, one that features great strumming from John and a tasty solo from George. Heard in A Hard Day’s Night.
6 — “Things We Said Today” (from A Hard Day’s Night) // In a matter of only months, McCartney and the lads have taken it up a notch and it shows on this compelling tune. Dramatic acoustic guitar work from Lennon and Paul sounds great singing harmony with himself. Was the B side of our next song.
5 — “A Hard Day’s Night” (from A Hard Day’s Night) // Clever Ringo Starr inspired the title but John wrote what may be considered his first substantial composition. We could talk for hours about George’s opening chord, one of the group’s earliest audio innovations. A Number One song.
4 — “You Can’t Do That” (from A Hard Day’s Night) // Another Lennon beauty presented with strutting bravado. Ringo Starr sets the pace with his cracking snare, George debuts his 12-string Rickenbacker and Paul and George echo John’s lead vocal nicely. Paul on cowbell. B side of “Can’t Buy Me Love”.
3 — “I Should’ve Known Better” (from A Hard Day’s Night) // John’s song is a rollicking good time and features his own harmonica playing. The lyrics are delivered fluidly and encourage singing along. This song was performed in a symbolic scene in A Hard Day’s Night; the lads play in a cage while fascinated girls reach in trying to touch them.
2 — “I Feel Fine” (non-album single) // Another from Lennon, “I Feel Fine” can be considered the Beatles’ first non-album single. It topped charts all over the world from Canada to New Zealand. The song is a groove and is notable for its use of guitar feedback heard for the first time on a rock record.
Number One — “I Saw Her Standing There” (from Please Please Me) // It doesn’t get much better than the first track on the first Beatles LP. Proof that McCartney could write a rocker, a highlight is his count in which can be considered the count in to the world’s greatest run of album releases. “One, two, three, FOUR!”
Part Two: Let Me Take You Down
12 — “Tomorrow Never Knows” (from Revolver) // We are not in Mop Top Land anymore. This is John’s declaration that his band had crossed over to the other side. Lyrics borrowed from Timothy Leary, Lennon’s vocal mic routed through an organ, tape loops and all manner of experimentation utilizing the boys’ 20-year-old sound engineer. One of the original “trips”.
11 — “I’m Looking Through You” (from Rubber Soul) // More grounded is Paul’s lament aimed at former girlfriend Jane Asher. I had the North American edition of Rubber Soul on cassette and the version of the song on that release contains two false guitar starts that I always liked. That could be Ringo playing the Hammond organ blasts.
10 — “Got to Get You Into My Life” (from Revolver) // This gem from Paul marks the debut of a horn section on a Beatles song. McCartney wrote it as an homage to the soul sounds then emanating from Motown and Stax Records. Earth, Wind and Fire scored a Top Ten hit with a cover in ’78.
9 — “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (from Help!) // Bob Dylan makes his presence felt in Beatle Land. John adopts Dylan’s acoustic guitar style and adds little else save a meandering flute. Performed in the movie Help!, this was an early signpost leading to Lennon’s more introspective songwriting.
8 — “With a Little Help from My Friends” (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) // This joint collab from Lennon-McCartney went by “Bad Finger Boogie” in the early stages. Given to Ringo to sing, it was the first song after the “intro” title track of Sgt. Pepper. Starr was not keen on singing the final note but acquits himself well.
7 — “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) [from Rubber Soul] // The next logical step John took after “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. More slightly ambiguous lyrics and acoustic guitar. This time the big innovation was George introducing the sitar to the Beatles canon. There were getting to be fewer and fewer straight love songs on Beatles records now.
6 — “A Day in the Life” (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) // A classic collaboration combining two unfinished songs, one by John and one by Paul. Hard to sum up this sonic marvel in three or four lines. Hertsgaard: “‘A Day in the Life’ is a work of sufficient beauty, power and social relevance to rank among the outstanding statements of twentieth-century art”.
5 — “Ticket to Ride” (from Help!) // John’s Number One hit single is helped greatly by George’s 12-string intro and Ringo’s drum pattern. The February ’65 session at which this was recorded is noted as a pivot point for the band in the way they used the studio. This the boys’ 7th consecutive Number One song in the UK was heard in the Beatles’ second film.
4 — “Help!” (from Help!) // A change of pace lyrically for the group, Lennon was feeling the effects of sudden fame and this was his statement, actually a literal request for help. The song John called one of his most honest is highlighted by his 12-string acoustic – especially during a break in the middle – and sparkling group harmonies.
3 — “Eleanor Rigby” (from Revolver) // Another definite statement declaring that the Beatles were plying a trade quite outside the norm of the time. Paul’s creation was fleshed out after he played it for the first time to the group while gathered at John’s home. All in attendance added ideas. The song was divergent in that it was not a standard love song and that it featured instead of Beatles playing instruments a double string quartet.
2 — “If I Needed Someone” (from Rubber Soul) // My favourite George Harrison song. George employed the jangly 12-string Rickenbacker in A Hard Day’s Night and the Byrds picked up on it. And here is George in turn re-borrowing the Byrds’ sound for this gem that also features wonderful harmony vocals.
Number One — “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (from Help!) // Paul’s lovely song is a feast of uptempo country & western/folk/pop. Written by the band’s bassist, it features no bass and only three acoustic guitars. It has been covered by many bluegrass groups. A sheer delight to sing along to.
Part 3: And in the End…
10 — “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (from The Beatles) // One of the most celebrated songs of George Harrison’s career. The tune is essentially a sad one that laments disharmony. The song may be most notable in that it features Eric Clapton. That George brought his friend into the sanctum of the Beatles’ recording studio tells the tale of the fractious nature of the group at the time and of the record known as “The White Album” itself.
9 — “Lady Madonna” (non-album single) // I love Paul and I love the piano. The boogie-woogie stylings of this energetic tune are part and parcel of the Beatles’ return to more stripped down and organic recordings after the psychedelic meanderings of Sgt. Pepper.
8 — “I’m So Tired” (from The Beatles) // I love to sing along when John gets mean during the chorus. Just a bit of wonderful nonsense Lennon knocked off while in India trying to meditate and missing Yoko.
7 — “Penny Lane” (non-album single) // Is “masterpiece” an over-used phrase? If the term ever applied to any pop song it surely applies to this gem from Paul. Intended for inclusion on Sgt. Pepper, it was instead released as one-half of maybe the greatest pop single ever with “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the flip.
6 — “I Am the Walrus” (non-album single) // Perhaps the purest slice of psychedelia ever dished up by the Beatles. Cheeky John wrote it as a dig of sorts aimed at those trying to elicit deep meaning from many of the Beatles’ lyrics. Inspired by LSD and Lewis Carroll, it contains the trippiest orchestration from the straightest of cats, George Martin.
5 — “Dear Prudence” (from The Beatles) // Prudence Farrow wouldn’t come out of her hut in Rishikesh so John wrote this ditty to summon her. Whether or not it worked, the result is a gorgeous piece of finger-picking that John learned from Donovan. No Ringo on this one. Paul plays drums as well of one my favourite bass lines of his.
4 — “Oh! Darling” (from Abbey Road) // Paul’s song in the style of Fats Domino and Fifties R&B. Paul rehearsed it by himself for days leading up to recording hoping to get his voice to sound rough. This is the kind of stripped down beauty the boys did so well near the end.
3 — “Don’t Pass Me By” (from The Beatles) // Everybody hates this song. But I have always heard something in Ringo Starr’s composition that he wrote in a country rock style in 1962. It took some six years before the other lads gave Richard Starkey the chance. Paul plays piano and bass and the rest – save the guest violinist – is Richie. A Number One song in Denmark!
2 — “Two of Us” (from Let It Be) // Gorgeous. Paul’s acoustic gem that he and partner John render so beautifully in the kind of harmony that we wanted them to enjoy always. Indeed, Paul could be said to have been writing about his relationship with Lennon; “you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead”.
Number One — “I’ve Got a Feeling” (from Let It Be) // The Beatles deliver what may be my absolute favourite song of theirs in symbolic fashion – by combining two unfinished songs, one by Paul and one by John. I love Lennon’s killer guitar sound during the Let It Be sessions. Great lead by George, drumming by Ringo and keys from Billy Preston. Actually recorded outdoors, on the roof of Apple headquarters in London.
- “Rock and Roll Music”
- “If I Fell”
- “Can’t Buy Me Love”
- “Drive My Car”
- “Here, There and Everywhere”
- “Only a Northern Song”
- “This Boy”
You know what it is? The Beatles beggar description. And I don’t really believe that they can even be fully fathomed or understood. Every sound they made, every look they adopted – totally without equal and head and shoulders above every other rock band. Think about it; how does one band go from “Love Me Do” to “Come Together”? Their combined strengths made them greater than the sum of their parts. As George Martin has said they were of their time. During the Sixties, they made remarkable music together. Together. Consider the Seventies and beyond. All four Beatles had hits and made great music. But none of them – not even Guinness-book hit-maker Macca – could produce the same sort of magic that the four could together.