First published in 2021
If you ever doubt that The Beatles were the greatest band that ever existed, try ranking their songs. Out of 185 self-penned tunes they released commercially during their initial seven-year run – so not including covers, fan club releases, alternative versions – you’ll list well over a hundred tracks before you get to anything you wouldn’t call sublime, and hit 150 or so before anything verging on average appears. Of their entire catalogue, only six or seven songs could be classed as ‘shonky’, and most of those have still got something historic going for them.
Among them you’ll find songs which caused seismic shifts in pop, psychedelia and rock and the formative roots of punk, metal and electronica, amongst a panoply of other styles they pioneered and popularised in such a short time. It’s a feat unmatched by any act before or since.
As the band release ‘Now And Then’, their “final” song and salvaged with the use of AI, let’s pile back in to the most magical mystery tour pop music has ever known, with each track ranked in order of greatness.
An experimental ‘White Album’ interlude recorded entirely by Paul, ‘Wild Honey Pie’ had a mild element of redneck Grieg menace, but little else to it.
50 seconds of a far longer studio jam, during which Lennon makes random references to the FBI, the CIA, the BBC, BB King, Doris Day and Matt Busby over a pretty dreary rock’n’roll dirge, ‘Dig It’ only really existed to exemplify the fact that The Beatles cut loose a lot during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Now we’ve got seven-plus hours of Get Back, it’s rendered superfluous.
“Good evening and welcome to Slaggers…” The Beatles spend an inordinate amount of studio time trying to perfect this frankly silly combo of blues rock, lounge samba, music hall clowning and a bit sung by Crazy Frog’s jazz Granddad. Don’t do drugs, kids.
Even before Google Street View, Paul’s uber-horny blues squeal about dogging like a champion was at best inadvisable and at worst just plain creepy. Everyone will definitely be watching you, so stop. Think. Don’t do it in the road.
Of interest as an avant-garde curio exemplifying the fact that The Beatles had entirely dismissed all sonic boundaries by the ‘White Album’, John and Yoko’s epic sound collage of radio interference, studio chatter and orchestral samples is more notable and influential than it’s often given credit for. But you wouldn’t bung it on repeat.
An incidental instrumental to accompany a psychedelic segment of Magical Mystery Tour, ‘Flying’ was little more than 12-bar rock’n’roll played, very stoned, on an organ for two minutes. Some distance from a Welsh male voice choir.
Designed as a piss-taking dig at Northern Songs, the Beatles’ publishing company, which George felt rewarded him pitifully for his songwriting efforts, ‘Only A Northern Song’ is intended to sound weird, wonky and half-baked, even as Harrison came into his own as a songsmith.
A formulaic shake shack ballad of little note other than the sneaking suspicion that Morrissey took his entire vocal style from Lennon’s end-of-chorus flicks.
By-numbers Merseybeat that was one of the few unmemorable originals Lennon and McCartney ever penned.
Written by George while waiting for houseguests to arrive at the place he was staying on the titular Hollywood Hills street in 1967. They presumably arrived just after he’d perfected the ominous psychedelic organ mood but before he’d really gotten his teeth into the chorus.
A song desperately in search of a hookline, ‘Not A Second Time’ finds John’s voice flapping wildly around the verses as if desperate to find somewhere solid to land.
A lightweight folk frippery that sounds particularly throwaway when tacked on the end of ‘Abbey Road’’s monumental side two medley as a secret final track.
As The Beatles shifted away from love songs, John contributed this out-and-out hate song to ‘Rubber Soul’ – a nifty country rocker and arguably the proto-‘Last Train To Clarkesville’, but notorious as The Beatles’ most problematic track. John would claim to regret having written it, calling it his least favourite Beatles song.
The first of two songs released by the reunited Beatles for the ‘Anthology’ project was the most disappointing of the pair. Built around a very lo-fi and muffled mono demo of a song recorded by Lennon in 1977, gifted to the band by Yoko Ono when they decided they wanted to create something new and produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne, the Wilbury-esque finished song sounded very Beatles-by-numbers, only with the lead singer recording his part halfway to Narnia.
“I don’t think it’s a particularly good song,” George said of his debut Beatles writing credit, “it mightn’t even be a song at all.” Actually, it’s a pretty nifty homage to the surf rock craze of the time. And definitely a song.
Standard, formulaic slide guitar blues given a sweetness and light by George’s weightless vocals and exclamation, “Elmore James got nothing on this!”
Honky-tonk pastiche written by John in 1959 and passed over for several albums before landing half-heartedly on ‘Rubber Soul’. You can actually hear the band lose interest midway through.
Recorded by John with a heavy cold, it’s perhaps understandable that this thank you letter to their fans – a “hack song”, according to McCartney – sounds muddy and under-developed. On this evidence you’d assume EMI Studios doubled as a bomb shelter.
Plucked from the catalogue of early Lennon/McCartney compositions when the band were short on material for ‘Let It Be’, Paul’s locomotive skiffle knockabout had a retro charm but never really escaped the formula.
A lovely choral waltz ballad from George, totally ruined by nobody bothering to write a proper chorus and just bawling the title over some 12-bar sleaze rock riffing instead.
Bitterness, heartbreak and romantic revenge; Lennon’s dark side was on show even on the skiffly, tucked-away tracks of the Beatlemania era.
Passionate, characterful and a raw exorcism of John’s harrowed late-‘60s mindset, certainly. But The Beatles were way past by-numbers blues rock by ‘68 and ‘Yer Blues’ stood out as an unimaginative throwback on the ‘White Album’.
Formulaic Beatlemania fare in which John gets excited at the prospect of telling his wife about all the screaming girls, drugs and parties on tour. Bet she was thrilled.
For some, John’s cabaret pastiche is the very essence of ‘Sgt. Pepper…’, capturing the sepia carnival vibe in its circus poster lyrics and carousel interlude. To these ears, though, it’s club-footed, corny and unnecessary.
John’s songwriting sparkles on the B-side of their first single, yet lacks the confidence of more head-waggling numbers of the era.
Faithful homage to the harmony groups of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, and a rare example of a Beatles song that could be mistaken for that of any other band.
Graced with the same somewhat tragic tone as ‘Free As A Bird’, thanks to the woeful fidelity of John’s original demo at its core, ‘Real Love’ nonetheless had far more of a melodic lilt to it, bringing a mild sense of fresh Beatles magic to the ‘Anthology’.
Nifty Little Richard-style rock’n’roller that doesn’t sound all that “down” at all.
Legendary and all that, being the debut single, but let’s face it: a bit of a plodder.
Even when rehashing some pretty standard rock’n’roll chord progressions and melodic structures on a song that McCartney himself would call “filler”, The Beatles exuded a fundamental magic that set them apart from the Merseybeat horde.
Early signs of spiritual and philosophical musings from John as he tries his hand at Motown.
Basic, bluesy rock’n’roller notable for some pretty savage guitar work and McCartney clearly working his way up to the sort of full-throated blues bawls he’d let loose once the ‘60s were ready for them.
The exuberance of being in a studio recording ‘Please Please Me’ made this shameless homage to the ‘50s crooners sound like the cheeriest song about existential despair ever recorded. No bad thing.
A pre-Beatles Lennon tune originally given to British popper Billy J. Kramer. The Beatles’ version swung harder.
George’s proto-indie-pop guitar line lifted one of Paul’s less eventful tunes, but not an un-influential one – somewhere in here is the root of The La’s’ ‘There She Goes’.
Vastly improved AI sound separation technology finally brought Lennon’s 1977 vocal fully back to life for a stately piano-led ballad McCartney dubbed the “final Beatles song”; a deeply touching tribute to John and the band rather than a continuation of their work, lashed with (ironically) Spector-esque strings and lightly brushed with Harrison’s guitar touches (recorded in 1995) and the lustrous band harmonies of old. Quite literally – some were culled from “Here, There & Everywhere”, “Because” and “Eleanor Rigby”. Get a bit squiffy? Us too.
Seemingly envisioning a future in children’s entertainment as The Beatles fell apart, Ringo’s second-ever writing credit involved oompah larks and underwater adventure (sound familiar?), adorned with George making bubble noises by blowing into a glass of milk through a straw.
‘Pinball Wizard’ power chords, nifty solo, broad Scouse accent, low-rent S&M; there was so much going on in John’s throwaway 70-second rocker about a bizarre sexual encounter in Jersey in 1960 (involving beat poet Royston Ellis) that you wish he’d written a chorus for it.
It’s baffling that The Beatles only really began recognising and appreciating George’s songwriting come ‘The White Album’, since he was displaying solid melodic chops way back on ‘Help!’.
You’ve written some of the finest children’s songs of the century, why the hell shouldn’t you try to make a vaudevillian family singalong from the story of an insane, hammer wielding psychopath? Basically Wes Craven’s ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’.
Sometimes The Beatles’ harmonising could carry an entire song alone, as on this shift towards a more contemplative folk maturity. Includes an entire verse nicked from a religious passage that hung in John’s childhood home.
The sorry tale of John and Yoko’s troubled and press-hounded attempts to wed at short notice in various European locales, delivered as impassioned country lament.
The Beatles’ impression of The Beach Boys doing Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ (in cod-Spanish) fell between two stools on ‘Abbey Road’; not as plush as ‘Because’ nor as melodically bright as ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Lovely, then, but slight.
Gorgeous flamenco strumble from George, finding his songwriting feet on ‘Help!’.
Macca Marmite: one either adores the cheery Jamaican lilt of Desmond and Molly’s story and considers it pivotal in attuning British pop culture to ska music or, like Lennon, deems it “more of Paul’s granny music shit”.
A Lennon/McCartney composition given to George to sing. You likely owe your very existence to this dance hall romance, since it probably gave your Granddad the nerve to chat up your Nanna down the Mecca.
Flamenco-flecked and downbeat, the closer of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – rewritten from Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ – was an early sign of The Beatles’ sophisticated tonal ambitions within what were, at the time, strictly regimented ‘60s pop structures.
The crackle of boy scout campfire virtually enshrouds this charming tale of bravery and derring-do out on the hunt in the days of empire. Twitter would rip it a new arsehole, mind.
Of all of Paul’s outlandish character songs, ‘Lovely Rita’, in which our narrator develops affection for a traffic warden, is by far the least believable, but remains charming thanks to some gorgeous band harmonies and nifty work on the paper and comb.
An energised if one-trick jitterbugger written by Paul on a night out with The Rolling Stones in Richmond. It became The Stones’ second single before The Beatles gave it to Ringo to holler on ‘With The Beatles’.
The link between ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Taxman’, ‘The Word’ added a touch of harmonic funk to ‘Rubber Soul’ as Lennon took a stab at a one-note song in homage to ‘Long Tall Sally’.
George in righteous, piano-thumping boogie-woogie mode. Upstaged its own A-side.
Tainted in retrospect by Charles Manson’s murderous interpretations, George’s harpsichord satire of the selfish and gluttonous rich, smothered in porcine snorts and grunts, is a stirring but unsettling listen.
The pot-fixated ‘Fixing A Hole’ makes great use of harpsichord (played by both Paul and George Martin) to give a psychedelic lilt to a music hall pastiche on which Paul makes the utmost of a one-note chorus.
This fine Merseybeat evolution offers early indications of George’s Indian influence and of the psychedelic storm the band would later kick up on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
Suitably blustery for a song recorded on a rooftop in January, Paul’s dive into The Band-style bluesy Americana rock is long on feel and passion, short on melodic impact.
Incorporating Motown beats and an open-mindedness gleaned from encounters with Dylan, George’s first major foray out of romantic odes was targeting at society’s regressive and narrow-minded elements, quite possibly in government.
A tuneful precursor to ‘Run For Your Life’, which also finds John’s jealousy getting the better of him.
Rocking up the title track, the reprise rips off the neon military blazers to expose the Hamburg leathers beneath.
A marriage of the melancholy and upbeat, this was a rare example of John singing a Paul song.
The Beatles as pop toreadors. A certain Mediterranean fire creeps into Macca’s plea to Jane Asher to give him at least until the end of tour.
John plays the party-pooping wallflower on this beautifully forlorn skiffle lament and a thematic precursor to ‘How Soon Is Now?’.
An all-barrels harmonic doo-wop assault which Paul, in retrospect, thought might have been a window onto John’s troubled marriage to Cynthia.
Perhaps spurred on by The Rolling Stones’ ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ and Donovan’s ‘Candy Man’, Lennon penned his own tribute to a drug-supplying medic, rumoured to be Dr Robert Freymann, known for supplying B-12 injections liberally laced with amphetamine. They kick in on the blissed-out middle-eight, clearly.
One of Lennon’s prettiest early-period tunes (he hated it, natch), built around sumptuous 12-string rhythms and a twee but fan-friendly lyric. Working title: ‘That’s A Nice Hat’.
Based on a Taoist poem and recorded with Indian musicians in Bombay, The ‘Lady Madonna’ flipside was one of only four Beatles songs with no Beatles playing on it (quiz compilers: the others are ‘Good Night’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’), but magnificently emulated the serenity of the Transcendental Meditation techniques the band were learning from the Maharishi.
Cartoonish Wild West soap opera larks and one of Paul’s better novelty tunes, thanks to a popcorn guzzling plot and George Martin’s honky tonk piano solo tumbling past like a saloon fight.
As reward for getting all the way through ‘Revolution 9’, Ringo turned up with a full Busby Berkeley orchestra to tuck you in with this sleepyhead lullaby. Night night, Ringo.
Central, stylistically, to the pre-war cabaret conceit of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s…’, Paul’s cheery/corny bandstand ode to somehow reaching your 60s without murdering your spouse was among the first he ever wrote, aged 16. Now go on, give Nanna a kiss.
Updating 1950s US swing for the psychedelic era, McCartney put his all into ‘Oh! Darling’, even coming into the studio early to have one crack at it every day before his voice lost its edge. The song’s part in getting glam underway has gone woefully unrecognised.
Ringo’s most legendary moment, the quintessential psychedelia ditty and arguably the most overplayed Beatles song of all. You came for the chant-along chorus aged four and stayed until adulthood for the ‘shroom-friendliness and Lennon shouting, “Full speed ahead, Mr Boatswain / Full speed ahead, bop-dibbetty-bip-bop!” Features The Stones’ Brian Jones on ocarina. No shit.
Louche and languid (read: almost certainly on heroin by now), Lennon’s plea to Yoko flits between the vulnerable, optimistic, lovestruck and desperate. Find yourself someone who “does” you like Yoko “done” John.
Melding Greek and German music into a mournful mood piece, Lennon pointed the way to The Beatles’ more sophisticated latter period with ‘Girl’, probably the best song ever to have a chorus that’s mostly just inhaling.
One of the more inventive and engaging blues numbers the band worked up for ‘Let It Be’, not least because of Lennon’s acid-fried lyrics. Just exactly how one does “a roadhog” or “syndicate[s] any boat you row” remains unspecified.
Idyllic strumbler penned by Paul on a yacht called Happy Days in the Virgin Islands with glamorous new girlfriend Jane Asher. And sounds like it.
Inspired by a song from Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, which John’s mother used to sing to him as a child, the strength of ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’ was in its childlike simplicity and coy teen naivety.
Hoedown homage so gorgeous it’ll give you an ounce of sympathy for a man trying to pull a hot widow while her husband isn’t yet cold in the ground.
Flutes! Recorder solos! Meditation! The budget for the Magical Mystery Tour TV special was severely stretched when Paul allegedly decided the sequence for his wistful portrait of the Maharishi should be filmed in a beach near Nice.
Doe-eyed flamenco vibes abound on one of Paul’s early run-ups to ‘Yesterday’.
Blur basically got their entire ‘90s out of John’s engrossing one-minute oompah tune inspired by a newspaper story of a “dirty old” miser – in real life, one John Mustard of Enfield, Middlesex – who hid his money so he wouldn’t be forced to spend it. His level of personal hygiene was unrecorded.
While ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Octopus’s Garden’ were story time classics, ‘Altogether Now’’s nursery-level track easily stands up as The Beatles’ best children’s song.
Brisk, bright-eyed and boasting one of the best pre-choruses in pop, ‘Hello, Goodbye’ would be the best single in most bands’ careers. It’s the 107th best song The Beatles wrote. That’s how great they were. Strap in: everything from here gets fucking brilliant.
The Beatles did a fine line in rise-and-shine tunes, although John’s compulsive dawn chorus on ‘Sgt. Pepper…’ came with a hearty dollop of cynicism, everyday mundanity and casual adultery.
The Help! scene set the blueprint for The Monkees‘ entire career, as the band played this Beatlemania cracker on a beach in the Bahamas, with Paul using a bikini-clad girl as a guitar.
The last song all four Beatles recorded together; you can hear the sheer weight of the occasion. At almost eight minutes and smothered in doomy textures and white noise, it would have seen John invent heavy metal if Paul hadn’t beaten him to it with ‘Helter Skelter’. Instead it invents Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’ and provides proof, if any were needed, that stoner rock is basically the blues on military grade tranquilisers.
Probably the ultimate expression of George’s Indian immersion, ‘Within You Without You’ opened many a Western third eye to the wonders of ‘world music’ and Eastern philosophies.
When you shout for ‘Help!’ and nobody listens, this is where you end up. Tortured, wasted, exhausted and desperate. Even three weeks of solid insomnia at the Maharishi’s retreat can’t dampen Lennon’s melodic prowess, as he knocks out the perfect song for day three of the prom night that forgot to finish.
Masterful and historic as the climax of the ‘Abbey Road’ medley, even taken in isolation ‘The End’ is exultant mood-making, from Ringo’s drum solo to the gathering gospel storm and Paul’s thought-provoking orchestral coda.
Along with Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’, The Beatles’ impassioned 12-bar well-wishing – written and recorded in one night – is usually the best thing about scratching off another year on this godforsaken hellhole of a planet.
A Smokey Robinson homage aimed at the US market – British teens of the ‘60s would never dream of calling a girl up “on the phone”, Lennon later claimed.
The sheer euphoria of George’s peak acid song, floating through a blissed-out clamour of noise rock, trumpet and disintegrating beats, makes us all yearn for the days before you’d pay 50 quid for a bag of blotting paper soaked in balsamic vinegar off the dark web.
Because we’re all as loaded as Bezos inside, you dig? Sublimely funky ode to our spiritual wealth that’s still begging the decades-old question: just where in a zoo, exactly, might you stash a bag full of cash?
Ringo’s long underrated songwriting debut doesn’t get the credit it deserves for holding its own on ‘The White Album’. The sheer clod-hopping junk shop exuberance (unsurprising, since Ringo had been trying to get it recorded since 1962) makes it an album highlight, along with the fiddle player so drunk he doesn’t realise the song’s finished. A Number One single in Denmark – and don’t think we didn’t consider making it number one in this list too, just for the traffic.
Plush, proto-Wings country rocker inspired by a fan breaking into Paul’s house to steal photographs. Key to the ‘Abbey Road’ medley’s impression that the band had melodic wonders aplenty to toss into the pile.
Woooah! Meta… A Beatles song about The Beatles. Walruses, Strawberry Fields, Lady Madonna and the Fool on the Hill all reprise their roles in Beatles history as Lennon mocks people reading too much into the band’s lyrics to a chamber rock backing that ELO got at least three early albums out of.
It takes a certain classical majesty to slip a grand orchestral reprise of ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ into a stonking great lad rock anthem chorus in search of a song.
Effortlessly reinvented the blue-eyed crooner genre on a frickin’ B-side. Just try not playing it twice.
The song The Shadows would have written, had they been the world’s greatest band in the making.
We’ve all seen it chug into life in the documentary of the same name, its simple blues strut brought to life by Billy Preston’s wild-at-heart organ. Still slaps.
Pre-war nostalgia meets counterculture psychedelia explosion to landscape obliterating effect. And all, the story goes, because Paul didn’t know that the ‘S’ and ‘P’ on his in-flight meal pots stood for ‘Salt’ and ‘Pepper’.
In Parisian mood, Paul tries out some schoolboy French to woo a continental bohemian lass. Originally written as a pastiche of a bloke singing a song in French at an art party.
A masterclass in rock dynamism and melodic tension, and testament to the fact that The Beatles buried genius in all corners of their catalogue, smothered in barking noises, ripe for re-evaluation.
Trying to write another ‘It Won’t Be Long’, Lennon came up with something a touch more mature – an early sign that The Beatles were on a fast-track out of Merseybeat, bound for somewhere rather more Dylanish.
Marrying his revived interest in 1920s radio jazz (see also: ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Honey Pie’) to a dirty ‘50s swamp blues rock’n’roll riot, McCartney imagined a gender-swapped version of Fats Domino’s working man blues rocker ‘Blue Monday’ and came up with a song that rocks until the wheels damn near come off.
A fine, fond farewell to the ‘old Beatles’ as they approached their giant leap. And yes, that is the riff from The Travelling Wilburys’ ‘End Of The Line’ at the start – nice recycle, George.
Considered the first sign of Dylan’s influence on The Beatles, and one of John’s early cries for help hidden beneath a storming country-pop melody.
“I’ve written this song, but it’s lousy,” Lennon said to Ringo one day in the studio. We call bullshit. One of the first deliberate uses of feedback on record.
“Love was in your eyes, ah, the night before / Now today I find you have changed your mind.” She was pissed Paul, but at least you got a definitive slice of ‘60s pop out of it. Perfect for playing at, um, Stonehenge (if Help! is anything to go by).
A flippant remark Paul’s chauffeur made en route to John’s house in Weybridge inspired, that very afternoon, a timeless pop demand for more weekly loving than is reasonable or realistic. But then, ‘Twice A Week Unless It’s My Birthday’ wouldn’t have been so catchy.
While Paul was in the Virgin Islands with Ringo writing ‘Things We Said Today’, John was in Tahiti with George, knocking together this tropical tale of an unfaithful and unresponsive partner. “You’re getting better now – that was a complete story,” publisher and Beatles pantomime villain Dick James (sssss!) told John on hearing it.
Much harmonica jollity as, with Beatlemania in full swing, John bags himself a good ‘un. Nanna probably thought it was written specifically for her.
Ringo’s finest hour. For once nobody stood up and walked out on him when he sang out this aural hug of a tune, acknowledging his eternal debt to the bandmates without whom he might be slogging the clubs with Merseybeat nostalgia acts to this day.
With George adding Indian tambura drones and John lumping on world-weary falsetto cynicism (“it can’t get no worse”), another of Paul’s optimistic pop bangers gained deliciously dark edges. Much of the magical frisson of The Beatles can be heard in how clearly John doesn’t want to be singing this one.
We can blame the widespread malaise of ‘White Album’ fatigue for the back end of the album being under-appreciated for decades. Case in point: Macca’s utterly charming tribute to the jazz age, complete with authentically crackled gramophone clarinets.
LSD musings and dissonant rock as George comes into his own as a rounded songwriter circa ’66.
Effervescent call-and-response “yeah”s. Chord sequences Dylan would call “outrageous”. The promises of imminent romantic reunion. The opener of ‘With The Beatles’ is almost Fabs-by-numbers – but boy, what numbers.
If only all fractious business disputes could be argued out like this. With Paul and John looking to lose control of their stakes in their own songs, Paul penned this sublime multi-style paean to manager Allen Klein that basically boiled down to “show me the mon-aaay!”
Cracks appear in Paul’s relationship with Jane Asher; hiding in a toilet in a Swiss Alps chalet he writes a lament for “a love that should have lasted years”, his second chamber ballad for ‘Revolver’.
Roll up (hur-hur!) for the trip of a lifetime (pfffft!). This spaced-out rock freewheeler introduced the weirdest Christmas TV special outside of the Grumpy Cat movie. It’s essentially The Who’s ‘Tommy’ inside of three minutes.
Worst. Wingman. Ever. Lennon lurks at the edges of a shaky relationship waiting to pounce, with an irresistible two-minute doo-wopper between his teeth.
Corny, sure, but McCartney’s vaudevillian Broadway high-kicker was so perfectly crafted it could make the harshest critic want to swing on a sparkly trapeze dressed as a Rockette.
Another undervalued back-end-of-‘The Beatles’ classic, in which George explores the space between drowsy serenity and stark passion and Ringo delivers a dynamic tour de force.
No political comedy Beach Boys pastiche has ever rocked so hard before or since.
In honour of Eric Clapton’s sweet tooth, George – quite spectacularly – goes full Stax. Mmmm, crème tangerine…
Named after an old blues euphemism for shagging – beep beep, and indeed, yeah – ‘Drive My Car’ finds Paul blues-rocking his way to a pretty sweet deal – lifelong partner and designated driver.
A wonderfully lightweight greet-the-dawn ditty inspired by The Kinks‘ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and, in turn, inventing ELO‘s ‘Mr Blue Sky’.
George’s first and finest Indian-influenced song, galloping along on compulsive tabla rhythms. Alongside ‘Strawberry Fields…’ and ‘Lucy In The Sky…’, this was the absolute epitome of the psychedelic era. Don’t, however, try to making love while singing songs. Doesn’t go down well.
The separations of the ‘White Album’ sessions allowed John to finally broach the subject of his mother in song, utilising the finger-picking style Donovan had taught him in India. “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia,” he sings in stunningly intimate manner, imagining her as a siren lost to the sea.
Said to be about the clean-health certificates received by Hamburg sex workers, ‘Ticket To Ride’ is acclaimed more for its significance than anything – here was where The Beatles left plain old Merseybeat behind to embrace Indian textures, proto-Byrdsian plushness and future-facing drumwork.
Increasingly dabbling with ‘secret’ drug and sex references, ‘Day Tripper’ had a pop at weekend hippies in the shape of a squeaky-clean slice of go-go ‘60s pop. I mean, look how high Ringo is in the video.
Written by Paul at the age of 16. The 1950s clearly missed a trick in not realising there was a school kid in Liverpool surpassing all of its wistful guitar balladry.
Delivered as an opiated, horn-blasted shoo-wop shuffle called ‘Revolution 1’ on ‘The Beatles’, the definitive version of Lennon’s most politically direct Beatles number was the ballsy strut on the flip of ‘Hey Jude’. Not saying this is where Marc Bolan got the idea for glam rock, but, y’know…
Originating from John asking Yoko to play Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ backwards, The Beatles’ merging of Moog synthesiser, harpsichord and triple-tracked harmonies makes for one of the most magical moments of the ‘60s.
Second single and the first real sign of The Beatles’ devastating pop brilliance. Lennon originally conceived it as a slow-tempo ballad a la Roy Orbison’s ‘Only The Lonely’, but a more dynamic version made them superstars.
Lennon’s first ballad attempt turned out to be a crooner masterclass.
Lennon sheds his psychedelic satins and rocks out – fire bells and all – around phrases learned during the Transcendental Meditation retreat – only the monkey bit wasn’t taken verbatim from the lips of the Maharishi. The monkey in question, John would later claim, was Yoko.
Another under-appreciated side-four-of-‘The White Album’ treasure, wherein John twists the nursery rhyme ‘Sing A Song Of Sixpence’ into an eerie vaudevillian rock piece akin to Lewis Carroll going goth.
Arguably the Beatles song showing the greatest Dylan influence – Lennon even lands one of Bob’s trademark backflipping “hey”s in the chorus – ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ has been read as either a song about Brian Epstein’s homosexuality or Lennon’s frustration at having to keep his marriage secret.
More Jane Asher woes from Paul, delivered like a honeymoon serenade.
Paul’s balladry could verge on the schmaltzy and sentimental, but the gentle, pastoral tone of this ‘White Album’ favourite about the Maharishi struck a more idyllic note.
John’s Maharishi tribute, however, wasn’t quite so rosy. The last song he wrote at the retreat in Rishikesh, in the wake of hearing about the spiritual leader’s alleged advances on Mia Farrow, ‘Sexy Sadie’ became a sultry piano-led groover once Lennon had rewritten some of the more expletive-laden original lyrics.
Capturing the breathlessness of love at first sight, Paul presumably sang this fantastic bluegrass frenzy while breathing through his ears.
“A complete tune,” McCartney said of one of his favourite acoustic ballads, written with Donovan’s help in Rishikesh, throwing back to the rhumba numbers they played in Hamburg and featuring John on maracas.
John Lennon – “the laziest person in England”, according to friend Maureen Cleave – could even turn his lie-ins into melodic gold. Features the first backwards guitar solo in popular song.
Instigating a new form of mainstream songwriting in the shape of the multi-sectional song (see also: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Paranoid Android’, all prog music ever, etc.), Lennon himself separated the three parts of ‘Happiness…’ into ‘The Dirty Old Man’, ‘The Junkie’ and ‘The Gun Slinger’. All about shagging Yoko, apparently.
John relates a luxuriantly appointed – if rather short on furniture – one-night stand gone awry to the point of casual arson, while George introduces the sitar to Western audiences.
Cue Beatlemania! The band’s best-selling UK single and the song that launched a billion wobble-headed “woooo!”s (though Little Richard got there first).
The Beatles’ time on the ashram was one of their most productive songwriting periods, producing plenty of ‘White Album’ greats, not least John’s superlative pastoral rock plea to Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence to stop meditating for days on end.
The sheer simplicity and familiarity of The Beatles’ early hits often makes us forget how impactful they were – ‘From Me To You’ is so embedded in the bedrock of popular culture precisely because it hit like a pop revolution, set apart from the skiffle, blues, country and croon, and behind formative rock’n’roll. Almost 60 years on, it’s still breath-taking.
Not a drug song – I mean, what could possibly give you that idea? – Lennon’s psychedelic calling card was apparently actually inspired by a crazy painting his son Julian brought home from school. Still great on drugs, though.
Definitely a drug song, John’s garbled LSD conversation with Peter Fonda, set to three different tunes and two time signatures, lay the blueprint for acid rock which the noble heads of Haight Ashbury would soon follow.
With George, in surprise breadhead mode, slashing out acerbic chords and biting political lyrics, his song-bomb dropped on HMRC has been considered the first punk track. Certainly inspired The Jam’s ‘Start’.
Here’s another truth for you all: the Nowhere Man was John. ‘Rubber Soul’’s harmonic wonder came to him wholesale during a particularly lost and directionless morning. “I was starting to worry about him,” said Paul.
The true story of Melanie Coe running away from home, as read by McCartney in the Daily Mirror, and among the most touching and sophisticated ballads of all time.
‘Soppy Paul’ was never more adorable than on this feather bath of a love song. If Radox made records…
Its opening chord stopped the world and the rest of the title track from their debut film sent it into a breakneck spin. Not bad for a song written and recorded inside a day.
Getting his priorities straight early on, Paul defined The Beatles as categorically not in it for the money on their jubilant sixth single, a fact that publisher Dick James had already taken advantage of by screwing them on their contract.
“Ja, the god of marijuana,” reportedly gifted John this immaculate piece of drone pop that came to him in a spliff stupor – the-first ever reversed section on a pop record was the result of Lennon accidentally playing his tape backwards. You pull a whitey; Lennon invents psych rock.
Even with Phil Spector’s syrupy Golden Age orchestra drowning the track, Paul’s grand rambling anthem remains spectacularly powerful.
Even slowing his (ahem) homage to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ down to a sleazy crawl couldn’t stop ‘Come Together’ garnering Lennon a lawsuit. As part of an agreement with the plaintiff, Morris Levy, he’d have to record an entire album of covers (‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’) in 1975 to shake it off. In the realm of dank blues, though, The Beatles were never better. I’d get that joo-joo eyeball looked at though, mate.
At the very start of their very first album, The Beatles essentially summed up all of rock’n’roll to that point, perfected it – and then swiftly moved on.
Their best-selling single worldwide and the tune that made them the One Direction of their day. Still sounds like a pop revolution in the making.
Macca’s depiction of a simple fairground frolic summoned forth heavy metal; the slide must have been built over an ancient burial ground. Written to be as feral as possible in riposte to critics describing him as “the soppy one”.
Written to confuse those studying Beatles lyrics, ‘I Am The Walrus’ incorporated three Lennon songs stuck together, lines that came to him during acid trips, an old school song, George’s personal mantra from the Maharishi, references to Lewis Carroll, Hare Krishnas, Allen Ginsberg, Sergeant Pilcher of the British Police’s Drug Squad and a 16-person choir babbling nonsense. Eric Burdon of The Animals has claimed to be the Eggman.
John sang it through a smile that was more like a wince – he really was crying for help from the eye of the Beatlemania tornado – but the title track from The Fabs’ second film rattled by with such jubilance that nobody noticed. Also helped instil the belief that John and Paul were so close they could finish each other’s sentences.
As The Beatles fractured and frayed during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions, it was heartening to hear Paul and John clearly at the same microphone again, homeward bound, harmonising what sounded like a Simon & Garfunkel style ode to their own friendship: “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead…” (Spoiler: actually about Linda).
If ‘Julia’, Lennon’s tribute to his mother, was subdued, McCartney spared no bombast in honouring his own. He wrote her one of the greatest gospel ballads ever put to tape, following a dream in which she told him: “It will be alright. Just let it be.”
Describing the scenes that the young John, Paul and George would witness while waiting for buses en route to each other’s houses ‘Penny Lane’, married to its double A-side ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, injected a childlike magic into the psychedelic era.
Simplistic by design, in order to speak most directly to the global audience of the first international TV satellite broadcast Our World, John’s definitive flower power anthem proved a striking political statement in the age of Vietnam and Cold War hostility.
An “ode to pot”, as Macca once put it, Motown rocker ‘Get To Get You Into My Life’ was another late-‘Revolver’ statement that, as a studio band, The Beatles of 1966 had discarded any concept of boundary or limitation on their music. Still two-and-a-half of their most thrilling minutes.
John on a transcendental cosmic trip to the heart of the ‘60s. In 2008 it became the first song ever beamed into deep space when NASA played it at Polaris. Imagine the disappointment of the aliens showing up at the source only to find that LadBaby is Number One.
The best of McCartney’s tributes to the ‘20s on ‘The White Album’, thanks to a string section, marching band and a bit where it forgets itself and almost turns into a sequel to ‘Taxman’. The Martha in question, trivia fans, was Paul’s sheepdog.
John would call ‘In My Life’ his first major work (although Paul would claim to have written the music) thanks to its reflective and philosophical tone. Inspired a spate of albums featuring harpsichords, despite the solo actually being played on piano, then sped up.
Thomas Dekker’s Elizabethan poem ‘Cradle Song’ had been set to music by four previous composers before McCartney spotted it on some of his father’s sheet music and made up his own epic lullaby to it. Not that it’s too easy to drop off to a 30-piece orchestra going full balls, mind.
Famously working-titled ‘Scrambled Eggs’, Paul’s most successful Beatles song ($60 million in royalties and counting) came to him in a dream; he spent two weeks playing it to music industry people to try to work out who he’d stolen it from.
Lennon dismissed the song as “throwaway”, but it’s George’s molten mercury riffs that elevate ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ into the upper echelon of the Beatles canon. Marianne Faithfull claimed the song was directed at Mick Jagger, whom she dated in 1966; sadly, the dates don’t match up.
Taking loneliness, solemnity and death to the top of the charts, ‘Eleanor Rigby’’s tender, intimate chamber balladry shifted the goalposts in terms of what a pop band could do in 1966.
Spotify’s most-streamed Beatles song, written by George in Eric Clapton’s garden during what was, at the time, the sunniest April on record.
Paul in optimistic mood amid his increasingly turbulent relationship with Asher, playing off against John’s more pessimistic “life is very short” middle-eight waltz. Damn near to pop perfection.
Pop perfection, eh? The harmonies coming in on the third verse of ’All My Loving’ did for ‘60s pop what The Wizard Of Oz did for colour cinema.
Feeling the pain of the world’s wannabe Barbara Cartlands, McCartney penned this fictitious open letter to a publisher, spun into harmonic gold by the staggered – and staggering – vocal intro.
Paul’s civil rights plea is a ‘White Album’ high-point that remains The Beatles’ most poignant and accomplished folk moment.
The ascendance of George. Every bit the songwriting equal of his bandmates by ‘The White Album’, his tour-de-force was a captivating treatise on humanity’s unrealised capacity for love, topped off with Eric Clapton’s sensational, uncredited solo.
The Beatles’ greatest love song and second-most covered track (after ‘Yesterday’), written for Pattie Boyd and very nearly given to Joe Cocker. Elton John would call it “the song I’ve been chasing for 35 years.”
Even at a time when The Beatles were crushing musical barriers at every session, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was among their most ground-breaking moments. Strapping two different versions of the song together, smothered in Mellotron, tape loops, Indian swarmandal and backwards tomfoolery, they forged a psychedelic masterwork that set the tone and raised the bar for the era.
Won’t somebody think of the children? Well, Paul did, composing The Beatles’ most rousing sing-along to comfort Julian Lennon over the break-up of his parents. Rumour has it that if you put your ear to the ground at Glastonbury’s stone circle, you can hear the “na-na-na” bit from Macca’s set in 2004 still reverberating through the leyline.
The internal universe exploded; the everyday made epic. Lennon’s ‘Sgt. Pepper…’ closer viewed a series of newspaper articles – about the death of Guinness heir Tara Browne and road repairs in Lancashire – through LSD specs and came out with a world-beating vision. Includes arguably the most famous crescendo in rock.
It’s possible to trace the origins of most modern music, bar rap, back to The Beatles catalogue. But ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was perhaps their most influential track of all. In trying to recreate the sound in Lennon’s head of monks chanting in some cosmic mountain retreat, to accompany lines cribbed from the Tibetan Book Of The Dead intended to emulate a transcendental acid high, the band experimented with loops, sampling, drone and tape manipulation, creating not just the epitome of psychedelia and exposing pop audiences to anti-materialist Eastern ideas, but effectively inventing dance music.
Turn off your mind, relax, and you can hear The Chemical Brothers before The Chemical Brothers were even born…
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