This week I have read Hunter Davies’ biography of the Beatles. An excellent book, which has prompted me to reassess my love of the band. Well, not reassess exactly, but it’s reminded me – and really, how dare I forget – just how damn good they were, and it’s helped me to appreciate what groundbreakers they were early on.
Most of the music I heard in my early years was classical, but my parents owned copies of the Red and Blue albums, which I discovered for myself when I was about six or seven years old, I think. I can remember falling in love with the Beatles and listening to them over and over, but I don’t recall exactly just how mindblowing it presumably was for this to have been practically the first pop music I knew. I probably didn’t appreciate at the time just how spoiled I was.
I listened to the Blue album much more than the Red one, and not without reason. Penny Lane, Here Comes The Sun, A Day In The Life, Hello Goodbye, Lady Madonna… Just looking at the titles makes me feel almost dizzy. And the fact that it was on vinyl, too, that one had to turn it over periodically or change records. The idea of an album being split into sections like this is alien now that we listen to everything on CDs or MP3 players or computers. I’m not a vinyl fetishist exactly, but it made the experience of listening seem more real than it does today, to be able to hold the music and turn it over in your hand. Look at the track listing:
The Beatles 1967-1970
Apple PCSP 718 – April 19, 1973
LP Side 1
Strawberry Fields Forever
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
With A Little Help From My Friends
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
A Day In The Life
All You Need Is Love
LP Side 2
I Am The Walrus
The Fool On The Hill
Magical Mystery Tour
LP Side 3
Back In The U.S.S.R.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Don’t Let Me Down
The Ballad Of John and Yoko
Old Brown Shoe
LP Side 4
Here Comes The Sun
Let It Be
Across The Universe
The Long And Winding Road
No one can look at such a list and claim this isn’t the greatest band in the world. By the time I was about ten I was borrowing the original albums from the library (on tape) and making copies for myself. I still have the tapes. It seems a very old-fashioned way of doing things now, but I like to imagine that there are still children of that age discovering old albums in the library.
With this blog being a good place to post videos, I decided it might be nice to have a look at, say, ten songs that are perhaps not among their best known. However, with the copyright of Beatles songs being what it is, most videos are not embeddable from YouTube. So there’s just the one video watchable directly on this page, and the rest available as links. I decided to restrict myself to songs not released as UK singles and have only included one song from either of the Red or Blue albums. Nevertheless, the final ten choices have ended up looking very populist. That’s because everyone presumably knows every Beatles song forwards and backwards already, and those not known best in versions by the Beatles have been covered by others. But if there are any here you don’t happen to know, please have a closer look and listen.
Today, as was the case twenty years ago, my preference is for middle- and late-period Beatles. Until revisiting the albums recently, I’d have said you could take everything from before Rubber Soul and chuck it. But I’ve ended up choosing three pre-Rubber Soul songs, and not simply for tokenistic reasons.
First up is I Wanna Be Your Man, which in 1963 was better known as a single by the Rolling Stones than in this version, despite being a Lennon and McCartney song. I nearly didn’t choose it, but I have realised that it is the Beatles song that more than any other transports me back to a particular place and time, though whether the memory is accurate or not I don’t know. I have visions of myself, aged about eleven, having a shower on a Sunday night and then dancing around and applying deodorant and/or aftershave in the manner of Macaulay Culkin. It doesn’t sound like me, but if not then why do I remember it? It certainly made me want to jump about. And it’s nice to have a song where the often unfairly maligned Ringo sings the lead vocal.
Next, Things We Said Today. Getting a bit more sophisticated now. And it’s fascinating to watch the video and remind oneself just how frightening Beatlemania was. Has so much communal teenage girl sexuality been aroused before or since? Not a chance. If only I could have been there.
That song was written for the film A Hard Day’s Night, and the next one, You’re Going To Lose That Girl, was written for the follow-up, Help. I suppose some people might dismiss this as bubblegum, but I challenge you to find a better pop song. Particularly worth watching this one, I think, given it’s a video rather than a photo montage, and not without its moments of comedy.
Actually, if there is a better pop song than that, it may easily be one of the following. Rubber Soul is where the Beatles really take off for me, and You Won’t See Me is one of its highlights. I love its confidence and drive.
The next album produced was Revolver, one of the several I always end up vacillating between when trying to decide my favourite. We all know Eleanor Rigby and the horrible Yellow Submarine, but my choices would be Here, There and Everywhere, a song that gives the impression of having been born rather than composed, and I Want To Tell You, the only one of George Harrison’s songs to make this list. Here Comes The Sun and Something are probably the Beatles songs I love most of all, but I wanted to choose something a little less well known here. It sounds somehow muddy, which I’ve always liked. George should have been celebrating his 68th birthday today. RIP.
The best thing I’ve got out of my immersion in the Beatles is that last night I actually listened to a couple of the albums from beginning to end for the first time in years. Sgt. Pepper is so famous and celebrated that criticism seems pointless, but it’s not an album I have generally liked very much. Approaching it again, from a distance, it appears to be the masterpiece everyone else always said it was, and, predictably, I have chosen She’s Leaving Home. Ned Rorem (and if anyone should know, he probably should) compared it with Schubert’s greatest songs. I happen to think that’s an indefensible opinion, but it stands on its own terms as — the most poignant song of the twentieth century? Perhaps. Paul wrote it, nominally, but the instrumental arrangement, which seems so inextricably a part of the song, is by Mike Leander.
I hadn’t noticed until I was writing this out that Paul’s love songs dominate the list to such an extent. I’m sure that’s an indication of my personal tastes. I seem to respond to his songs more readily than to John’s, though this isn’t a competition. I Will, like Here, There and Everywhere, is a classic, one of Paul’s sweetest utterances and a masterpiece of concision.
But the last two belong to John. And to Billy Preston, one of my favourite Beatles collaborators. I think that even when I was very young I picked up on his keyboard playing as something very exciting. He plays the Hammond organ in I Want You (She’s So Heavy), the longest proper song in the Beatles catalogue, and perhaps the closest they ever got to prog rock. And he is the keyboardist on the rhapsodic Don’t Let Me Down. The video here is taken from their rooftop concert, quite as enjoyable to watch as social history as it is as a record of their last performance together. With the band disintegrating, they still produce something unspeakably special, though not all of the observers seem to appreciate they are witnessing history.
How many songs did they leave behind? Two or three hundred, I suppose. And I could have made ten lists like this one. I wake up and I hear the sound of Good Day Sunshine and I feel happy to be alive. And I’m indirectly indebted to them for the name of this blog too, so I thank them for that.