10 Beatles songs

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
Penny Lane
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
Hello Goodbye
The Fool On The Hill
Magical Mystery Tour
Lady Madonna
Hey Jude
Revolution

LP Side 3
Back In The U.S.S.R.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Get Back
Don’t Let Me Down
The Ballad Of John and Yoko
Old Brown Shoe

LP Side 4
Here Comes The Sun
Come Together
Something
Octopus’s Garden
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.

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8 Responses to “10 Beatles songs”

  1. Evie Says:

    Thanks for a lovely article. I still have my Blue album on vinyl – my brother had the Red one. I too have always preferred the Blue, but with some exceptions – couldn’t live without Eleanor Rigby, for example, though that always feels as though it should be on the Blue album!

    The screaming girls did become a fashion – there were equally riotous scenes when the Osmonds or David Cassidy came to the UK – a balcony at Heathrow collapsed on one of the Osmond arrivals, because of all the girls crushing onto it. I remember the first time I saw Bob Dylan live in concert – I didn’t scream, nor did anyone else, but I understood completely why those girls had screamed all through Beatles concerts. I just couldn’t believe I was in the same space as someone so incredible and who I loved so much.

    Lovely list of songs too – have just listened to She’s Leaving Home, which has always been a favourite. Often orchestral arrangements don’t work in pop songs, but in Beatles songs, they are magnificent, and here they enhance the sense of heartbreak. I always felt for the girl, though, and wanted to know more about her – I longed to leave home, though when I did it wasn’t the liberating experience I was expecting it to be.

    The Beatles are beyond anything – hard to put my finger on what it is that makes them so special. It’s more than that they wrote brilliant songs – why could none of them (not even Lennon) produce anything approaching that sort of brilliance on their own? There is a timelessness to the songs that is still breathtaking. I even love Yellow Submarine, but that’s a nostalgia thing, I think.

    As for youtube – Sony won’t allow Bob Dylan tracks to be posted there, so you can’t get many at all, let alone embed them elsewhere. So I am glad at least that we have some great videos of the Beatles still freely available. Will follow some of your other links in due course.

    • Gareth Says:

      I’m sure there are screaming girls today who go to concerts by Westlife and Boy’s Own or whatever the hell they call themselves, but never in such numbers and not presumably going so far as to attack physically or send death threats to the wives and girlfriends of the band members, which is what happened in the Beatles’ case. It’s presumably a sociological phenomenon linked to the time it happened. Many studies must have been made into it.

      As far as orchestral arrangements go, I must confess I particularly love Phil Spector’s work on The Long and Winding Road, though Paul famously abhorred it. I prefer it to the pared-down version that was released a few years ago. At least Paul should be safe from Spector now…

      • Evie Says:

        Don’t forget that some of us were around back in the day… ;0) I have certainly never seen anything like it since the early 70s. There was certainly violence when an Osmond marriage was hinted at (even if it was a love interest for Little Jimmy!); fortunately by the time Donny married, the mania was past and no one took much notice. It has to be said that it’s more understandable in the case of the Beatles, but I understood the Osmond/Cassidy thing at the time – I watched it all on TV, but knew how they all felt, and longed to go and see them so that I could be one of the screaming thousands!

  2. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    “Until revisiting the albums recently, I’d have said you could take everything from before Rubber Soul and chuck it.”

    Of course, as I’m sure you know, “Yesterday” featured on the album “Help”, which pre-dated “Rubber Soul”.

    Just one point: isn’t “Taxman” on the “Revolver” album”? And isn’t that a George Harrison song? Or am I getting it all mixed up?

    My first job was for Littlewoods in Liverpool, just a few hundred yeards from where the Cavern Club used to be. Where the Cavern club used to be was then (and possibly still is) a car park, and every lunchtime, I used to see tourists from all around the world taking pictures of a car park. penny lane and Strawberry fields are real places. back in the late 80s (when I was in Liverpool), the shelter in the middle of the roundabout used to house Sgt Pepper’s Fried Chicken. And, while you may think that I have never had my hair cut, ever, I actually did get my hair cut once in the barber’s shop in Penny Lane which used to have a notice in its front window saying “This shop was mentioned in the Lennon-McCartney song ‘Penny Lane’ ”

    I used to be such a Beatles fan that I recognise every single one of the allegedly obscure songs you mention. It’s such a shame that john lennon turned into such a pretentious git, and Paul McCartney recorded “Mull of Kintyre”. Tragic, tragic. But George Harrison did used to tuen up at gatherings of the Grorge Formby fan club and sing George Formby songs with the ukulele; and Ringo did marry Barbara Bach. That shows a touch of class, at least.

    • Gareth Says:

      I knew I’d forget something! Yes, of course Yesterday is indispensable, though I think it’s the only pre-Rubber Soul song that I couldn’t do without, love several others though I do. A few years ago Peter Maxwell Davies chose Yesterday as one of his Desert Island Discs, citing the point of interest that it can be sung in canon with itself. I tried it out, and it appears to be the case. So I listen to it in a different way thanks to him.

      There are three Harrison songs on Revolver, but I meant that I Want To Tell You is the only Harrison song to make my own list of ten.

      Lennon was always a git, as is all too evident from the book I’ve just read. I’m not sure his hooking up with Yoko made too much difference. All of them (even Ringo) have made some good records in the years since, but they are doomed to be remembered for their work in the ’60s, and there’s no shame in that.

  3. Mike A Says:

    As a 9 or 10 year old I formed a very negative opinion of the Beatles. This was on the basis of the dismal Beatles songs we had to sing in school choir – stuff like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Yellow Submarine”, which I loathe to this day. But around age 13 I discovered the good stuff – Pepper, Revolver, Rubber Soul, etc.

    I lean far more toward’s John’s songs than Paul’s (Eleanor Rigby being a notable exception). And I think it’s too easy to dismiss the early songs – whilst perhaps not as interesting as the later work, heard next to their contemporaries they are noticeably more innovative. And boy do they rock! Claire and I saw the Bootleg Beatles a while back (highly recommended, by the way) and it was striking just how good those early songs are. Also extraordinary to see the diversity, quality and sheer quantity of their output over a period of less than 10 years. I don’t think there’s a band to rival them on that score.

    Lennon was a git to be sure – no doubt very bright, but at the same time superficial and bitchy, and, like so many brilliant creatives, a “difficult” character. He had a severely screwed up childhood, of course. I do think his post-Beatles work, though patchy, was the best of the bunch – as with the Beatles, this was partly dependent on working with some very good producers and arrangers, who seldom get the credit they deserve.

    • Gareth Says:

      I think it may have been Maxwell’s Silver Hammer that made me realise there was a Beatles beyond the songs I knew from the Red and Blue LPs and set me off investigating the albums. I heard it on the radio on the bus to school one morning when I was probably nine and I recognised Paul McCartney’s voice and eventually tracked it down on Abbey Road. I used to go to Woolworths after school and look at the track listings on the back of the albums wondering what the songs sounded like. A silly song, but I still like it. From an early age, imaginative use of harmony was the thing that grabbed me more than anything else (and still is), the result of listening to Ravel and Kodaly and people like that, and Maxwell is at least slightly more interesting than Yellow Submarine on that front.

      Hunter Davies is very good at contextualising just how revolutionary the Beatles were in the early years. Their main competition came from the Shadows, so it’s no wonder everyone went wild for them. And their later songs, for all that they gained in sophistication, did lose something in excitement. Polish at the expense of rawness. Perhaps you can’t have your cake and eat it. I can barely imagine how exciting it must have been to see them perform Twist and Shout live. (But I’d still choose Come Together. Best opening album track ever?)

      I feel a bit guilty for writing elsewhere today that John had a negligible mind. He was extremely quick-witted, but I’m not sure there was ever much depth to his thought. Unfair to pick on Imagine, but it’s right up there with the Frog Chorus in the profundity stakes. Reading about Lennon’s childhood in the book has added something to my understanding of Julia, which is surely the most beautiful song he wrote while he was in the Beatles. Now I can hear it knowing of the sadness of his mother being cruelly taken away just as he was getting to know her, it’s a desperately poignant song.

  4. MikeAlx Says:

    Thought I’d post a list of ten favourites, trying to avoid the most obvious ones.

    1. And Your Bird Can Sing
    2. I’m Only Sleeping
    3. Tomorrow Never Knows
    4. Michelle
    5. Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite
    6. Do You Want to Know a Secret*
    7. Hey Bulldog
    8. In my Life
    9. Julia
    10. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

    *I actually prefer Billy J Kramer & the Dakotas’ version of this (Sacrilege!)

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