Top Ten Beatles Songs for a Lapsed Beatles Fan
hen I was 14 I listened to The Beatles all the time. I stole the CDs of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour off my dad shortly after he bought me my first CD player. In hindsight they were an odd pair of albums for my dad to own—he’s not very psychedelic. But I’ve barely listened to them since I was about 17, since Massive Attack and Orbital and My Bloody Valentine and a million and one other things made me think The Beatles, while pretty good, weren’t quite as great as everyone said.
So you could call me a lapsed Beatles fan, if you like. Aren’t most of us, though? For anyone born after they split, The Beatles are a phase you go through, generally in early adolescence, and emerge on the other side as a better person. Much like spots, clothes that don’t quite fit, and too-frequent onanism.
But George and Giles Martin’s Love project has managed to rekindle an affection that has lain fallow for a decade. Cirque Du Soleil have next to no profile in the UK, and the release hasn’t had anywhere near the amount of coverage or marketing here as it has in the States, but the quality of it has still been enough to impel me to rush out and buy the Yellow Submarine Songtrack and the 1 compilation just to get another hit of remastered Beatles magic. The improvements on those two prior CDs aren’t as staggering as those on Love, but they’ll do for now, until Neil Aspinall and co. can finally deliver us the kind of luscious, detailed, sympathetic and exciting remastering job that The Beatles’ entire back catalogue deserves.
Culling The Beatles’ songbook to just ten numbers was painful—no “Hard Day’s Night,” no “Dear Prudence,” no “Hey Bulldog,” no “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” no “And Your Bird Can Sing,” no “Something,” no “Long Long Long,” no “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” no “Across the Universe,” no “Helter Skelter,” no “Strawberry Fields Forever,” no “Sexy Sadie”—this list could easily have been of twenty or thirty or more. I feel guilty and faintly idiotic over all the things I’ve left out, but there’s no other way to do it. I had to be brutal.
10. Hey Jude
Potentially this is a big albatross, but so many Beatles songs are and yet they still somehow manage to avoid succumbing totally to cringeworthiness. Big, singalong la-la-la songs don’t really do it for me when recorded because they always sound so fake and contrived—“Hey Jude” avoids that by being free, by being messy, by having McCartney hollering and scatting over the chorus-to-fade like a demented Scouser, which is precisely what he was, at least until “The Girl Is Mine.”
09. She Said She Said
Psychedelia isn’t just twirly pipe organs and tape loops—it’s confusion, emotion, abridged consciousness. “She Said She Said,” as well as being dangerously repetitive, is dirty, scuzzy, psycho-sexual. It’s about death, a woman, childhood, but mostly it’s about the rising melody as the title is sung, Lennon leaning back and straining upwards for some kind of revelation.
08. Come Together
When you’re nine years old you don’t think of The Beatles as being dark or groovy—they’re just an old pop band. I didn’t hear “Come Together” for years, despite it having been a number one and one of the most celebrated tunes in their songbook. Or maybe I did, and just didn’t recognize that deep, deep bass, shuffling rhythm and non-chorus as them. The subdued breakdown in the middle, insistent organ, and peripheral guitar, the vocal delivered more for tempo and rhythm than melody—lots of songs have been called “Come Together” over the years (Blur, MC5, and Primal Scream for starters), but this is the best one.
07. Tomorrow Never Knows
Lyrics pinched from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, breakbeat pinched by the Chemical Brothers. It’s a handbook itself, a gauntlet and guide to psychedelia that no one has properly taken up: those screaming seagull noises, Harrison’s drones, the entire collage of sounds. How the hell is this by the same band who produced “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” a mere three years before?
The most famous b-side ever? This is the moment at which the Beatles started to realize the full extent of their powers—when they first spun themselves backwards. “Rain” would sound tame as an exercise in psychedelic experimentation when placed next to the likes of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” if it weren’t so brutal, so dark, so sneering, and so dirty. Liam Gallagher has spent a decade and a half trying to sound even close to the whining majesty of Lennon’s cocksure yet insouciant delivery here.
05. I Am the Walrus
“I Am the Walrus” is all about George Martin. Sans the fifth Beatle, this is just Lennon sitting at an organ gibbering. Gifted with Martin’s genius, manifested here as an awesomely woozy string arrangement and stereoscopic found-sound radio effects, it becomes one of the most iconic moments in a back catalogue littered with iconic moments. The remastered version on Love gives a scope to the soundscape and an intimacy to Lennon’s vocal that was never there before—when he devolves to repeating “jubba jubba” towards the end, there is real spite in his enunciation, the nonsense suddenly threatening like it never has on CD before.
04. We Can Work It Out
It’s easy to forget amid the shower of psychedelia that what The Beatles really did best was perfect, three minute pop songs. Brief and sweet, “We Can Work It Out” is one of the few songs I can fully empathize with philosophically—“Life is very short / And there’s no time / For fussing and fighting my friend.” Not just that, but it’s compositionally exceptional too. That time change for “fussing and fighting,” that transforms it into a brief waltz respite from the pace of the verse is an unexpected and sophisticated switch that alters the entire context of the tune.
03. Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Googling titles of Beatles songs turns up mad shit. One result for “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is a full-on musicological analysis, describing it as a “teleological medley,” which I can well believe (teleology being something I most associate with philosophical refutations of divinity rather than pop songs). Steve’s Beatles lists a host of anomalies in the recording, detailing a “high pitched twitter” at 1:34 and a tempo change at 1:50 which Ringo bizarrely doesn’t take part in. There’s more—much more—out there, but what “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” boils down to is five oddly-connected musical sections; a bizarre lyric concerning lizards, soap, and hobnail boots; and Lennon’s most overtly sexual moment prior to the cover of Two Virgins (assuming, of course, that one considers that image sexual at all) as he wails about feeling his “finger on your trigger.” It’s strange, it’s awesome, and it embodies the disparate creativity of The White Album’s thirty tracks in under three minutes.
02. Paperback Writer
I would say that “Paperback Writer” is all about McCartney’s bass, if it weren’t for the faintly bizarre yet wonderful lyrical conceit (can you think of any other major single about wanting to be an author?) (not that that’s what it’s about) (only, for a nine-year-old, that’s what it IS about), the incongruous “Frère Jacques” backing vocals (allegedly a Beach Boys “tribute”—specifically “Sloop John B” which charted two weeks before this was recorded), or the leanness of the tune itself (It’s a shade less than two-and-a-half minutes). It might be a satire of the constraints of the creative process, or it might not—I’ve never really considered it as being anything other than a face-value catchy pop song that, actually, rocks pretty hard.
01. Baby You’re a Rich Man
From the rumbling, accelerating-decelerating bassline upwards through Lennon’s falsetto questioning in the verses, the madly spiralling clavoline whirling wildly down one side, the piano and the great big raucous chorus about keeping “your money in a big brown bag inside a zoo.” One myth about it is that Lennon sings “baby you’re a rich fag Jew” during the fade-out as a less-than polite tribute to Brian Epstein, who overdosed and died only months later. If Lennon did, I can’t hear it. “Baby You’re a Rich Man” isn’t The Beatles’ most celebrated, radical, popular, fun, or unusual song, but I love it. The arrangement features an array of instruments but still maintains a starkness, reliant on the bass guitar and occasional odd stabbing hooks. I’m not sure quite what it is about this tune, but I loved it when I was 14 and I still do thirteen years later.