The Beatles are now are now on Spotify. YAY! Oh how we’ve waited for this day.
You may already know the more famous tracks and stories. About Twist and Shout and Beatlemania. About Ringo’s drumming on Rain, Paul’s forlorn Yesterday, George’s Something or John popularising feedback on I Feel Fine. About Tomorrow Never Knows moving popular music forward about 30 years whilst simultaneously baffling the world. About the orgasmic orchestra on A Day In The Life or solos at The End or bla bla bla goo goo ga joob. We don’t need to dwell on these.
(but if you do, go binge watch the excellent Anthology DVDs)
Instead, here’s some of my favourite Beatles songs that I think are either overlooked, misinterpreted, have an interesting backstory, or are just so damn good I wanna shout about them from the rooftops. Accompanied by a playlist, obvs.
10. Dizzy Miss Lizzy
Though renowned for their own songwriting, the best examples of their early energy is often their cover versions. Here’s one of the best, a tearing Lennon vocal with Harrison’s signature guitar repeated throughout.
Tip: This song will immediately get a wedding dance floor jiving with each and every guest, young and old. Particularly effective if you just married a girl called Liz, as I did this summer.
9. This Boy
This throwaway 2 minute B-Side is a perfect love song. Their grasp of melody from so early in their career is undisputed, but it’s Lennon that steals the show with his desperate vocal and piercing cry.
Driven by a rivalry with The Beach Boys, John, Paul and George would later push their vocals further (see Nowhere Man, Because). But here they are at their most raw and unpolished, just three kids in their early 20’s singing a beautiful song.
8. Only A Northern Song
In any other band he’d be branded a genius, but in The Beatles Harrison was often sidelined. Only A Northern Song shows George’s frustration vented through sonic experiments recorded during the Sgt Pepper sessions, but quietly released on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.
It doesn’t really matter what chords I play
What words I say or time of day it is
As it’s only a Northern Song.
These lyrics relate not only to his lack of creative opportunities, but to the business arrangements at the time. Northern Songs was a publishing company setup in 1963 to exploit usage of all Beatles songs. As most were penned by Lennon/McCartney, they were offered 15% of the company each. Harrison got just 1%.
In later years, Harrison wrote more and more songs (Taxman, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Something), but his share of the company did not increase. Therefore, for a time, John and Paul were earning more publishing revenue from George’s songs than George was himself. Welcome to the music biz, George.
For those with an interest in the business side, the story continues. Northern Songs was floated on the stock exchange in 1965, then bought by Associated Television (ATV) four years later. In one of the shrewdest business moves of the decade, Michael Jackson bought ATV in 1985 for a bargain price of $50m, thankfully putting an end to any more dreadful Macca collaborations.
ATV merged with Sony Publishing in 1995 to form SonyATV, now the largest music publisher globally.
Well I find it interesting anyway.
7. Oh! Darling
It’s 1969, and The Beatles are close to splitting. They’re together for one last hurrah, a recording stint that would become the album Abbey Road.
Though they no longer write collaboratively, they’re still fiercely competitive. Macca writes an old style rocker that needs a screaming vocal, but instead of passing it to Lennon (who’s voice would suit it perfectly) he stubbornly keeps the track for himself.
John is furious, but Paul is determined to do it justice. He arrives early at the studio every morning for a week to heavily practise the vocal. By the Friday his voice has been torn to shreds, allowing him to record the strained, last ditch take take we hear on the finished version. Take that, John.
6. For No One
‘Revolver’ is justifiably lauded by critics, but For No One is often overlooked in favour of the more famous Eleanor Rigby. It stands out to me as one of the most heartbreaking Beatles tracks, and is a testament to the evolution of Paul’s songwriting.
At its core is a standard breakup song but rather than focus on the teenage emotions, we’re led through the seemingly mundane day-to-day moments that hurtle us towards the obvious conclusion.
There’s no intro or closing. We feel the claustrophobic relationship engulfing us as we’re thrown into the start of a day, the denial, the descending chords we can’t stop falling, the proud but defeated french horn and, eventually, the realisation that though you won’t forget her, it’s over.
You want her, you need her
And yet you don’t believe her when she says her love is dead
You think she needs you
And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years
You stay home, she goes out
She says that long ago she knew someone but now he’s gone
She doesn’t need him
5. Good Night
The White Album is essentially 3 solo albums from three men at their creative peaks. For me, its diversity, depth and breadth place it above all other LPs, Beatles or otherwise. (and no it’s not “too long”)
Good Night is the epic closer that nobody heard, being placed after the 8 minute noise-fest of Revolution 9 . It’s so unexpected, many forget it even exists.
Lavish strings twitter and twirl towards us as a soothing voice bids us farewell. But who’s voice is it? Most assume Paul but no, it is (of course) Ringo, and he nails it. Where once he sung about Boys, Yellow Submarines and Octupus’ Gardens, here he’s the ultimate 50’s crooner. A stroke of genius, and the only move more surprising than 8 minutes of noise.
4. We Can Work It Out
Whether they were collaborating with, reacting to, or competing against the other, the Lennon and McCartney relationship elevated both to ever higher levels of genius. Here’s an example of the former.
McCartney’s relentless optimism refuses to accept that his relationship (with Jane Asher, in case you’re curious) is over. With most of the song finished, Macca turns to Lennon to ask if he has any ideas for a bridge. His typically negative input is the perfect juxtaposition, and transforms the song entirely.
Life is very short, and there’s no time
For fussing and fighting my friend.
This story is well documented, but it’s often forgotten that it was Harrison who suggested switching Lennon’s bridge to a slow waltz tempo, resulting in the stretched harmonium bleeding over Lennon’s voice of resignation. It’s the icing on the cake of another perfect song.
Released at the end of ’65, this would sadly be one of the last songs to be written so collaboratively.
3. In My Life
Lives change. People grow up. We leave our birthplace and return as different people. Friendships fade. New ones appear. For the nostalgic among us, we’ll always fondly remember times passed. But In My Life puts it all into perspective…
But of all these friends and lovers,
There is no one compares with you,
And these memories lose their meaning,
When I think of love as something new,
Though I know I’ll never lose affection,
For people and things that went before,
I know I’ll often stop and think about them,
In my life, I love you more.
Though well known, for me In My Life even eclipses any of Paul’s more renowned sentimental offerings, such as Yesterday or Penny Lane. The original lyrics (now on display at the British Library) even listed Liverpool landmarks, just as Penny Lane later would.
John’s life had changed beyond compare by 1965. The life he once knew was gone, never to return. This song marks the first time he started to look inwards to write about himself and his own life.
This is another collaboration, this time including the underrated fifth Beatle George Martin. Paul helped write the middle 8 and pushed John to make the lyrics more universal (though this is disputed). But they still had an instrumental break to fill. John asked George Martin to fill it with “something Baroque sounding”. Martin obliged with a slow piano solo, then sped the tape up until it sounded more akin to a harpsichord, the finishing touch to one of the most perfect songs ever written.
Help, I need somebody
Help, not just anybody
Help, you know I need someone.
We all know and love this song, it’s anything but overlooked. We’ve danced joyously to this 2 minute slice of pop genius thousands of times. But have we ever truly listened to the words? Seeing them written so starkly reminds us what this song is – a desperate plea for help. John had already tried singing “I’m a Loser, and I’m not what I appear to be” a year earlier. Nobody noticed, so he tried again.
I knew I really was crying out for help. So it was my fat Elvis period. You see the movie: he – I – is very fat, very insecure, and he’s completely lost himself. And I am singing about when I was so much younger and all the rest, looking back at how easy it was.
John Lennon, Playboy interview 1980
People forget how constrained The Beatles were, they had to operate within the realms of Popular music. Blues or Country singers had been singing their woes for decades, but it just wasn’t done in Pop music at the time. Other artists before and since have experimented and pushed boundaries, but none did so whilst simultaneously appealing to the masses.
It is of course a wonderful song in itself, particularly Paul’s counterpoint vocals and George’s descending guitar at the end of each verse. But it’s all about John. It breaks my heart to hear him sing these words, particularly in the live versions accompanied by screaming, adoring fans.
Let’s keep joyously dancing to Help, but in the back of our mind let’s remember that even the most gifted among us are hiding insecurities that may never fade.
1. She’s Leaving Home
As their songwriting progressed John looked inwards (In My Life, Help, Julia) whilst Paul looked outwards to seek inspiration from others. The Beatles didn’t do social commentary, they left that to Dylan and, occasionally, The Stones. Instead, Paul’s seemingly flippant stories offer an equalling compelling insight into the lives of others.
Though impactful at the time, She’s Leaving Home has become a forgotten Sgt Pepper gem for us younger fans. It’s the heartbreaking story of a teenage girl running away from her parents home with a “man from the auto trade”, a glamorous trade in ’67. Paul wrote the narrative, whilst John wrote from the perspective of the heartbroken parents.
This is a poignant story that would have been common for the time. Nowadays it’s easy to forget the enormous generation gap that existed between the Great Generation who’d just fought a war, and the Baby Boomers who just wanted to move on and create their own history.
The Beatles will forever be the reluctant voice of the latter group, but here they instantly gave a voice to the elder generation who were unable to tell their children their own story. Who better to tell it than the most listened to men on the planet?
Rather than add some lyrics, here’s a quote from an interview 40 years later with the exact same young girl who’s story in a newspaper inspired Macca to write the song. There’s a lesson for us all, especially at Christmas – Let’s put our family differences behind us before it’s too late.
I can’t listen to the song. It’s just too sad for me. My parents died a long time ago and we were never resolved. That line, “She’s leaving home after living alone for so many years” is so weird to me because that’s why I left. I was so alone.
Melanie Coe (the girl who ran away), interviewed in 2008
The Encore: All You Need Is Love
OK, one more. Let’s finish on a high.
Rather than endlessly Na Na Na-ing to Hey Jude, I wish this got more attention as the go-to Beatles anthem. We all know the simple chorus, but the verses hold an inspiring message that incapsulates the hope and dreams of the time. For anyone who’s ever felt the world before them was a closed door with no way in, these words from Lennon should be enough to jolt you into action. We can’t achieve the impossible but we can all, every one of us, get as close as anyone else.
Picture the scene: It’s June 1967. Two World Wars are fresh in the memory. Mankind is taking its first steps into space, and the swinging 60’s are hitting their peak in what would retrospectively be known as the Summer of Love.
Using the latest satellite technology, global broadcasters have collaborated to broadcast ‘Our World’ the first globally live TV show. Each country had a slot to fill; we have the US at a political retreat, Canadians herding cattle, the Japanese building a subway, and the Australians explaining trams (no, really). And then it’s the UK’s turn.
There’s The Beatles (and notable friends) huddled in Abbey Road. After an awkward couple of seconds of George Martin in the control room a trumpet announces their arrival, and they start playing.
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.
Nothing you can know that isn’t known,
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown,
Nowhere you can be, you’re where you’re meant to be,
All you need is love.
(All together now)
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE.
Well said. Merry Christmas, everybody.