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100 Greatest Beatles Songs

From ‘Helter Skelter’ to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ ranking of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison’s output

100, Greatest, Beatles, Songs

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By Elvis Costello

I first heard of the Beatles when I was nine years old. I spent most of my holidays on Merseyside then, and a local girl gave me a bad publicity shot of them with their names scrawled on the back.

This was 1962 or ’63, before they came to America. The photo was badly lit, and they didn’t quite have their look down; Ringo had his hair slightly swept back, as if he wasn’t quite sold on the Beatles haircut yet.

I didn’t care about that; they were the band for me. The funny thing is that parents and all their friends from Liverpool were also curious and proud about this local group. Prior to that, the people in show business from the north of England had all been comedians. The Beatles even recorded for Parlophone, which was a comedy label, as if they believed they might be a passing novelty act.

I was exactly the right age to be hit by them full-on. My experience — seizing on every picture, saving money for singles and EPs, catching them on a local news show — was repeated over and over again around the world. It wasn’t the first time anything like this had happened, but the Beatles achieved a level of fame and recognition known previously only to Charlie Chaplin, Brigitte Bardot and Elvis Presley, along with a little of the airless exclusivity of astronauts, former presidents and other heavyweight champions.

Every record was a shock. Compared to rabid R&B evangelists like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles arrived sounding like nothing else. They had already absorbed Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry, but they were also writing their own songs. They made writing your own material expected, rather than exceptional.

And John Lennon and Paul McCartney were exceptional songwriters; McCartney was, and is, a truly virtuoso musician; George Harrison wasn’t the kind of guitar player who tore off wild, unpredictable solos, but you can sing the melodies of nearly all of his breaks. Most important, they always fit right into the arrangement. Ringo Starr played the drums with an incredibly unique feel that nobody can really copy, although many fine drummers have tried and failed. Most of all, John and Paul were fantastic singers.

Lennon, McCartney and Harrison had stunningly high standards as writers. Imagine releasing a song like “Ask Me Why” or “Things We Said Today” as a B side. They made such fantastic records as “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain” or “Penny Lane” b/w “Strawberry Fields Forever” and only put them out as singles. These records were events, and not just advance notice of an album. Then they started to really grow up: simple love lyrics to adult stories like “Norwegian Wood,” which spoke of the sour side of love, and on to bigger ideas than you would expect to find in catchy pop lyrics.

They were the first group to mess with the aural perspective of their recordings and have it be more than just a gimmick. Engineers like Geoff Emerick invented techniques that we now take for granted, in response to the group’s imagination. Before the Beatles, you had guys in lab coats doing recording experiments, but you didn’t have rockers deliberately putting things out of balance, like a quiet vocal in front of a loud track on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” You can’t exaggerate the license that this gave to everyone from Motown to Jimi Hendrix.

My absolute favorite albums are Rubber Soul and Revolver. On both records you can hear references to other music — R&B, Dylan, psychedelia — but it’s not done in a way that is obvious or dates the records. When you picked up Revolver, you knew it was something different. Heck, they are wearing sunglasses indoors in the picture on the back of the cover and not even looking at the camera . . . and the music was so strange and yet so vivid. If I had to pick a favorite song from those albums, it would be “And Your Bird Can Sing” . . . no, “Girl” . . . no, “For No One” . . . and so on, and so on. . . .

Their breakup album, Let It Be, contains songs both gorgeous and jagged. I suppose ambition and human frailty creeps into every group, but they delivered some incredible performances. I remember going to Leicester Square and seeing the film of Let It Be in 1970. I left with a melancholy feeling.

Someone recently gave me an assembly of newsreel footage, which illustrates how swiftly the band was drained of the bright and joyful wit presented as a public face.

In one early sequence, McCartney tells reporters that they will soon appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and then points into the camera: “There he is, hi, Ed, and Mrs. Ed” — “and Mr. Ed,” chimes Ringo. It might have been practiced, but it plays entirely off-the-cuff.

Just a year later, they are seen at a press conference in Los Angeles for their final tour. Suits and ties are a thing of the past. Staring down a series of dismal attempts at provocation from the press corps, they look exhausted and disenchanted.

When probed by one blowhard to respond to a Time magazine critique that “Day Tripper” was about a prostitute and “Norwegian Wood” about a lesbian, McCartney responds, “We were just trying to write songs about prostitutes and lesbians.” In the laughter that follows, he mutters, “Cut.” They were giving the impression that the game was up, but in truth, they were just getting started.

The word “Beatlesque” has been in the dictionary for quite a while now. You hear them in Harry Nilsson’s melodies; in Prince’s Around the World in a Day; in the hits of ELO and Crowded House and in Ron Sexsmith’s ballads. You can hear that Kurt Cobain listened to the Beatles and mixed their ideas with punk and metal. They can be heard in all sorts of one-off wonders from the Knickerbockers’ “Lies” and the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action.” The scope and license of the White Album has permitted everyone from OutKast to Radiohead to Green Day to Joanna Newsom to roll their picture out on a broader, bolder canvas.

Now, I’ll admit that I’ve stolen my share of Beatles licks, but around the turn of the Nineties, I got to co-write 12 songs with Paul McCartney and even dared to propose that he too reference some of the Beatles’ harmonic signatures — as, astonishingly, he had made up another musical vocabulary for Wings and during his solo career.

In 1999, a little time after Linda McCartney’s passing, Paul performed at the Concert for Linda, organized by Chrissie Hynde. During the rehearsal, I was singing harmony on a Ricky Nelson song with him, and Paul called out the next tune: “All My Loving.”

I said, “Do you want me to take the harmony line the second time round?” And he said, “Yeah, give it a try.” I’d only had 35 years to learn the part. There was inevitably a poignant feeling to this song, written long before he had even met Linda:

Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you
Tomorrow I’ll miss you
Remember I’ll always be true.

At the show, it was very different. The second Paul sang the opening lines, the crowd’s reaction was so intense that it all but drowned the song out. It was very thrilling, but also disconcerting.

Perhaps I understood in that moment one of the reasons why the Beatles had to stop performing. The songs weren’t theirs anymore. They belonged to everybody.

This is an updated version of an essay that appeared in RS 946.

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100

‘Hello, Goodbye’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: October 2, 19, 25 and November 2, 1967
Released: November 27, 1967
11 weeks; No. 1

McCartney never claimed that the irresistibly bounce "Hello, Goodbye" was his most profound songwriting moment. "It's just a song of duality, with me advocating the more positive," he said. Brian Epstein's assistant Alistair Taylor remembered McCartney getting the idea while demonstrating how to write a song: "He had a marvelous old hand-carved harmonium. [He told me to] hit any note on the keyboard . . . and I'll do the same. Whenever I shout out a word, you shout the opposite, and I'll make up a tune. 'Black,' he started. 'White,' I replied. 'Yes.' 'No.' 'Hello.' 'Goodbye.'" Although the song would be Number One for three weeks in the U.S. and for seven weeks in the U.K., Lennon was not impressed. "['I Am the Walrus'] was the B side to 'Hello, Goodbye,'" he said incredulously. "Can you believe it?"

Appears On: Magical Mystery Tour

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99

‘Yes It Is’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 16, 1965
Released: April 19, 1965
4 weeks; No. 46 (B side)

As he was with much of his early work, Lennon was dismissive of "Yes It Is"; he said it was "me trying a rewrite of 'This Boy,' but it didn't work." But "Yes It Is" features some of the most intricate vocals of any Beatles song; like "This Boy," it was an attempt to mimic the three-part harmonies of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. It took Lennon, McCartney and Harrison multiple takes to nail the song's delicate mix of voices.

In the lyrics, Lennon showed the honesty that would mark his songwriting after 1965: His "pride" is the reason he can let go of a lost love. McCartney liked "Yes It Is": "[It's] a very fine song of John's, a ballad, unusual for him," he said. "I was there writing it with John, but it was his inspiration." Harrison used an early effects pedal to add gentle sobs of pedal-steel-like guitar, giving it a subtle Nashville spin.

Appears On: Past Masters

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98

‘Long, Long, Long’

Writer: Harrison
Recorded: October 7-9, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

"Long, Long, Long" seems like a love song — "How I want you/How I love you/You know that I need you" — but the object of Harrison's affections was God. "I believe in the saying 'If there's a God, we must see him,'" Harrison said in 1969. He based the song on Bob Dylan's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" — "those three chords and the way they moved." Though Lennon was blatantly enamored of Dylan early on, Harrison was the true Dylanphile. ("George quoted Bob like people quote Scripture," Tom Petty told Rolling Stone.) Soon after the White Album came out, Harrison was in Woodstock, New York, spending Thanksgiving with Dylan and the Band. He and Dylan wrote "I'd Have You Anytime," which became the first track on All Things Must Pass and the first step toward a lasting friendship.

Appears On: The Beatles

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97

‘All I’ve Got to Do’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: September 11, 1963
Released: January 20, 1964
Not released as a single

"Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes," McCartney once said. And nowhere was Robinson's divine presence more felt than on With the Beatles. The album features the band's cover of "You Really Got a Hold on Me," as well as Lennon's "Not a Second Time" and "All I've Got to Do," which Lennon described as "me trying to do Smokey Robinson." "All I've Got to Do" is one of the most soulful songs of the early Beatles originals: With its plaintive vocal, it recalls the Miracles' "(You Can) Depend on Me," especially when Lennon's voice soars through the bridge. Robinson cast a wide shadow on the Beatles long after they split: In the Seventies, Harrison wrote a tribute called "Pure Smokey," and Lennon admitted that he was still trying to sing like Robinson during the Double Fantasy sessions.

Appears On: With the Beatles

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96

‘Within You Without You’

Main Writer: Harrison
Recorded: March 15 and 22, April 3 and 4, 1967
Released: June 2, 1967
Not released as a single

Harrison had been obsessed with the sitar since he saw one on the set of Help! in 1965. But it wasn't until he went to India in 1966 to study with sitar master Ravi Shankar that he became truly skilled at it. Harrison often practiced eight hours a day while in India. "George's passion for the music amazed me," Shankar said.

"Within You Without You" was the first fruit of Harrison's studies. Augmenting his sitar with an 11-piece string section and Indian instrumentation, it was a magnetic sermon on spirituality. "It's one of my favorite [songs] of his," Lennon said. "His mind and music are clear. . . . He brought that sound together."

Harrison's devotion to the sound and spirit of India lingered, blooming over his solo masterwork, All Things Must Pass. "Till the day I die," Harrison told Rolling Stone in 1968, "I believe [Indian music] is the greatest music ever on our level of existence."

Appears On: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

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95

‘Any Time at All’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: June 2, 1964
Released: July 20, 1964
Not released as a single

"Any Time at All" shows how much the Beatles learned from their hero Buddy Holly. The song has all the Holly trademarks — the jangling guitars, the openhearted generosity of the lyric, the urgent emotion in the voices. It's a pledge of 24-hour devotion to a girl, with Lennon speaking his mind in a brash way ("Call me tonight, and I'll come to you") that would have made Holly proud — even though Lennon himself wasn't thrilled with the results. (He dismissed the song as my "effort at [re]writing 'It Won't Be Long.'")

If the Beatles play the song like they're in a hurry, it's because they were — this was recorded on the last day of the sessions for A Hard Day's Night, before they departed for a monthlong tour. (Unfortunately, the morning after they cut "Any Time at All," Ringo collapsed with tonsillitis and pharyngitis, so they went to Denmark with a replacement drummer.) "Any Time at All" reprises a George Martin trick from "A Hard Day's Night" by using a piano solo echoed lightly note-for-note on guitar by Harrison. Never a hit, "Any Time" became a fan favorite.

Appears On: A Hard Day's Night

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94

‘You Won’t See Me’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: November 11, 1965
Released: December 6, 1965
Not released as a single

On the night of November 11th, 1965, the Beatles were in a bind. The deadline for completing Rubber Soul was upon them, and they needed to record three songs that evening to wrap up the album. On top of that, McCartney was having problems with his girlfriend, Jane Asher: He was upset that the actress had moved to Bristol to join the Old Vic theater company. Out of McCartney's anger came "You Won't See Me," which finds him spitting out, albeit in his nice-guy way, some of his most bitter lyrics: "Time after time, you refuse to even listen/I wouldn't mind if I knew what I was missing," he grouses. As cranky as the lyrics are, the music behind them is positively bouncy, buoyed by Starr's inventive drumming and a melody and bass line that are an obvious homage to Four Tops singles such as "I Can't Help Myself." "To me, it was very Motown-flavored," said McCartney later. "It's got a James Jamerson feel." The Beatles were in such a rush to get the song over with that they cut it in only two takes.

Appears On: Rubber Soul

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93

‘Sexy Sadie’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: July 19 and 24, August 13 and 21, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

Lennon left India abruptly after hearing stories about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's sexual impropriety with female students. While he and Harrison were waiting for a ride out of Rishikesh, Lennon composed this biting denunciation of his guru. He later told Rolling Stone that when the Maharishi asked why the pair were leaving, he replied, "Well, if you're so cosmic, you'll know why."

The initial version of "Maharishi," as the song was originally called, was even nastier ("You little twat/Who the fuck do you think you are?"); at Harrison's suggestion, Lennon changed the title to "Sexy Sadie." The other Beatles were nowhere near as vehement about repudiating the Maharishi. "It's really funny, John's reaction to this sexual thing," McCartney said. "It seemed a little prudish to me." Harrison, who swore the gossip about the Maharishi's sexual misconduct was not true, was even more sanguine: "There were a lot of flakes [in Rishikesh]. Some of them were us."

Appears On: The Beatles

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92

‘Dig a Pony’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: January 22, 24, 28 and 30, February 5, 1969
Released: May 18, 1970
Not released as a single

This witty jumble of words was recorded at the Beatles' rooftop performance, with an assistant holding up Lennon's lyrics for him as a cue. "I roll a stoney/Well, you can imitate everyone you know," Lennon sings. It might simply be an agreeable bit of nonsense (in 1980, Lennon dismissed "Dig a Pony" as "another piece of garbage"), or it might be a dart hurled at the Beatles' chief rivals in English rock & roll, the Rolling Stones. Lennon and McCartney wrote the Stones' second single, 1964's "I Wanna Be Your Man" (Lennon later wryly noted, "We weren't going to give them anything great"), and Keith Richards had played with Lennon on the Stones' Rock and Roll Circus in late 1968. But in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1970, Lennon's resentment spilled out: "I would like to just list what we did and what the Stones did two months after on every fuckin' album. Every fuckin' thing we did, Mick does exactly the same. They are not in the same class, musicwise or powerwise — never were."

Appears On: Let It Be

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91

‘Every Little Thing’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: September 29 and 30, 1964
Released: June 14, 1965
Not released as a single

The fond but self-centered lyrics of "Every Little Thing" celebrate the affections of McCartney's girlfriend, Jane Asher, alternating between vows of love and bragging about "the things she does." McCartney wrote the song while staying with Asher and her family in London; he and Lennon added finishing touches on tour in Atlantic City. McCartney said later that he thought "Every Little Thing" was "very catchy" but not what he hoped it would be. "Like most of the stuff I did, it was my attempt at the next single," McCartney said. "But it became an album filler."

Recording involved nine takes over the course of two days, including one outtake that dissolved into laughter. The finished track — a heartfelt, midtempo song, with a gorgeous melodic leap in the chorus — pulls switcheroos on a couple of the usual early Beatles routines. The main writer isn't the lead singer; Lennon's voice dominates. And Starr reached beyond his drum kit to play the booming timpani that jumps out midchorus.

Appears On: Beatles for Sale

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90

‘The Long and Winding Road’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: January 26 and 31, 1969; April 1, 1970
Released: May 11, 1970
10 weeks; No. 1

McCartney wrote "The Long and Winding Road" as he watched the Beatles begin to spin out of control. In early 1969, creative and financial issues were fracturing the band. Lennon had already told the others that he was quitting, Starr had gone on a hiatus, and Harrison and McCartney disappeared for weeks. "It's a sad song, because it's all about the unattainable," McCartney said. "I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at the time."

Months after recording the poignant piano ballad, McCartney got a rude surprise: Producer Phil Spector, who had been given the tapes by Lennon, had reworked his take, adding a layer of strings and a choir. "It was an insult to Paul," engineer Geoff Emerick recalled. "It was his record. And someone takes it out of the can and starts to overdub things without his permission." Soon after, the acrimony became too much: In April 1970, McCartney released his first solo album and issued a statement announcing the end of the Beatles.

Appears On: Let It Be

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89

‘Good Day Sunshine’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: June 8 and 9, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
Not released as a single

"Good Day Sunshine" was McCartney's attempt, one hot summer afternoon, to write a song in the vein of the Lovin' Spoonful's idyllic, old-fashioned "Daydream." "That was our favorite record of theirs," McCartney said.

The song benefits from one of George Martin's ingenious studio devices: recording specific parts at different tape speeds. Though McCartney handles the piano chords on "Good Day Sunshine," Martin — an accomplished keyboardist who contributed to a number of Beatle recordings — is responsible for the slowed-down honky-tonk piano solo that follows the abbreviated second verse.

The result is a peppy break that sounds organic even though it's the product of tape-manipulation trickery. Martin's nuanced approach to recording technology — using it to serve the music, not as a gimmick — is arguably his biggest contribution to Revolver and everything that followed. "George Martin [was] quite experimental for who he was, a grown-up," said McCartney.

Appears On: Revolver

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88

‘Rain’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: April 14 and 16, 1966
Released: May 30, 1966
7 weeks; no. 23 (B side)

"Rain" is a Lennon song about nothing much — "People moaning because . . . they don't like the weather," he said. But the song, released months before Revolver as the B side to "Paperback Writer," was the Beatles' first public attempt to capture the LSD experience on record. They did it by infusing the track with tantalizing sounds — melting-chant harmonies, the brusque, leadlike flair of McCartney's bass, Starr's disorienting drum fills — and the promise of a realm beyond the usual senses. "I can show you," Lennon sings, "can you hear me?" — as if he's already got a head start. The most surreal effect was an accident: While stoned, Lennon threaded a rough mix the wrong way on his home tape recorder. He was thrilled with the backward vocals he heard — so thrilled he demanded the sound be used on the song's fade-out. "From that point on," engineer Geoff Emerick wrote, "almost every overdub we did on Revolver had to be tried backwards as well as forwards."

Appears On: Past Masters

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87

‘Love Me Do’

Writers: McCartney-Lennon
Recorded: September 11, 1962
Released: April 27, 1964
14 weeks; No. 1

The Beatles' first single, "Love Me Do," was also one of the first songs Lennon and McCartney wrote together. They were just teenagers in 1958, scribbling songs in a school notebook, dreaming of stardom, always writing "Another Lennon-McCartney Original" at the top of the page. "Love Me Do" became their debut U.K. single in October 1962, with "P.S. I Love You" as the B side. It hit the charts and reached Number 17 — not bad for a band of scruffy Liverpool lads. But when released in the U.S. with Beatlemania in full effect, it hit Number One.

The Beatles first cut the song during their audition for George Martin, with drummer Pete Best. Martin made them redo it with replacement Ringo Starr and again with a hired session drummer, when Martin demoted Starr to tambourine. "He's never forgiven me for it," Martin said, laughing. "I do apologize to him publicly." But it was Martin's idea to have Lennon add a harmonica solo. As Mc­Cartney recalled, "John expected to be in jail one day and he'd be the guy who played the harmonica."

Appears On: Past Masters and Please Please Me

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86

‘Lady Madonna’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: February 3 and 6, 1968
Released: March 18, 1968
11 weeks; No. 4

Like many of McCartney's finest songs, "Lady Madonna" is a tribute to working-class womanhood, expressed through Irish-Catholic imagery. "'Lady Madonna' started off as the Virgin Mary, then it was a working-class woman, of which obviously there's millions in Liverpool," he later said. "There are a lot of Catholics in Liverpool because of the Irish connection." The Madonna of the song is a long-suffering but indestructible matriarch, as tough as the title character of "Eleanor Rigby," yet as comforting as Mother Mary from "Let It Be."

Musically, "Lady Madonna" has an earthier inspiration: the New Orleans piano boogie of Fats Domino. McCartney called it "a Fats Domino impression," composed while trying to play something bluesy on the piano. The recorded version is a full-on tribute to the New Orleans R&B sound, with tootling saxophones. Domino must have taken it as a compliment. A few months after the song came out, he released his own cover version, which became the last Top 100 hit of his career.

Appears On: Past Masters

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85

‘Back in the USSR’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: August 22 and 23, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

The witty opening track to the White Album got a helping hand from one of the American rock stars it parodied: In February 1968, McCartney played his variation on Chuck Berry's "Back in the U.S.A." for Beach Boys vocalist Mike Love while the two were visiting India. Love suggested that McCartney add a "California Girls"-style section about the women of the Soviet Union. McCartney then recorded a loose, jovial demo of the song in May.

By the time they started work on the album version on August 22nd, though, the Beatles were at each other's throats. When McCartney criticized Starr's drumming on "USSR," Starr announced he was quitting the band, walked out and headed off for a Mediterranean vacation. The other three Beatles got back to work, recording the basic track with McCartney on drums and Lennon playing six-string bass. They finished it the next day with jet-airplane noise from a sound-effects collection. When Starr returned two weeks later, they covered his drum kit in flowers to welcome him back.

Appears On: The Beatles

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84

‘Across the Universe’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 4 and 8, 1968
Released: December 12, 1969
Not released as a single

The words to "Across the Universe" were "purely inspirational and were given to me," said Lennon. "I don't own it; it came through like that." The song is a paean to cosmic awareness, with serene ruminations like "Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind" and a refrain that names Guru Dev, the guru under whom the Maharishi himself studied. "It's one of the best lyrics I've written," Lennon told Rolling Stone. "In fact, it could be the best. It's good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewin' it."

Lennon was dissatisfied with the Beatles' recorded version, originally cut for the White Album. (David Bowie would later cover the song, with Lennon on guitar.) Engineer Geoff Emerick recalled taping the lead vocal "over and over again because John was unhappy with the job he was doing. . . . It hadn't come out the way he'd heard it in his head." For Let It Be, producer Phil Spector slowed down the original recording and added a choir and orchestra. Said Lennon, "Spector took the tape and did a damn good job with it."

Appears On: Past Masters and Let It Be

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83

‘I’m So Tired’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: October 8, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

Lennon wrote "I'm So Tired" during the Beatles' stay with the Maharishi. With no booze, drugs or tobacco allowed at the ashram, Lennon was meditating all day and tormented by insomnia at night, obsessing over Yoko Ono, whom he had wanted to invite along despite the presence of his wife, Cynthia. One of dozens of songs the Beatles wrote in India, "I'm So Tired" detailed Lennon's fragile state of mind. It was also an open letter to Ono, whose postcards to Lennon in India were a lifeline. "I got so excited about her letters," he said. "I started thinking of her as a woman, and not just an intellectual woman."

Lennon called the White Album track one of his favorite Beatles recordings. McCartney liked it too — at one of the Let It Be sessions in 1969, the Beatles recorded an informal, jokey version with McCartney singing lead. "'So Tired' is very much John's comment to the world," McCartney later said. "'And curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get.' That's a classic line, and it's so John that there's no doubt that he wrote it."

Appears On: The Beatles

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82

‘She’s Leaving Home’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: March 17 and 20, 1967
Released: June 2, 1967
Not released as a single

"She's Leaving Home" was inspired by a newspaper story about a well-to-do 17-year-old girl named Melanie Coe who disappeared from her parents' home in London. While McCartney took the perspective of the teen runaway, Lennon sang counterpoint (the "Greek chorus," as McCartney called it) in the voice of the heartbroken parents.

McCartney was so impatient to record the song, he hired arranger Mike Leander to orchestrate the strings instead of waiting for George Martin, who was busy with another artist. "I was surprised and hurt," Martin admitted. "It was just Paul being Paul."

The real-life Melanie Coe ended up going back home to her mom and dad after three weeks; she was pregnant and had an abortion. But the girl in the song represented all the teenagers who were running away from their conventional lives in the Sixties. In April 1967, McCartney visited Brian Wilson in L.A. to preview Sgt. Pepper, playing "She's Leaving Home" on the piano for him and his wife. "We both just cried," Wilson said. "It was beautiful."

Appears On: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

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81

‘Hey Bulldog’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 11, 1968
Released: January 13, 1969
Not released as a single

What could have been a novelty song turned into one of the Beatles' heaviest pieces of music. Since they were being filmed at Abbey Road for a promotional video for their single "Lady Madonna," the band decided they may as well record the extra song needed for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. "Paul said we should do a real song in the studio," Lennon said. "Could I whip one off? I had a few words at home, so I brought them in." A few days earlier, McCartney had played drums on a Paul Jones rocker called "The Dog Presides," which had featured barking sound effects. During the Beatles' session, McCartney and Lennon ended up woofing and howling, and the title became "Hey Bulldog." For all its playfulness, "Hey Bulldog" was a biting, aggressive piece of music: Harrison ran his guitar through a fuzz box and then turned up his amp extra loud, resulting in a particularly ferocious solo. "I helped [Lennon] finish it off in the studio," McCartney said of the song, "but it's mainly his vibe." Lennon himself called it "a good-sounding record that means nothing."

Appears On: Yellow Submarine

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Cummings Archives/Redferns

80

‘Mother Nature’s Son’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: August 9 and 20, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

After attending a lecture by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Lennon and McCartney each wrote songs about the experience. Lennon's was "Child of Nature," which he demo'd, but didn't record, for the White Album (it was later rewritten as "Jealous Guy"). McCartney's was this acoustic piece, which owed a debt to Nat "King" Cole's "Nature Boy," and to his relationship with Linda Eastman: "When Linda and I got together," he said, "we discovered we had this deep love of nature in common."

By the time McCartney recorded the song, the White Album sessions had nearly become simultaneous solo projects — "Mother Nature's Son" is one of four songs on the album that McCartney recorded by himself. He did the basic track on August 9th, after the rest of the band had gone home for the night, and returned to it 11 days later, playing drums (set up in a corridor to alter their sound) and overseeing a brass ensemble. When Lennon — who hated it whenever McCartney recorded without the rest of the band — walked in with Starr, "you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife," recalled engineer Ken Scott.

Appears On: The Beatles

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79

‘I’ll Follow the Sun’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: October 14, 1964
Released: December 15, 1964
Not released as a single

This Beatles for Sale track was already an oldie by the time it was recorded. McCartney wrote the song as a teenager and played it with Lennon and Harrison back when they were in the Quarry Men; a tape exists from 1960. But the Beatles didn't get around to cutting it until they were scrambling for new material.

One reason they didn't use the song before was because it wasn't tough enough for their leather-jacketed early image. By the time they did record it, the rhythm had changed from a rockabilly shuffle to a gentle cha-cha. And Starr kept the beat by smacking his palms on his knees.

"The next [single] had to always be different," McCartney said. "We didn't want to fall into the Supremes trap where they all sounded similar, so we were always keen on having varied instrumentation. Ringo couldn't keep changing his drum kit, but he could change his snare, tap a cardboard box or slap his knees."

Appears On: Beatles for Sale

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78

‘And Your Bird Can Sing’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: April 20 and 26, 1966
Released: June 20, 1966
Not released as a single

The first time the Beatles recorded "And Your Bird Can Sing," they ended up with any other band's idea of a hit — a supercharged variation on the folk-rock sound of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High," built around Harrison's 12-string guitar and close harmonies. But they knew they could do better. Six days later, the Beatles trashed the original version (whose working title was "You Don't Get Me") and spent 12 hours constructing a new one, which tightened up Harrison and McCartney's daredevil dual-guitar leads and made them the centerpiece of a brighter, more propulsive new arrangement.

Lennon later described "And Your Bird Can Sing" as a "throwaway." Although its lyrics don't make a lot of sense, the line "You say you've seen seven wonders" may refer to the night the Beatles smoked pot with Bob Dylan in New York in 1964. The experience caused a stoned McCartney to excitedly pronounce what he had just learned was the key to life: "There are seven levels."

Appears On: Revolver

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77

‘Because’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: August 1, 4 and 5, 1969
Released: October 1, 1969
Not released as a single

Lennon wrote the sweet, dreamy melody after hearing Yoko Ono playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on the couple's piano; he asked if she could play the chords backward, and he based the song on those changes. McCartney assumed that Ono also had a hand in crafting the song's lyrics. "It's rather her kind of writing," McCartney said. "Wind, sky and earth are recurring. . . . John was heavily influenced by her at the time."

George Martin arranged a nine-part harmony for the song, but there were only five tracks on which to record the vocals. So Lennon, McCartney and Harrison sang the three-part harmony live, then overdubbed it twice. This approach took extensive rehearsal, and more than five hours of extremely focused recording, to capture correctly. But the resulting song was stunning: a gorgeous, richly layered daydream that McCartney and Harrison both said was their favorite track on Abbey Road. "They knew they were doing something special," said engineer Geoff Emerick, "and they were determined to get it right."

Appears On: Abbey Road

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76

‘Yer Blues’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: August 13, 14 and 20, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

Lennon had the bad kind of blues in India. He'd felt suicidal there, he later said, and searching for cosmic awareness in the Maharishi's camp made him feel like the clueless Mr. Jones from Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man." Lennon channeled his misery into one of his most scalding performances, although he told Rolling Stone that he had "a self-consciousness about singing blues. . . . We were all listening to Sleepy John Estes and all that in art school, like everybody else. But to sing it was something else."

To re-create the vibe of its early years, Lennon had the band record the basic track of "Yer Blues" elbow-to-elbow in a closet next to the main Abbey Road studio. A few weeks after the White Album was released, Lennon played "Yer Blues" with one-off supergroup the Dirty Mac (featuring Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell) for the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus. It was also the only Beatles song he played at the Plastic Ono Band gig a year later, released as Live Peace in Toronto 1969.

Appears On: The Beatles

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75

‘Think for Yourself’

Writer: Harrison
Recorded: November 8, 1965
Released: December 6, 1965
Not released as a single

In the fall of 1965, the Beatles were rushing to complete their new album, Rubber Soul, by Christmas. Short of material, the band took a stab at a new Harrison song, which had the working title "Won't Be There With You." Knocked out in one take, and clocking in at just 2:19, "Think for Yourself" clearly wasn't a song the band spent much time on. Lennon flubbed attempt after attempt at the vocals, and fits of giggling — likely the result of joints being passed — couldn't have helped. But the tune is better for it — from McCartney's fuzzed-out bass to Starr's skittering drums, "Think for Yourself" has an unchained, garage-band feel. And who was Harrison so angry at, anyway? Even he wasn't quite sure. "All this time later," Harrison wrote in 1980, "I don't quite recall who inspired that! Probably the government."

Appears On: Rubber Soul

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74

‘Yellow Submarine’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: May 26 and June 1, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
9 weeks; No. 2

The Beatles' most beloved kiddie song was written for — who else? — Ringo. As McCartney explained, "I thought, with Ringo being so good with children — a knockabout-uncle type — it might not be a bad idea for him to have a children's song." Years later, "Yellow Submarine" remains the gateway drug that turns little children into Beatle fans, with that cheery singalong chorus. It inspired the Beatles' 1968 animated film, as well as Starr's unofficial sequel on Abbey Road, "Octopus' Garden."

George Martin drew on his experience as a producer of comedy records for Beyond the Fringe and The Goon Show, providing an array of zany sound effects to create the nautical atmosphere. Lennon blew bubbles, while he and McCartney shouted out orders to the faux submarine crew ("Full speed ahead!") through a filter. A few friends even came by the studio to help out with sound effects, including Marianne Faithfull and the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones.

Appears On: Revolver

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73

‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: June 27, July 1 and 23, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

In 1980, Lennon said that this White Album explosion of blistering guitars and barking vocals was about his relationship with Yoko Ono: "Everybody seemed to be paranoid except for us two, who were in the glow of love. . . . Everybody was sort of tense around us. You know, 'What is she doing here at the session?'"

But McCartney believed the song was really about heroin, which Lennon and Ono had begun taking without telling the others. "John started talking about fixes and monkeys," he said. "It was a harder terminology, which the rest of us weren't into." Looking back, Lennon said, "We sniffed a little when we were in real pain. We took 'H' because of what the Beatles and their pals were doing to us."

Appears On: The Beatles

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72

‘From Me to You’

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: March 5, 1963
Released: May 25, 1963 (Re-released: January 30, 1964)
6 weeks; No. 41 (B side)

"I asked them for another song as good as 'Please Please Me,'" George Martin said, "and they brought me one — 'From Me to You.' . . . There seemed to be a bottomless well of songs."

Martin wasn't the only one who loved the tune: It actually became the first Lennon-McCartney composition to hit the American Hot 100 when Del Shannon recorded a version after hearing it while sharing a bill with the Beatles in April 1963. (Lennon objected — he thought the cover would reduce the Beatles' chances of breaking the tune in the U.S.)

"From Me to You" featured Lennon playing harmonica in a Jimmy Reed-inspired blues style he had learned from Delbert McClinton, another American who was on the same bill with the Beatles in the early Sixties. "It's chiseled in stone now that I taught Lennon how to play harmonica," McClinton said. "John said, 'Show me something.' I was in a pretty unique position, because there just weren't a lot of people playing harmonica in popular music."

Appears On: Past Masters

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71

‘I’m a Loser’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: August 14, 1964
Released: December 15, 1964
Not released as a single

Looking back on "I'm a Loser" in a 1980 interview, Lennon said, "Part of me suspects I'm a loser, and the other part of me thinks I'm God Almighty." Country music and Bob Dylan were catalysts for the song. The country is in the fingerpicking, guitar twang and downhearted words; in 1964, the Beatles were listening to songs by Buck Owens and George Jones that McCartney said were "all about sadness." The Dylan flavor is in Lennon's lead vocal and in the hooting, rack-mounted harmonica — and Lennon said he'd decided that if Dylan could use "clown," a word Lennon had previously considered "artsy-fartsy," then so could he. But the Beatles' stamp is everywhere: in the exuberant vocal-harmony intro, in a melody that suddenly dives way down, in Harrison's pointed Carl Perkins fills and in Lennon's psychological acuity: "Is it for her or myself that I cry?"

Years later, upon reflection, McCartney heard something else in the song. He suggested that "I'm a Loser" and "Nowhere Man" were "John's cries for help."

Appears On: Beatles for Sale

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70

‘You Can’t Do That’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 25, 1964
Released: March 16, 1964
4 weeks; No. 48 (B side)

Four days after they returned from their triumphant first American tour, the Beatles were back in the studio, trying to meet the demand for new recordings. (It was also Harrison's 21st birthday, but he didn't exactly have time to answer the 30,000 birthday cards he received.) On the docket that day was a new song by Lennon that reflected his love for hard-edged American R&B — "a cowbell going four in the bar and the chord going chatoong!" as he put it.

"You Can't Do That" — the B side of "Can't Buy Me Love" — features an instrument Harrison had acquired in New York a few weeks earlier, when the band was in town to tape its first Ed Sullivan Show appearance: a 12-string Rickenbacker 360/12 guitar, the second one ever built, which would define the Beatles' sound for the next two years. But the lead-guitar part, featuring a choppy, tone-bending solo, is played by Lennon. "I have a definite style of playing — I've always had," Lennon told Rolling Stone. "But I was overshadowed. They call George the invisible singer. I'm the invisible guitarist."

Appears On: A Hard Day's Night

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69

‘Julia’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: October 13, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

Julia Lennon had encouraged her son's interest in music and bought him his first guitar. But after splitting with John's father, she started a new family with another man and left John to be raised by her sister; though she lived just a few miles from John, Julia did not spend much time with him. In 1958, when John was 17 and on better terms with her, Julia was struck and killed by a car. "I lost her twice," Lennon said. "Once as a five-year-old when I was moved in with my auntie. And once again when she actually physically died."

The only solo Lennon recording in the Beatles' catalog, "Julia" was the final addition to the White Album, recorded just three days before the album was sequenced. His original demo, recorded in May, had included harmonies from McCartney, but this version was just Lennon's voice and guitar. "Julia was my mother," Lennon said. "But it was sort of a combination of Yoko and my mother blended into one" — the "ocean child" in the lyrics refers to Ono's name, which is Japanese for "child of the ocean." To the end of his life, he often called Yoko "Mother."

Appears On: The Beatles

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68

‘Baby, You’re a Rich Man’

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: May 11, 1967
Released: July 17, 1967
5 weeks; No. 34 (B side)

The title came from McCartney, but the spirit was pure Lennon. The working-class hero loved nothing better than tweaking the moneyed class: "The point was, stop moaning — you're a rich man, and we're all rich men, heh heh, baby!" he said. When Lennon sang, "How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?" he was talking to himself.

The Beatles built the track around a thumping mix of piano, bass and hand claps; the braying sound is Lennon playing a clavioline keyboard, which imitated the swirl of a Middle Eastern woodwind. Mick Jagger was a guest at the session and may have contributed backing vocals (one of the tape boxes mysteriously reads "+ Mick Jagger?").

Lennon's deeply stoned delivery and abstract questions about "the beautiful people" captured the play­fully spaced-out mood of the summer of 1967 — a spirit the Beatles were more tapped into than anyone. "At the back of my mind," McCartney said that year, "there is something which tells me that everything is beautiful."

Appears On: Magical Mystery Tour

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67

‘Oh! Darling’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: April 20 and 26, July 17, 18 and 22, August 11, 1969
Released: October 1, 1969
Not released as a single

Harrison described this doo-wop-style rocker to Rolling Stone as "a typical 1955 song. . . . We do a few ooh-oohs in the background, very quietly, but mainly it's Paul shouting." That belting, which took McCartney back to the Little Richard throat-shredding of his early days, did not come easily. "I ended up trying each morning as I came into the recording session," he said. "I tried it with a hand mic, and I tried it with a standing mic, I tried it every which way and finally got the vocal I was reasonably happy with. If it comes off a little bit lukewarm then you've missed the whole point." Engineer Geoff Emerick recalled that McCartney sang while the backing track played over speakers, instead of headphones, because he wanted to feel as though he were singing to a live audience.

Lennon liked the song but thought that he was better suited to take the lead. "It was more my style than his," Lennon argued. "If he'd had any sense, he would have let me sing it."

Appears On: Abbey Road

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66

‘Nowhere Man’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: October 21 and 22, 1965
Released: February 21, 1966
9 weeks; No. 3

One of the pivotal songs of Lennon's early Beatle years arrived when he least expected it. "The whole thing came out in one gulp," he told Rolling Stone in 1970. "I remember I was just going through this paranoia trying to write something and nothing would come out, so I just lay down and tried not to write and then this came out." What emerged was an expression of the boredom and frustration Lennon was feeling in his cocoonlike existence as a Beatle. The references to a man who's "making all his nowhere plans for nobody" and "knows not where he's going to" were, Lennon admitted, "probably about myself."

In the studio, the weariness in Lennon's voice and the dirgelike melody didn't deter the band from reaching for new sounds. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison stacked a wall of sumptuous harmonies, and the beautifully spare solo — played in unison by Lennon and Harrison on their Sonic Blue Fender Stratocasters — cut through the ennui like a machete.

"'Nowhere Man' is such a beautiful pop song with a groundbreaking, existential lyric," says Billy Corgan, who covered it with the Smashing Pumpkins. "It lets you see that moment of discovery."

Appears On: Rubber Soul

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65

‘And I Love Her’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: February 25 and 27, 1964
Released: June 26, 1964
9 weeks; no. 12

McCartney called "And I Love Her" "the first ballad I impressed myself with." Lennon called it Mc­Cartney's "first 'Yesterday.'" He also claimed he helped out with the bridge. "The 'And' in the title was an important thing — 'And I Love Her,' it came right out of left field, you were right up to speed the minute you heard it," McCartney said. "The title comes in the second verse and it doesn't repeat. You would often go to town on the title, but this was almost an aside: 'Oh . . . and I love you.'"

It took a few tries for the Beatles to figure out how to play it: Their initial attempts treated it as a subdued electric rock song, but once Starr switched from his drum kit to a set of bongos, it began to assume its classic form. The secret motor of the song, Tom Petty told Rolling Stone, was Lennon's guitar part: "If you ever want to see some great rhythm-guitar playing, check out in A Hard Day's Night when they do 'And I Love Her.' He could really make a band just kind of surge and jump."

Appears On: A Hard Day's Night

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64

‘I’ve Got a Feeling’

Writers: McCartney-Lennon
Recorded: January 22-24, 27 and 28, February 5, 1969
Released: May 18, 1970
Not released as a single

"I've Got a Feeling" was Lennon and McCartney's last great moment as a songwriting team, and the final major Beatles song that sounded like a true collaboration. Both contributed fragments that fit together perfectly: The song's body ("I've got a feeling/A feeling deep inside") is sung by McCartney, but Lennon takes over for the "Everybody had a hard year" section, which came out of a song he had written a few months earlier.

It had been a hard year for the Beatles; they were falling apart as a band and as a business concern. But during their rooftop performance of "I've Got a Feeling" — filmed for the Let It Be movie, just days after they had recorded the song — you can hear their excitement as they move into the future. Lennon and McCartney sing about their newfound relationships, as they entered the next phase of their lives with Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman. Yet you can also hear a trace of remorse, as if they already understood that from now on, these longtime friends and bandmates would be leading separate lives.

Appears On: Let It Be

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63

‘Dear Prudence’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: August 28-30, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

When the Beatles arrived in India to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the actress Mia Farrow and her 20-year-old sister, Prudence, were already there. Prudence got so deeply into meditation that she refused to come out of her hut. "We saw her twice in the two weeks I was there," Starr recalled. "Everyone would be banging on the door: 'Are you still alive?'" As Lennon put it, Prudence "was trying to reach God quicker than anybody else. That was the competition in Maharishi's camp: Who was going to get cosmic first?"

Lennon turned the incident into "Dear Prudence," which he wrote in India on acoustic guitar, as a gentle invitation to "come out to play." With its fingerpicking folk-guitar style — taught to Lennon by Donovan, who spent time with the Beatles in Rishikesh — and wistful nursery-rhyme lyrics, the song became one of the band's most poignant evocations of childhood. It was recorded after Starr had stormed out of the studio and briefly quit the band, so McCartney plays drums on it, as well as bass, piano and flügelhorn.

Appears On: The Beatles

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62

‘Girl’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: November 11, 1965
Released: December 6, 1965
Not released as a single

Like so many of the love songs the Beatles were writing on Rubber Soul, this deceptively simple ballad sounds like the confession of a man who's vulnerable and confused in the presence of a woman who's tougher and more independent than he is ("The kind of girl you want so much/It makes you sorry"). Yet even as she keeps making a fool out of him, his voice is full of admiration and affection for her as he sings, "She promises the Earth to me/And I believe her/After all this time, I don't know why." "When I heard this, as a young teenager, it hit the nail on the head," Jackson Browne told Rolling Stone. "It embodied the feelings I was living with every day — completely burning with sexual desire, with almost a regret at being so overpowered." The obvious inspiration is Bob Dylan, but Lennon surpasses him here — "Girl" makes "Just Like a Woman" sound like kid stuff. Years later, Lennon said that the fantasy girl in the song's lyric was an archetype he had been searching for his entire life ("There is no such thing as the girl — she was a dream") and finally found in Yoko Ono.

Appears On: Rubber Soul

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61

‘With a Little Help From My Friends’

Writers: McCartney-Lennon
Recorded: March 29 and 30, 1967
Released: June 2, 1967
Not released as a single

The Beatles cut this in an all-night session after the photo shoot for the Sgt. Pepper cover. At dawn, Starr trudged up the stairs to head home — but the other Beatles cajoled him into doing his lead vocal then and there, standing around the microphone for moral support. Though nervous and exhausted, Starr delivered a magnificently soulful vocal, right up to that final high note.

The lyrics about loneliness and vulnerability were in some ways more revealing than Lennon and McCartney might have written for themselves. But there's also a typical Beatle joke. As McCartney admitted, "I remember giggling with John when we wrote the lines 'What do you see when you turn out the light? I can't tell you, but I know it's mine.' It could have been him playing with his willy under the covers, or it could have been taken on a deeper level."

Appears On: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

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60

‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: February 1 and 2, March 3 and 6, 1967
Released: June 2, 1967
Not released as a single

The Beatles were looking for a way to kill their old Fab Four image altogether by late 1966, and McCartney had an idea: "I thought, 'Let's not be ourselves,'" he said, and suggested that they invent a fake band. "Everything about the album," McCartney said, "will be imagined from the perspective of these people, so it doesn't have to be the kind of song you want to write, it could be the song they might want to write." McCartney proposed the mock-Victorian-era "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (the name came from a joke with roadie Mal Evans about salt and pepper packets), and he wrote a title song to introduce the premise at the album's outset: a fiery piece of psychedelic hard rock. The Beatles were all fans of Jimi Hendrix; McCartney saw Hendrix play two nights before they recorded "Pepper." Hendrix was paying attention right back: He played "Pepper" to open his live show in London two days after the album's U.S. release.

Appears On: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

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