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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

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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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23

‘Abbey Road Medley’

Writers: McCartney-Lennon
Recorded: May 6-August 18, 1969
Released: October 1, 1969
Not released as a single

The original idea was McCartney's, but George Martin claimed that the final triumph of the Beatles' life as a recording band — the eight-song medley dominating Side Two of Abbey Road — was at least partly his. "I wanted to get John and Paul to think more seriously about their music," the producer said. "Paul was all for experimenting like that." McCartney, in fact, led the first session for that extended section of the album — on May 6th, 1969, for "You Never Give Me Your Money," his deceptively sunny indictment of the business nightmares at Apple Corps.

Lennon was a lot less interested in the medley, although he contributed some of its most eccentric parts, like the sneering "Mean Mr. Mustard" and the quick, funky put-down "Polythene Pam." He subsequently dismissed the concept as "junk" in Rolling Stone, saying that "none of the songs had anything to do with each other, no thread at all, only the fact that we stuck them together."

He was right in one sense. The 16-minute sequence — veering from "Money" and the luxuriant sigh of Lennon's "Sun King" to McCartney's heavy-soul shard "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" and the sweet lullaby "Golden Slumbers," and closing with McCartney's famous prescription in "The End" ("The love you take/Is equal to the love you make") — has no narrative connection. But the Abbey Road medley is the matured Beatles at their best: playful, gentle, acerbic, haunting and bonded by the music. Their harmonies are ravishing and complex; the guitars are confident and cutting. "We were holding it together," McCartney said proudly. "Even though this undercurrent was going on" — a reference to the pressures and differences that had been pulling them apart since the White Album — "we still had a strong respect for each other even at the very worst points."

The Beatles recorded the sections of the medley at various times, out of order, during the July and August 1969 sessions for Abbey Road. "Mean Mr. Mustard" dated back to early 1968. The lingering hysteria of Beatlemania cropped up in "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," which was inspired by an overeager fan. But the emotional heart of the suite was the financial woes that were consuming the Beatles' energy and were on the verge of bankrupting them. Lennon was instrumental in the hiring of Allen Klein, the business manager of the Rolling Stones, to straighten out the books and the chaos at Apple Corps; McCartney wanted the band to hire Lee and John Eastman, his future father- and brother-in-law. McCartney admitted that "You Never Give Me Your Money" was "me directly lambasting Allen Klein's attitude to us — all promises, and it never works out."

Later, in "Golden Slumbers" and "Carry That Weight" (the former with lyrics copied from a lullaby published in 1603), McCartney returned to the theme of exhaustion. "I'm generally quite upbeat," he said, "but at certain times things get to me so much that I just can't be upbeat anymore, and that was one of those times. 'Carry that weight a long time' — like forever!"

The swapping of guitar solos in "The End" was a band brainstorm. Harrison thought a guitar break would make a good climax. Lennon suggested he, Harrison and McCartney all trade licks. McCartney said he'd go first. Coming after Starr's first and only drum solo on a Beatles record, the scorching round-robin breaks — with Harrison in the middle and Lennon at the end — were cut live in one take, a last blast of natural brotherhood from a band only months from splitting.

"I didn't know at the time that it was the last Beatles record that we would make," Harrison said of Abbey Road. "But it felt as if we were reaching the end of the line."

"Out of the ashes of all that madness," said Starr, "that last section is one of the finest pieces we put together."

Appears On: Abbey Road

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22

‘Eleanor Rigby’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: April 28, 29 and June 6, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
8 weeks; no. 11

When McCartney first played "Eleanor Rigby" for his neighbor Donovan, the words were "Ola Na Tungee/Blowing his mind in the dark/With a pipe full of clay." McCartney fumbled with the lyrics until he landed on the line "Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been." It was then that he realized he was writing about lonely people and transformed the song into the tale of a spinster, a priest and how their lives intersect at her funeral.

There are conflicting stories of how McCartney came up with the name for the title character. According to McCartney, he combined the first name of Eleanor Bron, the lead actress in Help!, with a last name taken from a sign he had seen in Bristol for Rigby & Evans Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers. But Lionel Bart, the writer-composer of Oliver!, claimed that on a walk with McCartney in London's Putney Vale Cemetery, they saw the name Eleanor Bygraves, and McCartney said he would use it in a new song.

Most intriguing, in the 1980s, the gravestone of an Eleanor Rigby was discovered in the churchyard of St. Peter's in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton — just yards from the spot where Lennon and McCartney first met in 1957 after a performance by Lennon's group the Quarry Men. "It was either complete coincidence or in my subconscious," McCartney said.

After McCartney wrote the melody on the piano at his girlfriend Jane Asher's flat, he gathered Lennon, Harrison, Starr and Pete Shotton, Lennon's childhood friend, at Lennon's house in Weybridge to help finish the lyrics. The group all agreed on certain details about this session: The priest was originally called "Father McCartney" until they found the name "McKenzie" in a phone book; Starr chipped in the line "darning his socks in the night"; and it was Shotton's idea that the song end with the funeral, bringing all of the principal characters together.

Beyond that, though, Lennon and McCartney offered dramatically different versions of the writing process. "The first verse was his and the rest are basically mine," Lennon told journalist David Sheff in 1980. "It was Paul's baby, and I helped with the education of the child." McCartney, on the other hand, maintained that "John helped me on a few words, but I'd put it down 80-20 to me." (Shotton said, "My recollection is that John's contribution was virtually nil.")

None of the Beatles actually play an instrument on "Eleanor Rigby" — McCartney sings the double-tracked lead vocal, and Lennon and Harrison contribute harmonies, but the music is performed entirely by a pair of string quartets, arranged by George Martin. "Paul wasn't immediately enamored of the concept," said engineer Geoff Emerick. "He was afraid of it sounding too cloying."

When he agreed to the idea, McCartney said he wanted the strings to sound "biting." With that in mind, Emerick was determined to capture the sound of bows striking strings with an immediacy previously unheard on any recording, classical or rock & roll. Instead of recording the octet on a single microphone, he miked each instrument individually. "I was close-mik-ing the strings — really close," he said. "So close that the musicians hated it, because you could see them sort of keep slipping back on their chairs to get away from the mic in case they made any errors."

McCartney saw the finished track — a meditation on solitude and aging that sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time — as a breakthrough moment for him as a songwriter. He later reflected that when he wrote "Eleanor Rigby," he had been musing about what kind of work he might do when he was done being a Beatle.

"This could be a way I could go," he recalled himself thinking. "[I had] a clear vision of myself in a herringbone jacket with leather elbow patches and a pipe. I could become a serious writer, not so much a pop writer. Yes, it wouldn't be bad, actually — at the terrible old age of 30."

Appears On: Revolver

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The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby"
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21

‘All You Need Is Love’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: June 14, 19, 23, 24 and 25, 1967
Released: July 17, 1967
11 weeks; no. 1

Flush with creative energy after finishing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles went straight back to work. When they were invited to appear on the Our World TV program — a two-hour show of international performers that would be broadcast live in 24 countries on June 25th, 1967 — they decided to create an elaborately orchestrated new track, "All You Need Is Love."

"[Beatles manager Brian Epstein] suddenly whirled in and said that we were to represent Britain in a round-the-world hookup," said George Martin. "We had less than two weeks to get it together." Lennon took the last-minute request in stride: "Oh, God, is it that close?" he said a few days before the telecast. "I suppose we'd better write something." (McCartney also wrote a possible choice for the occasion — most likely the music-hall ditty "Your Mother Should Know," but it was obvious which song was more appropriate.)

The Beatles crafted a rhythm track in the studio beforehand (which included Harrison playing violin for the first time and Lennon on harpsichord) but they sang their vocals live on the show, accompanied by an orchestra and a chorus that included Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, Donovan and Keith Moon. Harrison's guitar solo was also live; he hand-painted his Stratocaster in psychedelic colors for the occasion. Martin's arrangement reflected the event's international spirit: The introduction was a snippet of "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem, while the coda included bits of Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 2," "Greensleeves," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" — and even an improvised chorus of "She Loves You."

The main part of the song was deceptively simple. "John has an amazing thing with his timing," Harrison told Rolling Stone. "'All You Need Is Love' sort of skips beats out and changes from 3/4 to 4/4 all the time, in and out of each other." The lyrics proved a challenge for McCartney. "The chorus is simple, but the verse ["Nothing you can do/But you can learn how to be you in time/It's easy"] is quite complex," he said. "I never really understood it."

"All You Need Is Love" was the first of Lennon's songs with a title that could have been written on Madison Avenue (like the later "Give Peace a Chance" and "Power to the People"). "I like slogans," he said. "I like advertising. I love the telly."

Appears On: Magical Mystery Tour

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20

‘Please Please Me’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: September 11 and November 26, 1962
Released: February 25, 1963
13 weeks; no. 3

“It was a combination of Bing Crosby and Roy Orbison.” That was Lennon’s description of the inspiration for “Please Please Me,” which would become the first Beatles single to reach Number One on the U.K. charts.

Lennon wrote the song at his aunt Mimi’s house. “I remember the day and the pink coverlet on the bed,” he said years later. “And I heard Roy Orbison doing ‘Only the Lonely’ or something. That’s where that came from. And I was always intrigued by the words of ‘Please, lend your little ears to my pleas’ [from Crosby’s 1932 song ‘Please’]. I [loved] the double use of the word ‘please.'”

“If you imagine it much slower, which is how John wrote it, it’s got everything,” said McCartney. “The big high notes, all the hallmarks of a Roy Orbison song.”

“Please Please Me” was one of the songs the Beatles played for George Martin at their second recording session on September 11th, 1962, at EMI Studios. Starr recalled that “while we were recording it, I was playing a bass drum with a maraca in one hand and a tambourine in the other” — which, Starr suspects, is the reason Martin decided to use a session drummer for “Love Me Do,” which they also recorded that day.

Martin wasn’t impressed with the slow “Please Please Me,” which he called “a dirge.” He suggested that they play the song faster and try to liven up the arrangement. Not that he was impressed with their original efforts in general, at this point. “To begin with, their songwriting was crap,” Martin once said. “The first songs I heard from them, I thought, ‘Oh, God, where am I going to get a good song for them?’ The first record we issued was ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘P.S. I Love You,’ which are not exactly Cole Porter, are they?”

“Love Me Do” became a hit, though, and the Beatles were summoned back to the studio to work on a follow-up. When they returned to Abbey Road on November 26th, Martin wanted them to release a song by Mitch Murray called “How Do You Do It.” The Beatles tried to persuade him that they should do an original song instead, but the producer didn’t think anything they had written was as good as the Murray song. (Martin was somewhat vindicated when Gerry and the Pacemakers had a Number One hit with “How Do You Do It” the following year.) They suggested “Please Please Me,” adding that they had heeded Martin’s advice, speeding up the tempo and adding a harmonica part that mimicked Harrison’s opening guitar riff.

The Beatles knew they had broken new ground. “We lifted the tempo, and suddenly there was that fast Beatles spirit,” said McCartney. Lennon later said that “by the time the session came around, we were so happy we couldn’t get it recorded fast enough.” Starr’s steady, propulsive backbeat led Martin to concede he had been wrong about the drummer’s skills.

The new version of “Please Please Me” had an irresistible energy and an aggressive sexuality. (Perhaps too aggressive — Capitol Records wouldn’t put the single out in America because some who heard the song had interpreted the lyrics as an ode to oral sex, and Chicago’s Vee-Jay label ended up releasing “Please Please Me.”) When the band had finished laying down the track, Martin announced over the studio’s intercom, “Gentlemen, I think you’ve got your first Number One.”

He was right: “Please Please Me” was the band’s first of four consecutive Number Ones, launching Beatlemania in Britain. The single sold so well that Brian Epstein pulled the Beatles off the road to make their debut album — which they did in three three-hour sessions on February 11th, 1963, returning to their tour the following day — titled Please Please Me, after their current smash hit.

But the song’s greatest endorsement may have come from Lennon’s aunt Mimi, who hadn’t been convinced by “Love Me Do” that her nephew’s band had much of a future. Then she heard “Please Please Me.” “That’s more like it,” she told Lennon. “That should do well.”

Appears On: Please Please Me

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The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: “Please Please Me”
The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: ‘Please Please Me’
Photos: Invasion of the Beatles

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19

‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 28-March 2, 1967
Released: June 2, 1967
Not released as a single

Lennon always insisted that "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" was not a drug song. As he told Rolling Stone in 1970, "I swear to God or swear to Mao or to anybody you like, I had no idea it spelled LSD." The inspiration was a picture that his four-year-old son, Julian, painted of Lucy O'Donnell, the girl who sat next to him at school. "He had sketched in some stars in the sky and called it 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,'" Lennon said. "Simple."

Lennon showed McCartney the painting one morning over tea, and they decided it was too great a title to pass up. The song is dominated by Lennon's love of childish whimsy like Through the Looking-Glass. Lennon came up with the image of "kaleidoscope eyes," McCartney with "cellophane flowers" and "newspaper taxis," and before long, they had a psychedelic nursery rhyme with wordplay worthy of Lewis Carroll. "The images were from Alice in Wonderland," Lennon said in 1980. "It was Alice in the boat. She is buying an egg, and it turns into Humpty Dumpty. The woman serving in the shop turns into a sheep, and the next minute they are rowing in a rowing boat somewhere, and I was visualizing that."

In the Weybridge mansion where he wrote the song, Lennon spent most of his days alone, feeling numb in a collapsing marriage, watching TV and doing drugs. "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" was an image of hope. As he explained in 1980, "There was also the image of the female who would someday come save me — a 'girl with kaleidoscope eyes' who would come out of the sky. It turned out to be Yoko, though I hadn't met Yoko yet. So maybe it should be 'Yoko in the Sky With Diamonds.'"

Sadly, Lucy herself died in September 2009 of lupus, at the age of 46. Julian Lennon paid tribute to his former classmate by releasing a benefit single, "Lucy," a few weeks later. (Julian's original "Lucy" drawing is currently owned by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.) When she first heard "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" as a teenager, she told her friends she was the Lucy who had inspired it. But they didn't believe her, informing her the song was about LSD. Lucy didn't argue because, as she admitted, "I was too embarrassed to tell them I didn't know what LSD was."

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

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The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'
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Photos: The World Remembers John Lennon

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18

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: April 6, 7 and 22, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
Not released as a single

The last and most aggressively experimental track on Revolver was the first to be recorded: Lennon's rapid, excited response to the great escape of LSD. In acid, Lennon found his first true relief from the real world and the band's celebrity — an alternate space of rapture and self-examination that he re-created, with the energized collaboration of the other Beatles, in "Tomorrow Never Knows." All of a sudden, the poetic advance and rustic modernism of Rubber Soul — issued only five months before these sessions, in December 1965 — was very old news. Compared to the rolling drone, tape-loop effects and out-of-body vocals that dominate Lennon's trip here, even the rest of Revolver sounds like mutation in process: the Beatles pursuing their liberated impulses as players and writers, via acid, in pop-song form. There was no other place for this track on the album but the end. "Eleanor Rigby," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Love You To" and "She Said She Said" were all bold steps toward the unknown — "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the jump from the cliff.

The art of sampling in popular music may, in fact, start here. In January 1966, while tripping, Lennon took the precaution of consulting The Psychedelic Experience, a handbook written by LSD preacher Timothy Leary (with Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner). The book itself was an extended paraphrase of Buddhist concepts, including reincarnation and ego death, in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Lennon ran a tape recorder and read passages from The Psychedelic Experience as he was flying. He was soon writing a song using some of the actual lines from Leary, including his description of the state of grace beyond reality. Lennon even used it as a working title: "The Void."

The Beatles got him there with extraordinary speed. It took them only three tries to come up with a master take of the rhythm track, driven by Starr's relentless drumming. McCartney suggested the tumbling pattern Starr uses.) Most of the otherworldly overdubs were created and recorded on the night of April 6th and the afternoon of the 7th — a total of about 10 hours. There is nothing on "Tomorrow Never Knows" — the backwards guitar solo, the hovering buzz of Harrison on sitar, Lennon's vocal drifting on what feels like the other side of consciousness — that was not dosed beyond plain recognition. The spacey, tabla-like quality of Starr's drumming was just him playing on two slackly tuned tom-toms, compressed and doused in echo. Loops were created using a Mellotron imitating flute and string tones; the cackling seagull sounds were either an altered recording of McCartney laughing or a treated slice of guitar.

Lennon hoped to sound nothing like his usual self. "I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away," he proclaimed in the studio. Engineer Geoff Emerick achieved that effect by running Lennon's voice through the rotating speaker of a Leslie cabinet, which had been hooked up to the Hammond organ at Abbey Road. The result was heaven and earth combined: a luxuriant and rippling prayer, delivered in Lennon's nasal Liverpool-hard-boy tone. "That is bloody marvelous!" Lennon exclaimed repeatedly after hearing his effect. McCartney's reaction was equally joyful: "It's the Dalai Lennon!"

Ironically, all the way to the last overdub on April 22nd, the song was listed on Abbey Road recording sheets with another working title, "Mark 1." Starr came up with something much better. Like "A Hard Day's Night," "Tomorrow Never Knows" was one of the drummer's malapropisms. The line does not appear in Lennon's lyrics. What Starr meant, of course, was "tomorrow never comes." He was wrong: It arrived, in reverb and technicolor, with ecstatic promise, at the end of Revolver.

Appears On: Revolver

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17

‘Ticket to Ride’

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: February 15, 1965
Released: April 19, 1965
11 weeks; no. 1

Lennon once claimed that "Ticket to Ride" — the first track the Beatles recorded for the soundtrack to their second feature film, Help!, on February 15th, 1965 — was "one of the earliest heavy-metal records."

"It was [a] slightly new sound at the time, because it was pretty fuckin' heavy for then," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. "If you go and look in the charts for what other music people were making, and you hear it now, it doesn't sound too bad. It's all happening, it's a heavy record. And the drums are heavy, too. That's why I like it."

After playing mostly acoustic guitar on A Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale, Lennon had picked up his electric guitar for "Ticket to Ride." A chiming 12-string riff kicks off the song with a jangly psychedelic flourish, and the guitars strut and crunch through the verses over Starr's grinding groove. The sound was probably inspired by bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks, who were all exploding out of Great Britain at the time. But the Beatles were still ahead of the competition.

"Ticket to Ride" was the first Beatles recording to break the three-minute mark, and Lennon packed the track with wild mood swings. His singing and lyrics teeter between ambivalence and despair in the verses. The bridge is a powerful double-time burst of indignation ("She oughta think right/She oughta do right/By me"). Another surprise came in the fade, an entirely different melody and rhythm with the repeated line "My baby don't care," sung by Lennon at the upper, stressed top of his range. "We almost invented the idea of a new bit of a song on the fade-out," said McCartney, who also played the spiraling lead-guitar part in the coda. "It was quite radical at the time."

The Beatles now saw making records as a goal in itself — rather than just a document of a song — and were changing their approach to recording as they got more comfortable with the possibilities of the studio. Instead of taping songs as they would play them live, picking the best take and then overdubbing harmonies or solos, the band now usually began with a rhythm track and slowly built an arrangement around it. Considering that, "Ticket to Ride" took almost no time to record: The entire track, including the overdubs, was finished in just over three hours. "It was pretty much a work job that turned out quite well," said McCartney. "Ticket to Ride" effectively became their new theme song: The title of their final BBC radio special was changed to "The Beatles (Invite You to Take a Ticket to Ride)."

Lennon always maintained that McCartney's role in writing the song was minimal — "Paul's contribution was the way Ringo played the drums" — while McCartney contended that "we sat down and wrote it together" in a three-hour session at Lennon's Weybridge home. That might account for the different stories on where the title came from: An obvious explanation is that it refers to a train ticket. (When the Beatles belatedly filmed a promotional clip for the song in November 1965, they lip-synced the song against a backdrop of gigantic transportation passes). But Don Short, a British newspaper journalist who traveled with the Beatles, claimed that it dated back to the band's days in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany. "The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health, and so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn't have a dose of anything," he said. "John told me he coined the phrase 'a ticket to ride' to describe those cards." McCartney had a more innocent explanation: He said that it was a play on the name of the town of Ryde on the Isle of Wight. One other possibility: On the day the Beatles recorded "Ticket to Ride," Lennon passed his driver&ap