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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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Max Scheler/ K&K/Redferns


‘All My Loving’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: July 30, 1963
Released: January 20, 1964
not released as a single

"It was the first song I'd ever written the words first," said McCartney of "All My Loving," one of the Beatles' most irresistible early rockers. He sketched out the lyrics one day on the bus while the band was touring with Roy Orbison. When they reached the venue, he didn't have his guitar, so he found a piano backstage and set the words to music. "I had in my mind a little country & western song," McCartney later said.

The sweet tale of yearning does have a bit of Nashville flair, especially evident in Harrison's twangy, Carl Perkins-flavored guitar solo. Harrison was such a fan of the man who wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" that on one early Beatles tour, he took the stage name "Carl Harrison." The band covered more Perkins songs than those of any other writer.

"All My Loving" became a staple of the Beatles' live set and the first song they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. "It's a damn good piece of work," Lennon once said in admiration of McCartney's songwriting, "but I play a pretty mean guitar in back."

Appears On: With the Beatles

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‘Drive My Car’

Writers: McCartney-Lennon
Recorded: October 13, 1965
Released: June 15, 1966
Not released as a single

On his way to a writing session with Lennon in 1965, McCartney came up with a melody he liked — but lyrics that merely recycled the idea of buying a girl a diamond ring from "Can't Buy Me Love." Lennon suggested a sexual metaphor — "drive my car" — and the two devised a lyric about a fame-hungry wanna-be. "To me it was L.A. chicks — 'You can be my chauffeur,'" said McCartney, who supplied the twist ending, when the girl admits she doesn't have a car.

"Drive My Car" is one of the most overtly R&B-flavored songs in the Beatles' catalog, thanks mostly to Harrison, who based the taut guitar lines and funky bass part on Otis Redding's "Respect."

"Drive My Car" was removed from the U.S. version of Rubber Soul: With the folk-rock craze at its height, Capitol Records tweaked the American album to focus more on acoustic songs. "Drive My Car" would show up six months later on the compilation LP Yesterday and Today, but for a whole generation of Americans, Rubber Soul was missing its most soulful cut.

Appears On: Rubber Soul

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‘I Feel Fine’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: October 18, 1964
Released: November 23, 1964
11 weeks; No. 1

"I Feel Fine" opens with a brief, throaty growl from Lennon's amplifier. The clipped distortion sounds polite next to the noise Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix would soon put on record, but the Beatles got there first. "I defy anybody to find a record — unless it's some old blues record in 1922 — that uses feedback that way," said Lennon. "I claim it for the Beatles."

According to George Martin, feedback was a routine nuisance at Beatles sessions. "John always turned the [volume] knob up full," the producer said. "It became kind of a joke. But he realized that he could do this to advantage." The feedback on "I Feel Fine" was very much on purpose, existing on the master tapes from the first take.

"I Feel Fine" also showcased the Beatles' evolving musicianship, with Starr chipping in a calypso-flavored dialogue between cymbal and tom-tom. "Ringo developed from a straight rock drummer into quite a musical thinker," said Martin. "He was always trying out different ideas."

Appears On: Past Masters

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‘Get Back’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: January 23, 27, 28 and 30, February 5, 1969
Released: May 5, 1969
12 weeks; No. 1

The plan for the Beatles’ January 1969 sessions was that they would get back to their roots as a live rock & roll band, so when McCartney came up with a song called “Get Back,” it was a perfect fit. It was also the last song the Beatles played at their 10-song, 42-minute final gig on the roof of the Apple Records building on January 30th.

The original lyrics to “Get Back” satirized the anti-immigrant sentiments in England at the time: “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs” went one line. McCartney dropped the parodic race-baiting, leaving the tales of wandering Jo Jo and gender-flipping Loretta Martin. Lennon called “Get Back,” which features his bluesy lead guitar as well as a funky keyboard solo from Billy Preston, “a better version of ‘Lady Madonna’ . . . a potboiler rewrite.” But he also suspected that the song was secretly aimed at Yoko Ono: “You know, ‘Get back to where you once belonged.’ Every time [Paul] sang the line in the studio, he’d look at Yoko.”

Appears On: Let It Be and Past Masters

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‘For No One’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: May 9, 16 and 19, 1966
August 8, 1966
Not released as a single

McCartney wrote this quiet classic in the second person, as if he were addressing, but not quite comforting, a friend abruptly abandoned by a lover: "You want her, you need her/And yet you don't believe her/When she says her love is dead." He was talking to himself: "For No One," written in March 1966 while he and Jane Asher were on vacation in Switzerland, was about an argument they had. The intimacy of the production and performance — a kind of exhausted acceptance — stand out amid the accelerated experimentation everywhere else on Revolver. McCartney and Starr were the only Beatles present at the session; they cut the backing track — McCartney's piano and Starr's minimalist percussion, plus overdubbed clavichord — in a single night. George Martin later suggested a dash of brass, so they called in Alan Civil of the London Philharmonia, who played the song's brief, moving French-horn interjections. Civil was paid about 50 pounds for his efforts, but got something more valuable: a rare Beatles-album credit on Revolver's original back cover.

Appears On: Revolver

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‘Day Tripper’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: October 16, 1965
Released: December 6, 1965
10 weeks; no. 5

"Day Tripper" was "a drug song," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. "I've always needed a drug to survive. The [other Beatles], too, but I always had more, I always took more pills and more of everything, 'cause I'm more crazy."

The song was Lennon's indictment of poseurs. "Day trippers are people who go on a day trip, right? Usually on a ferryboat or something," he said. "But [the song] was kind of 'you're just a weekend hippie.'" In contrast, "We saw ourselves as full-time trippers," McCartney said, "fully committed drivers."

The in-jokes didn't stop with that bit of wordplay. The Beatles put in "references that we knew our friends would get but that the Great British Public might not," McCartney said. "So 'she's a big teaser' was 'she's a prick teaser.' . . . We thought that'd be fun to put in."

Lennon and McCartney conceded that "Day Tripper" had been a "forced" song, written on deadline for a scheduled December single. While Lennon's blues-based guitar hook may have been his answer to the Rolling Stones' recent Number One hit, "Satisfaction," "Day Tripper" was more complex, a gleaming combination of muscle and intricate arranging.

Lennon's riff builds to a midsong rave-up that climaxes with soaring harmonies and Harrison climbing a scale behind Lennon's solo, until Starr's tambourine roll brings back the original groove. Lennon's half sister, Julia Baird, was perplexed by the complicated nature of the song when she attended the recording session. "It seemed like bits and pieces were being put together," she said. "I can't understand how they got the final version."

"Day Tripper" was planned as a single, but just a few days later, the Beatles recorded "We Can Work It Out," which was generally thought to be a more commercial song. Lennon objected to losing the spot, though, so the two songs were marketed as the first-ever double-A-side single.

Though "We Can Work It Out" charted higher, "Day Tripper" was the more popular live number. The Beatles played it every night on their final concert tour, up to the last show, at San Francisco's Candlestick Park on August 29th, 1966.

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Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: June 11, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

"Blackbird" was really about the struggle over civil rights: "I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird," McCartney said. "Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, so this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: 'Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.'"

In one sense, the song was an oblique response to Lennon's "Revolution," the other big political song on the White Album. "As is often the case with my things, a veiling took place," said McCartney, "so, rather than say, 'Black woman living in Little Rock,' and be very specific, she became a bird, became symbolic."

McCartney recorded "Blackbird" on his own. Harrison and Starr were in California (where Harrison was being filmed for Ravi Shankar's movie Raga), and Lennon was in a different studio working on "Revolution 9." McCartney has said that the fingerpicked guitar lines of "Blackbird," written at his Scotland farm soon after he returned from India, were loosely based on Bach's "Bourrée in E minor," which he and Harrison used to practice in their early years. The blackbird heard on the track was from a sound-effects collection. "He did a very good job, I thought," McCartney joked. "He sings very well on that."

After he'd run through the song a number of times, McCartney told engineer Geoff Emerick that he wanted the song to sound as if he were singing it outdoors. "Fine," Emerick said, "then let's do it outdoors" — and they relocated to tape "Blackbird" outside Abbey Road Studios' echo chamber.

McCartney gave the first semipublic performance of "Blackbird" to a group of fans outside his Cavendish Avenue home. "Paul opened the window and called out to us, 'Are you still down there?'" one of them recalled. "Then he sat on the windowsill with his acoustic guitar and sang 'Blackbird' to us, standing down there in the dark."

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‘She Said, She Said’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: June 21, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
Not released as a single

The last song recorded for Revolver began with bad vibes: Lennon snapping at actor Peter Fonda for spooking him with talk about death during an acid trip. The Beatles were staying at a house in Los Angeles' Benedict Canyon in late August 1965, shuttling between concert dates in Oregon, San Francisco and L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl. One afternoon, Fonda turned up with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds for an LSD party (McCartney abstained). When Harrison said, in the middle of his flight, that he felt like he was dying, Fonda said it was nothing to fear, that he had survived a near-fatal experience on an operating table when he was a boy. Fonda's famous words: "I know what it's like to be dead." Lennon, in his own precarious state, exploded at the actor. "We were all on acid, and John couldn't take it," McGuinn recalled. "John said, 'Get this guy out of here.' It was morbid and bizarre."

Lennon held on to his anger, at first titling the song "He Said He Said" and, after quoting Fonda at the beginning, throwing those words back at him with vicious glee. "I said, 'Who put all that crap in your head?'" Lennon sang at one point in his earliest demo. (The line he settled on — "I said, 'Who put all those things in your head?'" — was softer, funnier, but still on target.) Lennon also realized he had written himself into a corner: He dropped the tune for a few days, returning to it with a bridge that — out of time with the rest of the shuffling rhythm, bright with childhood innocence — shifted the song from pure recrimination to a spirited­argument about ego and immortality, drenched in sighing harmonies and driven by Starr's spirited drumming.

The band's California trip didn't last long, but L.A. and San Francisco would have flashbacks to that psychedelic moment for years. The hippie-chic scene calibrated itself to whatever the Beatles did. From the Beach Boys to Love to the Grateful Dead, the West Coast-pop sound of the next several years sprang directly from Revolver — especially "She Said She Said" and its conjunction of melodic immediacy and acid-fueled mind games.

Appears On: Revolver

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‘I Should Have Known Better’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 25 and 26, 1964
Released: June 26, 1964
4 weeks; no. 53 (B side)

Lennon didn't think much of "I should have known Better," the B side of "A Hard Day's Night." "Just a song," he said of it. "It doesn't mean a damn thing." But as the first Beatles song to show the direct influence of Bob Dylan, it opened up a musical competition between the two artists that continued for decades.

While the Beatles were in Paris in January 1964, a DJ gave them a copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which had come out in May 1963 but hadn't made much of a splash in Europe. "For the rest of our three weeks in Paris, we didn't stop playing it," Lennon remembered. "We all went potty on Dylan." When the band recorded "I Should Have Known Better" a month later, Lennon kicked the song off with a distinctly Dylan-inflected harmonica solo, much rawer than the ones on earlier Beatles records. Dylan was impressed by the Beatles, too, and hearing their records pushed him to change his musical direction. A year after "I Should Have Known Better," he began using a full electric band, starting with his legendary Newport Folk Festival appearance. "You could only [make that sound] with other musicians," Dylan said in 1971. "Even if you're playing your own chords, you had to have other people playing with you. And it started me thinking about other people."

In early 1965, Dylan recorded "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" — a nod to the British Invasion sound, with a riff that was reminiscent of "I Should Have Known Better." Lennon lobbed the ball back with "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" that fall. (Their friendly songwriting rivalry was still going on shortly before Lennon's death, when Dylan recorded his God-fearing "Gotta Serve Somebody" and Lennon countered with "Serve Yourself.") Starr sat in with Dylan a few times in the Seventies and Eighties. But it was Harrison who ended up having the closest relationship with Dylan, frequently collaborating with him over the years and eventually forming the Traveling Wilburys in 1988. And Harrison might not have been the only one: Tom Petty told Rolling Stone that Harrison once said to him, "Oh, John would [have been] a Wilbury in a second."

Appears On: A Hard Day's Night

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‘Paperback Writer’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: April 13 and 14, 1966
Released: May 30, 1966
10 weeks; no. 1

'They were great vocalists — they knew instinctively what harmonies to pitch," said George Martin. But in the sumptuous intro to "Paperback Writer," Lennon, McCartney and Harrison went beyond mere formation singing. The trio transformed the title lyric into a medieval chorale that sounded like "She Loves You" dipped in acid. Fastened to a roaring pop song, that sleet of harmonies — combined with the paisley haze of the record's B side, "Rain" — formally announced the Beatles' immersion into psychedelia.

"The way the song itself is shaped and the slow, contrapuntal statements from the backing voices — no one had really done that before," Martin claimed. The producer acknowledged that the Beach Boys were "a great inspiration" to the Beatles, but insisted that his charges had already perfected their vocal craft back when they were playing their club residencies in Hamburg, Germany: "Every night they'd be singing — they'd listen to American R&B records and imitate them," he said.

McCartney came up with the song's unusual structure on the long drive out to Lennon's house, where the duo frequently spent their afternoons writing songs. "I would often start thinking away and writing on my way out, and I developed the whole idea in the car," he said. "I came in, had my bowl of cornflakes and said, 'How's about if we write a letter: "Dear Sir or Madam," next line, next paragraph, etc.?'" (Some have suggested that the lyric about an aspiring hack was a jab at Lennon, who had published two books of cheeky surrealism, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works.) Lennon later described "Paperback Writer" as the "son of 'Day Tripper' — meaning a rock & roll song with a guitar lick on a fuzzy, loud guitar."

To engineer Geoff Emerick, the secret ingredient was the propulsive boom he got out of Starr's bass drum. "No one, as far as I remember on record," said Emerick, "had a bass drum sounding like that. We had the front skin off the bass drum and stuffed it with sweaters." Emerick also placed a microphone within an inch of the drum, for which he was reprimanded by EMI studio executives: "You couldn't go nearer than two feet to the bass drum, because the air pressure would damage the microphone."

The success of "Paperback Writer" forced a revision of that policy. "I got a letter from EMI allowing me to do that," Emerick said, "but only on Beatles sessions."

Appears On: Past Masters

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‘Eight Days a Week’

Writers: McCartney-Lennon
Recorded: October 6 and 18, 1964
Released: February 15, 1965
10 weeks; no. 1

The title of "Eight Days a Week" came from a chance remark by a driver chauffeuring McCartney out to Lennon's house. McCartney casually asked the driver if he'd been busy. "Busy?" he replied. "I've been working eight days a week." "Neither of us had heard that expression before," said McCartney. "It was like a little blessing from the gods. I didn't have any idea for it other than the title, and we just knocked it off together, just filling in from the title."

Although McCartney claimed the rest of the song "came quickly," it lacked a beginning, a middle eight and an ending when he and Lennon brought it into the studio. The Beatles tried a variety of approaches, including a wordless harmony for the intro, but stumbled repeatedly getting the melody right. "We struggled to record it and struggled to make it into a song," Lennon recalled. "But it was lousy anyway."

The Beatles were working at least nine days a week in late 1964, which may account for Lennon's sour take on the song. They'd been touring constantly, had just released A Hard Day's Night in June and were rushed back into a recording studio the week after they returned from America to record a new album and single in time for Christmas. "They were rather war-weary," George Martin said. "They'd been battered like mad throughout 1964, and much of 1963. Success is a wonderful thing, but it is very, very tiring." With little time to write original songs, almost half of the Beatles for Sale LP consisted of covers the group had been playing onstage for years. The same day the Beatles finished "Eight Days a Week," they knocked out seven complete tracks.

Twelve days later, they settled on the final arrangement, with its innovative instrumental fade-in that gives the song the warm, jubilant "feel[ing] like you've heard it before," as Ray Davies of the Kinks told Rolling Stone in 2001.

Beatles for Sale was released in the U.K. in December 1964. Beatles '65, its U.S. counterpart, did not include "Eight Days a Week." The song was released as a single in the U.S. two months later, and it went to Number One. But the Beatles continued to disregard it. It was never a single in the U.K., and in their subsequent two years of radio performances and touring, they never played it live. Despite its popularity, Lennon believes it "was never a good song."

Appears On: Beatles for Sale