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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.

the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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

the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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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the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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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the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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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the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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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the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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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the beatles 100 greatest songs

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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

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Rubber Soul'
Photos: John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York, The Last Years
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the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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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