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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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‘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

the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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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the beatles 100 greatest songs

Evening Standard/Getty Images


‘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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the beatles 100 greatest songs

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


‘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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the beatles 100 greatest songs

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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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the beatles 100 greatest songs

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


‘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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the beatles 100 greatest songs

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


‘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

the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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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