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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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2

‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: October 17, 1963
Released: December 26, 1963
15 weeks; no. 1

When the joyous, high-end racket of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" first blasted across the airwaves, America was still reeling from the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Beatles songs had drifted across the Atlantic in a desultory way before, but no British rock & roll act had ever made the slightest impact on these shores. The Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, were determined to be the first, vowing that they wouldn't come to the U.S. until they had a Number One record.

"I Want to Hold Your Hand" changed everything. "Luckily, we didn't know what America was — we just knew our dream of it — or we probably would have been too intimidated," Paul McCartney told Rolling Stone in 1987. The single was most Americans' first exposure to the songwriting magic of Lennon and McCartney, who composed the song sitting side by side at the piano in the London home of the parents of McCartney's girlfriend, Jane Asher.

"I remember when we got the chord that made the song," John Lennon later said. "We had, 'Oh, you-u-u/Got that something,' and Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, 'That's it! Do that again!' In those days, we really used to write like that — both playing into each other's noses."

The song "was the apex of Phase One of the Beatles' development," said producer George Martin. "When they started out, in the 'Love Me Do' days, they weren't good writers. They stole unashamedly from existing records. It wasn't until they tasted blood that they realized they could do this, and that set them on the road to writing better songs."

The lightning-bolt energy lunges out of the speakers with a rhythm so tricky that many bands who covered the song couldn't figure it out. Lennon's and McCartney's voices constantly switch between unison and harmony. Every element of the song is a hook, from Lennon's riffing to George Harrison's string-snapping guitar fills to the group's syncopated hand claps.

With advance orders at a million copies, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was released in the U.K. in late November and promptly bumped the band's "She Loves You" from the top of the charts. After a teenager in Washington, D.C., persuaded a local DJ to seek out an import of the single, it quickly became a hit on the few American stations that managed to score a copy. Rush-released in the U.S. the day after Christmas, the song hit Number One on February 1st, 1964.

Having accomplished their goal, the Beatles' appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, drawing 70 million viewers, the most in the history of TV to that time. "It was like a dam bursting," Martin said.

Teens weren't the only ones swept up in Beatlemania. Some of America's greatest artists fell under their spell. Poet Allen Ginsberg leapt up to dance the first time he heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in a New York club. Composer Leonard Bernstein rhapsodized about the Sullivan appearance, "I fell in love with the Beatles' music — the ineluctable beat, the Schubert-like flow of musical invention and the Fuck-You coolness of the Four Horsemen of Our Apocalypse." Bob Dylan, who had just released The Times They Are A-Changin', saw the future. "They were doing things nobody was doing," Dylan said in 1971. "Their chords were outrageous. It was obvious to me they had staying power. I knew they were pointing in the direction of where music had to go. In my head, the Beatles were it."

Appears On: Past Masters

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the beatles 100 greatest songs

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1

‘A Day in the Life’

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: January 19 and 20, February 3, 10 and 22, 1967
Released: June 2, 1967
Not released as a single

"A Day in the Life" is the sound of the Beatles on a historic roll. "It was a peak," John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, recalling the Sgt. Pepper period. It's also the ultimate Lennon-McCartney collaboration: "Paul and I were definitely working together, especially on 'A Day in the Life,'" said Lennon.

After their August 29th, 1966, concert in San Francisco, the Beatles left live performing for good. Rumors of tension within the group spread as the Beatles released no new music for months. "People in the media sensed that there was too much of a lull," Paul McCartney said later, "which created a vacuum, so they could bitch about us now. They'd say, 'Oh, they've dried up,' but we knew we hadn't."

With Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles created an album of psychedelic visions; coming at the end, "A Day in the Life" sounds like the whole world falling apart. Lennon sings about death and dread in his most spectral vocal, treated with what he called his "Elvis echo" — a voice, as producer George Martin said in 1992, "which sends shivers down the spine."

Lennon took his lyrical inspiration from the newspapers and his own life: The "lucky man who made the grade" was supposedly Tara Browne, a 21-year-old London aristocrat killed in a December 1966 car wreck, and the film in which "the English army had just won the war" probably referred to Lennon's own recent acting role in How I Won the War. Lennon really did find a Daily Mail story about 4,000 potholes in the roads of Blackburn, Lancashire.

Lennon wrote the basic song, but he felt it needed something different for the middle section. McCartney had a brief song fragment handy, the part that begins "Woke up, fell out of bed." "He was a bit shy about it because I think he thought, 'It's already a good song,'" Lennon said. But McCartney also came up with the idea to have classical musicians deliver what Martin called an "orchestral orgasm." The February 10th session became a festive occasion, with guests like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull and Donovan. The studio was full of balloons; the formally attired orchestra members were given party hats, rubber noses and gorilla paws to wear. Martin and McCartney both conducted the musicians, having them play from the lowest note on their instruments to the highest.

Two weeks later, the Beatles added the last touch: the piano crash that hangs in the air for 53 seconds. Martin had every spare piano in the building hauled down to the Beatles' studio, where Lennon, McCartney, Ringo Starr, Martin and roadie Mal Evans played the same E-major chord, as engineer Geoff Emerick turned up the faders to catch every last trace. By the end, the levels were up so high that you can hear Starr's shoe squeak.

In April, two months before Sgt. Pepper came out, McCartney visited San Francisco, carrying a tape with an unfinished version of "A Day in the Life." He gave it to members of the Jefferson Airplane, and the tape ended up at a local free-form rock station, KMPX, which put it into rotation, blowing minds all over the Haight-Ashbury community. The BBC banned the song for the druggy line "I'd love to turn you on." They weren't so far off base: "When [Martin] was doing his TV program on Pepper," McCartney recalled later, "he asked me, 'Do you know what caused Pepper?' I said, 'In one word, George, drugs. Pot.' And George said, 'No, no. But you weren't on it all the time.' 'Yes, we were.' Sgt. Pepper was a drug album."

In truth, the song was far too intense musically and emotionally for regular radio play. It wasn't really until the Eighties, after Lennon's murder, that "A Day in the Life" became recognized as the band's masterwork. In this song, as in so many other ways, the Beatles were way ahead of everyone else.

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

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