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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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8

‘Let It Be’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: January 25, 26 and 31, April 30, 1969; January 4, 1970
Released: March 11, 1970
14 weeks; no. 1

Channeling the church-born soul of Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney started writing “Let It Be” in 1968, during the White Album sessions. (Aretha’s cover of the song was released before the Beatles’ version.) McCartney’s opening lines — “When I find myself in times of trouble/Mother Mary comes to me” — were based on a dream in which his own late mother, Mary, offered solace, assuring him that everything would turn out fine. “I’m not sure if she used the words ‘Let it be,'” McCartney said, “but that was the gist of her advice.”

At that point, the Beatles were in their own time of trouble. A month of on-camera rehearsal and live recording had been intended to energize the bandmates and return them to their beat-combo roots. (They had pushed George Martin into the background: “I don’t want any of your production shit,” John Lennon told him. “We want this to be an honest album.”) Instead, it was a miserable experience, during which the petty arguments of previous albums turned into open hostility. Lennon wasn’t crazy about “Let It Be”; he poked fun at the song’s earnestness in the studio, asking, “Are we supposed to giggle in the solo?” But the band worked for days on the song, recording the basic track at Apple Studios on January 31st, 1969.

After wrapping up the filmed sessions that day, the Beatles turned a mountain of tapes over to engineer Glyn Johns to assemble into an album, tentatively titled Get Back. George Harrison didn’t like his solo on the version of “Let It Be” that Johns picked, so he replaced his part with a new take, in which his guitar was run through a rotating Leslie organ speaker. That solo, with its distinctive warbling tone, ended up on the single.

At the beginning of 1970 — almost a year after the initial recording — McCartney, Harrison and Starr convened to do touch-up work on a few songs from a year earlier, including “Let It Be.” (Lennon, who had effectively quit the Beatles after the recording of Abbey Road, was in Denmark with Yoko Ono.) McCartney replaced John’s bass part with his own, Harrison recorded another guitar solo (the one used on the album mix), a brass section scored by Martin was added, and Harrison and Paul and Linda McCartney sang backup vocals.

Lennon had been impressed with producer Phil Spector’s work on his “Instant Karma!” single, and in March 1970, he and Beatles manager Allen Klein called in Spector to work on the January 1969 tapes. “He was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something out of it,” said Lennon. Spector did the LP mix of the title track (after the single had already been released) and is credited with producing it, although it’s mixed from the same tape as the single. McCartney later declared that Spector’s version “sounded terrible.”

Johns said he preferred his spare mix of the song, the one done before “Spector puked all over it.” Spector called the atmosphere between band members a “war zone” and felt he’d done the best he could under the circumstances. “If it’s shitty, I’m going to get blamed for it,” he said. “If it’s a success, it’s the Beatles.”

“Let It Be” was released on March 11th, 1970. A month later, on April 10th, McCartney took the occasion of the release of his first solo album to announce that the Beatles had broken up.

Appears On: Let It Be and Past Masters

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7

‘Hey Jude’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: July 29-August 1, 1968
Released: August 26, 1968
19 weeks; no. 1

"Hey Jude" was inspired by John and Cynthia Lennon's five-year-old son, Julian. "Paul and I used to hang out quite a bit — more than Dad and I did," Julian said. "Maybe Paul was into kids a bit more at the time."

McCartney was visiting Cynthia after she and Lennon had broken up, and he was thinking of Julian on the drive over there. "I was going out in my car, just vaguely singing this song," McCartney said, "and it was like, 'Hey, Jules. . . .' And then I just thought a better name was Jude. A bit more country & western for me." The opening lines were "a hopeful message for Julian: 'Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you're not happy, but you'll be OK.'"

"Hey Jude" can also be heard as McCartney's song of consolation to himself as his relationship with Jane Asher was ending and as the Beatles' future was growing more uncertain. The song was recorded in the middle of the White Album sessions, which were plagued by fighting within the band and increasing alienation as the individual songwriters started treating the other Beatles as sidemen on their songs — if they used them at all. McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr resented the constant presence of John's new girlfriend, Yoko Ono, in the studio. Engineer Geoff Emerick found the squabbling so unpleasant that he quit. George Martin, also exhausted from the bickering and from running between the individual Beatles recording simultaneously in separate studios, abandoned the sessions to take a vacation, leaving production of the album for several weeks to his assistant Chris Thomas. Fed up himself, Starr left the band for two weeks (the first band member to quit the Beatles).

When Lennon first heard "Hey Jude," he loved it — he thought McCartney was singing to him, about his relationship with Ono and the strains on the Lennon-McCartney partnership. (Lennon's contribution to the song came when McCartney pointed out a place-holder line in the fifth verse: "The movement you need is on your shoulder." Lennon insisted he leave it as is. "That's the best line in it!" he said.) Calling "Hey Jude" one of McCartney's "masterpieces," Lennon said in 1980, "I always heard it as a song to me. . . . Yoko's just come into the picture. He's saying, 'Hey, Jude — hey, John.' Subconsciously he was saying, 'Go ahead, leave me.'"

The band hired a 36-piece orchestra for the session; the classical musicians were encouraged to sing and clap along to the song, for double their usual rate. One musician would not go along. "'I'm not going to clap my hands and sing Paul McCartney's bloody song,'" Martin remembered him saying. "He said his union card said he was a violinist, and he walked out of the studio. Much to everyone's amazement." There were other problems too: McCartney had to tell Harrison to tone down his guitar-playing, which was cluttering up the verses. (Harrison "wasn't into what I was saying," said McCartney. "It was bossy, but it was also ballsy of me, because I could have bowed to the pressure.") And when it came time to record the master take, McCartney hadn't noticed that Starr was in the bathroom. Fortunately, the drums come in so late in "Hey Jude" that Starr was able to sprint back behind his kit and come in right on time.

The ending refrain goes on for a full four minutes, even longer than the verses, which clock in at just over three minutes. The band hadn't planned it that way, but McCartney was having too much fun ad-libbing to quit. "I just wouldn't stop doing all that 'Judy Judy Judy — wooow!" he said. "Cary Grant on heat!"

"Hey Jude" was the first release on the group's Apple Records label. It spent nine weeks at Number One, holding the top spot longer than any other Beatles song. It was also the longest Beatles song up to that point, clocking in at seven minutes and 11 seconds. Martin objected to its length, claiming radio wouldn't play the tune. "They will if it's us," Lennon shot back.

Appears On: Past Masters

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6

‘Something’

Writer: Harrison
Recorded: April 16, May 2 and 5, July 11 and 16, August 15, 1969
Released: October 1, 1969
16 weeks; no. 3

On February 25th, 1969, his 26th birthday, George Harrison recorded three demos at EMI studios. He did two takes each of "Old Brown Shoe," which would end up as the B side of "Let It Be," and "All Things Must Pass," the title song of his 1970 solo album. He also took a pass at a winsome ballad that he had written on piano during a break in the White Album sessions in 1968: "Something." "George's material wasn't really paid all that much attention to — to such an extent that he asked me to stay behind after [everyone else had gone]," says engineer Glyn Johns, who recorded the demos. "He was terribly nice, as if he was imposing on me. And then he plays this song that just completely blows me away."

Harrison initially believed the song was so catchy he must have heard it before: "I just put it on ice for six months because I thought, 'That's too easy!'" The opening lyric — "Something in the way she moves" — was a James Taylor song from his 1968 Apple Records debut. (Harrison had attended sessions for Taylor's record and sang backup vocals on another song.) "In my mind," Harrison said, "I heard Ray Charles singing 'Something.'" Still, he didn't necessarily think it was good enough for the Beatles.

He even gave the song to Joe Cocker, who recorded it first. When Harrison finally presented "Something" to the other Beatles, they loved it. John Lennon said "Something" was "the best track on the album." Paul McCartney called it the best song [Harrison has] written." "It took my breath away," producer George Martin later said, "mainly because I never thought that George could do it. It was tough for him because he didn't have any springboard against which he could work, like the other two did. And so he was a loner."

The other Beatles worked on "Something" for several months, editing, arranging and rerecording it to perfection. In a reversal, Harrison became musical director, telling McCartney how to play the bass line. "It was a first," engineer Geoff Emerick said. "George had never dared tell Paul what to do." At the final session, Harrison shared the conductor's podium with Martin during the string overdubs and recut his guitar solo, a sparkling combination of dirty-blues-like slide and soaring romanticism, live with the orchestra.

"Something" went to Number Three and eventually became the second-most-covered Beatles song, behind "Yesterday." Charles would in fact sing it, on his 1971 album, Volcanic Action of My Soul. Frank Sinatra would describe it as "the greatest love song of the past 50 years" (although he often introduced it as a Lennon-McCartney composition).

"He was nervous about his songs," Martin said of Harrison, "because he knew that he wasn't the number-one [songwriter] in the group. He always had to try harder." But with "Something," the guitarist proved himself to his peers, and to the world.

Appears On: Abbey Road

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5

‘In My Life’

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: October 18 and 22, 1965
Released: December 6, 1965
Not released as a single

'In My Life" represented a crucial breakthrough for John Lennon — as well as a creative struggle. The song began with a question: During a March 1964 interview with Lennon, journalist Kenneth Allsop asked why he hadn't written more lyrics about his life and experiences. "I had a sort of professional songwriter's attitude to writing pop songs," Lennon said to Rolling Stone in 1970. "I would write [books like] In His Own Write, to express my personal emotions. I'd have a separate songwriting John Lennon who wrote songs for the meat market. I didn't consider them to have any depth at all. They were just a joke."

Taking Allsop's critique to heart, Lennon wrote a long poem about people and places from his past, touching on Liverpool landmarks like Penny Lane, Strawberry Field and Menlove Avenue. "I had a complete set of lyrics after struggling with a journalistic version of a trip downtown on a bus, naming every sight," he said. When he read the poem later, though, "it was the most boring 'What I Did on My Holidays' song, and it wasn't working. But then I laid back, and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember."

What happened next is a dispute that will never be resolved. "In My Life" is one of only a handful of Lennon-McCartney songs where the two strongly disagreed over who wrote what: According to Lennon, "The whole lyrics were already written before Paul even heard it. His contribution melodically was the harmony and the middle eight." According to McCartney, Lennon basically had the first verse done. At one of their writing sessions at Lennon's Weybridge estate, the two painstakingly rewrote the lyrics, making them less specific and more universal. (Some of Lennon's lines, like his reference to the late Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles' former bassist, in "some are dead and some are living," remained.) McCartney also says he wrote the melody on Lennon's Mellotron, inspired by Smokey Robinson, as well as the gentle opening guitar figure.

Regardless of its true authorship, "In My Life" represented Lennon's evolution as an artist. "I started being me about the songs, not writing them objectively, but subjectively," Lennon said. "I think it was Dylan who helped me realize that — not by any discussion or anything, but by hearing his work." The Beatles were huge Dylan fans by early 1964, playing The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan nonstop in between gigs. When Dylan visited the Beatles in New York that August, he famously introduced them to marijuana. (He thought the Beatles were already pot smokers, having misheard the lyrics "I can't hide" in "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as "I get high.") Dylan and pot would be the great twin influences that led the Beatles out of their moptop period and on to their first masterpiece, Rubber Soul.

Before that album, "We were just writing songs à la the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly," Lennon said, "pop songs with no more thought to them than that." He rightly called "In My Life" "my first real, major piece of work. Up until then, it had all been glib and throwaway."

Appears On: Rubber Soul

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4

‘Yesterday’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: June 14 and 17, 1965
Released: September 13, 1965
11 weeks; no. 1

The tune that would go on to become the most covered song in history began as something called "Scrambled Eggs." It also began in a dream.

"It fell out of bed," Paul McCartney once said about the origins of "Yesterday." "I had a piano by my bedside, and I must have dreamed it, because I tumbled out of bed and put my hands on the piano keys and I had a tune in my head. It was just all there, a complete thing. I couldn't believe it. It came too easy."

In fact, it was so fully formed that he was sure he must have unconsciously plagiarized a melody he'd heard somewhere else. So for months he allowed the unpolished song to sit on the shelf, occasionally strumming a few bars for George Martin or Ringo Starr and asking, "Is this like something?"

Martin recalled McCartney playing him the song as far back as January 1964, before the Beatles even landed in America. McCartney's own recollection has him writing the tune later, but regardless, John Lennon confirmed that the song "was around for months and months before we finally completed it."

For a long time, McCartney couldn't get past the placeholder words "Scrambled eggs/Oh, my baby, how I love your legs." He finished the actual lyrics on a holiday with his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, creating a frank poem of regret that he has called "the most complete song I have ever written."

Recording the track was more challenging. As Martin explained, "It wasn't a three-guitars-and-drums kind of song. I said, 'Put down guitar and voice just to begin with, Paul, and then we'll see what we can do with it.'" After trying several different approaches, including one with Lennon on the organ, Martin made an unorthodox suggestion. "I said, 'What about having a string accompaniment, you know, fairly tastefully done?' Paul said, 'Yuk! I don't want any of that Mantovani rubbish. I don't want any of that syrupy stuff.' Then I thought back to my classical days, and I said, 'Well, what about a string quartet, then?'"

McCartney still wasn't convinced. "I said, 'Are you kidding?'" he recalled. "'This is a rock group!' I hated the idea. [Martin] said, 'Well, let's just try it, and if you hate it, we can just wipe it and go back to you and the guitar.' So I sat at the piano and worked out the arrangements with him, and we did it, and, of course, we liked it."

The recording captures the Beatles' inventive spirit, opening the door to a willingness to experiment with new sounds. "Yesterday" signaled to the world that the Beatles — and rock & roll — had made a sudden leap from brash adolescence to literate maturity.

After the session, Martin took manager Brian Epstein aside and quietly suggested that since none of the other Beatles contributed to the track, perhaps the song should be issued as a Paul McCartney solo record. Epstein's response, according to Martin, was, "This is the Beatles — we don't differentiate." Meanwhile, the group was still unsure about "Yesterday" and didn't release it as a single in the U.K. "We were a little embarrassed by it," McCartney said. "We were a rock & roll band."

"Yesterday" quickly went to Number One in the U.S. (It was one of a half-dozen tracks Capitol left off the American version of the Help! soundtrack and was released as a single instead.) It is the most popular song in the Beatles' catalog, recorded more than 2,500 times — by everyone from Ray Charles and Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra and Daffy Duck — a fact that did not necessarily sit well with Lennon, who had nothing to do with it. Lennon once joked, "I go to restaurants and the groups always play 'Yesterday.' I even signed a guy's violin in Spain after he played us 'Yesterday.' He couldn't understand that I didn't write the song. But I guess he couldn't have gone from table to table playing 'I Am the Walrus.'"

Appears On: Help!

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3

‘Strawberry Fields Forever’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: November 24, 28 and 29, December 8, 9, 15, 21 and 22, 1966
Released: February 13, 1967
9 weeks; no. 8

John Lennon wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever" in September 1966 in Spain, where he was making the film How I Won the War. Alone, with no Beatles business for the first time in years, he found himself free to reach deep for inspiration, going back to childhood memories. As Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1968, "We were trying to write about Liverpool, and I just listed all the nice-sounding names arbitrarily. But I have visions of Strawberry Fields. . . . Because Strawberry Fields is just anywhere you want to go." Strawberry Field (Lennon added the "s") was a Liverpool children's home near where Lennon grew up with his Aunt Mimi. When he was young, Lennon, who had been abandoned by both his parents, would climb over the wall of the orphanage and play in its wild gardens.

"I was hip in kindergarten," Lennon explained in 1980. "I was different all my life. The second verse goes, 'No one I think is in my tree.' Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I was saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius — 'I mean it must be high or low,' the next line. There was something wrong with me, I thought, because I seemed to see things other people didn't see."

After finishing the song on a Spanish beach, Lennon returned to England and played it for the rest of the band. As engineer Geoff Emerick recalled, "There was a moment of stunned silence, broken by Paul, who in a quiet, respectful tone said simply, 'That is absolutely brilliant.'" At that point, it was an acoustic-guitar ballad, reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." But in the studio, it became a whole new thing, as the Beatles experimented with it for days. Having retired from touring earlier that year, they were free to record at their leisure, cutting dozens of takes in the next two weeks. McCartney composed the intro on a Mellotron, a primitive synthesizer.

Lennon wanted to keep the first part from one take (Take 26) and the second part from another, recorded the previous week (Take 7) — despite the fact that they were in different keys and tempos. Producer George Martin accomplished this by slightly speeding up one take and slowing down the other. The manipulation of time and key only added to the brooding, ghostly feeling of Lennon's vocals, giving the entire song an aura of surreal timelessness. The finished take ends with a fragment of a long jam session, in which Lennon says "cranberry sauce": Paul Is Dead freaks believed he was saying, "I buried Paul."

"Strawberry Fields" was the first track cut during the Sgt. Pepper sessions. The innovative studio techniques the Beatles employed recording it and McCartney's "Penny Lane," another childhood memory of a Liverpool landmark, heralded the band's new direction — as did the acid-inspired reverie in the lyrics of both songs. The tracks were to be centerpieces of the Beatles' greatest album, but under pressure by EMI to produce a new single (it had been six months since their last 45), they released both songs in February 1967 as a double A side. Martin later regretted the decision to remove the tracks from Sgt. Pepper as "the biggest mistake of my career."

Growing up "was scary because there was nobody to relate to," Lennon once said. Strawberry Field the place (which closed in 2005) represented those haunting childhood visions. With "Strawberry Fields" the song, he conquered them forever.

Appears On: Magical Mystery Tour

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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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