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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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19

‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 28-March 2, 1967
Released: June 2, 1967
Not released as a single

Lennon always insisted that "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" was not a drug song. As he told Rolling Stone in 1970, "I swear to God or swear to Mao or to anybody you like, I had no idea it spelled LSD." The inspiration was a picture that his four-year-old son, Julian, painted of Lucy O'Donnell, the girl who sat next to him at school. "He had sketched in some stars in the sky and called it 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,'" Lennon said. "Simple."

Lennon showed McCartney the painting one morning over tea, and they decided it was too great a title to pass up. The song is dominated by Lennon's love of childish whimsy like Through the Looking-Glass. Lennon came up with the image of "kaleidoscope eyes," McCartney with "cellophane flowers" and "newspaper taxis," and before long, they had a psychedelic nursery rhyme with wordplay worthy of Lewis Carroll. "The images were from Alice in Wonderland," Lennon said in 1980. "It was Alice in the boat. She is buying an egg, and it turns into Humpty Dumpty. The woman serving in the shop turns into a sheep, and the next minute they are rowing in a rowing boat somewhere, and I was visualizing that."

In the Weybridge mansion where he wrote the song, Lennon spent most of his days alone, feeling numb in a collapsing marriage, watching TV and doing drugs. "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" was an image of hope. As he explained in 1980, "There was also the image of the female who would someday come save me — a 'girl with kaleidoscope eyes' who would come out of the sky. It turned out to be Yoko, though I hadn't met Yoko yet. So maybe it should be 'Yoko in the Sky With Diamonds.'"

Sadly, Lucy herself died in September 2009 of lupus, at the age of 46. Julian Lennon paid tribute to his former classmate by releasing a benefit single, "Lucy," a few weeks later. (Julian's original "Lucy" drawing is currently owned by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.) When she first heard "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" as a teenager, she told her friends she was the Lucy who had inspired it. But they didn't believe her, informing her the song was about LSD. Lucy didn't argue because, as she admitted, "I was too embarrassed to tell them I didn't know what LSD was."

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

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the beatles 100 greatest songs

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18

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: April 6, 7 and 22, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
Not released as a single

The last and most aggressively experimental track on Revolver was the first to be recorded: Lennon's rapid, excited response to the great escape of LSD. In acid, Lennon found his first true relief from the real world and the band's celebrity — an alternate space of rapture and self-examination that he re-created, with the energized collaboration of the other Beatles, in "Tomorrow Never Knows." All of a sudden, the poetic advance and rustic modernism of Rubber Soul — issued only five months before these sessions, in December 1965 — was very old news. Compared to the rolling drone, tape-loop effects and out-of-body vocals that dominate Lennon's trip here, even the rest of Revolver sounds like mutation in process: the Beatles pursuing their liberated impulses as players and writers, via acid, in pop-song form. There was no other place for this track on the album but the end. "Eleanor Rigby," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Love You To" and "She Said She Said" were all bold steps toward the unknown — "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the jump from the cliff.

The art of sampling in popular music may, in fact, start here. In January 1966, while tripping, Lennon took the precaution of consulting The Psychedelic Experience, a handbook written by LSD preacher Timothy Leary (with Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner). The book itself was an extended paraphrase of Buddhist concepts, including reincarnation and ego death, in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Lennon ran a tape recorder and read passages from The Psychedelic Experience as he was flying. He was soon writing a song using some of the actual lines from Leary, including his description of the state of grace beyond reality. Lennon even used it as a working title: "The Void."

The Beatles got him there with extraordinary speed. It took them only three tries to come up with a master take of the rhythm track, driven by Starr's relentless drumming. McCartney suggested the tumbling pattern Starr uses.) Most of the otherworldly overdubs were created and recorded on the night of April 6th and the afternoon of the 7th — a total of about 10 hours. There is nothing on "Tomorrow Never Knows" — the backwards guitar solo, the hovering buzz of Harrison on sitar, Lennon's vocal drifting on what feels like the other side of consciousness — that was not dosed beyond plain recognition. The spacey, tabla-like quality of Starr's drumming was just him playing on two slackly tuned tom-toms, compressed and doused in echo. Loops were created using a Mellotron imitating flute and string tones; the cackling seagull sounds were either an altered recording of McCartney laughing or a treated slice of guitar.

Lennon hoped to sound nothing like his usual self. "I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away," he proclaimed in the studio. Engineer Geoff Emerick achieved that effect by running Lennon's voice through the rotating speaker of a Leslie cabinet, which had been hooked up to the Hammond organ at Abbey Road. The result was heaven and earth combined: a luxuriant and rippling prayer, delivered in Lennon's nasal Liverpool-hard-boy tone. "That is bloody marvelous!" Lennon exclaimed repeatedly after hearing his effect. McCartney's reaction was equally joyful: "It's the Dalai Lennon!"

Ironically, all the way to the last overdub on April 22nd, the song was listed on Abbey Road recording sheets with another working title, "Mark 1." Starr came up with something much better. Like "A Hard Day's Night," "Tomorrow Never Knows" was one of the drummer's malapropisms. The line does not appear in Lennon's lyrics. What Starr meant, of course, was "tomorrow never comes." He was wrong: It arrived, in reverb and technicolor, with ecstatic promise, at the end of Revolver.

Appears On: Revolver

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17

‘Ticket to Ride’

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: February 15, 1965
Released: April 19, 1965
11 weeks; no. 1

Lennon once claimed that "Ticket to Ride" — the first track the Beatles recorded for the soundtrack to their second feature film, Help!, on February 15th, 1965 — was "one of the earliest heavy-metal records."

"It was [a] slightly new sound at the time, because it was pretty fuckin' heavy for then," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. "If you go and look in the charts for what other music people were making, and you hear it now, it doesn't sound too bad. It's all happening, it's a heavy record. And the drums are heavy, too. That's why I like it."

After playing mostly acoustic guitar on A Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale, Lennon had picked up his electric guitar for "Ticket to Ride." A chiming 12-string riff kicks off the song with a jangly psychedelic flourish, and the guitars strut and crunch through the verses over Starr's grinding groove. The sound was probably inspired by bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks, who were all exploding out of Great Britain at the time. But the Beatles were still ahead of the competition.

"Ticket to Ride" was the first Beatles recording to break the three-minute mark, and Lennon packed the track with wild mood swings. His singing and lyrics teeter between ambivalence and despair in the verses. The bridge is a powerful double-time burst of indignation ("She oughta think right/She oughta do right/By me"). Another surprise came in the fade, an entirely different melody and rhythm with the repeated line "My baby don't care," sung by Lennon at the upper, stressed top of his range. "We almost invented the idea of a new bit of a song on the fade-out," said McCartney, who also played the spiraling lead-guitar part in the coda. "It was quite radical at the time."

The Beatles now saw making records as a goal in itself — rather than just a document of a song — and were changing their approach to recording as they got more comfortable with the possibilities of the studio. Instead of taping songs as they would play them live, picking the best take and then overdubbing harmonies or solos, the band now usually began with a rhythm track and slowly built an arrangement around it. Considering that, "Ticket to Ride" took almost no time to record: The entire track, including the overdubs, was finished in just over three hours. "It was pretty much a work job that turned out quite well," said McCartney. "Ticket to Ride" effectively became their new theme song: The title of their final BBC radio special was changed to "The Beatles (Invite You to Take a Ticket to Ride)."

Lennon always maintained that McCartney's role in writing the song was minimal — "Paul's contribution was the way Ringo played the drums" — while McCartney contended that "we sat down and wrote it together" in a three-hour session at Lennon's Weybridge home. That might account for the different stories on where the title came from: An obvious explanation is that it refers to a train ticket. (When the Beatles belatedly filmed a promotional clip for the song in November 1965, they lip-synced the song against a backdrop of gigantic transportation passes). But Don Short, a British newspaper journalist who traveled with the Beatles, claimed that it dated back to the band's days in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany. "The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health, and so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn't have a dose of anything," he said. "John told me he coined the phrase 'a ticket to ride' to describe those cards." McCartney had a more innocent explanation: He said that it was a play on the name of the town of Ryde on the Isle of Wight. One other possibility: On the day the Beatles recorded "Ticket to Ride," Lennon passed his driver's test.

Appears On: Help!

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Paul McCartney and Billy Joel Rock Out at Yankee Stadium

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16

‘I Saw Her Standing There’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: February 11, 1963
Released: December 26, 1963
11 weeks; no. 14 (B side)

When McCartney began hashing out the song that became "I Saw Her Standing There" on a drive to his Liverpool home one night in 1962, the first couplet he came up with was "She was just 17/She'd never been a beauty queen." But when he played the song for Lennon the next day, "We stopped there and both of us cringed at that and said, 'No, no, no, "beauty queen" is out,'" McCartney recalled. "We went through the alphabet: between, clean, lean, mean. . . ." Eventually, they settled on "you know what I mean," which was good, he said, "because you don't know what I mean."

Though Lennon's exact contribution is unclear ("I helped with a couple of the lyrics," he said), "I Saw Her Standing There" is one of the songs that further cemented the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership. A September 1962 photo by McCartney's brother Mike shows the pair in the front room of Paul's house, working face to face with acoustic guitars, Lennon wearing the glasses he hated, scratching out lyrics in a Liverpool Institute notebook. McCartney wrote the song on his Zenith acoustic guitar, the first guitar he ever owned.

The original inspiration for the song was a girlfriend of McCartney's at the time, dancer Iris Caldwell, who was in fact 17 when he first saw her doing the Twist — in fishnet stockings — at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton in December 1961. "Paul and I dated for a couple of years," said Caldwell. "It was never that serious. We never pretended to be true to each other. I went out with lots of people. I was working away in different theaters at the time, but if I was back home we would go out. There were never any promises made or love declared." Caldwell's brother was Liverpool rocker Rory Storm, leader of the Hurricanes — whose drummer, Ringo Starr, would leave them to join the Beatles in August 1962. Caldwell said that McCartney intended to give "I Saw Her Standing There" to Storm, but Brian Epstein talked him out of it.

Under the title "Seventeen," the song became part of the Beatles' live act in 1962. Onstage, the tune would sometimes run for 10 minutes, with multiple guitar solos. McCartney borrowed the hard-charging bass line from Chuck Berry's 1961 single "I'm Talking About You," a staple of the band's concerts. "I played the exact same notes as he did, and it fitted our number perfectly," McCartney said.

When it came time for the Beatles to record their first album, Please Please Me, George Martin considered taping them live, possibly in front of the group's home audience at the Cavern Club. Though he decided instead to set them up at EMI's studios on Abbey Road, they chose a song list representative of the band's live show. To set the mood, the album begins with McCartney's blazing "one-two-three-faw!" count-off on "I Saw Her Standing There." The Beatles outfitted the song, a veritable celebration of youth itself, with hand claps and the buoyant ooohs that would later show up on singles like "She Loves You." The song, which also features Harrison's first guitar solo on a Beatles record, was chosen as the B side for the "I Want to Hold Your Hand" single that topped the charts in America. It would also be one of the five songs that the Beatles performed on February 9th, 1964, on The Ed Sullivan Show before a television audience of 73 million people.

Lennon described "I Saw Her Standing There" as "Paul doing his usual good job of producing what George Martin would call a 'potboiler,'" but the song would assume a greater meaning in his later life. In 1974, Lennon and Elton John made a bet that if Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," which featured John on harmony vocals and piano, made it to Number One, Lennon would join him onstage. When the song became Lennon's first solo song to top the charts, he made good and appeared with John at his November 28th show at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Before the final song, Lennon said, "We thought we'd do a number of an old estranged fiance of mine called Paul," and they closed the night with a rolli