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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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‘Paperback Writer’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: April 13 and 14, 1966
Released: May 30, 1966
10 weeks; no. 1

'They were great vocalists — they knew instinctively what harmonies to pitch," said George Martin. But in the sumptuous intro to "Paperback Writer," Lennon, McCartney and Harrison went beyond mere formation singing. The trio transformed the title lyric into a medieval chorale that sounded like "She Loves You" dipped in acid. Fastened to a roaring pop song, that sleet of harmonies — combined with the paisley haze of the record's B side, "Rain" — formally announced the Beatles' immersion into psychedelia.

"The way the song itself is shaped and the slow, contrapuntal statements from the backing voices — no one had really done that before," Martin claimed. The producer acknowledged that the Beach Boys were "a great inspiration" to the Beatles, but insisted that his charges had already perfected their vocal craft back when they were playing their club residencies in Hamburg, Germany: "Every night they'd be singing — they'd listen to American R&B records and imitate them," he said.

McCartney came up with the song's unusual structure on the long drive out to Lennon's house, where the duo frequently spent their afternoons writing songs. "I would often start thinking away and writing on my way out, and I developed the whole idea in the car," he said. "I came in, had my bowl of cornflakes and said, 'How's about if we write a letter: "Dear Sir or Madam," next line, next paragraph, etc.?'" (Some have suggested that the lyric about an aspiring hack was a jab at Lennon, who had published two books of cheeky surrealism, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works.) Lennon later described "Paperback Writer" as the "son of 'Day Tripper' — meaning a rock & roll song with a guitar lick on a fuzzy, loud guitar."

To engineer Geoff Emerick, the secret ingredient was the propulsive boom he got out of Starr's bass drum. "No one, as far as I remember on record," said Emerick, "had a bass drum sounding like that. We had the front skin off the bass drum and stuffed it with sweaters." Emerick also placed a microphone within an inch of the drum, for which he was reprimanded by EMI studio executives: "You couldn't go nearer than two feet to the bass drum, because the air pressure would damage the microphone."

The success of "Paperback Writer" forced a revision of that policy. "I got a letter from EMI allowing me to do that," Emerick said, "but only on Beatles sessions."

Appears On: Past Masters

The Lost Beatles Photos: Rare Shots From 1964-1966
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the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘Eight Days a Week’

Writers: McCartney-Lennon
Recorded: October 6 and 18, 1964
Released: February 15, 1965
10 weeks; no. 1

The title of "Eight Days a Week" came from a chance remark by a driver chauffeuring McCartney out to Lennon's house. McCartney casually asked the driver if he'd been busy. "Busy?" he replied. "I've been working eight days a week." "Neither of us had heard that expression before," said McCartney. "It was like a little blessing from the gods. I didn't have any idea for it other than the title, and we just knocked it off together, just filling in from the title."

Although McCartney claimed the rest of the song "came quickly," it lacked a beginning, a middle eight and an ending when he and Lennon brought it into the studio. The Beatles tried a variety of approaches, including a wordless harmony for the intro, but stumbled repeatedly getting the melody right. "We struggled to record it and struggled to make it into a song," Lennon recalled. "But it was lousy anyway."

The Beatles were working at least nine days a week in late 1964, which may account for Lennon's sour take on the song. They'd been touring constantly, had just released A Hard Day's Night in June and were rushed back into a recording studio the week after they returned from America to record a new album and single in time for Christmas. "They were rather war-weary," George Martin said. "They'd been battered like mad throughout 1964, and much of 1963. Success is a wonderful thing, but it is very, very tiring." With little time to write original songs, almost half of the Beatles for Sale LP consisted of covers the group had been playing onstage for years. The same day the Beatles finished "Eight Days a Week," they knocked out seven complete tracks.

Twelve days later, they settled on the final arrangement, with its innovative instrumental fade-in that gives the song the warm, jubilant "feel[ing] like you've heard it before," as Ray Davies of the Kinks told Rolling Stone in 2001.

Beatles for Sale was released in the U.K. in December 1964. Beatles '65, its U.S. counterpart, did not include "Eight Days a Week." The song was released as a single in the U.S. two months later, and it went to Number One. But the Beatles continued to disregard it. It was never a single in the U.K., and in their subsequent two years of radio performances and touring, they never played it live. Despite its popularity, Lennon believes it "was never a good song."

Appears On: Beatles for Sale

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‘I Am the Walrus’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: September 5, 6, 27, 28 and 29, 1967
Released: November 27, 1967
4 weeks; no. 56 (B side)

After Brian Epstein died on August 27th, 1967, the Beatles were hardly in the mood to be creative. But when the shellshocked band gathered a few days later, McCartney convinced them there was one sure way to handle their grief: by getting back into the studio. When they did, on September 5th, Lennon brought along an eccentric new song inspired by a report that British school kids were studying Beatles lyrics to discern their hidden meanings. Lennon played a solo acoustic version of "I Am the Walrus," and, as engineer Geoff Emerick recalled, "Everyone seemed bewildered. The melody consisted largely of just two notes, and the lyrics were pretty much just nonsense." Taking off from the Lewis Carroll poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter," the words were a series of non sequiturs about "pigs from a gun," Hare Krishna and Edgar Allan Poe, winding up with a head-scratching "goo-goo-g'joob!" hook.

"What the hell do you expect me to do with that?" George Martin said. Nonetheless, everyone went to work on the track. Lennon vamped on a simple electric-piano figure, and McCartney switched to tambourine to make sure Starr kept on the beat. (McCartney's diligence in keeping the band focused, Emerick later said, was "one of Paul's finest moments.")

The track sprung to vivid, woozy life in post-production. Despite his initial revulsion, Martin composed a masterful orchestral arrangement that felt like vertigo. Lennon asked for as much distortion on his voice as possible — he wanted it to sound as if it were coming from the moon.

"The words don't mean a lot," Lennon said. "People draw so many conclusions, and it's ridiculous. What does it really mean, 'I am the Eggman?' It could have been the pudding basin for all I care." The lyrics contained plenty of inside jokes: "Semolina pilchard" referred to Norman Pilcher, the London drug-squad cop who'd busted rock stars like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and "The Eggman" was a reference to both Carroll's Humpty Dumpty and a story Lennon heard from Eric Burdon about the time a girl cracked an egg onto the Animals frontman during sex. On the following year's White Album, Lennon alluded to the song in "Glass Onion" with the line "The walrus was Paul" — his way of thanking McCartney for helping to hold the group together after Epstein's death.

Appears On: Magical Mystery Tour

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‘Penny Lane’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: December 29 and 30, 1966; January 4-6, 9, 10, 12 and 17, 1967
Released: February 13, 1967
10 weeks; no. 1

"Penny Lane" was Paul McCartney's ode to the Liverpool he knew as a child, but the song also had a hidden inspiration: His white-hot competitive streak. "The song was generated by a kind of 'I can do just as well as you can, John,' because we'd just recorded 'Strawberry Fields,'" said George Martin. "It was such a knockout, I think Paul went back to perfect his idea. And they were both significant. They were both about their childhood." The songs would be released together — opposite sides of the first single from the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band sessions.

Many of the lyrics come straight from McCartney's adolescence. Penny Lane is a Liverpool neighborhood where Lennon lived as a child and also the name of a bus depot McCartney would pass through on the way to Lennon's house. A barbershop in the area, Bioletti's, displayed pictures of different haircuts it offered — hence the lines "There is a barber showing photographs/Of every head he's had the pleasure to know." As McCartney put it, "The song is part fact, part nostalgia for a place which is a great place — blue suburban skies as we remember it."

"Penny Lane" was striking not just for McCartney's gorgeous melody but also for its complex arrangements. The Beatles "were avidly hungry for new sounds," Martin said. With McCartney playing three piano parts, bass, harmonium and tambourine; his bandmates playing more piano, guitar, drums and a hand bell; and several horn sections, "Penny Lane" built a detailed wall of sound that achieved the force of a rock song without sounding anything like one.

The recording's crowning touch was inspired by a televised performance of J.S. Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 2" that McCartney saw after the basic track for "Penny Lane" had been recorded. He arranged for the trumpet player he'd heard on the broadcast, David Mason, to come in and add a piccolo trumpet solo (as well as a brief coda, which appeared only on early promotional copies).

Besides giving the Beatles a chart-topping hit, "Penny Lane" gave Lennon's old neighborhood a boost as well: The Penny Lane area became a significant tourist attraction, and Beatles fans quickly went about pilfering its street signs.

Appears On: Magical Mystery Tour

The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: "Penny Lane"
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Listen to Paul McCartney Share Secrets of McCartney I and II

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‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 18, 1965
Released: August 13, 1965
Not released as a single

"That's me in my Dylan period," Lennon remarked about "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." "I am like a chameleon, influenced by whatever is going on. If Elvis can do it, I can do it. If the Everly Brothers can do it, me and Paul can. Same with Dylan."

Just as the Beatles had inspired Bob Dylan to incorporate a tougher rock & roll sound into his music, Dylan's example had pushed the Beatles — and Lennon in particular — to explore a more personal approach to writing songs. McCartney said that Dylan's poetic lyrics "hit a chord in John. It was as if John felt, 'That should have been me.' And to that end, John did a Dylan impression" on "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." (The song's opening lines are remarkably similar to Dylan's 1964 track "I Don't Believe You [She Acts Like We Have Never Met]," which begins, "I can't understand/She let go of my hand/And left me here facing the wall.")

Serendipity also helped in writing "Hide Your Love Away." Lennon had originally written, "If she's gone, I can't go on/Feeling two foot tall," but when he accidentally sang "two foot small" while showing the song to McCartney, they both realized that was better.

"Hide Your Love Away" was recorded in one day for the Help! soundtrack, and its performance in the film, with the Beatles relaxing in their house built for four, is one of the movie's highlights. It was the first Beatles recording to feature all acoustic instruments, and it also marked one of the few times that Lennon, always painfully self-conscious about his singing, did not double-track his lead vocal, as he often did since discovering this studio trick.

The band brought in an outside musician for only the second time: For a six-pound fee (roughly $17 at the time) and no credit, Johnnie Scott recorded tenor and alto flute parts for the song. The Beatles gave Scott some general direction and let him sketch out the arrangement on his own. Scott did recall that the boys were in a fine mood at the time. "Ringo was full of marital joys," he said. "He'd just got back from his honeymoon."

Though the Beatles didn't release it as a single ("It's not commercial," Lennon said), the English folk group the Silkie, who were signed to Brian Epstein's management company, scored a Top 10 hit with it in the United States, and the Beach Boys covered it on 1965's Beach Boys' Party!album.

Appears On: Help!

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‘We Can Work It Out’

Writers: McCartney-Lennon
Recorded: October 20 and 29, 1965
Released: December 6, 1965
12 weeks; no. 1

"We Can Work It Out" plunges the listener into the middle of an argument, a good-cop/bad-cop seesaw between hopeful choruses and verses full of warnings: "Our love may soon be gone." It's a McCartney song that grew out of an argument with girlfriend Jane Asher. Lennon contributed the pessimistic minor-key bridge: "Life is very short, and there's no time for fussing and fighting." ("You've got Paul writing 'we can work it out,'" Lennon said. "Real optimistic, and you know, me, impatient.")

The group stumbled upon an old harmonium in the studio. McCartney remembered thinking, "This'd be a nice color on it." In the verses, with the "suspended chords . . . that wonderful harmonium sound gives it a sort of religious quality," Ray Davies of the Kinks told Rolling Stone in 2001. Harrison suggested switching the rhythm in the bridge from a straight 4/4 rhythm to waltz time. With the signature change, the vintage instrument evoked a circus-carousel feel — a vibe that the Beatles would return to two years later on "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" on Sgt. Pepper. The 11 hours they spent on "We Can Work It Out" was by far the longest amount of studio time devoted to a Beatles track up to that point.

The tension in the lyrics between a hopeful McCartney and a saturnine Lennon foreshadows the ways in which they would move apart. "They were going through one of their first periods of disunity, so maybe it's a subtext to where the band was," Davies observed. "This is one of my little theories: Every career has its story, and if you look at the song titles, it sums up what they were doing."

Appears On: Past Masters

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‘Can’t Buy Me Love’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: January 29 and February 26, 1964
Released: March 16, 1964
10 weeks; no. 1

By the middle of March 1964, the Beatles were the biggest band in the world, responsible for an astonishing 60 percent of the American singles market. With pre-orders of more than 3 million copies, "Can't Buy Me Love" catapulted the Beatles to a new level of fame. Two weeks after the 45 was released, the Beatles claimed all five top positions on Billboard's singles chart: "Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Please Please Me." The next week, they set another still-unbroken record, with 14 of the Top 100 U.S. singles. (The previous record holder had been Elvis Presley, with nine in 1956.) "People in England at that time never really understood what great conquering heroes they were," said George Martin, "and that the success was so complete and total."

The Beatles were in prime live form when they recorded "Can't Buy Me Love," charged up from playing up to three shows a day at a 18-day residency at Paris' Olympia Theatre. They only needed four tries to get the basic track; 11 days later, they would have their U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, and then the single would be released five weeks later in the U.S. With Beatlemania, everything moved at supersonic speed.

McCartney later said "Can't Buy Me Love" was "my attempt to write [in] a bluesy mode." But the song is much closer to the group's primary influences: the bright gallop of uptempo Motown and brisk Fifties rockabilly. Lennon and McCartney had their own deep roots in the latter, but Harrison was the expert: His guitar style, especially in the Beatles' early recording years, was an aggressive updating of the simplicity of Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore's breaks on Elvis Presley's Sun singles. In "Can't Buy Me Love," Harrison's solo — which takes off after one of McCartney's Little Richard-inspired screams — is classic '56 Memphis with jet-age sheen.

The lyrics in "Can't Buy Me Love" were essentially sweet stuff about valuing romance over material things, although some fans somehow missed the point, baffling McCartney. "I think you can put any interpretation you want on anything," he said. "But when someone suggests that 'Can't Buy Me Love' is about a prostitute, I draw the line."

Appears On: A Hard Day's Night

The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: "Can't Buy Me Love"
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‘Here Comes the Sun’

Main Writer: Harrison
Recorded: July 7, 8 and 16, August 6, 15 and 19, 1969
Released: October 1, 1969
Not released as a single

Harrison wrote one of the Beatles' happiest songs while he was playing hooky. By 1969, Apple Records was disintegrating into an endless squabble over money, with business manager Allen Klein and attorney John Eastman struggling for control of the group. "Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: 'Sign this' and 'sign that,'" recalled Harrison. "One day I decided I was going to sag off Apple, and I went over to Eric Clapton's house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric's acoustic guitars and wrote 'Here Comes the Sun.'"

Harrison's estate, Kinfauns, was about a half-hour's drive away from Clapton's house. The two guitarists had grown close, with Clapton playing the solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and Harrison returning the favor by co-writing Cream's hit "Badge." "It was a beautiful spring morning, and we were sitting at the top of a big field at the bottom of the garden," Clapton wrote in his autobiography. "We had our guitars and were just strumming away when he started singing 'de da de de, it's been a long cold lonely winter,' and bit by bit he fleshed it out, until it was time for lunch."

"Here Comes the Sun" opened the second side of Abbey Road with a burst of joy. Along with "Something," it gave notice that the Beatles now had three formidable composers. "George was blossoming as a songwriter," said Starr. "It's interesting that George was coming to the fore and we were just breaking up."

Even the highly competitive Lennon and McCartney had to grant Harrison newfound respect. "I think that until now, until this year, our songs have been better than George's," McCartney said to Lennon during a break in the Abbey Road sessions. "Now, this year his songs are at least as good as ours."

Appears On: Abbey Road

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‘You’re Going to Lose That Girl’

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: February 19, 1965
Released: August 13, 1965
Not released as a single

The last song the Beatles completed for the Help! soundtrack before heading off to the Bahamas to begin filming, "You're Going to Lose That Girl" was knocked out in two takes. The song started with Lennon, and McCartney helped him complete it at Lennon's home in Weybridge.

Like "She Loves You," "You're Going to Lose That Girl" is the rare pop song in which a male singer addresses a wayward boyfriend. But where the earlier hit offered empathy, now Lennon issues a more aggressive warning: "I'll make a point of taking her away from you." Distinguished by Lennon's falsetto and Starr's manic bongo-playing, the song really comes alive through the background vocals. The bright call-and-response parts that comment on the action ("Watch what you do") illustrate the influence that the early-Sixties girl-group records still had on the Beatles. The band recorded a number of girl-group songs ("Chains" by the Cookies, "Baby It's You" and "Boys" by the Shirelles), flipping the genders in the lyrics as necessary.

In the film, the song is done in a smoky studio; McCartney wanted to show the material in a more natural setting than provided by most movie musicals. Ringo does the whole performance with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips.

Appears On: Help!

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Help!'
Photos: Rare Beatles Pictures
The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles

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‘If I Fell’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 27, 1964
Released: June 26, 1964
9 weeks; no. 53 (B side)

"If I Fell" was Lennon's first attempt to write a slow, pretty number for a Beatles record. "People forget that John wrote some nice ballads," McCartney said. "People tend to think of him as an acerbic wit and aggressive and abrasive, but he did have a very warm side to him, really, which he didn't like to show too much in case he got rejected."

Lennon said the lyrics — in which he begs a new lover for tenderness after being wounded by the last girl — were "semiautobiographical, but not consciously." On the surface, they had little to do with his life: He had been with his wife, Cynthia, for years, and their son, Julian, was almost a year old.

But musically, it was one of Lennon's cleverest songs to date: The harmonic tricks of its strummy, offbeat opening were miles beyond what other bands were doing at the time, and it was "dripping with chords," as McCartney said. It also showcased some of the Beatles' finest singing. Lennon and McCartney shared a single microphone for their Everly Brothers-like close harmonies.

"['If I Fell'] was the precursor to 'In My Life,'" Lennon pointed out later. "It has the same chord sequences: D and B minor and E minor, those kind of things. It shows that I wrote sentimental love ballads, silly love songs, way back when."

Appears On: A Hard Day's Night

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'A Hard Day's Night'
The Lost Beatles Photos: Rare Shots From 1964-1966
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‘Here, There and Everywhere’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: June 14, 16 and 17, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
Not released as a single

One paradox of Revolver: It marks the period when the Beatles began exploring the myriad creative possibilities of the recording studio, yet at the same time, it contains some of the most streamlined, straightforward pieces in the group's catalog — among them McCartney's radiantly soothing love song "Here, There and Everywhere." McCartney wrote it at Lennon's house in Weybridge while waiting for Lennon to wake up. "I sat out by the pool on one of the sun chairs with my guitar and started strumming in E," McCartney recalled. "And soon [I] had a few chords, and I think by the time he'd woken up, I had pretty much written the song, so we took it indoors and finished it up." McCartney has cited the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds as his primary influence for "Here, There and Everywhere." McCartney had heard the album before it was released, at a listening party in London in May 1966, and was blown away.

The tune's chord sequence bears Brian Wilson's influence, ambling through three related keys without ever fully settling into one, and the modulations — particularly the one on the line "changing my life with a wave of her hand" — deftly underscore the lyrics, inspired by McCartney's girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. (The couple, whose careers often led to prolonged separations, would split in July 1968.) When George Martin heard the tune, he persuaded the musicians to hum together, barbershop-quartet style, behind the lead vocal. "The harmonies on that are very simple," Martin recalled. "There's nothing very clever, no counterpoint, just moving block harmonies. Very simple . . . but very effective."

McCartney has repeatedly identified it as one of his best compositions, a sentiment echoed by his songwriting partner: Lennon told Playboy in 1980 that it was "one of my favorite songs of the Beatles."

The group spent three days in the studio working on the song, an unusually long time for a single track during this period. After agreeing on a satisfactory rhythm track, the band did backing vocals, then McCartney recorded his lead vocal — which had a surprising inspiration. "When I sang it in the studio, I remember thinking, 'I'll sing it like Marianne Faithfull' — something no one would ever know," he said. "I used an almost falsetto voice and double-tracked it. My Marianne Faithfull impression."

Appears On: Revolver

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‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: September 23-25, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

Lennon called this rapid-fire, erotically charged minisuite one of his best songs. "Oh, I love it," he told Rolling Stone in 1970. "I think it's a beautiful song. I like all the different things that are happening in it. . . . It seemed to run through all the different kinds of rock music." The Beatles Anthology book includes a marked-up copy of the lyric sheet, in which Lennon outlines the three different sections that make up "Happiness": "Dirty Old Man," "The Junkie" and "The Gunman (Satire of '50s R&R)."

The title was inspired by a headline in a gun magazine George Martin had showed Lennon that read Happiness is a Warm Gun — a variation on Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz's 1962 bestseller Happiness Is a Warm Puppy. "I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say," Lennon said. "A warm gun means that you just shot something."

Lennon later claimed that the song "wasn't about 'H' at all," but the drug subtext is everywhere. The "Junkie" sequence from the middle of the song ("I need a fix 'cause I'm going down") was the entirety of his original demo, recorded in May 1968. By the time the song was cut in September, Lennon had begun using heroin — ever since he and Yoko Ono had moved into a London apartment Starr had rented them in July. The "Mother Superior" in the lyrics is a reference to Ono herself, whom Lennon took to calling "Mother."

At this point, "Happiness Is a Warm Gun in Your Hand," as its original title ran, had expanded to its final form. A few of the surreal lines in the opening section, "Dirty Old Man," came from a stoned conversation with Apple press officer Derek Taylor: "Ate and donated to the National Trust," for instance, is a reference to people shitting on public land (a common problem Lennon encountered while walking in and around Liverpool), and the "velvet hand" alludes to a man who had told Taylor that wearing moleskin gloves gave him "a little bit of an unusual sensation when I'm out with my girlfriend." The "Satire of '50s R&R," with its classic doo-wop chord progression, was modified from a similar passage in Lennon's demo of "I'm So Tired."

It took the Beatles 70 takes over two nights to master the tricky tempo shifts of "Happiness." McCartney was particularly fond of the result, calling it one of his favorite tracks on the White Album.

Appears On: The Beatles

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Beatles' White Album
Photos: Inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Beatles Exhibit
Lennon's Music: A Range of Genius

the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘Abbey Road Medley’

Writers: McCartney-Lennon
Recorded: May 6-August 18, 1969
Released: October 1, 1969
Not released as a single

The original idea was McCartney's, but George Martin claimed that the final triumph of the Beatles' life as a recording band — the eight-song medley dominating Side Two of Abbey Road — was at least partly his. "I wanted to get John and Paul to think more seriously about their music," the producer said. "Paul was all for experimenting like that." McCartney, in fact, led the first session for that extended section of the album — on May 6th, 1969, for "You Never Give Me Your Money," his deceptively sunny indictment of the business nightmares at Apple Corps.

Lennon was a lot less interested in the medley, although he contributed some of its most eccentric parts, like the sneering "Mean Mr. Mustard" and the quick, funky put-down "Polythene Pam." He subsequently dismissed the concept as "junk" in Rolling Stone, saying that "none of the songs had anything to do with each other, no thread at all, only the fact that we stuck them together."

He was right in one sense. The 16-minute sequence — veering from "Money" and the luxuriant sigh of Lennon's "Sun King" to McCartney's heavy-soul shard "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" and the sweet lullaby "Golden Slumbers," and closing with McCartney's famous prescription in "The End" ("The love you take/Is equal to the love you make") — has no narrative connection. But the Abbey Road medley is the matured Beatles at their best: playful, gentle, acerbic, haunting and bonded by the music. Their harmonies are ravishing and complex; the guitars are confident and cutting. "We were holding it together," McCartney said proudly. "Even though this undercurrent was going on" — a reference to the pressures and differences that had been pulling them apart since the White Album — "we still had a strong respect for each other even at the very worst points."

The Beatles recorded the sections of the medley at various times, out of order, during the July and August 1969 sessions for Abbey Road. "Mean Mr. Mustard" dated back to early 1968. The lingering hysteria of Beatlemania cropped up in "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," which was inspired by an overeager fan. But the emotional heart of the suite was the financial woes that were consuming the Beatles' energy and were on the verge of bankrupting them. Lennon was instrumental in the hiring of Allen Klein, the business manager of the Rolling Stones, to straighten out the books and the chaos at Apple Corps; McCartney wanted the band to hire Lee and John Eastman, his future father- and brother-in-law. McCartney admitted that "You Never Give Me Your Money" was "me directly lambasting Allen Klein's attitude to us — all promises, and it never works out."

Later, in "Golden Slumbers" and "Carry That Weight" (the former with lyrics copied from a lullaby published in 1603), McCartney returned to the theme of exhaustion. "I'm generally quite upbeat," he said, "but at certain times things get to me so much that I just can't be upbeat anymore, and that was one of those times. 'Carry that weight a long time' — like forever!"

The swapping of guitar solos in "The End" was a band brainstorm. Harrison thought a guitar break would make a good climax. Lennon suggested he, Harrison and McCartney all trade licks. McCartney said he'd go first. Coming after Starr's first and only drum solo on a Beatles record, the scorching round-robin breaks — with Harrison in the middle and Lennon at the end — were cut live in one take, a last blast of natural brotherhood from a band only months from splitting.

"I didn't know at the time that it was the last Beatles record that we would make," Harrison said of Abbey Road. "But it felt as if we were reaching the end of the line."

"Out of the ashes of all that madness," said Starr, "that last section is one of the finest pieces we put together."

Appears On: Abbey Road

the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘Eleanor Rigby’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: April 28, 29 and June 6, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
8 weeks; no. 11

When McCartney first played "Eleanor Rigby" for his neighbor Donovan, the words were "Ola Na Tungee/Blowing his mind in the dark/With a pipe full of clay." McCartney fumbled with the lyrics until he landed on the line "Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been." It was then that he realized he was writing about lonely people and transformed the song into the tale of a spinster, a priest and how their lives intersect at her funeral.

There are conflicting stories of how McCartney came up with the name for the title character. According to McCartney, he combined the first name of Eleanor Bron, the lead actress in Help!, with a last name taken from a sign he had seen in Bristol for Rigby & Evans Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers. But Lionel Bart, the writer-composer of Oliver!, claimed that on a walk with McCartney in London's Putney Vale Cemetery, they saw the name Eleanor Bygraves, and McCartney said he would use it in a new song.

Most intriguing, in the 1980s, the gravestone of an Eleanor Rigby was discovered in the churchyard of St. Peter's in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton — just yards from the spot where Lennon and McCartney first met in 1957 after a performance by Lennon's group the Quarry Men. "It was either complete coincidence or in my subconscious," McCartney said.

After McCartney wrote the melody on the piano at his girlfriend Jane Asher's flat, he gathered Lennon, Harrison, Starr and Pete Shotton, Lennon's childhood friend, at Lennon's house in Weybridge to help finish the lyrics. The group all agreed on certain details about this session: The priest was originally called "Father McCartney" until they found the name "McKenzie" in a phone book; Starr chipped in the line "darning his socks in the night"; and it was Shotton's idea that the song end with the funeral, bringing all of the principal characters together.

Beyond that, though, Lennon and McCartney offered dramatically different versions of the writing process. "The first verse was his and the rest are basically mine," Lennon told journalist David Sheff in 1980. "It was Paul's baby, and I helped with the education of the child." McCartney, on the other hand, maintained that "John helped me on a few words, but I'd put it down 80-20 to me." (Shotton said, "My recollection is that John's contribution was virtually nil.")

None of the Beatles actually play an instrument on "Eleanor Rigby" — McCartney sings the double-tracked lead vocal, and Lennon and Harrison contribute harmonies, but the music is performed entirely by a pair of string quartets, arranged by George Martin. "Paul wasn't immediately enamored of the concept," said engineer Geoff Emerick. "He was afraid of it sounding too cloying."

When he agreed to the idea, McCartney said he wanted the strings to sound "biting." With that in mind, Emerick was determined to capture the sound of bows striking strings with an immediacy previously unheard on any recording, classical or rock & roll. Instead of recording the octet on a single microphone, he miked each instrument individually. "I was close-mik-ing the strings — really close," he said. "So close that the musicians hated it, because you could see them sort of keep slipping back on their chairs to get away from the mic in case they made any errors."

McCartney saw the finished track — a meditation on solitude and aging that sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time — as a breakthrough moment for him as a songwriter. He later reflected that when he wrote "Eleanor Rigby," he had been musing about what kind of work he might do when he was done being a Beatle.

"This could be a way I could go," he recalled himself thinking. "[I had] a clear vision of myself in a herringbone jacket with leather elbow patches and a pipe. I could become a serious writer, not so much a pop writer. Yes, it wouldn't be bad, actually — at the terrible old age of 30."

Appears On: Revolver

The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby"
The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Revolver'
Photos: The Beatles on the Cover of Rolling Stone

the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘All You Need Is Love’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: June 14, 19, 23, 24 and 25, 1967
Released: July 17, 1967
11 weeks; no. 1

Flush with creative energy after finishing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles went straight back to work. When they were invited to appear on the Our World TV program — a two-hour show of international performers that would be broadcast live in 24 countries on June 25th, 1967 — they decided to create an elaborately orchestrated new track, "All You Need Is Love."

"[Beatles manager Brian Epstein] suddenly whirled in and said that we were to represent Britain in a round-the-world hookup," said George Martin. "We had less than two weeks to get it together." Lennon took the last-minute request in stride: "Oh, God, is it that close?" he said a few days before the telecast. "I suppose we'd better write something." (McCartney also wrote a possible choice for the occasion — most likely the music-hall ditty "Your Mother Should Know," but it was obvious which song was more appropriate.)

The Beatles crafted a rhythm track in the studio beforehand (which included Harrison playing violin for the first time and Lennon on harpsichord) but they sang their vocals live on the show, accompanied by an orchestra and a chorus that included Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, Donovan and Keith Moon. Harrison's guitar solo was also live; he hand-painted his Stratocaster in psychedelic colors for the occasion. Martin's arrangement reflected the event's international spirit: The introduction was a snippet of "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem, while the coda included bits of Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 2," "Greensleeves," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" — and even an improvised chorus of "She Loves You."

The main part of the song was deceptively simple. "John has an amazing thing with his timing," Harrison told Rolling Stone. "'All You Need Is Love' sort of skips beats out and changes from 3/4 to 4/4 all the time, in and out of each other." The lyrics proved a challenge for McCartney. "The chorus is simple, but the verse ["Nothing you can do/But you can learn how to be you in time/It's easy"] is quite complex," he said. "I never really understood it."

"All You Need Is Love" was the first of Lennon's songs with a title that could have been written on Madison Avenue (like the later "Give Peace a Chance" and "Power to the People"). "I like slogans," he said. "I like advertising. I love the telly."

Appears On: Magical Mystery Tour

The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: "All You Need is Love"
Readers Pick the Top 10 Beatles Albums
The Beatles' Albums: From 'Please Please Me' to 'Let It Be'

the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘Please Please Me’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: September 11 and November 26, 1962
Released: February 25, 1963
13 weeks; no. 3

“It was a combination of Bing Crosby and Roy Orbison.” That was Lennon’s description of the inspiration for “Please Please Me,” which would become the first Beatles single to reach Number One on the U.K. charts.

Lennon wrote the song at his aunt Mimi’s house. “I remember the day and the pink coverlet on the bed,” he said years later. “And I heard Roy Orbison doing ‘Only the Lonely’ or something. That’s where that came from. And I was always intrigued by the words of ‘Please, lend your little ears to my pleas’ [from Crosby’s 1932 song ‘Please’]. I [loved] the double use of the word ‘please.'”

“If you imagine it much slower, which is how John wrote it, it’s got everything,” said McCartney. “The big high notes, all the hallmarks of a Roy Orbison song.”

“Please Please Me” was one of the songs the Beatles played for George Martin at their second recording session on September 11th, 1962, at EMI Studios. Starr recalled that “while we were recording it, I was playing a bass drum with a maraca in one hand and a tambourine in the other” — which, Starr suspects, is the reason Martin decided to use a session drummer for “Love Me Do,” which they also recorded that day.

Martin wasn’t impressed with the slow “Please Please Me,” which he called “a dirge.” He suggested that they play the song faster and try to liven up the arrangement. Not that he was impressed with their original efforts in general, at this point. “To begin with, their songwriting was crap,” Martin once said. “The first songs I heard from them, I thought, ‘Oh, God, where am I going to get a good song for them?’ The first record we issued was ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘P.S. I Love You,’ which are not exactly Cole Porter, are they?”

“Love Me Do” became a hit, though, and the Beatles were summoned back to the studio to work on a follow-up. When they returned to Abbey Road on November 26th, Martin wanted them to release a song by Mitch Murray called “How Do You Do It.” The Beatles tried to persuade him that they should do an original song instead, but the producer didn’t think anything they had written was as good as the Murray song. (Martin was somewhat vindicated when Gerry and the Pacemakers had a Number One hit with “How Do You Do It” the following year.) They suggested “Please Please Me,” adding that they had heeded Martin’s advice, speeding up the tempo and adding a harmonica part that mimicked Harrison’s opening guitar riff.

The Beatles knew they had broken new ground. “We lifted the tempo, and suddenly there was that fast Beatles spirit,” said McCartney. Lennon later said that “by the time the session came around, we were so happy we couldn’t get it recorded fast enough.” Starr’s steady, propulsive backbeat led Martin to concede he had been wrong about the drummer’s skills.

The new version of “Please Please Me” had an irresistible energy and an aggressive sexuality. (Perhaps too aggressive — Capitol Records wouldn’t put the single out in America because some who heard the song had interpreted the lyrics as an ode to oral sex, and Chicago’s Vee-Jay label ended up releasing “Please Please Me.”) When the band had finished laying down the track, Martin announced over the studio’s intercom, “Gentlemen, I think you’ve got your first Number One.”

He was right: “Please Please Me” was the band’s first of four consecutive Number Ones, launching Beatlemania in Britain. The single sold so well that Brian Epstein pulled the Beatles off the road to make their debut album — which they did in three three-hour sessions on February 11th, 1963, returning to their tour the following day — titled Please Please Me, after their current smash hit.

But the song’s greatest endorsement may have come from Lennon’s aunt Mimi, who hadn’t been convinced by “Love Me Do” that her nephew’s band had much of a future. Then she heard “Please Please Me.” “That’s more like it,” she told Lennon. “That should do well.”

Appears On: Please Please Me

The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: “Please Please Me”
The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: ‘Please Please Me’
Photos: Invasion of the Beatles

the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'
"Lucy" Who Inspired Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" Dies
Photos: The World Remembers John Lennon

the beatles 100 greatest songs

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‘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 effect