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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. It was originally published September 2011.

the beatles 100 greatest songs

‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: February 1 and 2, March 3 and 6, 1967
Released: June 2, 1967
Not released as a single

The Beatles were looking for a way to kill their old Fab Four image altogether by late 1966, and McCartney had an idea: "I thought, 'Let's not be ourselves,'" he said, and suggested that they invent a fake band. "Everything about the album," McCartney said, "will be imagined from the perspective of these people, so it doesn't have to be the kind of song you want to write, it could be the song they might want to write." McCartney proposed the mock-Victorian-era "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (the name came from a joke with roadie Mal Evans about salt and pepper packets), and he wrote a title song to introduce the premise at the album's outset: a fiery piece of psychedelic hard rock. The Beatles were all fans of Jimi Hendrix; McCartney saw Hendrix play two nights before they recorded "Pepper." Hendrix was paying attention right back: He played "Pepper" to open his live show in London two days after the album's U.S. release.

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

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'
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Readers Poll: The Best Album Covers of All Time

the beatles 100 greatest songs

‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 22, April 18 and 20, August 8 and 11, 1969
Released: October 1, 1969
Not released as a single

"I Want You (She's So Heavy)" was the first track started for Abbey Road and one of the last completed. It's a mass of overdubbed guitars, with a slow-building wall of white noise generated by Harrison's brand-new Moog synthesizer ("I had to have mine made specially," he said, "because Mr. Moog had only just invented it"), supplemented with Starr spinning a wind machine found in the studio's instrument closet.

Lennon's lyrics were an experiment in minimalism — for much of the song, he just repeats the lines "I want you/I want you so bad" over and over. "'She's So Heavy' was about Yoko," he told Rolling Stone. "When you're drowning, you don't say, 'I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me.' You just scream." At the mixing session, Lennon told stunned engineer Geoff Emerick to abruptly cut the tape in the middle of a bar, creating the startling end to the first side of Abbey Road.

Appears On: Abbey Road

the beatles 100 greatest songs

‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: June 14, 1965
Released: December 6, 1965
Not released as a single

McCartney once described "I've Just Seen a Face" as "a strange uptempo thing." There's no tune quite like it in the Beatles catalog. Just over two minutes long, it's both a pretty love song and a breathless race to the finish, with an all-acoustic arrangement (McCartney, Lennon and Harrison on guitars, Starr on percussion) and Appalachian-style harmonies that give it an almost bluegrass feel.

Its lyrics sound effortless and conversational, but they also contain a complex sequence of cascading rhymes ("I have never known/The like of this/I've been alone/And I have missed") that is responsible for the song's irresistible propulsion. As McCartney noted, "The lyric works: It keeps dragging you forward, it keeps pulling you to the next line, there's an insistent quality to it that I liked."

McCartney wrote "I've Just Seen a Face" for the Help! soundtrack, but in the U.S. it appeared as the lead track on Rubber Soul — part of Capitol Records' attempt to make that album more appealing to American folk-rock fans.

Appears On: Help!

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Help!'
Paul McCartney on 'Beatles 1,' Losing Linda and Being in New York on September 11th
The Lost Beatles Photos: Rare Shots From 1964-1966

the beatles 100 greatest songs

‘I’m Only Sleeping’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: April 27 and 29, May 5 and 6, 1966
Released: June 20, 1966
Not released as a single

Though some hear "I'm Only Sleeping" as another drug ode, Lennon may have simply been expressing irritation at being woken up by McCartney for a songwriting session. Lennon was known to be a sedentary sort. In March 1966, he confessed that "sex is the only physical thing I can be bothered with anymore."

Harrison's eight-measure guitar solo on "I'm Only Sleeping" was inspired by a mistake — after an engineer threaded the multitrack tape incorrectly, the musicians heard that now-familiar blurred, slurping sound. McCartney recalled later that everyone was floored: "'My God, that is fantastic! Can we do that for real?'"

Harrison played a line inspired by Indian music and asked George Martin to transcribe it in reverse. Martin had to conduct Harrison beat by beat, resulting in what engineer Geoff Emerick described as "an interminable day," lasting nine hours. "I can still picture George hunched over his guitar for hours on end," Emerick wrote in 2006, "headphones clamped on, brows furrowed in concentration."

Appears On: Revolver

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Revolver'
The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: George Harrison
The Beatles' Albums: From "Please Please Me" to "Let It Be"

the beatles 100 greatest songs

‘I’m Down’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: June 14, 1965
Released: July 19, 1965
Did not chart (b side)

"I'm Down" is one of the Beatles' most energetic tracks, a simple rocker that they captured in three hours the same day they recorded "I've Just Seen a Face" and began recording "Yesterday" — a session that demonstrates McCartney's extraordinary range. "I'm Down," the B side to "Help!," reflects McCartney's fondness for Little Richard-style ravers. "I used to sing his stuff," McCartney said, "but there came a point where I wanted one of my own, so I wrote 'I'm Down.'"

The song became a live favorite, serving as the concert closer throughout the group's 1965 American tour. The performance of "I'm Down" at Shea Stadium is a collage of indelible images: McCartney growing so excited that he starts to twirl; Lennon and Harrison laughing so much that they muff their background vocals; Starr bashing away — even though you can barely hear his drums amid the screams — and Lennon playing electric piano with his elbow. It's the Beatles free of Beatlemania — four guys in a band, rocking their asses off and loving it.

Appears On: Past Masters

the beatles 100 greatest songs


Writer: Harrison
Recorded: April 20-22, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
Not released as a single

McCartney played the screeching-raga guitar solo, and Lennon contributed to the lyrics. But in its pithy cynicism, "Taxman" was strictly Harrison's, a contagious blast of angry guitar rock. His slap at Her Majesty's Government landed the prized position on Revolver: Side One, Track One.

"'Taxman' was when I first realized that even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes," Harrison later wrote. "The government's taking over 90 percent of all our money," Starr once complained. "We're left with one-ninth of a pound."

"Taxman" represents a crucial link between the guitar-driven clang of the Beatles' 1963-65 sound and the emerging splendor of the group's experiments in psychedelia. The song is skeleton funk — Harrison's choppy fuzz-toned guitar chords moving against an R&B dance beat, but the extra hours he and engineer Geoff Emerick spent on guitar tone on Revolver foreshadowed Harrison's intense plunge into Indian music and the sitar on later songs such as "Within You Without You" and "The Inner Light."

Appears On: Revolver

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Revolver'
The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: George Harrison
George Harrison Gets Back: Rolling Stone's 1987 Cover Story

the beatles 100 greatest songs

‘Two of Us’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: January 31, 1969
Released: May 18, 1970
Not released as a single

This sweet, mostly acoustic number seems to be McCartney's tribute to his long-standing friendship with Lennon — especially when you look at the rehearsal clip of the song that appears in the Let It Be movie, showing Lennon and McCartney reprising their old habit of singing into the same microphone. In fact, it's about McCartney and Linda Eastman, who were married six weeks after the song was recorded. "We used to send a lot of postcards to each other," she said. The two of them liked to go for long drives together, with McCartney's sheepdog, Martha, in the back seat, heading off for nowhere in particular.

The session that yielded the album version of "Two of Us" (as well as the basic tracks for "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road") was held the day after the Beatles' rooftop concert and wrapped up the Get Back experiment — a messy month of filming and recording. The "bass" part of "Two of Us" is actually played by Harrison on the low strings of an electric guitar, and the whistling at the end is provided by Lennon.

Appears On: Let It Be

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Let It Be'
The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles
The Real Story Behind the Beatles' Last Days

the beatles 100 greatest songs

‘It Won’t Be Long’

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: July 30, 1963
Released: January 20, 1964
Not released as a single

"It Won't Be Long" is the kind of song Bob Dylan had in mind when he wrote that Beatles chords were "outrageous, just outrageous." It was around the time the track was released that high-minded critics also began to realize how unique the Beatles were. "The guy in the London Times wrote about the 'Aeolian cadences of our chords,'" Lennon said, "which started the intellectual bit about the Beatles."

In addition to its unusual chord changes, the song also had a muscular aggression, storming out of the gate with call-and-response shouts of "yeah!" McCartney, though, was most proud of the lyrics. "I was doing literature at school, so I was interested in plays on words and onomatopoeia," he said. "'It won't be long till I belong to you' was the high spot of that particular song."

Lennon's assessment of the song was typically harsh. "It was my attempt at writing another single," said Lennon, adding that "it never quite made it" — possibly because the "yeah-yeah" parts too closely recalled "She Loves You."

Appears On: With the Beatles

the beatles 100 greatest songs

‘Helter Skelter’

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: July 18, September 9
and 10, 1968
Released: November 25, 1968
Not released as a single

With the raucous "Helter Skelter," the Beatles set out to beat a heavy band at its own game. McCartney had taken issue with a review of the Who's 1967 single "I Can See for Miles" that referred to the song as "a marathon epic of swearing cymbals and cursing guitars." "It wasn't rough [or full of] screaming," he said of the song. "So I thought, 'We'll do one like that, then.'"

The Beatles recorded "Helter Skelter" on a night when, as engineer Brian Gibson recalled, "they were completely out of their heads." Lennon played out-of-tune bass and saxophone, and Starr was serious when he screamed, "I've got blisters on my fingers!"

Despite its association with Charles Manson — "Helter Skelter" was written in blood at the site of one of the Manson Family murders — the title has an innocent meaning: A "helter skelter" is a playground slide. "I was using the symbol as a ride from the top to the bottom — the rise and fall of the Roman Empire," McCartney said. "This was the demise, the going down."

Appears On: The Beatles

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Beatles' White Album
Paul McCartney Revisits Beatles Classics, Solo Gems at Hollywood Bowl Marathon
Photos: Linda McCartney's Shots of Paul and Other Iconic Musicians

the beatles 100 greatest songs

‘If I Needed Someone’

Writer: Harrison
Recorded: October 16 and 18, 1965
Released: June 20, 1966
Not released as a single

This twangy jewel was the result of a remarkable exchange of influences between the Beatles and one of their favorite new bands, L.A.'s psychedelic folkies the Byrds. When guitarist Roger McGuinn saw Harrison playing a cherry-red Rickenbacker 360/12 guitar in A Hard Day's Night, he recalled, "I took my acoustic [12-string] and five-string banjo down to the music store and traded them in for an electric 12-string." Lennon and McCartney attended one of the Byrds' first British shows in early 1965, and that August, on a day off from their U.S. tour, McCartney and Harrison attended a Byrds recording session in L.A.

Two months later, Harrison paid McGuinn the ultimate compliment with "If I Needed Someone," a striking blend of cool dismissal and crystalline riffing adapted from McGuinn's lead lick in "The Bells of Rhymney," from the Byrds' debut album, Mr. Tambourine Man. "George was very open about it," says McGuinn, who was then going by his given name, Jim. "He sent [the record] to us in advance and said, 'This is for Jim' — because of that lick."

Appears On: Rubber Soul

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Rubber Soul'
George Harrison Gets Back: Rolling Stone's 1987 Cover Story
George Harrison (1943 – 2001) by Anthony DeCurtis

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