Home Music Music Lists

100 Greatest Beatles Songs

From ‘Helter Skelter’ to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ ranking of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison’s output

100, Greatest, Beatles, Songs

Fiona Adams/Redferns/Getty

By Elvis Costello

I first heard of the Beatles when I was nine years old. I spent most of my holidays on Merseyside then, and a local girl gave me a bad publicity shot of them with their names scrawled on the back.

This was 1962 or ’63, before they came to America. The photo was badly lit, and they didn’t quite have their look down; Ringo had his hair slightly swept back, as if he wasn’t quite sold on the Beatles haircut yet.

I didn’t care about that; they were the band for me. The funny thing is that parents and all their friends from Liverpool were also curious and proud about this local group. Prior to that, the people in show business from the north of England had all been comedians. The Beatles even recorded for Parlophone, which was a comedy label, as if they believed they might be a passing novelty act.

I was exactly the right age to be hit by them full-on. My experience — seizing on every picture, saving money for singles and EPs, catching them on a local news show — was repeated over and over again around the world. It wasn’t the first time anything like this had happened, but the Beatles achieved a level of fame and recognition known previously only to Charlie Chaplin, Brigitte Bardot and Elvis Presley, along with a little of the airless exclusivity of astronauts, former presidents and other heavyweight champions.

Every record was a shock. Compared to rabid R&B evangelists like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles arrived sounding like nothing else. They had already absorbed Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry, but they were also writing their own songs. They made writing your own material expected, rather than exceptional.

And John Lennon and Paul McCartney were exceptional songwriters; McCartney was, and is, a truly virtuoso musician; George Harrison wasn’t the kind of guitar player who tore off wild, unpredictable solos, but you can sing the melodies of nearly all of his breaks. Most important, they always fit right into the arrangement. Ringo Starr played the drums with an incredibly unique feel that nobody can really copy, although many fine drummers have tried and failed. Most of all, John and Paul were fantastic singers.

Lennon, McCartney and Harrison had stunningly high standards as writers. Imagine releasing a song like “Ask Me Why” or “Things We Said Today” as a B side. They made such fantastic records as “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain” or “Penny Lane” b/w “Strawberry Fields Forever” and only put them out as singles. These records were events, and not just advance notice of an album. Then they started to really grow up: simple love lyrics to adult stories like “Norwegian Wood,” which spoke of the sour side of love, and on to bigger ideas than you would expect to find in catchy pop lyrics.

They were the first group to mess with the aural perspective of their recordings and have it be more than just a gimmick. Engineers like Geoff Emerick invented techniques that we now take for granted, in response to the group’s imagination. Before the Beatles, you had guys in lab coats doing recording experiments, but you didn’t have rockers deliberately putting things out of balance, like a quiet vocal in front of a loud track on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” You can’t exaggerate the license that this gave to everyone from Motown to Jimi Hendrix.

My absolute favorite albums are Rubber Soul and Revolver. On both records you can hear references to other music — R&B, Dylan, psychedelia — but it’s not done in a way that is obvious or dates the records. When you picked up Revolver, you knew it was something different. Heck, they are wearing sunglasses indoors in the picture on the back of the cover and not even looking at the camera . . . and the music was so strange and yet so vivid. If I had to pick a favorite song from those albums, it would be “And Your Bird Can Sing” . . . no, “Girl” . . . no, “For No One” . . . and so on, and so on. . . .

Their breakup album, Let It Be, contains songs both gorgeous and jagged. I suppose ambition and human frailty creeps into every group, but they delivered some incredible performances. I remember going to Leicester Square and seeing the film of Let It Be in 1970. I left with a melancholy feeling.

Someone recently gave me an assembly of newsreel footage, which illustrates how swiftly the band was drained of the bright and joyful wit presented as a public face.

In one early sequence, McCartney tells reporters that they will soon appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and then points into the camera: “There he is, hi, Ed, and Mrs. Ed” — “and Mr. Ed,” chimes Ringo. It might have been practiced, but it plays entirely off-the-cuff.

Just a year later, they are seen at a press conference in Los Angeles for their final tour. Suits and ties are a thing of the past. Staring down a series of dismal attempts at provocation from the press corps, they look exhausted and disenchanted.

When probed by one blowhard to respond to a Time magazine critique that “Day Tripper” was about a prostitute and “Norwegian Wood” about a lesbian, McCartney responds, “We were just trying to write songs about prostitutes and lesbians.” In the laughter that follows, he mutters, “Cut.” They were giving the impression that the game was up, but in truth, they were just getting started.

The word “Beatlesque” has been in the dictionary for quite a while now. You hear them in Harry Nilsson’s melodies; in Prince’s Around the World in a Day; in the hits of ELO and Crowded House and in Ron Sexsmith’s ballads. You can hear that Kurt Cobain listened to the Beatles and mixed their ideas with punk and metal. They can be heard in all sorts of one-off wonders from the Knickerbockers’ “Lies” and the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action.” The scope and license of the White Album has permitted everyone from OutKast to Radiohead to Green Day to Joanna Newsom to roll their picture out on a broader, bolder canvas.

Now, I’ll admit that I’ve stolen my share of Beatles licks, but around the turn of the Nineties, I got to co-write 12 songs with Paul McCartney and even dared to propose that he too reference some of the Beatles’ harmonic signatures — as, astonishingly, he had made up another musical vocabulary for Wings and during his solo career.

In 1999, a little time after Linda McCartney’s passing, Paul performed at the Concert for Linda, organized by Chrissie Hynde. During the rehearsal, I was singing harmony on a Ricky Nelson song with him, and Paul called out the next tune: “All My Loving.”

I said, “Do you want me to take the harmony line the second time round?” And he said, “Yeah, give it a try.” I’d only had 35 years to learn the part. There was inevitably a poignant feeling to this song, written long before he had even met Linda:

Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you
Tomorrow I’ll miss you
Remember I’ll always be true.

At the show, it was very different. The second Paul sang the opening lines, the crowd’s reaction was so intense that it all but drowned the song out. It was very thrilling, but also disconcerting.

Perhaps I understood in that moment one of the reasons why the Beatles had to stop performing. The songs weren’t theirs anymore. They belonged to everybody.

This is an updated version of an essay that appeared in RS 946.

the beatles 100 greatest songs

Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty Images

37

‘She Said, She Said’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: June 21, 1966
Released: August 8, 1966
Not released as a single

The last song recorded for Revolver began with bad vibes: Lennon snapping at actor Peter Fonda for spooking him with talk about death during an acid trip. The Beatles were staying at a house in Los Angeles' Benedict Canyon in late August 1965, shuttling between concert dates in Oregon, San Francisco and L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl. One afternoon, Fonda turned up with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds for an LSD party (McCartney abstained). When Harrison said, in the middle of his flight, that he felt like he was dying, Fonda said it was nothing to fear, that he had survived a near-fatal experience on an operating table when he was a boy. Fonda's famous words: "I know what it's like to be dead." Lennon, in his own precarious state, exploded at the actor. "We were all on acid, and John couldn't take it," McGuinn recalled. "John said, 'Get this guy out of here.' It was morbid and bizarre."

Lennon held on to his anger, at first titling the song "He Said He Said" and, after quoting Fonda at the beginning, throwing those words back at him with vicious glee. "I said, 'Who put all that crap in your head?'" Lennon sang at one point in his earliest demo. (The line he settled on — "I said, 'Who put all those things in your head?'" — was softer, funnier, but still on target.) Lennon also realized he had written himself into a corner: He dropped the tune for a few days, returning to it with a bridge that — out of time with the rest of the shuffling rhythm, bright with childhood innocence — shifted the song from pure recrimination to a spirited­argument about ego and immortality, drenched in sighing harmonies and driven by Starr's spirited drumming.

The band's California trip didn't last long, but L.A. and San Francisco would have flashbacks to that psychedelic moment for years. The hippie-chic scene calibrated itself to whatever the Beatles did. From the Beach Boys to Love to the Grateful Dead, the West Coast-pop sound of the next several years sprang directly from Revolver — especially "She Said She Said" and its conjunction of melodic immediacy and acid-fueled mind games.

Appears On: Revolver

Related
The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Revolver'
John Lennon's Final Interview
Ringo Starr, Confident and Sober: Rolling Stone's 1992 Feature Story

the beatles 100 greatest songs

Harry Hammond/V&A Images/Getty Images

36

‘I Should Have Known Better’

Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: February 25 and 26, 1964
Released: June 26, 1964
4 weeks; no. 53 (B side)

Lennon didn't think much of "I should have known Better," the B side of "A Hard Day's Night." "Just a song," he said of it. "It doesn't mean a damn thing." But as the first Beatles song to show the direct influence of Bob Dylan, it opened up a musical competition between the two artists that continued for decades.

While the Beatles were in Paris in January 1964, a DJ gave them a copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which had come out in May 1963 but hadn't made much of a splash in Europe. "For the rest of our three weeks in Paris, we didn't stop playing it," Lennon remembered. "We all went potty on Dylan." When the band recorded "I Should Have Known Better" a month later, Lennon kicked the song off with a distinctly Dylan-inflected harmonica solo, much rawer than the ones on earlier Beatles records. Dylan was impressed by the Beatles, too, and hearing their records pushed him to change his musical direction. A year after "I Should Have Known Better," he began using a full electric band, starting with his legendary Newport Folk Festival appearance. "You could only [make that sound] with other musicians," Dylan said in 1971. "Even if you're playing your own chords, you had to have other people playing with you. And it started me thinking about other people."

In early 1965, Dylan recorded "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" — a nod to the British Invasion sound, with a riff that was reminiscent of "I Should Have Known Better." Lennon lobbed the ball back with "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" that fall. (Their friendly songwriting rivalry was still going on shortly before Lennon's death, when Dylan recorded his God-fearing "Gotta Serve Somebody" and Lennon countered with "Serve Yourself.") Starr sat in with Dylan a few times in the Seventies and Eighties. But it was Harrison who ended up having the closest relationship with Dylan, frequently collaborating with him over the years and eventually forming the Traveling Wilburys in 1988. And Harrison might not have been the only one: Tom Petty told Rolling Stone that Harrison once said to him, "Oh, John would [have been] a Wilbury in a second."

Appears On: A Hard Day's Night

Related
The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'A Hard Day's Night'
Photos: Invasion of the Beatles
Five Obscure But Great John Lennon Solo Tracks

the beatles 100 greatest songs

Harry Benson/Getty Images

35

‘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

Related
The Lost Beatles Photos: Rare Shots From 1964-1966
Photos: The Beatles on the Cover of Rolling Stone
Rolling Stone Readers Pick the Top 10 Beatles Albums