(Note: Your crusty chronicler was once seemingly subcontracted by AOL to write a piece on The Beatles’ 20 best songs. So yours truly excitedly examined his extensive collection of Beatles books and dusted off the Phoenix Philes in search of old cassettes of interviews with Paul McCartney and George Harrison and set to work. Alas, after all that work the company never paid for the piece. So your screwed scribe decided to save the article for a special occasion. As we mark the recent anniversary of Lennon’s assassination and the John Lennon Tribute Concert this seemed like a good time to celebrate what was arguably the high point of Lennon’s career–his in The Beatles.)
“John! Paul! George! Ringo! The Beatles!” The Beatles were a legendary British rock band, formed in Liverpool, England in 1960. They eventually became the most critically-acclaimed as well as commercially successful group in pop music history. Their costumes, hairstyles, musical genres, songwriting and even band roster grew and transformed throughout their impressive career. Their popularity performing as well as their later innovative in-studio recording techniques caused the Beatles to become icons that allowed them to influence a change in not only the world of music but pop culture in general.
While the band members did go through some changes in the early days, for the purpose of this piece we will focus on the final line-up of John Lennon (rhythm guitar and vocals), Paul McCartney (bass guitar and vocals), George Harrison (lead guitar and vocals) and Ringo Starr (drums and vocals). While much has been written about the Beatles it is sometimes near-impossible to get a consensus on just what the Beatles’ best songs actually were. So after some investigations of other “top” lists on-line, play-lists from “top” compilation albums and a review of a significantly-sized Beatles book library it was still nigh-impossible to come up with a list of only twenty songs.
Some songs, such as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” were eliminated due to significant contributions by major, non-Beatle recording artists (such as Eric Clapton) in the absence of actual Beatles. More importantly, the majority of the songs selected were number 1 records and all had to have something interesting about them. Here then are 20 of the best Beatles songs matching the above-mentioned criteria.
1. “In My Life”–This song has been covered by an astounding variety of other artists from Marie Osmond to Ozzy Osbourne. It is a classic example of the natural Lennon-McCartney collaborative songwriting style. It’s also notable for several other reasons: It includes a baroque-styled piano solo, is one of Harrison’s favorite Beatles tunes, was written in part for former Beatle Stu Sutcliffe and is one of only two songs about which Lennon and McCartney disagree about the origins of the melody. (The other one is “Eleanor Rigby”.)
2. “Help!”–This is the title track to the soundtrack for their second motion picture, Help! This song contained lyrics that were unique in that they were not only about John’s life becoming more complicated but it was also the first song not to contain a “boy meets girl/boy loses girl” storyline. Lennon told Playboy magazine in 1980: “I really was crying out for help.”
3. “Yesterday”–This number once held the record for most-covered Beatles song. It is also the first Beatles song to garner the attention of the mass adult market. This was also the first tune that could not be re-created accurately in concert without additional musicians. Finally, this was the first time a Beatle ever recorded solo.
4. “Come Together”–This is interesting because the title, according to Lennon in a Playboy interview, “was an expression that Tim(othy) Leary had come up with for (possibly running for office) and he asked me to write a campaign song . . . I came up with this” adding “it’s one of my favorite Beatle tracks.”
5. “All You Need Is Love”–This was the fastest-produced Beatles single. It was almost eliminated from this list since other major musicians were involved (i.e. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Keith Moon). Since these artists were only part of the chorus the song was not disqualified. Furthermore, this is a “Beatle Anthem” and has a historical significance. It was written for and supposed to be recorded live for the first worldwide live broadcast of the Our World TV spectacular June 25, 1967.
6. “Hey Jude”–This was the Beatles’ most successful single. It is also the longest song, clocking in at 7:11 of which approximately 4:00 is fadeout.This was also the first Apple release and one of the songs that helped others in the music business break the 2:50 time limit previously placed on pop songs. Last but not least, this song came about because McCartney felt bad for Julian Lennon during the break-up of his parents, John and Cynthia.
7. “Get Back”–This hit was controversial in that a bootlegged version contained supposed anti-immigration lyrics. It was the first Beatles record on which a guest artist, young Billy Preston (electric piano) was given credit. This was also supposed to be the title track for the re-named Let It Be album and was performed twice in the film Let It Be.
8. “Let It Be”– This No. 1 tune had two different versions. The single, on which Billy Preston played organ and the album track on which George Harrison plays a Lesley guitar and Preston is absent. Harrison also plays different guitar solos on each version and the song was mashed-up with Shaggy’s 2006 hit, “It Wasn’t Me”.
9. “Something”–This is one of the only non-Lennon-McCartney tracks present on many “top” Beatles song lists. This was the first Beatles A-side Harrison had and the one song that was said to make Lennon and McCartney fully acknowledge Harrison as a songwriter. Most critics feel this song ranks right up there with Lennon-McCartney compositions. Harrison took the title of James Taylor’s “Something In The Way She Moves” for use in the opening line of this song.
10. “Revolution”–This track was included for its socio-political influence. There were two different versions of this song: a hard rock version and a slow version Lennon meant to release one version as the band’s statement on the war in Vietnam. However, Lennon seemingly waffles in his beliefs about violence. On the single version he sings “you can count me out” while on the slower version he follows “you can count me out” with the word “in”. Finally, this track was used to promote Nike footwear in 1987.
11. “Lady Madonna”–This song was the last non-Apple song. McCartney’s vocals here are considered further “proof” that “Paul Is Dead’ because they are so different than earlier vocals. This was also one of only five Beatles songs performed by Paul McCartney and Wings in 1976. The original version of “Across The Universe” was pulled off the A-side of the single and replaced by this number.
12. “Helter Skelter”–This song is infamous for its connection to Charles Manson. The original was–according to different sources–between 24 and 27 minutes long. There was a mono version released on a rarities record and McCartney says the tune was inspired by a comment made by Pete Townsend of the Who.
13. “A Hard Day’s Night”–This was the title track for The Beatles first movie and soundtrack of the same name. McCartney sang lead only because Lennon could not reach the notes. It was inspired by an off-the-cuff remark made by Ringo Starr. It was written, arranged, rehearsed and recorded in just over one day.
14. “Cant Buy Me Love”–This was one of their only songs to begin with the chorus and cannot help but evoke black and white mental images of the young lads running from hysterical teenage girls. At one point during this song’s rule as number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the group was monopolizing the American charts with not only the top 5 positions but also positions number 31, 41, 46, 58, 65, 68 and 79. (Interestingly, the Number 3 and 4 spots were taken by the next two songs on this chart.)
15. “She Loves You”–This was The Beatles fourth single. It contains the now famous “yeah, yeah, yeah” and “oooo” forever to be associated with not only the band but the music of the early 60s in general. This is one of two songs that remind us of The Beatles “invading” America.
16. “I Want To Hold Your Hand”–This was the group’s fifth single and their first American Top 40 hit entering at No. 1. It held the top spot for seven weeks and remained somewhere in the Top 40 for 14 weeks. This is the other song most likely to remind fans of the Beatles arrival in America and sold more copies in its first ten days than any other British single released in the States.
17. “A Day In The Life”–This song is one of Julian Lennon’s favorite tracks. The song is unique for many reasons. The lyrics for this song were taken from newspaper headlines and a 41-piece orchestra was used in the making of this number. The final note is at least 42 seconds long.
18. “Blackbird”–This song was one of the simpler acoustic tunes and although it had a lullaby-like quality it was inspired by an article about race riots and concerned a black woman and civil rights.
19. “If I Fell”–This track was Lennon’s first attempt at a proper ballad. It exemplifies the excellent Lennon-McCartney vocal harmonies and has the same chord sequences as “In My Life” another one of The Beatles best songs.
20. “Tomorrow Never Knows”–This psychedelic number is notable as being ahead of its time and very experimental. It also included Harrison on sitar, an instrument that had not been heard on commercial pop tracks before The Beatles were introduced to it by Ravi Shankar.
Again, limiting a list of The Beatles best songs to a mere twenty was an impossible assignment. With a group as accomplished as The Beatles there can be no doubt that someone’s favorites were not included. Nevertheless, we have come to “The End”.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.