Carl Wilson, the rock writer, does a great job here explaining Peter Jackson’s epic (when it comes to the Beatles in January 1969, not civilization) TV show about the Beatles, called Get Back. I finished it last night and it is delightful, insightful, and well worth watching. Read his story here.
Note first, Bill Wyman wrote this.
He’s a rock critic, not the Rolling Stones bassist. But does that matter?
I immediately check out the end and find Good Morning in last place. Geez. I like that tune, not in a rock sense, but in a music and attitude sense, it’s pretty powerful. So, I disagree.
And then it gets worse and better and worse, and there’s not reason to think about the ranking. This is an internet click bait thing, Wyman is a pretty decent critic, and does a good job of navigating through the ranks.
Which are totally wrong. Discuss.
Ron Howard is a master cinematic storyteller, for sure, but not someone with much interest in complexity or ambiguity. Which can be good for storytelling, but for me usually comes up wanting. I like the messy, the complicated, the things that make you say oh.
I was curious about this picture, but would have let it slide, or ride, but friends invited me and my daughter wanted to go. So we went to Greenwich Village for some fine wood-fired brick oven Neapolitan pizza and Ron Howard’s joint, plus the promise of the whole Beatles at Shea Stadium film, remastered visually and auditorily using all the modern tricks.
The movie is a gas. The camera is up close on the Beatles and their fans through the 28 Days Later rush of Beatlemania, during the charge of concerts around the globe, and headlong up to the show at Shea Stadium. These guys, when they were young, ambitious and full of energy, were terrific cutups. And then it stays up close through the despair that followed the exhaustion that came after, when cutups transformed into turnoffs.
As I had expected, I felt as if I’d seen most of this footage before, but all of it was delightful, looked fantastic, and there are some revelations (for me anyway):
Early footage of some English shows in 1963 are fantastic and transforming. This wasn’t just a group of clever songwriters and melody makers, with winning personalities, but a hard rocking band. Ringo pounds on his kit, and the Beatles deliver with equal and transformative energy. Great songs, but also tight and terrific arrangements and wickedly and aggressively good playing.
McCartney, mostly, and Lennon, too, from old interviews, talk about their songwriting, and the need to hew to a schedule to put out a new single every three months, and an album every six months. The studio footage and tales, plus the clips from all the live shows they’re doing, and movies they’re making, really dial up the grueling nature of it all.
At one point Lennon talks about how silly the lyrics are in those early albums, really just placeholders while they worked on the music. Which seems like a throwaway, since so many are so clever and perfect to the form, until, later, he and McCartney talk about the personal content that John weaves into the lyrics of Help!, a song that to me has always seemed a novelty tied to the movie of the same name. But of course not!
I always forget what a cutup George was, even when I consider the hilarity of his film producing career. I mean, Withnail and I? This movie confirms he’s funny and serious, too.
I assume there will be a follow up, a sequel. Maybe Blue Jay Way: The Studio Years, but more likely Strawberry Fields Forever: The Studio Years, which will go further into the making of the last five elpees. That will no doubt be an equal treat. But the takeaway here is that the Beatles were really great, in a way that has no match, and we would be fools to forget about even a part of that greatness.
Ron Howard’s movie is a crowd pleaser, and lives up to that not modest ambition. Go and enjoy.
Along with Rush and Lynyrd Skynrd, Aerosmith was another band I gave very little thought to during the 70’s and into the late 80’s.
I do confess that Sweet Emotion is great little guitar song, but aside from that, not much the band did tickled much of anything in me till Pump came out in 1989.
As with lots of other bands who had a defined sound, Pump was surely Aerosmith, but it was poppy and accessible like 1984 was for Van Halen, and I really thought the album was a pretty strong effort all around.
But, none of the songs nailed me like the Beatles homage, What It Takes?
From the chorusy solo that points to Let It Be, to the bridge background vocals with the band harmonizing “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” to the lovely droning arpeggios and fade that are sort of a blend of Let It Be and Hey Jude this is just a great tight little cut that always makes me smile.
Nothing fancy, but in a perfect way, this is sort of the Beatles way much of the time, no matter how complex getting to simple was.
This was so hard. So hard. So so hard. So so so hard. Harder than life itself. Makes “Sophie’s Choice” seem like paper or plastic.
Blahbitty blah blah blah.
Three Things About The Beatles
I went through my Beatles phase later in life, post-college even. But geez, they are great. And I have a difficult time respecting any musical fan or, particularly, musician, who has never had an extended period of discovering, loving and appreciating The Beatles.
On a related note, there’s no finer place to grasp the concept of background vocals than The Beatles. And you’d be surprised how many musicians don’t get background vocals. There are musicians who can’t sing. There are musicians who can’t sing backgrounds. There are musicians who think they can sing backgrounds, but don’t really understand them past the simplest form. What’s left is fine background singers and those are few and far between, at least on the regular guy/mortal musician level.
On an unrelated note, one of my favorite parts of the must-see rock doc “Lemmy” (the Motorhead singer) is when Lemmy explains that, although the Stones always got the credit as the tough guys, in fact, the Beatles were blue collar rough-and-tumbles from the wrong side of the tracks, while the Stones were a bunch of art school prancers. We stand corrected.
#1 – 5 points – What Goes On – Debate always rages over Ringo’s greatness or lack thereof as a drummer, but I love him as a singer. His clear, sincere voice always cuts through whatever else is going on on the album, whichever that may be. In addition, I love the scratchy guitar. And I’ll never tire of Paul’s decision to walk the bass on just one chorus. So cool. How many bass players would walk it every chorus? Almost all of them. (Lawr would, because he told me.)
#2 – 4 points – She Loves You – The three-part harmony on the final “Yeah” is better than most songs all by itself. A helluva fun song to sing and play yet cover quantity is slim.
#3 tie – 4 points – You Won’t See Me & I’m Looking Through You – Can’t tell you specifically why I like these more than others; it’s just that Beatles thing. And I can’t tell you which one I like more than the other either.
#5 tie – 3 points – All My Loving, She Said She Said, I Call Your Name – Same thing here as the #3 tie, but just slightly less.
#8 – 2 points – Yellow Submarine – Verse gets a 5, chorus gets a zero, averages to 2. (Actually 2.5, but the rules call for truncation, not rounding.)
#9 – 1 point – Blackbird – I’m not one for wimpy songs of beauty, but I like this one. So does Charlie.
#10 – 1 point – Revolution – The poppy one. Q: Chairman Mao? A: Anyhow.
Ten Beatles Songs, ridiculous to say these are the best. But ridiculous not to try to make such a list. This one is as much personal as anything else.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1964)
This is the first song I remember hearing. It was their first No. 1 in the states, and along with it came a lot of talk about their hair and the screaming fainting girls. This song is a perfect piece of pop songwriting, totally catchy, but also varied by parts and tone, so that it’s not too sweet or too blue, not too dependent on one hook when a few will be better.
This is the one song I’ve played in public recital on the piano. It is also one of the songs I sang to my daughter every night for many years, as she fell asleep. But the reason I list it here is because as I’ve come to appreciate Paul McCartney as a lyricist, this is one of his finest poems. Spare, wonderfully structured, plainly said and deeply felt, and not at all sentimental in and of themselfs, these are words that don’t really need strings or any of the pop craft you hear here. A magnificent achievement.
Here There and Everywhere (1966)
Another McCartney perfection. John Lennon called this one of his favorite Beatles tunes, which says something.
Eight Days A Week (1964)
Lennon thought this one was lousy and the Beatles never played it live. I suppose I can pick it apart, it’s simple and some of the lyrics are just fine, not perfect, but I love the harmonies and the sentiment and those jangling guitars. If I’m having a party this is the Beatles tune that goes into the dance mix, no matter what John said.
Helter Skelter (1968)
McCartney goes all heavy metal, and comes up with a loud rocker that is most notable for it’s sweet harmonies and affability. But that doesn’t mean that the noise isn’t loud and the music less than assaultive. I kind of landed here because so much of The Beatles is novelty, in a cute and clever way. You can dress Helter Skelter in the same clothing, it was a challenge song, Paul trying to write the dirtiest sounding song he could, and for all it’s sonic sturm it isn’t really threatening until John talks about his blisters. I buried Paul, and all that. But it does rock until the extended coda and it does carve out new musical territory, and I always enjoy hearing it.
Hey Jude (1968)
Okay, more McCartney. This song is so simple, so perfectly simple, it’s hard to imagine how it became a seven minute epic, but at that it seems absolutely right. Variations and more variations, along with the lovely sing song consolation that will not take no for an answer, ending with sing along Na na na na na na monumental coda, which elevates everything to yet another higher level. Take a sad song and make it better. They did.
A Hard Days Night (1964)
Here’s the problem. This is a perfect song, with a great arrangement and fantastic harmonies. Give credit here to John Lennon, finally. The problem is that the Beatles have 30 others just as good. But I love this one for the opening chord and the lyrics, which (like Eight Days a Week) refer to a working life. That’s not a big deal, but it takes the pouffery of the pop song back into the grind of the working week, and that’s something I notice. Plus it sounds fantastic.
Get Back (1969)
I remember hearing this the first time, watching the video, which is a fantastic bit of expression of the Beatles’ power, and a world still trying to rein them and all of the youth in. The lyrics are nonsense, but sound great, and the song is a terribly affable rock song elevated by Billy Preston’s keyboards. I won’t claim this is one of the band’s great songs, but it is one of my favorites.
Within You, Without You (1967)
I made a Beatles Top 11 earlier in the year, kind of a lark because I did it quickly, but I meant it. When I started putting this list together I did so without consulting the original, but I did remember that Within You, Without You was on that list, kind of representing Sgt. Pepper. Lawr commented that he didn’t think the Beatles could write a bad song, except for Within You, Without You and Revolution #9. I’m not tempted to put the goofy pastiche on my list, but I cannot escape this George Harrison song. I am not a religious person and certainly not going all gaga over some big religious personality, er fraud, so forget the horrible lyrics, but they don’t matter, I think. The propulsive rhythm and the sawing harmonies and the densely layered mix, are really beautiful and appealing in a way that trad Indian music isn’t. To my ears, I mean. I do feel bad that two of my top 10 Beatles songs are really solo acts, featuring no other Beatles but the composer. So be it. I just wish I’d included Gomper on my Stones list.
Can’t Be Me Love (1964)
I guess the plain speaking, harmonizing rockers are my favorite Beatles, and this tune, like Eight Days a Week and Hard Days Night is both insistently rocking and rolling a sophisticated metaphor around on its tongue. McCartney wrote this one, but my favorite Beatle was always John.
Every single other Beatles song could be listed here, except for Revolution #9, which isn’t really a song as much as a collage. A good collage I think, so let’s go out with that. Backwards!
My Top 10 Beatles Tracks
By Bret Sayre
We all go through it at some point–that point in your musical existence when you stop focusing on what’s here now, but what came before. My classic rock exploration phase started when I was a sophomore in high school, and the Beatles were not my main focus. For that first year or two, I was heavy into Zeppelin–which made sense based on the heavier music I was into at the time; however as I got older and started to write music myself, the Beatles’ influences and tendencies manifested themselves more and more loudly. The hooks, the harmonies, the depth, all of it.
It was hard enough just to narrow this down to ten songs, I’m not masochistic enough to try and rank them amongst each other, so they sit below in alphabetical order:
“A Day in the Life”
There’s really no better example of the Lennon/McCarthy collaboration than this classic track from what is probably their most overrated album. The song meanders through five minutes of eclectic instrumentation, tempo changes and vocal trade-offs–and is spread out judiciously in the space. It’s both laid back and urgent. It’s rare that a track is both ahead of its time and properly appreciated when it’s released, but here we are.
This song was one that I didn’t discover until late in my Beatles Finding phase, but it had one of the biggest influences on my songwriting. I always wished I could write a guitar hook half as cool as the one that drives this song, but it turns out that not being John Lennon is a trait many aspiring musicians share.
“Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight”
The second side of Abbey Road is one of my favorites of all time, and because it’s very tough to pick out a singular song from it, I’m not going to. Frankly, if I could pick the whole medley, I would. What are the rules of this thing anyway? The piano ballad of the former is a perfect appetizer, leading into the explosive chorus of the latter–and the reprise of You Never Give Me Your Money (horns again, I know) really ties the room together.
“Got to Get You Into My Life”
There’s no other way to put it, this song just makes me happy. It’s Paul through and through, which can be a turn off to some, but this is one his songs that needs to be played as close to full volume as possible. Another Bret musical fun fact: I have a very soft spot for well-placed horns, and that helps solidify this song’s placement.
“Happiness is a Warm Gun”
Unlike many of its predecessors, this song is a one-way street. The verse starts quiet and builds up with the jagged guitar before exploding into aural intensity. The combination of the playfulness of the music and the darkness of the lyrics is John Lennon as his finest, and his lead vocal track in the eventual chorus of the song is one of his finest moments in the band’s discography.
“Here Comes the Sun”
The lone George Harrison representative on the list, it’s really tough to think of the ten best Beatles since without this one. For me, I knew this song before I really knew all that much about the Beatles, as this was used at my summer camp when after we had “quiet time” on the bus to let us know we were getting close to whatever destination we were headed to. For that reason, it has a special place for me, but it is the pinnacle of George’s songwriting and is a key track on arguably the band’s strongest album.
“I’ve Just Seen a Face”
Of all the Paul acoustic songs, this is the one tha makes the list. It’s just two minutes of earnest perfection and having gotten into the song in my formative years, the earnestness was appreciated in a way that only a naive teenager can. It was also one of the first handful of songs I tried to learn on the guitar, though I was never quite able to nail playing and singing it at the same time.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
There are plenty of “better” Beatles songs than this quirky Paul track, but for some reason this one has always stuck with me. I guess quirky doesn’t really do to justice, as the lyrics read like the ramblings of a man who can’t tell the floor from the ceiling. However, it’s one of the catchiest Beatles tracks, and suits me just fine.
Another track I didn’t pick up until later on, this quickly became a personal favorite with it’s sweeping vocals and crushing verses. Add in one of their finest guitar riffs and you get another in a long line of nearly perfect pop songs from the first stage of the Beatles’ career.
The blaring of the opening guitar riff to this song signals that it aims to be something larger than just a Beatles song. It wants to be an anthem, and thanks to the indignant attitude, melody and vocal energy of John, it succeeds.
“Back in the USSR”
“Here, There and Everywhere”
“I Am the Walrus”
“She Said She Said”
Five More (because I can’t help myself):
“And Your Bird Can Sing”
“Drive My Car”
“Eight Days a Week”
Unlike Pianow, I will not tip my hand by sharing my super-secret point allocation.
1. Hey Jude: Hypnotic, sweeping, majestic. So disciplined in its sonic momentum. And lyrically a tonic for a very turbulent time, evoking a shared spirituality that transcends labels and even religion itself.
2. I Am the Walrus: Only the Beatles could perform this song. Lennon’s lyrics are not merely trippy but completely unsettling. And it’s always on the verge of being torn apart by its ambition, yet somehow triumphs.
3. Here, There and Everywhere: The perfect song. A strong case can be made for it being No. 1 but unlike the top two it’s so modest in its performance, not letting anything get in the way of the pure poetry of McCartney’s finest lyric.
4. A Day in the Life: Hypnotic, sweeping, majestic. So disciplined in its sonic momentum. And lyrically a tonic for a very turbulent time, evoking a shared spirituality that transcends labels and even religion itself.
5. Here Comes the Sun: It’s perhaps ironic that Harrison, who spent so much songwriting energy on overt religiousity, would convey happiness and hope through such a simple metaphor with its spot-on musical accompaniment. Ringo somehow keeps seven-and-1/2 time.
6: Strawberry Fields: Lennon one-upped McCartney in their nostalgic odes to Liverpool by cleverly not talking about a place really at all, but rather a state of mind. The song sounds like it’s coming from inside your head.
7. For No One: McCartney really owns Revolver, quite a feat given how amazing Lennon’s songs are, too. Far more musically ambitious than Here, There and Everywhere. Delicate and poignant but also so self-possessed. And ultimately that’s what really gets you, its resignation.
8. Dear Prudence: Lennon is rarely so charming. The song also has one of the most thrilling finishing kicks in rock history, due mostly to McCartney’s incredible drumming filling in for the AWOL Ringo, whose misfortune is being a musical genius in a band with three bigger geniuses.
9. Happiness is a Warm Gun: One of rock’s great singers really belts it out without the voice alterations he often insisted upon. Both McCartney and Harrison have said this is their favorite song on The White Album. Seeming to thread together different songs, perhaps it planted the seed in McCartney for the Abbey Road medley.
10. Long, Long, Long: Ringo again is the hero and I love the mix with its almost whispering lyrics. The music is so good that it’s immediately clear you should be straining to listen. This is the moment, for me, when George’s became far more than some third wheel.
For this exercise, I did go through the Beatles catalog (I did for the Stones, too, to be fair) but even without looking to see if I forgot something, I knew the top four songs without much thought. And, that is not because I have made a list like this before: rather I know the songs that I not only love, but the ones I have continued to cherish in my memory bank.
It is odd that nothing from St. Pepper made it, as that is generally considered the band’s landmark/seminal album, and though I have nothing to say against it, in the rear view–at least to me–it doesn’t hold as strongly as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Abbey Road, or especially the White Album (which is all over the map, but is so damned interesting).
That said, saying there is a bad Beatles album is kind of like saying there is a good Starland Vocal Band album (remember, they got a best new artist Grammy, and well the Beatles as a band never got one until Let It Be which counted as a movie soundtrack).
Here goes (but scroll to the bottom for some honorable mentions):
Please Please Me: Dynamite the first time I heard it, and it is still dynamite today. How did they do that? The harp and machine gun drums (shades of The Locomotion?) and those staccato guitar chords and thumping bass. And the couplet: “I do all the pleasin’ baby It’s so hard to reason with you, why do you make me blue?” is so beyond brilliant it is scary. More than anything, Please Please Me defined the band, the sound, and everything that came dragging on its coattails. That is pretty good.
And Your Bird Can Sing: I have written about this song before. It was part of the best bass lines ever piece on this site, but maybe the opening guitar riff belongs in a similar Lick Hall of Fame. The only problem with the song is it is too short as in I want it to keep going. But, since the tune is as close to perfect as one can get, that observation is moot.
It’s Only Love: God how I love John, and I think a lot of it is he is cynical (Ballad of John and Yoko) and obscure (I am the Walrus) and a rocker (Revolution) and such a romantic, as in It’s Only Love. This song is so beautiful and sweet, and when John sings “why am I so shy” he is telling us he is just like us, Beatle or not. And, we should all relate.
I am the Walrus: Speaking of which, this one is just mesmerizing. It is psychedelic pop at its very best and is a song that instantly hooks, and keeps me humming, trying to figure which vocal part to sing with at times. Does anyone have a clue what this song is even about? Better, does anyone care? That is pretty good when we love a song and no one has any idea about its essence.
I’ve Got a Feeling: Such a great opening riff, and such a great song, and such great vocals, especially at the end when the “Everybody had a high here” is double tracked in rounds with itself. I get shivers just thinking about it. Great double vocals. Great drums. Great bass. Great rhythm guitar. Just great.
It’s All Too Much: Always a sucker for George’s songs, and even though Yellow Submarine is really a thrown together soundtrack, this song just sends me. It’s hypnotic. The opening alone–basically 30 seconds of feedback–defines it all. Kind of like Moonlight Mile is to the Stones, It’s All Too Much is to the Beatles for me.
Tomorrow Never Knows (TNK): Goddam, how did they know to do the things they did to get all those–at the time–crazy sounds in this wonderful song? Was it George Martin, or them? And, how much fun might it have been to simply watch them brainstorming this stuff? I also want to give cred to 801–the Phil Manzanera/Eno jam band–who more than did justice to this song as well. I tossed it in for fun.
And, 801 doing the song more than justice.
Day Tripper: One of the first riffs I was able to figure out on the guitar, was the opening to Day Tripper. The bridge into the solo with the crash cymbols ringing is just spectacular. Solo is pretty good too.
I Need You: Such a lovely song from George, and one I prefer to Something. Again, a great opening lick, and better, when the bass kicks in after the head, god, is it good. Advanced guitar effects too. Just a great song.
Here Comes the Sun: Everything I have already said about the preceding nine songs applies here. Again, just a beautiful piece, with great guitar. And, the deadly farfisa organ that comes chiming in after the bridge just destroys me. It always did is the thing. I have played a few Beatles songs live in various bands, but this is the only one that was rehearsed, and I played the lead acoustic guitar part (capo on 7th fret, if memory serves) and I did an ok job. Sang it too. Always proud that I think I did it justice.
Honorable mention (in no particular order): Revolution, I Feel Fine, 8 Days a Week, Back in the USSR/Dear Prudence, She Said, While My Guitar Gently Weep and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.
BTW, three points each.
A few days ago Gene McCaffrey posted a list of his top 10 favorite Beatles’ songs. In the next few days each of the other contributors to Rock Remnants will be posting theirs. Here’s mine.
Please Please Me
When the Beatles first arrived in the US, radio seemed to be playing only 3 songs — I Want to Hold Your Hand, She Loves You and Please Please Me. Please Please Me is my favorite of the Big 3 that introduced me to The Beatles and changed my life. Really.
There’s A Place
It’s all about the vocal harmony. Man, these guys could sing! (And not just John and Paul — George could hold his own too.) The harmonies they created are beautiful and There’s A Place is a wonderful example.
What You’re Doing
A terrific rocker with a cool arrangement that demonstrated the band’s continual development. The drum intro, the chanted first word on each line of the verse, the syncopated rhythm guitar — all perfect for the song. Oh yeah, don’t forget the honky tonk piano behind George’s guitar solo.
This song kicks butt. Again, they got me at the intro. I love the way The Beatles were using tambourine during this period of their recording history. The 16th notes lead to a rattlesnake shake that is emphasized by a perfectly placed drum roll and cymbal splash. I makes you want to get up and move.
Run For Your Life
John famously had a mean streak and this is him at his worst. “I’d rather see you dead little girl, than to be with another man…” More tambourine and harmony, but add in acoustic guitar and a country flavored solo.
For No One
Paul wrote a trio of songs that were in a very similar style both lyrically and musically — Eleanor Rigby, She’s Leaving Home and For No One. For No One is the most beautiful. Each tells a story accompanied by an arrangement with classical influences. In For No One this is accomplished with a French horn solo that is repeated later in the song as a counter melody to Paul’s vocal. It’s beautiful.
With A Little Help From My Friends
Paul spent hours and hours alone in the studio working on his bass parts to the Sgt Pepper’s set. It shows on this song. It’s a great song that Joe Cocker interpreted superbly, but it’s on my list for Paul’s clever bass part.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
This is George at his finest. It’s such a beautifully written song. Most people point out Clapton’s guitar playing as the anchor to the song and it is terrific. But there’s a demo version where George plays it (essentially) solo — just voice and guitar. If you listen to that, you hear just how well the song stands on its own. (And there’s an extra verse not heard on the White Album version too.)
Here Comes the Sun
It’s the perfect pop song. What more needs to be said to defend a choice like this.
I’ve Got a Feeling
As everyone now knows, the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team didn’t really exist. Aside from some very early songs (The One After 909) and a few where one wrote the verses and the other contributed a chorus or bridge (We Can Work It Out, A Day In the Life), the boys wrote songs independently. I’ve Got a Feeling is another example of a true collaboration — the combination of three unfinished songs.
And that’s how I choose to end my list.