One of the most intriguing things about the Beatles, something I’ve never seen mentioned, is that despite their vast popularity, seldom did they have the best song or record of any given year. 1962’s Love me do barely rates a mention, and 1963’s She loves you and I wanna hold your hand, while great records that broke them in the US, are actually quite trivial songs, and nothing compared to Blowin in the wind (Bob Dylan) of that same year. 1964 clearly belongs to House of the Rising Sun (the Animals); to my mind the best Beatles songs of that year are If I fell (John Lennon) and And I love her (Paul McCartney), neither of which was released as a single anyway.
1965 began with You’ve lost that loving feeling (Righteous Bothers) and then came I can’t get no Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones) and Mr Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan) in quick succession. The Beatles put out some great songs then, most especially Yesterday which is clearly a better tune than the others but doesn’t have a lot else going for it. This was also the year when Roger Miller arrived with King of the road, Bob Dylan also released Like a rolling stone, The Beach Boys put out California Girls, and Simon and Garfunkel’s The sound of silence came out. This was the Beatles’ heaviest rock period with Ticket to ride, Day tripper and Paperback writer all appearing within less than a year in 1966-67; all wonderful stuff. But don’t forget, The Rolling Stones had been inching towards that heavy riff-based structure for years (The last time, Heart of stone), The Kinks had released You’ve really got me, Roy Orbison had released Pretty woman in 1964 and soon the Everly Brothers would put out The price of love. This was the time of heavy but mostly still tuneful rock songs, and perhaps for once the Beatles were following trends rather than leading them.
In 1966 the Beatles had some wonderful hits. Michelle, Eleanor Rigby, and Here, there and everywhere were all released in that period also. But 1966 was also the year of Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys; actually released in America in November 1965), These boots are made for walking (Nancy Sinatra), Paint it black (The Rolling Stones), Stop, stop stop (The Hollies), and Pretty Flamingo (Manfred Mann). It was also the year that Bob Dylan put out Blonde on blonde and the Beach Boys produced Pet Sounds. I’m not convinced that anything on Revolver matches these other songs.
1967 definitely belongs to the Beatles. In February Strawberry Fields forever came out. It remains to my mind one of the three or four greatest popular songs ever. In June Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heats Club Band came out and swept everything before it. But the best song on it by a long way, the exquisite She’s leaving home (beyond praise), was perhaps the least appreciated song of the album; most people still think first of A day in the life when they think of Sergeant Pepper’s. This was also the year of A whiter shade of pale (Procol Harum), Hey Joe (Jimi Hendrix), Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks) and Ode to Billie Joe (Bobby Gentry), but we have to give it to The Beatles in a photo-finish in a crowded field.
In 1968 The Beatles released I am the walrus and the execrable Lady Madonna. In 1969 they put out George Harrison’s Something, which Frank Sinatra described as the best love song of the last 50 years. But they also released the dire Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.
I saw an interview once where Stephen Sondheim said “There are people now saying that The Beatles weren’t really very good, which I find uproarious.” Aaron Copeland has said that “If you want to know what the sixties were like listen to The Beatles.” I concur; The Beatles were without doubt the most consistently great songwriters of the period (most of the other songwriters listed above faded fairly quickly). But I also think that their fame rests on something a bit more than their music during that time.
They were a fantastic package. So many things came together for them, including their producer George Martin, their formative exposure to European pop culture, their complementary personalities, and especially the sixties counter-culture. Intriguingly, all of the main progressive movements of that time embraced The Beatles; the hippies for obvious reasons; the Civil Rights Movement because they so unambiguously stood for equal rights (quite outspokenly at times) and African-American culture (their early repertoire was almost entirely R & B standards); the anti-Vietnam War movement because of their stated anti-war stance (remember, the FBI tried to bar Lennon from living in the States a little later); and even the early feminist movement was comfortable with them (although feminism didn’t really emerge strongly until after The Beatles had disbanded). All these reasons co-existed with the attractions of The Beatles actual music.
For me, the enthusiasm that they (and we) generated strongly influences my evaluations of their songs; I’m not sure they are far enough in our history yet to be able to get a clear view. Furthermore, all sorts of scholars and fans have analysed their stuff to death; I have nothing to offer along those lines. I’ll simply begin with some general observations, then discuss their best songs.
First, the lyrics. In the early years they seemed to be just one small step ahead of the crowd, but certainly not ahead of Bob Dylan and a few others (Lieber-Stoller, Pomus-Shuman, Chuck Berry, Carol King). But they had the vision to insert subtle, subversive symbols into their lyrics with a new boldness. The one most often mentioned is from I saw her standing there; the line “She was just seventeen and you know what I mean…,” was blatant, but there were others.
Clearly they were poetically inclined; Lennon’s two books of poetry attest to that. But it was a very different kind of poetry to the kind that Dylan would soon popularise so cultishly. As George Martin has described it, they weren’t much of anything at all in 1962, but boy, they sure learned fast! By the time of Strawberry Fields forever and She’s leaving home they were the pre-eminent lyricists in popular music. Strawberry Fields forever is almost completely X-factor in song-writing terms, filled with surprise and lyrically a masterpiece, while She’s leaving home is as dense and beautiful a lyric as one will ever find anywhere – every word vital and functioning perfectly. Now, only Dylan compared favourably with them. They’d stayed within the formulae of popular music but also gone well out into art-song, psychedelia, protest, and mysticism (several of these bases Dylan never touched, Dylan could never really be considered a great rocker; there’s no Twist and Shout in Dylan’s canon but The Beatles wrote quite a lot like that), and all of this while continuing to take their audience with them! No one had ever done that before them. Only Muhammad Ali rated at the same level in popular culture.
As an aspiring song-writer I had to take this all very seriously. I found their early hits irritating, but I started listening to them when they released P.S. I love you, and I bought their albums thereafter. I really knew they could write when they released If I fell; their first art-song.
John Lennon’s greatest include If I fell, Norwegian wood, Hide your love away, In my life, Strawberry Fields forever, I am the walrus, and Across the universe. This boy, Girl, Nowhere man, Lucy in the sky with diamonds, I dig a pony and Come together are also distinguished. It was Lennon who had the primary role in their early hit-writing, but what distinguishes these songs from his others is his sheer originality. Norwegian wood is unique, Hide your love away is a folkish song that might pass for genuine folk if we didn’t know that Lennon wrote it, Nowhere man is distinctive in its timing and sentiment, a more sympathetic response to Dylan’s Ballad of a thin man, (Dylan’s response to Norwegian wood – Fourth time around – was much less successful), and Lucy in the sky with diamonds is one of those unforgettable songs that seems to break most of the rules – it’s nonsense and musically banal, but (entirely accidentally according to the man himself) forever associated with LSD, while also drawing on influences from A. A. Milne and the Goons (Alice in Wonderland would never be the same again).
As for Strawberry Fields forever, well, what can anyone say? And to prove that it wasn’t an accident he followed it up with I am the walrus, and later Come Together. I sometimes think that the entirety of rock can be summed up in two songs – Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis, which established rock ’n roll as a genuine art form beyond mere dance music (though it wasn’t really a great song as such, merely given a great treatment), and Strawberry Fields forever by the Beatles, which revealed the heights to which the form might aspire, although Good Vibrations, which also revealed the heights, had been released a few months prior. But perhaps Strawberry Fields forever has been more influential. Good Vibrations almost seems unattainable because of the transcendent harmonies, whereas – at least theoretically – there’s nothing to stop anyone writing something like Strawberry Fields forever. Good Vibrations felt to me at the time like a glorious one-off, the summit of all that had gone before, whereas Straberry Fields forever was more clearly a step in a new direction. (But I’m quibbling.)
Paul McCartney’s greatest include P. S. I love you, And I love her, Yesterday, Michelle, Here there and everywhere, For no one, She’s leaving home, The fool on the hill, Hey Jude, Blackbird, Let it be, The long and winding road and You never give me your money/Golden slumbers (I think of these as one song). In my life and Eleanor Rigby were genuine collaborations and the authorship is somewhat disputed, but it seems most likely that Paul predominantly wrote the melodies so I’ll credit them primarily to him, although they probably both collaborated on the lyrics also. The stand-out has to be the gorgeous She’s leaving home, matched in that period primarily by George Harrison’s Something, but also by Paul Simon’s Bridge over troubled waters, both of which came out a couple of years later.
After the break-up they continued in their ways; Paul produced songs such as My love and Let me roll it which further consolidated him as the melodist of the age, while John wrote utterly striking songs such as Working class hero and Imagine which further consolidated him as a (the?) leading visionary lyricist of the time (at this point Bob Dylan was confiding to friends that the words weren’t coming anymore.).
Then there are their second-tier songs. Another remarkable thing about The Beatles is that not only did they span pop/rock’n roll hits as well as art-songs, but that their second-level stuff is so good. They seem to have gone out of their way to select only those tunes that had some striking oddity to them, perhaps an unusual structure or some angularity or an appealing mood. Songs like I’m only sleeping, I should have known better and It’s only love are hardly great songs and could never have been hits, but they are very appealing. Their ‘filler’ was far, far better than the filler on most others’ albums, and their riff-rockers – Day tripper, Ticket to ride, and Paperback writer – are wonderfully distinctive too, as is We can work it out.
As for their mainstream hits – Please please me, She loves you, Can’t buy me love, I wanna hold your hand, Help, I feel fine and all the rest – they are what they are, successful commercial ditties (and you can’t argue with success) well-crafted to the mood of the times, but musically of little significance; that phrase “soundtrack to my generation” covers a multitude of illusions.
Which leads to A day in the life. For many it’s their greatest masterpiece, coming like a revelation. But if you’d already read a little Zen and some Sci-fi and dropped acid, it may have seemed a little less special, or at least that’s how I reacted. The baby boomers – middle-class and mainstream – were just beginning to discover these sources and were blown away. To my mind it’s conceptually great, but musically and lyrically just so-so, though tasteful and well planned. Perhaps I’m still a bit too close.
The Beatles rode the last wave of universally embracing popular music; after them it splintered in things like disco, punk, indie, rap and so forth, each of which took pains to exclude some of the audience. But the Beatles even wrote children’s songs for God’s sake, Octopus’s garden and Yellow Submarine, and music-hall pastiches such as When I’m 64 and Your mother should know, and these weren’t half-bad either!
It was one hell of an achievement!