By Ken Womack
Why do the Fab Four endure when so many others fade quietly into popular music’s often unforgiving sunset? Beyond the glossy packaging and the culture (indeed, the counter-culture) of Beatlemania, what are the sonic nuances that made the Beatles a musical phenomenon for all time?
As John Lennon reminded us during one of his last interviews in 1980, the answer is nestled somewhere amongst their rich array of albums: “With the Beatles, the music is the point,” Lennon remarked, and “you have all this great music.”
To explain in more detail, one must address the significant recording accomplishments of the Fab Four. In other words, how did they progress musically, and which recordings represent the first-time achievement of a specific technique in their career?
As a result, here in my opinion, is a listing (in order of their original release date) of the Top 10 Musical Moments achieved by the Beatles in the recording studio:
1) “I Saw Her Standing There” (1963)
As the first track on the Beatles’ inaugural album Please Please Me (1963), “I Saw Her Standing There” explodes with a sense of urgency and abandon equaled only by the opening strains of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the song that would prefigure the group’s triumphant first visit to North America in February 1964.
Lyrically, “I Saw Her Standing There” bespeaks the same teenage amalgam of hopeful romance and ready acceptance that marks the band’s other works of this era:
“Well, she was just 17
You know what I mean
And the way she looked
Was way beyond compare”
McCartney and Lennon composed the song in the McCartney’s living room (on Forthlin Road) while playing hooky during John’s art school days. Lennon later observed that “we were just writing songs, like the Everly Brothers, like Buddy Holly, pop songs with no more thought to them than that – to create a sound. And the words were almost irrelevant.”
Although the lyrics devolve into a kind of innocuous optimism, the guitar work on “I Saw Her Standing There” fuels the track’s driving spirit. Based on a series of blues riffs, the song’s musical terrain includes a scattering of guitar embellishments that culminate in Harrison’s electrifying solo.
When an audibly excited McCartney counts off the tempo at the beginning of “I Saw Her Standing There,” the Beatles began ushering in a new sound that would erase and subsequently reconfigure the face of popular music.
2) The “middle-eight” on “And I Love Her” (1964)
The Beatles’ early work presages their later accomplishments in terms of its sheer variety. With a knack for crafting “middle-eights” – musical lingo for the eight-bar refrains that characterize their songwriting in the early 1960s – the Beatles were already searching for new musical vistas as early as A Hard Day’s Night (1964).
With “And I Love Her,” the band easily assumes a stirring Latin beat. Ornamented with Harrison and McCartney’s flamenco-like guitar arpeggios, “And I Love Her” swells with the rhythmic intensity of Ringo Starr’s bongos and Harrison’s intermittent claves.
For McCartney, “And I Love Her” is nothing short of a watershed moment. “With one stroke,” Tim Riley writes in Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary (1988), McCartney “gains the status of standard balladeer composer.”
McCartney’s enormous catalogue of romantic melodies and ballads finds its origins in “And I Love Her” and the discerning fan can draw a line from its composition to the emergence of such classic tunes as “I’ll Follow the Sun,” “Yesterday,” “Michelle,” “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.”
3) The sitar accompaniment on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” (1965)
One of the Beatles’ most remarkable sonic features concerns the vast musical sweep of their career itself. The utterly mesmerizing instrumental and lyrical leap from Please Please Me through Rubber Soul (1965) is matched only by the artistic heights that the band would later reach on Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Beatles [a.k.a. The White Album] (1968), and Abbey Road (1969).
On Rubber Soul, the Beatles effectively signaled the expansion of their musical horizons via Harrison’s well-known experimentation with sitar music – the exotic, microtonal flavor of which would adorn such Beatles tunes as the classic “Norwegian Wood” and “Within You, Without You” from Sgt. Pepper.
In “Norwegian Wood,” Harrison’s sitar lines accent the flourishes of Lennon’s haunting acoustic guitar. But they also provide a curious palette for Lennon’s confessional lyrics about an extramarital affair.
As with “I’ll Be Back” and “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” from Beatles for Sale (1964), “Norwegian Wood” represents a significant departure from the silly love songs that accounted for the band’s initial parcel of hits.
The lyrics themselves – far from underscoring love’s everlasting possibilities – hint at something far more fleeting, even unromantic:
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair
Compare the words of “Norwegian Wood” with such earlier phraseology as
I ain’t got nothing but love, babe
Eight days a week
And the Beatles’ intellectual development becomes resoundingly clear.
4) “A Day in the Life” (1967)
Fans and critics alike often refer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as popular music’s first “concept” album. In truth, though, the Beatles’ notion of a fictitious ensemble peters out after “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the album’s second track.
The concept “doesn’t go anywhere,” Lennon later remarked. “But it works ‘cause we said it works.”
Perhaps even more significantly, Sgt. Pepper saw the Beatles erasing the boundaries that they had been challenging since Rubber Soul and Revolver.
“Until this album, we’d never thought of taking the freedom to do something like Sgt. Pepper,” McCartney observed. “We started to realize there weren’t as many barriers as we’d thought, we could break though with things like album covers, or invent another persona for the band.”
With “A Day in the Life” – the album’s dramatic climax – the Beatles virtually reimagined themselves as recording artists. Filled with variegated sonic hues and other assorted sound effects, the song contrasts Lennon’s impassive stories of disillusion and regret with McCartney’s deceptively buoyant interlude about the numbing effects of the workaday world.
The song’s luminous, open-ended refrain: “I’d love to turn you on” promises a sense of interpersonal salvation on a universal scale.
Yet Lennon and McCartney’s detached lyrics seem to suggest, via their nuances of resignation and unacknowledged guilt, that such a form of emotional release will always remain an unrealized dream.
As the music of the Beatles and a studio orchestra spirals out of control and into oblivion, a massive piano chord punctuates the song’s melancholic ambiance.
“In the end,” the Beatles’ legendary producer George Martin writes in All You Need Is Ears (1994), “the microphones were so live that you could hear the air conditioning. It took 45 seconds to do, and we did it three or four times, building up a massive sound of piano after piano after piano, all doing the same thing.”
As the zenith of the Beatles’ musical vitality, the chord that concludes “A Day in the Life” will surely reverberate for the ages.
5) “I Am the Walrus” (1967)
Written at the apex of the Summer of Love, Lennon’s self-consciously psychedelic “I Am the Walrus” functions – at least on a lyrical level – as a brilliant tirade against the ills of enforced institutionalism. Adorned with stunning wordplay and linguistic imagery, “I Am the Walrus” pits Lennon’s bitter vocals against a surrealistic musical tableau comprised of McCartney’s hypnotic bass, Harrison and Starr’s playful percussion, and Martin’s exhilarating string arrangements.
Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” “I Am the Walrus” opens with Lennon’s Mellotronin-toned phrasing designed to replicate the monotonous cry of a police siren.
As the song’s spectacular lyrics unfold:“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are altogether.” Starr’s wayward snare interrupts the proceedings and sets Lennon’s intentionally absurdist catalogue of images into motion.
While an assortment of cryptic voices and diabolical laughter weave in and out of the mix, Lennon’s pungent lyrics encounter an array of ridiculous characters – from a “crab locker fishwife” and a “pornographic priestess” to the “expert texpert choking smokers” and that madman of literary effrontery himself, Edgar Allan Poe.
When “I Am the Walrus” finally recedes amongst its ubiquitous mantra of “Goo Goo Goo Joob,” the song dissolves into a scene from a BBC radio production of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Described by Ian MacDonald as “the most idiosyncratic protest song ever written,” “I Am the Walrus” features Lennon’s most inspired verbal textures, as well as the Beatles’ greatest moment of musical diaphora: in one sense, “I Am the Walrus” seems utterly devoid of meaning, yet at the same time its songwriter’s rants about prevailing social structures absolutely beg for interpretation.
6) Side Two of the White Album (1968)
Quite obviously, we hardly speak of albums in terms of “sides” in the compact-disc era. But yes, kiddies, there was a time when you could saunter into any record store and purchase long-playing records. We called them LPs, but they are now referred to, rather stylishly, as “vinyl.”
Side two of the White Album witnesses the Beatles in full swagger. With their dizzying array of musical styles, the nine tracks from “Martha My Dear” through “Julia” loom as masterworks of artistic virtuosity. They also illustrate the White Album’s stunning eclecticism – the true measure of the album’s resilience.
McCartney’s baroque-sounding “Martha My Dear,” with its crisp brass accompaniment, introduces the sequence, which meanders, rather lazily, into Lennon’s bluesy “I’m So Tired.” Lennon later recalled the song as “one of my favorite tracks. I just like the sound of it, and I sing it well.”
Written during the Beatles’ famous visit to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s retreat at Rishikesh during the spring of 1968, McCartney’s folksy “Blackbird” imagines a contemplative metaphor for the United States’ civil rights struggles during the 1960s.
The sound of a chirping blackbird eventually segues into Harrison’ edgy political satire, “Piggies.” Interestingly, the songwriter’s mother, Louise Harrison, composed the tune’s signature lyric – a punishment suitable for misanthropic politicians everywhere: “What they need’s a damned good whacking!”
The White Album’s song cycle continues with McCartney’s countrified “Rocky Raccoon,” a track that shifts, rather astonishingly, from the disquieting universe of cowboys, gunplay and saloons into a gentle paean about nostalgia and loss.
Starr’s “Don’t Pass Me By,” with its barrelhouse piano chorus, steers the sequence abruptly into the sudsy world of the beer hall. Originally entitled “Some Kind of Friendly,” the song became a number-one hit, rather fittingly in Scandinavia.
One of McCartney’s finest blues effusions, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” explodes from the embers of “Don’t Pass Me By” and brilliantly sets the stage for the side’s final two numbers, “I Will” and “Julia.”
A soothing melody about the tenuous interplay between romance and commitment, “I Will” remains one of McCartney’s most memorable experiments in brash sentimentality.
Arguably his most powerful ballad, Lennon’s “Julia” memorializes the songwriter’s late mother while simultaneously addressing his spiritual deliverance at the hands of his newfound soul mate, the ”ocean child” Yoko Ono.
7) The guitar lick at the end of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” and the piano melody on “Sexy Sadie” (1968)
Unfortunately, the Beatles’ considerable impact upon popular culture often seems to obscure the minute particulars of their musicianship. Two instances from the White Album especially underscore their dexterity as musical craftsmen, as well as their phenomenal aural leaps from, say, “Can’t Buy Me Love” through their finest artistic accomplishments during the late 1960s.
A moment of pure excitement and adrenaline, the guitar riff at the conclusion of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” accentuates an otherwise peculiar song about social politics with the bruising panache of rock and roll. A rhythmic burst of high-octane modulation, the guitar phrasings at the end of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” exemplify the breadth of the band’s extraordinary musical prowess.
As Lennon’s acidic lullaby to the Beatles’ experiences under the Maharishi’s dubious tutelage, “Sexy Sadie” bears mention for its salacious lyrical contents alone:
We gave you everything we owned just to sit at your table
Just a smile would lighten everything
In terms of sheer artistry, though, the song reveals the band in full aesthetic throttle. As McCartney’s tinkling piano phrases spar with Harrison’s bristling guitar, “Sexy Sadie” maneuvers effortlessly through chord changes and one harmonic shift after another.
When the song finally ascends to its closing musical interchange, the Beatles’ instrumentation and Lennon’s spellbinding vocal coalesce in a breathtaking instance of blissful resolution.
8) Harrison’s guitar solo on “Something” (1969)
Harrison comes into his own, of course, on Abbey Road, the Beatles’ magnificent swan song. The unbridled optimism of Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” is matched – indeed, surpassed – only by “Something,” his crowning achievement and the classic tune that Frank Sinatra would famously dub “the greatest love song of the past 50 years.”
For much of the song, Harrison’s soaring guitar, his musical trademark, dances in delectable counterpoint with McCartney’s jazzy, melodic bass. Instrumentally, the fusion of their guitar work produces an exquisite musical tapestry as “Something” meanders toward Harrison’s most unforgettable of guitar solos, the tune’s greatest lyrical feature – even more lyrical, interestingly enough, than the lyrics themselves.
A masterpiece of utter simplicity, Harrison’s solo reaches toward the sublime, wrestles with it in a bouquet of downward syncopation, and hoists it yet again in a moment of supreme grace.
9) The Abbey Road medley (1969)
There is little question that, even during its production, the Beatles regarded Abbey Road as their final studio album. Their growing interpersonal and financial tensions were exacting a seemingly immutable toll on their artistic relationship.
As the workmanlike Beatles went about the business of recording their musical finale, McCartney and Martin began assembling the medley that would conclude the album.
“I wanted to do something bigger, a kind of operatic moment,” McCartney remembered.
In contrast with the pop operas of that era by The Who and The Small Faces, The Beatles’ medley essentially consists of an assortment of unfinished songs. Yet McCartney and Martin’s inspired post-production efforts ensured that the medley enjoyed a cohesiveness from which we can draw larger musical and lyrical motifs.
While the medley features the Beatles’ penchant for balladry in such literary characters as Mean Mr. Mustard, Polythene Pam, and the eccentric female protagonist who meanders in and out of the narrative of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” the sequence reaches its most profound instances during such classic numbers as “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Golden Slumbers,” and “Carry that Weight.”
In “You Never Give Me Your Money,” McCartney’s plaintive piano strains give way to Lennon and Harrison’s dueling rhythm guitars. As Harrison later observed, the song “does two verses of one tune, and then the bridge is almost like a different song altogether, so it’s quite melodic.”
The lyrics bespeak the tragedies of misspent youth and runaway fame:
Out of college, money spent
See no future, pay no rent
All the money’s gone, nowhere to go
As “You Never Give Me Your Money” comes to a close, the song’s bluesy guitar riffs segue into the chorus of a children’s nursery rhyme:
One, two , three, four, five, six, seven
All good children go to heaven
Later in “Golden Slumbers,” McCartney resumes the medley’s earlier themes with a deft reworking of Thomas Dekker’s 400-year-old poem of the same name. As the medley progresses toward its symphonic conclusion, the song’s bitter nostalgia – “Once there was a way to get back homeward / Once there was a way to get back home” – yields itself to a larger realization, in “Carry That Weight,” that we inevitably shoulder the past’s frequently irredeemable burden for the balance of our lives.
In “Carry That Weight,” McCartney acknowledges his own culpability in the Beatles’ dissolution, yet his rather humbling, self-conscious lyrics extend an olive branch to his increasingly distant chums:
I never give you my pillow
I only send you my invitations
And in the middle of the celebrations
I break down
In its highly polished final form, the Abbey Road medley encounters the Beatles at the height of their decidedly literary faculties. In many ways, the medley functions as McCartney’s clever reconfiguration of Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” in As You Like It.
From “You Never Give Me Your Money” through “The End,” his lyrics impinge upon the inherent difficulties that come with growing up and growing older. Only the power of memory, it seems, can placate our inevitable feelings of nostalgia and regret – not only for our youthful days, but for how we lived them.
Appropriately, McCartney concludes the medley with a quasi-Shakespearean couplet – “A cosmic, philosophical line,” in Lennon’s words: “And in the end the love you take / Is equal to the love you make.”
In The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology (1999), Walter Everett astutely reads the medley as “a very personal final gift from Paul McCartney to his mates, as well as from the Beatles to the world.”
As the moving coda to a brilliant career, the Abbey Road medley – perhaps more than any other moment in the Beatles’ unprecedented musical catalogue – witnesses the band’s creative powers in full bloom.
10) “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” (1970)
Granted, “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” hardly begins to rank among the Beatles’ finest songs. Originally released as the B-side of “Let It Be” – the group’s penultimate number-one hit – this whimsical tune never fails to arouse even the most jaded listener’s nostalgia for the Fab Four’s inherent sense of fun.
Recorded by the band in 1967 and completed by Lennon, McCartney and the Beatles’ faithful roadie Mal Evans in 1969, “You Know My Name” is a uniquely comic moment in the group’s discography.
“We had these endless , crazy fun sessions,” McCartney fondly observes in his introduction to Mark Lewisohn’s quintessential The Beatles Recording Sessions (1988).
A pastiche of lounge-style vocal stylings and Monty Python-esque humor, the song features the late Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones on saxophone, Lennon playing the maracas, and Harrison on the xylophone.
From its soul-pounding blues introduction to the song’s swanky samba refrain, “You Know My Name” is propelled – in unforgettably comic fashion – by Lennon’s hilarious falsetto vocals and the dappled chorus of grunts and mumbles that mark the tune’s sizzling conclusion. Although it could never hope to challenge the likes of such classics as “Hey Jude,” “Come Together” or Revolution,” You Know My Name” clearly occupies a distinctive niche in the storied history of Beatlemania.
Any list of great Beatles songs is inherently flawed, of course, and can never really begin to account for the totality of their artistic achievement. If nothing else, though, this roster of distinguished Beatles moments illustrates the essence of their timelessness. It is worth nothing that a significant portion of their greatness can be attributed to the simple fact that they never wore out their welcome. And, in the well-trodden words of Lennon and McCartney, you know that can’t be bad.
Ken Womack is the author of many books including The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four and his most recent, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer, George Martin, The Early Years, 1926-1966. The second volume, Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Later Years: 1966-2016), is forthcoming in 2018. Ken serves as Dean of the Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University.
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