The Beatles are my all time favourite band in the world. If I ever bump into The Doctor and his TARDIS, I will demand that he take me to see the Beatles live so that I can squeal and scream like those millions of fan-girls. Their legacy is indisputable and their influence is vastly limitless.
It was when I was 16-years old when I first caught the Beatles-bug (for those who completely missed that, I was trying to reference Wham’s ‘Jitterbug’). It was thanks to my old guitar teacher that I was officially introduced to The Beatles and their music. He gave me one of their earlier songs, And I Love Her, to learn for homework. Before then, The Beatles were just one of those bands that you always hear about. They were important but you never really knew why.
As I finished learning my first Beatles song, I wasn’t overall impressed to be honest. It was alright, but nothing that really engaged me. I started questioning them and thinking to myself ‘what the hell makes them so great.’ In an effort to uncover their ‘greatness’, I borrowed a couple of compilation CDs from some friends (that’s right CDs, retro!). After giving the CD’s a good thorough listen, my conclusion was that their songs were catchy and some were even quite nice to listen to. However, sooner or later, something started happening. I was suddenly now singing out ‘She Loves You’ while waiting for my morning school bus, I was happily strumming some parts of ‘Twist and Shout’ and I think I was the only one of my friends constantly listening to the Beatles. I soon realised that I was addicted to them!
Now I could write a simple Top 10 list about The Beatles, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t be remotely doing the Fab-Four any justice. With such a huge backlog of great songs, choosing ‘the best’ Beatles song is impossible. It is for this reason alone that I wish to provide a ‘guide’ on the Beatles; allowing you to hopefully understand their greatness. My aim for this guide is to introduce The Beatles to a whole new generation of music-listeners that have been brainwashed by the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.
Unlike modern artists, The Beatles used the best of their ability with the limited amount of technology available to them at the time. Multi-tracking, stereo sound and synthesisers, products that are all now taken for granted, were relatively new during their time. It was their versatility that made the Beatles the greatest band of all time. If you look throughout their career, The Beatles had an unquenchable curiosity which allowed them to tackle on numerous themes and genres of music. It was this drive that made them unique amongst their contemporaries at the time.
So without further adieu, allow me to present to you, A Guide to The Greatest Band in the World: The Beatles! *girls start screaming*
Cover Band – Twist and Shout
It’s a generally accepted rule of thumb that every band begins their musical career by covering other people’s songs – the Beatles were no exception to this rule. Before they became this colossal success of a band, forever changing the face of music, The Beatles were a simple four-piece band playing in front of rowdy crowds at the local music halls. In their early days as a rock outfit, The Beatles would perform covers of their musical idols including the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
As the final number on their first album Please Please Me, Twist and Shout is a memorable Beatles tune that is in fact a rendition of their contemporaries, The Isley Brothers. Their version of the 1962 classic follows a basic formula: increase the tempo, add some rock n roll grit, borrow a few more Isley Brothers’ elements (i.e ‘oooohhhh’), and then emphasis more on the ‘shout’ part of the song. This resulted in John Lennon literally tearing his own voice apart to deliver a raw and captivating rocking cover that has now become more widely recognisable than the actual original. Nearly half a decade later, Twist and Shout still makes listeners just jump up, shout, dance and do the twist.
Close Seconds: Roll over Beethoven (Chuck Berry), Long Tall Sally (Little Richard), Please Mister Postman (The Marvelettes)
Early Beatlemania – I Want to Hold Your Hand
I Want to Hold Your Hand is a simple sweet and tender song that was written specifically for the notoriously competitive US music market. The Beatles first venture into America was with the 1963 single From Me to You – a single that eventually went unnoticed on the American music charts. Although quickly establishing themselves in Britain as a premier act, the Beatles were still a relatively unknown band in the US without a no. 1 hit. With the help of a persuasive 11 year old fangirl and a reluctant Radio DJ, I Want to Hold Your Hand changed all that, launching the Beatles in the US and the start of the British Invasion.
I Want to Hold Your Hand is a prime example of the Lennon-McCartney partnership. Written in McCartney’s ex-girlfriend’s house, John and Paul sat down together with a piano, musically bouncing back and forth idea, inspiring each other to do one better. I have to say that The Beatles really got it right with this song. It’s a truly endearing love song regarding the simplest and perhaps the most intimate acts of love: holding your partners hand.
On a relevant and humorous side note, check out the German version of I Want to Hold Your Hand sung by the actual Beatles themselves!
Close Seconds: She Loves You, All My Loving, Can’t Buy Me Love
Love – Something
The great Frank Sinatra once declared Something to be the greatest love song in the past 50 years. This was the very same New Jersey crooner who also once loathed rock and roll music declaring it to ‘be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.’
Written during the White Album sessions, George was thinking of Ray Charles when composing the song and borrowed the opening line from James Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves.” Lennon and McCartney both highly regarded Something as George’s best work ever. In fact, Lennon was said to be so impressed by the song that when it was time to issue a single for Abbey Road, Lennon instantly demanded that Something should be the A-side single. Every component on this song has a delicate touch. The lyrics are serenadingly sweet and perfectly accompanied by the graceful music score. The harmony strings are soft and gentle, Harrison’s voice tenderly soothes the romance, the drums flows are dramatic but graceful and the lead guitar creates a dream-like haze.
Something is the ultimate love ballad and George Harrison’s breakthrough as a songwriter. Often overshadowed in the past by the powerful Lennon-McCartney powerhouse, George proves his worth on Abbey Road and sets out on his own musical path which would eventually lead to his 6x platinum solo debut, All Things Must Pass.
Close Seconds: Oh! Darling, Don’t Let Me Down, Girl
Child’s Play – Octopus’s Garden
Ringo Starr is understandably the weakest vocalist in the Beatles group; I mean the guy had three other supremely talented musicians to compete with! What he lacks in singing, he does makes up for in drumming. However, on the rare occasion that Ringo actually composed a song himself in his Beatles career, he nails it with Octopus’s Garden: a sweet, adorable children’s song about the joys of living life under the sea. Ringo’s vocals are perfectly accompanied by his own lively colourful drumming, Lennon’s flowing finger-picking rhythm guitar, McCartney’s bouncy playful bass line and Harrison’s fluid water-like lead guitar. Perhaps its Ringo’s easy-going lucky-go-happy personality, but kid’s songs seem to be an area where he truly shines. Octopus’s Garden is a very endearing tune that transports listeners of all ages to a wonderful aquatic world full of fun childhood imagination.
Close Seconds: Yellow Submarine, With a Little Help from My Friends, All together Now
Acoustical Listening – Here Comes the Sun
Penned by George and appearing on the A-side of Abbey Road, Here Comes the Sun is an all time personal favourite of mine. George wrote the song in Eric Clapton’s garden while skipping a meeting with some “dopey accounts”. The relief of not seeing their faces and discussing the business side of the Beatle’s finances was uplifting, inspiring the Beatle to write this lovely tune.
Here Comes the Sun, along with Something, are the finest songs on Abbey Road. With its bright pleasant acoustic vibe and its mellow radiant lyrics, the song smoothes the ears and sends listeners into the transcending state of melodic bliss.
Close Seconds: Yesterday, Blackbird, Julia
Experimental Chaos – Tomorrow Never Knows
Revolver’s experimental nature climaxes with its closing track Tomorrow Never Knows bursting with musical anarchy. Lennon sings his deeply philosophic lyrics, borrowed from Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, along with raging beats of Ringo’s hypnotic drumming, exotic droning Indian instruments, looping sound effects and an arrangement of musical tools reversed – all of which were then live-mixed, resulting in a hallucinogenic musical experience. Producer George Martin once remarked Tomorrow Never Knows “would be never be reproduced: it would be impossible to go back now and mix exactly the same thing.” It is very easy to forget that this was a song made in 1966, a time where magnetic strips of tape were used to record songs on only a four-track recording systems. Whether it’s one of those moments of planetary alignment/coincidence/fate/circumstance, Tomorrow Never Knows just proves The Beatles innovative spirit and creative ingenuity.
Close Seconds: Revolution 9, Beatles Medley
Up to 11 – Helter Skelter
Helter Skelter is unfortunately connected to the infamous series of murders carried out by Charles Mason and his ‘family’. The term ‘Helter Skelter’ has two meanings; one referring to ‘the name for a spiralling amusement park slide’ and the other meaning ‘disorderly haste or confusion.’ If you take the latter meaning, which Manson did, Helter Skelter is in fact rock’n roll chaos turned up all to eleven!
Paul McCartney is often ridiculed by his critics for being too soft. Well, they obviously haven’t heard of Helter Skelter – the ultimate predecessor to Heavy Metal. After reading an interview with The Who guitarist, Pete Townshend – who claimed that their then-latest single ‘I Can See for Miles’ was the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song ever recorded – McCartney was inspired to write a song that would outdo that, resulting in the distorted grunge of Helter Skelter. McCartney more-or-less pelts out his lyrics about rising and falling with his fiercely sharp voice textured with George’s hysterical guitar, Lennon’s head-bopping droning bass and Ringo’s mad raging drum beats. The key thing about this song is the drum and bass combination; who knew that by slowing down the tempo and placing emphasis on these two instruments would create a more effectively aggressive rock song.
Ignoring the infamy surrounding the song for a second, Helter Skelter is another fine example of the Beatles innovative contributions to the evolution of rock. Without Helter Skelter there perhaps would be no Black Sabbath, no Deep Purple or even Led Zeppelin! Yes, McCartney often like his romantic love ballads but my god when he wants to, he can really let it out.
Close Seconds: Revolution, Twist and Shout, Back in the U.S.S.R
Surrealism – I Am the Walrus
I am the Walrus is John Lennon at his maddest. With a trippy opening ‘I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together’ and wacky lyrics such as ‘sitting on a cornflake’, ‘Corporation T-shirt’ and ‘I am the Egg man’, you’d think that Lennon was just completely wasted on psychedelic drugs and abusing his musical powers. However, it’s the origins of the songs creation that is the key to truly understanding and appreciating the surreal madness that is Walrus. The story goes like this: John had three separate ideas for some songs. One day he received a letter from student who mentioned that his teacher was forcing his class to analyse Beatles’ lyrics. Amused by the fact that a teacher would put so much effort into understanding his songs, Lennon combined the three separate ideas into one song; resulting in nonsensical lyrics backed with a well complex musical score and an impressive sound-editing mix.
“Let the fuckers work that one out!” he once remarked.
Close Seconds: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)
Lyrical Poetry – Across the Universe
Across the Universe is arguably the most lyrically beautiful song in the entire Beatles repertoire. Lennon demonstrates his mastery of the written word with this powerful cosmic ballad that transcends time and space, inducing listeners to achieve a higher state of being. The lyrics that poetically convey strong vivid imagery are sublimely accompanied with a tranquil musical score that includes meditating strumming guitars, a sonically floating tambura and orchestral strings perfect unified with divine choral voices. Drawing heavy influences from eastern meditation traditions, the lyrics also include a Sanskrit mantra (Jai guru deva, om) in the songs chorus, roughly translated as ‘Victory to God divine’.
Some consider the song to just be another example of Lennon’s acid trips but I have to disagree. It is a delicate piece of poetry, detailing ordinary mundane objects through a unique perspective – a perspective that seems to have achieved a higher state of enlightment. Even Lennon himself agreed, declaring that Across the Universe was the best song he had ever written. It’s poetic, inspirational and just heavenly – a Beatles song that will last the ages.
Close Seconds: Eleanor Rigby, While My Guitar Gentle Weeps, Let it be
Nostalgic Memories – Strawberry Fields Forever
In what would become the session for Sgt Peppers, two songs were being developed for their upcoming album, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever. The two songs are based on real-life places from their childhood home of Liverpool, and both these songs would share the theme of childhood nostalgia. However the two songs follow drastically different paths. Whereas Penny Lane is fondly remembered as a dreamy happy place where ‘all the people that come and go
stop and say hello’, Strawberry Fields Forever walks the opposite direction and transport listeners to a nightmarishly haunting world. As soon as you hear the opening notes on the mellotron, there’s a slightly sinister presence lurking about in the song and you get the feeling that something is not quite right.
Strawberry Fields is actually a combination of two different versions of the song. John Lennon recorded different versions of the Strawberry Fields, each with different tempos and set in different keys. Particularly fond of two drastically different takes, he told producer George Martin, “You can fix it”. Armed with only a pair of editing scissors, two tape machines and a vari-speed control, George Martin and his sound engineer, Geoff Emerick, were given the enormous task of mixing the two songs together.
The result became the tonally dark and twisted classic filled with psychedelic overtones. As the song fades close to an end, the nightmare aspect of Strawberry Fields intensifies as a musical epilogue is played backwards – mellotron flutes, horns and scattered drums, all roaring in amplified fear. If you hear closely, Lennon faintly yawns ‘cranberry sauce’ – which was mistakenly heard by millions as ‘I buried Paul.’
Close Seconds: Penny Lane, In My Life, Long and Winding Road
Anthem Rock – All You Need is Love
A song with the most simplest of messages: All You Need is Love. Written specifically for the world’s first televised satellite that linked 25 countries worldwide, The Beatles were asked by their manager, Brian Epstein to create a simple song that would be understood by all nationalities. John Lennon, fascinated by the power of slogans at the time, took the opportunity to create the ultimate flower-power-summer of love-peace anthem of the era. All You Need is Love is a superbly beautiful song with a very simple message that cannot be misinterpreted. Musically speaking, it is actually quite a complex tune with the time signatures constantly changing throughout the song. Keeping up with the international spirit of the song, the orchestral arrangement of All You Need is Love borrows a few elements from Bach‘s Brandenburg concerto, the traditional English folk of Greensleeves, Glenn Miller’s arrangement of In The Mood, as well as the distinctive introduction of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.
The live broadcast of the satellite performance was believed to be seen over 350 million people and with this large size audience, John Lennon was said to be understandably quite nervous. The performance was also by participated with friends and acquaintances of The Beatles including Mick Jagger and Keith Moon.
All You Need is Love is a timeless classic that retains an eternal message. In this modern day and age where the world has seemingly become a more dangerous place to live in, The Beatles message of love has never been more relevant than ever.
Close Seconds: Hey Jude, Come Together, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
The Grandest – A Day in the life
A Day in the Life is the Beatles’ Magnus Opus. Ambition screams throughout this song, delivering a supremely influential and groundbreaking final climax to the Beatles most highly-acclaimed album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A Day in the Life is also probably where the Lennon-McCartney collaboration reached its peak with the two joining their individual songs to create this epic masterpiece.
Lennon wrote the verses after being inspired by a series of unconsenting everyday events. The first verse was inspired by the death of their acquaintance Tara Guinness, the young heiress to the Guinness beer fortune who died in a car crash. The second verse was mainly a reference to Lennon’s own role in the film ‘How the War was Won.’ The final verse was taken after an article in the Daily Mail regarding a substantial number of potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire. McCartney’s contributing middle section was just short piano bit about his youth that was floating around his head at the time. Undecided on how to further develop it, McCartney, ultimately fitted it in with Lennon’s other verses – thus creating the most awe-inspiring, groundbreaking song in the history of music.
The amount of musical ingenuity is astounding. The Lennon’s echoed voice is hauntingly out-of-this world. McCartney’s bass along with Harrison’s seemingly insignificant role on maracas hypnotically holds the entire piece together, thereby allowing Ringo to let loose as he plays lead drums with his trademark fillers and licks. But all that is irrelevant compared to that amazing orchestra bridge that was once described by Lennon as ‘a musical orgasm.’ The orchestra parts are a combination of several takes, all mixed together to create this tidal-wave effect of rise. The classical trained musicians were instructed to play a semi-improvised crescendo rise starting from the lowest possible note on their respective instruments to the highest note. The first crescendo acts as a teaser for the final one – only interrupted by the sound of a ringing alarm clock that transitions into McCartney’s middle section. The final crescendo is where things get really mad. The orchestra are let out of their cages, wildly taking advantage of the occasion and rising higher and higher. This orchestra eventually reach a point where they come crashing down on that final sustained E chord that faintly fades away into oblivion.
If you were to choose one song to introduce to someone to The Beatles, hands down, it has to be A Day in the Life. I’ll remind you again; this song was only recorded in 1967! A truly epic song that is ambitious, influential, and groundbreaking. This is a song that deserves to be preserved till the end of time.
Close Seconds: Nothing…because there has never been a Beatles song that came even close to A Day in the life in terms of innovation, ambition and epic awesomeness.
The Definitive Album – Revolver
If you asked me a few years ago, I would’ve been like the vast majority of the masses to state that Sgt Peppers is the best album of the Beatles collection. However over time this opinion has changed over the years in favour of the predecessor to Sgt Pepper, Revolver. Historically speaking, Revolver was at an interesting place to be as it was the album right before Sgt Peppers – it was like the exciting build up to the splitting of the musical atom. Revolver hints to the listeners of the things to the come; as if to say “you like this, wait till what we’ve got next!”
Sgt. Peppers is undeniably groundbreaking and holds a huge importance to the development of modern music. Rolling Stone Magazine once wrote that Sgt. Peppers was the big bang of music –everything afterwards can be traced back to this one source. Unfortunately, I find that there are a number of uninspiring songs on the album – Good Morning Good Morning, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!, Getting Better and Fixing a Hole just to name a few. It was as if these songs were there simply because they had trouble thinking up of more songs. Revolver, on the other hand, is comparatively consistent. Eleanor Rigby, Tomorrow Never Knows and surprisingly even Yellow Submarine are the stand-out pieces, but the other tracks on the album hold equal importance. Lennon’s ode to his own laziness and sleeping, I’m Only Sleeping, was the first song ever to feature a backwards guitar solo, courtesy of George. Love You Too was the first Beatles’ song to fully incorporate classical Indian music and the first pop song to emulate a non-western form in structure and instrumentation. Unlike Sgt. Peppers, each song on Revolver holds its own place on the album, with each song’s uniqueness adding to the listening experience of Revolver.
Revolver in some ways is a bold defiant statement from the Beatles, declaring that they are abandoning their old mop-top loveable Fab-Four ways and embracing the future. The boys were now becoming men. Relinquishing their old ways meant that The Beatles were free to pursue their changing taste in music; allowing them to further delve into their curiosity and musical experimentation. Utilising the studio as an instrument rather than a means of recording, The Beatles were able to further push the boundaries of music.
Close Seconds: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road
For a related article, please read 7 Beatles Memorials Around the World