This year, the Beatles’ catalog will appear on remastered 180-gram vinyl, making their stereo vinyl debut on November 13th. It’s hard to believe that the Beatles’ earliest recordings are soldiering on towards their 50th birthday. The songs remain viable, powerful and exciting today.
I am also proud to welcome you back to a series titled PLAYLIST. The idea is simple enough: make a playlist (with mix tapes and CDs becoming so unfortunately passé) centered around one artist or band with a deep catalog. There is only one parameter, however. Our charge is to limit our playlist to just one song per album per discography. You can imagine how difficult this task could be when you’re talking about the Beatles. Most of these albums contain not one bad song.
So, seven of us got together, butted heads and hashed out this list. We hope it not only motivates you to dig into your Beatles collection again, but to come up with your own lists. PLAYLIST is a recurring feature here on Spectrum Culture, so please tune in, check them out and share your thoughts. Enjoy! – David Harris
“I Saw Her Standing There” from Please Please Me (1963)
In retrospect, it would be difficult to find a more appropriate opening song for the Beatles’ debut album. Beginning with a boisterous count-in from McCartney, “I Saw Her Standing There” in many ways established the musical and thematic template that the Beatles would repeat throughout their first several records. Unapologetically upbeat and youthful, it’s a short burst of 1960s pop perfection, just catchy enough to work and exuberantly naïve enough without being laughable.
Its musical blueprint has since become the stuff of Beatles legend: McCartney’s energetic, urgent, gotta-have-her-now singing; Lennon’s backing vocals and steady rhythm guitar; Harrison’s confident lead guitar. Callous Beatles fans can even cut Ringo a break: regardless of his shortcomings as a drummer, the song wouldn’t have been complete with anyone else manning the skins. Handclaps added an element of fun to the mix, and still today the song is infectiously punchy and sounds like four young dudes having a blast in a recording studio. In many ways the song defined the band’s early style ; though there would of course be variations along the way, in retrospect it contains all the key aspects of what makes the band’s “pop” period still sound fresh and relevant today.
The song’s characters – the unabashedly romantic male and the flawless object of his affection — would likewise be oft-repeated throughout the Beatles’ early catalog. The narrator is indeed hopelessly smitten: in classic true love fashion, the attraction here is physical, as he doesn’t know a single thing about the girl other than “the way she looked was way beyond compare” and that “before too long I fell in love with her.” Allegedly written when Lennon and McCartney were still in high school, it’s hard not to attribute this open-wondered naïveté to the two musicians’ young age.
Lennon reportedly scoffed at some of McCartney’s early lyrics – perhaps an early sign of tensions that would later contribute to the band’s undoing – but the result was nevertheless a rousing and appropriate introduction to the Beatles and the studio sound they’d perfect throughout the early 1960s. As music fans we tend to mythologize a band’s “firsts,” and while this is sometimes problematic – if the Beatles had crapped out early as just another also-ran beat band, the song probably wouldn’t have the standing it does now – one would be hard-pressed to find a better opening studio statement for the band. Though “I Saw Her Standing There” was relegated as the b-side to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” it’s about as perfect an opening track as you’ll find, and one that perfectly encapsulates the Beatles’ early style. – Eric Dennis
“It Won’t Be Long” from With the Beatles (1963)
As the first song on their second album, “It Won’t Be Long” signifies a subtle yet significant departure from the foursome’s previous work. Amid all of the pre-Beatle-mania excitement, a crack develops in their packaged, suit-wearing façade and a bit of the black-leather underworld grot seeps in. Menacing tones that rear up later in the Beatles’ song catalog begin to be faintly audible. Even the album cover shifts from a pack of grinning lads to a line up of serious faces peering out from darkness. “It Won’t Be Long” may be as close as you could get to punk in the early ’60s.
This song is pure energy. John’s raw vocals break it open, followed quickly by a rumbling rhythm, Ringo’s crashing cymbals and the alternating back up “yeah-yeah-yeahs” belted out by Paul and George. “It Won’t Be Long” is distinctly a Lennon song. John sings hungrily, impatiently and with such passion that you have to sing– no, yell– along. But the energy does not feel innocent or tender; there is a mania about it, and possibly a slight undercurrent of anger at the one who has left, made him sit alone while everyone else is having fun. When John sings “Now I know that you won’t leave me no more” it almost comes across as a command rather than a jubilant realization (this impression strengthens with knowledge of later Lennon songs, such as “Run for Your Life”). I always chuckle at the lyric “I’ll be good like I know I should.” From what I’ve read about the behavior of the Beatles while on tour, one thing was certain- no one was being “good.” Today, the song is equally as magnetic and energizing as it was in 1963. By the end of a listen I don’t know what I’m waiting for or how long it will be but I want it now, or they’ll be hell to pay. – Sarah Anderson
“I Should Have Known Better” from A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
“I Should Have Known Better” is the Beatles’ first foray into folk rock. Introspective title aside, the lyrics don’t exactly approach Dylanisms. But Dylan’s influence is all over the track: the freewheelin’ acoustic guitar Lennon casually strums, the half-smiling half-sneering vocal (a studiously nasal approximation of Dylan’s pre-Newport years), the all-over-the-place harmonica solo that’s more Greenwich Village than Mississippi Delta and yes, Harrison’s chiming 12-string Rickenbacker solo, which predates McGuinn’s commercial breakthrough by almost a year. It sets the stage for “I’m a Loser,” “Norwegian Wood” and “Julia.” But more immediately, it sets the stage for the women woes that plagued Lennon throughout A Hard Day’s Night.
This is the first “official” (the U.S. albums being unofficial, and unavailable individually on CD) Beatles album to consist exclusively of Lennon-McCartney compositions. Combine that with the increasing complexity of their songwriting, and we get more of Lennon’s personality that previously realized, or wanted. Lennon’s romantic interactions remain rock’s most compelling, in large part because they’re rock’s most complicated. Both his fawning and his resentment are tempered with a narcissist’s self-loathing; the primal desires of his ’50s forefathers seldom enter the picture. (Psychically, Lennon owes more to Roy Orbison and Del Shannon than to Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee.) This male-female intellectual warfare, romance as a battle of egos, influenced most obviously Elvis Costello, but also Morrissey, Jack White, Rivers Cuomo and arguably the entire genres of power-pop and indie-rock, the latter often shrouding its misogyny beneath enlightenment and emasculation.
Compared to vengeful diatribes like “You Can’t Do That,” “I’ll Cry Instead” and even “If I Fell,” “I Should Have Known Better” is almost sympathetic to its subject. His greatest sin here seems to be not worshiping his woman devoutly enough. “I never realized what a kiss could be/ This could only happen to me,” he says, in typically solipsistic fashion, as if he’s the only man who’s ever been kissed. Befitting the situation, the chorus is a groveling plea, which the girl rebukes. “And when I ask you to be mine/ You’re gonna say you love me too“: she returns his love, but not his ownership, never saying “I’m yours” — she refuses to be the chattel that he seeks in the songs that follow. “You love me too,” he pleads on the fadeout, each line ending in an increasingly prominent question mark, as the removal of double tracking for the final chorus has left his voice raw and naked, emphasizing his sincerity, his self-doubt, his desperation: everything that makes Lennon such a gripping figure, and “I Should Have Known Better” such a poignant song. – Charles A. Hohman
“No Reply” from Beatles For Sale (1964)
The lead track from 1964’s Beatles for Sale, “No Reply” captures the band at a crucial juncture in their career. The Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership had not yet dissolved into the legal formality that it would shortly become, but the pair’s individual voices were growing louder. As it frequently happened, John Lennon originated the idea of the song, while Paul McCartney wrote a middle eight to strengthen the musical structure. However, despite the shared work, Lennon’s mounting dissatisfaction with fame and depressive tendencies began to show in his contributions; “No Reply” is a bleak, desperate song, but also one indicating the increasing complexity of their sound. Their early hits are almost entirely infectious and upbeat, from “She Loves You” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand;” “No Reply” began Lennon’s journey into the kind of harrowing loneliness that would lead to “Help” and “Ticket to Ride” and that his later solo work would reveal as deep-seated and personal. Before “No Reply,” Beatles songs were pop songs, but that one track marks their expansion into storytelling.
Lennon’s ragged voice (made raspier than usual by touring and overuse) contains misery, jealousy and anger- it’s the literally the sound of a man dying of heartache. McCartney contributes the high harmony, while George Harrison and Ringo Starr provide the minimal, spare rhythm. The stark image of a jilted man watching his former lover’s window, knowing she’s there but being unable to contact her is universal and yet also individual. It could be anyone there, but “No Reply” makes you feel that it’s you. Everyone can understand the dark nature of love, that devotion can turn to obsession. Even though the narrator sings that he would “forgive the lies that I / Heard before when you gave me no reply,” it’s not his plea that sticks with you- it’s the lack of a response. – Nathan Kamal
“Ticket to Ride” from Help! (1965)
Beatles songs where John Lennon had the dominant lyrical hand and lead vocals are among the most defeatist pop music of the 20th Century (“I’m a Loser,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “Nowhere Man”). What’s striking though about “Ticket to Ride” is the hesitance to use the pointed phrasing that was typical of not only Lennon’s words, but also virtually all of the most commanding songs of the band’s early and middle periods. In the Lennon/McCartney universe, narrators wanted your hand, needed your help and were plainly happy or sad that something was about to transpire. This is a song about growing numb to your own disappoints, wanting someone to “do right” by you but not seeming to know what that is or if you’re really going to be insistent on a moment of catharsis.
Paul micromanaged Ringo to make this the first Beatles song to break the three minute barrier by instructing his syncopated drum beats and stretching out the bridge between choruses with shakers to replace the band’s usual high voltage exclamations that would normally color the passages between verses. On guitar, George had one his finest moments by ushering in the era of jangle pop with his 12 string Rickenbacker chord progression. Paul relieves him momentarily with a rare lead guitar line for the song’s abbreviated solo-one its few throwback elements to their earnestness to play good R&B. It was too late for that though. Their days of orchestral pop had now begun.
Of course the most iconic visual image link to “Ticket to Ride” comes from the famous ski sequence in Help!. On the lonesome Austrian Alps the four boys goof around in the snow in glorious Technicolor. When they fall backwards linked hand and hand with matching mod ski outfits into the clean white snow there is bliss of togetherness in their body language. For one of the last times they look identical; clustered elements of a perfectly balanced whole. Music writers would rush soon afterward to fragment each member’s contribution to a loosening group structure that highlighted each personality separately-The Beatles as an umbrella for four artists instead of a finely tuned rock ensemble. “Ticket to Ride” was one of the last innovations which belonged to all of them. They probably didn’t know it was true while lying there on the snow. For a moment we can forget too. – Neal Fersko
“In My Life” from Rubber Soul (1965)
“In My Life,” one of the standout tracks from 1965’s seminal Rubber Soul has been emotionally prominent in my life as long as I can remember. Of course, part of the genius of The Beatles is that everyone feels like their songs have an individual resonance with them- but for me, “In My Life” marked my grandfather’s funeral when I was very young and it was the song I listened to after the graduation and departure of some of my best friends as a child. Originating as a poem on Lennon’s childhood in Liverpool, he and McCartney reworked the lyrics to more generalized feeling of nostalgia- references to his childhood as well as Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields were almost entirely excised. Despite that, the references to some friends “are dead and some are living” remains as a probable homage to the deceased Stuart Sutcliffe, onetime bassist of The Beatles in their Hamburg phase.
Although the origins of the musical structure of the song are still in dispute, the Baroque-influenced piano solo (pitched unusually high, sounding almost like a harpsichord) played by George Martin exemplifies the stately, gentle tone of the song, while George Harrison’s brilliant, ringing lead guitar work plays delicately over one of Lennon’s most affecting melodies. “In My Life” catches the terrible sweetness of memory perfectly, the wonderful ability to remember all wonderful things that have passed with a little tenderness. Time is fleeting, but the tired kind of love that we hold for the things we can’t hold on to stays our entire lives. The refrain of “Though I know I’ll never lose affection/ For people and things that went before/ I know I’ll often stop and think about them/ In my life I love you more” will always be bittersweet, but I always want to hear it again. The Beatles will always be known first and foremost as master of the pop song, but “In My Life” marks where they first began to attempt poetry in song. – Nathan Kamal
“Eleanor Rigby” from Revolver (1966)
One of the Beatles’ best songs is one on which none of the members played any instruments. “Eleanor Rigby” featured a double string quartet, with McCartney singing lead, Lennon and Harrison providing harmony vocals and Ringo doing Christ knows what (to be fair, the drummer is credited with coming up with at least one key lyric for the song). By now all the clichés about the song’s place in the Beatles’ legacy have been repeated enough and only need quick mention here: the song continued the band’s transition from straightforward pop songs to a more experimental style that began with Rubber Soul and explored themes that were absent from their previous records. It’s also notable for being one of the songs whose authorship is in dispute: Lennon claimed that he wrote most of the lyrics, while McCartney and friend Pete Shotton (who is said to be present when the song was written) were willing to credit Lennon with little more than half a line or so.
Those are the types of dry details that have become part of the Beatles’ story with the benefit of hindsight; still, they don’t do much for conveying how affecting and bleak the song remains. An unflinching tale about the parallels between a lonely church worker whose death goes unnoticed and the priest who conducts her funeral and writes “words of a sermon that no one will hear,” the song sounds both as relevant and as out of step with today’s mainstream music as it did when it was originally released. Certainly part of the song’s emotional impact is due to its mournful string arrangement – unlike anything the band had recorded up to this point, it can still tug at the emotions of even the most callous cynic. While McCartney’s vocals drip with a sense of resignation and defeat, what’s most stirring is the song’s universal sentiments: we can all relate to the isolation that defines these characters’ lives and the battles against futility they wage. While most of the Beatles’ pre-Rubber Soul songs have aged well and are still enjoyable today, for many fans it’s the band’s evolution into more complex songs like “Eleanor Rigby” that better defines the Beatles’ impact and legacy, even if it did contribute to the group being labeled a “studio band.”
Though “Eleanor Rigby” wasn’t the first “serious” Beatles song, it was the most explicitly nihilistic. The romantic optimism that defined some of the band’s previous songs is a world away here: Eleanor is buried “along with her name,” while Father McKenzie does little more than wipe the dirt off his hands as he leaves the woman’s funeral. It’s a telling gesture in a song that offers no easy answers or even the faintest hints of consolation. – Eric Dennis
“A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Though the songs of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are neither as satisfying nor revelatory as those from Rubber Soul or Revolver, the album is the band’s biggest leap forward stylistically and one of the most important musical documents in the 20th century. While Elvis and Chuck Berry brought rock music to white audiences, no two albums shattered our collective view of music more than the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s. Before these two records appeared on the scene, albums consisted of a loose collection of songs. Sgt. Pepper’s, conceived after the Beatles decided to play no more concerts, exists as one extended piece. Gaps are minimal between tracks as they move at a breathless pace from one to another. In most concerts, the best song is reserved for the encore and on Sgt. Pepper’s that best song is “A Day in the Life.”
Much is made of the Beach Boys and Beatles show of one-upmanship, but the multiple layers of Sgt. Pepper’s and “A Day in the Life” owe more to Frank Zappa and LSD than Brian Wilson. McCartney, a big fan of Zappa’s Freak Out supposedly drew comparisons to that album repeatedly during the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s. While “A Day in the Life” is filled with trippy allusions to mysterious holes and Albert Hall, the most unusual aspect of the track is the appearance of a completely different melody by McCartney in its middle.
As the song begins, Lennon’s ghostly vocals invoke the story of a newspaper article involving a “lucky man” who had just blown “his mind out in a car.” While many believe this segment is about Tara Browne, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness fortune who died while speeding in his sports car in 1966, McCartney has disputed this story, claiming the only mind-blowing happening in that car refers to taking acid. In fact, McCartney’s lyric “I’d love to turn you on,” really had no sexual or drug connotation whatsoever, despite being banned by the BBC for lewdness. “This is the only one in the album written as a deliberate provocation to people,” McCartney said. “But what we really wanted was to turn you on the truth rather than just bloody pot.” While there is some contention that the lines “had a smoke/ Somebody spoke and I fell into a dream” also represents getting high, McCartney claims that the middle section is actually transplanted from an entirely different song idea.
So what is the so-called truth the Beatles tried to achieve with “A Day in the Life” and Sgt. Pepper’s? The song grinds to a cacophonous orchestral conclusion (the musicians wore masks and played out of tune at McCartney’s behest) before striking that final E-major chord that seems last forever. Perhaps the truth resides there, in that glorious mess that reflects the sloughing off of convention; emulating the freak-out mind blow of the LSD trips the four Beatles had taken. Just as Sgt. Pepper’s pushed conventions, “A Day in the Life” shredded the notion of preconceived song structure. The Beatles wanted nothing more than to open your mind and somewhere in that barren space full of sound, the truth exists. – David Harris
“Strawberry Fields Forever” from Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
When the world drops us on our necks our hearts will have “Strawberry Fields Forever” to cling to. Possibly the most overtly psychedelic song in history it has no basis in any of the forms associated with rock music up to its recording in late 1966 and only passing similarities with minimalist avant-garde composers like Lamonte Young . Steeling ourselves after all these years against the tattered corpse of the ugly and self-importance within ’60s counterculture, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the era’s most enduring music didn’t speak to political and social reality, but turning tail and running away from the world. Try to imagine yourself hurt and trapped in one of those great silences where nothing comes through. Then you hear it: “Let me take you down cause I’m going to….”
Almost every Beatles song used to begin with one of George’s guitar riffs. As the band grew more baroque he would find his vital role ersatz to make room for Paul’s piano or keyboards whenever possible. With the three bars from Paul’s Mellotron beginning this song, there’s suddenly an invitation to a place of great color and weightlessness; an area where no other Beatles songs exist.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” comprises four songs played simultaneously as opposed to other linear and multi-movement Beatles works like “A Day in the Life” or the Abbey Road suite. Harps, violins, drums and guitars float and rotate slowly across the studio at a crawl before crashing together in a beautiful wreck. This is art made by The Beatles but not performed by them. Their idea of music, the one they were always harboring in their heads, now strutting naked and unashamed. In this song no consequences exist. There is no pain or forlorn grief; only the joy of moving sound uninhibited by self-doubt.
The modest TV film released for “Strawberry Fields Forever” is worlds apart from morbid silliness of Magical Mystery Tour. The piece captures the band in trippy profile shots complemented by expanding mustaches and colorful wardrobes. No longer the mod urban sophisticates who worked slavish hours for the approval of swingin’ ’60s London, they grew more childlike as they became older. As storytellers, they were not bound by the relationships of the mortal coil any longer. Strawberry Fields became a place where they left us and consigned themselves to history. – Neal Fersko
1968: “Happiness is a Warm Gun” from The Beatles [White Album] (1968)
Officially, it is The Beatles, but to most fans it is known as “The White Album,” owing to its stark minimalist cover. A curious testimony to the creative powers of the Beatles it is a symbol of excess and indulgence. The success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band demonstrated the technical possibilities of the studio setting, but George Martin’s prowess as a producer freed each of the Fab Four from each other. Martin would later argue that the subsequent development of eight-track recording, used for the first time by EMI on The Beatles, further freed them from him. Without Martin as arbiter, the Beatles argued amongst themselves. George Harrison, now 25 and having matured significantly since Hamburg and the tender age of 16, looked for more input into the band’s direction, as his own song-writing abilities skyrocketed. Ringo, tired of playing peacemaker, left the band at one point and had to be coaxed back to the band from a vacation in Greece.
However, it is John’s quirky “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” that is perhaps most synonymous with, and indicative of, The Beatles. “She’s not a girl who misses much“, John coos dreamily. The song might have been inspired by a gory hunting magazine cover, Lennon’s “I need a fix/ ‘Cuz I’m going down” refrain establishes it as part of Lennon’s psychedelic output. But it’s more than just a drug metaphor, as the rapid introduction of a lizard, a velvet glove and sinister man “lying with his eyes/ While his hands are busy working overtime,” gives it a kind of sexy kinkiness not usually associated with the Beatles.
Technically complex, the song switches time signatures, rhythm and meter, paving the way for others like Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” It starts off slowly, moving towards a frantic climax, finally ending with the legendary doo-wop inspired, “Bang, bang, shoot, shoot.” You can view the song as a microcosm of everything: of the album, the band, rock n’ roll, the world. It’s one of the few songs from The Beatles that the band worked on together, its complex structure and time changes requiring rehearsal and planning. It contains the history of rock ‘n’ roll in its sprawling scope while managing to marry the themes of sex, guns and drugs that would soon suck the youth counterculture down a nightmare vortex of internecine squabbles, leaving it as fractured and broken as the band it worshiped. – Sean Marchetto
“All You Need is Love” from Yellow Submarine (1969)
Yellow Submarine came along at a curious time. No strangers to the world of film, the Beatles films to-date had all been light-hearted fare, and Yellow Submarine is most noted for its nod to psychedelia. However, by 1969 the cultural mood had taken a darker turn. Peaceful protests in the United States had started to give way to more militant groups like the Weathermen and Black Panthers and violent had perforated American cinema.
The whole process of Yellow Submarine allowed the Beatles to complete their film contract with United Artists without having to detract too much from their studio work or spend much time together. The prospect of a soundtrack seems incidental, and given the increased tensions following the recording of the “White Album,” it is not surprising that Yellow Submarine contains very little new material. In fact, by contemporary standards, it is hard not to view Yellow Submarine as a collection of b-sides and rarities.
One of those rarities though was “All You Need is Love.” Originally written for a special BBC satellite broadcast to a global audience of 400 million on June 25, 1967 it was released as a single the following week, never appearing on a proper album in the UK until Yellow Submarine (American audiences were able to purchase it on The Magical Mystery Tour). Lennon saw the song as an opportunity to speak to Beatles fans, urging caution in the days ahead. By the time Yellow Submarine debuted though, it all seemed so innocent and naive.
In addition to its simple message of universal harmony, “All You Need Is Love” is also famous for its orchestral sections, overlaying elements of other works such as Bach, Glenn Miller, “Greensleeves” and “La Marseillaise.” Paul’s addition of “She loves you/ Yeah yeah yeah,” at the end may have been planned out as a sly reference to the Beatles place in musical history, but for John Lennon the occasion cemented his own view of himself as a “revolutionary artist,” a vision not shared by the other three Beatles. – Sean Marchetto
“You Never Give Me Your Money” from Abbey Road (1969)
With its four distinct, supermelodic, never repeated (at least not until a mini-reprise during “Carry That Weight”) sections, “You Never Give Me Your Money” kicks off the brevity-is-best medley that closes Abbey Road, and also predicts Paul McCartney’s deconstructive solo career. Except it doesn’t suck. Why? Well, to say there’s no Linda on it would be unfair, obvious and rather cheap. Moreover, wrong. “Money” is what too much of Macca’s post-Beatles work was not: clever and personal. It is a non-linear journey through the life of the Beatles, beginning at the end, where negotiations and funny papers (and swollen egos) have torn the boys apart, eradicating that magic feeling, deferring that one sweet dream.
The mournful opening verses, composed mainly of conciliatory piano and McCartney’s passive-aggressively tender vocals, perks up into a jaunty ragtime shuffle. “Out of college/ Money spent/ See no future/ Pay no rent/ All the money’s gone/ Nowhere to go,” he sings, contrasting the financial troubles of struggling musicians of those of world-famous ones. Before the Sex Pistols turned the slogan into something apocalyptic, “no future” was the fate of many kids who found salvation in rock ‘n’ roll, as either artists or fans; kids who found having “nowhere to go” not oppressive but liberating. In other words, “a magic feeling.”
As McCartney praises that “magic feeling,” the song transforms once again, this time into a more typical driving rocker, with Lennon and Harrison dueling on lead guitar. Macca, now hitting the sweet spot of his upper register, reminisces about that magic feeling became “one sweet dream,” one that came true, rescued these four Liverpudlians from their dreary port town and workaday sentences. He sings with awe, as if incredulous over the last seven head-spinning years, and resignation, over how it was all coming undone. When he implores “Pack up the bags/ Get in the limousine/ Soon we’ll be away from here/ Step on the gas and wipe that tear away/ One sweet dream came true today,” he simultaneously looks back on the Beatles’ escape from Liverpool, and looks ahead to his own pending escape from Beatledom, a prison that had become every bit as confining as a life in obscurity. By this point in the Beatles, McCartney once again had nowhere to go.
Whatever the fudged details in its narrative, “You Never Give Me Your Money” is harrowing not simply because it draws parallels between the Beatles’ ascendance and dissolution, but because it encapsulates the Beatles juggernaut from both band and fan perspective: unfettered elation, embittered ennui, optimistic dreams versus cruel realities. – Charles A. Hohman
“Let it Be” from Let it Be (1970)
When I was nine, my father died of cancer. I grew up in a small town and my family knew most of the 800 inhabitants. The day of his funeral, the church was standing-room only. As I walked through dozens of friends and neighbors, “Let it Be” rang loud from the church speakers.
McCartney had written “Let it Be” for his mother who had died of cancer when he was 14. It is easy to mistake the message of this song as religious, but the appeal for wisdom and hope is made to a dead parent, not the mother of Christ. Compared with Lennon’s approach to writing about his deceased mother from the perspective of a sorrowful lover or an abandoned little boy (“Julia” and the post-Beatles’ “Mother,” respectively), McCartney’s ballad may not feel as raw, but that does not take away from its emotional power. As McCartney has recollected, the memory of his mother and her advice is one of the things that kept him sane through turbulent, drug-saturated ’60s. It is comforting to think that our loved ones are not really gone, but are watching with a loving eye; that in our hour of darkness, they are in fact standing right in front of us.
Someone told me once that she had always loved Lennon the most of the Beatles- for his fire, his edge, his bite and she had always thought of McCartney as a cheese ball. But she found that as she got older, Lennon’s songs began to sound immature, and McCartney’s melodies of love, loyalty and domestic (as opposed to societal) peace, became much more inviting. The balance between the two personalities was the alchemy that made the group great. This song is one of the cases in which I sincerely appreciate McCartney’s faith and optimism and complete lack of sarcasm. He offers his listeners the same wisdom his mother offered him. I can never hear “Let it Be” without being instantly transported back to that jam-packed church, surrounded by welling piano, drums and soulful guitar, accompanied by the feeling that somehow, everything will be all right.
(Note: the version of “Let it Be” that was played at my father’s funeral was the single version, which I prefer to the album version. Phil Spector should have taken the song’s advice.) – Sarah Anderson