Saturday, June 17, 2017
TOPPERMOST OF THE POPPERMOST: My 25 Favorite Beatles Tracks
What would we do without clickbait? Awright, what would we do first? A recent example of the popular pastime of click-me-so's-I-can-piss-you-off is a worst-to-bestest ranking of all 213 Beatles tracks, written by Bill Wyman for vulture.com. Er...I guess it's worth pointing out that this Bill Wyman is not the motionless statue of the same name I once say playin' bass with The Rolling Stones. It's possible that the latter Wyman hasn't heard all 213 Beatles tracks, but writer Wyman has, and he slapped together a list, counting down from The Beatles' supposed nadir of "Good Day Sunshine" to the apex of "A Day In The Life." You've likely either already read it, or already refused to read it, but if you still wish, you can go ahead and read the news today, oh boy.
While it's easy (and maybe even wise) to just dismiss stuff like this, in fairness to Wyman I've gotta say there's nothing inherently wrong with the piece he wrote. I disagree with much of it, and his case is compromised by some factual errors (like claiming that Little Richard recorded Larry Williams' "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" [a mistake I once made myself, almost forty years ago], or that Earth, Wind and Fire had a hit cover of "Got To Get You Into My Life" in 1973 [it was 1978]). But everyone's gonna disagree--that's the point of clickbait!--and Wyman generally defends/justifies/advocates his choices well. After disgustedly clicking out of it on first scan when I saw "Thank You, Girl" ranked at a mere # 202, I later went back to read the whole thing. It was well-written and entertaining, even as it made me scream at the screen while perusing it. I have neither tar nor feathers for Mr. Wyman.
Clickbait breeds discussion (if not argument). A bunch of my friends have been debating the best and worst (as if!) of The Beatles; Bill Baldwin, who knows more about pop music than the rest of us combined, has set himself the task of compiling a list of his 20 favorite Beatles tracks, and challenged others to do the same. My curse in response was audible and heartfelt.
But...okay. I'll do it. Not 20, but 25.
These are the rules I set for myself: my 25 favorite Beatles tracks, unranked. I do have one clear favorite Beatle song (as we shall see), but all 25 are treated as mop-topped equals on this list. I have more than 25 cherished Beatles songs!! Way, way more, in fact. These are the 25 I cherish the most today. No attempt at balance, no pretense of objectivity, and abundant evidence that I prefer pre-1967 Beatles to Sgt. Pepper and beyond.Yet I love that stuff, too. I love it, yeah yeah yeah.
Each track's ranking in Bill Wyman's list is noted in brackets following its entry.
ALL MY LOVING: Some time about maybe 35 to 40 minutes into the first fragile hour of Monday morning, June 12th, 1995, with midnight right behind me and an uncertain path before me, the nurse put my newborn baby daughter in my arms. I looked at this precious gift, and felt more love than I could hold in. I began to softly sing to her, Close your eyes and I'll kiss you, tomorrow I'll miss you. She howled in protest, the first of many, many times my musical choices would get on her nerves. "All My Loving" will always have a specific, unique place in my heart because of that moment, but my affection for it goes back another 21 years, to hearing it on the radio, and seeing it performed on The Ed Sullivan Show by these four young men from Liverpool who called themselves The Beatles. Sure, I thought the bass player's name sounded like Paul MilkCartoney, but I was four. And I was a fan nonetheless. [# 92]
BALLAD OF JOHN & YOKO: This may be the most underrated A-side in The Beatles' seven-inch canon, a sturdy and amiable bopper that, I tell ya, I may prefer to nearly the entirety of Lennon's solo career. Direct and honest, this is an irresistible love song from John to Yoko, egged on in no small part by Paul. To me, it's also a lasting testament to the good within John and Paul's partnership, a bond then nearly on the verge of disintegrating, but still manifested here as a handshake and a nod, a laugh among old mates, and a toast to better things, one friend to another. [# 179]
A DAY IN THE LIFE: There was a brief time in high school, circa 1976 and early '77, when I thought Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the greatest rock 'n' roll album of all time. "A Day In The Life" was a large reason why, a magnificent track that implied deeper meaning and resonance, possibly more than it actually possessed. The track still sounds immense and monolithic, greater than the sum of all parts, a whispered rumble, a transcendent, gossamer force of nature. I have no idea how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall, but the song's sheer presence (particularly Lennon's chilling, ethereal wail) convinces me of the merit of counting them all. [# 1]
ELEANOR RIGBY: Heartbreaking, devastating, yet matter-of-fact. The imagery is sharp and descriptive, the loneliness palpable, the dull grays expressed vibrantly as they sing of life swallowing some of us whole. [# 9]
FOR NO ONE: Speaking of matter-of-fact, this is perhaps the most dignified and simultaneously one of the saddest descriptions of desperation as love slips inexorably through one's hapless, helpless fingers. It would not have sounded out of place on The Beach Boys' masterpiece Pet Sounds. [# 34]
A HARD DAY'S NIGHT: There is absolutely no rational need to divorce this song--especially the booming opening chord, sent to us from some celestial land beyond our mortal understanding--from the giddy euphoria on screen as it plays during the opening moments of The Beatles' silver screen debut. Beatlemania still feels immediate to me, and this is Beatlemania, in all its frantic scrambling and puddin'-top quaking, with girls in near-orgasmic pursuit and boys just one bounced Beatle boot ahead of being overwhelmed by it all, but all of them caught up in a thrill like no other before it, nor any after it. So why on Earth should I moan? [# 41]
HELP!: Title tune from the second film. The lesser Lester film. The one in color, with (as Lennon noted) The Beatles seemingly reduced to guest stars in their own movie. Lennon described the song as his own cry for help, his plea to be extricated from the madness of Fabdom, to be free of his combined role as witty Mod rebel and Liverpudlian Fat Elvis. If one listens closely, his panic and uncertainty are indeed all there, hidden within the grooves of an exuberant pop song. Yet it remains an exuberant pop song, as frothy as Herman's Hermits and as razor-sharp as The Yardbirds or The Who. The track earns bonus points for the memory of my daughter getting up on stage in between a live band's sets at a party, and singing "Help!" start to finish into the live mic, with only a little help from her dear old Dad. Party-goers murmured in astonishment, She knows all the words! She never did become a Beatles fan, but this song will always connect us. [# 36]
HERE COMES THE SUN: I guess I should feel bad that there's only one George Harrison song on my list, though even one song puts him one up on all but two of the other Beatles. Gotta have been tough to be the third songwriter in a band that included John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but George crafted his share of pop gems over the years. This is his shiniest gem, and my favorite track on Abbey Road. [# 16]
I DON'T WANT TO SPOIL THE PARTY: If there were just one Lennon-McCartney song that The Everly Brothers should have covered, it was this one. But even Don and Phil couldn't have improved on John and Paul's absolute mastery of everything they learned from the Everlys, all on vivid display in this stunning track. One of the reasons why I always say that my all-time favorite album would have to be a combination of Beatles '65 and Beatles VI. [# 176]
I FEEL FINE: I fell in love with this song roughly ten years after the fact, when a TV special in the mid '70s included it as part of its commemoration of the pop and circumstances of Beatlemania. I asked myself, Do we have this song?!, and went into the family LP collection to dig out Beatles '65. [# 63]
I SAW HER STANDING THERE: My Dad wasn't much of a Beatles fan. I don't think he hated them, but rock 'n' roll wasn't his thing; he preferred what he always called "pre-Pearl Harbor music." I don't remember it contemporary to its occurrence, but I guess he banned The Beatles in our house when John said they were bigger than Jesus. (It was a misquote, of course; The Beatles were taller than Jesus, and I thank writer Mark Shipper for letting me steal that joke.) That whole thing blew over, and I don't recall Dad ever giving me any trouble for my own Beatles idolatry. And I associate this song with him, if only because he once mentioned that he knew it and thought it was okay. Best count-in in rock 'n' roll history--roots of The Ramones!--and any musical memory of my Dad is a positive for me. [# 21]
IN MY LIFE: There are places we remember all our lives. This is striking not just because it is so evocative and touching, but because it accomplishes its goals with such simple word choices: no bombast, no intricate wordplay, but merely somber reflection of inner peace and joy. [# 42]
THE NIGHT BEFORE: The US Help! soundtrack album is basically a big fat ripoff, with a handful of Beatles tunes mixed with Ken Thorne instrumentals from the film. But The Beatles' songs on this LP are so good, so essential yet less appreciated, that when I was given my choice of any Beatles LP except The White Album as a prize from WOLF-AM when I was in high school, I picked Help! "The Night Before" was the specific reason why; I had to have that track. [# 77]
NO REPLY: In high school, a girl I knew came over to my house to hang for a while and listen to some records. I don't remember her as all that much of a Beatles fan, but I wanted to play her this one track from Beatles '65, figuring she would be just as impressed with "No Reply" as I was. She wasn't. But I still am. Another of The Beatles' greatest lesser-played tunes, with a bridge that may be the best they ever did. [# 173]
NORWEGIAN WOOD (THIS BIRD HAS FLOWN): I borrowed my brother Rob's copy of Rubber Soul in the '70s, and then scored my own copy at the flea market. I love the US version of the LP, its folky ambiance presenting a nonpareil picture of a maturing pop combo in full, unquestioned command of the whole goddamned world. Rubber Soul contains a lot of great tracks; there has never been a time when "Norwegian Wood" was not my fave among the lot of 'em. (I also remember another student in middle school or high school who planned to submit the lyrics of "Norwegian Wood" as an original poem he'd written for his English class; I have no idea whether or not he got away with it, but even at the time I wondered how outta touch he thought his teacher would have to be to not recognize a fairly popular Beatles song.) [# 8]
PAPERBACK WRITER: Its B-side rules (see "Rain" below), but "Paperback Writer" is also wonderful in its own right. The storyline is pop nonsense worthy of The Who, the music bounces like the best of 1966, and it directly inspired The Monkees' first single, "Last Train To Clarksville." That's a pretty decent resume, even by The Beatles' standards. [# 40]
PLEASE PLEASE ME: Power pop starts here, with a little help from George Martin. I insist that power pop simply did not exist prior to this recording; some of Eddie Cochran's stuff is very close (particularly "Somethin' Else"), but none of the other oft-cited power pop prototypes--Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Phil Spector's Wall O' Sound, early Beach Boys, early Motown--is quite there yet. Nor is The Beatles' own "Love Me Do," nor the reputedly Roy Orbison-influenced, unheard early versions of "Please Please Me." But the released version of "Please Please Me" leans forward in a way that has no true precedent; it doesn't stroll, its country roots are kicked in the posterior, the rhythm rolls with an unfamiliar urgency and desire that is not country, not rhythm and blues, but a brand new creation we now call power pop. Come on! [# 5]
RAIN: Not just The Beatles' greatest, but The Greatest Record Ever Made. [# 10]
SHE LOVES YOU: "She Loves You" further refines the power pop of "Please Please Me," propelled by Ringo's drums and those impossibly-insistent yeah-yeah-yeahs. Squares mocked and sneered at its simplicity; radios suddenly grew louder. [# 4]
SHE SAID SHE SAID: Inspired by an acid trip with Peter Fonda (which, oddly enough, was also the genesis of Lobo's 1970s smash "Me And You And A Dog Named Boo"), "She Said She Said" strikes an unlikely but perfect balance between psychedelia and pure pop. It is not the experimental triumph of "Tomorrow Never Knows," but it's always been my favorite track on Revolver, its guitars winding their way all around me when I was a boy and everything was right...at least while this song was playing. [# 11]
SLOW DOWN: Almost all great rock 'n' roll bands are generally also great cover bands; the only exception I can think of is The Kinks, who were one of the all-time great groups, but a lousy cover combo. I mean, they sucked at covers. The Beatles did not share that minor drawback, because The Beatles were simply wonderful with covers and originals alike. Their take on "Twist And Shout" is far better-known than The Isley Brothers' version that inspired them, and both versions smoke. The Beatles' renditions of Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music," The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman," and Buddy Holly's "Words Of Love" are better than the great originals. And The Beatles likewise excelled with Larry Williams tunes, performing incandescent interpretations of "Bad Boy," "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," and my favorite, "Slow Down." Confident, cocksure, and undeniable in staking a claim on these songs from the colonies on behalf of Her Majesty. [# 90]
THANK YOU, GIRL: For all the (sometimes deserved) crap hurled at Capitol Records' somewhat ham-handed treatment of The Beatles' records before Sgt. Pepper, "Thank You, Girl" is one shining example of Capitol taking a fab song and making it better. The original UK version of this track is fine, but might not have made my Top 25 on its own merit. But the US version, on Capitol's money-grabbing hodgepodge LP The Beatles' Second Album? Man, that track explodes with more energy than even virgin vinyl can carry, adding extra harmonica parts, absolutely superfluous (yet paradoxically essential) echo, and a full-volume, full-throttle atmosphere that could be seen as over-the-top if weren't so exactly, unerringly right. There are days when this is The Greatest Record Ever Made. And there are certainly occasional evening commutes when this is the only song worth playing, over and over, making me glad when I was blue. [# 202]
WE CAN WORK IT OUT: Side-note: it's a mark of The Beatles' greatness that this single's fantastic B-side, "Day Tripper," wasn't even in the running for my Top 25 Beatles list today. The A-side is so McCartney and Lennon--McCartney trying to smooth over difficulties in the verse, Lennon's bridge reminding us that life's too short for fussing and fighting, my friend--that it remains a near-perfect encapsulation of that 1965 through 1966 period, my favorite little mini-era of pop music. [# 109]
YESTERDAY: You think this is schmaltz? You're not paying attention. This is the all-time kingpin of heartbreak songs, its (only seemingly) casual sorrow more than the equal of any lost love lament you can name, from George Jones to Joy Division. The chamber music backing our Paul is elegant and tasteful, never straying into the syrupy morass of the overwrought or overly sentimental. Mass acceptance and pan-generational popularity do nothing to dilute this record's power. And I still recall a tear-stained evening decades ago, sitting in my room, sipping...slurping beer, trying to wish away my broken heart, and listening to Paul McCartney long for yesterday. This is pain made pretty, and all the more effective for it. [# 39]
YOU'VE GOT TO HIDE YOUR LOVE AWAY: Lennon's fascination with Dylan led this unrepentant rocker down a somewhat folkier path, and this was the most notable early result of that path. Johnnie Scott's flute parts (tenor and alto) at the end of the track help (HA!) to create a sound unlike any other Beatles recording, and The Beatles' acoustic instrumentation and Lennon's weary voice and confessional lyrics combine to create a classic. [# 46]
HONORABLE MENTION: "Lies" by The Knickerbockers. Sounds more like The Beatles than The Beatles do.
LAST FIVE BEATLES SONGS OUT (i.e., # 26-30): "Things We Said Today," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "Revolution," "I've Just Seen A Face," "Every Little Thing." There were many, many more that could have been included.
Christ, you know this ain't easy.
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