Editor’s Note: This article originally ran 12 November 2009. We are re-running some music features from our archive this week during SXSW.
We all know that compiling a list of the “best” Beatles tracks is a fool’s errand. For a band that has more admirers than Jesus (zing!), coming up with a list of 25 tracks that doesn’t overlook about 150 others is clearly impossible. A more fruitful endeavour might have been to try to compile a list of 25 lousy Beatles tracks—at the very least, we might have stumbled upon something approaching consensus. Anyway, we decided instead to go with a list of “Classic” Beatles tracks—this means to say that they are not necessarily the “best songs” in their storied catalogue, but that they are the songs most closely associated with the band, and the songs through which (perhaps) we might gain the deepest appreciation for their popular genius. Of course, we left off some screamers—there’s no sign of “Yesterday” anywhere, for example—and this is because, frankly, no one suggested that they wanted to write about them. The list was comprised of the songs most often voted for when we asked thirty PopMatters writers and freelancers to propose the top ten Beatles classics. Enjoy.
1. A Day in the Life
“A Day in the Life” is without a doubt among the finest and most ambitious songs the Beatles recorded. If there’s a single song that exemplifies how good the Beatles were, and how gifted McCartney and Lennon were as songwriters, it’s this one. I’ve always been taken by it, not only for its sonic depth but for its profound emotional insight into the radically different viewpoints of McCartney and Lennon. Furthermore, the song demonstrates not only the intellectual and musical discord that always underlined McCartney and Lennon’s efforts, but also the incredible music that resulted from their collaborations.
The song is the result of McCartney and Lennon fusing two separate songs into one. Lennon’s song is based on of a number of recent newspaper accounts: an article on how there was 1/26th of a pothole for every resident of Blackburn, Lancashire called the “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”, a series of articles on the film How I Won the War, and an account of Tara Browne, a friend of the Beatles who was killed in a car accident. McCartney’s song fragment, which sets a decidedly different mood than Lennon’s, is placed between the second and third verses of Lennon’s song and serves as a warm remembrance of his youthful school days.
Due to the numerous references to dreaming, smoking, and turning-on that run throughout the song, the song was banned from radio play in various parts of the world. While the two songs function as separate entities, they provide a measure of depth to “A Day in the Life” and a sense of sweeping consciousness and epic human drama, which is particularly impressive given the relative shortness of the thing, and the fact that it was the product of two relatively independent and, at least at the time, opposed songwriters. Lennon’s sections of the song offer a narrator who is seeking to understand the principles upon which human reality operates, while McCartney’s bit is narrated by someone who appears to live moment to moment, for the day.
These narrators, then, can be understood as representing McCartney and Lennon’s radically different understandings of the world, and the song, in turn, offers some measure of insight into the radical discordance between the two. The song resists any sort of simple or ready-made meaning, which is part of its appeal. Lennon claimed the song was simply about a car crash and its victim. McCartney claimed that this was a “turn on” song, one which aimed to turn people on to the “truth”, particularly in terms of his information is conveyed and how society, time and consciousness operate. The song offers a view of a day in the life of not one consciousness but, instead, two separate consciousness.
Ultimately, the song serves to remind us of our intrinsic alienation, of the lurking imminence of death, and of the passing of time. What the song details then is not only the stuff of high drama but also the various moods, daily happenings and different viewpoints that make life what it is.—James Flemming
2. Hey Jude
Some years ago I was attending a middle-school talent show. The performances were earnest but few, and the show sparsely attended, most people presumably having found other ways to spend their leisure hours. Following the grimly-prancing ballerina, the breakdancer, and the Bach etude aspirer, the final performer took the stage. The student, a notorious wise-ass and irreverent slacker, strode to the front and center of the stage and, without preamble, launched into an a cappella, unmiked performance of “Hey Jude”. His voice was unremarkable but steady and on-key, and he sang with clear-eyed conviction, his voice gaining strength as he went. The sheer audacity of the performance was fascinating—and the song was galvanizing. When he reached the long outro, first a few, and then everyone in the audience rose to their feet spontaneously and began to sing along, the cavernous, three-quarters empty auditorium ringing with the sound and thrumming with the power.
“Hey Jude” is an anthem, but it’s more than that: it’s an invocation of the magic that lies at the very heart of the Beatles’ timeless appeal. At his best, Paul McCartney is the lyric voice of unquenchable optimism, and in this song, he achieves his most gorgeous rendering of his faith in the human heart. The song itself is simple, driven mainly by John’s spare, syncopated, always-underrated rhythm guitar as well as Ringo’s tambourine (and surely that instrument is the least-appreciated of the many that the Beatles played). John claimed that Paul had written the song for him; the truth of the matter is that each of us feels that he wrote it for us—and so we stand and sing.—Steve Leftridge
3. In My Life
“In My Life” is a work of shimmering beauty, a poignant testament of love all the more moving for being, in essence, contrary, as was the author himself in so many ways: in the song John dwells largely on his affection for others, past and present; only at the end of each verse and the beginning of the second does he so much as mention the current object of his ardor, and yet this very omission heightens the impact of the declaration of love when it finally arrives. The spare instrumentation gives rise to a typical Beatles masterpiece in miniature, from George’s haunting signature lick to George Martin’s half-speed-recorded baroque piano solo. Paul’s bass playing is the model of restrained, melodic economy, though his contrapuntal figures lapse into straight rock time for a couple of measures in the second line of the bridge, adding a subtle but effective impetus.
The song represents the Beatles at their best in that each added what he was best at: John, the trenchant insight into his own heart; Paul, the ever-innovative melodicism; George and Ringo, the subtle musical flourishes that complemented the song and brought its shine to a high luster. More than anything, though, it’s the indescribably gorgeous combination of John and Paul’s voices wrapping themselves around lyrics that capture the very essence of true love that propels this song into majestic territory.—Steve Leftridge
4. You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
Taking a cue from his newest associate, John Lennon created the consummate break-up song in “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, a Dylanesque masterpiece that contrasts sharply not only with its Help! trackmates, but also with his band’s entire catalogue thus far. A slice of stark, raw emotion, this forlorn ballad plunges the listener into a storm of romantic anguish, triggering an instant and impenetrable connection with the narrator and his doleful revelations.
In standard folk fashion, no electrical instruments were used; instead, muffled acoustic guitars, reminiscent of rain or fog—the din of dejection?—and a steady, deliberate tambourine replace the ever-popular Beatle backbeat. Charging and repetitive, the combination wordlessly reflects the solemnity of a lover scorned. Lennon’s earnest vocals, in turn, are filled with subtle, nuanced movement, and George Martin clearly downplays the usual overdubs to highlight an unusually honest performance from the often-facetious singer.
The defeated lyrics are sung with ireful exhaustion as if our narrator is challenging himself to follow the imagined advice. Echoing (or perhaps deflating) his cries is a piercing yet husky combination of tenor and alto flute, played unaccredited by in-demand Abbey Road musical arranger Johnnie Scott and making it the first Beatles recording to bring in an outside musician to fulfill a designated purpose. The effect is a haunting, aching testament to the power of heartbreak, real or invented, to inspire a truly indelible work of art.—Carole Ann Wright
5. Strawberry Fields Forever
When the music video for “Strawberry Fields Forever” aired on American Bandstand in early 1967, the studio audience response was muted. Some liked the song well enough, but others were dismayed about the changes wrought in the Beatles’ sound and image (not the least the band’s new fondness for mustaches). Even today, long after psychedelic rock has become an easily copied set of clichés, the song seems a little off. There is a sense of unease that permeates it due to elements such as John Lennon’s winding vocal phrasing, the noticeable change in mood and tempo created by splicing two takes of the song together, and the cacophonous ending. As a result, “Strawberry Fields” often sounds more like a surreal dream than a rock song. It’s not a standard pop song, but it is a great one nonetheless.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” is Lennon’s ode to his childhood neighborhood in Liverpool, England, and his sadness and affection for his boyhood memories are palpable throughout, from the lonely mellotron introduction to the disembodied tone of Lennon’s voice. Instead of offering a straight biography of Lennon’s youth, “Strawberry Fields” opts for the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of expressionism, conveying Lennon’s fondness and longing for the past through sounds that act like watercolors, blotting and blending to create something wondrous. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is more than just one of the Beatles’ definitive psychedelic compositions: it stands as the band’s most evocative (and in a way, most revealing) glimpse into Lennon’s own heart.—AJ Ramirez