25 Classic Beatles Songs

by PopMatters Staff

17 March 2017


Revolution and more

6. Revolution (Single Version)

While the Beatles were busy producing some of their most wildly divergent and experimental material, they continued to issue non-album singles, often containing some of their most immediate and accessible material. Hence 1968 saw the release of both the self-titled “White Album” and the “Hey Jude” single with “Revolution” tagging along on the flipside.

Kicking off with a buzzsaw of distorted guitar and an electrifying Lennon scream, “Revolution” gallops along with a surprisingly tempered message for such a raucous song: we know you kids want action, but let’s not burn the world down. To counteract this maturity, “Revolution” features some of the most delightfully noisy guitar work the band produced, and an energized Lennon vocal, his repeated cries of “all right!” bringing to mind the shredding vocals of his take on “Twist and Shout”.

The electric version became the one most closely associated with the title, but the “White Album” version, with acoustic riffs bumping up against those familiar buzzing electrics and the ambiguity of the almost parenthetical “in” on the heels of “count me out”, has an off-kilter charm all its own. A kiss off to the New Left, or merely a kiss?— Jesse Hassenger


7. Norwegian Wood

One of the most important songs in any discussion of the creative development of the Beatles, “Norwegian Wood” is a sly little song, built on an ambiguous narrative and some innovative flourishes. The sitar, cleverly mirroring the main guitar line, was perhaps no surprise as an Indian influence had already been seeping into the band, but this song is the first time the instrument was deployed in a Western rock band context.

The wonderfully vague story originated with Lennon and seems to have been autobiographical, commenting on an affair he had had with a journalist. Affection is in short supply as the song has a to and fro aspect more akin to fencing than courting, but which gives the song its edge: the terse exchanges between the protagonists say more than any empty romantic platitudes would have. Wry humour also underwrites the track, from Lennon’s surprising resting place of a bathtub, to the dark interpretation of the final refrain possibly alluding to setting the poor girl’s flat on fire.

There’s a whole world conveyed through the slightest of details, and some ingeniously coy phrasing. This was something both deeper and more elliptical than previous Beatles songs; and while that may make the thing sound awkward and contrived, the melody is so strong and airy, the song so well constructed, that the audience can’t help but be seduced by (and therefore complicit in) Lennon’s extra-marital proclivities.

A huge leap forward for the band, the song proved so influential it may have led to a controversial parody in Bob Dylan’s “4th Time Around”. The exact origins of that song remain in dispute and the timelines frustratingly muddied (Dylan claims to have shown it to Lennon before he wrote “Norwegian Wood”). My gut, as much of a Bob fan as I am, seems to side with Lennon on this one. Regardless, when the “voice of a generation” is made to seem like a “Bobby- come-lately”, one can’t deny the power of a song.—Emmet O’Brien


8. Something

If we take the Beatles to be a family, Paul and John would be bickering twins (alike in ambition but so divergent in style and mood), Ringo would be the youngest brother (given moments to shine but mostly left in the background). Enter George: the middle child. Whereas Paul sweetened his songs with mildly contrived optimism and John cloaked his extreme angst in black humour, George was direct, honest and usually over earnest. His songs just weren’t as sophisticated or fun. Obsessed with Eastern Philosophies, his songs were often weighed down with solemnity and self importance while nurturing a sensitive, thoughtful exterior.

“Something” leaves behind any philosophical agenda and succumbs to pure unadulterated feeling and it’s this directness that is its greatest strength. Always inscrutable and aloof, this was the closest we got to a confessional George in more ways than one. It obviously conveys a deep reservoir of affection towards Pattie Boyd but it also sees the Beatle being something else: a fan. The first lines mirror those of a James Taylor song and while only meant as filler while the melody was worked out, these lines have stuck. It’s homage, not theft; the song is all the better for it. So naked is the emotion and so perfect the execution that it couldn’t fail—rather, it remains a worthy addition to the Beatles A-Side output.

Indeed, it stands as his finest shot across the bow of the Lennon/McCartney partnership. Frank Sinatra described it as the greatest love song ever written. High praise indeed, but he was not alone in his regard for the track. Lennon himself once conceded it as the finest song on Abbey Road. Something was definitely not amiss.—Emmet O’Brien


9. I Am the Walrus

What is it about four-and-a-half minutes of Carrollian nonsense that makes “I Am the Walrus” so enduring? It’s deceptively simple, repetitive, and full of absurd references designed to induce a lifetime a head-scratching—John Lennon wrote the words in response to a lesson plan at his former primary school that involved dissecting his often meaningless verse. Feckless (though delightfully alliterative) lyrics aside, the real standout here is the complex orchestration, filled with “enough little bitties… to keep you interested even a hundred years later”, that creates a vice-like grip on the audience and begs for repeated plays.

Every distinctive piece is also indelibly fused, and vitally important to the whole: the fluttering heartbeat of the rhythm section; the familiar but imposing nature of the waltzing strings; the playful, taunting vocals backed by a choir of mad jeers. Lennon and George Martin’s elaborately constructed musical Jabberwocky is brought to delightfully menacing life by the live radio feed that fills the shallow gaps with increasing prevalence before swallowing the song whole.

Though the BBC Third Programme performance of King Lear is arguably the most memorable, it’s Ringo’s channel-surfing that remains the most eerily current and adds an air of perplexing mystery to an already overtly surreal experience. It’s a masterful use of production as an instrument, rather than simply quality control, helping to keep the listener interested despite all of the so-called nonsense it readily admits to. If it’s all a joke, it’s a damn brilliant one, at the very least.—Carole Ann Wright


10. Ticket to Ride

If nothing else, “Ticket to Ride” serves as Exhibit A that Ringo Starr is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll drummers of all time. Compare the stuttering, off-kilter drumbeat on this single to the work of any of the great pre-Beatles British rock (Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, the Shadows) and the value of Ringo’s attitude towards the drums—that each song should have its own distinct beat, as unique as the lyrics—becomes truly apparent. The syncopated snare and tom hits serve double duty, echoing the rhythm of the main guitar riff and driving the song forward. It’s not like the rest of the band isn’t pulling its weight, though.

“Ticket to Ride” was released on the Help! soundtrack, and it was on the set of that movie that the Beatles were first exposed to traditional Indian music. While later songs like “Within You Without You” and “Norwegian Wood” are more celebrated for fusing Indian instrumentation and western pop melodies, this song deserves consideration in its own right as one of their first successful experiments in this vein. The Indian influence is subtle but noticeable in the droning, single note bass part and shimmering, repetitive riff.

The band’s beat group origins are apparent in the bouncier, straightforward middle eight, and the double-time fade-out. The mix of these disparate elements makes for one of the best singles of the Beatles’ career. That they thought to combine them at all as early as 1965 makes it even more remarkable.— David Gassman

Topics: the beatles
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