21. Two of Us
By the time “Two of Us” came out, the Beatles were basically finished. There was so much discord within the group that both Lennon and McCartney claimed to have written it, though McCartney is typically assumed to be the primary songwriter. Pushed to the brink by pressure both financial and emotional and, yes, possibly by Yoko Ono, the Beatles could have taken Let It Be in so many different directions. They could have discarded it, could have over-worked it, and in some ways, they did both.
But now that the dust has settled and the hearts have healed, it’s possible to look at “Two of Us” and see something truly remarkable. That the band decided on a number like “Two of Us” to open the album just reminded us how the world’s biggest band got so big: defying expectations. “Two of Us” doesn’t really sound like a farewell. It’s still so simple, so straightforward, almost sweet, nostalgic for a time that never really existed, a time of chasing paper, of “wearing raincoats in the sun”. It’s the perfect memoriam for a writing partnership that became so much more—a bond that outlasted drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll—for a few years at least. If the Beatles couldn’t make it, if they had to split (and it certainly seems like they did), then there are few more fitting elegies.
The revisions done by McCartney on Let It Be… Naked, unfortunate title aside, did a great deal to return the album to its back-to-basics concept. And that’s perfectly fitting for “Two of Us”, a song that always sounded its strongest at its simplest. With John and Paul playing only acoustic guitar, “Two of Us” sometimes sounds feather-light and insubstantial, as though it could simply float away. But its staying power is in knowing the men behind it, in realizing that the simple pleasures described within the song led them to this point. It was the highest they could ever reach, and it’s no wonder that they had to fall.
While both Lennon and McCartney attributed the song’s inspiration to their respective spouses, Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney, its warm-hearted depiction of a troubled but irrepressible youth sounds more like an ode to the friendship lost between the Lennon and McCartney themselves. It’s so evocative in conjuring up that image of two boys, just starting out on a journey yet still “on our way home”, that it seems almost impossible to see anyone else in their place. It’s that slightly sad awareness of where “Two of Us” (and its creators) came from, and where they would go, that makes it so impossible to forget.
Of course, as is always the case with the Beatles, the music doesn’t hurt either. Lennon and McCartney couldn’t help but write a hook—even at their most melancholy (and “Two of Us”, despite its sepia-toned aura, certainly doesn’t fall into that category), they knew how to keep your toe tapping. Some might ask for a more dramatic statement—or any statement for that matter. But that’s not what “Two of Us” is trying to do.
It’s a moment captured, a memory that will last “longer than the road that stretches out ahead”. Maybe it’s in those twin vocals, just John and Paul again, but “Two of Us” is, even now, strangely affecting. And that closing chant, both wistful and hopeful, finished off with a gentle whistle, is the perfect testament to letting go.
22. I Want to Hold Your Hand
An epochal release, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the Beatles’ first number one hit in the United States, helping to break the band internationally, kicking off the British Invasion, and acting as one the first shots that announced the start of Beatlemania. For a song that was quite possibly the most important of the Beatles’ career, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a bit unassuming compared to the rest of the band’s canon. There’s nothing ambitious about the song structure, the lyrics are kind of dull, and the recording techniques of the day reduce the band to a tinny racket on record.
What made the song such a monumental hit in the first place, and what makes it worthy of praise as a piece of music nearly 50 years later? It’s simple: the voices. In the group’s early days, its three-part harmonies were the band’s secret weapon, honed to pop perfection. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” uses these harmonies to maximum effect, turning every line into an irresistible hook. There are scores of great vocal moments, from the way the band jumps up an octave to hit the word “hand” right before the chorus, to the ecstatic utterances of “I can’t hide!” in the bridge.
The melodies are so strong the Beatles recorded a German-language version that also became a hit. It didn’t matter what words the group sang, or in what tongue. What mattered was that the group delivered those words wrapped around melodies any singer would kill for, proving that great hooks have no political or language barriers.
23. For No One
Don’t our darkest days magnify our desire to connect with other lost souls, to feel comfort in the kinship expressed by those who have experienced similar grief and powerlessness? It’s a paradox that when we feel most vulnerable we want to hear melancholia—odd that we don’t want to hear “happy” stuff when we’re “blue”. Losing at love stimulates universal waves of emotions, and though many try, few artists can actually map out how love evaporates before our eyes.
“Your day breaks, your mind aches” is the devastating opening line. But it is the bridge which cuts most severely: “and in her eyes you see nothing/no sign of love behind the tears cried for no one/a love that should have lasted years.” McCartney’s voice is contemplative and full of yearning. The piano backing is slightly choppy and uneven—like thick heartache pureed through a blender—a string section enhances the upper register of Paul McCartney’s sorrowful voice and a kind of clumsy, flailing French horn solo drives home the point that love has missed its mark yet again.
“Your day breaks, your mind aches, there will be times when all the things she said will fill your head, you won’t forget her.” I suppose the subliminal message here is grief plus time will heal? Romantic escapades don’t come with how-to books. But, when sadness and disillusionment replace joy, “For No One” is astonishingly redemptive.
24. The Ballad of John and Yoko
It’s the familiar story of boy meets girl and the obstacles they must face along their way to happily-ever-after. Though not quite a fairy tale, “The Ballad of John and Yoko” follows the well-publicized courtship of a member of rock royalty and his polarizing muse. Their eccentric saga is complimented by a bright, lively melody and voluminous orchestration, recorded in a swift eight-hour session by Paul McCartney (on bass and drums) and John Lennon (on everything else) and suiting the scale of the adventure described.
Engagingly rhythmic, with emphasis on handclaps (actually Lennon slapping his acoustic and a lot of high-hat), the focus is as much on the strange romance being recounted as on the double-lead guitars that appear in glistening cameos throughout. Every so often, a bouncing piano sneaks in, almost as an afterthought; this is most pronounced in the Yoko-centric bridge, with it’s “THINK!” conclusion illuminating their initial intellectual attraction.
Each piece plays its part well, like a rock ‘n roll Peter & the Wolf, and the pace doesn’t let up from the opening crash of harmony to the reverb-soaked exit riff. And though its “Christ, you know it ain’t easy” chorus (and certainly the mention of crucifixion) made it another easy target for controversy-hungry critics worldwide, none could easily dispute its intrinsic charm, so reflective of the joyful newlyweds themselves.
Carole Anne Wright
Tucked away in the depths of side two of the first disc of The Beatles (1968) is “Blackbird”, a quiet, unassuming acoustic number that in truth ranks as one of the album’s best songs. Like many tracks on “The White Album”, “Blackbird” is a showcase for one Beatle instead of the entire group. In fact, Paul McCartney is the only band member to perform on the track at all, aided only by the gentle ticking of a metronome and the occasional bird chirps.
“Blackbird” serves not only as a great example of a lone Beatle carrying a performance on his own, it acts as a showcase for McCartney’s playing ability. Unlike the archetypal McCartney acoustic ballad “Yesterday”, “Blackbird” underplays McCartney’s fine singing voice in deference to his instrument. Here, McCartney demonstrates his dexterity as a guitarist, combining melody, harmony, and rhythm parts by utilizing a blend of plucked double-stops and intermittent strumming. The fluidity of his playing is wonderful; not once does it feel like McCartney is simply outlining chord changes to support his words. Instead, his playing entwines with his singing, creating a beautiful ode of encouragement that’s understated in its joy.