[23 November 2009]
Let’s face it: there’s no such thing as a “buried treasure” in the Beatles catalogue. How could there be? This is the most picked-over band in the history of music. Every single thing they ever released is readily available in the form of an official CD—and, yes, I know there are reams of bootleg materials out there, but for a band that was so focused and deliberate in the studio, such experiments, outtakes, and gestures hardly seem to count. Unlike with, say, Elvis Costello or the Who, or the Rolling Stones—each of whom have both a canon of songs which (ahem) your mother should know and a raft of top-flight material that, while officially released, is often overlooked by casual listeners—the Beatles’ work is pretty much all über-famous. And, while you might be able to make a case for a very limited number of tracks—“You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” springs to mind—that people at large might not know very well, in the case of the Beatles this is usually because (and again, I’m looking at you “You Know My Name”) they are gawdawful.
So: what’s this list all about? It’s a collection of 20 tracks, as chosen by PopMatters writers and freelance contributors, which you may not hear enough. A list of great stuff by a band that made almost exclusively great stuff, but of material which doesn’t get heavy rotation on the classic rock stations, doesn’t spring to mind when you think of their most famous songs, or which represent the nearest things in the most overexposed catalogue in the history of music to “deep tracks”. Enjoy.
This isn’t the weirdest song in the Beatles catalogue, but it is certainly the best weird song in the Beatles catalogue. With lyrics cribbed from the Tibetan Book of the Dead (or Tim Leary’s own paraphrases of said same), a droning sitar, seagulls (or something) doing trippy things in un-rhythmic ways, much backward and speed-affected instrumentation, and a dark and pounding breakbeat—the first ever in Western pop music?—pushing this noisy soundscape along, this is the first time the Beatles really sounded like they might have stepped over the edge. (Fittingly, the original title for the track was “The Void”.) But, what treasures they seemed to have found there!
Eschewing melody and structure, relying almost entirely on one lonely chord (C-major), Lennon was aiming for that rarest of things: something entirely new. Indeed, he apparently told George Martin that he wanted the track to “sound like an orange” and that the best way to record his vocals would be to suspend him from the ceiling with ropes and swing him around a microphone. (The former request was, obviously, achieved, but the second was dropped in favour of using a Leslie speaker cabinet (which is the thing that gives Hammond organs their swirling effects) instead.) The soundtrack to countless acid trips, mushroom rides, and semi-conscious staring competitions with stereo speakers, “Tomorrow Never Knows” remains the best psychedelic artefact from the experimental era. It is, in a word, enveloping. Stuart Henderson
“Rain”, originally released in 1966 as the b-side of “Paperback Writer”, foreshadows the incredible creativity the Beatles would exhibit in the recording studio in years to come. While Rubber Soul, released the previous year, gave some hint as to the Beatles’ increasing facility in the studio, it gave no indication of the anything-goes experimentation that characterize Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The defining feature of this song is the hazy, dreamlike vibe that the band conjures in their performance. Producer George Martin achieved this effect by recording the band playing the track, then artificially slowing the tape down.
As a result, guitar chords and cymbal hits that would have originally been crisp and defined now spill out slowly like waves crashing on a beach (incidentally, this means that they must have really been rocking when the tape was rolling—Ringo’s drum fills in particular are pretty hot even on the slowed-down version). As if that’s not enough, the song ends with one of the first recorded instances of backwards recording, a quick sample of John’s vocal in the first verse, played in reverse. In addition to being historically significant (and, y’know… cool), it also heightens the sense of weird dislocation running throughout the song.
“I’m Only Sleeping” may be the closest lyrical analogue to “Rain”. Both songs find John singing about what would seem to be a mundane, everyday occurrence—sleeping in, grousing about the weather—but through a combination of his delivery and the songs’ narcotic atmosphere, such ordinary subject matter is elevated to something strange, vaguely ominous, and inspired. David Gassmann
Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick has said that “Hey Bulldog” was the last track on which all four Fabs worked amicably, and esprit de corps fairly leaps out of the grooves of this mid-tempo Lennon rocker, an early example of the genre of riff-based heavy metal that would come to dominate early to mid-‘70s popular music. The song is based on a portentous riff played in unison by bass and guitars across three octaves and includes most notably Paul’s trademark bumblebee bass pattern, an obbligato that lasts for the duration of the song. Paul is a virtuoso in this mode (which can also be heard on such later songs as “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” and “Something”) and in this song the effect is electrifying.
Another highlight is the scorching yet cheery guitar solo, one of the fieriest in the entire Beatles oeuvre. The lyric itself is likewise upbeat, even reassuring (“you can talk to me”), yet scathing (“you think you know me but you haven’t got a clue”). During the vamp leading to the outro, Paul, according to studio lore, spontaneously began barking like a dog, leading to his and John’s impromptu spoken exchange prior to the fade-out, the upshot of which was a change in the song’s title. “Hey Bulldog” is apparently the only Beatles’ song the recording of which was filmed, affording us our sole glimpse of the band in action as they recorded what was to be their final carefree tune. Steve Leftridge
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band occupies a unique place in rock and roll history. For many, it is viewed as popular music’s Citizen Kaneand has been generally accepted as rock’s defining masterpiece of artistry and innovation. However, one of its most emotionally powerful songs is also one of its least innovative compositions, and that fact itself is rather innovative. The heartbreakingly beautiful “She’s Leaving Home”, easily one of the group’s most undervalued compositions, is a rare gift of music, a quiet piece of controlled perfection that showcases how powerful a unit the Beatles really was.
At a time when the Beatles were using every single instrument and trick they possibly could to produce records, they also recorded this staggeringly simple ballad that does nothing more than tell the rather commonplace story of why a young girl leaves her parents’ home and how the parents react to her leaving. Compared to the rest of Sgt. Pepper’s the song is quite spare. It is just a meager arrangement of strings and two incredible voices: one to narrate the actions of the girl who leaves to find her life’s first excitement, and the other to tell us the thoughts of the parents, who struggle to understand why she’s left. The song is simply written, simply performed, simply stunning and simple proof that when all is said and done, no amount of innovation (and the Beatles were the authors of more than their share) can take the place of a beautiful melody and a story well told. Gregg Lipkin
Even allowing for the doleful mood of the Beatles for Sale album cover—the group looking wary, weary and weather-beaten—the trio of opening tracks on side one must have come as a shock to a lot of teenage Fab fans back in the day. Much is made of the fact that all three share a downcast tone, but “No Reply” is in a class of its own. “I’m a Loser”, despite its ostensibly despondent lyric, is an up-beat sing-along and “Baby’s in Black” is too close to parody to be depressing. However, “No Reply”, a bossa nova you are less likely to dance than slit your wrists to, is by far the most striking departure from the Beatles’ customary ebullience.
Backed by a thrashing clamour of acoustic guitars, Lennon’s vocal performance ranges from embittered to unhinged. This reaches an almost unbearable climax during the mid-section, Lennon’s rhythmic delivery suggesting a man struggling for both breath and sanity, the false bravado of the lyric—“If I were you…” - irrevocably undermined by the musical accompaniment. George Martin’s throbbing piano chords help sustain the tension, but what really seals the sense of fraying nerves is the way the hand-claps—normally an exuberant, supportive or celebratory sound—here seem mocking and cruel, the sound of nails being driven into the cracking facade of a doomed relationship. Although they briefly considered repeating the mid-section at the end of the track, this would have dulled its impact, and the idea was wisely abandoned. Instead, the song ends abruptly, with the last two plaintive repetitions of “no reply!” giving way to a final chord which, like the song’s cuckolded protagonist, is left hanging.
Later, Lennon would be heavily influenced, lyrically and thematically, by Bob Dylan. Here, he’s already staking out a patch of Dylan’s key territory: the aggrieved lover, castigating his lying ex. Unlike the subject of the earlier, lighter Lennon jealousy ballad, “You Can’t Do That”, this girl already has done “that”, and there’s nothing her former lover can do about it. The words themselves are deceptively simple, from the double meaning of “I saw the light” to the subtle indirectness of the narrative: the boy and girl never meet, never speak; their relationship is all in the past. Instead of “the lies you told”, Lennon laments “the lies that I heard before, when you gave me no reply.”
This sense of dislocation is heightened by the heavily-echoed vocals, emphasizing the singer’s isolation. In one of his final interviews, Lennon recalled the track fondly, saying he had intended it as his version of “Silhouettes” by the Rays: “I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone. Although I never called a girl on the phone in my life—phones weren’t part of the English child’s life.” That last comment will surely give many contemporary parents a wry chuckle. John Carvill
If there is any singular moment on the Beatles’ magnificent “final” album that leaves a truly indelible mark, it’s the opening piano of “You Never Give Me Your Money”, the first of the impressive medleys that comprise most of the album’s second side. It’s the moment in which Paul McCartney begins painting a mesmerizing picture fit for a traveling minstrel show: an everyman (McCartney himself?) with nothing to lose, and all of the freedoms and anxieties that accompany “that magic feeling”.
From the somber opening chords, the tune blossoms with effects-laden guitar, and each successive piece enters as painstakingly gently. The bewitching vocals burst suddenly into Act II, introduced by McCartney’s jangly whorehouse piano and his exaggerated baritone to match. As our hero’s stress subsides, those captivating harmonies return, with a glimmer of guitar woven through, and seamlessly move into the third section. Here, the everyman makes his departure to a relentless groove that seems to have been building to this point. The guitar plays him off with some familiar arpeggios, a souvenir from earlier in the album, followed by Lennon’s oddly sinister nursery-rhyme chants.
The voices disappear into the distance, accompanied by the tranquil din of a clanging caravan trudging through a fairy tale swamp, to segue perfectly into the atmospheric “Sun King” and the medleys to come. And though those medleys have a tendency to overshadow their alluring introduction, it’s McCartney’s four-minute operetta that really sets the gold standard on an already outstanding album. Carole Ann Wright
During an LSD trip, John Lennon had a disturbing conversation with Peter Fonda regarding a near death experience the actor had gone through. Genuinely unnerved by the exchange, Lennon angrily told Fonda off for killing his buzz while in a vulnerable state. Indeed, the darkness of the account bothered Lennon to the point where it crept thematically into his songwriting. “She Said, She Said” emerged as a dark trip through Lennon’s increasingly frazzled psyche and represents the flip side of the more euphoric drug anthems in the Beatles oeuvre. Lennon’s usual defence mechanism is in place: his compulsion to use drugs either to hide from, or to mine something out of, his childhood.
I’ll admit that before I knew the song I assumed it was to be another straight ahead pop number based on the name. I was imaging a series of “oohs” and repetitive “She Said, She Saids” rippling through the thing; instead I was enveloped in its muscular riff, its ominous melodic swirl and Ringo’s disembodied drum beat, all taking place in a different universe to everything else in the music but still slotting in perfectly. Everything is of a piece, which makes it surprising that it is one of the few songs in the Beatles output that McCartney did not play on.
While his excellent “Eleanor Rigby” remains the populist dark heart of Revolver, for me this is the true centrepiece of the record. “She Said, She Said” is a schizophrenic composition: a tense song built on two seemingly disparate pieces, fused together to make a deeply unsettling, yet addictive whole. Emmet O’Brien
By the time Revolver arrived, Paul had already filled the world with love songs, but “Here, There, and Everywhere” was arguably his most arrestingly gorgeous ballad yet. For all of Revolver’s moody shape-shifting, “Here, There, and Everywhere” remains dedicated to delicate austerity as the record’s prettiest and most languid moment. Yet it’s not itself without experimentation: in fewer than two-and-a-half minutes, Paul delivers a double-tracked vocal over a crafty modulating scheme, including a devastating middle eight (six, really) that threatens to change keys but has second thoughts before bending amorphously back into the verse.
It’s an exercise in minimalism—George’s easy prang on the two and four, Ringo’s subtle timekeeping and gentle, economical tom fills (also listen for the others’ barely-there fingersnaps), and the silky Pet Sounds-style block-harmony “oohs” from John and George. Paul turns in one of his most intimate vocal performances, singing well up in his range in a pliant fusion of head-voice and falsetto, while mixing his trademark sanguinity with tenderness, sensuality, and a dash of paranoia, making us wait for the title until the final exquisite resolve.
But for all of these stylistic strokes of genius, the song’s lasting effect is simply to burrow deep into the pleasure centers of listeners here, there, everywhere, for all time, as a love song to swoon to. “HT&E” is perfect enough that John would later cop to loving it, and Paul himself, George Martin, and millions of wedding planners would all declare it a favorite. Steve Leftridge
Leave it to John Lennon to construct a tune that could so easily enrage his already ruthless critics, while being complicated enough to require no less than 70 rhythm track recordings. But neither time signature changes nor bans on both sides of the Atlantic could eventually sabotage “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, Lennon’s captivating “White Album” patchwork. What started as three unrelated and unfinished parts may very well have pulled themselves together—even the earliest recordings feature the song in its completed form—but it’s the performances on this musical behemoth that make it stand out among two albums’ worth of material.
Each section transitions seamlessly into the next, with alternating guitar parts distinguishing the separation: first, it weaves a languid web over a slow, primal beat, dangerous but seductive with a sensual, sinister vocal to match; without warning, George Harrison’s fuzzed-out lead bursts to the forefront, a gyrating force over Lennon’s bellowing demands: “I need a fix, ‘cause I’m going down…” The imposing melody jumps suddenly into a frantic chant of “Mother Superior jumped the gun”, a chaotic maelstrom with a multi-octave overdub and startling tambourine.
Just when it reaches a near-fever pitch, the madness breaks down into classic soul, a climactic release narrated in effeminate Little Richard howl with a doo-wop backing vocal to match (“bang bang, shoot shoot”). The deceptive bass line, just as easily passing for cellos or deep brass, hulks menacingly below, signaling the impending disaster that inevitably follows the momentary bliss of the shot, whatever it may be. Regardless of the tune’s origins or hidden implications, its sonic acrobatics have made it arguably the album’s most fascinating track. Carole Ann Wright
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Beatles at their most sarcastic. Everyone hates paying taxes. Yet, as the old saying goes, there is only one way to escape paying them. That is why this song, while not recognized as one of the Beatles biggest hits, will enjoy immortality unlike any other. Written by George Harrison in response to the United Kingdom’s oppressive tax system—especially for nouveau riches like himself—the song has become an anthem for all of us who dread the yearly tax filing deadline and giving our hard earned money to a government without any real say in how it’s used. Since the only thing that will bring an end to taxes is death, this song should enjoy a long life. And if only for that fact alone it deserves a spot on the list of the Beatles greatest songs. Plus, there’s that unstoppable bass line. William Gatevackes
It’s easy for a minor classic to get lost amid the vastness of the Beatles’ catalogue. Even at the album level, there’s still plenty of scope for low-profile jewels to secrete themselves. A Hard Day’s Night—a pivotal record, the first (and, in fact, only) Beatles album to consist solely of Lennon-McCartney compositions, widely considered the best of their early output—is a prime example.
“Tell Me Why”, a joyous wash of vivacious doo-wop, shot through with a raw, syllable-stretching Lennon vocal, is a true hidden gem. Listened to in isolation, it seems incredible that something this exciting could be overlooked; there’s an almost Spectoresque wall of sound quality on this track, heavily redolent of the Girl Groups the Beatles so admired in their early days of playing together. It’s a classic demonstration of the Beatles’ phenomenal facility for transforming words which, on a lyric sheet, seem almost banal in their simplicity, into something of enormous emotional power. This was always a key aim for them: how a record sounded overall was everything, to the extent that the words really didn’t matter.
Both the lyrics, and the performance, linger just on the verge of parody: the ostensible tone, of wounded love, is in diametric opposition to the mood generated by the music, the pitch of the singing rising to falsetto in tandem with the increasingly desperate pleas of the singer. The penultimate song on side one of the album, tucked away just before the monumentally brilliant “Can’t Buy Me Love”, this track has a strong claim for the title of ‘most neglected Beatles song’. John Carvill
“I’m So Tired” perfectly captures what it feels like to be an exhausted heap. The “White Album” John Lennon composition showcases the Beatle languidly whining about how lazy and distressed he is in a song that’s the aural equivalent of hazily shuffling around the room in search of a bed. The song drags in such a lumbering manner it’s easy to overlook how complex the chord progression is. And how many other rockers throw around harmony fills and allusions to Sir Walter Raleigh while battling insomnia?
Lennon makes the song seem effortless, implying that he could write great tunes whilst a bleary-eyed mess. What makes “I’m So Tired” a song worthy of attention is the underlying tension caused by Lennon’s threats to break out of his lethargy and indecisiveness. Occasionally his voice rises and tenses (particularly in the choruses), ultimately peaking with desperate unanswered exclamations of “I’m going insane!” and “You know I’d give you everything I’ve got / For a little piece of mind”, only to fall back into sluggishness. “I’m So Tired” is desire without resolution, and that’s what makes this sloth-like deep album cut unexpectedly compelling. AJ Ramirez
Why isn’t this song better known? Mostly because it isn’t very good. The lyrics are—apart from the astonishing confession of the title—mostly trite and banal. (“My tears are falling like rain from the sky, Is it for her or myself that I cry?”) The melody is catchy, if a bit underbaked, and the performance is spare and unvarnished (as is the rest of the quickly-recorded Beatles for Sale record), leaving little to get too excited about. So, what’s this tune doing on a list of undervalued tracks? History.
First of all, this song was almost a single, which means it was almost a hit, which means it could have been huge, but then Lennon wrote the vastly superior “I Feel Fine” and it was used instead. So, that’s something. Second, weird as it is, this song would be alluded to in massive hits by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles not once but twice over the following two years—the lyric “Although I laugh and I act like a clown, Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown” provides the basic metaphor behind both “Tracks of my Tears” and “Tears of a Clown”. Third, as I have explored in another entry on the far more effective “Help!”, this song represents an early attempt by the Beatles to fuse dark confessionalism with jaunty melodies, a heretofore new and exciting direction for pop music.
But, most of all, fourth: that shambling harmonica solo, metaphors about masks and clowns, and a chorus that claims “I’m not what I appear to be”? Lennon has heard Dylan, folks. This is the real moment folk-rock was born. Stuart Henderson
Perhaps “Old Brown Shoe”, B-side to the button-pushing “Ballad of John and Yoko”, is so often overlooked because it seems more tailored to George Harrison’s subsequent solo sound than anything he’d produced with the Beatles thus far. He indeed recorded its early demos on his own, in the same birthday session in which “Something” and “All Things Must Pass” were first put to tape, but the three are far closer in quality than in structure.
Harrison’s take on “the duality of things” employs a jangling piano that, assisted by melodic guitars and tandem bass line, elaborates the raunchy nature of the piece. This in turn is offset by innocent lyrics that belie the lusty orchestration, sung as if by an ambivalent teenager—rejoicing in the verse (“won’t be the same now”), uneasy in the bridge (“I’m changing faster than the weather”) and back again to bring it home. Here, a Hammond organ overdub, replacing John Lennon’s original rhythm guitar, elevates Harrison’s pleas to exultation. As much gospel as love song, it follows a long tradition of solid, confident B-sides that unfortunately often get lost in the shuffle. Carole Ann Wright
You could probably choose any song from either Revolver or Rubber Soul as the one where the Beatles went from being bubblegum pop stars to “serious” musical artists. “And Your Bird Can Sing” could very well be the one that you would choose. The song acts as a bridge between the two eras of the Beatles’ career. It is unabashedly a bouncy pop song, with an up-tempo beat and tight vocal harmonies. But its adventurous, regal-sounding guitar riffs and esoteric lyrics set the stage for the experimental nature of future Beatles songs. In other words, the song is the best of both worlds. It is a grand song that should have been one of the Beatles greatest hits. As it is, it’s a hidden gem that shows exactly what type of band the Beatles were. William Gatevackes
Who doesn’t love sleeping in? So great was John Lennon’s love for relaxation that Maureen Cleave once referred to him as “the laziest person in England”. This does seem to be the most obvious inspiration for “I’m Only Sleeping”, Revolver‘s ode to lethargy: the lyrics are evocative of such counter-culture sentiments as those seen in The Psychedelic Experience and could easily beg for more incendiary interpretations, but the music itself is far more telling.
Complicated, multi-layered orchestration provides the meat on the bones of Lennon’s simple melody, and a few clever production tricks bring it all together. Aside from various dreamy touches, the fluid bass and shimmering guitars draw you back to those moments just after waking when it still feels like a dream, or to the daydreams just before you drift off. The rhythm track, meticulously sewn together from a number of takes, provides a solid framework for George Harrison’s hypnotic guitar solo.
The sitar-like result, to be notably reused in Lennon’s equally mind-bending “Tomorrow Never Knows”, was achieved the hard way: by recording the part normally, then playing it backwards and writing out the notation, then recording the notation only to play it backwards one final time and creating a mystifyingly harmonious string of notes. The effect is surreal without being distracting, and proves a fantastic compliment to Lennon’s time-distorted vocals. Such forays into the realm of the psychotropic are rarely so innocently inviting. Carole Ann Wright
George Harrison didn’t deserve to be made fun of as much as he was, but there’s also no question that his songwriting took far longer to mature than that of his prolific bandmates. (Well, two of them anyway.) The lads must have kicked themselves when he emerged with All Things Must Pass after the demise of the band—when they perhaps realized just how much better their last couple of records could have been if they’d used some of this material instead of, say, “I Dig a Pony” or “Maxwell’s Horrible Stupid Bullshit Silver Hammer”.
Still, as he was finding his voice, Harrison was prone to a few pretty ugly problems (vague plagiarism not least of these) which surely signaled his insubstantiality as a writer to his mates. And, can we agree on this? “Within You Without You”, “Love You To”, “The Inner Light”, and “Only a Northern Song” are, finally, kind of boring. That said: “It’s All Too Much”, the centerpiece of Side One of the mostly forgettable Yellow Submarine record, ranks among the best of the Beatles’ psychedelic work.
A noisy, slippery pastiche of sound and texture, “It’s All Too Much” is a harsh trip, but it contains multitudes. The repetition becomes infectious, the sitar doesn’t seem out of place, and the guitar lines are cutting and bright. It all ends a bit too messily for my ears, but so does your average acid trip. Though it’s regularly dismissed as George’s attempt to play ball with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, this complex piece is more than just their poor cousin. Plug in and see. Stuart Henderson
“Girl” resembles nothing so much as an Eastern European folk song in its structure, coloured by an off-kilter string solo that hobbles about sounding like a harpsichord with missing keys. This ambiguous ballad from 1965’s Rubber Soul finds John Lennon with heart wide open, begging for compassion from someone who can comprehend his excruciating quandary. After each verse we hear Lennon sigh—it’s a sigh we’ve all exhumed. He’s overwhelmed with a girl who may have been told when she was young “that pain would lead to pleasure”.
The protagonist has been scathed by this two-edged sword of a female, but he’s still there painfully revealing his vulnerability, while ignoring his incapacity to leave. “When I think of all the time I’ve tried so hard to leave her she will turn to me and start to cry; and she promises the earth to me and I believe her, after all this time I don’t know why…” With these lines, we know he’s incapable of movement and we even feel pity for his cruel, but clueless lover. They’re both nameless, they’re both stuck. It’s one of the greatest songs about romantic despair from this era… Sigh. Lisa Torem
Paul McCartney’s fractious relationship with Jane Asher led to many wonderful songs within the Beatles canon, some tender and heartfelt, others intense and cutting. “You Won’t See Me” is firmly in the latter and stands right at the centre of the first two Beatles eras. “You Won’t See Me” takes the pop sheen, and general tunefulness of their early Beatlemania hits, and adds harsh, even vitriolic, lyrics. It might stay within the firmly-established rhythmic mould and meter of old hits with its stream of rhymes and reverb-heavy backing vocals, but it paints a far less idyllic picture than fans were used to from the Fab Four at this time.
No hope is provided in this narrative; the protagonist is driven mad by his girlfriend’s unreasonable behaviour and will do anything to regain the solace his love once provided. A superb performance by all concerned, the melodic counterpoint of the backing vocals in contrast to McCartney’s bellowing and forceful main vocal line is the Beatles taking the formula they had so expertly tamed and refined and bringing it to a new place. Their pop songs would become more complex, more sprawling, more innovative from here on, but for sheer verve and pop sensibilities this song deserves its place amongst the tall trees of Rubber Soul. McCartney isn’t hiding behind characters as he would do in the future. This is him at his most strident. Pop star or no, the man had girlfriend problems and that makes this song all the more relatable, all the more human. Emmet O’Brien
Paul McCartney’s “Helter Skelter” gets a lot of credit, and rightfully so, for its heavy, shrieking, metal-influencing rock and roll, especially amidst the experiments and stylistic shifts of the “White Album”. But elsewhere on the Beatles’ double album, John Lennon contributes an equally fierce (if less influential) piece of unhinged rock and roll—“Yer Blues”—in which he repeatedly professes his loneliness, his desire to die and, indirectly, his love for the unnamed girl keeping him around.
This song is less surprising from the author of “I’m a Loser” than the sweet-tempered McCartney’s proto-metal, but scarcely less enjoyable. If it is indeed, as often cited, a bit of self-referential near-parody (the narrator isn’t so despondent as to put down his record collection since he “feels so suicidal, just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones”), it’s a loving, sly one, foreshadowing the kind of simple rock and roll the band tried to rekindle, with artistic if not interpersonal success, towards the end of their career. But it’s hard not to assume “Yer Blues” contains at least a core of genuine feeling, even if Lennon is willing to have a laugh with it.
The world is lousy with Beatles covers, yet you rarely hear anyone take this one on. Too bad: its raw, loose bluesiness, especially that zoom up the fretboard right before “girl you know the reason why”, makes it ridiculous fun to bash out on a guitar. Jesse Hassenger