The “Worst” of The Beatles: A Contradiction in Terms?

There are people schooled in Western music and its culture who claim to flat out not like the Beatles. Those people, of course, fall into two categories. Serial contrarians and members of a secret race of human-cloning aliens that have been living among us for hundreds of years. Even Chuck D, the frontman for hip-hop’s Public Enemy who once claimed “Elvis never meant shit to me”, has admitted his fondness for the four lads from Liverpool.

But only the most delusional of apologists would refuse to acknowledge that even the Beatles were less-than-perfect. They made some poor decisions, made some questionable moves, even wrote some duddy tunes. John Lennon and George Harrison in particular were unable to fathom fans’ willingness to overlook these flaws and, in a sense, deny the Beatles their right to be people like everyone else.

So, with that in mind, here is a brief overview of “the worst of the Beatles”, covers and unreleased/demo versions notwithstanding. If there’s no accounting for taste, then, well, there’s no accounting for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, either.

–“Hold Me Tight”

Sounding as if it was recorded at a particularly shambolic live show, this McCartney-led cut from With the Beatles represents the worst of the band’s early years. The lyrics are dumb (“Hold me tight / Tonight, Tonight/ It’s you / You, you , you”), the tune is dull, and McCartney’s vocal hangs by a guitar string. And there’s silly handclapping all the way through. “Hold Me Tight” was initially recorded during the marathon session for Please Please Me and then scrapped. It should have stayed that way. McCartney: “A failed attempt at a single…album filler.”

–“Eight Days A Week”

True, the intro is gorgeous, and the fade-in was at the time innovative. But those elements were tacked on after-the-fact to a song that could otherwise be called the first true case of “Beatles by numbers”. Even by early Beatles standards, the lyrics are, in a word, weak. The tune lumbers along easily enough, and that’s the problem. You can almost hear the song calling out, “Ho hum, Ho hum”. Lennon: “‘Eight Days A Week’ was never a good song.”

–“I Need You”

Lennon, McCartney, and George Martin maintained that the primary reason George Harrison didn’t get more songs onto Beatles albums was that until late in the band’s career he just wasn’t in the same league as a songwriter. “I Need You”, only the second Harrison song to be featured on a Beatles album (Help!), is Exhibit A that those guys were right. Harrison’s voice was never the equal of Lennon’s or McCartney’s, and here it’s flat and tentative, even as the lovelorn lyrics are sincere. Harrison had just begun using a volume pedal on his guitar, and, on the evidence of the uneven, repetitive swells here, hadn’t quite learned to master it. A Beatles song you probably forgot about precisely because it’s so forgettable.

–“Here, There and Everywhere”

Yes, it’s on Revolver, and Revolver is The Greatest Album of All Time©. That should make “Here, There and Everywhere” untouchable. Sure, the melody is pretty enough. But the lyrics, vocals, and choirboy backing vocals are so fey as to make you want to hit someone. The song is mostly McCartney’s, but apparently Lennon was an accomplice. Really, guys. Go buy a greeting card. Lennon once claimed “Here, There and Everywhere” as one of his Beatles favorites, in itself evidence he was only human. Ian MacDonald, author of A Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties: “Chintzy and rather cloying.”

–“Mean Mr. Mustard”

A leftover from the trip to India that yielded The Beatles, this Lennon contribution to the “Long Medley” lumbers along in a vaguely psychedelic manner like a discard from Sgt Pepper that couldn’t even make Yellow Submarine. Mercifully, it’s interrupted by the much more engaging “Polythene Pam” after just over a minute. Lennon: “…crap.”

Magical Mystery Tour

The film, not the song. One of the most preposterous moments of the whole Anthology documentary is when McCartney tries to pass Magical Mystery Tour off as an avant-garde art film, even going so far as to suggest it was an influence on Steven Spielberg. If mixing dull, aimless, chaotic, and haphazard together in a blender is avant-garde, well, the film’s apologists might have a point. The performance sequences and Lennon’s famous spaghetti-shoveling scene are the only points of redemption. But those take up a small proportion of the seemingly interminable running time. In fairness, this was the band’s first official move after Brian Epstein’s devastating death. Also in fairness, it ain’t very good. George Martin: “…pretentious…boring.” Geoff Emerick, Beatles engineer: “…amateurish and self-indulgent.”

–Paul McCartney’s inferiority complex

True, this technically is not a Beatles issue. But, in practicality, it is, because it has affected their legacy for decades now. McCartney has never gotten over the fact that Lennon was, especially after his murder, viewed as the forward-thinking visionary, the experimentalist in the band. Paul keeps trying to prove he was, and is, forward-thinking, visionary, and experimental, too, even though no one’s really asked him to or doubted his credentials. Thus, he hauls out stuff like Liverpool Sound Collage, which gives him a great opportunity to stress how he supplied tape loops for “Tomorrow Never Knows”, too. He collaborates with “experimental” producer Youth, who has also produced such decidedly non-leftfield acts as James and Crowded House, on his Fireman projects. But there’s worse…Enlisting Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn to write Anthology-style, track-by-track commentary on his 1997 album Flaming Pie…and the bizarre, petty 2002 reversal of writing credits on his self-penned “Lennon/McCartney” numbers to read “McCartney/Lennon”. C’mon, Paul. As if anyone who really cares doesn’t know who wrote “Yesterday”. Starr: “Under-handed.”

–The Beatles’ increasingly demeaning, petulant attitude toward their employees.

Everyone knows the Beatles began their career as humble, good-natured Everymen from Liverpool. But, with the possible exception of Starr, not even they were immune to the diva-ish tendencies that seem to overtake the rich, famous, and in-demand. By the recording of their last couple albums, studio hands were refusing to work with them because of the verbal abuse and lack of respect it entailed. The staff at their Apple Corps. offices had been reduced to servants who were expected to be at their unpredictable, chronically grumpy masters’ beck-and-call at all times. Apple, the place that was ostensibly a safe haven for artists and misfits, where all were accepted, had become a den of greed and disrespect. It was all just a precursor to the band’s tragic and shameful legal battles and kiss-offs on solo recordings and in the press. Richard DiLello, one-time Apple serf/publicist and author of The Longest Cocktail Party: “It’s a bad gig being a rich man’s slave…[being] reduced to puppets in this asinine charade of bootlicking.”

–“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”

Paul McCartney had done some borderline-schmaltzy, music hall-inspired songs before. But “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is the place where even the secret admirer of “Rocky Raccoon” must draw the line. Unnervingly “cute”, unrelentingly obnoxious, too literal-minded by half (McCartney insisted on a real anvil to provide the ridiculous “Bang Bang!”), this is the single Beatles song out of nearly 200 that is basically unlistenable. On the production side, putting a quick end to any arguments about “worst ever” is a big, fat, horribly dated Moog synthesizer solo. Lennon refused to have anything to do with it, and you should do the same. Lennon: “…for the grannies to dig.” Harrison: “My God, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was so fruity.” MacDonald: “Sniggering nonsense.”

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