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. 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 has 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, 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.
1. “Tomorrow Never Knows“
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 favor 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 artifact 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 characterizes 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 backward 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
3. “Hey Bulldog“
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
4. “She’s Leaving Home“
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 Kane and 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
5. “No Reply“
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 upbeat 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