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Sunday, February 11, 2018

My Favorite Beatles' Songs

I've been listening to a lot of Beatles music this weekend. The Beatles Channel on Sirius/XM has been playing the top 50 love songs of the Beatles, as voted on by fans. By the way, for whomever voted for it, "Dear Prudence" is not a love song, it's about Mia Farrow's sister having a breakdown in India. For the record, the top vote getter was "Something."

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which rocketed their stardom into the stratosphere in America. There is also an interview with Quincy Jones in which he states that the Beatles were lousy musicians. I heard this from one of my favorite DJs, Meg Griffin, who quoted Jones as saying they were "no play motherfuckers." I think I was more shocked by the saintly Griffin saying the word motherfucker. She wondered if Jones is right in the head. I say fuck Quincy Jones. Who cares if they were great musicians or not? They've written more memorable songs than Jones has.

So as I was driving around today I mentally compiled my list of favorite Beatles songs. The Fab Four recorded 307 songs, 237 original compositions. I have been listening to the Beatles religiously for almost fifty years, so I don't need to relisten to choose them. Except for the top four or five, the order is almost random:

10. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" I prefer the late Beatles, but I wanted to include one Beatlemania song. I have a distant memory of my aunt, who was about sixteen at the time, playing this record for me when I was a very small child. Of all the early songs, it's the one that seems freshest to me. I had a professor who spoke of how it seemed that The Beatles invented a new color, and this song comes closest to that description. I love the way it opens, as if it is in mid-song, with the lyrics starting two beats early.

9. "Strawberry Fields Forever" A sonic masterpiece, this was supposed to be on the Sgt. Pepper album but was rushed out as a single. John knew a place called Strawberry Fields in Liverpool, and there is an eerie and ominous nostalgia to it. His vocal was slowed down to give it an otherworldly quality, and this was a song full of experimentation, using a mellotron and an Indian instrument called the swarmandal. The song fades out and then has a coda that sounds like a jumble of instruments, and then ends with John's cryptic words that may or may not be "I bury Paul." He says it was "cranberry sauce."

8. "Yesterday" The most recorded song of all time, Paul McCartney would be a very rich man even if this is the only song he ever wrote. The song is stunning in it's simplicity, and would be one of the few (if not only) song ever recorded by only one Beatle participating. It's just Paul on guitar and a string quartet. Every Beatle fan knows the story about how Paul had the melody, and for a while the working title was "Scrambled Eggs."

7. I'll stick with Paul and strings with "Eleanor Rigby," which was on the Revolver album and may, more than any other song, startle traditional music fans to realizing that The Beatles were more than a pop band. The instrumentation, a double string quartet, is a marvel, and Paul's lyrics about loneliness show an increasing sophistication. I think I could listen to this song every hour and not get sick of it.

6. I wouldn't want to leave George Harrison out, and my favorite song of his is "Here Comes the Sun." He was usually limited to two songs an album, but he made the best of it on Abbey Road, with this one and "Something." Inspired one morning when he was sitting in his garden with Eric Clapton, this song is one of the best expressions of hope and optimism that I've ever heard.

5. "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End" The second side of Abbey Road, which begins with "Here Comes the Sun," is like a supernova, an musical explosion that was the end of the group (Abbey Road was recorded after Let It Be, though the latter was released later). Much of the side is a medley of songs that bleed one into the other, with this trio ending it (the ditty "Her Majesty" kind of ruins it). "Golden Slumbers" is a lullaby, the lyrics pinched from Thomas Dekker's poem. Paul saw the lyrics on a sheet of music on his dad's piano, and since he couldn't read music, wrote a tune of his own. The poignancy and power of his vocals give me chills. "Carry That Weight" is a bridge to "The End," which really was the end; it was the last song all four Beatles performed on. Each member has a solo, with the three guitarists doing an around the horn type thing, and Ringo getting the only drum solo of the band's history. This wasn't a slight of Ringo--he didn't like drum solos, and thought of himself as drummer that suited the song. Then the song ends in one of Paul's greatest lines: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

4. "For No One" This is probably the most obscure song on my list, as it doesn't get much airplay and was not on a single. From Revolver, it is Paul again, writing a song about an ended affair that, if you're in the wrong frame of mind, could wound you deeply. Written in a baroque style in a bathroom in Switzerland, the lyrics are again very poignant, and is marked by a French horn solo. John, who could be withering in his criticism of Paul, thought it was one his finest. Fun fact: in college I wrote a play called "A Love That Should Have Lasted Years," which was a line in the song. The play never did get produced.

3. Now we move into John songs. "In My Life" is regarded as one of the best Beatle songs by almost everyone, so no controversy here. Coming from Rubber Soul, it's again an indication that the group were more than pop song writers. The song came from a suggestion that John write about his childhood, and he said that it was the first song he wrote that was actually about him. There is some disagreement about who wrote the melody, which Paul takes credit for. There is also a classical middle eight, played on piano by George Martin. Fun fact: when my friend Bob got married he was trying to come up with a first dance song. I suggested "In My Life" and he and his wife went for it. Of course, if I ever get married I can't use it. I think I want to use Annie Lennox's "Love Song for a Vampire" anyway.

2: "A Day in the Life" Probably the song that most consider the Beatles' greatest accomplishment. It's a mash-up of two songs--John's commentary on the news, and Paul's bit about a man waking up and going to work. The references were to Tara Browne, a Guinness heir who died in a car crash, and a newspaper article about 4,000 holes in the road in Blackburn, Lancashire. The song's greatest innovation was the very long fade out, with an orchestra told to get from point A to point B in a certain number of bars, but to do it anyway they liked. Then there's that lingering piano reverberation, supposedly followed by a dog whistle. This is the kind of song we used to listen to with our heads next to the stereo speaker, trying to figure it all out.

1. My favorite Beatle song is "I Am the Walrus." It's a salamagundi of nonsense verse, inspired by John's love for the work of Lewis Carroll. It is also purposely obscure. John heard someone was teaching a course on  his lyrics, so he decided to have some fun by writing lyrics that meant nothing. The opening bars were inspired by the sound of police sirens. As one might expect, Lennon wrote much of the song on an acid trip. The song is full of things to discover, such as the bit of Shakespeare that was recorded off the radio that appears in the fade out. It's from King Lear, and whether Lennon intended it or not, that play fits in perfectly with the "mad" nature of the song. Fun fact: I wrote a paper on "I Am the Walrus" for a college class (it was a class on Rock Music, so it wasn't a stretch). I dutifully researched the lyrics, and discovered that a pilchard is a type of fish. Still don't know what "Goo goo goo joob" means.