Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BETTER, BETTER, BETTER, BETTER

With The Beatles: Rock Band and the much-hyped stereo/mono remasters coming out this week, the Beatles are getting more press than they have since 1964. I haven’t heard the remasters yet, so I can’t comment on them, but I thought this would be a good opportunity (perhaps excuse is a better word) to indulge my Beatle-obsession and run down my list of top twenty Beatles tracks. Yes, everybody else at every newspaper, magazine, website and blog on the planet is doing something similar, but, hey, it’s the Beatles.

A word of warning: these are my top twenty selections today. The Beatles treasure chest is so deep, and filled with so many musical jewels, that I could probably compile another list, with twenty different songs, tomorrow.

20. “Please Please Me”
Their first number one single. As fresh, as exciting, as filled with humor and energy, as anything that followed. Right out of the gate John Lennon proved he had one of the greatest voices in rock and roll. And he kept getting better.

19. “Don’t Let Me Down”
As honest, and emotionally naked, a song as the Beatles ever recorded. No surprise that the wounded, desperate voice at the center of the song is Lennon’s. “Don’t Let Me Down” provides the blueprint for much of John’s solo career: autobiography, straight from the heart.

18. “Come Together”
“Come Together” isn’t the greatest Beatles song, but it’s one of the most brilliant recordings the band ever made.  Abbey Road may have been the group’s last album—with tensions high and everyone pretty much desperate to get out—but you’d never know it from the way they played together on this track.  McCartney’s bass and Ringo’s drums alone are worth the price of admission, with Harrison’s guitar work not far behind—and it’s all topped with a snaky Lennon vocal that manages to be as inspiring as it is sinister.  But the real hero here may be producer George Martin, who gives the track an incredible polish, without ever obscuring the song’s down and dirty roots.  

17. “If I Fell”
According to myth, John was the acerbic rocker and Paul was the melodic, tender-hearted balladeer. In reality, McCartney was one of rock’s great screamers and Lennon’s hard shell masked an incredibly soft center. Here John offers up one of his most beautiful, and honest, love songs—with Paul'’s harmony offering perfect support.

16. “We Can Work It Out”
I still remember hearing this come over the radio in 1965. It didn’t sound like any other Beatles song I’d ever heard—especially the middle section, with that funereal harmonium pumping away and Lennon and McCartney—sounding more desperate and anxious than two rich, happy rock stars should—telling us all that life was very short and there was no time for fussing and fighting. The Beatles were clearly changing and that fact was as thrilling as it was disturbing.

15. “Tomorrow Never Knows”
Psychedelia went into labor with “Rain,” but it was born with this extraordinary track: Lennon channeling Timothy Leary channeling The Tibetan Book of the Dead. “Lay down all thought, surrender to the void...it is shining, it is shining...” Still great advice, if you ask me.

14. “A Hard Day’s Night”
The essence of Beatlemania—all the joy and wit, euphoria and lunacy—boiled down to two minutes and thirty-three seconds. Once again Lennon and McCartney are in perfect balance—you could write an entire book about the blending of those two incredible voices—and George Harrison offers up a glorious opening chord that musicologists are still dissecting.

13. “All You Need Is Love”
There are some who dismiss this song as so much hippie claptrap. Me, I’m of the opinion that it’s one of the wisest, truest songs ever written. The message is so clear a three year old could understand it, but listen to the lyrics and they open up a whole universe of meaning. Not a hint of claptrap to be found.

12. “Here, There and Everywhere”
As perfect a love song as has ever been written. If McCartney had retired immediately after recording this, his place in the songwriter’s hall of fame would still be secure.

11. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”
John Lennon saw this strange, tortuous collision of imagery, angst and varying musical styles as a mini-history of rock and roll—and it certainly is that. It’s also one of the oddest, most disturbing and exhilarating songs in the Beatles catalogue. A journey down the rabbit hole that was the Mind of Lennon, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is, even after forty years, a continual revelation.

10. “Let It Be” (single version)
McCartney at his most soulful and introspective. The album version, produced by Phil Spector, is a bad mix, with the drums clomping all over the place, the lead guitar noisily intruding and poor Paul stranded in the middle. The single version, produced by the impeccable and brilliant George Martin, is in perfect balance.

9. “Blackbird”
A gorgeous melody, a flawless lyric, and a performance as honest as any McCartney—who sometimes hides his art behind artifice—has ever given. This is the song “Yesterday” wishes it could be.

8. “In My Life”
For years McCartney claimed that Lennon wrote all the lyrics while he supplied the melody. Then Paul changed his story, claiming that he actually co-wrote the lyrics with Lennon. Lennon insisted that he wrote all the lyrics and most of the music, with Paul helping out with the melody. I tend to believe Lennon, who spoke about this song with great passion, and in great detail, during his last interviews; but, however “In My Life” was composed, this Rubber Soul track remains one of the Beatles’ greatest achievements. It’s not surprising that a Mojo magazine panel of professional songwriters selected it as the greatest pop song of the twentieth century.

7. “Across The Universe” (Let It Be...Naked version)
One of the (many) wonderful thing about the Beatles is the fact that their songs evolve in the listening, the tracks continually revealing new layers and levels, and, because of that, “Across The Universe”—a cosmic cry from John Lennon’s heart—grows closer to my heart every year. There have been several different versions released, but the version on the otherwise unnecessary Let It Be...Naked brings out all the song’s magic and transcendence. No wonder NASA beamed it into space.

6. “I Am The Walrus”
A surreal, psychedelic masterpiece—with a fierce Lennon vocal (there’s some raw anger beneath the druggy haze) and insanely brilliant George Martin orchestration that perfectly matches John’s equally insane, and equally brilliant, lyrics.

5. “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End”
Paul McCartney at the peak of his powers, leading his band-mates through a memorable finale that manages to wrap up not just one of the Beatles finest albums—Abbey Road—but their entire astonishing career.

4. “Here Comes The Sun”
Optimism, cosmic consciousness, shimmering guitars and gorgeous harmonies entwine in George Harrison’s greatest Beatles-era composition: the best Lennon-McCartney song that John and Paul never wrote.

3. “Strawberry Fields Forever”
The first song recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, this is Lennon at his most dreamy and introspective and the Beatles at their most brilliantly experimental. “Strawberry Fields” was yanked from Pepper—along with the wonderful “Penny Lane”—to be the Beatles first single of 1967. Had both those songs been included on Pepper, the album might have lived up to its hype.

2. “A Day In The Life”
Lennon’s vocal is one of the most magnificent in the history of popular music—so cold, it’s hot; so emotionally removed that it becomes extraordinarily intimate—and the collision of John’s cosmic alienation with Paul’s down-to-earth everyman persona detonates an ending that Lennon, accurately, described to producer George Martin as “a tremendous build-up from nothing up to something absolutely like the end of the world.” Yes, Sgt. Pepper is brilliant, a work of genius and blahblahblah—but it’s also the most over-rated album in the Beatles catalogue. (For my money, Rubber Soul, A Hard Day’s Night, Abbey Road and The White Album are all superior efforts.) “A Day In The Life” is the place where 60’s mythology and musical reality meet.

1. “Hey Jude”
Is this the Beatles’ best song? Who knows? Is it my favorite? Absolutely. When I was a teenager, lost in adolescent angst and misery, I’d sit for hours feeding my dour mood, listening to the most depressing music in my collection. Then, when I was ready to get over myself, I’d put on “Hey Jude” and, instantly, hope was back. The song is honest, heartfelt and, by the end, downright majestic. A brilliant, moving—and utterly unpretentious—work of art.

© copyright 2009 J.M. DeMatteis

16 comments:

  1. How is it that The Beatles are still captivating today?

    Man, they wrote the best pop-rock songs ever. EVER!

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  2. You'll get no arguments here, Nicholas!

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  3. hmmm... not sure about your number #1, JM!! I would've picked SPLHC!

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  4. The Sgt. Pepper song as the best Beatles track, Rich? Or are you talking about the entire album. Either way...I disagree!

    By the way, are you the same Richard Emms who is the co-owner of Ardden Entertainment, publishers of FLASH GORDON, the upcoming revival of CASPER and other fine comics? (Hey! We've gotta get in the plugs wherever we can, right?)

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  5. "Hey Jude" has got to be one of my least favorite Beatles tunes! Here's my list - I kept the Lennon songs to 15 so I could get Harrison and McCartney songs in there, too. My true Top 20 would be all Lennon...

    20. Here Comes The Sun
    19. Taxman
    18. Something
    17. Eleanor Rigby
    16. Blackbird
    15. Sexy Sadie
    14. Dear Prudence
    13. I’m Only Sleeping
    12. In My Life
    11. A Day In The Life
    10. Help!
    9. Don’t Let Me Down
    8. Girl
    7. Rain
    6. Tomorrow Never Knows
    5. Norwegian Wood
    4. And Your Bird Can Sing
    3. Strawberry Fields Forever
    2. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
    1. I Am The Walrus

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  6. Great list, Omaha. You're even more militantly pro-Lennon than I am (I didn't think that was possible)! "I Am The Walrus" is a masterpiece and I can absolutely see why you'd rate it #1. But you don't like "Hey Jude"? Really? I'm stunned.

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  7. I never get tired of "Here Comes The Sun"--its so perfectly perfect.

    When I got the Beatles 1 cd, which is all their #1 hits, I was floored to see that HCTS isn't on it! It wasn't a #1 hit?!? How is that possible??

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  8. "Here Comes The Sun" was never released as a single, Rob. In fact, from their second album on, once a Beatles song was released as a single it was very consciously left off their albums (which is why you won't find "Strawberry Fields" or "Penny Lane" on Sgt. Pepper). That changed again with Abbey Road and Let It Be—but for the most part the Beatles had so many incredible songs that they didn't need to include the singles on the albums. One more reason why they were the greatest band ever.

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  9. After hearing it for what seems like (and may be) thousands of times, "Hey Jude" seems a bit syrupy and repetitive... Possibly the only Beatles song I could do without! On a side note, I had a childhood friend named Jude who was very definitely named for the song - I wonder how he feels about it...

    As for my list, almost any of those Lennon tunes could be #1 on any given day...

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  10. One of my other Major Favorite Lennon songs, that could easily have been on the list, is "I'm So Tired." In fact, I love just about everything Lennon contributed to the White Album. "Yer Blues," "Dear Prudence," "Julia," "Bungalow Bill," "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and on and on. Take all John's contributions, put them on a CD by themselves and you'll have one of the great Lennon albums of all time.

    As for "Hey Jude," we'll have to agree to disagree. I can think of many McCartney tunes I'd call syrupy, but "Jude" isn't one of them.

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  11. On your list of Beatles albums which are better than Sgt Pepper, you forgot to mention Revolver, which is the greatest album ever recorded by anybody. I don't understand how that could've slipped your mind.

    Another great thing about 'I Am The Walrus', which you forgot to mention, is that it made a fantastic ending to your run on The Defenders.

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  12. I know this is heresy, Anonymous, but Revolver isn't my favorite Beatles album. (Although I will absolutely rank it above Pepper.) There are many songs I love on there -- "Here, There and Everywhere," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "She Said, She Said" -- but I've always found something about the production to be just a little cold and heady.

    Going with the original British LPs, I'd rank the top four as 1) the White Album 2) Abbey Road (Separated by a hair.) 3) Rubber Soul 4) A Hard Day's Night. After that it gets a little harder.

    Today, I'd go with either Revolver or Magical Mystery Tour (yeah, I know it's more of a compilation than an offical Beatles album), the Past Masters CDs, Help, Let It Be, Beatles For Sale, With the Beatles and Please Please Me. The Yellow Submarine album has two incredible tracks -- "Hey, Bulldog" and "All Too Much" -- but it's not really a Beatles album. It's more of a soundtrack-mishmosh.

    Bottom line is, the worst Beatles album is still magic and I love them all.

    As for the Defenders: I can't understand why the Walrus hasn't gone on to be one of the truly great villains in the Marvel Universe. Oh, wait. Yes, I can.

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  13. Well, you've inspired me to check out some Beatles songs . . . anyone who writes comics as great as yours can't have THAT bad of musical taste! ;)

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  14. Wait, wait, wait: I've inspired you to check out some Beatles songs? Does that mean you're not familiar with the Beatles discography? Please, Drew—drop everything right now and get your hands on "Abbey Road" or "Rubber Soul" or "The White Album," immerse yourself in them for a few week and then come back here and report in. That's an order!

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  15. Well, I guess I should clarify—I know the Beatles, just not super well. I like some Beatles songs, but I don't LOVE the Beatles or anything. But I've also never really heard a complete Beatles album, just songs on the radio or greatest hits-type albums. So I'm considering either getting a few albums from the library or seeing if I can use YouTube to put together a playlist of your favorite songs from above. I take it you're leaning towards picking up the albums you've suggested . . . ?

    (Wow, having to do that word verification thing each time is kind of annoying—I figured it would just be the first time around!)

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  16. I'd recommend any of those albums, Drew—if I had to pick just one, I'd say "White Album." Or you could wait and see if the Beatles finally get on iTunes in the next few months and then download my top 20.
    And, then, if they've altered your consciousness and rocked your world, you can move on to the albums.

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