Rolling Stone magazine is at it again. Last time, it was the Top 500 Rock and Roll Songs of all time; now it’s the Top 100 Beatles songs. As a fan of All Things Fab, it’s a given that I’ll be picking this issue up and griping about whether a particular song should be higher or lower, or complaining about what’s included and what’s not. Oddly, while RS‘s Top 500 list contained 23 Beatles songs, the highest-rated Beatles tune on the All-Time list — “Hey Jude” — comes in only at number seven on the All-Beatles list. (I mean, really, if it’s number eight on the all time list, shouldn’t it be number one here?) Meanwhile, “Yesterday,” which ranked below “Hey Jude” at 13 on the All-Time list, is four spots about “Jude” on the Beatles list at number four. So much for internal consistencies.
In general, I agree with the overall content of the top ten, though I might slide some of them around a bit (my personal favorite for the Number One spot vacillates between “Hey Jude” and “Something”). Here, then are Rolling Stone’s Top Ten Beatles songs, with a bit of side commentary:
(10) While My Guitar Gently Weeps
The words and music are George Harrison’s, but the famously weeping guitar solo is all Eric Clapton. This cut from 1968’s The Beatles (the so-called “White Album”) was originally demoed by George on just an acoustic guitar, with slightly different — and, in the case of one verse, much more depressing — lyrics. Here’s that demo — and it’s actually a more haunting performance than the wailing version on the final album:
(9) Come Together
Originally written by John Lennon wrote as the anthem for Timothy Leary’s failed bid for governor of California, “Come Together” features some of Lennon’s most cryptic lyrics (a delight in wordplay in the vein of Edward Lear), a snaky bass line, and some of the best drumming of Ringo Starr’s Beatle career. (Also of note: the creepy opening, which sounds like Lennon is stage-whispering “shhhhhook!” It’s actually Lennon saying “shoot me!” as he claps his hands — with the clap reverbed and echoed under the bass line.)
Here’s Lennon performing the song in 1972 at Madison Square Garden (you can get it on his posthumous Live in New York City album):
(8) Let It Be
Rehearsed and recorded during the tumultuous “winter of discontent” that eventually produced their final album, the Beatles shelved the song — and all the tapes from the sessions — until 1970, when they were handed over to master producer Phil Spector to cobble something together. McCartney was never happy with the version Spector put together for the Let It Be album, with its heavy scoring and choir, and preferred something closer to this version, seen in the Let It Be film (look for Billy Preston wailing away on the keyboard):
(7) Hey Jude
As I said above, this one usually gets my vote for number one. It starts simply and, with each chorus, builds in a deceptively dramatic manner. The words are terrific, the sentiment genuine, never cloying, and Lennon and McCartney have never harmonized better.
To me, this is the sleeper on the list — and vies with “Hey Jude” as my pick for number one. It’s about as perfect a song as George Harrison ever composed, but McCartney’s wandering bass line is the icing on the cake. Without it, it would be a very different song indeed.
(5) In My Life
One of John Lennon’s most introspective songs, this is one that usually ends up on the lists that the more hard core Beatles fans put together, while those less familiar with the Beatles usually go, “Huh?” That’s probably because “In My Life” was never released as a single, appearing in the middle of the second side of Rubber Soul (thats track 11 for those of you who don’t remember vinyl. And get offa my lawn.) That makes it a bit of inside baseball, but its appearance in the top ten is well-earned.
While it’s one of the most-recorded songs in history, McCartney — its primary composer — and the Beatles were somewhat nervous about this one, fearing it would ruin their rock and roll cred. For that reason, they refused to release it as a single in the United Kingdom (Capitol, their US record label, had no such qualms, and wisely released it in autumn 1965, where it sprinted to number one.)
Here are the Beatles — mostly McCartney, solo — following a cheeky intro from George Harrison:
(3) Strawberry Fields Forever
In late 1966, the Beatles were considering putting together an album of songs about their respective childhoods, to include a song McCartney had written about a street in Liverpool called “Penny Lane” and Lennon’s surreal nod to a Salvation Army garden near his childhood home. Ultimately — and in a move Beatles producer George Martin regrets to this day — “Penny Lane” and “Strawberrry Fields Forever” were packaged as a single (“Penny Lane” gets the Side 1 bragging rights) and the childhood album was scrapped in favor of the Sgt. Pepper motif.
The best-known story of the song involves George Martin splicing together two different versions of the song — which were also in two different keys — by slightly altering their speeds to put them in the same key. Hence, the rather druggy sounding lyrics. You can hear the splice at the 1:00 mark in the video below:
(2) I Want To Hold Your Hand
While I might argue that “She Loves You” is the better composition, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was the song that kicked off Beatlemania in the United States in 1964, so it backs into the Top Ten for historical significance. Here are the Boys, performing on Thank Your Lucky Stars in England in 1963. And look! They’re not plugged in!
(1) A Day In The Life
While I like “Hey Jude” better, I can’t argue with this one as the top pick. The final cut on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not only a fantastic song, nearly operatic in scope, but it also embodies the working styles and relationship of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Inspired by a number of newspaper stories, Lennon wrote the opening and closing verses, but lacked a “middle eight.” McCartney, meanwhile, had a snippet of a song — about a man waking up, getting out of bed, and catching a bus to work — that he thought might fit into Lennon’s overall structure. They decided to use a symphonic crescendo between the two pieces and . . . well . . .
It worked. And it still does.