Recently my colleague Derek Arnold, knowing that I’m a huge fan of The Beatles, shared with me an article that ranked the entire catalog of songs by the band.
I was appalled at some of the songs that I believe are ranked too high or too low. So, I thought I’d take a swing at it myself albeit with an abridged version. I’ll rank my Top 20 in ascending order with the final recording date in parentheses. I welcome you to do the same.
20. This Boy (10/17/63): The Beatles had many influences and this beautiful example of three-part harmony sets up a scorching solo vocal performance by John Lennon. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles clearly left an impression upon the Fab Four.
19. Ticket to Ride (2/15/65): From the movie “Help”, this captures the boys in a happy place and they looked as if they were having a blast on the slopes while this song played in the background. As a young kid, I recall finding pleasure in their happiness together. As an adult, I learned that the origin of their happiness was weed. Splendid tune with great lead guitar work from McCartney. The change of pace fade-out was an original idea – and it worked.
18. Penny Lane (2/17/67): Paul McCartney’s reminiscent romp through his adolescent years and a wonderful answer to a similar romp, John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields”. (Both could have been part of Sgt. Pepper…imagine that!)
Lennon’s contribution to the song was some help with the third verse and the sexual innuendo,
“four of fish and finger pie”. Use your imagination if you wish. The song features a piccolo which really gives it a unique vibe, particularly for the time. McCartney would later borrow a similar structure on his Venus & Mars album with the track, “Listen to What the Man Said”.
17. Here Comes the Sun (July-August, 1969): With tensions mounting over at Apple during the winter of 1969, George Harrison sought refuge in Eric Clapton’s garden as spring approached. This is one of two monster songs from Harrison on Abbey Road. Obviously, Clapton’s serene garden helped change Harrison’s mood, inspiring this happy song and timeless classic. John Lennon doesn’t appear on the record. He was recovering from an auto accident.
16. For No One (May, 1966): The growth of Lennon/McCartney between 1963 to 1966 is remarkable. From Love Me Do to songs like this from Revolver. Once again Macca leans on an outside instrumentalist through the employment of a French horn. Legend has it that McCartney wrote the song alone in a bathroom when he was on holiday with Jane Asher, skiing in the Swiss Alps.
15. Nowhere Man (10/22/65): During the Rubber Soul sessions, The Beatles were trying to come up with a few new tracks to complete the album. John Lennon spent a day at home trying to come up with something and struggled. He then took a break, laid down and let his mind wander. The wandering led him to this track which is in a way, autobiographical. Great vocal and harmonies and if you disagree, “you don’t know what you’re missing…”
14. Paperback Writer (4/14/66): Mostly a McCartney song, even featuring Macca on lead guitar. John Lennon called it “Son of Day Tripper” and clearly there are similarities. Released as a single with “Rain” as the B-side, both were recorded around the time of the Revolver sessions. Like Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields to Pepper, this single should have appeared on Revolver. Think about that!
13. Day Tripper (10/16/65): Tripper was recorded during the Rubber Soul sessions and could have easily been included on that record along with “We Can Work It Out”. But The Beatles were interested in providing their fans with value and that’s why songs were at times, released as less expensive singles and left off albums. In today’s digital world, that would never happen. Keep in mind that vinyl had time limitations. Adding too many songs would degrade the quality of sound. This was mostly a Lennon composition making it interesting that McCartney assumed the lead vocal.
12. Rain (4/16/66): Recorded around the time of Revolver, “Rain” is another of The Beatles psychedelic pieces that features a powerhouse rhythm section. McCartney’s bass propels the song and Ringo Starr’s performance is arguably his finest. The one-two punch of “Rain” and “Paperback Writer” is every bit as strong as other fantastic single records such as Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields, Hey Jude/Revolution and Something/Come Together. According to Paul McCartney this was a co-write with John, 70% of the credit he claims goes to Lennon.
11. Come Together (7/30/69): John Lennon received a little backlash from the song because it borrows a bit from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”. Lennon argued that Berry’s song simply inspired Come Together. Eventually they reached a settlement out of court in which Lennon committed to covering three songs by Morris Levy who owned the rights to “You Can’t Catch Me”.
McCartney’s virtuoso bass playing and the swampy keyboard sound which was also Macca’s idea, couple as the song’s signature trademark. The end result is a great piece from a band that was crumbling, evidence that they still had magic when they focused on music and not on business.
10. Something (April – August, 1969): George Harrison’ masterpiece, was perhaps in part, inspired by James Taylor’s “Something in The Way She Moves”. Taylor was one of the first artists signed to Apple Records. Harrison initially struggled with one key line that in retrospect seems so natural:
“Attracts me like no other lover.”
George said that he had Ray Charles in mind when he heard the vocal in his head. Charles did record the song later on and it was also performed regularly by Frank Sinatra who first introduced it as a Lennon/McCartney classic. During a later meeting with Michael Jackson, Harrison remembered that the gloved-one also thought it was a Lennon/McCartney piece.
9. Hey Jude (8/1/68): The song was initially called Hey Jules and was written about John Lennon’s son Julian. Paul had a special relationship with Julian and was troubled by the effects of divorce on the child. Lennon later thought the song was written about him. It’s even quite possible the song was autobiographical since Paul was struggling in his relationship with Jane Asher. Maybe it’s all of the above.
When the song was completed and before its release, McCartney played it at a gathering of friends, including Mick Jagger. Jagger heard it as two songs made into one. The record company questioned its length as a single, a notion completely scoffed at by Lennon who would emphatically state that if The Beatles say it works, then it works. Clearly it did.
This is the image burned into my brain and reappears as soon as McCartney hits the opening chords…
8. Eleanor Rigby (6/6/66): Another timeless McCartney classic and a great example of his ability as a lyricist when fully focused. The lyrics didn’t come easily though. Much like “Yesterday”, a lyric-less tune that was referred to as “Scrambled Eggs”, Rigby was just a melody for a while. Eventually the lyrics came, woven around a church and funeral scene. Father McKenzie was originally Father McCartney but Paul opted for the former. McCartney won a Grammy for his vocal. During a press conference The Beatles were once asked if they ever intended to perform solo. George Harrison deadpanned that Paul already had, with Eleanor Rigby.
7. She’s Leaving Home (3/20/67): A song driven by McCartney with some lyrical assistance from Lennon. The inspiration came from a 17-year-old girl named Melanie Coe who went missing. Like the song said, she ran away. The story was covered in the press and sparked McCartney’s creative juices. From Sgt. Pepper, an album that had some raucous rockers including the title track, this song is a symphonic departure, beautifully sung by both John and Paul. As a youngster, I would skip this song. As an adult, I know better.
6. You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (2/18/65): Featured in one of the classic scenes in the movie, “Help”, this is John Lennon unleashing his inner Bob Dylan and for me, it’s better than anything Dylan has done. Lennon’s vocal is on point while the presentation is simple. The song closes orchestrally and you have to wonder (as Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder pointed out recently on The Beatles Channel on Sirius/XM) if the closing originally featured a harmonica, an instrument that Lennon had used in the past. Again, as Vedder speculates, George Martin may have suggested the change just so that it wouldn’t be so Dylan-esque.
On one hand the song could be another Lennon introspective piece. On another, it could be an ode to the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, who was a homosexual during a much less accepting time. Perhaps it’s both.
5. I Saw Her Standing There (2/11/63): A test of a great song is that you still enjoy it even after hearing it a billion times. This song sounds as fresh today as it did the day I first heard it when my sister got a Close and Play phonograph for Christmas when we were very young. She played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” constantly. She ruined that song for me. When she wasn’t looking, I’d flip the record over to hear the B-side, “I Saw Her Standing There”. It’s a great McCartney vocal and the rawness in his voice suggests that the boys were very busy in the studio on this February night.
In 1974, when Elton John persuaded John Lennon to join him on stage to do “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”, they finished their performance with “I Saw Her Standing There”.
Lennon: “We thought we’d do a number of an old estranged fiancé of mine called Paul.”
4. Norwegian Wood: (10/21/65): During the recording of “Rubber Soul” The Beatles growth as artists was on full display. Just three years prior they recorded “Love Me Do” and by 1965 they were on to “Wood”. The original idea was John’s who brought it to Paul and together they crafted a great tune which was taken to another level with the introduction of the sitar into pop/rock music. Early renditions of the song had George Harrison playing a much busier sitar. In the case of “Wood” and the sitar, less was more and it complemented this song about an affair, perfectly.
3. A Day in The Life (2/22/67): The song was inspired by current events chronicled in the London tabloids and it closes the album that would forever change the way bands recorded – Sgt. Pepper. The song is the result of a Lennon original with no middle and a McCartney fragment which would have been elbowed had it not found a home in the middle of John’s burgeoning masterpiece. Lennon’s opening vocal sends chills down your spine and it exquisitely sets the mood of this epic creation. The Beatles wanted to turn us on in 1967. Fifty years later it still does.
2. Abbey Road Medley (August, 1969): The medley begins with “You Never Give Me Your Money”, a direct shot at Allen Klein who was managing The Beatles and loathed by McCartney. The song is blended together with 7 other songs which for the most part were incomplete. But as a whole, it worked because The Beatles, mostly McCartney and George Martin, strung them together in a way that played out like a rock and roll opera. The approach was in a way borrowed from Pepper and later mimicked by Abbey Road Studio mates, Pink Floyd.
We hear it all the time, that you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. With this medley, The Beatles made filet mignon out of Scrapple.
1. In My Life (10/22/65): In the span of just a few days The Beatles completed “Day Tripper”, “Nowhere Man” and “Norwegian Wood”. They also recorded “In My Life”. The song is mostly attributed to John Lennon, a reflective piece on the things that affected him throughout his life. During post Beatles interviews, both Lennon and McCartney recount their catalog of songs in rather shockingly consistent ways. “In My Life” is the one exception.
According to Lennon, “The whole lyrics were already written before Paul even heard it. His contribution melodically was the harmony and the middle eight.”
McCartney meanwhile, claimed credit for the melody, consistently sharing that the tune was his and inspired by songs from Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.
“I liked ‘In My Life’. Those were words that John wrote, and I wrote the tune to it. That was a great one.”
We’ll never be able to resolve this debate but what isn’t debatable is the resulting song – a stunning piece that is as fresh today as it was when recorded nearly 52 years ago.