My 50 favourite Beatles songs


It’s an impossible task, it really is. But to mark 50 years since the Beatles officially split up – the news was announced in the UK press on Friday 10 April 1970 – I’ve attempted to list the band’s 50 greatest songs.

I began with a ‘shortlist’… of well over 100. The Beatles were *that* good, you see. Then the whittling process took quite a while. And it *hurt*. It pained me to cut out sumptuous tracks like Good Day Sunshine and Julia; joyful songs like Think For Yourself and It Won’t Be Long; life-enhancing work like Yellow Submarine and Lady Madonna; early pieces of perfect pop like I’ll Get You and Any Time at All; blockbusters like She Loves You and Taxman; innovations like Tomorrow Never Knows and Happiness is a Warm Gun; melancholic marvels like I’m a Loser and I’m So Tired; charismatic rockers like Get Back and You Can’t Do That; delightfully delicate tunes like For No One and Here, There and Everywhere; enigmatic gems like Dear Prudence and Every Little Thing; and an eclectic mix of other songs that would be most bands’ finest achievement: Wait, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, Back in the USSR, I’m Looking Through You, If I Needed Someone, Old Brown Shoe, I Want to Tell You, And I Love Her, I’ve Just Seen a Face, It’s Only Love, Things We Said Today, Glass Onion, Oh! Darling, The Word, And Your Bird Can Sing, and more. The Beatles really were *that* good, you see.


But here it is. For better or worse, here is my personal, subjective, flawed and compromised selection of the 50 best songs by the world’s best ever band. Feel free to let me know your favourites in the comments section below…

50 No Reply (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Beatles For Sale, released 4 December 1964
The opener from the Beatles’ fourth album is a downbeat song about being blanked by a girlfriend. After a couple of years of ‘boy loves girl’ lyrics, this was something slightly deeper. ‘You’re getting better now,’ the band’s publisher, Dick James, told John Lennon at the time. ‘That was a complete story.’ Musically, No Reply is initially laid-back and soft, then features a very stirring middle eight (‘If I were you, I’d realise…’).

49 Across the Universe (Lennon-McCartney)
Track on charity album No One’s Gonna Change Our World, released 12 December 1969
Catching John in one of his soppiest moods, Across the Universe is in some ways just a pleasant melody and some purple prose (‘Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box,’ anyone?). But there’s undeniably a magical, perhaps spiritual vibe about the song too. It’s likeable. It’s also a Beatles track that’s available in a couple of different versions. The first was given to a 1969 charity LP organised by Spike Milligan. It’s the rawer and the better of the two, save for some poor backing vocals from a pair of Beatles fans brought in off the street. The second was released on the Let It Be album, and is actually the same performance – but that album’s producer, Phil Spector, slowed it down so John sounds drunk and added a Disney-like orchestral score.

48 Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released 26 May 1967
The lyrics are a meaningless mish-mash of Edward Lear-like whimsy – newspaper taxis, tangerine trees, the girl with the sun in her eyes, et al – and they go a long way in supporting Sgt Pepper’s reputation as a flower-power fairy tale. Author John denied that the title was a code for LSD (no, I’m not convinced either), but whether coincidence or not, there’s something of a ‘high’ about Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

47 Lovely Rita (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released 26 May 1967
An upbeat tune from Paul, who may have based its narrative on a flirty encounter with a female traffic warden. (His story has changed over the years.) Decoration around the edges comes from some fun comb-and-paper sound effects and a jaunty honky-tonk piano solo played by the band’s regular producer, George Martin.

46 I’ll Follow the Sun (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Beatles For Sale, released 4 December 1964
A delightfully picturesque tune, written by Paul when he was a teenager. The lyrics have a yearning for a better life, but this isn’t an angry, frustrated song. It’s more sanguine. The whole thing has a soft, unfussy feel, helped by a guitar solo that is essentially just four plectrum strikes.

45 Yesterday (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Help!, released 6 August 1965
You may know this one. It’s quite famous.

44 From Me to You (Lennon-McCartney)
A-side, released 11 April 1963
A carefree Beatlemania-era single, written by John and Paul while on a tour bus. Like the earlier hits Love Me Do and Please Please Me, it features a harmonica sound (how odd would the Beatles’ career have been if this motif had continued!) but the killer hook is a decent into a moody F major for the middle eight (‘I got arms that long to hold you…’).

43 Octopus’s Garden (Starkey)
Album tracks on Abbey Road, released 26 September 1969
A charming singalong written by Ringo Starr while holidaying on Peter Sellers’s boat in Sardinia, having temporarily quit the band in 1968. The fly-on-the-wall Beatles film Let It Be features a lovely moment where Ringo shows the chords to George Harrison, who then kindly offers an idea for an improvement. The result is easily the best Beatles track sung by their drummer.

42 Eleanor Rigby (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Revolver, released 5 August 1966
A string octet arranged by George Martin plays Paul’s autumnal tune with staccato restraint (for the first time, no Beatle plays an instrument on a Beatles recording) and it’s achingly beautiful. Meanwhile, the lyrics conjure up a Gothic-tinged story of sadness and loneliness: ‘Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’, ‘Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear’, ‘Died in the church and was buried along with her name.’ The words are mostly by Paul, but the other Beatles chipped in ideas during a brainstorming session. 

41 Revolution (Lennon-McCartney)
B-side to Hey Jude single, released 26 August 1968
This is one of a trilogy of songs based around John’s burgeoning awareness of social activism. The slow, acoustic track Revolution 1 and the avant-garde sound collage Revolution 9 were recorded for the White Album. But when the other Beatles baulked at releasing Revolution 1 as a single (saying it was too slow), John organised a recording of this unnumbered remake – a pumped-up, electrified performance that turns the folksy tune into an aggressive rant. The severe, fuzzy guitar sound was achieved by playing straight into the mixing desk, rather than recording a speaker’s output. In the slow version, John had hedged his bets, ambiguously saying to protestors, ‘But when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out… in…’ By the time he taped the remake, he was more decisive: there’s no hesitant ‘in’.


40 Don’t Let Me Down (Lennon-McCartney)
B-side to Get Back single, released 11 April 1969
A plaintive and yearning love song dressed up as a slow rocker. Written (and sung with authentic passion) by John, it also features some fun keyboard noodling by Billy Preston, a semi-official band member during the 1969 Let It Be sessions.

39 I Call Your Name (Lennon-McCartney)
EP track on Long Tall Sally, released 19 June 1964
It may lose its way slightly, with a misjudged ska section that seems to go out of time, but this is a terrific little rocker with one of John’s best vocal deliveries. (Never a virtuoso singer, he nevertheless ‘acted’ his songs better than almost everyone.) The chiming guitar sound, with George Harrison debuting his gleaming Rickenbacker 360/12, was soon copied wholesale by rival band The Byrds. Wonderful.

38 Baby, You’re a Rich Man (Lennon-McCartney)
B-side to All You Need is Love single, released 7 July 1967
One of the odder-sounding tracks the Beatles ever did, this B-side contains a bizarrely loud bass guitar – you can really hear Paul’s pick striking the strings – as well as the unnerving drone of an electronic keyboard called a clavioline. Superficially, John’s lyrics are an anthem of Summer-of-Love optimism, but there’s bite too: he’s essentially asking, ‘Yeah, life is good at the moment – but what’s next?’ (Famously, there’s also a crude dig at Beatles manager Brian Epstein: ‘Baby, you’re a rich fag Jew,’ John sings childishly at one point, hoping no one will notice.)

37 I’m Only Sleeping (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Revolver, released 5 August 1966
Produced during a period when the Beatles and George Martin were pushing every envelope they could find, this John song gorgeously evokes a dog-tired, half-asleep, frustrated feel. The deliberately low-energy vocals, the languid guitar strums, the tiptoe bassline, the brilliant trick of playing a guitar solo backwards… It’s a stunning marriage of lyrical meaning and sound.

36 Eight Days a Week (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Beatles For Sale, released 4 December 1964
Probably the Beatles’ most number-one-single-ish song that was left as an album track (it *was* released as a single in America, however), Eight Days a Week begins with a peculiar fade-in, then breezes along on an air of harmonised vocals, acoustic strums and handclaps.

35 I Saw Her Standing There (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Please Please Me, released 22 March 1963
The opening track on the Beatles’ debut album is a powerful rock’n’roller. It pounds away for three exciting minutes, beginning with Paul’s vérité count-in (‘One, two, three, four!’) which was left in to suggest a live performance. Along the way, there are high-pitched vocals and screams, saucy lyrics (‘She was just 17/You know what I mean’) and crafty rhymes (‘My heart went boom/As she crossed that room’). Measurelessly wonderful.

34 Blackbird (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on The Beatles, released 22 November 1968
One of a cache of songs written while the Beatles were on a spiritual retreat in India, Paul’s beautiful finger-picking ditty can be taken either literally or as any number of metaphors. (McCartney himself suggests the words are about civil rights.) The rhythmic sound that accompanies Paul on guitar and vocal has never been fully explained: it’s probably just the sound of him tapping his foot as he plays.

33 While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Harrison)
Album track on The Beatles, released 22 November 1968
Recorded and mixed with a huge FM-radio sound, George Harrison’s best song on the mammoth double White Album is a lament about intra-Beatles politics. Tensions in mid 1968 were so bad, in fact, that George brought in his pal Eric Clapton to play on the song. The thinking was that John, Paul and Ringo would behave better with an outsider around. We can be grateful for the idea: Eric’s piercing guitar work on While My Guitar Gently Weeps adds class to what was already a very impressive track.

32 Please Please Me (Lennon-McCartney)
A-side, released 11 January 1963
The Beatles’ second EMI single and their first number one (in some charts, anyway; the UK didn’t get a consolidated chart until 1969). Written by John, who was tickled by the naughty pun in the title, it was initially a slow song a la Roy Orbison. However, George Martin then made an insightful suggestion: ramp up the tempo and increase the intensity. Full of incident and detail, the final version is brilliant power-pop that makes most other Merseybeat songs seem facile. Listening to this, you can plainly understand why so many people were excited when the Beatles broke through. They must have been immense live.

31 Hey Bulldog (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Yellow Submarine, released 13 January 1969
On 11 February 1968, the Beatles gathered at EMI Studios on Abbey Road. Their purpose was to record a promotional video for their next single, Lady Madonna, but rather than recreate that song’s genesis for the cameras they chose to use the time more wisely. The crew, therefore, actually filmed the band while they knocked up an entirely new track: Hey Bulldog, written primarily by John. It’s snarling and chaotic and rather wonderful – check out John’s committed vocals, the distorted guitar solo, and Paul and John’s ‘barking’ conversation during the final 30 seconds. To toss off a gem like this in an afternoon when they meant to be doing something else… Wow.


30 [The Medley] (Lennon-McCartney)
Album tracks on Abbey Road, released 26 September 1969
This is a bit of a cheat, obviously, and in fact it means our ‘top 50’ list contains 57 songs. But the brilliance of the 16-minute medley on Album Road does not lie within the individual songs – You Never Give Me Your Money, Sun King, Mean Mr Mustard, Polythene Pam, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight and The End. It’s in the overall, sweeping effect.

29 You Won’t See Me (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Rubber Soul, released 3 December 1965
A tightly controlled expression of melancholic beauty, written and sung by Paul. Every single element of the song – each instrument, the arrangement, the vocals, the sentiment – rings of intelligence and attention to detail. To call McCartney melodically gifted would be to employ rather a lot of understatement.

28 Helter Skelter (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on The Beatles, released 22 November 1968
The most raucous and rough-round-the-edges the Beatles ever got, this wild, heavy track precursors punk by several years. Check out the angelic backing vocals contrasting with the screeching guitars, thunderous drumming and chug-chug bass sound.

27 I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Abbey Road, released 26 September 1969
The Beatles wrote several songs about their respective partners. Paul used lyrics as a therapy process while dating actress Jane Asher, while George gave the world at least one of its greatest love songs while enraptured by model Pattie Boyd. But no woman had a bigger influence on the band than conceptual artist Yoko Ono, who John met on 9 November 1966. (A fact not often mentioned is that she’d actually already met Paul.) Lennon’s undying, passionate love for her inspired this tremendous eight-minute jazz-rock number that repeats chords and the same four phrases over and over: both he and the track are obsessed. But it’s far from a solo effort. The playing by all four Beatles and keyboardist Billy Preston is crisp and compelling.

26 Come Together (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Abbey Road, released 26 September 1969
A sultry, seedy song written by John but the product of smart contributions from the whole band. The lyrics are self-confessed ‘gobbledygook’, but the mood is dark and dangerous and rather magnificent, while the production is impressively sharp.

25 She’s Leaving Home (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released 26 May 1967
Evocative, stark and near-the-knuckle storytelling, beautifully performed and produced. Paul McCartney was just 24 years old when he wrote this nuanced tale of a tragic runaway, which is full of characterful phrases (‘Clutching her handkerchief’, ‘Father snores as his wife gets into her dressing gown’, ‘Meeting a man from the motor trade’). The string arrangement, by Mike Leander, is utterly bewitching. Lusher than the superficially similar Eleanor Rigby, it recalls the proud working-class mood of the 1966 film The Family Way, for which Paul wrote the incidental music.

24 Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Rubber Soul, released 3 December 1965
A large part of this song’s appeal comes from its unusual sound. It’s largely played on folksy acoustic guitars, but is also peppered with notes from a sitar (an instrument George Harrison had recently acquired through curiosity). Another reason for Norwegian Wood’s success is John’s witty lyric about an affair, which ends with an absurd punchline about arson. Paul’s harmonising with the lead vocal is also terrific.

23 A Hard Day’s Night (Lennon-McCartney)
A-side single, released 10 July 1964
Bursting with joy and youthful energy, the title track to the Beatles’ third album (and their first movie) was written to order by John – but its pleasingly odd name came from Ringo. During their early years of pop hits, the Beatles packed their songs with incident and interest, so here we get: an attention-grabbing opening guitar chord; breathless vocals from John (and Paul on the middle-eight); a relentless rhythm from Ringo on bass drum, bongos and occasionally cowbell; a perfectly tidy solo from George Harrison (which George Martin is expertly doubling on a piano); and a glistening, arpeggio fade-out. This is not a teeny-bopper record that was tossed off in one afternoon. An enormous amount of thought and hard work has gone into making it seems so effortless.

22 She Said She Said (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Revolver, released 5 August 1966
At a 1965 party attended by John, George Harrison and Ringo, the actor Peter Fonda began to say that he knew what it was like to be dead, which – because they were all on an LSD trip – freaked the others out so much he was asked to leave. But John later used the incident as the basis for this guitar-heavy track, which uses complex chord sequences and changes its time signatures in interesting ways. Ringo’s drumming is wonderful, but Paul doesn’t appear on the recording at all – having flounced off after a row.

21 All My Loving (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on With the Beatles, released 22 November 1963
This was a rarity for Paul: a song where he wrote the words first, only later working out its melody on a piano. He then made sure he’d grab the attention in more ways than just being the author – his lead vocal begins a beat before the instruments, while his strident ‘walking bassline’ drives the song up and down its scale. George Harrison makes a late bid for glory with a Nashville-sounding guitar solo, but this is a Macca masterpiece.


20 I Feel Fine (Lennon-McCartney)
A-side single, released 27 November 1964
Another stunner from the Beatles’ astonishingly verdant middle phase, a period where they wrote and recorded tracks of immense quality while *at the same time* fulfilling a dizzying schedule of gigs, TV appearances, interviews, filming days, radio shows and almost ceaseless travel. I Feel Fine has a Cuban dexterity, building a foot-tapper around a complex guitar riff, an off-accent bassline and some of Ringo’s most detailed drumming. It shimmies and shakes and is rather sexy. It also begins with the unorthodox tactic of including a ‘deliberate mistake’ – an artful howl of feedback.

19 Yer Blues (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on The Beatles, released 22 November 1968
Almost immediately after hooking up with George Martin, the Beatles began to experiment with recording techniques, unconventional instruments, unusual arrangements, mixing tricks and avant-garde concepts. Their career is dotted with examples of them playing with the form of pop music and introducing new ideas to the mainstream. But every now and again, they also stripped things back to basics. Described perceptibly by the Beatles scholar Ian MacDonald as ‘half-satirical, half-earnest’, John’s Yer Blues was referencing the then-current British blues-rock scene (Cream, the Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, etc). Recorded during a period of unhappiness amongst the band, all four Beatles squeezed into a tiny studio and played live in an attempt to recapture the fun of the early days. It’s a warts-and-all performance; no frills, no fat.

18 Here Comes the Sun (Harrison)
Album track on Abbey Road, released 26 September 1969
Written by George Harrison in Eric Clapton’s garden while he waited for his friend to get out of bed, this vibrant, bucolic tune positively radiates with warmth and life. (It was written in April 1969, the sunniest month of the 1960s meteorologically speaking.) Brimming with charm, and powered along by handclaps and Moog-synth flutes, it captures George’s sense of escape and freedom after a depressing time recording Let It Be, an album that had tested all the Beatles’ patience.

17 Because (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Abbey Road, released 26 September 1969
Starting like the doom-laden incidental music from a Stanley Kubrick film, then featuring vocal-only contributions from the Beatles, Because is a very long way from the moptop era of Love Me Do. The baroque music is dominated by an electric harpsichord and a Moog synthesiser, modern devices that ironically create an 18th-century feel (John admitted it was influenced by Beethoven). Then John, Paul and George start to sing… Each was recorded three times to create a nonagon of utter beauty. It’s icy, airy, angelic. Full of wonder.

16 Twist and Shout (Phil Medley, Bert Russell)
Album track on Please Please Me, released 22 March 1963
Early in their careers – due to convention, taste and lack of writing time – the Beatles would pad their discography with cover versions. There are several great ones: a charming Till There Was You, a soulful You Really Got a Hold on Me, an energetic Money (That’s What I Want), a frantic Rock’n’Roll Music. But the best is this *wildly* exciting performance of Phil Medley and Bert Berns’ 1961 track. And it is a ‘performance’ – this is 155 unfettered, unedited, unembellished seconds of John, Paul, George and Ringo playing live in Abbey Road on 11 February 1963. Even more remarkably, it’s the one and only take they attempted that day: John had a cold, which you can plainly hear in his ragged lead vocal, and couldn’t carry on. Jumping with energy and drive and glee, the track features hair-raising crescendos, joyful drumming, and a yelp of pride from Paul during the fade-out. Oh, to be a tenth this talented.

15 She’s a Woman (Lennon-McCartney)
B-side to I Feel Fine single, released 27 November 1964
A dapper little track, this. It sounds jazzy and cool. Written by Paul around a 12-bar structure, there’s a melodic bassline and some vamping on a piano – but the foundation is a relentless series of violent guitar chops. Macca’s growly vocals are ace too, as is George Harrison’s understated guitar solo.

14 Can’t Buy Me Love (Lennon-McCartney)
A-side, released 20 March 1964
The late Beatles critic Ian MacDonald talked about Can’t By Me Love’s ‘effortless rightness’ and that sums it up perfectly. From its very first sound – Paul’s lead vocal, momentarily unaccompanied – the whole song comes fully formed and feels inevitable. Unpretentious and optimistic, it barrels along with charm.

13 Penny Lane (Lennon-McCartney)
Double-A side with Strawberry Fields Forever, released 13 February 1967
Having been wowed by the 1966 Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, Paul wanted a very ‘clean’, ‘clipped’ sound for this beautifully nostalgic song about his childhood. The lyrics mention several touchstones of his youth – the Penny Lane district of Liverpool, a favoured barbers, etc – but in generic-enough terms that it doesn’t feel parochial. (There’s also some surreal ambiguity: it’s both sunny and rainy at the same time, while the pretty nurse selling poppies ‘feels as if she’s in a play’ and ‘is anyway.’) Musically, the foundation is Paul’s prominent bassline and George Martin’s orchestral support, while freelancer David Mason provided the cute piccolo trumpet solo. There are also sound effects to punch-up certain lines: the ringing of a bell when a fire engine is mentioned, for example. It’s an astounding song – as light as air, yet packed full of detail.

12 We Can Work It Out (Lennon-McCartney)
Double A-side with Day Tripper, released 3 December 1965
This deceptively complex song marries an optimistic verse/chorus written by Paul with a darker ‘bridge’ section written by John, and perfectly illustrates why these two men worked so well together. (In the entire history of culture, has there ever been a more productive partnership? No. The answer to that question is no.) Complete with a beautiful cushion of acoustic guitars and harmonium, We Can Work It Out freewheels downhill with supreme confidence.

11 Drive My Car (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Rubber Soul, released 3 December 1965
It features one of Paul’s best R&B vocals and the ‘bottom end’ of the mix was inspired by bass-heavy records like Otis Redding’s Respect, but the infectious Drive My Car is far from a robotic copy of contemporary American music. This is the Beatles, after all. So as the track pumps away, we hear jokey backing vocals (‘Beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah!’) and then the lyrics – a story about a budding chauffeur – end on an actual punchline.


10 Something (Harrison)
Double-A side with Come Together, released 6 October 1969
You get the sense that, while he’d written very good tracks before this, George Harrison’s Something still took his bandmates by surprise. They agreed to put it out as a single (George’s first A-side) and have all praised it publicly. Quite right too: it’s an absolute marvel. Boldly romantic, the track feels sincere and unashamed. It also benefits from enthusiastic contributions by Ringo and Paul, whose drumming and bass-playing are embellishing the central melody with world-class skill.

9 Ticket to Ride (Lennon-McCartney)
A-side, released 9 April 1965
Deceptively revolutionary, John’s Ticket to Ride has been cited as an early example of heavy metal, lauded for introducing an Indian-style drone sound into Western pop, and celebrated for its creative drum pattern. It’s certainly a key step from the Beatles’ early days of crafted pop music into something deeper, something more mature and sophisticated. But above all else, it’s *hugely entertaining*. George Harrison’s high-end guitar riff, the catchy vocal melody, the unexpected changes in rhythm, the overall 3D-like sound… It’s utterly marvellous.

8 Paperback Writer (Lennon-McCartney)
A-side, released 30 May 1966
Gleaming like polished chrome, Paul’s heavy-rock track about a budding author has such *swagger*. A domineering guitar riff, a bubbling and melodic bassline, and breaks for angelic vocals all add up to a rather magnificent three and a half minutes. There’s cheeky fun too: during some of the backing vocals, just to amuse themselves, John and George Harrison switch to singing Frère Jacques.

7 I Am the Walrus (Lennon-McCartney)
B-side to Hello Goodbye, released 24 November 1967
An epic Hollywood blockbuster reduced down into four and half minutes, this features so much musical flamboyance it’s impossible to take it all in at once. John’s lyrics use Lewis Carroll as the inspiration for a razzle-dazzle recitation of policemen, nursery rhymes, cornflakes, pornography, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Edgar Allen Poe, the Eiffel Tower and of course the Eggmen (whoever they may be). Meanwhile, the dynamic range of the chords sees every musical letter from A to G being used, and it’s all enlivened by nonsense backing vocals, George Martin’s extraordinary orchestral arrangement, and snatches of a random radio play mixed into the fade-out. But don’t focus on the individual ingredients. Wallow in the overall effect, which is *transportive*.

6 Help! (Lennon-McCartney)
A-side, released 23 July 1965
Later, John referred to 1965 as his ‘fat Elvis period’. He was trapped in a failing marriage, struggling to be a father to toddler son Julian, and generally unhappy – despite the fame and fortune that came from being in the world’s biggest band. He therefore fed his feelings of insecurity and loneliness into a song, but then tried to hide the sincerity by turning it into a uptempo pop hit. There are some gorgeous backing vocals, which often cleverly preempt the lead, while George adds some mighty jingle-jangle guitar. Infectiously brilliant.

5 Day Tripper (Lennon-McCartney)
Double A-side with We Can Work it Out, released 3 December 1965
As sassy and hip as it’s possible to be, John’s catchy, four-second guitar riff is played 33 times and never at any point outstays its welcome. It’s especially effective when building a crescendo for a short but powerful George Harrison solo. The lyrics, meanwhile, are vague enough to mean anything you want them to – and they’re sung in unison by a simpatico John and Paul.

4 Strawberry Fields Forever (Lennon-McCartney)
Double A-side with Penny Lane, released 13 February 1967
Innovative doesn’t even begin to cover it. This is a surreal, dreamy wonderland of a song, achieved through insightful writing (all doubt and bravado: ‘That is, you can’t, you know, tune in but it’s all right’), an immaculate performance (from all four Beatles as well as various cellists and trumpeters) and a quite stunning production (the track is actually two different takes outrageously cut together at the 1.00 point when you can detect a sudden plunge into darkness). A blisteringly inventive work of art made by men at the peak of the powers.

3 In My Life (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Rubber Soul, released 3 December 1965
Try to name a more beautiful piece of music. Go on, I dare you. I double dare you. You won’t be able to do it. This is sumptuously gorgeous, with a soft, reassuringly warm sound and reverb-heavy vocals like John’s singing to us directly from heaven. Then, just as you’re wallowing in the bliss, comes a piano section (by George Martin) that tips the song over into ecstasy. The nostalgic and melancholic lyrics were written by John in a wistful mood, but led to a bone of contention between him and Paul. Years later, John claimed the song was entirely his – other than some minor guidance from Paul. Paul, however, said he took his partner’s lyrics and wrote the music on his own. In My Life is worth fighting over.

2 A Day in the Life (Lennon-McCartney)
Album track on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released 26 May 1967
By this point in their career, John and Paul were mostly writing separately. They might help polish or tweak each other’s work, but the Lennon-McCartney credit was a brand rather than an accurate reflection of labour. A Day in the Life, however, is a collaboration. John wrote the verses (about, amongst other things, a friend of a friend who’d died in a car crash) while Paul provided the bouncy middle section about catching a bus. The orchestral linking sections were Paul’s idea, but arranged by George Martin. Imaginative beyond belief, the result is a five-minute mini-symphony – sweeping and all-encompassing and deeply profound. Whether the full lyric makes literal sense is to miss the point: it’s free association, all based on the idea of perception. Consider these lines: “I read the news today…”, “I saw the photograph…”, “He didn’t notice that the lights had changed…”, “A crowd of people stood and stared…”, “They’d seen his face before…”, “I saw a film today…”, “A crowd of people turned away, but I just had to look…”, “And looking up, I noticed I was late…”, and “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream…” The song is obsessed with what it means to subjectively experience reality. It’s existentialism as a pop song: how cool is that? The music, meanwhile, has detail and nuance in each and every aspect. The unsung hero of the piece is Ringo. Just listen to how skilfully his drumming answers John’s singing in the opening verses. Meanwhile, Paul’s bassline dances around, giving rise and fall and texture to everything, and the two orchestral crescendos generate more energy in 30 seconds than entire power stations. The beat of silence between the end of the second crescendo and the crashing piano chord that climaxes the song might be the single most thrilling moment in popular culture.

1 Rain (Lennon-McCartney)
B-side to Paperback Writer single, released 30 May 1966
A psychedelic haze, featuring some brilliantly show-offy drumming from Ringo, one of Paul’s most gorgeously dexterous basslines, and vocals flipped backwards to help create a druggy, surreal soundscape. John’s lyrics are a basic ‘weather = state of mind’ metaphor, but this track is all about the *noise* – it’s intricate yet huge, delicate yet overpowering, savage yet utterly beautiful.



Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2016)


Title: When released in May 1977, this LP was called The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. It was the group’s first official live album and consisted of tracks taped at two gigs in 1964/65. When remixed, remastered and rereleased in 2016 – to tie in with a documentary film called The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – it was given a slightly different title. It’s that later version I’ve used for this review.

Cover: A photo of the boys in casual suits and sunglasses. George looks a bit bored.

Best song: She’s a Woman cuts and swings just as much as the version released in November 1964 as the B-side to I Feel Fine. Ringo Starr’s enjoying himself with a few extra drums tricks, Paul McCartney belts out the vocal with energy, and the rocky coda (which is understated on the studio cut) is hammered home. Paul once described the Beatles as being just a good little rock’n’roll band – it’s effortlessly cool performances like this where you most see what he meant.

Honourable mentions:
* Dizzy, Miss Lizzy is introduced by John Lennon: “We’d like to do a song now that’s from an album of ours… An LP… Album…” (Listen to just a few recordings of the Beatles playing live in America and you’ll get used to John and Paul never knowing which term to use.) This 12-bar track pounds away and betters the studio version for intensity.
* Ticket to Ride – or as Paul introduces it, A Ticket to Ride – has a couple of fumbles. John sounds off-mic to begin with, for example, but it still jingles and jangles.
* Can’t Buy Me Love was knocking on a bit, having been released 17 months before this 1965 performance. The last third of the take features a pleasing shuffle rhythm for a short while, though Paul’s voice sounds strained.
* Things We Said Today is preceded by George Harrison saying, “We’d like to carry on now…” – another phrase heard often at Beatles gigs. He also tells the audience that he thinks the song is on the “newest album over here” – ie, Something New, which had been released the previous month. (He was right.) The performance features some mucked-up backing vocals around the 0.58 point, which Paul audibly smirks about, then the track kicks into an entertaining higher gear.
* A Hard Day’s Night, John tells the crowd, is from the group’s first film: “…the one we made in black and white. We’ve only made two…” He then puts on a Scottish accent to introduce the track. Once the music starts, John and Paul often sound knackered on vocals!
* Help! is also introduced by John: “We’d like to do another film song now but from a different film because we’ve done two. It’s also our latest record over here. That means it’s a new single.” Sadly, George’s guitar doesn’t punch through as much as on the studio version. John also runs out of puff after two minutes and almost gives up singing.
* All My Loving rocks brilliantly. Paul introduces it by saying, “We’d like to carry on with a song which was on our first Capitol album…” – ie, the US-only release Meet the Beatles! (1964).
* She Loves You is great. With his tongue in his cheek, John calls this song an oldie. “Some of you older people might remember it,” he quips. “It’s from last year.”
* Long Tall Sally ends the album, as it often concluded Beatles gigs. Before launching into his Little Richard impression, Paul asks if people have enjoyed themselves. The crowd answers with an even louder sustained scream than usual. Sadly George’s guitar solo is virtually inaudible in the mix. Paul also does some silly improvising on the high notes of his bass. But the climax is good fun.

Worst song: Boys is sung by Ringo. He gave it a go, at least.

Alternate versions: Four tracks have been added to the album for its 2016 reissue: You Can’t Do That, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby, and Baby’s in Black.

Review: The first Beatles concert taped for a potential live album was their 23 August 1964 appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, an open-air venue built in 1922. However, the sound of 17,000 screaming fans almost masked the music, so two more attempts were made the following year. Sadly the tapes of the band’s gigs at the same venue on 29 and 30 August 1965 were equally poor and the project was shelved. Bootlegs slipped out over the years but it wasn’t until 1977, when a rival company planned to release some live Beatles material from their Hamburg days, that the Hollywood Bowl recordings were finally released on vinyl. Then, nearly 40 years later, Giles Martin remixed and digitally restored the album for this rerelease, which reduces the crowd noise and allows us to hear the Beatles in their pomp. The bass levels are good and the performances exciting. As a record of gods among men, it does the job.

Eight lips I am missing out of 10

Love (2006)


Title: This is the tie-in album for a Cirque du Soleil theatre show of the same name, which was based on and used the music of the Beatles. George Martin and his son Giles mixed the show’s soundtrack from the band’s original multi-track recordings, using 130 different songs and mashing up and cross-editing elements left, right and centre. They had the entire Beatles discography to play with to create their soundscape…

Cover: It uses swishes of yellow, orange and red, presumably to suggest some kind of hippy trip, but it’s pretty bland and corporate.

Best song: For its sheer bravado, the mash-up of Drive My Car, The Word and What You’re Doing is fantastic. The 114-second track takes three songs recorded over a spread of 14 months and makes them seem inseparable. (The guitar solo from Taxman is also thrown in for good measure.)

Honourable mentions: The opening ‘movement’ is extraordinary. We begin with Because’s pure, clean vocals and no instruments, then the famous piano crash from the end of A Day in the Life is played in reverse (so rather than fading out, it ‘powers up’). When that peaks, the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night acts like the swish of the stage curtains: the show has started. Next comes Ringo’s drum solo from The End, thrillingly set to the pumping guitar of Get Back, before the latter song kicks into gear; we then dramatically cut to a section of Glass Onion. This is fantastic stuff, showing real invention and wit on the part of the producers. And the highlights keep coming… Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite! has a sinister new ending: a nightmarish leap into an abyss, using the music from I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and vocals from Helter Skelter. Conversely, one of the album’s most beautiful moments comes when 26 seconds of Blackbird’s finger-picked guitar gracefully acts as an overture for Yesterday. Strawberry Fields Forever is a mash-up all on its own: various takes, including a John Lennon home demo, are blended together with invisible edits. The effect is music that grows in intensity and complexity as it goes along, echoing the song’s original writing/production process. There’s also an anarchic play-out that quotes numerous other songs, such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, In My Life, Piggies and Hello Goodbye. One of the most attention-grabbing sections of the album is Within You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows, which combines the former with the latter’s relentless bassline and drum pattern. It’s a remarkable fit, giving George’s Indian song an almost trance quality. The track then segues into Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds via a deliberately disjointed segment that spaces out the notes of Lucy’s guitar riff. More great ‘new intros’ follow: the music from Good Night is used as an opening on Octopus’s Garden, while Lady Madonna is teased by repeating a drum fill and bringing the saxes up front before the song proper begins. Finally, one of my favourite sections of the whole album is the way Hey Jude merges into Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise). The music drops out, leaving just Paul’s evangelical singing, the backing vocals and the drumming. Then the deliciously plump bass rejoins, followed by the orchestra for a few more iterations of ‘Naaah, nah, nah, nah-nah-nah-nah’ – then the horn section’s notes are stretched out to provide a platform for Sgt Pepper’s rock guitar to kick off. Superb.

Worst song: Whether we need Sun King played in reverse is debatable.

Notable outside contributions: The only new recording on the album is a string accompaniment, written by George Martin, for the acoustic take of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Alternate versions: Three songs worked on at the time but left off the album were Girl, The Fool on the Hill and She’s Leaving Home. The first two were later released as iTunes exclusives: The Fool on the Hill is my favourite:

Review: The Martins showed genuine vision in creating this 79-minute mash-up. As a listening experience it’s magnificent. It couldn’t fail to be with this track listing. And as a formal exercise in remixing, it’s both fascinating and engrossing. Some tracks are essentially left ‘as are’ – for example, other than being programmed into a segueing sequence, Help! and Revolution are presented as we all know them. But the album’s real joy comes when songs crash, collide and cross-pollinate. For those of us who have known the Beatles canon for longer than we can remember, spotting how different elements are being used – a piano part here, a bassline there – is an endlessly enjoyable puzzle. (“Oh, it’s Hey Bulldog’s guitar riff!” “Are those the backing vocals from Nowhere Man?”) Few would suggest that Love betters any of the original productions. But as a fresh, exciting, vibrant, new context for the greatest music of all time, it’s a total triumph.

Ten little hideaways beneath the waves out of 10.

Anthology 1 (1995)/Anthology 2 (1996)/Anthology 3 (1996)


Title: Apt enough. This is a three-volume chronological collection of pre-fame recordings, alternate takes, variant mixes, live performances, TV appearances and interviews. The first two releases were headlined by new Beatles songs, created by Paul, George and Ringo playing along to John Lennon demos from the 1970s. (Plans for a third ‘Threetles’ track, Now and Then, fell through when George got cold feet.)

Covers: Sumptuous artwork from Klaus Voormann, which combines images from throughout the Beatles’ career into a collage of poster fragments. The complete piece smartly divides into thirds for each individual album cover.

Best song:

* The best ‘song’ on the first volume is actually a clip from the Beatles’ appearance on Morecambe & Wise’s ITV show Two of a Kind in 1963. It’s stunningly likeable – a meeting of popular-culture giants, who are all on fantastic form and clearly loving the experience. Watching the clip is even better than hearing it. The *priceless* comedy banter begins at the seven-minute mark:

* On volume two, the best bit is John’s home recording of an embryonic Strawberry Fields Forever. It’s so stark and delicate.

* On volume three, I love the *joyful* rehearsal of Oh! Darling with Paul and John having a whale of a time with the vocals.

Honourable mentions:

* The two ‘new’ Beatles songs – mid-tempo rock ballads Free As a Bird and Real Love – are diverting enough, though the old joke that producer Jeff Lynne spent the 1970s making ELO sound like the Beatles, and the 1990s making the Beatles sound like ELO, is funny because it’s true. Free As a Bird has a fantastic video, while Real Love is currently being covered by Tom Odell for a TV advert. Elsewhere, the quality, quantity and variety of alternate and unreleased studio recordings are astonishing.

* On volume one, I especially like: an early take of You Can’t Do That; some experimentation with I’ll Be Back; an unused George Harrison song called You Know What To Do; a terrific demo of No Reply; an outtake of Lennon mucking up Mr Moonlight’s vocal; and Eight Days a Week with a killer intro that was later abandoned.

* Volume two’s highlights include: some entertaining banter before a take of You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away; two songs recorded in February 1965 that were then both shelved (the turgid If You’ve Got Trouble, sung by Ringo, and Paul’s rather good That Means A Lot); John and Paul giggling through And Your Bird Can Sing; a rehearsal jam of I’m Only Sleeping; early takes of Strawberry Fields Forever; a composite of early attempts at A Day In The Life; and the basic track of I Am the Walrus. There’s also a raft of first takes: Yesterday, Norwegian Wood, I’m Looking Through You, Tomorrow Never Knows, I’m Only Sleeping and Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite! – all absolutely fascinating.

* Anthology 3’s best bits include: seven demos recorded at George’s house in May 1968 when the Beatles had returned from a long holiday in India; a cool-as-fuck early take of Helter Skelter; a good alternate version of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da; take four of Blackbird; George demoing While My Guitar Gently Weeps; John and Paul busking in the studio and making a song up on the spot (a spoof polka track called Los Paranoias); a few decent cuts from the Let It Be sessions; George’s demo of All Things Must Pass (he later recorded it for a solo LP); Paul’s multi-instrumental demo of Come and Get It (whether intended for Abbey Road or to give to another band is unknown; in the event, the latter happened); and a beautiful a cappella version of Because.

Worst songs: Volume one features spoken-word clips between the songs, an idea that was then wisely dropped. On Anthology 2, we could do without 12-Bar Original, a derivative song the Beatles recorded in 1965 then forgot about. The album was, allegedly, originally going to contain this song. However, George vetoed its inclusion, so it was replaced with some backing tracks of Eleanor Rigby and Within You Without You. Unreleased at the time, What’s the New Mary Jane (written by John and recorded in 1968) was long considered the Holy Grail of Beatles recordings – on Anthology 3, we can all hear what self-indulgent rot it is.

Notable outside contributions: Early bassist Stuart Sutcliffe appears on a few tracks, as does sacked drummer Pete Best. (The take of Love Me Do the latter plays on from the group’s first EMI session shows why he was replaced by Ringo: it goes out of time.) Tony Sheridan, who the Beatles worked with the Hamburg, sings lead vocal on My Bonnie.

Review: When these albums came out, I devoured them – barely a week went by without me listening to them. But before #BeatlesReview, I hadn’t heard them for donkey’s years, so it was great fun to familarise myself again. A bit like the BBC albums, they’re interesting rather than entertaining – but they’re very, very interesting. The accompanying TV series, by the way, is my all-time favourite documentary. It was shown on ITV in 1995, then later a much longer edit was released on VHS and DVD, and it tells the history of the band from childhood to split. While clearly biased – being the official Beatles story, it pulls its punches when it comes to drugs, arguments, failed projects and the breakup – the power of the storytelling is immense. The three living Beatles gave wide-ranging and (mostly) frank interviews, while Lennon is represented by archive material. A huge trove of fantastic footage is cleverly arranged and juxtaposed; we get full-length performances of most key songs; and there’s no authoritative voiceover or presenter – the whole thing zips along confidently and engrossingly.

Eight lives that we once knew out of 10.

Live at the BBC (1994)/On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2 (2013)


Title: Between March 1962 and June 1965, the Beatles regularly took part in BBC radio sessions. They appeared on 52 shows, recording 275 performances of 90 different songs* (36 of which were never part of their EMI discography). These two volumes compile 56 and 40 tracks respectively, mixing them with snippets of the band being interviewed by the shows’ presenters.

*Sources vary over the total of unique songs. I’m going by the index in Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle.

Covers: Each volume uses a different photograph of the young Beatles – in both, they’re wearing suits and walking confidently down a London pavement. The first image has a rusty wash, while the second is full colour. I’ve been unable to find out when the first was taken, but On Air’s cover photograph dates from 2 July 1963. On that day, the group were at the Beeb’s Maida Vale Studio, taping episode five of radio show Pop Go The Beatles.

(Thanks again to Fraser Dickson for help with the image for this post.)

Best songs:

* Some Other Guy is, in many ways, one of the big missed opportunities of the Beatles canon. It was a 1962 hit for Richie Barrett, and reportedly fascinated Lennon for the rest of his life. The group recorded it three times for the BBC; it was in their set list for a couple of years; and the only time they were ever filmed in the Cavern – just days after Ringo joined the band – they enthusiastically played Some Other Guy. Given some of the lacklustre cover versions they put on early albums, it’s hard to see why they never tackled it for EMI. The take on the first Live at the BBC album is from an episode of Easy Beat and – unlike most of the stuff here – was recorded in front of a live audience.

* The version of And I Love Her on volume two is notable for George playing an electric (rather than acoustic) guitar. It gives the whole song a different feel.

Honourable mentions:

* We get the only ever Beatles recording of Lennon-McCartney song I’ll Be On My Way – it’s a pleasant enough tune, but has terrible lyrics.

* Terrific covers of Soldier of Love and You Really Got a Hold On Me are well sung by John.

* Paul’s vocal on Long Tall Sally is super (we get a different take on each volume); he’s likewise impressive on two other Little Richard tunes: Lucille and Ooh! My Soul.

* There are good run-throughs of I Saw Her Standing There, Please Mister Postman, Twist and Shout, I’ll Get You, She Loves You and From Me To You.

* Things We Said Today and Till There Was You almost match the versions on With The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night respectively, while She’s A Woman is interestingly loser than the B-side recording.

* Lend Me Your Comb, originally recorded by Carl Perkins, is good fun, while the Beatles were never as C&W as on this cut of Perkins’s Sure to Fall (In Love With You) – it’s like listening to Gram Parsons.

* And finally, fantastically, volume two features an unedited sequence from a November 1964 session: the Beatles attempting I Feel Fine and discussing the take with the studio staff.

Worst songs: Nothing especially offends, but on the first volume we could probably cope without a sugary, earnest rendition of To Know Her Is To Love Her. (It’s also always a disappointment how tired Johnny B Goode is. Marty McFly did it better.) On volume two, a poor quality recording of Beautiful Dreamer (a 19th-century song with a speeded-up beat) can’t mask what a dull song it is. It even has a key change to try to keep our interest.

Notable outside contributions: Everything was recorded ‘as live’ or with minimal overdubs – so we’re hearing the musical product of four men. One exception is during A Hard Day’s Night on the first volume. Unable for some reason to recreate George Martin’s piano solo, it was rather inelegantly copied in from the single! (The take redeems itself at the end, though, when the boys and host Brian Matthews ridicule the song’s fade-out.)

Review: As an approximation of what the group must have been like live, these albums are lovely: plenty of well rehearsed performances of some covers, plus a smattering of alternate versions of existing Beatles tracks. Yet I doubt many fans dig these CDs out very often (unless they have an unquenchable thirst for rock’n’roll covers). There’s nothing essential here, while no take betters any EMI equivalent. The bits of between-song chat are fun on a first listen – all four Beatles are witty, charming and quick, while the hosts keep things light – but drag the album down when you can recite the jokes in your head. (Volume two also has some longer interviews, one per Beatle, recorded on the eve of Rubber Soul’s release. Paul sells a funny gag about Indian music.)

Five June lights turning to moonlights out of 10.

Past Masters Volume 1 (1988)/Past Masters Volume 2 (1988)


Title: When the Beatles’ back catalogue was released on CD in 1988, all the singles, B-sides, variant mixes and other rarities that don’t feature on the official LPs were compiled for this two-volume album. A lovely move that appeals to my completist brain. If only as much thought had gone into a fun title.

Covers: Bland. The logo is superb, though. Read about its creation here:

(Thanks to Fraser Dickson for combining the two album covers into one image for this post.)

Best songs:

* On volume one, it’s John’s Latin-flavoured I Feel Fine, a single from 1965. After its cheeky opening of deliberate feedback, we get a swinging rhythm, a complex guitar riff and some tremendous drumming from Ringo. It’s Merseybeat meets Cuba and is infectious.

* The best song on volume two, meanwhile, is my favourite Beatles song of them all. Rain, also written by John, was the B-side to Paperback Writer in 1966. It’s a kaleidoscope of controlled chaos. Front and centre are Ringo’s flamboyant drumming and Paul’s wildly inventive bassline, but they’re matched by the dreamy drag of Lennon’s vocal, the innovative use of backwards singing and the track’s general hypnotic sense of space: if I play it loud on headphones, I can get lost in it and forget the real world exists.

Honourable mentions:

* On volume one, non-album singles From Me To You, She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand (all true Lennon/McCartney collaborations) are blockbusters of early 60s pop. The first has a delightful dark turn for its middle eight; the second grabs you straightaway by beginning with the chorus; while the third has a very cute finale in a different time signature.

* She Loves You’s B-side, I’ll Get You, is a lovely little tune with a minor explosion of a chorus.

* One of the Beatles’ best cover versions is Long Tall Sally, which was issued on an EP in 1964. Paul’s vocals go punch-for-punch with Little Richard’s raucous original.

* Although I’ve rarely heard a good word about it, I’ve always really liked John’s catchy I Call Your Name (from the same EP).

* Paul’s jazzy She’s A Woman (I Feel Fine’s flipside) is a total joy – I love the clipped strikes of guitar, the swaggering bass sound and the superb, soulful singing.

* Volume two begins with both sides of a 1965 double A-side: the riff-tastic Day Tripper and the crafted We Can Work It Out. The former, by John, is a bluesy gem: simple but incisive. The latter, a joint effort based on Paul’s idea, has the same freewheeling confidence as contemporary album Rubber Soul – the contrasting sections and the way they musically hook up are just wonderful.

* Paperback Writer, an A-side from 1966, is Paul at his most rock. The chrome-sounding guitar riff is matched in its power by a superb arrangement, shining harmony vocals and a tremendous melodic bassline. Incidentally, I’m not sure men have ever looked more stylish than the Beatles do in the Paperback Writer video:

* Other super McCartney singles included here are the honky-tonk Lady Madonna and the massive Hey Jude, both from 1968.

* Don’t Let Me Down is a yearning song of John’s recorded during the Let It Be sessions; guest keyboardist Billy Preston’s work is lovely.

* Lennon also wrote the fun, autobiographical rocker The Ballad of John and Yoko – despite various fallings-out around this time, Paul enthusiastically helped him record this for a quick single while George and Ringo were out of the country.

* Finally, I also adore its B-side, George’s foot-tapping Old Brown Shoe.

Worst songs: Volume one has a trio of equally forgettable cover versions: Slow Down, Matchbox and Bad Boy. Volume two includes George’s tedious B-side The Inner Light.

Notable outside contributions: George Martin plays piano on Slow Down and Matchbox. Some saxophonists – Ronnie Scott amongst them – appear on Lady Madonna, while the backing track of The Inner Light was recorded with local musicians in India. Rafts of violins, violas, cellos, double basses, flutes, clarinets, bass clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoons, trumpets, horns and trombones appear on Hey Jude and Let It Be. Nicky Hopkins plays electric piano on Revolution; Billy Preston plays one on Get Back, Let It Be and Don’t Let Me Down. Two teenage fans – Lizzie Bravo and Gayleen Pease – were invited in off the street to sing backing vocals on Across The Universe. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones plays a sax on You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).

Review: Past Masters is a brilliant listen, showing how good the Beatles were for their entire career. Any Beatles collection needs these albums. The opening four tracks of volume two – Day Tripper, We Can Work it Out, Paperback Writer and Rain – make up the best run of four songs on *any album I can think of*.

Nine one-way tickets, yeah, out of 10.

Let It Be (1970)


Title: It’s named for Paul’s song about his mother coming to him in a stress dream and calming him down. The LP is essentially a soundtrack album for the documentary film Let It Be.

Cover: Each Beatle photographed separately – a deliberate nod to the fact the group had split up, maybe?

Best song: I’ve Got A Feeling, the last collaborative Lennon/McCartney. They combined two song ideas – positive from Paul, reflective from John – into a united whole, which works really well when both halves are sung at the same time. The performance is terrific too, especially when you consider they were playing live on a London rooftop in a cold January wind.

Honourable mentions:

* Paul’s Two Of Us is a jaunty acoustic tune, well sung by him and John. (It sounds a bit Crosby, Stills & Nash to me. This is a good thing.)

* John’s Across The Universe had been recorded a year earlier than the rest of the album and released on a various-artists charity LP with some awful backing vocals from two Beatles fans. Its lyrics might be naff, but they suit the metre of the music nicely. Because the film Let It Be included the band busking the song, the raw take was dug out for use on this album. Sadly, producer Phil Spector ignored the stark tenderness of the original, slowed it down and swamped it with an orchestra.

* Paul’s title track is a classically beautiful piano ballad, which has a gospel feel – my only niggle with it is the tiresomely repetitive lyrics. Give him his due, Spector’s work here actually enhances what is already a tremendous song.

Worst song: Aside from the inclusion of 50 seconds of improvised jam Dig It? Or 40 seconds of traditional folk shanty Maggie Mae? (These two bits of detritus are either side of the title song in the album’s running order, a move assumed to be a slight against Paul.) Of the rest, John’s Dig A Pony is the most, um, pony.

Notable outside contributions: Keyboardist Billy Preston was brought in by Harrison to help record the album ‘as live’ with no overdubs. He plays on seven of the 12 tracks and is essentially a fifth member of the band.

Alternate version: The original plan was to rehearse some new material while being filmed for a fly-on-the-wall TV special – then record it live in front of an audience. The band gathered for rehearsals at Twickenham Film Studios in January 1969, but little serious work was achieved and tensions were high. The film crew captured Paul and George having a tiff, but missed a blazing row between George and John that resulted in George quitting the band. He agreed to return only if they abandoned Twickenham and moved into the studio. So the group continued to record (and be filmed) in their own facility at 3 Savile Row. Losing enthusiasm for a concert, they decided simply to go up to the building’s roof and play until the police ordered them to stop. For the next few months, various versions of the album were compiled from the mass of available material, but no one was ever happy. Finally, in March 1970 – behind his colleagues’ backs – Lennon brought in famed producer Phil Spector. He ignored the project’s ‘no overdubs’ principle, added orchestras and choirs, and the album was finally released in May. By this point, the TV special had morphed into a theatrical movie, the Beatles had recorded and released an entire other album (see previous review), and Paul had tersely announced the band’s break-up. Famously unhappy with the final product, McCartney got his chance to re-edit the album in 2003. Let It Be… Naked strips away Phil Spector’s overdubs, jettisons the silly pieces of filler, adds contemporary B-side Don’t Let Me Down, and rearranges the running order. It’s a *much* more entertaining listen. (It has a bonus disc: a 22-minute sound collage of song snippets and banter from the January 1969 rehearsals.)

Review: The weakest full-length Beatles album. There are a few good songs, but the slipshod way they were recorded results in a pretty tatty end product. The film, by the way, is hard to track down but worth seeing if you get the chance. Despite punches being pulled, there are some fantastic insights, both positive and negative, into the Beatles of January 1969. The climax is the entertaining rooftop gig, which is intercut with footage of crowds – disgruntled men in suits, young woman in miniskirts, bemused policemen – gathering on the street below as the sound of the Beatles wafts across Mayfair…

Five words of wisdom out of 10.

Abbey Road (1969)


Title: The road in north-west London where EMI Studios – now called Abbey Road Studios – can be found. The Beatles recorded there for most of their career.

Cover: George in double denim, Paul without any shoes on, Ringo in a black suit and John in a white one striding across the pedestrian crossing outside the studio. A Volkswagen Beetle was coincidentally parked in shot. I visited Abbey Road in September 2000 and – like EVERYONE WHO’S EVER BEEN THERE – had my photograph taken while crossing the road.

Best song: George’s lush, soft-focus ballad Something is so good that Frank Sinatra used to call it his favourite Lennon and McCartney song. It kicks into a powerful gear for a heartfelt middle-eight and has a cool, relaxed guitar solo, while I could spend hours listening to just Paul and Ringo’s inventive, melodic work on bass and drums.

Honourable mentions:

* John’s Come Together is full of attack and attitude. Lennon snarls the nonsense lyric like it means everything in the world, and he’s supported by a laid-back yet still menacing production of funky bassline, bass-drum kicks and vamping on an electric piano.

* Oh! Darling is Paul at his pastiche best: here he’s aping doo-wop ballads of his youth. He blasts out the vocal with commitment and obvious joy, while the music is genuinely excited.

* Ringo began to write Octopus’s Garden while he was in Sardinia, having quit the Beatles temporarily in 1968, and a fisherman started explaining how octopuses search the seabed for stones. There’s a lovely moment in the documentary film Let It Be where Ringo shows the chords to George, who then suggests an improvement. Three minutes of charm, clearly made with love by the whole group, it’s the best song Ringo either wrote and/or sang on a Beatles record.

* Side A of the album closes with the gargantuan I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – it’s John pleading for seven minutes, so earnestly his voice rips open at one point. The repetitive music – rock riffs, bubbling bass, stadium drums – sounds very 70s supergroup. The hypnotic, rolling play-out is so dogged it has to be cut off by the needle running out of vinyl. There’s a tremendous cover of this song by Booker T & the MGs:

* Side B begins with George’s bucolic, beautiful Here Comes The Sun. He wrote it one morning in Eric Clapton’s garden while he waited for his pal to get up. Its general light touch is wonderful, Ringo’s drumming is lovely, and cute handclaps give a bit of extra bounce to the bridge. The only thing wrong with it is how low George Martin’s orchestra is in the mix: the flutes sound delightful, but don’t shine through enough.

* John’s Because is a complex vocal harmony with minimal instrumentation. John, Paul and George actually recorded three parts each, making nine voices in all: the resulting sound is what I imagine angels would sound like.

* The final 16 minutes of Abbey Road famously consists of an eight-song medley. (In truth, there’s actually a beat of silence between two of them.) It’s a wonderful encore, a final flourish before the curtain falls. A few of the sections are bits of fluff, but Paul’s You Never Give Me Your Money (a mini-medley in itself) and She Came In Through the Bathroom Window are both really good. Unity is enforced by clever cross-mixing and, in the case of Carry That Weight, one song quoting another. The last segment is called The End. It features guitar or drum solos from all four Beatles, and the final lyric is an end-of-an-era valediction: “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” (Well, it’s not quite the end. After 20 seconds of silence, we get the earliest ‘hidden track’ in pop music: a snatch of Paul singing about the Queen.)

Worst song: If Maxwell’s Silver Hammer vanished from existence, I doubt I’d miss it.

Notable outside contributions: George Martin, back as a proper producer after the chaos of the Let It Be sessions (see next review), plays an electric harpischord on Because and an organ on Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Sun King and Mean Mr Mustard. Billy Preston plays organ on Something and I Want You (She’s So Heavy). There are many uncredited violins, violas, cellos, double basses, horns, trumpets, trombones, piccolos, flutes, clarinets on Something, Here Comes The Sun, Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight and The End. Long-time Beatles roadie Mal Evans hits an anvil during the chorus of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.

Review: Embarrassed perhaps by a series of half-arsed, mixed-bag projects (one of which was stuck in post-production hell), the Beatles resolved to make one last great record before calling it a day. Abbey Road is a glorious swansong, a real return to the craft, class and quality of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. The fact George Martin was back producing with real authority for the first time since Pepper is probably hugely significant. This is music of overwhelming beauty – wonderful songs brilliantly played, magnificently recorded and skillfully produced. The Beatles really were the best, you know.

Ten mojo filters out of 10.

Yellow Submarine (1969)


Title: The animated movie Yellow Submarine was made with virtually no interest from the Beatles themselves, aside from donating a few largely second-rate songs and quickly filming a live-action cameo. This LP is its soundtrack album – it’s made up of four new tracks the group dashed off without much thought, two songs that had already been released, and an entire side of movie score.

Cover: Stylistically true to the film: 1960s cartoon imagery with as many colours as possible.

Best song: John’s Hey Bulldog is fantastically punchy and aggressive. It was recorded when the Beatles gathered in the studio to film a music video for upcoming single Lady Madonna. Rather than waste the session acting for the camera, they decided to work on a new track while being filmed. I love the sound of the guitars – George’s solo is piercing – and the chaotic ad-libbing at the end works really well too.

Honourable mentions: George’s action-packed It’s All Too Much is quite fun. It’s one of the longest songs the band ever recorded: 6.28. Only Revolution 9, Hey Jude and I Want You (She’s So Heavy) beat it.

Worst song: All Together Now, Paul’s depressingly simplistic sing-along.

Notable outside contributions: Side B is exclusively cues from the film, written by George Martin and recorded by a 41-piece orchestra. Unless you count seeing the movie, this #BeatlesReview process has been the first time I’ve *ever* heard this half of the album.

Alternative version: In 1999, to celebrate 30 years of the movie, an album called Yellow Submarine Songtrack was released. It took the six tracks from side A of the original LP, dumped the instrumental cues, and added nine previously released Beatles songs that had been used in the film. Some minor remixing was done.

Review: The strangest album in the Beatles’ canon – some people understandably discount it, given how little new material it contains. It’s sadly another example of the band’s variable post-Pepper form. Martin’s incidental music is pleasing enough, but I’m afraid to say the movie itself has never done anything for me. I’m immune to its charms.

Six wigwams out of 10.

The Beatles (1968)


Title: It was going to be called A Doll’s House, but then another band put out an LP with a similar name – so the Beatles instead went eponymous. The entire world chose to call it The White Album, thanks to the…

Cover: Just the band’s name embossed on a white background.

Best song: I’m going to break my own rules here and not pick one. I’ll explain why in the review section.

Honourable mentions:

* Back in the USSR (written by Paul) opens Side A and is a trad rocker with witty lyrics.

* Dear Prudence (John) is the first of many lovely examples of finger-picking guitar work on the album. (It’s also one of four White Album songs recorded at Trident Studios in Soho, just a minute’s walk from my office.)

* Glass Onion (John) has lyrics that reference previous Beatles songs, mocking fans who look for hidden codes, and a pleasing chug-chug bassline.

* Ska pastiche Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Paul) has really grown on me over the years (I used to hate it, as John, George and Ringo did at the time, but now find it fun).

* FM-radio-friendly While My Guitar Gently Weeps is George’s best song since Revolver and features a guitar solo from Eric Clapton, an outsider brought in by Harrison to try to improve morale in the camp.

* The mysterious Happiness is a Warm Gun (John) is a number of song ideas skillfully bolted together – apparently, everyone involved really enjoyed tackling the challenging structure.

* The laconic I’m So Tired (John) will always have a place in my (long-time insomnia sufferer’s) heart.

* Blackbird (Paul) is a stunningly beautiful guitar piece.

* I Will (Paul) has a cute sung bassline.

* The delicate Julia, John’s paean/farewell to his dead mother, is heartbreaking.

* Yer Blues (John) is brutally raw and a tight ‘live’ performance.

* Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey (John) is throwaway but worth it for the terrific section near the end featuring garbled singing, a relentless cowbell, a heavy guitar riff and a mixed-highly bass.

* Sexy Sadie (John) is classy doo-wop done as a rock ballad. (The song is about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Transcendental Meditation guru who the group followed for a time. Lennon – probably incorrectly – came to believe that the Maharishi was a dirty old man, and the original lyrics were: “Maharishi, you little twat/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Oh, you cunt.” Harrison suggested being more opaque.)

* Helter Skelter (Paul) is fantastically raucous, loud and ‘punk’: the Beatles at their wildest since Twist and Shout.

* Long, Long, Long (George) is largely dull but I love the ending – during the recording, Paul’s sustained note on the Hammond organ audibly rattled a wine bottle in the studio and the band improvised a banshee-wail of a climax.

* Honey Pie (Paul) is an accomplished exercise in style: I easily picture bob-cut flappers dancing the Charleston at the Ritz.

Worst song: Come on, who actually listens to Revolution 9?

Notable outside contributions: Lots of pals provide backing vocals (Yoko Ono even gets a line to herself in The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill), while the group was by now routinely employing session musicians to provide trombones, trumpets, clarinets, cellos, violins, saxophones, tubas, French horns, stumpf fiddles, flugelhorns and the like. The most famous playing on the album by a non-Beatle is Clapton’s guitar solo.

Review: John, Paul and George wrote a cache of new songs while staying in India for a few weeks in early 1968, enough in fact for a double LP. There is plenty of good stuff here, but nothing to equal the best of 1965-67. Instead, the album’s joy comes from a) its rambling, eclectic nature (brilliantly, listening to one track gives you no idea what the next one will be like), and b) the fact it’s significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Producer George Martin has said he wished they’d cut away the flab and made one really strong single LP. I don’t agree. Meaning and power lie, as it were, ‘in between’ the songs: there’s a nebulous cumulative effect, helped by the smart running order worked out during the Beatles’ only ever 24-hour studio session. That’s why I struggle to name a standout track – The White Album is a successful football team with no star players. Ironic, then, that there wasn’t much teamwork behind the scenes. The recording sessions were famously tense. Lennon and McCartney rowed often, George Martin found excuses not to be around, Paul grew more patronising, Yoko Ono’s presence in the studio caused resentment, and Ringo even quit the band and fled to Sardinia (he was convinced to return a few days later by his contrite colleagues). Many songs were recorded essentially as solo pieces: only 15 of the 30 tracks feature all four Beatles. The long break-up had begun.

Nine all-American, bullet-headed Saxon mother’s sons out of 10.