Four years into their pop reign, “Paperback Writer” broke new ground for the Beatles. It was their heaviest single to date, with grungy guitar licks and hard-hitting drums, and for the first time ever, the lyrics departed from romantic territory into a compelling story about a man trying to publish a book. A dirty story of a dirty man, in fact. Gee, I wonder what it could be?
I realize I’m only ranking it at #68, but “Paperback Writer” deserves a lot more love. It really opened the doors for a lot of the clever experimentation the band would embark on in the following years. And if you’ve never caught them before, pay attention to the backing vocals in the verses. They may sound familiar.
Phil Spector’s heavy-handed approach to producing Let it Be remains controversial even 50 years later–Paul McCartney still seems perturbed by those strings on “The Long and Winding Road”–but he managed to turn “I Me Mine” from a 90-second interlude into an epic and powerful (but still short) anthem.
After The White Album and Abbey Road clocked in at 93 and 47 minutes respectively, Let it Be was their shortest album in years, with just 35 minutes of content. (And many would argue that said content was inconsistent at best, but that’s an argument for another day.) But it would have been even shorter had Phil not worked his magic on “I Me Mine.”
This anguished George Harrison track wasn’t even supposed to appear on Let it Be, but when the final cut of the film of the same name included it in a sequence in which John and Yoko waltzed while George, Paul, and Ringo rehearsed, a more proper rendition was required. In early 1970, those three convened to record “I Me Mine” in what would become the final Beatles session ever. (At least until they polished up some oldJohn Lennon demos in the 90s.)
The only problem? For an LP already short on content, “I Me Mine” was just one minute and 34 seconds long. That was doubly unfortunate because it was a great song that would likely be lost in the shuffle and lumped in with other brief afterthoughts like “Maggie Mae” and “Dig It.” So Phil simply took the first verse and repeated it, stretching the song out to…well, it’s still pretty short at under two-and-a-half minutes. But somehow it makes a big difference and transforms it into one of the Beatles’ best rockers.
As anyone reading this can well attest, as much as I love writing about music, I don’t really know how to write about music. Like I can’t explain why certain key changes and melodies work. I just know that they do. Hey, none of the Beatles could read music, so I figure I’m in pretty good company.
So with that in mind, I need to highlight one of my favorite hooks in the Beatles’ catalog. “I’ll Get You” could never be anything other than a B-side, but when it comes to the Beatles, that’s not a mark against it. Because Lennon and McCartney delivered some second-tier classics in the early days, and despite their lower rankings, I still find “Ask Me Why” and “PS I Love You” quite charming indeed.
“I’ll Get You” tops them both on account of a specific melodic shift in the line, “When I think aboooouuuuut you, I can say…” It’s a little treat in a song that didn’t need it, but John and Paul still pulled it off immaculately.
In just the very last entry, I gave John Lennon kudos for his creative spark in 1964, but he was also on fire in 1968. Chalk it up to transcendental meditation or his newfound muse in Yoko Ono, but when the Beatles convened for an acoustic demo session at George Harrison’s house–a session that was eventually released on the 50th anniversary edition of The White Album–John brought in 15 of the 27 songs recorded that day.
One of those tracks was the delicate “Dear Prudence,” inspired by fellow Rishikesh meditator Prudence Farrow. Prudence was one of the Maharishi’s more intense students, with John accusing her of “trying to reach God quicker than anybody else.”
This gentle plea for Prudence to take a break from meditating is one of the Beatles’ most beautiful recordings, with angelic harmonies, shimmering acoustic guitar, and a powerful bass line that should induce even the most stringent prayer warrior to come out to play.
Man, I don’t know if anyone was ever on a more consistent creative high than John Lennon in 1964.
He chiefly wrote 10 out of 13 tracks on the A Hard Day’s Night album, and he likely considered the simple, stolen harmonica-laden “I Should Have Known Better” an afterthought. “It doesn’t mean a damn thing,” he told Playboy in 1980.
Had it been written a year earlier, it likely would have appeared as the A-side to the band’s third or fourth single, but “I Should Have Known Better” still got a lot of attention as the B-side to “A Hard Day’s Night” and a feature spot in the film of the same name.
There are a lot of narratives in the Beatles’ story that have evolved in the last 20 years or so of me being a fan.
George Harrison has gone from John and Paul’s “little brother” to every indie artist’s favorite Beatle–“Here Comes the Sun” is by far the band’s most-played track on Spotify. And there used to be a longstanding and seemingly impenetrable perception that the secret to the Lennon/McCartney partnership was that John was the raw, honest pessimist, while Paul was the sunny optimist. Never mind that John was the one who plastered “War is Over (If You Want It)” billboards around the world and Paul was the one who reacted to his own mother’s death by lamenting that the family was doomed without her nurse’s salary.
The biggest shift I think I’ve seen though is that, when I first started diving into their music, all the books I read and fans that I talked to were pumped about Sgt. Pepper. This was the record that changed the Beatles, that changed music, that changed the world. It was an insurmountable apex of an album and I couldn’t wait to hear it.
That was Christmas 2000. A few months earlier, for my birthday, my sister gave me a copy of Revolver, an album that got way less attention but absolutely eclipsed Pepper in every way. (Well, minus one way–George Harrison’s token Indian song on Revolver is the dreary “Love You To” which I ranked all the way at #194. Pepper‘s “Within You Without You” is equally dreary but hasn’t appeared on the countdown yet.) It blew my mind that Sgt. Pepper was so hailed and Revolver seemed like an afterthought.
But things started to change. As more and more “best albums of all time” lists popped up, critics seemed to appreciate the pop craftsmanship and variety packed into Revolver‘s 35 minutes. Aside from the sprawling double White Album, it’s the most diverse and eclectic set of songs the band ever issued.
“For No One” is a lovely, morose song about the end of Paul’s relationship with Jane Asher, bound to pull on the heart strings. Though it possesses some of Paul’s trademark vagueness and distance–directing the emotional lyrics towards the listener rather than towards himself–it’s one of the most mature, poetic pieces in the Beatles’ catalog.
There are a lot of reasons why the Beatles were so great–I mean, you put four talented, innovative musicians together and you’re bound to get impressive results no matter what–but one factor that really elevated them was the way they embraced competition. Their rivalry with the Rolling Stones inspired both bands to up their games, but the Beatles were confident enough to actually donate a(n admittedly lousy) song across enemy battle lines. Even within the group itself, Lennon and McCartney’s constant urge to outdo the other fueled a slew of hits.
We’re currently living in a world overcome by a virus that has disrupted every component of our lives, racial injustice and unrest, and the threat of a Kanye West presidency. Let’s not sugarcoat it: things are awfully bleak. Nobody really knew how to cope.
And then on July 23, Taylor Swift announced the imminent release of her new album, Folklore, and it served as a reminder that it really is getting better all the time.
That’s right, I’m using a Taylor Swift album as an excuse for being too lazy to write an entry for the last two months.
Krispy Kreme donuts. The “Mr. Plow” episode of The Simpsons. The Beatles’ harmonies.
“What are three things that are pretty great, Alex?”
For all the division in our society in modern times, I think we as a collective can agree that all of those things are all quite exceptional. (Four if you count Alex Trebek.) I don’t know if it’s possible to gush too much about how amazing the Beatles’ harmonies were, but over the course of their seven-year recording career, John, Paul, and George united in three-part harmony just three times. “This Boy” was the earliest and best–I’ve never liked the maudlin “Yes It Is,” and “Because” is gorgeous, but the longing, impassioned “This Boy” is the greatest Smokey Robinson song he never wrote.