And here are the top 10 (or top 9, or top 16, depending on how you feel about the medley, a question which you will soon discover I am conflicted on myself). All of these songs are amazing, and when I’m listening to any one of them, I am completely satisfied. I have some I like even more than others, but you really couldn’t go wrong with any of them.
I’m going to be (even more) long-winded than usual today, which I hope you can forgive. I could talk almost endlessly about these songs, and there are tons of anecdotes, favorite moments, and memories about these songs I’ve left out.
10. All You Need Is Love from Magical Mystery Tour
Sure, it sounds a little silly in this cynical day and age. And sure, it probably sounded a little too starry-eyed even at the time. But who cares? Maybe love alone isn’t enough, but we have to believe that it’s possible. At some point in the Anthology, one of them (probably Paul) commented that one of the great things about The Beatles is that, at their core, they sang songs about love and joy and positive things. And this is the best of them all.
This song was written specially to be broadcast on the first ever global satellite transmission. Over 300 million people watched as the biggest band in the world told them that love was enough. That such a thing could even occur gives me some hope. It opens with the theme from La Marseillaise, which adds a perfect amount of international flare (and also reminds me of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes in Casablanca when Victor Lazlo leads the crowd in a rendition of this song to drown out the Germans). Other highlights include deceptively simple lyrics from John: “nothing you can know that isn’t known, nothing you see that isn’t shown, there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be…it’s easy” and a fantastic outro with the “love is all you need” the playful horns, and that transcendental moment when out of the swirling sounds emerges “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” It all comes full circle…
Oh, and speaking of favorite movie scenes, one of the most heart-wrenching is in the Imagine movie when this song plays as the whole world mourns his death. There’s one moment when you can see someone singing along at the top of her lungs with tears streaming down her face. The magic of John is that it doesn’t seem the least bit silly for her to feel that way.
9. Yesterday from Help!
This is justifiably one of the most famous songs of all time. Every detail is done exactly right. Holding off on the entrance of the strings until the second verse: perfect. The descending notes at the end of the second bridge (“now I long for yester…day…ay…ay…ay”): perfect. Perfect craftsmanship, perfect songwriting, perfect singing. Such sadness, such aching loss, it’s a portrait of a heart that is breaking, as sophisticated as any novel could be. I would say that there’s no point in me even describing the song since if you haven’t heard it you clearly have been living on Neptune since 1965, but I have a good friend who insisted that she had never heard this song until I played it for her. No joke.
8. Help! from Help!
Bursts out of your speakers with that opening “Help!” and then launches into the very best of their upbeat rockers. John turns in yet another fantastic vocal performance, but Paul and George do just fine for themselves as well. Have you ever noticed the variations in the backing harmonies? At times, they’re singing along with John, at times they’re following behind him, at times they’re a step ahead. I really think it’s a big part of what makes the song sound so unique, and what gives it such a broad scope.
Another thought: I’ve been talking through this whole thing as if “Nowhere Man” was their first song that wasn’t about love because I’ve always been told that. But now that I think about it, this isn’t really a love song. At the time, one might assume “I do appreciate you being round” is a romantic sentiment, but in retrospect there is no reason to think so. This is a song about finding yourself to not be sufficient for the tasks you face, and reaching out for help, for support in getting your life together. That could be romantic, but it’s really much broader. It’s also incredibly brave. It’s hard to admit that you’re scared and that you don’t have all the answers, especially if you’re a rock star on top of the world.
7. For No One from Revolver
“The day breaks, your mind aches, you find that all her words of kindness linger on when she no longer needs you.” Who starts a song like that? That’s just amazing. And then there’s the French Horn solo, which for 14 seconds proves that there is a God, and he was caught on tape in the Abbey Road studio in 1966. And then the horn returns to break your heart all over again, joining with Paul for the beginning of the final verse. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, there’s the haunting piano and the light touch of the bass. I love “Yesterday,” obviously, but I really think this is the definitive song about heartbreak and loss.
6. Let It Be from Let It Be
There’s a part of me that knows the song is a little too sappy, overwrought, and overdone. But there’s a much stronger part that just doesn’t care. It’s so good it has every right to be over the top. You couldn’t go wrong with any of the versions, but my favorite is the one on the original Let It Be for the most organic sounding of the various solos, for the backing “ooooooooooos,” and for that moment about a minute and a half in when the song explodes. My absolute favorite is when Paul sings “I wake up to the sound of music…” Somehow it just seems to be enough. No matter the trouble, you wake up to the sound of music and you know that you can go on.
5. Penny Lane from Magical Mystery Tour
This is the song I rely on to make me happy no matter what the circumstances. When my grandfather died, I listened to this song on repeat for hours–it was the only thing that kept me from feeling like the whole world was slipping out from under me. When things are getting me down, this is what I hold in reserve. I always know that if I haven’t had to put on “Penny Lane” yet, it can’t really be that bad. More than anything else, it’s the sound of Paul’s voice. It’s like he’s smiling the whole way through the song. The bouncing bass and the churning piano help, too. And then there’s the glorious trumpet which, like on “For No One” has its solo in the sun, but returns later in the song to lend a hand for the climax. But that voice. That’s what it’s all about.
Regarding the “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” single, it’s common for people to declare it the conclusive proof that Paul is an entertainer while John is an artist. This is usually phrased in a value-neutral way, but the subtext is almost always to declare that John is more sophisticated and “Penny Lane,” for all of the pleasure one has in listening to it, was not as ground-breaking or as forward-looking. In my opinion, that’s just plain silly. “Penny Lane” is every bit as nuanced, every bit the work of art that “Strawberry Fields” is, and it has the added benefit of sounding like laughter, like a warm afternoon in the park, like every friend you haven’t seen in a decade but run into on the street, like getting off a plane and seeing your loved ones. He sketches all of these characters, reveals their foibles and silliness, their strangeness, but only gives us just enough to understand how little we understand. And we come to realize that the point is not to understand, but simply to love without cause, to accept without knowledge. Rather than trying to seek out, to identify, to control, we let the world wash over us, and accept it as “very strange.”
4. In My Life from Rubber Soul
Is there a more beautiful love song in existence (okay, there is one: “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, but still–only one)? “But of all these friends and lovers, there is no one compares with you.” The romance is so powerful because it is not overwhelming or effusive. It is not simply a song on the theme of “gee, you’re swell” – in John’s musings on the importance of memories and the past, he comes to the slow realization that this moment, this time with one particular person, is the best of times. We tend to romanticize the past, and the present always seems to slip away from us. It is sometimes hard to take stock and recognize true wonder and happiness when it is being lived.
Many of the traditional Beatles tricks are at play here. There is John’s double-tracked voice, intimate and tender, and Paul joins in on every other line. Also, three songs in the top 10 share a “classical” instrumental interlude (the horn solo on “For No One,” the piccolo trumpet on “Penny Lane” and the piano on this song). Of the three, this one is my favorite. George Martin recorded it slower and then speeded up the tape to give it the dancing, baroque feel we all know so well.
3. Hey Jude from Past Masters, Vol 2
This has been my favorite Beatles song since I was about 10 years old, to the point where it was almost instinct: “what’s your favorite Beatles song?” “Hey Jude, of course.” I’ve sort of been dreading the arrival of the top 10 because I knew it was going to force me to really think about whether it was still true. “Hey Jude” has been there for me for my whole life, an institution, and foundation for my whole being. But still, there comes a time to say goodbye, and in doing so, to move on to the next stage of your life. It’s kind of the whole point of the song after all: “Hey Jude don’t let me down, you have found her, now go and get her.” So I know in the grand scheme of things, where I rank a song by The Beatles doesn’t really matter that much, but it’s symbolic. It’s about recognizing that people can change, that beauty can be discovered in new places, and that holding onto the past for its own sake is silly.
As for what makes this song so great, I think everyone knows. Even the most emphatic of the Paul-bashers have to admit the purity, the genius of this song. Starting with Paul, alone at his piano, and slowly bringing in backing elements to reach a stunning crescendo, and then sustaining that climax for the final four minutes of the song. The drums come in at the perfect moment, but (like many great elements of Beatles songs) this was serendipity. Ringo was in the bathroom when this take began and had to rush back; he enters the fray several measures past the original plan–yet it works perfectly. This song also features the glorious harmonies that just leave my heart in a puddle on the floor (seriously, you can take the Beach Boys, you can take the Everly Brothers, you can take ’em all – I’ll take The Beatles for my harmonies). And then the whole monumental four minute outro. It is transcendent–the na na nas burrow into your soul and you achieve a deep and abiding inner peace. Meanwhile Paul is going nuts with his extemporaneous screams, and the background music only continues to grow. This was their biggest selling single, and rightly so.
1. and 2. The Abbey Road Medley (You Never Give Me Your Money/Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window and Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End) from Abbey Road
So here we are. I said at the beginning that I would consider the medley to be two songs, which I still do…sort of. I originally had the second part (Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End) at #3 and the first part at #10. But that’s not fair. It’s really a single piece, a work of art that spans 15 minutes and many phases. If we had any doubt, the reappearance of the refrain from “You Never Give Me Your Money” in “Carry That Weight” would make it clear. In its totality, the medley is the clearest proof in existence that the whole may not only be greater than the sum of its parts, but may transcend them to such an extent that it becomes something completely different. So, in retrospect, I probably should have made it a single song. Feel free to mentally adjust every song up one spot accordingly, if you’d like.
Three of these songs (“You Never Give Me Your Money,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and “The End”) would fit comfortably in the top 20 on their own but the broad scope provides time for dramatic ebbs and flows. The three form the backbone of the broader work as the start, the end, and the climactic moment in the middle. But the other songs provide background, dramatic progression, and (in some cases) breathing room.
Paul is in charge, but everyone gets their moment in the sun. Ringo’s drumming is fantastic–explosive and strong (check out “…Bathroom Window”), and he gets his one drum solo to shine. All three guitarists trade licks on “The End” demonstrating that these boys knew how to rock and roll as well as anyone. John is at his playful best on “Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam.”
“You Never Give Me Your Money” sets the stage, with its own mini-arc, a story that would make Springsteen proud, of what happens when nothing is left but everything is possible: “one sweet dream came true today…” However, this is only the introduction, themes are introduced but not fulfilled, the stage is filled, but the story is left to tell. Next is “Sun King” to dial down the tension, to provide a buffer before the rambunctious energy of the next three tracks. It’s by far the weakest song of the medley, though it is not terrible by any stretch and does serve its purpose well.
“Mean Mr. Mustard had been floating around since 1968 and was drafted into service here, and John decided his sister really ought to be named “Pam,” adding just another touch of continuity. These two songs just build and build, “Mustard” being drive by that fuzz guitar and “Pam” by Ringo’s powerful drumming and the interplay between the rhythm and lead guitars. “She Came in Through…” was recorded in a single take with “Polythene Pam,” and, as such, they share essentially the same backing track. However, where “Pam” was a fragment of a song, this is the complete package. In fact, it hardly makes sense to consider “Mustard” and “Pam” as anything but the set-up for this song. Together, they form a movement of the medley and build towards the first climax.
If they had ended at this point, it would have been perfectly adequate. Still, it finishes rather abruptly, suggesting that we are meant to read this ending as a false climax. Many of the loose ends have been tied up, but the final chapter is still to come.
That is provided by the second half of the medley (which, as I mentioned, would be my #3 song all on its own). We return, as the medley began, with the soft strains of the piano. “Golden Slumbers” carries the feel of a lullaby, but quickly expands, blossoming into “Carry That Weight” a song which I can’t help but associating with “Hey Jude” (“don’t carry the world upon your shoulders” – “boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time). The long progression of the medley is given clarity by the inclusion of a reprise from the very beginning (“I never give you my pillow, I only send you my invitation”).
And it ends, of course, with “The End” as each of the players is given his chance to come out, take a bow, and play for us one last time. The tension grows and grows with each new guitar riff until it can go no further, the storm lifts, and out of the chaos and the madness emerges a single, clear note on the piano. And we have emerged on the far side, the far side of life, of death, of love and pain, of all that we have ever known. Here, the only thing left to say is “and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” John later described this as one of Paul’s best, a “cosmic line,” and so it is.
This is the conclusion to their final album, and it is a fitting end. Soon after, John would declare “the dream is over” but he was wrong. The dream is still alive in every who has a copy of Abbey Road, who can listen to the conclusion to the greatest album by the greatest band in history–a band splitting apart at the seams, but who held it together long enough to create their masterpiece, and to give us all one last goodbye.
Thanks to everyone who’s been reading and commenting. I’ll return tomorrow to your regularly scheduled programming of more recent stuff, but it’s been a lot of fun getting the chance to go through all of these songs.
If I have any more Beatles-related thoughts, I may post them tomorrow, but as for now, it’s a beautiful day, so I’m going for a bike ride….
Beatles from worst to first 11 (the top 10)
Beatles from worst to first 10 (30-11)
Beatles from worst to first 9 (50-31)
Beatles from worst to first: Interlude
Beatles from worst to first 8 (75-51)
Beatles from worst to first 7 (100-76)
Beatles from worst to first 6 (120-101)
Beatles from worst to first 5 (140-121)
Beatles from worst to first 4 (160-141)
Beatles from worst to first 3 (175-161)
Beatles from worst to first 2 (190-176)
Beatles from worst to first 1 (206-191)
Beatles from worst to first: Introduction