To most Beatles fans, choosing between the songs of the Fab 4 is a bit like choosing between children. But, on the JamsBio exclusive, Playing The Beatles Backwards, one intrepid fan dares to rank the original songs of The Beatles and give his reasons why in a worst-to-first countdown. Prepare to hit the message boards to defend your favorites, and follow the countdown all the way to Number 1.
175. “I Wanna Be Your Man”
The hypothetical possibilities are mind-blowing when you think about what might have happened when The Rolling Stones asked The Beatles to donate a song for them in 1963. They couldn’t possibly have known at the time, but Lennon and McCartney had the chance to irrevocably alter the career course of their unofficial rivals for British rock supremacy.
The story goes that The Stones manager ran into John and Paul and made the request, the two just happened to have a song on which they were working, and then they came into the studio and polished off “I Wanna Be Your Man” before the impressed Stones. (I understand that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards weren’t yet the prolific songwriting duo they would eventually become, but why in tarnation were they so impressed with a song that is essentially the title refrain repeated about 93 times?)
Lennon later claimed that they purposely gave the Stones a half-hearted effort and the fact that Ringo would eventually sing lead on the Beatles’ version (on With The Beatles) does indicate that they weren’t expecting it to be a smash. But, what if the Beatles had been working on, say, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on that specific day. The timing isn’t that far off. Maybe, just maybe, they would have handed that one over.
Could you imagine that alternate universe? Can you see Mick chastely courting the object of his affection while Keith pitches in the high harmonies (assuming, of course, his head didn’t explode from this shock to his senses?) Maybe the Stones might have gotten the jump on The Beatles for supremacy in America.
The flip side is that maybe the Stones could never have developed into what they would eventually become, because, if this parent-friendly song was the one with which they were introduced to the world, the bad-boy image that they cultivated might not have been accepted. Maybe they would have stayed on the (relatively) straight-and-narrow path. Jagger would now be Prime Minister and Richards would be in Disney movies (oh, wait, that already happened.)
Anyway, it’s something to think about while listening to “I Wanna Be Your Man,” because the song, while harmless enough, is easily forgettable.
174. “Love You To”
tend to make fun of things we don’t fully understand, and music with sitars and tablas in the place of electric guitars and drums still seems exotic when heard today amidst run-of-the-mill rock. In the mid-1960’s, it must have sounded like it came from outer space.
But what Harrison was able to do, for the most part, was blend the elements of that droning, hypnotic Eastern sound into more traditional (at least to our ears) Western melodies. When he perfected that technique in the latter half of the 60’s, the result was a type of spiritual uplift to which rock had never before even aspired, let alone achieved.
But those knee-jerk parodies, with the burning incense and the clichéd chanting, might have actually been on target had George never progressed past “Love You To.” Although he had dipped his foot in the pool with the sitar on “Norwegian Wood,” he chose to dive in head first on Revolver’s “Love You To.” The problem isn’t the Indian music; it’s actually quite effective. The problem is that George’s personality gets swamped in all the New Age mumbo-jumbo of the lyrics, which come off as hectoring instead of enlightening.
And the flat melody, while appropriate to the music, leads to George intoning in a stuffy-nose voice that never gets off the ground. “Love You To” is important as the stepping stone to the sound that Harrison would darn near perfect. But here that sound just gives fodder to the wise guys.
173. “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”
One recurring theme that you’ll find me harping on down at the bottom of this list is the issue of effort. I contend that when the Beatles were at their best, they were at their most effortless. Obviously I understand that they didn’t just roll out of bed and toss off the classics from Sgt. Pepper’s or Abbey Road without breaking a sweat. They were perfectionists who harped on every last detail, but the final product usually came out sounding very relaxed and natural.
Many of the songs that I have ranked near the bottom sound strained. They’re straining to be what their creators want them to be, and as a result, they never quite get there. This was usually a byproduct of the group trying to branch out beyond their comfort zone, as in the case of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”
Here is Paul, in wink- wink, nudge-nudge mode, attempting to be salacious, and in the process abandoning all subtlety and tact. He was apparently inspired on the group’s retreat to India when he saw monkeys going at it sans inhibition. Charming. The song bludgeons you over the head about how ribald and risque it is, and you can tell that Paul’s hoping to get some knowing sniggers from the audience. But once the shock value of the first refrain wears off, you’re just left with a guy who doesn’t know when the joke should end. (And about the lyrics: Wouldn’t everyone be watching two people rogering in the middle of the avenue? Just a thought.)
The ironic thing is that this song, this short, sophomoric lark of a song, caused hard feelings because John actually wanted to be involved in its recording. So it loses points for that as well. The catchy opening percussion is fine; beside that, it’s just trying way too hard.
172. “Magical Mystery Tour”
First a few notes on the movie. It has its defenders and detractors. I can see the point of both camps. It’s nice to have The Beatles on film because there isn’t too much of that when they’re not performing; on the other hand, this movie is so disjointed and haphazard that even David Lynch would probably raise his hand and say, “What the Blue Velvet is going on here?”
I also love Paul McCartney’s contention that many filmmakers saw Magical Mystery Tour in film school and were inspired by it. I could just imagine the professor: “All right, today, class, we’ll be viewing Citizen Kane, Metropolis, and John Lennon in a fake mustache ladling ridiculous amounts of spaghetti onto the plate of an obese woman.”
But leave that stuff for Gene Shalit; we’re here to discuss the music. And as a song, “Magical Mystery Tour” fails in its attempt to set the stage a la “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Maybe it’s because there isn’t really a stage to set: “Magical Mystery Tour” was on an EP in its original release along with a handful of other songs from the movie. So, standing alone, it just sounds awkward.
Paul was attempting to get the feel of an ad jingle with the punchy horns and slogans in the lyrics. He may have succeeded too well, because the song doesn’t have much more depth than a commercial for toothpaste. I do like the mysterious little coda tacked on at the end. It’s a bit out of place, but it’s the first thing about the song that feels like it’s not just a watered-down copy of an earlier triumph.
171. “Wild Honey Pie”
Let’s not get too deep into the merits of this song: It’s just a bizarre little White Album quasi-instrumental that barely lasts more than a minute. On the album, coming as it did after four pretty great songs, it gives the first indication that this isn’t going to be your run-of-the-mill Beatles LP. The guitar strings are being stretched as if someone is going to launch arrows with them, and the deranged “Honey Pie” refrain at the end sounds like the handiwork of drunken revelers.
The song is noteworthy for being solely the work of Paul, who played all the instruments and overdubbed all the vocals as well. (This surprised me when I first learned it; I always I assumed I heard John Lennon doing one of his jokey falsettos in there.) In fact, this practice of doing what is essentially solo material on a Beatles album really is unique to the White Album.
That’s why it’s hard to hear the album as a Beatles fan and not be reminded of what it represented: The beginning of the group’s dissolution. And yet there is an uninhibited quality to that album, a recklessness that appeals to a lot of people. As such, it’s no wonder that it is, by far and away, the most polarizing Beatles release.
So, when you hear “Honey Pie,” maybe you’ll just hear it as Paul having too much time on his hands in the studio one day. Or you could hear it as one of the first cracks that led the dam to break. I suppose that depends if you think the glass onion is half-empty or half-full. (Thank you, folks, I’ll be here all week.)
170. “For You Blue”
The idea behind the whole Get Back project, which would eventually morph into Let It Be, probably appealed to The Beatles at the time, but it makes less sense to all of us viewing it through the lens of history. We know now that the notion of getting these four men in the same room together, at a time when they were barely speaking, and forcing them to face each other all day long with cameras everywhere was a folly of epic proportions. The fact that knife fights didn’t ensue was a small miracle.
But more than that, the line of thinking that said The Beatles should be reduced in the studio was the big problem. Had they risen to the occasion with a whip-smart, focused set of songs that might have sounded great even with the sparest of productions, then Let It Be might have been right up there with the best of the Beatles’ albums. Instead, many of the songs seem like little more than glorified improvs.
“For You Blue” fits this last category. It’s nice to hear George sounding light-hearted here rather than burdened with the weight of the eternal souls of everyone on the planet, as he had on the previous few albums. At the same time, it’s hard to believe too much in the loosey-goosey, relaxed atmosphere suggested by Harrison’s vocal patter throughout the song, such as his cheering on John Lennon’s agile pedal steel guitar work and name-dropping Elmore James. Hey, the cameras were on; maybe this was a little bit of an acting job.
It’s hard to get too worked up about “For You Blue” one way or another, and I suppose you could say that for the whole of Let It Be. The Beatles checked their grand ambitions at the door for that album, the very same ambitions that spurred them on to greatness in the first place.
169. “Don’t Pass Me By”
There apparently is evidence of Ringo Starr mentioning on a BBC program somewhere around 1964 that he had been working on a song called “Don’t Pass Me By.” It was finally released on The White Album in 1968. That means it took 4 years for Starr to polish up this song, his first solo composing credit with the group.
Considering all of that time spent, you might have expected something Beethovenesque as the result. Instead, we got a bizarre, fiddle-laden, country number which finds Ringo moaning over a love who keeps him waiting. I don’t know why he’d be so worked up, since it appears the girl in question is now bald as a result of an auto accident. Maybe she had an early prototype for the Flobee, and things went horribly awry when she tried to give herself a trim using the rear-view. Don’t cut and drive, people. It’s the law.
The other odd thing about this number (actually there are about a million odd things about this number, but let’s keep it brief) is that, considering it was written by a drummer, it’s got probably the clunkiest rhythm of any Beatles track out there. Usher couldn’t dance to this song.
But, then again, it’s quintessentially Ringo, isn’t it? It’s charming in an oddball way, and the whimsy is unforced, as opposed to some of the unsubtle attempts at humor found elsewhere on The White Album. We’ll give Ringo a pass here, and hope that the girl in the song discovered Rogaine somewhere along the way.
168. “Doctor Robert”
Nobody loved a good inside joke more than The Beatles. Subtle references and buried hints are peppered throughout their catalog, so much so that those Easter eggs eventually took on a life of their own. But “Doctor Robert” is basically an entire song devoted to an inside joke, referencing a doctor that the boys knew who was a bit, shall we say, friendly in his distribution of pharmaceuticals. And, as The Beatles themselves were well down the mind-expansion path by this point, you can see how immortalizing this dubious character might have seemed like a subversive idea.
The problem is that they concentrated so much on the inside joke part of things that they neglected to write a very good song in the process. The track is straightforward and plodding, not what you would expect from a song that wants to reference a mood-altering doctor. Maybe the idea was that by making the track so square it would mirror this character that hid behind the forthright image of a healer, but all the while was doing a little something extra on the side. But that puts quite a burden on a listener to figure out all of that, and it makes for more of an academic exercise that a pleasurable listening experience.
What’s odd about it is that The Beatles were beginning to incorporate psychedelic influences so brilliantly in songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “She Said She Said,” which, like this song, were both featured on Revolver. John Lennon, who wrote those other two classics, also did the yeoman’s work on “Doctor Robert.” Maybe he thought he was going to the well too often. Or maybe he thought making any more overt references would shine too harsh a light on the guy. Whatever his decision-making process might have been, it seems flawed now.
Oddly enough, the best part of the song is the “well, well, well” bridge, which was apparently a Paul McCartney contribution. It effectively evokes the dreamlike quality that one might associate with a chemically-induced journey. More of that would have made “Doctor Robert” a song that you could groove to rather than just wink at.
167. “And I Love Her”
As we head through this monumental list of songs in reverse order, we are encountering the worst before the best. And so, by simple deduction, since it is the first ballad we come across, that means that I consider “And I Love Her” the worst Beatles ballad ever. (#179 “Ask Me Why” might be considered a ballad by some, but it’s more mid-tempo to me.)
Is this possible? Can the song that I considered worthy enough to transcribe its lyrics in order to win over my 3rd-grade crush possibly have fallen so far in my estimation? (Alas, she left me at recess later that day; it was not to be.)
The truth is that listening to it these days, it’s hard for me to sidestep the lyrics to get to the pretty melody. Those words sound like something that a reality-show contestant who claims to write poetry would intone in the Romance Suite or some such nonsense. They don’t hold up to the Beatles’ standards, and it’s not too surprising since the group took a little while to develop their softer side after all those years of playing loud and fast when they were trying to make it.
“Bright are the stars that shine/Dark is the sky,” sings Paul, practically oozing sincerity. Well, awkward is the syntax and mushy is the sentiment, if you ask me. Still, to you 3rd-graders out there, I’d highly recommend it.
166. “The Word”
Anticipating flower-power by a few years, this Rubber Soul oddity advocates love as an all-powerful cure to the world’s ills. Obviously, “All You Need Is Love” would corner the market on that genre for The Beatles a few years later, leaving “The Word” as something of a curious footnote.
Well, one problem with is that I don’t know why that would be appealing unless you’re planning on hypnotizing somebody to do your evil bidding. The other problem is that, while it’s not exactly a singsong melody, there is more than one note in “The Word,” so the mission wasn’t quite accomplished.
Paul McCartney has been quoted as saying that the song was an attempt to write a song with one note.
There are enough quirks in the lyrics here to make this interesting though. John Lennon sings that he has found this life-changing knowledge “in the good and the bad books that I have read.” That qualifies it a little bit, doesn’t it? I’m not sure I’d base my worldview on such a questionable source.
At other points, with the “be like me” and “show everybody the light” lines, the singers sound downright megalomaniacal. Couple that with those otherworldly high harmonies, and you can perhaps read this song a parody of the theory the group seems to be espousing.
Those little tweaks give this song a hint of something darker below the surface goodwill. So maybe how you receive this song depends on the mood you’re in at the time. Then you can decide whether to take the group at their “Word.”
(2 - To be continued here)
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