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.
155. “What Goes On”
Congratulations, Richard Starkey, on your first songwriting credit with the Fab 4. Although Ringo later claimed that his contributions to this song were minimal (a refreshingly modest contrast to the battles for songwriting credit later waged by Lennon and McCartney), the country and western swing on this Rubber Soul track certainly sounds like something Ringo might write. I also feel like the line in the song “feel my future fold” has a distictly Ringo-esque flair, the kind of thing that he would write just to make a rhyme but ends up having a sort of cosmic wisdom about it.
John claimed to have written the bulk of it, although I’m not sure his recollection can be trusted, considering he gave Paul credit for the middle eight even though the song doesn’t really have one. I guess it doesn’t really matter too much since “What Goes On” is relatively lightweight.
Some characteristics to recommend it: The nice harmonies, as John and Paul sweetly blend in with Ringo’s lead vocal; George’s Carl Perkins-flavored guitar solo; and John’s crazed squonking on rhythm guitar. Seriously, focus your ear on those little stabs John makes with his instrument on this one. It sounds like he’s playing a different song at times, but somehow it works.
On the negative, the lyrics veer toward the melodramatic (“Did you mean to break my heart and watch me die?”) And it was a bit of a disconcerting trend that Lennon and McCartney tended to leave their table scraps for Ringo to sing, making him akin to the kid in the Life cereal ads. I can hear the studio conversation now: “Give it to Ringo. He’ll sing anything.”
I’ll be honest with you right up front and tell you that I’m not an instrumental kind of a guy. To me, you can lump Joe Satriani in with Kenny G. All instrumentals tend to send my finger hurtling toward the “Scan” button on the car radio with world-record type speed. They just bore me.
Now that I’ve unburdened myself, I also have to say that I don’t mind “Flying.” Maybe it’s because it’s very subtly done, not an excuse for everybody involved to show off their “chops” or whatever it is musicians like to blather on about. (I know I’m making a lot of friends here.)
The little flourishes here and there nicely complement the melody of the mellotron. It also seems like soundtrack music, which is, of course, what it became (for the Magical Mystery Tour film. And those chanting, wordless vocals that come in at the end to second the melody keep the proceedings from getting too heavy.
The crazed tape loops at the conclusion would anticpate future, more unfortunate experiments like “Revolution 9,” but “Flying” can’t be held accountable for that. It’s an instrumental, and it doesn’t make me want to fill my ears with tile grout, so it can’t be too bad.
153. “There’s A Place”
Bouyed along by great harmonies and a nice sense of drama, “There’s A Place” really jumps out at you the first time you hear it. I’m not sure how well it holds up after that though, simply because there’s not a lot to the song.
Lennon wrote it, and he was apparently trying to do an homage to Motown. The Beatles were able to mimic Motown often and well during this time period, but I’m not sure this song qualifies once you get by the little a cappella part at the start. After that, it’s strictly Mersey beat.
The lyrics are trying to hint at something a little deeper than the simple variations on “I love you” they had been writing. But Lennon bails out too soon from his efforts to depict a safe haven in his head to be with his love, settling instead for easy rhymes that don’t necessarily work in context (“And it’s my mind/And there’s no time.”)
Throw in the all-too ubiquitous harmonica from the Please Please Me sessions, and you have a near-miss. The group would quickly learn how to fill such a great hook with worthier lyrics.
152. “Her Majesty”
Beatles enthusiasts the world over know well the story of how this 23-second ditty ended up as one of the first hidden tracks in rock history (initial pressings of Abbey Road didn’t include it in the track listings.) Paul McCartney was trying to wedge the little tongue-in-cheek ode to the Queen into the first medley on Side 2 of the album, but decided it wasn’t any good and instructed an engineer to destory the tape. The engineer, either because he was under orders never to destroy anything the Beatles recorded or because he possessed amazing historical foresight, stuck the tape at the end of a rough cut of the album, where it stayed until it was re-played for Paul, who decided he liked it at the end. (This is also why there is an opening guitar blast in the song; that was originally intended for the end of “Mean Mr. Mustard.” And it’s why there is no closing chord in the song; it got left at the start of “Polythene Pam” and edited out.)
That’s a lot of info for a sliver of a song, sung affectingly by Paul with a twinkle in his eye. I felt the need to explain it again, because, if you’re like me, you’ve always been bothered by the song’s placement after what should have been the group’s Grand Finale. To me, it undercuts the symmetry of the closing medley, the great last line about making and taking love, that lovely, last horn blast. That’s the way it should have gone down.
Instead, you’ve got a Paul solo performance as the group’s last word, and a hugely anticlimactic last word at that. I know that Paul has spoken since about it being a happy accident and that the group felt that “Her Majesty” helped take some of the air out of the somber proceedings in that final medley. Well, when a group as wonderful as The Beatles signs off for good, things should be somber. Things should be majestic, and poignant, and moving, and all the other highfalutin’ words that mean you get chills hearing it. “Her Majesty’ doesn’t give you any of that, and so it has no right being the closer.
Of course, Let It Be ended up being released after Abbey Road anyway, so what’s my point really? The point is that if I want to listen to “Her Majesty,” I cue it up and play it solo. When I listen to Abbey Road, I hit stop as soon as “The End” ends, drawing the final curtain down properly.
151. “Do You Want To Know A Secret”
John Lennon was inspired by a song from the Snow White movie to write “Do You Want To Know A Secret.” (Also inspired by the movie but left on the cutting-room floor were songs like “Take This Apple And Shove It” and “Dopey’s Theme,” which was an instrumental, of course.) Lennon then gave the hand-off to George Harrison to take lead vocals, since George wasn’t yet writing his own material at the time of Please Please Me.
George actually sounds a little bit like John with a slight head cold here, and it’s interesting to hear him singing such unabashedly romantic lyrics, since those songs would be atypical of his own songwriting output. I actually think he plays the part well here.
Although the song isn’t exactly a deep treatise on love, it’s got some nice elements to its construction. The little spoken-word “You’ll never know…” intro sets the song up well in a retro, 50’s way. Paul’s bass-playing really drives the song, as it’s more in the forefront than usual here. And I like the fade-out, which never really resolves. Nice touch.
One side note: I was introduced to this song by that only-could-have-happened-in-the-80’s Beatles medley by Stars On 45. I heard that again not too long ago and was struck by how bizarre it was and how that crazed concoction became a hit. I guess with The Beatles, anything is a possible hit, even disco medleys that sound like they were edited by a paper shredder.
150. “Dig It”
If there’s one specific matter about which you can criticize the late-era Beatles, lack of efficiency would have to be it. Their interests began to scatter away from what they really did best, which was make rock and roll. You could attribute this to the lack of a clear leader in the absence of Brian Epstein, or you could write it off as one of the many symptoms of the group breaking apart. But it led to a lot of time wasted with precious little to show for it in the end.
“Dig It” is a poster child for this wastrel behavior. There are all kinds of versions off this improvised jam circulating on various bootlegs, suggesting that the group worked awful hard on a song that eventually was hacked into a snippet of less than a minute on the official release of Let It Be in 1970.
It’s too bad, because that snippet does have some promise, with John Lennon having fun calling off the first names that pop into his head and Billy Preston working up a mid-60’s Dylan groove on the organ (hence Lennon’s refrain of “Like a Rolling Stone” as the song fades in.) But it’s over almost before it started, ending with Lennon’s jokey intro to “Let It Be.”
Whatever “Dig It” might have been or become is now just matter for idle speculation. But that would just be more time wasted on this fragment of a song.
149. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
It clearly wins the Wile E. Coyote Memorial award for most conspicuous use of an anvil in a Beatles song. I’m not sure that would provide any consolation to John, George, and Ringo, who, post-Beatles, all spoke disdainfully about the miserable time they had recording this goofy McCartney composition. (Doesn’t it seem like it was always the weakest songs that caused the biggest rifts within the group?)
You can see the seeds of the worst tendencies of Paul’s early solo career here. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is a clear antecedent to songs like “Uncle Albert” that were overproduced and underwritten. That kind of approach leads to songs that are undeniably catchy but get stuck in your head for all the wrong reasons.
The truly bizarre thing about this song is the fact that the bouncy, ornate music (which finds the group dabbling in synthesizers, no less) accompanies a tale about a mass murderer. Maxwell Edison uses his hammer to dispatch just about everyone in the song, leaving a path of carnage that leads from medical school to the courtroom. (And what about the lax security in the courthouse, as Max is able to get up from the stand and drop the judge like a bad habit while everyone is watching? It’s like an episode of Boston Legal.)
All of these disparate elements add up to one of the true oddballs in the Beatles’ songbook, and it stands out even more amongst the relatively straightforward pleasures on Abbey Road. I guess this darn-near uncategorizable song must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
When I embarked upon this list, I knew that I would rank some songs in places that would seem downright heretical to the Beatles faithful. I’m guessing that my estimation of “Julia,” or lack thereof, will likely ruffle a lot of feathers. But I maintain that this song is loved by people for what it is supposed to be, and not for what it is.
“Julia,” of course, is the name of John Lennon’s mother, with whom it can be said he had a complicated relationship up until her premature death when John was still only 17. And when you listen to “Julia,” you keep waiting for the kind of revelation that might provide some insight into the relationship and, in turn, insight into what made John tick. But that revelation never comes. The “Julia” in the song might as well be a water nymph considering all of the opaque poetry that describes her.
Lennon later said he was writing not just about his Mom in the song but also a little about Yoko (fodder for armchair psychiatrists everywhere). The song makes references to an “ocean child,” which is what Yoko means in Japanese. So you’ve got this amalgam of his lover and his mother to whom the song is addressed, and all of the descriptive images are abstract, as if this person never existed.
John even nicked from Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese poet whose work surged in popularity in the 60’s, for some of the lines. That’s all well and good, as even the best borrow. But on subject matter this personal, you would think that John could have dug deeply into his own reservoir of emotions for the words to say.
Just a few years later, after the Beatles’ break-up, John would write “Mother,” a searing testimonial to his feelings of abandonment and insecurity caused by the absence of his parents. Inspired by the primal-scream therapy he had undergone to unearth his childhood trauma, “Mother,” with its straightforward lyrics and spare instrumentation, proved more haunting than the spacey, dreamy “Julia” ever could.
Maybe Lennon needed that therapy to write the definitive song about his mother, a song that would express as much hurt as love. And maybe The Beatles weren’t the right platform for such a personal song (although it’s interesting to note that “Julia” is John’s one and only solo performance with the group). Whatever the case, the next time you listen to “Julia,” try to hear it again without the history in your mind. I suspect you’ll hear a weightless folk song about a spectral female, not an impassioned tribute to a lost parent.
147. “Day Tripper”
One riff does not a classic song make. Nor do a few clever lines constitute a coherent idea. Hence, “Day Tripper” goes down as perhaps the weakest of all Beatles songs to reach No.1.
Mind you, that legendary guitar riff does carry this song a long way. It certainly provides a killer intro, one of the best in group history. But the riff is so great that the rest of the song, an innuendo-laced ode to those would dip their foot in the pool but not dive in, suffers by comparison.
Just what type of experimental pool the group is referencing here is a matter for debate. Some have speculated drugs, others sex (the lines about the girl being a “big teaser” would back this latter theory). The bottom line is that Lennon and McCartney churned this song out on the quick in need of a single, meaning that lyrical subtleties had to be sacrificed.
The group did manage to throw in a little “Twist And Shout”-style vocal crescendo just for good measure. But for all of the crash and bang on display here, there’s not much underneath. You can crank this one up to let off a little steam now and then, but there are other Beatles rockers that are far more effective. Indeed, like the girl in the song, it only takes us “half the way there.”
146. “Blue Jay Way”
While staying in a rented house in Los Angeles and awaiting some late-arriving dinner guests who were likely having a hard time navigating L.A.’s notorious winding streets, a travel-weary George Harrison happened upon an old organ in the house and sat down to write a song. Hence, “Blue Jay Way” was born.
The tale is told in literal fashion by George, and, as such, it doesn’t resonate all that well. What can be said about “Blue Jay Way” is that it is a seriously spooky song. George also played the organ on the recording, giving the song a horror-movie vibe that is accentuated by a quivering cello, echoey effects on every instrument, the funereal beat kept by Ringo at the start of the song, and the background vocals in the latter part that sound like they’re being sung by someone who is simultaneously being garroted.
“Blue Jay Way,” with all of its aforementioned quirkiness, works as a pretty effective approximation of that nether region between waking and sleeping that one gets when extremely weary. Whatever the case, I’m guessing that George probably wasn’t very good company once his guests arrived that fateful night. From the soporific sound of the song he produced, they likely found him face down on a G chord.
(4 - To be continued here)
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