Playing The Beatles Backwards: The Ultimate Countdown Part 5

By JBev

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.

145. “Birthday

Ah, those savvy Beatles. Whereas most rockers put out the obligatory Christmas song to cash in on those royalties once a year, Paul McCartney figured out that a song commemorating a birthday would pay off year-round. After all, every day is somebody’s birthday, at least by my calculations.
OK, so maybe I have my cynical pants on right now. The motives for “Birthday” were likely far more innocent than that. They likely just wanted a lighthearted romp to place among all the weirdness that would end up on the White Album. It’s interesting that both discs start off with relatively straightforward McCartney rockers (“Back In The U.S.S.R.” on disc 1 and “Birthday” on disc 2), yielding no indication of the insanity within.
“Birthday” wins points for harking back to the group’s early days with the simple lyrics (rhyming “dance” and “chance”, for instance) and the driving rock and roll. That riff is catchy as hell, the hyper-speed beat puts Ringo front and center, and he swats it out of the park.
And I’d take it over boring old traditional “Happy Birthday” any day.

144. “Baby You’re A Rich Man”

Take one song from Column A, another from Row A, mash them up together, and…presto-chango! You’ve got yourself a B-side. The Beatles recorded the two main parts of “Baby You’re A Rich Man” (the “beautiful people” part, written by Lennon, and the refrain, written by McCartney) separately, and then decided that the two songs worked better as one. The technique had worked once before on “A Day In The Life.” Here, not so much.
You could say that this song equals less than the sum of its parts, some of which are actually quite memorable. That bizarre squealing instrument heard at the start is a clavioline, a precursor to a synthesizer that gave the song an exotic feel.
And some of Lennon’s lyrics are sneaky good here, as he suggests that the rewards of wealth may be shallower than the recipient would expect (”What did you see when you were there/Nothing that doesn’t show.”). John could certainly relate to the trappings of fame and how they failed to fill the emptiness inside of him. Here, he doles out his wisdom for others.
But the one-note chorus breaks the nifty spell conjured up by those philosophical lines sung in tender falsetto. The refrain seems to be celebrating the person’s ascension to the wealthy class, creating a bothersome contradiction to what has come before. These songs would have been better served had they been developed separately rather than being forced into an awkward fit.

143. “Cry Baby Cry”

Written by John Lennon as a lullaby, albeit a skewed one in which adults concoct homemade séances to amuse children, “Cry Baby Cry” is another example of a song finding its way onto the White Album for no better reason than because it existed. It does add to the spooky vibe of the album overall though, leading, via a hidden Paul McCartney song called “Can You Take Me Back,” into the abyss of “Revolution 9.”
John’s depiction of royalty is based far more on Lewis Carroll than on reality. The whole thing has an unreal vibe to it, and when I try to visualize the king and queen in the song, I picture them stepping right off of playing cards.
The band serves this song well by taking it from its acoustic beginnings and giving it a fetching pop sheen. There’s even a harmonium on hand to sweeten the proceedings, and the descending piano notes give the song a somber feel in spite of the light lyrics.
As for “Can You Take Me Back,” you could look at the plea inherent in its title as McCartney’s secret wish for his band. He would overtly come out and make similar exhortations for a return to simpler times in subsequent songs when it was far too late to do anything about it. His message here came when it sounded like something still could be done to rectify the situation. By throwing it away at the end of “Cry Baby Cry,” Paul prevented any deep investigation into the song snippet’s meaning at the time. In hindsight though, it looks like the first crack in the façade.

142. “Only A Northern Song”

I’ve read some contradicting reports about the impetus for this psychedelically shambolic George Harrison composition. Some sources claim that the song came from early sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s but was left off when it proved an improper fit for that album. Others say that it was written a year later, in 1968, when producers for the Yellow Submarine film requested one more song and George trundled off to write it, returning in an hour with “Only A Northern Song.” While the latter story is far more amusing in light of the song’s self-deprecating lyrics, the liner notes for Anthology 2, written by the noted Beatle historian Mark Lewisohn, agrees with the former tale, so I’m going with that.
And thus it was a wise decision to keep “Only a Northern Song” off Sgt. Pepper’s, not based on its worthiness as a song, but based on the fact that the dissonant instruments and overall loonyness would have been hopelessly out of place on the thematically tight finished album. Yellow Submarine was the proper place for this kooky yet endearing number.
I learned in a film class in college that when an actor in a movie addresses the camera and, hence, the audience, it’s called breaking the fourth wall. Well, I don’t know if there is a similar term for music, but that’s what George does here, making conversation with the listener and showing admirable modesty at that.
I love the way, when he sings “you may think the chords are going wrong,” the chord change in the music does indeed veer off in an unexpected direction. I also think there may be a subtle dig at his bandmates in the lines “If you think the harmony/Is a little dark and out of key/You’re correct/There’s nobody there.” Whereas John and Paul were constantly touching up each other’s songs, George was often left to his own devices on the songs he wrote.
It’s a clever song that, by its own admission, is just a tossed-off little ditty. But the fact that it’s willing to make such an admission is admirable indeed, a byproduct of George’s unflinching honesty as a songwriter.

141. “Penny Lane”

Lusciously melodic, exquisitely constructed, and impeccably performed, “Penny Lane,” in spite of all that, has always left this humble listener a bit cold. I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on it, but, after giving it a few spins in preparation for this list, I think I’ve pinpointed the reasons for some of my ambivalence.
First of all, it is unremittingly cheerful. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I suppose, but it seems like forced mirth to me. All the images of blue skies and flowers and friendly neighbors are a little too untouchable. None of it feels real even though it is based on a real place. Had Paul allowed a little darkness into his idyllic setting, it might have thrown all that sunshine into a more poignant relief. All the brightness here makes me want to shade my eyes as I’m listening.
I also find it fascinating to compare it to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” since both songs were initially intended for a project of songs depicting the Beatles’ childhood (a project that would be shelved in favor of Sgt. Pepper’s). Lennon later stated that his initial attempts to write “Strawberry Fields” embarrassed him as they had a grade-school essay feel to them. Isn’t that how “Penny Lane” sounds at times, with a play-by-play rundown of all the people who pass through? Even though the descriptions are detailed, the characters are cardboard cutouts without any life to them.
There are moments when “Penny Lane” almost transcends all this, like when that piccolo trumpet soars majestically above it all or when Paul sings “Penny Lane is in my ears/And in my eyes,” a brilliant way to describe the power of the memory he holds. But the memory as he then describes it is a little too mundane to have any real lasting effect.
So while I continue to admire the musical achievement of “Penny Lane,” I don’t think I’ll ever love it quite as much as some of the more modestly produced songs in the Beatles’ catalog, songs yet to come on this list.

140. “Every Little Thing”

One of the more obscure Beatles songs from one of the more obscure Beatles albums (Beatles For Sale), “Every Little Thing” deserves a wider audience. It’s hurt by the fact that it’s very short, even by Beatles’ standards. Once you get a little invested in it, it’s over.
The thing I like the most is Ringo whomping on the tympani during the chorus. It adds some dramatic reminiscent of a movie soundtrack. The sentiment expressed is nice enough, a typical Paul ballad. What’s odd is that because of the way the song was recorded, it sounds like John singing lead (even though the pair harmonize throughout), which goes against the Lennon/McCartney rule of thumb that the one who sung it is the one who composed it.
Throw on some melodic lead guitar from George, and you have an all-around sound effort that just comes up a bit short in terms of ambition and inspiration. But, if you don’t know it, and casual Beatles fans might not, you’ll be in for a nice surprise when you hear it for the first time.

139. “When I Get Home”

The phrase “When I Get Home” usually has a pretty negative connotation. Oftentimes, if somebody is saying it to you, you’re not expecting the best. “When I get home, you’re going to clean up that room, mister.” Or “when I get home, we’re going to have a chat about the cross-dressing thing.” “When I get home” ranks second only to “we need to talk” on the list of phrases guaranteed to make your ears sweat.
But John Lennon pulls a fast one on us and turns that phrase into a positive here, although you can’t really tell until the bridge, when he sings “when I get home tonight/I’m going to hold her tight/I’m going to love her ‘til the cows come home.” Hey now! Any more of that dirty talk and this list is going to come with a parental advisory. We’ll discuss this when I get…whoops, got a little carried away there.
Lennon turns out some nice one-liners throughout, my personal favorite being “I got no time for triviality.” On the negative side, the falsetto backing vocals are a little crazed. It sounds like somebody poured a bucket of ice on the group in the high part of the chorus. Not a bad little number from A Hard Day’s Night, but strictly pedestrian by Beatles’ standards.

138. “Run For Your Life”

John Lennon was particularly harsh in his assessment of this song, the last one on Rubber Soul, calling it on at least one occasion his least favorite by the group. Considering that he wrote the song, he wasn’t grinding any axes either.
My guess is that the misogynistic trappings of the lyrics somewhat unsettled him. The very first line (“I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man”) comes straight from a song popularized by Elvis, but the rest of the ominous sentiments are all John. “Let this be a sermon girl/That I mean everything I said/Baby I’m determined/That I’d rather see you dead.” Some nifty internal rhymes, but not exactly Boyfriend-of-the-Year material.
John probably felt that he’d revealed a dark side of his personality that he’d just as soon have kept hidden. The fact that the song is sung in the first person rather than as a character study/joke like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” for instance, could possibly have confused listeners into thinking that’s how he really was. (Whether he was or not is an issue for biographers, not me.)
Maybe I’m just reading into it too much, but I doubt John hated this song based solely on its merits alone. It’s an effective enough country shuffle with a great refrain. The only problem with the dark tone of the lyrics for me is that they don’t quite gibe with the sunny music.
As for how listeners might perceive him, I could see the John Lennon as Beatle of 1965 concerned about the group’s mop-top image, but, if my theory is right, it’s surprising that the bitingly honest post-Beatle John Lennon cared so much about such a minor song in the group’s massive catalog.

137. “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You”

Well, this girl must be one helluva dancer. After all, George doesn’t want to kiss her, hold her hand, hug her, or hold her tight (I’m guessing they aren’t slow dancing.) He just wants to dance with her, and at the end of the dance he’s convinced he’ll be in love with her. It’s like she’s some Greek goddess who has the power to hypnotize men simply by doing the Mashed Potato.
Harrison sang on this Lennon-written track because he didn’t write anything of his own on the soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night. Even though he had made his songwriting debut with “Don’t Bother Me” on With The Beatles in 1963, George had nothing on this album or on 1964’s other release, Beatles For Sale. But, when he did return with songwriting credits on Help! In 1965, they were much stronger and more assured efforts.
Maybe he was building up his confidence, but, in the meantime, the group continued to assign him lovey-dovey songs that were somewhat at odds with his sardonic personality. And yet he manages to convey an honest sweetness in his vocal here that rises above the silliness of the premise.
When you add in the airtight production and the ingratiating chorus, you can see why, even though it wasn’t a single, “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You” still receives significant airplay today.

136. “Misery”

One of the first indications that Lennon/McCartney could do something other than happy love songs was “Misery,” the second track on their very first British LP, Please Please Me. Ironically, it was written for the popular British singer Helen Shapiro, who turned it down. Needing songs to fill out the album, The Beatles cranked out their own version of “Misery.”
If there is a problem with the song, it’s that the boys pretty much say how they feel rather than using images to conjure those feelings. Yet they evoke the proper mood nicely with their harmonies, which don’t soar to their usual ebullient heights but instead seem weighed down with sorrow.
It’s also fun to hear them use teen slang like “it’s gonna be a drag” to describe their woe. That line serves as a reminder of just how young they were while they were conquering the world.
Just one song after “Misery” on Please Please Me, the group turned out a knockout cover of the Arthur Williams classic, “Anna (Go to Him),” a much deeper weeper that suggests all the hurt of a break-up along with more mature themes like forgiveness and resignation. Future Beatle sad songs would have similar depth and then some, but “Misery” was an acceptable, if obvious, first try.

(5 - To be continued...)

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