For all their distinct personalities, the four Beatles were effectively a gestalt entity. This was one of the reasons why they so perfectly represented Eros, or the Freudian drive to lose your limited self and become part of something larger.
In the decades after the band split, much debate occurred about why they were so special, with the assumption being that the answer must lie with one of the four. In the seventies and eighties, many rock critics took the view that John Lennon was the special ingredient which explained the extraordinary impact of the Beatles. Thinking like this was entirely in keeping with the individualism of the second half of the twentieth century. But as a framework, individualism was always too limited a perspective to understand something as interesting as the Beatles. It was the combination of those four personalities which made the Beatles greater than the sum of their parts. They were, in occult terms, a combination of the four alchemical elements. Ringo was earth, John was fire, Paul was air and George was water. Combined, they produced the fifth, transcendent element: spirit. Or alternatively, Ringo had a big nose, George had big ears, Paul had big eyes and John was always a big mouth. As individuals these attributes may be unfortunate, but when they are combined you get the face of a giant.
And then Paul McCartney wrote ‘Yesterday’.
This is, of course, one of the most covered songs in history. The melody famously came to Cartney fully formed during a dream, a gift from his subconscious that would change his life forever. It elevated him from being part of his ‘good little rock ‘n’ roll band’ to becoming the author of the front page of the twentieth century’s songbook. Even half a century after it was written, it’s impossible to grow up in the West and not know this song. It hinted at the scale of the new territory that the Beatles would now occupy. But it also hinted at the cost.
Before ‘Yesterday’, the Beatles were a unit. Lennon and McCartney had previously written songs alone, without the insights and finishing touches of their partner. But this was the first solo song that didn’t need the other three Beatles. Instead, it was recorded in two takes with Paul alone, playing acoustic guitar and singing, and George Martin added a string quartet three days later. On the same day that McCartney recorded Yesterday’, the full band also recorded two more of Paul’s songs, the larynx shredding rocker ‘I’m Down’ and the acoustic folk rock ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ – an example not just of the phenomenal work rate that the band operated at, but the variety of styles of both singing and songwriting that McCartney was capable of.
The solo nature of the song clearly troubled the band; here was a situation that they had never had to deal with before. It is striking that, uncomfortable with such a solo effort being credited to the Beatles, they didn’t release the song as a single in the UK. It’s hard to imagine any other band writing a song as strong and commercial as ‘Yesterday’, then only using it as filler on the second side of a film soundtrack album.
What ‘Yesterday’ showed was that new horizons for the band’s music were imaginable. It was not that they had plateaued and were on the way down, it was more that they had barely started. If they were to reach those new artistic peaks it would require the four Beatles to grow and evolve as individuals. They could not remain loveable mop-tops forever. But if the four of them were to change in unexpected and unpredictable ways, then how could they be expected to fit together so neatly into the perfect unit that won the hearts of the world? The future was unparalleled creative growth, yet as the melancholic mood of ‘Yesterday’ realised, it would come at a cost.
‘Yesterday’ is a song about realising that something special has changed and wishing to go back in time to how things used to be. The Beatles were going to mature into four extraordinary individuals who would offer the world so much more than the pre-‘Yesterday’ Fab Four. For all four musicians, their greatest work was ahead of them. But there is a reason why many children fear growing up. The arrival of the future, after all, must mean the death of the past. To evolve and fulfil their potential would mean allowing fractures to grow in the best gang imaginable.
LOVE AND LET DIE by John Higgs published by W&N available in Hardback, eBook and audio £22
Most songwriters would give their right arm for just one of the melodies, riffs or chord sequences on Revolver. The playing is terrific too. From the looping bass, taut guitar stabs and crisp drumming of the opening ‘Taxman’, to the hallucinatory ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ with that legendary, defining Ringo drum pattern, The Beatles sound like the tightest band on the planet. And they don’t just hit the back of the net with rock, pop and psychedelia; whatever they turn their hand to on the album is pure gold, from the heart-breaking pathos of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ with its haunting double string quartet arrangement, to the achingly tender ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, arguably McCartney’s most beautiful love song. With every track a banger (and no, I’m not excluding ‘Yellow Submarine’ which has the hookiest chorus ever written), it’s unquestionably the highpoint of The Beatles recording career. An awe-inspiring achievement, especially when you consider it was released only eight months after Rubber Soul and that many of the tracks wouldn’t even make a top 20 of The Beatles best known songs.
Beatles Handbook rating: 5 Stars
Essential tracks Eleanor Rigby Here, There and Everywhere And Your Bird Can Sing Got To Get You Into My Life Tomorrow Never Knows
For any other band, Help! would be a greatest hits album. But because this is The Beatles, it’s just another shift in the mop tops’ factory of greatness. With what must be the most impactful beginning of any pop album, ‘Help!’ makes for a direct, startling opening statement, vulnerable and yet uplifting as though by simply making the request, Lennon has made himself feel better. With only one track tipping the three minute mark (Ticket To Ride at a hardly epic 3m9s), the band rattle though 14 perfect slices of guitar pop. Every track is a cracker, including the Ringo-sung ‘Act Naturally’. As astonishingly excellent as the film it soundtracks is appallingly bad.
Beatles Handbook rating: 5 Stars
Essential tracks Help! The Night Before You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away You’re Going to Lose That Girl Ticket To Ride
It’s amazing what you can do with some tight guitar riffs, even tighter vocal harmonies, passing piano chords and a killer hook line. ‘Beep, beep, beep, yeah’ indeed. It’s incredible to think that, a little more than two years earlier, the same four lads were banging, thrashing and crooning their way through a disparate rag bag of rudimentary rockers and schmaltzy ballads. And ‘Drive My Car’ is just one of any number of sophisticated, mature, memorable and melodic songs on what isn’t even their best album. It may be a music mag all-time-best-list staple but it can’t quite keep pace in terms of quality with Help! or Revolver, but make no mistake, this is a band close to the very height of their powers sounding both assured, thrilling and moving by turns.
Beatles Handbook rating: 4 Stars
Essential tracks Drive My Car Norwegian Wood Nowhere Man The Word Girl I’m Looking Through You In My Life
As Luke Haines recently noted in his column in Record Collector, “the opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’… singlehandedly seemed to usher in a new era”. It certainly ushered in a new era for the mop tops themselves with what might be considered by contemporary listeners as their first ‘proper’ album. Most of the Hamburg hard edges have been sanded off and chugging rock’n’roll for the most part replaced by sophisticated song writing with ace melodies and harmonies. Lennon dominates, taking lead vocals on nine out of the thirteen tracks and, according to beatlesarchive.net, writing ten, but McCartney still manages to make a big impression with his three contributions; the hauntingly beautiful ‘And I Love Her’ (the signature opening guitar motive courtesy of Harrison), the instantly catchy ‘Things We Said Today’ and of course the timeless classic ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. Harrison is given ‘I’m Happy Just To Dance With You’ to sing, one of the weaker numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place on Please Please Me or With The Beatles but it’s still a pleasant enough sub-two minute listen. A great album that soundtracks the band’s finest moment on film.
Beatles Handbook rating: 4 Stars
A Hard Day’s Night I should Have Known Better If I Fell And I Love Her Can’t Buy Me Love Things We Said Today I’ll Be Back
An album that includes songs of the quality of ‘Across The Universe’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘Get Back’ should rate five stars, but it’s actually somewhat of a disappointment. The inclusion of two sub-one minute tracks (‘Dig It’ and ‘Maggie Mae’), a piece of Lennon juvenilia in the form of ‘One After 909’, and Harrison’s lightweight ‘For You Blue’ gives Let It Be an uneven quality. That’s exacerbated but the inclusion of second division songs (at least in the context of The Beatles catalogue) ‘Dig a Pony’ and ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’, but it’s hardly surprising once you’ve seen the film Get Back and understand the chaotic nature of the rehearsal and recording sessions for the album. McCartney’s touching and wistful ‘Two of Us’ and Harrison’s waltzing ‘I Me Mine’ are the album’s two relatively hidden gems.
Beatles Handbook rating: 3 stars
Essential tracks Two of Us Across The Universe I Me Mine Let It Be The Long and Winding Road Get Back
Where to start with The Beatles by The Beatles? An album that sounds like an extended re-issue of itself with bonus tracks that should never have seen the light of day (WTAF is Wild Honey Pie?). Starting at the beginning is actually a very good idea as you get to hear ace rocker ‘Back In The U.S.S.R’., the dreamy psychedelia of ‘Dear Prudence’ and the archly self-referential ‘Glass Onion’. Then the problems start. Oh bloody hell, it’s ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, McCartney at his absolute worst, culturally appropriating a story that’s not his to tell over a weird and horrible umpah-meets-cod-reggae backing track. Jesus wept. At least the aforementioned ‘Wild Honey Pie’, the next track up, with its faux avant garde stylings has the decency to last a merciful 53 seconds.
I’m not going parse all 30 tracks of this sprawling mess, but suffice to say that to get to every magnificent song such as Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, Lennon’s ‘Julia’ or McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ you have to wade through dreck like ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ or the more than eight unlistenable minutes of ‘Revolution 9’ (if anyone tries to tell you that, actually, that’s their favourite Beatles song, run). It is however almost worth the slog to end up at one of the loveliest songs the band ever recorded, ‘Good Night’, affectingly sung by Ringo.
Beatles Handbook rating: 3 stars
Essential tracks Back In The USSR Dear Prudence While My Guitar Gently Weeps Happiness Is A Warm Gun Martha My Dear Helter Skelter Julia Mother Nature’s Son Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Revolution 1 Cry Baby Cry Good Night
Sorry, I’m not buying. Compared to the giant leap forward that was A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale is a big step back. But let’s be fair; it was released just 21 weeks after Hard Day and was the fabs fourth album in two years. No wonder they resorted to padding out the 33 minute running time with no less than six cover versions. We are sadly back in Hamburg it seems, but at least Chuck Berry’s ‘Rock’n’Roll’ and Leiber/Stoller/Penniman’s ‘Kansas City’ sound convincingly raucous. The less said about Ringo’s rather painful stab at Carl Perkins’ ‘Honey Don’t’ the better. Of the originals, ‘Eight Days a Week’ is the obvious stand out but the nakedly vulnerable, confessional lyrics of ‘I’m A Loser’ are striking, ‘Every Little Thing’ is a beautifully constructed pop song full of hooks, and Harrison’s twelve string riff gives ‘What You’re Doing’ a distinctive sound that would be much copied by the likes of The Byrds.
Beatles Handbook rating: 3 stars
Essential tracks No Reply I’m A Loser I’ll Follow The Sun Eight Days a Week Every Little Thing What You’re Doing
The band’s final recordings (although penultimate release; Let It Be appeared eight months later) are sadly a rather scrappy affair. Harrison comes out on top with two stone cold, all time classics in ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’, not only the best songs on the album, but among the best he ever wrote and among the best of the entire Beatles catalogue. Lennon’s strident ‘Come Together’ makes an ear-grabbingly effective opener, especially with Ringo’s rolling drum pattern, one of the most famous in pop history.
Beyond that, things get rather messy. Apart from inventing three chord punk nearly a decade before the Sex Pistols with ‘Polythene Pam’, there is McCartney’s music hall fetish in the form of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, the white man’s doo-wop of ‘Oh! Darling’ and whatever the hell ‘Octopus’s Garden’ is meant to be to contend with. Not to mention a patience-testing 7 minutes 47 seconds of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, although the extended instrumental outro is pretty mesmerising.
There are some stunning moments scattered around, ‘Sun King’ is a rather lovely thing, reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’, and there are some great melodies on ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ and ‘Golden Slumbers’, but ultimately the album fails to cohere in the same way as Revolver or Help!.
Beatles Handbook rating: 3 Stars
Essential tracks Something Here Comes The Sun Sun King You Never Give Me Your Money Golden Slumbers
Not a full studio album as such but a compilation of a double ep soundtrack to a made-for-TV film plus some singles. It might be a bit of a mess thematically (as is the film itself, and that’s putting it mildly) but that’s hardly a rare trait in the Beatles album canon and it does contain some of The Beatles best-known songs. The original British ep release not only included the rousing title track (a far better signature tune for a concept than St. Pepper’s) but ‘The Fool On The Hill’ one of McCartney’s greatest and most unusual compositions, ‘I Am The Walrus’, Lennon’s most successful stab at musical and lyrical surrealism, and Harrison’s remarkable, woozy and weird ‘Blue Jay Way’ (is there anything in pop or rock that sounds quite like it?).
The collection of non-album A and B sides that make up the rest of the album is almost ridiculous in terms of its quality. ‘Hello, Goodbye’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’ are of course among the cream of the Beatles crop; even ‘Baby, You’re A Rich Man’, the B-side of ‘All You Need Is Love’ is a cracker.
Because it’s status as an album is questionable and having all those non-album singles on it is sort of ‘cheating’ in the context of the band’s other releases which lack that advantage, it appears lower down on this list than it might do. A great listen, especially for those whose favourite Beatles album would be ‘The Best of The Beatles’.
Beatles Handbook rating: 4 stars
Essential tracks The Fool On The Hill I Am The Walrus Blue Jay Way Hello, Goodbye Strawberry Fields Forever Penny Lane All You Need Is Love
The first Beatles album I bought as a kid, aged 11. I never really liked it and now, more than four decades years later, I still don’t. It sounds to me like a band losing their way; the Sgt Pepper’s conceit merely a way of bringing some sort of cohesion to a very disparate group of songs written by musicians with one eye on the exit door. You can either view the juxtaposition of ‘Within You Without You’ and ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ as audacious and daring or simply desperate. ‘Lucy In The Sky’ has aged badly into try-hard psychedelia; ‘Fixing a Hole’ is uninspired, lumbering and mundane, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is a re-tread of the vastly superior ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!’ is much less clever and much less listenable than Lennon probably thought it was. ‘A Day In Life”s haunting refrain is swamped by over production and the unwelcome intrusion of McCartney’s ‘middle eight’. It’s a striking, innovative piece but I’m not sure I’d ever want to listen to it for fun. It’s another album that would make a great EP with ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ and Ringo’s touchingly performed vocal providing the lead track.
Beatles Handbook rating: 3 stars
Essential tracks With A Little Help From My Friends Getting Better Lovely Rita Good Morning Good Morning
A curio in The Beatles album canon. The soundtrack to the animated film contains only four previously unreleased songs, the rest of the running time made up from the title track, which previously appeared on Revolver, ‘All You Need Is Love’ which was a single and also collected on Magical Mystery Tour, and George Martin’s instrumental orchestral music for the film, none of which will be troubling us here. Unusually, Harrison gets two out of the four new cuts and both are very decent examples of late period Beatles. The inventive and unusual ‘Only A Northern Song’ is built around a loping bassline and random-sounding soundscape of squawling trumpets and backwards tape loops that is much easier on the ear than that description might sound. ‘It’s All Too Much’ is a medium paced stomper with a droning organ riff and busy percussion track supporting a lilting verse melody and catchy chorus hook that all adds up to a distinctive and enjoyable addition to the bands catalogue. ‘Hey Bulldog’s driving piano riff underpins a snarling, menacing Lennon vocal to great effect, but McCartney’s throwaway knees up ‘All Together Now’ irritates rather than amuses. One for Beatles collectors rather than the general listener.
Beatles Handbook rating 3 Stars
Essential tracks Northern Song Hey Bulldog It’s All Too Much
Released shortly after their return from their extended show band stint in Hamburg, Please Please Me sounds like a historical recording from an ancient civilisation. That the album sounds underwhelming now should come as no surprise; after all, The Beatles had been so busy performing for eight hours a day that they hadn’t quite got around to creating modern pop music.
Instead, we get a rather underpowered impersonation of The Beatles’ rock’n’roll heroes (‘I Saw Her Standing There’ sounds pretty energetic until you play ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ immediately after and Little Richard really blows your hair back) along with some pretty schlocky and sappy love songs. The title track hints at the greatness to come, as does Lennon’s plaintive harmonica refrain on ‘There’s A Place’ and the song’s touchingly introspective lyrics. Ringo’s forceful, driving vocal on ‘Boys’ is another highlight.
For those that lived through the era, it’s no doubt an essential album and that has to be respected, but if you missed out on those heady days this is a record you can probably live without.
Beatles Handbook rating 2 Stars
Essential tracks Please Please Me Do You Want To Know A Secret Baby It’s You Boys There’s A Place
Released eight months after Please Please Me, the band’s second album sticks pretty much to the debut’s formula with again, eight originals and six covers including Chick Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. It’s a similar mix of rockers and sappy love songs but this time there’s a high quotient of original top pop tunes including the urgent opening track ‘It Won’t Be Long’, the timeless classic ‘All My Loving’ and Harrison’s sombre and relatively overlooked ‘Don’t Bother Me’. But as an album, it still sounds too much like it’s based around a got-to-please-them-all Hamburg set list.
Beatles Handbook rating 2 Star
Essential tracks It Won’t Be Long All My Loving Not a Second Time Don’t Bother Me