This is the sixth in a series of posts that will feature detailed analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums.
Just about every list of all-time favorite albums I’ve ever seen includes at least one LP by The Beatles. I mean, come on. If you can’t name one of their 13 incredible studio albums as one of your favorites, let’s face it, there’s something wrong with your musical judgment.
As a Beatles fanatic for more than 50 years, I concluded that there’s no way my list can be limited to only one, or two, or even three of their albums.
Among my Top 50 LPs, I have concluded that there are four masterpieces by The Beatles that rank among my all-time classics. And you may be surprised to hear that the revered “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is not one of them.
It’s a landmark work, no question about it, what with “A Day in the Life” as its iconic finale and all. But I think some, even most, of the tracks sound a bit dated these days. They reek of The Summer of Love and that very identifiable period of time, and to my ears, they don’t stand up as well as some of their contemporaneous Beatles tunes.
I submit that the two albums before and after “Pepper” are far more interesting, more diverse, more inventive, more lasting in their sheer excellence.
Before I get to the four LPs in question, a few words about the band’s early recordings (and I’m speaking of their work in terms of their British albums, as they were intended, rather than the bastardizations released in the U.S., where sequence orders were changed and songs were removed and/or substituted against the artists’ wishes, until 1967).
The Beatles’ albums of 1963, 1964 and 1965 constituted a period in their professional lives — particularly the songwriting careers of John Lennon and Paul McCartney — when their music was, by and large, simple and joyous, a huge breeze of fresh air that helped transform the popular music scene in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. It was especially catchy and eminently danceable, and it got into your bloodstream and made you want to get up and shout.
And I totally loved it. The originals like “All My Loving,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “You Can’t Do That,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I’ll Be Back,” “She’s a Woman,” “I’m a Loser,” “Help!” and “Ticket to Ride” showed an uncommon and consistent knack for hooks, harmonies and arrangements. Arguably just as exciting were their covers of earlier rock classics — “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Money,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Twist and Shout,” “Kansas City,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzie.”
But beginning with the stunning music on “Rubber Soul,” The Beatles entered a new phase that could be characterized as a quantum leap. Their songs offered more challenging melody lines, more sophisticated arrangements, and lyrics that often went beyond the customary love-and-romance topics. It was the beginning of the demarcation between their celebrity live act as The Fab Four and their more mature ambitions as recording artists.
You needn’t look further than two tunes that were primarily the work of Lennon: “Norwegian Wood” and “In My Life.” To this day, these tracks make me stop in my tracks whenever I hear them. The words to “In My Life” are almost effortlessly timeless (I just heard it used as a “first dance” at a wedding last month), and the intriguing story of “Norwegian Wood” is purposely left open to interpretation, something new for a Beatles lyric at that point.
And now you could hear a sitar, for crying out loud, and a piano sped up in the studio to resemble a harpsichord. McCartney’s new solid-body bass guitar brought forth new creativity in bass lines, including fuzz tone (“Think for Yourself”), and George Harrison began playing a Fender Stratocaster for the first time (“Nowhere Man”). All three guitarists started using capos on their acoustic guitar-based numbers to raise their pitch as they slowed their music’s tempo (“Girl,” “Michelle,” “If I Needed Someone”).
McCartney has mentioned being inspired by the triad harmonies and jangly guitars of the Byrds and other American folk-rock bands, as well as the vibrant soul and R&B coming from Stax and Motown artists throughout 1965. Songs like “Drive My Car,” “Wait,” “I’m Looking Through You” and the early peace-movement anthem “The Word” clearly reflect these influences. At the same time, the band’s frequent use of marijuana had increased that year, broadening their palettes, imaginations and artistic interests.
I was only ten years old and didn’t really understand all that yet, but I still found the music simply irresistible. My older sister had been a Beatlemaniac, but “Rubber Soul” was to be the last Beatles album she bought. As the band continued to branch out and experiment with genres, instrumentation and lyrical subject matter in the ensuing years, she was among those who felt abandoned by the group they’d once adored. Me? Man, I was just getting started!
In the summer of 1966, The Beatles were coming to the realization that touring had become a dead end for them. They sounded pretty bad on stage, when you could hear them at all over the din of the screaming crowds, and they were both bored and frightened by the need for constant security from the lunatic fringe.
Concurrent with their early use of psychedelics, The Beatles had discovered their love for the recording studio and its seemingly infinite possibilities, encouraged by producer George Martin and facilitated by engineer Geoff Emerick to come up with new sounds, new techniques, new sonic landscapes that couldn’t be (and weren’t meant to be) duplicated in concert anyway.
The apex of this recording studio wizardry, even more than “Pepper” a year later, was “Revolver,” a whirlwind of 14 daring compositions that showed a truly remarkable ability to blend rock, Indian raga, straight pop, children’s rhymes, psychedelia, ballads and more into a cohesive whole that they really never equalled again.
Previously, The Beatles’ songs had been composed and imagined prior to entering the studio, but by this point, some tracks were created, layered and pieced together almost accidentally from only the roughest of ideas. Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” an astounding departure from all Beatles tracks that preceded it, is based on one note, on top of which Lennon envisioned “a thousand Tibetan monks chanting.” McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” originally conceived as a piano-based tune about a solitary old woman, evolved into a portrait about death, brought forth through the use of a “Psycho”-like string quartet and chilling harmonies singing in a minor key.
Harrison’s “Love You To” marks the band’s first foray into Eastern sounds, and it’s admittedly an acquired taste, but his other two contributions, “Taxman” and “I Want to Tell You,” rock out as hard as almost anything in their catalog, thanks to some fine bass work and drum fills from McCartney and drummer Ringo Starr.
The yin-yang of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting axis, which had become evident with singles like “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out,” was on full display on “Revolver.” I am mesmerized by Lennon’s harsh guitar-driven “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Doctor Robert,” and the half-awake feeling evoked on “I’m Only Sleeping.” On the flip side, there are two of McCartney’s loveliest ballads, “Here, There and Everywhere” and “For No One,” and an amazing blast of Motown-like horns that drive “Got to Get You Into My Life.” Good God, so much great music here!
…Two years later, much had changed. Albums were about to overtake singles as the dominant music delivery format. The Beatles manager Brian Epstein had died, and with no one to fill the void, the group’s ship had been foundering. The establishing of Apple Corps with a new record label and other diversified businesses — but no one really qualified to run them — brought chaos and a drain on finances. Most important, each Beatle was becoming more of an individual with priorities that often conflicted and/or superseded the band’s overall interests. Prime case in point: Yoko Ono.
Still, in that tempestuous environment of 1968, the artistry of The Beatles somehow continued to grow. Their three-month retreat to India for immersion in transcendental meditation had proved to be fertile ground for their songwriting proclivities, resulting in nearly 30 new songs as they reconvened in the studio that summer. Martin urged them to be selective and pick the best 14 or 15 songs and make a really great single LP, but Lennon’s and McCartney’s (and Harrisons’s) egos wouldn’t budge. They wanted to record them all and release them as a double album, which would be entitled “The Beatles” but, thanks to its stark white cover, would immediately be dubbed “The White Album.”
I was 13 by then, and I remember being (like most people, I reckon) overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new music. If “Revolver” was diverse, “The White Album” was virtually encyclopedic in its coverage of musical styles: quasi-reggae (“Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”), country-western (“Don’t Pass Me By”), early heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”), raw blues (“Yer Blues”), proto-punk (“Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”), solid rock (“Back in the USSR”), avant-garde sound montage (“Revolution 9”), even 1920s music hall (“Honey Pie”).
More than ever before, the tracks sounded less like group collaborations. Indeed, some songs were virtually solo works. “Martha My Dear,” “I Will,” “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son” feature McCartney alone on acoustic guitar or piano with no instrumental or vocal help from anyone else. In that same manner, Lennon performed solo on “Julia.” The nose-to-nose songwriting the duo had once done was pretty much absent. Instead, each man’s songs had the unmistakable trademarks of their author — Lennon’s wordplay and biting vocals, McCartney’s jaunty melodies and pop sensibility.
But you know what? It worked, and it worked because when they put their heads together on a take to play, the result was often spectacular. Check out the coalescing of Beatle talent heard on Harrison’s finest moment, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (which also includes an uncredited guitar part by Eric Clapton, by the way). Or the beautiful cacophony of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey.” Or the shimmering melody/guitar/vocal of “Dear Prudence.” Or the rollicking good fun of “Birthday.” Or the luscious slow groove behind the album version of “Revolution 1.”
And so far, I’ve mentioned only half the tunes here. It really was an embarrassment of riches. McCartney’s “Rocky Raccoon” never fails to please, and Lennon’s three-songs-in-one “Happiness is a Warm Gun” ranks among his finest of all time. Personally speaking, I think Lennon’s songs — which include “Sexy Sadie,” “Cry Baby Cry” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” — are superior to McCartney’s on “The White Album,” but the satisfying balance struck between the 30 tracks has left a lasting impact on me.
It was 50 years ago this month since its release, and to mark that occasion, Apple is releasing this week a comprehensive new package of remixes, outtakes, studio chatter and a sprawling booklet of photos and analytical text. Merry Christmas, White Album fans!
This brings me to the fourth of my four indispensable Beatles albums, the brilliant swan song, “Abbey Road.” Little did we fans know at the time, but the foursome had pretty much already broken up in early 1969, at each other’s throats over business differences and a need to spend time apart after the unpleasant experience of filming and recording songs for the “Let It Be” project (which was shelved for over a year before finally seeing release in May 1970).
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and they chose to reconvene one last time in the summer of ’69 to produce a “proper” farewell album with the kind of high quality material and professionalism for which they were so well known.
And boy, did they come up with a gem. “Abbey Road” boasts the slickest production values, two of Harrison’s finest songs ever, two of Lennon’s most iconoclastic pieces, and the pièce de resistance, the eight-song, 16-minute medley that comprised the bulk of Side Two. And it was all packaged in what turned out to be their most famous cover, capturing the foursome crossing the street outside the studio where all the magic had happened.
Harrison had been developing as a songwriter over the previous two years, a fact that became instantly noticeable in “Here Comes the Sun,” a gorgeous dose of positive vibes, and “Something,” Harrison’s luxurious ode to his wife Pattie, which Lennon himself described as the album’s best song (even as it split duty on the double-A-sided single with his own “Come Together”).
I love the way Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” takes a sort of kitchen-sink approach, with slow blues, mid-tempo blues and then a compelling coda that builds and builds over three minutes from a hypnotic guitar riff into a sea of white noise before abruptly cutting off. As much as I like McCartney’s performance on the blues shouter “Oh Darling,” I’ve always wondered what it would’ve sounded like if Lennon had taken a stab at the vocals…
McCartney’s imprint on this record is most evident in the extraordinary medley and the way he and producer Martin took several half-finished songs and weaved them into a little symphony that sounds as if the pieces belonged together all along.
“You Never Give Me Your Money” starts things off as a complete song, then uses crickets to segue gently into “Sun King.” Lennon’s two other contributions — the unsavory characters “Mean Mr Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” — come next in a one-two punch before cascading brilliantly into the delicious “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” That would be the album’s best moment…if not for the three-song finale of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End,” which may be the best five minutes of Beatles music ever recorded.
As you listen to those three songs again on Spotify, be sure to take note of the guitars near the end of “The End,” just before the denouement, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” It’s only nine bars long, but it perfectly showcases, and differentiates, the distinctive guitar styles of McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon, three times, in that order. Along with Ringo’s one and only drum solo which comes just before it, this exchange is a marvelous final way to feature the foursome as they wave goodbye.
There really isn’t much to say about the brilliance of The Beatles’ music that hasn’t already been said. Suffice it to say I’ve always been a serious student and shameless devotee of their catalog, and I’ll bet most of my readers are, too.