Tag Archives: the beatles

181) The Beatles – “Penny Lane”

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the go-to examples of classic concept albums, yet it’s equally as well-known for the flimsiness of its concept. There’s no overarching narrative or thematic unity; the closest unifying thread, the idea that a fictional band (looking an awful lot like The Beatles in neon satin suits) are performing the album, barely makes it into track two. But The Beatles had initiated the recording session with a much clearer, more compelling idea: an album centered on aging and memories of youth. This concept fell apart in early stages after two of the three tracks earmarked for the project were pulled and released as a double-sided single. (The leftover, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” did turn up on the final album.) Subsequent reports conflict as to whether this was an emergency stopgap measure – The Beatles and George Martin reluctantly caving to record company demands for new product – or whether the concept had simply run out of gas.

The resulting single, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane,” notoriously peaked at #2 in Britain, becoming the group’s first single on Parlophone not to top the charts since “Please Please Me” in 1963. In the US, however – which, unlike the UK, tracked each side of a single separately for chart placement – “Penny Lane” managed to come out on top, with “Strawberry Fields Forever” eventually peaking a few spots below at #8. The outcome replicated the chart placement for “We Can Work It Out”/“Day Tripper” two years prior: the gentler, poppier McCartney composition besting the harder-edged, more outré Lennon one. That “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” finds both songwriters treating similar subject matter – their childhoods in Liverpool – further emphasizes the difference in sensibilities between the band’s principal songwriters.

“Penny Lane” drops listeners into a series of lightly humorous, sharply detailed episodes from the past, using pre-rock instrumentation (piano, brass, woodwinds) to set the nostalgic scene. Where “Penny Lane” is about memories, however, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is about the process of memory, how things get fuzzy and distorted when examined remotely. Its use of cutting edge electronic instrumentation and production techniques – Mellotron, backwards recording, pitch-shifting – both creates an abstract, illusory atmosphere (where “nothing is real”) and establishes the song’s location in the present, or perhaps even the future. It’s not the sights and sounds of playing in Strawberry Field that Lennon details in the song, but his attempts as an adult to return to the particular frame of mind embodied in his childhood self, and the impossibility of trying to recapture the past as anything more substantial than a dream.

But while “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” seems the ultimate depiction of the dichotomy between Lennon and McCartney – the former experimental, philosophical, cynical; the latter cheerful, nostalgic, whimsical – as usual, the starkness of this division glosses over McCartney’s knack for subtle complexity. “Penny Lane” isn’t just bright – it has the overlit affect of a Hollywood set and the unnaturally vivid hues of Technicolor. The chorus’s description of “blue suburban skies” (likely an anomaly in Northern England) is contradicted by several references within the verses to “the pouring rain.” Likewise, the specificity of the (often unusual) details makes the scenarios seem hyperreal – highlighted by the recurring line “very strange” and the title-card interjections of “meanwhile back.” McCartney is demonstrating the hazards of reconstructing memory as a narrative – conflating unrelated elements, rearranging timelines, and exaggerating minor pieces of the story.

In the final verse, many of the characters earlier in the song (the barber, the banker, the fireman) congregate in the same scene, as if part of a dramatic production with only a limited company of actors. In fact, the only character in the song who doesn’t turn up again in the barber shop is the nurse selling poppies, perhaps because she’s come to doubt her own existence (“and though she feels as if she is in a play/ she is anyway”). That segment is McCartney’s most explicit acknowledgement that “Penny Lane” may not be intended as the strict truth, a division emphasized by McCartney’s keening vocal line that occurs nowhere else in the song. There are other moments throughout “Penny Lane” where gray clouds threaten to intrude on the blue suburban skies: the jolt of minor chords around the third line of every verse; the slight tinges of seediness (the fireman with his “portrait of a queen” and “clean machine,” the references to “finger pies”); the ominous outro, with a cymbal rolls and piercing, feedback-like piccolo. These minor disruptions never threaten to derail the cheery narrative, but they do hint that there’s more going on below the surface for those willing to look.

If “Strawberry Fields Forever” describes the impossibility of returning to the past, “Penny Lane” demonstrates why that is the case: what is thought of as the past isn’t necessarily what actually happened, but a composite from multiple sources, with the negative and dull parts excised and the gaps filled with invention. Rather than explicitly stating its themes, however, as Lennon did with “Strawberry Fields,” McCartney presents “Penny Lane” in a more ambiguous manner. It may be accepted at face value as a nostalgic fantasy, but it also rewards a more critical listener who can pick up on its contradictions and embellishments. “Strawberry Fields Forever” may be more self-consciously experimental and cerebral, but “Penny Lane,” with its sunny lyrics and upbeat, conventional arrangement, is no less clever – and in its own way, more subversive – an exploration of the limits of memory. 9

Hit #1 on March 18, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
181 of 1,036 #1’s reviewed; 17.47% through the Hot 100

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162) The Beatles – “Paperback Writer”

The “Paperback Writer” single is one of the odd cases where the flipside of a record proves more influential than the hit. “Rain,” the B-side in question, is credited as a watershed in The Beatles’ transformation into studio experimentalists, though it’s less notable as a song than as a Whitman’s Sampler of tape effects: sped-up lead vocals, slowed-down rhythm track, a fade-out followed by a fade-in and, most strikingly, John Lennon’s voice run backwards in the coda.  In comparison, “Paperback Writer” could easily be overlooked as one more of the band’s riff-driven rockers – “son of ‘Day Tripper,'” as Lennon himself later called it.* But while “Paperback Writer” may have been more immediate and commercial than its flip, it too foreshadows Revolver’s sonic exploration and eclecticism. The song dispenses with the band’s trademark sticky choruses and distinctive chord progressions, instead locking on to a single G7 chord for nearly the entire verse. (Paul McCartney cites Little Richard as inspiration, but it also brings to mind the drone of raga-influenced Revolver tracks “Love You To” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.”) McCartney’s infatuation with Stax and Motown (cf. “Got to Get You Into My Life”**) inspired the boosted sound of his ever-melodic bass guitar; it would remain essentially a co-lead instrument from Revolver on. The distorted guitar riff, pushier and thornier than “Day Tripper”’s groove, points toward psychedelic rock, as does the trippy vocal echo on the harmonies at the end of the verse: a prêt–à–porter take on “Rain”’s avant-gardisms.

The lyrics of “Paperback Writer” also hint at the expanded subject matter The Beatles were beginning to explore. The name-checking of Edward Lear in the verse and “Frère Jacques” in the backing harmonies preview “Yellow Submarine” and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s fixation with willful nonsense and childlike whimsy. More directly, the song itself is an early example of the type of character vignette McCartney would develop with “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One,” but with those songs’ pathos swapped for a satirical take on the drive for fame.  The narrator has ambition and self-confidence to spare, assuring his anonymous contact that his thousand-plus-page behemoth will be an instant bestseller and breathlessly pleading for a break.  Whether he’s got the talent is another question. For all his attempts to dress his manuscript up in the trappings of a salable pulp paperback (“it’s a dirty story of a dirty man”), it’s clear that it’s in fact a dense autobiographical roman à clef, penned by a writer whose overearnest proposals to change his novel aren’t exactly proof of artistic integrity. (That he claims it’s based on a novel by Edward Lear, who never actually wrote a novel, seems in keeping with both his eagerness to say the right things and his all-around cluelessness.) While such a depiction of a struggling wannabe could seem mean-spirited coming from a band at the pinnacle of both creativity and fame, the song treats the aspiring novelist with a measure of affection and good humor. He may be naïve but he’s also sincere, and it’s hard not to root for his unlikely novel to be accepted. (Note that the only time the song changes chords is on the phrase “paperback writer,” as if acknowledging that’s the only way out of his rut.) Perhaps The Beatles even recognized something familiar in the story: the tale of a creative young man trying to pack a thousand pages’ worth of ideas and personal expression into a typically disposable, commercial piece of pop culture. 8

*From David Sheff’s All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Of course, it’s worth remembering that Lennon was the primary author of “Day Tripper” while McCartney wrote “Paperback Writer,” and that McCartney won the A-side of both singles.

**In which, incidentally, McCartney reprises the “Paperback Writer” guitar riff.

Hit #1 on June 25, 1966 for 2 weeks; repeaked on July 9, 1966 for 1 week; total of 3 weeks at #1
162 of 1018 #1’s reviewed; 15.91% through the Hot 100

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152) The Beatles – “We Can Work It Out”

Key to the Beatles mythology is the perceived difference of temperament between Lennon and McCartney: Paul as the romantic classicist to John’s sardonic experimentalist, the wide-eyed optimist to his steely-eyed realist, the “it’s getting better” to his “can’t get no worse.” And what clearer illustration of this disparity between the two than “We Can Work It Out,” with Paul chirping “We can work it out! We can work it out!” in the chorus, crosscut with John’s memento mori in the middle eight: “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.”

But to read “We Can Work It Out” as an attempt at friendly reconciliation misses the point: Paul has no interest in compromise. “Try to see it my way,” he repeats throughout the song, but he never adopts the opposite point of view. “Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?” he snaps, followed by a threat: “Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone.” Even when he tries to appear conciliatory – “only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong” – it’s obvious which camp he thinks he’s in. “Think of what you’re saying,” he seethes, “you can get it wrong and still you think that it’s all right.” Paul’s rigged it so there’s no way his opponent can win: either she concedes, or the relationship’s over.

The real difference between the two Beatles’ contributions to the song, then, is that John makes these threatening undertones explicit. He arranges his segment in a minor key, beginning each line by hammering at the same note over and over (“life-is-ve-ry-short”). In contrast, Paul either doesn’t recognize his own selfishness, or is wily enough to hide it under a jaunty melody. Likewise, John and Paul harmonize on the bridge, their voices sharing equal time and space. Two vocal tracks can be heard on the verses and chorus as well – but they’re both Paul’s.

Even within the middle eight, there’s a battle between time signatures, alternating between 4/4 (“I have always thought … ”) and 3/4 (“ … ask you once again”). John’s harmonium (foreshadowing the band’s use of odd instruments from Revolver on) is reminiscent of the calliope on a carousel, circling endlessly but never going anywhere. When the song returns to the waltz-time harmonium for the last few measures, it hints that the struggle is still unresolved – or that there will be many more arguments to come.

This push-and-pull extended beyond the confines of the record. John’s (and sometimes George’s) insistence on releasing the harder-rocking “Day Tripper” as the band’s next single instead of “We Can Work It Out” led to the two tracks being bundled together as the first-ever designated double A-side. While “Day Tripper” is the better record, featuring one of the band’s mightiest guitar riffs, it only reached #5 in the US. “We Can Work It Out” is no second-rate release, though. It’s a compelling psychological dissection of an irresolvable argument, from the tunnel vision focus to the frustration at hitting an impasse. Just as “Help!” exposed Lennon’s desperation and neediness, “We Can Work It Out” outs the controlling, unsympathetic side of the cute Beatle, whether he intended it or not. 8

Hit #1 on January 8, 1966 for 2 weeks; repeaked on January 29, 1966 for 1 week; total of 3 weeks at #1
152 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 14.96% through the Hot 100

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146) The Beatles – “Yesterday”

The Beatles have been ubiquitous for so long that it’s easy to take their best-known songs for granted. “Yesterday” in particular has reached saturation point, regularly topping “best song” polls and logging among the most recorded cover versions of any song. Its gentle acoustic style and backwards-looking lyrics place it among the handful of Beatles songs that even non-rock fans can like (Grandma included), fairly or not tinging it by association with the musty air of MOR boringness. It conforms to neither the band’s early rock and roll image nor their later reputation as musical innovators. Unlike the similarly overplayed “She Loves You” or “A Hard Day’s Night,” it’s not even danceable. The record wasn’t even released as a single in the UK, partly because Paul McCartney was the only Beatle to actually play on the record, but also because you suspect the rest of the band were embarrassed by how soft it sounded. It even has violins on it, for goodness sake. What is this – Mantovani?

But to listen to “Yesterday” with fresh ears — to hear it just as a song, without the associated baggage  — is to be surprised by its grace and ease. It’s almost certainly less saccharine and stodgy than you remember. The melody, despite its overfamiliarity, is still quite pretty, and George Martin’s production is smartly subdued. For all that’s been written about Bob Dylan’s influence on John Lennon during this period, at the time it was “Yesterday” that Billboard referred to as “a Dylan-styled piece of material.” And while Dylan himself had yet to release anything this pop-friendly, it does bear a loose similarity to his minimalist take on folk: vibrato-less vocals accompanied by a simple, repetitive pick-strum pattern on acoustic guitar. The strings are there, of course, but just a quartet, not a full strings section, and they are judiciously used – a few legato sighs, not unlike the harmony vocals that John and George would be singing, if the presence of other voices wouldn’t detract from the atmosphere of loneliness.

“Yesterday” isn’t too far from Lennon’s “Help!” either, which also idealizes a past free from the present’s troubles. But where “Help!” reflects Lennon’s tendency toward forthrightness and aggressive neediness, “Yesterday” is circumspect and insular. Instead of explicitly stating that he’s “not so self assured,” McCartney never gets more direct than “there’s a shadow hanging over me”; rather than pleading for help, he chooses to retreat (“I need a place to hide away”). Lennon complained that “Yesterday” was vague and lacked resolution, but its open-ended lyrics complement the music’s restraint. McCartney’s sorrow is all the sadder for not being spelled out, for hinting at hidden depths of melancholy without crossing into self-pity.

The gloom is also tempered by the interplay between major and minor keys. Each verse begins and ends in F major on the word “yesterday” or “suddenly,” situating McCartney in happier times, while the present is reframed in the relative key of D minor. In addition to detailing the narrator’s emotional rise and fall, the key-switching also gives “Yesterday” the lightness that keeps it from growing too dirgelike.

As The Beatles’ previous singles had helped reinvigorate rock and roll, “Yesterday” expands the band into pre-rock pop without going schmaltzy. In its own way, it’s just as experimental as the group’s later material by breaking away from what rock was supposed to be. It’s unfortunate, then, if unsurprising, that the “Yesterday” of today is simultaneously vaulted to warhorse status and dismissed with a yawn. “Yesterday” exists in a strange dimension where it’s both overplayed and underheard. It deserves a second (or ten-thousandth) listen to discover its gentle, melancholy beauty. 8

Hit #1 on October 9, 1965; total of 4 weeks at #1
146 of 1014 #1’s reviewed; 14.40% through the Hot 100

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143) The Beatles – “Help!”

Earlier in 1965, “Ticket to Ride” had introduced a new page in the Beatles songbook: an anti-love song alternating between dejection and sarcasm with an unsteady, lumbering beat to match. “Help!” at first blush seems a throwback to the snappy pop and three-part harmonies that had defined the group’s early singles, with just enough of the post-Hard Day’s Night folkiness to fit comfortably among the 1965 pop landscape. Closer inspection, however, reveals John Lennon focused as ever on his personal anxieties. “Help!” is the cry of a once-confident man who’s suddenly found the ground pulled out beneath him — by fame, marriage or neurosis — and is clawing at anything or anyone who might save him. Unlike the other Dylan-influenced hits of that summer, it skips the poetic language and politics but embraces the confessionalism, even if Lennon presents himself as a far more vulnerable figure.

Lennon had intended to record “Help!” at a slower tempo to express his anguish, but commercial concerns called for an upbeat theme tune to promote its namesake film. If anything, though, the faster pace makes the record far more panicked and intense. Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s backing vocals frequently beat Lennon to the lines he’s about to sing, as if he’s struggling to keep up with his own song. In both the intro and the chorus, the lead guitar continually descends in three note phrases, as if slowly pressing down on him, before ending in a swiftly repeating arpeggio that seems to reflect his swirl of anxious thoughts. Lennon gets a brief respite in the third verse (actually a retread of the first verse), when the drums let up and he gets a few peaceful moments to recall his independent younger days. But as soon as he admits to feeling “not so self-assured,” the drums start up again insistent as ever, escalating into a desperate pounding on the transition into the chorus. From then on, there’s no letting up until all the instruments drop out at the end, leaving just a meld of three voices crying “help me – ooh” as one falsetto. There’s no resolution or rescue imminent, and the bleak ending suggests it’s too late anyway. Perhaps not coincidentally, the next Beatles number-one primarily written by Lennon wouldn’t arrive for two more years. As Lennon pursued darker, more personal avenues of songwriting, McCartney (as we’ll soon see) also expanded the Beatles’ sound — and the band’s audience. 8

Hit #1 on September 4, 1965; total of 3 weeks at #1
143 of 1013 #1’s reviewed; 14.12% through the Hot 100

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135) The Beatles – “Ticket to Ride”

Desolation and self-flagellation gnawed at the edges of Beatles for Sale, but it wasn’t until “Ticket to Ride” that the band tried crafting an arrangement to match the darkness of the subject matter. And certainly, compared with A Hard Day’s Night‘s thematically similar “I’ll Cry Instead” (John Lennon gets rejected, vacillates between despair and contempt), “Ticket to Ride” is depression in audio form. The lead guitar sketches the same figure over and over; the bass refuses to shift from the note where it’s gotten comfortable; the drums lumber sideways and crooked, anything to avoid taking a single step forward. But for a song that’s supposed to be such a drag, “Ticket to Ride” is remarkably buoyant. The brightness of the 12-string Rickenbacker and the countryish harmonies shine through the fog of self-pity and gloom, and even the off-kilter rhythm section manages a danceable groove. Surely part of this peppiness was with an eye to the charts – dirges don’t make for good number-ones, especially when they’re meant to be promoting frenetic comedies. Yet The Beatles weren’t afraid to go full-downbeat on fellow Help! track “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and they’d top the charts again a few months later with a record even more melancholy and decidedly un-rock and roll.

More likely, then, is that the tension between lethargy and dynamism is intended to cover all the emotions that come with the end of a relationship, especially one that’s lasted far longer than it should’ve. Lennon’s first line is the tentative “I think I’m going to be sad,” and he probably is, at least at first. But it isn’t long before that sadness revs up into self-righteous self-pity (“and she don’t care!”). He then spends the second verse puzzling over his girlfriend’s stated reasons for leaving, unsure of whether to feel remorse for his behavior or to scoff at her unreasonableness.  The more he thinks about it, the more his blood starts to boil, and the music follows suit, swapping out the lopsided drums for the frantic pulse of the tambourine. The bridge is the angriest part of “Ticket to Ride” – “she oughta think twice, she oughta do right by me” sounds suspiciously like a veiled threat – but the surge in tempo and the glee in Lennon and McCartney’s voices also make it the liveliest. (There is some perverse pleasure in feeling like the one wronged.)  Then it’s back to the verses, only this time around, the musical repetition feels less like the numbness of depression than a reminder of the grind of a romance gone stale.  Lennon’s re-examining his earlier sentiments from a different perspective: “I think” is now a stifled laugh; “she says that living with me is bringing her down” sounds more wry than resentful. When the coda kicks into double-time, Lennon’s falsetto cries of “my baby don’t care!” are self-mocking, as if unable to believe he could have ever cared either.

Not all of the emotions Lennon courses through in “Ticket to Ride” are attractive, but the frankness is astonishing. No longer did the band seem concerned with adhering to whatever The Beatles were supposed to sound like. Instead, they showed a willingness to branch out into darker subject matter and sonic experimentation. (Lennon would later jokingly claim “Ticket to Ride” as the first heavy metal song, but the droning bass and clattering, off-kilter percussion sound more like a precursor to the band’s flirtation with raga rock.) “Ticket to Ride” doesn’t just feel like a dividing line for The Beatles, though, but for the British Invasion as a whole. The chipper rock and roll revivalism of the first wave was falling from favor; bluesy hard rock and baroque pop were on the horizon. It would be nearly two months before another British single topped the Hot 100, this time by a band much tougher and rawer than any of the early comers. Even so, “Ticket to Ride” proves The Beatles were more than capable of surviving the transition. 9

Hit #1 on May 22, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
135 of 1009 #1’s reviewed; 13.38% through the Hot 100

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130) The Beatles – “Eight Days a Week”

Barely a year had passed since The Beatles conquered America, but the fatigue had already begun to set in. Despite touring almost non-stop since the release of Please Please Me in early 1963, the band managed to crank out Beatles for Sale in time for Christmas ’64.* That album, their fourth in 21 months, is widely considered The Beatles’ weakest.  Unlike their previous album, the all-originals A Hard Day’s Night, nearly half of the tracks on Beatles for Sale are cover versions. The band’s exhaustion pervades the record, from the decidedly unchipper cover art to the downbeat themes in many of the new songs (“I’m a Loser,” “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” “No Reply”). Even “Eight Days a Week,” generally perceived as one of the brighter spots, is one of those Beatles songs that tends to be beloved mostly by casual listeners. Hardcore fans often dismiss it as Beatles by rote: a memorable title, close harmonies, a tweaked chord progression, George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker. John Lennon later dismissed it as “never a good song”: “We struggled to record it and struggled to make it into a song. … But it was lousy anyway.”**

As with all things Beatles, lousiness is relative. Those elements that make “Eight Days a Week” standard Beatles also serve as reminders of what made the band so distinctive and exciting. The joy in the song is infectious, even if the performances drag ever so slightly from over-rehearsal, and Lennon’s wordless melisma at the 1:30 mark ranks as one of the most thrilling vocals of his career. “Eight Days a Week” also continues the experimentation of “I Feel Fine” by being one of the first pop singles to open with a fade-in. While The Beatles’ previous records arrived fully formed from their stage show, “Eight Days a Week” was the first to be written and arranged largely in studio. This practice would soon become customary, steering the direction of the group’s most sonically innovative output. In fact, these changes would come more quickly than anyone could have anticipated. “Eight Days a Week” may sound like The Beatles treading water, but it’s really a victory lap. Never again would the group sound so chirpy and carefree, so unburdened by the weight of art. 8

*Beatles for Sale wasn’t released in the U.S. Instead, eight of its tracks appeared on Beatles ’65 (also released to the Christmas market), with the balance turning up on Beatles VI six months later.
**From David Sheff’s September 1980 interview with Lennon and Yoko Ono for Playboy; quoted in Beatlesongs by William J. Dowdling.


Hit #1 on March 13, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
130 of 1006 #1’s reviewed; 12.92% through the Hot 100

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