From very early in their career and probably until the demise of Western civilization, Liverpool’s The Beatles will stand unchallenged as the world’s greatest rock and roll band. They emerged after a lull in rock music; Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, Little Richard joined the ministry, Elvis Presley was drafted into the army, and Chuck Berry was in trouble with the law. Into this vacuum, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr quickly became the world’s preeminent band.
The Beatles took the energy of the first wave of rock and roll, and with the help of producer George Martin, added more harmonic and melodic sophistication, creating the template for guitar based pop music ever since. As rock music matured as an art-form throughout the 1960’s, The Beatles were at the forefront, as they used more sophisticated recording techniques and more diverse instrumentation. There are clear phases in their work, which mirror the development of 1960’s music as whole, as they move through rock and roll, folk-rock, and psychedelic rock, before a back to basics approach at the end of the decade.
I’m certainly not going to question The Beatles’ preeminence in pop music, but their catalogue is thinner than is sometimes acknowledged. Their early albums are fabulous compared to what their contemporaries were producing, but are still formative compared to their later triumphs. Reading Ian McDonald’s amazing Revolution in the Head helped confirm my impression that The Beatles peaked in 1966 and 1967, and that their last few albums represent a band in decline. The White Album and Abbey Road are both patchy, while Let It Be is largely a disgrace to the legacy of a once great band.
Additionally, I’ve generally found the group’s solo careers to be over-rated – while the various members managed a few great albums and singles during the 1970’s, they rarely were more than a shadow of their former band; Lennon needed McCartney’s pop sense, McCartney needed Lennon’s boundary pushing, and Harrison’s All Things Must Pass is probably my favourite solo effort.
The Beatles Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Revolver
Overlooked Gem: Help!
Please Please Me
In 1963 it was revolutionary for a band to be self-contained – on Please Please Me The Beatles played their own instruments, apart from some piano from producer George Martin, and wrote eight of the fourteen songs. The album was basically a recording of their live set, as played in the Cavern Club in Liverpool. It takes the a-sides and b-sides of their first two singles, and adds ten new songs, famously recorded in a single day. The cover of The Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist And Shout’ was famously recorded last, as the band were worried about John Lennon’s throat being shredded with his screaming.
Please Please Me is fresh and fun, and it’s strong compared to most full length rock and roll albums from the period, but it’s primitive compared to The Beatles’ string of great later LPs. But there are a handful of top tier Beatles songs here, particularly the Paul McCartney showcase ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and the powerful cover of ‘Twist and Shout’. Ringo Starr’s spotlight on ‘Boys’ is a less heralded highlight, although breakout single ‘Love Me Do’, recorded in 1962, already sounds primitive. The slower material is less exciting – songs like ‘Anna (Go To Him)’ and ‘A Taste Of Honey’ drag.
All four Beatles are talented vocalists, and they have plenty of energy and charisma to make them a very accomplished cover band. It’s a respectable beginning, but the world’s greatest pop band were just getting started.
With the Beatles
With The Beatles follows the same formula as the band’s debut – a mixture of original compositions and covers. In some ways it’s a step forward, ‘All My Loving’ is a more sophisticated and stronger original than anything on their debut.
But it’s less infectious and enjoyable than the debut – it feels unbalanced, as it’s dominated by the two more melancholy Beatles. Apart from ‘All My Loving’, McCartney is often in the background, while even Starr’s vocal showcase ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ is darker than usual. Lennon is the dominant vocalist and writer, while Harrison gets his first song credit with the unremarkable ‘Don’t Bother Me’
‘It Won’t Be Long’ is a strong opener, and along with ‘All My Loving’ is the most notable original here. There are some enjoyable covers as well; ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ is a tasteful take on Smokey Robinson, Lennon’s sardonic voice is perfectly suited to ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’, while the acoustic show tune ‘Till There Was You’ is a perfect vehicle for McCartney, with some nice guitar work from Harrison.
There’s enough of note on With The Beatles to make it interesting for fans. Like a lot of LPs from this era, the lack of attention on the album as an art form is its main problem – in 1963 the single was the dominant format for pop music, and that’s where The Beatles’ efforts were largely concentrated.
A Hard Day’s Night
A Hard Day’s Night is the soundtrack to a movie about The Beatles, which only further cemented their status as the world’s most popular band. It’s the first Beatles album fully comprised of songs written by The Beatles – and all of the songs are written by Lennon and McCartney. It’s reliant on mid-tempo rockers with a simple four piece, and it’s the songs that deviate most from the formula that are the most memorable.
Some of the mid-tempo rockers are accomplished; the title track opens the album with the much analysed chord from Harrison’s 12-string guitar, ‘Tell Me Why’ is energetic and fun, while ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ is maybe the best of the mid-tempo rockers. But the more diverse material stands out; ‘If I Fell’ is a pretty Lennon song, while McCartney goes acoustic with the gentle ‘And I Love Her’ and ‘Things We Said Today’.
A Hard Day’s Night was another artistic breakthrough for The Beatles, as their first album with all original compositions, and dabbling with more acoustic arrangements, but they’re still on a steep upwards incline artistically.
Beatles for Sale
Following A Hard Day’s Night, which consisted entirely of originals, Beatles For Sale feels like a step backwards. A pressured recording schedule, where an album was required before Christmas, forced the band to resort to six covers to fill out the album, and as their originals become more nuanced, the covers seem more incongruous. Particularly problematic is their version of ‘Mr. Moonlight’, which is a candidate for the worst song they ever recorded.
A lot of the best material is clustered at the start of Beatles For Sale – there are a bunch of semi-acoustic and introspective songs like ‘Baby’s In Black’ and ‘I’m A Loser’, partially inspired by meeting Bob Dylan on their . McCartney’s pretty ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ is also noteworthy, while the most memorable song is ‘Eight Days A Week’. And while a lot of the covers are dispensable, I’ve always enjoyed their take on ‘Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!’, with McCartney’s energetic lead vocal.
With its reliance on covers, Beatles For Sale is the first Beatles’ album that doesn’t feel like a step forward from its predecessor, and it feels a little tired in places. But there are some changes in their song-writing with some more thoughtful lyrics, which do point the way forward.
While the movie Help! was less celebrated than its predecessor, the album Help! features a generous handful of the group’s best loved songs, including ‘Yesterday’, ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, and the title track, easily the highest concentration of great songs on a Beatles album thus far. It’s their last album before they became a studio band – they had to fit in recording around touring still – and it’s difficult to argue that it’s not the best of The Beatles’ early era.
The four tracks mentioned above all hold up very well, while McCartney’s acoustic folk-rock of ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ is my favourite of the album tracks. The use of the volume pedal on Harrison’s ‘I Need You’ is effective, and while I enjoy ‘The Night Before’ it is in a style that the group had largely outgrown and it would have fitted better on an earlier album. The covers don’t add much, although Ringo’s ‘Act Naturally’ has some charm.
They’d keep growing quickly over their next few albums, but in hindsight, Help! was the first proof that The Beatles were a legitimately innovative musical force, and not just a trendy band for adolescents.
For the first time in their career, The Beatles had a focused period simply for creating an album; a month of dedicated recording. The resulting Rubber Soul is more expansive and more sophisticated – the prominent piano solo of ‘In My Life’ and the sitar in ‘Norwegian Wood’ are indicative of more attention to sonic detailing as the group break away from the four piece arrangements of their early albums. The lyrics are also more nuanced and sophisticated, influenced by contemporary songwriters like Bob Dylan and Gene Clark.
The Beatles’ quality control keeps getting better as well; this is the first Beatles’ album where every song is thought out and memorable – as much as I don’t like McCartney’s saccharine ‘Michelle’, it’s still a fully fledged song. McCartney provides the propulsive opener ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘I’m Looking Through You’, ‘If You Needed Someone’ is an excellent Harrison contribution, while Lennon’s efforts include the cryptic ‘Norwegian Wood’ and the beautiful ‘In My Life’.
Rubber Soul was an epochal album, inspiring the other leading acts of the mid 1960s like The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan to aim for album long masterpieces.
Rubber Soul showed the potential of the LP as an album long statement, but Revolver took the ideas much further. Psychedelia, Indian influences, and studio trickery are among the milestones ticked off by Revolver. But what’s truly amazing about Revolver is that The Beatles haven’t been carried away with window dressing alone, and have written a batch of songs so amazing that their quality would transcend any mediocre production or performance thrown at them.
Harrison gets Revolver off to a great start with the sardonic ‘Taxman’, and the quality of the album barely abates over its amazingly diverse set of fourteen songs. McCartney contributes the infectious ‘Got To Get You Into my Life’ and three astounding ballads: ‘For No One’, the string driven dirge of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and the beautiful melody of ‘Here, There And Everywhere’. Lennon’s contributions are far more groundbreaking, but still accessible; ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is an avante-garde composition which just works perfectly, while my favourite song on the album is Lennon’s druggy ‘She Said, She Said’, recorded without McCartney.
For me, it’s a tossup whether Revolver or Sgt. Peppers is The Beatles’ absolute peak, but Revolver captures the band at a beautiful crossroad between the pop instincts of their early career and the experimentation of their later years.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Traditionally The Beatles’ most celebrated album, Sgt. Peppers was the first rock album to win a Grammy, and even its initial CD issue in 1987 was an event. More recently there’s been a backlash against it, and other candidates like Revolver and Abbey Road have enjoyed more prominence, although ‘A Day In The Life’ is a popular choice for the band’s best song. Inspired by other landmark LPs from the era like Frank Zappa’s Freak Out and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s was The Beatles’ concept album. The concept was based around a performance by a fictional band with all the songs cross-fading into each other.
The Beatles have so much good material at this point that they could leave out two of their very best songs – the double single ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’– and still produce a great album. There are plenty of charming McCartney songs like ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘Getting Better’, brilliant Lennon material like ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, and ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ is one of Starr’s best vocal spotlights. There’s also more ambitious orchestral material – McCartney ‘She’s Leaving Home’ with its Greek chorus from Lennon, and ‘A Day In A Life’, which places a McCartney song fragment into the middle of a Lennon song beautifully.
There’s a grand conceit which might strike some as pretentious, but Sgt. Peppers is full of great songs with interesting arrangements, and it holds up very well.
Magical Mystery Tour
The first side of Magical Mystery Tour is the soundtrack for The Beatles’ 1967 TV special, while the second side collects their 1967 singles. While the TV special is often dismissed as silly and self-indulgent, the songs are often spectacular. And although Magical Mystery Touris effectively a compilation, and as a resulting is a little disjointed, it’s effectively the last Beatles’ album from their mid-1960’s creative peak, and features a bunch of their greatest songs.
Chief among the highlights is the double a-side single of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’, which capture Lennon and McCartney’s childhood reminiscences respectively. The former is wistful and psychedelic, while the latter showcases McCartney’s musicality with its melodic bass-line and piccolo trumpet part. Lennon’s ‘I Am The Walrus’ is also compelling, with its stream of consciousness lyrics (“semolina pilchard/climbing up the Eiffel Tower”). There’s plenty of other good material, particularly the straight up McCartney pop of ‘Hello Goodbye’ and McCartney’s ‘Fool on the Hill’, even if ‘All You Need Is Love’ feels more like an event than a song, and ‘Blue Jay Way’ and ‘Flying’ form an uninteresting patch in the middle of the first side.
Magical Mystery Tour is a little uneven and disjointed, and as an album it’s not quite in their top tier. But since it features my three favourite Beatles songs ever, and captures them still working together and at the peak of their powers, it deserves a very high rating.
The Beatles (“The White Album”)
The previously tight knit Beatles began to splinter by 1968. The group’s support team had changed with the death of manager Brian Epstein, while George Martin was less involved than usual. Lennon’s new partner Yoko Ono was also present for recording, which made communication difficult for Lennon and McCartney.
The Beatles booked Abbey Road for long periods, allowing them to record gradually, and the album feels much less focused. There’s less of a band feel; Starr quit the band for some of the sessions, so that McCartney plays drums on some of his own songs, while only 16 of the album’s 30 songs feature all four Beatles playing. It’s hardly surprising that The Beatles often feels more like a compilation of solo tracks than a fully fledged Beatles album. One pleasing development is the emergence of George Harrison as a major songwriter, and he clearly deserves more than four songs here, as ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and the baroque harpsichord social commentary of ‘Piggies’ are among the highlights.
Like a lot of double albums, The Beatles is a sprawling lucky dip of an album. It runs the gamut from throwaways like ‘Wild Honey Pie’ and the blues of ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ to experimental pieces like Lennon’s sound collage ‘Revolution #9′. While there are plenty of songs that I often skip, there’s plenty of great stuff here, and it has more great songs than any other Beatles’ album. Highlights for me include Lennon’s multi-part ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, McCartney’s frenzied ‘Helter Skelter’, pretty piano pop like Lennon’s ‘Cry Baby Cry’ and McCartney’s ‘Martha My Dear’, and gorgeous acoustic songs like Lennon’s ‘Julia’.
There’s an embarrassment of riches here, and any serious Beatles’ fan will need to hear The White Album; just don’t expect to love the whole thing.
In this age of digital music, it’s easy to ignore George Martin’s instrumental score and treat Yellow Submarine as a four song EP. Even then, it’s not a great Beatles’ effort, but it does feature some of their last songs where they feel like a fully functional band. Harrison’s ‘Only A Northern Song’ is a worthwhile outtake from Sgt. Peppers, but the key track is ‘Hey Bulldog’ with dadaist lyrics from Lennon, a nagging piano riff, and a great McCartney bass line. Stuck on a sometimes ignored record, it’s probably the close thing there is to an overlooked Beatles’ song. I can’t sit through the whole album, but it’s well worth hearing the four new songs on Yellow Submarine.
After the disappointing sessions for Let It Be, The Beatles regrouped for one final effort. Abbey Road is beautifully produced and arranged, and has probably the best musicianship on a Beatles record as the longer running times allow George Harrison has a chance to stretch out and play guitar solos. It’s often hailed as a masterpiece, but I’ve always found it disappointing, lacking the vitality and great writing of their peak era work.
The song-writing is often weak – particularly on the first side, where there’s boring blues like ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ and ‘Oh Darling!’, a throwaway Ringo song, and McCartney’s insubstantial ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. Harrison turns in two of the best songs with ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and ‘Something’, and probably should have been allowed to contribute more. The other saving grace for Abbey Road is McCartney’s work on side two – ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ is beautiful, ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’ is energetic and fun, while the closing medley of ‘Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End’ is magical.
Abbey Road is clearly a step up from the disappointing Let It Be, which wasn’t released until 1970. But it only recaptures the brilliance of earlier The Beatles in spurts, and doesn’t measure up to their best albums.
Let It Be
After the studio-based The White Album, reliant on overdubs and worked on gradually, The Beatles tried a back to basic, live in studio approach for Let It Be. The album was pushed back – it was originally earmarked for release before Abbey Road, and Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector was eventually called in to overhaul the tapes. His overbearing string arrangements are at odds with the back to basics approach, making the album a strange amalgam of straightforward songs and grandiose epics. More problematically, the group just sound tired and fragmented – there are some very good songs, but it’s still the weakest Beatles’ studio album.
There are highlights – McCartney’s ‘The Long and Winding Road’ is drenched in syrupy strings, but it’s still beautiful, while his gospel tinged title track is even better, culminating in a gorgeous guitar solo from Harrison. Lennon’s gentle ‘Across The Universe’ is also pretty, while Harrison’s ‘I Me Mine’ is enjoyable, but there’s a feeling that Lennon and Harrison were holding back their best songs for solo projects.
Let It Be has some good material, but it’s still very weak by The Beatles’ high standards, and is a disappointing end to The Beatles’ career. McCartney reworked the album without Spector’s overdubs on 2003’s Let It Be….Naked; I haven’t heard it, and while it might be stronger than the original release, I doubt there’s a masterpiece album from these sessions given the lack of strong material.
Past Masters Volume One
As was the tradition in the 1960s, The Beatles released a lot of non-album singles during their tenure. Some of their best known songs never appeared on an album, such as breakthrough efforts like ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘She Loves You’ that helped to cement their popularity. The two Past Masters albums collate all of their non-album releases onto a couple of discs – Past Masters Volume One collects material from 1962’s debut single ‘Love Me Do’ through to 1965’s ‘I’m Down’ (the b-side of ‘Help’).
As a collection, Past Masters is similar in feel to their early albums; it has the same mixture of covers and originals, although it’s probably less consistent in tone as it features oddities like German language versions of a couple of songs. The most interesting material is at the end of the disc, with the 1964 single ‘I Feel Fine’, with the first recorded use of feedback, and the Help! b-sides ‘Yes It Is’ and ‘I’m Down’.
With 17 tracks, Past Masters arguably has a higher quantity of good songs than most of their early albums, and it forms a nice alternate chronology of their early career.
Past Masters Volume Two
The second volume of Beatles’ non-album material covers from late 1965 until 1970, although there’s a gap in 1967, as their 1967 single material was included on the second side of Magical Mystery Tour. Like the first volume, it’s a good overview of their career arc, and the quality of their singles often mirrors the quality of their contemporary albums.
The first four tracks cover their 1965 and 1966 singles, and they’re all brilliant; 1965’s double a-side of ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’, and 1966’s ‘Paperback Writer’ and its psychedelic b-side ‘Rain’ are all among the group’s very best songs. Their 1968 singles are also strong, McCartney’s ‘Lady Madonna’ and the faster, more intense version of Lennon’s ‘Revolution’ are highlights. ‘The Inner Light’ is one of Harrison’s better Indian pieces, while ‘Hey Jude’ retains power even with its overlong coda.
The second half of Past Masters is all drawn from the sessions for Let It Be, and it’s clearly weaker, with throwaways like the group effort ‘You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)’ Harrison’s ‘Old Brown Shoe’ and Lennon’s monotonous ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’.
There’s some essential Beatles’ material on Past Masters Volume Two, and the first four tracks are among their very best work. Because the second half is weaker, it’s difficult to rank the package too highly, but like most things this great band recorded, it’s worth hearing.
Ten Favourite Beatles’ Songs
I Am The Walrus
Strawberry Fields Forever
A Day In The Life
Here Comes The Sun
She Said, She Said
Ticket To Ride
We Can Work It Out
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band