With the 50th anniversary of the U.S. release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the most acclaimed rock album ever and the apogee of the Beatles’ cultural influence in the 1960s, is a time for a look back at our favorite Beatles masterpieces. Your list may be different, but that’s only because there are so many fabulous songs to pick from. Guess that’s why they called them “The Fab Four.”
Here’s our picks:
20. “Hey Jude,” single (1968): You want to say it’s McCartney’s ultimate pop moment, but in all honesty there were several. With Lennon’s behavior erratic, McCartney tried to step up, but in this distressing environment his diplomatic skills sometimes failed him. Starr walked out of “The White Album” sessions, Harrison Get Back. This was just another single for the label, tossed off between Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album. McCartney himself saw its anthemic potential; Lennon, while resenting McCartney’s direction in the studio, appreciated the obvious reference to his son Julian and even thought it was directed at himself. Running for seven minutes, it became the group’s biggest hit ever, and remained at no. 1 for nine weeks. (Because of McCartney, there were fewer No. 1 songs in 1968 than in any other year in the era.) Today it’s a big arena sing-along for Paul. (“Okay, now the left side … And now the right side … And now the men …. And now the girls …”)
19. “Lovely Rita,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): Lacking in import, surely, but this could be the most perfect song Paul McCartney ever wrote. Every line is focused, half are funny, and most of these actually advance the quirky tale unfolding. (“Got the bill / And Rita paid it.”) The singing, deadpan and without a hint of impishness, is a joy; both the intro and the coda are a lively bit of musical ephemera. McCartney’s bass line is not only a work of art; note how it transforms what would otherwise be a slightly repetitious backing track. As is entirely not the case with so many Beatles songs, the world would probably not be a different place if McCartney hadn’t written this particular track. But I’m not sure I’d like to live in it.
18. “Ticket to Ride,” Help! (1965): A very heavy record, as Lennon later allowed. The clangorous overture contains multitudes. The halting but unstoppable attack, with Ringo serving as MVP, is the perfect fanfare for the “awww” that leads into the title words. Note also the grinding, regretful coda. Another sui generis single that outpaced the previous sui generis single and pointed the way to ever more maturity and depth.
17. “Nowhere Man,” Rubber Soul (1965): The Love Song of J. Alfred Beatle, a man living a life of high-toned complacency in a swanky suburb of London in a house with more than 20 rooms, married to a woman he hadn’t wanted to marry in the first place, and knowing he really doesn’t have anything to complain about. Harmonies aren’t bad, and the sound — crisp and heavy, rumbling with meaning — is among the Beatles’ best.
16. “Here Comes the Sun,” Abbey Road (1969): George Harrison wrote this hanging out at Eric Clapton’s estate. It’s an indestructible song. The lyrics don’t match McCartney’s sophistication, much less Lennon’s, but that chiming guitar line has reverberated for almost 50 years, and still heralds wonder. Harrison’s voice, as I’ve mentioned, is thin; but here he managed to pitch it perfectly and delicately to match the subject. The song also sports some of the last bits of sophisticated Beatles ornamentation: a dramatic synthesizer part, sure, but also a wheezing pipe organ and a Leslie speaker for the guitar. (That’s a weird setup with a revolving speaker that is then recorded.) The result is one of just three Harrison songs that can stand with the best of Lennon and McCartney’s (extremely extraordinary) work.
15. “Let It Be,” Let It Be (1970): This is a beautiful song. McCartney lost his mother in his teens. Unlike Lennon, McCartney didn’t air his emotional laundry in public. That makes the unexpected appearance of Mother Mary quite moving. You can quibble with her advice; it is conveniently McCartneyesque. But this is the guy who’d already written “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude,” here delivering a rock ballad that in its melodic grandeur, personal meaning, and charged vocal performance transcends all of them. We’re supposed to like the de-Spectorized Naked version, but the original, while certainly not subtle, does what it’s supposed to.
14. “Money (That’s What I Want),” With the Beatles (1963): The low-key intro doesn’t prepare you for what you are about to hear: Arguably the definitive John Lennon performance as a rock-and-roll shouter. McCartney’s voice was of course more supple and protean; it is an unearthly instrument. Lennon’s was of the earth itself, and things below, never more evident than in his singing here. An insane recording.
13. “Something,” Abbey Road (1969): After ten years with Lennon and McCartney, Harrison finally delivered a song to rank with the best of theirs. While Harrison caused his own trouble with 1970’s “My Sweet Lord,” which he consciously pattered on the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” the coincidence here of the first line being the same as the title of a much different James Taylor song is beside the point. Beside the slow burn of a melody and percolating arrangement, the song is an exercise in dynamics much more subtle and fulfilling than McCartney’s sledgehammers. And this weak singer delivers his strongest vocal performance to match. The chorus is a blockbuster, and so is the guitar solo, deeply felt and a yearning journey in its own right. After the Beatles, Harrison’s solo career started with a bang: the overly long, overproduced, but intermittently impressive three-record set All Things Must Pass, and the wonderful The Concert for Bangladesh. Then came a steadily deflating solo career and a famous embarrassment of a solo tour. He died at the end of 2001, of cancer.
12. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolver (1966): This may be the most innovative and creative piece of recording during the entire decade of the 1960s, which is saying something. The sounds here — the screeching birds, the thunderous drum — were all created organically, and put down on loops until the tape was saturated. They were all manipulated in one way or another, but uniformly used as rhythmic or melodic elements. Here’s what I mean: In “Revolution 9” the taped bits are all there, standing discretely and stitched together. Here, they are musical parts of the song. A minute in, the birds take a fucking solo. The suitably cosmic Lennon vocals tie it all together. The result is mind-blowing, but tasteful; extravagant, but economical; hypnotic, but still rock. And all done in 2:59.
11. “She Said, She Said,” Revolver (1966): The coursing guitar work on this shows how expansive Lennon’s vision of rock was, far more questioning and quirky than McCartney’s. The guitar is postmodern, a Möbius strip of a riff: halting, determined, running back on itself and striking out again, taking us with it as it finds its way. It’s an appropriate guide for a song about just one moment on the road to enlightenment: The shuddering opening line “I know what it’s like to be dead” was a remark Peter Fonda made to Lennon at an acid party. Upped five notches for the great title.
10. “Rain,” single (1966): A bruising masterpiece, mostly from Lennon, right on the heels of “Nowhere Man.” Looking for ever deeper sounds, the band hit on the trick of recording at a faster speed and then slowing the playback; that gives this song its drawling, almost sepulchral feel, punctuated by McCartney’s primordial bubbling bass lines. Other electronic foofaraw was added, too, as you can hear. At this point, every song the Beatles released was a new chapter in an ongoing textbook on how to record rock and roll. With all respect to Brian Wilson, whose Pet Sounds came out the same year as Revolver, the sessions for which “Rain” emerged from, there’s really no comparison between the two, though of course Wilson’s advances spurred McCartney’s ambitions. This single, with “Paperback Writer” on the A, was an unsurpassed sound masterpiece, and the band’s unsurpassed two-sided single — until they surpassed it the next year. Historians say the last seconds sport the first prominent use of a backward track in pop recording. This song, like all the band’s best singles from this era — from “Ticket to Ride” to “Day Tripper,” from “Strawberry Fields” to “Lady Madonna” — benefits from being played from real speakers (not headphones) at high volume.
9. “Eleanor Rigby,” Revolver (1966): It’s hard to hear today after 50 years of radio airplay, but this is a stellar and nuanced piece of work that avoids sentimentality and hits hard. From a germ of an original line — “Picks up the rice where a wedding has been” — McCartney envisioned a church with a lot of loneliness around it, and followed some of the implications out to their logical conclusion. This would be a much better song without the unsubtle chorus — “Ahhh, look at all the lonely people” — but let’s lay off McCartney for a moment and note the small touches here, like how the line “No one was saved” comes plainly from the mind of Father MacKenzie. The strings are ferocious.
8. “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” Rubber Soul (1965): The first use of a sitar in a Beatles record. With Rubber Soul, Lennon’s writing took another insane step forward; helped in some part by LSD and the massive amount of pot he was smoking, he shied away from simple love plaints and into higher consciousness. The abstract, allusive, possibly symbolist story here — apparently about an unobtainable woman who eludes his advances, in response to which he burns down her house — rivals Dylan, particularly in the way that it is unquestionably a personal tale with an ambiguous ending. He was just trying to rub her soul.
7. “Here, There and Everywhere,” Revolver (1966): The best of all of McCartney’s ballads; while obviously framed, even confined, by the title words, it is a surprisingly complex work, as when McCartney takes the “everywhere” part into the middle eight. You tend to focus on McCartney’s double-tracked vocals and the ooh-ing harmonies behind it. But the real story is the complex interplay between McCartney’s voice, his exquisite bass lines, and Harrison’s nice lead guitar work.
6. “Dear Prudence,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Another almost-perfect rock song. This lacks, barely, the apocalypse of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but it’s in the realm; even Lennon’s spare original demo track crackles with drama. John’s silky space voice could get old, but its power is unique here. His guitar, from that ghostly insistence at the song’s beginning, to the rockist slams midway through, to the fanfare at the end, outclasses virtually anything else at the time, not to mention everything else on “The White Album.” The subject of the song is Prudence Farrow, who’d gone to see the Maharishi with the Beatles, her sister Mia, and various other celebrities, and found herself taking it very seriously indeed.
5. “Please Please Me,” Please Please Me (1963): This apocalyptic plea for mutual oral gratification is set to an appropriately orgiastic arrangement; so strained with desire is the singer that he can’t even sing the words correctly. Played by the band on Britain’s Thank Your Lucky Stars in January 1963, it blew away the memories of the wan “Love Me Do” and set Beatlemania in motion. For this reason it could be argued that “Please Please Me” is one of the most important pieces of pop art of the 20th century, but frankly, had it not existed, “She Loves You” would have accomplished the same result a few weeks later. One of the interesting things about the group’s best early recordings is how spacious they feel, but also how dense. The song’s sound is so heavy with energy you can’t imagine anything else being added; its center of gravity is so low it can bowl you over.
4. “She Loves You,” single (1963): As the story is told in Bob Spitz’s The Beatles, Murray the K, the enormously influential NYC disc jockey, had been playing “She Loves You” for weeks with no big reaction. Once the four Beatles set foot on American soil, the madness began, and suddenly the drum temblor that heralds this epochal recording made sense. “She Loves You” is a paroxysm of sound and emotion. I’m not even sure why it works, given the singer’s detached relationship to the events in question. He’s just a guy delivering news to a friend, and it’s not really clear why he’s quite so excited about this development. There are hints of a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-style mystery here, or maybe just a species of transference. In the U.S., incidentally, a determinedly buffoonish series of steps by EMI’s U.S. arm, Capitol Records, led to the Beatles’ work being released on a variety of labels Stateside, all of them licensed, you might say, for a song. “She Loves You,” for example, came out here on an unknown label called Swan. And when, in April 1964, the Beatles achieved the unthinkable — holding down the top five spots on the U.S pop charts — no fewer than four different labels had a piece of the pie. All that aside, the song is lethal, another Beatles track crammed full of sound and drama, from Harrison’s sly guitar fills to more of those lubricious harmonies. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Upped three notches for the repressed homoerotic undertones.
3. “Penny Lane,” single (1967): Paul McCartney grokked Lennon’s Strawberry Fields as a Liverpool reference, and created his own nostalgic inner travelogue back in time to another hometown locale, Penny Lane. Lennon went into his subconscious; McCartney stayed out, and looked around him, attentively, focusing his whimsy for once and capturing moment after moment of surreal small-town life. McCartney had a lot of nice melodies, of course. The one in the chorus here has meaning, rising with his thoughts and reveries, and then bouncing (“meanwhile back —”) down to reality, such as it is or was. His bass line is set contrapuntally against the chant of the verses, jaunty and yet calm; the other flecks of sound — those wordless “aaahs,” the piano and organ rising and dropping out, the clang of the drum, the extraordinary taste with which the brass is deployed and then amped up to ineffable levels, culminating in the mother of all piccolo trumpet solos — create a sensory overload. It’s the one pop single you can see and hear, and smell and taste and feel too. After the Beatles, McCartney ducked into an iconoclastic solo career that ultimately grew into a genial ’70s superduperstardom; with guidance from Lee Eastman, he became as rich as you can imagine. After a quiet ’80s, he went back on the road, where he’s been intermittently available ever since. He even releases the occasional record, which no one ever listens to.
2. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” single (1967): Unlike the languid psychedelia in, say, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” John Lennon’s words here are surely poetry, if poetry is something in which words take on deeply referential and kaleidoscopic meanings. Strawberry Fields was an orphanage in Liverpool; the reference is not so much to the motherless children — though that certainly reverberates through the song — as to its garden, which Lennon frequented. The accompanying statement of loneliness, isolation, confusion, and struggling artistic awareness (“No one I think is in my tree”) took confessional rock to new levels. This was a lulling acoustic number Lennon worked on for weeks while filming a movie called How I Won the War. Back home, he and producer George Martin worked for days on the song, with Lennon focused on finding a grandeur, and otherworldliness, hidden in his original presentation. His voice was slowed down, horns were added, backward bits of sound marked the track. Finally, liking the beginning of one take and the end of a second, he had the engineer tie the two together — which sounds easy, but variations in the speed and pitch of the two takes made it anything but. The result stands assuredly apart from humanity, but somehow of it as well, and remains a thunderclap of rock creativity. Lennon announced his departure from the band at a meeting in 1970; they agreed to keep it quiet, until Paul, pissed off about ongoing management disputes, put out a press release announcing that he’d left the group to record his first solo album … which, somewhat spitefully, he released a few weeks after Let It Be. You can’t take sides; it’s a fight among family, with resentments going back a lifetime. Lennon’s solo career ran hot and cold, and sometimes ridiculously so. After some hiccups — like Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend” of some 18 months carousing in L.A. — he settled down with Ono into something like domestic tranquility in vast apartments at Manhattan’s Dakota, where, among other things, they raised their son, Sean. Lennon and Ono reemerged at the end of 1980 with a new album, Double Fantasy, with a surprisingly melodic suite of new songs by Lennon. A week later he was shot by a deranged fan.
1. “A Day in the Life,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): You can be a Lennon partisan or a McCartney fan, but the plain truth is that when, as here, they worked together to support each other’s talent, something transformative occurred. While this is another one of the songs for which Lennon took inspiration from the public press, here he projects meaning onto it, rather than just receiving banality. While it is unquestionably Lennon’s song, the record shows the pair wrote the bulk of it together, while of course the off-kilter middle section was a fragment McCartney was working on separately. It’s said he also provided the “I’d love to turn you on” part, and the idea to have the orchestra build to its crescendos. But this is, in the end, a John Lennon song. There is probably no vocal track more feeling in all of rock, which it needed to be to make his poetry in this song plain: Holes are souls, which often have their own holes, and what are we all but holes in the universe, each with our own holes that allow us to live and eventually kill us? That’s what the pair wanted to turn us on to. For the end, some 40 orchestra members ran up their scales for 24 bars, and did it five times. Those five tracks were combined, making for a momentous sound. There is time for a breath, and then a final chord on an army of pianos. That sound goes on for a minute. The rest is silence.