So I looked at my fave top best all-time Beatles tunes a while ago. But what about the albums, asked no-one? Well, let it never be said I left an unasked question unanswered. The Beatles were one of the first pop/rock bands to embrace the album and then develop it into a coherent statement, though interestingly enough, jazzers like Miles Davis and John Coltrane had been doing much the same thing about five years earlier. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1964) I see as the first non-classical concept album. (I really hate the phrase “concept album” – I just mean a longer piece of work that has a sustained meaning or atmosphere – the sort of thing you find in most classical symphonies, in other words). But when you compare the Beatles’ 12″ output to that of their forbears like Elvis and Chuck Berry, or even against rivals like the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, you can see how they grabbed the medium and made it their own. So here are the Beatles studio albums ranked in reverse order.
This is only half a Beatle album anyway, with the latter half consisting of George Martin’s film orchestration. The Beatle tunes vary from almost “hidden gem”, such as “It’s All Too Much” and “Hey Bulldog” to the trite “All Together Now” to the dismal “Only A Northern Song”. Previous releases “Yellow Submarine” (understandably) and “All You Need Is Love” (a horribly sickly-sweet cloying song) are there too.
A Hard Day’s Night
I suspect people will disagree with me here, but I really don’t think this album much cop. Okay, there are a sprinkling of utter classics (the indelible title track, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Things We Said Today”, and “And I Love Her”, but the rest are distinctly fillerish. I have a special disdain for “I Should’ve Known Better”, while “Tell Me Why” and “Any Time At All” coast by on the strength of Lennon’s outstanding vocals. This is the sole album comprising only Lennon/McCartney originals, with songs written in the frantic period following their first conquering of America. A little more time to up the invention would have helped, but in 1964 the Fabs made two albums, two singles (not on the albums) and a film, toured a great deal, while Lennon also released In His Own Write. Surely the most incredible calendar year of activity from any band ever.
Beatles For Sale
The Fabs’ Xmas ’64 album gets the odd slating – the reversion to covers indicaing a lack of inspiration, or more likely time, this being released just five months after A Hard Day’s Night (!) – but to me it has more characterful touches than the earlier album. The covers are a mixed bunch, to be sure, but revealing – “Mr Moonlight” shows their penchant for piss-taking, “Word Of Love” is a debt of honour to Buddy Holly, and “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey!” has Macca equalling Lennon’s “Twist And Shout” (both done in one take, too!). On the originals, “No Reply” is a bitter slice of Lennon which shows their increasing mastery of the studio, “Eight Days A Week” magnificent, “Every Little Thing” exceptional and underrated, and “I’m A Loser” perhaps the first to feature distinctly Lennonian wordplay. “Honey Don’t” and “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” are both pretty meh, though.
Please Please Me
The first album usually gets plaudits for being recorded in a 12 hour session, but that’s all you got for albums in those days. Even Miles Davis’ complex orchestral recordings like Sketches Of Spain (1960) and Porgy And Bess (1958) got a few takes at best. I remember reading an interview with Tony Iommi saying that Black Sabbath’s early albums were done in half a day too, and that was in 1970. But regardless of this eulogising, Please Please Me remains a dizzyingly fresh and varied album, from the soaring title track to the emotional “Anna (Go To Him)” to the dancehall favourite “I Saw Her Standing There” to the harmony workout “Baby It’s You”, to the furious riproaring lust of “Twist And Shout”. It’s an awesome declaration of intent.
Like Beatles For Sale, Help! is not usually very highly regarded, but its unerring songcraft and the increasingly superb arrangements make it one of perhaps more subtle pleasures, and definitely point the way to the subsequent inspiration in Rubber Soul. While no-one is really going to rhapsodise over “The Night Before”, “Another Girl” or “You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, all three feature virtuoso backing vocals, breaking away from simple harmonising to increasingly complex and memorable patterns. Macca continues to broaden his range at an incredible rate, with the wonderfully breathless “I’ve Just Seen A Face” (with tremendous guitar) and “Yesterday”, about which nothing more need be said. Lennon meanwhile produces a string of classics, from the aching yet rocking “Help!” to “Ticket To Ride” (where The Beatles start to fully expand their music from what has gone on before) and the alpine accoustics of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”. Weak points include “I Need You” and “You Like Me Too Much”, both from George; at least Ringo’s song, “Act Naturally”, is better than “Honey Don’t”.
Let It Be
The breakup clearly suffers from lost interest and inspiration. George’s “For You Blue” is a slide-guitar exercise and that’s about it, “Dig It” is nothing much, “Maggie May” is best forgotten as a joke, and “One After 909” is charming juvenalia. However, there are some monumentally good songs on it. “Two Of Us” is some of the best bass playing I’ve ever heard in any song ever (though it’s not actually played on a bass), and some totally winsome vocal melodies (Lennon and McCartney singing in unison throughout the verses). “I’ve Got A Feeling” is majestic, so rich with Beatle empathy and humanity; the music’s just as terrific. “Get Back” (not the single version) is fine and deft and enjoyably daft; the sense of rhythm is remarkable. Dig Ringo’s drumming in the keyboard solo (from 1.33), and how they subtly alter the rhythm, giving it more emphasis than on the guitar solo (from 0.59). “Across The Universe” sits awkwardly in its kaftan sounding all late-’67, and demonstrating how rapidly the Beatles developed (I mean this is less than 18 months later!), while I have never really enjoyed “Let It Be”, perhaps through too many school music lessons.
Magical Mystery Tour
This is really a double EP, but as a collection of the Beatles’ late 67 work, it works very well. It’s an amazing dazzleburst of hallucinogenic colour, from “Strawberry Fields Forever” to the wonderful instrumental “Flying” to the murky “Blue Jay Way” to the exotic “Baby You’re A Rich Man”. Macca delivers two nostalgic tunes with “Your Mother Should Know” and “The Fool On The Hill” (recorders, forsooth), but Lennon’s “I Am The Walrus” is one of the most tricksy, cunning, put-on songs ever – and that’s only to consider the music! As a double EP, MMT lacks the coherence and skilful sequencing of other albums, but it does contain some of the finest songs ever recorded by The Beatles and others mined from the same vein of inspiration.
With The Beatles
This album essentially refines the formula of Please Please Me, with its mix of R&B, girl pop, and rock and roll. The originals are sassier and better crafted – “It Won’t Be Long” shamelessly milks the “Yeah!” of “She Loves You”, “All My Loving” is sheer fun, “Hold Me Tight” (a holdover from Please Please Me because they ran out of time) is a fine layering of sounds (though Macca’s vocal is unusually weak), Lennon’s “All I’ve Got To Do” is a soulful confessional, and George’s “Don’t Bother Me” is a nice, tart, piece of disdain. The covers are really exceptional, though: “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” is wonderful, “Money” almost repeats the hysteria of “Twist And Shout”, and “Roll Over Beethoven” shows how George could rock and roll with the best of them. “Please Mister Postman” with its double-tracked vocal however is a bit overcooked. This is the best demonstration of The Beatles’ early influences and inspiration.
This was as usual rushed for the Xmas market (in 1965), but you’d never know it. Incredible considering that their workload in 1965 was as heavy as it was in 1964. This is where The Beatles start to make music in their own image, instead of improving on what had gone before. Creativity and articulation bursts out of (nearly) every song. “Drive My Car” sets out their stall, with its brilliant drum n’ bass rhythm, satirical lyric, exceptional singing (brilliant belting verses from Macca, and Lennon’s vinegary cynicism souring the mix). “Norwegian Wood” follows, with the tart twang of the sitar, the rich accoustic strumming and Lennon’s masterful, allusive lyric. The level is almost sustained throughout: “Nowhere Man” has a wonderful rich tapestry of sound (with exceptional bass from Macca), “If I Needed Someone” is a classic piece of jangle-pop, “Girl” is where John’s songs start to become ever more dense and allusive, even if on the surface it’s just a German two-step, “The Word” inaugurates the hippy vibe, and “In My Life” is magnificent, a sighing poignant reminder of times gone (from a man of twenty five!). The last song “Run For Your Life” is a baffling closer, with its vicious caveman misogyny a jarring contrast to a wry, knowing, (self)mocking album.
Where does Sgt Pepper fit in the Beatles canon? To some it’s the greatest album ever, to others it’s ludicrously overpraised. It is certainly the zenith of their pop-as-artifice period, with subsequent albums seeing resurgent interest in the perceived truthfulness of the blues and folk. Sgt. Pepper’s formal innovations similarly are the kind of thing which get critics all excited, unlike your average fan who remembers the tunes: the meta-awareness of the overture and outro, and the notion of playing at being another band would echo throughout the years (see: The Wall, Ziggy Stardust, 3 Feet High And Rising, etc). But what about the songs, eh? “Getting Better”, “With A Little Help”, “Lovely Rita”, and “Good Morning Good Morning” are all strong album tracks; “She’s Leaving Home” and “Fixing A Hole” are both florid pieces of McCartney which many love (I can live without them); “Within You Within You” is the ultimate expression of George’s mysticism (which, unlike many, I adore); and “Lucky In The Sky With Diamond” and “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite” are dazzling examples both of the Lennon imagination and the Beatle/Martin studiocraft in creating soundworlds. “A Day In The Life” is stunning, with good claim to being the single finest Beatle moment. But to my ears, Sgt. Pepper is often too reliant on studiocraft rather than songcraft: the soundworlds it creates are astonishing, but I wonder if they would be anywhere near as memorable without such dressage. Also, Sgt. Pepper is perhaps the only album where Lennon is subdued, with only 3.5 songs out of 13: Macca’s art school leanings need some abrasive Lennon truth-telling amd cynicism to avoid getting florid or unreal, and occasionally Pepper does get that way. But as an expression of imagination and humanity, it’s hard to beat.
The final three are really hard to separate. All are miracles of creativity and expression. I particularly find it nearly impossible to separate Abbey Road and the White Album. Though I think the side 2 (that’s the second half, kids) of Abbey Road the finest side of any album ever, I’m going to have to let it settle for third. Why? Though the album is a tremendous swansong, the first half is uneven: though several individual songs are magnificent (“Something”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Come Together”, “Here Comes The Sun”), several are weak (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus’s Garden”), and worse, they don’t relate well to each other. This is not like the White Album, where though there’s an insane range of styles, the parodies and pastiches, and the frequency of the accoustic guitar, give it an overriding sensibility. On the Abbey Road opening side, Lennon’s songs are bluesy, almost elemental; Macca’s are dreadfully hokey; while George’s, now he’s finally getting his day in the sun, are marvellous. The arrangement of the tunes (Lennon – George – Macca – Macca – George – Lennon) speak more of Beatle politics than musical considerations.
The second half though is truly and utterly magnificent. Its symphonic linking of movements, and its variety of mood and atmosphere, are astonishing, while the warmth, humour and wit – while typical of The Beatles – remind you why they are the best-loved rock group ever. It starts with “Because”, where John, Paul and George sing in icy triple-tracked harmony like disembodied spirits above the clouds. “You Never Give Me Your Money”, a suite depicting Macca’s fracturing with the Beatles, follows; the key section is the lovely, poignant, “But, oh that magic feeling… nowhere to go”. But this melancholy is naturally undercut by the languid, sunlit warmth of “Sun King”, Macca’s bass so supple and fluid, the lyrics in joky cod-Italian (“Cake and eat it, parasol”). This is then followed by three quick-fire fragments, “Mean Mr Mustard”, “Polythene Pam”, and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”, which evoke the simple pleasures of a rock band, and hark back to their apprenticeship in Hamburg and Liverpool dive bars and grotty clubs, showing how this basic rock and roll will always be part of them.
But, artfully, this is succeeded by McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers”. It sounds like Macca’s farewell to The Beatles, and the emotion is high, as he strains his vocal chords, the orchestration so august and beautiful. But again, the progression is ideal, for we are lead straight into the rousing, cathartic rocker of “Carry That Weight”, with its group chorus – “Boy! You got to carry that weight! Carry that weight, a long time!” A plangent horn sounds, reintroducing the motif from “You Never Give Me Your Money”, suggesting a further sadness – but no, as we’re thrown together for one last whirl: “Boy, you’ve got to carry that weight! Carry that weight, a long time!” “The End” naturally follows, being a showcase of the main Beatles as guitar players, i.e as themselves, after a unique Ringo drum-solo. They rotate guitar solos three times, as they well evoke their respective personalities – Macca is mid-range and twangy, George higher and priapic, whilst John is a distorted shard of sound. A fluttering heart-beat of piano leads in the famous dictum that “The love you make is equal to the love you take”, ending on a glorious, august final orchestral chord. (Or so it would seem, until “Her Majesty” dashes in, laughingly curtsies and dashes out again).
I’ve laboured the point perhaps, but as I say, the “Long Medley” is incredible. But with the awkward first side, Abbey Road maybe isn’t as good as it could be.
With most of its songs written on retreat in Rishikesh, the Beatles seem to have been in a playful, send-up mood. Many of their songs were inspired this way (“I Am The Walrus” is linguistic pisstaking, “Paperback Writer” mocks the provincial creatives intent on making it big in London (i.e. people just like them), “Misery” is send-up of adolescent whining, “I’m Down” takes the mick out of Lennon’s self-pity tunes like “I’m A Loser”), but this period was a particularly rich seam. With Rubber Soul-Revolver-Sgt Pepper utilising ever more complex orchestration and arrangements, the Fabs had been creating ever more enveloping sound worlds – but clearly the time had come to cleanse the palette a bit, so the perceived forward momentum stopped. Instead, the Beatles offered pastiches and parodies of both contemporaries (the blues boom (“Yer Blues”), the Beach Boys (“Back In The USSR”), heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”), and ska (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”)), and from their past (30s sing-a-long (“Bungalow Bill”), 20s schmaltz (“Honey Pie”, “Good Night”), chamber music (“Piggies”), classic pop (“Martha My Dear”), and B&W Westerns (“Rocky Raccoon”). Meanwhile their “original” songs, you might say, also strain the boundaries: “Mother Nature’s Son” is pastoral, “Don’t Pass Me By” is country hoedown, “I Will” is fluffy but musically exacting, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is ponderous rock, with outstanding guitar from Eric Clapton, and “Revolution #9” is… different.
The other thing that’s noticeable is the lack of backing vocals from other Beatles; this is pretty much solo territory. Though the others loved “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, there’s no harmonies from Macca (the doo-wop vocals sound like Lennon multi-tracking himself), or on “Glass Onion” (though there is on the final lines of “I’m So Tired”). This does not really detract from the album: the music though varied had solid anchors in rock (“I’m So Tired”, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide”), folk (“Julia”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Dear Prudence”, “Blackbird”) and even country (“Don’t Pass Me By”). This allows wacko outliers like “Revolution #9” and “Wild Honey Pie” into the broad church.
Because it’s all so varied, the other thing everyone points out is the variable quality. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “Martha My Dear” are two of the best songs the Fabs ever did, but… well, personally I can’t really stand “Birthday”, while there are obvious fillers like “Savoy Truffle”, and “Helter Skelter” is certainly an acquired taste (I love the sinister outro, but the song itself doesn’t do that much for me). But somehow, the rich and varied cornucopia of the White Album hangs together, in a dense, allusive, jokey kind of way. Who else could put out an album with the bestial “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” followed by the doe-eyed “I Will”? The album sounds not so much a Beatle studio album where they sweated for perfection as an opening of their desk drawers, their home movies and private jokes. This is what the Beatles play for themselves. “Half of what I say is meaningless,” John sings in “Julia”, “but I say it just to reach you.” The Beatle delight in contrasts of theme, mood, tempo and atmosphere make the White Album an endlessly riveting listening experience: I just love the way the hysterical rock n’ roll of “Back In The USSR”, with the screeching jets, subsides into “Dear Prudence”; how the despairing need of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is succeeded by the effortless delight of “Martha My Dear”; how the sinister violence of “Helter Skelter” is followed by the weary surrender to God in “Long Long Long”.
I even love “Revolution #9”. You might think it a piece of stitched-together chaos, but in its fragmentary arbitrariness, there is in fact a great deal of craft. It seems like a direct connection with the subconscious if you took off the helmet of your ego and let the world inject itself into your awareness, direct and undiluted. The sort of total awareness and marginal understanding a baby has.
There’s a lot to say about the White Album, but it is the sort of album that rewards repeated listening, as meanings and allusions unfold themselves in your mind. Cryptic puzzle or glass onion?
This is simply the strongest single release by The Beatles. Creativity, imagination, wit, empathy, pathos, grief, cosmic mysticism, nostalgia, frivolity, insouciance, irony, cynicism, joy… they’re all there. It’s not just the emotional range: every track is an entire new soundworld in itself, but married with the strongest songcraft the Beatles ever brought to the table: no song is longer than 3.00 (oddly, “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Love You To”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are all 3.00 exactly, or so iTunes tells me), and they cram so much into each track. Revolver is the Fabs at their most precise, their most concentrated. When combined with a stunning leap in imagination, that makes for the best album they would ever make.
“Taxman” kicks it off: the distorted intro, the bluesy guitar riff, the brilliant bass playing from Macca, that scorching guitar solo (apparently also by McCartney rather than Harrison), and that daring condemnation of both political party leaders. It is typically sour, but it teems with invention, down to the way Ringo’s cowbell suggests falling pennies.
“Eleanor Rigby” follows, with an equally saturnine view of the world, of the lonely spinsters in a fragmented community where religion cannot salve nor save. Stark, with a string octet and staccato chords, it is a sharp clear view of isolation in the modern world. The lyric, with lines as good as “Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” is exceptional, especially considering that it was put together at a social gathering.
“I’m Only Sleeping”, with Lennon’s vocal sped up to give a nasal, old-man’s voice (it reminds me of Steptoe Senior – they would be familiar with Wilfred Brambell from the Hard Day’s Night film), the sibilant halo of the slowed cymbals and the deep-pile cushion of the bass, is dreamy and otherworldly. The reversed guitar solo by George is amazing.
“Love You Too” is (alongside the lovely “The Inner Light”) the best of George’s Indian excursions, with its energy, caustic vocal and fast moving melody making it quite the contrast to “Within You Without You”.
“Here, There And Everywhere” is probably the lushest of all Macca’s love songs, with superb harmony from John and George, and a smart lyric from Macca – the first verse they’re here, the second they’re there, etc. Paul apparently rates this as his favourite of his own songs, which seems a bit odd to me (not “Hey Jude”?).
“Yellow Submarine” is delightful children’s play, with Lennon giving a great, funny antiphon response in the final verse, and so many terrific atmospheric sound effects. It’s amazing how many Beatle songs are standards: they are in the bones of Western culture, just like how many of Shakespeare’s phrases pop up in everyday conversation.
“She Said She Said” is I think the essential John song of this period: on the surface it’s a terrific jangling pop song, but the metre is so contorted and convoluted, and it hits at so many emotional areas (nostalgia, madness, death, yearning, confusion, seeking), and the playing so terrific (Ringo’s drumming is amazing – check how easily he handles all the changes in time), that it towers far above anything The Byrds, say, could ever do.
The contrasting “Good Day Sunshine”, with its effortless ease and sheer delight, is essential McCartney, with terrific piano (the way it leaps about is superb – filled with constant surprises), and excellent backing (Ringo is just right on the rhythm). The contrast with “She Said She Said” is of course intentional, and anticipates another Lennon/McCartney pairing in the White Album: “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “Martha My Dear”.
“And Your Bird Can Sing” is Lennon at his hipper-than-thou – “You don’t get me” – with terrific parallel guitar playing and excellent work on the top-hat from Ringo. (Seriously, the man was an amazing drummer).
“For No One” is what Macca has called “a 4/4 waltz”, and as a formal experiment it is masterful: the pauses and shifts in the piano suggesting the doubts and hesitations in the relationship, the sad little French horn suggestive of decaying middle-class adult relationships, rather than the teeny love of “She Loves You”, and his emotionless vocal suggesting the end of love as a drying rather than a disaster. Poignant and affecting, musically superb, it shows Macca at his best.
“Doctor Robert” is the one relatively weak point – I find the chorus off-putting, with its children’s choir effect in the multitracked “Well well well, you’re feeling fine…” line. Its jangling guitars make it quite similar to “She Said She Said”, and the lyric (an ode to the dentist who first spiked Lennon with LSD) a bit juvenile.
“I Want To Tell You” is an unprecedented third George song on a Beatle album, and the first regarding his spiritual concerns. Rather than preaching, he wisely sticks to discussing the moment when you realise you can’t articulate what you feel, when words become a barrier rather than delivering. This is dramatised through the repeated use of the sudden discordant shift – “My head is filled with things to say“, “The games begin to drag me down“, “I feel hung up but I don’t know why“. Here is where the Beatles first begin to explore beyond Western ideas into Eastern concepts, acknowledging the limits of knowledge and articulation.
“Got To Get You Into My Life” is Macca’s ode to pot (he really digs the reefer), but with its tension and full bodied brass, it feels rich with sexual desire, only relieved in the final chorus. The choruses before that he only allows one line of the title, and then Ringo resumes the beat, keeping the tension rising deliciously. If “I Want To Tell You” was the opening to alternative approaches, perhaps “Got To Get You Into My Life” is the full delighted embrace of (ahem) alternative methods.
“Tomorrow Never Knows”… wow. Just fucking wow. Immense. Majestic. Stunning. Revelatory.
With precise attention to detail, soaring imagination, endless craft, humane empathy and awakening spiritual consciousness, Revolver is to me the best Beatle album.
Sorry this is such a long piece! but what a body of work the Beatles produced in seven years. The funny thing is, much though I have rhapsodised over the albums, this isn’t even their best work – most of that was reserved for the singles! “She Loves You”, “I Feel Fine”, “Strawberry Field Forever”, “Hey Jude”… oh my.