My Beatles Top 10

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison

Is it just me or we in the midst of a Beatles Renaissance? Each month of this decade offers a 50th anniversary of something surrounding The Beatles. I’ve already attended the 50th anniversary of The Beatles concert at Dodger Stadium. I’ve enjoyed a screening of Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days a Week featuring the band’s live tours of the U.S. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their final stadium appearance. I’ve bought the live performance audio CD with reengineered recordings from the new film. I’ve subscribed to the new Beatles Channel on SiriusXM. I’ve marveled at multiple “Deconstructing The Beatles” lectures by my friend Scott Freiman, whose live presentations are now memorialized on DVD.

Okay, maybe it’s just me. Then again, with my new novel coming about how the soundtrack of our lives is inescapable in charting our life paths, The Beatles have never been more in the forefront of my mind.

For many years I have wanted to suggest my own Beatles Top 10 song list, but I have resisted for multiple reasons. First, because it does seem to change from year to year, depending on what’s consuming my attention or memory. Second, because I have been strictly advised by most Beatles luminaries that this is a fool’s errand—to rate The Beatles catalogue is akin to publicly stating the order in which you love your family and friends (a 2017 noble but flawed attempt to force rank all 213 songs is strong evidence of this). Third, because a single omission or overstated opinion might start an argument far more volatile than any around religion or politics, again putting the goodwill of colleagues at high risk. And fourth, because for all these reasons and more, I would undoubtedly be on course to a retraction, apology, restatement, or mass deleting of this post from the digital world, which is of course impossible.

Lists have a sad tendency to become permanent, even if deemed ephemeral.

Well, too bad, I’m doing it, if for no other reason than to defy my own fears, which I am certain John, Paul, George, and Ringo would applaud. I’ve restricted the list to songs written and recorded by The Beatles in their organic whole, without covers or selections from their various solo careers. The list is not in a precise order 1 to 10, because that numeration does ebb and flow with my mood, and so they remain unnumbered out of sheer fear of regret. Directionally this is my set list, and I hope I can stick to it.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!

In My Life (1965)

Hey, it’s my wedding song. If I don’t put it in first position I’m really in trouble. But it’s my wedding song for a reason, and the lyrics sit in a silver frame on my wife’s dresser because I bought the frame and put them there for both of us to read every day. Have a look at the words sometime. You may want to change your wedding song. “In my life, I love you more.”

While My Guitar Gently Weeps (1968)

This George Harrison tune haunts me unendingly, even more so since we lost George in 2001. I remember walking into a rock memorabilia store in Las Vegas years ago and seeing The Concert for George playing from a DVD on a widescreen and just standing there mesmerized with the sound pouring out in tribute. The guitar licks emerge like spoken lyrics and weave in and out of the simple verses with delicacy and determination. If you wanted to solo within the voice of an originator, this song gives you the chance of a lifetime.

Get Back (1969)

Whenever the word “Beatles” crosses my eardrums, I think of this song. It’s the quintessential tune that harnesses the ethos of the band, emerging from the tension of the end of their career but harkening back to the earliest days at the Cavern Club. If you ever get a chance to see the amazing Cirque du Soleil show Love at The Mirage in Vegas, or simply immerse yourself in the soundtrack mixed by George Martin, note the placement of this song in the early transition of the show from one era to another. The back beat is railroad steady yet quiet, it roars and rumbles without being bombastic. It is sonic, uncompromised rock ‘n’ roll, with Billy Preston on the backing keyboards to bring it home.

Nowhere Man (1965)

Ever have a song you can’t get out of your head because you’re not supposed to get it out of your head? This song, which somehow found its way into the core of the Yellow Submarine screenplay and inspired the character Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.D., sings to me at every level of interpretation and inspiration. It begins a capella, offers some of the band’s finest happy harmonies, and tells a story that reaches into our hearts. “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

I Saw Her Standing There (1963)

Should you have the poor fortune of walking into a karaoke bar when I’m the leadoff fodder, I will be kicking off with this standard. It’s simple, it’s lively, it’s old school, and it works. It’s my wife’s second-favorite Beatles song no matter how badly I botch it. There is also a bit of sentimentality in it for me, as I remember when Lennon came out of hiding in 1974 after a tough few years, he was brought onstage for this one by Elton John—even more ironic because it’s a McCartney vocal. It’s on the B-side of “Philadelphia Freedom.” If you don’t know what a B-side is, my apologies.

Here Comes the Sun (1969)

How can a song be purely joyous and enormously sad at the same time? George Harrison had a way not only with melody and instrumentation, but with short words as fuses of emotion. Similar to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (and for that matter, “Something,” which just barely misses my list), it seems as though this epic was meant to be covered and reinterpreted. Did you see George play it with Paul Simon on Saturday Night Live in 1976? Yes, you need to do that.

Come Together (1969)

This is one of those Beatles tunes that sort of doesn’t fit in with the rest of their discography. It’s almost too dark for the lads from Liverpool to pull off, yet they do. The drumbeat cooked up by Ringo is as hallucinatory as the lyrics are caustic and scary. Possibly the only good thing to come out of the disastrous movie adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Aerosmith cover of this piercing track. If John hadn’t envisioned it for The Beatles he might have handed it to Steven Tyler (to be fair, the Earth, Wind, and Fire cover of “Got to Get You into My Life” is the only other decent tune to come out of that movie, but I digress).

All You Need Is Love (1967)

As if it weren’t enough for it to be a perfect anthem for the 1960s and every decade to follow, this beautiful tune debuted on one of the first global satellite TV broadcasts of all time, adding science to art to a community be-in that included Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton sitting on the floor. It also was well placed as the denouement resolution to the Yellow Submarine movie in lovingly crushing the Blue Meanies. Love, love, love.

Eleanor Rigby (1966)

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Yeah, on many days I’m one of them. When I was in high school the lyrics to this song somehow appeared in our poetry anthology. It was one of the more controversial classroom moments I can remember as a young student of literature and music, and I never forgot it. The question posed in English class was how to differentiate the contemporary (where the root word is “temporary”) from the canon worthy of poetic study. I wondered why that was important. I still do. “Eleanor Rigby” still makes the canon for me.

“Abbey Road Medley” (1969)

As I wrestled with the rest of the catalogue, I honestly couldn’t come up with a tenth song. I argued with myself and couldn’t find a way to win. I know it’s cheating, but I settled on the Abbey Road Medley, which is technically up to eight songs that begin with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and close with “The End.” Some people think it starts five songs later with “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight,” which is the shorter version Paul has been playing in his latest live tours as an encore. Regardless, it’s a powerful collection that spans the band’s musicality from rhythm solo to storytelling to full orchestration. It finishes big as a rocker. It’s how a lot of people remember the band coming to an end, myself included.

Agree, disagree, or want to chime in? I’m all ears, and always up for a good Beatles chat. Let me hear from you. Pretty soon these 50th anniversaries will have expired and we won’t have such a good excuse.

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Photo: Freda Kelly circa 1962 (a gift to the author)

Let It Be

I write this evening from London on the last day of a short business trip. I am pounding this out on an iPad so it may be a bit less polished then some of my posts, but I want to share the passion with you somewhat unedited, while it is still fresh and resonating.

While here I enjoyed the tremendous experience of seeing the new Beatles revue, Let It Be, at the Savoy Theatre. The experience was full of wonder and magic, precisely the way music and theatre can touch your heart when you least expect it. The Savoy Theatre is an especially magical venue, one of the oldest working stages in London and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity in the late 19th century.

imageYes, it’s another Beatles cover show, like Beatlemania, like Rain, like so many appearances of The Fab Four. The lads appear in multiple costumes from the Beatles era, but are not allowed to call themselves The Beatles, nor use the names John, Paul, George, or Ringo. They refer to each other as The Bass Player or The Singer or The Drummer, and of course Billy Shears gets an appropriate shout out since he is a character of fiction. They start in black suits and thin ties, then put on Nehru jackets, then some colorful hippy fabrics, then the Sgt. Pepper Uniforms, then wilder hippy fabrics, then the John character in the white suit and long hair followed by the John character in the shoulder length hair, military shirt and sunglasses. You know the drill.

We open with I Saw Her Standing There, She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, then we’re off to Shea Stadium, then the Rubber Soul period, then Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, and we round it out with Get Back, the title number, and Jude. They don’t exactly go in order, more a thematic pastiche. There are television bits in the background showing black and white commercials of the nice lady in awe dropping the pearl in the Prell shampoo bottle, occasional blasts of Jimi Hendrix over Vietnam bombings, the marches, the flower posters, the peace signs, the weeping teens falling over each other in the stadium crowds—all of the familiar nostalgia that we have seen so often but still celebrate as boomers. No creative breakthroughs, no big picture inventions, no stagecraft of staggering originality. It was a concert of Beatles songs, two and a half hours with a break, four guys who didn’t look like The Beatles absent the various wigs, and the Paul character even played a right-handed (gasp!) Hofner bass.

So why was this show so different, so memorable, so moving, so unforgettable, so touching?

Two reasons.

For one, at half a century I might have been the youngest person in the audience.

The other, the audience was almost entirely British.

You might expect at a West End Beatles revue in London-town the show goers at a Saturday matinee might be mostly tourists. They were not. They were locals. They came to relive their youth, if only for an afternoon, and they loved every second of it. They were on their feet, they were twisting and shouting, they were dancing in the aisles, they clapped and sang along word for word, they echoed the chant: “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”

No one in that room felt they were 60, or 70, or 80. You could not tell anyone in that room that this was a 50th celebration of anything. This was real, this was vital, this was now.

And this was British. Very, very British. Lovely, as they say. Brilliant.

Yes, the image of John in Central Park is literally chiseled in Strawberry Fields. Memories of George in Los Angeles recording studios are etched in our minds. Ringo and Paul sightings in the Hollywood Hills have become as natural as any other celebrity on the west coast. We share the music with the world, but somehow we came to sense that The Beatles adopted America, and Americans unofficially adopted The Beatles.

Yet they are British, beloved here in a way I never before fully understood or felt until I spent this joyous time with their countrymen. Their fans here are perpetual, like those who have shared Shakespeare and Dickens and even Lloyd Webber with the entire world. The creativity and inspiration that has flowed generation after generation from this island in the North Atlantic never ceases to blow my mind. The impact is astonishing, the consistency in trendsetting almost baffling.

The people here are exceptionally proud that so much of what has touched them has touched so many others all over the world. The Beatles are a part of them and carry their love to us in ways that words cannot convey. You simply have to be on your feet in the crowded room feeling the music penetrate your bone mass to get it.

You say you want a revolution? That’s a revolution.

Now back to a few words on age, which I think is what really brought that tear to the corner of my eye. When that Yellow Submarine on the scrim behind the band sails through the Sea of Holes and past the Sea of Time to the Sea of Green, something enduring becomes clear, almost too real. John was taken from us, and hasn’t been here since I was a freshman in college. I still feel that loss. George has left us, and my guitar still gently weeps. We graciously do have Paul and Ringo—Ringo is even opening an exhibit this summer at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Two Beatles no longer living, but all four Beatles somehow alive.

And the fans, The Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1964, each day a few more slip away. At the end of that tail, I have the least gray hair, some have all gray hair, some have no hair at all. When the Paul character sings, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” it’s the midrange of the audience. He was in his 20s when he wrote it. They were all in their 20s when they created that vast catalog of songs—not a bad one to boot—all in less than a working decade. Those songs remain as vibrant and relevant today as they were when we bought the singles on vinyl 45s.

How does that work?

The music keeps us young. The music compels us to stay young. When we hear and feel the music we have no ailments, no doctors to see, no life letdowns or shortcomings or missed opportunities. We are optimists with our lives entirely ahead of us, just as we were when we first heard the needle hit the record, pops and hisses, mono and stereo.

We remember all the lyrics, every guitar riff, where the drumsticks hit the cymbals, and when it’s time to harmonize on the refrains. We hold onto this because it keeps our youth, our joy, our hope. When you see an aging couple set aside their walking canes, swaying their hands in the air left to right and right to left on the final chords of Hey Jude, you know magic is happening.

Time travel is indeed possible. You are transported in mind and in toe-tapping body. The music is that perfect, that potent, that mystical, that important. It just feels that good.

We boomers didn’t get everything right. We know that. We know that peace and love and world harmony are still elusive dreams. The Beatles make it possible for us to feel those dreams anew, to be young in a way that is transformational, a dream as only it can be, a perpetual time to Imagine.

You can always see the clock ticking. You can always know what time it is. You can’t take away youth.