Saturday, October 11, 2008

Beatlemania: The Most Underrated Beatles Songs

Another pointless listing exercise that I seem to enjoy far more than I should. This one has the added element of being particularly silly and impossible to determine. Not that I was daunted by that.

Nor, evidently, are many other people, as a quick Google search revealed countless web pages devoted to the same quest. I am not alone in my freakdom. After my own list, I include some other results. (Mine, naturally, being far more authoritative.)

Ah, well, it's a fun excuse to talk about good songs.

"Underrated" is always in the eye of the beholder. You can't really prove it; you just know it when you see it. Basically, something you love doesn't seem to be valued as highly by other (less knowledgeable) people. I decided not to include any of the Beatles big hits. That part was easy. But I also wanted to exclude songs that were/are played on the radio a lot, or have always been fan favorites, or that have been written about extensively. That wasn't so easy.

My first choice for the most underrated Beatles song was "Tomorrow Never Knows." It's one of my favorite songs by the Fab Four, and it was enormously important, not just in their own body of work but in the history of 20th century popular music. Many non-Beatles fans may not even know it. But it's been written about at length. George Martin, in his book With a Little Help from My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper, has to include a whole section on the song, even though it was on Revolver, because it marked the beginning of the Beatles serious experimentation in the studio. There is no Pepper without "Tomorrow Never Knows." So, sadly, I didn't include it on the list.

I offer ten songs, in the order they came to me. You can hear them by clicking on the title, which will direct you to a YouTube video. (Several of the videos have additional information about the songs available under the "more" link on the right.) After the first ten are others I considered. I'm sure I've missed some good ones. If I did the list again tomorrow, the first six would probably remain the same, but the others could easily change.

And, of course, I'd love to hear what others think. (Unless you're going to mention "Yesterday." Then I will have to ask you to step outside.)

Rain (B-side single "Paperback Writer") - I'm partial to a certain strain of psychedelic Beatles. Not the flowery songs, but those with an edge and a deeper groove. It's an artistic trajectory that begins, I would argue, with "Norwegian Wood" and ends with "The Inner Light," and is made up almost entirely of work by John and George. "Rain" is one of those Beatles songs that seems to capture the essence of what the group was trying to do at a certain period of time. It's the perfection of a sound that hovers about all of their 1966 output but comes to full fruition on this track.

Recorded during the April 1966 sessions for Revolver, the song's strange atmosphere resulted in part from the group's new-found love of toying with technology. It marks the first time they used backwards guitar, an accidental discovery. As John recalled later, "I got home from the studio stoned out of mind on marijuana, and as I usually do, I listened to what I'd recorded that day. Somehow I got [the tape] on backwards and I sat there, transfixed, with the earphones on, with a big hash joint. I ran in the next day and said, 'I know what to do with it, I know . . . Listen to this! . . . That was a gift from God - of Jah, actually, the god of marijuana. Jah gave me that one. The first backwards guitar on any record."

In addition to the backwards guitar and John's backwards vocals in the last verse, the band also tinkered in the studio by playing the rhythm track incredibly fast and then slowing it down on tape, giving the song much of its dreamy quality.

Beyond the technological innovations, however, the band simply produced some excellent music on this one. Ian MacDonald, in his book Revolution in the Head, says, "[i]nstrumentally, the twin focuses of 'Rain' are Starr's superb soloistic drumming (which he reckons to be his best recorded performance), and McCartney's high-register bass-line, sometimes so inventive that it threatens to overwhelm the track." The song is also helped greatly by John's vocal, which MacDonald highlights for its "acerbic quality. There is nothing innocent here, the observing eye is critical, and the song's chanting phrases verge on a sneer ('Can you hear me.')"

What gets lost forty years later when discussing the Beatles psychedelic era, is that most people think colorful Sgt. Pepper costumes and "All You Need Is Love." But the best Beatles songs of that era - the John and George work I mentioned earlier - have a darker hue, a questioning and often cynical edge. "Rain" is one of the best examples. Unfortunately, by making it the B-side of "Paperback Writer," the song never really received the attention it deserved.

I'm Only Sleeping (Revolver) - Another excellent, dreamy John song from the Revolver sessions. More backwards guitar. A fragment of an early take that appeared on Anthology 2 features vibraphone, which adds to the dreamy quality. For some reason, I always imagine this song as the birth of Yo La Tengo.

Hey Bulldog (Yellow Submarine) - The Summer of Love turned into the Winter of Discontent. The Christmas 1967 broadcast of Magical Mystery Tour on BBC was a critical and popular disaster. Brian Epstein's death seemed to have left his four charges in an emotional and creative lurch. They hadn't been in the studio as a group for several months. Their psychedelic period was crashing to an end and the last tragic epoch of over-exercised egos and crumbling relationships was about to begin. In between the two eras came a strange little session over the course of a week in early February, 1968, just days before they embarked on their ill-fated group pilgrimage to India. They had no overarching project to work on yet, but they needed a single, so they knocked out Paul's "Lady Madonna" and an early version of John's "Across the Universe." The two argued over which should be the A-side, but John's offering wasn't really in great shape, so the nod went to Paul's song.

In the meantime, the band worked on another half-formed John tune first called "Hey Bullfrog." It was somewhat of a nonsense piece, knocked out in a single day (fast work for them at that point), and eventually relegated to the dust-bin of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. But propelled by a driving James Bond-like theme pounded out on piano by John and Paul's groovy bass-work, the song has more energy than many of their better-known tunes, and it remains fresh after 40 years. Part of the excitement comes from John's snarling vocals. He seems to have woken up from his by-then perpetual LSD reverie and decided to become a more physical rock and roll singer again. Maybe because the band wasn't trying to be great on this song, they were able to deliver a simple yet powerful reminder of just how great they could be. One of their best pure rock and roll cuts.

The Inner Light (B-side single "Lady Madonna") - For twenty years, this was probably the most obscure song in the Beatles catalogue. Available only as a b-side to "Lady Madonna," and then on an expensive (for me at least) ten-LP Beatles collector's set, I didn't hear "The Inner Light" until it was finally released on CD (Past Masters Volume Two) in 1988. Recorded during the same February 1968 session that produced "Hey Bulldog," it would be George Harrison's last and, perhaps, most successful experiment with Indian music.

During the creative lull after Brian Epstein's death in August 1967, George had been invited to Bombay to do a soundtrack of Indian-influenced music for a film called Wonderwall. While there, he also recorded some basic tracks with some of the best musicians in India. To one of these songs, he added transcribed text from the Tao Te Ching by Lao tzu, and thus was born "The Inner Light." Mark Lewisohn notes that Harrison had to be coaxed to sing the song, however. "Strangely, for so beautiful a song, George seemed reluctant to record his vocal, according to tape operator Jerry Boys. 'George had this big thing about not wanting to sing it because he didn't feel confident that he could do the song justice. I remember Paul saying, 'You must have a go, don't worry about it, it's good.'" MacDonald, generally dismissive of Harrison's work, calls it "spirited and charming - one of its author's most attractive pieces."

I don't know why the song fell into obscurity for as long as it did, but I do know that some of its lines often pop into my head, especially the affecting way George sings, "The further one travels, the less one knows."

It's All Too Much (Yellow Submarine) - Another George song unfairly dismissed over the years. This psychedelic epic was recorded a few days before the release of Sgt. Pepper and used for the Yellow Submarine project. To me, the song strikes an excellent balance between the mystery of spiritual unity - evoked by guitar feedback, church organs, droning rhythm and chanting - and the resulting joy that can almost be unbearable. In an ecstatic state, the mind, heart and spirit can definitely feel overwhelmed, and suddenly being connected to THE ALL literally becomes "All Too Much." But Harrison uses his sense of humor to keep the song balanced between powerful mystical experience and our quotidian concerns. "Sail me on a silver sun, where I know that I'm free. Show me that I'm everywhere and get me home for tea." The line is reminiscent of another 20th century British mystic disguised as a popular artist, T.S. Eliot, who writes in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" that there is time for "a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of a toast and tea."

Harrison also does a deft job of connecting spiritual experience to physical love. On one level, "It's All Too Much" is simply another Beatles love song. George opens this six and a half-minute mystical journey in the earthly realm, staring into his lover's eyes: "When I look into your eyes, your love is there for me. And the more I go inside, the more there is to see." Immediately, though, this love from his partner becomes something greater than themselves. "It's all too much for me to take, the love that's shining all around you." What's in her eyes is also that which surrounds them. At the end of the song, after several verses of ecstatic experience, George returns to the physical realm and his beloved: "With your long blond hair and your eyes of blue, You are too much." She, the lover, has now become an earthly embodiment of Love and The All, which has been so mind-blowing. The two shall become One.

There is an earlier and even longer version (8:35) of the song, with additional lyrics, available on some bootlegs. Harrison basically cut out one of the middle verses.

Flying/Blue Jay Way (Magical Mystery Tour) - This is really two distinct songs that follow one another on Side One of the original album. They create such a single mood, however, that I always think of them as being one piece. "Flying," originally known as "Aerial Tour Instrumental," was written specifically as incidental music for the Magical Mystery Tour film and is one of the very rare Beatles instrumentals. In its early incarnations, it stretched to nine minutes long and included at different times an experimental jazz saxophone at the end, and in a bootleg version I have, a Cowboy TV Theme thing. Luckily, both were eventually dropped. What remains is, in my eyes, a tremendous kind of psychedelic groove, and a pathway I really wish the Beatles would've pursued more in their work. Something was happening here that never really shows up anywhere else. Maybe in "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," on Abbey Road. But even that was different.

"Blue Jay Way" continues the mood and deepens it. Some people are lost in a fog. The narrator, George, is simply hanging out waiting for them. How existential and/or spiritual. Nothingness. That's what these two songs conjure up. A beautiful and womb-like nothingness.

There's also a sly, wonderful George poke at the authorities he was always suspicious of. "Ask the policemen on the street; there are so many there to meet." And later, as he repeats the line, "Please don't be long," it suddenly transforms into "Don't belong." Dark fluid psychedelic groove. I want more!

Two of Us (Let It Be) - We forget sometimes that in addition to being one of the great composing partnerships in 20th century music, John and Paul were also best buds going back a long way. One of those rare super-intense friendships. And it fell apart quickly like a passionate romance. "Two of Us," one of their last songs together, is a sad and poignant piece that they somehow manage to pull off emotionally, though they were hardly talking to each other at that point. It's like a married couple singing a lovely, painful duo about their own divorce.

Baby It's You / Twist and Shout (Please Please Me) - John Lennon was a great rock and roll singer, perhaps never more so than in the group's early days. He had an unaffected and energetic, almost wild voice. Over the years, I think drugs and an increasing seriousness (ego) caused him to lose some of the vitality of the first recordings. Listening to the Please Please Me album is to be reminded of his great singing. Nowhere is that more evident than on "Twist and Shout," and though I wouldn't call that exactly underrated, I think it's worth mentioning. It was the final song recorded at the end of a long arduous day on February 11, 1963. Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, in The Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes, 1962-1970, calls it "arguably the most stunning rock and roll vocal performance of all time; two-and-a-half minutes of Lennon shredding his vocal chords to bits." He describes the scene well:

"The group was not exactly at the peak of physical condition before the day even started, having worked up and down the country through one of the coldest British winters on record. John Lennon had a particularly heavy cold. . . .It was now something like 10:00 pm and the studios were due to close down for the evening. But there was one more song to be recorded. . . . Someone suggested they do 'Twist & Shout,' the old Isley Brothers number, with John taking the lead vocal. But by this time all their throats were tired and sore -- it was 12 hours since we had started working. John's, in particular, was almost completely gone. . . . John sucked a couple more Zubes ["throat sweets"], had a bit of gargle with milk and away we went."
MacDonald says that at 10:30, with Lennon "stripped to the waist and the others 'hyping' themselves by treating the control-room staff as their audience, they went for it. The eruptive performance that ensued stunned the listening technicians."

If "Twist and Shout" doesn't count as "underrated," one can hear Lennon's great singing on other tunes from that session. "Baby, It's You," a Shirelles song, was the track the group recorded just before "Twist and Shout." Lennon's voice is obviously already raw, but while the tune may be kitschy in parts, you can still hear why he was such a great singer. "Anna" is another good example from that session.

I'll Be Back (A Hard Day's Night) - John considered this one of his own personal favorites, and it's easy to see why. MacDonald calls it "a melancholy essay in major/minor uncertainty mirrored in the emotional instability of its lyric. The most unorthodox thing Lennon had yet written."

The Night Before (Help!) - One of my favorite Paul songs. For some reason, it never gets talked about much, but I think it's a great example of Beatles "pop" at its best.

Others I considered, in no real order:
Julia (The Beatles) - One of John Lennon's most personal and beautiful songs. Mother-Sister as muse. Perfect yin-yang balance to his great song "Mother" from Plastic Ono Band.
Love You To (Revolver) - Harrison's first full attempt at mixing Indian music with rock and roll. Cool, cynical lyrics give it an edge.
Oh! Darling (Abbey Road) - My vote for Paul's finest vocal effort as a Beatle. At least as a rock and roll singer.
Yes It Is (B-side single "Ticket To Ride") - MacDonald calls this Lennon's "most yearningly romantic song . . . positively 19th century in its haunted feverishness, its Poe-like invocation of the colour scarlet, and its hint that the lost lover of the lyric is dead." Yeah, whatever. It is one of John's most romantic songs.
You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away (Help!) - Lennon in full Dylan mode. Not sure this can really be considered underrated. It gets a fair amount of attention.
I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (Abbey Road) - One of the heaviest Beatles' jams tacked onto John's minimalist lyrics.
This Boy (B-side single “I Want To Hold Your Hand”) - Lennon starting to stretch out as a songwriter. A lovely little ballad.
I Need You (Help!) - More neglected Harrison. A meditative, almost melancholy love song with great atmosphere. Though George was the youngest in the group, this tune seems to have more genuine emotional authority than what John and Paul were doing at that point. George seemed born with an older man's questioning nature.
You Won’t See Me (Rubber Soul) - One of my favorite Paul "pure pop" songs. Sounds very "sixties" now, but it's still catchy.
I Want To Tell You (Revolver) - Revolver may have been George's best album as a songwriter (Taxman, Love You To, and this one), and this was only his third best cut on it. His lazy, cynical vocals and the kind of off-kilter, brooding quality of the song give Revolver some of its essential weight. Provides a needed counterbalance to the dramatic brightness of many of Paul's efforts on the album.
Cry Baby Cry (The Beatles) - MacDonald's take: "[A] haunting and haunted creation. . . . Of all The Beatles, Lennon had the most direct access to childhood, and this song, with its deceptive sunshine and mysterious laughter behind half-opened doors, is one of the most evocative products of that creative channel." Lennon called it "a piece of rubbish." I go with MacDonald on this one.
I’ll Follow the Sun (Beatles for Sale) - Paul's musing folk ditty, actually written in Hamburg in 1960.
I’m Happy Just to Dance With You (A Hard Day's Night) - Another one of those songs that seems to capture what the Beatles were all about at a certain point in their trajectory. George singing a tune John wrote for him.
No Reply (Beatles for Sale) - A pivot point between early and mid Beatles. Their first attempt at an operatic feel.
I found a Beatles web site where over 50 people listed their FIVE choices for most underrated songs. I tallied up the scores and here are the Top 20, along with the number of votes:
1. Rain (B-side single “Paperback Writer”) - 12
2. You Wont See Me (Rubber Soul) - 11
3. Hey Bulldog (Yellow Submarine) - 10
4. I'm Only Sleeping (Revolver) - 8
5. I've Got A Feeling (Let It Be) - 7
6. Dig A Pony (Let It Be) - 6
7. And Your Bird Can Sing (Revolver) - 5
7. The Night Before (Help!)- 5
7. Piggies (The Beatles) - 5
7. Savoy Truffle (The Beatles) - 5

11. Baby You're a Rich Man (Magical Mystery Tour) - 4
11. I Want You (She's So Heavy) (Abbey Road)- 4
11. I've Just Seen a Face! (Help!) - 4
14. I Me Mine (Let It Be) - 3
14. I'm Looking Through You (Rubber Soul) - 3
14. Long, Long, Long (The Beatles) - 3
14. Revolution 9 (The Beatles) - 3
14. She's Leaving Home (Sgt. Pepper) - 3
14. This Boy (B-side single “I Want To Hold Your Hand”) - 3
14. Two of Us (Let It Be) - 3
14. Yer Blues (The Beatles) - 3


Jeff said...

Outstanding post William. I just did a very quick fly-by on this, but this looks like a lot of fun. I'm tempted to put up a list of my own and comment on your post further, but one thing I might say about the list is that I wish it had more of the older stuff on it, pre-HELP and Rubber Soul. Stuff like... Hold Me Tight, Please Please Me, 8 Days a Week, I Feel Fine, If I Fell, I'm a Loser and No Reply come quickly to mind.

Liam said...

Wow, I'm looking forward to listening to these -- most of them I at least don't know by name. I agree that Tomorrow Never Knows is fantastic.

Darren Chase said...

Terrific post William -- I enjoyed your list. Like you I'm a fan of the dark Beatles. Rain would top my list if I had one. If I had a list, if I only had a list . . .

btw, is Girl underrated? It's another hot fave of mine.

Eliptikon rocks

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the comments. And I would love to see your own list.

Yeah, the pre-Help period you're talking about has a lot of great and underrated stuff in it. I was really impressed when I went back a couple of years and was listening a lot.

I didn't include Please Please Me, I Feel Fine and 8 Days a Week because they were all big hits. But if there was an underrated Beatles hit single, 8 Days might qualify.

I did include No Reply in my second batch. And I definitely thought about If I Fell - that should probably be in my second ten. I'm a Loser crossed my mind, but I went with No Reply instead. Hold Me Tight. . . . not one I really like as much. But I remember seeing it listed on one or two other lists.

cowboyangel said...


I need to make you a Beatles CD. A William collection. Do you own anything already?

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for dropping by! Yeah - love to see a list from you as well.

Girl is one of those tricky ones - is it underrated? It seems to come up a lot when talking about John's work. But not as much, obviously, as other stuff. I thought about it, as I did You've Got To hide Your Love Away - in the end, i thought they were both probably regarded highly enough.

Girl is great. And one of the Beatles songs that holds the most memory for me - as John seemed to have written it specifically for me as a soundtrack to my love trauma in the summer between 7th and 8th grade. The object of my desire really was that girl. How could John know?!

Darren Chase said...

I'm Down. That one rocks and is fairly unknown (for a Beatles song). I love I'm Down.

John Schertzer said...

Great to see "Dig a Pony" on that list. I think that's my all time favorite Beatles song, but generally, when I say so, people look at me strange.

Thanks William.

cowboyangel said...


Good to see you're down with I'm Down. I'm down with I'm down.

It does rock.


"I told you so..." Yeah, that's a good one. It was interesting to me to see four songs from Let It Be on the list from the Beatles web site. It does get maligned a lot as an album, and perhaps it's not up to some of the others, but I've always really liked it. With the exception of "Long and Winding Road," one of my all-time least favorite Beatles songs. But, scratch that, and there's a sound on that album that doesn't appear anywhere else in their work.

Liam said...

I used to have almost all the regular studio albums from Rubber Soul through Let it Be. All on vinyl, alas. Now I just have Abbey Road.

Now that I've listened to them, I know most of the ones that weren't B-sides. Rain and the Inner Light are very cool.