Why the Fab Four really were fab.
How many songs did The Beatles do? You’d think that’d be an easy question to answer, but it isn’t. You could take a first punt at 211, which is the total of unique songs officially released by the group in the time they were operational as a recording unit from 1962 to 1970 (so you’d be counting Revolution and Revolution 1 as separate songs, and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise) as separate songs, and discounting the slightly different versions of Love Me Do, Across The Universe, Get Back and Let It Be, along with the German-language versions of She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand, and the George Martin orchestral pieces on side 2 of Yellow Submarine). But in 1994 Live At The BBC was released, which brought a further thirty songs under their name, albeit 29 of them cover versions. Then 1995-1996 saw the Anthology albums and oxygen for 33 previously unreleased numbers (plus two ‘new’ songs – Lennon demos souped-up – Free As A Bird and Real Love). But do we count the brief George Martin-composed instrumental A Beginning as a Fabs song? What about The Quarrymen songs on there? A rejigged version of Christmas Time (Is Here Again), a fan club record from 1967, made it onto the B-side of Free As A Bird – is that now ‘canon’?
Since then we’ve had deluxe versions of the White Album and Abbey Road that feature demos and jams not available previously (can we count Can You Take Me Back?, a snippet of a tune that was finally allotted a listing after previously being briefly heard before Revolution 9 starts?). There’s the eight songs they did with Tony Sheridan before they were signed by EMI, and the 13 songs from their unsuccessful Decca audition that they neglected to re-record for their albums, and the Cirque du Soleil Love album that melds and morphs various songs, and 1982’s The Beatles’ Movie Medley, and the still unreleased Carnival Of Light. This autumn will probably see more songs ‘become Beatles songs’ when never-before-released material from the Get Back/Let It Be sessions sees the light of day. There will also be demos for songs they gave away, and they gave away maybe 23, depending on how you count it. In short, how many songs The Beatles did isn’t easy to answer. If the ‘true’ number of Beatles songs is 300+ (and that number won’t even include many songs they played live but never subsequently recorded) then it’s a hefty total for seven years of work.
This matters, because genius is often attended to by prodigiousness: Picasso is said to have produced nearly three pieces of artwork every day of his working life. Were The Beatles geniuses? Yes, they were. But mere talent is rarely enough; it required incredible hard work and great mental strength to achieve what they achieved, to sustain themselves and continually innovate under the intense glare of the whole world for nearly a decade.
The Guinness Book Of Hit Singles details the stock facts of the might of The Beatles – “This legendary group changed the face of popular music. Achievements include the most No 1 albums in the UK and the US. Within three months of their US chart debut in 1964, they held all the Top 5 single chart places, had a record 14 simultaneous entries in the Billboard Top 100 and had two top-selling albums” – but there are other reasons why they are musically way out in front of any other group in history.
Of the 26 UK singles A-sides they released, a remarkable 13 never appeared on a UK album. And five of their albums contained no singles. Eight Days A Week, Yesterday and The Long And Winding Road, all only album tracks in the UK, all reached No 1 on the US singles chart.
There are many Beatles compilation albums, and several barely feature any singles: on 1976’s Rock ’n’ Roll Music, out of 28 songs, just one (Get Back) was an A-side; on 1977’s Love Songs’ 25 tracks, again just one (Something) was a single; on 1980’s The Beatles Ballads, only three of the 20 tracks were singles; on 2012’s iTunes exclusive compilation Tomorrow Never Knows there was also just one solitary single (Paperback Writer) among the 14 songs.
Their B-sides were frequently superb: Revolution, I Am The Walrus, Old Brown Shoe, Don’t Let Me Down, Rain, I’m Down, She’s A Woman, Baby You’re A Rich Man, You Can’t Do That and more are songs that most of their contemporaries would have killed to have put out as A-sides.
They gave away some fine songs: both Bad To Me (to Billy J Kramer) and A World Without Love (Peter and Gordon) became UK No 1s, while Come And Get It, a song that surely would have given them their own No 1, was given to Badfinger. Other gems include Step Inside Love (Cilla Black), Goodbye (Mary Hopkin), I’m In Love (The Fourmost) and That Means A Lot (PJ Proby).
None of the following songs, fantastic and/or famous, have appeared on their numerous compilation albums: It Won’t Be Long, Hold Me Tight, You’re Going To Lose That Girl, Good Day Sunshine, Dr Robert, Lovely Rita, Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite, Dear Prudence, Julia, Sexy Sadie, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey, Good Night, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Because, You Never Give Me Your Money, Golden Slumbers, Two Of Us, plus many other classics.
There were three Beatles album tracks that other artists made UK No1 singles: Michelle (The Overlanders), Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Marmalade) and With A Little Help From My Friends (Joe Cocker). Let It Be, one of just a handful of Beatles singles that didn’t reach No 1, eventually did so in 1987 thanks to a version by charity group Ferry Aid.
Revolver is often cited as the best album of all time. Yet just two songs from it – Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby – make it onto their 1973 four-disc Best Of set.
In his fascinating book But What If We’re Wrong?, cultural critic Chuck Klosterman posits that in 300 years time, the Beatles may be the only artist that will represent the notion of ‘rock music’. “They defined the conception of what a ‘rock group’ was supposed to be … They arguably invented everything, including the notion of a band breaking up,” Klosterman writes, adding: “There are still things about the Beatles that can’t be explained, almost to the point of supernatural – the way their music resonates with toddlers, for example, or the way it resonated with Charles Manson.”
Jordan Peterson has said that the best music is that which is simple enough to be catchy but complex enough to demand repeated listenings. I’d contend that Beatles music fits exactly into this definition. Richard Dawkins has said he finds the music of Lennon and McCartney particularly adept at worming its way into his brain and staying there. I’m not a music scholar so I can’t tell you exactly why The Beatles were so ingenious musically – I’ll leave that to people like Howard Goodall – but I can give some facts that indirectly illustrate their awesome power: there are more books on The Beatles than on Churchill (and there’ll be many more to come); in 2016 it was reported that The Beatles were responsible for one in every 100 jobs in Liverpool; there are over a thousand Beatles tribute acts in the world today; Paul McCartney (who has played 54 different instruments over his recording career) has a net worth of over $1 billion; in 2016 a lock of John Lennon’s hair, cut in 1966, sold for $35,000; on Spotify, they have nearly 100 songs with over 20 million streams. Let’s have a quick look as to how many views the Paperback Writer video has on YouTube – ooh, it’s 27 million.
For me, they are a literally endless source of fascination, down to the minutiae: the way they changed appearances year-to-year (George has a beard on the Strawberry Fields Forever video! John doesn’t wear his glasses for the Hello Goodbye shoot!), or the titling of their songs (Tell Me What You See is followed by I’ve Just Seen A Face on the Help! album! The White Album has one song called Wild Honey Pie and another called just Honey Pie!). Their incredible songwriting abilities really set them apart – Klosterman credits them with “unintentionally spawning entire subgenre of rock, such as heavy metal (Helter Skelter), psychedelia (Tomorrow Never Knows), and country rock (I’ll Cry Instead).” You could also claim that While My Guitar Gently Weeps ushered in the stadium guitar rock of the Seventies, and that they invented the concept album (Sgt Pepper) and indeed the idea that an album was its own thing, a work of art in itself. Their ability to hone and create new sounds was preternatural. Rain’s aural universe was like no other song ever (and was imitated by Oasis); Hello Goodbye sort of has three tunes going on at once; knock-offs like The Night Before and Dig A Pony have huge value. There are magic moments scattered throughout their catalogue: the “yeah yeah yeah” of She Loves You; the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night; the orchestra going nuts on A Day In The Life; the “goo goo g’joob” of I Am The Walrus, the “shoot me” of Come Together, and so many more. Their album covers are iconic and most of their films are great.
The Beatles had all sorts of layers of variety, including the singing. They essentially had four vocalists, with John and Paul taking the lead most, George tending to do a couple an album and Ringo normally one. This added contours and colour to the records, with the Ringo songs playing to his warm personality. And the individual singers varied themselves greatly: listen to Paul singing Oh! Darling, and then Mother Nature’s Son. There was one day in 1965 when Paul recorded three new compositions – I’ve Just Seen A Face, I’m Down and Yesterday – not only all great songs (Yesterday going on to be the most played song ever on American radio) but totally different. I’ve Just Seen A Face is a tumbling, folky number, I’m Down a raucous, Little Richard-style rocker, and Yesterday a gentle, lilting love song. It’s remarkable that that was the order they were recorded in too, with Paul lacerating his vocal chords before embarking on Yesterday. With John, his voice seemed to evolve in fascinating ways between 1965 and 1968 – it’s almost as his voice on the early Beatles records is John smiling and on their later records John not smiling. Contrast I Feel Fine with Yer Blues, or Please Please Me to I Want You (She’s So Heavy), while on Tomorrow Never Knows and I Am The Walrus he sounds like he did on no other song.
The variety of The Beatles is one of the reasons why they are miles ahead of their closest rivals like The Rolling Stones. Even two songs that have near-identical structures, Yes It Is and This Boy, have totally different soundscapes. While their heavenly harmonising and occasional ticks can familiarise a song as a Beatles track, the eclecticism is stunning. From year to year they changed, from singer to singer, from one song type to another, with ever-ascending technology on their side, a masterful producer in George Martin pushing them onwards to greater heights, and a brilliant manager in Brian Epstein disciplining them until his untimely death in 1967. They are the most fascinating collection of artists in history – a planet without The Beatles would be a much worse one, and a decade, the Sixties, would have been robbed of its defining influence.
At my funeral I want all kinds of Beatles songs, I want it immersed in Beatles. Across The Universe might be nice for the coffin’s final descent; it’s perhaps not the song you’d automatically associate with a funeral but the refrain “Nothing’s going to change my world” could get them welling up in the aisles. Here, There And Everywhere is a possibility, In My Life an obvious tearjerker, All You Need Is Love would do a job, Good Night might be awesome. Hell, I might even surprise the mourners by throwing in Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? Whatever; The Beatles are for so much more than just life: they are forever.
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…and there wasn’t even room for “Twist and Shout” being mentioned, the greatest cover version ever made by any artists, anywhere, and the greatest lead singing in perhaps the greatest rock n’roll song ever recorded.
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